Tag Archives: Cheval Blanc

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.


Right bank or Libournais?

There is so much that is new on the right bank of Bordeaux at the moment that I hardly know where to start. “Right bank “is a misleading name. After all, there are two rivers and an estuary that run through Bordeaux, all of which have a “right bank”. “The Libournais” is a more accurate descriptor as the  appellations to which we refer surround this ancient waterside town.  It was an important centre for wine trading and export with continental Europe in the middle ages, with the Libourne Merchants trading directly, rather than through ‘La Place de Bordeaux’, all thanks to the charter granted to the town in 1224 by the King of England.

Libourne on the Dordogne river

Libourne on the Dordogne river

Despite its ancient history, with vineyards dating back to 56 BC, this region of Bordeaux is a hotbed of innovation and has been since the ‘garage wine movement’ was pioneered by the likes of oenologists and winemakers, Michel Rolland, Jean-Claude Berrouet, Jean-Luc Thunevin, Jonathan Maltus and Denis Durantou in the 90’s.

It is a curious mix of old and new. Saint-Emilion is the first winegrowing area in the world to be listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in the “Cultural Landscapes” category in 1999. These landscapes have succeeded in preserving the traces of their history; the medieval village of Saint-Emilion, Romanesque churches, grottos, windmills and dovecotes, etc.  In 1884 the first French Syndicat Viticole saw the light here and in 1933 the 1st cooperative cellar of the Gironde was established here too.

The land of 1000 chateaux from the Steeple of Saint Emilion

The land of 1000 chateaux from the Steeple of Saint Emilion

Compared to the rest of Bordeaux, the average size of properties here is small; for a total size of 12 000 ha there are less than 2000 properties, so do the math and you’ll see that the average size of 6-8 ha is half that of the Bordeaux average of 15 ha.

This structure of numerous individual wine estates is one of the reasons behind this constant innovation.  Small is beautiful but also perhaps more flexible than larger corporate ownership?  That, and the dominance of Merlot, which lends itself more kindly to experimental wine making than Cabernet.

The Libournais is also perhaps more ‘democratic’ than the left bank. Driving around the Medoc, the wealth seems to stop at the Chateau gates with vast tracts of vine and not much else in between except rather dreary villages (Bages being the exception that proves the rule). In the Libournais, cellars and chateaux are all side-by-side surrounded by their ‘gardens’ of vines, it is known as the land of 1000 chateaux.

Out of the 10 appellations only Saint Emilion ‘enjoys’ a classification. This came into being in 1954, almost 100 years after the Medoc/Graves/Sauternes classification of 1855. I’m on dangerous ground here, but it could also be considered more democratic being up for grabs every 10 years (or so). The last classification, in 2012, was a revision of the previous controversial 2006 edition, and no less controversial if you listen to a few disgruntled producers and certain sensationalist journalists. Despite this they are now the holders of a classification including 82 classified growths of which 18 are first growths and 4 are As with two new A’s  (Chateaux Angelus and Pavie) added to Cheval Blanc and Ausone, for the very first time since the classifications creation.

So what is new? As elsewhere at the top end of Bordeaux, there is a rash of new and beautiful cellars. They are easy to spot here, as the properties are all much closer together. Promotional opportunities perhaps, but also a desire to incorporate the new technology in a more efficient way and also open their doors to visitors.

Cement tanks have always been traditional on the right bank, their thick walls being resistant to rapid temperature change, and smaller family estates couldn’t afford to destroy them when the trend towards stainless steel started in the 70s so they remained and are now the height of fashion again, see the new cellars at Cheval Blanc.

With an increased understanding of the soils on the properties leading to more precise plot by plot management, it is not unusual to see vat size reduced or the older, larger vats replaced by smaller ones and even to see a mix of oak, cement and stainless in a single cellar allowing the wine maker even more flexibility. I must admit a certain affection for these older ‘art deco’ tanks that are now being spruced up again.

The old cement tanks at Chateau Petrus pre renovation

The old cement tanks at Chateau Petrus pre renovation

Cheval Blanc is not the only one to reinvent concrete. Family owned Château La Conseillante in Pomerol has created a super efficient oval cellar of 22 brand new elegant concrete vats for the 12 ha property, allowing for precision vinification for Chateau La Conseillante and the second wine Duo de Conseillante. The cellar is an elegant illustration of the style of their wine underlined with their purple signature.

