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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!




Château La Tour Figeac: a great St. Emilion cru classé

The original Figeac estate consisted of over 200 hectares. Château La Tour Figeac, created as a separate entity in 1879, features an attractive small château whose turret, however, does not account for the name. This is due instead to an ancient tower that no longer exists. The estate was acquired by the Rettenmair family in 1973. Along with the von Neipperg chateaux (La Mondotte, Canon La Gaffelière, Clos de l’Oratoire, etc.), this is the only German-owned château of note in Bordeaux, which is surprising in light of Germany’s economic might.

When I first started reading about the wines of Bordeaux, the western part of the appellation, where La Tour Figeac is located, was referred to as Les Graves de Saint Emilion. However, this is somewhat of a misnomer in that the gravelly section is really rather small compared to, let’s say, the limestone plateau, and should perhaps not be thought of as constituting an entire sector. La Tour Figeac’s soil is half gravel, the rest consisting of gravel and sand with a type of clay subsoil shared with Pomerol. In fact, the vineyard is adjacent such Pomerol estates as Beauregard and La Clémence. Furthermore, Corinne Lantheaume, who took me around, explained that Pomerol-like characteristics often come through in La Tour Figeac even when quite young. She pointed out that at tastings the wines clearly have a different flavor profile to those from the plateau, or elsewhere in Saint-Emilion.

Although he spends a majority of his time in Germany, Otto Max Rettenmair perpetuates his family’s passion for the estate. He has been general manager of La Tour Figeac since 1994, assisted by Pierre Blois, the on-site manager. Stéphane Derenoncourt’s well-known firm has followed winemaking since 1997, and associate consultant Julien Lavenu (also present at Clos Fourtet and Larcis Ducasse, among other châteaux) has been in charge of winemaking since 2001.

La Tour Figeac has 14,6 hectares of vines, roughly 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Franc, although a change is being considered for the future (50/50). Vine density is 6,500 up to 8.000 per hectare depending on the plot. The vineyard has been managed according to biodynamic principles since 1997 and wine has been officially certified as organic starting with the 2021 vintage, although this is not trumpeted on the label. Average annual production amounts to approximately 60,000 bottles, including a second wine called L’Esquisse (a word meaning “sketch”). 

The cellar features wooden fermentation vats from Taransaud, 400 litre barrels, and amphorae, as well as more usual vessels. About fifty percent of the crop is aged in new oak. 

La Tour Figeac has been a classified growth of Saint-Emilion from the very first (1955), a survivor of all the storms surrounding this controversial hierarchy. 

Corinne Lantheaume was very matter-of-fact about this, but confirmed that it was worth the considerable effort on several fronts (prioritizing quality, submitting nightmarishly complicated application documents, etc.) to maintain their rank.

Madame Lantheaume was kind enough to arrange a vertical tasting for me. She suggested going from oldest to youngest, and I went with the flow.

Alex tasting at La Tour Figeac

2016 La Tour Figeac 
(70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc)

Bright warm cherry red color. Soft cherry-vanilla nose showing good oak and some candied red fruit. Liquorice component on the palate along with great black fruit nuances. Penetrating, but with a gentle grip and not overly alcoholic. Hints of violet on the long delicate aftertaste with fine-textured tannin. Delightful.

2018 La Tour Figeac
(70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc)

Deep satisfying color. Nose of perfumed talc, wild berries, oak, and ripe Merlot. Very broad-based and big on the palate with velvety tannin. Layered flavors and quite fresh. Strongly marked by barrel ageing at this stage, but with excellent potential.

2019 La Tour Figeac
(65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Franc)

Good deep color showing some purple. Fresh and subtle berry, brambly nose. Seemingly sweet bouquet. Big and round on the palate, maybe a touch hollow in the middle, but compensated by tart freshness on the aftertaste. Plush, with coffee, spice, and kirsch aromatics. Tannin and alcohol come through on the finish. 

2020 La Tour Figeac
(70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc)

This was tied with the 2016 for best wine of the tasting for me. To be sure of this, I went back and retasted it at the end. Regal color and a nose of graphite and deep pure black fruit. Already very promising bouquet at this stage. Rich, with sensual cherry and blackcurrant flavors on the palate, while showing good acidity on the finish. Great balance, class, and length. 

