Merlot: rags and riches

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Photograph: Cécile Perrine Lhermitte, courtesy of Ch. Troplong Mondot

It is widely grown around the world, and its wines range from the simple and juicy to the sublime and ethereal. But Merlot reaches its zenith on Bordeaux’s Right Bank, says Mark Pardoe MW.

It would probably be faster to list the wine-producing countries where Merlot is not grown. This is a ubiquitous grape variety, appreciated for its generosity of yield and taste, and its ability to ripen early. It can fly solo as a varietal wine, or play first or second fiddle in a blend, where it can fill in the gaps around a more austere partner. And it can encompass a wide range of styles, from the simple and juicy to the sublime and ethereal, the latter most notably on the iron-rich clay soils in the heart of Pomerol.

The perfect partner

Let us start the journey in the foothills of Merlot’s potential. Unless pruned short before the growing season, Merlot is a vigorous vine and can produce a very generous crop. From this fecundity can come a grape that will have diminished concentration and flavour and, because it is relatively thin-skinned, be low in tannin. Because of its vigour, it is susceptible to drought, but the weakness is easily mitigated in regions where irrigation is permitted. In that scenario, Merlot becomes the perfect quaffing red – easy to pronounce, easy to drink and a staple of every gastropub’s wine list.

Where Merlot starts to become more substantial is as a blending partner. In Bordeaux’s Médoc, Merlot has long been appreciated, perhaps as Watson to Cabernet Sauvignon’s Holmes: not as gifted, but a perfect foil. Even on the Left Bank’s warmer soils of gravels and sands, Cabernet Sauvignon is traditionally a late-ripening variety. It can bear bunches of thick-skinned, small berries with tart acidity and firm tannins. Here, Merlot’s generosity can add flesh to Cabernet Sauvignon’s bones, but without competing against its partner’s more complex aromas and flavours.

Throughout much of the Médoc, Cabernet Sauvignon remains a variety that can struggle to achieve full ripeness; Merlot remains an equal or even predominant partner. But in the great communes of the Left Bank, both climate change and better vineyard management are improving Cabernet Sauvignon’s end product. The late Paul Pontallier once confided that he would make a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon at Ch. Margaux if he could. Even in his lifetime, the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon in that blend was in the 90s.

Taking centre stage

Merlot’s profile is waning a little in the great vineyards of the Left Bank, though there remain many important pockets – notably at Ch. Palmer, where they retain significant parcels of old-vine Merlot, which usually constitute about half of the blend for the grand vin. But on the Right Bank, Merlot assumes centre stage. Here, the cooler limestone and clay soils of St Emilion and Pomerol are almost always too marginal for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot’s precocity is prized.

The region of St Emilion has a number of different expressions. The simpler wines of the basic St Emilion appellation benefit from Merlot’s affability, and its capability to make wines that are succulent and approachable. It is often blended with a little Cabernet Sauvignon, which can perform on the lower, more alluvial soils towards the Dordogne, but Merlot is regularly at least 80% of the blend.

As one ascends towards the hilltop town of St Emilion, the slopes turn to limestone and pockets of clay; Cabernet Sauvignon disappears, to be replaced by Cabernet Franc, which ripens a little earlier and performs much better on these soils. Merlot remains in the ascendant here, but rarely as a varietal wine. A dash of Cabernet Franc is usually necessary for perfume and freshness. At some estates, the blend can be 50-50, notably at Ch. Ausone and famously at Ch. Cheval Blanc where, standing in their vineyards, we can look across to Pomerol, and take the final steps to Merlot’s summit.

Merlot’s apotheosis

It is here, at the heart of Pomerol’s plateau, that Merlot reaches its fullest expression. But the description of these 800 hectares as Merlot’s “summit” is perhaps misleading, for it would be hard to image a more featureless landscape. The properties are not châteaux in the true sense, but modest and low. The hamlet of Pomerol does not have so much as a restaurant, and to describe the topography as “gently rolling” would be generous.

At the epicentre is Petrus, whose vineyards sit at the highest point of Pomerol on a high stratum of crasse de fer (an iron-rich sandy gravel), under a blue/grey clay (molasse), a plug of terroir known as a bouttonière (buttonhole). This unique combination covers only 20 hectares, and Petrus sits on more than half of it. Other châteaux with vines on this precious commodity include L’Évangile, La Conseillante, Lafleur, Gazin, Clinet, Le Gay and Vieux Ch. Certan. This is Merlot’s apotheosis, and it is expressed in its purest form by Petrus.

