This fascinating tasting took place at Carousel on Blandford Street, London, on 6 March 2019. I say fascinating and I’m guessing that might elicit a snigger from those who are used to very traditional, conservative and expensive Bordeaux. However, Vine Trail are not your ordinary purveyors of ordinary claret. The ten producers listed below (out of seventeen exhibitors) are all doing something a little different, and doing it differently in Bordeaux, where there’s a conservative orthodoxy from the very top to the bottom of the heirarchy, means that by definition you are taking a risk.
Those risks mean at the very least, organic practices, but many of the estates here are biodynamic. It may also mean doing something different in terms of grape varieties, or ageing (traditional concrete and even amphora will get a mention), or it may mean cuvées from individual vineyards over blending. There are even some venturing into natural wine in this damp Atlantic climate. But the biggest risk taker must be Vine Trail. Why?
There is no doubt that Bordeaux has an image problem. That image is the one carefully fostered by the estates at the top end of the 1855 Classification of Bordeaux, and the subsequent classifications of Saint-Emilion and Pessac-Léognan/Graves. It is an image that paints a picture of unsurpassed quality, leading to generally unsurpassed prices. Those prices, albeit for a relative minority of wines in this large and sprawling group of appellations that make up the wider Bordeaux Region, have driven away all but the very wealthiest collectors.
Where did the Bordeaux lovers go? Some to the Cru Bourgeois, some to Burgundy, then the Northern Rhône and Piemonte. But the general opinion has been that Bordeaux is snooty and too expensive. That’s not good news for the thousands of small farmers who are finding it increasingly difficult to make a living selling their hand crafted, artisan Bordeaux wines, squeezed by the Cru Classés on one side and the large Bordeaux negociants on the other.
The obvious strategy for the artisans is to court younger wine drinkers. It’s been successful in other places, after all. But to so many people, Bordeaux has that old man image, and in a world with so many other more exciting wines to try, that’s not good, is it! But Bordeaux does have one thing going for it. I remember how Bordeaux used to come in at 12.5% alcohol, and this, combined with those classic varieties, grown in a climate generally so benign to the vine in more years than not, made for a delicious, savoury and fruity beverage that was hard to beat as an accompaniment for more traditional dishes. Bordeaux can be a food wine par excellence, although faced with a 14.5% Merlot from the Right Bank you might not think so.
Vine Trail is an intelligent importer. The selection of estates here are on the whole unknown to most people (you’ll have heard of one or two). What Vine Trail are banking on is that people will give the wines a chance and enjoy them. There’s no reason why the pendulum should not swing, and “ordinary” Bordeaux should not regain its popularity with “ordinary” drinkers. It’s really up to us wine writers to explore these wines and to put them out there.
If that pendulum does begin to swing back, it would be nice to think that this tasting is where it began to do so. It was certainly, taken as a whole, the most interesting tasting of Bordeaux wines I’ve been to in some years.
NB – I felt that it was important to stress the good value here, considering my comments about prices in the region. I have given a price per bottle in each case that I have been able, and these are taken from the “Price List – Private Customers” handed to me on the day. Hopefully these were correct on 6th March 2019 and will remain broadly so for a while. After 29th March, who knows? These prices do not include VAT. Please check current prices with Vine Trail before ordering.
CHATEAU DU CHAMP DES TREILLES (Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux)
Ste-Foy-la-Grande is the town which dominates an enclave which sticks out to the east of the Bordeaux Region, and is surrounded by Dordogne in the north, and Lot-et-Garonne to the south. When I first went to Bordeaux you could buy wines from this zone, but they were nothing to write home about.
Corinne and Jean-Michel Comme began farming their own estate in this outlying sub-region when they bought five hectares of 60-year-old vines in 1998. They have since been able to plant a further 5 ha, doubling their holding. They farm by organic and biodynamic practices, and never use a tractor on their soils. Sulphur additions are completely down to what they perceive as the needs of the vintage (the ph/acidities in the region do make sulphur-free wines more of a challenge according to Corinne). All the wines here are under the Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux AOP.
