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Discovering Madeira

This post will be as much about tourism and cuisine as it is about wine because these three things are inseparable to me when it comes to Madeira.

I went there with my family at the tail end of December 2018. In fact, this trip to one of the world’s great wine regions had been on my bucket list for quite some time. Fortunately, I was not disappointed with the experience: the island, the people, and the wines.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Madeira is a long way from anywhere – almost 1,000 km from Lisbon and 600 km off the Moroccan coast. The island (in fact, one big island and three little ones) is a popular tourist destination, with about a million visitors a year. Although many of them come on cruise ships, the overall impression I had was of relatively up-market tourism involving people who go out of their way to discover a unique 750 km² sub-tropical paradise. In fact, Madeira is nicknamed the “island of eternal spring” because the weather is never too hot, nor too cold.
We stayed in the capital city, Funchal, population 110,000.

The first evening, we went to a restaurant named “Beef and Wine”, where we ordered the house speciality, espetada. This is usually chunks of beef but, in this case, it was actually a variation, picanah, top sirlon rubbed in garlic and salt, and grilled on skewers. The waiters come around as many times as you wish with their skewers, like the Brazilian churrascaria. The meat was served with a variety of vegetables. I took advantage of the extensive wine list to try a local red table wine, 2013 Xavelha, made from a blend of Portuguese and international grapes. This proved to be a good middle-of-the road effort. I later learned that table wines are quite rare, accounting for just 5% of production. We ended the meal with two glasses of ten-year-old Madeira, a Sercial and a Verdelho from Barbeito. I had heard very good things about this producer, but unfortunately was unable to visit because the firm was closed over the Christmas season. Be that as it may, the two wines we tried were delicious, in a more modern style.

We also enjoyed the unusual Madeiran bread, bolo do caco, usually served with garlic butter.

 

The next morning, I was taken in hand by the IVBAM, or Instituto do Vinho, do Bordado e do Artesanato da Madeira, IP-RAM. I was greeted by Rubina Vieira, who does a wonderful job of presenting a wine that most people have heard of, but few know much about… Rubina started off by putting the wine in a historic context – its more than 500 years of ups and downs, as well as its current market status. A famous story goes that the Duke of Clarence, brother of King Edward IV of England, when sentenced to death for treason in 1478, chose to meet his creator by drowning in a butt of Malmsey. Indeed, Duke of Clarence is the name of a wine sold by Blandy’s, one of the largest producers of Madeira! In Shakespeare’s “Henry IV”, Falstaff sells his soul to the devil “for a cup of Madeira”. Later on, Madeira found great favor in Europe and especially the United States, where the Founding Fathers used it to toast the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Exports were greatly helped by Madeira’s strategic geographical location, a stopover point on trans-Atlantic voyages. It was soon discovered that the wine benefitted from being stored in the warm holds of ships, and so a practice developed of imitating this effect on the island. This is achieved in two ways. The most common is the estufagem method, consisting of placing the wine in stainless steel vats that are heated with a serpentine or other kind of heating system to a maximum temperature of 50°C for a minimum of three months. The wine is then left to age and cannot be bottled before the 31st of October of the second year following the harvest. The more sophisticated canteiro method calls for maturing in barrels on the top floors of cellars, where the temperature is higher, for a minimum of two years. This leads to slow oxidative ageing accounting for unique, complex aromas. Canteiro wines must age for at least three years and can only be sold after a minimum of three years starting from the 1st of January of the year following the harvest.Madeira has an alcohol content of 17-22% by volume and is fortified with wine spirit of at least 96% (compared to Port’s 77%).

Much Madeira is marketed according to style (dry, medium-dry, medium-sweet, and sweet) but the finest usually carry a varietal name:

Sercial is nearly dry (≤ 59 g/l), but seems dry because of the wine’s intrinsic acidity
Medium-dry Verdelho has its fermentation halted a little earlier than Sercial, and residual sugar content varies from 54-78 g/l
Bual, classified as medium-sweet, has a sugar content of 78-100 g/l
Malmsey is quite sweet, with ≥  100 g/l of sugar

The most widely-planted variety in Madeira is Tinta Negra, accounting for 85% of production, although the name rarely appears on a label. There has been a tendency to consider Tinta Negra a “workhorse” grape rather than one of the finer varieties, but a 1929 Tinta Negra I tasted showed that to be an unfair generalization. And then there is the rare Terrantez, which produces a medium-dry or medium sweet wine of excellent quality that is making somewhat of a comeback.

 

 

Rubina was kind enough to take me through a tutored tasting of the following wines:

CAF Cooperative Agrícola do Funchal five year old (blend)
Barbeito “Rainwater”, medium dry
Henriques & Henriques 10 year old Sercial
Borges 10 year old Verdelho
Barbeito 10 year old Bual
Justino’s 10 year old Malvasia (same as Malmsey)
Henriques & Henriques 20 year old medium dry Terrantez
1973 Madeira Wine Company Verdelho
1964 Justino’s Bual
1937 Pereira Oliveira Sercial
1929 sweet Pereira Oliveira Tinta Negra

This master class was utterly fascinating, and the older wines were gorgeous.The style called “Rainwater” is very popular in the US. It is lighter and similar in sweetness to Verdelho, but usually made with Tinta Negra. Explanations of the origin of the name and how the style developed vary.

There was a time not so long ago when extremely old Madeira could be bought for a song – in fact, for ridiculously low prices, making it one of the wine world’s greatest bargains. Those days may be over, but fine Madeira remains well worth seeking out.

The wine law was recently overhauled, and the broad categories are now as follows:·

Reserve (five years) – This is the minimum amount of ageing for a wine labelled with one of the premium varieties.
Special Reserve (10 years) – At this point, the wines are often aged naturally without any artificial heat source
Extra Reserve (over 15 years) – This style is richer and relatively rare, with many producers preferring to extend the ageing to 20 years for a vintage, or produce a colheita.
Colheita – This style includes wines from a single vintage, but aged for a shorter period than true vintage Madeira. The wine can be labeled with a vintage date, but includes the word colheita on it. Colheita must be a minimum of five years old before being bottled. However, most producers drop the word Colheita once a wine is a minimum of 20 years old, at which point it can be sold as vintage.
Frasqueira (“vintage”)  – This style must be aged at least 20 years in cask and one year in bottle. However, the word “vintage” cannot appear on labels because it is a trademark belonging to the Port producers.

