A handful of lesser-known St-Emilion grands crus classés is starting to make a name for themselves, writes JAMES LAWTHER MW .
The St-Emilion classification, reviewed every 10 years, comprises a two-tier system of premiers grands crus classés and grands crus classés. If the first rank is a little more focused, with 13 châteaux selected in 1996, the second offers a more unwieldy number of 55 estates. Needless to say, when you factor in terroir, work practices and varying levels of investment, this makes for an exceedingly diverse group.The grand cru classé list is much like the famous Tour de France bike race. Heading the field are the race or market leaders, Châteaux Canon-la Gaffelière, Pavie-Decesse, Pavie Macquin and Troplong-Mondot. These are the potential candidates for premier grand cru classé status in 2006. Pedalling furiously behind are a select few like Châteaux Grand Mayne and La Dominique who are trying hard to cover the break. Then follows the pack, that mass of stalwarts, future champions and hangers on, all a little difficult to distinguish in the crowd. It’s among this group, though, that some very interesting discoveries can be made, particularly in recent years.
Have you ever come across Château Bellevue? I hadn’t until recently, yet it is a beautiful little estate, a real bijou, located in the heart of Saint-Emilion on clay-limestone slopes, the vineyards surrounded by those of Châteaux Angélus, Beau-Séjour-Bécot and Beauséjour, all premiers grands crus classés. Why then has it lived in obscurity, the wines unremarked by press and wine lovers alike? The answer is probably twofold – the sales (through one négociant exclusively), and the lack of real commitment from the owning Pradel de Lavaud and de Coninck families, who have a number of other properties in Bordeaux.
All change though in 2000. The owners decided to get serious and bring in the team of Nicolas Thienpont and Stéphane De Renoncourt, responsible among other ventures for the success of Pavie-Macquin, to manage the estate. Starting in July that year, their first priority was the 6.25ha (hectare) vineyard where leaf plucking and green harvesting were imposed, yields drastically reduced and a start made on reorganising the system of vineyard husbandry. In the cellars the grapes were gravity fed into cement vats, new oak barrels were introduced and techniques like malolactic in barrel and microbullage applied. It’s early days yet but the effect on Château Bellevue has been resounding both in the quality, and the price, of the wine. The 2000 is dark and firm, redolent of ripe fruit and marked by its calcareous terroir. It was released onto the Bordeaux market at 200FF (£19) per bottle, having previously never made more than 74FF (£7), was happily taken up by the négociants and was quoted in one UK merchant’s en primeur offer at £600 a case!
As witnessed above, the stakes are now much higher both in financial terms and with regard to eventual exclusion from the grand cru classé club. The 1996 classification that saw 10 châteaux relegated proved this was no longer just an idle threat and may have spurred the owners of Bellevue to act. New ownership or management and greater investment can provide a shift in gear and so there are one or two other properties worth keeping a close eye on.
Clos des Jacobins
One that is likely to make fast and furious progress is the Clos des Jacobins. Located on the pieds de côtes near Château Grand Mayne, the 8.5ha property was purchased in February 2001 by Gérald Frydman, the head of a large perfumery business. His first decision was to engage the services of Hubert de Boüard, of Château Angélus fame, as overall manager. ‘I was reluctant at first because of my other commitments, but the owner convinced me he wanted to make this a top estate and I think we can make some attractive wines from this terroir,’ says de Boüard. As confirmation of the policy of the new ownership, the final blend for the 2000 vintage was reduced to a third of the total volume. Other sweeping changes have since come about, unhindered by the restraints of finance. The vineyard has been totally drained, the system of pruning altered to help reduce yields (one of the problems in the past), a greater percentage of new oak introduced and the method of harvesting refined and improved. At Château La Marzelle (previously Lamarzelle), the present manager Philippe Genevey says that the estate must have come perilously close to declassification in 1996. ‘The vineyard was machine harvested and the vines pruned high accordingly. One parcel had such a deficit of organic material that it only produced 6hl/ha, and herbicides were the order of the day,’ he recounts. However, things have radically changed since 1998 when the 13ha estate was bought by Belgian businessman Jean-Jacques Sioen.
