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.
The Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux organizes a Weekend des Grands Crus every year in the city of Bordeaux as well as in the wine country. This is open to the general public and is a great way not only to taste 2 vintages of world-famous wines (one shared by all producers and another of their choice), but also to meet the château owners or their representatives.
d’Armailhacq N: Toasty oak with cherry/vanilla overtones. P: Altogether more expressive on the palate. This is a big, strong, assertive, and virile Pauillac, but elegance and balance are there as well. Confirms the estate’s recent improvement. Fresh, with great fruit, a long aftertaste dominated by blackcurrant, and black olive overtones on the tail end. Already very attractive and will make for fine mid-term drinking. Good to very good.
Beychevelle N: Discrete subtle bouquet with blackberry and throat lozenge aromas. Elegant. P: Seems a bit thin at first, but this is a mistaken impression. Great quintessentially Médoc cassis flavors. Lively and buoyant. Not a big wine, but one with a fine backbone, as well as a refreshing and classic aftertaste. Very good.
Branaire Ducru N: Dark chocolate and blackstrap molasses. Subtle wildberry nose, but without much depth at this stage. P: Starts out round and rich, but then shows surprising acidity for an unusual balance. Brambly. Good textured aftertaste with some leather nuances. Good to very good.
Grand Puy Ducasse N: Roast coffee in spades! This overshadows the fruit. The nose is also a little green. P: A big mouthful of wine. Chunky then acidic. Relatively unbalanced. Dry finish with some bitterness. I keep hoping this château will do better. OK
Gruaud Larose N: Surprisingly little oak. Fine berry fuit, fresh and, above all, understated. Needs time to open. P: Far more expressive on the palate. Fresh, assertive Médoc fruit. Bright, with good length, albeit a bit dry and oaky at present. In the classic mold. A great reflection of its terroir. Good to very good.
Haut Batailley N: Soft, but reveals disappointingly little at this time. P: Better on the palate. Rich, with a licorice flavor. Although not very impressive on the attack, the wine unfolds into a textbook Pauillac with a very good long brambly finish. Good.
Lagrange N: A little confected, with candied red fruit aromas. Not much there really, and one-dimensional. P: Comes off better on the palate, but this is not one of the best Saint Juliens tasted. A little harsh and acidic. This acidity will help it to age, of course, but the wine ought to be smoother and richer. There’s nothing wrong here, just nothing special. OK
Langoa Barton N: Very natural and unadulterated with far less oak than others. Understated. Not very forthcoming as yet, but with some notes of black cherry liqueur. P: Thirst quenching. Pure, satisfying, and well-made, but curiously short. Well-made, just not outstanding in the context.. Good
Léoville Barton N: Very low profile. Bit dumb, but what’s there is promising. Ethereal and intriguing. Touch of mint and camphor. P: Tight, resonant, pure, and with a long velvety aftertaste. Not rich, but will age beautifully. The fruit has been magnificently locked-in. Very good, and one of the stars of this tasting.
Léoville Poyferré N: Fruit forward, fresh, very Cabernet nose. Some coffee/vanilla notes, but not overoaked. More black than red fruit. P: Good acidity and raspberry flavor. Long tangy finish. Neither rich, alcoholic, nor top-heavy. Bit old-fashioned. Classic. The oak comes through more on the finish. Very good.
Lynch Bages N: In accordance with the château profile. Soft, pure, blackcurrant and black cherry aromas. Clean and precise. P: Not a big wine, and the element of purity on the nose comes through on the palate. Good acidity reminiscent of a less-than-stellar year. Unusually, cedar more than oak flavors on the finish. Quintessence of cassis. Good grip, but a little short on the aftertaste. A feminine Lynch Bages? Good to very good.
Pichon Baron N: Sweet and concentrated, but not at all in a New World sort of way. Typical Pauillac bouquet featuring some cedar/cigar box aromas. P: Lovely full-bodied mouthful of wine. Big, with a great velvety aftertaste showing just a little heat. Really tremendously long and fresh, with heaps of blackcurrant and a mineral finish. Very good plus, perhaps my favorite wine of the tasting.
