ALAN SPENCER seeks out châteaux producing wines to rival the grands crus classés but at a fraction of the price due to their location in the Bordeaux region outside the most élite appellations.
By dint of hard work, determination and passionate conviction, there are vintners in the lesser areas of Bordeaux making wines on a par with famous grand crus,’ says Michel Rolland, the internationally known oenologist. Rolland is the champion of the new-wave wines in neglected parts of Bordeaux region.
Looking back towards the mouth of the river from the southern tip of Bordeaux, the appellations on the Left Bank bask in international prestige. Unjustly overlooked and undervalued, the great wines on the Right Bank form a mirror image – the sweet wines of Sainte Croix du Mont and Loupiac opposite Sauternes and Barsac, and the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux opposite Graves and Pessac-Léognan. On the estuary, the Côtes de Bourg lie opposite Margaux and the Premières Côtes de Blaye face Saint-Julien not far across the water.
The limestone slopes of Saint-Emilion blend into Côtes de Castillon, a tiny stream separates it from its satellites and Lalande-de-Pomerol from Pomerol. Fronsac has been overshadowed by the other two appellations in the Libourne triangle and often prices do not reflect the wine’s intrinsic quality.
When the INAO defined the limits of the appellation areas, a line had to be drawn and those on the wrong side have been at a disadvantage. In some cases, the boundary actually runs through the same estate so that one part may be Saint-Emilion and another Côtes de Castillon, or Pauillac on some parcels and Haut-Medoc on others. Surrounding all these appellations, a vineyard within the Bordeaux area which cannot claim a better nomenclature is Bordeaux or, subject to more stringent standards, Bordeaux Supérieur.
Two factors in recent years have helped close the gap between the classic areas and those in other parts: better techniques and higher prices. Vastly improved methods of vine growing, meticulous care and severe selection have enabled far better grapes to be harvested which, together with the breakthrough in winemaking techniques, has reduced the quality differential.
Making a great wine always involves substantial investment and uncompromising sacrifice through rigorous selection and lower yield. Some dedicated winemakers in lesser areas have taken up the challenge and put their money, or someone else’s, on grand cru quality. There are more and more exciting and less expensive alternatives on the market. Here are a few recommendations for those more interested in the wine in the bottle than the name on the label.
CRUS BOURGEOIS HAUT MEDOC
Château Potensac (52ha)
On gravel and clayey-limestone slopes, this estate has belonged to the Délon family of Léoville-Las-Cases for more than 250 years. Great regularity in the pure Médoc style.
Château Charmail (22ha)
Lying on gravel crests overlooking the Gironde estuary, the vineyard borders on Saint-Estèphe. Aged in new oak, the wines show remarkable balance between the tannins and rich, ripe fruit.
CRU BOURGEOIS MEDOC
Château Patache-d’Aux (43ha)
Famous for its stagecoach label, a powerful, complex wine with gamey notes, round and well-structured.
Château Tour Haut-Caussen (17ha)
Owned by the Courrian family since 1877. Grapes are hand-picked, and the wine is aged for 12 months in new oak.
SAINTE CROIX DE MONT – LOUPIAC
Château Loubens (15ha)
The cellars are carved from fossilised oyster shells, and the wines are aged in new oak. Due to its sinewy strength and greater acidity, more akin to Barsac than Sauternes. Floral bouquet with honeydew melon.
Château la Rame Reserve de Château (20ha)
Fermented in the barrel, with a majority of new oak, the vanillin brings out the bouquet of acacia and lime-blossom. Very full, very fat, typical of the appellation. Goes well with goat’s cheese or pears and ice cream.
Château Bel-Air Cuvée Prestige (10ha)
Made in exceptional vintages, the Cuvée Prestige is aged in oak for 12 to 18 months. Delicate oaky nose of botrytis, very full on the palate, long and elegant.
PREMIERES COTES DE BORDEAUX
Château du Grand Moueys (60 ha red/40ha white)
Bought and completely renovated by a German négociant (Bömers), the vineyard lies on well-drained, south-facing slopes near the Garonne. Aged in mainly new oak, the red bearing the main label is full-bodied with silky tannins. 1996 is superb.
