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France - Bordeaux retrospective: Pomerol - Vieux Château Certan, Le Pin, Gazin (2003); Château Falfas - 'biodynamic in Côtes de Bourg' (2002); 'Bordeaux travel, in brief...' - Beychevelle, Ferrière, Margaux, Lafon-Rochet, Cos d’Estournel, Lynch-Bages, Lagrange, Rauzan-Ségla, Saint-Émilion, Bistro du Sommelier... (2001).

Pomerol February 2003: "invasion of MW students" (part one).

Vieux Château Certan

Alexandre Thienpont – third generation proprietor, vineyard manager and winemaker – is very much a terroir man. I know this word, this concept, is bandied about ad nauseam, particularly by French wine growers and sometimes for the 'wrong' reasons or without real meaning. But in this case, it seems to hold true: Alexandre’s philosophy and, on the surface, simple approach does translate through to his wines. “Everything is done in the vineyard, in the winery we just ferment juice with no improvements. Quality has been built up from generations of trial and error in the vineyard.” Bit of a simplistic staid cliché, I realise, but bear with me...
His first vintage at Vieux Château Certan was in 1986 (not a bad year to start); the estate was in fact founded in 1745, so you can see where he’s coming from even if it is a familiar statement. The vineyards comprise 14 hectares (ha) now – they were larger in the past – and are surrounded by Le Pin, Pétrus, La Conseillante and Cheval Blanc over the border into St. Emilion; so they’re in good (you might think intimidating) company. The Pomerol Appellation covers 800 ha made up of eighty estates, fifty of which amount to less than 1 ha; tiny in comparison with the Médoc and St. Emilion even. Another significant difference is that there are no classifications in Pomerol, so quality and price rest on the reputation of the property alone.
Merlot wears the crown in Pomerol because of the large proportion of clay in the soils, which suits it well producing ripe fleshy wines. However, VCC differs in this respect from many of its neighbours, although clay does dominate here as well at 50-60% and this is where the Merlot is found. Atypically they have much more Cabernet Franc planted amidst the layers of gravel, and Cabernet Sauvignon in the most gravely patches (the same soil type as Cheval Blanc in fact). This relatively idiosyncratic ratio of grape varieties is certainly one factor in the individual style of the wines – more of that later. Just to re-emphasise the importance of matching variety and soil, it’s worth mentioning that in 1998 VCC had to replace some Cabernet Franc planted in the 80s on a particular clay plot with Merlot, “as it didn’t work.”
Drains. Might sound a bit boring, but in an area where the soil structure is largely down to its water content, drainage is even more crucial. It’s very difficult on clay soils, and at VCC the drains are 10 metres apart and were dug out maybe thirty years ago. “Not soon enough,” lamented Alexandre, “the best soils are where it was done longest ago.” (A good example perhaps of why you can't separate so-called standalone terroir and human intervention). The water table is very high around here: in the winter only 1m below, 5-6m in summer. This means there’s too much water in the spring and “the ground is too cold.” As the water recedes, the temperature rises rapidly encouraging as much as 2-3cm growth in the vines per day. “Going from abundance to stress is actually beneficial for quality. When stressed the vine focuses on production of pips, which leads to better berries and tannins.”
Planting density stands at 5,500 per hectare for old vines and 6,000 for new plantings, which seems reasonable as well as usual for these rich soils. “We should be able to get 10,000 vines per hectare but that would cost too much,” Alexandre commented, referring to the economics of intense manual labour and the norm of, say, the top Châteaux in parts of the Haut-Médoc with their freer draining gravel soils. All the old vines are mixed clones rather than selected, as “the only advantage of clones is even and earlier harvest dates.” Pruning and training are of course taken very seriously. Alexandre practises the “taille bordelaise”, which appears to be Guyot with two canes but not exactly Double Guyot. He also removes one bud in two to achieve two branches with six buds on each. The end result is control and reduction of yields (and potentially less rot problems due to better spacing of bunches), but they still need to do green harvesting as well. The goal is a mere 850 grams of concentrated fruit per plant remaining.
“The vines are too productive and fertile if you leave them alone – there’s too much water – and would produce 60 hectolitres per hectare. I want 50 hl/ha maximum,” Alexandre explained further. The conversation predictably moved on to 'New World' producers: “You can’t compare with tonnes per hectare, as weight isn’t important when the berries are large!" he claimed. "It’s better to measure juice per hectare, therefore more skins to pulp.” There are 23 identifiable parcels within the 14 ha of vineyard, and at picking time these are divided up again into five lots of Merlot, four of Cabernet Franc and two of Cabernet Sauvignon. They prefer to sort the grapes in the vineyard to make a meticulous selection, particularly in challenging years like 2002 resulting in much less. “We were saved by the last three weeks of the harvest, otherwise they would’ve been rotten, unripe and dilute. I wait as long as possible for maturity, when ready we need to process eight to twelve tonnes per hour!” All the grapes are transported in boxes to the cellar.
The cellar is fittingly quite small and “more or less the same as it was thirty years ago; we just rebuilt it to make it more practical.” We swiftly moved on to the barrel cellar to taste the 2002s from cask. Inevitably someone asked about malolactic fermentation (yawn), a much-debated topic in Bordeaux (and elsewhere) nowadays. Alexandre confirmed he does the 'malo' in barrel for Merlot only as “it’s no use for Cabernet Sauvignon.” “Why?” came the next question. “Pour 5 points de plus,” he quipped, referring to a certain famous American wine critic and the current fashion for making the wines rounder and softer for the ‘en primeur’ tastings in spring. Joking aside, Alexandre is very adamant about the focus at VCC and was keen to remind us. “…Viticulture, c’est agricole… not about fancy equipment,” then expanded further on his beliefs when prompted by another student, “Un grand vin, c’est un vin de vrai caractère.”
Alexandre was about to do the assemblage for the 2002 in a couple of weeks or so, likely to be approximately 60% Merlot, 30% CF and 10% CS. We were lucky enough to taste some of the constituent ‘parts’:
Merlot from vat (young vines planted in 1998) – nice plum and peppery fruit with fresh acidity, reasonably structured for young vines. Will go into the second label.
Merlot from cask (vines dating from 1932-42) – vibrant chocolate oak, quite rich and concentrated supported by silky tannins and a bit of bite on the finish.
Cabernet Franc from cask (vines dating from 1948) – shows more liquorice and spice and less obvious oak, lovely depth and intensity; tight structure with fresh bite and very long finish. “This came in at 13.8° potential, I’ve never seen such ripeness levels!”
He then asked us which older vintage we wanted to taste, plumping for “style classique” as exemplified by the excellent 1996 (I'll try to find my old notes, ed...). By this Alexandre means the Cabernet Franc shows itself more in this vintage, thus more expressive of his terroir, for want of a better word...

