Tag Archives: Château Haut Brion

Booze Books for Christmas

There are so many good books about wine, spirits and tasting and Christmas seems as good a time as any to take a look. Here are four recommendations as gift ideas for like-minded wine geeks, beginners or even to add to your own Christmas stocking.

I mentioned Decanter Journalist, Jane Anson’s previous book Bordeaux Legends, in the run up to Christmas a couple of years ago. Well, she has done it again with this beautiful book. She has teamed up with photographer Andy Katz to profile the Bordeaux vineyards known as The Club of Nine.

The Club of Nine by Jane Anson and Andy Katz

The Club of Nine by Jane Anson and Andy Katz

His photos are spectacular. Even having lived near these properties for almost 30 years, I found the images as surprising as they are breath-taking. You can see more of his beautiful work on this web site.

The Club of Nine is the term used for and by what are considered, by most, to be the nine top properties of the region: The five Red first growths of the 1855 classification; Haut Brion, Margaux, Latour, Lafite Rothschild and Mouton Rothschild. (Although technically Mouton only became a 1st growth in 1973.) Then there are the original two First Growths A from Saint Emilion, Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone and the neighbouring Chateau Petrus from Pomerol. Although the Pomerol appellation has never ‘benefited’ from a classification, received wisdom and market prices concur that Petrus is the leading light of the appellation. Finally there is Chateau d’Yquem. Yquem was granted the highest accolade of Premier Grand Cru Classé Supérieur in 1855, outranking them all, such were the heady days of the 19th century for the sweet wines of Bordeaux.

This is more than a ‘nickname’ for a group of top terroir wineries, but also a forum where the technical directors of each property regularly meet to discuss and share, technical issues, research and the challenges their properties and the region face.

The question now raised is that, based on these selection criteria of classification, should we talk of a Club of 11? Both Chateau Angelus and Chateau Pavie were promoted up to Premier Grand Cru Classé A in the last, Saint Emilion Classification. But then again that was in 2012, so let’s not rush things!

There’s a lot of history surrounding the properties mentioned above and Bordeaux history is intimately linked with that of England, right back to Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the 12th century. Eleanor is one of the many British, influences mentioned in recently published Empire of Booze a humorous look at the history of booze and the role the British empire has, and continues to, play. Written by wine and spirits journalist, Henry Jeffreys and published through the website unbound, it’s a read that will take you backwards and forwards through time but also from London, to France, Portugal, Spain, Scotland and as far as Australia – a terrific read.

Empire of Booze by Henry Jefferies

Empire of Booze by Henry Jefferys

For some lighter reading, perhaps as a gift to those not quite so far down the wine geek road, Jancis Robinson‘s recently published The 24-Hour Wine Expert, is a cracking introduction to the wine world. Covering everything from tasting to serving from geography to varietals and much more. Just enough to get any beginner through the first steps of wine appreciation and perhaps start them on the road to wine ‘geekdom’ – you have been warned.

Become a 24-Hour Wine Expert with Jancis Robinson

Become a 24-Hour Wine Expert with Jancis Robinson

And for a completely different take, try Jo Malone My Story. It has nothing to do with wine, but interesting for tasters as it is all based around her acute sense of smell, such an important part of tasting. So much so that the very opening pages of the book are scented with her signature scent Pomelo – a Sauvignon Blanc with that perhaps?

A great sense of smell - Jo Malone's Story

A great sense of smell – Jo Malone’s Story 


As the 2016 harvest in Bordeaux draws to a close, I wanted to share some of my photos taken over the last month or so of touring around the vineyards. As a wine educator I’m lucky enough to accompany professionals, journalists, wine educators, sommeliers and other enthusiastic drinkers on winetours tours through the vineyards at this exciting time. And it is exciting; 2016 was another year that showed the unpredictability of Bordeaux weather – we really do never know quite what Mother Nature will throw at us.

Morning mists announce the arrival of cooler nights and harvest weather

Morning mists announce the arrival of cooler nights and harvest weather

This is supposed to be a photo essay so I won’t go on too much, use the #bdx16 on line and you’ll see much more comment and many more photos. I rarely remember to use hash tags when sharing my photos, so I thought I’d regroup a few here to make up for it! The comments using #bdx16 will continue until (and past) the presentation of the wines in their infant state to the press and trade at the primeur tastings in April next year.

It was a year that started wet and cold, with the organic vine growers in particular sighing with exhaustion, as they were obliged to get back on their tractors again and again. The more natural alternatives to the systemic treatments used to combat the attacks of Mildew, so frequent in this damp maritime climate, need reapplying every time it rains.

Another sign that it's that time of year - the colours really start to change once the grapes have been picked.

Another sign that it’s that time of year – the colours really start to change once the grapes have been picked.

More established organic producers claim that they see a greater resistance against these diseases as the years under organics go by. Nicola Allison, an organic producer at Chateau du Seuil in the Graves and a MD, compares it to not giving excess antibiotics to children, allowing them to build up a natural immunity.

After a damp, cool start the sun came out and didn’t stop shining all summer, with no rain at all from mid June to until mid September. That early build up of water in the sub soils came in handy, especially for vines with deep roots to access the subterranean reserves.

The flowering is another crucial period and with all the rain there was cause for concern but the sun shone, giving a drier and warmer period early June – perfect timing just when it was needed, to allow a lovely flowering – lots of potential yield in store making up for some of the losses due to mildew earlier on.

The vine in flower

The vine in flower June 2016

Summer hydric stress is all well and good, it concentrates the vines attention on the grapes allowing sugars and polyphenols to be transferred from leaves to berries but enough is enough. Too much means vines stop functioning and shut down and younger vines, without well-established root systems, really start to suffer.  Just when worried wine makers were starting to stress as much as the vines, they were saved by the rain.  High rainfall fell on 13th September and then again a little rain on the 30th. Phew! This gave enough moisture to save the vintage, allowing the final maturation.