However, this is not the end of the story. My reason for visiting La Tour Figeac in the first place, other than the fact that I had never been there before, was a bottle of the 2000 vintage I had in the cellar and was itching to open. I thought that tying in an appraisal of young wines with an aged version from a great vintage would make for a worthwhile report. 

I am pleased to say that 2000 La Tour Figeac left a very favorable impression. I served it at a dinner at my house and so did not take detailed notes, but I have a fine memory of a wine with a very dark color (younger than its years), a mature nose of black fruit, and a long rich aftertaste belying its age. 

All in all, I was delighted to become better acquainted with this excellent Saint Emilion.

Bordeaux is in trouble, just not the Bordeaux many of us know

This article in the Guardian speaks of a very serious problem in the Bordeaux wine country. However, many of you reading this tend to think of Bordeaux as only the tip of the iceberg, i.e. the 5% of Bordeaux that consists of great growths and assimilated wines, rather than Bordeaux as a whole. Therefore, the crisis seems of little importance when seen from afar. It is nevertheless crippling to the local economy.
The overproduction largely concerns the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations, accounting for 55% of total output.

The article is unsurprisingly a little sensationalist, starting with the title. Excess wine will not be “poured down the drain”. It will be distilled to make industrial alcohol.
The cursory analysis of decreased wine consumption is accurate as far as it goes, but the article does not address the specific challenge in Bordeaux as compared to other French regions.
There are many reasons for the decline…

I believe that the trend for alcohol-free drinks is less consequential than is made out. Because, although young people are avoiding wine, they are nevertheless drinking other alcoholic beverages.

If you drive through the Entre-Deux-Mers region (where most of AOC Bordeaux comes from), you see a distressing number of vineyards that have been simply abandoned. It is no longer economically viable to make wine for many growers. The real drama is that many winegrowers’ children do not wish to embark on a backbreaking career with all sorts of risks and a small income at the best of times. The future looks bleak. And, sadly, quality is not the most important parameter. Bordeaux is seen as a commodity and few producers are able to price their wine, however good it is (and with the accompanying increase in cost) outside of a narrowly defined bracket.

As always in France, the government and the EU (i.e. the taxpayer) are being called to the rescue, with thinly-veiled threats if they do not help financially…

Bordeaux needs to reinvent itself, but how?

1989 Château Latour

Well, here is a wine above my pay grade… and one for a special occasion. That occasion occurred when my friend Chris Howell, manager of Cain Vineyard and Winery in Saint Helena, came to dinner.
I first met Chris when he was an intern at Mouton Rothschild years ago. His Napa Valley wine, Cain Five, is considered one of the region’s best.

First growth Château Latour in Pauillac

Chris had enjoyed lunch in the Médoc with the former cellarmaster of Château Léoville Las Cases and by pure coincidence tasted two other 89s during the meal: Las Cases and Palmer. Therefore, following up with a Latour from the same vintage at dinner was very serendipitous.

On to the wines…

With an endive and salmon salad, we had a 2016 Clos des Lambrays Puligny Montrachet premier cru Les Folatières. This was more middle-of-the-road than memorable. It was clean and mercifully not over-oaked, but seemed to lack both depth and the stamp of its terroir. It will gain little by further ageing.

Next up, with grilled duck breast and duchess potatoes, was 2014 Ch. Haut Marbuzet, a well-known cru bourgeois from Saint Estèphe. This was a very nice surprise. The wine was dark-colored and had a Pauillac-type nose with plenty of graphite. It was vigorous and fruity, and did not suffer from 100% ageing in new oak. I was very pleased with this.

Finally, it was time for the 1989 Château Latour. First of all, the color was far deeper and vibrant than one would expect after 33 years, with little browning on the rim. The nose was quite classic, with plenty of blackcurrant and soft tertiary qualities. However, this was not the wine’s most notable aspect. What made it special was its tremendous flavor and tannic texture. This was the quintessence of Cabernet in a very manly mode, but exhibiting tremendous class and restraint. The aftertaste was extremely long with a touch of menthol freshness. There was a mineral and ferrous component to the flavor and, above all, velvety tannin that showed the wine’s pedigree. I tend to prefer wines younger than many of my friends, but I have to admit that this Latour was still very much in the running and will be a good bottle to drink several decades from now…
Chris said that of the three 89s he’d had that day, the Latour showed the most finesse.

