Friday, 23 July 2010

Pomerol Hermitage

The only other producer I have heard of in Bordeaux producing a Hermitage wine is Michel Chapoutier (owner of the biodynamic Tain L'Hermitage) who made a batch of Pomerol Hermitage after the 2005 vintage with oenologist Michael Rolland. The wine was produced for charity and was made 50% Merlot from Château Le Bon Pasteu, Rolland's property in Pomerol and 50% Syrah from Chapoutier's l'Ermite. The wine was named, aptly, .

Rolland and Chapoutier intend to create an every time the vintage deserves it (I wonder if they made a 2009?). As this is not permitted under AOC rules since the introduction of the AOC system in 1936 will be labelled simply Vins de Pays.

The wine was sold at auction in aid of Chapoutier's charitable foundation, M. Chapoutier Vins et Santé, set up in 1994 to help children with leukemia.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Bordeaux Hermitage

The practise of Hermitaged Bordeaux goes back to 1759 (as dated by John Livingstone-Learmonth in his book Wines of the Northern Rhône). In 1775 Chateau Lafite was blended with Hermitage and was one of the greatest wines of its day. Hermitage is the most famous of all the northern Rhône appellations. The hill of Hermitage is situated above the town of Tain and overlooking the town of Tournon which is just across the river.

The name Hermitage appeared in the 16th Century derived from a legend from the 13th Century Crusade. According to the legend, the Knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned home wounded in 1224 from the Albigensian Crusade and was given permission by the Queen of France to build a small refuge to recover in, where he remained living as a hermit. The chapel on top was built in honour of Saint Christopher and today is owned by the negociant Paul Jaboulet Âiné.

Mature red Hermitage can be confused with old Bordeaux. In a blind tasting of 1961 1st Growth Clarets, the famous 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle was included. Most people, including its owner, Gerard Jaboulet, mistook it for Chateau. Margaux.

John Livingstone-Learmonth’s book says that it was reported that Hermitage growers found it “hard to keep up with demand from Bordeaux.” In 1819 there is mention that wines from Bénicarlos (Valencia) in Spain were added to the Bordeaux blend as well as those from Côte Rôtie and Cornas. In 1826 there is a report that the best wines of the Gard and Herault in the Languedoc Roussillon were also added.

I am not sure when the practice died out, perhaps sometime around the phylloxera epidemic in the late 1870s but when the Bordeaux appellations were regulated in 1936 the practice was made illegal. It's interesting to think that those ancient bottles of Bordeaux rarely seen at auction may actually contain a very different Bordeaux to what we are used to!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Different Bordeaux? Chateau Palmer Hermitage

I was surprised to learn that Chateau Palmer the Margaux Second Growth has reinstated an old tradition that is no longer practised in Bordeaux. They have created Château Palmer Historical XIXth Century Blend which is a special cuvée created as an homage to the Hermitaged Bordeaux of the 19th century. Hermitaged Bordeaux refers to the practice of adding wines to the Bordeaux blend particularly in a poor vintage (this also happened in Burgundy). Chateau Palmer's Historical XIXth Century Blend is made from 85% of estate grapes from Palmer and 15% Syrah from Hermitage in the Northern Rhone. Thomas Duroux, winemaker at Palmer, explained that:

"Most of the great names of Bordeaux used to have a little bit of wine from the north of the Rhône to improve the colour and depth of the wine. They had to do this sometimes since they had difficult vintages. We now know how to deal with difficult vintages. But I was very curious to understand what would happen if we did [this] with the wine we have today."

The Historical XIXth Century Blend has been marketed in Japan, the USA and is soon to be released in France. As the wine was made outside the regional rules it can only be classified as the lowest French designation, "vin de table." Duroux even had to take the drawing of Château Palmer off his front label, since vin de table cannot, by law, have an illustration of a particular place on the label.

Apparently the wine is fuller and richer when compared to the usual Margaux style and shows more of the Syrah character. Of the 250 – 300 cases made, the chateau is holding back 50 cases for a minimum ten years to see if the wine changes back to show more of the Margaux character. Priced the same as Chateau Palmer ex-cellars, this isn’t your typical vin de table.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Discovering Bordeaux Wines – Ancient Grapes

Centuries ago other grape varieties were used in making Bordeaux wines. Gros Verdot is a grape that seems to have disappeared from Bordeaux and was allegedly used by Château Lafite who used it in 1868 for its blends. Although its not widely planted you can find it in Chile, Argentina and in the California based Meritage wines of the USA.

There seems to be some confusion over the name of Gros Verdot in the states as it is also known as Cabernet Pfeffer. According to some sources Cabernet Pfeffer is a cross of Cabernet Sauvignon and Trousseau by William Pheffer in the mid to late 1860s in the Los Altos Hills area in California. However some sources quote that DNA testing shows that Cabernet Pfeffer is none other than Gros Verdot. On the odd occasion, the grape has been used to create a varietal wine, reported to offer a rich peppery and spicy character.

Old plots of vines throughout France are a living museum of grape varieties – if you are lucky enough to spot them. Sometimes regional French wines – usually table wines – are made with some of these varieties that have either dropped out of favour or been demolished in the phylloxerra epidemic of the 19th century. Mérille is one such as these – it originates in the Garonne and makes a regional table wine. It must have been more widely used in the past as its synonyms are Plante de Bordeaux and Bordelais!

