Rediscovering St Emilion

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

The wines of St Emilion are every bit as varied as its sprawling terroir, says Charlie Geoghegan. There’s no one style of St Emilion – and that’s truer now than perhaps ever before.

St Emilion is a lot of different things. It’s a quaint little pocket of the fine wine world: a bucolic community of small estates, its rolling hills put the flats of the Médoc to shame. It’s a tourist hotspot: the medieval village is a UNESCO World Heritage site upon which over a million visitors descend (in a normal year, at least). It’s historic: from old Romans like Ausonius and Figeacus to the hermit Aemilianus from whom the place takes its name, to King John and the Jurade in 1199, and beyond. It’s controversial: its oft-contentious classification system is updated regularly, creating winners, losers and drama. And it’s bigger than you might think.

Size matters

At a hefty 5,450 hectares, there’s more land under vine in St Emilion than in Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe combined. St Emilion is more than six times the size of its neighbour Pomerol. Its size is comparable to Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, where there are tens of appellations and hundreds of individual climats. St Emilion has just two appellations, St Emilion AOC and St Emilion Grand Cru AOC. And they cover the same geographic area. 

Yet St Emilion is made up of a complex mix of hills and valleys, of varying altitude and exposure, on a raft of different soils, subsoils and combinations thereof. There are varying microclimates. The region is warmest near the town of Libourne, getting cooler the further east you go towards Castillon. The terroir is not homogenous, so how could the wines be? Despite what the label might imply, there’s no one style of St Emilion wine. And that’s truer now than perhaps ever before. 

A TASTE OF THE TERROIR 

Suffice to say, this is a complex region. But it’s possible to break it down – broadly – into four distinct zones: gravel near Pomerol; the limestone plateau; the limestone côtes; and alluvial sands near the Dordogne. Keep in mind that there are differences within these zones. There are also, crucially, differences within individual châteaux. Any dive we take here will invariably not be deep enough; interested readers should look to Jane Anson’s excellent Inside Bordeaux for a more complete picture.

Gravel

Starting in the north-west of the appellation, almost five kilometres from the town itself, there’s an iron-rich gravel plateau, surrounded by sands over heavy clays. This sector has more in common with Pomerol – which lies slightly further west, just over the communal border – than with the rest of St Emilion. It’s home to a cluster of top-tier estates including Cheval Blanc, Figeac and La Dominique. Lunch at La Dominique’s restaurant, La Terrasse Rouge, is worth the detour alone. The gravel soils here are suitable for Cabernet Franc, a major component in Cheval Blanc, and for Cabernet Sauvignon, notably at Figeac. 

Limestone plateau

The limestone plateau is perhaps the appellation’s centrepiece. The medieval town itself is built, literally, on limestone. The beautiful buildings sit on cobbled streets, atop excavated underground cellars. This is largely astéries limestone (sometimes “starfish limestone”) formed from fossilised marine life millions of years ago. Wines here tend to be worthy of long ageing, with pronounced acidity and minerality: top examples include Beau-Séjour Bécot, Canon and Troplong Mondot. The mythical Ausone sits in part on the plateau, but most of its vines are actually on the hillside below.

The côtes

The hillside sites – steep limestone slopes known as the côtes of St Emilion – are home to a wealth of the region’s biggest names, Ausone chief among them. Across the road, the so-called Côte Pavie houses Pavie, Pavie Macquin, Pavie Decesse and Larcis Ducasse, among others. These tend to be tannic, well-structured wines that can be austere when young; they mellow out and show their true beauty with age.

Sand                                                                       

Not quite so celebrated are the lower-lying sandy sites nearer the Dordogne river. These alluvial soils yield wines that are lighter and considered altogether less serious. But there are notable producers making wines worth seeking out; Monbousquet is a standout. 

RECENT HISTORY IN ST EMILION

St Emilion – and Bordeaux generally – boasts a rich and storied social history dating back to the Romans. But its recent history is notable, too, especially if you consider how the critics – and their scores – shaped its winemaking landscape.

The people

The American wine critic Robert Parker was until relatively recently the global authority on Bordeaux wines. His scores, and tastes, informed winemaking throughout the region, St Emilion included.   

This was amplified somewhat by the specificity of St Emilion’s classification system, which is, in theory, updated every 10 years. The prospect of moving up the ranks – or the threat of demotion – may have incentivised producers here to chase scores more so than in other parts of the region, where classifications remain static. 

