le puy

  • "Old fashioned" Bordeaux: when tradition becomes rebellion

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    As I mentioned at the end of my previous blog, we did include in our New Wave Bordeaux tasting two bottles that were a bit different. As our tasting method was half-blind, we hoped they would stand out enough to be recognised. That they did, and in fact so much that everybody after the first sniff and the first snip immediately recognised them. We talked about them as "different", "rebellious" or "einzelgänger", but in fact they ar far more traditional than all the other wines we tasted. And what was really interesting that despite being so traditional, they  were also very different. Both were absolutely meant to age and reach their top a long time from now, but each in a very special way. Two different answers to the same question...

    The first wine was the Emilien, Chateau le Puy, Côtes de Francs, 2009. Château Le Puy became instantly famous when one of its cuvées starred in the Japanese manga Les Gouttes de Dieu, but its winemaking history goes back to 1601. It is one of the pioneers in biological viticulture and started experimenting in the thirties, and completely stopped using chemicals in 1945. To protect their vines against diseases they use only natural methods, and they trust on the cosmic energy of a stone circle dating from 3500 BC. They also use field blends, or "complantation", which means that different varietals are planted on the same parcel, extremely unconventional for Bordeaux, but a great thing for biodiversity and for the health of the plants. In fact they blend from the beginning, when harvesting, and not when the wines are ready, and this is highly unusual in France (it is also done in the Douro).  The fermentation is done on neutral ciment, the vinification in big foudres. They neither filter nor clarify and use no or minimal doses of sulfite. The average age of the vines is 50.

    The work in the cellar is very traditional and at the same time highly unconventional, as they use no tricks and no chemicals to improve their wines. They started experimenting in 1990 with wines without added sulfite and did this for 8 years until they were convinced that it worked and only then started commercialising them. They are not rigid in it, for some cuvées they still use very small quantites of sulfite when bottling. They don't chaptalise (adding of sugar), the only use natural yeasts that come from the vineyard and don't use enzymes. There is in the end no filtration or clarifying of the wine, because the regular batonnage according to the lunar calendar makes it unnecessary. 




    When the 2003 starred in the Japanese manga comic, phones immediately started ringing, faxes started spitting out orders and prices in Japan for a bottle of Le puy 2003 rocketed to 1000 euro. Father and son resisted temptation, kept on selling their wines at 18 euro, in restricted quantities so that their old customers could keep on buying them, and kept their heads cool. They still have stocks of their old wines, and even today you can find Le Puy in your country if you look hard enough (you probably will have to be very friendly with your wine-merchant though...).

    The Emilien was a field blend of 85% merlot, 14% cabernet sauvignon and 1% carmenère. Though a so-called "natural wine", it does come out under the Côtes de Francs appellation. We tasted it after decanting (about an hour) and it was immediately recognised. Very typical "wild" tones from a non-sulfited wine, some wood, and after a while the very friendly aroma's of a freshly made fruitcake. In the mouth this wine is fresh, with very active acidity (and this might shock some more traditional Bordeaux-drinkers), but it is also soft and restrained. You can not really taste the character of the different varieties, and they seem allready melted together, very typical for a field blend. It is drinkable now, but will be far better within 5 or more years, and will improve for a few decades. To do this, it needs a good cellar with low and constant temperatures, I think it will in a too warm environment quickly deteriorate.

    Our second wine was different, but had at least two things in common. The winemaker finds it as important that his wine remains affordable for Europe's traditional winelover and regulates the market himself as much as is possible. Every year you will find sufficient quantities in the shops and prices now circle around 35 euro. If he charged more it would probably sell as well, but the owner apparently gets very angry with wine merchants that try to pull that off and excludes them for the next vintage. Secondly it is, just like the Le Puy, a wine made to keep at least the next ten years in your cellar, and that will improve for a few decades. This is the way Bordeaux was traditionally made: great aging power, but not so pleasant when drunk young, and this is still the philosophy of this château.

    We are talking about the legendary Château Sociando-Mallet, property of Jean Gautreau, one of the best Haut-Médoc's. Jean started in 1969 with a small dilapidated vineyard and some crumbling buildings, but had found out when ploughing some disused parcels that the soil contained gravel in very nice quantities, just like some of the leading left-bank châteaux of that time. He started buying parcels around him, ending up with a 95ha vineyard on one of the nicest "croupes" here. In 2003 he sold his négociant business to concentrate on this property. He still refuses any classification as Cru Bourgeois, never sends samples to the organisation and stays out of the petty politics of the area.




    Just like Le Puy, the work in the vineyard is very important, though the varieties (48% cabernet sauvignon, 47% merlot and 5% cabernet franc) are vinified separately, as everywhere else here, and the blending only happens after the elevage. Jean experiments a lot with the planting of the varietals in  the vineyards (higher or lower, more sun meaning also higher risk for frost in the winter), and uses a very dense planting, with 8333 vines per hectare. He refuses to practice the widely spread of deleafing and green harvesting, and just prunes in spring to control the quantity. In the cellar he works with 95% of new oak which is a lot (but, hey, he likes that!) and sells his barrels after use. The wines are brilliant representatives of their terroir and differ strongly from year to year.They need a decade and often more to soften and become enjoyable (the second wine, La Demoiselle de Sociando-Mallet, is also very good, more fruit-driven, and can be drunk earlier). 

    I'll give you a tip: buy 14 bottles of these wines every year. Let them wait in your cellar. Within 10 years you open one to enjoy. Not ready yet ? Wait another five years. Taste again ? Like it ? OK, open the crate and start enjoying and sharing. Don't like it ? Sell it, you'll have made a profit. But I'm telling you, very few people go for the profit...

    We tasted the 2001, a classic year, undecanted. Everybody immediately recognised it as an older Bordeaux, and it was allready slightly discoloured. Very complex and noble nose, beautifully classic, with dominant lead-pencil shavings on top of the rest. Almost perfect structure, like a wine that has reached its peak, very well balanced, interesting and with a fresh touch that keeps it so drinkable. During the next half hour it saw brilliant evolution in the glass, a magnificent wine, that can keep for at least another ten years, until a nice pieace of redmeat and some very good friends come together in my or your kitchen.

    Currently this is one of the nicest aspects of Bordeaux. In an acceptable price range you can find easy to drink, well-made wines that are perfect for your sunday lunch, but you can also find (looking a bit harder) very traditional wines that will demand patience and effort before you can harvest your reward. Some winelovers get stuck in this region. I am not one of these, there are too many beautiful wines in the world, but I admit it is not an unpleasant position...