Pichon Comtesse N: Meaty, with hints of maraschino cherry, and underdeveloped at this stage. P: This vintage is strongly marked by Cabernet Sauvignon. Fine structure and a long velvety uncompromising aftertaste. Made to age for many years. Very good.
Saint Pierre N: Candied red fruit nose along with lovely evanescent black cherry. Seductive. P: Open, upfront, and uncomplicated, in a popular commercial sort of ways. Bit hollow and halfway towards a modern style. Good value for money. Good.
Talbot N: Very toasty oak! Wildberry and forest fruit nose. Needs time and oxygenation to come out, which is why young wines in newly-opened bottles can sometimes give a misleading impression. P: Big, chunky, and typical of its appellation. Long, slightly harsh aftertaste. Uncompromising. Fresh, but lacks softness and richness. Little weak on the middle palate. A strong, characterful Saint Julien. The long aftertaste redeems a relatively lacklustre wine. This is long with some black olive nuances. Good.
Can a wine be accurately described as feminine or masculine?
That was one of the subjects under discussion last night with my neighbors, whom I had invited over for dinner. I served a wine from Ludon, where they have family ties: 1990 Château La Lagune. This looked far younger than its years and had a delightfully evanescent nose of ripe Cabernet, humus, and truffle. The wine was suave and seamless, by no means powerful, but very elegant and poised. It was as good as it will ever be, even if I’m sure its plateau will be quite long.
It reminded me of one of the better wines of Margaux.
Anyway, although they’re from the wine country, my neighbors have only an ordinary interest in the stuff and, when I described the La Lagune as feminine, the wife was surprised. She had never heard such a reference, and it puzzled her. “Is this a usual term?” she inquired. I replied in the affirmative.
The question I’ve asked above is whether wine descriptions can be gendered in order to convey a meaningful and comprehensible message – not whether they should or should not be.
In this age of political correctness – including a movement to bowdlerize and rewrite children’s fairy tales! – there are undoubtedly people who object on principle, going on the assumption that it is wrong to ascribe characteristics to either sex (since there are strong women and dainty men, etc.). So, I will leave that issue aside. I have even heard women winemakers say that females leave a discernible feminine imprint on wines, which if I find rather hard to accept (that having been said, La Lagune has been made by a succession of women over the years!).
Getting back to semantics, and the way we speak about wines, I believe that it is both useful and going on universally understandable to describe a Chambolle-Musigny as feminine or a Châteauneuf-du-Pape as virile, a practical sort of shorthand. What is trickier is to extrapolate from those words to find out what they really mean. Would a WSET or MW student be marked down for using them? Does a woman, for example, have a different conception of what a feminine wine is than a man? Do wine lovers in Sydney and Montevideo, with different cultures and languages, agree on the characteristics of a masculine wine?
In my opinion, any wine geek or professional can relate to the description of 1990 La Lagune as feminine. Rather than lacking punch or character, those attributes are very much present, but restrained and under control – or, as Mitterrand liked to market himself, “la force tranquille”. The French say an aromatic wine is “perfumed”. That, also, can be one of the hallmarks of a feminine wine, where the aromas are subtle, yet distinctive. As for aftertaste, such wines can be long and voluptuous, but not in your face.
I once went to Château Margaux with a visiting group from the Bordeaux Wine Enthusiasts forum. I asked the late Paul Pontalier the following question “It is often said that Margaux is the most feminine of wines. Is that true and, if so, how is it true?”. There followed an exceedingly brilliant exposition in impeccable English. I very much regret that I did not record it.
And masculine wines? A big, strapping Australian Shiraz fits the bill very nicely thank you, but that is a caricature. Ch. Latour is one of the most masculine wines in Bordeaux, and yet it is a wine of great depth and nuance. In the same way that feminine wines need not be delicate, neither do masculine wines have to be big thumping ones on steroids. Still, there is the idea of full bodied, straightforward wines with above average alcohol content (although this is not defining).
I’ve heard those terms around for as long as I can remember and am confident that they are here to stay. I do feel, though, that caution should be exercised in using them and that they definitely should not be overused.