The Sauvignon blanc at Chateau Olivier - some of the first grapes to be picked

The Sauvignon blanc at Chateau Olivier in Pessac Leognan – some of the first grapes to be picked

Then followed a sharp cool snap in early October, allowing growers to wait for optimum ripeness in the skins without the fear of reduced acidity or mould attacks.

My first taste of #bdx16 fermenting Sauvignonblanc at Chateau du Taillan

My first taste of #bdx16 fermenting Sauvignonblanc at Chateau du Taillan

The moisture was also perfectly timed for the sweet white wines of Bordeaux; the triggering the botrytis attack on grapes that were perfectly ripe – avoiding any problems of grey rot that can sometime occur when Botrytis arrives too early on under-ripe grapes.

Botrytised grapes at Château Doisy Daene in Barsac

Botrytised grapes at Château Doisy Daene in Barsac

And into the trailer - very physical work!

And into the trailer – very physical work!

So all in all there are smiles on the faces of wine makers. Many of the berries are small but that will give a lovely concentration although yields will not be enormous but thanks to an even flowering there should be plenty to go around.
It’s early days, all the dry whites have been safely in for a few weeks, the Merlots too and I think the last of the Cabernets were picked at the end of this week, leaving properties to prepare the Gerbaude or harvest celebrations for exhausted but elated pickers.

The sweet wines have a long way to go yet, they are still keeping an eye on the sky for forecasted rain that seems to be no more than a threat for the moment.

Happy days!

Enjoy the photos.

Fermenting white at Chateau Thieuley in Entre Deux Mers

Fermenting white at Chateau Thieuley in Entre Deux Mers


Rosé on it's way from the press to the tank at Chateau Thieuley

Rosé on it’s way from the press to the tank at Chateau Thieuley

Picking is hot work at Chateau Haut Brion

Picking is hot work at Chateau Haut Brion

Picking on the slopes of Chateau Gaby over looking the Dordogne.

Picking on the slopes of Chateau Gaby over looking the Dordogne.

Hand sorting the bunches of Merlot at Chateau Villemaurine in Saint Emilion

Hand sorting the bunches of Merlot at Chateau Villemaurine in Saint Emilion

Berry by berry selection at Chateau Recougne

Berry by berry selection at Chateau Recougne

Berries or Caviar? Post sorting.

Berries or Caviar?

It's not just greenery that gets removed during sorting - snails make a break for it at Chateau Monconseil Gazin in Blaye

It’s not just greenery that gets removed during sorting – snails make a break for it at Chateau Monconseil Gazin in Blaye

Testing for sugar density at Chateau Peyrabon in Haut Medoc

Testing for sugar density at Chateau Peyrabon in Haut Medoc

All the stages of botrytis in the ands of the wine maker Guillaume Perromat at Chateau Armajan Des Ormes in Sauternes

All the stages of botrytis in the ands of the wine maker Guillaume Perromat at Chateau Armajan Des Ormes in Sauternes

Cerons fermenting in oak barrels at Chateau de Cerons

Cerons fermenting in oak barrels at Chateau de Cerons

Egg shaped barrels waiting for the white harvest for barrel fermentation at Chateau la Louviere

Egg shaped barrels waiting for the harvest for barrel fermentation at Chateau la Louviere

cabernet juice pre fermentation at Chateau Monconseil Gazin

Cabernet juice pre fermentation at Chateau Monconseil Gazin

The BBQ awaits hungry harvesters at the end of the day at Chateau de Gaby in Canon Fronsac

The BBQ awaits hungry harvesters at the end of the day at Chateau de Gaby in Canon Fronsac.

And it's all over for another year - no more dawn picking for a while

And it’s all over for another year – no more dawn picking for a while.

Bordeaux à table!

Often described as a food wine, Bordeaux wine needs good food to show to its best advantage, food and wine matching has become quite the art. Lucky then that the food and restaurant scene in Bordeaux is thriving with new chefs and well established ones opening new restaurants or taking over established names.

But what of the chateaux themselves? Surely they should be show-casing their wines with food? Many chateaux are happy to organise meals for groups with a little advance notice, some like Chateau Phelan Segur will even welcome you into their kitchens for a cooking class first. But should you wish to dine independently amongst the vines it is also possible.

It’s not new, three very well established Bordeaux examples are Château Lynch Bages in Pauillac, with Chateau Cordeillan Bages, Château Smith Haut Lafitte in the Graves with Les Sources de Caudalie, and Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint Emilion, owned by Chateau Pavie, all of which take wine hospitality to internationally renowned levels with Michelin stars in their respective hotel restaurants.

Chateau Cordeillan Bages in Pauilllac

Chateau Cordeillan Bages in Pauilllac

Saint Emilion on the right bank is a particularly popular destination so it’s no surprise that wineries here welcome guests offering food alongside their wines. Château Troplong Mondot opened Les Belles Perdrix in 2013. Starting off as casual dining for guests staying in the chateau guest rooms, it was awarded a its first Michelin star this year and the views from the terrace are some of the best in the region.

The Terrace of les Belles Perdrix at chateau Troplong Mondot in Saint Emilion

The Terrace of les Belles Perdrix at chateau Troplong Mondot in Saint Emilion

Chateau Angelus, on the other side of the medieval city, decided to go another path. Rather than opening a restaurant at the chateau, they bought the restaurant Le Logis de La Cadene in the heart of the town in 2013, which thanks to the skill of chef Alexandre Baumard, has rapidly gained a excellent reputation.

Delicious and elegant fare at Logis de la Cadene in Saint Emilion

Delicious and elegant fare at Logis de la Cadene in Saint Emilion

So much for fine dining, but for a relaxed lunch with that glass of wine, call in to Château La Dominique on the boundary between Saint Emilion and Pomerol. The chateau joined forces with the Bordeaux Restaurant ‘La Brasserie Bordelaise’ to offer informal fare on the roof of their new Jean Nouvel designed cellar, where the glass red pebbles resembling the open top of a fermenting vat of wine compete for your attention with the views over the famous names of Pomerol. On the foothills of the famous limestone slopes of Saint Emilion, the tiny fairy tale Château de Candale was recently renovated to include a restaurant with a delightful terrace looking across the Dordogne valley.