In France, Madeira suffers from an unusual handicap in that it is an ingredient in numerous classic sauces. Like many households and restaurants, I always have an open bottle to use in cooking. However, this overshadows the wine’s qualities in its own right… That having been said, Rubina pointed out what I had heard elsewhere: while Port and Sherry, the other great European fortified wines, are losing ground, exports of Madeira are on the rise.

The sugar content of Madeira, including dry Sercial, is actually quite high. This is because the wines feature such high acidity that sweetness is necessary to provide proper balance.

 

The IVBAM was kind enough to take me on a tour of the wine country, guided by Lionel Vieira, the Institute’s viticultural consultant. This was utterly fascinating and something I could never have done on my own.Rubina stressed that Madeira is by definition a rare wine. The entire vineyard covers just 500 hectares (compared with 650 hectares in Pomerol, practically the smallest of Bordeaux’s 57 appellations). These are scattered around the island in one of seven microclimates and divided among some 2,000 grape growers. The soil is basically the same everywhere: basalt of volcanic origin, which accounts for the high acidity. The island is very mountainous and so the vines frequently grow on terraces located on steep slopes. The grapes are mostly trained according to the latada system, i.e. making use of a pergola 1.5 to 2 meters high. This provides good ventilation and reduces the risk of rot or mold. In times past, vegetables were grown underneath, but this practice is disappearing. I also saw something in Madeira that was quite esoteric: vines trained horizontally, i.e. with the canes spread out on the ground, with no trunk. The key here is to work the soil so as to keep the ground well-aerated and totally devoid of other vegetation.

 

There are just 8 producers of Madeira. The largest, by far, is Justino´s Madeira Wines Company. The most well-known is the Madeira wine company, owners of such brands as Blandy’s, Cossart Gordon, Leacock’s, and Miles. The historic Blandy’s Wine Lodge, on Funchal’s main street, located practically next door to the Tourist Information Office, is a major attraction. I went on a tour there, which was well done. Unfortunately, tasting more than two entry level wines entailed a charge for each wine, so I contended myself with buying a bottle of Terrantez because this is so difficult to find.

The only other producer I visited was Pereira D’Oliveira. This traditional firm, also in Funchal, is famous for their old wines. Oliveira’s is not geared up to receiving foreign wine enthusiasts. The several young hostesses were not really clued-in and communication in English was not easy. It took some convincing to taste anything other than the basic blends. Their attitude changed completely when I was finally given a rare and expensive wine to taste, and bought a bottle. Evidently, I was not a freeloader, so other wines were poured and a few souvenir items were added free of charge…

 

In terms of dining, allow me to go through the restaurants we frequented. Lionel from the IVBAM invited me to the restaurant at the Four Views hotel in Funchal. This included poached egg soup and the emblematic black scabbard fish with bananas and passion fruit sauce. We had another Madeiran table wine with this, 2016 Barbusano Verdelho, perhaps a bit too tart for me. Lunch the next day was at a seafront restaurant, O Regional, that provided excellent value for money as we ate outside on a warm December afternoon.

That same evening we dined at Chris’s Place, on a par with a one-star Michelin restaurant. The three of us ordered the tasting menu with wines to match and the bill came to 100 euros, representing great value for money. In addition, we enjoyed lunch one day at Cachalote in Porto Moniz on the northern side of the island, which I also recommend. I sampled a dish there revolving around limpets that went well with a white Douro wine.

 

 

The highlight of our trip was nevertheless the New Year’s Eve gala dinner at the Belmond Reid’s Palace hotel in Funchal, an establishment normally out of my price range, but one of those luxurious things one does from time to time… The food was exquisite, as was the setting, and we had a window seat with a gorgeous view over the city and the harbour.

This mattered, because the fireworks display on the 31st of December in Funchal is world famous. There was a blaze of color all over the town and on the water. Spellbindingly beautiful.

Although Madeira is a major tourist destination, I had the impression that wine is very much of a footnote in regional promotion, which is a pity. That having been said, wine tourism is slowly, but surely taking off. Furthermore, Rubina travels all over the world to present the wines and suggest how to enjoy them with food (frequently a question mark with sweet wines). One of the unusual characteristics of Madeira is that it does not budge once the bottle is open. I was repeatedly told that you can go back a year later and it will not have suffered from contact with oxygen.

The challenge for Madeira is to close the gap between a famous name and the realities of today’s market so as to shake off a 19th century image and turn young people on to one of the world’s great wines. I get the feeling that thanks to the intrinsic quality of fine Madeira and people like Rubina to spread the good word, a renaissance is in the making.

A final anecdote: I attended a service at the Anglican church in Funchal and was delighted to see that along with the traditional tea and coffee after the service, worshipers were also given the option of a glass of Rainwater Madeira. Needless to say, that is what I chose… I found this mighty civilized and think that churches in other winegrowing regions – such as Bordeaux – would do well to offer the same!

 

 

 

2015 Château Fourcas Hosten

Listrac (pronounced “Lees-trahk) is probably the Médoc communal appellation with the lowest profile, even less so than Moulis. Although the latter is of comparable size (630 hectares vs. 570 for Listrac), it boasts a greater reputation and better-known châteaux.
What makes Listrac unique? For a start, it is the highest point in the Médoc and has a greater proportion of Merlot than its sister appellations. There are twenty châteaux altogether and a cooperative cellar. Listrac wines can hardly be said to have a loyal following and the local wine trade considers them on the rustic side.

The leading châteaux are Clarke, Fourcas Dupré, Fonréaud, and Fourcas Hosten.

Fourcas Hosten has had a number of owners over the years, including the négociants Sichel and a consortium of Americans. The estate was purchased in 2006 by Renaud and Laurent Momméja, scions of the Hermès luxury group. There are 50 hectares of vines: 58% Merlot, 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2% Cabernet Franc. A small quantity of white wine is also made from Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris.

I opened a 2015 Fourcas Hosten this past Sunday, uncorking the bottle 4 hours before the meal and decanting it two hours before. I wasn’t expecting anything remarkable, more like a sturdy, perhaps old-school Médoc. I have to say though that this was disappointing. At nine years of age the color was deep and fine. The nose was subdued, with black cherry and more dominant mushroom, forest floor, and truffle notes. But where the wine fell down was on the palate. This started out well enough, but went on to reveal rough, unfriendly, bitter tannin that no amount of ageing will soften.

Of course, I won’t damn this estate because of one unfortunate encounter and I’ll make a point of tasting recent vintages at upcoming Union des Grands Crus tastings. A lot of things can change in nine years. I have had the white Fourcas Hosten, which is fairly rare (7,000 bottles a year). It will make a welcome addition to the Médoc Blanc appellation that is in the works.

