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Getting Fresh in Saint Emilion
By Panos Kakaviatos
Nov 13, 2018
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In the grand history of winemaking, it was not that long ago when high octane and large scaled “Garage Wines” were enjoying a heyday in Saint-Émilion, starting in the 1990s.

In ensuing years, some voices -- including many sommeliers that favor freshness from Bordeaux -- began to criticize these wines as “Parkerized”.

In 2003, I interviewed Parker, who not only defended the movement, but also called it a “revolution that is taking place and that will only grow.” 

In many ways, he has been proven correct. Star garage wine Château Valandraud was not only promoted in 2012 to a Grand Cru Classé B in Saint-Émilion, but is a top seller.  Others, like Péby-Faugères, Rol Valentin and Gracia, also sell well.

And yet in more recent years, more and more winemakers are talking about the importance of freshness in wine.

One notable example of “big to fresh” is Château Troplong Mondot.  This highly prized Grand Cru Classé B of Saint-Émilion consistently received high Parker scores for wines with high levels of richness and alcohol, sometimes reaching well over 15%.

Fast forward to 2018, and recently named director Aymeric de Gironde had his team picking grapes some 10 days sooner than the previous owners would have done.

“We seek drinkability,” de Gironde stresses.  The point was proven over lunch when I visited the estate earlier this year, when de Gironde served the 1988 and 2004, mainly to prove a point.  2004 is not a particularly “big vintage” and yet it seemed too oak-driven as compared to the 1988, which exuded greater purity and elegance.   “I want to get back to that sort of style”, he said.

Indeed, for de Gironde’s first vintage there -- the 2017 -- he emphasized aging in 65% new oak, down from 90% in 2016.  His philosophy echoes what Jean Claude Berrouet, former director at Pétrus, had been saying for many years:  “The higher the alcohol, the more oak extraction one gets from new barrels -- and that can be a dangerous thing.”

The change at Troplong Mondot was so remarkable that wine writers tasting the wine from barrel this year were not expecting to experience such a classical style from this estate.

But the result is gorgeous, and one of the best Saint-Émilions of the 2017 vintage.  Blending 85% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Cabernet Franc, Troplong Mondot clocks in at 14% alcohol, which is far from the 15% and more that some critics adore.  The 2017 conveys crisp blue fruit with elegance, but also Merlot-driven sensuality.  It exudes, too, an intriguing chalky “minerality” with a juicy, sap-driven mid palate leading to a long finish.  In addition to picking earlier, de Gironde stopped doing any malolactic fermentation in barrel, which can accentuate the oaky feel to the wine, he says.  To paraphrase The Who:  “Meet the new boss, certainly not the same as the old boss.”

Another sign of change is the rise of consultant Thomas Duclos and his OenoTeam company, which is contributing to turning back the tide of big and broad, and favoring fresh and elegant.

Last month I had dinner with Duclos and his team, taking a needed break from the busy 2018 harvest.  He stressed how things had gotten out of hand with the movement towards large scaled wines in Saint-Émilion.

Duclos also consults Château Canon, another highly rated Saint Emilion.  Working closely with director Nicolas Audebert and technical director Stéphane Bonnasse, Duclos underlines the importance of precision in both viticulture and winemaking, but also “wines that should be both balanced and delicate.”

This was essential in particular for the 2018 vintage, he explained, which promises to have very high levels of alcohol by its nature.  Vat room readings indicate some Merlots at 15.5% and more natural alcohol, and Duclos believes that some estates will relegate higher alcohol wines to second labels.  Final blends on the Right Bank will have more Cabernet than usual to offset higher alcohol Merlots, according to several vintners.

Château Canon technical director Bonnasse stressed the importance of canopy management -- such as less leaf clearing -- and not picking grapes directly exposed to the sun to make alcohol levels irrelevant.  “It is a shame to talk so much about alcohol in 2018, because not everyone works the same way,” he said.  “We had more alcohol overall in 2015 than we will have in 2018.”

As climate change has contributed to increasing alcohol levels, more estates are paying closer attention to achieving balance with regard to oak tannin extraction, in addition to canopy management that can prevent excess potential alcohol in grapes .

But the wind already was changing towards a fresher direction with the 2014 vintage, which was not by its nature a high alcohol vintage.  At that time, Château Quinault l’Enclos was among 16 estates that had been promoted to Grand Cru Classé in the 2012 classification of Saint-Émilion.  In contrast to most of these estates at that time, Quinault l’Enclos conveyed particular freshness and elegance.

Ironically the wine earlier was at the vanguard of the movement towards “Parkerized” wines.  Previous owner Dr. Alain Reynaud was proud of making such wines that critic Robert Parker and others praised.

But after the French conglomerate LVMH acquired it, the style began to change.  The 2014 for example reaches just over 12.5% alcohol.  Estate consultant Kees Van Leeuwen explained that that the style of the wine has turned 180 degrees:  “Twenty years ago, people were proud to have high alcohol level wines, and now we are proud to be low,” he said.

The undeniable fresh plum and cherry fruit, with excellent sap and mid-palate concentration are undeniable.  No malolactic fermentation was done in new oak -- as Reynaud had done -- and the wine was aged in just 30% new oak (as opposed to 100% beforehand).  “We do not seek any taste of oak in our wine,” Van Leeuwen stressed.  “I suppose if you are not following fashion, you’ll end up being the next fashion,” he added.

As a Bordeaux observer for at least the past 15 years, it is clear to me that a certain balance is being achieved in Saint Emilion.  It would be unfair to condemn the Garagistes, as some do.  Their movement was in part a reaction to wines that sometimes were too under-ripe or simply not very clean.  There was some overreaction, to be sure.  And in one sense, the rise of people like Duclos and de Gironde in Saint-Émilion represent a corrective balance towards more subtle, more nuanced expressions in Saint-Émilion.