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St Emilion 2012: The Reclassification Cometh

In just a couple of weeks time, on September 6th, the news will all be about St Emilion. This is the day that we should expect to see revealed the newest revision of the St Emilion classification. After the debacle that was the 2006 classification, which following legal challenges ultimately saw all the promoted estates stay promoted, while all those demoted moved back up to their previous position, there is a lot of potential for discontent and disagreement this time. Will the lawyers of Libourne (yes I know that’s the heart of Pomerol – I’m just doing this for the alliteration) be rubbing their hands with the glee as the Euro-signs flash across their eyes once more?

2012 St Emilion classification

Perhaps not. This time, seemingly having learnt from their mistakes, the process is being handled somewhat differently. First, I’m told that all the châteaux threatened with relegation from their current position were notifed by letter sometime after the beginning of June. In other words, the process is already well underway. The purpose of this was to allow the proprietor(s) concerned to defend his or her position, before a panel from the INAO, away from the prying eyes of their neighbours. The St Emilion rumour mill is going like the clappers at the moment, and the latest story to do the rounds is that thirty such letters, each one the equivalent of a vinous P45, have been sent out, a number which – given that there are only about 70 châteaux currently ranked as premier grand cru classé or grand cru classé – seems remarkably high. Does this also relate to the grand cru ranking, I wonder?

That there will be demotions is inevitable; I think many Winedoctor readers could come up with a short-list of likely declassification targets, including some that were demoted and re-promoted in 2006, such as Guadet St-Julien, Cadet-Bon and Yon-Figeac. It will also be interesting to see what happens to those estates perhaps unfairly punished with attempted demotion in the 2006 listing, such as Bellevue, and those that have very recently come into new hands (such as Tertre-Dauguy, now owned by Domaine Clarence Dillon, and renamed Quintus). Will these estates survive this time around? Perhaps of most interest, however, is the question of who will be promoted.

St Emilion classification 2012

It seems unlikely to me that any estate will scale the insurmountable wall between the A and B levels of the premier grand cru classé classification, so Cheval Blanc and Ausone should remain undisturbed. If they were to be joined by another estate, however, who would it be? Who would you like it to be? Popular choices are likely to be Pavie and Angélus. Elevation of the latter would be something of a coup for Hubert de Boüard de Laforest, an increasingly powerful figure in the little microcosm that is Bordeaux and wine. I would, however, be hugely surprised if either make the leap.

At the ‘lower’ levels there could be numerous changes and surprises. First up is surely Valandraud; having spent some time with Jean-Luc Thunevin in St Emilion a few weeks ago I know he is very hopeful of higher classification. The target for Thunevin is the ‘B’ level of the premier grand cru classé rung, and this would be an impressive feat, from grand cru to premier grand cru classé in one move. Forget the mere grand cru classé level! The next you might look out for is Le Dôme from Jonathan Malthus; sadly this estate is not eligible for the classification, the reason for this – if I understood Jonathan correctly – being regulations about what percentage of your wine must come from the estate, which is 50%. This means Jonathan, with so many other estates under his wing, could not submit this remarkable wine (the vineyards are just next to Angélus, by the way). Comte Stefan von Neipperg will be looking for La Mondotte to climb, and perhaps Canon-la-Gaffelière too.

Pol Roger Revisited

Below are notes on four recent vintages of Pol Roger, showing the consistent quality that can be found in the wines of this particular Champagne house. I would have liked to add a note on the 2002 as well, but have realised in recent years that I can’t buy (and thus can’t feature) every wine that interests me. Besides, I often think my time might be better spent promulgating the virtues of fizz from Thierry Germain, Huet and Château de l’Aulée and the like rather than wealthy Champagne houses that already have a very strong brand identity and probably a fairly deep-pocketed advertising budget. Although I can’t follow that argument any further I think…..otherwise I would have to stop updating all my Bordeaux profiles…..

Anyway, on with the wines.

