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Anson on Thursday: Reclaiming Bordeaux terroir

Reactions are usually set to cynical during en primeur but one conversation with an American buyer gave me pause last week...

The American buyer told me that Bordeaux was now so unfashionable in the States that many sommeliers have never even considered it for their lists – but that this means it is now a discovery wine, the new Gruner, or Jura. One that can appeal to the craft beer generation that is always open to authentic new discoveries.

He wasn’t talking about the 1855 châteaux, but the Graves, the Castillons, the little guys who are affordable to buy and often have a real family story behind them.

Potentially good news for the Bordelais, but things need to change if this theory is really going to hold up. My feeling has increasingly been over the last few years that Bordeaux will never connect with the next generation of wine drinkers in significant numbers until it admits that it lost its way over terroir, and that it is slowly but surely finding its way back.

‘For too long in Bordeaux people used the concept of terroir to sell everything,’ Eric Monneret at Chateau La Pointe in Pomerol was telling me a few weeks ago. ‘It became a marketing term and so lost its meaning. But if we are going to reclaim its meaning, we need to be practical. The whole idea of terroir is often blurred, people get lost. In the 1980s and 1990s Bordeaux was very much about technical and oenological skills, and they forgot to talk about the soils. I see and feel that changing now, and am very excited about the next decade’.

La Pointe is an interesting case in point. Among the biggest estates in Pomerol, it long had a reputation for being planted on sand and producing easy drinking wines of charm but little complexity. But recent years have seen new drainage channels, careful replanting (the pulling up, for example, of Cabernet Sauvignon that was planted on soils that were never going to ripen the grape) and working the three sections – only one is on sand – of the vineyard very differently. ‘Everyone dreams of finding a sleeping beauty, of restoring an undiscovered terroir and bringing it to life. But you can only do that in the vineyard – and by taking a risk of it not working. We had to see if the wine was showing its intrinsic quality or if it was because of the way they were working the soils’.

For authenticity, you also have to be able to honest about what you have. ‘We are on the second terrace of Pomerol which means beneath the plateau but higher than the third terrace. It would be easy to try to cover that up and go for critical acclaim by cropping low and oaking high, but we have chosen instead to work on expressing the very best of this terroir. When we arrived almost ten years ago, La Pointe had the image of third terrace Pomerol, with the potential of a second terrace. We have brought it up, I hope, to the best of the second terrace, grazing the plateau, along with estates like Feytit-Clinet, Bourgneuf, La Croix, Beauregard’.

Understanding terroir is definitely an area where ‘show don’t tell’ holds strong, and for that I would recommend a trip to Chateau Olivier in Pessac Léognan. They have recently held a fascinating tasting for the 2015 vintage showing three samples of the wine made with their vineyard configuration in 2005 and 2010 as well as that of 2015.

This is another interesting estate when it comes to understanding how Bordeaux is reclaiming its terroir, for different reasons than La Pointe. There are only six Bordeaux estates classified in red and white, and yet Olivier has consistently filed under the radar. I have long thought it produces one of Bordeaux’s very best white wines, but until recently found the reds far less consistent.

When director Laurent Lebrun arrived in 2003 (originally from Pouilly-sur-Loire but working first in Champagne then at Remy Martin at Blue Pyrenees in Australia before moving to Bordeaux), he enlisted Terroir expert Xavier Choné to carry out an soil study not just of the 50-something hectares in production but the entire 230 hectares of the estate, that was once a hunting lodge. Much of the land was covered in forest, but they discovered one extremely high quality plot of deep gravels and powerfully compacted clay that was growing pine trees at the time. Separated from the main vineyard by about a 10 minute walk, this plot is now named Bel Air. It was given over to planting vines, and the grapes have slowly come into the first wine over the past decade. They have a 1760 map of the estate that shows it was planted at the time, and are currently doing historical studies in local archives to find out more.

It was the effect of this plot on the wine that this terroir tasting was demonstrating, and it proved absolutely fascinating. ‘This is a particularly fair representation,’says Lebrun, ‘because already in 2005 we had the ambition to do better, with new cellars that were finished in 2003 that brought in different small sized vats instead of the previous 220hl lithe vats. Owner Alexandre de Bethmann already was investing in the future of his estate. Money is clearly one barrier to entry for becoming an exceptional wine, but until you have the terroir you can’t fully realize your ambitions’.

The wines

Chateau Olivier 2015, version 2005

Wine composed of the vineyard plots as they were in 2005, when overall surface area was maybe 75% of size today, and zero addition of Bel Air as the vines had just been planted. Most of the terroir was still deep gravel but not as compacted with clay as Bel Air is, so less powerful. This has good clean fruit, perhaps a little too much austerity in the mid palate, a little short on the finish. 50%/50% merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon.

Chateau Olivier 2015, version 2010

The wine used all of Bel Air at this point but low yields so only 15% of overall. So here’s 55% cab Sauvignon and 45% merlot, because using more Bel Air. Remember this is still exactly the same age wine, because made with 2015 grapes, but the colour has more violet reflections. On the palate there is a brighter and fleshier feel, more depth, not the austerity of the mid palate from the 2005 configuration.

Chateau Olivier 2015, version 2015

Bel air makes up 30% of the wine here, and vines are now ten years old. Good yield of 45 hl/h in 2015. There is also one hectare of petit Verdot in the wine, so overall blend is 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% merlot and 5% petit Verdot. Same proportion of cabernet as in 2010 but twice the quantity from Bel Air. This has another step up in colour intensity, power and poise, the tannins here have a real rich quality, this is still fresh and poised but has more muscular frame that expands over the tasting, clear ageing potential.

More Jane Anson columns for Decanter.com:

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