Pomerol February 2003: "invasion of MW students" (part two).

Château Le Pin

Reluctant to leave Vieux Château Certan so soon, we moved on animatedly to cult estate Château Le Pin just a stone’s throw away. Passing motorists found some amusement in dodging a coach-load of people, each armed with dripping tasting glass in hand, strolling down the road in two columns in opposing directions. The second group was drifting up from Le Pin heading for VCC; we couldn’t all visit together as the cellar at Le Pin is too small, in true ‘garage’ style. Owner Jacques Thienpont and his wife Fiona Morrison MW greeted us outside the ordinary-looking house/cottage/bungalow (I don’t think they live there), the best vantage point to survey the whole two hectares that make up the property. Jacques bought the vineyard in 1979 – unknown at the time but VCC used to buy one hectare of fruit from it – paying one million Francs for 1 ha (envious to think what it’s worth now), then acquired selected parcels around it.
Cousin Alexandre at Vieux Château Certan helps out in the vineyards, which are composed of a fair amount of quite deep gravel on the slope with more clay on the other side, as you go towards VCC on a plateau. Yields stand at 34 hl/ha on average; they started to do ‘green harvesting’ from 1993 but “not too much,” as Jacques explains (if excessive the vines tend to compensate by naturally boosting yields the following year), “we prefer to focus on pruning to keep them down.” The vines on the gravel can suffer if the summer is particularly hot like in ’86, when the vegetation stopped due to drought; on clay soil they fare better due to its water retention. Frost hit in ’91, as it did elsewhere in the region and France generally: “we only made eight barrels instead of twenty-four.” In ’92, a difficult year to say the least, they did a saignée (running off some of the juice from the must): “it was more concentrated but had less typicité. I prefer not to unless the weather dilutes the grapes.”
On average the vines are 25-28 years old, 40% of them were replanted in 1978. “In the ’82 vintage we included these young vines, which was the year Le Pin took off!” Jacques points out, slightly bemused or amused perhaps. “We hadn’t done much in the vineyard or with winemaking before then, it was the quality of the site.” From 1986-88 things really started to happen, with Robert Parker discovering the wines after ‘85/6. “I bought it for my pleasure, not to make money; I was just lucky,” he continues philosophically. Now the wine sells on allocation of course – “not a deliberate scarcity policy, just all I can produce,” – for the princely sum of 225 Euros per bottle for the 2001 and 2002 (the 2000 is now even higher). Someone in the group asked Jacques, not surprisingly, to repeat that price, which he followed with the words “I can’t understand why people find it so good,” professing never to be happy with the quality! And this really does sound like genuine disbelief rather than false modesty or ironic PR, but he’s obviously quietly delighted to be so sought after.
The cellar is quaintly tiny and basic; I counted 37 barrels in total containing all of the 2002 and 2001, the remaining bottles of 2000 vintage stacked casually against a wall. We’re informed that the wines are always taken out of barrel in March/April after two years. We tasted the ’99 (again, not sure if I still have my notes...) while Jacques talks further: “this is mostly Merlot with about 8% Cabernet Franc. When the new vines come in, we’ll only use Merlot for Le Pin.” Recapping and summarising, he then ran through the whole harvesting, vinification and maturation processes.
They use 36 pickers, who remove the leaves first to make it easier and allow the grapes to dry to avoid any excess moisture in the form of dew. The grapes are sorted rigorously into a trailer and brought to the cellar, where Jacques shovels them by hand into the destemmer. “This way I can sort them further… I used to include some stems, and have tried without but don’t see much difference.” The crushed fruit goes into one of two vats with the aim of vinifying 1 hectare in each, as “there is a slight difference between them, so the less fine wine ends up in the second label.” Interestingly he commented that they didn’t 'chaptalise' (enrich the must to increase the potential alcohol) for the last three years, which probably says as much about achieving better natural ripeness in the vineyard and fussier selection of grapes, as the vintages themselves.
They usually ferment with natural yeasts that kick in after 3-4 days, then it’s left alone but controlled if necessary. Remontage (pumping over) is done twice a day during fermentation, which is allowed to reach 32-33° to extract rich colour bolstered by 12 days of tannin-deepening maceration on the skins. The must is transferred into barrels following pressing (“stems are removed by hand from the press wine”) after 2/3 days. Jacques has done the malolactic fermentation in barrel (a relatively recent trend in Bordeaux) “since the beginning as I didn’t have the vats to put it in, so I bought barrels instead!” To get the malo going, he closes off half the cellar and warms it to 23/24°. After maturation in cask, fresh egg whites are used for fining in conjunction with racking and “we avoid filtering but do sometimes if the air pressure causes problems with settling.” Well, life is weighed down with such tricky decisions, such as do I spit out the ’97 Château Le Pin we concluded the visit with…