Vin Passion 2014 is a blend of Sémillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc, aged in a mix of stainless steel and concrete. This is a nice wine to start the tasting with. It tastes pure and fresh, certainly not over sulphured as can be the case with White Bordeaux. It has good fruit and nice balance of weight between the fatter Sémillon and the brisker Sauvignon. £10.28
Le Petit Champ 2016 is Corinne’s young vine red cuvée, made up of 50% Merlot, with a mix of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in similar proportions forming the rest. Again, the vessels used for fermentation and ageing are a mix of stainless steel and concrete vats. The wine is fresh and of medium body with a little tannin, and there’s a nice blend of cherry and darker fruit with notes of coffee and chocolate. A wine to drink in the moment, not to cellar. £10.44
Grand Vin 2016 – The best parcels on the estate are selected for the Grand Vin and ageing is for 13 months in barrique. It has much more structure than the young vine cuvée, and is quite savoury. Yet the fruit is slightly more plump, perhaps because this cuvée has 60% Merlot, instead of just 50%. £12.48
Jean-Michel works at perhaps the Médoc’s most famous fully biodynamic estate, Pontet-Canet. It’s a two-way exchange of information and experience between the two, but Jean-Michel and Corinne have learnt one thing above all others from the relationship – the pursuit of excellence. This applies whatever the AOP you are producing under.
CHATEAU BEYNAT (Côtes de Castillon-Bordeaux)
Alain Tourenne is the winemaker behind this small (19ha) estate at St-Magne-de-Castillon, on the other (western) side of the zone from Castillon-la-Bataille (famous for the battle in 1453 at which England was driven from her French lands, and the Hundred Years War finally came to an end). These are hillside vineyards, of limestone and clay, with vine age averaging around 25 years. Farming is biodynamic.
Côtes de Bordeaux Castillon 2016 is a blend of 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc. It is aged 12 months in concrete tank and sees no oak. This wine is bright and fresh, with a salinity which must either come from the concrete or perhaps most likely, the limestone. But it is worth noting that Alain uses a small number of amphora too, albeit currently for a tiny part of his production. The fruit is a mix of red (raspberry) and dark (blackcurrant), and some nice spice as well. Medium-bodied, drink within two years. £9.64
Cuvée Léonard 2016 was an unlisted wine blending two varieties, Merlot (60%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (40%). The vines are older here, averaging 55 years in age, from a plot closer to Castillon in the east. It sees a longer ageing, 18 months, in a mixture of second and third use barrique. The bouquet is fairly concentrated, slightly smoky, and the wine itself has a nice savouriness over darker fruits. POA
CHATEAU CRU GODARD (Francs Côtes de Bordeaux)
This AOP, which I grew up knowing just as the Côtes de Francs, lies in the northeast of the region, neighbouring the Saint-Emilion satellites of Lussac and Puisseguin, and Bordeaux-Côtes de Castillon to the south. Like the previous AOP, there are a lot of high quality, small estates, run by owners of grander Saint-Emilion and Pomerol properties, and most vines are situated on gentle chalk and limestone hills and plateau.
The Duclot family, owners of Château Cru Godard, are one of those with interests in prestigious estates, including Château Pétrus, so the focus here is naturally on quality. But there’s also a learning process, because this estate is also biodynamic.
Francs Côtes de Bordeaux 2015 is dominated by 65% Merlot with the remainder of the blend comprising Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec (in proportions 20/10/5%). Just fifty barrels are made. There is very plush fruit, and it is approachable, rich and long. Alcohol is a hefty 14%, but although you can tell it’s not as light as many tasted here, neither is it remotely like a jammy Saint-Emilion fruit bomb. Perhaps the more marginal appellation helps somewhat. £9.98
There is a white wine from the estate which wasn’t shown, but of which I’ve read some good things.
