Andrew Caillard MW visited Bordeaux this year as part of the Institute of Masters of Wine’s 50th anniversary visit. This article is a personal observation of Bordeaux, its people and wines. It covers the new money and the new aspirations of Bordeaux as well as a Chateau Haut Brion (pictured) vertical tasting 1957-2000.
By Bordeaux standards Chateau La Tour Carnet is a modest property. This beautifully restored, moated manor house and twelfth century tower is one of the prettiest buildings in the Medoc. It was purchased in 2000 by Monsieur Bernard Magrez, an Algerian by birth, who made his fortune with the William Pitters brand – a force within the international liquor business. Like many of the Chateaux in Bordeaux this place doesn’t really have a lived in feeling, rather it is used as a reception centre to woo and impress the well to do, the influential and important members of the wine trade.
I arrived here on a sparkling blue day in a convoy of three helicopters landing on the opulently swish green lawns adjacent to a long gravel driveway. We were greeted – or rather trafficked – quickly through the gates for a quick ‘visite’, as the schedule was tight, no doubt governed by the running costs of three helicopters. Then it was off – over Chateau Gruaud Larose and Chateau Camensac and then the Gironde Estuary to the Cote de Blaye where we landed almost impossibly on a postage stamp terrace in front of the seductively beautiful Chateau Prieure Malessan, a place I have never heard of before and probably will never find again – having dropped in from the sky. The spin doctor – a man in a rumpled suit and an urgently generous, nervously arrogant smile – describes Chateau Prieure Malessan, a Cru Bourgeois, as “not a garage wine, but a wine of exception”. I took his point. It would be exceptionally difficult to find a garage that could hold 350,000 bottles – the annual production (and at Prieure Malessan the garage is full of a motley collection of vintage cars).
Taking off, we rattled and hummed by helicopter over bright verdant vineyards punctuated by small villages and grand chateaux towards St Emilion one of the most picturesque towns in the whole of France. We were put down at another beautifully restored Margrez property, Chateau Frombrauge, a superbly proportioned chartreuse – a single story chateau. We tasted no wine – that was for later – but I was getting the message that Bernard Magrez whose motto ‘never say die’ was a man in a hurry with every detail attended to (well almost – the British flag was flying upside down at two of his properties). It was all very impressive. But I was getting an empty feeling about these places. At lunch at Magrez’s star property, Chateau Pape-Clement in Pessac-Leognan, I was taken to a faux-crypt under the chateau where visitors could inspect a fibreglass replica tomb of Pape Clement, the first French Pope. This was taking a sense of place to the nonsensical.
Chateau Pape Clement is named after the French Pope Clement V, an archbishop of Bordeaux, whose episcopal career embraced the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The estate, originally called Chateau La Motte, was given to Pope Clement no doubt for providing promises of salvation in the afterlife. The Roman Catholic Church owned this estate for over 500 years before it fell into the hands of Monsiuer Montaigne, the father in-law of Bernard Magrez. The 42-hectare vineyard is located within the municipal boundary of Pessac-Leognan in Graves and like its neighbour Chateau Haut Brion it is one of the few city vineyards in the world. While I must admit I found all the Magrez properties like so many soulless carcasses, the emphasis on fastidious guardianship was easily seen here. The wines in many respects illustrate or even caricature the challenges and aspirations of the better Bordeaux producers. Robert Parker Jr.’s influence is palpable everywhere. The extraordinary number of sorting trays in almost every corner of Bordeaux is testament to his bizarre power. He has become so important in the US and Asian markets that even the most philosophical of winemakers have caved in to his penchant for soupy thick potions which would see a teaspoon standing up. You can’t blame a winemaker for wanting to sell his wines. In the end a commercial enterprise has to provide what the consumer wants, even if it is a reflection of a single individual’s opinion. On the other hand traditional thought can sometimes be infuriating. Perhaps it takes such a phenomenon and the possible threat of market irrelevance for a traditional region to be dragged firmly forward onto the tracks of contemporary culture.
