Friday, 27 January 2012

The Laithwaite Sauvignon 2011

It’s that time of year again when we begin bottling the 2011 whites and first up as always is the Laithwaite Sauvignon Blanc. This delicate, explosively aromatic and zesty dry white is the most fragile of all the wines we make and freshness is the key to the success.

Ever since the day the grapes were harvested they have been kept in an inert environment where the wine avoids any contact with air at all costs. You can see just how quickly oxidation occurs when you cut an apple in half: within a couple of minutes it’s brown and the fresh aroma and flavours lost.

In the past, many delicate dry white wines from all over France suffered the same consequence and it is one of the main reasons back in the day that the most famous dry white wines were nearly always Chardonnays and usually came from Burgundy. Chardonnay is a much hardier grape and its riper, tropical fruit is more resistant to oxygen and higher ferment temperatures. However, this is all about Sauvignon Blanc; a very different beast indeed.

Our grapes are 100% from the Entre-Deux-Mers, a very interesting region with a long history of winemaking. However, as recently as the 1960’s, white grape vineyards were being rapidly converted to red wine production to make AOC Bordeaux (and Supérieur). White wine production has decreased ever since and is now about only one tenth of Bordeaux's total production.

However in these relatively recent times and pre 1980’s the white wines were also made differently. They were sweeter than today and if dry, the blend consisted of a high proportion of Semillon, a grape that is much like Chardonnay in respect of riper flavours and a better resistance to oxidation spoilage and high ferment temperatures.

Technology and winemaking education has therefore played a huge part in the success of the 100% Sauvignon Blanc dry white wines we are familiar with today, especially so in the Entre-Deux-Mers. The main factors – along with viticultural improvements – were quick night-time machine harvesting, inert presses, stainless steel vats, cooling equipment and bottling technology. Much of the knowledge of how to use these techniques came from winemakers in the new world, notably Australia and New Zealand. (Remember, it was one Tony Laithwaite who was the first to bring in winemakers from down under to make wines in France and whom he named ‘The Flying Winemakers’).

The Laithwaite Sauvignon Blanc was a fine example of putting these new techniques to work. The wine remains as popular as ever, now being made with help from the next generation of new world winemakers. Jean-Marc Sauboua (JMS) was the first winemaker to oversee the vinification in the early 1990’s and has harnessed the help of many new world winemakers over the years.

Today, JMS is still at the head of the project and the critical vineyard selection. Currently it’s James MacDonald from Hunter’s in NZ watching the ferments and finally another new world trained winemaker (me) responsible for the final blending and bottling.

I can only try to explain the sheer attention to detail and team effort required to get this wine into bottle – then to the customers – in perfect condition using rather industrial looking equipment. However it is this equipment that allows the wine to survive in perfect condition to the bottle and consequently to the customer, seeming almost impossibly fresh. When I taste the wine back in the UK some months after the bottling I can assure you it is the same as it tastes in the vat back in Bordeaux months before!

Today I have been back to all the diverse areas of the Entre-Deux-Mers to collect each part of the final blend, carefully moving them to the best bottling plant in the region 10kms away in Rauzan, just across the Dordogne from Le Chai.

My first stop was at Sauveterre-de-Guyenne, a small village that is known as the half-way point from the left to right bank. It’s situated on a hillock of chalky clay soil and the wines here have a flinty character and a broad palate. The stainless steel tankers were waiting for me and once the compartments were checked and filled with CO2 the wine followed.

I escorted the tankers to the bottling plant and soon continued on with the tankers to the second piece of the blend which comes from the tiny village of Espiet. Espiet sits centrally in the Entre-Deux-Mers and here the countryside is softened by its gentle limestone valleys and soils of clay on a thick, porous asteriated limestone similar to the subsoil of St.Emilion. This creates wines with pungent aromatics of grass and asparagus and a racy acidity.

With Espiet safely delivered and blended I left for the third and last part of the blend which originates in the beautiful village of La Sauve. Le Sauve is 29km’s from Bordeaux and dominated by the magnificent 11th century Benedictine monastery l’Abbaye de la Sauve Majeure. The mix of clay and gravel is unique and the wines have minerality with a richness of fruit on the palate unseen elsewhere in the region.

The 2011 Sauvignon Blanc will be bottled next week and the closure will be screw cap. This is the best way to preserve this type of wine and I promise you will not be disappointed. For us winemakers the final blend is as good as it gets and the three areas create a great balance. All that’s left is to try for yourself!


Friday, 20 January 2012

The Northern Médoc

It feels like I‘ve been travelling to another wine region. After today’s 350km drive, one may think I have been travelling to either the Midi or south to Spain, but in fact I never left Bordeaux! Yesterday I was in the eastern limit of Bordeaux at Sainte-Foy and today the extreme north-west, described beautifully by Hugh Jonson: “The Médoc is a great tongue of flat or barely undulating land isolated from the body of Aquitaine”.

The Médoc vine-growing area is more like a serpent’s tongue and today I was lingering on the tip of the left fork. The Médoc is actually one of the most recent wine-growing areas of Bordeaux – a mere 500 years, compared to St.Emilion’s 2000. So more modern it should be then? Mais non! Life seems to have stood still once you veer north-east from the famous areas of St.Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe.

