Graves in Bordeaux is home to some of the world’s favourite châteaux, and yet many of its less prestigious properties find it hard to find a market for their wines. CLIVE COATES MW looks at how the region is fighting back, and recommends his top producers and their wines.
Graves in Boreaux– many would argue, quite justifiably – is the least appreciated corner of Bordeaux. The red wines show neither the lush richness of Pomerol and St-Emilion, nor the cool dignity of the Médoc. Apart from the top three white wines the remainder of the crus classés blancs and their equivalents differ only by the fact of being more expensive than the best wines of the Entre-Deux-Mers. And they don’t keep either.
Open any wine list and you will see the proof of this thesis: plenty of wines from elsewhere, but few Graves in Bordeaux. Look at any list of the wines of the vintage: apart from Châteaux Haut-Brion and La Mission-Haut-Brion, no Graves gets a 90-plus.
What is the reason for this neglect? It cannot be a lack of availability. Graves in Bordeaux, though overall much larger, has about the same area under vine as St-Emilion – 5,236ha (hectares) in 2002 – and produces an equivalent amount of wine – some 225,000hl annually, of which 75% is red wine. It has a classification which, though out of date, being established in 1959, can give a rough indication of the best estates. It is even, like the Médoc, divided into a ‘better half’, Pessac-Léognan, and a lesser sector, Graves du Sud, though merchants seem more reluctant to prospect here for good-value petits châteaux than in the northern Médoc. Is it simply that the region doesn’t produce the sort of wines today’s consumers enjoy? Or is it inertia on the part of the proprietors?
Graves in Bordeaux begins at the Jalle de Blanquefort just north of the city. It was here, in what are today the suburbs, that the Bordeaux vineyard originated. Few châteaux have survived the expansion of the conurbation and the establishment of the Mérignac airport. A century ago there were more than 100 proprietors. Today there are 11, one of which, Châteaux Luchey-Halde, was resurrected in 2000, having been derelict since 1917.
From here the Graves in Bordeaux vineyard extends south, for the most part close to the River Garonne, changing from AC Pessac-Léognan to AC Graves at La Brède in whose celebrated châteaux lived the philosopher and writer Montesquieu, and extending round the sweet wine ares of Sauternes and Barsac to finish on the other side of Langon.
The northern half, Pessac-Léognan, consists of soils largely similar to Margaux: as the word graves would indicate this means gravel. This is particularly true in the few vineyards in the city suburbs. The further south one travels the less there is solely gravel; the more varied the geology. There is more sand mixed with the gravel, clay-limestone agglomerations and marl. This, plus the fact that there is, increasingly as you move away from Bordeaux, less Cabernet Sauvignon and more Merlot in the mix of grapes, helps explains why red Graves in general are both less firm and concentrated than Pauillacs and less generously succulent than Pomerols.
Styles are changing though. Thirty years ago there was a trend towards Merlot in the Graves du Sud, and there are still many wines today, even in Pessac-Léognan, with more than 50% of Merlot in the blend. Moreover, in those days there was more Cabernet Franc to be found. Château Haut-Brion still consists of 18% Cabernet Franc, but in the 1960s it was 25%. The new Château Luchey-Halde has been planted with a more classic blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot and 5% each of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc.
At the same time, while many white wine vineyards are 80% or more planted to Sauvignon Blanc, there has been a revival of interest in Semillon, as at Château de Landiras and Clos Floridène.
With the arrival of new blood from outside, plus changes of ownership within, the southern part of Graves in Bordeaux has seen a renaissance since the late 1990s. Though small, it is to be hoped that the interest now to be found at Châteaux Le Bourdillot, Brondelle, de Castres, Grand Bos and Vieux Gaubert will encourage the others to pull their socks up.
Recent vintages from Graves in Bordeaux have been quite challenging. The 2000s, with honourable exceptions such as Haut-Brion, Chevalier and Haut-Bailly, are less exciting than elsewhere. So is 2001, at a lower level. 2002 showed continuing development at many of the up-and-coming estates such as at Châteaux Brown, Ferran, La Garde, Nouchet, Olivier and Smith-Haut-Lafitte, though the majority of the Pessac-Léognan wines remain thin and unsophisticated. The 2003 vintage, hot, dry and precocious, presented the Graves growers – with their fragile, very well-drained soils – with more of a problem than elsewhere. The dry whites are flat and ephemeral; the reds are the least successful of all the Bordeaux appellations.