With that dynamism came innovation. By some definitions the first garagiste, Jean-Luc Thunevin came to typify a new style of St Emilion wine with Valandraud. This was wine from overlooked terroir, with incredibly low yields and produced in a raw, unfiltered style in small, rough-and-ready premises. His bold wines and bolder pricing caught Parker’s – and, by extension, the wine world’s – attention. 

Consultant Michel Rolland was instrumental here. His and Parker’s tastes were comparable. Rolland’s client list on the Right Bank included many of the very top names. By the turn of the last century, many St Emilion wines had become big, bold, heavily oaked, juicy and high in alcohol. For a region with such a diversity of terroir, many estates had come to follow this heavier-handed style, making wines that tasted more and more like one another.

Perhaps no example is better than Pavie 2003: Parker called it “an off-the-chart effort from [its] perfectionist proprietors… Representing the essence of one of St Emilion’s greatest terroirs”. He cites its high tannin, low acidity and high alcohol as positive points. By way of comparison, Jancis Robinson MW called it a “ridiculous wine” and likened it to Port. Things were perhaps going too far – if they weren’t already there. 

ST EMILION WINES TODAY 

A lot has changed. Parker has retired; the world of wine criticism has become hugely fragmented, and no individual critic wields anything like Parker’s level of influence. Thunevin has gone from iconoclast to St Emilion establishment; Valandraud is now a classified growth, and the garagiste movement has come to an end. Rolland has taken a step back, and a number of “new” consultants have risen to prominence – notably Thomas Duclos and his Oenoteam colleagues. 

The powerful, over-extracted, relatively homogenous St Emilions of the late 1990s and early 2000s have given way to something else entirely. A lighter touch and a greater focus on terroir expression have seen some dramatic stylistic shifts. Troplong Mondot and Beau-Séjour Bécot are posterchildren for this development. Their wines today are markedly fresh and elegant while demonstrating the complexity of their terroir

St Emilion is now arguably the most exciting appellation in Bordeaux, with many producers making their best wines ever, once again (or for the first time) expressing the individual charm of their terroir. The best St Emilions taste like they come from somewhere, expressing a sense of place and house style that has progressed beyond the one-size-fits-all “world wine” approach of before.

An imperfect system

But the appellation system isn’t perfect and is not especially well adapted to reflect this development. The communal boundaries are too far-reaching and cover too diverse a swathe of vineyards to meaningfully communicate to the buyer what they’re getting. The classification helps to an extent, but it’s controversial, to say the very least. As in other parts of the wine world, knowing your producers is key in St Emilion. Know who they are, where in the appellation they’re based, and what their particular winemaking approach is, and you’ll reap the rewards. 

You’ll find our full coverage of Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux 2020: Margaux

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Ch. Giscours in Margaux 2020
Photograph: Jason Lowe

In this series, Mark Pardoe MW provides insight into how Bordeaux’s key communes fared in 2020. Here, our Wine Director looks at Margaux, based on a conversation with Alexander Van Beek of Ch. Giscours.

At a glance: Margaux in 2020

  • Hectares under vine: 1,500
  • Average yield: 36hl/ha in 2020 (49hl/ha in ’19); down 26%
  • Significant châteaux: Margaux; Brane-Cantenac, Lascombes, Rauzan-Ségla; Cantenac Brown, Ferrière, Giscours, d’Issan, Malescot St-Exupéry, Palmer; Du Tertre; Angludet

Margaux 2020: Ch. Giscours

Ch. Giscours’s sister property Du Tertre was sold in January 2021, but the decision to sell it and to concentrate on Giscours had come earlier. The ambition of the Albada Jelgersma family and Managing Director Alexander Van Beek – and their direction for Giscours – can be clearly seen from this ’20 vintage.

An early project of this new era was to focus on the expression and composition of the Merlot vines on the estate. They have made very good progress with Cabernet Sauvignon since the Albada Jelgersma family became involved in 1995, especially since 2010. But Alexander had observed that the estate’s Merlot, though achieving good ripeness levels, had not matched the progress of its Cabernet Sauvignon.

Giscours has some very old vines, some dating back to 1926. They practice the system of co-planting here. They replace vines individually as necessary, rather than the more usual process in Bordeaux of uprooting and replanting entire plots. This makes for a wide range of vine age within the same plot. From the 2018 vintage, they started a programme to analyse the hydric stress on every vine in a selected plot. The results were varied, according to the terroir and the age of each vine.

