The Left Bank may be home to Bordeaux's five first growths, but it's the Right Bank that is the dynamic heart of Bordeaux these days. ROGER VOSS profiles 20 personalities at the cutting edge.
BORDEAUX’S Right Bank is the locomotive driving the Left Bank’s sumptuous carriages. It is the region that is driving developments in viticulture, winemaking, and, consequently, in quality.
From what is also called the Libournais (the area centred on the town of Libourne) have come garage wines. These are a product of intensely hands-on techniques, low-yielding vines, often high-extract macerations and fermentations, and serious amounts of new wood. But they are also a product of an intimacy with the land and the vines that seems harder to achieve in the Médoc.
Such intimacy has much to do with the size of each vineyard. In Saint-Emilion, for example, this averages under 10ha (hectares). Over in the Médoc, it can be anything upwards of 25ha. ‘We can try out new things in our small vineyards,’ says Thierry Valette, owner of Clos Puy Arnaud in Côtes de Castillon. ‘In the giant Médoc vineyards, everything moves more slowly.’
There is also the Merlot effect to consider, and the style of wine Merlot naturally produces – soft, often opulent wines which lend themselves to big amounts of new wood. The wines appeal to many influential wine critics. High scores breed high demand and high prices, and everyone wants to follow.
Of course, not everybody agrees with the push for highly extracted, Merlot-dominated wines. Eric Bantegnies, of Château Bertinerie in the Premières Côtes de Blaye, attacks what he calls ‘muscular wines’ made with en primeur tastings in mind. ‘It is inevitable Merlot will dominate these wines because it is more flattering than the Cabernets a few months after harvest,’ he says.
The Libournais is full of personalities. They, as much as the vines, are what drives the Right Bank. The role of the consultant is also more pervasive than in the Médoc. Michel Rolland’s influence is widespread – he has defined the style of modern winemaking. Other important consultants here include Stéphane Derenoncourt, Alain Raynaud and Gilles Pauquet.
With mercurial and dynamic personalities, things move fast. What was smart this year may be passé the next. In the middle of all the ferment, one strand is evident: that the best vineyards make the best wine. And on the Right Bank, more and more vignerons are maintaining the quality of the vineyards by edging towards organic farming. Such strength of mind gives hope for the future.
I have chosen below 20 people who exemplify at least one aspect of the Right Bank phenomenon. They are not necessarily the best-known. They do not necessarily produce the most illustrious classed-growth wines. But each is at the cutting edge, in some way, of what makes the Right Bank such an exciting place to watch and taste.
St-Emilion grand cru classé
Oenologist Claire Chenard runs Château Larmande for insurance group La Mondiale. She has brought a personal touch to winemaking in St-Emilion. ‘I believe in personalising each tank. Each parcel of vines should be treated separately,’ she says. Working with Michel Rolland, she has refined the character of Larmande. When Saint-Emilion is reclassified in 2006, this is in line to become a first growth.
Michel Rolland is not the only consultant in St-Emilion. More quietly, Derenoncourt has established another style of wine – understated, balanced and fresh. His wines include Pavie Macquin and Canon la Gaffelière in Saint-Emilion, Clos Puy Arnaud, Château d’Aiguilhe and Domaine de l’A in Côtes de Castillon.
Château Grand-Corbin-Despagne, St-Emilion grand cru;
Château la Maison Blanche,
When this estate lost its grand cru classé status in 1996, it was obvious the Despagne family, owners since 1812, had to act. Enter François Despagne. He is determined to restore the château to its rightful status. The chai has been renewed at a cost of over a million euros but, more importantly, so has the thinking behind the wine. ‘We are one of the oldest families in Saint-Emilion,’ says Despagne, ‘but we need to bring in innovation.’
Château Faugères, St-Emilion grand cru;
Château Cap de Faugères,
Côtes de Castillon
Since her husband Péby’s death in 1997, Corinne Guisez has been a grande dame of wine. In 1998, she launched Péby Faugères, a garage wine from a small parcel of exceptional vines at Château Faugères. She proved that her Côtes de Castillon vineyard, if treated in the same way as a St-Emilion, can match its quality. Why is the Right Bank so dynamic? ‘Because strong personalities working small properties can make great wine.’ That is Corinne Guisez.
Le Dôme; Château Laforge;
Château Teyssier, St-Emilion grand cru;
Clos Nardian, Bordeaux Blanc
Maltus typifies a talented businessman who is applying business techniques to winemaking and selling, and succeeding in an impressively short time.
With Le Dôme, he has created a vin de garage which commands prices way above many classed growths. Clos Nardian is the equivalent in white wines.
Knowledge gained from both these wines has been applied with great benefit to the simpler wines of Château Teyssier. And now, this Englishman in Saint-Emilion has exported the best French winemaking techniques all the way to Australia, to produce two “tin shed” (Australian for vin de garage) wines called Exile and Emigré.
Château Mazeyres, Pomerol;
St-Emilion grand cru classé
Scion of a distinguished family, Alain Moueix has become a man of the soil. ‘You have to treat your vineyard like a garden,’ he says, ‘parcel by parcel. ‘Because we are so close to our vines here, we are able to have organic viticulture.’
He is excited about what’s happening on the Right Bank. ‘The vins de garage were just what was needed. They woke everybody up and look where we are now.’