I posted about this wine on the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum, and someone replied “There is no other specific Bordeaux wine and vintage for which I have seen more differing, contrasting scores, reviews and tasting notes than 1989 Latour”. In effect, the thread on that forum included both high praise and some very dismissive appraisals, which had me puzzled. I looked at the 220 Cellartracker notes for this wine. Most are full of praise, but a minority are also very critical. The discrepancy may be due to bottle variation, provenance, people being overly impressed by the label, unfamiliarity with aged first growth wines, etc. Go figure

2000 Château Figeac

Wine lovers as old as me have always had a great deal of respect and love for Château Figeac, even if we were led to believe that it was Saint Emilion’s version of a “super-second”, stuck in a sort of limbo between the premiers grand crus B and the A group at the tip of the pyramid. It seemed a pity that Figeac was refused promotion with each successive classification when increasing numbers of wine lovers and trade professionals acknowledged its impressive progress.
As time went on, Figeac has gone from strength to strength, and was finally been promoted to A status in the 2022 classification. This leaves only two châteaux, Pavie and Figeac, in the A category since Ausone and Cheval Blanc have withdrawn altogether – not without controversy.

Discussing the Saint Emilion classification in Bordeaux is as lively a pastime as it once was to weigh the influence of Robert Parker on the market and the way wines are made. As contentious as the classification is, it must be admitted that it allows up-and-coming estates to receive the recognition they deserve.

Figeac’s upgrade made me want to taste an aged bottle to see if it was up to snuff. Does Figeac really deserve the top spot? So I brought out a bottle of 2000, making sure to give it proper care and attention: standing it up weeks beforehand, opening it three hours in advance of the meal and decanting it one hour prior to serving. I had friends over to dinner, and do not take notes at table, but I can confirm that this was a beauty of a wine, in its drinking window, with a lovely bouquet redolent of black fruit and violet, as well as a suave, velvety flavor profile, along with a soft, very long aftertaste. I was delighted by the wine’s sheer elegance and would love to pit it against 2000 Cheval Blanc down the line. The estate’s promotion, to my mind, seems fully justified.
2000 was a much heralded vintage but it has had to compete with three other years for best of the decade: 2005, 2009, and 2010. I’m not qualified to give a learned opinion about this, but can confirm that, at age 22, many 2000s are drinking well now.

Spiffy new cellars at Château Figeac

I think that comparisons between Cheval Blanc and Figeac will become increasingly frequent. Of course, the former was once part of the large Figeac estate and they border on one another.  Both châteaux share somewhat similar soils, with the significant presence of gravel, in what used to be rather simplistically called “Les Graves Saint Emilion” (as opposed to the Plateau and the Côtes). Figeac has roughly one third of each grape variety – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. Cheval Blanc, on the other hand, has approximately 52% Cabernet Franc, 43% Merlot, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Figeac has 54 hectares of vines and Cheval Blanc 39, but the latter has recently undergone expansion. Figeac has been owned by the same family since 1892, whereas Cheval Blanc is jointly owned by Bernard Arnauld of LVMH and the family of the late Belgian banker Albert Frère.

I have one bottle of 2000 Figeac left. I am in no hurry to drink it and, who knows, maybe I may be able to compare it with Cheval Blanc from the same year one day…

2003 Château Ducru Beaucaillou

There were 14 second growths in the 1855 classification of Médoc wines. Perhaps half of these can be considered “super seconds” with a significantly a higher market price than the category average. I can even remember a time when one of them, Léoville Las Cases, tried to close the gap with the first growths… but ultimately failing.

Ducru Beaucaillou is unquestionably a super second growth. The jewel of the Borie family estates has long enjoyed a very high reputation, with the exception of vintages from 1988-1994 which suffered from TCA taint transmitted by wood in the cellar.

I have enjoyed many excellent bottles of Ducru, and special mention for the 1961 and 1982 vintages.

A recent post by Christopher Edwards from Norfolk, England, on the UK Wine Pages board intrigued me. He compared several top 2003 Médocs, and found Ducru Beaucaillou: was the most advanced. This made me think that it was perhaps about time for me to open my one and only bottle of this wine.