But if you can’t make it to Bordeaux (although you really should) Bordeaux can come to you.

Previously mentioned, Château Phelan Segur, is owned by the Gardiner family. They are famous for their food and wine hospitality at the beautiful Les Crayeres Hotel and restaurant in Champagne. Having added the Taillevent restaurant in Paris to their portfolio they recreated a bistro version, Les 110 de Taillevent, in both London and in Paris, named after the range of 110 wines offered by the glass, that I have raved about in a previous post.

But the jewel in the crown has to be the restaurant ‘Le Clarence’ opened in Paris at the end of last year by Château Haut Brion.

Le Salon of Le Clarence : all the elegance of Chateau Haut Brion in the heart of Paris.

Le Salon of Le Clarence : all the elegance of Chateau Haut Brion in the heart of Paris.

Chateau Haut Brion is one of the oldest and most respected vineyards in Bordeaux, not surprising then, that when they turned their minds to hospitality they would get it right. Their objective was to re-create in Paris the same chateau atmosphere that visitors enjoy in Bordeaux. Having been fortunate enough to dine at both Château Haut Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, I can vouch that their signature warm and elegant hospitality is perfectly mirrored in their new venture in Paris.

The library dinning room of Le Clarence

The library dinning room of Le Clarence

The ‘Hotel Dillon’ is not a hotel but a ‘town house (‘hotel particulier’ in French), named after the Dillon family who acquired the property in 1935. It is just off the Champs Elysées on avenue Franklin Roosevelt. The 19th century building houses the headquarters of the wine company but also beautiful reception rooms, a bar, the elegant dining room of ‘Le Clarence’ and an underground cellar. The cellar alone is worth a visit, with a vaulted brick ceiling and suitably stocked with not just wines from the family vineyards but other Bordeaux and from further afield.

The cellar, as spectacular as the bottles it contains.

The cellar, as spectacular as the bottles it contains.

The décor is sublime – you are indeed transported to a chateau atmosphere with carefully curated furnishings and art. The food is on a par with the surroundings, seasonal with a twist to traditional dishes. It is the perfect place to show the wines of their vineyards to their best advantage. Once you have tasted this Bordeaux hospitality in Paris, you will inevitably be drawn to come and sample the real thing.






Celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with Bordeaux.

The Garonne river flowing through the city of Bordeaux may not be dyed green on the 17th March but Bordeaux does have strong historical and contemporary links to the Emerald Isle.

It is yet another example of the openness of Bordeaux to foreign influence thanks to the importance of the port, the largest in France in the 17th century. This was the beginning of a huge Irish influence the remains of which can still be clearly seen today. Many Irish ‘Jacobites’ fled their native land, escaping religious persecution after the Battle of Kinsale, when the Catholic King James II lost to the Protestant King William of Orange.

The term ‘Wild Geese’ was coined to define the flight of these emigrant families in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Many ended up in Bordeaux, as they already had strong ties with the region, being enthusiastic importers of ‘Claret’. Others ended up in the Loire and Cognac, where names such as Hennessy became part of the local landscape. These new arrivals quickly became important players in the wine business, exporting wine and importing Irish meat and dairy.

Their presence on the Quai des Chartrons, the merchant area on the banks of the Garonne, was even mentioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1770 when he listed names that are still there today such as Barton, Johnston, and Lawton.

Ireland became established as a leading Market for Bordeaux. Records from 1739 show that England imported 1,000 tons of claret, Scotland 2,500 and Ireland a massive 4,000. Ted Murphy, author of The Kingdom of Wine: a Celebration of Ireland’s Winegeese, quotes ‘‘claret was the Guinness of its day.”

The Wine Geese

The Wine Geese

Their influence continues in the Château names that still ring with an Irish accent include 
Château Clarke, Château Phelan-Segur, Château Boyd Cantenac, Château MacCarthy (now the second wine of Haut-Marbuzet), Château Dillon, Château Langoa and Léoville-Barton (still today owned by the Barton family), Château Kirwan, Château Lynch Bages, etc.

Frank Phélan, Chateau Phélan Segur's second wine, is named after the estate's Irish founder.

Frank Phélan, Chateau Phélan Segur’s second wine, is named after the estate’s Irish founder.

Other Châteaux may not sound very Irish but have strong Irish connections in their past include such leading lights as Château Margaux, Château Yquem, Chateau Pichon-Longueville-Lalande, Château Pape-Clément and Château Haut-Brion.

Chateau Langoa Barton

Chateau Langoa Barton

So you have plenty of choice of Bordeaux with which to raise a glass to Saint Patrick on the 17th.



To Bio or not to bio?

And it is a question. Organic vine growing is increasing all over France and in Bordeaux in particular; Aquitaine is the third largest region of organic vines right behind Languedoc and Provence. In 2012 organic production in the region increased by 3% compared to 2011 with 735 organic wine producers cultivating 9752 ha and with another 4276 ha in conversion (a three year period). Most of these are in Bordeaux, and of these most are on the right bank.

But not everyone is convinced that this organic trend is a good thing. One of the issues raised is copper residue. Producing organic wines is particularly difficult in Bordeaux due to the humid oceanic climate and the fungal diseases (mildew and odium) that thrive in these conditions. Copper sulphate and lime (known as Bouilli Bordelais or Bordeaux mixture) is the traditional method for treating these diseases and is permitted in organic agriculture. It’s great for roses too.