There is a second buttonhole of molasse north-west of Petrus, but without the crasse de fer. The quality that the molasse imparts is evident by the reputation of the wines produced at those properties on it, L’Eglise-Clinet prime among them, although the style is perhaps glossier than when crasse de fer is also present. Moving away from the plateau’s high point, the crasse de fer lies deeper and the topsoil becomes more gravelly, allowing Cabernet Franc to contribute, often as much as 20% in a Pomerol blend. Away from the plateau where the land starts to fall, the soil becomes sandier and the wines lighter in texture and weight.

The blackbird of grapes

Why is Merlot so perfectly suited to this terroir; what is the symbiosis between Merlot and the buttonhole? Is it that the clay retains water, easing Merlot’s exposure to any water shortages during hot summers? The iron held in the sand is said to add the distinctive notes of violet and truffle to Merlot’s intense plummy notes, and the paucity of the soil certainly restricts the vines’ vigour. But in the vinous world, there is nothing else like these wines: heady and visceral; the purest silk yet threaded with the merest catch of Velcro tannins; opulent yet cultured.

Whatever the answer, at its best Merlot from Pomerol is an astounding wine, and a unique expression made all the more remarkable when compared to its other incarnations. Like so many great wines, its creation seems to be as much alchemy as expertise. The vine is said to take its name from the French word for blackbird – merle (merlau in Occitan) – because of its predilection for the sweet, early-ripening grapes. As I write, the blackbird in my garden is singing his limpid sunset song, a ubiquitous bird also capable of transcendence.

Find out more about Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Three fine wines to drink this summer

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The three favourite bottles, as selected by our experts, are standing on top of a wooden table against a background of green leaves.
Photo credit: Joe Woodhouse

With summer on the horizon, we asked three of our experts which wines they’ll be uncorking over the coming months. They’ve each selected a wine of special importance to them – whether they recall memories of past travels, moments of discovery or the simple pleasure of a delicious drop on a lockdown evening.

Ethereal, New World Pinot  

2017 Nicolas-Jay, Pinot Noir, Willamette Valley, Oregon, USA 

This bottle was a glimmer of light amidst the bleak January, lockdown evenings. The red cherry notes, teamed with an earthy, forest floor note, was the perfect antidote to winter – but please don’t think 2017 Nicolas-Jay, Pinot Noir is a one season wonder, as I can’t wait to enjoy it as the evenings get warmer. With tangy redcurrants and a velvety texture, this bottle really made me sit up and recognise Oregon as the second home for Pinot. This is not a regular occurrence and I have found that other wines from Oregon haven’t hit the same note. 

I think it’s the perfect wine for the coming months, as the fruit profile screams summer. Strawberries, raspberries and plums all intertwine in this multi-layered wine. It is both ethereal and broad-shouldered, reflecting Burgundian tradition and Oregon terroir. I’d like to open a bottle now! I can imagine sipping it post-work or serving it alongside a summery dish, as the tannins are supple, and nothing is out of kilter.  

I’ve always been a fan of Burgundy and since trying this particular Pinot Noir, I am a convert to Nicolas-Jay, which is hardly surprising given the pedigree of this estate. Founded by eminent Burgundian winemaker Jean-Nicolas Meo (of famed Burgundy domaine Meo-Camuzet) and music entrepreneur Jay Boberg, the project is a crossing of cultures. You can really feel the influence of the great Jean-Nicolas Meo and I wholeheartedly think this bottle is worth every penny.  

If you want to taste how good New World Pinot Noir can be, then this is the wine for you.

Tatiana Humphreys, Private Account Manager 

Memories of Constantia  

2017 Constantia Glen Five, Constantia, South Africa 

Rising mercury might not necessarily have you reaching for big reds but – especially when our British summer can seem a little reluctant – I get a pang for anything which evokes memories of warm sun and gentle breeze. I can recall vividly the first time I visited Constantia Glen ten years ago: sitting in their perfect amphitheatre vineyard overlooking False Bay with a glass of FIVE in hand. To this day, the mere whiff of it conjures up feelings of summer. 

The Constantia region in Western Cape is South Africa’s oldest and coolest wine region, and it remains a favourite vineyard area of mine. If I could draw a (tenuous) comparison with the Grands Crus of Burgundy, when you stand in the vines, it’s easy to understand why someone thought it was a good idea to plant a vineyard here 400 years ago. This is a perfect spot, between two oceans, providing moderation for South Africa’s climate. This cooling influence allows Constantia Glen to make their elegant whites and reds in a style which show finesse rather than brute force.  