Yes, the wine was browning on the rim, but still had a very deep, dark core after 19 years. It also had an almost viscous aspect. The label said 13° alc./vol. which, even allowing for a half a degree tolerance, was lower than I expected.
The nose showed hints of spice, black fruit, cedar, and chocolate. It was appealing, but not the best part of the tasting experience.

I served the wine blind to my wife, who guessed it was from the Right Bank. I could totally see where she was coming from since the full-bodied richness was indeed reminiscent of Merlot, even if this variety only accounted for 25% of the blend.

So much has been written about the 2003 vintage that I was inevitably on the lookout for certain negative characteristics (alcoholic heat, flabbiness, etc.). On the whole I did not find these, except for some dried fruit nuances and an above-average – but not overwhelming – impression of alcohol on the rather dry finish. On the whole, this was a vinous, full-bodied Médoc that did not seem like it could be from anywhere other than Bordeaux. I would have preferred to open the wine a few years earlier, but it was by no means seriously flagging.

While not from a “politically correct” vintage, this 2003 Ducru held its own and did justice to the estate’s reputation. it also makes me think that I should start investigating any other 2003 wines I have left in the cellar.

2016 Château d’Arcins, Haut-Médoc cru bourgeois

Château d’Arcins

It is impossible to talk about Château d’Arcins without citing the Castel Group, the estate’s all-important owners. Bordeaux-based Castel are the third biggest wine company in the world, with fingers in many other pies as well (beer, mineral water, sugar, flour, animal feed, etc.). Castel Frères is one of the largest négociants in Bordeaux, where they own some twenty châteaux, including a 50% share of Beychevelle and Beaumont (Suntory in Japan have the other 50%)I recently opened a bottle of 2016 Château d’Arcins and decanted it three hours before the meal to let it breathe and open up. I had bought the wine for about 16 euros in one of the Nicolas chain of shops – also belonging to Castel – the previous we

Many consumers of fine wine assume that, if small is beautiful, big must not be… How wrong they are! It’s rather like the prejudice against négociant wines as opposed to estate-bottled wines. Castel may be a megafirm and Château d’Arcins huge, with 101 hectares of vines, but things need to be put into perspective. Since a typical domaine in Burgundy, producing several appellations, has a total of only 6-8 hectares, one might assume that a wine such as Château d’Arcins is “mass-produced and commercial”. However, my experience showed this not to be true.

One of 249 crus bourgeois, Château d’Arcins is an AOC Haut-Médoc located in the middle of the tiny village of Arcins (population 530, and one pronounces the final “s”) just north of Soussans, in the Margaux appellation. Grape varieties are 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Merlot. The other well-known château in the commune is Château Barreyres, another large Castel estate. The town is also famous for the Lion d’Or restaurant serving hearty regional cuisine and allowing clients to bring their own wine.

So, 2016 d’Arcins has a deep rich color with some diffuse browning on the rim. The nose shows ripe Cabernet Sauvignon aromas, especially blackcurrant, with subtle notes of cherry and vanilla. The wine is mouthfilling with good acidity and grip. It starts out fresh, soft, and deceptively easy-going, then developing a welcome austerity due to the tannin. While not extremely velvety, the tannin displays good texture that makes the wine serious, and shine at table. We are talking about a textbook Médoc from a fine vintage, with some character and excellent value for money. It is a pleasure to drink as of now, no need to wait.

The 2022 Saint Emilion Classification

Recap: wine châteaux in the Médoc and Sauternes regions were classified in 1855, and those in the Graves (even though all in the Pessac-Léognan appellation, estates there remain “Crus Classés de Graves”) in 1953. Saint-Emilion introduced a new type classification in 1955 that broke with tradition in that it was decided from the very outset that it would be revised and updated every ten years.

Well, the road to hell is paved with good intentions… In theory, this seemed like a wonderful idea, with newcomers able to climb the ladder and underachievers removed – as opposed to the other classifications set in stone. However, each new revision turned out to be a wrenching experience with long, drawn-out court cases and all sorts of ups and downs. This did a great disservice to the image of Saint-Emilion and its finest wines. The controversies reached a paroxysm in 2022 when three of the four Premiers Grands Crus Classés A (Ausone, Cheval Blanc, and Angélus) decided to withdraw altogether. There now remain only two in the uppermost tier: Pavie and Figeac – which finally, and deservedly, made it to the tip of the pyramid.