Although the amounts of copper permitted for use in organic agriculture are less than in traditional agriculture, (4kg/ha/year of metal copper compared to 6kg averaged over five years for traditional agriculture), some argue that, as other options for treating are limited in organic production, it encourages use of more rather than less copper. The rain also washes this mixture off the vines, so re-application rates are high in a rainy year. More sophisticated synthetic treatments absorbed by the vine can continue to combat the problem despite the rain but are not permitted under an organic regime.

However several organic growers have mentioned to me that after several seasons using organic and especially biodynamic methods, they see the plant defending itself better against these diseases as the vines develop their own natural resistance the result being the need for less treatment.

Intensive use of copper has toxic effects on soils especially in light sandy soils. Formerly, doses of 30kg/ha/year were not uncommon, so this new regulation is a huge improvement. Organic producers of course agree that it would be better to stop using this heavy metal completely and research is under way to use other organic fungicides like sulphur or potassium bicarbonate, plant extracts and clay.

One of the issues in a region like Bordeaux, along with the humid oceanic climate is of course mono-culture (vines represent 50% of the agricultural area of the Gironde). The concentration of vines in the region leads to the rapid spread of diseases such mildew, odium, phyloxera and new problems such as Esca. Now the Asian Drosophila are also raising concerns amongst growers. Prevention is always better than cure and part of the ecological and organic movement is to increase biodiversity to combat this, which is a type of poly-culture in itself. You can see this in Bordeaux for example with the planting of wild flowers, in land lying fallow in between planting as well as elsewhere in the vineyards and the creation of hedgerows.

The importance of Biodiversity in the vineyard.

The importance of Biodiversity in the vineyard.

The notion of biodiversity is also about preserving the genetic diversity of the vines. Although only 6 red and a few more white grape varieties are currently permitted in the production of the AOC wines of Bordeaux, it was not always thus. Over the years, the range of varieties and of clones of vines planted has reduced. Through massal selection of vines from existing plots for grafting onto rootstocks for new plantings, many properties can maintain their unique vine profile, hence increasing both their complexity and their specificity. This technique pioneered by properties such as Château Haut Brion and is now more and more common for properties working closely with the specialised local vine nurseries. Some properties such as Smith Haut Lafitte have their own nurseries; theirs is safe from any genetic contamination on the “La Lande” island on the Garonne River. Château Guiraud created a vine conservatory in 2001, housing a collection of hundreds of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc vines from different vineyards that are used for research on massal selection. From this stock they produce 40,000 vines each year used by themselves and other Bordeaux vineyards.

Vine clones ready for planting

Vine clones ready for planting

There has been an organic wine label in Europe since August 2012 with a corresponding logo. This Europe-wide label includes regulations for cellar management and winemaking as well as grape growing. Previously in existence wines had to be labelled as wine from organic grapes rather than organic wines – a subtle difference but an important one for purists. This new label obviously only allows the use of organic grapes but also limits the use of wine making additives (including S02) and sets the permitted organic wine practices.

The new European organic wine logo

The new European organic wine logo

Producers also have the option to use the AB (Agriculture Biologique) logo, which covers all organic agricultural production. This is not to be confused with natural wines for which, as yet, there is no legal European definition but which implies one produced using organic (or biodynamic) principles with a minimum of technological intervention.

Chateau de Seuil in the Graves uses both the AB and the new Organic Wine logos on their label

Chateau de Seuil in Graves uses both the AB and the new Organic Wine logos on their label

However, not all organic wines producers use the logo. It is not obligatory. Some producers choose to be organic as a part of their philosophy but prefer not to mention it on the label. Too much information on the label? Managing expectations? Or perhaps they just feel that their brand and what it represents speaks for itself.

Many producers feel that the certification either does not go far enough or perhaps too far, in the damp climate of Bordeaux where the threat of mildew and odium are never far away, a slip up or a need for treatment in a tricky vintage (2013 springs to mind), means you are back to the drawing board for another three years.

Organic is not just for classified growths, on the contrary it is very much a grass roots movement (no pun intended) as the majority of properties certified as organic are not classified. There are a few notable exceptions, which brings welcome attention to the trend such as Chateau Pontet Canet in Pauillac was certified organic in 2010 and Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes in 2011. Chateau Fonroque in Saint Emilion has been certified biodynamic since 2005 and neighbouring Chateau Fonplégade is organically since 2013, the owners also have a organically certified vineyard in Napa to name a few.

And it is not just organic; sustainable agriculture and biodynamics are also part of the Bordeaux eco-mix and there are certifications for both.

Sustainable agriculture is a vague term open to many interpretations but is a notion that has a powerful impact on consumers. There is a Terra Vitis certification in France that committed growers can adhere to. Pheromone traps and sexual confusion in the vineyard, ploughing, modelling of diseases and close measurement of climate that allow a much reduced and more targeted use of agrichemicals are all techniques associated with sustainable agricultural methods.

Pheremone wires on vines at Chateau Sigalas Raubaud in Sauternes

Pheremone wires on vines at Chateau Sigalas Raubaud in Sauternes

Biodynamic viticulture takes organic culture a step further, often characterised by the process of burying cow horns full of manure or using the cycles of the moon there’s unsurprisingly a lot more to it than that. Practitioners consider the vineyard as a complete organism in itself and only use biodynamic treatments on the vines, mainly home made herbal concoctions, self-sufficiency being a key part of both organic and biodynamic principles. Biodynamic certification is subject to European regulations by the independent organisation Demeter and also Biodyvin the international union of biodynamic wine makers, the wine sector leads the biodynamic sector in France; in 2012 more than half of the 450 certified biodynamic French farms were vineyards.

Constant experimentation is a signature of Bordeaux wine making, both in the vines and in the cellars, and nowhere more so than in the sustainable/organic/biodynamic sector. Few properties would launch into a new method of culture or wine making without experimenting first.  For example 3ha of the 78ha that make up Chateau Pichon Comtesse de Lalande are currently farmed organically and 3ha are biodynamic. Chateau Margaux is also experimenting and Chateau Latour has also been switching to biodynamic methods as can be illustrated by the horses often seen ploughing the vineyards.

