Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Visit to Château Guiraud, Sauternes

On our way from Château de Pressac (previous posting) to Château Guiraud we stop for lunch in the ancient village of Castillon-de-Bataille. We’re always looking for that certain place, and our nose to find that certain place is getting better all the time.

And there it is, no doubt. We see the sign saying “andouillette” and it is as if the car parks automatically. There’s no discussion. Once inside it is crystal clear that we made the right choice: half of Castillon is having lunch here.

Les Voyageurs
When the waiter hears us say “three times andouillette” his face changes. “Wow, you’re sure?” From that moment he is our friend. We have to come and see the sausages being grilled on an open charcoal fire.

Charcoal-grilled Andouillette
And at the table something happens that I have not seen before: with a sharp knife the waiter makes a perfect incision over the length of the andouillette (in Holland we do that with a frikandel to stuff it with curry, mayonnaise and onions, and call it “an open leg”). Next he scatters freshly cut onion chips over the sausage, and then the final touch: a generous pour of red vinegar. It turns out to be one of the best andouillettes that I have ever tasted!

Red vinegar being poured over andouillette
Later Pauline Vauthier, daughter of Château Ausone’s Alain Vauthier, sits down at the table next to us and that is the final proof that we have found the place to be: Les Voyageurs.

Fueled and happy we drive south through the beautiful but less prosperous part of Bordeaux called Entre-Deux-Mers: policultural land, as it’s not just vineyards that one sees here. Once we cross the river Garonne the landscape again turns into broad carpets of vineyards: Barsac and Sauternes. And soon we drive up the long, Roman driveway that brings us to the buildings of Premier Cru Classé Château Guiraud.

Chateau Guiraud, entrance
Guiraud is the first Sauternes grand cru to turn to organic farming, a process of several years, and the first officially certified vintage will be this year, the 2011. It is interesting to look at Guiraud’s alternatives to the various conventional means of agriculture:

1. Fungicides: to protect Guiraud’s vines from malicious fungi, organic products are applied.
2. Herbicides: not used. Grasses and weeds, adding to the biodiversity in the vineyard, are welcome. Competition between vine and other growths forces the former to dive deeper into the soil. Every once in a while the vineyard is ploughed.
3. Insecticides: not used. The most common natural answer, sexual confusion, is not used either. Sexual confusion is about getting rid of the insects. Guiraud has chosen to recreate natural balance by restoring biodiversity.

With that Guiraud has opted for a more complex, but very fascinating route: it’s a true example of sustainable development. The following things have been done to restore natural balance:

• Hotels for insects: little open ‘houses’ with ‘rooms’ holding different kinds of wood to attract a wide variety of insects. The vineyard is the hotel’s garden.
• Bird houses: there are as many as 40 houses for tits and these little birds eat the insects.
• Plantation: between the different vineyards, patches with other plants are grown.
• Clones: at Guiraud they make their own clones. Per vineyard up to 15 different clones are used (instead of 1 optimal one) to strengthen biodiversity.

As a result the vineyards, vines and grapes at Château Guiraud are not just clean, they are also healthy and hence more energetic and strong. I am impressed by their approach.

One of Guiraud's hotels for insects
But there’s more. There seems to be a relationship between working naturally on the one hand, and the desired development of noble rot on the other hand.

In the tourist version of the botrytis story the morning mist that occurs during late summer still plays an important role. In reality this mist is quite a rare phenomenon and cannot be the key driver for the growth of noble rot.

Recent research shows us that the fungus that causes the noble rot comes from within the grape. It has been sitting there – dormant –since the end of flowering and wakes up at the end of the season to do its noble work for us. The mentioned relationship between working naturally and the development of noble rot is simple (or at least seems simple): chemical fungicides used during the growing season have a negative impact on the development of noble rot.

It explains why at Guiraud picking usually takes place rather early, and it explains the lovely freshness that distinguishes Guiraud from many of its Sauternes peers. And to be complete: the relative high proportion of Sauvignon in the blend helps here.