CHATEAU LA GRAVE FIGEAC (Saint-Emilion Grand Cru)
You might have heard of La Grave Figeac, not to be confused with Figeac tout-court, of course. It’s a small, 6.5 ha, vineyard distinguished by its rather grand immediate neighbours, the said Saint-Emilion Grand Cru Classés Château Figeac and Château Cheval Blanc, and La Conseillante (in Pomerol).
The key here is vine age (something like a hectare of Cabernet Franc vines are over 100 years old), very low yields for the region, and sensitive vinification. Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2012 is aged in one third new oak, one third second passage oak, and one third in concrete cuve. It has structure but is very drinkable, and it will probably peak in two or three years. It’s a classic wine with plummy Merlot fruit and notes of mint. Alcohol is 13%. £23.37
Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 1996 is not on Vine Trail’s list, but it gave a good idea how this might age in the right vintage. By now it has become more savoury, more complex too, enjoyable with food, but in no danger, seemingly, of falling off a cliff.
Cuvée L’Essai 2015 is a very interesting wine. It is labelled Saint-Emilion Grand Cru and in many respects it tastes like one, with a blend of 65% Merlot plus Cabernet Franc and 13% abv. The bouquet is lovely and fresh and although there’s a little structure, in essence it makes very easy drinking. The catch? This wine sees no oak and no added sulphur. For me this is something new and something different, and in this case I’d call it a real success. Other producers in Bordeaux should take note. £18.53
OSAMA UCHIDA (Haut-Médoc)
Osama Uchida’s story is fascinating. How he came to own a vineyard here would be a long one, but imagine – he’s in one of the most prestigious appellations in the world, and Mouton-Rothschild is literally within a stone’s throw of the garage which has to suffice for his winery. It can do so because Uchida owns a mere six-tenths of a hectare of Cabernet Sauvignon vines hidden away surrounded by pine trees, which, if he’s very lucky, might produce just less than 2,500 bottles each decent vintage. Do the maths. Based on what he gets for the wine, that isn’t an income, even before costs.
Haut-Médoc “Miracle” 2016 is aptly named. Farming organically, the wine is half fermented by carbonic maceration and there is no pigéage or pumping over. For ageing, it sees a year in 500 litre old oak. The nose really stands out, with very pure blackcurrant, blackberry and blueberry fruit, almost reminiscent of a New World Cabernet. A dark wine, to say “brooding” would be a cliché, yet it is 100% approachable. So pure and lovely. £25.87
“Phénomone” 2018 is to be released as a Vin de France. It is a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon which Osama says has had “no ageing at all”. The bouquet is all lifted fruit with blackcurrant dominating what to me tasted like cherries. If the aim is to bring some glouglou to Bordeaux, he’s succeeded, although I can’t choose between these two very different wines. POA
Although some of you would think I’d go for this wine, “Miracle” is such a lovely “Haut-Médoc”, which gives me hope for Bordeaux. And “Miracle”, I forgot to mention, has just 11.6% alcohol!
CLOSERIES DES MOUSSIS (Haut-Médoc)
Laurence Alias and Pascale Choime own two hectares near Arsac, close to Margaux on the Senejac Plateau in the Haut-Médoc. They farm their vines biodynamically, and plough with their Breton draft horse, Jumpa.
Haut-Médoc 2015 is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 20% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc. Elèvage is in 400-to-600 litre oak, 10% of which is new, to seven year old barrels, this following a very delicate extraction and only occasional pigéage. This lovely, fruity, wine is just 12.5% abv, very balanced, and it reminds me how Bordeaux used to taste, once. £18.32
Haut-Médoc “Baragane” 2016 contains 70% Merlot, with a mix of all the other four Bordeaux varieties, plus some rare Carmenère. Some of the grapes for this come from 150-year-old pre-phylloxera vines, unusual in Bordeaux. This is also very pure-fruited, but more black fruits rather than the red and black mix of the generic wine. In colour, this was one of the darkest wines on show, and has an extra 1% alcohol over the Haut-Médoc, but both are lovely wines. Sulphur additions are very low, which may be why the wines have a standout brightness (sulphur can flatten a wine, which you don’t always notice when a whole row of wines have been similarly treated). £40.76
CLOS DU JAGUEYRON (Haut-Médoc and Margaux)
I’ll come right out and say that this producer was a bit of a discovery for me. This is in no small part because I didn’t expect to be trying wines from Margaux that tasted a little bit different to the norm, although Margaux being Margaux, the top wines here are not cheap.
