Think you know the Medoc? The past decade has seen many crus classe raise their gamesignificantly, says Serena Sutcliffe MW, who shares her views on which properties have improved the most

Both decanter and myself are of a positive disposition. They could have asked me to pen a critique of the Médoc’s underperforming crus classés. And, unfortunately, I could have obliged with a number of examples. It is, however, far more useful for potential imbibers of good Bordeaux to be guided to those châteaux which are making quantum leaps in quality. This is an enormously encouraging trend that is gathering momentum, although I have to admit that, throughout Bordeaux and not simply in the Médoc, there is real unease that some of these huge and costly sacrifices in the pursuit of excellence are not always met by profitability. When significant financial investment is not followed by a strengthened selling price, which in today’s climate is sometimes impossible, disillusion – and worse – can set in.

CHATEAU DU TERTRE

The mood is decidedly more upbeat at the Médoc châteaux where the most effort is being made and the best results achieved. Nowhere is this more clearly illustrated than at Margaux’s fifth-growth Château du Tertre. Owned since 1997 by Dutch couple Eric and Marie-Louise Albada Jelgersma, and managed by the exceptionally able Alexander Van Beek, a phenomenal transformation is taking place. Approaching the beautiful 18th-century château, one sees immediately that the deeply gravelly vineyards are, appropriately, on a splendid tertre or mound, the highest point in the Margaux appellation. The 50ha (hectares) of vines are planted in one parcel all around the château, on one side sloping down to a jalle or stream, which separates the two crests of du Tertre. The property finishes at the end of the road, crossing the jalle which divides du Tertre from the owners’ other château, Giscours.

When the new owners arrived, there was much to be done. The château itself has been stunningly renovated and the vineyard canopy management had to change dramatically, lifting it to give more leaves and therefore better nourishment through photosynthesis, leading to greater ripeness. This had its first impact on the 1998 vintage. The property benefits from the high average age of the vines, mostly planted in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but gradually a vineyard has to rotate, so in 1998 the new owners planted 4ha of Cabernet Sauvignon and a tiny bit of Merlot on colder soil, near the jalle. In 1999, the new cuvier was used for the first time, with its 24 wonderful wooden fermentation vats going up to the first floor, in true Médocain fashion. Seven barrel suppliers are used and every year the wines from each type of cask are tasted blind against each other, as a means of rigorous quality control. Since 1999, too, the respected Bordeaux oenologist, Jacques Boissenot, has been consultant at both du Tertre and Giscours, while Jacques Pélissié joined in 1998 as technical director.

The 1997, matured but not made by the current owners, is perfectly pleasant, sweet and easy. The 1998 benefited from the new canopy management and has a strong aromatic bouquet, very nice sweetness and good structure. The 1999, made in the new cuvier, is absolutely delicious, really juicy and delectable, while the 2000 is concentrated and has all the glorious fruit of du Tertre, full in the mouth, fine and deep, with real breed and potential.

The composition of the 2001 is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc and it is wonderfully aromatic, very juicy (a mark of du Tertre) and really complex. In 2002, the assemblage was 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, and a month before it was bottled in May it had the lovely silky tannins of modern-day du Tertre with the finish showing the great quality of the oak barrels here. The 2003, tasted twice in April, is the result of a 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc blend and is a beautiful wine, with excellent balance and real scent and breed. The texture is creamy, with the oak absorbed, succulent and ripe. A revival like this brings joy to the heart. BBR, Far

CHATEAU GISCOURS

Château Giscours, too, has seen huge improvements. Since the acquisition in May 1995, Eric Albada Jelgersma and his team have devoted themselves to the 83ha vineyard. During 1995, they bought 100% new wood casks and in 1996 they started complanting 130,000 vines. The 1997 is spicy, easy, sweet and good for drinking now. The 1998 has a classically Médocain nose and a good, spicy flavour – it needs air and food to show at its best. Boissenot came in 1999 and this is the first ‘new’ Giscours with breed, life, balance and vivacious fruit. This is a lovely, silky, fruity mouthful, with no extraneous extract. The 2000 has a very brambly nose and one crunches black fruit on the palate. It is really succulent, with lots of juiciness and a very cassis finish.

The blend for the 2001 is 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot, and the result is a spicy redcurrant nose, with lovely glycerol and quality of fruit on the palate, very red cherries and beautiful balance. The 2002, just before bottling, is magnificent, with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, just under 40% Merlot and less than 3% Cabernet Franc. There is great concentration on the nose, huge depth, glycerol and body, with a brambly finish. The 2003 has virtually the same composition and real breed on the nose, together with violets and cassis. This is succulent and gummy, glossy with black fruit, with the tannins and oak completely covered. I could really get excited by this. BBR, Far

CHATEAU PONTET CANET

Anyone who has been lucky enough to taste Pontet Canet’s great wines of the past – the incomparable 1929, for instance – grieved when, for decades, this great Pauillac, from a beautifully-placed 80ha vineyard adjoining Mouton, underperformed. Now, however, after 25 years at Pontet Canet and with his stunning 2003, Alfred Tesseron has resoundingly arrived.

