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Creating a grand cru

Jean Gautreau, owner of this Médoc château, has succeeded in elevating it to grand cru status, even though it was not listed in the 1855 classification. David peppercorn MW tastes the wines.

If ever you wanted proof that it is still possible today to create a grand cru, Sociando-Mallet is it. Of course, there was always a fallacy behind the claim that 1855 could possibly be the last word on the great terroirs of the Médoc. Historically, much of Bordeaux’s land was worked by small peasant farmers, often sharecroppers. You are unlikely to discover what a particular terroir can do when someone only cultivates 2–3ha (hectares) and makes the wine in a primitive fashion. When Jean Gautreau, a small Lesparre négociant, bought 5ha of vines in poor condition in 1969, Sociando-Mallet was a forgotten name. But in the 19th century, it had achieved some reputation, at a time when the commune of Saint-Seurin-de-Cadourne was the most important wine-producing commune after St-Estèphe and Pauillac in northern Médoc. When Léon Simon bought the property in 1878 from the heirs of Madame Mallet, the vineyard had been built up in the previous 30 years to the extent where Féret placed it second in the commune, behind Verdignan and ahead of Coufran and Charmail. But it had a production of only 40 tonneaux, compared with 160, 120 and 125 respectively for the other three crus.Then came phylloxera and, during this crisis – and the ensuing period of deepening economic gloom – came a number of changes of ownership. Thus the complete obscurity by 1969.

One begins to get an inkling of what makes Sociando so special when one discovers that they have never had to use sprays against rot, due to the exceptional air circulation in the vineyard overlooking the Gironde. By the same token it is almost immune to spring frosts. Thus in 1991 when the notorious frost on the night of 20/21 April reduced yields in the majority of Médoc vineyards to around 15 hl/ha, and often left no first-generation buds at all, Sociando produced 40 hl/ha compared with its usual 50 hl/ha. The only frost damage, bizarrely, was to a narrow strip of vines closest to the river.The question of yields brings up another difference at Sociando. Jean Gautreau does not believe in green harvests and relies on severe pruning. He believes crop thinning promotes vigour, a view gaining increasing currency recently. To complete the picture, 100% new barrels are used in the best vintages, and care is taken not to leave the wine in barrel for too long – 12 months is usually considered the optimum time. Since the 1989 vintage, a second wine, La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet, has aided the selection process as the vineyard grew. This wine only has 25% new barrels and the rest stays in vat. It is a wine that has already established a fine reputation in its own right.

Although I had tasted six vintages at the château during the 1986 vintage, it was not until November 2000 in the magnificent, if unlikely, setting of St John’s College, Annapolis, that a chance to taste 17 vintages in the company of Jean Gautreau set the seal on Sociando’s status as far as I was concerned. It was, he confirmed, the largest array of the château’s wines he had ever assembled, arranged at the behest of his US importers. And Annapolis was not so strange a venue after all, since although it still largely revolves around the Naval Academy, its proximity to Washington DC makes it a favourite playground for rich boat owners.Jean Gautreau selected two vintages to represent the first decade of his stewardship, 1975 and 1976. The 1975, with its very penetrating scent of blackcurrants and muscular power, showed no signs of dryness in spite of its powerful, rich tannins. This was a classic old Médoc of commanding majesty, and the spicy, chocolate-like fruit dominated the tannins, achieving a balance we would come to admire in younger wines; a great wine, in keeping with the original expectations of the vintage. In contrast, 1976 in the Médoc has been largely forgotten, with its exceptionally hot, dry summer, ending in rain during the vintage. But here the wine was perfumed, rich and still surprisingly fresh, with a lovely vivaciousness on the palate and a harmony between tannins and good fruit. It was certainly one of the best 1976s I have tasted recently.