Bordeaux almost inevitably involves a blend of grape varieties, one of the factors that accounts for its wonderful complexity. Of course, wines made from a single variety do exist, but they are very much in the minority.
As in other regions around the world, Bordeaux is worried about the effects of global warming and is timidly, and on an experimental basis, allowing wines to contain up to 5% of the following new varieties (six out of the fifty-two pre-tested) starting with the 2021 vintage – even if these are not permitted to be mentioned on the label. The purpose here is to adapt to hotter summers without altering Bordeaux’s typicity – so it is only normal to proceed gingerly.
REDS: Arinarnoa – a hardy cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon first produced by INRA (the French National Research Institute) in 1956 Castets – a “forgotten” disease-resistant variety from Southwest France Marselan – a frost-resistant and disease-resistant cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache produced by INRA in 1961 Touriga Nacional – one of the main varieties used to make Port wine that is well suited to climate change and especially propitious to producing excellent ageworthy wines
WHITES: Alvarinho – This variety is called Albarino in the Spanish province of Galicia, and Alvarinho in the Portuguese province of Minho. It is very aromatic and helps compensate for the loss of aromas due to climate change. It is also adaptable to climatic conditions and produces wines with good acidity. Liliorila – a cross between Baroque and Chardonnay, this variety is resistant to gray rot and produces powerful aromatic wines.
That having been said, wines from “non-authorized” grape varieties, sold as “vin de France” rather than Bordeaux, have been around for a long time. I was nevertheless intrigued to see a Syrah for the first time recently in a wine shop, Pied à Terre on rue Judaïque in Bordeaux, and snapped it up. The wine is made by Château Thieuley, which I have often enjoyed through the years. Located in La Sauve Majeure in the Entre-Deux-Mers, Thieuley is a great success story and grew from a tiny vineyard in the 1950s to an impressive 83 hectares today. It is expertly managed by Marie and Sylvie Courselle.
Just 8,000 bottles of 2016 Syrah were produced from deep clay-limestone soil. The wine was fermented in small temperature-controlled cement vats and aged in barrel (50% new) for 18 months.
I served this wine blind at lunch to friends in the trade and, unsurprisingly, they were stumped. I can’t really say that it showed a lot of varietal character and there was nothing here reminiscent of the Northern Rhône, but it was certainly robust and user-friendly. I saw this as the kind of wine best consumed young and am grateful for the experience. For information, the price tag was about 16 euros.
This Syrah was served with my first attempt at making a parmentier de canard, a variation of what the English call a shepherd’s pie made with duck confit instead of ground beef. The hearty, fruity wine went well with the dish.
The best and oldest red wine is traditionally reserved for the cheese course in Bordeaux. A modern revisionist wave criticizes this practice, and I partially agree. On the one hand, a delicious old wine can sometimes by underwhelming after a vigorous young one that precedes it. And, on the other hand, it is true that certain cheeses overpower the subtleties of fine wine. Some people go so far as to ban red wine with cheese, insisting on serving only whites… In any event, my conservative streak comes through on this matter, especially when I have French friends over for a meal, because the best, oldest red wine with the cheese is what they expect.
For the record, we had four cheeses: a Selles-sur-Cher goat’s cheese, Roquefort, a Mont d’Or, and an utterly delicious Italian cheese, Moliterno sheep’s cheese with truffle. As for the Moliterno, it sounds terribly expensive and snobbish, but it was bought for a very reasonable price at the local Auchan hypermarket.
So, I had opened my bottle of 1983 Ducru Beaucaillou about 3 hours beforehand and decanted it just prior to serving it blind. My guests immediately said “Left Bank Bordeaux”, and such is the classicism of this wine that this was, in fact, pretty obvious. It was thought to be a more northerly Médoc, possibly a Saint-Estèphe, from the late 80s/early 90s. Its pedigree (i.e. cru classé status) was never doubted and, in light of its quality, my guests were not really surprised when it was revealed to be a “super-second”. 1983 Ducru exemplified the elegance and restraint of the finest Bordeaux. The color was a little more youthful than its age would suggest and the nose was a sublime mix of anise, tar, humus, cassis, and a myriad of undefinable aromas to form a very special bouquet. The wine was fresh on the palate, with the unmistakable stamp of fine Cabernet and a surprising amount of tannin on the aftertaste. This was largely resolved and fit in beautifully. The notion of peak is highly subjective, but I would say that this was slightly past it, but still very much alive and kicking!
