Come as you are; come any time that’s convenient for you during our business hours to sample from this week’s selections. Our staff will be on hand to discuss nuances of the wines, the terroirs reflected, and the Château.
If ever an estate has enshrined within its very name the fact that grapes thrive where other crops fail, it is Château Ducru-Beaucaillou: The famous lieu-dit of Beaucaillou (good pebbles) was once called Maucaillou (bad pebbles) when they tried to grow cereal crops instead of grapevines. It is the deep Günzian gravel that earns the terroir both scorn and praise from farmers (depending on crop; along with soil, a favorable climate and the general wherewithal of generations of vignerons, Ducru-Beaucaillou’s reputation has held strong—and grown—for three centuries. Vintage 2019 marks this very milestone and the estate’s outspoken owner Bruno-Eugène Borie considers it a spectacular vintage in which the château’s legendary purity, precision and assertive style is on full display.
This week’s package offers a fascinating peek behind the curtain at Ducru-Beaucaillou to see how climate change has restructured priorities and bred innovation, and how the leadership of Bruno Borie has led to a number of incredible undertakings, including re-corking a full inventory of 40 vintages (1950 and 1990) in an oxygen-free environment, giving them an extended life of 50 more years.
The most singularly revered appellation on earth, Pauillac is to wine what The Beatles are to pop music. Though fewer than ten square miles in total, three of the top five châteaux in the 1855 Médoc Classification are located here, and so varied is the topography that each estate is able to market the individual nature, in style and substance, of their wares. And it is this trio of skills—growing, producing and selling—that has made the region almost a cliché, synonymous with elite wine, where futures sell for exorbitant rates long before the wine is even in the bottle.
Great things come in small packages, especially when big money is involved. Saint-Julien—the smallest of the major Médoc appellations at under four-square miles—also boasts (through a series of real estate deals between the large estates and the small ones) an astonishing pedigree: Fully 95% of the appellation sits on classified acreage. Key to the desirability of the wines produced here is the seamless fusion of concentration and elegance; the wines are of a style historically referred to as masculine, but held to standards of manhood in the mode of a Knight Templar before a brawny warrior. This blend of finesse and fortitude comes in part from the preponderance of gravel in the best vineyards, allowing natural drainage in the wet years, radiating warmth in cool vintages, extending the growing season and allowing vine roots to extend deeply into the earth.
The estate’s 300th anniversary was blessed with magnificent growing conditions, which brought forth a wine of particular distinction. Ideal levels of rain (falling mostly at night, guaranteeing freshness) while clear days and cool nights in September, together with a heatwave in the middle of the month, helped to concentrate the fruit and ripen the very fine tannins.
The wine package we offer this week includes one bottle of the special Tercentenary bottling of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou 2019 and two bottles of 2019 ‘La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou’ which hails from a separate vineyard and yet is considered one of the best second labels in the business.
Beside the poetry in a rhyming name, this hallowed Second Growth estate, given high praises in the 1855 classification, has produced the best wines in its history in the 21st century. This is credit to the Borie family, who bought the château in 1941.The current helmsman is Bruno, who grew up on the estate: “I was born and raised at Beaucaillou and I have always been immersed in this country landscape and lifestyle, in the vineyards and the pastures, cattle and all; I basked in the fascinating environment of the cellars, where the transmutation of the grape juice into wine, and then the slow maturation of the young wine into these magical elixirs takes place.”
He learned the magic of wine early, but to nail down the business and technical end, he spent time in California as a winery intern before becoming the Commercial Director for P.A. Sichel and the CEO of Lillet, the Bordeaux aperitif. He began to manage Beaucaillou in 2003, where he was instantly confronted with the excessive heat the Bordeaux had begun to suffer with global warming. This required that he embark upon a paradigm shift to tackle the changing climate, and it perseveres to the day: “My first major decision was to not have a preconceived agenda,” says Bruno, “but rather to listen to nature and try to tailor our approach accordingly. For 2003, this meant very little leaf thinning to keep bunches shaded and protected from the scorching rays of the sun.”
These days, Borie relies on a number of quality initiatives, including more selective harvesting and establishing more organic farming practices: “We now cultivate and plough various grasses and legumes to help aerate the soil,” he explains. “This increases biodiversity, and the quantities of critical nutrients. When replanting vineyards, we leave our plots fallow for five years, during which time we perform a deep ploughing to reduce compaction, and then cultivate various grasses in rotation to help preserve our precious soils.”
The clock began to tick towards Château Ducru-Beaucaillou’s tercentennial hurrah in 1720, when Jacques de Bergeron married Marie Dejean, whose dowry included land known as Maucaillou, a name formed as a portmanteau of the French words ‘mauvaise’ and ‘cailloux’ meaning ‘bad pebbles’. The first records of the name change from ‘bad’ to ‘good’ is 1760.
The titular stones, good or bad, are quartz pebbles swept in by the ancient Garonne river at the beginning of the early Quaternary Period, about two million years ago. Beyond the gems it produces in the cellar, terroir so blessed also offer rich lithological finds like Lydian jasper and agatoids. The gravel is less kind to plants, giving rise to poor soils—a condition to which grape vines are well suited. Their vast network of roots, snaking through the gravel, are able to draw nutrients from far below. A bonus is that in cooler weather, the stones retain daytime heat and return it to the vines at night to facilitate the ripening of the grapes.
Ducru-Beaucaillou’s proximity to the vast Gironde River estuary—where four daily tides mitigate the rigors of winter and moderate the summer heatwaves—may also deflect the trajectory of hailstorms. The vineyard is located to take advantage of these natural features, beginning immediately above the low-lying marshland of the Gironde, about three hundred yards from the estuary and extending to the west, ending at a slight elevation that offers natural drainage of rainwater into the Gironde or the tiny Mouline brook to the north.
“I was born in 1956 and raised in Ducru-Beaucaillou,” say Bruno Borie. “I was truly a country boy, preferring to run through vineyards and meadows than taking walks in the town. I enjoyed the company of the winegrowers and loved taking part in the various jobs, including, of course, the harvest.”
In his years exploring the vineyard as a living entity as well as a financial concern, Borie has developed a deeply personal philosophy about his role: “We help the vineyard give birth to wine. Nature can do it all; we are here to allow nature to express and share the best of herself. I am here to make Ducru-Beaucaillou, not just another Cabernet Sauvignon or another Cru Classé.”
To this end, he has overseen significant changes in Beaucaillou viticulture, introducing new techniques and reviving forgotten practices, looking both towards the past and modern science. Although he considers biodynamics to be more esoteric than scientific, the entire vineyard was certified HVE 3 in 2016 and he eschews the use of herbicides and pesticides. Emmanuel Bonneau joined the team as technical director in 2016, and is currently researching phytotherapy (the medicinal use of medicinal plants and herbs) to tackle mildew, while lightweight robots reduce soil compaction.
“The most crucial element in making fine wine is to be close to the plant and its ecosystem,” Bruno explains. “Our system of pruning, for example, consists of preparing the vine not only for next year, but following ones. Therefore, it must be the same person who prunes from one year to another because he ‘reads’ each vine the same way. Each of our vignerons is assigned a selection of plots for all seasonal vineyard operations which fosters a deeper connection with the vines through continuity. This ensures that our approach is the most adapted for our environment and our vines.”
The decision of when to harvest is a complex one, and it would be fair to say that every estate has their own formula though which they determine picking schedules, based both on weather and the style of wine they’re after. It’s no different at Beaucaillou, where, according to Bruno, “We pick each plot when fruit is at optimal ripeness and then seek to preserve its purity and enable it to express its terroir fully. We also consider blending compatibility for harvest date. For example, the 5-15% of Merlot in the blend of Ducru needs to be Médoc-like in style. It must be compatible with Cabernet with typicity, freshness and elegance to counterbalance Merlots that are overly rich. To determine the precise harvest date for each plot, we collect and analyze the critical measures (sugar, IBMP, acidity, pH), but the final decision is based entirely on taste.”
A combination of artisan methods and new innovations form the backbone of Château Ducru-Beaucaillou’s cellar tenets; leading the second category is the use of conical wooden ‘Smart Vats’ for the Grand Vin. Smart Vats have a number of advantages, including automatic and gentle remontage that can be fractioned over 24 hours with complete oxygen control for extreme precision, analyzing and storing relevant data on sugar, density and oxygen throughout cuvaison, allowing a refinement of approach and data saved for current decisions and future reference.
The traditional methods that Borie employs includes ‘slow hand’ extraction: First come a cold maceration, then gentle remontage in the earlier phases of fermentation when critical decisions are made by taste and tanks are sampled several times per day. The goal, according to Borie, is the extract noble tannins with the most refined grains, giving the ‘draped cashmere’ mouthfeel for which Ducru-Beaucaillou is widely praised.
“Of course, we consider the data,” Borie says, “and Smart Vats enable us to conduct our extractions with even more precision to achieve this goal. In the end, science allows us to make better art.”
Like much of the Left Bank, the 2019 growing season for Saint-Julien began with a mild, if lackluster spring that saw cool temperatures and patches of rain in the run-up to the summer months (although rainfall was still less than in other Bordeaux appellations, leading to lower yields than average). A warm, dry summer ensured the grapes reached phenolic ripeness and, bar some rainfall towards the end of the season, conditions remained smooth and easy for a seamless harvest.
The resulting grapes were extremely healthy, and naturally, this translates to the wines. In general, the wines are sophisticated and powerful with rich, dark fruit and velvety tannins while still retaining delicate aromatics. The best 2019s exhibit the ideal balance between fruit, acid, alcohol and tannin needed for long-term aging. Although many of the wines will make very pleasant early drinking, the top examples should be able to cellar for many years to come.
So hot was the summer of 2003—the year that Bruno Borie took over Ducru-Beaucaillou—that he knew that winemaking in Bordeaux would likely never be the same. Going forward, weather, rather than tradition, would dictate work in the vineyard. Harvest dates were creeping forward and August vacations were a thing of the past. 2019 was another hot season, and Bruno realized that this sort of weather pattern was ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, a thick-skinned variety that requires a lot of accumulated heat and sunlight hours to fully ripen.
He says, “With warmer summers like 2019, the fruit is richer and more concentrated with longer length, and the thick skins, which ripen during the final phase, can fully ripen, giving deeply colored wines with high levels of extremely fine-grained, ultra-silky tannins. At Ducru, we have three key strengths as we face climate change: privileged terroirs, the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, and of course highly invested and competent technical teams, including Cellar Master René Lusseau and Oenologist Consultant Eric Boissenot.”
2019 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien ($245) (1 BOTTLE)
80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Merlot matured for 18 months in 100% new French oak. Purple-black in color, the 2019 Ducru-Beaucaillou explodes from the glass with notes of cassis, blueberry pie and plum preserves behind hints of candied violets, dark chocolate, licorice, crushed rocks and freshly-overturned soil with a touch of mossy bark—a wine whose finish passes the 60-second mark with ease.
2019 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou ‘La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou’, Saint-Julien ($74) (2 BOTTLES)
The estate does not market La Croix Ducru-Beaucaillou as a ‘second wine’ because it comes from a different source: an inland vineyard on the south bank of the La Mouline stream close to Château Talbot; it was previously sold as Château Terrey-Gros-Caillou. It consists of 91 acres planted with 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 5% Petit Verdot. The breeding is made for 60% in new oak barrels 12 months, producing a muscular yet fresh wine, displaying a full range of berry, lavender rose petal, mint, spice and gravel inflections.
As Bruno Borie carefully recorked all vintages between 1930 and 1990, this divine diorama looks at some of the top vintages from the estate of the past half-century—so many, in fact, that it frequently said that Ducru-Beaucaillou is a Second Growth that deserves First Growth status.
Recognized as legendary across the board, 2010 was truly great vintage whose exceedingly dry growing season served to concentrate the juice and provide wines with outstanding depth.
Despite a wet June giving a damp start to summer, the season soon heated up turning exceedingly hot and dry, particularly in the Médoc region; the arid conditions caused the right amount of water stress to improve the berries, and the long, sunny days continued through to October with nights steadily chilling as the season drew to a close. Cool nights were imperative to preserving the acidity in the grapes and rains, fortunately, came in September freshening the grapes.
2010 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien ($550)
Just beginning to fully open up, the wine is now entering a drinking window that should last two more decades at least. A sensuous nose offers layers of blackberry paste and warm ganache, steeped fig and pastis-soaked plum flavors. The structure is massive yet polished, and the fruit displays purity through a graphite-supported finish. Large-scale and extremely well-rendered. 8,416 cases made.
A mild, warm winter followed by a wet spring made mildew a threat, but from July onwards, a spectacular summer dominated Saint-Julien with hardly any rain until mid-September. Sunny weather then returned for the October harvest, broken by a single day of rain—a boon to parched vines. Producers who picked early risked unripe wines and others who picked later risked jamminess, but for the majority who picked at the right time, the vintage offers fantastic rewards.
