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Unclassifiable Bordeaux and the Rebels – Part Three

unclassWhat is it about the unclassifiable that intrigues us? Why do we find the unusual alluring? Perhaps it is because we are rooting for the rebels. In my book rebellion can lead to innovation – and we all enjoy new discoveries. . .

unclass 2There are a few wine makers in Bordeaux who create unusual wines, I have heard of a wine actually named L’Insolite (The Unusual) which was made by Laurent Mallard who owns 3 chateaux in Saint Emilion, Sauternes and the Entre Deux Mers. Sadly this wine seems to have disappeared.

However Rémy Fauchey has gone one step further. His chateau in Prignac (the Medoc) was known as Chateau Lafon for 2 centuries and was the star of the commune, being classified a Cru Bourgeois. However when the Cru Bourgeois classification was revised and later annulled (only to be later reinstalled in 2010) he rebelled. It seems that he felt that to lose the status of Cru Bourgeois was disrespectful to his ancestors and that if Lafon could not display it on its label then he would rename his estate. He chose a name that the Bordelaise hierarchy would not forget in a hurry. He renamed his estate Chateau L’Inclassable (The Uncategorized). Despite qualifying for the new Cru Bourgeois rank Rémy has kept the name of L’Inclassable and is doing very well with his chateau’s new name.

unclass 5Chateau du Retout in Lamarque (Haut Medoc) is also a Cru Bourgeois and it too produces an unclassifiable wine. This chateau has 3 other small estates as part of its domaine: Chateaux Retou Rousset, Salva de Camino and Moulina. All of them were very badly neglected a century ago – the vineyards were affected by phylloxera and inheritance disputes lead to the estate being abandoned. It was rescued and restored by the Kopp family in the 1950s. The second generation of the Kopp family is now at the helm of Chateau du Retout, Helen and Frederick Soual. Unfortunately thanks to an INAO inspection they discovered that the old Merlot vines on a 4.5 acre plot named Retout could not be included in the Haut Medoc appellation as the vines fell outside the boundary.

unclass 6The Souals decided to do something different and as they had long wished to produce a white wine they planted something unique. They chose 4 unusual white grape varieties: Sauvignon Gris (which is fairly uncommon in Bordeaux), Gros Manseng, Savagnin and Mondeuse Blanche.

This was a rebellious move – and a daring one – Gros Manseng, Savagnin and Mondeuse Blanche are not included in the permitted Bordeaux blends for white wines and any wine produced from them can not be classified under a Bordeaux appellation.

Gros Manseng comes from the Jurançon and Bearn regions (it’s grown in Gascony and in the Pyrenees). The grape produces intensely flavoured wines with a high acidity, apricot and quince flavours along with spicy and floral notes. It’s believed that its name comes from the Latin ‘Mansus’ meaning ‘Manor’ and ‘Gros’ means ‘big’ (there is a smaller variety Petit Manseng) so perhaps this was a popular grape grown in the important houses and estates of the past.

Monduese Blanche is the mother of the red Syrah grape and comes from the Savoie region in France. It’s rare there too – in 1999 there were only 12 acres of Mondeuse Blanche left.

Savagnin comes from the Jura in France where it is used to make the famous Vin Jaune and Vin de Paille. It’s thouunclass 8ght to be related to the ancient Traminer grape (Gewurztraminer) and Viognier. It makes an aromatic wine with notes of green apple, honey, flowers, walnuts, hazlenuts and almonds

The Soual’s first harvest was in 2010 and their white wine is simply called Le Retout Blanc. Yohan Castaing of The French Wine Report gave it a glowing review which you can read here, as did Chris Kissack, The Wine Doctor, which you can read here.

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Unclassifiable Bordeaux and White Saint Emilion – Part Two

st e whiteIf you think of Saint Emilion as awash in a sea of red grapes you might be surprised to find out that here and there lie tiny splashes of white. These discrete little pools of white grapes are part of Saint Emilion’s history and heritage for 200 hundred years ago the majority of wines produced in Saint Emilion were white! It seems hard to believe nowadays as Saint Emilion is practically synonymous with red wine.