In 1982, he introduced a second wine, and this was a start, but the tannins obstinately refused to become ripe and soft. At the end of the 1980s, with a new manager, they began to focus strongly on the vineyard. Those slightly green, herbaceous elements diminished, even in the 1994, and the 1995 has very good fruit and is so soft and supple it really dissolves on the palate. The 1996 was a fine example of a vintage that suited Pauillac and Cabernet Sauvignon and the 1997 is attractive. The 1998 is very Pauillac, very well-made, straightforward, but deep and shaping up nicely. Michel Rolland came in as consultant in 1999 and looked further at leaf management. The 1999 is delicious and utterly worthy of the name, but the ‘great leap forward’ came with the 2000. Contributory factors to this quality include the use of natural yeasts and filling of the vats by gravity, which leads to slow fermentations and gentle extraction of tannins. Some malolactic fermentations take place in barrel. The 2000 has class and a terrific core of Pauillac taste. Luscious and impressive, I even toy with the idea that it could end up like 1929.

The 2001 has a lovely black fruit nose and black cherry liqueur taste, luscious again, yet with perfect structure. The 2002 is continuing in the same vein, but the 2003 is something else – the only 2003 with a cedary nose and great black fruit. This is classic Pontet Canet, with superb, absorbed oak. BBR, Far

CHATEAU PRIEURE LICHINE

Significant improvements have also been made at Margaux’s Prieuré Lichine, which Justin Onclin now manages for the Ballande Group, owner of the property since 1999, with Patrick Bongard as technical director. Here, again, all started in the 70ha vineyard. This has never been an easy property to supervise, as it is spread over all five of the Margaux communes, and the whole vineyard was in need of complantation. Since 1999, 50,000 vines have been planted, the equivalent of 5ha, and the canopy raised to increase leaf surface over 75% of the property. The team also began working the soil and serious cluster thinning was introduced, which led to a later havest. Picking into small crates, and two sorting tables, before and after the grapes go through the destemmer (there is no crushing), are part of the new regime. Stéphane Derenoncourt was appointed consultant in 1999, bringing in partial malolactic fermentation in barrel that year, total malolactic in barrel in 2000. Yields are lower than they were and 60% new barrels are used for the grand vin, which is normally half the production.

The 1998 shows big blackcurrant and black cherry aromas and is both tannic and fruity, but one can see that the tannins have become finer after this vintage. The1999 oozes red and black fruit on the nose and the finesse of the tannins and the luscious fruit shows the improvement in ripeness. It is juicy and succulent, with personality and charm. The bouquet on the 2000 is glorious, floral and expressive – opulent and generous, it fills the mouth with blackberries.

The 2001 is more overtly tannic, with a superb nose of rich berries and undergrowth, a taste of chocolate and a lovely freshness, along with attack and real depth. It is what the Bordelais call a bête à bouteille, just asking for bottle age. Just before its May bottling, the 2002 shows lots of black fruit, classic and delicious, even just after fining. The 2003 has Margaux’s violetty scent, with fleshy richness, fruit and body. It is a successful, voluptuous wine. Prieuré Lichine has turned the corner in a big way. BBR, Far

ALSO WORTH WATCHING

There are other châteaux snapping at the heels of these rising stars. One to watch is certainly La Lagune, now that Caroline Frey, oenologist-daughter of the owning family, has come on board. She was trained by Denis Dubourdieu, who acts as consultant to the estate, and is bent on excellence. The 2003 has a lovely blackberry nose and really juicy fruit, with very good wood and sweet ripeness – delectable. Since the Frey family came on the scene in 2000, much has been achieved. Once again, the leaf surface has been increased by raising the canopy height. This has become something of a mantra, but one that brings results. The new fermentation cellar has not yet served a harvest, but will work entirely by gravity, while the barrel cellar has been renovated and enlarged, with improved air-conditioning installed. The 1998 and 1999 were good, and the trajectory is clearly upwards.

Certainly, the direction is skywards at Château Brane Cantenac, where Henri Lurton has made a brilliant 2003, right up there under Château Margaux itself. The lovely blackcurrant nose leads to a rich, soft, dense and velvety palate, with masses of texture and opulence, undoubtedly one of the big successes of the vintage. I am on my way there right now to find out exactly how he did it!

Written by Serena Sutcliffe