Monthly Archives: August 2018

Château Loudenne – can history repeat itself?

I have always had a soft spot for Château Loudenne. Arriving in Bordeaux in the late eighties I knew very few people, but I was soon introduced to the world of Château Loudenne, then under British ownership. It was party central for Bordeaux Brits and most of the players in the Medoc.

The hospitality was legendary. The dining room was the scene of many a memorable dinner and the amazing vintage kitchen hosted many more. I even remember London based Chef, Albert Roux flying over one August with fresh grouse in his suitcase for a Glorious 12th dinner.

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View to the back of the Château looking donw from the gravel outcrop.

The rooms were always welcoming, and waking to look at that view over the Gironde Estuary was a treat. In those days Château Loudenne was owned by IDV, having been in the portfolio of Gilbeys when they purchased that company.

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The view from the terrace of Château Loudenne to the Gironde Estuary

The history of Château Loudenne goes back over 300 years. Built in 1670 in the typical ‘Chartreuse’ style, the traversing rooms ideally suited to the spectacular views over the Gironde Estuary. This beautiful pink chateau is still at the heart of the large vineyard, 132 ha under vines including 12 ha in white. As early as 1880 it was the very first Medoc vineyard to produce a white wine.

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A view through the Château

Alfred and Walter Gilbey purchased the chateau in 1875 and made it their home as well as the base for their Bordeaux commerce. They were the first negociants to be based in the Medoc, rather than in the Port of Bordeaux, establishing their trade out of the huge Victorian waterfront cellars near the property’s private port. Chateau Loudenne remains the only property in the Medoc to have its own private port.

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The ‘Port’ of Château Loudenne from the water

It became ‘The Pink Château’ at the time of the Gilbeys; it has remained so ever since. The Gilbeys, in true English style, created the stunning landscaped park which has a rare collection of David Austin English roses.

In 1963, their family company changed hands to become IDV, which went on to join the spirits group Diageo. In their move away from wine investments, Diageo sold the chateau in 2000.

After a few years in the hands of owners that sadly didn’t invest either in the wine or the architecture, Moutai purchased Chateau Loudenne in 2013, joined by Camus Cognac as minority shareholders in 2016. They are old friends having worked together as distribution partners for over 10 years. Moutai is the number one Chinese Liquor Company and Camus Cognac the largest family-owned independent Cognac house. Camus took over the management of Chateau Loudenne when it entered into the capital in 2016.

The involvement of the Cognac family is a back to the future moment; monks from the Saintonge region, near Cognac, were the first to plant vines in the village of Saint-Yzans-de-Médoc in the 13th century.

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One of the gravel outcrops with its folly

Château Loudenne is in the Médoc appellation, in the North of the peninsula just beyond the boundary with the Haut Médoc. Here two large Garonnaise gravel outcrops rise above the tide line of the estuary. Victorian brick and stone follies, the function of which is still unknown, crown these outcrops. They were possibly built to store vineyard tools but more likely to make the site easily identified from the water. Or perhaps they are simply follies with no need for justification. The traditional coat of arms of the property show one of these towers with a Wyvern sitting on top.

I remember a party for the Ban des Vendanges in 1992 when a ‘son et lumière’ bought these Wyverns back to life to the amazement of hundreds of guests in dinner evening dress strolling though the vineyard. Heady days.

The new owners have reworked the presentation and marketing using a ‘belle époque’ design for the labels reminiscing about its illustrious past reinforced by strap line ‘I will always remember’. Also playing on the word Rose (pink in French) as a reference to both Chateau and its rose garden in the new stylised rose design on the labels and capsules.

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The new Chateau Loudenne Labels

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and the stylised rose design

The renewal is not solely a marketing operation. They are not simply looking over their shoulder at the past. New vines are being planted with ‘complanting’ in the older vineyards, introducing Petit Verdot to the Cabernet/Merlot blend and Sauvignon Gris to the white blend with the goal of becoming organic in five years,

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A recently replanted plot near the estuary

General Manager, Philippe de Poyferré, plans to modernize the emblematic waterfront cellars, adapting the Victorian vats to handle the plot selection to suit the different vineyard plots. These majestic cellars date from 1876 and were a perfect example of the Gilbey brothers’ drive to modernize the estate during the 19th century. Designed by Bordeaux architect, Ernest Minvielle, they are a classic Médoc-style two-story vat hall, already harnessing gravity to manipulate the harvested grapes and wine.

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The victorian cellars from the waterfront

De Poyferré has already reintroduced hand harvesting, sorting tables, and gone back to gravity rather than use pumps.