The new team started with the 1997 vintage and immediately returned to harvesting by hand. Situated on sandy soils, the vineyard has since been retrellised for better canopy management, the pruning altered, compost added to help revive the soil and the drainage improved. The 1998 shows the potential of this property but Philippe Genevey reckons it will truly be hitting the mark in three or four years’ time.
In the north of the appellation at Château Corbin it was the common Napoleonic problem of multiple family ownership that impeded improvement. That is until Château Certan-Guiraud in Pomerol, owned by the same family, was sold in 1999, allowing the dividends to be shared and giving Anabelle Bardinet and her sisters the chance to own Château Corbin outright. Despite the fact that the property had not been lived in for 30 years the vineyard at least was in good condition, but there had been a strict minimum of investment. ‘I’m conscious that Corbin has not been at the true level of a grand cru classé but now will do everything to raise the standard and keep it there,’ says oenologist Bardinet. The 1999 marks the turning point with the 2000 showing added maturity and dimension.
Will to succeed
The human factor is an important element in the success of any estate. Françoise de Wilde, who has run nearby Château Ripeau since 1976, admits that following a family tragedy she lost her drive in the early 1990s and only refound motivation in 1997. New cellars and a reappraisal of the vineyards have been the first steps towards improvement. Again, the 1999 reflects the change of direction, followed by a much improved 2000 where yields were cut to 39hl/ha. There are, of course, a number of grands crus classés that have always gone quietly about their business, away from the limelight of the stars. The ownership has invested steadily if not spectacularly, providing a regularly improving quality and usually good value for money given today’s prices.
Owned by the Joinaud-Borde family since 1902, the 10.7ha Couvent des Jacobins is a typical case in mind. Located within the town of Saint-Emilion, this former 13th-century monastery now houses the vathouse and cellars of this cru. The vineyards are situated partly on the limestone plateau just outside the town’s ramparts and partly on sandy-clayey soils to the west of the appellation. A regular rather than inspired performer, recent vintages (1998–2000) have shown an extra degree of ripeness, balance and precision, thanks to the rigour imposed in the vineyards by manager Denis Pomarède. ‘We now follow a different mode of cultivation for each parcel of vines and carry this all the way through to the winery,’ he says. Divided between the plateau and côtes, tiny 4ha Château La Clotte used to be part of a very large and ancient estate in the 18th century. It was subsequently leased to négociant J-P Moueix for 30 years but since 1990 has been managed by co-owner Nelly Mouleriac. She has put the emphasis on the Merlot-based vineyard with the aim of producing fruit-driven wines that are ‘drinkable and attractive to the consumer’. Since 1997 the yields are lower and the final selection more severe, giving added weight and volume to the wines.
The theme of greater concentration can also be found at 27ha Château Laroze where, despite the lighter, sandier soils, an extra dimension can be found from 1998. ‘The changes are as a response to the modern taste for wines that are fruit forward but still will age,’ says owner Guy Meslin. Since 1993 he has invested to the maximum at this family-owned estate, including new vathouse, barrel cellars, press, bottle storage and, in the vineyards, a comprehensive system of drainage. ‘It’s probably the best thing I’ve done, but the most invisible,’ he adds. A programme of replanting is gradually increasing the percentage of Merlot in the vineyards to 70%, which is more typical of the final blend.
The grands crus classés will never be thoroughly identical in terms of quality and style, but then neither will the price. A perspective of Saint-Emilion is what’s on offer where variety and individuality play a part and where a benchmark for quality is gradually being attained. In 1969 there were 72 grands crus classés, now there are 55. What will the classification in 2006 bring to the picture?
James Lawther MW is a contributing editor to Decanter.