Chateaux to watch
Bordeaux Estates to Watch
First published Decanter, June 2011 in the Bordeaux Supplement. A new batch of 10 chateaux to watch will appear in the 2012 supplement in June 2012
Bordeaux has become increasingly adept at juggling its reputation as one of the world’s oldest wine regions, replete with traditions stretching back centuries, and that of being a modern vineyard at the centre of innovation and cutting-edge technology.
It has had to; this is a place where you have records of vines dating back 2,000 years (among the estates where vines are thought to have stood during the Roman empire are Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau Ausone) but also where laser-optic sorting tables are used routinely during harvest time, and helicopter drones hover over the vines assessing the status of individual grapes.
All this means that that it has long outgrown the cliché of being the dowager aunt of the world’s vines, making well-regarded but essentially unchanging wine. On the contrary, one of the reasons that Bordeaux manages to retain its allure for wine lovers and critics world over is precisely because it changes in countless subtle ways each year, from vintage variation to changes of ownership and investments (or lack of) into the vineyards. Some of the most successful recent innovations, for example, have seen estates refining the selection process in the vineyard or moving towards an organic or biodynamic viticulture.
Bordeaux may have perfected a sleight of hand which ensures that, on the surface, all continues as it has ever been, an imperceptible blend of the old and the new, but behind the scenes this is a region in constant flux. The way to ensure you are getting the best deals, and catching the ‘rising star’ wines before they see a corresponding rise in price, is to stay on top of those changes.
Chateau Couhins, Pessac Leognan
A ‘showcase estate’ for the Institute of Vines and Wine Science (ISVV), this property had a lot of making up to do in recent years, but deserves full recognition for what it has achieved. Until the early 2000s, Couhins was used as a centre of experimentation for French agricultural agency INRA (still the owner today), and quality suffered as wine styles and techniques changed regularly. ‘A classified growth is not the place for that,’ says Denis Dubourdieu, who is involved with the estate through his role as president of the ISVV, although his colleague Valerie Lavigne is the leading oenologist at Couhins. Focus has now switched firmly back towards proven techniques, most of which have been honed at the ISVV. Indicators of quality improvement abound: vine density increased, grape varieties replanted on the best-adapted terroir, heightened green surface, smaller plots, a new gravity-led winery, use of new oak limited, and the introduction of a second and third wine to increase selection. ‘You need at least five years for changes to come into effect,’ says Dubourdieu, ‘and another five to be certain that you are on the right track. Of course the process of improvement never ends, but the vineyard has begun to speak again.’
Wine to Try: Chateau Couhins, Pessac Léognan Banc 2007**** (18 points)
This is one of only three Pessac-Leognan chateaux to be classified just for their white wine (the others are Couhins-Lurton and Laville Haut Brion, now La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc). In what was an excellent vintage for Bordeaux whites, this has clear varietal characteristics on the nose, with fresh grass and citrus from the sauvignon blanc, with the lovely savoury, herbal edge of a Pessac Léognan white. Clear potential to age.
£16.70; Goedhuis. 12.5%ABV. Drink 2011-2020.
Chateau Larrivet Haut-Brion, Pessac Léognan
Owned by the Gervoson family (of Bonne Maman jams fame), and located right next door to Haut-Bailly, this estate has seen a jump in quality since the arrival in 2007 of ex-Montrose winemaker Bruno Lemoine as director. Besides Montrose, Lemoine has also headed up Lascombes, and had a brief stint making white wine in China. On arrival at Larrivet Haut-Brion, he immediately carried out an in-depth terroir study, followed by a similarly exhaustive look at the drainage potential of each plot, and the presence and quality of azotes, minerals and vegetal materials across the vineyard. Couple this with extensive work in the cellars, and you can expect clean, modern winemaking that is starting to be reflected in enthusiastic critical reception.
Wine to Try: Ch Larrivet Haut-Brion, Pessac Leognan 2008****(17.5 points)
55% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Cabernet Franc. The winemaking style is fairly modern, with cedar and smoky oak, coupled with ripe, summery red fruits.