It had unfortunately got to a point where the Saint Emilion classification was openly derided and the situation became very unhealthy, with the criteria and functioning of the whole process heavily criticised (for instance, tasting accounts for only 50% of the final score, terroir just 10%, etc.). The waters are further muddied by the huge confusion that exists in the average consumer’s mind between Grand Cru and Grand Cru Classé. For most people, these terms mean the same thing which, of course, they do not… In other words, the legal appellation for a classified growth is Saint Emilion Grand Cru, exactly the same as for an inexpensive unclassified wine.

And yet… After a great deal of turbulence, the classification has survived, warts and all, and châteaux still strive to belong to it. The amount of paperwork involved with applying is mind boggling, a bureaucratic nightmare that is nevertheless well worth it to those estates fortunate enough to be accepted. In other words, being classified still means something. In practice, it carries greater financial weight in terms of an estate’s land value rather than the market price of its wine.

The Premier Grand Cru Classé category (A + B) now amounts to 14 estates, compared to 18 in 2012 . There are 71 Grands Crus Classés this year, as opposed to 64 in the previous classification. This represents a 10% increase, but is still fewer than the 75 châteaux in the original classification. .Overall, approximately half of candidates for the 2022 classification were not admitted. No estate included in the 2012 classification was demoted.
Those newly admitted GCC include Château Badette, Clos Badon-Thunevin , Château Boutisse, Château La Confession, Château Croix de Labrie, Château Le Croizille, Clos Dubreuil, Château Lassegue, Château Mangot, Château Montlabert, Château Montlisse, Château Rol Valentin, Clos Saint-Julien, Château Tour Baladoz, and Château Tour Saint Christophe. Happily, one château, Château Corbin Michotte, that had been downgraded, was reintegrated.

I am either little or totally unacquainted with several of these wines, and the new classification makes me want to get to know them better.

In a way that leaves Burgundians speechless, estates in Saint Emilion with different statuses have merged while retaining that which is most advantageous. Could you imagine a Grand Cru in the Côte de Nuits annexing a Premier Cru and rebaptizing it Grand Cru? Anyway, Pavie has absorbed Pavie-Decesse, Clos Fourtet annexed Les Grandes Murailles, Cheval Blanc added Quinault l’Enclos, etc.

Is the classification system in Saint Emilion back on track? In my opinion, it will never be fully so if the leading estates do not belong. However, none of the wrangling, recrimination, and litigation that were so much a part of the previous two classifications has surfaced so far. Perhaps this is due to the fact that no château included in the 2012 classification was rejected in 2022.

Premiers Grands Crus Classés

Château CANON
Château FIGEAC (A)
Château PAVIE (A)

Grands Crus Classés

Château CORBIN
Château GUADET
Château LA SERRE
Château LAROZE
Château MANGOT
Château RIPEAU

Château Lanessan sold to Australian investors

Château Lanessan, a cru bourgeois in Cussac (AOC Haut-Médoc) has been sold by the Bouteiller family to Treasury Wine Estates AKA Penfolds. Treasury also own Cambon la Pelouse and Belle-Vue, both in Macau and also in the Haut-Médoc appellation.

Lannessan is a 350 hectare estate with 85 hectares of vines, a large Tudor-style château dating from 1878, and a Horse Museum.

It is located a stone’s throw from Château Beychevelle (indeed, some plots of Beychevelle adjoining Lanessan in the Haut-Médoc appellation have a special exemption to be incorporated into the Saint-Julien fourth growth).

My own experience is that Lanessan is a sturdy old-fashioned kind of Médoc featuring good value for money. Let us hope that the Australians raise it to another whole level.

The local Sud-Ouest newspaper says that this summer Penfolds came out with a blend of Australian and Médoc wines.
Penfolds puts Australian wine into its first Médoc labels

2000 Château Lascombes

In recent thread on the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum asked people what they thought were the most overrated great growths. Several people suggested Château Lascombes. This prompted me, in the interest of science, to look at my cellar book to see if I had any. As it so happens, I did. And a bottle of 2000 Lascombes seemed just the ticket. Lascombes is a second growth Margaux that has had many ups and downs, shrinking to just over 20 hectares in the 1950s before it was resuscitated by Alexis Lichine and a group of American investors. It want from them to Bass Charington, the English brewers, then back to an American pension fund before its acquisition in 2011 by MACSF, a French insurance company specialised in medical employees.

