Right bank or Libournais?
There is so much that is new on the right bank of Bordeaux at the moment that I hardly know where to start. “Right bank “is a misleading name. After all, there are two rivers and an estuary that run through Bordeaux, all of which have a “right bank”. “The Libournais” is a more accurate descriptor as the appellations to which we refer surround this ancient waterside town. It was an important centre for wine trading and export with continental Europe in the middle ages, with the Libourne Merchants trading directly, rather than through ‘La Place de Bordeaux’, all thanks to the charter granted to the town in 1224 by the King of England.
Despite its ancient history, with vineyards dating back to 56 BC, this region of Bordeaux is a hotbed of innovation and has been since the ‘garage wine movement’ was pioneered by the likes of oenologists and winemakers, Michel Rolland, Jean-Claude Berrouet, Jean-Luc Thunevin, Jonathan Maltus and Denis Durantou in the 90’s.
It is a curious mix of old and new. Saint-Emilion is the first winegrowing area in the world to be listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in the “Cultural Landscapes” category in 1999. These landscapes have succeeded in preserving the traces of their history; the medieval village of Saint-Emilion, Romanesque churches, grottos, windmills and dovecotes, etc. In 1884 the first French Syndicat Viticole saw the light here and in 1933 the 1st cooperative cellar of the Gironde was established here too.
Compared to the rest of Bordeaux, the average size of properties here is small; for a total size of 12 000 ha there are less than 2000 properties, so do the math and you’ll see that the average size of 6-8 ha is half that of the Bordeaux average of 15 ha.
This structure of numerous individual wine estates is one of the reasons behind this constant innovation. Small is beautiful but also perhaps more flexible than larger corporate ownership? That, and the dominance of Merlot, which lends itself more kindly to experimental wine making than Cabernet.
The Libournais is also perhaps more ‘democratic’ than the left bank. Driving around the Medoc, the wealth seems to stop at the Chateau gates with vast tracts of vine and not much else in between except rather dreary villages (Bages being the exception that proves the rule). In the Libournais, cellars and chateaux are all side-by-side surrounded by their ‘gardens’ of vines, it is known as the land of 1000 chateaux.
Out of the 10 appellations only Saint Emilion ‘enjoys’ a classification. This came into being in 1954, almost 100 years after the Medoc/Graves/Sauternes classification of 1855. I’m on dangerous ground here, but it could also be considered more democratic being up for grabs every 10 years (or so). The last classification, in 2012, was a revision of the previous controversial 2006 edition, and no less controversial if you listen to a few disgruntled producers and certain sensationalist journalists. Despite this they are now the holders of a classification including 82 classified growths of which 18 are first growths and 4 are As with two new A’s (Chateaux Angelus and Pavie) added to Cheval Blanc and Ausone, for the very first time since the classifications creation.
So what is new? As elsewhere at the top end of Bordeaux, there is a rash of new and beautiful cellars. They are easy to spot here, as the properties are all much closer together. Promotional opportunities perhaps, but also a desire to incorporate the new technology in a more efficient way and also open their doors to visitors.
Cement tanks have always been traditional on the right bank, their thick walls being resistant to rapid temperature change, and smaller family estates couldn’t afford to destroy them when the trend towards stainless steel started in the 70s so they remained and are now the height of fashion again, see the new cellars at Cheval Blanc.
With an increased understanding of the soils on the properties leading to more precise plot by plot management, it is not unusual to see vat size reduced or the older, larger vats replaced by smaller ones and even to see a mix of oak, cement and stainless in a single cellar allowing the wine maker even more flexibility. I must admit a certain affection for these older ‘art deco’ tanks that are now being spruced up again.
Cheval Blanc is not the only one to reinvent concrete. Family owned Château La Conseillante in Pomerol has created a super efficient oval cellar of 22 brand new elegant concrete vats for the 12 ha property, allowing for precision vinification for Chateau La Conseillante and the second wine Duo de Conseillante. The cellar is an elegant illustration of the style of their wine underlined with their purple signature.