1983 is the year my daughter was born, so this held special significance for me. It was also what the Bordelais call an “Atlantic vintage” i.e. more typical of the region’s climate, which is fairly rainy and temperate, than a hot, dry year accounting for richer more alcoholic wines. To many Bordeaux lovers, the former are more authentic, digestible, and loveable wines than ones from much-heralded great years. This 83 had 12.5% alc./vol., which would seem pretty lily-livered by today’s standards…
I was a bit worried because there was a period in the late 80s/early 90s when Ducru had a serious TCA problem and many bottles had to be poured down the drain. However, this 83 was from before that period, which is long since past.
We ended the meal with a half bottle of 2010 Château Guiraud, a premier cru from Sauternes that was perhaps too young, and perhaps did not receive quite the attention it deserved, but was a fine accompaniment to a lemon meringue pie.
I haven’t opened a 2005 in a while, but figured yesterday was the day for my bottle of 2005 Chasse Spleen to accompany a nice roast of beef.
This cru bourgeois (previously in the “exceptionnel” category, and now voluntarily outside the classification) is often considered an honorary great growth and frequently cited as the best wine of the low-profile Moulis appellation. Incidentally, Moulis is the second smallest appellation in Bordeaux, after Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, with 630 hectares of vines.
I’ve had mostly good experiences with Chasse Spleen, although I’m not a fan of their white wine.
For what it’s worth, there’s a quotation from Lamartine’s “Le Lac” on the strip label for the 2005 vintage: “O temps ! Suspends ton vol, et vous, heures propices, Suspendez votre cours !”
Translation: ” Oh Time! Pause in your flight, and you, happy hours, stop your race.
Chasse Spleen’s odd name is said to have come from a comment from Lord Byron who, visiting, said that the wine “dispelled the spleen”. The French verb “chasser” means to drive out or chase away.
THe château belongs to the Merlaut famiy, and is presently managed by granddaughter Céline Villars. The château building is beautiful and welcomes visitors.
Decanted two hours before the meal, this 2005 proved to be a fine example of what the château can do. The color showed the wine’s age, but seemed more youthful on the nose (hints of graphite and violet) and, especially, the palate. There was a delightful sort of double whammy here, staring off with a rich, voluptuous flavor, then going into an austere and frankly tannic aftertaste that made it particularly appetizing with red meat. This pronounced, but not unrelenting, tannin seems to be the hallmark of Chasse Spleen.
The notion of peak is hard to pin down and, of course, the question of personal preferences comes into play… While I believe this wine will improve with age, I also feel it shouldn’t be kept too long because by the time the tannin further softens, the fruit will become more subdued. In the trade-off, I’d say 2005 Chasse Spleen should be ideal in 2025.
This wine was a joy to drink and it is always nice to see that the estates you considered stalwarts have maintained their standing.
I can remember a time when Léoville Las Cases was hell-bent on bursting from its “super-second” status to attain virtual, if not official, first growth status. And the price hikes were there to prove it. However, this was not to be. Was/is this due to the wine’s intrinsic quality, or rather a deep-seated conservatism with regard to the 1855 classification?
I’ve not had an aged Las Cases up against up, let’s say a Latour from the same vintage, but I am sorely tempted to do so in the near future. If so, I’ll let you know J.
Be this as it may, Léoville Las Cases is unquestionably one of the finest wines of the Médoc. This was confirmed at a friend’s house yesterday. He served the 1966 and 1975 vintages blind at lunch (there are curfews here, so dinner is out of the question). I was off by twenty years for the former, which was served first because my host felt that it is better to go from lighter and/or less tannic to heavier and/or more tannic rather than in the more orthodox reverse chronological order.
I don’t take notes at table, but I recall a wine whose color was more youthful than its 55 years, and a still fresh nose of ethereal blackcurrant and graphite. The wine was also quite vital on the palate, with thoroughly resolved tannin and a soft elegance having little to do with the château’s more muscular style in certain years. The aftertaste was deliciously long and refreshing, exhibiting pure class.