2000 Château Chasse Spleen

Château Chasse Spleen in Moulis

I drank this on Sunday with a roast free-range chicken. Isn’t it amazing how such a simple dish, if the bird is first rate (i.e. not industrially raised) and cooked right, provide so much pleasure? By the same token, the thin-skinned creamy-fleshed Agata potatoes with crème fraiche and chive were a reminder that gourmet delights don’t need to be complicated and expensive to be delicious.

Yes, the wine. This exceeded my expectations and reaffirmed my faith, if need be, in the wines of the Médoc. Moulis is a tiny appellation, one of the smallest in Bordeaux. It nearly merged with Listrac not long ago, which would have made a lot of sense, but ran into a few ego-fuelled problems along the way… Anyway, Chasse Spleen has long been considered one of the leading wines of Moulis and was a cru bourgeois exceptionnel for many years. However, for whatever reason, it is not one of the 14 wines included in that category, or any other for that matter, in the 2020 classification.

Moulis may be small, but with 130 hectares of vines, Chasse Spleen is large, taking up 20% of the entire appellation. It has belonged to the Merlaut family (Gruaud Larose, Chasse Spleen, Haut Bages Libéral, Ferrière, Camensac, etc.) since 1976. They also make a white wine, but this is nothing extraordinary in my experience.

I tend to think of Chasse Spleen as a stalwart old-fashioned sort of wine representing good value for money and taking a lot of time to come around. The last vintage I drank was the 2015 which was good, but not particularly so. This 2000, however, was markedly better.

The color was splendid, with only a slight bricking on the rim. You could easily take this for a much younger wine. While not spellbinding, the nose was fresh and pure with pencil shaving, licorice, tar, and blackberry nuances. The wine was even better on the palate, with a very fluid, easy-going side along with a seductive, soft, melts-in-your-mouth texture and candied black fruit flavors. The wine seemed plush and marked by Merlot to me, although this constitutes only 20% of the blend. While 2000 Chasse Spleen is not a weighty wine, nor one of great breadth, it is truly delicious, with one taste inviting another. The only demerit I can think of is a certain roughness and dryness on the finish. At age 24, this is, in my opinion, as good as it will ever be. To my mind, the price/quality ratio here shows that Bordeaux is very much in the running amidst global competition.

Trip to the Argentinian wine country

What in the world is a report on Argentinian wine doing on the Bordeaux wine blog? Well, it is not healthy for any wine lover to be totally focused on just one region. But also, as you read along, you will see that there are links between Bordeaux and the Argentinian wine country.

I had never been to Latin America until November 2023, so I was pretty excited about a trip to Argentina, a country five times the size of mainland France.
My wife and I arrived on the eve of the presidential elections there. Despite a massive campaign budget (funded, it seems, by the government in power…) the Peronist candidate, Sergio Massa, lost to the eccentric if not downright weird Javier Milei. It is hoped that Milei can turn the country around and put a stop to the 200% inflation rate. Although the heavily devalued peso wreaks havoc on the Argentinian people, it is a decided boon to tourists, who pay far less for things than in Europe or North America.

We spent a total of ten days in Buenos Aires and seven in Mendoza.

A few words about the capital before talking about Argentina’s wine country.  The city proper of Buenos Aires has 3 million inhabitants, with 13 million in the urban area. As opposed to other South American cities, the population is largely of European origin (mainly Spanish and Italian) and the architecture there is also very reminiscent of Europe, with some tree-lined streets looking eerily Parisian. We went on several walking tours, including in the La Boca district, with its bright colours and unique charm. There is a monument on the Plaza San Martin to the 650 soldiers who died in the Falkland Islands war. I was worried that my wife, who is English, might run into some negative feelings because of the conflict, but most Argentinians seem to acknowledge that the war was an ill-conceived action taken by a military dictatorship seeking to make the country pay less attention to the disastrous situation at home.

Food and wine: We found it possible to eat well in BA and everywhere else we went in Argentina. In 2023 you can enjoy a full meal for two with a good Malbec for the equivalent of 30 euros. We learned that it was often wise to split the main course because servings can be huge. Wine is reasonably priced and nearly always very young. There is a tradition of serving inexpensive wine in el pingüinito penguin-shaped ceramic pitchers in Buenos Aires. You can’t go wrong with these.

One address I would like to share is Fogón Asado on Gorriti 3780 in BA’s Palermo district. This provides the consummate Argentinian beef experience in an intimate setting.  Ten of us (6 different nationalities), sat around a sort of bar surrounding a custom-made barbecue system in a small town house. The 9 course meal included various cuts of meat cooked to perfection, including types of wood adapted to each one! We opted for a Malbec wine to go with each course, including a sweet one with dessert.

Argentina is the 5th largest wine producing country, and about roughly 70% of that comes from the province of Mendoza, over 1,000 km from Buenos Aires, not far from the Chilean border.  My wife and I flew from BA to the city of Mendoza and stayed in the region for a week, spending 4 days visiting wineries. We hired a driver because we don’t speak Spanish and because there is zero tolerance for drinking and driving in Argentina. Therefore, even if we spat everything, I’m sure we would still be over the limit. As it turns out, our driver, Mauricio, spoke excellent English and was very well-acquainted with the wine industry.

There is a very go-ahead, can-do spirit in Mendoza and a pioneering approach reminiscent of California in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the cellars we visited were well-equipped, and with winemakers having extensive overseas experience.  There were over 1,500 wineries in Argentina at the turn of the 21st century. For a variety of reasons, the industry, which goes back to the 16th century, declined and acquired a reputation for cheap wine of mediocre quality. This image has since been turned around, especially abroad (exports go primarily to the US, UK, Brazil, Canada, and the Netherlands).

The two largest companies are Bodegas Esmeralda (which owns the widely-exported Alamos brand) and Peñaflor (which owns Trapiche, also widely exported). Between the two of them, these firms are responsible for nearly 40% of total wine production in Argentina.

Several things set Argentina apart. For a start, most of the vines are ungrafted. Even though phylloxera is not uncommon, the most frequently-found strain causes little damage. Then, there is the country’s leading grape variety: Malbec. It is hard to know the exact percentage, but Malbec accounts for roughly half of all vines. Originally from France, where it is the primary variety in the Cahors appellation, Malbec thrives in Argentina because of the semi-arid climate, but with cool evenings. Many of the vines are irrigated with water that runs down from the Andes via conduits dating back centuries. Drip irrigation is common.