So if we take the mist out of the story, what unique circumstances remain in Sauternes? Not much I’m afraid, and that’s why this mist-thing is so persistent. I’m definitely not saying that there’s no great terroir, as the terroir (gravels over limestone) is great for growing grapes. But it seems that the production of sweet whites in this region didn’t so much sprout from some microcultural uniqueness, but above all from the plain economic necessity to make a preservable wine. But that’s another, less romantic, story.

The 3 Guiraud cuvees
Let’s go to the wines. From the grand vin Château Guiraud we tasted 2002, 2007 and 2009 with sugar levels ranging from 120 grams/liter (2002) to almost 140 grams/liter (2009), with the 2007 precisely in between. All very elegant wines. There’s marked acidity for the 2002, the 2007 is gentle, refined and harmonious, and the 2009 also but as a whole the 2009 is a bit more impressive, simply a very complete wine.

The second wine has just been renamed and restyled to Petit Guiraud and the attraction here is accessibility. We tasted the 2005 and the 2009. Lighter wines with lots of freshness and and a pleasant hint of bitterness. A wine that needs attention! Specific parts of the domain are now designated for this second wine.

The view from Guiraud towards the town of Sauternes
And the same is true for the estate’s dry white wine, Le G de Château Guiraud. The grapes for this wine come from the vineyards close to the village of Sauternes that are not classified as AOC Sauternes, and most of these are planted with Sauvignon. The “G” is made with the same dedication as the sweet wine. The yields are low (25 to 30 hl/ha) resulting in an intense wine.

It’s uniqueness however comes from the ripening of the wine in 2 year old barrels that were previously used for the grand vin. This doesn’t make the wine sweet, yet gives it its particular spicy and fragrant nose. Together with its intrinsical purity (read: beauty) the “G” is as surprising as irresistable.

Readers who got thirsty may be able to find some of these golden treats at Bolomey Wijnimport in Amsterdam.

Also for this posting: photography by my friend Joris Roelants.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Visit to Château de Pressac, Saint-Emilion

At the east end of Saint-Emilion, perched at the top of an impressive limestone hill, we find Château de Pressac. An unknown little gem on great terroir: steep limestone slopes all around, reminiscent of those from the premier grand cru classés that we find on the famous hill a bit to the west, indeed the one with the town of Saint-Emilion on top. It is early August.

De Pressac - the viewThe view from Château de Pressac down towards the Dordogne valley

While looking down over the terraced slopes, and overlooking the Dordogne valley – what an impressive view! – owner Jean-François Quenin elaborates on De Pressac’s unique location, and it doesn’t take much to convince us. He tells about the connection between the limestone around the town of Saint-Emilion, and the limestone here at De Pressac. Later Quenin shows us Kees van Leeuwen’s map with the Saint-Emilion soil types, and yes, that map serves as a sort of proof: the De Pressac hill is like a limestone bulge at the right side of Saint-Emilion.

De Pressac - the soilKees van Leeuwen's detailed map of the Saint-Emilion soil. The white circle indicates the location of Château de Pressac, sitting on limestone (yellow)

With its viewpoint location close to Saint-Etienne-de-Lisse, and more importantly close to the town of Castillon-la-Bataille, De Pressac has a rich history. One of the first owners came from the Lot around Cahors and brought the Malbec grape to this place. Soon Malbec was called Pressac, after the name of the château. Today Malbec again forms part of the blend, re-introduced by Quenin who put much effort into tracing the original clone.

Quenin did what most people can only fantasize about: buying a potentially great domain in a miserable state, and from close to scratch restore its grandeur. A management buyout led to Quenin’s fortune, and it seems every penny goes into the resurrection of De Pressac. Today the estate covers some 14 hectares (planted with 72% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Malbec and 1% Carmenère).