Chateau Smith-Haut Lafitte has instigated it’s own Bio Precision approach, aiming to match the innovative viticulture and vinification techniques respect of the environment, promoting bio diversity through hedge plantation, use of natural grass, production of organic compost, horse ploughing, etc. They carry this through into the new ‘stealth’ wine cellar mentioned in a previous post. So there is clearly no conflict between organic and high tech.

Experimentation is the cellars too. Château Pontet Canet has been certified organic since 2010. They started in 2004 with 30ha and were so convinced they went 100% as of 2005, although with weather conditions in 2007 they were obliged to spray so it back to the drawing board until 2010. They then experimented in the cellars introducing a few concrete eggs or ‘amphorae’ in 2010. As of 2012 they now use 35% amphora for aging the wines alongside 50% oak barrels and the remaining 15% in one-year old oak. These amphorae bring the notion of terroir right into the cellar; the concrete is mixed with gravel stones for the Cabernet and with limestone for the Merlot along with the yellow clay from the vineyard.

The amphorae in the cellars of Chateau Pontet Canet

The amphorae in the cellars of Chateau Pontet Canet

As I mentioned above the right bank has the greatest concentration of organic properties and it is an area that has been a hot bed of innovation in wine making technology as well as agricultural methods since the late 1980’s.

It reminds me of how when the ‘garage wine’ movement first started in the right bank with a lot of more established producers showing disdain for the ideas but now later harvest dates, cold soaks and selection tables are common place throughout Bordeaux – we are seeing a similar thing with organic agricultural techniques, more and more producers are reducing chemical loads, ploughing, using lighter tractors, growing green crops between plantings and using pheromones in their vines to control the vine moths through sexual confusion. This last practice is also open to some criticism as again not everyone is convinced that having large concentrations of insect pheromones in the air is necessarily a good thing.

Some properties may not be certified or searching certification but the theories and methods introduced by the certification are taking a hold and the results can be clearly seen as you drive around the vineyards. Non certified properties use many of the sustainable, organic and biodynamic principles such as Chateau Clinet in Pomerol, where owner wine marker Ronan Laborde talks of gentle farming methods and uses the biodynamic practice of tying the vines rather than trimming. This works perfectly on the vines that, as of 2004, they raised by 10-15 cm to obtain a larger leaf area to favour the ripening of the grapes. A programme that took 2 years to complete.

'Living' soil at Chateau Clinet

‘Living’ soil at Chateau Clinet

It’s now common to see more ploughing going on between vines to control weeds but also to aerate and bring the soil back to life. This is done more and more by horses. Chateau may either have their own horses such as at Chateau Latour, Chateau Pontet Canet or Chateau Troplong Mondot or by using specialist companies that provide the horse drawn ploughing services. Chateau Cheval Blanc uses such a service and yes, when I was there, it was a white horse pulling the plough.

Ploughing at Chateau Pontet Canet

Ploughing at Chateau Pontet Canet

Francois Despagne, owner of Chateau Grand Corbin Despagne, classified growth of Saint Emilion, is one of the most passionate viticulturalists I know in Bordeaux and is certified sustainable by Terravitis and had several experimental plots on the vineyard under organic before converting and becoming organic and is now experimenting with bio dynamics. His brother, Nicolas, owner of Chateau la Maison Blanche up the road in Montagne Saint Emilion, is a passionate advocate of biodynamics.

Bending the vines rather than strumming them - a practice once limited to biodynamics is now seen more often in Bordeaux vineyards

Bending the vines rather than strumming them – a practice once limited to biodynamics is now seen more often in Bordeaux vineyards

Certification is an expensive and complicated process and not all growers have the money or the manpower necessary to implement it, even if they agree with the philosophy. The CIVB (Conseil des Vins de Bordeaux – The Bordeaux wine council) has devised a way to help such properties. The System de Management Environmental (SME) is a process whereby the cost of a consultant and the certification process is shared between the CIVB and a group of wine makers or chateaux. The members also appreciate this collective initiative as an opportunity to exchange notes and share problems they encounter along the way. Currently 141 wine producers have reached the ISO 14001 environmental certification through this system and another 300 are currently engaged in the process, including wine merchants and cooperatives as well at chateaux, altogether totalling 12 500 ha of Bordeaux vines.

There are other interprofessional schemes; Bordeaux was the first vineyard to have a collective Carbon footprint project for the « Bordeaux Wine Climate plan 2020 » launched in 2010 with the objective of 20% less green house effect, 20% energy savings, 20% renewable energy, 20% water savings by 2020 in line with the European objective of cutting its emissions to 20 per cent below 1990 levels by 2020, The Bordeaux objective is -40 000 t.eq C by this date. It was 203 000 t.eq C in 2010. On-line Carbon foot print calculator is freely available for the Bordeaux wine community so they can measure and adapt their carbon footprint accordingly.

So where does this leave us? In 2012 over 40 400 ha of farmland were certified organic in France with another 24 351 in conversion (a 3 year programme). This is about 8% of French vines but also 6% of French organic agriculture – so wines are well ahead of the trend and the prognosis for 2013 was over 51 000ha.

Being ecologically responsible might give wine makers a nice warm feeling, but what is the motivation? With the majority of vineyards in Bordeaux being family owned, ecology is taken very seriously as chateau owners often consider themselves caretakers rather than owners, with a responsibility to hand down a healthy vineyard to future generations. Is there a price premium? In certain markets there is but it also gives access to new markets and helps differentiate products in what is a very competitive market, especially in mid-range priced wines. Does the organic or biodynamic product taste better? Well the jury still seems to be out although research shows there seems to be a higher concentration of some tannins as well as having an effect on alcohol levels. However, to produce both organic and biodynamic wines, requires attention to detail and this is clearly one way to ensure great quality.