2000 Château Ducru Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien ($490)
70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot, the truly stunning garnet-brick colored 2000 Ducru-Beaucaillou offers flamboyant scents of baked black currants, raisin cake, prunes, Chinese five spice and eucalyptus plus touches of cigar box, new leather and cast iron pan. It will continue to improve, too.
1983’s growing season in Saint-Julien began with a cold winter and chilly, wet spring. Balmy conditions settled in shortly afterward, allowing for a near-perfect budburst and flowering, and, despite a brief cool patch, temperatures than rocketed in July with the month even proving a record breaker. Drought was a problem but only through August, which brought plenty of rain. September brought drier, sunnier conditions and a run of good days in the lead-up to the harvest ensured the resulting crop was in good health. The harvest began towards the end of September and ran through to October, producing a generous but good-quality crop.
1983 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien ($2,400) DOUBLE-MAGNUM
Although some ‘83s lacked the structure for long term again, large format bottles age at a much more leisurely pace, and thus, are ideal to experience the nuance changes in this full-bodied wine showing blackberry and hazelnut behind a beautiful base of gravelly soil tones, cigar ash and a touch of juniper berry. Perhaps currently drinking at its apogee, the wine is svelte and pure on the attack with melting tannins and a long, complex and seamlessly balanced finish.
Known as the ‘Miracle Vintage’, 1978 began with a damp, chilly spring that affected both bud break and flowering. Conditions eventually improved, but it was not until the end of the summer the weather had sufficiently warmed up and dried out. There followed a string of idyllic, sunny days, perfect for bringing the crop to phenolic ripeness and these perfect conditions late in the season rescued the vintage from possible disaster—the so called ‘miracle.’ The heavy rains of October came late, holding off until all the fruit had been picked—another manifestation of the miracle.
1978 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien ($450)
‘78 Ducru is considered one of the unequivocal successes from this vintage. From the outset, the well-developed bouquet of licorice, earth, black currants, and underbrush shone none of the vegetal character found in many wines of the vintage. Now fully mature, the medium-bodied Saint-Julien gem exhibits soft tannin, excellent concentration and purity, and a sweet, elegant finish.
The wine world’s equivalent to the dinosaur-destroying Chicxulub meteor is a microscopic louse called phylloxera. By the end of the nineteenth century, the bug had killed most of the vines in Europe, and when they were replanted (often using louse-resistant American rootstock) the focus tended to be on resilient varieties capable of producing the most fruit. This was a desperation move; a means of recouping losses and ensuring that the industry could survive. Today, of the ten thousand grape varieties, only 13 of them occupy more than a third of the world’s total vineyard surface.
In Spain, nostalgia and commerce have joined hands to resurrect a number of heirloom grapes, some of which were all but extinct and only found in a few isolated back-country pockets. This week’s package will echo Victor Frankenstein’s cry of delight “It’s alive!” by showcasing the second incarnation of many indigenous Spanish grapes. It is not only a historical cornucopia, but a collection of tastes and flavors that have nearly been forgotten.
Keep in mind, these grapes are the scrappers—tough little fighters who have made it into the twenty-first century despite the odds. As such, they are looked to as a window to the future, when climate change is making conventional grapes less comfortable with their terroir. Learn to pronounce the names below, because you may find it necessary to speak them aloud in the years to come.
Miguel Torres Maczassek, president of the extensive Cataluyan winery Familia Torres, describes his father’s mission to revive varieties that survived the phylloxera crisis: “There were once many more varieties than the ones that we know today. But the vineyard infestation, which nearly decimated an entire industry, also created a reckoning. Post-phylloxera, winemakers cultivated varieties guaranteed to do well in the climate, or turned toward more fashionable grapes that held international appeal. My father’s project was philanthropic project. In his mind, it was not only to make a wine, but to have a botanical collection.”
Other Spanish bodegas have taken up a similar challenge, and the overall lesson learned? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. Once a vine has been designated an ‘ancestral variety’, the hard work begins: Vines of that age are riddled with disease, and the viticulturists need pristine plant material for further experiments. So the vine must be reproduced multiple times in a greenhouse using new cells over several growth cycles until it’s given a clean bill of health.
And even then it takes time to understand a heritage vine’s individual nature, requiring several harvests. Like all grapes, terroir plays an irreplaceable role in finding the ideal site to bring out desired qualities, and finding this happy place may also take many vintages. And even then, the vine must reach the level of maturity required to produce acceptable wine.
On average, therefore, it is 14 years between the discovery of a heritage varieties and the time it is viable for winemaking.
“It’s been surprising that we find varieties that we need so much today,” concludes Torres Maczassek: “Here in the Penedès with the climate change, with the heat and the lack of rain, we are finding varieties that ripen late that have good acidity—this is a gift that came from nature. I cannot ask for more. These are the varieties that probably our children will use.”
The Catalan provinces of Barcelona, Tarragona, Lleida and Girona remain a part of Spain, but if you ask the residents, four of five of them will tell you they shouldn’t be. One of the most fiercely independent territories in the world, Catalunya is designated as a nationality by its Statute of Autonomy, and this is based on language, culture and administrative/political motivations.
And of course, wine.
As Catalan worldview differs from those of their Castilian, Galician and Andalusian countrymen, Catalan wine has little in common with those from the rest of Spain. There are ten denominated wine regions that focus mostly on familiar Mediterranean grape varieties, primarily Grenache and Carignan (also called Carinyena or Samsó) among red grapes, as well as Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Trepat. White varieties Parellada, Xarel-lo and Macabeo (called Viura in Rioja) that are primarily used for the production of Cava, the region’s premier sparkling wine and perhaps the most universally loved—and representative—of Spanish wines.
Based at Can Tutusaus, in the center of the remote village of Olesa de Bonesvalls in the Garraf Natural Park, Tutusaus has become a pet project of husband Raimon Badell and wife Anna, whose award-winning Cava is proudly featured on the shelves here at Elie’s. As a team, Raimon and Anna have replanted ancient terraces in a rocky landscape otherwise dominated by pine trees interspersed with glimpses of the Mediterranean Sea. The oldest vines at Tutusaus were planted by Raimon’s father during a last-century’s craze for international grape varieties, and the Merlot remains an outstanding Spanish example of this variety.
The estate and its surrounding pine groves has stood since 1348, but it was only in 1729 that the country house was rebuilt within the village of Olesa, where the cellar is presently situated. The property comprises several acres of olive groves—resuscitated after years of neglect—and about thirty acres of vines. The rest is a maze of pine and oak forests, dwarf shrubs, brooms, fennel, rosemary, thyme, lavender and dwarf palms.
In 1987, seduced by this mysterious land, Joan Badell bottled his first wines and planted his first trained vines. In 1999, his son Raimon, who was then studying oenology, became a close collaborator and opted to turn the estate toward ecological and biodynamic agriculture.
“Bottling the land,” is the way that Raimon Badell describes his interpretation of winemaking. “We only work with grapes picked from this estate,” says Rai, “where vines are situated between 800 and 1500 feet above sea level, bordering the Natural Park of the Massif of Garraf. The vineyards grow on hills with calcareous-clay soil and produce where the climate is distinctly Mediterranean, strongly influenced by the vicinity of the sea.”
Marselan is a red French wine grape, a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. It is a niche variety, and not one of the rescued orphan grapes that survived phylloxera—it was first bred in 1961 by Paul Truel near the French town of Marseillan from which it takes its name. Wines made from Marselan tend to be medium-bodied with fine tannins, good color and display characteristic notes of cherry and cassis.
•1• Tutusaus ‘Ona’, 2021 Penedès Red ‘Marselan’ ($18)
Although Marselan is frequently used as a base wine for blends, this is 100% Marselan hand-harvested from Badell’s estate in Alt Penedès, located entirely with the national protected area of the Massís del Garraf. The grapes are pressed and fermented in temperature-controlled, stainless steel 3,000-liter vats, then aged for 3 months before bottling. It shows the exuberant fruit-centered ripeness of Grenache and the elegant structure of Cabernet Sauvignon.
•2• Tutusaus ‘Ona’, 2022 Penedès Rose ($18)
100% Marselan Rosé. The grapes are pressed and left in contact with the skins for several hours and fermented for 17 days in temperature-controlled, stainless steel 3,000-liter vats. The wine shows a springtime bouquet of young strawberries, raspberries and touch of minerality.
All the exotic mysteries of Catalunya may be contained within a single word, Xarel-lo, which in its correct spelling contains a diacritic scarcely known outside the region—a small dot where we have placed a dash. It’s called a ‘punt volat’—a flying point, and indicates a glottal pause. The pronunciation, somewhere in the neighborhood of ‘shah (or ‘chah)-REL-LO’ introduces you to the most aromatic of the Cava trinity; it also makes a heady, hallowed still wine that ranks among Spain’s finest whites. Not only is it delicious, the grape is rich in polyphenols and high in the antioxidant resveratrol, often associated with red grapes and the mystery behind the formerly ballyhooed ‘French Paradox.’
•3• Tutusaus ‘Ona’, 2021 Penedès White ‘Xarl-lo’ ($18)
The grapes for this 100% Xarel-lo are hand harvested from Raimon Badell’s estate in Alt Penedès, which is located entirely with the national protected area of the Massís del Garraf. The grapes are pressed and fermented in temperature-controlled, stainless steel 3,000-liter vats, then aged in contact with fine lees for a period of 3 months before bottling. The wine shows straw yellow; the aroma filled with citrus, peach, flowers and herbs that follows through the delicate fruity taste and soft tannins in a long finish.
Occupying the northwest corner of the Iberian Peninsula and exposed on two sides to the Atlantic Ocean, Galician wines are shaped by winds and waves. Best known for its Rías Baixas, a crisp, slightly fizzy and aromatic wine made predominantly from Albariño, there is a two-way stylistic influence with Minho (particularly Vinho Verde), just across the border in Portugal.
Over the past few decades, winemakers in Galicia have become increasingly aware of the potential of their prize grape, and locals have discovered that Albariño bears a striking resemblance to Riesling in the purity of its aroma and surprising its ability to age in bottle. Experimentation has been rife, including barrel-aging and judiciously applied malolactic fermentation to scale back the acidity.
Coto de Gomariz is located in an ideal winegrowing zone near the eastern edge of Galicia, where the slopes overlook the Avia River. The 66 acres were the brainchild of Ricardo Carreiro, who makes the most of the unique microclimate (schist, granite and sandy soils) through a cornucopia of local wine varieties including Treixadura, Godello, Loureira and Albariño. At the turn of this century, Carreiro upgraded the entire estate with integrated architecture and modern installations that allow for the annual production of nearly 200,000 bottles of wine.
Largely unknown outside Galicia, Sousón is the most widely-planted red grape in Rías Baixas, and is genetically identical to Loureira Tinta. It is a late-budding variety that matures slowly, so it well suited to warmer areas and south-facing plots. Because of longer hang times, Sousón can reach high levels of alcohol, between 12.5 and 14 degrees, with enough acidity to permit extended barrel aging. As a rule, Sousón showcases dark fruits (blackberries and currants) and is often used as a blending grape, although the experiment-prone wine Galician winemakers are increasingly using it as a stand-alone variety.
•4• Gomariz ‘Flower and the Bee – Souson’, 2020 Ribeiro ($21)
Wine begins with a flower and a bee, and so strongly is this fact imprinted on the folks at Coto de Gomariz that in 2013 they changed their name to ‘A Flor e a Abella’. This 100% Sousón is made from the youngest vines within the Gomariz parish and grown on soil that is predominantly sandy. Cherry red with a violet rim, the wine brims with aromas of forest berries with a savory yeasty undertone.
Ferrol, also called ‘Ferron’, is a rich red native Galician grape that is often used to bring aroma and structure to blends. It’s a vigorous variety, naturally resistant to mildew and botrytis, and based on the exposure of the vines, it may retain a bracing level of acidity after fermentation.
Caiño is a grape not found outside Galicia and Portugal’s Minho. It is known for making acid-driven red wines that rarely exceed medium body weight. However, the grape has thick skins and high tannins, leading many winemakers to vinify it using the carbonic maceration technique favored in Beaujolais.
•5• Wish ‘Viño de Encostas Xose-Lois Sebio’, 2018 Galicia ($45)
‘Viños de Encostas’ is a personal project of highly-esteemed winemaker Xosé Lois Sebio, formerly of Coto de Gomariz. It consists of small-lot wines coming from northwest Spain. Meaning, ‘Wines of the Hills,’ Viños de Encostas features only the top fruit of each region that Sebio has planted or works closely with in hilly and steeper zones. ‘Wish’ is a field-blend of native varietals fermented in open vats; it undergoes malolactic to temper the acidity and rests for 18 months is used oak barrels. The resulting wine is silky and bright with lilac notes behind blueberry and cherry.
Albariño is almost a synonym for Rías Baixas, where it makes up 90% of the plantings. It has traditionally been viewed as a fresh, aromatic, hardy variety that makes light, peach-tinted wines, although thanks to the introspection of a handful of Spanish winemakers, it is now seen to be a wine capable of a remarkable maturation within the bottle.
Ultra-modern styles of Albariño are richer and more textural, having been aged on their lees and given some time in to add complexity and a touch of creaminess.