The FIVE is a homage to owner Alex Waibel’s love of red Bordeaux, made from a blend of all five of the classic Bordeaux varietals. The herbal, earthy character of the wine hints to Alex’s preference for restraint but the creamy oak and voluptuous fruit offer more than a hint of New World panache. This is certainly worthy of something more than a burnt sausage from the barbeque – a perfectly cooked aged ribeye, perhaps. For me, though, this is a perfect sunset wine, to be enjoyed with the cooling evening and bottles of rosé upended in the ice bucket. 

Adam Holden, Director to the Chairman’s Office  

A Tuesday-night Champagne 

Champagne Pierre Peters, Cuvée de Réserve, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Brut 

Champagne. Nothing beats it frankly. Is there any other drink in the world that can be enjoyed at any time of day, for any occasion? Like on Christmas morning with the stockings, or over a weekend lunch, or as a pre-dinner apéritif – it just works. Lily Bollinger was right: there is no situation that isn’t enhanced with a glass of fizz. 

I’m very lucky in my day-to-day role in the Fine Wine team that I get to regularly taste a huge variety of Champagnes, including some very exotic and expensive prestige cuvées. Being so spoilt can make picking what to drink at home a little harder, but I have cracked my fizzy requirements with an absolute beauty from a favourite producer: the exquisite Cuvée de Réserve, Blanc de Blancs from Pierre Peters. 

I was first introduced to these exceptional wines by our former Champagne buyer Simon Field MW, who championed the value you can find from grower producers. My damascene moment came when I tasted Pierre Peters for the first time. Having been a complete Pinotphile when it came to Champagne (Pol, Roederer et al), these wowed me with their crystalline purity. 

This wine is 100% Chardonnay from some of the best Grand Cru villages, namely Le Mesnil – the HQ for Peters and regarded as the primus inter pares of Chardonnay villages – Oger, Chouilly and Cramant. It’s a gem all year round but sings in summer with its abundance of lemon peel, hazelnut and a little chalky salinity. Perfect for a picnic, or a Tuesday night at home if you’re thirsty. Grab a glass and get stuck in! 

Fergus Stewart, Private Account Manager 

If you’re looking for more summer inspiration, take a look at Head Chef Stewart Turner’s favourite seasonal canapés here.

Category: Miscellaneous

Ch. Lafite Rothschild: the long view

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Photograph © Marlène Awaad

The Rothschild family have been the custodians of Lafite for 150 years. Saskia de Rothschild is the face of the new generation at the Pauillac first growth.

Not so long ago, Saskia de Rothschild was a journalist based in West Africa. Today, the 33-year-old is chair of Ch. Lafite Rothschild, the iconic Bordeaux first growth that’s been in her family for 150 years.

There was a changing of the guard at Lafite in 2018: Saskia took over from her father, Baron Eric de Rothschild, as chair of the family group; Jean-Guillaume Prats – formerly of LVMH and Lafite’s neighbour Ch. Cos d’Estournel – succeeded Christophe Salin as its CEO; and Eric Kohler became the estate’s director, taking the reins from Charles Chevallier.

Saskia had no intention to head up Lafite in name only: “It’s very much a hands-on, on-the-ground job,” she explains over Zoom. Putting aside her MBA and master’s degree in journalism, Saskia returned to education to study viticulture and oenology. “I wanted to have that link to the product,” she says. Today, she’s heavily involved in the technical side of the operation.

“I grew up in these vineyards,” she says. “But once you work in them, you change your perspective. You have your intuitions that you end up following, or that you don’t follow. The one thing I’ve done for the past four years is listen. I listen to what people have to say, to understand what people are doing in our estates – and outside. I think it’s super important, even more so in Bordeaux, to have your ears open.”

LAFITE FAMILIES

By virtue of growing up here, Saskia has long known many of the people she now manages. “I’ve always known them,” she says, “but I knew them from a child’s – and then a teenager’s – point of view. As a big family. When we were little, the people who worked in the vineyards would push our pram. Francis [Perez], the maître de chai, has been here since before I was born; I used to go into the cellar and pull his shirt, and run on the barrels. He’s seen me grow up.”

The Rothschild name may be on the label, but Lafite’s is not solely a Rothschild story. “What’s incredible is that you have these ‘Lafite families’,” Saskia explains, “who have been around for almost as long as my family. The Clemenceaus, for example: some of them work on the tractor, some work in the cellars and some work in the vines. They have always known Lafite, they’ve always known the place.”