De Pressac - the cellarConcrete (temperature controlled) vats in the cellar, original ones at the left and new 'copies' at the right side

The cellar is at the same time impressive, and not. Not, because there is no bling bling, everything is functional. From the custom made pigeage devices to gently push down the grapes in the concrete fermentation vats, to the very high tech and very expensive optical sorting machine. No compromise, but no decadence either. Or it must be the prestigious oak barrels made by Quenin’s own cooperage. Is he perhaps, with Château Margaux, the only producer in Bordeaux who makes his own barrels? Well, Quenin clearly does not leave anything to chance.

De Pressac - the barrelsQuenin's own barrels "Vent d'Autan"

We taste several vintages of De Pressac. The wines exhibit the lush and attractive right bank features with juicy sweetish ripe red fruit, some (more or less) oak, and an attractive dark-purple depth. These are friendly wines that will please most people, gentle and supple in the mouth. I prefer the recent vintages 2008 and 2009, showing a lovely freshness and minerality (2008) counter-balancing the generous fruit.

De Pressac - the chateauFairytale-like Château de Pressac

Jane Anson mentioned De Pressac as one of the likely candidates for promotion to Grand Cru Classé later this year, or early next year. It wouldn’t surprise me. Or in fact, not at all.

I visited De Pressac together with my friends Igor Bijlsma and Joris Roelants. Joris was so kind to take care of the photography.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Visit to Paul Mas, Part 2

Dwayne Perreault — To continue from my last posting, on visiting Domaine Paul Mas near Pézénas in the Languedoc, the red wines were presented by Cédric Deniset, European Sales Manager.

We first tasted the Vignes de Nicole Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2009 (€8.50). A very fragrant, ruby red wine with cherries and some strawberry jam in the nose. Tart red fruits, also some black currants, quite full bodied and very pleasant to drink.

Chateau de ConasChâteau de Conas, seated within the Domaine Paul Mas

The Vignes de Nicole Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah 2009 (€8.50) is much darker, both in its colour and bouquet, but the taste is still predominantly red fruits, with very strong tannins backing it up. This is a solid wine.

The next two wines were both Languedoc grand crus. Many people may still be unaware that the Languedoc has grand crus; there are now ten. According to Rosemary George MW, the complete list is:

- Minervois la Livinière
- Corbières Boutenac
- Saint Chinian Roquebrun
- Saint Chinian Berlou
- Terrasses du Larzac
- Grès de Montpellier
- Pic Saint Loup
- Pézenas
- La Clape
- Limoux (still white and some sparkling wines)

First up, the Terrasses de Larzac, Mas de Mas 2007, made from Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Grenache. Terrasses de Larzac is a small new appellation created in 2005, and home to Mas de Daumas Gassac. This wine has luxurious fruit with dark jam notes and some residual sweetness, yet remains dry. Softer tannins, really nice and ready to drink, but can easily age another 5-6 years.

Jean-Claude MasJean-Claude Mas

The Grès de Montpellier, Mas de Mas 2009, however, is clearly not ready yet. Some dark fruit in the nose, with a slight acetone. The taste is extremely tannic. It was interesting to taste this wine in its development, as some bottle ageing is needed.

The last wine I’ll comment on was actually a gift from Cédric, which I enjoyed six weeks later back in Amsterdam. The Côteaux du Languedoc, Château Paul Mas, Clos des Mures is one of the first wines Jean Claude Mas made. Cédric recommended decanting this 2009 and it was remarkable, very nice silky texture with bright red and black forest berry notes. Full bodied and with fresh acidity, very well balanced in a long, shining aftertaste.

If you happen to live in the Amsterdam area, I am hoping to organize a tasting by Paul Mas hopefully in late fall in Wijnhuis Zuid. If I am successful, information will appear on our website.

I will be returning to the Languedoc in a few weeks, to do a short apprenticeship at Mas des Dames. More on that to follow. But before that, I have a report to make on a winery in Maryland of all places, right in Robert Parker’s backyard.