Located at the foot of the mountains, Mendoza is a city of about 120,000 people built on a grid pattern.  A terrible earthquake in 1861 killed thousands and destroyed most of the historic buildings. The guide books tend to downplay Mendoza, but my wife and I found it an enjoyable place to stay. It is the center of a burgeoning wine tourism industry.

We visited thirteen wineries in four days and tried many other wines at restaurant meals.

Our first visit was to Bodega Alandes in Maipú. The tasting room is located in a historic mud brick building although the small cellars there are mainly for show. The main facilities are elsewhere.  The winery buys grapes from various regions rather than growing them. Also in the New World mold, winemaker Karim Mussi, whom we did not meet, maintains a high media profile, reflecting  the star system approach to marketing. He has also presided over Altocedro since 1999 and Alandes since 2012.
We started out with a 2022 Torrentés. We were to encounter this variety again and again in Argentina. Unfortunately, I never really took to it. Most times it is semi-sweet, but this one at Alandes was very tart and not really to my liking.  Another white, the Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon Paradoux was much better, if a little too oaky for me, The red wines were quite good. The 600 Qaramy 2021 from the Uco Valley – a Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah blend – showed berry fruit aromatics, good structure, and a promising future. Quite a successful wine. The 2011 Jardin de Los Caprichos  No. 19 Malbec, one of the few older wines we tried in Argentina was a touch rustic, but packed with flavor. It reminded me a bit of a Rioja, with a dry finish. The Jardin de Los Caprichos 23 was big, strong, and Zinlike, with 15% alcohol.

Family-owned Cinco Sentidos (Five Senses) is an attractive modern winery incorporating the original utilitarian building. They have 100 hectares of vines on the banks of the Mendoza River.  We tasted through their range in a room that was once a huge vat.  The sparkling Torrentés was unremarkable. The 2020 Malbec Reserva was fresh with cedar and peppery notes. It was big, smooth, and crowd-pleasing, but short on the palate. The 2019 Gran Reserva is a blend of Malbec and the two Cabernets. It was rich and round with soft silky tannin. Although once again a tad short and a touch hot, it was nevertheless a very worthwhile wine.  The 2021 Maluco was very New World in style, with eucalyptus on the nose. It was a little too hard and dry for me. “Maluco” means crazy in Portuguese, a language referring to the owners’ roots.

Bandini : Finca Bandini very much corresponds to the European conception of a wine estate. It is in a a beautiful oasis bordered by the Mendoza river, which irrigates 60 hectares of vines in a single block.  The soil is full of rocks washed down from the Andes, whose snow-capped peaks provide a dramatic backdrop. We met Federico Bandini, a native son who moved to Houston, where he made a fortune in the oil business. He jumped at the chance to buy this amazing site in his home town, Lujan de Cuyo and entirely reinvented it, planting vines as well as building a new winery and visitor center. Everything is geared up for wine tourism (visitors are taken around in a golf cart).
We tasted through seven Bandini wines.

The 2022 Dos Cauces (Two Streams) is made from Uco Valley grapes.  This is a blend of 50% Chardonnay, 40% Viognier, and 10% Sauvignon Blanc. This proved to be simple, with good acidity. After a Gewurtztraminer and Malbec Rosé, we sampled the 2019 Dos Cauces Malbec, from Mendoza. This was very forthcoming and with a gentle tannic bite. Elegant and very seductive. The 2020 Los Muros (The Walls), an estate wine, consists of 87% Malbec and 13% Cabernet Sauvignon.  It showed dark fruit on the somewhat subdued nose. The wine was spicy and interesting on the palate, with good acidity. We went on to the 2019 Magna Corpore Malbec. The nose was a bit off at the time and the wine clearly needs time to come together, so judgement is reserved. The last wine was the 2022 Limited Edition 100th anniversary wine, a 100% Malbec from Lujan de Cuyo. The bouquet was redolent of green and black pepper and the wine obviously has considerable ageing potential. It is fermented and aged in new French oak barrels, whereas the other reds are kept in egg-shaped cement vats. 

Agostino: This winery is located in the Barrancas region of Maipú, where the family firm have 305 hectares of vines. These grow on a former river bed with stony soil ideal for viticulture.  We didn’t actually visit here and only came to eat lunch in their restaurant which was, by the way, up to the most exacting European standard.  The 2020 Agostion Familia Corte de Uvas Tintas is a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Tempranillo  grapes from the Uco Valley.  This was a nice introduction to the house style. It was fresh and fruity although the 15 year ageing potential mentioned on the back label should be taken with a grain of salt. The 2018 Agostino Legado Malbec, also from the Uco Valley, was a step up, with more structure and gravitas. We ended with the top of the line, the 2019 Beta Crux, a big oaky wine, but not without elegance.

Cantena Zapata : This was one of the highlights of the trip. Built in 2001, the winery’s striking design was inspired by Mayan temples the owners had admired during a trip to Guatemala. Dating back to 1902, the family business developed out of all recognition in the late 20th century under the leadership of Nicolas Catena Zapata. He innovated on many fronts: clonal selection and propagation of his best Malbec vines, developing a reputation for quality Argentinian wine on export markets and, above all, planting at high altitudes (up to 1,500 meters) in order to produce fresher more balanced wines. Furthermore, he established a Wine Institute, which makes Cantena one of only a handful of producers in the world with their very own. The Adrianna vineyard, source of their top wines, is one of the most analysed in the world.  Experimentation is never-ending.  Nicolas’ daughter, Laura, now runs the show. She is a medical doctor with a degree in biology from Harvard who splits her time between San Francisco and Mendoza.

My wife and I tasted several wines with Fernando Buscema, Director of the Wine Institute and winemaker. The overall quality was really very good. We started with the impressive 2021 Malbec Argentino that we had already appreciated in Buenos Aires. The eye-catching label depicts four women involved with the history of Malbec including Eleanor of Aquitaine and Laura Cantena herself.  The bouquet was sweet and Italianate with chocolate nuances and subtle toasty oak (the wine is barrel fermented and aged). It was full-bodied, strapping, and had a long leathery finish. 

We then tasted the 2020 and 2016 vintages of Nicolas Cantena Zapata (one of two wines sold on the Place de Bordeaux), consisting of 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Malbec, and 10% Cabernet Franc. I preferred the 2017, with graphite on the nose along with soft plummy aromas and trademark Malbec floral notes. It was Pomerol-like on the palate with a tarry sweet finish. A very fine wine by anybody’s reckoning. We finished with one of the rare old wines we were to taste on our trip, a 2003 Cantena Alta. The purpose was to show us that Argentinian wines have staying power, and we did indeed come away convinced.

