Le Retout Blanc 2011
This week, a wine to dispel a dozen notions. A wine with a story. And what's more, it tastes pretty good too.
The vines that gave birth to this wine were planted in 1971 in Cussac-Fort-Médoc, one of the communes that lies between St Julien to the north, and Margaux to the south (Listrac and Moulis, which most people would place here when playing the ever-popular game of 'pin the commune to the map', actually sit slightly inland, away from the Gironde). The vineyard was established with the authority of the Institut National des Appellations d'Origine (INAO), who had granted planting rights for the Haut-Médoc appellation. They were Merlot vines, and for decades the fruit was harvested and included in the wine of Château du Retout. Then, out of the blue, an INAO inspection determined that the vines in question were outside the appellation boundary. The fruit could no longer be included in the wine. What to do?
As it happens, says Hélène Soual of Château du Retout, it didn't really matter. She and husband Fréderic had wanted to make a white wine for some time, and this was the perfect opportunity. The Merlot vines were grafted over to white varieties instead, a process which always sounds like an easy option but is in fact labour intensive and costly, so it is not to be undertaken lightly. Planting Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon (these are the most commonly encountered, although other eligible varieties include Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle) would have resulted in wine eligible for the Bordeaux Blanc appellation, but it seems that Hélène and Fréderic wanted to do something a little different.
The grafting involved just 1.5 hectares of vines, and these were committed to the following varieties; Gros Manseng, a variety I would normally associate with the south-west, especially Jurançon, and this now constitutes a significant part of the vineyard, at 40%. Also at 40% is Sauvignon Gris, the pink-tinged cousin of Sauvignon Blanc, and then there is 10% each of Savagnin (not so much Jurançon, more Jura) and Mondeuse Blanche (which is probably more at home in Savoie or Bugey). Not a drop of Semillon of Sauvignon Blanc to be seen! This makes for an eclectic blend, bringing varieties from distant lands to see how they perform on the gravelly soils of the Médoc. It is yet another example of exciting innovation from Bordeaux, one that again illustrates that those who decry the region as boring and irrelevant to modern consumers are displaying nothing more than their myopia. Look beyond the grey suits of the cru classé châteaux and you have a region full of committed and impassioned individuals no different to any other region. You just need to explore and discover; isn't that the wine communicator's job?
The wine, the 2011 Le Retout Blanc, was harvested at a yield of just 8.3 hl/ha, giving just 1600 bottles. The blend in this vintage (the second, following the inaugural vintage in 2010) is 57% Gros Manseng, 22% Sauvignon Gris, 16% Mondeuse Blanche and 5% Savagnin. In the glass it has a pale, straw-gold hue, looking fresh and bright. The nose is deliciously different, bright and with distinctive fruit flavours that certainly indicate the presence of something other than the usual Bordeaux bend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. The fruit character has a tropical twist, with a hint of melon, but otherwise it calls to mind bright and ripe orchard fruits, perhaps with some orange citrus notes, as well as a chalky substance. There's even a little bit of lychee here. Such fruit richness might suggest a fleshy hedonism to come on the palate, but nothing could be further from the truth. The wine has a dry and taut substance interwoven with sweet orchard fruit and citrus pith, as well as the structure and grip which partly reflects the concentration of the fruit (and perhaps low yields) and partly the use of oak in this vintage (ten months in oak for half the crop, in barrels on their second vintage). The finish is sappy, mouth-watering and even offers up some length. This is a really characterful wine, full of interesting nuances. Overall this is very fine, a wine which is good to drink now but which might be better with a year or two I think; the wine will cope well, harmonise, and the oak should integrate a little better. Well done. 16/20 (19/11/12)