But what about the market? Wine only accounts for 10% of sales of organic food in France but it’s on the increase; 15% a year from a turnover of 413 M € in 2012, a third of which is sold directly from estates – so better margins for producers. Market data provided by Agence Bio in 2011 gave the revenue from organic wines as 360 million Euros at 4 per cent of all wine sold in the country. This was a higher share of organic than for the total food market, where organic food sales constitute just 2.3 per cent.

The recent publication of 3rd edition of Le Guide des Vins en Biodynamie, by Bordeaux publisher Editions Feret, is perhaps a good indication of increased interest.

What does the future hold? European organic wine certification remains a work in progress with an update expected in August 2015. The various private certification standards are seen as a base for further evolution of pan-European standards looking at themes such as: biodiversity in grape production, soil fertility and soil life, alternative approaches to pests and diseases, sustainability of grape production, wine processing and storage, quality and source of organic wine ingredients, of yeasts quality both including wild yeasts and spontaneous fermentation, limitations on additives including a possible total of sulphites, further limitations on processing techniques, limitations on tools and equipment, etc, etc.

In 2011 8% of French vineyards were organic (61 000 ha) compared to about 6% of the EU as a whole (interestingly enough the UK showed the highest percentage at over 16% – but I know it’s a tiny surface area compared to France) it is notable that the organic vineyards have exhibited far higher growth rates than the overall organic farmland.

In a global context, Europe is by far the largest player when it comes to organic vineyards: Europe’s 260,000 hectares of organic vineyards constitute 89 per cent of the total area under organic vines worldwide and represent 3.7 per cent of all vineyards. Major producers outside Europe are the United States (almost 12,000 hectares in 2008) and Chile (4,600 hectares).

As mentioned above, just like all wine makers organic wine makers love to experiment and the organic wine movement seems to be particularly good at participatory R & D, in both the field and wine cellars. Subjects such as lowering copper input are being looked at in this way and they are also working with other agricultural products where copper use is an issue see http://www.co-free.eu

Everyone benefits; wine is a relatively prosperous agricultural sector –not everywhere (that includes parts of Bordeaux) and it is also a competitive and dynamic sector and research into issues of organic wine benefit other agricultural products too. I think this is where the future lies, along with more closely aligned legislation with export markets so different organic producers from around the world can sell as organic in their various export markets.

The 2015 review of the organic wine certification is around the corner – it needs that time lapse to have a couple of vintages under our belts especially in Bordeaux when wines are often bottled between 24 and 30 months after harvest – exciting times ahead for gentil farmers.


An urban vineyard

Pessac Léognan is at once one of the oldest and one of the youngest of the Bordeaux appellations.

One of the youngest as it was officially created in 1987 and yet the oldest as it encompasses what was known as ‘Les Graves de Bordeaux’ the ‘cradle ‘ of fine Bordeaux wine making as we know it today.  Vine cultivation here dates back to about the 1st century and, unsurprisingly, it has seen a series of booms and busts during its history. Looking at the architecture of some of the properties (Chateau Olivier for example) you can see they enjoyed huge prosperity in the Middle Ages thanks to the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry Plantagenet (soon to be Henry II) of England who brought the region under the English crown in her dowry.

Chateau Olivier dates from the middle ages

Chateau Olivier dates from the middle ages

Pessac-Léognan is to the North of the Graves and the two appellations together (as they were pre 1987) cover almost 4 000ha running 60 kilometres from Bordeaux in the North to south of Langon surrounding the Sauternes and Barsac appellations. 240 wine makers produce about 20 million bottles in Graves and about 9 million in Pessac Léognan. The classification of Graves in the 1950’s predates creation of the Pessac Léognan appellation, which is now where all 16 classified Chateau are situated.  These represent in white and red about 20% of the volume of production of the appellation.

Well established since the middle ages the Graves made their claim to fame in the 17th century notably thanks to the dynamism of Arnaud de Pontac, (The third of that name) and owner of Chateau Haut Brion. The only red 1st growth of 1855 not to be from the Medoc, although 12 Sauternes 1 Barsacs were also classed 1er. In what was probably the first act of direct wine marketing, he sent his son to London after the great fire in 1666 to open the first French wine bar (well tavern) ‘the Pontac’s Head’. Who said that Bordeaux was behind the marketing curve?

Chateau Haut Brion and its park, hidden in the suburbs of Bordeaux

Chateau Haut Brion and its park, hidden in the suburbs of Bordeaux

London was the market leader for Bordeaux wines then (and remained so until the Chinese over took them in 2010). By selling their wines directly to clients in the city Haut Brion established the popularity of The New French Claret with this wealthy and influential clientele.

It was a new style of wine; using longer on-skin fermentation in larger barrels, topping up to prevent oxidation and protection from fungal and micro bacterial contamination by the use of sulphur, a practise introduced by the Dutch (the Bordelais still use a ‘Dutch match’ of sulphur in the barrels today between rackings to ‘disinfect’ them). This created a style of wine that has more in common with what we know as Bordeaux today rather than the ‘Clairet’ previously sold out of Bordeaux. This lighter wine would go off rapidly in the summer heat despite its high acidity. These wines were so popular with Northern Europe that in the 14th century this light Clairet (or rosé) dominated representing about 80% of the production in the region.

Racking the barrels of wine during aging

Racking the barrels of wine during aging

This period of boom lead to the ‘Vins de Graves’ dominating the English market for quality wines until the end of the 18th century. Being so close to, and in some cases in, the city of Bordeaux, these vines were on hand for the great and the good of Bordeaux. The vines were planted on outcrops of gravelly soils that were unsuitable for any other agriculture but gave strength to the wine. They reached the very walls of the city up until the 19th century. A law that prevented wine being imported from further up river until all the local stocks had been sold also helped their success. This success, unsurprisingly, lead to increased planting away from the city walls further south as far as Langon.

