Day 4: St. Emilion
I can see what Emilion, the famed monk of these parts, saw when he decided to hole up in this hilly town. It somehow feels different on this side of the river. I have always had a soft spot for the right bank and its Merlot driven reds. Many are still quite affordable, and they are often ready to drink a bit sooner. While still powerful and dignified, they don’t take themselves quite so seriously. Left out of Napolean III’s best of showdown in 1855, those on the right haven’t had 150 plus years to maintain a weighty reputation. That said, some of them have risen as high in stature (and price) as their neighbors across the way. We had the opportunity to see a couple of those Grand Cru Classe As (Cheval Blanc and Angelus–2 of the 4). And while those were remarkably grand and impressive, we began in more humble dwellings– a winery that is still family run for 14 generations. This was, without a doubt, one of my most favorite visits on the entire trip.
Château Coutet with Adrien David
Crossing the Gironde once again, we were to explore St. Emilion for the day. We began at Château Coutet, a winery that was in its 14th generation as a family estate–not the story we had been hearing all week in the Medoc. We learned why this was so difficult to achieve, though, in Bordeaux, where fame and property values have made it all but impossible for families to continue from one generation to the next. And it is not because the financial reward is too hard to resist. Rather, they cannot afford to keep it. We were explained here that the inheritance tax is nearly 30%, which must be paid when passing it to the next in line. When sand soil plots start at 200,000 euros/ha, clay at 300,000 euros/ha on up to a 1 million euros, and the most coveted limestone hangs around a million euros a hectare, it becomes all too clear why so many have to sell to those like Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessey and the like. But for now, Coutet is going nowhere, and they will never surrender if they don’t have to…
They were the first to be certified organic and represent one of only about 27 wineries in St. Emilion that are, in fact. They have about equal parts of the soils mentioned about, limestone being closest to the center of St. Emilion as well as clay and finally sand as you move farther downhill. They believe in maintaining ecological diversity and therefore preserve much forested land, gardens and animals as well a duck pond. They opt for massale selection to propagate their some of their oldest Merlot clones. I saw a funny looking robot off to the corner. It is a study/experiment put out by Vitirover, described: “To reduce professional risk, phytosanitary inputs and costs” on their website:http://www.vitirover.com/en/. He mentioned that his dad was the one who inspired this invention. This gadget operated by solar panel energy and is able to gently cut grass without bearing much weight, accomplishing 1 ha over a 12 day period.
These wines were incredibly well done, understated yet complete. They use an old basket press to extract a deeper black fruit quality. They often use wild yeast to complete alcoholic fermentation, although 2005 and 2010 required commercial strains since the potential alcohol was too high and made ‘natural’ yeast fermentation too risky. Malo is always 100% wild, as he feels the lactic bacteria is incredibly healthy. He feels this is because they refrain from using harsh antiseptic solutions for cleaning. In fact, famed enologist Denis Dubourdieu once paid him a consult visit. In preparation, he tried to clean up a little bit, and Denis caught him washing the walls. Immediately he commanded him to stop– for it is this unique, healthy bacterial environment that gives Coutet its individuality and contributes to its terroir.
Château Troplong Mondot, 1er Grand Cru Classé with Constance Denfer-Rochereau, Public Relations and Tourism
Shifting gears, we were taken to a more modernized estate, though it too has a long history. They were one of the first to adopt the optical sorter on the right bank and they were also among the first to initiate the practice of green harvesting before veraison. Our guide explained that most people do this, though our experience this week has proven to be a mixed bag of opinions about this tactic for obtaining lower yields. Those who support it, like Troplong Mondot, find it indispensible for achieving their quality. They like to stay at or under 40 hl/ha with a maximum of 10 bunches on their vines. Others, like Chevalier, are quite against it, as he feels canopy management (removing leaves and resituating the vines for optimal photosynthesis) can lead to better vine balance without wasting potential fruit.
We spent lunch discussing business with Constance really at their Michelin rated restaurant Les Belles Perdrix with the best view in town. Bordeaux is going through much transition in the worldwide market– a topic that came up numerous times throughout the week with wineries both large and small, firmly set in a long tradition and those scarcely known in the U.S. market. All were eager to discuss: How do Americans perceive Bordeaux? Are futures well received and furthermore relevant? How can the Bordelais effectively access incoming, young consumers and cultivate a strong relationship? Are there areas in which they should not change with the times? Are there areas in which Bordeaux should evolve and adapt to changes on the global wine scene?