This area used to be called the Bas-Médoc. Although the ‘bas’ has since been dropped, I am sure no one in the ‘Bas-Médoc’ has even noticed. This morning, however, wasn’t particularly pleasant: a -3°C air temperature (8°C colder than Castillon), dark, very foggy, humid and windy, but the weather can change rapidly. I kind of like this place where time stands still; it reminds me of island life. I was brought up on an island so maybe that’s why?!

The road up from Blanquefort is long, straight and uneventful (unless you like being surprised out of the fog by random glowing supermarkets). Eventually the sun came up and when I came to the first possible tiny turning in 60km’s the sat nav lost connection, nice.

I was here to pick up our Grand Chai Médoc, to transport safely to the bottling plant back in Rauzan, a village next to Castillon. The wine was at Frederique Cruchon’s place in Gaillan-Médoc. I never saw Gaillan and arrived suddenly in little Queyrac where the church glowed beautifully through the rising estuary mist.

I can never find his place so I asked for directions in the tiny café. I was told to go towards Coudessan (only one road there and 2kms away) where I would easily find Frederic. 35 minutes later I was found by a man called Frederic who was looking for a Laithwaites winemaker! After much discussion we at last agreed and went on to his little château.

Hidden is not really the word (I would never find it alone again) but a gem it is. Chickens, geese, cows and every piece of the last 130 year’s vineyard machinery history scattered in the doorways of old collapsing barns.

Frederic divides his winemaking with a successful logging and vineyard post business. After much inquisitive questioning he reluctantly told me he actually owned three châteaux, one being his grandfather’s Cru Bourgeois Château Chantemerle, at which point he asked if I had had breakfast. And so a plate of walnuts, a pile of salt and a glass of Médoc appeared and we dined, competitively cracking the shells (I with a stone and Frederic with is hand).

Frederic is an energetic and passionate fellow along with being a very good winemaker too … although his accent was what I can only describe as the Geordie equivalent accent of France and proved very difficult to understand. I can only imagine what its like after a Médoc lunch!

But he was ranting on interestingly about climate change. He has seen huge changes in the last 15 years and that lack of rain is the main cause. He explained (with the accent and a mouthful of walnuts) that you need rain in November and December. With no significant rainfall in either month or since, he predicts yields will be low this year. He is adamant that even if rain arrives late winter it will help, but will be too late. He also mentioned that in ‘97 he struggled to get 10% alcohol in his wines, but in 2011 the cabernet reached 15% easily: something never seen before and all due to the lack of water at the right time.

After the wine was safely loaded into the tanker I headed into the vineyards for a look at the pruning. This time of year is nice as the different soils can be easily spotted. Now, in broad daylight, with the Atlantic Sea and Gironde Estuary winds having blown clear the fog, it’s easy to see how the area got its name from the Latin "in medio aquæ", meaning "in the middle of the water". It is almost an island.

Here, the sandy soil vineyards separated by tiny streams are perfect for the Cabernet Sauvignon that thrives in good free draining soils. Sandy soils, like gravel, hold far less water than clay and so the smaller-berried Cabernet vines give a concentrated and dense fruit character.

So next time you are actually in the Médoc or eying the wine shelves in a shop try to go past Margaux, say au revoir to St.Julien, give a wave to Pauillac, ignore St.Estèphe and try some wines from the northern Médoc!


Wednesday, 18 January 2012

A very late but a very Happy New Year!

Things kicked straight back into action here at Le Chai on January 2nd. I was soon amongst the barrels, tasting everything and beginning to make plans for wines to be bottled in the next three months.

Jean-Marc and I had tasted some lovely Gold medal-winning wines from an often-overlooked part of Bordeaux and early this week however I went to check it out for myself. Once again it was a new area of Bordeaux for me and after crossing the bridge from Castillon into the Entre-Deux-Mers I turned left and headed south east and was soon into the appellation known as Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux.

This area is relatively unknown and was previously famed for its white wines when the appellation was first created in 1937. Since the 1990’s it has started producing reds and now – if you explore – you can find some fantastic wines from Merlot, Cabernet and Malbec.

The name of the appellation derives from the town of Sainte-Foy-La-Grande situated eastwards from Castillon-La-Bataille and the last vineyards of the Bordeaux region bordering the Dordogne department and also known as the ‘Porte du Perigord’. Sainte-Foy-La-Grande is a bastide (a fortified town) and was founded way back in 1255 by Alphonse of Poitiers and fortified as protection against the English invaders. The town has a ‘rustic’ charm and if you are in the area don’t miss the fantastic Saturday weekly market which takes over the ancient maze of streets across the whole centre of town.

The first village I came to was Gensac a lively little place even in winter with quite a lot of beret wearing men with baguettes which is always nice to see! As you pass Gensac the landscape starts to form into a line of hills and plateaus overlooking the Dordogne and has a quite different feeling from the rest of the Entre-Deux-Mers. The soils are mainly clay and limestone like the plateau of Saint-Emilion and Castillon.

I had a good drive round the region and visited many unheard-of small producers, all making lovely, fruit-driven wines that were ripe and charming. As always, I like to buy a wine for dinner from the region I have visited but I couldn’t find any wines with the AOC Sainte-Foy Bordeaux on the label. Everyone was bottling as generic Bordeaux and it seemed every shop sold only Bergerac wines … bit of a shame I think.

I finally found a Sainte-Foy-Bordeaux from Château Les Mangons; it was a 2002 so I was a little wary but I was desperate to take one home! It was, however, delicious and was very much alive and well made. Once again it proves Bordeaux is still a place to discover and there are plenty of places to visit. I will certainly be looking out for some more wines from here.