The elegant new vat cellar at Chateau La Conseillante

The elegant new vat cellar at Chateau La Conseillante

A close up showing the attention to detail

A close up showing the attention to detail

Visiting Saint Emilion can be a religious experience. In the 8th century, the hermit Emilion stopped off on his pilgrimage from Brittany to Santiago de Compostela and  sheltered in a cave in the rock, the remains of which can still be seen near the 8th century monolithical church (Europe’s largest). There then followed a Benedictine monastery a century later reinforcing the religious importance of the town.

The religious theme can be seen in the names of many properties, l’Eglise Clinet, La Dominique, l’Evangile, Prieuré, Angelus, Saint Georges, etc. and the influence is clear in some cellars, such as Croix Canon recently brought to life by Chanel.

A religious experience in the cellars of Croix Canon

A religious experience in the cellars of Croix Canon

Chanel purchased first growth Chateau Canon in 1996, two years after their purchase of Chateau Rauzan Segla 2nd growth of Margaux, in 2011 they purchased the neighbouring classified growth, Chateau Matras. Wary of the influence of the INRA (the body governing wine appellations and classifications) and the effect it could have on their classification they were prepared not to include the new land into Chateau Canon. However they were given the right to include 1ha12 of old Cabernet Franc vines into Chateau Canon.  With the 2011 vintage they changed the name of Matras to Croix Canon, now the second wine of the property replacing Clos Canon. As these new hectares join the younger Canon plots to make the second wine Clos can no longer be used as the new plots are not within the (beautifully restored) walls that surround Chateau Canon.

The renovated walls around the vines of chateau Canon that gave the name to Clos Canon

The renovated walls around the vines of chateau Canon that gave the name to Clos Canon

Chanel know about renovation, having already renovated the cellar, underground caves and walls of Canon they are now working on the Chateau itself – more of which next year.  The cellars of Matras were within a badly run down 12 century chapel, now renovated to more than its former beauty to showcase the vat room and barrel cellar surrounded by a gallery, complete with pulpit. The tasting room has a spectacular stain glass window with a camellia at its heart as a subtle reference to Coco Chanel. They have even rebuilt the bell tower and if you have a head for heights, you can climb the wooden ladder to the top to see views across the vines and admire the new bell made by the foundry that made the bells for Notre Dame de Paris.

The stunned glass window designed by director John Kolasa

The stained glass window designed by director John Kolasa

Talking of bells, the Croix Canon cellar is just next door to Chateau Angelus. Angelus made the headlines with the 2012 classification, being one of two properties along with Chateau Pavie to break the glass ceiling of the A classification taking the total from 2, at which it had remained since its inception in 1954, to the grand total of 4. To celebrate, their 2012 vintage will be sold in bottles embossed with a golden label.

The new 2012 and the classic Angelus labels

The new 2012 and the classic Angelus labels

The property has also just opened its brand new cellars. The wine making and ageing cellars themselves have not changed that much but the building including the bell tower has. The new entrance hall is a spectacular wood and stone renaissance structure topped with the bell tower, which will peal out your national anthem for you as you pass through the portals.

The new entrance at Chateau Angelus with bells on!

The new entrance at Chateau Angelus with bells on!          Photo Manfred Wagner

The renovations however are more than just a PR opportunity. They have enabled the integration of new wine making techniques, the signature of experimental co-owner and winemaker, de Bouard. In 1986 Angelus was the first property in St Emilion to use a sorting machine, and his La Fleur de Bouard, in neighbouring Lalande de Pomerol, has a spectacular cellar of suspended inverted vats that could be considered a testing ground for these techniques.

The new inverted vats at Angelus Photo Manfred Wagner

The new inverted vats at Angelus
Photo Manfred Wagner

He has introduced two of these vats, one in oak and another in stainless, into the new cellars at Angelus alongside the classic cement, stainless and oak vats already in place. He has also reduced the temperature of the 1st year barrel cellar to 10°C enabling a more efficient precipitation of lees and a slower, longer 12 months aging on the lees. The lower temperature also reduces the inherent risk of brett and the use of sulphites and gives a more elegant uptake of oak allowing for a longer, 2 year aging in barrels.

