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Off to Bordeaux….

Although it doesn’t feel like summer I have just checked my calendar and it is indeed July. In recent weeks the weather outside seems to have lurched from rain to a thick, grey, swirling fog, before swinging back to rain again, so it made sense to double-check just in case I had accidentally slept through summer and woken up in winter.

But no, it’s definitely July, and that means it is time to take my summer break. For three weeks I will sleep in a little later in the morning, as I take a temporary hiatus from updating Winedoctor and jet off to a sunnier clime. Well, it should be sunnier; to be fair it would surely be difficult to find anywhere with worse weather than we have had in the UK this summer. This really has to be the most miserable, dampy and foggy June and July that I can ever recall.

I’m off to Bordeaux in a few hours. Well, I try not to stray too far from the vine if I can help it. I’m really looking forward to it; the break will be very welcome, and the family time valuable. But so close to the vineyards of Bordeaux it’s only natural that I might want to do a little exploring and investigating, and so there are one or two appointments in the mix of holiday activities currently planned.

Jacques Guinaudeau, Château Lafleur

My appointments are a mix of familiar friends and new faces; the former domaines I know well, the latter estates with which I’m less familiar. I will be kicking off in a couple of days with Jacques Guinaudeau of Château Lafleur (pictured above), definitely a new face. Although I have met Jacques before, and visited Lafleur before, my time there was short, and I’m hoping to acquire a richer knowledge of the domaine on this visit. I’m also off to Tertre-Roteboeuf to meet François Mitjavile, another estate I am not particularly familiar with, and although I’m well acquainted with the wines of Château Teyssier, I am not so experienced with the rest of the Jonathan Maltus portfolio (Le Dôme, Les Asteries, etc.), so I’m looking forward to meeting Jonathan.

My other visits are to estates with which I am more familiar, and some I have visited before. These include in Sauternes Yquem, Coutet and Clos Haut-Peyraguey (and I have some free time there, so other suggestions are welcome), and in Pessac-Léognan I’m off to Château Brown (hopefully for a retaste of the 2010 Château Brown Blanc, which seems to have cleaned up in the UK-based wine competitions this year with a white Bordeaux trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards and the International Wine Challenge). And between France’s two great rivers lies Château Bauduc, run by Gavin Quinney, who I will also be visiting.

I’ve avoided the Médoc because the location of my accommodation is best suited for the right bank appellations and Graves & Sauternes. And I suspect I will be returning to the Médoc before the year is out anyway. So far I haven’t made any appointments during the third week, but I’m sure that will change. And if you think the timetable looks light, don’t forget this is meant to be a holiday as well! Tasting and visiting every day just isn’t an option. An evening at Au Bonheur du Palais, the restaurant I mentioned in yesterday’s Cheval Blanc & Brown report, is an option though. If only I could remember the time and date of my reservation……

Depending on internet access I may pop up here on the Winedr blog from time to time, or on Twitter, otherwise until Winedoctor updates resume on August 6th it is au revoir from me.

New Fizz from the Loire

One of the delights of the Loire is the strong array of sparkling wines now available. Once, many years ago, I thought Loire fizz was limited to Saumur. Then I discovered Crémant de Loire, and Vouvray, and then Montlouis. More recently there has been a revival of the méthode ancestrale to give us what is commonly known as pétillant naturel. Indeed, thanks to the increasing acceptance of Vin de France, vignerons with an experimental streak can make just about whatever style they fancy these days, pétillant naturel or otherwise, using whatever variety they have to hand.

Last week’s wine of the week is an example of the latter, the latest release (officially a non-vintage cuvée, but actually 2011) of Boisson Rouge from Domaine de Montrieux. Below I report on two examples of the other aforementioned styles, one Saumur and one Crémant de Loire, both from highly talented winemakers, including one who put in 15 years at Bollinger. Nevertheless, although they may wear the name of long-established appellations on their labels, both are new interpretations, new examples of what can be achieved within the remit of these appellations.

