Château Grand Village Les Champs Libres 2013
We all know that today Bordeaux is a region dominated by red wines, and I suspect most reading this are also aware that it was not always this way, and that it was once a predominantly white wine region. What is surprising, however, is how recent the red varieties, in particular Merlot, have arrived at this dominant position, especially when we consider that the region’s reputation seems to have been resting on red wines ever since the appearance of the New French Clarets in London in the early 18th century. Even as recently as the 1950s Bordeaux was still a white wine region, the white plantings outweighing red by two-to-one, Semillon the most widely planted variety. It was only during the 1970s that the balance between white and red reached a point of equilibrium, and of course since then red has completely taken control. Today Bordeaux has only one white vine planted for every nine that are red.
Of course much of this shift occurred in lesser vineyards, growers in the Entre-Deux-Mers keen to plant red varieties and cash in on the slightly higher prices the resulting wines could achieve over the whites. In grander vineyards, however, many clung onto their white vines. In Pessac-Léognan the white varieties soldier on, even if it sometimes seems as though the wine trade have to spend a not insignificant chunk of their time pleading with punters to buy the wines. So too in the broader Graves appellation, which also continues on with a healthy mix of both white and red. This distribution of the white vineyards is, however, something of a Bordeaux conundrum, one over which I have long scratched my head. When we consider that the grand right bank appellations are so long-established (St Emilion seemingly having been planted to vines during Roman times) and when the terroir would seem to me to be so favourable, why have they been devoid of white varieties for so long?
Perhaps this question also vexed the Guinaudeau family, proprietors of Château Lafleur in Pomerol. Of course, there are white varieties planted on the right bank, from those at the Guinaudeau homestead, Château Grand Village in Fronsac, to a handful of vineyards (some very recent additions to the white Bordeaux pantheon) on the limestone slopes and plateau of St Emilion. Even with this favourable terroir, however, the mindset still seemed very firmly anchored in Bordeaux traditionalism and in the ‘making’ of the wine. The paradigm for right-bank whites seems established; use not just Sauvignon Blanc, but Semillon too, ensure there is plenty of new oak, and employ barrel fermentation and élevage, with plenty of bâtonnage, producing a richer, more obvious, flattering and creamy style of wine perhaps mirroring the wines of Pessac-Léognan, but more closely demonstrating the need for points I think. The Guinaudeau family wanted something different though, something more taut, more challenging, more minerally. They sought out a favourable sites, slopes of pure limestone, with meagre soils. They eschewed the dominant white grape of Bordeaux and planted purely with Sauvignon Blanc, and what is more they planted not a local clone, but one imported from Sancerre.
The first vintage was 2012, when the experimental wine was christened À Louima, a cuvée which will never see commercial release as the production was just 240 bottles and 120 magnums. In the 2013 vintage, however, we have the first commercially available wine, Les Champs Libres. It has been fermented in new oak, although even when I tasted it during the primeurs this wasn’t apparent, and it showed an intense, gunflint minerality. This is my first chance to take a look at the wine since it had been bottled, and in the glass it displays a very pure and clean hue The minerality is not so apparent aromatically as I recall, just over a year on from my previous tasting at Lafleur, but this wine is still pungently confident, with piles of fruit expression. It also feels richer than I expected from my primeurs tasting and from what we all know of the 2013 climate. There are some scents here that waver towards the tropical, a touch of passion fruit, but these are in the minority with creamed greengage, even a little gooseberry and peach leaf more apparent. The structure in the mouth is cool, taut and pithy, with the fruit mirroring the nose, a touch of creamed peach and gooseberry in the finish, with an intriguing bitterness to the edge of the wine. There is some minerality here too, the wine tightly framed and rather matchsticky, but less of the gunflint character that appealed so much. Still a unique expression of white Bordeaux though, and intrinsically enticing. Fresh, bright and for Sauvignon it feels very long. I look forward to checking this wine out again, in this and in future vintages. 17.5/20 (1/6/15)