If all this talk of new cellars has worked up an appetite, help is on hand. After Chateau Troplong Mondot and Chateau Candale. Chateau La Dominique, Saint Emilion cru Classé on the border of Pomerol, has also opened a restaurant.  Construction tycoon, Clement Fayat, owner of Chateau Pichon Clement in Haut Medoc, has commissioned a spectacular new cellar designed by French architect Jean Nouvel inspired by the work of British artist Anish Kapoor. The artist’s fascination for red is perfect for Saint Emilion. The red plastic surfaces on the curved walls of the winery reflect the vines and the sky. The building is topped by an enormous ‘Terrasse Rouge’ the floor of which is covered with red glass pebbles, designed to look like the top of an open fermenting vat full of grapes.  Here you can sit admiring the view over neighbouring vineyards and watch the chefs busy at the grill, preparing your steak and other regional specialities.

La Terrasse Rouge

La Terrasse Rouge

Bon appétit!




Cabernet Franc from Cheval Blanc


It’s not every day you taste 100% Cabernet Franc. It’s not every day you taste 100% Cabernet Franc from three different soil types. Nor is it every day you do exactly the same with Merlot and with the wines coming from the Premier Grand Cru Classé A St Emilion, Château Cheval Blanc. It is in fact so out of the ordinary that it has actually never before been done outside of the château or by anyone other than the technical team, yet here was Pierre-Olivier Clouet, the château’s Technical Manager since 2008, presenting plot samples alongside finished wines to 75 of the great and the good (and me!) of the wine world’s MWs, student MWs, educators, journalists, importers and merchants.

This new openness is refreshing. Pierre-Olivier explained vineyard and vinification decisions which lead to Cheval Blanc being one of the greatest wines in the world, then gave us the evidence to prove it, without any PR patter, prices or bumptiousness. His down-to-earth, clear and hugely informative presentation was a welcome relief from the usual hype.

Cabernet Franc samples ready for tasting

Initially we tasted 2012 samples – raw components, or ingredients, of the new wine to be blended, crafted, created at the end of the month. What a privilege to be able to make our very own 2012 albeit with just a fraction of the 44 plot samples the winemaking team will have at their disposal. As soil, (Pierre-Olivier tried very hard, and failed only once, not to use the word terroir) makes such a huge impact on the flavours, the grape variety being an expression of its soil, each plot in the 39 hectares Cheval Blanc farms, is vinified separately. Once fermented, and pre-ageing, the wines are tasted blind. No matter where the grapes originate – whether from the lesser sandy soils or those generally offering more complexity from the gravelly plots or the concentrated more structured grapes from clay soils – whichever are deemed the best in that year will fulfil their rightful destiny and make it into the Grand Vin, otherwise they will find their way into the second wine, Le Petit Cheval or even into the third wine. In this new spirit of glasnost, not only did we taste an expressive, concentrated, fine sample of Cabernet Franc 2012 from a clay soil plot but also one from sandy soils where the wine was not of sufficient quality, showing too many green pepper notes and with unripe tannins. Its final fate will be a less glamorous one.

I would not be inclined to argue with Pierre-Olivier having tasted the 2001 sample of Cabernet Franc, blended from the various plots which went into the Grand Vin, that in his opinion it is ‘the best variety in the world’. It and Merlot are the only two grapes used in Cheval Blanc and the ratio of each is totally dependent on the vintage – there is no set formula. The only rule they work to is to work ‘like monks’, traditionally, toiling in the vineyards: limiting vine vigour in the Cabernet Franc, controlling yields by green harvesting the Merlot. In the winery, they only ever add sulphur, yeast and egg white but there was no suggestion of letting the wine make itself. Why spend a fortune on a truly beautiful new winery if you never actually go there!

The concrete vats inside the new Cheval Blanc cellar

And the ultra-modern architecture of the new cellars from the outside

Making the perfect wine is more than a lifetime’s work. Pierre-Olivier admitted to not yet having made the perfect blend so the toiling and striving goes on. Already, over the course of fifteen years, they have developed their own Cabernet Franc clone through micro-vinification experimentation. Every vintage they retain 24 bottles of each wine which makes up the blend to assess its development over the years – there are now 6 fewer bottles of 2001 – so the research, decisions and planning continue. The team at Cheval Blanc makes premium wine selling at stratospheric prices, yet is far from complacent. One feels sure that that perfect blend is within Pierre-Olivier’s grasp, and tasting the 2010, he’s certainly not far away, whether it will ever be 100% Cabernet Franc is anyone’s guess.
Thanks to Yvon Mau for organising such an enlightening (not to mention delicious!) tasting and to Pierre-Olivier for sharing his knowledge and insights with such candour.

