You pick your seasons in St-Emilion. Go in summer and you can't move for tourists. In early January, however, not a mouse stirs. Arriving on the seventh I was on my own, and the feeling of solitude was made worse by the freezing cold and the threat of snow. I was the one guest in my hotel. The receptionist gave me a key to the door and went home to his family. It was with trouble that I found a restaurant open. I was the sole diner.
There was one other ghost-like presence in the little town: that of American guru Robert Parker. He was also staying somewhere – I never found out where. Wherever I went Parker had been there half an hour or an hour before. Seats were still warm, glasses half-empty, his fingerprints on the stems. He was keeping an eye on the wine of St-Emilion which – to some extent at least – he has shaped in his own image.
JOHN KOLASA – CHATEAU CANON
Arriving in Parker’s wake has its advantages, as I learn on the way from the airport. At Château Canon the premiers crus B are still lined up in the tasting room where the great man left them. It proves the perfect place to start. The only ones missing are Angélus – the samples are too warm – and Belair: Pascal Delbeck will not allow Parker to taste his wines.
I taste with John Kolasa, a Scotsman of Polish descent who has lived in Bordeaux for more than 30 years. After a stint with Bill Bolter he crossed the Gironde to work with Janoueix. He was in charge of marketing at Latour when Allied Lyons sold out to François Pinault in 1993. Since then he has worked for the Wertheimers, owners of Chanel who were pipped at the post at Latour. They have two properties: Rauzan-Ségla and Canon. As such he has a foot on both sides of the Gironde.
After the tasting we sit down to lunch. A big log struggles to keep the dining room cosy. For essential inner warmth there is a bottle of 1983 Canon. Kolasa has seen a lot of changes in St-Emilion since his days working for Janoueix. In the 1970s the place was rusticity incarnate, controlled by the same gentlemen from Corrèze who had arrived after the Depression. St-Emilion took off in the 1990s, when avant-garde winemakers settled in the area and started pushing so-called ‘garage’ wines with 200% new oak. Kolasa attributes a major role to Jean-Luc Thunevin, creator of Valandraud, who has ‘revolutionised the wines and pushed out the fusty Correzean attitudes’.
He believes three men created the modern image of St-Emilion: Thunevin, the oenologist Michel Rolland and Parker. He remembers Rolland’s beginnings in a scruffy laboratory in the 1970s. Now he is in the money, advising Château Canon – together with a couple of hundred other properties.
‘Robert Parker can dictate here. He can’t do that in the Médoc,’ says Kolasa. The properties on the Left Bank are too large and too cumbersome. Because Parker has turned his attention to the Right Bank he has become ‘a god in St-Emilion’. Like Thunevin, however, Kolasa thinks Parker’s influence is for the good. The development of St-Emilion has been encouraging. Once people saw what could be achieved by reforming their wines, they pulled their socks up.
Merlot’s seductive nature is a clue to St-Emilion’s success, but Kolasa himself refuses to be wooed by it. He points out that St-Emilion was never like Pomerol, and that the top wines always had a percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, quite often Cabernet Franc. Canon itself is currently 85% Merlot, but that will not last. The Wertheimers want to see great wines like the 1929 and the 1945 again. These were just over half Merlot. When the vineyard restructuring is finished, they will return to the old style.
When the economic crisis begins to bite he believes it will clear away a lot of the new growth. Merlot will no longer be the top of the hit parade. ‘People return to the valeurs surs.’ When the chips are down you don’t buy a bottle of Le Globe, you buy a case of Beychevelle.
ALAIN VAUTHIER – CHATEAU AUSONE
Alain Vauthier is sitting pretty. At the head of his 80 or so hectares of St-Emilion he possesses Château Ausone, a premier grand cru A. He has now come properly into his inheritance. The Dubois-Chalons have been evicted from his château and confined to Belair next door. Pascal Delbeck has gone with them. He is finally master in his own house.
For a man who sits on the sharp end of the pyramid, Vauthier is remarkably unperturbed about the new men turning the system upside down. One reason may be his close personal friendship with Jean-Luc Thunevin. For him the garagistes are all for the good: they ‘stimulate the region’. His philosophy is Darwinian: the garagistes are doing new things, and those who fail to innovate go to the wall: ‘the fittest will survive’.
Asked about the success of St-Emilion over the past 10 years, Vaulthier waves his hand towards the town, a gem of almost Italianate beauty, and says that the wine is, ‘aesthetically speaking, very easy to remember’. I find that argument unconvincing: a Detroit stockbroker has little idea of the charms of the historic monument called St-Emilion. He buys the wine because of the points he sees in The Wine Advocate. The bottles that sell to tourists who block the pavements in summer do not cost several hundred Euros. It is unlikely Parker has even tasted them.
Parker confuses him, Vauthier says. ‘He has the reputation of being enamoured of Merlot, yet he likes Haut Brion and Ausone!’ It was not Parker who discovered Valandraud. That honour probably belongs to French critic Michel Bettane, and the term vin de garage was, says Vauthier, coined by Florence Cathiard, the owner of Smith-Haut-Lafitte in the Graves. Every other journalist in the world has laid claim to it since.
HUBERT DE BOUARD – CHATEAU ANGELUS
When I visit Hubert de Boüard first thing in the morning he is wrapped up warmly in a cashmere scarf. He was part of the generation which took over in the early 1980s, training as an oenologist with Peynaud at Bordeaux University.