£23 per bottle, Fine & Rare. 13%ABV. Drink 2015-2025
Chateau du Tertre, Margaux
Things had been happening at this discreet Margaux estate before the arrival of ex-Latour winemaker Frédérique Ardouin in 2008, but it is fair to say that he has focused the grip on the winemaking, and things are likely to continue their upward ascent. Besides Ardouin, the increasingly star winemaking team assembled by director Alexander van Beek includes Eric Boissenot and Denis Dubourdieu as consultants. The aim, says van Beek, is to ‘forge an entirely separate identity from that of sister property Chateau Giscours’. There was always potential at du Tertre, with its classic deep gravel terroir that gives its generous personality, but always with a sense of restraint and elegance. Since 2008, the estate has been gradually moving to biodynamic farming (Ardouin worked on a similar programme at Latour, and Dutch owner Eric Albada Jelgersma also has a fully biodynamic property in Tuscany, Caiarossa).
Wine to Try Chateau du Tertre 2005, **** (18 points)
Still very young, with plenty of life ahead of it, the tannins are vigorous but just starting to yield, and slide into their next phase. Black fruits, with firm flesh and gentle toasted black pepper spice.
£30, Four Walls Wine Company. 13%ABV. Drink 2012-2030.
Chateau Fayat, Pomerol
Created from the 2009 vintage by merging three Pomerol estates, all of which were owned by billionaire industrialist Clement Fayat, this chateau has quickly attracted international attention. The former estates were far more low-key (the ten hectare Commanderie de Mazeyres, where the new winery is located, and the three hectare-apiece Vieux Bourgneuf, and Prieurs de la Commanderie), showing perhaps the success of clever marketing, but also what can be achieved by refocusing and investing. ‘The names were complicated, the production extremely limited… we basically had all the elements for things not to work’ says director Yannick Evenou, who was responsible for the re-structuring. Today, the 16 hectare size parachutes Chateau Fayat into the top 10 in terms of the appellation. To capitalise on this new-found influence, the cellars at Commanderie have been totally renovated, with a split between stainless steel and cement vats, in differing (small) capacities from 50 to 80 hectolitres, with 19 vats for 32 different vineyard plots.
Wine to Try Chateau Fayat, Pomerol 2009 ****(17.5 points)
70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, this is rich in warm, ripe berry flavours, with a hint of redcurrant on the finish that adds some lift. Modern flavours, with full impact, this is an accomplished wine, with the generosity that is a hallmark of the appellation. £26-30 (Farr Vintners; BBR; Bordeaux Index, expected September 2011), 13.6%ABV. Drink 2018-2030.
Chateau La Pointe, Pomerol
Dismissed for too many years as being a ‘light Pomerol’ from sandy soils, it took a geological study from owners Generali France (the country’s second biggest general insurance company) to prove that in fact the soils around this 22-hectare estate have far greater complexity. Pretty much the first thing they did after purchasing La Pointe in 2008 was to add drainage channels to difficult areas of the vineyards, and to replant grape varieties in more suitable locations, while increasing density and raising canopy cover. The cellars have been entirely renovated, reducing the size of the vats to increase selection, and Hubert de Boüard brought in as consultant. Changes, particularly in terms of new plantings, will take a few years to come through in the wine, but already the stricter selection and careful vineyard management is making a difference.
Wine To Try: Chateau La Pointe, Pomerol 2008 *** (16.5 points)
One of the things that has always been enjoyable about La Pointe is the easy pleasure that it affords. This wine has rich but smooth tannins and lovely raspberry and plum fruits. 85% merlot, 15% cabernet franc.
£25-25 (Fine & Rare; Nickolls and Perk), 13.8%ABV. Drink 2015-2028.
Chateau Sénéjac, Haut Médoc
Ever since the Cordier family, of Chateau Talbot, bought this 39-hectare estate in 1999, its reputation has been quietly escalating, and it received another jump in 2008, when the Pontet-Canet wine-making team came onboard. With Jean-Michel Comme in charge of the vineyards, it is no surprise that this estate – as at Pontet Canet – is now certified biodynamic. The vineyards themselves are located close to Margaux, and are in the process of receiving organic certification also. Lorraine Cordier passed away in April 2011, but there seems no doubt that her family will not let her hard-earned work go to waste, and this remains one of the most exciting properties on the Left Bank.