A new cellar at Le Pin

As mentioned in my previous post it certainly is the year of the cellar.
It’s all happening on the right bank, after the opening of the wonderful new cellars at Cheval Blanc, La Dominique, right next door is under renovation and Petrus is finishing its new underground cellar.
Smaller but perfectly formed the new cellar at le Pin has also been christened with the 2011 Harvest.
For many years, pilgrims to the tiny estate (2.48ha with the latest purchase) have struggled to find the rather insignificant looking building, home to Jacques Thienpont’s baby. Only the pine trees overshadowing the house on the Pomerol plateau, about 1 km from the family’s Vieux Château Certan, gave the game away.
Now however the striking modern building in white and slate is a lot easier to spot and the pine trees are still there. Started in 2010 and designed by the Belgium architect Paul Robbrecht (The Thienponts are Belgium wine negociants as well as Bordeaux Chateau owners) the whole cellar is designed as a wine makers dream as far as efficiency is concerned. Gravity feed is clearly illustrated as you climb the stairs up to the terrace, strangely reminiscent of a Californian roof-top pool, with fabulous views over towards Château Petit Village, another very modern addition to the skyline of Pomerol.
Le Pin has no second wine but if you’re lucky enough, try and get hold of Trilogie, a non vintage blend of declassified Le Pin with a dash of Cabernet Franc, unlike Le Pin which is 100% Merlot. The name Trilogie is a reference to the blend of 3 vintages. There’s not enough I imagine per vintage, seeing as the total production from the property is only about 5 000 bottles a year.

The view across Pomerol from the terrace of Le Pin’s new winery

Haut Culture

There are many parallels with the world of Haute Couture and wine, not least the ownership of some of Bordeaux’s leading properties by the top fashion brands; think LVMH with Château d’Yquem and Cheval Blanc, François Pinault of Gucci fame with Château Latour and Chanel with Château Rauzan Segla and Canon.
This might also explain the growing success and increasing volumes of the second wines of many properties – not dissimilar from the diffusion lines of some of the top couture houses.
Bordeaux producers have always had the challenge of keeping their traditional and historical appeal without alienating younger consumers? How to maintain a quality image but still explain the content of the bottle via the label? So why not ask designers to lend a hand?
Easy enough if you happen to belong to a Haute Couture group; Chanel is well introduced into the Bordeaux scene. The Wertheimer family, owners of the famous fashion house, purchased Chateau Rauzan Segla, 2nd growth of Margaux in 1994 along with the negociant house Ulysee Cazabon and then Château Canon in 1996. They have just increased their Bordeaux holdings buying the neighbouring property Château Matras with the objective of increasing production of the second wine of the property Clos Canon.
The 2009 Château Rauzan Segla was released onto the market in this year, which also celebrates the 350th birthday of the property. Karl Lagerfeld, the Chanel in-house designer has designed the label to celebrate the date. Using more colour than we are used to seeing on the traditional labels it gives a new and modern turn to the 1900’s Château.

Not everyone in Bordeaux has such direct access to in-house designers but that didn’t stop Bruno Borie of Château Ducru Beaucaillou calling in high fashion. He asked Jade Jagger to design a new label for his second wine – La Croix de Beaucaillou which is more ‘bling’ that the Rauzan label – all black and gold. He gave two reasons for the choice – her affinity with bottles having recently re-launched the Shalimar bottle for Guerlain and of course she’s the daughter of a Rolling stone – another ‘Beaucaillou’!

Bleu de Chanel

Luxury is synonymous with Bordeaux, reinforced by the well-known presence of luxury conglomerates LVMH and Pinault owning leading estates, Yquem and Cheval Blanc and Latour respectively. Less well know is that couture and perfume house Chanel owns two leading Bordeaux properties, neatly balanced between left and right bank : Château Rauzan Ségla, deuxième grand cru classé of Margaux and Château Canon, première grand cru classé of Saint Emilion. At first their seems little synergy, unless of course you take into account the commitment to quality which can clearly be seen in the rigorous renovation that has taken place in these properties.
Chanel purchased Château Canon from the Fournier family in 1996 and they have invested a serious budget in renovation, starting with the vineyards (that needed a dramatic replanting programme), the cellars but also the amazing underground quarries on which the château is perched. This has all come beautifully together with the recently completed cellars. If you look closely here is where you can see a Chanel signature – – the decoration of the cellars echos the recently launched aftershave Bleu de Chanel.