The 2002 Chateaux Pape Clement – a very intense savoury wine with plenty of new oak, rich chocolatey flavours and fine gravelly tannins (91/100 points) – is an example of a wine which shows a movement towards the new world style with plenty of fruit concentration and palate richness. The 2001, a moderate vintage, showed more traditional black olive aromas as well as some oily oak characters and gritty tannins, finishing quite pippy and bitter (86/100 points) but time may reveal something quite interesting. The 2000 vintage was very aromatic with very strong cassis – almost juicy confit characters balanced with cedar oak and soft ripe lacey tannins (94/100 points). Despite the outward pretentions Chateau Pape Clement appears to be making thoroughly decent wines. Amongst many of the other Margrez wines I tasted, I particularly liked the 2002 La Tour Carnet which had plenty of liquorice/plum and cedar/malt aromas and flavours, all underpinned by well seasoned savoury oak (93/100 points). I found the 2002 Chateau Frombauge a touch minty, but it had all the hallmarks of a cellaring style with rich plum/ dark berry fruits, slinky/fine tannins finishing firm and tight (89/100 points).
Bernard Magrez is also in cahoots with Gerard Depardieu, whose famous nose would no doubt be able to detect even the most shrinking of violet aromas. He – of the famous girth and enormous stature – has a property in Blaye and has his wines made by Bernard Magrez. I have always liked Depardieu – not only because of his acting – but because his thuggish appearance and awkward demeanour make a mockery of the perfect human specimens being churned out by the Hollywood system. It seems rather odd therefore that his wines are all rather made to a recipe to suit you know who. The wines are from all over the place, mostly properties owned by Magrez, and are all packaged with names like ‘Ma Verite’ (Haut Medoc), ‘La Passion d’une Vie’ (Rousillon), ‘Reference’ (Languedoc) and ‘Lumiere’ (Morocco). The best of the bunch was a wine called ‘Confiance’ – the fruit coming from Depardieu’s own Blaye vineyard. This 2002 vintage was a really lovely wine with ginger snap, rhubarb/plum fruits with a rich succulent palate (92/100 points) The rest of these show business wines, mostly quite chunky or contrived, were adequate to good – but who cares anyway? They were not made for you or me – rather the adoring masses in Depardieu-Land. Even Depardieu would admit the finest bouquet in his line up is his wife.
Bernard Magrez’s marketing strategy is very brand orientated. In many respects Magrez is a contemporary negociant with a keen eye on what the market needs and wants. In the good old days when wine merchants stopped work at noon, negociants used to control all the production of chateau owned vineyards. They selected, purchased, financed and shipped the wines and owned some of the most beautiful chateaux in Bordeaux. It must be remembered that many of the important classifications, especially the famous 1855 Classification, rated vineyards not the chateaux. Prior to the war (1939-1945) only the big names were known – the wines from the Petit Chateaux were sold to negociants in bulk. The big change happened when the chateaux began bottling wines at their own estates – although the Lafites of the 1870s were chateau bottled (so the idea wasn’t original). The Petit Chateaux also started to sell and market their own wines, further diminishing the importance of the negociant. The wine trade powerfully embraced the chateau concept diminishing the grip of negociants many of whom faded away. What had happened was that Bordeaux – once a region of brands – had become a region of Chateaux.
This emerging market began a decade before the beginning of the Australian wine boom – one of the greatest threats to the Bordeaux wine trade. Although the fine wine market understood or wished to understand Chateau names and the nuances of vintage, the average consumer found this concept extremely complex and intimidating. At the lower end of the market they were all too often presented with wines of poor quality lacking fruit ripeness or definition. Jean Marie Chardronnier – the urbane and highly fluent head of Dourthe-Kressman said: “Australia captured this market by making better wines with simpler labels and in a language that the English speaking world could well understand. The change in attitude happened when the Bordelais realized that it was impossible to get ahead without real investment – and investment could only happen if wines were sold at decent margins and prices. It is the younger generation of the Bordeaux families who lost their fortunes who understood what needed to be done.”
