The prevailing image of Bordeaux is one of staid tradition, of beautifully restored châteaux spewing out a panoply of increasingly unaffordable wines, all of which tend to follow a set formula with regards to assemblage, fermentation, vineyard management and so on. With this thought in mind, though, it is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that this ‘image’ actually relates to a small number – perhaps just one or two hundred – of high profile, cru classé and similarly-ranked estates.
Estimates of just how many wine-producing estates (I could write châteaux here, but some barely qualify as a barn) there are in Bordeaux varies, but most suggested figures lie somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000. That is a lot of winemakers, and a lot of vines, and it hardly seems credible that they should all toe the party line. Do they all restrict themselves to planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, fermenting in thermo-regulated steel and aging in oak? Are they really all busy trying to emulate the wines of Château Margaux or Château Latour, and no doubt dreaming of being able to charge the same prices as these more illustrious estates? There is a great expanse of vineyard in this wine region, spread out over the land south of the city of Bordeaux and Pessac-Léognan, between the Garonne and the Dordogne, and up the right bank to Blaye and Bourg. Surely, somewhere, there must be someone in this great vineyard doing it his (or her) way?
Of course there is. One estate with a new approach I have profiled is Château du Retout, where Hélène and Frédéric Soual have planted an eclectic mix of white varieties – Gros Manseng, Sauvignon Gris, Savagnin and Mondeuse Blanche – as they prefer to produce a more eclectic and, to be frank, more exciting Vin de France rather than go with the Sauvignon-Semillon flow. Another who refuses to do things any way other than his way is Dominique Léandre-Chevalier (pictured above). Although the varieties here are the traditional Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, that is where ‘convention’ ends. An interminable experimenter, Dominique runs a very unusual domaine, one that is certainly worth exploring.