Château Carignan (43ha)
Taken over by Philippe Pieraerts in 1981 and constantly upgraded and developed, this estate is making a refined, full-bodied red, aged in new oak. The 1998 is drinking extremely well. At the price, remarkable value for money.
Château Reynon (3ha red & white)
Wines owned and made by Denis Dubourdieu, professor at the Faculty of Oenology, best known for his Graves white. This delicious red is essentially a wine of pleasure. Elegant bouquet with flavours of truffle and ripe fruit.
Châteaux Carsin Cuvée Noire, Suau, Puy-Bardens Cuvée Prestige
COTES DE BOURG
Château Haut-Maco (50ha)
Practising lutte raisonnée (environmental techniques) for 10 years now, the Mallet brothers claim not to have used a drop of insecticide for two years. Vinified in 100% new oak, their cuvée Jean-Bernard is a well-balanced, typical Bordeaux-style wine, vinified in relation to the terroir (clayey-limestone, boulbène, gravel). Soft tannins, well integrated.
Château Falfas (22ha)
When he took over, American John Cochrane and his French wife introduced biodynamics. The wines, described as ‘traditional’, are aged in one third new oak. Full-bodied, intense and opulently rich, the ideal expression of the terroir.
Château Peychaud (26ha)
Germain is a passionate winemaker who owns and distributes through his négociant firm a number of remarkable growths in Bordeaux and also the Loire. Both Peychaud and Peyredoulle (Côtes de Bourg) have been instrumental in turning new attention to these areas.
Châteaux Roc de Cambes, Brulescaille, de Barbe
PREMIERES COTES DE BLAYE
Château Haut Bertinerie (44ha red & white)
Aged in new wood, the 1998 shows great density with well balanced tannins blended in with ripe fruit.
Château Gigault Cuvée Viva (25ha)
Lying on the crest of a hill, meticulous care is taken over canopy management to produce a very low yield (40hl/ha). Only top quality, hand-picked grapes are used.
Château Petit Boyer
The plantings include 20% very old Malbec vines which in good years (1998, 2000) gives the wine succulent ripe fruit and great complexity. Aged in new and second-year barrels for 15 months. A wine for cellaring.
Château du Grand-Barrail Revelation (33ha)
A limited volume cuvée from 30–40-year old vines. Aged in new oak for 12 months, the tannins blend in well with the fruit. Beautifully round, soft and delicious.
Château Peyredoulle, Preiuré-Malesan, Maine-Gazin, Roland la Garde, Haut-Sociondo
COTES DE CASTILLON
Clos l’Eglise (17ha)
Lying on the bluff directly opposite the Pavie slopes in Saint-Emilion, the owners of Château Pavie, G Perse and Dr A Raynaud, have taken over this estate with 45-year old vines, together with Château Sainte-Colombe. Aged in 100% new oak and vinified in the same way, the wine could be confused with a top-class growth. A wine to grab before word gets out!
Château Cap de Faugères (26ha)
The vineyard, in a single piece and meticulously cared for, is divided by the border between the Saint-Emilion and Côtes de Castillon appellations. Understandably the two wines – two appellations – are strikingly similar. Beautifully soft, with perfectly balanced tannins.
Château la Grande-Maye (20ha)
A trained oenologist, Valade has gradually built up this vineyard on beautifully exposed clayey-limestone slopes, from an original 4ha plot. Ultra-modern winemaking cellars. The wine is aged for a year in French oak, 30% new. Perfect tannin-fruit balance. Drinking very well now or keep eight to 12 years. Good value.
Châteaux la Clairière, Peyrou, Fongabon, de Pitray, Castegens
COTES DE FRANC
Château Puygéraud (35ha)
Nicolas Thienpont manages the family properties in Côtes de Francs, applying the principles which work so well at Saint-Emilion grand cru classé Pavie-Macquin. The Puygéraud 1997 is astonishingly successful, full-bodied but soft with luscious fruit.
LALANDE DE POMEROL
Château Grand Ormeau Cuvée Madeleine (11.5ha)
On the high plateau in Lalande, grapes are hand picked and sorted before fermentation. The wine is aged in 50% new oak. A rich, ripe concentrated wine with lots of fruit. 1998 is drinking well already.
Château la Fleur Perron (15ha)
On a sandy-gravel plateau over iron-pan subsoil, grapes are hand picked. After three weeks’ maceration, the wine is aged in 30% new oak. Bouquet of violets, subtle attack, full-bodied with silky tannins, great finesse.