Although Andrey and I could hardly speak for the entirety of the U.S. market, our studies and backgrounds living in contrasting wine markets gave us a chance to offer our observations. As importers, we can find the negociant system quite frustrating at times. Still, more than sharing our experience, we learned so much by listening and better understanding the reason it is a system that has lasted so long, is still strong and not likely to be impacted overnight on account of world politics such as Brexit, generational shifts, rising prices or even global competition. I found the confidence surprising but nonetheless convincing, as this was reinforced by discussions with Aurelien Revillon, President of Lestapis & Cie—a trade house, for a better understanding of the role of the negociant as well as the en primeur landscape today—challenges and opportunities. There is a still an ever growing market for futures, from what we learned, and no shortage of interest for top classified Chateau. I really took a lot away from that meeting.
For those wineries less reliant on negociants, I observed great opportunity for lesser known or smaller producers in satellite districts as well as other petit Château and Cru Bourgeois, to partner with U.S. importers that might have more direct access to smaller markets in the U.S. Some wineries we met with that come to mind are Château la Croix Davids in Bourg, Château Dalem in Fronsac, Château des Tourtes in Saint Caprais de Blaye, Château Bel Aire La Royere, Château Gamille Gaucheraud, Château Anthonic in Moulis, Château les Carmes Haut-Brion and Château Rouillac. At least in the Colorado market, there is a real interest in getting to know the great quality and value that can be had from Bordeaux. By cultivating a relationship with younger consumers from more affordable/accessible Chateau, there seems to be a better channel for building long term interest in all price and quality categories from Bordeaux.
Château Angelus, 1er Grand Cru Classé A with Victoire Touton, Export Manager
The first of the two Grand Cru Classé A’s for the day, Angelus was breathtakingly gorgeous with its recent renovations. Keeping with its namesake, the improvements reflected monastic, religious overtones–pews for the waiting room and church bells to welcome us with our national anthem. Our guide was no other than famed negociant Monsieur Touton’s niece, Victoire. She also had a knack for business and serves as their brand ambassador for the United States. The greatest difficulty in her line of work is having to educate Americans about proper timing and consumption of Bordeaux. For her, it is less about the actually vintage and more about understanding when to drink it. In an argument with a client who felt insulted that she was offering 2007 to him, she explained that it is perfect to drink right now. Later, she blinded him on it. You know the ending. He loved it and went on to apologize for his outburst against it, immediately ordering 10 cases for his market. She explained that a bad vintage by a great producer is simply a great wine that needs to be consumed in maybe 10 years vs 20-30. Once you realize this, you can appreciate the changes each year that a vintage bottling offers.
Most notable about this visit was the fermentation vessels. Here, inox was used for youthful Merlot to retain fresh aromas. Wood vats were used for the oldest Merlot vines. Concrete was reserved for Cabernet Franc, as it better controls the heat (CF gets hot fast! Concrete slows this down and moderates the temperature.)
Château Cheval Blanc 1er Grand Cru Classé A with Stephanie Duhar, Operations Manager
Cheval Blanc was most recently purchased by LVMH back in 1998. They have 37 ha all on one block, and they work with a remarkably high content of Cabernet Franc with a blend of typically 60% CF and 40% M. This is because they are closest to Pomerol and share the blue clay that is so coveted in Petrus, though much of their soil is sand and gravel. Walking through this winery, it was clear that they had made an impact on others throughout Bordeaux with their approach to technology, worker conditions and sustainability. Though they are not organic, they are very conscientious to practice lutte raisonnee. They practice Massale selection from their old plots to propagate new vines, and they use their own yeast for fermentation the past 3 years.
They vinify their 45 plots separately in large concrete eggs they designed from 9 molds back in 2011. The vision is nothing short of spectacular. These vessels are custom designed to each plot and allow for unparalleled attention to each selection. They do not prefer pigeage, so only delestage and remontage are employed to keep the skins moist and allow for a gentle extraction. Unlike Troplong, they blend at the beginning, not the end, and age in 100% new french oak for 15-18 months.
Having a real intolerance to sulphur in the cellar (I was hacking and sneezing my through some visits), I had a real appreciation for the sanitation room they built off to the side of the cellar. It is here where they clean the barrels, sulphur wick for sterilization and other cleaning practices. There is circulated air and ventilation so their workers can breath better. Plus, this makes cleaning the cellar much easier and better to fight the existence of spoilage yeasts.