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Château Beauséjour, Montagne Saint Emilion, Cuvée 1901

Although Pierre Bernault came from a family of winegrowers in Algeria, he followed a very different career path, becoming an engineer in information technology holding high-powered positions at Microsoft and the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission. There nevertheless came a time when, itching for a change, he set his sights on making wine in Bordeaux.

He bought Château Beauséjour in Montagne Saint Emilion in 2004, and set about making the best possible wine with the help of well-known consultant Stépahnd Derenoncourt.

Pierre Bernault

Château Beauséjour has 12 hectares of vines, including a plot of Merlot which proved to have been planted in 1901. In fact, Alain Vauthier selected vines from here to propagate when it became necessary to replant at Château Ausone.

Wine from these century-old vines was first vinified and bottled separately in the 2005 vintage.
I thought it was time to open the only bottle I had in the cellar.

The color was deep and attractive, but showed more browning on the rim than I had expected. The nose was lovely: ripe plum along with some leather and tertiary notes. Sweet and seductive. The wine was full-bodied and serious on the palate, and I could easily have taken it for a top range Saint-Emilion. At 18 years of age, this Cuvée 1901 was pretty much in its prime and was proof, if need be, that it can be extremely worthwhile to investigate Bordeaux off the beaten track.

2010 Domaine de l’A, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux

When I first came to Bordeaux (quite some time ago…) there were said to be two hot appellations, ones on the up-and-up that would surely be making more sought-after, more expensive wines in the future. These were Fronsac and Castillon.  While neither has really taken off like a rocket, I think that Castillon has probably fared better than Fronsac. The relative production figures may have something to do with this, since Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux (the full name since 2009) has about 1,800 hectares of vines while Fronsac has 800 and Canon-Fronsac just 250. But that is not the only reason. Fronsac wines have a tendency towards a certain hardness in their youth whereas Castillon wines are generally softer and more approachable young.

In fact, geologically speaking, Castillon is very much a continuation of Saint-Emilion.

The Domaine de l’A is located in the commune of Sainte Colombe on the border with Saint Emilion, with crus classes Faugères and Valandraud as immediate neighbors. The estate is the creation of Christine and Stéphane Derenoncourt, who started off with just two hectares in 1999 purchased thanks to a crowdfunding project. The estate now comprises 12 hectares.

Christine and Stéphane Derenoncourt

Stéphane Derenoncourt is an atypical figure on the Bordeaux wine scene. He comes from a working class family in Dunkirk and arrived in Bordeaux more or less by accident. Starting out as a vineyard worker, he graduated to winemaking consultant for such estates a Pavie Macquin, Canon la Gaffelière, and La Mondotte before starting his own consultancy firm in 1999. He has no formal training in enology, but an expertise acquired from years of experience. He is probably the most famous consultant in Bordeaux after Michel Rolland and now works with 70 Bordeaux châteaux, 20 properties elsewhere in France, and 20 others internationally.

However, Stéphane is definitely happy to have his own vineyard. It helps keep his feet on the ground and empathize with other vineyard owners.

Where does Domaine de l’A get its unusual name from? The story goes that when Christine and Stéphane Derenoncourt sat down to try to find one, several suggestions batted around started with the letter “A”, not least of which was “amour”. “A” is also the first letter of the alphabet, which went along with the new beginning…

The soil at Domaine de l’A consists of clay overlaying friable limestone and decomposed limestone. Grape varieties consist of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. Vine density is 6,500 per hectare. The average age of the vines is 40 years.

I have had the wine several times at tastings, and quite liked it, but recently had the opportunity to linger over an older version at Sunday lunch. It was a pleasurable experience. The color was vigorous, the nose plummy and ripe, and the flavor rich and satisfying on the palate. If tasted blind, I’d have opted for a mid-range Pomerol not only because of the Merlot profile, but also because of the loose-grained velvety tannin. That’s saying something when you consider the price of Castillon wines compared to those of Pomerol. Domaine de l’A sells for approximately 40 euros a bottle – expensive for a Castillon, but a very good deal for an excellent Right Bank wine. Everyone likes a success story, and the Derenoncourts at Domaine de l’A unquestionably fits the description.

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