Patrick Burke, our French Portfolio Director, traveled from his home in Lyon to meet JP and Pam in Bordeaux, where they visited with a few of our growers. What follows is his assessment of the state of Grower Bordeaux. Thanks #ExPat!
There is, I think, a very valuable association to be made between the growers in Champagne and the dwindling number of small family estates of the Medoc. When a few small growers with good reputations decided to stop selling their harvests to big Champagne houses, in favor of making their very own limited production Champagnes, a movement was born. The Grower Champagne movement ensures itself a sustained place in the Champagne market because buyers around the world love the story of the “little guys” making very good, very rare, Champagnes. Don’t we all love to support the underdog? If one looks to the modern Medoc landscape they will see a seriously speculative wine scene dominated by historic Chateaux owned by multinational mega-companies that are getting bigger at the expense of the small family owned estates.
In 1855 Napoleon III ordered the wine brokers of Bordeaux to create a ranking system of all the best wines in Bordeaux. The wines were ranked by reputation and selling price which were considered accurate markers of quality. The result was a list of all red, all Medoc wine with the exception of Haut Brion in Graves. The 1885 Classification created 5 quality levels, or growths, and has only seen 3 very minor revisions since its inception. This is a very important point because, as I said, the markers of quality in this classification do not rely on the land or “terroir” but rather on the Chateau’s reputation. Burgundy’s Cru system, by contrast, identified long ago and very precisely which tracks of land were best for wine production and divided them into 3 quality levels: Village, 1er Cru and Grand Cru. This is our notion of terroir. It doesn’t matter who you are. It matters where your grapes grow. A producer of Le Montrachet Grand Cru cannot buy a parcel of 1er Cru Folatieres next to it and use that Chardonnay in his GC bottling the next year. In Bordeaux, however, this is exactly what has been happening for over the last 150 years.
This week I visited Eric Leglise, owner of Chateau le Coteau in Margaux. He cultivates 8ha of Cabernet Sauvignon and 4ha of Merlot in the prestigious appellation and is representing the 5th generation of his family to do so. Eric farms organically and harvests by hand. He doesn’t seek certification because he doesn’t want to be forced to use copper, which although natural, is a heavy metal that doesn’t break down in the soil. He prefers to use a biodegradable synthetic treatment for fungus. He also works his soil and promotes a healthy and diverse flora and insect population. Eric told me that solitary bees (not honey production bees) are increasingly rare in France. There are many species of solitary bees living in his vineyards and he photo-catalogs them all. His vineyards are healthy with lots of other insects and flowers that can’t be found in his neighbors’ vineyards. At Chateau le Coteau yields are controlled only through de-budding and never via green harvesting because Eric believes that the latter confuses the vine and that it is far better to set the load in spring and let the vine do its work without adjusting the charge late in the growing cycle. Le Coteau is a sensational Margaux wine produced by a sincere and authentic vigneron. In the Cabernet parcel that Eric was picking last Friday he showed us his two neighbors on either side. The first is Chateau Lascombes, classified as a second growth in 1855 when it was about 9ha in size. Today Lascombes is the largest producer in Margaux and owns 120ha of vineyard. The other neighbor is Chateau Prieure Lichine, a fourth growth and also about 9ha in size in 1855. Today Prieure Lichine is 80ha and sells for $75. The 2010 Lascombes sells for about $250 and if either Chateaux were to buy Eric’s parcel tomorrow they could put their name on it next year and it would sell for market rate. Eric’s 2010 currently sells for about $45.
My next stop along the Route des Chateaux in Medoc was to see Albert Tiffon in Pauilliac. He owns Chateau la Fleur Haut Carras. If ever you want to meet the definition of a local go see Albert. His family has been growing grapes and making wine in Pauilliac since 1717. Albert has 4 hectares of vineyard that he patch-worked together from inheritances divided amongst siblings and cousins and from small purchases he was able to make in the 1980s. He very clearly told us that it would be impossible to do this today as the big Chateaux have driven the price of plantable land in Pauilliac to the 3 million euro per hectare range. Albert is one of 5 remaining small family producers. He has parcels next to all of the first growths in town and each of them has made numerous offers to buy Albert’s vines. Should he one day accept, he could walk into retirement with a cool 12 million! “Jamais!” Not going to happen, says Albert, who has no intention of selling out and reducing the number of small independent Pauilliac Chateaux. He would much rather make a delicious wine the way his forefathers did in a village that just so happened to have reached the pinnacle of fame in French wine lore. You can buy Lafite, Mouton or Latour, but in so doing you’ll be supporting the Pauilliac real-estate bubble and end up $700 to $1,500 poorer in the process.
On this latest trip to Bordeaux I also visited Francois Bernard and his son Jonathan at their winery in Moulis en Medoc. The estate is called Chateau Lestage Darquier, and it has been owned by the Bernard family since it was created 7 generations ago. The 10ha of vineyard, planted to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 45% Merlot, are located in the sector called Grand Poujeaux, which rose to fame after the great frost of 1956 when the majority of the vineyards in Moulis were destroyed. The vineyards of Grand Poujeaux however suffered only minimally and the warmer gravelly terroir has been revered ever since. Today this famous sub-region of Moulis is dominated by 3 producers, Chateau Poujeaux, Chateau Dutruch and Chasse Spleen. The Bernard family hand-crafts about 4,000 cases a year of Lestage Darquier Moulis en Medoc. They have a historic family cellar that houses bottles going back to 1910 and the current release, 2011, sells for about $20.
What is there to be learned from these small producers of the Medoc? Maybe it’s that not all Bordeaux is the result of a land grab and that the little guys can still speak of “terroir” because theirs have remained the same for generations. I don’t want to debate that, for a fraction of the price, these wines are as good as or better than the classified growths that surround them. To do so misses the point. Many classified growths are truly remarkable wines and yes, fancy restaurants can sell them without even trying regardless of their price tags. But don’t we have a responsibility as wine lovers and professionals to support a few small producers as well. It keeps the underdog in the game and makes the tableside conversation a little more interesting.
For more information on the wines of Chateau le Coteau, read here.
For more on the wines of Chateau la Fleur Haut Carras, read here.
To read more about the wines of Chateau Lestage Darquier, read here.