Clive Coates MW is the publisher of fine wine monthly newsletter The Vine, and author of An Encyclopaedia of The Wines and Domaines of France (£50, Cassells).
Graves in Bordeaux Key Players
Although Graves châteaux do not enjoy the popularity of many of the top Médoc or Right Bank properties, there are a certain number of top names that any wine lover would be thrilled to have gracing their cellars
Since his father Jean-Bernard’s retirement in 2002, Jean-Philippe Delmas has presided over the Dillon estates of Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion and La Tour-Haut-Brion, including the white wines of Haut-Brion and La Mission, the later labelled Laville-Haut-Brion. It is early days, and Jean-Bernard hasn’t completely been put out to grass, but this young man looks like a worthy successor. His father is a genius.
Here the winemaking approach is as far as it could be from the high temperature and long extraction of almost overripe fruit techniques common in the Libournais and beloved by American wine critics. The temperature as well as the length of maceration must be flexible, says the Delmas family. Each vintage demands a different recipe. The variety, the health, ripeness and concentration of the fruit, even the size and quantity of the pips and the nature and shape of the fermenting vats must be taken into consideration. This stable produces stunning wines. That Haut-Brion is perhaps the easiest of the first growths to guess blind (regrettably the rest seem to resemble each other more and more) is a tribute to the Delmas insistence that their wines must sing of their terroirs.
Professor Denis Dubourdieu, a youthful-looking man in his 50s, plays a triple role. He makes wines at the family properties of Château Reynon in the Premières Côtes, Clos Floridène in the Graves du Sud, and Château Doisy-Daëne in Sauternes. He consults widely. And as Professor of Oenology at Bordeaux University he has conducted major research into yeasts, pre-fermentation skin-contact and bâtonnage (stirring up of the lees). The somewhat belated emergence of dry white Bordeaux as a wine of interest and pleasure (only a generation after Mâcon Villages) owes much to him. I once asked him why, given that Haut-Brion Blanc and Laville were on a par with Corton-Charlemagne and Bâtard-Montrachet, there was no Bordelais equivalent of Meursault Perrières or even good village Meursault; I could also have asked him (we were all three at the same conference in Seattle) why no Bordelais produced a wine as good as Didier Dagueneau’s Pouilly-Fumé Silex. His reply was simple: the yields are too high and the growers do not wait for full polyphenolic maturity. His white Clos Floridène is as good as all but a handful of the premiers crus.
André Lurton owns one of the largest viticultural empires in Bordeaux, let alone Graves. Since 1965, when he replanted the derelict Château La Louvière in Léognan, he has expanded into a number of neighbouring estates which were also developed from the wilderness: Rochemorin, Coucheroy, de Cruzeau, de Quantin. He is also proprietor of the larger part of the classed growth Château Couhins. With the exception of the latter, quite an oaky wine, and one which can take bottle age, his approach is for juicy, clean wines for the medium term. The whites, what he is best at, are largely based on Sauvignon Blanc. If you are looking for something crisp and quaffable, with at least some personality,you won’t go far wrong.
DOMAINE DE CHEVALIER
It has always been a puzzle to me why Olivier Bernard’s red Domaine de Chevalier – which attracted prices in excess of what were to become the Médoc super-seconds when I first-started work in the wine trade in the 1960s – should today be so underrated. The style and the quality – soft, subtle, harmonious and supremely elegant – have not changed. Perhaps it is because the label says domaine and not château. Perhaps the style of the wine is too discreet and laid-back. But I could not produce blockbusters here at Chevalier even if I wished to, says Olivier. Meanwhile, for those in the know, you have splendid value for money.
When the Sanders family, in anticipation of death duties, sold Château Haut-Bailly to the American Robert T Wilmers in 1998, he had the foresight to retain the delectable Véronique Sanders as general manager. They have since installed a brand new winery. Quality, if anything, has improved even further. The estate is the only cru classé which only makes red wine. The wine is fullish but the tannins soft, the flavour rich and concentrated. ‘Improvement is a question of lots of little details, both in the vineyard and the chai,’ says Véronique. ‘Since 1998 we have tried to increase the intensity of the fruit and the maturity of the tannins, without losing the finesse.’