Haut-Médoc 2014 is a pretty good place to begin. Unusually dominated by 60% Cabernet Sauvignon (with Merlot, Cabernet Franc and some Petit Verdot) it is actually quite rich. There’s more fruit and concentration than you might expect from an entry level wine, and it’s a good price for this level of quality. £19.43
Margaux “Nout” 2014 is a special parcel of 25-y-o vines on very gravelly soils. Farming here is biodynamic, and the yield is kept below 30 hl/h (that’s low even for a cru classé). It is given structure through oak (50% new, 50% one passage), in which it is aged for a year. You do get a whiff of oak on the nose. The wine is nicely rich and approachable, perhaps because this cuvée is made from 55% Merlot (the remainder Cabernet Sauvignon), but as well as the fruit you get a savoury, mineral, saline lick on the finish. £29.87
Margaux “Clos du Jagueyron” 2014 is dominated by 70% Cabernet Sauvignon’s dark fruits. It has structure from its oak élèvage (85% new, 15% one year), giving it good tannins, nothing harsh. The wine needs to age, certainly longer than the “Nout”. I’d be extolling the virtues of this wine if it were not for the “off-list” cuvée which followed. £44.57
Margaux “Perrain” 2014 blends 75% Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Cabernet Franc from a one hectare parcel. It sees no wood, rather, small concrete vats, in which it is both fermented and aged (33 months on lees). After a year it was given a further twelve months in bottle. This is still youthful but it’s quite magnificent. A superb example of a serious wine made without oak influence. The bouquet is more floral than most Margaux, very noticeable. The fruit is present but I reckon the concrete helps its more earthy side to come through. An American importer called this “terroir transparent”, which sums it up so well. Only 2,500 bottles made. POA
I’m indebted to English winemaker, Tim Phillips, who pointed me towards this bottle, and told me it was his Wine of the Day when we met in the tasting room. He wasn’t wrong. Very possibly mine too, but all the Clos du Jagueyron wines are very good indeed.
CHATEAU BEL AIR MARQUIS D’ALIGRE (Margaux)
I lose track of the “Cru Bourgeois” terminology these days, but I believe this estate is classified as Grand Cru Exceptionnel. That might make the estate sound grander than it is, but grandness is not what it’s all about. Jean-Pierre Boyer’s Margaux Château makes what I have seen called “old fashioned” Bordeaux. To a degree, that could refer both to the style of the wine and to the winemaking here. After a long fermentation the wine remains in cuve for several months before it completes its élèvage in cement vats, two or three years depending on vintage and the whim of Jean-Pierre.
The vines at BAMA are over 100 years of age in some cases, and are all genuinely old. But so is Jean-Pierre, an octogenarian who still takes on the cellar duties. What will happen here when he retires, I have no idea, but if you like what you read do consider trying them. Vine Trail imports direct from the Château. They have imported several vintages between 1996 to 2005, wines which in any event are usually only released by J-P after at least ten years in the Château cellars.
The wines on show at Blandford Street were out of the ordinary, in that we were therefore shown three old vintages. All of the following are a blend of mostly Merlot (35%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (30%), with Cabernet Franc (20%), Petit Verdot (10%) and Malbec (5%), with some slight vintage variations.
Margaux 1998 is, above all, fragrant. Quite un-Bordeaux-like. Margaux 2000 has more structure and (although only relatively speaking) heft. It has great fruit and “personality”, a word I could have used far more in this article but not one you will always see in relation to Bordeaux. Age it further. Margaux 2001 on the other hand is drinking quite nicely now.