The 1975 was more in that muscular mold and there was still something slightly unforgiving about it, which has often said of the vintage. There was also a touch of TCA, but not enough to ruin the wine by any means. I think that even if there hadn’t been any, it still wouldn’t have been a match for the 1966. You could definitely appreciate this lovely old claret, but on this day the 1966 won our hearts, and it is always comforting when the stalwarts prove that they are up to their reputation.
When I first began drinking French wines many years ago, ones from the northern Médoc were sold under the name “Bas Médoc”. However, the French word “bas” means “lower” and has a negative connotation (even though Bas-Armagnac is considered the best part of the appellation…), so the name was changed to simply Médoc, and professionals now refer to the region as Nord Médoc.
The prices for both vineyard land and wine drop somewhat precipitously once you go north of Saint-Estèphe (or, more exactly, the next town up, Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne, where Sociando Mallet is located). The market expects wines from the Nord Médoc to be inexpensive, rather early maturing, sturdy, and reliable – not earthshaking. And there are certainly plenty to choose from since there are some 5,800 hectares of vines…
Unfortunately, not many names stand out, partly because there are surprisingly few links here with the famous crus classés further south, notwithstanding exceptions such as Léoville Las Cases and Potensac (which came into the Delon family by marriage) and Cos d’Estournel’s Goulée. This is in contrast to the classified growths of Saint Emilion and their many sister estates in outlying districts (satellites, Castillon, Lalande de Pomerol, etc.).
I first heard about Clos Manou from French friends, who are often aware of good wines that are little-known in English-speaking countries. I tasted and very much enjoyed the wine, so thought it would be worthwhile to make the hour and a half trek from Bordeaux to Saint-Christoly to visit the estate and chat with the owner, Stéphane Dief.
Stéphane and Françoise Dief
The French use the English expression “un self-made man”, which pretty much describes Stéphane Dief. He is a local son whose father sold wine for the Marquis de Saint-Estèphe cooperative. Stéphane worked a while for a wine broker, then decided to quit and produce his own wine. The original vineyard was handkerchief-size. Although not actually a “clos”, or walled vineyard, the name was chosen because it reflected the tiny scale, and Manou is the nickname given to Stéphane by his sister.
Stéphane’s first vintage – 600 bottles – was in 1998. He has since painstakingly built up vineyard holdings to 18 hectares comprising 55 separate plots. He does not wish to expand much further. The estate has three different sorts of terroir: gravel and clay, sand, and clay-limestone. The nearby Gironde estuary has a tempering influence and there is never frost. The breakdown of grape varieties is 43% Cabernet Sauvignon, 53% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. The vines are farmed virtually organically (no pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides), but Stéphane is not interested in certification. By the same token, he has never sought cru bourgeois classification. His vines are trained rather low and density is high (10,000 vines per hectare). He does not believe in green harvesting, nor is he afraid of largish yields seeing as the quality of the wine proves that they are in no way detrimental. The grapes are picked into small crates and sorted three times before crushing. Stéphane is a firm believer in pigeage and, unusually, practices bâtonnage to give the wine more volume. Very little sulphur is used in winemaking.
The cellars at Clos Manou are in several parts and seem extremely well-kept. There is even a room devoted to housing amphora and 16 concrete “eggs”. Stéphane feels that the latter add unique freshness and richness. About 70 to 75% of the grand vin (Clos Manous) is barrel aged, and between 60 and 70% of barrels are new, with a light toast. The Clos Manou vineyard and winemaking team also looks after three other estates.
One day, a neighboring winegrower offered to sell Clos Manou a small plot with very old vines the owner felt sure would need to be uprooted and replaced. As it turns out, these were ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines (80% Merlot) and when Stéphane bought the plot, he decided to make a special cuvée from them named 1850. This wine receives very high praise from Jane Anson in her recently-published book, “Inside Bordeaux”. Stéphane was kind enough to give me a bottle of this rare wine which I will drink at a later date.
