The fashion pack may favour Pessac-Léognan but the forgotten wines of the rest of the Graves are attractive and have much to recommend them, says Steven Spurrier.
The Graves appellation is unique in France in that it bears the name of its soil, the famous grabas de Bourdeus. The well-drained subsoil is made of sand, clay, limestone, shell marl and iron. The region is bordered to the east by the river Garonne and to the west by the pine forests of the Landes, which provide a mild climate. Everything is in place to produce fine quality wine, so why is the Graves so little-known in Britain? First, the creation of the appellation Pessac-Léognan in 1987 removed all the crus classés from the Graves appellation; secondly, the absence of a cave-coopérative in the southern Graves and the lack of interest in the AC from the Bordeaux trade mean it is overlooked; and thirdly, the wines have an attractive charm that is out of step with the current fashion for extraction and concentration.
The north breaks away
Only one Graves wine figured in the 1855 classification: Château Haut-Brion. In 1953, 15 other châteaux were awarded cru classé status. Haut-Brion kept its title of premier cru classé and this total of 16 châteaux was confirmed in 1959. All these, and several others whose prices are now in the same bracket, are from the north of the appellation – the historic vineyards of the Graves de Bordeaux that circled around Pessac and Léognan, where the gravel is deeper and the drainage better. The recognisable difference in character and quality between the firmer, longer-lived wines from the north and the more supple wines from the south, combined with the dynamism of the former châteaux whose prices enabled them to invest in and further improve their production, resulted in the creation in 1987 of the Pessac-Léognan appellation. From that moment, the Graves leaders turned their backs on their southern brethren, although they still enjoy putting grand vin de Graves on labels.
The cooperative system has now shed its low quality image and many are now the first port of call for supermarkets and other large buyers seeking good, reliable wine. Curiously, for a region that even at its lowest ebb had over 1,000ha under vine, the southern Graves has never had a cave-coopérative. In the last 10 years, the number of growers in the Graves has declined 15%, from around 410 to 350, and the average holding has increased 20% from 8.3ha to 10ha. Although there are now 35% fewer growers with 5ha or less, these still account for almost half of the appellation. A handful of hectares is viable in St-Emilion, where you are either a member of the cooperative or sell your wine quite well in bottle due to the name, but less so in the Graves, leading to under-investment and little improvement. Consequently, the Bordeaux trade has largely ignored Graves, especially following the collapse of the mid-1970s to mid-1980s white wine boom. Even as late as the 1950s, there was more white wine produced in Bordeaux than red – most of it of indifferent quality, but the Graves enjoyed a reliable reputation. Thanks to Pierre Coste, whose company in Langon was later taken over by Sichel, and the young Denis Dubourdieu, these floral yet crisp dry whites suddenly became the rage, replacing Sancerre and Chablis on wine lists due to their quality and modest prices.
The wines are just as good today, but they are no longer fashionable. There is quite enough cheap Entre-Deux-Mers and Bordeaux Blanc in the cooperative cellars to satisfy the Bordeaux merchants and only the adventurous Dourthe (and to a lesser extent La Baronnie, with its Baronne Charlotte blend) has made an effort to promote white Graves. Similarly, with so many little estates making different-style red wines, it is hard work for a négociant to produce a branded Graves. Buying grapes is the answer, and here again Dourthe has taken the lead, although the gloomy connotation of the name hasn’t helped its popularity.
Unparalleled charm of Graves
In style, the wines of the southern Graves are among the most attractive in Bordeaux. The dry whites, generally a blend of Sauvignon and Sémillon with a little Muscadelle, are elegantly floral, delicious young and continue to evolve over five or six years. There are still some sweet and semi-sweet whites made under the Graves Supérieures appellation, and these are pleasant enough but with little appeal for the export market. For me, red Graves is the star, with just the right balance of Cabernet Sauvignon to Merlot, both enlivened by Cabernet Franc to produce probably the most charming red wines in all of Bordeaux. Midway between the fleshy roundness of the wines of the Libournais and the firm grip of the Médoc, they can be drunk after a year in bottle and mature well for a decade, sharing with the red wines of Anjou an ability to go very well with fish and even with oysters, which the locals eat with sausages. Never heavy – not a single wine in my tasting was more than 12.5? – they are agreeably easy to drink and, being what the French call digestes, seem to do no harm. Bordeaux lovers should seek them out, especially since, at well under £10, their pricing is so modest.
Thanks to the Syndicat Viticole des Graves, I was able to taste a range of white 2000s and red 1999s. 2000 was an excellent vintage for whites, with ripe, elegant wines, while 1999 was a very good vintage for reds, showing attractive red berry fruit, for the medium term. My notes appear below.