CHATEAU PAPE CLEMENT
Château Pape Clément belongs to Bernard Magrez, who now owns Châteaux La Tour Carnet (Haut-Médoc fourthgrowth), Fombrauge in St-Emilion, and many other estates. The potential of the Pape Clément terroir is high, but to me the wine is over-oaked, and lacks elegance and grip.
The dynamic Cathiards at Smith-Haut-Lafitte are resolute and indefatigable promoters of their brand. They now have the talented Fabien Teitgen on board as winemaker. This was one of the few Graves estates to produce a better 2003 red than 2002.
Another brand new winery has been constructed at Château Malartic-Lagravière since its sale by the Marly family first to Champagne Laurent Perrier in 1990, and subsequently their sale to Alfred-Alexandre Bonnie in 1997. Semillon has been introduced to the white wine vineyard, which was formerly planted 100% to Sauvignon Blanc. Both wines are a great deal more civilised than hitherto. The 2002 rouge was one of the best Malartics I have sampled en primeur.
The new generation of winemakers from Graves in Bordeaux:
Laurent Lebrun is the new manager at the cru classé Château Olivier. Olivier, which belongs to Jean-Jacques de Bethmann, is a large estate: 210ha, of which only 50ha are vineyard. Under Lebrun’s aegis, a geological survey of the property has been undertaken, which shows that there is some potentially marvellous vineyard land which is currently forest. It will take time, but plans are already under way to clear this and replant it. Meanwhile quality at Olivier, in the new winery installed in 2001, has improved drastically. Prices remain reasonable. www.chateau-olivier.com
Château Olivier 2002
(Red). Lovely aromatic wood and small red berries on the nose. Not a blockbuster, but persistent, harmonious, complex and elegant. Very good plus. From 2008. £127 (case in bond); F&R
José Rodrigues-Lalande is the son of a Portuguese winemaker; his wife the daughter of vineyard owners in Portets. In 1996 they bought Château de Castres in Graves du Sud.
The vineyard, which is worked biodynamically, is being expanded to 32ha and the wine made in a new modern cellar using such ‘modern’ techniques as bâtonnage and malolactic in barrel. Rodriguez, a handsome if somewhat intense 30-year-old, is obviously both able and ambitious. His first few vintages show real promise, despite coming from young vines. Watch this space! EARL Vignobles Rodrigues-Lalande, 33640 Castres. Tel: +33 5 56 67 51 51
Château de Castres 2001
(Red). Ripe, plummy, juicy and succulent. Medium body. Fresh and positive at the end. Ready soon. Very good. 2006–2011. £9 (2002); Rou
Louis Lurton is one of the many children of Lucien Lurton of Château Brane-Cantenac in Margaux. Lucien, back in the days when land was less expensive than it is today, was a rapacious collector of new estates, so as to ensure that each of his 10 offspring would inherit at least one. To Louis fell Château Haut-Nouchet, somewhat off the beaten track in Martillac. The vineyard, replanted in the 1980s, is now approaching maturity. Lurton has a healthy disregard for the sort of glossy wines today considered fashionable. He is a cat who walks by himself, and is making increasingly interesting wine in both colours. SCEA Louis Lurton, 33650 Martillac. Tel +33 5 56 72 69 74
Château Haut-Nouchet 2001
(White) Ample, generous, balanced and stylish. Decent substance and depth too. There is no hurry to drink this up. Very good. Up to 2009. £143.88 (case); Wai
Paulin Calvet works for the négociant J-P Moueix, but with his wife Isabelle owns Château Picque-Caillou, in Mérignac near Bordeaux airport. They bought it in 1997. They look after 20ha of black grapes and 1ha of white (young vines). The red wine, which was merely dependable before the Calvets arrived, when it was a Nathaniel Johnston exclusivity, is now subtle, elegant and harmonious, fully representative of its splendid gravelly terroir. Avenue Pierre Mendez-France
33300 Mérignac Tel: +33 5 56 47 37 98
Château Picque-Caillou 2002
(red). Chocolate and black cherry flavours on the nose. Ripe, cool. Stylish and medium bodied. Very good. 2006–7.