Clos Manou is distributed via the Place de Bordeaux (available to major négociants). About 60% is now exported and 20% is sold directly to private customers in France. While costing more than wine from nearby estates, Clos Manou is still a bargain and one of the brightest stars in its appellation – the sort of wine to serve to your friends blind and surprise them.
The 2016 Clos Manou received a Coup de Cœur (“Special Favorite”) rating in the 2020 Guide Hachette des Vins.
No description of Clos Manou would be complete without mentioning their unusual label. This depicts an elephant bending down and sticking its tusks between a stack of wooden wine cases. The story here is that Stéphane saw the original painting by a Breton artist at a local exhibition and purchased it. It now hangs on the tasting room wall of and has been reproduced on the label since 2009.
I tasted several wines while at Clos Manou:
2017 Petit Manou (second wine) had a simple, but attractive bouquet and a fresh, crunchy, raspberry flavor. Nice easy drinking. 2015 Clos Manou had elegant oak and quintessential Médoc aromas. It showed plenty of volume and lovely texture on the palate, as well as a long aftertaste. It is already showing well, though will obviously benefit from further ageing. 2016 Clos Manou had a sophisticated bouquet along with great structure, a sensual mouthfeel, and lively acidity. Something truly special. I ended the tasting with 2018 Clos Manou, which had just been bottled. I quite liked this despite its rather massive structure and 15% alc./vol. There was something rich, chewy, and meaty here with marked Merlot characteristics. Although a touch hot, I could see this going beautifully with hearty food on a cold day.
We definitely suffered from media overkill during this coronavirus pandemic, with journalists announcing daily fatalities here and there in a bored sing-song voice and repeating scientific explanations ad nauseam.
So, how about a breath of fresh air?
What are things like in Bordeaux these days? Well, for most of us, life during lockdown was pretty similar to everywhere else. However, not everyone stayed at home. Above and beyond those involved in vital services, there were jobs to be done in the vineyards and cellars.
No distance working here!
Like all of French agriculture, it has been difficult to find people to prune and do other necessary vineyard operations. The army of foreign workers that usually shows up has not come this year, and the French are often loathe to accept such physically-demanding low-paid work. Furthermore, opportunities for people to do so (for some much-needed exercise and to earn pin money) were poorly publicized…
And then there was the en primeur week debacle. Planning such a large-scale operation calls for months of effort and considerable expense. The primary organizers, the Union des Grands Crus, was convinced everything would go forward as planned until very late in the game. The cancellation was unprecedented and leaves many questions unanswered. When will tastings of the new vintage take place – and will the traditional March/April dates be maintained for the following vintage? Will the great wines be sold on a futures basis before, during, or after the tastings? Will the wines come out as usual, more or less at the same time, or will offers be spread out over months?
I am not alone in thinking that late March is not the ideal time to evaluate wines. My earnest wish is that the 2019 wines will be tasted by the trade in September, and that this will set a precedent for future campaigns. Failing that, “skipping a year”, and introducing the 2019 vintage in the spring of 2021, the 2020 vintage in spring 2022, and so forth would also be a welcome change.
Of course, this sort of timing means that château owners will be paid much later than usual. While this will be a hardship for some, many can tide themselves over without difficulty since they are (figuratively) sitting on a gold mine. Let’s be honest: no one is going to shed crocodile tears over estates that will, come what may, be selling their wine for a considerable amount.
That having been said, the market is challenging, even for the great growths, and catastrophic for the rest of Bordeaux.
At the bottom end (half of all wines in Bordeaux are from the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations), there are huge volumes of unsold stock and a storage problem for the upcoming vintage. A recent article in the local newspaper, Sud-Ouest, expressed the dilemma succinctly: Bordeaux currently produces 5 million hectoliters of wine a year, but sells only 4 million. Something has to give, and distillation seems inevitable. A shakeout is on the horizon, and basic Bordeaux will be profoundly affected for years to come. One can play the blame game here (the fault of: the négociants, dumping by foreign producers, disappointing quality, lack of government support, etc., etc.), but this gets no one anywhere. People with vision need to attack the problem at the roots and reinvent basic Bordeaux. This is not a pious wish, more like an imperious necessity.