It was the decade of the 1980s that marked the coming of age for Sociando. Only the 1981 disappointed. Although quite mature, it proved a rather small wine, balanced and structured, but basically not very expressive. 1982 marked the beginning of the great vintages. Its wonderfully succulent, ripe fruit has depth, sweetness and length. I thought it better than the 1990, but 1989 may have the edge when it comes to complexity and sheer flair. Nevertheless, a great wine with real authority. 1983 is a difficult vintage. Its powerful tannins often lacked phenolic ripeness and seem dry besides 1982. Not so here where, after rich, chocolatey tannins on the nose, the palate shows a wonderfully chewy, textured wine. The massive tannins give an impression of liquorice and are not at all dry. This is an outstanding 1983 in terms of its power and harmony.1985 has always been a favourite of mine, with its easy charm. The Sociando gives an impression of beautifully ripe, mature fruit. The flavour shows beautiful fruit quality especially in the middle, but also has length and is youthful and supple. This is a wine of great finesse and elegance, now beginning to drink well. 1986 suits the style of Sociando. After a dense, tannic and incredibly rich bouquet, the flavour shows dense-textured tannic structure. Although it needs many years to reach its apogee, it interestingly tasted very well with Comté and Beaufort cheeses, showing good harmony.The 1988 has a strong, black-fruit, coffee and rich tannic character on the nose, with a wonderful flavour at once very expressive and intense, and tannins of fine quality – very stylish and harmonious. In contrast, the 1989 has a bouquet of amazingly sweet, opulent fruit suggesting cassis, sweet chocolate and violets. The flavour matches. The extraordinary sweet, opulent fruit went perfectly with the Maine lobster. A mouthful of flavours here. This is a mighty wine. I bought a case for our cellar a few weeks later. After this the 1990 seems much less expressive. It is very rich, but the tannins show through more, and a lower acidity makes the wine seem a shade flat.1991 is something special here with 40hl/ha because the vineyard was hardly touched by the frost of 20/21 April that devastated most vineyards. The bouquet showed nice mature, ripe blackcurrant fruit. There is a lovely long, rich tannic flavour, drinkable with pleasure now but still improving. This is one of the wines of the vintage. 1993 was scented and rich on the nose, with fine fruit and rich tannins, good length, a stylish wine beginning to drink well. The 1994 is rich and solid, but still not evolved, with a dense tannic flavour; it just needs time. 1995 seems more closed than 1996 in spite of some roses and violets on the nose. It is still very tannic, seems to have less fat than 1996 and is more backward. This needs lots of time. 1996 has richly scented cassis fruit, still with very primary aromas. On the palate there is a long classic Cabernet character with fullness and fat, concentrated and still quite tannic but not aggressively so. A very fine 1996.

1997 follows the positive points of the vintage very well with a burst of deliciously welcoming fruit on the nose, and intense, succulent fruit on the palate; there is harmony and charm, so that one just wants to drink it now, although it will certainly mature and improve further. The 1998 had been bottled in May 2000, so we were tasting it after six months in bottle and an Atlantic crossing. The nose greeted us with some glorious rich, ripe fruit and a hint of violets. This is a thick-textured wine with ripe fruit and very supple tannins, and oak which underpins without being obtrusive. The harmony seems ideal; ‘try again in five years,’ I noted. This and the 1996 are well matched, with the breed and balance and charm to be found in the best wines of the vintage.Looking back over the range, I was most impressed by Gautreau’s ability to produce wines which, in spite of long vatting, rich extraction and lots of new oak, are never dry and always seem to achieve balance and harmony, with plenty of fat and fruit. Of course, picking grapes at optimum ripeness is part of the secret

The record over the last 20 years for consistency at the highest level is one any cru classé would be proud of, and the market has recognised this with the highest prices for any unclassified Médoc. Jean Gautreau has created a grand cru in the last decades of the 20th century.

David Peppercorn MW is a world-leading expert on Bordeaux wines.


Sociando-mallet fact sheet

Vineyard area: 58ha (30ha in 1990)

Production: 20,000–25,000 cases (Sociando)

8,000–10,000 cases (Demoiselle)

Second Wine: La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet

(since 1989)

Grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon 55%

Merlot 42%

Cabernet Franc 2%

Petit Verdot 1%

Plantation density: 8,000 vines/ha

Average age of vines: 25–30 years

Ageing: 80–100% new barrels, depending on the year

Length of ageing: 12–15 months in oak

Soil and subsoil: Gravel over calcareous clay

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