Value further afield
- Monday 1 July 2002
With the excellent 2000 vintage now available, take a look at Bourg and Blaye, urges CLIVES COATES MW. You won't be disappointed.
Ignored by the media and neglected by the trade, over the last decade the regions of Bourg and Blaye have been calmly improving their product and fine-tuning its value for money. This quiet revolution is exemplified by a new quality appellation in Blaye, in place from the 2000 vintage, and Bourg is likely to adopt a similarly enhanced winemaking code in the near future. Meanwhile, prices have remained stable. Indeed, in real terms they are hardly higher than a decade ago.
The port of Bourg lies on a sleep slope at the point where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers meet to form the Gironde estuary. The compact vineyard of the appellation Côtes de Bourg stretches out behind it, with more than 15 communes in a single canton occupying some 3,850ha (hectares), up from around 3,300 in 1991. This countryside is more severely accentuated than the gently undulating Blaye, but it's more intensely planted with vines. The soils are largely clay-limestone mixed with gravel over harder limestone rock. The essential variety is Merlot (55%) but blended with Cabernet Sauvignon (35%) rather than Cabernet Franc or Malbec (10%), as might be thought appropriate for these soils. Some 50ha produce a Sauvignon-based white wine, but this leaves something to be desired. North and east are the vineyards of Blaye which, like Bourg, is a port. The vineyards of the local appellations that cover the districts around the town are on clay and limestone soil. To the north, in the canton of Saint-Ciers-sur-Gironde, there is more gravel and less clay, and further south and east, the clay-limestone and clay-gravel hillsides alternate with plateaux of clay and flint. The subsoil consists of iron hardpan.
This is a less intensely vinous landscape, though the vineyard plantation has grown from 3,480ha in 1991 to 5,800has in 2001. Historically it was a white wine area, but a meagre 200ha of Sauvignon-based white wine vineyard exists today. The basic appellation is Premières Côtes de Blaye and the red vine encépagement is similar to that of Bourg. Until the last decade or so, both Bourg and Blaye were major contributors to négociants' branded Bordeaux reds. Most production never saw casks and was sold off in bulk, but as the better domaines have moved to château-bottling, the usual Bordeaux market has diminished.
Traditionally, most vineyards in both regions have been machine harvested and most of the wine reared in tank, but today cuvées are increasingly produced. Many of these are highly commendable and remain good value, although they cost a pound or two more on the shelves. With them comes a new, higher quality appellation for the Côtes de Blaye. To be labelled Blaye tout court the grapes will, in future, be riper (11° rather than 10.5°), must come from a reduced harvest (a base of 51hl/ha in 2000 rather than 61hl/ha) and in new plantations from a higher concentration of vines per hectare (6,000 rather than 4,500). A similar move is under discussion for white Blaye and Bourg is expected to follow. While the wines of Bourg and Blaye are largely similar, there is nevertheless a difference between the two, although this is more marked when one compares basic blends rather than special cuvées. The Blayes are less tannic and mature sooner – today the 1998s are drinkable. Bourgs are somewhat sturdier, but they have more definition and more interest.
Generalisations such as these, however, can be quickly exploded by the reality of samples. In both areas there has been an influx of new owners from the outside and changes of generation on the inside. Yields have been cut, vineyards are now green-harvested, leaves are stripped to allow the fruit to ripen more efficiently, the date of the harvest has been postponed, the fruit is sorted to reject the substandard, new equipment and temperature controls have been installed and new oak has been introduced. Standards have improved, but much of this is very recent and a comparison of the 1998 vintage with the 2000 is telling.
The leading estates
This elegant château's 22ha are run on biodynamic lines and are hand-harvested by American lawyer John Cochran and his wife Véronique. The Cuvée Chevalier, made from 70-year-old vines which yielded 20 hl/ha in 2000, is reared in 100% new oak and is splendidly rich and opulent.
CHATEAU DE LA GRAVE
Run by the fourth generation of the Bassereau family, unusually, this château's 45ha are hand-harvested. The Cuvée Nectar (80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon) is nicely substantial, gently oaky, rich, balanced and positive.
When Isabelle and Alain Fabre arrived at the 23ha Château Guionne in 2000, they immediately employed Libournais-based Michel Rolland as consultant. He told them to buy a sorting table, pneumatic press and new destemmer-crusher. The grape-mix is 55% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% 'very old' Malbec. The basic, non-woody cuvée is sophisticated; the Elevée en Fûts de Chêne better still.
