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Jane Anson: Bordeaux’s oldest vines

Jane Anson finds out what can be learned from 200 year old vines...

This column was originally published in the May 2016 issue of Decanter. Subscribe to Decanter here.

The weather in Bordeaux on Wednesday 23 September 2015 was radiantly warm and sunny, one of a crop of perfect autumn days that marked out a month with just 35.4mm of rainfall in the city centre, a full 52% less than the 10-year average.

The crowd in Place de la Victoire was taking advantage of the heat. Besides the iconic archway leading to rue Ste-Catherine, the longest pedestrianised street in Europe, place de la Victoire is also the site of a bronze and red marble column designed to honour viticulture and winemaking. A group of students was sitting at its base, sharing a bottle of wine.

I didn’t stop to ask if they were aware of the symbolism as I headed over to join a larger group of people on the far side of the square. This one was gathered around a set of trestle tables set up with ice buckets, glasses and bottles of Rosé de la Solitude and Rosé de Chevalier. Behind the tables were the winemakers responsible for the bottles, Olivier Bernard and Rémi Edange, and an assortment of city officials. A small crane stood to one side, lifting up parties of two or
three people armed with a basket and a pair of secateurs to a cast-iron pergola set into the wall of a handsome limestone building. Minutes later, each group was set back down with a basket full of tightly bunched, black-skinned grapes.

This was the harvest party for an historical anomaly that sits right at the heart of Bordeaux – the oldest vines not only in the city but also in the entire area. They stand at a little over 200 years old, planted just after the French Revolution by the Duverger family, some time between 1795 and 1805. They have never been treated with chemicals, are ungrafted, and yet have proved resistant to phylloxera, oidium and the many other vineyard diseases that lie in wait.

To add to their sense of mystery, they are not Bordeaux’s usual varieties of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon but a rare grape called Cruchen Nègre, or Tchacouli, which almost certainly comes from the Pyrenees, 200km to the south. Twenty years ago there were five or six of these vines in Place de la Victoire, but now this is the sole survivor.

Earlier in the year, I had the chance to catch up with these grapes as newly fledged wine in the cellars of Bernard’s Domaine de Chevalier – although more accurately, the care of the wine has been given to his other property, Domaine de la Solitude. This estate doubles as a working convent with strong links to the city. ‘Generations of Bordeaux children have taken their first communion in its chapel,’ Edange told me as we headed into the cellars, excited as children ourselves to taste this rare bird.

The 2015 vintage is the first for Bernard and Edange, as previously the wine was vinified by an agricultural college in the southern Médoc. The vine produced just over 0.3hl (hectolitres) in 2015, but in some years it manages double that, and to have enough juice to vinify in a (small) barrel, they chose to blend 50% Merlot in with the 50% Tchacouli.

‘The Merlot rounds things out a little, but it is clear there is a whole raft of new flavours,’ said Edange. He chooses to use the term ‘elegant rusticity’, which means absolutely nothing until I taste the wine myself.

In colour, it is delicate, almost as raspberry-edged as a Pinot Noir, but with a violet reflection more typical of young Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot. On the palate it has finesse, a touch of astringency, summer fruits combined with a lovely floral character. The idea of elegant rusticity makes perfect sense. With the Merlot blend, the technical stats come in at 12.5% abv, with a fairly low pH (read grip and freshness) of 3.51, and a soft IPT tannin count of 52.

‘There is still so much for us to learn,’ Edange said. ‘We are looking at taking buds as soon as the new growing cycle begins in March, and hope to replant in various corners of Bordeaux. And we are all looking for viticulture less dependent on chemicals; this 200-year-old vine has already proved strong enough to live without them – there is no doubt that it can teach us a thing or two.’

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