Grape & Grain

Why it’s hard to know what you’re getting in a bottle of Saint-Émilion

Producers on Bordeaux’s Right Bank have always been innovators, but the sharply contrasting styles of wine they produce can be confusing. It’s a mystery why more of them don’t let their wines express the brilliance of the limestone-clay soil the region’s grapes are grown in

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 January, 2016, 6:07pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 January, 2016, 6:07pm

I’m going to start the New Year with a confession. I live in Bordeaux, and spend a good proportion of my professional life tasting the area’s wines, visiting the chateaux and trying to understand the stories and the psychology behind the people who make them. And yet there is oneappellation that confuses me time and again.

It’s the very beautiful and highly coveted Right Bank spot of Saint-Émilion. The merlot and cabernet franc wines from these limestone hills have been sought after since Roman times, typically more fruit-forward and feminine than Bordeaux’s Left Bank counterpoint, the Médoc.

Saint-Émilion has been the site of innumerable innovations, from France’s first regional winegrowing syndicate in 1884 to the first cooperative cellar in 1931 to a consumer-friendly classification system for its wine dating from the 1950s that is renewed every 10 years. And yet I often sit in front of these wines and wonder what they are trying to say today.

Never mind the confusion surrounding the classification that is in danger of becoming better known for its lawsuits than its grands crus classés wines. The bigger question for me is why there continues to be such a sharp contrast between the wine styles, even at the highest level.

Saint-Émilion was famously the epicentre of the “garage wine” movement in the late 1990s, where small producers kept their crop levels low to tease out concentrated flavours from a reduced number of grapes, left the grapes on the vinesfor as much “hang time” as possible, and lavished plenty of new oak during the ageing process to ensure a rich, round and toasty character in the final glass.

These wines found a ready audience, and yet employed techniques that masked rather than revealed the terroir, and in many cases have not aged well. The reason behind this is simple – after a certain level of ripeness, regional character and varietal personality of grapes becomes less easy to distinguish, and too much new oak gives a vanilla taste that can smother the more subtle flavours.

You’ll find it tough to find any producer today who will admit to still looking for this highly concentrated and often highly alcohol-rich style of wine, and yet it seems to me that the producers in Saint-Émilion who are really seeking out the best expression of their brilliant soils – a mix of limestone and clay that should give wines not only silky smoothness but purity of flavour – are still not getting the recognition and appreciation that they deserve.

“Bordeaux used to pick too early,” says Bordeaux wine consultant and professor Denis Dubourdieu, who has led studies into the risks of overripe grapes and their negative effect on the ageing capabilities of a wine. “But now many pick too late. And there are still too many living in Prune Land,” he adds, referring to the exotic tastes of prunes and figs that can affect overly ripe merlot fruit particularly.

One of my favourite tastings last year came from a Saint-Émilion chateau that has always stayed true to a delicacy of expression: Chateau Canon. I tasted through a century of its wines, right back to 1929, and found a thread of freshness and delicacy that reminded me just why the limestone plateau that dominates the geography of this appellation is among the most treasured spots for growing grapes worldwide.

But it was over the Christmas break that I really found myself falling back in love with Saint-Émilion. I was tasting through a range of 1985s, 1995s and 2005s from the cru classé and premier cru classé chateaux and it was a revelation; a reminder of how over-oaking and over-extracting truly does such a disservice to the natural beauty of these wines.

Three bottles particularly stay with me – a magnum of Chateau Beauséjour Duffau Lagarosse 1985, and two bottles of Angélus 1995 and Troplong Mondot 1995.

The 1995s were still surprisingly young and fleshy, with curls of woodsmoke that showed perfect integration of oak ageing without a hint of vanilla, while spice, cinnamon and soft plums followed up on the palate, defying gravity yet offering a hint of a softening to come. These are wines that can be opened with great pleasure, but are still holding back a host of surprises for those with the patience to wait even longer.

The 1985 was one of those wines that had everyone around the table reaching for a second glass; full of tertiary aromas of sweet Black Mission figs, truffles, leather and gently stewed liquorice. Even in magnum, the textures of this Beauséjour Duffau Lagarosse (today known simply as Beauséjour) have at 30 years of age reached a soft silk – irresistible to drink now. They offer the perfect proof of the timeless elegance that the limestone plateau of Saint-Émilion can bring.

In a few months, we will get the first taste of the 2015 wines. So far, the vats of fragrant and deeply coloured juice that I have tasted in châteaux cellars over the past few months promise a wonderful vintage. I’m holding out hope that in Saint-Émilion this year they are confident enough to let it speak for itself.