•6• Coto de Gomariz ‘X’, 2021 Ribeiro ($30)
95% Albariño, 5% Treixadura from two unique plots—‘As Penelas’ with schist soils (in Gomariz) and from ‘O Taboleiro’ with sandy granite soils. This wine originates far from the influence of the sea, resulting in a much more mature and complex wine than those of coastal Rías Baixas. The ‘X’ is a nod to the Gallego word ‘xisto’, or ‘schist’—the granitic soil that is characteristic of this region.
Called ‘the Jewel of Ribeiro’, Treixadura sprouts and ripens slowly—as such, it is sensitive to altitude. It is grown mainly in valleys and slopes which are suitably orientated to maximize sunlight. It blends well with other local varieties like Godello, and as a stand-alone, makes an aromatic, refreshing wine with peach, apricot and citrus notes behind a floral background.
•7• Coto de Gomariz, 2020 Ribeiro Blanco ($26)
A blend of four different varieties; Treixadura (70%) with the rest an even split of other native Galician grapes, Godello, Loureiro and Albariño. The grapes come from vines cultivated using the Fukuoka theory of agriculture, which Ricardo Carreiro believes allows different soils (granite sands, clay and schist) to reveal their true personalities. It is a mineral-driven wine with citrus and ginger on the nose, while on the palate, orange zest, lemon pith and bitter quince appear.
Founded in 2013 by brothers Carlos and Juan Rodríguez and Galician/Swiss winemaker Fredi Torres, Sílice Viticultores is—as the name suggests—organized around the winegrowers of Ribeira Sacra, whose vertiginous slopes lining the Sil River Canyon is the lifeblood of the project. Silice currently works with a total of 20 acres of vines (four of which belongs to Juan and Carlos) planted primarily on granite, with some schist and gneiss parcels in the zones of Amandi, Doade, and Rosende. All of the vineyards are farmed organically, with copper and sulfur treatments applied only as needed.
Says Carlos Rodríguez, “Our lineup of small-to-tiny-production wines are racy, fresh, and fun, yet seriously elegant, with razor-sharp detail, with structure to age. Sílice farming and winemaking prioritizes the bright, Atlantic fruit character of the region, and the expression of individual parcels and zones without sacrificing the fierce natural energy of the region or its favored red grape, Mencía. Choosing the perfect moment of harvest, fermenting multiple red and white varieties together with strategic use of stems, cold macerations, and gentle extraction guarantee exciting snapshots of place and vintage every year.”
The Rodríguez brothers are from the hamlet of Barantes de Arriba, in the municipality of Sober (Lugo province), prime Ribeira Sacra winegrowing territory on the north bank of the River Sil.
Native to northwest Spain and once considered synonymous with the red wines of Bierzo, Mencía has enjoyed a revival in recent decades following years of producing light and astringent wines; today, dedicated winemakers are using the grape to produce beautifully structured wines, often by using carbonic maceration to accentuate the variety’s fruit characteristics and reduce the naturally heavy tannins.
•8• Sílice Viticultores ‘Sílice’, 2019 Galicia ‘Natural’ ($31)
A mix of old vines (50 years +) owned by Juan and Carlos and some purchased fruit; 80% Mencía with the remainder a mix of Garnacha Tintorera, Albarello, Brancellao and a variety of white grapes. Native yeast fermentation with 30% stems and 14 days maceration in concrete lagares, stainless steel and old foudre, then aged nine months on fine lees in a combination of foudre, concrete and stainless steel. A nice blend of earthiness and red fruit.
Castilla y Léon, in the northern half of the central Iberian Plateau, is the largest of Spain’s administrative regions, covering about one-fifth of the country’s total surface area. It stretches roughly 220 miles from the center of Spain almost all the way to the north coast. Equally wide, it connects Rioja to the border of Portugal. Tempranillo is unquestionably the wine king, known by various synonyms including Tinta del País, Tinto de Toro and Tinto Fino. It is the grape behind all of the region’s finest wines except Bierzo, which relies on Mencía.
Viticulture has shored up the region’s economy since Roman times, but it was not until the last part of the 20th century that the focus began to shift from quantity to quality. Producers like Vega Sicilia, Numanthia-Termes, Campo Eliseo and Bodega Palacios Remondo have spearheaded modernization and brought renewed interest to its wines.
Third generation vigneron Rafael Alonso is one of the pioneer winemakers of southern León. Viñedos y Bodegas Pardevalles, his family’s vineyards and 300 year old cellars are situated in northwestern Spain at around 2,400 feet in elevation where the uncommon and indigenous grape varieties Prieto Picudo (red) and Albarín Blanco (white) thrive in the extreme microclimate around the River Esla. Rocky soil, swinging diurnal temperatures and less than 20 inches of annual rainfall combine to create wines of superb ripeness, acidity and balance with highly developed aromatics.
Granted official Denominación de Orígen status in 2007, León is nevertheless an ancient region that has been cultivating for wine production for centuries. The Alonso family holds around 95 acres there in the high plains, where Quaternary Period soils are covered in rounded stones that absorb the heat of the sun during the day. Similar to the galets roulés of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but at a much higher elevation, these stones help the vines bear the low nighttime temperatures and ensure a long, even ripening.
One of the uncommon wine grapes in León, it produces deeply-colored red wines with clean acidity and high levels of sugar and tannin, a concentration that gives Prieto Picudo wines its unique character and taste. The shape of the fruit itself is also unusual; clusters are tight and the grapes are oval-shaped with a pronounced tip—hence the name of the variety: ‘prieto’ means ‘tight clusters’ and ‘picudo’ means ‘beak.’
Wines from this variety tend to be moderately tannic with good acidity and in this respect, are sometimes likened to Tempranillo. Typical flavors include redcurrant, blackberry and—like many León wines—licorice.
•9• Pardevalles ‘Gamonal’, 2020 León ($24)
100% Prieto Picudo; the grapes for this wine originate from the ‘Pago El Gamonal’ vineyard. Hand-harvested Gamonal undergoes a cold maceration for four days followed by a fermentation with the skins in tapered stainless-steel vats. Malolactic also takes place in vats, after which the wine ages for a year in oak barrels, both French and American. The wine is juicy with brambly red berries, anise, black currant and a pure minerality that leans toward saline.
A rare, light-skinned grape variety used in Castilla y León, Asturias and Galicia; despite the similarity in names, Albarín Blanco is genetically distinct from Albariño.
It is also aromatically similar to Albariño, but with a notable Gewürztraminer edge, showing ripe limes, lychee, mint, fig and orange. The variety almost disappeared, and when Rafael Alonso revived it, it was down to its last eight known vines.
•10• Pardevalles ‘Albarín Blanco’, 2022 León ($19)
Fresh aromas of herbs and citrus dominate this wine that also shows notes of white peach and some earthy qualities.
‘Almaroja’ means ‘red soul’ and winemaker Charlotte Allen, a British ex-pat living in Spain, says, “Red symbolizes vitality, courage, optimism, nonconformity and passion.” All of these attributes are integral to the soul of this iconoclastic woman and her deep love for the rugged terroirs of Zamora. She operates (for the most part) alone, adhering to the best of biodynamic practices, working on weaker parcels on specific dates and times, treating her vineyard for pest with botanical blends, including sage and nettle. She hand-harvests a scant half-ton per acre and grows a number of spectacular grapes little known outside her region.
An indigenous grape in the Arribes known for its brilliant purple hue on the vine, which are often grown in bush style rather than trellised; wines made from unblended Juan García often are bright cherry red in color with violet rims and reflect notes of wild elderberry, pepper and minerals.
•11• Bodega Almaroja ‘Cielos y Besos’, 2019 Arribes ‘Natural’ ($22)
Made of blend that relies heavily on Juan García and Tempranillo from Charlotte’s ‘young’ vines which are fifty years old. Deep burgundy red with a violet rim, the wine elicits aromas of rustic wild berries, licorice and finishes with ripe tannins and stony minerals. 300 cases made.
“If we take care of the earth, we take care of ourselves,” says Uva de Vida owner Maria Carmen López Delgado. “Life has given me a new opportunity.” After recovering from serious illness, Delgado felt a spiritual connection to the natural world that convinced her to plant vineyards in the dry terrain of Castilla.
With her husband Luis Ruiz, she planted 25 acres of Graciano and eight of Tempranillo and set out to establish a farming philosophy that not only eschews artificial soil additives, but arranges vines in a complex geometric diagram to take advantage of the specific vibrations of energy found at 40˚ latitude. In addition, as the wine ferments and ages, music is piped into the cellar, because Delgado also believes in the power of sound vibrations to improve the health of her product.
Graciano, also called Tinta Miúda, is a tough-skinned red grape variety that is particularly widespread in Spain and Sardinia (where it goes by the name Cagnulari). It’s also found in Southern France under the label Morrastel. It tends to be low-yielding, so even revived from near extinction, it is not widely planted, with fewer than 8000 acres planted globally compared to nearly 600,000 of Tempranillo, with which it is often blended.
It produces perfumed wine with considerably complexity on the nose and palate, with notes of ripe cherry and toast, accompanied by coffee, pencil lead, licorice, chocolate, and spice.
•12• Uva de Vida ‘Latitud 40’, 2018 La Tierra de Castilla ‘Natural’ ($24)
Uva de Vida winery sits at the wine-friendly 40˚ northern latitude, which circumvents the globe to include northern California, Sardinia and about half of the wine producing areas in China. Here, forty miles south of Madrid, it suits Graciano—the sole varietal used here. Although the ‘Vino de la Tierra de Castilla’ designation carries with it slightly less stringent regulations that the prestigious DOs of Castilla-La Mancha, like the ‘Super Tuscans’, gems may be found among the iconoclasts. Ideally served slightly chilled, ‘Latitud 40’ displays freshness on the nose with hints of lilac, menthol and pie cherries. On the palate, wild blueberries take center stage and the menthol shows a mint-leaf edge. The finish is long and juicy with a slight hint of chocolate. 20,000 bottles made.
At two thousand feet above sea level (in the Serra de l’Home range) Can Sumoi is the highest estate in the Penedès; Mallorca and the Ebro Delta are visible from the rooftop of the winery’s 350-year-old farmhouse. Below, vineyards sprawl across limestone-rich soil between stands of oak and white pine, which to the ecology-driven proprietor Pepe Raventós, share equal importance with the vines.
“Forests,” he says, “protect the biodiversity of the estate; they are the green lungs of the world.”
The wines of Can Sumoi are also green insofar as they are produced using Certified Organic methods; vineyards are tended with natural compost, free of pesticides and with minimal intervention; a herd of sheep and goats is allowed to graze semi-freely among the vines. Certain esoteric biodynamic techniques may sound strange to laymen (such as timing vineyard activity to the phases of the moon) but to Raventós, they make perfect sense: “When the moon is ascendant, plant fluids concentrate more towards the roots of plants, and that’s when you want to do the pruning—so you don’t damage the plant.”
Once Raventós left D.O. Cava in 2012, he determined that his new property was ideal for producing sparkling wines in the ancestral style, made by bottling still-fermenting juice and allowing it to finish to dryness in bottle. In this method, carbon dioxide created during the finishing step gives the wine effervescence, while the spent yeast gives it a hazy cast. Some producers disgorge the bottles to purge the wine of this sediment, while others prefer to preserve its savoriness and texture.
A pink-skinned grape variety grown in minute quantities in the Catalan region of Penedès. Here, vineyards are planted at altitudes of up to 2600 feet. For decades, Montònega has been losing ground to Parellada, the much more common variety to which it is genetically linked, mostly because of the low yields it produces. However, as a stand-alone, its grapes can result in wines that have superb structure and intensity. The aromatic profile of Montònega wines tends to be fresh and citrusy, albeit with aromatic, herbal and mineral, or saline, notes.
Can Sumoi ‘Ancestral Montònega’, 2021 Vi Mediterrani ‘Pur’ Brut Nature
100% Montònega; this Pétillant-Naturel is made in the traditional method with no additives, stabilization or filtration. Harvested on September 15th in small bins it underwent primary fermentation with indigenous yeasts in stainless steel tanks for 24 days followed by 21 days in bottle. A balanced, fragrant and fresh sparkling wine filled with the aromas of ripe white fruit stand beside floral notes with fine effervescence and a slightly salty finish.
In wine, ‘natural’ is a concept before it’s a style. It refers to a philosophy; an attitude. It may involve a regimen of rituals or it may be as simple as a gesture, but the goal, in nearly every case, is the purest expression of terroir that a winemaker, working within a given vineyard, can fashion. Not all natural wines are created equal, and some are clearly better than others, but of course, neither is every estate the same, nor every soil type, nor each individual vigneron’s ideology.