Pol Roger Brut 2000: Quite a rich hue in the glass, fresh and golden but with plenty of bright colour. A nice, moderately fine bead. The fresh appearance in the glass is more than matched by the nose which is all exuberant fruit, citrus and white peach, with a delicious undercurrent of fresh almonds and a little hint of richer cashew nut. But overall the appeal here is the bright and vibrant lift the nose seems to suggest, with piles of accessible fruit. And the palate doesn’t disappoint, bringing an appealing edge of sourness to the fruit, but with a lightly creamy texture which is offset very nicely by the combination of a gentle, prickling mousse and correct acidity. Such lovely balance! And it has some length in the finish too. This is very good indeed; it perhaps misses the most complex of characteristics, but it remains utterly charming. 17.5/20 (August 2012)

Pol Roger Brut 1999: A pale golden hue here, plenty of pressure behind the cork matched by a very fine but effusive bead in the glass. The aromatics are open and expressive, lemon fruit and white peach, smoky and lightly reductive, with a very grey character to it. There are little elements of nut though, although in a very straight and pure fashion, like blanched cashew nuts or almonds. The fruit has a lightly dried and concentrated character to it as well. The palate is full, rich, really quite creamy and bright, rolling around the mouth showing off its texture first, before the bright and acid-tinged lemony fruit flavours come through in the middle. Super character here, very sappy and cleansing, and clearly with bags of potential yet. Long and defined in the finish. 18/20 (August 2012)

Pol Roger

Pol Roger Brut 1998: Another rich, lemon-gold hue here, and with a lively bead too, although it soon settles down. The nose is full of bruised apples at first, but with some air these notes blow off to leave a cleaner and more intense fruit character, moving more into a peachy richness, with a dried-fruit concentration to it. And this is followed, with time, by notes of almonds, brazil nuts, caramel and cream, but it remains fresh, lifted and lemony throughout. Lovely character on the palate, evolving nicely, rich but with plenty of lift behind it, showing flavours mirroring the nose but contrasted by a sappy fruit acid. The flavours have moved on only a little from my last taste four years ago, but there is a more polished, long and gentle feel to it. Delicious wine. 17.5/20 (August 2012)

Pol Roger Brut 1996: A richer colour compared with the other wines, a fine golden hue. A fine bead too. The nose has a lovely cashew nut character to it, and this runs underneath the sweet fruit with its evolved, citrus, tropical undertones. It has a lovely presence, showing appealing tinges of maturity in the shape of caramel and coffee. Yet there is plenty of vigour, acid and sparkle on the palate at first too, and this confident, vigorous showing persists through the finish. Plenty of citrus freshness to it, great definition, and yet a supple flesh and substance as well. This is really superb, evolving and yet remaining vigorous, acid-bound and long. This vintage certainly has years ahead of it yet. 18.5/20 (August 2012)

Free Bordeaux book!

I’ve got a few copies of my recently published Pocket Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux tucked under my desk, and I was wondering what to do with them.

It seems only right that I should give these away to visitors to this site.

Reply to this post if you would like me to send you one; I will send a copy to the first five respondents. Once you have posted your reply, I will email you to ascertain your postal address. I can’t do this if you don’t give me your email address, so please make sure you enter it in the appropriate field, correctly typed, when you make your post.

No prizes for the most exotic address. And I’m afraid I will be posting by the cheapest means available (wot a skinflint!), so if you live outside the UK be prepared for a long wait!

Best of luck.

Artisan Wines Cease Trading

I’m sorry to have to report that one of my favourite merchants, Artisan Wines, has been forced to cease trading.

Other demands on the time of proprietor Andrew Kerr has forced Andrew into making the difficult decision to close down the operation. In Andrew’s words “We’ve come to the conclusion that we need to put Artisan Wines on the back burner for a year or two as, at the moment, we don’t have enough time to devote to it.” Perhaps the troubled economy has also played its part; despite recent good news about the average spend per bottle going up in the UK (more people than ever are spending over £10 per bottle it seems) maintaining sales of esoteric natural, organic and biodynamic wines in an online-only part-time operation must be a very trying occupation.

Clos Rougeard - bought from Artisan Wines

This is a great shame; although Andrew ran this online retail business in his spare time, sourcing and importing the wines himself, it was a professional operation and it was a valuable source of wines from some of the Loire’s greatest names, not least Clos Rougeard, Domaine de Bellivière, Ferme de la Sansonnière, Domaine de l’Ecu and others, as well as a selection of wines of similar quality from the Rhône. Although naturally, for me, it was the Loire that was the major interest here.

Now that Andrew has taken his website down (www.artisanwines.co.uk now returns a ‘disabled’ message) sadly I fear this is the last we will see of Artisan Wines. Nevertheless I sincerely hope Andrew does indeed return to retail, for purely selfish reasons (a reliable source of Clos Rougeard can be hard to find!) and if I have any news on sale of stock, or an Artisan revival, naturally I will post it here.

