Chateau BeychevelleIn the hold of the ship - The cellar of Ch. Beychevelle

Tradition makes a mockery of terroir?
Bordeaux: A city of wine
Kelvin McCabe: But what do today's drinkers want? The sommeliers view from London
Artisanal biodynamic producer in Margaux: Clos du Jaugueyron
Semillon and Sauvignon; a pleasing blend for a populous era
Winemaker Thibault Despagne (TD) from Château Mont-Pérat: How climate change is a double-edged sword for Entre-Deaux-Mers
Chateau Beychevelle, the little Versaille of the Medoc: full-speed at half-sail
Summary: Where our taste buds and values collide

Tradition makes a mockery of terroir?

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At the recent Grand Cru Classé London tasting of 2015-18 vintages, a fellow taster I was talking to vented his frustration, saying, “I can’t be bothered with it. It is a waste of time.” He went on to say that he had spoken to the new winemaker at Chateau [X] asking him what it was like as a trained winemaker to be “unleashed on this classed growth vineyard in Bordeaux?” When the reply came back, “I spent six months learning how to make Chateau [X]”, the die was cast. “It makes a mockery of any type of terroir in Bordeaux!”

Bordeaux: A city of wine

Some weeks later, over the summer solstice period, I found myself in Bordeaux on what was a varied tasting trip centred around the Fete du Vin, a Bordeaux wine festival staged along the banks of the Gironde, the wide mud brown tidal river that eases in and out from the Bay of Biscay.

On my first visit to the city of Bordeaux, about 15 years ago, it had the air of a cold stiff-upper-lipped industrial town; the dull beating heart of a huge and ancient wine industry. That visual was echoed in 2009 when I was talking to American tourists during a trip to the Cinque Terre, Italy. There were hundreds of them all brandishing a travel bible authored by a very popular Rick Steves. I have no idea who Steves is but I did read his description of Bordeaux, which he described as so dull that it was worth avoiding at all costs. I recall thinking then that this was a little harsh!

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The city of Bordeaux today is unrecognisable from what I have just described. It has been reinvented with a diversity of people streaming across pedestrianised streets, in and out of cafes and bars as the sun illuminates the striking new architecture of its most recent temple: La Cité du Vin. 

The water is still brown from the mudflats but there is a pulsing Dionysiac drumbeat that signals new life. The wine that flows through the brimming bars and buzzy restaurants is not the priceless blue-chip oligarch juice of classed growth palaces (at least most of it isn’t). It is something more intriguing, more contemporary and multifaceted.

Kelvin McCabe: But what do today's drinkers want? The sommeliers view from London

Shortly before leaving for Bordeaux I recorded an interview with 2019 award-winning sommelier Kelvin McCabe (KMC) who oversees the diverse wine lists of Adam Handling’s prestigious London restaurant group. Kelvin shared his insights, gleaned from spending around 2 decades on the front lines of fine wine consumption in London, with Secret Sommelier (SS):

KMC: Consumption isn’t just about wine. I think in general, whether we are talking spirits or beer, even outside of the industry, in lifestyle and so on, everyone wants a premium product. They want to have the best. That has followed on massively with the artisanal aspect and what you can get. 

I think drinking cultures change from generation to generation. I think this generation of millennials, and a little bit before, don’t want anything to do with anything their parents drunk. 

SS: In terms of what you are offering in your restaurants the range must be much more diverse than say 10 or 15 years ago?

KMC: Yes, absolutely. 

SS: Are you finding that our generation is really up for it in terms of engaging with the new?

KMC: I think the engagement and openness is amazing. In Hoxton, you have a really obscure Pét Nat and they say “yep, I’ll have the Pét Nat!” From that sense, I am not sure where that came from but people are more interested to understand, to learn. 

[It’s far] from where I started twenty odd years ago, really having to explain a region or sell a grape variety and push these hugely esoteric things and explain. Nowadays people are like “What is that?”, “What’s this?”, “I know that!”, and from that perspective, it is great because you write your list and want to be as diverse as possible. 

I would say, and it’s a really rough guess, but I would say when I started in great restaurants, you would get 10-15% of people walk up and say “I want to try something new!” and now I am probably hearing that 3, 4, or 5 times a day! [End]

Artisanal biodynamic producer in Margaux: Clos du Jaugueyron

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I was mulling these thoughts as we careened our way north of Bordeaux to visit Clos du Jaugueyron, a small artisan biodynamic producer in the conservative Margaux appellation. 

Eventually, concealed behind a dense woodland, we located the winery and were welcomed by winemaker, Michel and his wife Stéphanie (plus one tiny show-stealing puppy!). 

The feel here is one of a winemaker in the wilderness; a la garagiste. There are birds singing and bees buzzing. The winery building is set among the woods, less than a minute walk from where Michel and Stéphanie have their house. 

