The Côtes de Bourg landscape – and wines – are full of character. Wine has been made here since Roman times, but a new elegant style and improved quality have transformed the area

The Côtes de Bourg landscape – and wines – are full of character. Wine has been made here since Roman times, but a new elegant style and improved quality have transformed the area

T he Côtes de Bourg is known locally as Gironde’s little Switzerland. A bit exaggerated maybe, but it gives a fair impression of the picture-postcard topography of the region. A first set of hillslopes runs parallel to the Gironde estuary and a second, more tortuous one is ranged behind. The hills – or côtes – and the proximity of both the estuary and the Dordogne river are the defining features of this compact appellation. The hillslopes provide good exposure, and the mass of water ensures a warmer mesoclimate and helps ward off frost. Add to this airstreams that help reduce precipitation, particularly during the harvest months, and soils with a predominance of clay and limestone, and there is a strong sense of terroir.

The Romans were the first to discover the viticultural potential of Bourg, and wine has been produced here ever since. Colour, structure and a full-bodied, earthy fruitiness have always been its characteristics, but over the last few years it has gradually become more elegant. Merlot is the dominant variety, but
producers are adamant that theirs should remain a blended wine. Some dry white is also produced.

Greater consistency of quality has become evident in recent years. The progress has been steady rather than spectacular, with few high-spending investors but existing producers realising the need for investment and improved viticultural management. Yields have dropped (72 hectolitres/hectare in 1986 against 57hl/ha in 2001), and leaf-plucking and better canopy management have become more widespread. There’s been greater investment in oak barrels and other materials, too.

The changes that have taken place at Château Tour de Guiet provide a snapshot of this evolution. The property was bought in 1992 by Stéphane Heurlier and his family – farmers from northern France. The vineyards were planted to a respectable density of 5,500 vines/ha, but vines had to be replaced and yields reduced. The system of pruning has been improved, and leaf-plucking and the removal of excess buds have been introduced. A new cellar was built in 2000, since when barrel ageing has been possible.

The Côtes de Bourg syndicat and the cooperatives have also played a part in the collective drive for improvement. Regular weather reports are relayed to the membership from five local stations, as is information on disease control, derived from the monitoring of parcels of vines in the appellation’s 15 communes. At the Cave de Bourg-Tauriac there is now a 40% difference in the remuneration for top- and bottom-quality fruit.

This is a commune worth watching – the wine community is working together, and moving in the right direction.

Written by JAMES LAWTHER MW