Generally, you can expect these wines to be lighter than any modern Bordeaux, the alcohols being commensurately low (only 12.5% for the ripe 2000), yet like that Bordeaux of old, these wines will age as well as any oak-infused wine from the region. The 1998 is POA, the 2000 and 2001 being a little over £43+VAT.
CLOS 19 BIS (Vin de France)
Vincent Quirac owns around two hectares of vines, both within the far south of the Graves AOP, at Pujols-sur-Ciron, and in Sauternes. Clos 19 Bis 2015 is classified just as “Vin de France” because the intention is to make an easy drinking wine, pure, fresh and glouglou. It sees no wood, with ageing just in cuve. The wine is 80% Merlot, which gives sweet plummy fruit, whilst the 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, vinified without oak, gives a hint of darker fruit, but also pronounced herbs and spice. There is oddly a very tiny hint of Nebbiolo about it (but I had been tasting Nebbiolo all the previous day). I’d be thrilled to find this little gem on a restaurant list. £13.12
Sauternes 2016 is a classic blend of Sémillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc. The style is light and fresh, in what I’d probably call a pleasing aperitif style. It has a genuine liveliness but lacks the weight and complexity of the top estates. Very nice, though. £19.48
This “domaine” (there’s no Château here) lies just 500 metres from Yquem, not that this means anything in quality terms. The domaine has 14 hectares of vines, divided into a staggering 58 parcels. Winemaking here could be described as “natural”, with no chemicals used. It can’t be stressed how difficult it is to make natural wine in the wider Bordeaux region. The regional wine bodies want to (as they see it) protect a certain picture of what Bordeaux should be. Whereas in the past plenty of wines would have been make without synthetic agrochemicals, the power of all the different interest groups makes natural wine the great satanic craft which might upset their dream of conformity. In reality they do not see the role of sustainable viticulture in revitalising a region which, aside from the rich estates, is fairly moribund. Rant over!
“Aither” IGP 2010 is a Sémillon-dominated blend (80%) aged in 50-y-o acacia barrels for three years. The acacia helps retain acidity more than oak, I was told. There’s a nice complex array of flavours like apricot, peach and honey, with a mere whiff of botrytis. £21.21
“Crème de Tête” IGP 2010 is made from the first press juice, and is given five years in barrel. It is more savoury and concentrated, as is the sweetness, a step up in complexity. Coffee cake or chocolate cake were suggested food matches. £29.59
Sauternes “Eplasen” 2008 spent eight years in old oak and is consequently much darker (already as dark as the Rieussec ’96 I’m taking to lunch tomorrow). It has a deeper nose and, despite the previous wine being pretty complex, goes just a bit further. £29.79
Sauternes “Sélection” 2007 was possibly the strangest, but also most interesting, wine on show, a fascinating glass to finish with. It’s a “Vin de Voile”, made similarly to a Jura Vin Jaune, aged without topping up under flor. The barrels were buried under sand in a trench in the winery. They were dug up after six years, with strict adherence to a fruit day in the biodynamic calendar.
In colour, this wine is dark amber. The bouquet is remarkable with more fig and nuts than the usual fruits sensed in Sauternes, along with an oxidative note from the flor, which perhaps does not dominate as much as in some Vins Jaune. It seems to combine delicacy and elegance with richness and length. Words like “exceptional” come to mind without fear of hyperbole. POA
Hey, natural wine from that bastion of sulphur, Sauternes. Who would have thought, and what a pleasant way to end an equally exceptional tasting. My eyes were genuinely opened. I taste a lot of wines month on month. There are many which I think I’d like to buy. The difficulty is that I own a lot of wine, and I rarely have time to order it and take deliveries. A lot of what I buy in the UK is just grabbed in independent wine shops these days, even if I can fill a small suitcase in doing so. But this is one instance where I could see myself ordering a mixed selection of some of these wines. I feel that the time is ripe to look at Bordeaux in a new light. What a great idea for a tasting, Vine Trail.