However in more recent times the locality has proved a challenge; the proximity of the city and its urban sprawl has seen competition for the vineyards. In the crisis after WW1 and again in the 50’s and the 70’s, crises related to both global economic factors (post war depression, exodus from the land) as well as local conditions (frosts of 1956) meant that urban pressure from the city resulted in many properties being sold for redevelopment rather than remaining under vines.

Happily some survived and have become urban vineyards, it is surprising now to see the green oasis of vines amongst the suburbs of the city that are Chateau Haut Brion, La Mission Haut Brion, Pape Clement and Haut Brana in Pessac – along side the university buildings and Chateau Luchey Halde and Pique Caillou in Merignac (better known to international visitors for the Bordeaux airport). See the map here.

The history of one of these properties, Chateau Luchey Halde, reflects that of the region, just like the appellation it is one of the oldest and the newest at the same time.  Although the history of vines at the property dates back to roman times the property was completely replanted by the current owners, ENITA de Bordeaux (a government agricultural agency) in 1999. It was saved from the urban sprawl having been a military training ground close to the airport for 80 years.  Being reinstated as a vineyard, it is now also an agricultural school and as such benefits from the latest research and technology in vine growing and wine making on it’s 22 ha of the 29ha that are under vine.

This urban pressure, along with a desire to re-establish an idea of ancient Northern Graves terroir was one of the reasons for the creation of the Pessac Léognan appellation. Despite it being a bit of a mouthful, named after 2 of the 9 communes or villages in the appellation, it seems to be working. Since it’s creation on 9th September 1987 over 1 000 ha of vines have been replanted in Pessac Léognan. Also encouraging was the launch earlier this year of the ‘Schéma de cohérence territoriale (Scot) which officially ‘designated’ almost 50 000 hectares in 93 ‘communes’ in and around the city, including 25 000 ha of vines, as protected from urban development, both commercial and residential. When you consider that the total vineyard of the 62 Bordeaux appellations covers just over 113 000ha – it’s reassuring.

The current terroir of Pessac Leognan

The current terroir of Pessac Leognan

But it’s not all bad, the proximately to Bordeaux is also helpful, creating a warmer microclimate encouraging early ripening; these vines are usually the first to be harvested.

It’s also an advantage for visitors – no need to worry about drinking and driving if you want to visit and taste, several chateaux are within walking distance of Bordeaux’s new tramway. This could be useful on the weekend 6/7 December, the Pessac Léognan open days. However I encourage you to venture out further than the city limits if you can.  Use the Route des Vins de Graves that includes all the Graves appellations and covers not just the Chateau but also other activities including accommodation in the region.

Chateau Haut Bailly

Chateau Haut Bailly

Where you will be able to taste the delicious West Coast Burgers

Where you will be able to taste the delicious West Coast Burgers

I would also recommend a visit to Chateau Haut Bailly in Léognan during the weekend. As well as a cellar visit and wine tasting you can sample the excellent burgers from the West Coast food truck and enjoy live jazz music on Saturday afternoon. Burgers and Bordeaux – bon appetite!


Sorted !

After an interminable wait that had every winemaker’s eyes turned to the sky, the harvest is now finished in the Bordeaux vineyard and the red wines are almost all run off into barrels or undergoing Malo in tanks.

Fermentation at Chateau d’Aiguilhe in Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux

Pumping over at Chateau Lynch Bages in Pauillac

Emptying the vats after the running off at Chateau Haut Brion in Pessac-Leognan

Mother nature has kept everyone on their toes this year with what has been a challenging vintage (that’s the polite version!)

The first 3 months of 2013 were marked by cold and steady rain. A late spring with a dry April meant bud break was late (mid April) and the return of the cool weather and more rain made the late flowering difficult for Merlot which, although the most precocious Bordeaux red varietal, only started to blossom around June 10th, compared to May 31st in 2012.

The rain between June 17th and June 23rd caused millerandage (development of berries without pips which remain tiny) and coulure (badly fertilized flowers drop without giving any fruit). These phenomena cause a substantial decrease in the potential quantity of the harvest.

Summer finally arrived in July, sun and heat set in and the 330 hours of sunshine in one month equalled the 1991 record. However the summer was marred by thunderstorms and hail. During the night of July 18th hail fell on a very small zone in the Medoc and then again on July 25th and 26 on the entire region.

Uneven developement of the Merlot grapes necesitated a lot of sorting

Despite the summer warmth the development of vegetation remained delayed by 15 days. August was also sunny (42 hours more than average), with temperatures close to the norm, but again marred by thunderstorms with a devastating hailstorm on Friday 2nd of August. 15 000 hectares were hit by the hail, 7000 of which were shattered at 80%, representing 6% of the total Bordeaux vineyard. Concentrated in the Entre-Deux-Mers region this has created a dramatic situation for some producers whose yields are extremely low or non-existent this year.

By the 3rd week of August the Véraison (change of colour of the berries) was underway, leading to a harvest date predicted as 8 to 15 days later than average, based upon the late flowering date.

So at the start of harvest there was cause for concern but as usual with a vintage like this the picture was very varied from region to region. Bordeaux is a big place so the scene is very different depending upon the appellation and the different varietals. Terroir has played a part, better-drained soils with exposure to winds being an advantage in a damp growing season. Merlot has suffered most from the cool, damp spring – being early budding and flowering with a greater sensitivity to the Millerandange and Coulure (see above), the development of many bunches of Merlot has been uneven.

However the grape growers have not contented themselves to simply follow the weather patterns. Their actions throughout the year in preparing for the vintage have had an obvious effect on the quality of the grapes on the vines.