Château de l'Aulée Brut and Germain/Chevre Bulles Roches

Thierry Germain & Michel Chevré Saumur Bulles de Roches NV: I tasted this very recently at the Real Wine Fair, but it is immediately obvious that this wine is different to that shown there (the same was true of the Boisson Rouge, as it happens). The appearance does not have that same intense yellow-gold hue, but a more pure, polished appearance. There is a plentiful bead. The nose is fresh and firm, with bright stony fruit. It is polished, ripe, expressive, suggestive of substance but with a bright and defined frame. Bright and full, with a creamy top layer, and underneath a firm and steely seam of acid and crunchy minerality. It has a lemony bite, and a limestoney substance, but with a bare but adequate seam of ripe fruit all around it. It is long, grippy, pure, slightly austere and structured. Overall a very good wine. 16.5/20 (July 2012)

Château de l’Aulée Crémant de Loire Brut NV: Owner and winemaker Marielle Henrion worked at Bollinger for 15 years before buying this property in the Loire. This has a fine bead in the glass, and a pale lemon-gold hue. There are aromas of cashew nut, underpinned by a dried-fruit richness, which is also fresh, clean and open, yet it remains stylish and convincing. In the mouth it shows a lovely, poised mousse, giving the wine a gently creamy feel, reinforcing its fine-boned polished-fruit richness, which is also defined by an attractive and grippy edge. Some very stylish notes here, a broad feel, and overall a confident and supple wine. A long finish. Overall very impressive; surely the closest I’ve experienced to Bollinger elegance in the Loire. 16.5/20 (July 2012)

Catching up with Couly-Dutheil

I thought the 2003 Clos de l’Echo Crescendo, from Couly-Dutheil, which featured as my wine of the week just a short while ago, was really stunning. So I decided to check in on a few more wines from the Clos de l’Echo. Not the Crescendo though, as the only vintage of this I possess is the aforementioned 2003, just the standard Clos de l’Echo.

These remain strong wines; OK, I admit I have a soft-spot for Clos de l’Echo, as I drank a bottle at one of my graduation dinners, back sometime in the 17th century (well, that’s how it feels). But sentiment isn’t enough to keep me buying wines; these are wines I am happy to have in my cellar. They are rather pricy for Chinon, but the quality is good. By chance the 2005 ended up in a glass next to a 2000 Bordeaux (I won’t say which, but cru classé, third growth, Margaux). The Chinon was undoubtedly the more convincing wine.

Couly Dutheil Clos de l'Echo - 1997, 2003, 2005

Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de l’Echo 1997: This wine has displayed something of a split personality over the years, sometimes ripe and impressive, sometimes green. This bottle is different again, as we have marked evolution here. The first sign of this is the dark and aged hue in the glass, more oxblood than red, and with a mahogany tone to it than I don’t find reassurring. The nose takes a little while to open up, at first reticent and green, but with more exposure to air it shows more appealing aromas of smoky tobacco, tar, red liquorice, rose petals and sea shells. The palate is upright but gentle in terms of its structure, but through the middle it shows sappy, dry, pithy substance along with lean, bitter-fruit grip. Aromatically enticing, but with a slightly austere and reserved character in the mouth. Most importantly none of that really obvious green, celeriac-like character coming therough at all, just a little twist of greenness in the finish. It does seem a little more evolved than I expected too; this bottle may not be typical. Nevertheless I really like its evolved, mature style. 17/20 (July 2012)

Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de l’Echo 2003: A really convincing colour in the glass, a very dark core, and a concentrated if rather wide rim. The fruit character is remarkably tense for a wine from a vintage that has a reputation for warmth and softness, perhaps even a baked character. Not here though; the fruit has a very crunchy edge, bringing to mind the bite of cranberries, and the bitter twang of red cherry skin and cherry stone. All of this is intertwined with notes of smoke, charcoal and soot, and although there is a tinge of green peppercorn as noted previously it is remarkably subtle. The palate starts off with a very firm character at first, and here the fruit does show a rather leaner, smoky, charcoaly style. There is a little touch of pepper to it as well, but mainly it is all about minerally, just-ripe fruit. The finish is long, dry, still tannin-infused, and savoury. There is plenty of structure here, and also plenty of promise for the future still. And what reassures me most is the very convincing, silky texture that seems to be emerging from underneath the grit of the wine in the midpalate. 17.5/20 (July 2012)