The new breed of Bordeaux negociant – like Dourthe-Kressmann – believe that it is right to produce what is identified as lying with consumer taste. The wines I tasted from this house – particularly the 2000 Chateau de La Tour a Bordeaux Superior – illustrate the notion that even modest wines can have plenty of fruit brightness and flavour. In 1979 Dourthe leased the rather run down Chateaux Belgrave described by Jean Marie Chardronnier as “possibly the worst producer in the Medoc”. Originally called Coutannou it was renamed Chateaux Belgrave not after belle grave but after Belgravia in inner London. The English connection with Bordeaux is found everywhere, even in family surnames. The 2000 Chateaux Belgrave is a classic Medoc wine with pronounced cassis black olive aromas and flavours with underlying smoky oak complexity, strong sinewy tannins but a good core of fruit sweetness finishing quite drying (90/100 points). The wine is made by the ubiquitous Michel Rolland a consultant oenologist with an almost Christ-like reputation. Probably not surprising as he is responsible for bringing many properties back from the dead.
The theme of sorting tables is strongly present throughout Bordeaux. Innovation in wine often happens because of necessity, a combination of market forces and media opinion. The theory of triaging grapes is not new. It has been used in Bordeaux for years, it’s just that the attention to detail has taken over from the ad hoc. Indeed sorting grapes has become pathological – reminiscent of Burgundy. You will never find a student working at these tables – the whole outcome of the vintage is dependant “on the keen eyes of old ladies”. The idea is to remove rot, stalks and in some cases even the jacks out of the grapes to enhance fruit definition and reduce the amount of phenolic/greenness in the resultant wine. The grapes are barely crushed these days resulting in some whole bunch fermentations and wines that are often very different to the those of twenty years ago, particularly in a modest vintage. Many of the larger estates have reverse osmosis machines – which is a fairly dramatic but effective way of taking water out of the must. Micro-oxygenation is also used extensively as wine makers seek ways to make wines that are approachable when young.
While the word terroir is never far from the minds of winemakers and marketers, the need to produce consistent wines regardless of the vagaries of vintage must be an unbearable pressure. In the past the way of handling the inconsistencies of vintage and vineyard site was to plant a mix of grape varieties (encepagement) some which ripen early or later. Over time these varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot would be further understood. Some varieties thrive better on the right bank of the Gironde and others better on the left bank. The Grand Vin is a selection of parcels from the estate. The wine is usually put together using a classification system. This is when the best parcels are identified and blended together to reflect the best possible outcome of vintage, vineyard site and house style. Maturation in oak is an important consideration, the percentage and type of new oak depending entirely on the winemaking philosophy of the estate. In some years, particularly in a poor or even an atypical year, the grand vin can be greatly diminished in volume.
The Pessac-Leognan appellation was officially gazetted in 1987 and is a sub-region of the Graves region (see http://www.vins-graves.com/uk/appellations.htm ). Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte was purchased by the painfully athletic and good looking Daniel and Florence Cathiard in 1988. Here, among the vaulted ceilings and Harry Potter vernacular, we were put through a rather irritating session of self-glorification and promotion. Freud would have had a field day with this pair, both successful Olympic skiers and sports marketers. Once again the phrases ‘passion for quality’ and ‘pursuit of excellence’ reverberated. Peeling away ‘le bullshit’ however this couple bring a fresh and enthusiastic approach to wine production and seem fully prepared to invest and innovate both in the vineyard and in the cellar. A low input philosophy is now used in the vineyard. Weed killers and insecticides are not used. But biological control is. In recent years they have been experimenting with artificial sex pheromones to confuse the reproductive cycle of grape berry moths. Typhlodromus mites have also been introduced to reduce the population of red spider mites – a pest which pierces individual plant cells and removes the contents, causing leaves to go yellow and eventually drop. Natural composting has been introduced and they are experimenting with biodynamic viticulture, although the humidity makes it difficult. At vintage the grapes are no longer picked into large hods and thrown en masse into a trailer, rather small stackable cazettes to make sure the grapes are not crushed.