He arrived with a love of Burgundy and attempted to use Burgundian techniques wherever possible. After the 1950s everyone was getting huge yields from new clones, and quality had declined as a result. The exhausted soil was sapped of its goodness. Several estates in St-Emilion are currently having to cope with pourridié – a fungus that ravages the roots of the vines. Garage wines were an attempt to break out of a straitjacket imposed by the classification. De Boüard thinks that Valandraud has joined the establishment now, and La Mondotte was never really a garage wine. But the others have rather ‘put aside the notion of terroir. I think there are many we will forget. Some of the garagistes will be absorbed by the establishment, the others will quickly go to the wall.’
Most of the garagistes make their wine on decidedly second-rate soil. And De Boüard feels Merlot should not become too opulent through over-ripeness, as he finds this decadent. Wines which lead on this sort of overripe character quickly fall apart. Angélus is not guilty: it is nearly half Cabernet Franc; but he notes to his chagrin that, encouraged by the press, local growers are still ripping up Cabernet Franc.
JEAN-LUC THUNEVIN – CHATEAU VALANDRAUD
The garage is no such thing. ‘It was a chai,’ says Jean-Luc Thunevin, grinning his famous grin, ‘then a worker lived here – possibly a roofer – so it was a workshop, but it was never a garage.’ Thunevin has taken me down the hill to his house from his modest office in the main street of St-Emilion. We look inside. There is a lot of new oak, and four sealed casks, reserved for buyers in New York.
We drive to Puissegain to see friends at Château Branda, which prides itself on using the same ‘gardening’ techniques and new oak casks that have made Thunevin so famous.
Excellent beef fillet is cooked on the embers in the fireplace: ‘the best table d’hote in St-Emilion’, says Thunevin. Wine after wine is served from lesser appellations, all little Valandrauds.
We stop to see Thunevin’s ‘château’ on the outskirts of town. Here the man who is famous throughout the world for making wines that sell for more than the first growths keeps his six ‘brands’. He is careful to use that word. He doesn’t talk much about terroir.
On the way back I remind Thunevin I have yet to taste his wines: ‘You’ll taste them at dinner.’ I do. Above the garage, with more wines from the Thunevin stable, I spend a delightful evening with Jean-Luc and Murielle Thunevin, his friends, two cats and a dog. He wants to show me that it is little men who count the most.
CHRISTINE VALETTE – CHATEAU TROPLONG-MONDOT
‘St-Emilion attracts journalists because they find the Médoc dull,’ says Christine Valette, a former journalist who took over one of her family estates in the early 1980s. Parker is necessarily the most important – ‘he has enormous power’ – but she doesn’t think it is so easy to change the nature of the wine. St-Emilion likes Parker because he came, spread the word and the word was money.
She makes an important point: before 1981 all her wine was sold ‘for peanuts’ to eager buyers in the Low Countries. When Parker took an interest, prices rose. For Valette the garagistes oppose terroir with brands. ‘St-Emilion is not a brand, it is the centre of the world,’ she says. There is a danger that the pyramid of crus will be brought low by upstart wines sold at outlandish prices. Of course this was the origin of the crus in the first place.
Christine Valette is emphatic: ‘You don’t have the right to do whatever you like. These wines have no track record, they are parvenue wines.’
PIERRE LURTON – CHATEAU CHEVAL BLANC
It is nine years since my last visit to Pierre Lurton at Cheval Blanc. He remains his affable self. He tells me that the weather has been kind to the Right Bank in those years.
Lurton is philosophical when he talks of Merlot. His estate, after all, is the great exponent of Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux: ‘It’s unique in that it is not really St-Emilion and not really Pomerol.’ What is attractive in a modern St-Emilion is the ‘pleasure it gives by its freshness, fruit and tannins, its powerful structure and by the consistently elegant finish.’
Robert Parker doesn’t like the Médoc too much, says Lurton. He finds it too formal and doesn’t enjoy the drawing room style. St-Emilion is not only more convivial, he is heeded more here – even to excess. Michel Rolland has also greatly altered the face of St-Emilion. He is the oenologist of Merlot: over-ripeness and over-extraction. Lurton feels such wines are unlikely to stay the course, ‘they become animal, cooked’.
Lurton, the man who makes Cheval Blanc, is not the owner, he is the custodian of the soil. He feels a need to preserve the elegance of the wine. Many of the garage terroirs are poor, they get as much as they can out of them.
STEPHAN GRAF VON NEIPPERG – CHATEAU CANON LA GAFFELIERE
Neipperg has been in St-Emilion since the mid 1980s. As a south German he found it as easy to adapt to the stiff, bourgeois atmosphere in Bordeaux as he would find Bremen or Hamburg. He was careful not to tell his neighbours their business: ‘I never played the schoolmaster,’ he says.
St-Emilion used to be a much more complicated appellation than it is now: ‘There were 15 different grape varieties here in the 19th century. No wonder there was no attempt at classification.’ The classification of 1955 was faulty in itself. Neipperg points to the plateau of St-Etienne de Lisse, where much of the best fruit is grown, and to estates such as his own Mondotte or Tertre Rôteboeuf, which have proved their worth and are still not even grands crus. Neipperg is underwhelmed by Merlot: ‘Under extreme heat it can become banal and dull.’ Like many of the greater estates, he uses a significant proportion of Bouchet. Canon la Gaffelière is nearly half, La Mondotte a fifth to a quarter.
St-Emilion’s small size has been an advantage in introducing the ‘gardening’ methods. On some huge Médocain domaine, you could not give the vine as much attention. Canon la Gaffelière is organic. ‘If you make the soil live, the wine will live.’
TIME TO SHINE
‘The last 300 years have been dominated by the Médoc,’ says Gérard Perse of Château Pavie. ‘The 21st century belongs to St-Emilion.’ He could be right. Cabernet-based wines need long growing seasons and extended ageing to make them come round. We are told that no one has the patience to wait for wine any more. They want instant gratification and that means Merlot.