£82 (case in bond); F&R. £180 (case); C&B
Château Brown lies to the north of Olivier. In 1994 it was acquired by Bernard Barthe. An ambitious programme of improvements was put into place and a new triumvirate of Bernard Patrouilleau in the cellar and the vines, Philippe Dulong, oenologist, and Bernard Grandchamp, consultant agricultural engineer, appointed. The wine, largely red, is now one of the best of the non-crus classés Pessac-Léognans. Even in 2003 it was round, succulent and stylish.
Château Brown 2002
(red) An impressive example. Medium-full body. Ripe, gently oaky, very good acidity. Ample, ripe, harmonious fruit. Plenty of depth and class. Finishes long and complex. Very good plus. From 2008. £114 (case 2003 in bond); F&R
BEST NEW RELEASES FROM GRAVES IN BORDEAUX
Château Haut-Brion 2003
One of the wines of the vintage. Lots of concentration, depth and dimension. From 2013. £1,500–2,050 (case IB); BBR, F&R, MFW
Château La Mission Haut-Brion 2003
Soft but rich and sumptuous. A feminine La Mission. Very fine. From 2012. £695–849.96 (case IB); BBR, F&R, MFW
Château Haut-Bailly 2003
Rich, very good grip. Full of fruit. Fine. From 2011. £216–240 (case IB); BBR, F&R, MFW
Château La Tour Haut-Brion 2003
Rich, civilised, good length. Not a blockbuster. Fine. From 2010. £257–280 (case IB); BBR, F&R, MFW, RiK
Château Olivier 2003
Balanced, concentrated, very lovely fruit. Interesting originality. Very good indeed. From 2009. £125 (case IB); F&R
Domaine de Chevalier 2003
Good freshness. Potentially silky-smooth. Plenty of depth and class. Fine. From 2012.
£183–198 (case IB); BBR, F&R, Far, N&P
Châteaux in the Graves du Sud to watch include Le Bourdillot, Brondelle, de Castres, Grand Bos and Vieux Château Gaubert, all recommended for their reds. For whites seek out Clos Floridène, Archambeau, La Blancherie, Château des Fougères-Montesquieu, Lamouroux (Cuvée de l’Enclos), St-Robert (Cuvée Poncet-Deville) and especially Château Magneau, Cuvée Julien. Stick to 2000 and 2002 for the reds and for the most part to the latest vintage (but not 2003) for whites. Sadly very few seem to be available in the UK.
Château Brondelle, Cuvée Damien 2000
(red) ‘New-style’ Graves du Sud: oaky, succulent, Merlot-ish (roughly 50/50 Merlot/Cabernet). But good acidity, so it will age well. 2005–10. £134.62 (case 6); Evy
Château du Grand Bos 2000
(red) Medium body, ripe and succulent. Very good tannins. Refreshing acidity. Well made. 2005–10. £11.84 (1996); Pan
Château Le Bourdillot 2000
(red) Neatly made, medium bodied, gently oaky: good fruit. Plenty of interest here. 2005–10. N/A UK; +33 5 56 67 52 76
Vieux Château Gaubert 2000
(red) A classic wine, with backbone and tannins to resolve. Medium-full. Rich, ample and long. 2007–15. £17.04 (1999); T&W
Château Archambeau 2002
(white) Lightly oaked, crisp, flowery and stylish. Delicious now. £106.99 (case); Evy
Château des Fougères-Montesquieu 2002
(white) Good depth here. Good acidity too. Really quite complex. Drink soon. N/A UK; +33 5 56 78 45 45
Château La Blancherie 2002
(white) No wood. Balanced and full of interest though. Lots of juicy fruit. Drink soon while waiting for the 2004 to come on stream. N/A UK; +33 5 56 20 20 39
Château Lamoureux, Cuvée de l’Enclos 2002
(white) A mainly Semillon, dry white. It is fat, gently oaky, and intriguingly exotic. Drink soon. N/A UK; +33 5 56 27 01 53
Château Magneau, Cuvée Julien 2002
(white) Depth and staying power with 60% Semillon to give it richness. Up to 2008. £122 (case); FCS
Château Saint-Robert, Cuvée Poncet-Deville 2002
(white) Quite new oaky, but still youthful. Can be kept. Good ripe fruit. Good acidity. Good. Up to 2007.
N/A UK; +33 5 56 63 27 66