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How to get the best out of Bordeaux Wine – Why Clay could be Saint Emilion’s cornerstone – Chateau Laroze

We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the third in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .

Sands over Chalky Clay at Laroze

We are always told that Chalky Limestone is the soil to look out for as it produces the best wines. However, I had my eyes opened when visiting Chateau Laroze. At this Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe it is ‘all about Clay’. As a farmer’s daughter, I’m well aware that Clay is rich in nutrients; you can grow crops beautifully on it provided you manage drainage properly. What I didn’t know is that Clay is produced from degraded Limestone that has been smashed into fine deposits over the millenia. In soil science Clay has a property that is much sought after. It has a very high CEC (Citation Exchange Capacity) which allows the soil to bring more nutrients into the vines.

The vineyard at Laroze lies across the foot of a gentle slope on the famous Saint Emilion Limestone plateau. The ground is made up of a sandy surface (Silica) over Chalky Clay sub soil (named ‘Marne de Castillon’). A 2-metre-deep layer of Clayey soil extends all over the vineyard. At Laroze a clever, deep drainage system runs metres underground; radically transforming the soil’s ability to drain and putting a stop to Clay’s tendency to water-logging and compacting.

Laroze’s owner, Guy Meslin, says the terroir here is interesting for wine: ‘Silica brings elegance, and Clay brings structure’. Beautifully spoken, educated, and supremely at ease amongst his vines, Guy Meslin is a charming and erudite man. He’s what I’d call a ‘hand’s on’ owner – the chateau is his life. Guy says, smiling, that ‘he belongs to the chateau’, not the other way around.

Clay may be the keystone of Laroze but Guy Meslin is its rock.

Chateau Laroze, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe

Guy inherited Laroze from his father and is a direct descendant of the chateau’s founder Nelly Gurchy. The Gurchys are an old Saint Emilion family who can trace their roots all the way back to 1610 when they were making wine at Mazerat, half a mile away from what was to become Laroze. Nelly’s husband, Georges, was a wine merchant and part-owner of Chateau Yon Figeac at one point in time. Widowed at the age of 46 in 1880, Nelly purchased three litle vineyards in 1882-1883: Camus La Gommerie (from the large estate of Chateau La Gommerie that was broken up after the French Revolution), the neighbouring vineyard of Lafontaine and also that of Chateau Camus. The vineyards were amalgamated and still sit in a complete block today (this is unusual in Saint Emilion where vineyards tend to be fragmented and scattered). The chateau, vat rooms and cellars were built in 1885 and Nelly named it Laroze (thanks to her love of roses).

Nelly certainly had a plucky spirit, she was quite an entrepreneur for the time especially as most businesses back then were run by men. She had a good eye for terroir – Laroze’s 65 acres are surrounded by those of Chateaux Yon Figeac, Clos des Jacobins and Premier Crus Beausejour Becot, Beausejour Duffau Lagarrosse and Angelus.

Lady Laroze, the Third Wine of the chateau

Jump forward in time to the 1920s and the property was once again under a woman’s influence. Guy’s grandmother, Andrée, took over along with her husband Dr. René Meslin. Guy has great respect for Andrée as she worked tirelessly to ensure Laroze would survive so that she could hand it down to her children. Without her, Laroze would not have existed today. In 2011 Guy created a Third Wine, named Lady Laroze, in honour of both Nelly and Andrée.

After the Second World War, the estate was passed to Georges Meslin, Guy’s father, and in 1955 Laroze gained the status of Grand Cru Classe. Guy took over in 1980 and Laroze has continued to grow in quality. He instigated a biodynamic system 1991 – 1998 but switched to organic thereafter. Work on putting in the deep drainage network under the vines began in 1997 and was completed in 2002. Guy checks the collection point fed by the water from the vineyard drains to help calculate the hydric stress on the vines.

Chai at Laroze

Guy has also upped the density of the vines to 10,000 vines per hectare. This is very high and the reasoning behind this is that it stresses the vines. You might think that a stressed vine is a bad thing but in fact it’s the reverse. Vines grown tighter together in high densities have to compete with each other. They create stronger, deeper roots; develop smaller grapes and make less foliage. All the vine’s vigour goes into surviving. Deep roots ensure the vine sucks up every piece of nutrient it can locate. Less foliage means that the vine can focus on producing its grapes rather than leaves and tendrils. The grapes these vines produce may be small but they are concentrated; packed with goodness . . . perfect for making great wine. The only downside I can see is that you get lower yields but it’s a sacrifice winemakers make in order to achieve a top-quality product.

Guy Meslin with the barrels

The other change at Laroze that Guy has instigated is to increase his Cabernet Franc. The vineyard is planted with 68% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Whilst standing in the sunshine in the vineyard Guys tells me that in the past Laroze grew more Cabernet Franc but these were pulled out and replaced with Merlot in the 70s. Now the reverse is happening and Guy is replacing his Merlot with Cabernet Franc, hoping to increase the percentage from 26% to 40%. He believes Cabernet Franc has been long neglected and deserves to be developed. Like Merlot, Cabernet Franc favours Laroze’s deep, cool Clay. It’s a grape that has an ancient foothold in Saint Emilion; it’s been grown here since the 1700s.

I had to smile at Guy scrutinising a grape plucked from the ripening Cabernet Franc vines. This close to harvest he tastes his grapes daily for ripeness. Giving his vines a wistful glance he turns and we head towards his chai. Steam is emitting from oak barrels being cleaned within and the heady perfume of fermenting wine is delicious. There are various sizes of barrels here and I asked why some were so large. Guy tells me that larger barrels have less surface contact with the wine inside and the different sizes give different nuances of oakiness to the maturing wine. The rows of barrels in the chai all sit on strips of earth in between the flooring so that they have contact with the humidity of the soil.

Chateau Laroze

In 2009 Guy invited Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Chateau Angelus to join his technical team at Laroze to help build a higher profile with journalists, wine importers and distributors worldwide. Since then Laroze has become better known and its popularity is growing. Deservedly so. Nick has made frequent mention of Laroze on his blogs during his En Primeur tastings in Bordeaux as a wine to look out for.

Wine critics often mention the underlying minerality of Laroze in their tasting notes, Robert Parker in particular. Medium bodied but rich, layered and fresh, the vintages of Laroze I tasted were classic Saint Emilion in style; laced with ripe black Morello cherry, dried herbs and roasted coffee beans. Laroze is also an extremely good price for a Grand Cru Classe (circa £19 – £23 a bottle depending on the year). They say wines often reflect the qualities of their makers and in Laroze’s case it’s true. Still waters run deep – beneath Guy’s gentle conversation runs a fountain of knowledge. And beneath the serene surface of Laroze there is a great deal to discover.

NB Whilst at Laroze we also tasted wines from the surrounding area over a lovely lunch. Details and tasting notes will follow in the next blog in the series.

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