New faces are important, too. Colombian native Manuela Brando has been leading research and development, particularly in biodynamics. Notably, Saskia has partnered with Action Emploi Réfugiés, a French NGO, to run a work programme for refugees, where participants receive training in both viticulture and the French language.

“They’re all very, very passionate and down to earth,” Saskia says of the Lafite team. “Everyone has this kind of ingrained humility in them, and a real curiosity to see what happens elsewhere. And I think that’s really something we have to nurture.”

LAFITE’S IDENTITY

The northern end of Pauillac boasts some of the finest terroir in the wine world, let alone Bordeaux. Here, Lafite is separated from St Estèphe by marshland and the Jalle de Breuil stream. Fellow first growth Ch. Mouton Rothschild is a neighbour. But for collectors – and for Saskia – Lafite has an identity all its own. “Lafite is not someone who walks into the room and that you notice,” she says. “It’s someone who you take time to love.”

This elegant, understated style is something Saskia wants to preserve: “We want the identity of the wine to stay the same, to stay very connected to its terroir. We have this approach, this style of wine that never followed fashions. We never went in the direction of too much wood or of making very opulent wines. We didn’t do that because this isn’t a vineyard that allows us to do that. If you look at the Pauillac terroirs, ours is the wine that has the most delicate approach.

“This extraordinary terroir gives us the identity of the wine,” Saskia says. “We have this absolute balance, this perfect capacity to regulate extremes. I think that’s our main jewel; it’s the wisdom of the land and of the soil and of the vines. They have been there for years, and that allows us to regulate extremes. Seeing it at play in a certain vintage is absolutely magical. For example, in 2018 many neighbours had alcohol levels through the roof, but Lafite remained at 13.3%.”

Saskia identifies two zones of the vineyard as being particularly special: “We have this amazing gravelly plateau which is the heart of the grand vin. And the second really high-quality area is the Plateau de Carruades. With these two areas, we’re trying to see how we can build the ideal vineyard for tomorrow.”

RESETTING THE RULES

When planning for tomorrow, it seems wise to think about yesterday, too. Much of Bordeaux’s most prized terroir is farmed as a monoculture, with grapes being the only game in town – but this appears to be changing. “The 1980s were really the years of industrialisation,” Saskia says, “when everyone replanted, planting as much as they could, planting every little area with vines. We’re coming back from that era, and it’s really great.

“When you look at maps of 1950s and 1960s, you can see that Lafite was a polyculture,” she continues. “We have 110 hectares of vines [today], but we have 300 hectares of woods and marshes; they are an integral part of the ecosystem. Now, more than ever, we’re looking at the vineyards and uprooting certain areas to create these couloirs végétaux – corridors of trees – that bring freshness. We’re kind of resetting the rules of what a vineyard should be, in the sense of it being not just a production tool, but an ecosystem that you can have a dialogue with. Good for growing vines, of course, but also good for biodiversity.”

A VINTAGE OF CONTRASTS

The 2020 vintage was one of contrasts, Saskia explains. “We had a very, very warm spring,” she says. “At one point, there were 55 days without rain. So it was very dry. At the same time, it was the vintage where we got the most rain in the shortest amount of time: it was very wet at certain key moments. It was a vintage of changing our minds every five minutes, walking the vines and looking at the climate apps in a very obsessive manner to make decisions, because it changed from one day to another. We had a wonderful surprise, because we had that quite warm summer and we expected the alcohol to be through the roof. In the end, it wasn’t.

“It was also a vintage of teamwork,” she adds. The pandemic meant that some vineyard workers were medically at risk, unable to come to work, with others looking after children at home. “A lot of the teams who aren’t usually in the vineyards were out there working. Everyone had to put their hand in it – the barrel makers, the cellar workers – everyone was in the vines in June to help.”

Stylistically, she draws a perhaps unexpected comparison: “We’re coming back to the balance of the 1990s. We’ve had a few vintages that were a little bit more opulent, and you would expect from the data that 2020 would go in that direction. But when you look at the style of the wine, and the balance, it reminds me more of a wine from the 1990s. So that’s a very good surprise.”

SLOW TIME

“The pandemic has struck a nerve that we were seeing already,” says Saskia. “Everything that is happening is asking us to be humbler and more patient. If we want to make a decision in the vineyard, we have to wait 10 years to know if it was the right decision – to uproot a plot or to change a varietal. We have this notion of temps long – slow time, slowness – and I think that’s needed more than ever.