Château Lascombes in Margaux

Lacombes now stands at 120 hectares, producing some 300,000 bottles a year, making this one of the largest estates in the Médoc, accounting for 12% of the entire Margaux appellation spread over five communes. Unlike its neighbors, Lascombes has a much larger proportion of Merlot (50%). In her book “Inside Bordeaux”, Jane Anson downgrades Lascombes to third growths status. Without being overly critical, I think that is a fair evaluation, as borne out by the wine I tasted. However, it has to be said that this wine was made before either consultant Michel Rolland or the present manager, Dominique Befve took over. Both of them started in 2001.

2001 Château Lascombes

In all objectivity, 2000 Lascombes, even though from a very good vintage, did not achieve second growth status. The color was quite deep, with bricking pretty much appropriate for a 22 year old wine. The nose was the best part of this wine. However, its combination of graphite, blackcurrant, and humus components was reminiscent of more northerly appellations. The wine seemed still fresh on the palate, but rather dilute, going into grippy granular tannin. It suffered from a basic imbalance and was a little raisiny. The negative factor here was the marked acidity (almost sourness) and bitterness making this more acceptable with food than on its own. The aftertaste showed some candied black fruit.
On the whole, despite the tannic finish, I felt this wine would have been better a few years ago.

I have visited Lascombes several times with Danish wine writer Izak Litwar in recent years and the vintages I tasted with him seem seemed much improved. I will certainly be paying closer attention to Lascombes in the future. I also see that I have a bottle of 2005 and must think about opening it soon.

A trip to discover the wines of Bandol

Though obviously a departure from the subject of Bordeaux, this post does concern another fine French wine region, so I’m hoping you will not mind

The port of Bandol

Here’s the background: a friend with a house in Bandol, a picturesque small port (population 8,500) on the Mediterranean coast 50 km. east of Marseille, invited my wife and me to come and visit last month. Fortunately, my friend also shares a love of good wine (in fact, his family own a vineyard in the Beaujolais) and he kindly offered to help me to get to know the wines of Bandol

Bandol produces roughly 65% rosé, 30% red, and 5% white on 1,500 hectares of vines. The star here is Mourvèdre, a variety found elsewhere in southern France, as well as the Valencia and Jumilla regions of Spain. Of course, complementary grape varieties are also allowed.

There is a Maison du Vin in Bandol, but I regret to say that the people there seemed bored, unhelpful, and not very clued-in. So we just did our own thing and visited five estates.

The first was to Château Pibarnon with just over 50 hectares of vines in La Cadière-d’Azur, in a beautiful and rather secluded location. This prestigious estate owned by the Comte de Saint-Victor started out with just 3 in the late 1970s. The vines grow in a gorgeous setting, mainly in an amazing natural amphitheatre – one of the loveliest vineyards I have ever seen.

We tasted several wines.

The 2020 Pibarnon rosé, containing 35% Cinsault, had a medium-pale salmon-pink color. The nose was fruity and fairly subtle. The wine started out relatively rich on the palate, then showing fairly mineral on the aftertaste, with some grip. Definitely a cut above most Provence rosés.

The 2018 Nuances de Saint Victor Bandol rosé (5,000 bottles a year) underwent 12 hours of maceration. It had a similar color, but a more complex and delicate bouquet. There was definitely a step up on the palate, with cherry and cherry stem flavors along with a gummy finish – a truly superior rosé, what the French call “un rosé de gastronomie” as opposed to the cheap, cheerful, and thirst-quenching kind.
When listing the best rosé wines of France, one often cites Tavel, Marsannay, and Rosé des Riceys. Well, a wine like this Bandol definitely belongs in that category too.

2017 Restanques: This local word describes small stone walls behind which vines are planted, often on slopes. This red Bandol from young vines had a medium-deep color with a nose of candied fruit that was a bit muted, but elegant. The wine was rich and noticeably high in alcohol (14.5%) on the palate, but classy, with good overall fruit, as well as dried fruit overtones. A very nice second wine.
They feel at Pibarnon that it will be at its best 8-10 years after the vintage.

