December 19, 2016 | By Edward Korry CHE, CSS, CWE, Department Chairman at Johnson & Wales University
This past June, I travelled to Bordeaux with colleagues from Johnson & Wales University, to become recertified as a Bordeaux Wine Educator by l’Ecole du Vin of Bordeaux’s official organization of the CIVB. It’s a great program that wine professionals might be able to take advantage of. Bordeaux has now become a tourism destination, which is a big change over the past two decades. The beauty of the city and its vibrancy were on full display, and nothing epitomizes that more than the newly-opened, extraordinary and modern Cité du Vin experiential cultural facility.
I have a number of takeaways from this trip that reflect what is transpiring in the Bordeaux appellation. First, the quality level has been enormously enhanced across the board but especially at the affordable price level, due to a number of factors. These include improved knowledge of soils on a plot-by-plot basis; improved technology, whether derived from international or domestic research; a changing of the guard with young winemakers, whether men or, increasingly, women who have had international experience; a changed AOP quality control system requiring greater accountability and transparency; far greater sensitivity and enactment of eco-friendly, sustainable, organic and even biodynamic practices; greater technical support for small producers (there are over 12,500 producers); and a realization that to compete in the global market, wines have to appeal to a broad swath of the world’s wine drinking public.
Secondly, good Bordeaux wines are very affordable. Third, all the producers we encountered were so transparent and willing to speak of both their challenges and successes (that never happened 10 or 15 years ago). Fourth, there is a willingness to experiment to an unprecedented degree. And lastly, there is more of a desire for wine tourism than just an acceptance of it. Producers are better prepared to host wine travellers or local wine drinkers and offer them an experience. Tasting rooms at small producers 10 years ago were the exception to the rule, but not anymore.
Médoc and Graves
While many in the on-premise world focus on the big-named chateaux, it’s the others that are worth exploring. Among those we visited was Chateau Branaire Ducru, where there is a realization based on analyses of individual plots, that Cabernet Franc shouldn’t be planted where it was, and more emphasis should be placed on Petit Verdot, especially as the warmer climate enables it to ripen. Petit Verdot offers both deep color and aromatic intensity. The wines were fresh, elegant and very well priced for a fourth growth cru classé.
We had a delightful tour of the Cru Bourgeois property Ch. Larose Trintaudon, which is the largest property in Haut-Médoc, abutting St. Julien and Ch. Beychevelle. There we learned how they used micro-oxygenation, resulting in less need for racking while aging in-barrel. Since wood chips are now allowed – and are advantageous from a flavor perspective, especially when employing micro-oxygenation – you can deduce how much attitudes have changed in Bordeaux. The judicious use of American oak barrels, at no more than 10 percent of the over 3,600 barrels, lent additional complexity of flavor. The wines were approachable and provided great value. One notable factor apparent to us in our many daily tastings was that, despite having suffered very challenging vintages in 2012 and 2013, the wines were good. They had good fruit expression and were balanced for what critics initially panned. These vintages are “winemaker vintages” where those who have been well trained can still make very good wines. We tasted six Cru Bourgeois wines from the region while there, which included Chateau d’Arsac from Margaux, Chateau Liounier from Listrac, Chateau Branas Grand Poujeaux from Moulis, Chateau Tour des Termes from St. Estephe, and lastly a Chateau Arnaud, Haut Médoc 2010 as a contrast. They were all very approachable and drank well.
Other trends were revealed in our tour of Chateau Lafon-Rochet, a fourth growth chateau located in the St. Estèphe appellation and featuring warm, deep yellow Mediterranean walls. They were employing organic and even biodynamic practices. Their new winery was one of the most modern and aesthetic wineries I had ever visited. There was, as in many other wineries we visited, much greater use of concrete fermentation vats that are neither glass nor epoxy-lined. Tartaric acid is sprayed on the walls, enabling the winery to use less water in cleaning. The CO2, a byproduct of fermentation, is captured and injected into the water being used for cleaning, thereby reducing the amount of water used. The biggest advantages of using concrete vats are the concrete’s thermal dynamic properties and its capability of having greater even fermentation temperatures. There was a meticulousness to this winery’s practices that accompanied its beautiful aesthetics, and the wines reflected the care employed in producing them.
Our Graves visit included Chateau LaGarde in Pessac-Léognan, which is part of the Dourthe properties. They have done a lot of deep soil analyses and found the most appropriate plots to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. They have become almost organic, using no pesticides. They also use barley, wheat and oats for competing grasses, to keep the soil less compact and provide competition for the vines. Another change that we were to encounter here, as at the many other properties we visited, was the change in selection of rootstocks being used.