Michel explains that he finally decided that he wanted to work biodynamically because he wanted to concentrate on life in the vineyard, microbial life in the soil, and the interplay between these and the root system of the vines.

The wines are vinified in large oak barrels for 1 year and then aged for a further year in concrete. Michel stopped racking in 1995 in order to preserve as much as possible the purity of the fruit character. 

Our small tasting crew stood around in Michel and Stéphanie’s kitchen and tasted the range. Far from the palatial setting that any mention of Margaux or the Medoc may evoke, this was very much the story of a family trying to stay as close to the naturalness of the environment. 

As we swirled, sniffed and sipped, the quality of the wine made spitting feel like a criminal act, even at this breakfast hour. I particularly liked the Clos du Jaugueyron 2015 Nout (named after a Sky Goddess), Margaux (55% Cabernet Sauvignon & 45% Merlot) that combined a fruit, violet and liquorice perfume with a balance of lightness and tannic structure in the mouth. 

It was a new sensation of seeing, sensing and imbibing that added to the pleasure of the visit. These are not brands of wines but real people sharing their experience of wine. In the modern context of what Kelvin was referring to, I felt we were on to something.

Semillon and Sauvignon; a pleasing blend for a populous era

Tasting the white wines on this trip from Blaye, Entre-Deux-Mers, and Graves, was a real pleasure. Click here to read my interview with wine consultant Mathieu Huguet discussing what changes are driving vibrancy and modernity in Bordeaux white wine production.

Winemaker Thibault Despagne (TD) from Château Mont-Pérat: How climate change is a double-edged sword for Entre-Deaux-Mers

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Thibault Despagne (TD): I am from Entre-Deux-Mers and our trouble was ripening the grapes and now our trouble is over-ripeness and too much alcohol in our wines. Nowadays we are replanting a lot of Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon [because] everything gets ripe nowadays. We have to take into account that green in our wine is no longer a problem. It is the opposite. We have to change the way we think and get in the vineyards to cut the grapes a little earlier than before. Otherwise, we are facing wines with 15% alcohol or even more.

Secret Sommelier (SS): From a market perspective and from your own appreciation of wine, what is your analysis of that?

TD: Everybody now is focussing on drinkability, gastronomic wine, wines that you put on the table and you drink very very easily. [High] alcohol is a factor that does not come into this perspective. So, we are really trying to make wines that have a lot of freshness, a lot drinkability that match with food.

SS: In that context are you fighting against the warming by trying to preserve aspects of the wine?

TD: It is about wines with a softer tannin, readier to drink. You know, you are in Bordeaux and people expect the wines to age really well and they do but a lot of the wines I produced used to be drunk a little too early. Nowadays when I bottle a wine, I take it to the market and I know it is going to be good to drink. 

SS: Are their changes in the extreme nature of the climate impacts that you are noticing in Bordeaux?

TD: We are dealing with Nature that is going wild. I was talking earlier about the hail storms that we have. We have the frost and we have some very violent winds and some very violent rains. So it is extreme and it is something that is making our job very very difficult. 

Everything is going well, then the weather turns sour and you get your world destroyed in 20 minutes. And that seems to be happening more and more often.

SS: How much does that concern you about challenges for the future?

TD: We have a huge pressure because this is a competitive market and this can affect the economy of your business very fast. Everybody is worried about the fact that these phenomenons are occurring more and more. Nobody is safe you know. You can be first-growth. You can be Lafite and still be in danger of losing your crop in twenty minutes. 

SS: You have just talked about the impacts of climate change but, on the flip side, what about the quality of the wine?

TD: I have to smile when you say that because, in the Entre-Deux-Mers, we are the new Languedoc. I say that because we have so much ripeness in our wines that they are so friendly and warm that we can ripen just about any variety right now, every year. So we have so many options in terms of the winemaking nowadays in Bordeaux. 

SS: From everything you have said there seems to be twofold. One is that there has to be caution for the future and the other is the optimism in what you are producing. Is that fair?

TD: Of course we will have this violent climate but that is something that we can’t really play with but in terms of wine lovers, I think they will come to us more and more in Bordeaux, [and] in the Entre-Deux-Mers, where I am from. It has been regarded as a lower appellation in the past. I think people are going to realise that it is where the balance is in terms of freshness, of naturalness, of non-interventionist. At the moment that is what we have got.

I don’t know how long it is going to last but we make wine without sugar, without adding acids, just from the vineyards. That is what people appreciate from us I think. [end]

Chateau Beychevelle, the little Versaille of the Medoc: full-speed at half-sail

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As we arrive in Saint Julien for our visit to Chateau Beychevelle, I am reminded of the taster back in London who frustratedly vented that these fine estates make a mockery of terroir. We began our tour of this grand estate, standing on the steps with the manicured garden flanked on each side by the wings of the Chateau. The view reaches down to the banks of the tidal Gironde that rises as much as halfway between its current level and where we are standing on the steps.