Cheval des Andes: This was one of the wineries I really wanted to visit, so I wrote an e-mail to Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Château Cheval Blanc in Saint Emilion to ask if he could arrange this since the two estates have shared ownership (Bernard Arnault/LVMH).  Almost immediately, I received an e-mail from Gérald Gabillet in Argentina inviting me to visit and also to stay for dinner, which I thought was pretty amazing.

Cheval des Andes in Lujan de Cuyo is a young, but not exactly new estate since their first vintage was in 1999. The wine has, until now, been made at nearby Terrazas Los Andes, another star in the LVMH constellation. However, this is about to change because a new winery is being planned on site. I discovered this at dinner because several architects were there visiting from France. And much to my surprise, the team from Château Cheval Blanc was there as well! So there we were there in a very French context enjoying a barbecue and drinking Cheval des Andes – an incredible experience.

Cheval des Andes’ 50-hectare vineyard is in an idyllic location, with roses planted at the end of vine rows, a small lake and, in keeping with a new trend in Bordeaux, fruit trees planted between vine rows (agroforestry). The effect is really very striking. The soil consists of sand (36%), limestone (48%) and clay (16%). Stones at a depth of 1.5-2,5 meters add minerality to the wine. I was privileged to do a vertical tasting of the 2015, 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 vintages. Without transcribing my tasting notes in detail, let me say that Cheval des Andes is well on the well toward realizing their ambition of “South American grand cru” status. I particularly liked the 2017 with hints of graphite on the soft plummy nose. The wine was poised and elegant on the palate with plenty of character and Malbec’s finer floral characteristics. This variety accounts for nearly 60% of the blend, the rest mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and a little Petit Verdot.

The next day was spent in the Uco Valley, about a 2 ½ hour drive from Mendoza. One of the region’s great successes is Clos de los Siete, the brainchild of Bordeaux’s Michel Rolland. He started coming to Argentina as a consultant in the 1980s and saw an opportunity to buy a huge (850-hectare) tract of land with good winegrowing  terroir (higher altitude than elsewhere in Mendoza) in the late 1990s. He and six other wine families each bought part of the estate to make their own wine and to contribute part of their production to the Clos de les Siete brand, which amounts for over a million bottles a year. The first vintage was in 2002. Other members include the Péré Vergé/Parent family of Châteaux Le Gay and La Violette in Pomerol, the Cuvelier family of Château Léoville-Poyferré, the Bonnie family Bonnie of Château Malartic-Lagravière, and the Rothschilds of Lafite (who have since left the consortium, but continue to make their own wine within the Clos).

We were once again very much in a French environment at Cuvelier Los Andes, where Argentinean winemaker Adrian Manchon took us around the modern well-equipped winery in the French language. Cuvelier Los Andes has 55 hectares of vines (Malbec, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Petit Verdot) grown organically a stone’s throw from the Andes foothills.
Founded by Bertrand and Jean Guy Cuvelier, the estate dates from 1999. Bertrand’s sons Mathieu and François-Xavier are now in charge. Much about the winery is reminiscent of Bordeaux and the labels of the top wines are close to that of Léoville Poyferré. Bertrand and Evelyne Cuvelier were there when we visited and kindly invited us to stay for lunch, at which time we drank the wines we had sampled at the tasting.  The ones I liked most were the 2010 Grand Vin and the 2017 Grand Malbec. The latter had a deep bouquet and a taste profile like an elegant Zinfandel.

The second winery we visited in Clos de los Siete was Michel Rolland’s own.
Rolland is a controversial character, praised to the skies by some for improvements to modern oenology in Bordeaux and vilified by others for his supposed responsibility in the making of high-alcohol, heavily-extracted, over-oaked Bordeaux.
I have no prejudices one way or the other and no axe to grind with Mr. Rolland, but I must say that I came away very disappointed by his Argentinian wines. I tasted Bodega Rolland’s 2022 Sauvignon Blanc, 2021 Pinot Noir, 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon, 2020 Cabernet Franc, and 2020 Single Vineyard Malbec.   These were sound and well-made, but soulless, with little evidence of terroir. They were also very expensive. 

Our last day in Mendoza started with a visit to Huarpe winery in Agrelo, in the Lujan de Cuyo department. The name Huarpe pays homage to the indigenous people who, alas, no longer exist.
We saw llamas grazing in a field across from the winery, which added a rather exotic touch. Huarpe is a medium-sized modern winery (40,000 cases a year) belonging to two brothers, Max and José Toso who inherited a long winemaking from their Italian ancestors. The winery dates from 2003. They have vines in the Agrelo, Maipu, and Uco regions. The soil in Agrelo consists of sandy loam over gravel.

I tasted 6 Huarpe wines, starting with the inevitable Torrontes from the 2022 vintage (which didn’t leave me with a better image of this variety).
The others were:
2021 Riglos Gran Chardonnay, from Las Divas single vineyard in the Gualtallary district: more yellow than gold in color with a varietal, but herbaceous nose.  The wine was unfortunately served too cold to taste it properly, so it seemed more neutral than it probably was. Too much oak came through.
2017 Huarpe Vista Flores Bonarda and Petit Verdot (also some Corbeau, a grape variety from Savoie): Good, medium-deep color  with a floral, licorice, and blueberry nose. Soft, then tangy, then somewhat harsh on the palate with granulated tannin and high acidity. Needs to age. More interesting and off the beaten track than good.
2017 Riglos Gran Cabernet Franc, from Las Divas vineyard in the Gualtallary district: fine color with tertiary, chocolate, and Port nuances. A little green on the palate with white pepper nuances. Short oaky finish.
2016 Guayquil “El Elegido” (Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, , Petit Verdot, Tannat, and Bonarda): browning rim, looking older than its age. The nose was funky and slightly oxidized with cherry liqueur overtones. Lively, with marked acidity. Dry tannin on the finish, indeed, ultimately too dry, but still a good wine.
2019 Taymente late harvest Sauvignon Blanc: 6,000 bottles produced. Nose of white fruit with some mercapatan. Well-made, but more of a technological success than a delicious wine.

Budeguer: Located in Agrelo, this winery was founded in 2005 by Juan José Bueguer who made a fortune in sugar cane. The attractive modern winery, geared up for wine tourism and affording a great view of vines against the snowcapped Andes, now produces 1.2 million bottles a year. Their 105 hectares of vines are located in both Maipu and Agrelo.