Château Gazin

This property immediately felt larger and grander than Le Pin – at about 25 ha it certainly is geographically, but its bourgeois château-like airs and suitably crunchy gravel drive remind you more of the Médoc perhaps. However, with “93% Merlot planted in the vineyards,” you soon know where you are; although the typical assemblage only contains about 80-85% Merlot ably supported by 15-20% Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon. “We’d prefer not to have any,” Nicolas de Bailliencourt states categorically referring to Cabernet Sauvignon, the ‘enemy’ of Pomerol. “Cabernet Franc is good for complexity and background,” he continues more enthusiastically. Le Pin and Pétrus are the only estates that use virtually all Merlot: “the cool clay here is brilliant for Merlot,” Nicolas bears out. “I don’t know why exactly, but Merlot has worked very well in Pomerol since the mid 18th century.” He moved on to talk about the “gamey, animal and earthy notes” characteristic of Pomerol; and fascinatingly he reckoned overall that Lafleur is the best wine of the appellation.
Shuffling noisily into the cellars, we soon noticed the odd cubic concrete vats (apparently not coated, which might make for arduous cleaning but is effective), which allow decent extraction and fermentation of small batches. The wines spend up to 18 months in barrel according to vintage traits and on the assertion of not wanting dominant oak flavours: “First we make a Pomerol wine, second we make a Gazin wine.” The 'malo' is done in barrels in the smart new chais enhanced by bâtonnage (lees stirring, increasingly trendy for fine reds) once a week for a month or so. Nicolas is no fan of micro-oxygenation and rightly questions the enduring benefits of this technique: “it may be good in the very short term, but after ten years?” They also don’t make use of concentrators and other such groovy gadgets.
Sometimes the post-fermentation maceration lasts for just 6-8 days, sometimes a fortnight; again this is governed by the characteristics of the vintage. “Always balance first, extraction is not the way to make great wine,” we’re told again admirably. However, on tasting Gazin (e.g. 2001 and 1999), this somehow doesn’t hold up. Don’t get me wrong, I like the wines but they’re quite macho and ‘modern’ in style. Back to the cellar, I noted that during maturation racking is carried out every three months, and they either fine or filter, “sometimes nothing as long as the wine is clean.” Although yields are usually only 45 hl/ha (and much less in 2002), thanks to the size of the estate they can select only 50-55% of the crop for the Grand Vin and sell off 10% as bulk. “I want to be able to sell worldwide, not artificially reduce volume for chic value,” Nicolas concludes. Can’t imagine who that was directed at...

Château Falfas: "biodynamic in Bordeaux" (2002).

