Producers in Entre-deux-Mers are turning around what was once Bordeaux's most underrated region, writes ROGER VOSS
Entre-deux-Mers is the last frontier of Bordeaux. Here, producers are turning round a neglected, underrated region, proving that basic Bordeaux can be good, and that bargains and quality more and more frequently march hand in hand. Reds, whites and a few rosés are produced in an area between the Garonne and Dordogne (hence the name of the region), stretching in the west from where the rivers meet to form the Gironde estuary, to the boundaries of the Gironde department, over 50km to the east. Wines are mainly sold under the Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérieur and Bordeaux Blanc ACs, while some whites are alternatively sold as Entre-Deux-Mers.
Once, before the 1960s, the region produced 80% white and only 20% red wine. This is almost exactly reversed today. But many suspect that the tide is about to turn. To judge by recent quality, this is now as important a source of high-quality whites as Graves or even Pessac-Léognan. Entre-Deux-Mers is Bordeaux’s most beautiful region. With its rolling hills, woods, vineyards and cornfields, it has none of the austerity of the Médoc or the comfortable complacency of St-Emilion. It is close to the city of Bordeaux. Small wonder, then, that the region is becoming a dormitory region for greater Bordeaux, with housing estates springing up around many villages, posing a threat to vineyard owners, particularly in the west, where vineyards are more valuable as potential building sites. But this threat is also a stimulus to the increasing band of better producers who bottle their own wine and want to compete on the world stage. Francis Courselle of Château Thieuley says that ‘if many wines have not been of high quality, it is because they were industrial wines. That pushes the price of wines down across the board.’
Courselle is a leading proponent of how to push up the quality of Entre-Deux-Mers wine. ‘First of all you need to plant more vines per ha (hectare). The standard density here is 3,000 vines per ha, compared with the norm in the Médoc of 8,000–10,000. By planting more densely, you can cut the yield per vine.’After that, you need to follow all the best vineyard practices – tighter pruning, green harvesting, de-leafing during ripening, and a second green harvest before the vintage. None of this is revolutionary today, but there aren’t enough people in Entre-Deux-Mers doing it yet.’
Producers like Courselle are in the world-class league, with wines that can compete in quality with anything from the New World. Selling for under £10, they can also compete in value. He, and others such as Jean-Louis Despagne of Vignobles Despagne, stress the importance of terroir. ‘The region has fantastic terroirs,’ says Despagne, ‘but they need to be chosen with care. That’s why this isn’t a monoculture like St-Emilion or the Médoc. It’s why we have corn and cattle still – in places where vines shouldn’t be grown.’ Vignobles Despagne is unusual in the region because half its production is of white wine. ‘I have no plans to change this. In fact I find it easier to sell than red. There is so little white wine here and in the rest of Bordeaux, because the price has been so depressed in recent years.’
Worldwide demand for reds, plus a poor reputation for Bordeaux dry whites, had encouraged vignerons to graft their white grapes – Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle – over to the classic red Bordeaux varieties, some Cabernet Sauvignon but mainly Merlot. If this is changing, it is because of people like Despagne. Bruno Baylet of châteaux Landereau and l’Hoste Blanc, says: ‘There are some vignerons who really want to make good whites.’ He is one of them. His vineyards lie along a ridge that runs from near Créon towards Sauveterre-de-Guyenne and produce fantastic whites. The same ridge encompasses properties such as Despagne’s Château Tour de Mirambeau and Château Bel-Air and André Lurton’s massive Château Bonnet vineyard, the largest single estate in the region. Baylet’s wines also reveal another facet of the new Entre-Deux-Mers. His Cuvée Prestige of Château Landereau is part of a flurry of new prestige cuvées. These wines, mainly red but some white, are made with extra care, often hand picked, with grape selection, long macerations and lots of new wood.