The ancient terroir and limestone soils of the region are perfectly capable of producing some lovely white wines as well as the more recognised reds. The region didn’t switch over to producing reds until the Second Empire (the Imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III from 1852 to 1870). In 1936 the Saint Emilion AOC was created that defines which grapes are permitted in the wines, the maximum yields, delineates location and specifies vineyard techniques etc. Prior to this all sorts of grapes would have peppered the hillsides that have since been uprooted. In the Charentes (which lies just north of Bordeaux) the white Ugni Blanc grape (Trebbiano) is called Saint Emilion so perhaps it was once grown in Saint Emilion in the distant past?st e white

There are some famous names amongst the Saint Emilion Grand Crus that produce a white wine – as well as some not so well known names who enjoy creating white wines either for the love of it or for historical and experimental reasons. Amongst the famous names there are Jean Luc Thunevin’s Valandraud Blanc, Gerard Perse’s Chateau Monbousquet Blanc, Michel Rolland’s Chateau La Grande Clotte Blanc, and Bernard Magrez’s Chateau Fombrauge Blanc. These whites aren’t recognised by the AOC Saint Emilion as this is for red wines so they are either unclassified or come under another category.

st e white aChateau Vieux Taillefer is owned by the Cohen family and makes an unusual white wine alongside its red Saint Emilion. Blanc de Chateau Vieux Taillefer is made from vines that are over 80 years old and is labelled Vin de Table. This is due to the fact that the grapes in the blend are not all atypical of Saint Emilion, let alone Bordeaux. The grapes are Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris, Merlot Blanc, Chasselas (which is more commonly grown in Switzerland but there are also plantings in the Loire) and Roussette (also known as Altesse and which is normally found in the Savoy wine region of France). The Cohens found the vines whilst they were expanding the chateau’s vineyards after they had purchased the property in 2006 and were delighted at the discovery.

st e white fPierre Lavau is a third generation wine maker and owns Chateau Petit Fombrauge. Not content with only producing red Saint Emilion he planted about a hectare of white vines in 2010 because he liked drinking white wines! The grape varieties he grows are Chardonnay, Colombard and Roussane (which is usually grown in the Rhone appellations of Crozes Hermitage and Chateauneuf du Pape as well as California and Australia). Due to the fact that the grapes are not recognised as traditional Saint Emilion / Bordeaux varieties Blanc de Petit Fombrauge is labelled Vin de France.

st e white zThe Guimberteau family have owned Chateau Franc Baudron since 1923 and offer a wide range of wines from their property in Montagne Saint Emilion. Not only do they make a red Cremant de Bordeaux (Sparkling Bordeaux) from Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes but they make a semi-sweet white wine (Moelleux) Grains de Soleil, a sweet dessert white wine (Liquoreux – similar to that of Sauternes and Barsac) Grains d’Automne and a 100% dry white from Semillon grapes that are about 60 years old. These sweet wines are unheard of in Saint Emilion which makes Chateau Franc Baudron unique in producing them there!

As you can see there is much more to Saint Emilion than meets the eye!

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100% Bordeaux and The Unclassifiable – Part One

100Most Bordeaux chateaux use a blend of grape varieties to make their wines and its fairly unusual to find a wine made from a single grape variety. The permitted red grape varieties allowed in a Bordeaux blend are commonly Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carménère are also permitted but are used in much smaller quantities. Carménère is very hard to find in Bordeaux nowadays, having been wiped out by phylloxera in 1867. The grape was “rediscovered” in Chile in 1994 and now Carménère is making a come back in Bordeaux. Chateau Le Geai produces an unusual Bordeaux100 a wine – it’s 100% Carménère, named Pur Carménère.

Other chateaux that buck the norm are Chateau d’Osmond, Chateau Mirambeau Papin and Chateau Blanc Moutte which produce a 100% Petit Verdot wines and Chateau Tire Pé and Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou which produce 100% Malbec wines. Chateau de Bouillerot goes one step further and uses a blend of Carménère, Petit Verdot and Malbec in their cuvée Cep d’Antan.