“There is a global warming situation. We have to prepare for it and look at the future. We have plans for replanting until 2045. It might seem quite weird, for any business, to be looking as far as 25 years from now. But we need to.”

Such long-term thinking is vital for Saskia. “We want people to drink our wines. We have to touch a new generation of wine lovers, who maybe think that Bordeaux is a bit stuffy, or that Bordeaux is the wine that their parents used to drink. We have to approach them and explain to them that even if this is a very expensive bottle of wine, it’s more than that.

“My vision for Lafite is to explain to these potential Lafite-lovers what we’re doing. To really open our doors in an unpretentious way, to show them what Lafite is – which is an agricultural estate, dependent on nature, at the mercy of hail and storms, and producing one of the best wines in the world.”

Pauillac is a long way from the Ivory Coast, but Saskia has settled well here. “My main love in life is to write and to tell stories. So I sometimes miss that, but at the same time: I live in the country. I have this sense of place. And I have this extraordinary team of people, who teach me things every day. It’s a great opportunity.”

Find out more about Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur.

Category: Bordeaux Wine

Bordeaux 2020: Sauternes and Barsac

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In this series, Mark Pardoe MW provides insight into how Bordeaux’s key communes fared in 2020. Here, our Wine Director looks at Sauternes and Barsac, based on a conversation with Olivier Castéja of Ch. Doisy-Védrines.

At a glance: Sauternes and Barsac in 2020

  • Hectares under vine: 2,217
  • Average yield: 12hl/ha in 2020 (14hl/ha in ’19); down 14%
  • Significant châteaux: d’Yquem; Climens, Coutet, Guiraud, Rieussec, Suduiraut; Doisy-Daëne, Doisy-Védrines; Gilette, Raymond-Lafon

There was an early start to the season in Sauternes and Barsac, as there was throughout Bordeaux. In Sauternes, 519 millimetres of rain was recorded at Ch. Suduiraut in March, which was half the average for the whole year. At Ch. Doisy-Védrines in Barsac, there was a little frost in May, and hail in June. Everybody had the dry summer, but the August rain was less plentiful here than elsewhere, more in line with St Emilion’s levels.

The 2020 vintage: comparing Barsac and Sauternes

Barsac sits on reddish clay and limestone, whereas Sauternes has mostly gravels with some sand. The huge amount of rain that fell in Sauternes in March will have helped support the vineyards, but there was less humidity here than in the flat vineyards of Barsac. Thus, when the first opportunity to pick arrived around 15th September, Doisy-Védrine was able to pick grapes over three days with noble rot. By comparison, Suduiraut’s first pass was for a small quantity of grapes for passerillage – sweet, partially dried grapes, but without botryrtis.

The quality of the botrytis for Doisy-Védrines’s first pass was not very rich. But after some dry weather, conditions turned more humid; between 28th September and 28th October, four more passes were possible. These were timed around rain in the first part of October, which was disruptive but not as heavy as that experienced in the Médoc. From 18th October, a drying south/south-easterly wind helped keep the grapes healthy.

Barsac is usually 10 days ahead of Sauternes. So, at Suduiraut, the team managed to make a further, and successful, final picking on 2nd November. Eventually, Doisy-Védrines achieved 7.5hl/ha; Suduiraut marginally more at 8.5hl/ha. The old analogy of “a bottle of red wine per vine, a glass of sweet wine per vine” still holds, even in this year of smaller yields.

Purity

Given the alternating conditions between sun and rain over the extended harvest period, it is perhaps surprising that the wines are so pure and correct. But that is the case, according to Olivier Castéja, who in his role as head of the Conseil des Crus Classés de Sauternes has tasted all the wines in that category.

The quality of the botrytis is not at the level of a truly great year, but it was very clean – and there are no examples of bad rot. What these wines lack is the depth of a great year, as there was no opportunity to wait for a further concentration of the botrytis. The acidity is fresh, which gives a charming piquancy to wines that are immediate and delicious but missing an element of the extra complexity that would have come from more mature botrytis.

For more Bordeaux 2020 En Primeur coverage, you can visit bbr.com or browse our range of Bordeaux En Primeur sweet wine releases . To learn more about sweet Bordeaux, read Clara Bouffard’s guide to Sauternes.

Category: Bordeaux Wine,Miscellaneous