Attention to detail

From the ’19 vintage and especially in ’20, the team worked on a programme of marking individual vines and setting harvest dates for each. These varied according to the style of wine required and the plant’s ability to achieve it.

Younger vines were harvested earlier, to allow them to contribute freshness and energy to the final blend before they became too affected by any lack of water. Older vines, whose deeper roots permit better drought resilience, were harvested later, for greater ripeness of fruit and tannins, and complexity. This would entail several passes by the pickers in each plot, collecting the fruit from individual vines according to the detailed plan.

This level of detail is almost Burgundian in its ambition and requires a large and skilled workforce. The advantage of Burgundy is that its vineyard ownership is much more divided. Individual vignerons will usually own only small parcels in each vineyard, making this level of granular attention more manageable. Giscours has up to 65 hectares available for its grand vin; the average total size of individual holdings in the Côte d’Or is just under five hectares.

Ch. Giscours in 2020

When discussing the possible effects of the drought on the sandier, free-draining soils of Margaux in 2020, Alexander surprised me with an observation that, once revealed, now makes perfect sense. He agreed that it is likely that those Margaux vineyards back from the river or without older, deeper-rooted vines will have suffered more in ’20 from the lack of water during the summer.

However, he also described Giscours as a “bold” style of Margaux. It is more weighted towards texture than some of the more aromatic examples. I agreed that Giscours has always seemed to me to have broader shoulders than its Margaux peers. It turns out that, under its fourth-terrace gravels, it has the most clay of any Margaux château. This accounts for the style of the wine and, furthermore, the success of the terroir in ’20.

For more Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur coverage, you can visit bbr.com or browse our range of Bordeaux 2020 virtual events.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Focus on Ch. Berliquet: Bordeaux 2020

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The view over the vineyard at Ch. Berliquet showing vines in full leaf and an old tree centre of image. Photograph by Brice Braastad
The view over the vineyard at Ch. Berliquet. Photograph by Brice Braastad
Swaddled by Ch. Canon’s vineyards and dwarfed by its reputation, Ch. Berliquet looked set to fade into obscurity. But, under winemaker Nicolas Audebert’s skilful eye, these 10 hectares of prime St Emilion vines have a very different future ahead.

It’s early March, and winemaker Nicolas Audebert – like the rest of our locked-down world – is working from home. He’s relaxed, squinting into the spring sunshine outside his house just south of Bordeaux. It’s the calm before the En Primeur storm. 

Nicolas, who was born in Toulon, found his way back to France in 2014 after almost a decade in Argentina. While in South America, he oversaw the Cheval des Andes project – a remarkable collaboration between top-flight St Emilion property Ch. Cheval Blanc and Terrazas de los Andes. “After 10 years on the project, I wanted to find a new challenge,” says Nicolas. “And I wanted to offer my children the chance to grow up in France.”

winemaker Nicolas Audebert drives an open-top 4-wheel drive along the edge of Berliquet's vineyards. Cyprus trees stand in the background
Winemaker Nicolas Audebert, ‎Directeur Général at Ch. Berliquet

A fortuitous encounter

“I was lucky enough to cross paths with the owners of Chanel; they offered me the chance to take care of their properties in Bordeaux,” Nicolas explains. The properties to which he refers are classified growths Ch. Rauzan-Ségla in Margaux and St Emilion leading light Ch. Canon. His role at the helm of these grand estates has been to gently tease out the potential of each – perhaps adding some of the polish that he had managed to bring to Cheval des Andes. 

A couple of years after his arrival in Bordeaux, a unique opportunity presented itself: the De Lesquen family, who owned Ch. Berliquet, began to talk about selling.

Ch. Berliquet comprises a square, 10-hectare handkerchief of St Emilion vineyard, surrounded on three sides by Ch. Canon’s vines. Its long history dates back to the 1740s, making it one of the appellation’s oldest vineyards. Two centuries ago, Berliquet was highly prestigious, producing some of the region’s most prized wines, but over time its fortunes waned. As recently as the 1970s, Berliquet’s fruit was – unbelievably – being sold to the local co-operative (“it seems impossible to imagine,” says Nicolas). Remarkably, the vineyard holdings were kept intact – with the exception of a small plot which was sold in 1763. Its purchaser? One Jacques Kanon, the frigate lieutenant who founded Canon. He absorbed the Berliquet land into Ch. Canon. 