It is apparently the colour used for the family’s racehorses – an elegant touch of luxury indeed.

How versatile is my cepage?

Could Cabernet Franc be the most versatile grape variety?

So often relegated to being the backbone of the Merlot driven right bank wines of Saint Emilion and surrounding satellites, Cabernet Franc does of course shine in some of the leading right bank properties such as Angelus and Ausone where it reaches about 50% and on the famous atypical gravels of the appellation on the Pomerol border in Figeac (30%) and Cheval Blanc (58%).

However 100% Cabernet Franc is rare, Le Dome from the Maltus stable reaches about 75% which I think is the highest proportion in a blend in Bordeaux – unless anyone out there knows better?

It was therefore quite a discovery today at lunch in the Comptoir de Saint Genes in the Côtes de Castillon. Their house pour ‘Le Banc du comptoir’ is 100% Cabernet franc but guess what – white ! Yes a white from red grapes, not a Bordeaux appellation of course (that would never do!) but a table wine produced in the Entre Deux Mers by Vincent Galineau, husband of the restaurant’s owner Anne-Marie.

After having tasted last week a 100% Cabernet Franc ice wine from Peller Estates I’m beginning to think that it really is a most versatile varietal.

White Cabernet Franc – a great wine for blind tastings.

Château Yquem 2009 – a work in progress.

What a fascinating time to visit Château Yquem, Pierre Lurton gave us the low-down over lunch today on the 2009. Of course wearing his 2 hats; Cheval Blanc and Yquem it was a great insight into the peculiarities of the vintage – every year has them.

2009 has been exceptionally dry and hot here. What a change from 07 and 08 where is was the fabulous Indian summer in September and October that saved the harvest. This year it is the late rains that are saving the day – just to keep us on our toes.

For the reds it was almost too hot and dry, the reds love the sun for the ripeness but lack of water can shut down the maturing process of the skins so sugar can increase but at the expense of polyphenolic complexity. This could mean that there will be alcohol and extractable tannins but a lack of complexity.

So the rains at the end of August and then again 10 days ago saved the day for the reds, allowing the complex maturing of the skins to kick in. The harvest saved by the rain – that makes a change!

At Yquem they have already harvested a first selection. They have picked some ripe grapes that have been affected by passerillage i.e. a drying of the grapes by the action of heat and wind without the effect of Botrytis. The team at Yquem, under the guidance of Sandrine Garbay, decided on a first selection of these grapes over a week ago in the interest of keeping the particular style of these grapes especially their higher acidity which can add freshness and complexity if used in the final blend.

The real deal will begin any minute now; tomorrow or Friday – watch this space. And given the degree of ripeness and the fantastic development of Botrytis since the rain a few passages should do it. He has his 200 pickers on standby. I’ll go back to morrow and check out if they have started.

Maison Bord’eaux under new ownership

Pierre Lurton probably has one of the most envied jobs in in the wine world he is President of two of Bordeaux’s top properties : Cheval Blanc, First growth of Saint Emilion and Château d’Yquem, first growth Superior of Sauternes – the top dog of the 1855 classification in Sauternes.

As if this wasn’t enough to keep him busy, along with making wines all over the world for the LVMH stable and on his own property Château Marjosse in the Entre deux Mers, he has recently purchased the successful town centre bed and breakfast ‘La Maison Bord’Eaux’.

La Maison Bord’Eaux was already a funky town centre address for those in the know in an 18th century ‘hotel particulier’ created around a stable and courtyard. Pierre has now modernised the restaurant and added a few rooms making it into Bordeaux’s only Boutique hotel that really merits the name.

The 9 bedrooms include one with a terrific terrace and view over the city centre and the remains of the roman arena. Although the restaurant is not open to the public, Thierrry Bonnet, the manager and his wife, offer a service of seasonal dishes for residents upon reservation, and as you can imagine the small private wine bar has an excellent selection of wines made by the owner and other members of the Lurton family one of the largest families covering most of the appellations throughout Bordeaux and around the world.

Rooms start at €130 with breakfast at €15 Meals upon reservation from €30 to €150