Graves is home to a broad collection of estates where quality ranges from the dazzlingly magnificent to the downright mediocre. CLIVE COATES MW ponders the likelihood of a new classification and suggests his own version

Graves is home to a broad collection of estates where quality ranges from the dazzlingly magnificent to the downright mediocre. CLIVE COATES MW ponders the likelihood of a new classification and suggests his own version

The Graves, like St-Emilion, was classified in the 1950s. Unlike St-Emilion, the classification did not write into the rules that it would be periodically updated. Consequently, it is now 50 years out of date.

I was heartened, then, to read of a proposal to update this classification. Intrigued, I phoned Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier. The suggestion, he told me, comes from the Syndicat Viticole des Graves in Podensac, which represents the estates in the Graves du Sud. Neither the equivalent committee in Pessac-Léognan (the Graves du Nord) nor the Syndicat des Crus Classés de Graves, of which Bernard is president, had been consulted.

There are, it would appear, several conflicts of interest and I would be very surprised if such a classification ever goes ahead. At best, implementation is a long way off – ‘one or two years’ at the soonest, according to Bernard’s predecessor, Tristan Kressmann of Château Latour Martillac.

The first problem is the diversity of quality and price even within the 13 existing crus classés. At the top of the tree is Château Haut-Brion, unmistakably first growth. At the bottom are properties no better than a fifth growth Médoc – and some would say lower still. Prices vary accordingly. A case of Château Haut-Brion 2000 will cost you £2,400; a case of Château Bouscaut a 20th of the amount.

There are two or three properties which would merit inclusion in a re-classification, being at least as good as Bouscaut, Carbonnieux and the like. These estates – which include La Louvière, Les Carmes Haut-Brion and Larrivet-Haut-Brion – all sell at the same sort of price as Bouscaut and not at the price of the three or four ‘super-seconds’ of the Graves – let alone that of Haut-Brion. The inclusion of these would serve only to dilute the concept of cru classé.

Nor can one envisage a single growth from the Graves du Sud, whose red wines are not even of Bouscaut/La Louvière quality. This is, I regret to say, rather boring territory for those looking for interesting red Bordeaux. There are a few enterprising estates, some of which are profiled below, but these are no more than the equivalent of Médoc crus bourgeois supérieurs (a
re-classification of which is imminent).

TIME TO RE-CLASSIFY

The general consensus, which I go along with, is that the crus classés need to be re-classified, à la St-Emilion, into three groups: premier cru classé (A), premier cru classé (B) and grand cru classé. The best of the rest of the Pessac-Léognan estates and those of the Graves du Sud should become crus bourgeois supérieurs. I give my own version below.

If, as has been reported, a complete overhaul based on the St-Emilion system is on the agenda, there may be room for optimism. Kressmann certainly believes so: ‘There are some 500 producers in the Graves, and some have improved their quality. You have to give the best a distinction.’The debate is likely to run and run. Meanwhile here are some personal highlights from among the Graves estates:

DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER

Wines of great finesse, expressed in an understated, almost delicate way, are produced from this Léognan estate, half-hidden among the pines of the Landes. Mr Parker doesn’t like it, which is to our advantage, as the wine remains affordable (the 2000 is around £250 per case).

CHATEAU HAUT-BAILLY

Behind this château is a large patch of mixed vines dating from the end of the 19th century. There could be anything here – even, dare I suggest it, some Syrah (a 12th of Haut-Bailly was planted to Syrah in 1893). Be that as it may, Haut-Bailly has a creamy richness which is as immensely appealing as the price of the 2000 vintage (about £265 per case).

CHATEAU OLIVIER

What interests me about Olivier is not so much the wines it makes today – though they are improving – but the potential of the terroir. A large-scale geological plan of the estate hints at the potential to produce really fine wine here. Owner Jean-Jacques de Bethmann now has a new young team in place. It will take time – you don’t produce great wine overnight – but the intentions are there.

In the Graves du Sud the following eight estates merit special attention:

CHATEAU LE BOURDILLOT

The senior estate in Virelade. The small but elegant chartreuse-style château was built in 1818. The current owners, the Haverlan family, took over a century later. The set-up is tidy and efficient: you know the wine is going to be good before you taste it. The red has grip and depth and is one of the few in Graves du Sud with the potential to age successfully.

CHATEAU BRONDELLE

Great changes for the better have been evident here since brothers-in-law Jean-Noël Belloc and Philippe Rochet took over and built a brand new chai 12 years ago. Look out for the top Cuvée Damien, named after Rochet’s eldest son. Unlike many châteaux in the Langon area, the predominant grape variety is Cabernet Sauvignon, not Merlot.

CHATEAU DE CASTRES

The young José Rodriguez is clearly both able and ambitious. He has invested heavily here in recent years. The vineyard, now extended to 32 hectares, is treated biodynamically, the cellar is up-to-date and the red wine is made with all the latest new techniques including bâtonnage and malolactic fermentation in barrel. The wine, currently only of medium weight, is getting bigger and better by the year.

CHATEAU DU GRAND BOS

Deep into the woods beyond, but also in Castres, you will find André Vincent’s Grand Bos. He arrived here in 1989, having sold Château Le Haye in Saint-Estèphe, and replanted a vineyard neglected since phylloxera times. Despite the age of the vineyard, the wine has real flair.

CHATEAU SAINT-ROBERT

Saint-Robert belongs to Crédit Foncier de France, which also owns Château Bastor-Lamontagne in Sauternes, with which this is run in tandem. The basic wines here are good. The Tête de Cuvée Poncet-Deville (named after a 19th century proprietor) is old viney, quite new oaky, ripe, balanced, profound and stylish.

VIEUX CHATEAU GAUBERT

This Portets estate, boasting a fine château dating from 1796, was bought by Dominique Haverlan in 1988. Over the last decade quality has improved and the red wine has become one of the top examples of Graves du Sud, keeping well.

Clive Coates MW is publisher of The Vine.

Written by CLIVE COATES MW