100 fThe permitted white grape varieties are commonly Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Others are Sauvignon Gris (which is becoming more popular for use in blends nowadays) and more rarely Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Merlot Blanc . . .and Ondenc and Mauzac (which are no longer used, although some plantings 100 bmay be hiding in the rural backwaters). Chateau Bertranon (sold in 2011 to Chinese investors) produce a 100% Muscadelle and Chateau Memoires produce a 100% Semillon.

There are mavericks out there who are interested in making wines with historical grape varieties planted in the past or wines that don’t fit an AOC.

One notable Grand Cru Classé, Chateau Palmer, has experimented with creating a Chateau Palmer Blanc from a blend of 65% Muscadelle, 25% Sauvignon Gris with the remaining 10% a mix of Merlot Blanc and Lauzet. Lauzet is not a permitted Bordeaux grape variety – it’s an almost extinct grape from the Béarn and Jurançon AOCs (the foothills of the Pyrenees). 100 dOld records show that this grape was once known as Doset or Corbin Blanc centuries ago in Sauternes so maybe it was once grown there, especially as it is a good grape for encouraging Noble Rot.

Chateau Palmer has also experimented with red grapes, producing the cuvée Historical XIX Century Wine (a century or so ago Bordeaux chateaux added a little Syrah from Hermitage, in the northern Rhône, in the blend). Palmer’s historical wine is a blend of 85% estate fruit from Palmer and 15% 100 hSyrah from Hermitage.

Michel Chapoutier has also made a Pomerol Hermitage with oenologist Michael Rolland. The wine was produced for charity and was made 50% Merlot from Chateau Le Bon Pasteur, Rolland’s property in Pomerol (recently sold to Chinese investors) and 50% Syrah from Chapoutier’s l’Ermite. The wine was named, aptly, . Rolland and Chapoutier intend to create an M² every time the vintage deserves it. The wine was sold at auction in aid of Chapoutier’s charitable foundation, M. Chapoutier Vins et Santé, set up in 1994 to help children with leukemia.

If you know of any other unusual Bordeaux wines please let me know!

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A Year in Wine – What Happened in Bordeaux During 2013?

poster 1I enjoy taking a look back at what has gone before at this time of year and I thought I would highlight some of the miles we have travelled whilst ‘Bordeaux watching’ over 2013 and share my thoughts with you. Running both Bordeaux-Undiscovered and Interest In Wine I cover Bordeaux’s wines in all their glory from the petit chateaux to the great Classed Growths.

As I write Britain is being buffeted by gales and heavy rain so the weather seems an appropriate place to start. Looking back on 2013 you can see that it has been an ‘annus horribilis’ perhaps for some wine makers. Severe weather caused havoc amongst the vineyards with Bordeaux’s Entre Deux Mers, Bergerac and south of Cognac being the worst affected. Violent storms packing golf ball sized hail smashed down on the vines destroying crops. Bordeaux’s harvest was late this year and was a bit of a bumpy ride with a cold, rainy and windy Spring delaying the flowering of the vines for nearly 3 weeks. Coulure (the dropping of flowers resulting in less grapes on a cluster), Millerandage (poor fertilisation resulting in small, seedless shot grapes) and Rot have also resulted in reduced yields. Bordeaux is now looking at a historically low crop which will mean higher prices on some wines.

There is not a lot we can do about the weather but Bordeaux does have a secret weapon – it’s very own Area 51: Parcelle 52. This is an experimental testing ground but unlike Area 51 in the USA, Bordeaux’s Parcelle 52 doesn’t attract any conspiracy theories about aliens or little green men. Parcelle 52 is an acre of land that has been planted with 52 grape varieties from around the world, in Gradignan, south of Bordeaux. Research is being carried out there into how these different grape varieties cope in Bordeaux’s weather and how they cope with climate change.bordeauxmap

Interestingly innovation in Bordeaux grape varieties attracts a lot of attention from wine lovers and my series of blogs on Unclassifiable Bordeaux received a large readership. The series looked at Bordelaise wine makers who were bucking the norm and producing unusual wines – sometimes from rare or forgotten grapes – outside the restrictions of their AOCs. It’s an intriguing trend and the popularity of the series just shows how many of us enjoy new discoveries. . .