Berliquet’s unique character

When Ch. Canon’s current owners, Chanel, decided to purchase Berliquet in 2017 it seemed that history would repeat itself, and that the vineyard would become part of Ch. Canon’s stable. “At the beginning, we really considered that Berliquet would be a small Canon,” says Nicolas. “Berliquet is surrounded by Canon vineyards; it’s so close by. It seemed like 10 good hectares to put into Canon. Everybody thought when we bought the property that Berliquet would just disappear. 

“But, little by little as we started to walk the vineyard, we started to taste, we started to enjoy the terroir, and Berliquet’s character, we began to see that this is not the same as Canon. It’s something different – not opposite, but slightly different. It was similar in terms of elegance, and precision, but it has its own personality. There is more clay, for example, so some of the Merlot is deeper, perhaps more rough in structure. 

“Gradually, we will work on that. We’ll replant a third of the vineyard with more Cabernet Franc than Merlot,” explains Nicolas. “We really consider that the terroir can bring Cabernet Franc to the highest expression of fruit, elegance and precision. We’ll probably do some experiments with Malbec too. It’s not just my Argentinean experience, but Malbec has always been part of the classification of St Emilion, and we consider that on the clay, sandy soil at the bottom part of the vineyard, Malbec can bring something very interesting in terms of intensity of fruit and density.”  

A succession of small details

Early on, Nicolas brought in mapping and terroir specialists Géocarta and Kees Van Leeuwen to create a soil survey of the vineyard; with this (literally) deep knowledge of the clay-limestone plateau, sloping away to clay and sand, Nicolas has formulated phased plans to variously grub up, replant and co-plant areas of the vineyard. “The idea – over the next five, eight, 10 years – is to become more precise in terms of viticulture,” he explains. 

Crucially, Nicolas is not trying to change things overnight; there is, he explains, no rush. Working with the backing of Chanel – financially, and philosophically – means that it is not just money that is being invested at Berliquet, but time. It is too reductive, he explains, to think about Chanel just as a financial backer. “Chanel has a long-term view; this is a long-term investment that’s about quality, about bringing Berliquet back to the highest level and taking the time to do it. They don’t want to just be the owner: they want to protect the savoir faire, protect our craftsmanship, and that is very special.” 

In practical terms, this means restoration rather than development – of the incredible and historic limestone cellars, of the château itself (“nothing eccentric, or showing off, just putting everything back in the right place – so that we have a nice place for vinification”). And, of course, the vineyards. “Little by little, we start to try to understand the terroir and take the right direction. This is not something you do in a couple of seconds; it’s not just fine tuning. It’s deep in terms of the viticulture; gradually, we will work on all of those things to find the right personality to express Berliquet and its terroir

“There are no big changes. There are no big plans. It is, rather, a succession of small details.”

A succession of small details which will, no doubt, propel Berliquet to the echelons of St Emilion’s most-desirable properties. “Personally, I’m sure the wine will fly in the future,” Nicolas says. “The terroir is fantastic, the complexity it can reach is incredible and it’s extremely elegant. It’s a nice combination.”

A year to remember

The last word must go to the immediate future: the release of 2020. “It was a tough year,” Nicolas says, ruefully. “It was difficult from a Covid point of view, from an economic point of view, human, climate, everything. We had a very bad spring with lots of rain and humidity. We had a huge pressure of mildew. After, we had very hot and dry summer, resulting in the low production: it was tough from A to Z. But that’s one way to see it.

“The other way is we have fantastic wine. And we were able to manage viticulture and winemaking. And this is something fantastic about viticulture: year after year, the same things follow – agriculture is something was always there and will always be there through climate change and pandemic and whatever.

“We have lower yields, but it’s fantastic in terms of density, precision. It was ripe, but not too much. So we have great intensity of the fruit, but it has kept the freshness. The limestone is doing its job. It’s this type of vintage where there’s a special taste of victory. I used to play rugby: when you go on the field and you win by 52 to three – something like that – yeah, it’s a victory but it was easy. When you just win by one point or two and you fight for every minute: that’s the real taste of victory. So 2020 is a year we’ll remember: the year that the team stayed very close, and everybody helped each other to be sure that we will be able to produce the wine we want to produce. It was very difficult year, but the result is fantastic.”

You’ll find our full coverage of Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur here.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux 2020: Pomerol

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Photograph: Jason Lowe

In this series, Mark Pardoe MW provides insight into how Bordeaux’s key communes fared in 2020. Here, our Wine Director looks at Pomerol, based on a conversation with Fiona Morrison MW of Le Pin.