The theory is sound: To reveal the most honest nuances in a grape’s nature, especially when reared in a specific environment, the less intervention used, the better. If flaws arise in the final product—off-flavors, rogue, or ‘stuck’ fermentation (when nature takes its course), it may often be laid at the door of inexperience. Natural wine purists often claim that this technique is ancient and that making without preservatives is the historical precedent. That’s not entirely true, of course; using sulfites to kill bacteria or errant yeast strains dates to the 8th century BCE. What is fact, however, is that some ‘natural’ wines are wonderful and others are not, and that the most successful arise from an overall organoleptic perspective may be better called ‘low-intervention’ wine, or ‘raw’ wine—terminology now adopted by many vignerons and sommeliers.
At its most dogmatic and (arguably) most OCD, natural wines come from vineyards not sprayed with pesticides or herbicides, where the grapes are picked by hand and fermented with native years; they are fined via gravity and use no additives to preserve or shore up flavor, including sugar and sulfites. Winemakers who prefer to eliminate the very real risk of contaminating an entire harvest may use small amounts of sulfites to preserve and stabilize (10 to 35 parts per million) and in natural wine circles, this is generally considered an acceptable amount, especially if the estate maintains a biodynamic approach to vineyard management.
“The best fertilizer is the winemaker’s shadow.”
Nowhere does this aphorism hold truer than in Nantoux, Burgundy, where Boris Champy carries on an endless quest to reveal the soul of each vineyard plot, the spirit of each grape variety and the essence of place inherent in every glass of wine. Having purchased the estate from Didier Montchovet—one of the biodynamic pioneers in France who were practicing eco-friendly, solidarity-driven viticulture before the word became fashionable—Champy took over with the intention of using global warming as an advantage in lesser-known mountainside vineyards.
This week’s 4-bottle sampler package reflects both the philosophy and the product: Stellar examples of Burgundy’s new visage. Boris Champy has awoken long overlooked terroirs to produce wines with cellar-aging potential as well as immediate enjoyment—a work-in-progress that Champy describes as being ‘the result of patience and foresight; a path that respects man in his environment.”
April, 2021 has been called the worst month ever for French vineyards: Severe spring frosts created crop losses estimated at 80 to 90% in some areas. These chilly announcements from the planet at large are but a single symptom among the host of challenges that climate change is bringing to the region.
Burgundy’s reputation for elegant wines is inextricably linked to its cool northerly climate. When summer temperatures remain consistently above normal, grapes ripen more rapidly and are at risk of losing the delicacy that translates into finesse when vinified, and although there is certainly a place for bigger, fatter, bolder Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, this market has been saturated in the past few decades with wine from warmer, flatter regions in the New World, and, in fact, bucks current consumer trends.
Burgundy’s winemakers are not without options, of course, having at their fingertips an array of viticultural and winemaking tools to mitigate the damage. But as 2021’s frost proves, such methods are not fool-proof and more drastic action will likely follow, from restructuring the Cru system to exploring the potential of other grape varieties. Burgundy has placed nearly all of its varietal eggs in two baskets, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and upsetting this particular apple cart is not an easy decision for an area tied to tradition. But along with finding new terroirs in regions previously unsuited for viticulture—higher elevations, for example—they may represent not merely the best routes, but the only ones.
The term ‘ban des vendanges’ may not be familiar outside Beaune, but it represents the earliest date on which harvests have been allowed to start. Pick earlier and you might forfeit your entire crop—‘ban des vendanges’ was a form of quality control that ensured the grapes were not harvested unripe. After 2006, following the ‘ban’ was no longer mandatory became a symbolic date, set much earlier than is practical for harvesting. Historically, this date has been a consensus between vine-growers and local town administrators and also considers the availability of harvest labor coming from outside of the town and even the potential for military threats or outbreaks of plague.
And with Covid in full swing, that sounds like 2020, when the harvest began on August 14, fully two days earlier than the record set in 1556, August 16.
Boris Champy is to the Hautes-Côtes what ‘imagineers’ are to Disney—seers of the future. With the steady march of global warming, Champy recognizes that mountain vineyards will become more temperate in the decades ahead, and his vineyards are well suited to raise the reputation of the entire appellation. With more consistent ripening, Champy’s objective is simple: To show the subtle differences between the climats and terroirs to which he has access via soil types, sun exposures and slope inclinations.
To this cornucopia of promise, Champy brings an organic mindset: “We practice a viticulture respecting nature. Our single plot vineyards are large biodiversity islets where a holistic approach is required; a global ecosystem with regenerative farming and utter respect for the environment.”
Champy began his oenology career on near-hallowed Napa ground, remaining with the Dominus Estate for a decade. He later became technical director for a well-known négociant in Beaune, and then estate manager for the famous Clos des Lambrays in Morey-Saint-Denis. He was also president of the Corton ODG and responsible for the creation of an environmental protection association.
“My goal from the beginning has been to showcase the lieux-dits of the high-lying hills and valleys of the Hautes-Côtes, and to highlight the different microclimates, exposures and other fascinating subtleties,” Champy says. “As a means to this end we practice viticulture that is still somewhat alien to the great winegrowing Côte. Our vineyard plots are small islands of biodiversity with numerous quickset hedges, meurgers (thick stone walls) and fruit trees. This is a philosophy of regenerative agriculture.”
In recent years, the term ‘regenerative agriculture’ has replaced ‘sustainable’ in the lexicon of ecology, at least as a consummation more devoutly to be wished. Sustainable farming is a harm-reduction approach—a crucial first step on the path toward creating an overall system that actually adds to nature’s richness. A farmer can begin by reducing external inputs like pesticides, for example, and eventually enhance the health of the land so much that chemicals aren’t needed at all. When measures to enrich the land—such as planting shade trees to protect and nourish soils—are applied on all fronts, you may lay claim to being a regenerative farm.
Boris Champy is a cheerleader for this method: “At the domain we believe entirely in this concept of agriculture: Our hedges are a habitat and a source of food for wildlife. Birds will feed on the seeds of plants growing amid the vines. Birds of prey will feed on small birds and mammals. Hazel trees, brambles and hawthorns have a positive impact on the soil. Mycorrhizae, fungus networks and other microorganisms will help build the strength of the vines that in turn will be transmitted to our grapes.”
Animals and non-vine flora are his partners in the approach, and he points to hedges and thickets with thick dry-stone walls that provide a perfect habitat for birds, lizards and fertile ground for orchids. “We showcase the domain’s history in the plants we encourage; black pines, Scots pines, sorb trees. Each of these trees bears witness to our domain’s past: wood from the sorb tree was used to make the screw of the wine presses; the black pine was planted after Phylloxera. We also allow dead trees to decompose to encourage biodiversity.”
The age-old farming paradigm, still prevalent, is changing: Time was, agricultural wisdom called for one or two species of forages and grazed by a single species. In France, as in the Midwest of the United States, this is generally what you still see: Closely grazed pasture with leggy tufts of mature stalks from less-palatable plants bringing selection pressure to bear in causing the eventual demise of the best forages.
Boris is a trendsetter: “We like to use the green manuring technique: in summer we sow vetch, rye, fava beans, mustard, Chinese radish and peas between the rows. These plants offer many benefits: they improve soil fertility, provide nitrogen and support microbial life. They are also bee-friendly, to the delight of the local beekeeper! We are bringing grazing back into fashion with a flock of sheep that gives our vineyards a thorough natural mowing. Our flock is made up of Thone and Marthod sheep, a breed from the Alps, which is very docile and accustomed to our Border collie, named ‘Napa’. Napa is very useful on the farm, especially for rounding up the sheep and moving them from one plot to another during the grazing periods. Thanks to our friend Fred Ménager from the Ferme de la Ruchotte, we have also adopted some specimens of old breeds of hen: Gauloises Dorées, Gauloises Grises, Faverolles, Le Mans and Marans.”
Boris Champy thinks about the past nearly as much he considers the future. He says, “Over my career, I have had the opportunity to participate in exceptional vertical tastings of Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits wines. Each time, I have come to the same conclusion, that authentic wines from the years 1910 to 1950 have stood the test of time. They are excellent wines with fruit and complexity which are still a pleasure to drink. From the 1960s onwards, the quality becomes inconsistent, the wines are often dull, boring or sometimes dead due to intensive viticulture (chemical fertilizers, weed killers, synthetic chemistry, clonal selection, etc.). From the 1990s onwards, the quality of the wines returns. Some have called this the ‘awakening of the terroirs.’ Our decision to use natural viticulture and winemaking has the single but ambitious objective of producing wines with cellar-aging potential that have taste and are enjoyable to drink.”
In another nod to history, Boris Champy explains his passion for using a high proportion of whole bunches of grapes by reminding us how recently the destemmer machine came to the wine cellar. “Like every invention,” he says, “it has both positives and negatives. Destemming has led to higher yields (with grapes that are not necessarily very ripe), and the planting of certain clones that produce large bunches of grapes whose stalks are unable to ripen. The return to the use of whole bunches is a rejection of these industrial techniques: viticulture with lower yields, the abandonment of high-production clones, the pursuit of perfect maturity and vinification by plot.”
This, he believes, is borne out by tasting and analyzing old vintages. “When we consider very old wines, and specifically, certain tannins derived from the stalks, we can conclude that, in the 1910s and 1920s, the very great Burgundy wines were made from whole bunches of grapes. We are still learning about these stalk tannins: They have a ‘sweet’ taste, a characteristic typicity that can be found in the very great wines produced today using whole bunches by the world’s greatest estates (DRC, Leroy, Dujac, Gonon, Chave, etc.).”
Before the phylloxera plague of the nineteenth century, vines grown on the sunny, limestone cliffs along a ribbon of valleys perpendicular to the Côte de Beaune from Les Maranges to Ladoix-Serrigny were a famous source for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; these were the wines that were ordered to celebrate the coronation of Philippe Auguste in 1180. Post-phylloxera, between 1910 and 1936, almost half of the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune vineyard disappeared.
The region’s renaissance began with reestablishment of the winegrowers union of the Hautes Côtes de Beaune in 1945, which led to the creation of the appellation on 4 August 1961. The terroir is largely built around formations laid down 80 million years ago during the Triassic (sandstone and clay) and the Jurassic (marl and limestone) eras. The favored sites are on south and southeast-facing slopes of valleys cut into the limestone plateaus at between 900 and 1500 feet; considerably higher than the Côte de Beaune, which results in later maturing grapes and harvesting, on average, around one week later.
Boris Champy labels his wines according to the elevation of the vineyards; hence, Cloud 377 indicates, in meters, how high up the slope this plot of grapes grows.
Domaine Boris Champy ‘Clou 377’, 2020 Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune Red ($63)
Au Clou is plot of Pinot Noir that sits at 377 meters altitude (1237 feet) where the soils are white and stony with a high marl content—similar to the terroir of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The vines are planted in traditional high-density style, with 10,000 vines/ha using Guyot cane pruning. Grapes are hand-harvested at optimum ripeness and vinified using soft extraction with a large proportion of whole clusters used in wooden fermenters, followed by barrel aging for one year using an average of 30% new oak. The wine is perfumed with raspberries and violets, with silky black and red berries on the palate peppered with black tea and allspice.
Domaine Boris Champy ‘Montagne 388’, Bourgogne 2020 Hautes-Côtes de Beaune White ($53)
388 meters = 1273 feet; Montagne de Cras is a 10-acre lieu-dit made up of vines abutting natural areas of biodiversity; scree slopes, hedges, orchards, limestone grasslands with numerous orchids and even a few rare corm trees, whose wood was once used to make screws for grape presses. Vinification takes place in 228-liter oak barrels (15% new) and, in part, in small round stainless-steel vats. This 100% Chardonnay is the antithesis of fat, oaky Chardonnays, showcasing instead a racy and bright style with lovely aromas of lemon, almond, stone, spiced pear and apple.
“Aligoté!” sounds like a cry of triumph; something you’d shout after making a goal in the World Cup. In fact, perennially overshadowed by its sexier cousin Chardonnay and even its half-sister Pinot Gris (they share a father, Pinot Noir), there was a time when the opposite was true:
“Before phylloxera,” says Jérôme Castagnier, proprietor of Domaine Castagnier in Morey-Saint-Denis, “Aligoté was planted everywhere, literally. But after the outbreak abated, thanks primarily to American root stock, French growers took stock and realized that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir commanded higher market prices, so that’s what was re-planted. In fact, in some regions, Aligoté was banned altogether.”
Post-phylloxera Aligoté exists under the basic Bourgogne Aligoté appellation established in 1937 and, for the most part, produces inexpensive and simple wines, especially when planted in the less-valued soils of the Saône Valley flatlands. But true Aligoté fans, including Les Aligoteurs (a group of French producers and wine lovers who promote Burgundy’s all-but-forgotten white grape variety) believe that the grape better expresses the terroir of thinner, rockier, hillside soils. A cross between Pinot Noir and the ancient white varietal Gouais Blanc, Aligoté’s profile includes descriptors ranging from fruit-driven and floral to herbal and sharp with acidity. In either case, it is the essential base for the classic cocktail Kir when blended with Cassis.