In the cellar the pinot approach to winemaking is stark. Sorting tables are found prior and post destemmer with 15 people making sure nothing green or matter other than grape (MOG) goes into fermentation vats. The elaborate investment in vibrating sorting trays and the way uncrushed grapes are conveyed into the fermentation vats, illustrate a fundamental shift away from the traditional winemaking philosophies of the 1980s. The emphasis is on enhancing grape quality through scrutiny and gentle handling. Cabernet Sauvignon particularly, with its small berries and stringy bunch stems, can have a high level of green matter. This attention to detail is an effort to reduce the level of astringency and underipe characters.
The laissez-faire and gentle approach extends to fermentation. The uncrushed grapes are fork-lifted – gently – into the fermentation vats. The initial whole bunch fermentation brings aromatic and textural qualities to the wine. The berries split at a relatively low alcohol level (about 2%v/v) and a general fermentation takes place. Interestingly pigeage (plunging the cap) is preferred rather than remontage (pumping over to extract colour, flavour and tannin). These very Burgundian techniques are used extensively throughout Bordeaux with the clear intent to increase aromatic complexity and soften the tannin structure of the wines. Curiously, however, the 2002 Chateaux Smith Haut Lafitte was not exactly of the pre-chewed type. It had dark cherry/savoury aromas and flavours, fine slightly bitter tannins, but with a lovely core of fruit sweetness, finishing dry and tight (89/100 points). I feel confident this will become a lovely wine with further aging. It will be interesting, however to see the progress of Chateaux Smith Haut Lafitte. The Cathiards also seem to be in a hurry to achieve stellar recognition. All of us who have been in the wine trade long enough know that this urgency – often described as ‘passion’ – has an underlying darkness often driven by some form of insecurity.
Domaine de Chevalier is a producer known for both its red and white wines. The estate was sold in 1983 to the Bernard Distilling company. Claude Ricard the previous owner stayed on and became a mentor to the hugely animated and likeable Olivier Bernard – who could easily have been a musketeer in a previous life. With such a smooth if not remarkable baton change, Domaine de Chevalier has managed to maintain a strong loyal following. It is a beautiful relatively small estate seemingly cut into a forest giving it a rare privacy. The 30 hectare vineyard is planted on dark sandy and fine white gravelly soils. The cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc vines have an average age of 25 years. This estate also has vibrating sorting tables. At Domaine de Chevalier they use 18 old ladies to pick out the MOG. The incredible turn around in winemaking philosophy is seen in the modern cuverie, only built in 1991. All those pipes installed to pump must and wine are no longer used – again the triaged grapes are sorted, de-stemmed, sorted again and lifted box by box using a forklift. The forklift manufacturers must be having a field day – there are at least 20,000 chateaux in Bordeaux. Micro-oxygenation is also used extensively in the red wine to give ‘roundness’. The wine is matured in about 50% new and 50% one and two year old oak for a period of around 21 months.
The emphasis of the ‘visite’, however, was on the white wines. I must admit I was rather disappointed at the idea at first. I have always liked the red wines of this estate. The tasting was remarkable. The 1984 blanc vintage, the oldest wine in the line up, looked the most youthful with nutty lemon curd aromas and herb garden nuances underlying oak and tremulous minerally palate (93/100 points). Of the eleven remarkably consistent wines I liked best the 2002 vintage – an adolescent wine with its pale colour, grassy aromas and leanly structured palate (90/100 points) and the 1999 vintage with its lemon zest/herbal aromas and flavours, superb concentration and flavour length (93/100 points). At dinner we drank from a 1983 Domaine de Chevalier (en Jeraboam), a very cedar/chocolatey wine with some plummy nuances and lacey looseknit tannins.