One of the longest established of these prestige cuvées is the single-vineyard white Les Trois Hectares, produced at Château Bauduc from old Sémillon vines. Under the ownership of Gavin Quinney, this is now a serious rival to wines from Pessac-Léognan. Among the reds, Francis Courselle’s Château Thieuley makes Cuvée Francis Courselle (there is also a white), while André Lurton makes Divinus, the Bons at Château de Lugagnac make Cuvée Eos, and Esme Johnstone at Château de Sours makes La Source. The latest addition to the group is Jean-Louis Despagne’s Girolatte, an intensely concentrated wine made from 10ha of densely planted Merlot: the first vintage of this is 2001. Expect these wines to command significantly higher prices than the same producers’ basic wines. In top vintages like 2000, they make a fine addition to the range of wines from the estates. Part of the increasing concentration of the reds has come from the technique known as saigné. Here, red juice is drained off before fermentation to concentrate the taste and colour. This juice then goes to make the rosés and Bordeaux Clairet. Esme Johnstone uses this technique for his Château de Sours Rosé, which regularly wins critical acclaim in the UK. These rosés make delicious summer drinking, sold in the spring and consumed by the autumn.
What for the future? ‘I believe the future lies in whites,’ says Francis Courselle. ‘ We can make them with all the fragrance and aromas of New Zealand.’ Bruno Baylet also points out: ‘There is such a diversity of terroirs in Entre-Deux-Mers that you can make great reds as well as whites.’ With two leading growers so bullish about reds and whites, the future for Entre-Deux-Mers seems increasingly assured. Its place in the hierarchy of Bordeaux, at the bottom of the heap, is now being replaced by its role in proving that Bordeaux can deliver both quality and value.
Owned by Englishman Gavin Quinney, the barrel-aged, 100% Sémillon white Les Trois Hectares is the best wine, but the Sauvignon/ Sémillon blend and red are not far behind.
Owned by Jean-Louis Despagne, whites and reds come in two cuvées, the white classic and Cuvée Passion, and the red classic and Grande Cuvée. They are all finely made.
The home of André Lurton. The crisp white, a blend with Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle, is always reliable, while the top red cuvée, Divinus de Château Bonnet is a serious, complex wood-aged wine.
Chateau de Camarsac
Owned by Berenice Lurton, who produces two reds: the Cuvée Berenice Lurton and the extravagantly labelled château wine.
Domaine de Courteillac
The estate produces a wood-aged red, which is firm and tannic. Small quantities of a fresh, ripe but crisp white are also made.
Jean-Claude Barthe’s top two wines, a red and a white both called Cuvée Claude Barthe, are aged in wood.
Chateau le Grand Verdus
The Legrix de la Salle family make two reds, a fruity red Cuvée Tradition, and a powerful, complex wine, called Grande Réserve.
Chateau l’Hoste Blanc
Of the two vineyards owned by the Baylet family, this has a powerful, toasty white. There is also a beautifully perfumed red.
Chateau du Juge
Owned by the Médeville family, who also own Château Fayau in Cadillac and produce a good, fruity wine.
The Baylet family makes the Cuvée Prestige, aged in wood, which is a dark, sweet-fruited, toasty wine with good ageing potential. The Bordeaux Supérieur is ripe and juicy.
Chateau de Lugagnac
The Bon family produces powerful, rich wines. The top cuvée, Eos de Château de Lugagnac, is a wood-aged red, with black fruit flavours.
Chateau Rauzan Despagne
Jean-Louis Despagne makes a fresh, fruity red here as well as Cuvée Classique. Both are easy, enjoyable wines.
Gilles and Stéphane Dupuch specialise in whites: Cuvée Madlys and the full-bodied, rich Vieilles Vignes.
Danish-owned property with 127ha. The white is a ripe, citrussy refreshing wine, the reds are the wood-aged Cuvée Carl and the softer, juicier Cuvée Prestige.
Chateau de Sours
Esme and Sara Johnstone produce a rich but crisp white and a modern, fruity red. A recent addition is the concentrated single-vineyard garage wine, La Source.
Francis Courselle’s white is fresh with upfront fruit, and is crisp and refreshing. His classic red is a fine, concentrated wine with rich fruit and structure.
Chateau Tour de Mirambeau
From his 20ha Jean-Louis Despagne produces a refreshing rosé, a full-bodied white and a juicy red. The star red is the intense, dark Cuvée Passion.
Roger Voss is a writer based in Bordeaux.
Written by Roger Voss