2020 Domaine Boris Champy ‘Sélection Massale 429’, 2020 Bourgogne Aligoté Doré ($36)
429 meters = 1060 feet. The fruit for Aligoté Doré—‘Aligoté Gold,’ an Aligoté clone Champy replanted with cuttings from his best vines—comes from a blend of plots grown above the 400 meter mark where the soil is marl, clay and limestone bedrock. The vines are very old, and not very productive, so the fruit displays mature concentration with complex aromas of citrus fruits, peach, and fresh bread. The palate is balanced and vibrant with a finish that is elegant, full, and nuanced. Neutral oak aging adds texture and depth.
‘Coucherias’ is a Premier Cru vineyard located on a steep southwest-facing section that has magnificent views of the sunset—‘Coucherias’ is a name that references the setting sun. These are old vines planted in 1964 and cultivated using biodynamics since 1985. The plot is situated on clay and limestone, divided into two sub-islets, the smallest being a former quarry. The soil is very clayey and red, which gives a dense texture to this wine’s tannins. The Clos itself is isolated by trees and broom, which is a rare plant in Burgundy.
Domaine Boris Champy ‘272’, 2020 Beaune Premier Cru Aux Coucherias Red ($108)
100% Pinot Noir, the wine expresses nettles and tea-leaf spice behind bright raspberry and tomato leaf, a whisper of wood and airy red currant notes.
If it’s still Champagne, is it still Champagne?
If the label says ‘Coteaux Champenois’, it most certainly is. This AOP, dedicated entirely to non-effervescent wine from Champagne, may be red, white or rosé, although the lion’s share is red—Bouzy rouge being the most celebrated. With a warming climate ripening grapes more consistently, Coteaux Champenois is becoming positively trendy, and this week’s wine selection is a cross-section of styles and producers across the 319 communes entitled to make wines under the Coteaux Champenois appellation.
The tale of Champagne’s proximity to Burgundy is told in varieties; Pinot Noir and Chardonnay make up 81% of Coteaux Champenois’ plantings. Also allowed is the other Champagne staple Pinot Meunier along with less cited Arbane, Petit Meslier and the Pinot derivatives, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris.
Like their fizzy sisters, still wines from the region tend to be dry and light-bodied with naturally high acidity. The reds are better in warmer vintages, which is why the predominant red variety, Pinot Noir, is currently basking in the newfound heat waves of northern France. The reason that 90% of the Coteaux Champenois output is red is not necessarily because the terroir has traditionally favored Pinot Noir, but because locally grown Chardonnay has commanded a higher price when sold to Champagne houses.
But a new generation of grower/producer is taking advantage of the more consistent ripening of red grapes, including Pinot Meunier, to explore terroir and individual lieux-dits in a manner more familiar in Burgundy than Champagne. Says Simon Normand of Domaine La Borderie: “Here in the Côte des Bar we feel quite close to our Burgundian cousins. Many local young winegrowers, such as myself, studied in Burgundy rather than in Champagne.”
Also from the Coteaux Champenois is a unique still rosé called Rosé des Riceys, once a favorite of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Made in tiny quantities by only a small handful of producers, Rosé des Riceys is made through the semi-carbonic maceration of Pinot Noir grapes and can have exceptional aging potential for still rosé.
You nod to recent temperature records being broken, but sometimes, harping about climate change does indeed sound like a broken record. Yet, to hear a brass-tacks anecdote is sobering: Didier Gimonnet of Pierre Gimonnet says, “When I was a child, we always harvested in October. Since 1988, we have only had two October harvests, 1991 and 2013. But we have had three August harvests in the past twenty years. There is no question that Champagne is getting warmer.”
In the short term, this is beneficial to Champagne, where ripening has traditionally been an issue. With the average temperature rising by one degree Fahrenheit since 2000, there is less and less worry that grapes will have sufficient sugar at harvest, and without the shattering acidity that makes malolactic fermentation a necessity.
But the long-term concern is obvious: With such a rapid rise in temperature, there is a fear that it might continue to arc upward at the same pace—in which case, in a worst-case scenario, the region may one day find itself out of the sparkling wine business altogether.
Having been defined and delimited by laws passed in 1927, the geography of Champagne is easily explained in a paragraph, but it takes a lifetime to understand it.
Ninety-three miles east of Paris, Champagne’s production zone spreads across 319 villages and encompasses roughly 85,000 acres. 17 of those villages have a legal entitlement to Grand Cru ranking, while 42 may label their bottles ‘Premier Cru.’ Four main growing areas (Montagne de Reims, Vallée de la Marne, the Côte des Blancs and the Côte des Bar) encompass nearly 280,000 individual plots of vines, each measuring a little over one thousand square feet.
The lauded wine writer Peter Liem expands the number of sub-regions from four to seven, dividing the Vallée de la Marne into the Grand Vallée and the Vallée de la Marne; adding the Coteaux Sud d’Épernay and combining the disparate zones between the heart of Champagne and Côte de Bar into a single sub-zone.
Lying beyond even Liem’s overview is a permutation of particulars; there are nearly as many micro-terroirs in Champagne as there are vineyard plots. Climate, subsoil and elevation are immutable; the talent, philosophies and techniques of the growers and producers are not. Ideally, every plot is worked according to its individual profile to establish a stamp of origin, creating unique wines that compliment or contrast when final cuvées are created.
Champagne is predominantly made up of relatively flat countryside where cereal grain is the agricultural mainstay. Gently undulating hills are higher and more pronounced in the north, near the Ardennes, and in the south, an area known as the Plateau de Langres, and the most renowned vineyards lie on the chalky hills to the southwest of Reims and around the town of Épernay. Moderately steep terrain creates ideal vineyard sites by combining the superb drainage characteristic of chalky soils with excellent sun exposure, especially on south and east facing slopes.
Whether based on tradition or technical savvy, the choice of the grape variety and rootstock best suited to a specific plot is an indispensable factor in determining the ultimate success of any lieu-dit (named plot or vineyard). Whereas most Champagne is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, both grapes make unique demands on terroir, and where one may thrive, the other may not. Sandwiched between the Marne and the Vesle Rivers, forming a broad headland of forests and thickets, the Montagne de Reims is particularly suited to the former; Pinot Noir vines carpet the western and northern flanks to form a vast semicircle extend from Louvois to Villers-Allerand, encompassing the famous villages of Bouzy and Ambonnay.
Like Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, the Grand Crus of Bouzy and Ambonnay co-exist in begrudging mutual respect and rivalry, and unless one figures out how to sign the other’s death warrant, this will continue for the foreseeable future. At its closest point, the distance between the two communes is less than a long drive with a golf club, and each have shored up a reputation for superlative wines from the south side of the Montagne de Reims hill.
With a population just under one thousand, Bouzy is the best known Champagne village to produce still wine (Bouzy Rouge) along with its legendary Pinot Noir-focused sparkling wine. More than nine hundred acres in Bouzy are under vine, with 87% of them Pinot Noir, 12% Chardonnay and a scant 0.2% Pinot Meunier. The most prominent Champagne houses with a Bouzy presence are Bollinger, Duval-Leroy, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Pol Roger and Taittinger.
Nearby Ambonnay shares a nearly identical terroir with Bouzy on the south side of the Montagne de Reims hill, and is similarly appointed, although with slightly less Pinot Noir grown and a bit more Chardonnay—white grapes accounts for about 20% of the vineyards. Like Bouzy, ‘Ambonnay Rouge’ represents a small portion of wine production. Prominent Champagne houses that control Ambonnay vineyards include Duval Leroy, Moët & Chandon, Mumm, Piper Heidsieck, Pol Roger and Roederer.
Benoît Marguet is a new breed of winemaker with an old winemaking pedigree; he is the fifth generation of Marguet to manage 20 prime acres in and around the Grand Cru Village of Ambonnay. All of his holdings are Grand Cru, many in famous lieux-dits like Les Saints Remys, Les Beurys, Les Crayères, La Grande Ruelle, Les Bermonts and Le Parc. In nearby Bouzy, he has vines in Les Loges, Les Hannepes where the average age of the vines is over 40 years, and the yield consists of 58% of Pinot Noir and 42% Chardonnay.
With a ‘back to the future’ view of land management, Marguet converted all of his acres to biodynamics in 2009. The vineyards are ploughed by horse and, assisted by Claude and Lydia Bourguignon, plants only with biodynamic Massale selection.
“It’s a natural approach that we carry home to the winery,” Marguet insists. “The work is done totally by gravity. Fermentation is done plot by plot in wooden vats and small barrels with long aging on its lees. No sugar is being added, and use of sulfites is virtually non-existent or kept for extremely low levels in very few cases.”
Alas, some of his best wine is only made in minuscule quantities, fewer than 3000 bottles per vintage. Still, following Lalou-Bize Leroy as his role model, Benoît Marguet is considered the most exciting natural wine producer in Champagne today.
Domaine Marguet, 2018 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Bouzy’ Red ($99)
Thanks to south-facing slopes, Bouzy is one of only a few Champagne villages with a strong tradition of still red wines. Among the many lieux-dits, Les Loges is a Grand Cru site just below the middle of the slope to the northwest of the village, and this is the vineyard from which Marguet draws his fruit. The wine shows clean dark-cherry and blackberry with a noted spiciness on palate and substantial but ripe tannins.
Domaine Marguet, 2018 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Ambonnay’ Red ($99)
Pinot Noir requires more hang-time on the vine to fully ripen, and Marguet only produces red Coteaux Champenois in exceptionally warm years; 2018 was one of them. Les Saint Rémys is a parcel of 100% Pinot Noir located on the west side of Ambonnay near the border of Bouzy and produces a lightly-toned red wine with plum, raspberry and sloe on the nose followed by a silky, fruit-driven palate with the tug of stony minerality.
Domaine Marguet, 2018 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Ambonnay’ White ($99)
100% biodynamically-farmed Chardonnay from lieux-dits Les Saints Rémys and Le Parc; the nose is floral with aromas of apple white peach blossom, while the palate is concentrated with bees-wax and orange oil flavors with an intense chalkiness at its core. The Grand Cru finish is long and layered.
By the standards of the region, Gonet-Médeville is ‘new’ Champagne house; it was formed in 2000 by Julie and Xavier Gonet-Médeville as Xavier’s family plots were being divided up. He opted for 30 acres of high quality Premier & Grand Cru vineyards located primarily in the three villages of Bisseuil, Ambonnay, & Mesnil-sur-Oger. The Gonet-Médeville—sometimes referred to as ‘the first couple of French wines’—also have holdings in five other villages across Champagne.
Gonet-Médeville belongs to Les Artisans du Champagne, a group that prides itself on uniting vineyard with cellar. According to Julie, “Champagne Artisans expresses our total involvement in all stages the production of our Champagnes. From growing practices to the choice of plant material, from harvest to disgorging, we come in and create living Champagnes reflecting our knowledge and culture.”
Domaine Gonet-Médeville ‘Cuvée Athénaïs’, 2018 Coteaux-Champenois ‘Grand Cru Ambonnay’ Red ($99)
From a one-acre parcel of well-drained, limestone and chalky soil with vines nearly a century old; the wine reflects Xavier Gonet-Médeville’s desire to express his wines in fully ripened grapes. Hypnotically-dense and strawberry-tinged, the barrel-fermented Pinot Noir offers textbook Pinot fruit intertwined with some spicy flavors. Silky textured, pure and intense on the palate, with fine tannins, finesse and purity.
The Clouet family traces its Bouzy roots to 1492 and at one time was the official printmakers for the court of King Louis XV; the classically pretty labels that grace their Champagne bottles today pay homage to their aesthetic history. Clouet grapes are sourced exclusively from 20 acres of coveted mid-slope vineyards in the Grand Cru villages of Bouzy and Ambonnay.
“Our standing comes with significance,” Jean-François acknowledges. “In keeping, we strive to continually improve upon the estate and wines by drawing from its past as well as implementing changes that ultimately improve the quality of his wines. We begin with an advantage—our Grand Cru vineyards are situated in the coveted middle slopes of Ambonnay and Bouzy—but this still requires the vigilance of stewardship.”
Clouet produces a full range of Champagnes, including most famously the glorious Cuvée 1911, which is comprised of 100% Pinot Noir from Clouet’s ten best lieux-dits in Bouzy; the production of each successive release is limited to 1911 bottles.
Domaine André Clouet ‘Versailles Rubis’, 2015 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Bouzy’ Red ($108)
Single-vineyard Pinot Noir from the warmest year Jean-François had ever seen in Bouzy, making it the ideal opportunity for his Coteaux Champenois debut. It displays the understated fragrance reminiscent of Chambolle, with red cherry, beet root, pink pepper behind Champagne acidity and fine chalk minerality.
Domaine André Clouet ‘Versailles Diamant’, 2015 Coteaux Champenois ‘Bouzy Grand Cru’ Blanc ($108)
A single-vineyard Chardonnay vinified in traditional Burgundian style and barrel-aged for 20 months before bottling. The cuvée exemplifies the exuberance and tension of a warming terroir, displaying lime white peach accented by bergamot and the soft vanilla imparted by the oak.
Champagne Paul Bara likes to think of itself as synonymous with the village of Bouzy. With 170 years of history under its wire muselet, multiple generations of the family have crafted celebrated Champagnes from the village’s most heralded south-facing slopes, of which they now control 26 acres.