The first Chateau built here was in 1565 by Bishop François of Foix-Candale, who was succeeded by the Dukes of Epernon. The story behind the name Beychevelle derives from a combination of this view down the garden to the river and reverence for the first Duke of Epernon who lived here. It is also a perfect example of the grandeur etched into the history of these grand chateaux. 

The First Duke of Epernon was a French Admiral held in such high regard, that as ships passed in front of his estate it was customary to lower their sails at half-mast as a sign of deep respect. The term for this in original Gascon is “Bêcha vêla”, which translates to “lower the sails”, which became Beychevelle.

The emblem of the ship with the Griffin at the front and the sail at half-mast adorns every bottle and is reproduced in sculptures and relief pictures around the property. Today it is the luxury symbol of a blue-chip estate that can rub shoulders with many of the most sought after bottles of wine in the world.

It is this prestige of the historic upper-classes, today largely faded, that has been replaced by the reified benefaction of large corporate entities. Today Chateau Beychevelle is owned by French wine and beer company Castel and Japanese drinks company, Suntory, both of whom have invested handsomely to restore the property to its current standard.

We tour the grounds listening to tales of this illustrious past and the natural assets of vineyards in prime positions, gravel soils that enjoy access to the subterranean water stores running off the river, and the newly minted cutting edge winery, as palatial in design as it is pristinely maintained. It is worth pointing out that the gift of history has also contributed to the resilience of the vines. Prime plots owned by Beychevelle enjoy a particular microclimate and were not impacted by the frost that swept Bordeaux in 2017, or the heatwave that enveloped the region in 2018. 

While we walk between the subdued barrels in the cellar, lying like treasure chests in a vault, our guide says with poised emphasis, “We sold the whole 2018 vintage in under 2 hours!” 

Therein lies the question and answer of terroir; what was once aristocratic is now blue-chip. It is a far cry from the garagiste we were tasting with only hours before. Who we each identify with will tell us more about who we are than whether one is better than the other. Unlike the garagiste, Beychevelle’s wines are part of a larger system of commerce locked in parallel to their taste. The wines of both are delicious but the souls of each reveal themselves only to like-minded folk. The terroir in Beychevelle’s case refers as much to the vineyard, climate and winemaking, as it does to everything dating back to the 16th Century, including the meticulous framing of the image of the wine, and the pristine elegance and association with wealth. 

Summary: Where our taste buds and values collide

 CIVB Bordeaux

This trip, organised by the CIVB, was as varied in its excursions as it was in its attendees. I favoured the fly-on-the-wall approach that often morphed into the fly-in-the-glass approach. It is refreshing to see a region widely regarded as an old-world benchmark, reinventing itself where it needs to and sustaining itself where the going is good.

Expectations at the consumer end are hugely different depending on who we are. To contemplate such a huge and diverse region as Bordeaux we have to keep in mind that the blue-chippers are only a few per cent of the overall production. The thousands of other producers are an exciting breed weighing up the challenges of a saturated market place against the positives and negatives of a changing climate. Both of these factors are redefining the style of wine being made.

Bordeaux, along with many other wine regions, is grappling with the implications of what a sustainable approach looks like. Whether organic certification versus a more responsive and careful approach is the best way forward. It was hugely impressive to see the woodlands and (corridors of biodiversity) hedgerows, coupled with stories of birds that had long since vanished, reappearing to thrive again in the region. 

As consumers, we want to know that our wines are produced at an as-neutral-as-possible cost to the environment and that those who make them are always striving to improve their product. At the production end that is very apparent. The older winemakers are handing over their estates to their savvy children and these younger ones are not happy to spray chemicals because their own children are playing among the vines that they often live amongst. Wine producers more than many other businesses understand the importance of taking a longer multigenerational view.

In this sense, our values, at both ends of the consuming and producing spectrum, are converging and one direct beneficiary is our taste buds. If we are in the demographic who enjoy good wine then we are in the demographic who has indirectly contributed most to the current dangerous levels of carbon pollution. That warming is the challenge of our age. At the moment it is a double-edged sword for many winemakers as they dodge storms and benefit from riper grapes. On the other hand, the window on this golden age of wine must be constantly observed.

In the process of observing, I shall look forward to many more glasses of wine from this historic region and, I am sure, many more visits. 

 Nick Breeze - Twitter and Instagram: @NickGBreeze

Tradition makes a mockery of terroir?
Bordeaux: A city of wine
Kelvin McCabe: But what do today's drinkers want? The sommeliers view from London
Artisanal biodynamic producer in Margaux: Clos du Jaugueyron
Semillon and Sauvignon; a pleasing blend for a populous era
Winemaker Thibault Despagne (TD) from Château Mont-Pérat: How climate change is a double-edged sword for Entre-Deaux-Mers
Chateau Beychevelle, the little Versaille of the Medoc: full-speed at half-sail
Summary: Where our taste buds and values collide 


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