This fetching, subtly grand yet unpretentious and workmanlike property is owned by John and Véronique Cochran and is located near Bayon in the Côtes de Bourg appellation to the north-east of Bordeaux on the Right Bank. This area isn’t known for great quality and hence its wines don’t command high prices, but that doesn’t do justice to certain individual estates which are reaching to applaud-worthy heights. Château Falfas is one of them and also unique in Bordeaux, as it's been run on biodynamic principles since 1988, thus joining such illustrious names as Zind-Humbrecht in Alsace, Huet in Vouvray and Chapoutier in the Rhône.
It’s easy to dismiss biodynamic viticulture and production as curiously hippy or pagan. I have to admit to being one of several sceptics who visited in February 2002, just waiting for a black cat to cross my path and meander devilishly into a room adorned with star charts and aerodynamic broomsticks. I’m not sure if I left the place feeling totally convinced about this increasingly less obscure grape growing philosophy, but did at least get the chance to relate the ideas to what, when and why they do what they do in the vineyard and cellar; and to taste their rather good red wines. Some aspects of bio-dynamism are indeed quite logical and more science-based than you may first think; some things are harder to grasp and accept…
The Château – originally dating from the 14th century but architecturally is pure regal 17th – is surrounded by fifteen hectares of vines with another seven across the road facing the Gironde. The vineyards are composed of 55% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec (an unfashionably high proportion) and 5% Cabernet Franc – more of the latter is being planted – and are well sited to catch the morning sun. Training is mostly double guyot (the two cane pruning and training system common in this region and St. Emilion for example) and plant density is below average for the area (6500 – 7000 vines per hectare) at about 5500. If any denser, John believes he’d “get more juice from these rich soils” – clay and loam on a limestone base – perhaps the opposite of what you might expect.
He showed us some rows of cherished 45-year-old vines; the oldest are 85-year-old Cabernets and the average is about 32. The young vineyard plots are trained to single guyot with an alternate spur on each side to control vigour. “You could easily produce 80 to 90 hectolitres per hectare, but here we get half that. It’s not difficult to produce this bio-dynamically,” he explained followed by a characteristic friendly cackle. John tries not to do green harvesting (removal of berries in the summer to reduce yields and concentrate those that remain) as he feels yields can increase the next year in compensation. “I prefer to control by short pruning to three buds. We also go for better aeration of the (leaf) canopy against botrytis and oidium for example.” The vineyard is prone to some risk of frost, but this is also combated by good natural air drainage conferred by proximity to the river.
So what are the essential differences between organic and biodynamic? “Our approach to the soil is different,” Véronique enlightened us, “with organic you use no synthetic chemicals but can still fertilise. Here the soil is richness, we access a living produce to achieve balance between vine and soil.” Nothing too mysterious there then. She continued, inspired by her beliefs: “To keep the vitality of the soil, a natural dynamism.” This ideology was first defined on paper by Rudolf Steiner in 1924.
The special handmade preparations and how they are created form the core of the practices, but the quantity and timing of their use are just as crucial. After the harvest, the first preparation of horn silica (quartz and cow horn) is applied to help the production of sap. Then comes ploughing, or rather tilling, enhanced by a judicious spray of ‘MT’ mixture on the soil: cow manure, basalt and eggshells. This helps support the soil against erosion too by maintaining the clay / humus structure, where a great variety of bacteria are found.
Bio-dynamists believe in “respecting the movement of the sap” and so only begin pruning after the tenth of February; doing this in November, say, when the sap is descending “can pull in spores and diseases.” Véronique applies whey and bentonite (a type of processed clay) to the vines painted onto the pruning scars and the head as a precaution against wood disease. The theory is that you’re preventing harmful bacteria from “filling a space.” On probing deeper we received a familiar answer: “It works empirically, it’s difficult to explain scientifically.” So how do they know it's this practice and not something else coincidental or combined with it that is achieving the desired effect? I found myself asking this question a few times in my mind; then again I haven’t spent fourteen years observing the results.