The key to Bouzy’s heralded terroir lies in its deep, chalky subsoil which imparts intense expression of fruit and great mineral complexity to the wines; the key to this domain’s greatness is the innate respect the current generation of Bara shows for the longevity and timeless quality of the Bara’s classic style.
This is embodied and perpetuated in Chantale, Paul Bara’s daughter, who took over the estate on his retirement and today crafts wine by hand using low-yielding vines that ensures both the maturity of the fruit and the potential for prolonged bottle aging.
Domaine Paul Bara, 2008 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Bouzy’ Red ($110)
Made from Grand Cru Pinot Noir vines more than 50 years old, grown on clay/limestone in a Grand Cru plot of around seven acres. Production relies on hand-sorted, individually chosen grapes; it is vinified entirely in steel tanks, preserving crushed-berry freshness without oak to mellow the edges and has become a reference point for Coteaux Champenois red wine.
Domaine Paul Bara, 2008 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Bouzy’ Red ($58) 375 ml
This half-bottle will have matured more quickly than the 750 ml, and is likely reaching its prime.
‘Blancs’ means ‘whites’ of course, and in Champagne, white means Chardonnay… and the color of the superlative Cretaceous chalk that stretches south from Épernay for about a dozen miles. Along the eastern edge of Côte des Blancs’ limestone capped plateau, the midsection of the slope is known as the ‘coeur de terroir’, and in this heartland, the best Chardonnay is grown.
An abundance of chalk and very little topsoil is the primary factor that results in Côte des Blancs’ signature wines, filled with stony elegance and pronounced minerality. The most famous Grand Cru communes within the greater appellation display their own hallmark qualities, variations on this theme. Billecart-Salmon’s chef de cave François Domi draws grapes from named villages and lieux-dits to assemble wines with specific profiles: “Cramant is fabulous of is complexity and for its contrast of body and liveliness. Les Mesnil has strength and requires a lot of time to mature; Chouilly gives mineral and citrus with exotically-fresh tropical notes like pineapple.”
Divided into north and south, experts find the wines from the northernmost villages tend to be richer and marked with a certain girth while those made farther south have a striking salinity and show a built-in tension that comes alive with a bit of bottle age.
241 years of existence and 241 hectares of vines; today, the Louis Roederer House is headed by Frédéric Rouzaud, who represents its seventh generation of the same family to rule the Roederer roost. Exclusively drawn from Grand and Premier Cru vineyards in the Marne Valley, the Reims Mountain and Côte des Blancs, Louis Roederer is a true mosaic of terroirs with 410 individually tended plots to reflect the diversity of Champagne soils.
Cellar Master Jean-Baptiste Lécaillon cultivates a unique and distinctive style by exploiting the best qualities from each of these plots and treats them in the cellar with the same attention of individuality:
“Each parcel is pressed and vinified separately to guarantee their traceability and to bring out their purest expression of the terroir; fermentation takes places in over 450 small stainless-steel tanks, each containing a single vineyard parcel.”
Louis Roederer ‘Camille Hommage’, 2018 Coteaux Champenois ‘Grand Cru Le Mesnil-sur-Oger’ White ($198)
From a 1.6 acre parcel in lieu-dit Volibarts, this pure Chardonnay is named in honor of Camille Olry-Roederer who helmed Louis Roederer from 1932 to 1975, the great grandmother of Louis Roederer’s CEO Frédéric Rouzaud. From vines planted in 1997, the wine unfolds with a rock salt nose reminiscent of Chablis, followed by a bouquet of Mirabelle plums, toasted almonds and linden flowers. The palate hints of tarragon and white peach and the minerality reasserts itself at the finish.
The vineyards of Dizy are notably different from those of nearby Aÿ—the hillsides begin to curve to the west and the soils begin to pick up more clay and marl to balance the chalk.
Sprawled across 437 acres and 120 owners, the vineyards in Dizy are predominantly planted on south-facing slopes, evenly mixed with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay balanced with 23% Pinot Meunier. Noted single vineyard and vineyard-designated sites include Corne Bautray (where soils are clay with a lot of gravel and chalk underneath), Les Clos, Terres Rouges and Le Léon, on the commune border between Dizy and Aÿ.
Established in 1964, the Hébrart domain has built a reputation as one of the finest producers in the Grand Vallée. Jean-Paul Hébrart has been the head winemaker since taking over the estate’s 34 acres from his father in the mid-1990’s. He has shifted focus to highlighting the individual parcels of old vines located in estate-owned vineyards within the Grand Cru sites in Aÿ, Avize, Chouilly and Oiry as well as holdings in the Premier Crus Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, Avenay, Val d’Or and Bisseuil. Each parcel is vinified separately to better understand the terroir and blended to achieve the holy grail of Champagne houses—consistency and quality.
Domaine Marc Hebrart ‘Le Léon’, 2016 Coteaux Champenois ‘Premier Cru Dizy’ White ($119)
Le Léon is a historic vineyard on the border of Aÿ Grand Cru and Dizy, named for Pope Leo the Magnificent, who is said to have only accepted Aÿ made from this specific site. 100% Chardonnay, the wine is vinified in barrel without malolactic and aged for 18 months on fine lees. Graceful and expressive, it offers lemon confit, white flowers and mint on the nose with an extensive mineral-laden finish.
The wine world is a churning urn of burning trends, and what catches fire in America is not necessarily the same thing that ignites Europe: The concept of ‘grower Champagne’, for example, often carries more weight here than it does among the Champenois producers themselves. Champagne made in-house from grapes grown on the estate may wear the grower Champagne label, while the majority of Champagne houses purchase grapes as négociants and create signature blends. When a house wears ‘Domaine’ on the label, it is the former; ‘Maison’ generally represents the latter.
Between the two is the micro-négociant, who operates on a smaller scale and often produces high-quality micro-cuvées, controlling production from vineyard to bottling, and focuses on representing individual vineyard sites.
One micro-négociant estate that is capturing attention of both here and in Aube is Champagne Clandestin, a joint venture between Meursault-trained winemaker Benoît Doussot and Aube legend Bertrand Gautherot of Vouette & Sorbée.
‘Clandestin’ means exactly what you think it does—something hidden, something to be explored. In this case, it refers to the Aube’s long-overlooked, west-facing parcels of Pinot Noir on Kimmeridgian soils as well as Chardonnay on Portlandian soils above Buxières.
These cuvées represent vineyards that have generally been eschewed in the region; southerly, easterly and southeastern-facing parcels have long been favored in the Aube because they are exposed to more sunlight during day while their western counterparts have never been fully utilized. Both Bertrand and Benoît were convinced that a longer and slower ripening and maturation process could imbue the wines with added complexity and depth. Clandestin is made from 20 acres of cooler, west-facing vineyards, which are farmed organically, certified by ECOCERT and vinified according to the exacting standards for which Vouette & Sorbée is known.
Benoît says, “After pressing, the wine is aged in French oak barrels following closely the training I received in Meursault before moving north to Champagne. This wine should appeal to purists in search of minerality, cut, and precision. Because we insist on harvesting perfectly ripe grapes, which is not generally the case in Champagne, the wines can be bottled with no dosage, giving room for the oceanic terroir to really shine through.”
nv Champagne Clan Destin ‘Les Semblables, (BORÉAL) Côte-des-Bar Brut Nature ($73)
Harvest 2019. 100% Pinot Noir grown on vines between 20-35 years old, fermented and aged in French oak before aging sur latte for 15 months before being disgorged with zero dosage. Earthy aromas of wild strawberries, brioche and toast waft from the flute followed by a delicate mineral crunch. Disgorged October 1, 2021.
nv Champagne Clan Destin ‘Les Semblables, (AUSTRAL) ($79) Côte-des-Bar Brut Nature
Harvest 2019. A Blanc de Noirs from 30-year-old Pinot Noir vines grown in calcareous Kimmeridgian soil with clay and marl. Austral ferments spontaneously with native yeasts and is then aged in 350 and 500 liter used oak barrels; disgorge and finished without dosage. The wine shows zesty acids and a creamy mousse dominated by lychee and wild strawberry. Disgorged October 1, 2021.
nv Champagne Clan Destin ‘Les Revers’ Côte-des-Bar Brut Nature ($110)
Harvest 2019. 100% Chardonnay from a single vineyard site planted on Portlandian clay. Like everything ‘Clandestin’, it is harvested by hand and fermented by natural yeasts in a French oak demi-muid. After 10 months it is bottled and aged sur latte for 15 months, and to retain the purity of the terroir, Les Revers is bottled without dosage. The wine redolent of toasted ginger, honeysuckle and orange blossom and shored by apple and pear. Disgorged October 15, 2021.
In France, under Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) rules, vintage Champagnes must be aged for three years—more than twice the required aging time for NV Champagne. The additional years on the yeast is said to add complexity and texture to the finished wine, and the price commanded by Vintage Champagne may in part be accounted for by the cellar space the wine takes up while aging.
On the other hand, a Champagne maker might prefer to release wine from a single vintage without the aging requirement; the freshness inherent in non-vintage Champagnes is one of its effervescent highlights. In this case, the wine label may announce the year, but the Champagne itself is referred to as ‘Single Harvest’ rather than ‘Vintage’.
To be Champagne is to be an aristocrat. Your origins may be humble and your feet may be in the dirt; your hands are scarred from pruning and your back aches from moving barrels. But your head is always in the stars.
As such, the struggle to preserve its identity has been at the heart of Champagne’s self-confidence. Although the Champagne controlled designation of origin (AOC) wasn’t recognized until 1936, defense of the designation by its producers goes back much further. Since the first bubble burst in the first glass of sparkling wine in Hautvillers Abbey, producers in Champagne have maintained that their terroirs are unique to the region and any other wine that bears the name is a pretender to their effervescent throne.
The INAO defines the concept like this: “An AOP area is born of an alliance between the natural environment and human ingenuity. From that alliance comes an AOP product with unique, inimitable characteristics, a product so different that it complements rather than competes with other products, possessing a particular identity that adds further value.”
In 1927, the viticultural boundaries of Champagne were legally defined and split into five wine-producing districts: The Aube, Côte des Blancs, Côte de Sézanne, Montagne de Reims, and Vallée de la Marne. The CIVC (Comité Interprofessionnel du vin de Champagne), formed in 1941, decreed that everyone who wanted to plant vines and grow grapes to be used in the creation of Champagne had to be registered, and if you didn’t register back then, there is no out, even now. Originally, grape growing was not a profitable business and was an afterthought meant to utilize chalky slopes where grain would not grow. As a result, many farmers at that time did not register, and today, a tour along the Route Touristique de Champagne, you’ll come across unregistered fields that lie fallow between two registered vineyards.
… Yet another reason why this tiny slice of northern France, a mere 132 square miles, remains both elite and precious.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the horse and carriage of the wine world—the sizzling synergetic symbol of Bordeaux where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The two grapes are half-siblings who share a common parent, Cabernet Franc, and often display remarkably similar characteristics depending on where they are grown. When one is used to enhance the other, Merlot brings silken notes of plum and cherry which are brightened by Cabernet’s acidity and toughened by tannins, and where Cabernet shows tobacco and pepper, Merlot pours fruit juice over the parching woodiness.
In Bordeaux, most estates grow both, although in varying percentage based on terroir. In defining this, the intelligentsia often divides the two banks of the Garonne and Gironde Rivers with the Left Bank to the south and the Right Bank to the north. As a general rule, Cabernet Sauvignon vines prefer the gravely soil and slightly warmer climate of the Left Bank, while Merlot vines grow better in the clay and limestone soil of the cooler Right Bank.
This week’s sampler packages highlight various blends from 13 appellations on both banks; representatives of the marvelous pas de deux that has animated Bordeaux throughout the centuries. Choose one or choose both for a special discounted price.
A spoonful of grape sugar helps the geography go down: Bordeaux is host to a body of water called the Gironde Estuary connecting the Atlantic Ocean to two rivers. The river running along the east side of Bordeaux is called the Dordogne and the river on the west side is called the Garonne. These two rivers connect at the base of the Gironde Estuary and fork outwards. The wine regions that are located to the right of the Dordogne River are considered part of the Right Bank while regions located between the two rivers and to the left of the Garonne River are called the Left Bank. All of that underwater turmoil where the two rivers connect contributes to differences in soil composition on the two banks, which can create strikingly different wines.
Margaux, for example, has a mixture of soils (gravel with clay and sand) favoring more Merlot and Petit Verdot, but this is not true for the rest of the Médoc. Cabernet Sauvignon prefers the challenge of the rocky, gravelly soil that the Left Bank generally offers; gravel captures and holds heat, helping the area’s wines to develop ripe fruit flavors and those massive tannins that allow wines age for the long haul. On the Right Bank, Merlot is dominant, in part thanks to the limestone plateau of Saint-Émilion. But even there where there is more gravel, you find more Cabernet planted.
‘Bordeaux Blend’ is a label-dresser that has been exported across the planet, and people can easily identify the general taste—austere yet opulent, sweet yet dry, acidic yet fruity—of correctly balanced Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot paired in a bottle.