Couly-Dutheil Chinon Clos de l’Echo 2005: Dark and glossy, and yet an obviously vibrant hue when decanted. The aromas are just explosive, the freshly decanted wine filling the room with scents of cranberry, blackcurrants and smoky tobacco. On further assessment these fruit characteristics are also joined by a firm seam of red fruits, raspberries and strawberries, but with a fine pencil-lead and pepercorn bite to them. There’s a tinge of green here that I really like, minty, melding with the aformentioned peppercorn scents and not anything leafy or herbaceous. There’s also something meaty and gamey, rich like pork fat, but it is subtle. The wine certainly has the texture of the 2005 vintage, the weight bold and creamy from the start, and it remains dense and velvety through the middle, although it also allows a remarkable amount of grip and acid to come in on the midpalate as well, such that it shows a good balance of structural components, even if they do all feel a little disparate right now. Fruit with a real bite to it here, not overdone despite the sweet and generous texture, and a good grippy finish. Delicious wine, from a great vintage, that should be stunning given time. 18/20 (July 2012)

Le Thil Sold

Château Le Thil (more formally known as Le Thil Comte Clary) is not the best known of châteaux in Pessac-Léognan, but it does have a following among Bordeaux acolytes keen to seek out good quality wines that also offer good value. Sadly, due to an inability to deal with the inheritance of the estate (not uncommon under French law, the crippling inheritance tax the usual key to any failure in passing the estate on from one generation to the next) the de Laitre family have now been forced to sell. And what is worse, the estate is being carved up, with two near neighbours each taking a share.

The lion’s share goes to Daniel and Florence Cathiard, who have done so much to reinvigorate Smith-Haut-Lafitte (pictured below), both in terms of its wines – now picking up maximum scores from the Big Boy in Baltimore – and also the estate as a whole. There have been renovations aplenty, as well as the creation of restaurants, hotel and a spa at Les Sources de Caudalie, run by one of the Cathiards’ daughters. They take 11.6 hectares of the vineyard, the château and parkland. By all accounts the Cathiards have been after the estate for several years; this suggests they have something specific in mind for the estate. The Le Thil vineyards were once part of Smith-Haut-Lafitte, when it was owned by Lodi Duffour Dubergier, onetime mayor of Bordeaux; it was, notably, Duffour Dubergier who signed off the 1855 classification. This suggests to me the vineyards will be absorbed into Smith-Haut-Lafitte; although there is a historical precedence, this seems a shame. If this comes to pass, a once good-value estate will now generate increased volumes of increasingly expensive Smith-Haut-Lafitte instead.

Le Thil sold to owners of Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Les Carmes Haut-Brion

The remaining 5.6 hectares goes to Patrice Pichet, proprietor of Les Carmes Haut-Brion. Pichet only bought Les Carmes in 2011 (which reminds me, I have yet to update my profile to reflect that). He takes 5.6 hectares to augment his vineyard. This is at least a slightly reassuring message; when he acquired the château last year, some expressed concerns that Pichet – a property developer by day – had no intention to continue with viticulture on the estate, and instead develop the property for housing or something similar. This is of course always a concern with those Pessac estates that sit right on the edge of Bordeaux, or indeed are already swallowed up by the suburbs. One year on, with Pichet buying more vines, the concerns raised seem less of an issue today.

I will update my profiles of Smith-Haut-Lafitte and Les Carmes Haut-Brion as soon as possible.

Chateau Olivier: Jean-Jacques de Bethmann dies

This week I learnt of the death of the proprietor of Château Olivier, Jean-Jacques de Bethmann, reported first by – as is often the case with news out of Bordeaux – Sud-Ouest.

Château Olivier has been in the hands of the de Bethmann family since it was acquired by Alexandre de Bethmann in the late-19th century. The de Bethmann family are descended from German nobility, and grew into a successful banking dynasty, and so probably didn’t have any great shortage of funds; the acquisition of an attractive and ancient property such as Olivier was probably not much of a fiscal challenge, especially if we consider the family also owned Gruaud-Larose at one point, and their bank made a significant contribution towards the financing of the construction of the Eiffel Tower. Today the bank they created lives on as the Bethmann Bank.

From Alexandre Château Olivier was passed down through the generations, eventually coming to Jean-Jacques. Despite being an absentee landlord, entrusting the winemaking to director Laurent Lebrun (who I have met many times at tastings in London and Bordeaux), Jean-Jacques was a huge figure in Bordeaux. The region has not just lost a respected proprietor; he was also président of the Union des Crus Classés de Graves (the local union, which is distinct from the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux) and was a member of the Technical Commission of the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux.