Wine To Try: Chateau Sénéjac, Haut Médoc 2009 *** (16 points)
The first vintage where biodynamic farming was taking effect, this is a blend of 60% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot and 10% each of petit verdot and cabernet franc. Wonderful liquorice edge, with rich red fruits on the finish, and fresh acidity under-pinning the whole thing. New oak kept to just 30%, giving a subtle charring on the finish.
£21-24 (2007, Fine & Rare; BBR). 2009 vintage delivery expected in June 2012. 12.5%ABV. Drink 2014-2022.
Chateau Tronquoy Lalande, Saint Estèphe
Again displaying what a smart buying tactic it can be to find smaller estates by renowned proprietors, this estate is owned by Olivier and Martin Bouygues of Chateau Montrose. As with their main estate, ex-Haut-Brion winemaker Jean Bernard Delmas is in charge of the winemaking. Recent investments have included an increase in canopy cover across the 18-hectare vineyard, a drastic increase in selection for the first wine, and greater plot-by-plot vinification in the newly-built cellars.
Wine to Try: Chateau Tronquoy Lalande, Saint Estephe 2007 (***, 16.5 points)
A lighter vintage in Bordeaux, meaning that this wine gives easy-drinking pleasure without the long wait. Attractively floral nose, with light red cherry and soft tannins. Excellent drainage on the gravel soils gave it an advantage in 2007 over some more clay-heavy neighbours.£24 (Everywine.co.uk). 13%ABV. Drink 2012-2020.
Chateau Soutard, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé
If anyone doubts that they are serious at Chateau Soutard about looking for promotion to the next level of the classification, take a stroll over to the estate, located just a few minutes walk from Saint Emilion village. Pretty much ever part of it, inside and out, has been subject to a multi-million euro renovation. Its another insurance company here – this time La Mondiale, owners also of Chateau Larmande – but the winemaking expertise, and the drive for the improvements, is all down to Claire Thomas Chenard, the fourth generation of a family of oenologists. With 22 hectares in total, 16 on the limestone plateau, Chenard has instigated the obligatory soil analysis, drainage work and replanting, and there are 12 hectares under biodynamic conversion. The restored cellars (the old stones were taken down one by one, and then reassembled) work fully by gravity, with lines of truncated wooden vats and new underground limestone rooms for bottle storage.
Wine to Try: Chateau Soutard 2008 (****, 18 points)
Tightly-controlled fruit, with evident spice. This is a big wine, with a densely-fruited mid-palate, but has some real freshness on the finish, and overall tons of confidence. 70% merlot, 30% cabernet franc.
£21, Fine & Rare, 13.75%ABV. Drink 2014-2024.
Chateau Fourcas Hosten, Listrac-Médoc
Another change in ownership here that has resulted in serious investment, one that could give a much-needed boost to the profile of Listrac-Médoc. Not too surprising really, as the new owners are the Momméja brothers, owners of the Hermès luxury goods brand. The chateau was bought in a private capacity, not through the company (after they reportedly were just beaten to the purchase of Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande), and a series of investments is starting to pay off. The improvements include an entirely new winery and barrel room (ready for the 2011 harvest), increased plot by plot vinification and extensive vineyard replanting. Previous director Cyril Forget left the estate in April 2011, so Renaud Monméja will be taking more of a direct hand in running things, alongside consultant Eric Boissenot.
Wine to Try: Chateau Fourcas Hosten 2008 (***, 16 points)
Good colour, structure, and tannin extraction. Three years after harvest, it is majoring on soft black fruits, and has definite potential for ageing. The vines consist of about 45% cabernet sauvignon, 45% merlot and 10% cabernet franc.
£12.50, Millesima UK, 12.5%ABV. Drink 2013-2022.