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The 19th century vat room

Chateau Loudenne still produces white wine under the Bordeaux appellation. Fermented and aged in oak with 25 % of Sémillon, unusually high for a dry white from the Medoc, it is reminiscent of a Graves in style and elegance.

The red wines of Chateau Loudenne are Cru Bourgeois, currently a 50:50 Cabernet/Merlot blend and tasting recent vintages the improvement in quality as of 2014 vintage is marked. One to watch with hopefully a future party invite.

 

 

 

Wines drunk, friends made, fortunes lost.

I promised a review of  Stevens Spurrier’s book “Wine – A Way of Life”, in a previous post. I was looking forward to wine world gossip and I wasn’t disappointed.  Steven clearly states that the book is not an autobiography but a memoir of his life in wine, and he’s right. The book bounces you about all over the place, following the threads and personalities that have made Steven the wine authority he has become. Those looking for a history of the wine business might find this frustrating but the insights to the people and places, as well as the wines, that have made our wine business what it is today are fascinating.

He is charmingly candid about his adventures, some more successful than others, and about the money spent, lost and occasionally gained. Like a pantomime character, you want to help by shouting ‘look out behind you’ and you see potential disaster looming as he embarks on another brilliant idea – and in hindsight so does he.

For many of his projects he was just too far ahead of his time or just not in the right place at the right time. But goodness me what a lot of places he has been.

His early adventures as an unpaid trainee, going from pillar to post at some of the most prestigious wineries of the world, would make any aspiring cellar rat’s eyes pop today.

But he certainly was in the right place at the right time in 1976 when he organised what has become known as ‘The Judgement of Paris’. Although after the sulks from the French wine trade it might not have felt so at the time.

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Steven spurrier – still dapper after all these years!

Steven is well aware of the privilege of the places he has visited, the people he has met and wines he has tasted and he generously shares them all. Despite the years and the wines he has lost none of his wonder and enthusiasm for the ‘wine game’

He rarely dwells on those who have taken advantage of him, berating himself for a lack of business sense. Steven doesn’t seem to hold any rancour, at least nothing to make him bitter or to change his relaxed and charming demeanour.

I can’t claim that Steven introduced me to wine, but during my ‘formative’ years in Paris, straight out of university, many an evening spent at the Blue Fox (often affectionately known as ‘The Flu Box’ as the evening wore on) certainly did nothing to dissuade me from entering the business. Even now, every time I see Steven, it takes me back to those carefree times. This book will do the same for anyone fortunate to have frequented the critic’s bar and restaurant, shopped at les Caves de la Madeleine or tasted at l’Academie du Vin.

Choose wine for the mood not for the food is one of Stevens many gems, I suggest this Wine-A Way of Life will put you in the mood for a glass from Steven’s latest vinous adventure: Bride Valley.

 

Eco Bordeaux

Bordeaux vineyards, like other agricultural sectors in France, have recently come under harsh criticism for their pesticide and herbicide use. An article in the local Bordeaux paper Le Sud Ouest last week, showed a tractor spraying vines with the headline ‘Pesticide use increased by 12% in two years in France’, implying that vineyards were primarily to blame. It’s worth taking a closer look. These figures show an increase in pesticides of across all agriculture and across the whole of France, and this despite an ‘ecophyto’ plan put into place by the French government in 2008.

Consumers are rightly concerned about residues in the final product and the negative effective on the environment, but wine makers, vineyard workers and the populations surrounding the vineyards are also worried about the more immediate effects of the treatments themselves.

In the spring of 2018 Allan Sichel, the President of the CIVB, (Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux – The Bordeaux Wine Council) underlined the importance of sustainable development in the vineyards and outlined how Bordeaux was rising to the challenge.

Bordeaux suffers from a particularly damp climate thanks to its proximity to the Atlantic Ocean. This means that diseases such as mildew and odium are rife. Organic treatment of these diseases is particularly difficult as they are washed away by rain and must be reapplied after each downpour, a task made even more difficult on heavy clay soils when they are wet.

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Misty mornings may be great for Sauternes but also encourage Mildew and other fungal diseases

Although only 8% of the Bordeaux vineyard currently adheres to an organic certification, many more use organic methods, eschewing certification allowing them to treat with non-organic methods in dire weather conditions. Others feel that the higher levels of Bordeaux Mixture which contains Copper, a heavy metal allowed in organic production, goes against their philosophy. There is no easy answer, especially given the diversity of soil types over such a large region.