The Duhamels have only been at the 6ha Château l'Hospital since 1997, but have already managed to place their wine in several three-star restaurants. There is a second wine here (Château de Laplace) as well as a Cuvée Traditionnelle and a Cuvée Elevée en Fûts (80% Merlot, 10% Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, 10% very old Malbec). Earlier vintages of this are a bit rigid, but I like the personality and depth of the 2000.
23ha are planted with 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec and 5% Cabernet Franc, and picked by machine. All the wine is stored in barrel, one third new. What I like about the wines here is that you want to finish the bottle. The oak is well integrated, there is plenty of succulent fruit and no hard edges.
Working with oenologist Christophe Veyrey, in 1999 Lucie and Stéphane Donze introduced a super cuvée, Epicuria, to much acclaim. This is produced by parcel selection, 100% new wood, malo in barrel and stirring up of the lees. Happily it's not over-extracted. In fact, it's rich, smoky-oaky, voluptuous and will age with dignity.
There have been 13 generations of the same family at the 23ha Château Mercier. The latest is Christophe Chéty, who also owns the small Clos du Piat. The Cuvée Prestige is classy and will keep. It comes from 50% Merlot, 20% of each of the Cabernets and 10% Malbec.
There are three cuvées at the 45ha Château Nodoz. The Spéciale matures entirely in new wood. In 2001 the malos took place in barrel and the wine was worked on its lees. The encépagement is 60% Merlot, 35% of the two Cabernets and 5% Malbec, and these are good wines for the medium term, especially in 2000 and 2001.
Derelict until 1982, there are 14.5ha here now, planted in the ratio 60% Merlot and 40% of the combined Cabernets. The basic wine shows no lack of personality and the Cuvée Amélia Julien is splendidly rich – very good indeed in both 1999 and 2000.
CHATEAU ROC DE CAMBES
Château Roc de Cambes' 14ha are planted with 60% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc and 5% Malbec. The wine is made in cement cuves and 50% new wood is used in a troglodyte cellar. This wine is full, robust, tannic, rich and long-lasting.
Other good Bourg estates
Clos Alphonse Dubreuil, Châteaux Bégot, Haut-Macô, Haut-Mondésir, Montaigut, Puy d'Amour, Rousselet.
This 60ha estate produces its best wines under the Château Haut-Bertinerie label (the second best is Château Bertinerie, the third Château Manon La Lagune). The vineyard is lyre trained, producing ripe grapes eight days before traditionally trained vines, but harvesting has to be done by hand. The reds are stylish and balanced, and this is one of the few Blaye estates to make good white wines.
CHATEAU DU GRAND BARRAIL AND CHATEAU GRAULET
Denis Lafon, one of the Blaye's more progressive winegrowers, owns Grand Barrail and farms Graulet, a total of 70ha. As well as a Cuvée Prestige in both domaines, he has produced a Cuvée Révélation at Grand Barrail since 1998. This comes from hand-picked old vines, matured in new oak. The 2000 vintage is very good indeed, as are the whites.
CHATEAU LES JONQUEYRES
One of the superstars of Bourg and Blaye, Pascal Montaut inherited the 5ha family domaine at Jonqueyres in 1982 and built it up to 15ha; he has also expanded to the Clos Alphonse Dubreuil micro-winery in Bourg. Manual harvesting, severe sorting of the fruit, and 50–100% new wood go some way to explaining the originality of his wines. Jonqueyres is made from 90% Merlot, and Dubreuil from 70% Cabernet Sauvignon.
The wine from the 30ha Segonzac estate is made in a large, separate winery, a Vieilles Vignes Cuvée being matured in older wood, the Cuvée Prestige in 100% new oak. The grapes for both are harvested by hand. For some time Segonzac has been a very good source and, as elsewhere, recent vintages show even further progress.
Other good Blaye estates
Châteaux Canteloup, Ferthis, Haut-Vigneau, Maison Neuve, Mayne-Guyon, Mondésir-Gazin, Sociondo, Roland La Garde and Terre-Blanque. Apart from Châteaux Grand-Barrail and Haut-Bertinerie, good whites include Château Charron and Cuvée Acacias.
Clive Coates MW is author and publisher of The Vine.