We were taken around by a young man who was nervous because this was his first tour in English, but he had nothing to worry about. We tasted six wines while admiring the beautiful landscape. The 2022 Sauvignon Blanc was understated and relatively short, but pure and mercifully not overoaked. The 2021 Pinot Noir looked surprisingly old. It featured a cherry-vanilla and slightly ferrous nose. The wine was unfortunately a bit hollow and sharp on the palate, with none of Pinot’s softness.  The 2023 Malbec Natural had a lovely deep purplish color and an upfront candied fruit nose. It displayed the better aspects of so-called natural wine and was superior to most I have tasted. I especially appreciated the berry blossom aromatics. The 2001 4000 Mendoza Malbec weighs in at 14.2 % alc./vol.  It had a lovely color and lots of oak, but somehow this was not really bothersome.  The flavor was strong and penetrating with rather high acidity. It needs to age. The 2020 Black Blend had a soft bouquet and a taste that reminded me of a big satisfying Côtes du Rhône with a pleasing berry fruit finish. My favorite wine of the tasting was the 2021 Corte de Bodega that had a nose of lovely dark fruit and a sensual melts-in-your-mouth texture. A very successful blend of Malbec, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and the two Cabernets.

We did not taste Budeguer’s top of the line: Patrimonio. This is the most expensive wine we saw in Argentina, weighing in at 78,400 pesos, or 96 US dollars.

We went on to enjoy lunch at a winery we did not in fact visit: Bonfanti in Lujan de Cuyo. This small boutique winery has just 8 hectares of vines in Perdiel and Marrancas (Maipu), as well as olive trees. We ate outside in an idyllic setting almost literally between vine rows under a clear blue sky, and the food was seriously good. A wonderful memory. We enjoyed the straight Malbec, the 2021 Lote 1915 (year of the winery’s founding) Reserve Malbec, and the 2019 Uco Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. Like most Argentinian wines we sampled, these showed very well young and made a fine accompaniment to the cuisine.

Lunch at Bonfanti

Our final visit was to Carmelo Patti, a very old-fashioned winery, a one-man show run by the eponymous owner who emigrated from Sicily as a child. Production is small (25-30,000 bottles a year), and Carmelo has been at it for over forty years. The scale and atmosphere are very reminiscent of a Burgundian producer.  Carmelo holds many of his wines back a few years until he feels that they are ready to drink.  We tasted two young wines and two old ones. The 2019 Cabernet Franc had an appealing chocolatey aroma and was somewhat acidic on the palate, but needs to be appraised down the line. The 2017 Gran Assemblage looked older than its age and featured a nose of old Bordeaux. Once again, there was marked acidity, but this was, even so, a very worthwhile wine to discover.  The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon looked decidedly old with an accompanying tertiary bouquet and was perhaps more interesting than together on the palate. A Malbec from the same year was unquestionably past its best with oxidative notes. Carmelo is a salt-of-the-earth vigneron and his wines need to be taken in a certain spirit. He is emblematic of a longstanding tradition.

There, this is one of my longest posts. Can I come up with an insightful conclusion?  That would be pretty pretentious of me seeing as I only scratched the surface of Argentinian wine in one week.  I will, however, say that the overall quality was really rather good. I see the wines as fruity, affordable, and enjoyable young. They represent good value for money. There is definitely a buzz there and some very dedicated winemakers aiming to make it on the international market. Wine tourism is developing apace, largely fuelled, when we were there, by Brazilians. The climate in Mendoza, thanks to the altitude, and despite the semi-desertlike topography, is conducive to wines of medium alcohol (14 %, much less 15% wines were the exception) and we are far removed from bruising New World monsters.

And what of Malbec? First of all, the relation between Cahors and Argentinian Malbec seems rather tenuous. It’s not just the terroir either. The clones in Argentina are very different.  Putting forward Malbec to promote the wines of Argentina is a double-edged strategy because, on the one hand, it gives the country a unique identity but, on the other hand, it overshadows the excellent wines made from other varieties. This makes me think of Sauvignon Blanc in New Zealand… Like California three decades ago, Argentina is on the up-and-up and I have come away convinced that they will be a more important player on the world scene in years to come.

Returning corked wine in a restaurant

A few days ago, my better half and I were kindly invited out to dinner by a William Nash, a retired US general, and his wife Elizabeth Becker, a journalist and author. We first went to my favorite wine bar, Le Sobre, on the Quai des Chartrons for an aperitif and a platter of nibbles (charcuterie and cheeses). The bottle of Champagne (LPM, for La Petite Montagne, Extra Brut barrel aged, 100 Pinot Meunier from Ullens) we shared was delicious.

We then went to Symbiose, a nearby restaurant I was unfamiliar with, but which had a good rating on Trip Advisor. We skipped the first course and our host ordered a 2016 Ch. Grand Puy Ducasse for the mains. This unfortunately turned out to be corked. We pointed it out to the server and asked him to replace it. He replied that he was incompetent to say one way or other and took a glass to the chef, who insisted that it was fine and just needed a little air.
Needless to say, this left us in somewhat of a quandary, because my wife agreed that the great growth wine was unquestionably corked.

Fortunately, the sommelier, who was off work that day, just happened to come by the restaurant. He was solicited for an opinion and concurred that the wine was indeed corked (admitting to a face-saving “a little”). This was a huge relief and defused an awkward situation, especially seeing as it wasn’t me who was paying the bill. A bottle of 2016 Haut Marbuzet, a reliable Saint-Estèphe, was substituted for the Grand Puy Ducasse. This proved to be delicious and saved the day. I was very glad that things had worked out well, especially as the automatic reaction is to replace the corked wine with another bottle of the same wine. This means, of course, that the risk of running into another corked bottle is magnified…

This is not the first time I’ve encountered such a situation. I was once was in Tunisia, where I had ordered the most expensive wine on the list. Being Muslim, none of the staff knew enough, or admitted knowing enough, about wine to deal with my complaint. They probably hadn’t run into this problem before either. After conferring, they replaced the bottle.

Of course, a huge percentage of the population is unable to identify the presence of 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole (also known as TCA) in wine and another segment can, but doesn’t want to make a fuss… Also, there are degrees of TCA contamination. A slightly corked wine can still be just about acceptable. It’s all a question of concentration and sensory thresholds.
TCA is produced by fungi, mold or certain bacteria in the bark of the cork tree. There’s a good article about it from the Wine Enthusiast site: https://www.wineenthusiast.com/culture/wine/cork-taint-wine-fault-guide/
I was struck by the following statement: “Humans have a remarkable sensitivity to cork taint, with people able to smell TCA between two and five parts per trillion, and some even below one part. That’s like being able to identify one teaspoon of water from 1,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools”.