Visiting Saint Emilion can be a religious experience. In the 8th century, the hermit Emilion stopped off on his pilgrimage from Brittany to Santiago de Compostela and sheltered in a cave in the rock, the remains of which can still be seen near the 8th century monolithical church (Europe’s largest). There then followed a Benedictine monastery a century later reinforcing the religious importance of the town.
The religious theme can be seen in the names of many properties, l’Eglise Clinet, La Dominique, l’Evangile, Prieuré, Angelus, Saint Georges, etc. and the influence is clear in some cellars, such as Croix Canon recently brought to life by Chanel.
Chanel purchased first growth Chateau Canon in 1996, two years after their purchase of Chateau Rauzan Segla 2nd growth of Margaux, in 2011 they purchased the neighbouring classified growth, Chateau Matras. Wary of the influence of the INRA (the body governing wine appellations and classifications) and the effect it could have on their classification they were prepared not to include the new land into Chateau Canon. However they were given the right to include 1ha12 of old Cabernet Franc vines into Chateau Canon. With the 2011 vintage they changed the name of Matras to Croix Canon, now the second wine of the property replacing Clos Canon. As these new hectares join the younger Canon plots to make the second wine Clos can no longer be used as the new plots are not within the (beautifully restored) walls that surround Chateau Canon.
Chanel know about renovation, having already renovated the cellar, underground caves and walls of Canon they are now working on the Chateau itself – more of which next year. The cellars of Matras were within a badly run down 12 century chapel, now renovated to more than its former beauty to showcase the vat room and barrel cellar surrounded by a gallery, complete with pulpit. The tasting room has a spectacular stain glass window with a camellia at its heart as a subtle reference to Coco Chanel. They have even rebuilt the bell tower and if you have a head for heights, you can climb the wooden ladder to the top to see views across the vines and admire the new bell made by the foundry that made the bells for Notre Dame de Paris.
Talking of bells, the Croix Canon cellar is just next door to Chateau Angelus. Angelus made the headlines with the 2012 classification, being one of two properties along with Chateau Pavie to break the glass ceiling of the A classification taking the total from 2, at which it had remained since its inception in 1954, to the grand total of 4. To celebrate, their 2012 vintage will be sold in bottles embossed with a golden label.
The property has also just opened its brand new cellars. The wine making and ageing cellars themselves have not changed that much but the building including the bell tower has. The new entrance hall is a spectacular wood and stone renaissance structure topped with the bell tower, which will peal out your national anthem for you as you pass through the portals.
The renovations however are more than just a PR opportunity. They have enabled the integration of new wine making techniques, the signature of experimental co-owner and winemaker, de Bouard. In 1986 Angelus was the first property in St Emilion to use a sorting machine, and his La Fleur de Bouard, in neighbouring Lalande de Pomerol, has a spectacular cellar of suspended inverted vats that could be considered a testing ground for these techniques.
He has introduced two of these vats, one in oak and another in stainless, into the new cellars at Angelus alongside the classic cement, stainless and oak vats already in place. He has also reduced the temperature of the 1st year barrel cellar to 10°C enabling a more efficient precipitation of lees and a slower, longer 12 months aging on the lees. The lower temperature also reduces the inherent risk of brett and the use of sulphites and gives a more elegant uptake of oak allowing for a longer, 2 year aging in barrels.
If all this talk of new cellars has worked up an appetite, help is on hand. After Chateau Troplong Mondot and Chateau Candale. Chateau La Dominique, Saint Emilion cru Classé on the border of Pomerol, has also opened a restaurant. Construction tycoon, Clement Fayat, owner of Chateau Pichon Clement in Haut Medoc, has commissioned a spectacular new cellar designed by French architect Jean Nouvel inspired by the work of British artist Anish Kapoor. The artist’s fascination for red is perfect for Saint Emilion. The red plastic surfaces on the curved walls of the winery reflect the vines and the sky. The building is topped by an enormous ‘Terrasse Rouge’ the floor of which is covered with red glass pebbles, designed to look like the top of an open fermenting vat full of grapes. Here you can sit admiring the view over neighbouring vineyards and watch the chefs busy at the grill, preparing your steak and other regional specialities.
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