De-budding (ultimately to control yield) takes place after pruning in March followed by the next preparation made from manure. Tiny quantities are used – 120g per hectare – “to activate the natural living energy rather than to fertilise.” This is a fundamental part of the philosophy and reminds me of the principles behind homoeopathic medicine, to which comparisons can surely be made. The manure is mixed with water by stirring into a vortex then reversing the direction, and so on (more on this later). “It helps the deep-rooting of the roots – we’re not sure what it does exactly, as little scientific research has been done.” Similarly a mere 4g per hectare of horn silica is applied at a time, as it’s very concentrated, by using a horn pushed into the soil and left until summer. The thinking is to stimulate the growth of the canopy and promote a larger leaf area.
Véronique and John also make use of herbal infusions containing nettles and grasses to aid the flow of sap – “the leaves have a greener intensity after application.” Nettles also discourage certain pesky spiders etc; conversely other natural predators and insects are encouraged to boost the soil’s and the plants’ vitality. It’s all about trying to stimulate the vines to find their own defences against the things others lazily use synthetic sprays for, to craft an equilibrium of fauna and flora in the vineyard. Growers have had problems with a particular pest on the other side of the river; the only chemical spray available to combat it kills all insects, not just this one. A biodynamic alternative, which seems to discourage the attack, is to trap butterflies, burn and grind them (!) and apply as a spray in small quantities. “You can do it with other insects too and won’t leave any residue in the wine.”
Other preparations include willow alongside minute quantities of Bordeaux mixture (copper sulphate and lime). “An infusion of willow branches and leaves lessens the potential toxicity of copper, as it’s rich in a certain acid.” They have analysed the soil for minerals and trace metals and discovered no excessive copper. The balance is normal thanks to the amounts used: 300g per hectare compared to the "recommended" dosage of 15kg! “This level sterilises the soil by killing all organisms.” It’s worth noting that Denis Dubourdieu (professor at the Faculté d’Oenologie and leading consultant) is now interested in investigating the effect of copper sulphate on the aromas of Sauvignon Blanc. Sulphur is also employed against oidium, which is usual practice, but they’re looking to find other ways to defeat or avoid fungus.
The preparations are mixed for twenty minutes to an hour. The blades in the mixer turn for five minutes to the right then five to the left and so on; by creating an alternating vortex you obtain a better blend by drawing on the “cosmic effect” (Steiner). “But it works,” comes the reply once again, “it’s linked to the movements of the moon and sun.” In a similar way, racking is done when the moon is waning “so the aromas stay in the barrels!”
This isn’t as ridiculous as it sounds. An astronomical calendar was developed by Maria Thun to simplify the impact of solar cycles and the movements of the moon: there are four, known as seasons occurring within one 28-day movement. These gravitational forces apparently influence the respiration of plants, so Véronique consults the calendar for the best times to prepare, apply or undertake certain things. However, compromises are inevitably sometimes made depending on the weather etc. In the same vein, racking, bottling and all movements of wine are done in the second part of the season when the moon is descending, never when full. So the belief that it facilitates aromas to stay in the wine is in fact more logically connected with high atmospheric pressure. If there’s a storm, hence low pressure, they won’t rack as the lees don’t settle so readily.
Château Falfas produces about 120,000 bottles per annum from yields of 35 – 40 hectolitres per hectare. The grapes are sorted mostly in the vineyards and no SO2 is added at this stage, as rotten and unripe fruit is rejected. They are destemmed and lightly crushed, as normal, and the alcoholic fermentation is carried out by indigenous yeasts: “we never have problems starting and continuing.” John still uses cement vats and is “glad we didn’t switch to stainless steel, which transmits rapid temperature changes,” but instead utilises stainless steel radiators in the centre of the vats to maintain temperatures of 30 – 32 degrees. Each variety is vinified separately, the first assemblage being held back to just before the wine goes into barrel. From the third or fourth day, he pumps over about two thirds of the volume of the must once or twice a day, and performs delestage (‘rack and return’) two to three times per cuve.
