Jane Anson explores the merits of the Cru Artisan du Médoc label wines and tastes some of the 2015s...
Anson: Tasting Cru Artisan du Médoc
As the world turns towards low intervention, respectful winemaking, has there ever been a better moment for the relaunch of the Cru Artisan du Médoc label?
The name alone suggests honest, small-scale, hand-crafted wines, something that the Médoc is surely in need of – especially with Cru Bourgeois reintroducing its three-level hierarchy and so leaving the stage wide open for a simple one-size-fits-all grouping of estates from this most iconic of winemaking peninsulas.
Given all of that, it’s hard not to feel that Maxime Saint-Martin is in the right place at the right time. Still not quite 30, he is the new president of the Cru Artisan ranking, having became the youngest estate owner in St-Estèphe back in 2008 when he bought his uncle’s three hectares of Château Graves de Pez at the age of 21.
With a current membership of 44, we don’t yet know exactly which names are going to make the new (undoubtedly expanded) Cru Artisan list, due out in May 2018.
All of this is being decided right now through tastings and assessments by one of those infamous independent committees that have always done so well in other Bordeaux rankings. In fact Saint-Martin’s own wine has merely been submitted for now, although his family’s Château Vieux Gabarey is a long-standing fixture.
The human stories
It’s easy to like these estates and the human stories they represent. Château Bejac Romelys, for example, is named after the owners’ two children Rodolphe and Melyssa. It’s a place where until 1996 they sent their grapes to the local cooperative – as did Graves de Pez – before taking them back in-house while also voluntarily reducing the size of the vineyard in 2011 from 22ha to 11ha to concentrate on manageable quality.
Several others were created from scratch by the current owners such as Garance Haut Grenat (in 1998) and Château d’Osmond (1987). Château du Ha was replanted by Cédric and Isabelle Moreau on the site on a former vineyard that had abandoned after the first world war, and where over six years from 1997 to 2003 they planted six hectares of vines, raised 10 horses and opened a 14-hectare breeding and equestrian centre, now running both businesses themselves.
They are a reminder of how normal people make wine in Bordeaux, even on the hallowed ground of the Médoc.
These guys are not fighting with the same means as their big name neighbours, and you see it in plenty of small details. Lots of mechanical harvests here – Châteaux Bejac Romelys, Gadet Terrefort, Haut Gravat, D’Osmond are all practitioners, as are at least 75% of the members.
Vines per hectare vary widely, from 5,000 at Gadet Terrefort to 9,000 at Vieux Gabarey, up to 10,000 at Coudot, Les Barraillots and Grand Brun and even 11,000 in parts of Château d’Osmond, with the average coming in at around 7,000.
Oak ageing is 12 months on average, often split between barrels and vats, unlike the 18 months you find routinely in classified properties. And less celebrated consultants oversee the winemaking – Eric Deletage, Pascale Forget, Julien Maillet, Sandra Duboscq to name a few (although of course Eric Boissenot features heavily, true Médocain that he is).
These are by their nature small scale, because the rules for membership state that the owner must live on site and oversee all activities in vineyard and cellar through to bottling. But there is no maximum size (especially since the Cru Bourgeois changed its rules so there is no minimum size, where it used to be 7ha).
The largest property from the 2006 list is Château Ferré at 44ha in Vertheuil, AOC Haut-Médoc, with the smallest almost entirely in the communal appellations such as Clos de Bigos at 2ha in Margaux. The average is 9.5ha.
‘It’s a philosophical choice in many ways’ says Saint-Martin. ‘And a financial one. The price one château pays for its annual subscription to Cru Bourgeois is equal to the Cru Artisan’s entire annual marketing budget’.
This is reflected inevitably in the price we pay for the bottle, most coming in at under €10 direct to the consumer.
Don’t expect the finessing or polish of classified Médocs. These are more in line with what you might get in the Côtes de Rhone category in terms of charm and drinkability, which is sadly still pretty rare to find consistently in the AOC Bordeaux category, although that is of course a vastly bigger challenge.
I was tasting the 2015 vintage, which no doubt helped to seal my impression of enjoyable, satisfying wines, and one of the questions that they need to address is how to ensure consistency across the more difficult vintages.
Even here it was clear that the more northerly AOC Médoc Cru Artisans, where the weather was less consistent in 2015, had some issues and it’s definitely worth remembering that if you want to check out these wines, the 2015 vintage in Haut Médoc may be the place to start. 2016 should be fine in both Haut Médoc and Médoc.
With the word Artisan on the label, I would also like to see them doing more to promote low intervention practices in the vineyard.
A few members are doing so – Château Les Graves de Loirac is working with local Chamber of Agricuture to introduce fully sustainable winemaking, and Château de Lauga and Château Lagorce Bernadas also working towards the same goal. Château du Ha, Château les Barraillots and Château Tour Bel Air uses zero chemical weedkillers (although are we really still having this conversation?).
But there are only two currently certified organics or biodynamic in the shape of Château Micalet in Haut-Médoc (which tasted blind was by coincidence one of my picks of the tasting) and Château des Graviers in Margaux. There should surely be more considering the size of these properties and the use of the word Artisan, even with the challenges of the Médoc climate.
We will see how that changes with the new listing in May – but what is certain is that by supporting these estates, you are helping secure the future of a group that has become almost a hunting ground for the classified growths over the last few decades. In the first Feret guide in 1850, for example, the tiny commune of Coudot in Cussac-Fort-Médoc has ten Cru Artisans.
Today Château de Coudot is the only one that remains. Even since the 2006 listing many names have disappeared – with Château Behéré in Pauillac among the most famous casualties, bought by Lorenzetti and incorporated into Pedesclaux. Similarly Château La Pèyre in Saint Estèphe was Cru Artisan until it was bought by Bernard Magrez and became Cru Sanctus Perfectus.
There is a one good news story among the lost names though. St-Julien’s Château Capdet has disappeared from the list, but only because it was sold to Charles Brun in 2015, who has renamed it Château Fleur Lauga. Brun is a seventh generation winemaker from the neighbouring commune of Cussac (Château de Lauga, one of the 44), and only managed to buy the significantly more expensive vines in St-Julien because its owner wanted to keep them in independent hands, and because he found a group of private investors to help him. He is keeping it proudly Cru Artisan.