Selection in the field

Careful deleafing and green harvesting has allowed the air to circulate around the bunches of grapes and reduced the incidence of mould on the Merlot in these plots. Interestingly the argument for organic production has also been debated this year. With this humidity, vines are susceptible to mildew and later to bad or grey botrytis. However some plots that have been under organic culture for several years seem to be showing a greater resistance to mould and other diseases that flourish in these conditions. This is a good thing, as, under organic agriculture, the farmers cannot treat their grapes with systemic molecules. They are only allowed to use the Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and lime), which unfortunately washes off with the next rainfall, making for expensive and repetitive treatments. With the vintage approaching, organic treatments are limited to a powdering of talc to soak up some of the excess humidity. There is also the possibility that anti fungal treatments thicken the skins of the grapes meaning they ripen later. Those not using these treatments were at an advantage this year. Ripening was difficult and late, especially for the Cabernets  with not everyone brave enough to wait for fear of more rainstorms and the spread of more rot.

Selection bunch by bunch

September continued to be wet, with an especially heavy storm on 28th bringing 30% of the month’s rain in a few minutes and although temperatures were up slightly (½ degree) creating an almost tropical feel in some areas, and more rot, the average levels of sunshine were down over the month.

Merlot is currently the most widespread grape in Bordeaux (65% in 2012) and it suffered this year; fortunately the Cabernets tell a different story. The late development this year left many fearing that the Cabernet, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, would struggle to ripen. But whereas the Merlot has only a short window of opportunity for harvesting, the Cabernets, thanks to their thicker skin, are sturdier and can wait. Fortunately the sun decided to shine early October giving some warm days and cooler nights – perfect for Cabernet – for those who could wait either because they had nerves of steel or a cooler windier terroir that slowed down the development of that pesky rot.

Selection berry by berry by hand at Châtheau Olivier in Pessac-Leognan


and by Optical Selection at Chateau Phelan Segur in Saint Estephe


There were some beautiful healthy bunches

and some very scary ones

Talking of mould, it may strike fear into the hearts of red producers but sweet white wine producers are delighted. The Noble Rot (Botrytis Cinerea) developed well on the Semillon and Sauvignon grapes in the sweet wine areas. The first tries (selections) gave cause for producers to be cautiously optimistic after their trials of 2012 despite some isolated hail in the village of Illats mid harvest. The later tries where not quite as concentrated but again careful selection and blending will produce some beautiful sweet wines in 2013.

The developement of Botrytis on Semillon at Chateau d’Arche in Sauternes 

Beautiful botrytis at Chateau Sigalas Rabuad in Sauternes

Fermentation starting at Chateau Sigalas Rabaud

The dry whites are also safely in the vats now and although the volume may be lower than a normal year, producers are happy with the quality of their crop.

Beautifully healthy Sauvignon bunches at Chateau Latour Martillac in Pessac-Leognan

What is encouraging is that new technology is at hand to help the wine maker in such a vintage. Having done the best they can to ensure the quality in the field has been, inevitably in such a vintage, a need for strict berry selection prior to fermentation.

Having done the best they can to ensure quality in the field, producers keen to maintain a reputation for quality also employ a strict berry selection, prior to fermentation. Whether in the field, or at the cellar door, new technologies such as selection tables, optical selectors and tribae help this labour intensive process.  It must be heartbreaking to throw berries away but it is the price to be paid when faced with the challenges that such a vintage presents.

What is sure is that 2013 will show lower yields and it will be well worth a visit to the futures tastings in April 2014 to see how the wine makers of Bordeaux have risen to this, their latest challenge.


A dinner amongst old friends?

Curious as to how Château Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion stand the test of time? Now’s your chance to find out; The Hotel Beau Rivage in Geneva is holding a comparative tasting of the 1990, 1982, 1978, 1947, 1929 vintages with palate refreshers of William Deutz Rosé 2000 on 4th December .
Dinner will take you to other vineyards, including la Romanée, Batard Montrachet B. Morey, Château Palmer and Château Caillou (1947 no less)
Bon appetite !

Dinner on the waterfront with Haut Brion

And we’re off!

The lovely misty morning here remind us that it’s that time of year again – just in case you has forgotten! Mist as of mid to late August is of course just what is needed in the south west of Bordeaux for the sweet white wines but it is also a good sign for the red. This means cooler nights helping to preserve the aromatic complexity of the red and white and phenolic complexity in the red berries.

White grape harvesting has started across Bordeaux. Château Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion are always some of the first to start, as being surrounded by Bordeaux suburbs they have a warmer urban microclimate.
Other properties started last week. Château d’Yquem started the first selection of Sauvignon Blanc for Y d’Yquem and nearer to me here in the Entre Deux Mers Château de Sours started handpicking their young Sauvignon plantations on the 1st September.
Despite a damp June, the growing season has been very dry with rainfall about 20% below an average year, however temperatures and sunshine have been above average. There is an excess of water stress for younger plants that do not have a well-developed root system yet. It’s all about terroir again : soils with cooler limestone subsoils such as Saint Emilion, Fronsac and Cotes will experience less hydric stress than clay, sandy or gravel soils. However lighter soils with a good subsoil, such as in the Medoc, have vines with deep roots which will enable them to find water from the subsoils even dry conditions.

May and June also had a lot of temperature variation leading to some uneven fruit development – so that will mean eagle eyed sorting (or optical sorting for those with the budgets).

The dry conditions also have another advantage : lovely ripe berries – very little mildew, so no need for much spraying and the grapes should be coming in beautifully healthy.

A little light rain would not go amiss for the reds in particular – it’s forecast for Tuesday – fingers crossed.

New branding at Haut Brion

The smallest of the first growths of Bordeaux, Château Haut Brion has always been a familiar name. Their second wine however is less well known, could it be because the name Château Bahans Haut Brion is so much more difficult to pronounce?
This year is the 75th anniversary of the purchase of the property by the American Clarence Dillon family – the perfect occasion to change the name to Le Clarence de Haut Brion. The recently released 2007 is the first vintage under the new name and new packaging. Not only a new label but also bottled in the unique Haut Brion shaped bottle which has been used at the property since the 1950s

Le Clarence de Haut Brion – so much easier to get an Anglo-Saxon or Asian tongue around