Meanwhile, at the upper end, traditional markets (post-Brexit Britain, protectionist Trumpian America, economically-challenged China, etc.) are going through hard times. With massive unemployment and depressed economies, fine wines will surely take a hit. The collapse of the market for great growth wines has been oft-predicted over the past decades, but the system has held firm. I only saw this happen once, in the mid-1970s. Something is going to have to give this time though, probably what is euphemistically termed “price adjustments”. I am sure that Bordeaux is resilient enough to roll with the punches.
Compared to other French regions, Aquitaine was relatively spared by the corona virus. However, the tourism sector has been devastated, as has the aerospace industry. I nevertheless remain optimistic about Bordeaux’s ability to rebound and adapt.
As I write, all the cafés and restaurants in France have been closed for two months. They will not open for at least another month. I am earnestly looking forward to frequenting some of my favorite haunts, and sharing good times with people who aren’t wearing masks or feeling worried.
Interacting via Zoom, WhatsApp, or Skype just isn’t the same…
My family and I had the time to enjoy a number of fine meals and good bottles during the 55-day enforced lockdown. Curiously, a number of the wines I opened were from outside Bordeaux. One of the reasons for this is that many of my friends expect to drink Bordeaux when they come to my house, as do all of my visitors from abroad. So, we enjoyed an onslaught of Burgundy, Rhone, Loire, etc.
However, I could never neglect my first love, Bordeaux. And so a word about the wine that illustrates this post: 2001 Lynch Bages. Coming after the much-hyped 2000 vintage, 2001 was relatively overlooked. And yet… there are some lovely wines, from this vintage the Bordelais call “Atlantic”, meaning affected by cool temperatures and moderate rainfall so typical of the region – Bordeaux-lovers Bordeaux. Not a big, blowsy year, but an elegant one with fresh acidity. This Lynch Bages was squarely in its drinking window with lovely aromatics of pencil shavings and blackcurrnt, along with a great texture and long lingering aftertaste. It is always a pleasure to reunite with an old friend.
To paraphrase a quote by Mark Twain, upon seeing his obituary in the newspaper “Reports of the en primeur system’s demise are greatly exaggerated
Here’s a well-written and thoughtful article:
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the Bordeaux’s en primeur system, like so many sectors of the globalized economy, has taken a bad hit due to the corona virus. I have seen predictions for decades that the system would crumble or implode. And yet, it has survived through thick and thin – copied, but never equalled J.
Still, the current threat is like no other and the timing of the upcoming campaign has been completely thrown off course. Wine merchants obviously cannot be expected to buy wines that no one has sampled, even though, if one is honest, the Union des Grands Crus tastings in late March/early April can hardly be seen as essential to buying… Wholesalers and importers are far more inclined to purchase based on a château’s reputation or what leading critics say rather than their own impressions. En primeur week comes across predominantly as a networking and information gathering exercise (plus the occasion to enjoy a lot of good meals!). It is nevertheless a brilliant and unique way of coordinating the whole region and arousing interest from all over the world.
I take exception to so much that is written about the en primeur system because pinning down figures – to be specific – is very elusive, and it is nearly impossible to generalize since the situation varies from estate to estate. Only the brokers based in Bordeaux are qualified to have a valid overview because they are in touch with all the negociants and thus alone feel the pulse of all international markets with any degree of accuracy. People living in London or Tokyo or wherever extrapolate from their (possibly entirely correct) analysis of the situation in their country, thinking that what they’re seeing is the same around the globe when, in fact, it is not.
Two Bordeaux châteaux in the same appellation with the same classification can have very different commercial strategies. By the same token, two adjacent European countries can have very different markets. And you cannot lump Wuhan and Edmonton together.
Furthermore, there is not just one way of selling en primeur, which is why so many commentaries cannot be trusted. When one reads that château such-and-such “came out” at such-and-such a price, that information can paint a totally wrong picture. Some of the top châteaux release in “tranches” and the first one can cover just a very small quantity and at a particularly attractive price just to “test the water”. The first tranche offerings of famous classified growths are immediately snapped up as soon as they are put on the market because everyone knows that further tranches will be more expensive. Therefore to say that this is the base price is extremely misleading.
