Paul Smith, our Financial Director, has again had the chance to visit Bordeaux to discover new wines, chateaux and meet its wine makers. This is the fifth in this series of blogs about his trip and his discoveries . . .
You wouldn’t call visiting Saint Emilion as travelling far off the beaten track; after all this beautiful Romanesque town is an historic UNESCO World Heritage site and is famous for its great silken wines. However, step off the well worn wine routes and head north east to the rocky headland and you will find the furthest flung of Saint Emilion’s satellite appellations: Puisseguin Saint Emilion. This little appellation is packed with unexplored chateaux and its potential has only recently started to surface. It’s a haven for good value reds.
Puisseguin Saint Emilion belongs to a collection of 4 satellite appellations that flank Saint Emilion and neighbours its fellow satellite of Lussac Saint Emilion and the Cotes de Castillon. You may have heard of Lussac – their wines have started to appear throughout the UK as a decent source of more affordable Saint Emilion. Puisseguin is half the size of Lussac and is has the highest elevation in the Saint Emilion region. Standing tall above its peers, Puisseguin takes its name from ‘Puy’ which means ‘mount’ and ‘Seguin’ derived from ‘Sig Win’ meaning ‘Lord of Victory’ – a lieutenant under Charlemagne who settled there around the year 800. Puisseguin’s heritage goes back much further than Charlemagne for it shares Saint Emilion’s ancient Roman roots. That’s not all it shares – it’s soils are the same classic Saint Emilion mix of chalky clay over limestone and the grapes grown are the same classic mix of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Being in Saint Emilion’s backyard had the effect of dampening Puisseguin’s prospects for many years; its chateaux remained under-developed and lagged behind the times leading to its wines being labelled as ‘rustic’. Things have changed and thanks to rapid modernisation and adoption of contemporary wine making techniques Puisseguin’s wine scene has evolved. Today Puisseguin is packed with possibilities – and in the right hands it can produce wines that are just as good as those across the border. We still have a lot of catching up to do here in the UK and Puisseguin has yet to register on our radar.
Progress in Puisseguin is not stopping and it’s a pity that we don’t see more of their wines making it over the channel.
One of the Puisseseguin chateaux whose wines are bubbling up to the surface is Chateau Haut Saint Clair. This is a very small family run chateau owned by Yannick and Andrea Le Menn. The chateau sits on a steep hillside which is great for drainage; especially as at the time of my visit there had been a bad bout of rain. The slopes exposure to sun soon dries up any rainfall and the sunshine beats down on the vines. The family’s vineyards are full of Merlot and Cabernets – their Cabernet Franc comes from 50+ year old vines.
Haut Saint Clair was purchased in 1962 by Yannick’s parents and is a great example of how Puisseguin chateaux have stepped up to the challenge of modernisation. Initially Haut Saint Clair’s grapes were sent to the Puisseguin co-operative to be made into wine. But the family had an eye for the future and Yannick was sent to study viticulture and oenology; learning the intricacies of the profession in Burgundy. He began renovating the chateau in 1978 with major restoration works to transform the old buildings into wine storehouses for barrels and vats. France’s best wines are bottled on the chateau’s premises and Yannick installed a bottling system in 1996 to ensure he kept complete control over his wines.
Yannick uses the best precision wine making techniques and has a particular interest in barrel ageing which he considers to be an art. He works with 3 different coopers! The oak used comes from the centre of France and Yannick prefers oak barrels with ‘medium toast’. (Toasting is the charring of the inside of the barrel using fire. Barrel toasting can be ‘light’, ‘medium’ or ‘heavy’. The heavier the toast the more oaky, smoky nuances you get in the wine. A wine maker will choose a toast best suited to the style of wine he wishes to produce). Yannick feels that a medium toast will not distort his wine or overpower its identity but adds a touch of complexity.
There is no sign of Yannick’s bubble bursting. Both Yannick’s sons are forging ahead with new vision. One works with LVMH’s Champagne House Veuve Cliquot and the other is at Inseec Bordeaux after gaining a BTS degree in wine production. Both sons help their father with his wines and are constantly suggesting innovations and new concepts to trial. The pooling of combined wisdom across the wine industry is priceless and with the Le Menn’s specialist knowledge spanning from Burgundy and Bordeaux to Claret and Champagne there will be holding them back.
The Le Menns’ produce a lovely Rose, Le Rose de Saint Clair and three reds:
The Grand Vin Chateau Haut Saint Clair (circa £9 a bottle – and an absolute bargain for the quality on offer). Rich, powerful and very aromatic. A ‘vin de garde’ meaning ‘wine for keeping’. A wine which will significantly improve if left to mature in your cellar.
The Second Wine: Moulin Saint Clair – Finely tuned and spicy. A ‘vin de garde.’
Vieux Vigneau (Cotes de Bordeaux AOC) – Made from old Merlot vines on Castillon land. Full flavoured with intense ripe raspberry fruit. A ‘vin de garde.’
You can find their website here.