Before the Medoc was drained, the Graves region of Bordeaux was the epicentre of grape growing. In 1663 Samuel Pepys wrote that he “drank a sort of wine called Ho Bryen that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with”. Thomas Jefferson, a wine connoisseur of note and American Commissioner and Minister in France, visited the region in 1787, two years before the French Revolution. He purchased some 1784 Haut Brion, having tried to secure unsuccessfully wines of the same vintage from Margau (sic) and La Fite (sic). Already, however, Chateau Haut Brion was recognized as one of the very top producers in Bordeaux. By this time and well before the 1855 Classification, there was already an unofficial classification based upon commercial reality – not the reputation of the estate but price. The most highly esteemed wines during the mid to late 18th century were les vins de Pontac (Haut Brion), Lafitte and Chateau Margaux.
The ownership and fortunes of Chateau Haut Brion are inextricably linked to the history of Bordeaux. It was founded by Jean de Pontac in the 16th century through inheritance passing into the hands of the Fumel family. Joseph Fumel, who established links with the English wine trade and Versailles, was eventually arrested and guillotined. By 1801 the estate was purchased by the revolutionary figure Tallyrand who did much to promote the wine during his very brief tenure of three years. In 1923 Chateau Haut Brion was purchased by Clarence Dillon an American financier. The estate is now managed by his descendants, the Duchesse (nee Dillon) and Duc de Mussy and her son Robert, Prince of Luxembourg.
We arrived on a rather wet day at the courtyard of Chateau Haut Brion to be greeted by the Duc and Duchesse de Mussy and Jean Delmas, chef de la Cave. No airs or graces here. The Duc has a warm face reminiscent of the lion in the Wizard of Oz and an infectious enthusiasm. He grabbed my arm – and pointed out two large windows of the Chateau – and told me to look closer at them. “They are trompe l’oeils – fake windows”. The Duchesse de Mussy, who still has a strong American accent, has the ample presence of an opera singer and a down to earth generous way of saying things. Their sincerity and welcome is sincere and their generosity extraordinary. “I know you would rather taste the wines than visit the cellars.” We walked past the cuverie to the right and entered the orangerie, a huge room with high windows. On a long sideboard stood 14 vintages of Chateaux Haut Brion – from 1957 to 2000. The first flight was a tasting of moderate or poor years, but the exercise was to show the quality of Haut Brion in what are considered as moderate or even poor years.
Jean Delmas would cut an authoritative swathe through any proceeding with or without perfect English, but in the end the wines rather spoke for themselves. My notes from Chateau Haut Brion are pure tasting notes.
The first flight comprised 7 vintages – 1957, 1967, 1977, 1984, 1987, 1991, 1997. We tasted them in another order and blind. The overall quality of the wines and family resemblance was indeed remarkable. The most impressive bottle was the 1991 vintage with its wet bitumen/red cherry characters and nuances of liquorice and mushroom. The palate is very silky with lovely volume of fruit and underlying oak, finishing chalky and dry (92/100 points). The 1997 stood out too, probably because it had a robe of youthfulness and chocolatey richness. But it did have quite leafy tannins and a grippy finish, which I suspect will come to the fore in future years. Even so I scored it well (89/100 points) Then came the 1967 vintage which showed plenty of earthy complexity and some bright cherry characters. The most interesting feature was the fine bony tannin structure, which together with earthy/chocolate flavours created an impression of suppleness on the palate (88/100 points). The 1977 vintage had tomato leaf/crème brulee aromas and flavours, but again the tannins were really quite velvety and supple. Even with its blemish of under ripeness the wine had plenty of finesse (87/100 points).