In recent months the estate has been run by his son Alexandre de Bethmann, along with Laurent Lebrun of course, and this will continue in the future. I am hopeful that the handover of control will perhaps see the full potential of Château Olivier realised. There is no denying de Bethmann’s fine work in and for Bordeaux, but the wines of the cru classé Olivier are – despite some breathless reports describing the estate as “the most important property in Léognan” – clearly outshone by those of Olivier’s nextdoor neighbour, the unclassified Château Brown.

I will update my profile of Château Olivier as soon as I have the opportunity.

Roederer Wine Writing Awards: Shortlisted!

Roederer Awards 2012I’m absolutely delighted to have been shortlisted for a Roederer wine writing award, for the second year running. I’ve been listed in the Online Columnist/Blogger of the Year category (what a grand title!), the same category as last year.

Last year’s victor was Alice Feiring, a well-deserved win. This year I’m up against Joss Fowler of www.vinolent.net, Richard Hemming of www.jancisrobinson.com and Andrew Jefford of www.decanter.com. Clearly that is a very strong field, and I don’t fancy my chances (I seem to recall saying the same thing last year!), but it is a pleasure and honour to be listed among such illustrious names. I honestly believe Andrew probably leads the pack; his weekly blog articles for Decanter have been really popular in recent months, and whereas I’m sure all those listed have good wine knowledge (I hope including myself in that isn’t considered boastful) and thus all inform the reader, nobody writes quite like Andrew. And this is a wine writing award, after all. Regardless of these thoughts though, best of luck to all shortlisted, including Andrew, Joss and Richard.

Many thanks to all those who have offered congratulations on being listed (generally on Twitter), that means just as much as me as the listing itself; these include Olly Smith, Gavin Quinney, Will Lyons (and thanks for your comments on my Bordeaux book too), Rose Murray Brown, Tim Atkin and Laura Clay.

The judges this year are Charles Metcalfe (chairman), Margaret Rand, Jamie Goode, Peter Richards, Liz Sagues and Anthony Rose, and coordinator for the Artistry of Wine Award is Victoria Hall.

For the full list of finalists, see the Roederer 2012 Awards Shortlist.

Calon-Segur Sold: New Price Record

Rumours about the sale of Calon-Ségur have been circulating for months now; it has always been a possibility, mooted on and off, following the death of Denise Capbern-Gasqueton in September 2011. But in the past couple of weeks, prompted by a short article reportedly printed in La Revue des Vins de France, the intensity and frequency of the rumours increased, to the point at which confirmation – which came today though Sud Ouest – seemed inevitable.

The new owner is yet another insurance company, Suravenir Assurances. The company, which was only created in 1996, is an affiliate of Crédit Mutuel Arkéa, a major French bank based in Strasbourg but operating throughout France and abroad. Suravenir Assurances is a small component of this financial group but is clearly in a strong position. Speaking on behalf of Arkéa, Jean-Pierre Denis – who served in Chirac’s cabinet – has already indicated that the acquisition is part of a diversification of assets and that there is strong potential for investment, upgrading and, in words unspoken, there is no doubt a plan for firmer prices and increased revenue generation as well. Purchases of Bordeaux châteaux at this level have long ceased to be foibles I think; the return per bottle for wines that sell at the price of the first growths, as well as notable seconds and thirds (and one or two fifth growths too, before the Pontet Canet fans complain) is absolutely phenomenal.

Calon-Segur

The last major land transaction in St Estèphe that springs to mind was the sale of 22 hectares by Phélan-Ségur to Montrose, a deal agreed in 2010. There the land changed hands at a price of €900,000 per hectare; at the time this was the most paid per hectare for any St Estèphe transaction, although such figures are much closer to the norm in Pauillac or St Julien. Suffice to say that the sale of Calon-Ségur wipes the floor with such measly sums. The deal, which purportedly has been brokered with the help of Jean-François Moueix (as he did with the sale of Montrose by the Charmolüe to the Bouygues brothers) will be signed off at a price somewhere between €170 and €200 million.

This transaction is slightly different, as this is not just land but a château, winemaking facilities, stocks of wine in barrel and of course whatever bottled stocks are currently held, and we should not forget it also includes Château Capbern-Gasqueton as well. Even so, the price as it stands, wherever it falls in the possible range, is getting on for €2 million per hectare. Even if you were to say half the money to change hands is for the château, stocks and Château Capbern-Gasqueton, this is still the most expensive transaction in St Estèphe, in terms of price per hectare, by some considerable margin. Hélène Capbern Gasqueton and her husband, Alain de Baritault, are reported by Sud Ouest to be “heartboken” at having to make the sale. I’m sure the €200 million will go some way to easing their pain!