Due to the lack of sulphites used, sometimes the malolactic fermentation starts too soon before they can press or draw off the fine wine. If it does, it can increase volatile acidity levels and lead to a shorter post-fermentation maceration. If not and the tannins are ripe, they’ll leave it for up to seven or eight weeks! John believes “good press wine is the skeleton of a good wine, we prefer to use it so don’t want hard tannins.” They have basket presses, which are very labour intensive but “it’s impossible to get green tannins and the juice filters over the skins.” The 'malo' takes place slowly at around 20 degrees; John did try it once in barrel but from his reaction obviously wasn’t convinced by this technique (perhaps softens the tannins and promotes colour stabilisation earlier).
In 2000, less maceration was needed to avoid the harsh tannins thanks to amazing ripeness levels. In 2001, the press wine was actually less tannic and richer than the fine wine – with a late harvest on 10 October, John opted for a 48-hour cold maceration at 4 degrees. In addition, he does batonnage for Chevalier, the top old-vine cuvée, tasting the lees as it progresses, gradually rejecting "the bitter stuff" then returning the rest.
The assemblage is put together in foudres (large old barrels) then the wine is aged for 12 to 18 months in barriques, one third of them new including some Burgundy barrels. John doesn’t fine or filter the wines if he can avoid it. He buys corks of one grade below the highest quality available but laments “they’re still not as good as the quality you got ten years ago.”
In the end, they usually reach 12–12.5% alcohol levels naturally without chaptalisation or whatever, which must say something commendable about the quality of the vineyards, site and soils; vineyard and fruit health; viticulture and vinification practices, although the latter are more-or-less traditional and widespread. John also claims he wouldn’t use concentrators in a rainy or poor vintage: “I want to keep concentration in the vineyard,” he said followed by his endearing, slightly barmy cackle.
And what about the costs involved in converting to and maintaining biodynamic grape growing? The risks are most apparent in the transitional period, but the effects on cost are accumulative as you are able to use (and pay out for) less and less Bordeaux mixture and sulphur, for example, as the vines’ immunity builds up. Of course you still have to contend with problems posed by rot, pests, and the cost of equipment and labour. However, the Cochrans have obviously done their sums and reckon their way of farming (and of life) is slightly more costly overall than, say, a neighbour’s who uses fertilisers, pesticides etc. But "only perhaps 4% more per hectare," and their figures include hand-harvesting, which costs at least twice as much as by machine. So, kind on the wallet as well as the land you could say.
Château Falfas sells for the modest price of about 10 Euros per bottle and the Chevalier approx 17 – about 50% of production in France and the rest in all major international markets. We tasted the 1995, 1998 and 2000 vintages, and the Chevalier 1998.
1995 Medium to full depth of colour, the nose is quite ripe and smoky with hints of manure and leafy edges; the quite rich concentration of fruit shows some development on the palate too, medium-firm tannins but fairly rounded and leaving a textured dry coating, still quite young really with nice balance of fruit and silky tannins on the finish. Has thrown a fair deposit due to minimal fining and filtration, so worth decanting.
1998 Not as exuberant as the 95 at this stage, but the winemaker feels his quality has moved up due to better control of yields through pruning, debudding and higher quality barrels. Less intense colour than the 95, the nose is a little closed but offers some clean light cherry fruit; medium concentration and reasonable structure thanks to quite soft and smooth tannins underpinned by elegant cherry fruit and earthy notes, the length is also decent with attractive fresh acidity. Drinking well now, perhaps lacks weight and concentration to mature much beyond 2-3 years.
2000 Intense, youthful and purple depth of colour with fragrant black cherry fruit, quite ripe with hints of smoky oak; good depth of ripe fruit balanced by firm structured tannins, which are also ripe and fine textured and leave an appealing dry coating in the mouth; intense length supported by fresh acidity and more noticeable alcohol, this certainly has weight yet elegance too.
1998 Chevalier
Medium intensity of purple and showing oak notes on the nose (18 months in new barrels) and elderberry fruit underneath, this has a more austere style than their regular cuvée (it's mostly Cabernet) and offers fair concentration of richer fruit and firm tannins but well integrated building to structured finish. Attractive length of dry but round tannins, some acidity and the fruit closes up a little, but the overall depth and complexity suggest it needs 5+ years to develop.