Talking of new discoveries, Paul’s blogs on Discovering New Wines in Bordeaux also proved to be very popular. Paul is our Financial Director and he set off on a mission in Bordeaux to discover new wines, chateaux and wine makers that offered fantastic quality for the money. Something that Bordeaux-Undiscovered is always on the hunt for!

crestTurning to the Grand Cru Classé’s exploits in 2013 we saw yet more expansion of their vineyards with several chateaux buying up their neighbours and even acquiring estates outside Bordeaux:

Alfred Tesseron, owner of Chateau Pontet Canet, bought Domaine Jenssen Cognac
along with tis 22 hectare estate (50 acres) Le Maine Pertubaud in the premier cru Grande Champagne appellation (Boneuil).

Francois Pinault added to First Growth Chateau Latour’s expanding empire with the the purchase of the 65 hectare Araujo Estate in Napa. Pinault is also one of the very few wine producers who own both Burgundy and Bordeaux estates. He owns Domaine d’Eugénie in Vosne Romanée, some acres of vineyard purchased from Chateau de Puligny Montrachet and from the Montrachet Grand Cru Bâtard-Montrachet and Chateau Grillet in the Rhone. He has also expanded in Bordeaux with the purchase of Chateau La Becasse (a small unclassified property of 4 hectares with old vines near Chateaux Lynch Bages and Latour).

The Pichet Group, owners of Chateau Les Carmes Haut Brion and part of Chateau Le Thil, have continued to invest in wine making and have expanded their vineyards with the purchase of 42 acres of red vines at Chateau Haut Nouchet in Pessac Leognan. The Pichet Group will use their newly acquired acres in their new wine Les Clos de Carmes Haut Brion.  Chateau Haut Nouchet will continue to make a white wine.

Jacky Lorenzetti acquired 50% of the Third Growth estate Chateau d’Issan in Margaux and also bought the strategically placed Chateau Béhèré in Pauillac. An astute move as Béhèré is in a prime location, perfectly situated on parcels of vines nestling between the First Growths Chateau Latour, Lafite and Mouton. It was sold by Mr Camou who reasoned that the interest in his little property from more prestigious chateaux was that the big estates needed to invest to reduce their taxation.

2231526905_0c25ed3483_bDomaine Clarence Dillon, owners of First Growth Chateau Haut Brion, purchased Chateaux L’Arrosée and L’Armont which will now be merged with their Saint Emilion property Chateau Quintus. The small estates will now disappear off the radar as individual entities as they have been absorbed into Quintus – it seems that Domaine Clarence Dillon are keen to boost Quintus’ volume and strengthen its brand.

Chateau Prieure Lichine, the Margaux Fourth Growth Grand Cru Classé, acquired nearby Cru Bourgeois Chateau Pontet Chappez. It’s thought that the 18.5 acres (7.5 hectares) of Pontet Chappez vineyards will be absorbed into those of Prieuré Lichine.

Third Growth Chateau La Lagune has purchased its neighbour, Chateau D’Arche, from Mahler Besse (who also own Second Growth Chateau Palmer). Apparently the vineyards of D’Arche once belonged to La Lagune so it has regained what it once owned. I suspect that Chateau d’Arche will be absorbed into La Lagune rather than remain a separate entity.

chartronsMatthieu Cuvelier, owner of the Saint Emilion Premier Cru Classé B Chateau Clos Fourtet (and also of Chateau Poujeaux in Moulis) purchased 3 chateaux in Saint Emilion: Clos Saint-Martin, Chateau Les Grandes Murailles and Chateau Côte de Baleau. There is some speculation that Clos Saint Martin and Les Grandes Murailles may be included in the wines of Clos Fourtet rather than be maintained individually.

Chateau La Tour du Pin, in Saint Emilion, has been absorbed by its owner, First Growth Chateau Cheval Blanc. Cheval Blanc will use 3.5 acres of the best of La Tour du Pin’s vineyards and the remainder will be used to make a generic Saint Emilion.