Now that rumours appear to be fact, I will update my Calon-Ségur profile as soon as possible. Although I have some other reports of sales and acquisitions in Bordeaux to work on yet. It seems to be transfer season at the moment!

Rives-Blanques Revisited

Three years ago I spent a few weeks very close to Limoux, and developed a real soft spot for the wines. I’m not sure if it is the idiosyncrasy of the appellation, which is best known for its white and sparkling wines, not a common finding in the Languedoc (apart from Picpoul de Pinet, are there any others?), which creates the appeal, or whether it is the underdog status of Mauzac, one of the principal varieties. Or perhaps it is the fact that Chenin Blanc has a strong role here, perhaps the only French appellation outside the Loire where that is the case? Or perhaps it is just the sheer quality of the wines; for sparkling wines I enjoyed those from Antech most of all, but for still wines Château Rives-Blanques would have to be pretty high up the list.

Rives-Blanques

Here are notes on four recently tasted wines from this estate:

Château Rives-Blanques Limoux Dédicace 2006: It is a couple of years since I tasted this last, when it showed classic honey and straw Chenin Blanc aromas. It has certainly changed since then; the colour in the glass has a deep and golden hue. The nose is less expressive than previously, showing some withdrawn fruit, spiced wood, with a touch of orange fruit. The palate is robust, with early evolving Chenin Blanc character, dense but with a great richness, with nuances of toffee in the supple background. The palate takes on a firm, rounded and broad feel as a result, with firm acidity, but it is well balanced by the substance and grip of the wine. Overall, quite solid, almost creamy in its character, and fairly long in the finish. Certainly an impressive, substantial, and remarkably grippy wine. having said that, I have no idea where this is going; is it going to blossom into maturity, or just dive into an impenetrable funk? It’s hard to know; I’m glad I opened this bottle now. 16.5/20 (July 2012)

Château Rives-Blanques Sauvageon (VdP d’Oc) 2008: This is barrel fermented, and is not your average Sauvignon Blanc. On the nose there is a firm, rocky minerality, and exotic fruit elements suggestive of stone fruit and pear skin, although with a deep, savoury, wild and feral character. Alongside is a richer, toffee-melon edge most probably a residual element from the oak. It also has an appealing matchsticky element to it which gives it a really attractive feel, and which enhances the minerality. The palate has a similarly well defined savoury substance, surprisingly deep with a good meaty-fruit character. A fine substance, with fresh, defining acidity here, and overall a really very attractive, pithy, tropical style backed up by a dense phenolic backbone, giving a slightly bitter streak – attractively so – into the finish. It is pretty long too. Lots of winemaking and style here, but overall I like this. 16/20 (July 2012)

Rives-Blanques

Château Rives-Blanques Limoux Trilogie 2008: Perhaps the domaine’s most successful wine, this is a blend of the three varieties of Limoux, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac. There is also some oak here too, as evident on the nose, which although attractive with its sweet citrus tones reminiscent of orange zest and orange oils, rich and defined, there are also cashew nut edges from the barrels. I also find some peachy notes, and a scented character, giving it a very lightly musky edge, as well as hints of acacia. On the palate it has a sense of tense, structured poise, with lightly pithy fruit, dry and grippy, with good fruit texture. There is still quite some grip reflecting the oak élevage here. And it is still very primary, at not-quite four years of age. Clearly there is some serious potential for further development here, a thought reinforced by the wine’s sappy, lengthy, grippy finish. This is one that should have been left in the cellar. 17/20 (July 2012)

Château Rives-Blanques Cuvée Xaxa Vendange d’Hiver (Vin de Table) 2004: The domaine’s sweet wine. A slightly burnished lemon gold hue in the glass, golden but with deep and dusty hints at times. The nose carries some sweetness, with scents reminiscent of lemons and marmalade, the lift of the fresh citrus fruit combining quite nicely with the sweet, lightly perfumed, orange-tinged richness. I find an overt sweetness on the start of the palate, but this is offset by a steely structure and a slightly bitter frame. This persists through the wine, which shows a dusty and very tangible substance in the very middle, a feature which stays alive right through to the finish, where a more savoury, spicy element dominates. The considerable length is where this bitter structure materialises most readily. An attractive wine. 15.5/20 (July 2012)