Lies on a clayey-gravel spur in Néac very close to top Pomerol growths. Remarkable expression of wine from the côtes aged in oak, 25% new. Rich and jammy with distinct flavour of truffles. Great balance, elegance and finesse.
Château de Bel-Air, Haut-Chaigneau Cuvée Prestige, Clos de l’Eglise, La Croix Saint André, Des Annereaux, Moncets, Garraud, Viaud
FRONSAC & CANON-FRONSAC
Château de la Riviére (56ha)
A superb fairytale castle (pictured) on limestone-clay slopes overlooking the Dordogne. The wines have the lush fruitiness of very ripe Merlot with a firm backbone. Generous and powerful, the wines are achieving grand cru standards.
Château Barrabaque (9ha)
Clayey-limestone on the south-facing slopes gives plummy ripeness, while siliceous clay on lower part produces a sinewy finesse. Very deep, dark colour, full-bodied and rich. Match with game, stew and cheese.
Château Fontenil (8ha)
Famous oenologist Michel Rolland started Fontenil from scratch in 1986 and has been applying his techniques, making intensely concentrated, fruity wines. At one time the power and quality of the tannins in Fronsac produced a rustic character. Rolland has demonstrated how to tame them.
Château Dalem (14.5ha)
Dating back to 1610, the château was taken over in 1955 and enormous strides have been made under the advice of omnipresent consultant Michel Rolland to give the wines their present stature – techniques include handpicking and malolactic fermentation in wood. Very attractive, richly fragrant and dominated by Merlot. Powerful tannic structure. Drink young or lay down.
Châteaux la Dauphine (Moueix property recently purchased by supermarket owner), Plain-Point, du Tertre, Les Trois Croix
Château Maison-Blanche (40ha)
Very ancient estate bordering on Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. Look for the special cuvée Louis Rapin – less than 10,000 bottles are produced.
Château Saint-Georges (50ha)
Typical Saint-Emilion style and better than many with the appellation. The wines show unusual elegance, a generous bouquet and subdued, full-bodied tannins. One for keeping.
Château Tour-du-Pas-Saint-Georges (15ha)
Same owner as premier grand cru classé Belair in Saint-Emilion and made by the same team with the same meticulous care. Excellent value for money.
Château Guibeau-la-Fourvielle (41ha)
Lying across some of the best clayey-limestone slopes in Puisseguin, Guibeau has a very long-standing reputation. Aged in new oak, the wines are powerful and well built yet manage to remain soft and refined.
Châteaux Grand Barrail Calon, Farguet, Treytins, Beauséjour, Les Tours de Bayard
Château Cadillac (75ha)
Bought in 1991 and completely renovated by Jean-Jacques Lesgourgues, the dynamic owner of Château Haut-Sèlve in the Graves. A great wine to keep a watch for.
Château Tayet Cuvée Prestige (red)
Produced from parcels outside the Margaux appellation limits by cru bourgeois Château Haut Breton Larigaudière. This is a complex, soft, not to mention charming, wine with plum and cherry flavours.
Château Penin Grande Selection (25 ha red & white)
Produced on just the wrong side of the Dordogne River in the Entre-deux-Mers, Patrick Carteyron is making a wine which is rapidly gaining an international reputation. Excellent value.
Château Thieuley Reserve (48 ha red & white)
For years now, Francis Courselle has been proving that wines produced in the Entre-Deux-Mers region and aged in oak can achieve remarkable quality. The nose is full of cassis with luscious fruit developing. Drink in five years.
Château Timberlay Cuvée Prestige (white)
Between Fronsac and Bourg, Robert Giraud is producing a succulent, fruity dry white from 70% Sauvignon and 30% Sémillon, manually harvested and barrel fermented. Could be confused with a white Graves.
Château Bonnet Cuvée Prestige (115ha red & white)
The top wine to be made by André Lurton, owner of La Louvière and other properties in the Graves. Powerful, smooth tannins with a hint of vanillin.
Château Ducla (85ha red & white)
Top-class style for a generic Bordeaux, thoroughbred wine, this shows delicate aromatic complexity. Family-owned château and front-runner from négociant firm Yvon Mau’s range.