The Libournais – The Right Bank
If change was almost startling on the Left Bank, it was no less so on the Right Bank. Our visits included Pomerol, Saint-Emilion and its satellites, and other appellations. Taking a bus ride to Côtes de Castillon enabled us to get a better understanding of Saint-Emilion and its satellites – Lussac, Montagne, Saint-Georges and Puisseguin – and how the undulating landscape provides different terroirs to differentiate each of their wines. The higher plateaux have more exposed limestone, versus the lower ones with sandy and clay soils. Ch. Aiguilhe is a property that is organic and is transforming to biodynamic. They use a massale selection and have been looking at rootstock selections, as have others. They have three clones of Merlot and have decided to move from the omega form of grafting to an “English” system where the graft is to the side of the wood. They are concerned about the space in the graft allowing for esca and eutypa viruses, which are quite prevalent. They, like many others, do all their own composting.
They have a newly redone winery, which also had new concrete and stainless steel vats. They also use “pigéage,” or “punch down,” to limit the extraction of tannins, which we found quite prevalent and, again, a big change from 10+ years ago. They also use “natural” yeasts and experiment with different barrels, such as the 228-liter Burgundy barrel, rather than barrique. We tasted a number of wines from the increasingly commercially important Côtes de Bordeaux appellation.
- Ch. Goudichaud Graves-de-Vayres 2013, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon
- Seigneur d’Aiguilhe Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon 2013
- Ch. d’Aiguilhe Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon 2012
- Ch. Laulan Francs Côtes de Bordeaux 2012
- Chateau Haut-Coulon – Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux 2011
- Ch. Grevettes-Samonac – Côtes de Bourg 2010
- Ch. Lacaussade-Saint-Martin – Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux 2009
- Ch. Trois Fonds 2013 Sainte-Foye-Côtes de Bordeaux
We also visited Chateau La Dauphine, one of the most important producers in Fronsac, with 53 hectares. We were guided by Bernard Lamore, the technical director. The vineyard sits on a limestone plateau with clay and sand. They are a biodynamic property, which again is pretty amazing given the humidity causing fungal pressures. Another unusual development was the use of peristaltic pumps (like heart pumps), which are much more gentle, for their pump overs. We could discern the vintage variations in a vertical tasting but again all, including the dismal 2012, were aromatic and fresh. We also could determine from this and other samples, how good the 2014 vintage is.
Our next stop was at Chateau Beauregard in Pomerol, which had undergone quite the renovation. We were given history about it, which we hadn’t previously known. It was a peach and pear fruit-growing region until the 17th century; “Pomerol” means “the place we grow apples” in old French. Pomerol has 800 hectares and 120 chateaux. Ch. Beauregard has 17.5 hectares, with the north end having a concentration of gravel while the southern end has sandy soil. The property intends to grub up 50 percent over the next 10 years and replant it, so that vine density is increased from 6,000 to 9,000 vines per hectare. They also are returning to using horses instead of mechanical means, to cause less soil compaction. Their second wine, Le Benjamin de Beauregard, has only 30 percent new oak and is aged 12 to 14 months in oak, while Ch. Beauregard is aged in 60 percent new oak for 18 to 20 months. They rack every three months for 20 months. The winery is aesthetically spectacular with its almost alien-shaped concrete vats.
The next property we visited, which abuts Pomerol, is Ch. Corbin Despagne, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé. This was one of the best presentations we had; it was by the owner and manager, Francois Despagne, who is a microbiologist, oenologist and businessman. He spoke of how Merlot doesn’t like hot dry soil. Chateau Figeac and Cheval Blanc both have gravelly soils, favoring Cabernet Sauvignon. Figeac has one-third of all of Pomerol’s Cabernet Sauvignon. He spoke of how Cabernet Franc has been increasing in Saint-Emilion and how he likes its potential.
He has conducted deep soil analysis in 50 different plots, with the probes going one to three meters deep because that’s the extent of the depth of the roots. He spoke of how hydric stress was key to ripening Merlot. His wines were delicious but we also had a tasting of Saint-Emilion and its satellites. They included:
- Chateau Montaiguillon Montagne Saint-Emilion 2012 – fresh and delicious both on the nose and palate.