Most of these old varietals were used in blending wines and you can find wines made with Bouillet and Abouriou on French shelves. There has been a revived interest in rediscovering some of these forgotten grapes - Vin de Pays des Côtes du Tarn Prunelart 2004 is made with Prunelart – an almost extinct variety revived by Plageoles. Robert Plageoles is well known in France for his commitment to using Gaillac's obscure varietals rather than better known and more accessible varietals.

Saint Macaire
is another of red grapes of Bordeaux that has become virtually extinct there but has been resurrected in California where it may be used in Meritage reds and in Australia. Back in February mysterious vines, a century old, at La Vielle Chapelle were found to be the Bouchalès grape. Fabienne and Frédéric Mallier have owned La Vielle Chapelle since 2006 and these ancient vines were amongst the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot. The vineyard is located in Lugon et l'Ile du Carney which lies in the Fronsac AOC and takes its name from a 12th century chapel. Benedictine priests lived at La Vielle Chapelle until 1772.

The Bouchalès grape is said to originate from the Garonne River valley and has virtually disappeared from France's vineyards today. It has several synonym names including Capbreton Rouge and Prolongeau. It's a red grape with medium to small clusters but is susceptible to mildew and botrytis which may explain it's disappearance.

is another ancient grape that has found new pastures. It was originally native to south west France and may even have links to the Pontac family who owned Chateau Haut Brion in the 16th century. Nowadays the Pontac grape can be found in the Stellenbosch region of South Africa. In the past it was used to make the South African dessert wine Constantia or Vin de Constance which was a favourite of European kings and emperors, such as Frederick the Great and Napoleon who had it ordered from his exile on St Helena.

Apparently Pontac has a tendency to bear biennial fruit and also has the unusual use of monkey deterrence in South Africa. Planted at the end of vine rows, and usually the first vine to attract marauding baboons, it stains their paws with the red juice. Thinking it is blood the creatures depart in a great hurry. The Pontac grape is now becoming increasingly rare and new stocks are hard to find.

It seems to me that Bordeaux is missing out a trick with the loss of these grapes. As varietal wines are becoming increasingly popular and wine lovers want to know more about the grapes that make their wines wouldn't it make sense for Bordeaux to rediscover some of its ancient heritage? There is even a Cabernet Gernischt flourishing away happily in Shandong Province in China. Apparently its name could be a spelling of Cabernet Gemischt once used in France during the 19th century (although I can find no record of it).

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Discovering Bordeaux Wines

The release of the Bordeaux 2009 En Primeur has resulted in a few crazy weeks that have at times seemed like a feeding frenzy as wine merchants tried to acquire tiny – and sometimes non existent - allocations of wines at unprecedented prices. As Bordeaux wakes up an hour earlier than the UK there have been some very long days! The prices of the much hyped vintage have been shocking – for example the price of a case of the 2009 First Growths is now equivalent to a small car and Petrus 09 is around £2600 a bottle! If you are interested in the En Primeur Campaign you can follow Nick on Twitter or check out his blog.

Now that the furore has started to die down I thought it would be a good idea to have a look at some of the less well known wines from Bordeaux and the satellite AOCs around it.

There are about 8,650 winemakers in the Bordeaux according to the CIVB (the Interprofessional Council of Bordeaux Wine). These winemakers vary from family owned chateaux passed on from one generation to another, large corporations owned by national or multinational interests, and cooperatives.

Bordeaux is a blended wine and blending (assemblage) is a skill that has been built up over generations down the centuries. Blending was invented in Bordeaux long before any other region. Each Bordeaux wine has its own personality, intimately related to the special touch of the master winemaker or estate owner. Blending permits the specific elements from each variety to mix and bind together to create new elements. Blending is also a strategic act. It allows the major brands from Bordeaux to ensure a certain consistent flavour and overall quality of wines.

Only 14 grape varieties are permitted in the making of wine from Bordeaux. Red wines can be made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. The white wines of Bordeaux can be made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle – which are the most used varieties, but can also be made from Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Mauzac, Ondenc and surprisingly Merlot Blanc.

Blending is not unique to Bordeaux - in the USA Meritage wines are Bordeaux style blends. Meritage red wines can be made from only 2 of the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Gros Verdot, Saint Macaire and Carménère with no varietal comprising more than 90% of the blend. White Meritage is a blend of at least two of Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Sauvignon Vert.

However there is a change happening in Bordeaux - more and more chateaux have been bottling 100%, single varietal wines (mono cépage). This may have occurred as a way to compete with their New World cousins where wines are labelled by grape variety rather than place name. Certainly single varietal wines are popular nowadays.

Examples of single varietal red wines from Bordeaux are:

Château Tire Pé
Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou
Chateau d'Osmond

Petit Verdot
Bordeaux Domaine Papin

Cabernet Franc
Chateau Perayne, Cuvee Artemis

Cabernet Sauvignon
Le Coeur de Castenet

Chateau la Croix Taillefer
Château Tire Pé

As far as I know there is no single varietal wine made from the 6th Bordeaux red grape Carménère – probably as it is very rare there, having been wiped out by phylloxera in 1867. There are some vineyards with a small amount of Carménère vines left – notably the 5th Growth Chateau Clerc Milon has 1% Carménère amongst its vines.

The grape was “rediscovered” in Chile in 1994 when vines that had been imported by Chilean growers from Bordeaux in the 19th century were discovered to be Carménère and not Merlot as previously thought. We might see more plantings in Bordeaux from these vines that Chile inadvertently preserved over the past 150 years.