Andrew Jefford reports on a trip to Bordeaux, where he explored Latour's underground 'Fort Knox' and discussed some of the current issues for the region, including the 2018 vintage and the general use of copper in organic vineyards.
The fourth week in October this year was one of beguiling autumnal beauty in Bordeaux; I was lucky enough to be touring the region with students as it unfolded. A full Hunter’s Moon hung, pearl-like, in the morning sky over the Médoc as we drove north at sunrise on October 25th. It seemed to symbolize the extraordinary good fortune of Bordeaux’s elect, capable of making wines which satisfy intellectually in the same measure as they seduce sensually – and in quantity, too. Here are some jottings from the week’s notebook.
“I am not a zoo-keeper”
It’s always entertaining to spend time with one of Bordeaux’s greatest iconoclasts: Denis Durantou of Ch l’Eglise Clinet. Every conversation is a joust as Denis, lance in hand and mischievous smile on his face, attempts to unseat and unsettle his interlocutors. This was what he replied to us, twice, when we asked first of all if he used indigenous yeasts for his wines, and secondly if he favoured a little more lees-ageing than the three-month rackings common in the region usually permit. There is little truck with fashion at Eglise-Clinet, where everything is done with thoroughgoing, rigorous, even militant pragmatism.
Don’t look for a decanter here, either: Denis abhors them, claiming they homogenize an experience (the drinking of a bottle of wine) which should exhibit and be enjoyed in different stages. His analogy for this is the “foin, divin, purin” typology used by French cigar smokers (it means “hay, divinity, slurry” – and refers to the three stages of a cigar as it is smoked).
For all that, I can’t imagine the last third of a bottle of Eglise-Clinet ever resembling slurry: we tried the dark, savoury 2007, the athletic 2015 and the sweet-fruited 2017, and each was a model of pristine intensity. It’s hardly original to point this out, but Durantou’s two Lalande de Pomerol wines (Les Cruzelles and the young-vines La Chenade) as well as his St Emilion property Santayme and his Côtes de Castillon Montlandrie are all among the greatest bargains on the Right Bank.
“We don’t care about quality; all that interests us is typicity”
The most intelligent and articulate technical director of any Bordeaux château? My Bordeaux-based colleague Jane Anson is in a much better position to judge than I am, but Cheval Blanc’s Pierre-Olivier Clouet must be on the shortlist somewhere. He held us enthralled as he explained the thinking which went into helping create every bottle of this, the gentlest of all of Bordeaux’s great wines.
It was, in other words, the quest for that diagnostic gentleness and grace which was always uppermost in the team’s mind, using precedent and attention to detail, rather than any laborious striving after the effects sometimes synonymous with ‘quality’ in Bordeaux. He gave us, moreover, a new gloss on the customary French definition of ‘winemaker’ as midwife — rather than father or even obstetrician. “If the baby resembles the doctor, there is a huge problem.” Er, quite.
It was the same kind of thinking which caused him to lance the myth of the omniscient blender. “More and more, I don’t believe in blending. It’s great for marketing – but the truth is that nobody creates, nobody decides. The team comes to know every plot and every wine by heart. We taste them every day. What happens is that the blend slowly reveals itself to us as we work with the wines. It’s obvious to all of us by the end. Winemaking is day-to-day work, not a command from on high.” He also let us into one of the secrets behind Cheval Blanc’s gentleness: no press wines. “Some of the press wine goes into the second wine, but most gets sold in bulk. Every year we try it; every year we don’t like it. For aromatic reasons. Cheval Blanc is aromatic finesse, and the press wines take it away.”
A place for the Place?
This was the first year in which I’d visited the underground vaults in which Latour is keeping all the wines it has refrained from selling to the Bordeaux wine trade (“the Place de Bordeaux”) since withdrawing from the en primeur trade in 2011. It really did look like Fort Knox – though it was black unlabelled bottles which were stacked floor to ceiling rather than gold bars. It will be a couple of decades before we know whether the gambit has paid off – but it was intriguing to hear Pierre-Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc sing the praises of the Place de Bordeaux: the view from the chai, as it were. “It’s a great system. You know why? We never have to talk business with the people who come to visit us; we only talk wine. No prices, no allocations, no agents, no politics, nothing that gets in the way – just wine.”
Mildew and after
We didn’t have the chance to meet up with Frédéric Engerer, the Président of Ch Latour, during the week – but he did tweet, on October 22nd, an image of Latour’s newly acquired organic certification. He doubtless felt triumphant: 2018 has been an extremely tough year for those working with organic and biodynamic cultivation, since a very wet May followed by a very warm June led to what Fabien Teitgen, the Director General of the organically cultivated Ch Smith-Haut-Lafitte, called “the worst attack of mildew I have seen since I began 23 years ago.” In the end, Smith-Haut-Lafitte only lost five to 10 per cent of an average crop, but others weren’t so lucky. Among those we visited, the biodynamic Ch Pontet-Canet lost 50 per cent of its potential harvest, as did Ch Suduiraut in Sauternes after “an explosion of mildew” in early June.
Not everyone is convinced that organics and biodynamics is the right way forward for vineyards in the ever-moist airs of Aquitaine. Basile Tesseron (of the same family which owns Pontet-Canet) caused a stir recently by telling the Revue de Vin de France that he was stopping organic cultivation because it was leaving too much copper in the soils, and we heard much the same from the thoughtful Gabriel Vialard at Ch Haut-Bailly, who confirmed that early summer had brought the worst mildew attack of recent times. This outstanding Pessac-Léognan property made extensive, scientifically rigorous trials of both organics and biodynamics between 2009 and 2015, but Vialard, too, concluded that “we had to use too much copper. If it’s raining, you have to spray every two or three days. Copper is toxic. It stays in the soil. You can’t wash it out.” Haut-Bailly continues to use herb teas, which they have found a useful adjunct, but Vialard prefers to use small quantities of systemic fungicides rather than larger quantities of copper sulphate, convinced that it is “cleaner”.
Bordeaux 2018: a happy ending
Despite the travails of early summer mildew, though, everyone we visited looked extremely happy with the quality of the 2018 harvest. Readers will hear much more about this from Jane Anson in due course, so let me leave you with just one testimony. “Honestly I never saw such a vintage. I never saw such maturity; all the plots are good. The ‘18 will be better than the ‘10. Even in 2010 we had to select the plots; in 2018 we didn’t have to select. Everything is good. My father says that a vintage like this only comes once in a lifetime. He thinks it’s like `47, `61, `82; maybe better than everything since ‘82.” The speaker is Bertrand Léon of Ch Les Troix Croix in Fronsac as well as Technical Director for Sacha Lichine’s Ch d’Esclans in Provence – and the son of Patrick Léon, the former Managing Director of Mouton-Rothschild, whose career began in 1972. I doubt either is prone to exaggeration.
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