The proportion of wine sold per tranche and, indeed, that which is kept back for sale at a later date varies tremendously.
It seems to defy logic when en primeur prices exceed those of the same wines from a better-reputed year with some bottle age.. This can only compute if seen as part of a very long, complicated distribution chain and the allocation system that functions all down the line to the consumer. This entails a sort of threat: “If you don’t buy this year, you won’t get any next year, or from now on”. The result of this is that so-called off vintages are often dumped, and the loss is accepted more or less philosophically. Voices are raised to say that this is wrong and cannot go on because it defies the laws of economics. Certainly, a series of lacklustre vintages – not to mention a worldwide recession/depression – would force estates to lower their prices, even dramatically. But that would in no way threaten the en primeur system. Adjustments, perhaps even painful ones, would be made. Period.
President Calvin Coolidge famously said that “The business of America is business”. The same attitude prevails in Bordeaux. While the supposed greediness of the Bordelais is frequently denounced, the châteaux are also willing to react quickly, and to pay the piper, should things work against them. It’s as simple as the law of supply and demand…
It is interesting to see the comparatively little whinging about price increases in Burgundy.
Is any other wine region as vintage-conscious as Bordeaux? It is not at all rare to see wines from the same château double (or halve) in price from one year to the next. The market for Bordeaux great growths is indeed volatile! Their price is quoted daily and, in some instances hourly, on the internal market, the “place de Bordeaux” accessible only to négociants. This is a complex reality and it takes a brave man, or a fool, to make across-the-board statements about it.
The article cited at the beginning of this post touches on a number of worthwhile points. I would only take issue with the timing of the proposed 2019 campaign. I think it would be better in September 2020 than the spring of 2021. I agree that March is not the ideal time to taste the great wines. September would make a more realistic evaluation possible as well as give buyers an idea of the volume of the future crop and, to a certain extent, its quality. The author of the article says that September is not good because great wines from other regions are released then. If that is true, I would appreciate knowing more about this. I do not agree that there would be a lack of interest because of lead-up to the Christmas season. Early September would be fine in my opinion since the harvest would only theoretically have just begun for dry white wines, accounting for only a fraction of Bordeaux’s production. If September were chosen, it would be wonderful if the tastings and campaign stayed in that time frame from now on.
Whatever is decided, I fully agree with the author that convergence is very important. Piecemeal releases by the big guns would hurt Bordeaux. Commercial efforts need to be coordinated.
Can there be any more esoteric Bordeaux appellation than Graves de Vayres? With 700 hectares of vines it is by no means the smallest (that would be Saint Georges Saint Emilion at 192 hectares), but it has, shall we say, a very low profile. The appellation produces dry white, red, and semi-sweet white wines.
Graves de Vayres is located on the left bank of the Dordogne in the communes of Vayres (famous for its château, a listed historical monument) and Arveyres in the northwestern part of the Entre-Deux-Mers region. There are 40 producers and the soil consists of alluvial terraces.
I don’t often drink the wines, but had a bottle of the 2010 Château Lesparre squirreled away in the cellar and figured that it should be showing well at age nine.
The color displayed a very deep, dark core and was just starting to brick on the rim.
The nose was not very profound, but featured attractive aromas of humus, candied cherry, and fennel, as well as a marked oak influence (vanilla, roast coffee beans).
The oak also came through on the palate. The flavor profile may have been somewhat angular and a little hollow, but redeemed itself on the aftertaste, even though this was a tad dry and grippy on the tail end. I came away with the feeling that this is perhaps an example of what happens when a wine of medium potential is somewhat overworked. Still, it is the sort of wine that shows much better at table and I am a sucker for off-beat bottles such as this. It is probably not far from its peak and if my tasting notes may have given the wrong impression, I enjoyed drinking it and furthering my knowledge of Bordeaux.
Château Lesparre belongs to the Gonet family, who also make wine in Champagne and own several estates in the Pessac-Léogan appellation (Haut Bacalan, Haut Brana, d’Eck, Saint Eugène, and Haut l’Evêque).