Terroir: A Matter of Difference

My profile of Château Lafleur posted earlier this week contains a lot of information on the terroirs – or at the very least the soils – of the Lafleur vineyard. Reflecting on my recent visit to meet Jacques Guinaudeau and look at this very special Pomerol vineyard got me thinking about terroir, how people use and interpret the word, and whether or not there were any other possible explanations for what we call terroir.

When I first became aware of the concept of terroir, the prevailing view was that it was something overtly detectable in a wine. For instance, at a Château Talbot tasting I attended many years ago, a taster with far more years and much more tasting experience behind him than I had leaned back in his chair and sighed “ahh…. the gôut de terroir…. lovely”. The gamey, horsey edge on the wine in question was to him something related to the soils of Talbot. Of course, despite his experience, he was wrong; many years later I realised what we had tasted that evening was nothing more than Brettanomyces. But it was a good example of how many people viewed terroir. The idea that Mosel Riesling tastes slatey because of the slate on which it grows (and I often get a ‘sandy’ feel when tasting lesser St Emilion – but I don’t see many/any others reporting this) is another example of terroir misconstrued. Vine roots can’t absorb ‘molecules’ of sand or slate. Both sensations are quite plausibly the result of auto-suggestion, the idea that we are tasting the soil itself is vaguely nonsensical, and both provide plenty of ammunition for those arguing against the existence of terroir.

I think that terroir is an important determinant of how wine tastes is self-evident though. Taste two wines from one vigneron that he or she has managed the same way in vineyard and cellar; to appreciate the differences between the wines is to appreciate the impact of terroir. The wines of Lafleur don’t quite count, because although the grand vin comes from three terroirs, and the second wine from a fourth, the vinifications are different, introducing a second variable. You need a vigneron making several wines in exactly the same fashion to see the impact of terroir. It’s easiest in Burgundy, where one man or woman might have several wines from several vineyards, all harvested and vinified in the same manner, and yet they taste different. That’s terroir.

Richard Leroy, inspecting his terroir

Thinking back for comparable experiences from my own tasting history in Bordeaux or the Loire doesn’t produce a plethora of examples, but here are a couple, both from the Loire. A visit to Château de la Roulerie a couple of years ago brought several tastes from different barrels from different sections of the vineyard, the vines managed in the same manner, the vinifications the same, and yet the wines were profoundly different. The same was true when I tasted the component barrels with Richard Leroy (pictured above – inspecting his terroir, perhaps), before blending. Different sections of the same vineyard, same variety, same pruning, same vinification, same wood, but different wines. That’s terroir – it’s the difference between two wines, rather than intrinsic characteristics within each wine, that is down to terroir.

Reflecting on that conclusion, I have wondered whether there are any other plausible explanations for why wines from different vineyards, or even from different sections of the same vineyard, should taste so different. The only one that looked remotely promising was the impact of yeasts. Could different yeast populations in the two vineyards account for the differences?

There are those out there who think this possible, and indeed there are some who have wondered out loud why yeasts shouldn’t be included in the terroir ‘definition’. I have a problem with this though. Although there is no doubt that yeasts come into the winery on the fruit, and start fermentation, much of the fermentation process is completed by yeasts – specifically Saccharomyces cerevisiae – which are resident in the winery. [As an aside, there's plenty of research on this out there, and I recall Jamie Goode wrote a nice article on it for the World of Fine Wine a year ago. I also recall I wrote a lengthy letter in response, published two issues later (I was a bit slow in responding!) picking holes in the science.] Hence, because it is largely the winery yeasts that do the work, the two wines from the two different plots will largely be fermented by the same population of yeasts, removing this as a variable which could account for the ‘terroir‘ differences. Secondly, it seems likely that the population of yeasts within a vineyard will change over time. If yeast differences are responsible for terroir differences, why do some vineyards produce wines with identifiable characteristics year after year? Lastly, what about different sections of the same vineyard yielding different wines? Are we supposed to accept that the yeasts population is so diverse it differs from row to row?