Chateau La Tour Figeac,
St-Emilion grand cru classé
In 1994 Otto Rettenmaier was brought into La Tour Figeac, which had been owned by his family for over 20 years, to restructure its management. He fell under the spell of the estate and stayed. He adopted organic techniques in the vineyard and returned to traditional ploughing. ‘We are so much more flexible on the Right Bank,’ he says, ‘and can adapt rapidly to new techniques.’
Château de Valandraud,
St-Emilion grand cru
The godfather of garage wines, Thunevin insists that the garage where Valandraud was made is in fact a workshop. Nowadays it is made in a real château, but it remains special. It was created from the belief that great wines could be made even from second-rate vineyards, provided enough care was taken. With the success of Valandraud, Thunevin has gone on to select parcels in other vineyards and apply the same techniques. It is a sign of his success that his name crops up almost as often as Michel Rolland’s here.
Saint-Emilion grand cru classé
The Valettes are a major force on the Right Bank. Christine Valette’s success has been in improving quality at Troplong-Mondot. New oak was introduced, the vineyards improved, and the cellars refurbished. Her story shows how on the Right Bank, as she explains, ‘it is a question of people. If they are properly motivated, you can do great things.’
Also known as Château Bourgneuf, the Vayron’s unknown 9ha Pomerol property hardly gets Merlot lovers reaching for their chequebooks. They should, because the wines are made with as much care as the appellation’s best crus. This isn’t modern winemaking, emphasising ageing ability as much as immediate attraction, but Xavier Vayron is moving away from total denseness to a sense of balance and harmony.
Jean-Louis Laborde made headlines earlier this year by announcing he would drop the price of 2002. An agricultural engineer, he understands the quality of the vintage. As owner of two properties in Tokay, he understands the world market better than some Bordelais. And by retaining Michel Rolland, he has nailed his colours to the mast of modern wine styles. Since 2000, the wine has gained welcome finesse.
Catherine Peré-Vergé, heir to the Arques glasswork billions, likes to mountain bike through the Pomerol vineyards when she visits Château Montviel, which she bought 12 years ago. Her success at Montviel is in bringing an outsider’s appreciation of the wealth of Pomerol, balancing richness and harmony in the wine of her property.
Château la Vieille Cure
Fronsac has always been “on the way”, but not many properties have arrived. La Vieille Cure is one. It has been owned by an American syndicate since 1986 and one of the partners, Colin Ferenbach, is the manager. Following the example of California, the vineyard was remodelled, a new cellar built, and oak-ageing introduced.
Antoine Chastenet de castaing
and stéphane Droulers
Château de Carles
The achievement at 20ha Château de Carles lies in introducing the idea of a prestige cuvée into the world of Fronsac. Château Haut-Carles is produced from 8ha of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Ripe, voluptuous and oaky, this is as fine an example of a garage wine as any.
Situated on one of the highest points of the hill of Fronsac, Cassagne-Haut-Canon boasts one of the best exposed vineyards in the area. Jean-Jacques Dubois makes two wines. One is pleasant enough. The other is Cuvée la Truffière, and it is extraordinary. Named after the truffle oaks which adorn the park, it is a heady Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend, oozing new wood, but also powered with ripe, opulent fruit.
LALANDE DE POMEROL
Château Grand Ormeau
Businessman Jean-Claude Beton created France’s favourite sparkling drink, Orangina. He bought Grand Ormeau in 1988, right at the beginning of Lalande de Pomerol’s revival. If Lalande can now rival some of the wines of Pomerol itself, it is because of Beton.
The techniques are familiar but no less effective: low yields, a selection table, malolactic fermentation in cask. With Michel Rolland as consultant, Beton has created a reserve wine, a vin de garage called Cuvée Madeleine.
Château Faizeau, Montagne-St-Emilion;
Château la Fleur de Gay, Pomerol
One of the strengths of the Right Bank’s revival has been the migration of the best techniques from the top appellations into lesser ones.
Chantal Lebreton has adopted methods used at her family’s Pomerol property, La Fleur de Gay, and transferred them to Château Faizeau in Montagne-St-Emilion. ‘The neighbours thought we were mad,’ she says. ‘We treat the vines like a back garden. We can almost name each vine.’
COTES DE CASTILLON
Château Côte Montpezat, Côtes de Castillon;
Château Haut-Bernat, Puisseguin-St-Emilion
Dominique Bessineau is special. He doesn’t come from St-Emilion (as many of the new proprietors do), nor does he make bold marketing gestures. He just gets on with making wine which, as he says, ‘ought to be good since it comes from the same ridge of hills as St-Emilion’.
COTES DE FRANCS
Thienpont is everywhere, a human dynamo. From the family base at Château Puygueraud in Côtes de Francs, where his family was influential in almost creating a micro-region of quality, Nicolas Thienpont works widely in St-Emilion: Château Pavie Macquin, Château Bellevue and Château Larcis-Ducasse are all under his control. He applies the same techniques, even with different wines: organic viticulture, but used with reason.
PREMIERES COTES DE BLAYE
Château Haut Bertinerie
‘The Right Bank is always in search of its future,’ says Bantegnies. ‘We have made more oenological discoveries than the university research institute. Do we need that to rival the Médoc? Not if you work well, especially in the vineyard.’ This philosophy has propelled his first wine, Haut-Bertinerie, into the top rank in the Premières Côtes de Blaye.