One of only six Bordeaux châteaux classified for both its red and white wine, this Pessac-Léognan estate has gone from strength to strength since its purchase by the Bonnie family 18 years ago. Jane Anson charts its rise
Owners Alfred-Alexandre and Michèle Bonnie
Run by Siblings Jean-Jacques Bonnie and Véronique Bonnie-Laplane, with their partners Séverine Bonnie and Bruno Laplane
Consultant Michel Rolland since 1998. Today he oversees both red and white wines, though the whites were first directed by Denis Dubourdieu and Athanase Fakorellis (whose last vintage was 2012).
Second wine La Réserve de Malartic (65% of production) Other properties Château Gazin- Rocquencourt (Pessac- Léognan), DiamAndes (Argentina)
The special relationship with Belgium has been one of the most fruitful partnerships in Bordeaux’s long history. Until 2014, Belgians were the most significant foreign owners in the region, with about 40 proprietors owning more than 50 châteaux between them. They were overtaken by the Chinese in March 2014, but still can claim thehighest number of significant prizes outside of local hands. Among Belgian-owned châteaux are Cheval Blanc, Clauzet, Prieuré-Lichine, Pavie-Macquin, Vieux Château Certan, Le Pin and Malartic- Lagravière, the latter bought by Alfred-Alexandre Bonnie in 1997, and today run by his children.
Buying Malartic was a smart idea. Pessac- Léognan is a young appellation, dating from just 1987, and is consistently making some of the most exciting wines in Bordeaux. It also has an extra weapon in its arsenal when it comes to squaring up against fine wine regions around the world: this is the only part of Bordeaux to contain classified white wines alongside the red.
White Bordeaux remains an insider’s secret, a woefully underappreciated style that is capable, at its best, of being among the great whites of France. Bonnie managed to find one of only six châteaux classified for both its red and white wine – and one that had been neglected by its previous owners, marginalised by lazy choices such as over-use of chemical fertilisers that had left its roots lolling around near the surface instead of heading further down to express the excellent terroir underneath.
‘La Gravière means gravelly hill,’ says Jean-Jacques Bonnie, son of Alfred-Alexandre, who is in charge of winemaking. ‘And the gravel heads down 8m across large parts of the vineyard, interspersed with limestone, fossilised oyster shells and veins of clay. It means there is great drainage, and an excellent water supply when needed’.
The vineyard land in Pessac-Léognan is old. Vines were planted here 2,000 years ago, although for much of its existence it was simply the most northerly part of the sprawling Graves region, just outside the Bordeaux city limits. Once highly prized, it was increasingly relegated to second best once the Médoc gained its 1855 classification, until a group of producers lobbied for the creation of a separate appellation to recognise this enticing corner containing Haut-Brion, Haut-Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier and the rest of the 16 châteaux awarded the Cru Classé de Graves title in the 1950s.
Pursuit of excellence
Malartic Lagravière followed a similar trajectory. It began life as Domaine de Lagravière, until it was bought in the late 1700s by the family of Count Hippolyte Maurès de Malartic, a naval officer in the French army and one-time governor of Mauritius (his naval career explains both the ship on today’s wine label and the large model of an 18th-century frigate in the château entrance hall). The château enjoyed an excellent reputation during the 19th and early 20th century, but suffered from serious underinvestment over recent decades.
It took the Bonnies to put in the extra attention that was needed, and since then Malartic has been quietly pushing itself further towards excellence; something that is evident not just in the glass but on the shelf, with the price rising in recent years. A bottle of the 2010 red will set you back about £30 in the UK and the white closer to £38.
So is the price justified? Well, for one thing this is a true family-run property. Turn in to the smartly paved courtyard off the sweep of road that leads from Léognan village (easily the most densely planted of the 10 communes that make up AC Pessac-Léognan), and you’re likely to be greeted by Jean-Jacques and wife Séverine Bonnie, or by his sister Véronique and her husband Bruno, or by their parents, who spend three months of the year here.
There is plenty to keep them all busy. When they bought Malartic it had just 20 hectares of vines – now there are now 53ha planted. In 2005 the family bought neighbouring Château Gazin-Rocquencourt, as well as DiamAndes in Argentina. The younger generation divide the necessary tasks between them, and the set-up ensures that someone in the family is fully involved at every point.
‘When we arrived, the former owners were about to break ground on a new cellar that would have cut right through the best parts of the vineyard. The architect’s plans had been drawn up,’ says Séverine as we stand outside the grape reception area, looking up at the gravel hillock densely planted with Cabernet Sauvignon vines that would have been lost. ‘Luckily my father-in-law saw how crazy that was, and instead built the new cellars at the bottom of a slope where we could also partly submerge the building and make gravity-fed winemaking easier.’
At the time of its unveiling in 1998, the 4,400m2 winery – designed by Bernard Mazières with input from Malartic’s consultant Michel Rolland – was one of the most technically advanced in Bordeaux, with its octagonal shape and small-scale stainless steel vats that correspond to each plot in the vineyard. Since then every château worth its salt has rolled out a glamorous new winery, but this one still more than holds its own. Ten equally compact wooden vats were added in 2001, and a separate white wine cellar created along with a barrel cellar for the secondary malolactic fermentation. Among the latest additions is a grape press for the whites that allows no oxygen contact at any point, while out in the vineyards horses have been introduced to work the clay sections to avoid soil compaction.
Malartic’s production is 80% red and 20% white, and it is perhaps the white that has seen the biggest changes. Over the 20th century, it was by turn 100% Sémillon then 100% Sauvignon Blanc, and was described by Clive Coates MW in his 2004 The Wines of Bordeaux as ‘hard and sulphury’ during its most difficult years. Today it equals the best whites of the appellation, and has settled into a classic Pessac-Léognan blend of 90% Sauvignon and 10% Sémillon aged in an even mix of Burgundy and Bordeaux barrels to ensure the oak influence cradles rather than smothers. The reds survived the difficult years a little better, but they also are now more fully fleshed out, better defined and more joyful.
‘Inevitably as the roots deepened and the vines aged, we have seen a corresponding increase in density and complexity, and a drop in pH which helps enhance the wine’s natural freshness and vibrancy,’ says Jean-Jacques. ‘We have also become much smarter in the vineyard and cellar work. All new plots bought were originally part of Malartic, and we have carried out soil surveys that mean our grapes are now planted exactly where they should be. At the same time we’ve lowered yields, reduced the percentage of the grand vin and introduced sustainable agriculture. Our aim has been to give the wine its best chance of realising its potential.’
Perhaps the best example of this is in the approach to green-harvesting. Any cutting of fruit during the season has been drastically reduced over the past few vintages as the vines have come better into balance and have found a natural level of concentration. I arrived in Bordeaux the same year as Séverine and Jean-Jacques, and have followed the wines closely, visiting the estate many times and tasting regularly, particularly of vintages from the 1980s onwards. It’s clear in the glass that a step-change came sometime between 2005 and 2008, with a rise in precision and confidence.
‘We were lucky not only to come to Malartic, but also to Pessac-Léognan,’ says Véronique. ‘There are just 70 producers here, and many of us are outsiders – wine lovers who moved from elsewhere. There is a sense of energy and forward motion that has helped everyone’.
Jane Anson is a Decanter contributing editor and writes a blog for Decanter.com
Written by Jane Anson