Château La Tour Carnet
The appellation system is an inconsistent master. Sometimes it speaks with authority and consideration, carving out vineyards in meticulous detail. And in the same vein it can also be open and receptive, amenable to change. The vineyards of Burgundy are the most obvious example, grand cru separated from premier cru by invisible barriers which sometimes take the easy route, coursing down roads and paths, but sometimes they cut right across vineyards, rows of vines on one side enjoying elevated grand cru status, taking all the limelight, casting a long shadow over the ‘mere’ premier cru also-rans next-door. These also-rans can, of course, apply for promotion to grand cru status; it will most likely be a long and weary process, but there is a precedent for promotion in place. It can be done.
Elsewhere, however, the appellation system makes no sense, boundaries drawn in the most lazy fashion. More often than not this reflects the communal approach, when eligibility for an appellation is based on where one commune ends, and another begins. While this is administratively simple, it can often bear no relation to terroir or the potential of the domaine in question. Just to the west of the commune of St-Julien-Beychevelle, in St-Laurent-Médoc, is one of Bordeaux’s best examples of just such a distinction. To the east of the boundary lie the vineyards of St Julien, specifically those of Château Lagrange. To the west we have the Haut-Médoc appellation, and here we find clustered together Château Belgrave, Château Camensac and Château La Tour-Carnet. It is the same sandy gravel on both sides of the boundary, and these châteaux are St Julien in all but name. And they are worth knowing about.
The first time I caught sight of Château La Tour Carnet it was immediately clear, even though at that time I hadn’t opened a history book in many years, that this was a property of quite ancient origins. While there are many ancient grand cru classé châteaux, few possess an overtly feudal form. Château La Tour Carnet, though, is essentially a small castle or rectangular keep (a donjon I think the French would call it) at the front and running right around the back there is a moat (whoever said Château d’Issan was the only classed growth estate with a moat obviously never visited Château La Tour Carnet). Behind it there sits a more elegant residence, although still largely built using the same rough-cut stone which gives the entire construction an ancient air. The oldest part of the building is a small round tower, which grows up one corner of the keep; this is said to date from the 11th century. I don’t think there is a classed growth château on the left bank that can claim a more ancient beginning than that.
Originally known as Château de St-Laurent, this fortress was inhabited as early as the 12th century, by a family of English origin. This may seem surprising but with the marriage of Aliénor d’Aquitaine (a name frequently Anglicised to Eleanor of Aquitaine) to Henry II of England, Bordeaux and much of the surrounding land was under the rule of the English crown. Several centuries later, when the French and the English came to blows during the course of the Hundred Years’ War, the fortress at St-Laurent would have constituted a valuable military asset.