We are speaking strictly of red wines, of course—white Bordeaux blends also exist, generally Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc with the occasional addition of Muscadelle. And likewise, the classic Cab/Merlot blend may also include Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carmenère, each of which brings its own housewarming gift to the profile. But the bulk of the blends feature the big two, and although the style has been mimicked on nearly every continent, nowhere is this synergy more vibrant than alone the twin estuaries in the southwest France.
Like most things wine, the art of the blend originates in the vineyard, where soil types and microclimates found within a single property may differ significantly and favor one variety over the other. Equally, different parcels may produce different qualities in the same variety. As a chess master must think many moves ahead, so a vineyard manager, who understands the style of wine the vineyard is intended to ultimately produce, must plant and tend based on a master plan. This varies with the estate, of course, and the consistency from vintage to vintage will necessarily vary, but the house style by which château has built its reputation is often built around a general profile for which it strives in good seasons and bad.
Bordeaux has been as hard hit by global warming as anyone; the summers have been consistently hotter than normal and with less rainfall, or rainfall coming in the unhelpful guise of downpours and hailstorms. 2020 offered a delightful respite.
This is not to say that 2020 was not warm. The first part of the year, which induced an early flowering, was significantly warmer than 2018 or 2019. But the heart of the summer was marginally cooler. When a twelve-month average is taken, 2020 was as warm as the hellish 2018, but not as intensely hot during the summer. But it was wet—2020 saw the highest amount of rainfall between March and September of the past decade, even more than the soggy 2013 and more than 15% above the 30-year average. But a long, dry, two-month period until mid-August was good for the progress of the vine, especially where water reserves in the soil were adequate, or where a clay-based soil was able to retain moisture.
All in all, yields were down slightly in 2020, but the wines are silky and full-fleshed, capable of drinking now, but will improve with age.
Like fans of the Yankees and the Mets, the 13 wines in this package are for those who just can’t decide which side of the river in which to invest their loyalty. And that’s as it should be—both versions of Bordeaux offer a unique profile and may be suited to an individual mood, which, like the weather, is ever subject to change.
The Médoc and the Haut-Médoc AOPs are appellations found on the Left Bank of the Gironde, and they produce red wine only. The former is planted equally to Merlot and Cabernet, due primarily to a lower elevation and heavier, clay-dominated soil structure. There are no classified growths within the Médoc AOP, but with increasingly ripe vintages, it offers some of the best value in Bordeaux, even those wines labeled Cru Bourgeois.
The Haut-Médoc is the storybook AOP to the south, whose communes encompass some of the greatest vineyards on earth, here, soils are predominantly gravel, lending much needed warmth for the late-ripening dominant variety, Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes up about 50% of total plantings. Merlot, the second most grown variety, makes up 44%.
This collection of top Left Bank wines is meant to showcase Bordeaux’s old guard, AOPs where the most exclusive châteaux are found. These Cabernet-dominant wines tend to be tannic, masculine and capable of aging for many decades and also fetch top dollar prices.
Located at the northern end of the Haut-Médoc in an undulating sea of quartz, pebbles, clay and limestone, the wines of Saint-Estèphe are known for both finesse and longevity. Accounting for nearly 8% of total Médoc production, the terroir of Saint-Estèphe is considered among the most favorable in Bordeaux—the limestone is ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon, while the heavier, moisture-retaining clay favors Merlot.
Château Phélan Ségur is a Saint-Estèphe powerhouse; it neighbors Château Calon-Ségur and Château Montrose. In a 2003 Cru Bourgeois classification revision, it was listed as one of nine Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels.
A unique property with an Irish founder (Bernard Phelan acquired the Domaine Le Clos de Garamey in 1805 and Ségur de Cabarnac in 1810), the estate remained in the family until 1985—from ‘85 through 2017, it was owned by the Gardinier Group of Xavier Gardinier, with sons Thierry, Stéphane and Laurent at the helm and. Michel Rolland employed as a consulting enologist. In 2017 Belgian Philippe Van de Vyvere, CEO of Sea-Invest, became the new owner of the 220-acre estate which is planted in four plots located on a mosaic of terroirs. The plantings are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
As a cultural sidebar, Hannibal Lecter is enjoying a glass of ’96 Château Phélan Ségur in the final scene of the 2001 thriller ‘Hannibal’.
•1• Château Phélan Ségur, 2020 Saint-Estèphe ($59)
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot; 2020 is the first vintage of Château Phélan Ségur to be made up of four grape varieties with the appearance of Petit Verdot planted in 2013. The wine is beautifully balanced with powerful notes of blackcurrants, iron, smoked tobacco, chocolate and charred earth.
The most singularly revered appellation on earth; Pauillac is to wine what The Beatles are to pop music. Though fewer than ten square miles in total, three of the top five châteaux in the 1855 Médoc Classification are located here, and so varied is the topography that each estate is able to market the individual nature, in style and substance, of their wares. And it is this trio of skills—growing, producing and selling—that has made the region almost a cliché, synonymous with elite wine, where futures sell for exorbitant rates long before the wine is even in the bottle.
This 5th Grand Cru Classé of Pauillac is attached to the vineyards of Château Latour and Pichon Baron. The wines are made under the renowned consultancy of enologist Eric Boissenot.
The vineyard covers 70 acres, half nearby the château on a limestone-rich gravelly ridge and other half on flat land consisting mainly of deep Garonne gravel. The combination of these two types of soil gives Haut-Bages Libéral its iconic character, combining the power of Merlot on limestone clay with the elegance of Cabernets on gravel.
The vineyard is planted to 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot and is tended to by using ‘lutte raisonnée’—literally ‘reasoned fight’—as a rage against the use of chemicals. Vinification is traditional, in concrete and stainless steel vats in volumes proportional to the plot. All tanks, each with different capacities, are equipped with an automated thermo-regulation system. The wines will then age in barrels for a total of 16 months of which 40% of the barrels are new.
•2• Château Haut-Bages Libéral, 2020 Pauillac ($66)
78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot. 16 months aging; 40% in new oak barrels, 40% in one-year old barrels, 20% in amphorae. A classic vintage for the estate showing dark forest berries, herbs, blackberries, a hint of cassis and floral nuances swirling through an inviting bouquet. Juicy, elegant and fresh, fine cherry fruit, ripe, supporting tannins, delicate fruit sweetness on the finish, lively style with a subtle honey note on the finish.
Great things come in small packages, especially when big money is involved. The smallest of the major Médoc appellations (under four square miles), it also boasts (through a series of real estate deals between the large estates and the small ones) an astonishing pedigree: Fully 95% of the appellation sits on classified acreage. Key to the desirability of the wines produced here is the seamless fusion of concentration and elegance; the wines are of a style historically referred to more masculine, although more in the mode of a Knight Templar than a brawny warrior. This blend of finesse and fortitude comes in part from the preponderance of gravel in the best vineyards, allowing natural drainage in the wet years, radiating warmth in cool vintages, extending the growing season and allowing vine roots to extend deeply into the earth.
The deep gravel terroir (interspersed with clay deposits) makes up Ducru’s 150 acres. The vineyard is planted to 65% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc, nearly the same as it was at the time of the 1855 Classification. Originally a part of Chateau Beychevelle, the family-owned estate today relies on a sustainable viticulture system; traditional plowing between the rows depending on soils and the behavior of the vines. Trellising and canopy management are done according to vineyard density and soil composition while vineyards are planted with vines selected in the old vineyards and produced in the nursery. Winemaker Jean-Dominique Videau says, “We are fortunate to be situated in the ‘golden triangle’ of Saint-Julien terroir. Super Second powerhouses are a mere five-minute walk from our humble Fourth Growth estate, and we are capable of producing excellent wines.”
•3• Château Branaire-Ducru, 2020 Saint-Julien ($72)
58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc. A top vintage for this estate, the wine is perfumed and complex, offering cigar box, tobacco, spearmint, wet earth, mocha, spice, black currants and dark cherry.
Listrac is a small appellation with a big reputation, recognized for producing some of the most iconoclastic (and potentially undervalued) wines in the region, filled with scents of licorice, forest bramble and leather. Listrac-Médoc appellation laws require vineyards to be planted in densities between 6,500 and 10,000 per hectare, which ensures that quality is maintained at the highest levels.
Château Fourcas Dupré combines the name of the locale (the Fourcas plateau) with that of the original owner, Maître Jean Antoine Dupré, who bought the land in 1843. It has changed hands a few times since then, most recently ending up in the possession of Breton entrepreneur and wine aficionado Gérard Jicquel. The soils are primarily Pyrenean gravel, unique to the Médoc, along with chalky clay-limestone subsoil.
•4• Château Fourcas Dupré, 2020 Listrac-Médoc ($23)
44% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. Subtle and refined with fresh blackberry and boysenberry on the nose, showing finely-integrated oak behind its characteristic dusty minerality. Dry and still tannic, the wine can benefit from bottle age.
Moulis is the smallest appellation in the Médoc, situated midway between Saint-Julien and Margaux and south of Listrac-Médoc. Despite the proximity, Moulis has considerably less gravel than Margaux, and that which does exist is mixed with clay and limestone. Wines must be produced from grapes cultivated on designated plots in the parishes of Arcins, Avensan, Castelnau, Cussac, Lamarque, and Listrac to qualify as AOP Moulis appellation. Moulis wines combine finesse, power and complexity and reach their peak at around eight years in the bottle.
This oddly-named estate did, in fact, draw its hyphenated ‘spleen’ from that very organ; the image was inspired by a visit by Lord Byron in 1821, who was so moved that he was quoted saying, “Quel remedy pour chasser le spleen”, which loosely translated means, “What remedy to remove the spleen!”
Ably managed by Claire Villars, this massive 335-acre estate is planted to 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 39% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot and 4% Cabernet Franc. Vines average 30 years of age; the terroir is gravel, with clay and chalk soil, but the estate also farms parcels in several different vineyards spread among the various communes in the appellation.
•5• Château Chasse-Spleen, 2020 Moulis-en-Médoc ($41)
49% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 6.5% Petit Verdot, 2.5% Cabernet Franc. The wine displays a bright nose of black cherries, spice box and dried flowers followed by a creamy, medium-bodied palate with fresh and spicy red berry, tea and a bit of olive on the finish.
In terms of size and renown, Margaux is a vastly important appellation, with 21 cru classé properties from the 1855 Bordeaux Classification within its borders and more acres under vine than any other Haut-Médoc AOP (except Saint-Estèphe). As feminine as the name sounds, the wines of Margaux, at least by traditional standards are as well, famous for their perfumed fragrance and lilting, delicate expression of terroir. In cooler vintages, they may come across as lightweights compared to the powerhouses of Pauillac, but in fine vintages like 2020, they are incomparable in grace and depth.
The first written mention of Labégorce’s vineyards can be found in the oddly named Cocks and Féret guidebook in 1868, dating the winemaking property to 1332. Bordering Châteaux Margaux and Lascombes, the Labégorce estate was purchased by the late Hubert Perrodo in 1989 and is today owned by his daughter Nathalie as part of the family’s portfolio, which also includes Château Marquis d’Alesme and Château Tour de Mons.
Under Perrodo ownership, the percentage of Merlot planted in the 160 acres of vineyard has increased to 45%, since much of the property has clay-rich soils. The vines are, on average, 30 years old, but there are a few parcels planted in the 1950s, and at least one plot that has reached the century mark.
•6• Château Labégorce, 2020 Margaux ($44)
Five beautiful vintages in a row, beginning in 2015, 2020 Labégorce may be the best one yet. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, and the rest Cabernet Franc, it is silky and expressive with layers of black cherry, plum, cassis, licorice, chocolate and a background note of espresso.
Haut-Médoc is a sub-appellation of the Médoc AOP, and represents only a small fraction of Médoc wines. Of the fifteen wine-producing communes of the Haut-Médoc, eight are located along the waterfront of Garonne and Gironde while seven lie inland. Originally an area of salt marsh, most of Haut-Médoc’s early agricultural history involved animal grazing rather than viticulture, so credit is due to 17th century Dutch merchants for engineering a drainage project to convert sufficient marshland into vineyards in order to provide the burgeoning British wine market with an alternative to the Portuguese wines then in vogue. It is fair to say that their mission was accomplished. Still, the climate of Bordeaux is subject to more fluctuation than, say, Oporto, and growers remain beholden to nature.
For an estate that has had an impact in Haut-Médoc for more than five hundred years, there have been relatively few families at the helm. The original owners held on to the property for two centuries, following which, the de Guignes owned Sénéjac from 1860 until 1999 when they sold to Lorraine Cordier, the owner of Château Talbot in St. Julien, Following Lorraine’s death in 2011, the estate was taken over by her sister, Nancy Bignon Cordier.
Originally, Sénéjac was known for producing white Bordeaux, although currently, production is exclusively red. The hundred-acre vineyard, on the far southern end of Haut-Médoc, is planted to 52% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot.
•7• Château Sénéjac, 2020 Haut-Médoc ($25)
54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 34% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 6% Cabernet Franc. Black fruits dominate with the focus on blackcurrants, black cherries and plums with a soft undercurrent of cinnamon, chocolate and coffee beans.
