26 February 2016

Re-writing history in Bordeaux


Around twenty miles north east of the city of Bordeaux stands the port of Libourne. On a good day, off the early morning flight, you can be there within three quarters of an hour. Libourne, the capital of a wine-making area that includes Saint Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac is home to some of France’s finest red wines. It is also steeped in British history.

The English are widely credited with its creation. In his book ‘The Complete Bordeaux’, wine writer Stephen Brook dates its founding to 1270 when the busy port distributed wines from the surrounding area. The roots of its commercial trade were founded in the Anglo-Franco marriage of 1152 when the plantagenet King, Henry II, married Eleanor of Aquitaine placing both Bordeaux and Libourne into English hands. It was later, when King John known as John Lackland, attempted to win favour with the Bordelais that he granted them various privileges. The most significant being the exemption of export tax on all ships sailing from Bordeaux.

This gave entrepreneurial merchants from England a head start in the appreciation and trade of the region’s magical wine. When the fleet set sail from the Gironde estuary it was laden with wine bound for the ports of London, Bristol, Leith as well as Ireland and the Low Countries.

As James Lawther writes in ‘The Finest Wines of Bordeaux’ a cross Channel trade emerged in textiles and wine which by the early fourteenth century saw annual exports of wine at nearly 750,000hl. At this stage the Médoc was still an area of marshland and the great Châteaux of Lafite, Latour, Margaux and Mouton-Rothschild had yet to be founded.

The wines were also very different in style to what they are today. The British nickname claret (for all red wines from Bordeaux) is derived from the Latin word meaning clear and the wines of the fourteenth century were by all accounts light coloured or pale, far removed from the inky, sumptuous, blackcurrant and spicy wines of today.

The British influence weakened in 1453 when the English army, led by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, was defeated by the French King Charles II in the battle of Castillon la Bataille. Trade continued but the market was opened up to the Dutch, Flemish and Scots traders.

Indeed, the latter were granted favourable privileges much to the chagrin of their English neighbours. As Scottish historian Billy Kay writes: “While the English had to surrender their arms when entering the Gironde, apply for passports and be subject to curfews, the Scots sailed blithely upriver to get the pick of the new vintage at reduced rates, and head home in time for Hogmanay!”
But it wasn’t all bad news for the English, they headed to other wine producing countries such as Portugal and Spain. Travelling through this enormous wine-making region one is struck by how much European and British history is all around you.

Since Château Latour passed back into French hands in 1993, when it was sold to the French industrialist François Pinault, there are really only a handful of British Châteaux owners left which include Leoville-Barton, Bauduc, de Sours, Civrac and Meaume.

One who is making a name for himself down in the sandy plains of Vignonet is Englishman Jonathan Maltus. Maltus moved into town in the early nineties, fresh from selling his project management company, he helped a wine producing friend sell some wine to British merchants Oddbins and decided the wine business was for him. That year he bought Château Teyssier, a beautiful property which sits below Saint Emilion crucially out with of the town’s famous limestone plateau.

Not that you can’t make good wine here, Château Teyssier, is as reliable as they come but you are never going to make great wine here. The sort of wine that can earn you 100 points by influential American wine critic Robert Parker or sell for more than 100 euros a bottle. Not unless you can secure yourself small parcels of land, further up the hill on the limestone plateau in Saint Emilion. Which is exactly what Maltus did.

His first wine to gain recognition was a “super-cuvée” called Le Dôme, a joint venture with Scots wine merchant Hew Blair then wine buyer now chairman of Justerini & Brooks. It was made from low yields on a small parcel of 33-year-old Cabernet Franc vines next to the vineyards of Premier grand cru classe Château Angelus. The first vintage was in 1996 but it wasn’t until 2010 that he hit the jackpot. It was awarded 100 points by Robert Parker, its price soared and for a short while it became as rare as diamonds. Now he’s trying to do it all again.

His latest single vineyard wine, which will hit the market in the Spring, is called Le Pontet produced from grapes grown on a one hectare plot in Saint Emilion. The actual site neighbours Château Fonroque and Château Grand Pontet. Made up of 88% Merlot and 12% Cabernet Franc early samples show much promise. I tasted the 2014 recently in London and was struck by its finesse and elegance, this is like nothing else in the Maltus stable, it was very fine with a graceful finish. I was seriously impressed. Early indications are that the 2015 is a very good year on the Right Bank, if you’re interested in high end Bordeaux I would have a look at this, I predict the critics are going to love it. The 2015 goes on sale next month at £1080 per case through Honest Grapes, run by Englishman Tom Harrow in London. English selling to the English? When it comes to Bordeaux, that’s been going on for centuries.

Three to Buy

2012 Château Teyssier, Grand Cru Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux, France

Always reliable I have been buying this wine for more than 15 years and it seldom disappoints. The 2012 Teyssier has attractive, plummy fruit and a nice weighty mouthfeel. Very polished, this slips down easily but gives more than just a good ordinary claret – very generous on the finish.

2012 Château Beaumont, Haut-Médoc, Bordeaux

Another value claret from vineyards planted on the Left Bank of Bordeaux, so Cabernet Sauvignon based, on land between Margaux and St Julien. Smooth and easy to drink this is a wine to put in your cellar every year.

 JCP Maltus, Saint Emilion, Bordeaux

I tasted a sample of the 2014 in London and was seriously impressed. Dark ruby in colour the nose was alive with dark fruit. Drinking the wine I was taken by how well integrated it was. Its texture (or weight in the mouth) is as light as a feather and the smell and flavor go on to reveal a stunning citrus and orange peel note. Once sipped it has a healthy sweetness on the palate and there is a touch of caramel. The finish is smooth and graceful – Old World Merlot at its very best. On the evidence of the 2014 Englishman Jonathan Maltus has pulled it off again!

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015.