2018 Pibarnon rouge: The color here looked older than the previous wine. The nose was elegant, sweet, and tertiary, with understated fruit. The impression of quality carried over to the palate, with great structure and finesse. There was a long aftertaste and although 2018 is not considered a great year, perhaps the toned-down qualities due to less sun is what endeared it to me. My notes say “a winner”, and I bought some to take home with me.

We ended the tasting with the 2020 Restanques. This red Bandol had a deeper color and was a bit rustic on the nose. The wine showed some heat on the palate, but also berry fruit and a velvety texture.

Mirroring the very small production of white wine in the Bandol appellation, Pibarnon makes only a tiny amount of white. They didn’t have any for tasting or sale, but my wife and I were fortunate enough to enjoy the 2020 vintage with bouillabaisse at the mythical Chez Michel restaurant in Marseille.  

Our next stop was at Domaines Bunan – Moulin des Costes in La Cadière-d’Azur

Upon arriving, and hearing that I had come from Bordeaux, the person who welcomed us posed me a riddle: what do Bordeaux and Bandol have in common? I thought about it, scratched my head, and confessed to not knowing the answer, which was: they are only two French communal appellations that don’t actually have any vines in the eponymous commune. Now there’s a real wine trivia question for you!

Bunan is a largish operation, created in 1961 by Paul Bunan, a Pied Noir who, like so many others, had to abandon everything during the Algerian War and move to France. Why Bandol? The story goes that he had read a newspaper article about Marlon Brando’s engagement (eventually broken off) to a girl from there and had formed a romantic image of the place in his mind…

Bunan have three vineyards estates: Moulin des Costes and Château la Rouvière in the Bandol appellation, as well as Bélouvé (meaning “beautiful grape” in Provençal), producing mostly Rosé de Provence. I tasted nine wines chez Bunan and will give an overview rather than a detailed reproduction of my notes. Quality was good, but not compelling. Two red Bandols stood out: the 2018 Château la Rouvière red and the unusual 2019 Moulin des Costes cuvée Charriage. The latter, made from very old Mouvèdre vines, is named after a geological term describing a thrust sheet of rock moved by oregensis, i.e. the folding of the earth’s crust. The wine was intriguing, flavorsome, and super-concentrated, but I felt that it had tipped just that little bit over into the top-heavy category.

My next visit was to Domaine Tempier in Le Castellet, a 60-hectare estate with an excellent international reputation. The vineyards grow on 4 different, but very distinct terroirs in the immediate vicinity. The estate is located not far from the town of Bandol. I tasted two wines there. The 2021 rosé was very pale and had a noncommittal nose. It seemed almost sweet on the palate at first, then showed fruit and acidity. Although enjoyable, this was nothing to write home about. The 2017 rouge Cuvée Classique (75% Mourvèdre, 14% Grenache, 9% Cinsault, and 2% Carignan) was a different story. It had a good deep color and an appealing bouquet of dark fruit. The wine was soft on the palate with delicious berry and kirsch flavors. The alcohol may have come on a little too strong, but this was unquestionably an engaging wine and some bottles have gone into my cellar. When you consider the price of many fine French wines these days, the cost was really very reasonable.
Domaine Tempier is named after Léonie Tempier (the great-grandmother of the legendary Lucie Peyraud). The 2017 vintage is dedicated to “Lulu” Peyraud in honor of her 100th birthday. She died three years later. The boat on the label was designed by Lucie’s father, and represents wine being shipped from the port of Bandol.
Tempier also produce three named vineyard wines (La Tourtine, Casbassaou, La Migoua) that I would have loved to taste, but that was not possible during my visit. Should I see any of these in a store, I would be sure to snap them up.
Domaine Tempier has a very loyal following in America thanks to author Richard Olney (“Lulu’s Provençal Table”), restauratrice Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and importer/writer Kermit Lynch.

