Les Bannis de Pomerol

(Update May 2012: The chateaux - temporarily at least - were granted a reprieve. http://www.decanter.com/bordeaux-2011/en-primeur-coverage/529827/pomerol-chateaux-win-reprieve-over-appellation-change





If you’re feeling brave, try wandering into a Pomerol chateau and mentioning the new law that requires all estates to make their wine in a cellar that is physically located in the appellation by 2018. The likely reaction will be swift and passionate, either for or against, and you’re probably going to feel that you have blundered into something that was best left well alone.

Pomerol is a fascinating place, and not only because it makes some of the most delicious, life-affirming wines in Bordeaux. It is very proud of its image as the small-scale, artisanal heart of Bordeaux – compared by many to the closest thing to Burgundy in the region. But it is also deeply private, and is ruled in many ways by a few key personalities (most of them seem to bear the surname of Moueix). Nobody wants to be seen to step out of line – and who can blame them, when they can look just over the border into Saint Emilion and see what happened there when someone challenged the classification system back in 2006.

They may have thought they were safe as there is no classification system in Pomerol, but a small band of producers (Grand Moulinet, Haut-Tropchaud, Lafleur Grangeneuve, La Truffe, Les Graves de Canterau, Vray Croix de Gay, Clos de la Vieille Eglise, Domaine de la Pointe and Domaine Vieux Taillefer) has drawn attention to the politics of this small area by lodging an appeal with the Conseil d’Etat (Administrative Court) in Paris to challenge the new law. Make any mention of this back in Pomerol, and the shutters come down pretty quickly. The response of the appellation’s president, Jean Marie Garde of Clos Rene, is typical: ‘This is internal politics. The only thing that should matter in Pomerol is the wine.’

If you believe the majority view, the group of protestors, known collectively as Les Bannis de Pomerol, are simply over-reacting to a perfectly reasonable decision. The dispute relates to a suggestion first raised in 1998, but concretised after the reform of the appellation system (across France) in 2008, when new quality charters were written. Specifically, a decree has now been published that states, for a chateau to have the right to put AOC Pomerol on it label, it must not only grow the grapes in the appellation, but also make the wine there. This seems perfectly reasonable. It would bring Pomerol into line with most other appellations in Bordeaux, and all affected estates (this means 23 producers in Pomerol, including the nine who have lodged the complaint) have until 2018 to construct their new wineries for vinification (they then have until 2025 to construct the ageing cellars for barrels).

Jean Laforgue, former editor of Le Bordelaise, and a commentator on Pomerol, believes it is a necessary development. ‘This will reinforce the magic of Pomerol. It will explicitly reduce the chances of any poor transporting of grapes, and so encourage quality.’

But there are equally good reasons why the law has not been enforced before. The 800 hectares of Pomerol are divided up into countless individual plots, with the average vineyard holding just 2.2ha. In the whole appellation of around 155 properties, there are 50 under 2ha, and around 30 under one hectare. Many of these smaller producers own estates in neighbouring appellations and, dating right back to the creation of the appellation in 1936, were given the right to vinify in the areas of Lalande-de-Pomerol, Les Artigues de Lussac and Montagne-Saint-Emilion if their main winery building was located there. Pomerol has not been alone in this; Alsace, Burgundy and Champagne are three high profile regions that allow grapes to be vinified away from their immediate area of planting.

The affected producers claim they will have no option but to sell their vines to neighbours.  ‘For us it means a huge investment of €750,000 for no improvement of any kind,’ Paul Goldschmidt of Vray Croix de Gay in Pomerol and Chateau Siaurac in Lalande-de-Pomerol (where he currently vinifies both estates). ‘We would have to pull up 0.3 ha (€200,000 worth) of vines, plus there will be ecological issues of disposal of used waters, while we have just invested 2km away at Siaurac in a water treatment plant.’

Others dispute this, pointing out that Vray Croix de Gay has a rundown building that could easily be renovated. Goldschmidt, however, sees others as being in even an even worse position. ‘If someone has a half-hectare plot surrounded by other vines that belong to someone else entirely (not at all uncommon in Pomerol), there is then no option but to sell to one of the neighbours; because an outside buyer would have the same impossible problem of building a cellar on land that is simply not available’.

Jean-Philippe Janoueix, owner of Chateau La Croix St Georges, has one of the more balanced views. He estimates that a basic winery could cost as little as €1,000, although the figure would mount quickly if you add in vats, grape presses and thermo-regulation. ‘I built a separate cellar for La Croix St Georges (despite his family also owning La Croix and La Croix Toulifat, also in Pomerol) because although it costs money, it adds to the brand. But having my own cellar doesn’t have an impact on what my wine will taste like. I’m not sure why the wine syndicate in Pomerol doesn’t concentrate instead on introducing stricter measures governing the density of planting of the vines, or drainage channels, or insisting that all vineyard work is carried out by hand. This doesn’t seem like the right fight.’

One solution floated – and said to be favoured by Moueix – would be to have one cellar where all the small winemakers can vinify together. When asked directly, Christian Moueix joined the line of those who underplayed the whole situation, ‘All this may be much ado about nothing, as a lot can happen in the next 8 years.'

Janoueix is a little more blunt, ‘This is a classic French struggle of the little guys taking on the big. In the French consciousness, this dates right back to de Gaulle, and is not likely to go away.’

To the majority of Pomerol producers, the whole thing is a distracting issue that they wish would just disappear, but for others, it is testing the central identity of the ‘Burgundy of Bordeaux’. Does building a winery on-site show commitment to the appellation, or is it a side issue that does not relate to quality of the wine? We’ll have to wait a while to see who will ultimately prove justified, as so far the Administrative Court has agreed to hear the case, but not set a date. The deeply private winemakers of Pomerol can’t relax just yet.