There is a sumptuous hedonism associated with descriptions of Right Bank wines that is missing from wines on the opposite bank. Left Bank blends, with a predominance of Cabernet Sauvignon, elicit tasting notes that refer to black tea, tobacco, saddle leather and even tar. Right Bank wines, in contrast, are described with words like chocolate, plum jam, licorice and spice. There is no shortage of exceptions on either side of the Garonne, but in general, the softer, silkier textures of Right Bank are the result of Merlot, the dominant variety in vineyard and assemblages. It is a grape that thrives in the Right Bank’s terroir, which includes plenty of moisture-retaining red clay in relatively flat terrain. Vineyard lands are small, rainfall is scant and summers are hot. Even the Right Bank’s ever-present threat of late frosts work to improve the Merlot by lowering yields and concentrating juice.
Classification is another notable difference: The Left Bank ranks châteaux according to the five-tier 1855 Classification of Bordeaux and uses the Cru Artisans, Cru Bourgeois, and Cru Classés de Graves classification systems.
The Right Bank, on the other hand, uses the 1955 Classification of Saint-Émilion, a ranking system for top producers reviewed every 10 years.
The popularity of Right Bank did not really explode until Robert Parker Jr. joined the fray and heaped praise and high scores on the modern ‘garagiste’ approach many producers used to make their Merlot blends. This package is a forum for rich, fruity wines with less tannin and acid, wines that are usually quite enjoyable right out of the gate.
As a stand-alone appellation, Pessac-Léognan is still in the bloom of youth; it was formally established in 1987 in recognition of the truly outstanding long-lived red and white wines of northern Graves. The appellation includes the only red-wine producer outside the Haut-Médoc to be classified in 1855, the Premier Cru Château Haut-Brion. Soils here, as in most of Graves, are filled with gravel and sand, a terroir that favors Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc over Merlot.
Owned by Florence and Daniel Cathiard, Le Thil is located in the heart of Pessac surrounded by the well-known estates of Châteaux Carbonnieux and Smith Haut Lafitte; Lafitte is also owned by the Cathiards. The vineyards are predominantly Merlot, planted on a superb clay-limestone slope facing due south while some Cabernet Franc is planted on the plateau portion of the estate.
Says Daniel Cathiard: “We make wine according to a unique philosophy: Bio-Précision. We are in the second year of our Organic Agriculture certification, and have added such positive-energy improvements as a CO2 recycling system into baking soda. Grapes are sorted twice, before and after destemming, and are not pressed before undergoing fermentation in vats. Tannins and color are extracted by soft punching down and a few pumping overs, then aged 14 months in barrels (30% new). Perhaps best of all, these barrels are produced in our in-house cooperage.”
•1• Château Le Thil Comte Clary, 2020 Pessac-Léognan Rouge ($41)
95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc, showing ripe black plum and blackberry on the nose with hints of sous-bois in the background. The palate is seductive, with sweet currant and chocolate-covered cherries building nicely to a finish spiced with clove and cracked black pepper.
Fronsac is known as ‘the Tuscany of the Gironde’ for its spectacular hillside vineyards overlooking the gentle Dordogne and the river Isle. The wines of Fronsac are exclusively red, usually Merlot-based and grown in ‘molasse de Fronsadais’—a subsoil composed of clay and more consistent limestone than neighboring Saint Émilion.
There are around a hundred winemakers currently at work throughout Fronsac’s two thousand vinous acres, and a renaissance in technique and focus throughout the region has raised the quality level of Fronsac wines to a level to which pricing has not yet caught up.
The seat of Château Dalem is an eighteenth-century house overlooking the valley of L’Isle, directly in front of Pomerol and the slopes of Saint-Émilion. Its vineyard, created in 1610, was owned by the same family for three centuries. In 1955, it was passed on to Michel Rullier, whose daughter Brigitte took over the line in 2002, and continues in this role today.
The 25 acres estate is planted almost exclusively to Merlot, for which the terroir is ideally suited. Says Brigitte, “The average age of our vines 40 years and the grape varieties are 90% Merlot with the rest Cabernet Franc. The diversity of the vats makes it possible to isolate zones of equivalent maturity and to let express as well as possible the different soils. In addition, a careful sorting is carried out on bays by an innovative system that uses air. The aging lasts 18 months and 40% of our barrels are renewed every year. Also, the heaters are chosen to respect the expression of the fruit.”
•2• Château Dalem, 2020 Fronsac ($33)
90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc aged for approximately 14 months in French oak barrels, 52% new. The wine shows spectacular depth and focus, with blackberry, raspberry, cedar and light forest floor on the nose; flavors of dark cherry and red currant fruit are laced with a taut, chalky mineral edge.
Lacking a detail-laden history, a focal-point eponymous town, a château-laden landscape or an ancient classification system, Pomerol does not conform to the accepted image of a Bordeaux wine district. Still, despite its tiny size (under 2000 acres), Pomerol has wormed its way onto a prominent perch among the world’s most revered wine regions. Merlot is the dominant grape variety and as a result, the wines tend to be rich, silky and approachable at an early age while also being capable of extended aging. Cabernet Franc is also often present, adding structure and an element of savory spice to the blend. The best wines come from the eastern section of the appellation on the marginally higher land where Pomerol meets Saint-Émilion. It is here that the most famous Pomerol is found, including the château that is more famous than the appellation itself, Pétrus.
At the end of the 19th century, a classification of Pomerol wines placed Rouget among the top five estates of the appellation, the remarkable constancy showed by consecutive owners of the estate, each of whom produced iconic wines.
The Labruyère Family, who has owned Rouget since 1992, is equally focused. Jean-Pierre Labruyère labored to restore the former glory of this property and in 2008, left the direction to his son, Edouard who is today assisted by estate manager Antoine Ribeiro.
Ribeiro describes Rouget’s situation: “Merlot represents 85% of our vines and is combined with Cabernet Franc, finding here the ideal ripening conditions. Soils can be either composed of clay and gravel or clay and silica with subsoils of iron-rich sandstone. Our vines are currently around 40 years old. A vast replanting program started in 1992 combined with the purchase of 5 high-quality acres from the prestigious neighbouring estates on the high plateau in 1999 have considerably reinforced the position of our Cru.”
•3• Château Rouget, 2020 Pomerol ($74)
85% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Franc. A powerful Pomerol with notes of crushed blackberries, stewed black plums and Morello cherries along with hints of star anise, pencil shavings and black truffles.
Nowhere in Bordeaux is a genuflection to history more obvious than in Saint-Émilion, which is speckled with Roman ruins and at whose center stands a limestone church built by the region’s namesake, Saint Émilian of Lagny. The vineyards are numerous and small, averaging around fifteen acres and spread across a triad of terroirs that can be roughly defined as a central limestone plateau, the clay and chalk-rich slopes of that plateau and the flatland beyond. What all three topographical areas have in common is cooler soils better suited to Merlot and Cabernet Franc. For the most part, Cabernet Sauvignon does not ripen well in Saint-Émilion except in small pockets, most notably on an ancient alluvial terrace in the northwest, where free-draining gravel soils are similar to those found in the best properties of the Graves and Médoc.
The 60-acre Fleur Cardinale is planted to 75% Merlot, 17% Cabernet Franc and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon at a vine density of 6,500 vines per hectare; new plantings are taking place at 8,000 vines per hectare.
The estate was purchased by Dominique and Florence Decoster in 2001; their children Caroline and Ludovic have taken ever-increasing roles in estate management. Caroline says, “Our vines are old, with an average age of 30 years, with some of our Merlot dating back 70 years. The terroir is dark red clay over limestone soil in the St. Etienne-de-Lisse sector, situated due east of the Saint-Émilion village. The vineyard is ideally situated on a gentle slope, next to the chateau that reaches 75 meters at its peak. We are situated on cooler, late-ripening terroir, which coupled with our drive for picking ripe fruit, often has us as one of the last châteaux on the Right Bank to finish harvesting.”
Her brother Ludovic describes the winemaking: “Vinification takes place in 25 small, thermo-regulated, stainless steel vats—the number of vats is equal to the various parcels of vines. This allows the vinification to be done on a parcel-by-parcel basis. Most of our vats are 70 hectoliters in size, but we use smaller barrels to conduct different experiments, and that wine is often used in the final blend. Additionally, 3% of the harvest is aged in clay amphora.”
•4• Château Fleur Cardinale, 2020 Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé ($53)
77% Merlot, 18% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Glossy and refined with blueberries and mulberries up front and graphite, dark licorice and crushed stones edging in. The tannin structure starts gently and builds, powering through to the finish.
The creation of the Côtes de Bordeaux appellation in 2009 was an attempt to unite four lesser-known wine producing areas (Premieres Côtes de Blaye, Côtes de Castillon, Côtes de Francs, and the red wines from the Cadillac district) under a single commercial network. The move has had mixed results, primarily because the identities of each were already well-established locally and these regions are not necessarily near one another. Francs and Castillon are located at the eastern end of the Bordeaux region, while Blaye is in the west and Cadillac in the south.
The banner of each remains distinct, therefore, and the qualities of their individual terroirs are not amenable to a generic appellation name. That can only be determined by a judicious examination of their wines.
Anne-Laurence and Mathieu Chadronnier are the team behind Marsau; both displayed an insatiable interest in wine from an early age. Today, Mathieu handles the estate’s commercial concerns while Anne-Laurence is the winemaking talent. Mathieu describes his wife like this: “Originally from Brittany, among Anne’s great strengths is a natural affinity with the winds, skies and soils. She has a totally unique way of understanding the symbiotic relationship between wine and its birthplace. She talks lovingly of this magic, and of the wonders created by man and the vine.”
Anne-Laurence herself displays this poetic soul in her description of her estate: “Marsau is a plateau, an unusual, rugged, clay terroir. Our vines are deeply rooted in the earth and here reveal their true expression, sensitive to the intricacies of the soils and landscape, and exposed to the nuances of climate. We cultivate the vines with their true potential guiding our every step; the resulting fruit is of great quality and diversity, as varied as the many facets of the terroir itself. Merlot takes a presiding role in plantings and in our wines is the inimitable hallmark of a sense of place, replete with freshness, depth and intensity. The intrinsic character of the landscape allied with silky tannins.”
•5• Château Marsau, 2020 Francs – Côtes de Bordeaux ($37)
100% Merlot, a distinct oddity in Francs, but perfectly explainable by the Chadronnier’s clay-rich terroir. Hints of ginger and cinnamon perfume this plump fruit-forward wine.
Castillion is Merlot country; the district, at the very eastern edge of Bordeaux between Libourne and Bergerac (abutting Saint-Émilion) contains multiple clay-rich sites in the foothills of the limestone plateau on which the town Saint-Émilion is located. With over 7000 acres under vine (70% of which is Merlot) the appellation produces only red wine, and nearly all blends with the satellite variety Cabernet Franc, which accounts for 28% of the harvest, and Cabernet Sauvignon, making up a scant 2%.
Geologically, much of the area is an extension of the limestone ridge that runs through Saint-Émilion’s greatest estates, while some sites boast the soil structures of Pomerol. Since the price of land in Castillon remains reasonable, many of the top estates from these storied Bordeaux regions have bought land here and raised the overall quality of the wine. As an example, vineland in Castillon sells for around $10,000 per acre, while in the Grand Cru climats of Saint-Émilion, that same amount of space easily exceeds a million dollars. In total, 230 vignerons and vigneronnes work Castillon terroir.
The area drips with as much history as juice; the Battle of Castillon, which took place on 17 July 1453, marked not only a decisive French victory over England, it signaled the end of the Hundred Years War.
The hamlet of Joanin is merely a blink; a row of roadside residential properties in the commune of St-Philippe-d’Aiguilhe. But it has a long history of viticulture due in the main to Château d’Aiguilhe, sitting less than a mile to the south. There is also a lieu-dit called Joanin, and this is the 30-acre vineyard that makes up the estate. At a thousand feet above sea level, this is the highest land along the Gironde, and Juliette Bécot, owner and vigneronne, treats her vines like prize-winning rose bushes, thinking of her Castillon vineyard as a beautiful and refined garden. Also the head of Château Beau-Séjour Bécot in Saint-Émilion, Bécot’s goal is ‘to breathe new life into Bordeaux, crafting elegant, accessible and terroir-driven style wines.’
The vineyard is planted to 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc; the vines have an average age of 35 years.
•6• Château Joanin Bécot, 2020 Castillon – Côtes de Bordeaux ($31)
A blend that reflects the plantings, 75% Merlot and 25% Cab Franc; this soft-textured red is redolent with aromas of licorice, loam and blackberry jam with a lush finish showing notes of chocolate-dipped cherries.
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Posted on 2023.08.10 in Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, Graves, Saint-Emilion, Pomerol, Haut-Médoc, Listrac-Médoc, Moulis-en-Médoc, Pauillac, Fronsac, Saint-Estephe, Côtes de Bordeaux, Saint Julien, France, Bordeaux, Wine-Aid Packages  | Read more...