I was a bit sceptical prior to our next visit, the maison Ott in La Londe-les-Maures. I had tasted the wines on several occasions since they seem to be well-distributed in restaurants throughout France. I have always found them sound, but vastly overpriced.
Ott belong to the Louis Roederer Champagne empire that includes Delas in the Rhone Valley and Château Pichon Comtesse in the Médoc. The Ott winery is in a lovely setting and the buildings remind me of a Provençal version of a Bordeaux wine château. They are geared-up to wine tourism and kitted out with a very nice tasting room.
Ott have their own vineyards, but are mainly négociants. Their wines are sold in a proprietary bottle. Almost all their wines are AOC Côtes de Provence. Eighty percent of production is rosé, 15% white, and 5% red. I might add that Ott are on to a good thing: it’s very much of a bull market for rosé wines in general and Rosé de Provence in particular.
I tasted through three of their rosé wines and one white, all from Ott’s own vines.  Two of the rosés were grand crus. It is not well-known that a classification of Provence wines (18 estates) was made in 1955. I was really struck by how incredibly pale these rosés were. The sophisticated 2021 Château de Selle had a pure mineral nose, but was a little too skinny for me.  Clos Mireille from the same vintage had a somewhat smoky bouquet. It was fuller on the palate and quite fresh, but without as much character as the previous wine, even if showed greater length. The 2021 Château Romassin (non-classified) was the teeny-weeniest bit darker with salmon-colored tinges. The bouquet was exotic, but also had some soapy aromas. It was good, but unremarkable on the palate.
The 2020 Clos Mireille white wine (grown on silty soil close to the sea, with a microclimate featuring morning mist) consists of 67% Sémillon and 33% Rolle.  The wine had a pale green color and a rather rustic bouquet. It was, however, more attractive on the palate with lemony overtones and an interesting balance between piercing acidity and intrinsic richness.
A look at the price list told me that I would not be buying any of the wines. But before leaving, the woman running the tasting room told me that they had a special offer. My ears pricked up… They were selling a small lot of half bottles of their 2013 red Bandol at a knock-down price. We asked if we could taste a sample. The wine presented considerable bricking as well as a rich, seductive, mature bouquet. It was round, rich, chocolatey, ferrous, and long on the palate. My friend and I split a case at 7 euros per half bottle. So not all Ott wines are expensive!

Our next and last visit was to Château Pradeaux – a decided change of pace. An old-fashioned no-frills estate owned by the Portalis family since the early 18th century, Pradeaux was far-removed from the slickness of Ott… (Jean-Marie-Etienne Portalis helped to write the French civil code and to negotiate a concordat with the Catholic Church during Napoleon’s reign).
We were welcomed by the bearded, intense Cyrille Portalis. It is always a good sign when the winemaker shows you his vines before anything else. These comprise 22 hectares in a single block around the château in the western part of the Bandol appellation.
We tasted 4 wines. The 2021 Bandol rosé had a deeper color than any other rosé tasted during my trip (and was quite impressive after Ott!). The nose was forthright and old school. The wine was full-bodied, going into a delicious minerality and a lip-smacking finish. There were nuances of citrus fruit and red fruit. Very good. The 2020 rosé was unfortunately not up to the same standard.
Then it was on to the red wines. The 2017 Le Lys Bandol was made from young wines and partly destemmed. Blended with a little Cinsault and Grenache, and aged in foudres for about 2 years, this wine reflected its limestone terroir with puckery tannin (what I call tea tannin). Yummy.
The last wine was the 2017 Château Pradeaux red Bandol. It had quite a deep color and a nose of cherry liqueur. It was rich and round on the palate, big, strapping, and seemed relatively high in alcohol. This did not show so well now, but this is the type of wine to forget about for a long time and enjoy discovering years down the road.
I will never forget tasting (indeed, drinking!) these vins de terroir around an old upturned barrel with Cyrille and his father at the end of a sunny Provençal afternoon. This was the real thing, a French wine farm without the hype and spin.

My trip to the region ended with a morning in the charming port town of Cassis, 30 km. east of Bandol. Cassis (one does not pronounce the final “s”) has a population of 7,000 and some 200 hectares of vines: 71% white, 27 rosé, and 2% red. I went there on market day, revelling in all the colors and smells once would expect to find in Provence. We enjoyed a glass of white Cassis in a café overlooking the marina and with a view of the huge 8th century Château de Cassis (now transformed into a luxury hotel) atop an abrupt cliff.
While I did not have the time to visit any producers, I did poke my nose into a wine shop and, taking the owner’s advice, bought a bottle of 2021 Domaine du Bagnol Cuvée Caganis, made from Marsanne, Clairette, Ugni Blanc, Pascal Blanc, Bourboulenc, and Grenache Blanc (mass selection). I look forward to drinking this with friends. And the person who guesses it blind is entitled to an all-expenses-paid stay at the Château de Cassis!