In my opinion, restaurant policy should be that “the customer is always right” and that they should replace any bottle identified as corked. On the other hand, I can understand a restaurateur’s point of view if he is convinced the wine is not flawed and does not wish to lose money unfairly. It’s a delicate situation.

Waitstaff at restaurants, sometimes even very good ones, often receive little or no training with regard to the wines they serve or how to serve them. I hope that Symbiose kept the wine back and showed their employees what a corked wine tastes like for future reference. Unless they purchased it years ago, it should be possible for them to contact the négociant that sold them the wine and obtain a refund.

2009 Château Belle-Vue, Haut-Médoc

I actually drink many more Bordeaux wines than I mention on my blog. That’s because lots of them are consumed at dinners (chez moi or at friends’ houses) where you would look like a real nerd if you wrote down tasting notes of the wines you were enjoying…

However, Sunday lunch is usually at home, slow-paced, and relaxed, with every opportunity to take an unhurried look at the wine.

I decanted 2009 Château Belle-Vue two hours before the meal. I had good expectations for this wine. In fact, a bottle of this same vintage was featured on the cover of the Revue de Vins de France. It seemed like a very safe bet.

I unfortunately cannot say I came away impressed. The wine had a good deep colour, still showing some purple, but also beginning to brown on the rim. The bouquet was the best part of the wine. This was unmistakably Médoc, with graphite nuances. The wine fell down, however, on the palate. While there was an attractive black cherry component, it seemed thin and mean on the whole, with bitter tannin and the decided impression of alcohol (as though there were more than the 14% alc./vol. listed on the label – not that such a degree is anything to condemn out of hand).

Belle-Vue (there are about 20 wines in Bordeaux with the same, or approximately the same name) is a 15-hectare estate in Macau, in the Haut-Médoc appellation that was promoted to Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel status in the 2020 classification, one of just 14 wines. The château was acquired by Vincent Mulliez, along with Château de Gironville and Château Bolaire in 2004. The Muilliez family own the huge Auchan supermarket chain in France, the equivalent of a Walmart or Tesco.

I have one more bottle of 2009 Belle-Vue and will revisit it down the road. The saying goes that “there are no great wines, just great bottles”. Between bottle variation, the hazards of storage, etc. one experience cannot be deemed definitive by any means. If the next bottle is better when I revisit it, I will be sure to mention it on the blog.
I also have a couple of bottles of the rare Belle-Vue 100% Petit Verdot that will be the subject of a separate report down the line.

A tale of two Saint Emilions

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing… Here I was thinking that I was pretty clued-in to the wines of Bordeaux, especially the great growths, and then the following happened.
I was particularly interested in getting to know unfamiliar (to me) estates included for the first time in the 2012 Saint Emilion classification. So, I snapped up a bottle of 2010 Château La Fleur Morange, Cuvée Mathilde.  Here I was thinking that I would discover a newcomer and broaden my knowledge. But no, Cuvée Mathilde is something different from the real Mc Coy and I ending up feeling as though I’d been had…

Let me explain.

Named after the owners’ daughter, about 10,000 bottles of Cuvée Mathilde are produced a year. The classified growth (i.e. without any mention of a cuvée), produces half as much… and costs more than twice as much. Most second wine labels make a discreet allusion to the grand vin rather than misleading consumers, as this was the case here, into believing they were buying a cru classé.
 
Buyer beware!

What of the wine?  I wish I could be more positive. A 13 year-old wine from a great year, it should really have been better. The color was about right for its age. Despite 15° alcohol, the nose was gentle and sweet with hints of dark chocolate and anise with some underlying spice.
However, the wine fell down on the palate, which showed too much oak and the decided presence of alcohol, accompanied by a dry finish.  I do not think that ageing will even things out.
While I may give “Cuvée Mathilde” a pass next time around, I am still intrigued about how the cru classé tastes in recent vintages.

I posted a profile of Château La Tour Figeac last year:
https://bordeauxwineblog.com/chateau-la-tour-figeac-a-great-st-emilion-cru-classe/

Seeing as I happened to have a bottle of the 2009 in my cellar, I decided to open this for lunch on Christmas day, to accompany a roast leg of baby lamb from the Pyrenees.
I decanted the wine three hours before the meal and was richly rewarded with something wonderful.
The nose was subtle and extremely attractive even if, curiously, thanks to its hints of graphite, I think it could easily be mistaken for a fine Northern Médoc. There was no question, however, that this was an upper tier Right Bank wine on the palate. The attack was soft, enveloping, and voluptuous, and went on seamlessly to show the backbone Bordeaux is famous for, but without any harshness or austerity. I like this wine so much, I figure that it could easily hold its own with the Premier Crus Classés in this vintage. A really positive experience and a great pleasure.

Two 2010 Pauillacs: Bellegrave and Tour Sieujean “Alchima”

2010 Château Tour Sieurjean, Cuvée Alchima, Pauillac
This château, located in Saint Laurant, not far from La Tour Carnet and Larose Trintaudon, has 5 hectares of vines in Pauillac and 3 in the Haut-Médoc appellation. They produce 2,000 bottles a year of this prestige cuvée, consisting of 100% Cabernet Sauvignon aged for 24 months in new oak barrels.
Served blind to my better half, she took only a moment to ask: Pauillac?
This was a vigorous wine with cherry-vanilla aromatics and a lot of punch. There were black olive and herbes de Provence nuances on the aftertaste, as well as a marked oak influence.
An interesting discovery. If I had another bottle I’d give it more cellar time.

2010 Château Bellegrave, Pauillac
This 8.3 hectare estate is surrounded by Latour, Pichon Baron, and Lynch Bages.
85% of the Pauillac appellation is composed of great growths, so wines such as this are fairly rare.
The small château building is very attractive and has a beautiful garden.
This 2010 had a very deep, fine color and a relatively muted nose. It screamed Cabernet Sauvignon on the palate rather than terroir. I see that drinkers on Cellartracker are divided as to the wine’s longevity. I tend to side with those who feel it is too young. There was an impression of alcohol even though the degree listed on the label was quite moderate.
There are many estates named Bellegrave, or variations thereof, so care should be taken not to confuse this with any other château, especially Château Bellegrave, 5th growth in Saint Laurent, AOC Pauillac.