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Vineyard spraying is under closer control

There is a plethora of other environmental friendly certifications in France (and Europe), which makes tracking the progress towards eco-friendly practises tricky. According to the CIVB, 60% of vineyards in Gironde were cultivated in ‘an environmentally sensitive way’ in 2017 (this includes organic, biodynamic, integrated and sustainable agriculture) up 5% compared to 2016.

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Trees and hedgerows in the vines encourage biodiversity

Despite their good intentions the CIVB cannot force the hand of producers; they are an independent bunch, but it can encourage them. So what is it doing?

The CIVB invests about €1.2 M pa into research on reducing chemical use, including researching disease resistant strains of grape varieties, treatments that stimulate the natural vine defences and obtaining a more intimate understanding of vine disease to avoid blanket treatments.

Alongside the French Government they are pressuring Agrochemical firms to develop alternative solutions to CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic for reproduction) products, updating their professional website with alternatives as they become available

The CIVB’s most successful project has been the Système de Management Environnemental (SME) (environmental management system) Since 2010, 773 companies (vineyards, negociants and cooperatives – including 98 crus classés) have signed up to this collective process of transition from traditional to an environmentally friendly certification, be it organic, biodynamic or sustainable agriculture.

Gironde is top of the class in France with the High Environmental Value (HEV) certification, 223 of the 841 certified French producers were in the Gironde at the beginning of this year.

The 1SO 14001 certification has increased dramatically from just 32 in 2014 to 200 in 2017. A total 6675ha of vines are certified organic with another 1335ha under conversion (it takes 3 years) and almost 1 000 ha are now in bio dynamics. Other sustainable certifications such as Terravitis, Area, RSE, etc. cover about 20 000 ha.

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Weather stations in the vineyards give accurate data helping to decide when and what to spray – reducing chemical input

To protect neighbouring communities, the CIVB has created a tool allowing winegrowers to better visualise their plots close to sensitive zones (schools, hospitals, care homes), asking winegrowers with plots near these sites not to make treatments during the week to avoid exposing children in schools for example. This goes a step further than the 2016 local government decree outlining measures to protect such sites.

In 2016 the CIVB set an objective of a severe reduction of pesticide use. Has there been any change? Contrary to the national figures cited between 2014 and 2016 sales of CMR pesticides in the Gironde region were down 50% and herbicides sales fell by 35%. (Source DRAAF Nouvelle Aquitaine). On the other hand sales of organic products for use in vineyards represented 35% of the tonnage of total sales of vineyard supplies in 2016.

A bigger deal is the recent vote by wine appellation bodies Organismes de Défense et de Gestion (ODG) representing over 80% of the Bordeaux vineyard, to change the specifications to qualify for appellation status to include environmental measures. This includes a ban on weed killers, the requirement for winegrowers to know and measure their Treatment Frequency Index (TFI), a key indicator in the use of pesticides, and, thanks to the introduction of resistant varietals, decreasing the use of pesticides (maximum 5% of the surface area). This must now be approved by the INAO (Institut National de l’Origine et de la Qualité) and will require a change in European Community regulations. Non-adherence will then result in the loss of appellation status and wine being sold as Wine Without Geographical Indication (VSIG). The Margaux ODG is investing heavily in research and encouraging biodiversity through a campaign of hedgerow planting.

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Wildflower planting in the vineyard is good for the birds and the bees as well as the tourists

As if to remind us that Bordeaux weather doesn’t help, 2017 was a particularly painful year for many producers with the historically damaging frost in April. Several vineyards lost most or all of their production. Total volumes were 39% lower than 2016, the lowest since 1991, another frosted vintage. 2018 also saw hail damage in spring and summer across several appellations in particular Bourg, Blaye, the Southern Medoc and Sauternes, followed by a severe attack of mildew. Producers can do little about these climatic crises, although recent changes will now allow the use of hail nets. At least with Mildew, odium and other pests and diseases there are options, albeit expensive with the necessity for multiple treatments this year.

Travelling through the vineyards there is a more obvious demonstration of this change in philosophy. More hedges and trees are being planted and more cover crops between vines, all encouraging bio diversity as well as controlling vine vigour. Touring Bordeaux you will see fields of wildflowers planted where plots are left fallow between planting as well as the occasional horse drawn plough. There is a better understanding of terroir, leading to plot-by-plot cultivation and precision viticulture.

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A horse drawn plough near the Gironde estuary at château Latour

Progress may be slow but it is in the right direction. The continued research into alternative treatments and resistant grapes, alongside a willingness of more informed producers to change, holds some of the answers to a more environmental approach to both vine growing and wine making.