At a glance: Pomerol in 2020

  • Hectares under vine: 800
  • Average yield: 40hl/ha in 2020 (43hl/ha in ’19); down 7%
  • Significant châteaux: Clinet, La Conseillante, L’Eglise Client, L’Évangile, Feytit-Clinet, La Fleur-Pétrus, Gazin, Hosanna, Lafleur, Nenin, Petit-Village, Petrus, Le Pin, Trotanoy, Vieux Ch. Certan

Historically, the great wine regions of Europe have been “marginal”: achieving full fruit ripeness was dictated by a favourable set of weather patterns, but always with an anxious wait for maturity at the end of the season before the autumnal conditions arrived. This tension between phenolic maturity and acidity was what helped to create complexity. When that moment arrived, everything was usually quickly harvested.

Recent warmer conditions and drier summers have brought that maturity date forward. The skill of the vigneron has shifted, from anticipating the latest moment to pick to having the luxury of choosing when to pick. Acidity is still present in these modern wines but, like the tannins, it’s riper; the tension and energy, the necessary “bite” that wine needs, must be found elsewhere.

Wherever I have tasted recently – from Bordeaux, Burgundy or Barolo – this tension is now coming from the tannins. The skill of the modern winemaker is knowing how to harvest judiciously across a broader timeframe and how to capture, but not overdo, that potential during the fermentation and cuvaison period.

Pomerol 2020: Le Pin

For the 2020 vintage, Fiona Morrison MW was unequivocal that the quality is very high at Le Pin. There is more tannic definition than the ’19, something feels is also true at several of her neighbours on the Pomerol plateau. Particularly revealing were her thoughts on why Pomerol (and Bordeaux generally) is on such a good run: the quality of the tannins. She never believed that the marginality of Bordeaux could produce tannins with this level of maturity, texture and complexity. For this reason, she feels that the ’20, although a very sunny vintage, has more in common with ’16.

Within that statement, Fiona was keen to make a distinction. Bordeaux is a big region and the conditions of the Médoc, with water on three sides, do not pertain to the Right Bank: not in St Emilion, itself a large and varied appellation; nor especially in Pomerol, a drier region with a more continentally influenced climate.

Thus the heavy rains of the northern Médoc did not materialise in Pomerol in ’20. The appellation remained hot and dry through August, with just a sprinkle of rain at the end of the month. At Le Pin, the important rain fell on 19th and 20th September, between the picking of the younger and older vines. By this date, almost all the Left Bank Merlot had been picked. Fiona observed that in Pomerol, Merlot behaves more like Cabernet Sauvignon.

Merlot in Pomerol

Merlot at Le Pin has to work hard. The Cabernet Sauvignon analogy is apt here: the vines are on five metres of gravel before the roots reach the clay. This begs the question of how the vineyard survived this long, hot summer without drought stress and without the refreshment of the August rains that fell elsewhere.

Fiona confirmed that the vineyards remained radiantly healthy throughout. Her view is that the vines have a memory and are adapting. It is well known that the vintage in the year after a damaging spring frost will be generous; the vines seek to make up the shortfall the following year. Flower initiation, as mentioned in our coverage of St Estèphe, is a similar manifestation. Perhaps this trio of sunny years has allowed the vines to build up their defences and find a “go-slow” mode during the peak of the heat and drought when previously they would have shut down.

Of course, this is linked to the quality of the terroir. It is becoming clear that empirically great vineyards can perform better in these days of climate change. Linking all this together is vine and soil health, and the microbial biome in the soil, especially around the vines’ roots.

The 2020 vintage at Le Pin

The final word must go to Le Pin 2020. The rain over the weekend of 19th and 20th September made the vintage. Before the rain, the daytime temperature was over 30°C; after the rain, it fell to 14°C. This meant that the harvest began with temperatures above 30°C during the week of the 14th of September, with everyone in shorts but wearing masks. It finished the following week; considerably cooler, the team worked in jeans, wellies, masks and macs.

The vines were refreshed and liberated. It is a small harvest at 24hl/ha; this is due in part to one vineyard plot being replanted. The final wine is 14.5%, but the oldest vines – harvested last – came in at 13.5%.

And in the end, the quality was a surprise. After an entire growing season with the exigencies of working under Covid-19 restrictions, and the daily concern that one positive test could immobilise the entire picking team, it wasn’t until the juice started to run after pressings that it became clear how special was the result of so much work, innovation and dedication.

For more Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur coverage, you can visit bbr.com or browse our range of Bordeaux 2020 virtual events.

Category: Bordeaux Wine