Three 2002s: Mouton, Léoville Las Cases, and Latour

Some American friends and regular contributors to the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum recently came to visit.
BWE (http://www.bordeauxwineenthusiasts.com/viewforum.php?f=4) is the only internet forum devoted to Bordeaux and, over the years, virtual friends have become real ones at wine dinners shared on several continents.

My wife and I served a special dinner to which I invited two other friends. Jean-François Bourrut-Lacouture,  a retired négociant and Lori Westmoreland, who works in public relations at Ch. Léoville Poyferré. The 8 of us tasted 10 ½ bottles (I say tasted, but I see this morning that there was surprisingly little left over…). Here’s an overview of the wines. I say overview because I don’t take notes at table.

The aperitif wines were 2012 Veuve Clicquot and 2012 Dom Pérignon. The former was certainly a good Champagne, but did not really float my boat. The Dom was, in everyone’s opinion, head and shoulders above it and, as opposed to many other vintages of DP, quite enjoyable to drink at age 11, i.e. relatively young. It was complex, yeasty, biscuity, and had a wonderful aftertaste

We started the meal with  two Sauternes and foie gras on a bed of mâche, or lamb’s lettuce. The first Sauternes (or rather, Barsac), was 2001 Doisy Daënes, which was delightful and the kind of wine you can love either young or old. We raised a toast to the late Denis Dubourdieu, owner of the estate and Dean of the Faculty of Enology at Bordeaux University. One of the great men of Bordeaux. The wine had the trademark minerality and digestibility of great Barsac.
This was followed by 1997 Yquem. Once again, a toast was raised to the late Count de Lur Saluces, who died earlier this year. As opposed to the red wines of Bordeaux, 1997 is a very good vintage in Sauternes. As this was tasted blind, most people thought the wine was older, from the 1980s. I can see why because the color looked that way. The wine was, to my mind, at peak and a joy to drink.

With the goose confit, duchess potatoes, and cauliflower we transitioned to reds, starting out with a 2019 Siran from Margaux that had been given by Edouard Miailhe during a visit earlier that afternoon. This was a promising, elegant wine.


Next up were three wines served side by side: 2002 Mouton Rothshild, 2002 Léoville Las Cases, and 2002 Latour. It was fascinating to compare these blind. Everyone agreed that the LLC was not up to the standard of the Pauillacs. I had hoped it would be because many people feel that this estate is on a par with the first growths and the Delon family at one point unsuccessfully tried to price it in that category. So, the duel was between Mouton and Latour. I was in the minority, felling that the former edged out the latter. Mouton was beautifully aromatic and elegant, a superb Médoc entering its drinking window. Where Latour did outperform was on the incredibly suave long aftertaste.

Next up was 1986 Talbot, a beautiful, classic wine with any Cordier funkiness pretty much under control. This proved to be a meaty, rich Saint Julien in traditional mode, with great acidity and length. The last red wine of the evening was a 1979 Château Margaux. Although the finish was drying, the wine was graceful, poised, and elegant at age 44.

With dessert, we enjoyed a gift bottle brought from the US, a Kopke Colheita Port from 1953, my birth year. I was really touched. This was bottled in 2012. To say the tannins are resolved would be an understatement. This has moved into another dimension, with a softness and warmth that caress the palate, the ultimate “comfort wine”. In fact, I’m sipping some as I write this, feeling pretty damned good about the time I’ve spent with my friends the past few days.

2010 Château Chantelune, Margaux

This itsy-bitsy (1.5 hectare) vineyard is owned by José Sansfins, the manager of third growth Château Cantenac Brown. The odd name (as portrayed on the label by a wolf baying at the moon) comes from a previous owner, a carpenter, who cut down the trees he needed when the moon was full in the belief that, in this way, the wood would never be attacked by insects or deteriorate. His vineyard was planted on the highest point in the Margaux appellation, in the commune of Soussans, on a bed of gravelly soil.  

I opened this wine expecting to find something serviceable, but nothing special. Boy, was I mistaken. I don’t know if it’s the vintage quality coming through more than anything else, but this wine was a beauty, as good, if not better, than most of the 3rd and 4th growth classified growths of Margaux. This was a streamlined wine of great finesse and a joy to drink. At age 13, it was in its early drinking window.
To give you an idea of pricing, a recent vintage, the 2020, can be purchased retail at 30 euros a bottle in France. Who says that serious Bordeaux has to be expensive?

Château Ad Francos: a Franc success

How many of you have ever tasted a wine from the Côtes de Francs?

Hmmm. I didn’t think so…

Francs Côtes de Bordeaux (as it is now called) is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux, with approximately 400 hectares of vines. This Right Bank region is located near the Dordogne River and the border with the Dordogne department, a half hour by car from Libourne and twenty minutes from Saint Emilion.

It would be an exaggeration to call Francs (fewer than 200 people) a one-horse town. I doubt there is even a cat there… However, they do have a castle whose oldest section dates back to the 6th century. The family of the famous enologist Michel Rolland lived here, at Château Ad Francos, for two centuries and his team currently oversees winemaking there.

Ad Francos has about 8 hectares of vines (average age 30 years) on clay-limestone soil producing roughly 30,000 bottles of wine a year. The property, entirely restored in the early part of this century, was acquired by Guillaume Brochard and his wife, Qiong Er Jiang, in 2017. Monsieur Brochard lives most of the year in Shanghai, where he had a successful jewellery business that he sold to Kering (Pinault) in 2013. He also acquired three other wine firms having both a négociant activity and/or their own vineyards: La Guyennoise, GRM, and Le Star. 

Château Ad Francos is definitely off the beaten track, both geographically and vinously. Relying not only on the wine’s quality, but also its rarity, Monsieur Brochard has intelligently decided to position it in the premium category, with prices to match.

I tasted through the range in July.

The 2019 and 2020 white wines, AOC Francs Côtes de Bordeaux, were both light, aromatic and mineral without too much oak. The 2015 red Ad Francos was a wine of character needing further ageing and would make a fine match with flavorsome food such as stews or game. The 2016 vintage was also quite tannic with well-integrated oak and a promising future.  The 2012 barrel-fermented Reserve, (full name: Réserve Ad Aeternam) at age 11, still showed some oak as well as sweet cherry overtones on the nose, along with hints of spice, pepper, and earth on the palate. 

It should be said that Ad Francos has one of the most unusual labels in Bordeaux, reproducing an old engraving of the château and the facsimile of a passage from the 1898 edition of Bordeaux et Ses Vins (Féret).