The 1957 was the most obviously aged of the wines with its sous-bois/sweet leathery aromas and flavours. The palate was very complex and deeply concentrated, but with quite a sappy/grippy finish (87/100 points). John Salvi MW, a duffer from the old school whose gastronomical voyages of discovery are legendary, described this wine as “heavenly, showing the sweetness of death”. The 1984 vintage was a very delicate underpowered wine in this company with very secondary characters (already) of mushrooms and tobacco and mature brittle tannins (85/100 points). The 1987 showed very strong tomato leaf aromas and flavours and leafy green tannins, obviously a year very difficult to achieve ripeness (84/100 points). When you consider the challenges of each of these vintages, these wines illustrate the sheer class of this estate.
The second flight of 8 wines comprised all the good stuff – an embarrassment of riches –wines at or close to perfection. The 1990 vintage is beautifully poised between its primary and secondary life. It showed intense sweet mushroom/vellum and red currant aromas and flavours with a touch of cedar oak. The palate is astonishingly well balanced with plenty of sweet fruit intertwined with fine lacey tannins (100/100 points). The 2000 came a close second but it is in some ways rather atypical. It showed very deepset blackcurrant/liquorice aromas underpinned by savoury malt oak. The palate is powerful and wonderfully rich and balanced with ripe pure blackcurrant/liquorice flavours, fine silky/gravelly tannins and underlying savoury smoky oak (99/100 points). The 1961 vintage – a frost affected year with a small crop – was another brilliant wine. This was a really richly concentrated wine with deepset mushroom/choco-mint aromas and flavours, fine loose-knit bony tannins and plenty of flavour length (97/100 points). Jean Delmas spoke of this vintage as a very challenging one, its fame perhaps emphasizing that great wine can never be made by over ripe grapes.
The 1982 vintage was an extremely warm year. Greatly prized by collectors in Australia, this is probably the most silky smooth of all the Haut Brions with its complex cassis/dark cherry/grilled almond aromas and flavours. The palate is amazingly multi-layered, like glazes on a canvass, with fine silken tannins, and perfectly balanced savoury oak (97/100 points). The 1989 vintage was the first year Haut Brion green harvested, a method to reduce the crop. This beautifully intense wine, still in evolution and surprisingly quite aggressive, had intense chocolatey/cedar aromas and touches of sweet leather. The palate is the most muscular of all the younger wines with rich slinky/thick tannins and volumes of fruit (94/100 points). Some people measure length of flavour with the minute hand of their watch. This was like waiting for the kettle to boil.
The 1998 vintage with its dark cherry/nutty aromas and lovely savoury oak is a loose-knit generous style. The palate had plenty of concentration and deepset black cherry/chocolatey fruit. The tannins are quite sappy and become very grippy and tight at the finish (90/100 points). It is almost a crime to say this is not quite top-notch and it may have shone in the previous bracket. Finally came the 1975 vintage with its cassis tobacco aromas and flavours. The palate was very supple with sweet truffle fruit, lacey tannins and lovely concentration, but finishing quite chalky/boney (89/100 points).
I wondered about this grand introduction to Bordeaux. Even the most traditional wine regions change with the times. The ebb and flow of capital, ownership, market imperatives and perspective bring new nuances and challenges. The sheer wonderment, grand gestures and pretentions of Bernard Magrez and Daniel and Florence Cathiard are replicated throughout Bordeaux. They contrast starkly to the established Bordeaux families and producers. However – despite the self-aggrandisement and shameless self-advertising, they bring a fresh approach – unblinkered by tradition or the social mores of the region. Since the arrival of the railway, Bordeaux has attracted its fair share of dreamers and empire builders – all wishing to do something extraordinary. The plethora of turreted romantic buildings, landscaped gardens and gravelled driveways throughout Bordeaux is both wonderful and astonishing. This is a region which evokes convincingly that we live in the golden age of wine. It embraces the new and the old, traditional sometimes entrenched thoughts, yet incredibly insightful, innovative and genuinely meaningful and important ideas. It is no wonder Bordeaux is often considered the centre of the wine universe.
Andrew Caillard MW
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