The Grand Cru Classés have also been on the warpath over branding battles with smaller chateaux bearing similar names. The thinking behind it is that fame by association to a prestigious wine producing estate can benefit lesser chateaux as folks assume they are one and the same – which in turn can damage the more prestigious estate’s reputation. The only examples of branding battles of this nature I can find are First Growths attacking smaller fry that impinge on their brand identity. The latest battle has been between the Saint Emilion First Growth, Chateau Figeac and two estates both owned by the Dutruilh family: Chateaux Croix Figeac and de Pavillon Croix Figeac. The Court of Appeal of Bordeaux decided that Croix Figeac and de Pavillon Croix Figeac would have to drop their names after 6 years of litigation.

bord dAs we see chateaux bought out by their big rivals and aggressive brand protection in 2013, we also see smaller chateaux continuing to be snapped up by Chinese buyers – reportedly 60 this year! Is Bordeaux turning Chinese? The motives behind the acquisitions vary from a passion for Bordeaux’s wines to the desire to control the supply chain and lucrative tourism opportunities.

I hope that 2014 will bring some better weather for Bordeaux, some common sense re pricing at En Primeur and greater promotion of the petit chateaux!

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Saint Emilion – a Hot Property and a Hotbed of Rivalry?

St-Emilion001Saint Emilion is one of my favourite appellations; not only does this AOC produce lovely wine but it is also surprisingly pioneering. It was, afterall, the centre of the garagiste movement and is also home to a set of innovative and experimental winemakers (see my blog Unclassifiable Bordeaux and White Saint Emilion). It certainly houses some characters and I thoroughly enjoy each visit there. Saint Emilion is also attracting famous winemakers who have Grand Crus in other regions. Unable to expand in their home AOCs they keep a keen eye out for promising wine estates in other appellations which have bags of potential. Saint Emilion seems to be the top pick – only last Friday I wrote about Domaine Clarence Dillon (owners image001of First growth Chateau Haut Brion in AOC Pessac Leognan) expanding their new Saint Emilion estate Chateau Quintus with the acquisition of Chateaux L’Arrosée and L’Armont.

It doesn’t stop there. Saint Emilion has seen significant investment from Chinese entrepreneurs and businesses who have snapped up chateaux over the past couple of years. Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé have also expanded their production by purchasing neighbouring estates (Premier Cru Classé B Chateau Clos Fourtet bought 3 Saint Emilion chateaux this year).

l'if 2In 2010 Jacques Thienpont, owner of Chateau Le Pin in AOC Pomerol (one of the most sought after – and expensive – wines in the world) bought Chateau Haut Plantey (previously known as Chateau La Bouygue) close to Chateau Troplong Mondot and Valandraud in Saint Emilion. Years ago this relatively small, low key property formerly belonged to the Abbots of Margaux. The vineyard covers nearly 20 acres and was renamed Chateau L’If by the Thienponts. L’If means Yew Tree in French (Le Pin means Pine Tree). The estate is managed by Cyrille Thienpont and the grapes grown are 70% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Franc and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine made its debut at En Primeur in 2012 and only around 1,650 cases are produced.

L'ifI am intrigued as to whether investment and acquisition by the ‘big boys’ is a good thing for Saint Emilion or not. You could say that their interest in the AOC will benefit Saint Emilion, lifting its profile further, bringing employment and investment to the region. Or you could say that multi-million pound businesses are squeezing out the little guys in the area. A case in point is a conversation I had with a Thienpont not so long ago about garagiste Chateau La Fleur Morange. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a soft spot concerning this tiny chateau and have nothing but respect for its owners Jean Francois and Veronique Julien. It has just been made a Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé – a meteoric rise through the ranks having only been in existence for a decade and a half! Thienpont’s attitude was that of ‘do we really want another of these types in our ranks?’

lfm st emAn odd comment considering that their Chateau Le Pin is classed as the predecessor of garage wine. Garage wines / garagiste / vins de garage / boutique / microcuvée / micro chateau / super-cuvée all refer to a style of wine making from small or tiny plots of vines. Notably Chateau Le Pin was founded on less than 5 acres and the wine was produced by microcuvée in the farmhouse basement.

Is this attitude evidence of elitism, of a closing of the ranks against the little guys? You decide. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether the inroads made by the prestigious chateaux of the Medoc into Saint Emilion are for the better or the worse.