"Bordeaux travel, in brief..." (2001)

I feel like a Château-tourist celebrity-spotting as the grand and famous village names stroll serenely by through the coach window: Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, Saint-Estèphe... If you’re into wine and in particular Bordeaux red wine, a drive up the D2 road northwest of the city along the Gironde estuary offers a taste of the style, elegance and opulence, as you drool over some of these magnificent buildings and vineyards and dream of their produce caressing your palate or washing down some fine nosh. For these are France’s elite, the replacement aristocracy and that means top quality, sought-after and expensive.
For most of us, it’s rare to get the chance to taste or drink the individual Grands Crus Classés – ‘Great Classed Growths’ literally, graded on the controversial (outside Bordeaux at least) 1855 Classification – wines of the Haut-Médoc, as this area is called, and almost impossible to visit these leading Châteaux. So when I did, the opportunity was swiftly and keenly grasped.
It was late April and every person we met complained it had been raining since last October, which didn’t bode well for the vintage this year. This follows the very good 2000 (it certainly seems that way having tasted a few from barrel), which is creating excitement and accompanying surges of greed as prices begin to soar once again. But such is the essence of fine Bordeaux: relishing in the difficulty and diversity each year can bring and making the most of it when the time is, or isn’t, right.
On visiting Château Beychevelle, a handsome ‘4th Growth’ in St. Julien, another common theme came to light – the estate is owned by a French insurance company and the Japanese giant Suntory. The spiralling cost of land around here and the investment needed to maintain the property, buy equipment etc. have made it very difficult for the original families to hold on to them. On smelling the many sweet-scented new oak barrels in the cellar, for instance, it’s easy to see where the money goes.
Claire Villars-Lurton, effervescent owner and winemaker of Château Ferrière, was ebullient about the resurrection of this small, lesser-known 3rd Cru in Margaux. She's also indicative of an increasing trend in still ‘traditional’ Bordeaux: even Château d’Yquem, producer of superb sweet Sauternes, now has a younger female enologist. But I suppose the highlight had to be Premier League Château Margaux itself, the quintessential regal palace with tree-lined sweeping drive, and the chance to chat with world-respected director Paul Pontallier. But not forgetting probably unrepeatable memories of the quirkily named Lafon-Rochet, Cos d’Estournel, Lynch-Bages, Lagrange, Rauzan-Ségla (tasting notes to be dug up hopefully...)
On the last day, we hired cars and toured vineyards around Saint-Émilion to the east of Bordeaux. This quaint, wealthy mediaeval town is a must-see – evidently judging by the amount of tourists there – teeming with wine and macaroon (the other local speciality) shops, restaurants and kneecap-smashing, steep stone alleys. That evening we sought out the excellent Bistro du Sommelier (56 96 71 78) just out of the centre of crumbling, imperial Bordeaux. Good honest food and a wine-drinker’s dream; the extensive list is ludicrously well priced. Our table guzzled several quality bottles and the total bill still only came to under £40 per head – probably would have cost over £400 here.

All rights Richard Mark James

More Bordeaux here.


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