- Chateau de Carlmagnus Fronsac 2011
- Chateau Lanbersac from Puisseguin Saint-Emilion 2010
- Chateau Carteau Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2009
- Chateau La Couspaude Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classé 2008
- Chateau Les Grands Sillons Pomerol 2011
This appellation can only be used for whites, though there is plenty of red wine being made in the region and sold under Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérieur or Côtes de Bordeaux. Again, we encountered mostly Sauvignon Blanc-based wines for whites. Fresh and zesty with floral and grapefruit notes, the wines were consistently delicious and beautiful food accompaniments. (Nothing like slurping morning-harvested oysters from the region’s Arcachon Bay accompanied by Chateau Lestrille Entre-Deux-Mers.) The property is run by a woman, Estelle Roumage, who employs techniques she learned from working in New Zealand. But don’t let me mislead you – the wines are definitely Bordeaux in flavor and style. She is also symptomatic of other commercial changes taking place whereby grower/producers are creating the connections needed to sell their own wines rather than going through negoçiants. The award-winning Sauvignon Blanc whites and Merlot-based reds, sold as Côtes de Bordeaux, are priced very competitively and available in the U.S. market like many others.
Another winery we visited, Chateau Thieuley, is also run by women, sisters Marie and Sylvie Courselle. They are producing white wines that are Semillon-based and yet distinctly reflective of Bordeaux. We also saw techniques employed I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere, including the use of roto-fermenters for controlled low-temperature white wine maceration, and a parachute-looking contraption that captured nitrogen being used to prevent oxidation so it wouldn’t be released into the atmosphere and could be subsequently reused. They are so forward thinking, especially since climate change is evident based on data, that they make both a Chardonnay and Syrah that are sold under the Vin de France appellation but which are varietally identifiable and of very good quality. Their Merlot-based reds were also superb and very well priced.
Sauternes and Sweet Wines of Bordeaux
It should come as no surprise that the Sauternes and sweet wine appellations of Bordeaux are suffering. The main reason is the drop off in sales to an increasingly aware consumer who is worried about DUI and doesn’t want a dessert wine or after-dinner drink. I am a big proponent of such wines and feel that innovative dessert programs should be accompanied by a small two- or three-ounce pour to enrich the customer’s experience. Since Sauternes sales are way down, they now make more dry wine than sweet wine, but the dry wine has to be sold as Bordeaux Blanc. However, there is a local effort to add an appellation (to the already existing 65 appellations of Bordeaux) of Sauternes Sec, which is opposed by big and notable producers.
Our tour took us to Ch. Sigalas-Rabaud, a family estate in Sauternes dating back to 1863. It is the smallest cru classé property in Sauternes. Its vineyards are oriented south on one of the three hills of the best growing region. The three hills include Rabaud, Yquem and Vigneau. The benefit of the hills is that the cool breezes prevent the development of botrytis at inopportune times and the development of the wrong types of fungi. The soils are particularly gravelly and have the clay type of soils as found in Ch. d’Yquem, which is just a few hundred yards away.
They grow 85 percent Semillon and 15 percent Sauvignon Blanc, which is typical for the appellation. We were informed about the critical importance of the harvesters’ role, who are needed for consistency, and they have had the same families of harvesting teams for 40 years. They use a massale system of replanting and, while they had traditionally planted Muscadelle, they have discontinued its use because the ripening window/period is precariously short. We had delightful tastings of sweet wines also paired with savory dishes, which demonstrated how well they can be utilized and sold.
We tasted their second label called Le Lieutenant de Sigalas, which was more of a “moelleux,” or “soft” style but still well balanced. They allow the fermentation to last one to two weeks and stop it with SO2. It is then aged for 18 months in new oak barrels from six different coopered barrels. Blending in Sauternes is more of a three dimensional prospect because of the different “tries” or “harvests.” They can have as many as seven harvests per vintage. We tasted wines reflecting the sweet wines category of Bordeaux including Sauternes, Barsac (which can use the Sauternes appellation and, according to our host, has more botrytis), Loupiac, Cadillac, Sainte Croix du
- Chateau Larialle – Premiers Côtes de Bordeaux 2011
- Chateau Valentin – Sainte-Croix-du-Mont 2011
- Chateau du Cros – Loupiac 2011
- Chateau les Tourelles – Cadillac 2011
- Lieutenant de Sigalas – Sauternes 2011
- Chateau Ludon – Sauternes 2011
- Chateau Doisy Verdrines – Sauternes 2008
- Chateau Sigalas Rabaud – Sauternes 2006
They had a chef create small bites/tapas to go with each wine, some of which were very interesting and included a “risotto” of celeriac and baked oysters with a ginger cream, among several. It just proved how well these sweet wines can be paired with savory dishes.
This is the current face of Bordeaux – small family-operated wineries and producers who are transforming the face of Bordeaux by being forward thinking, staying affordable in an increasingly competitive global marketplace, and consistently offering quality wines year in and year out. They are doing it by being very innovative and technologically cutting edge, while focusing more on sustainable practices to preserve their heritage for future generations. So, when you think of Bordeaux, think of the diversity of wine styles, their food pairing adaptability and extending the pleasure of France to your guests while saving them cost of a trip. It also might just entice them to take one.