So although yeasts can have a huge impact on flavour (this is an important consideration when purchasing cultured yeasts), when it comes to wines that are fermented spontaneously by indigenous yeasts, I doubt the yeasts play a very large part (or at least a very large consistent part) in the flavour differences we find between wines. Having said that, arguing for their role makes for good debate, so I hope research into how yeasts can affect flavour continues.

So terroir matters. It’s in the soil. But it’s not in the wine (or rather it’s not directly translated into an easily identifiable taste that makes for easy conclusions, like slatey Riesling or sandy St Emilion, although as I have alluded above some vineyards do behave in the same manner year after year). It’s in the differences between the wines that we can find it. When you look at it that way, it seems to me that the importance (or indeed, existence) of terroir is impossible to refute. Why else do wines made by the same people, in the same vintage, vinified in the same way, show such profound diversity?

Wine by the Gallon

I’ve spent a little time sorting out the digital photographs from my recent time in Bordeaux over the weekend – all 1221 of them! The subject depicted below, spotted in the cellars at Château de la Rivière in Fronsac, was perhaps one of the most unusual.

The 75 cl bottle and certain derivatives thereof have been the only legally permissible sizes for wine bottles as long as I can remember (I am that young – honest! :-)). Yes, I know there are exceptions, particularly some wines from the Jura that are permitted to use 62 cl bottles, and also sake (does that count? – it’s not something I have any experience of) which comes in 72 cl bottles.

Gallon bottles at Château de la Rivière

Some of these 75 cl-derivatives are in themselves impressive; also in the cellars at Château de la Rivière I caught sight of a Melchior, a monster bottle so large I haven’t even included it in my guide to wine bottle sizes (I will amend that now). This is an 18-litre vessel, equivalent to 24 standard bottles, in other words two cases!

More unusual though were the two remaining gallon bottles from the 1975 vintage; as the bin label above suggests, there were until recently four, but two having been sold just two more remain. I don’t think I’ve ever seen wine in gallon containers before (obviously I’m not including wine sold en vrac – I remember seeing these 30 years ago, where you took the pump in one hand and fill your own container – do they still exist?).

If you think you could manage a gallon (and it is a US gallon by the way, so approximately 3.78 litres) at one sitting (c’mon, you know you want to!) you should direct your inevitable enquiries towards the château, but don’t hold your breath. I imagine these two final bottles will be saved for some very special occasion.

Hello China…and Hong Kong…and…

One of my visits during my three weeks in Bordeaux was to meet Gavin Quinney at Château Bauduc, a Brit who has been turning out good quality and good value red, white and pink Bordeaux for a good few years now. I was keen to see him as I want to try and broaden the Bordeaux coverage on Winedoctor, taking in good value wines from less exalted appellations as well as the top 5% of the estates (the great cru classé estates in St Julien, Sauternes, St Emilion and so on) which we all seem to spend 95% of our time obsessing over.

One question he asked me over lunch threw me a little as I suddenly realised the answer I gave was several years out of date. The query was a simple one; where do Winedoctor readers live? I trotted out the same data as can be found within my sponsor’s information pack, which is “roughly one-third UK, one-third from the rest of Europe, one-third North America”. Other continents, countries and regions – Australia, South America, the African nations especially South Africa, Russia and so on historically contributed a few percent each (hence the “rough” division into thirds).

“What, no China?” came Gavin’s reply. Hmmm, I thought. Time to take a fresh look.

Winedoctor stats aren’t something I usually discuss. I mean, other than me and my advertisers/sponsors, who’s interested? But these statistics are different, for several reasons, not least because it highlights how the world of wine (as well as the appeal of Winedoctor) has broadened.

Now firmly in the lead is North America, accounting for 45% of my readership. Thank you, Americans and Canadians!

But the big change is in second place, with Asian nations now accounting for 23% of my readership. In the lead is China, closely followed by Hong Kong, but there are also readers in South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. If we include India, Japan and the UAE as well (the 23% above does not – I was really looking for countries new to Winedoctor and these aren’t) then the figure climbs even higher. So “您好 !” (I hope that actually means something intelligible) to all new Winedoctor readers in China, and the same to those in Hong Kong, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand!

In third place comes Europe (excluding the UK) with 19%, and fourth the UK with 13%. Put the two together and they come to 32% of course, but being based in the UK I have always analysed these two separately.

All that remains now is for someone to give me a “您好 !” back (and for me to update my advertiser’s information pack…..). Thanks to Gavin for prompting me to do this.