RISING STARS & HIDDEN TALENTS: Revitalized Estates, Inspired Projects and Passionate Artisans

Roger C. Bohmrich, Master of Wine

May 8, 2020

Part One - Bordeaux & Rhône Valley

While we are passing through a difficult period, these have been wondrous times for wine lovers. Wherever we look around the globe, intriguing wines catch our eye. Some are the result of well-heeled new owners taking over underperforming properties. Others come from a younger generation who have taken the helm of a family enterprise. In this first part of the story, we look at Bordeaux and the Rhône. In the second, the spotlight will be on Burgundy and a provocative assembly of projects in far-flung areas of the globe. This article is hardly meant to be comprehensive in scope; rather, it is an eclectic and edited collection (and, admittedly, subjective in many ways). Many of these up-and-comers are unlikely to be on the shelf of more than a handful of local shops. Added to this is the perennial vexation for buyers of fine wines: volumes are often minuscule. For those who relish the excitement of the hunt, on the other hand, there are certain to be rewards in this diverse selection of names.  

Bordeaux – Left Bank

            Our exploration begins with the obvious: a region and district yielding many of the most collection-worthy wines, indeed the blue chips of the auction market. Is there anything left to uncover in this widely-known hierarchy? Indeed, there are finds even among the classified growths of 1855.

 

Our first two rising stars are both somewhat familiar names which had already achieved recognition by the mid-19th century. For this reason, they could hardly be called newcomers. Nonetheless, they have passed through what might be called a period of dormancy. In both cases, new ownership and substantial investment have lifted quality impressively. Ranked as a 3rd Growth of Margaux, Château Marquis d’Alesme boasts a truly magical château (Fig. 1) and was growing wine grapes by the early 1600s. A spare-nothing makeover was set in motion in 2006 when the Perrodo family bought the estate (Sarrazin, Jun 2019). They already owned Château Labégorce and acquired Château La Tour de Mons in 2019, giving them a convincing stake in Margaux. The accomplished general manager of the Perrodo properties is Marjolaine Maurice de Coninck, who looked after the renovations at Marquis d’Alesme (seen in the video with consultant Michel Rolland). The facilities were entirely redesigned by 2015 and incorporate French and Chinese motifs (Fig. 2) to reflect the dual heritage of owner Nathalie Perrodo. The 2016 is 62% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot with nearly equal parts of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Fermentation takes place in oak and cement. Marquis d’Alesme has been reborn and once more merits the attention of the most discriminating Bordeaux followers.

Figure 1. The palatial edifice of Château Marquis d’Alesme. Photo Château Marquis d’Alesme.
Figure 2. French and Chinese motifs decorate the cellar of Château Marquis d’Alesme, communicating the cultural background of the estate’s owner. Photo Château Marquis d’Alesme.

Château Pédesclaux, a 5th Growth of Pauillac, has in a similar fashion undergone a metamorphosis following the sale of the property to Jacky Lorenzetti in 2009. An underperformer for years, Pédesclaux has made a dramatic leap forward. Their parcels are scattered and well placed, some adjacent to those of Lafite and Mouton. The 2016 was awarded 93 points by Lisa Perotti-Brown MW (robertparker.com, Nov. 2018) and contains 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. (The share of Cabernet Sauvignon has been boosted and Merlot cut back, in the latest vintages.) Aesthetic enhancements join with technical innovations, among them a gravity-fed cellar with elevator vats to facilitate rack-and-return of the must (Fig. 3). And, once more, the overall look of the Pédesclaux facilities has been restyled with glass and steel to reflect the reinvention of the property (Fig. 4). The Lorenzetti holdings extend to Château Lilian Ladouys in Saint-Estèphe, one of the fourteen Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels as of the 2020 classification (Alliance des Crus Bourgeois). This property has also witnessed a revival of note and represents excellent value for money. Here as well the blend has been shifted in favor of Cabernet Sauvignon in the last vintages (59% in 2018 vs. 32% in 2016) with the purchase of neighboring vineyards (robertparker.com, Apr. 2019).

Figure 3. The reverse rack-and-return phase of the elevator vat system employed at Château Pédesclaux to circulate the must. See film in video version of this essay. Image Château Pédesclaux.
Figure 4. The distinctly contemporary look of Château Pédesclaux which retains a reflection of the past while signaling the reinvention of the wine. Photo Château Pédesclaux.

Another wine of interest, associated once again with the Crus Bourgeois Exceptionnels, is L’Aura de Cambon in Margaux (Fig. 5). Jean-Pierre Marie, owner of Château Cambon La Pelouse, bought a tiny plot of half a hectare (1.2 acres) in 2006. It is uniquely situated between parcels of 2nd Growth Château Brane-Cantenac and 1st Growth Château Margaux (Fig. 6). The site was replanted with equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The wine is aged in 100% new oak. This is a thoroughly modern Margaux which critics have praised. For example, James Suckling’s scoring has been in the 90s: 94 points for 2015 and 92-93 for 2016. But it will be a real challenge to find. In 2019, Treasury Wine Estates, who own an extensive portfolio of brands – notably Penfolds from Australia – purchased Cambon La Pelouse and L’Aura de Cambon. They have appointed a new manager, and improvements in the cellar and vineyard are in the offing (Sarrazin, Nov 2019).

Figure 5. L’Aura de Cambon, Margaux. Photo Château Cambon La Pelouse.
Figure 6. The half-hectare parcel of L’Aura de Cambon (dark, in center) between vines of Châteaux Brane-Cantenac and Margaux. Image Château Cambon La Pelouse.

Bordeaux – Right Bank

            The Right Bank has been, in the past decade or two, fertile ground for creative, quality-oriented estates and projects. Historically, the wines of this part of Bordeaux have been afterthoughts for many collectors, except for a coveted few labels. Scant production remains the most frustrating impediment.

 

            The fact that Pomerol was never straightjacketed with an official classification may have allowed for greater freedom of movement. Wine lovers should bear in mind that this red-wine appellation covers less than 2,000 acres. Some estates mimic Burgundy in scale of production. One of these is Château Séraphine, created by Martin Krajewski in 2016 (Fig. 7). He is engaged in various parts of the world such as South Africa and even with an artisan distillery in Norway. Daughter Charlotte, who worked in New Zealand, is the winemaker at this 2.2-hectare (5.4-acre) property. Martin shared a touching sentiment in an exchange of mail: “Séraphine was my grandmother’s name, so it seemed appropriate that her great granddaughter, Charlotte, should be the one to link our family's past with the present and cast her winemaking magic on this tiny but beautiful property.”  The initial releases, 2017 and 2018, are exclusively Merlot. Cabernet Franc has also been planted. It will be a challenge to find the wine: the production was a mere 3,400 bottles of the first two vintages, combined.

Figure 7. Château Séraphine, with Polish antecedents. Image Château Séraphine.

Another Pomerol estate which has been drawing praise is Clos du Clocher, a short distance from Séraphine, but with a much longer history. It started in 1924 with a small plot near the church (clocher = bell tower) on the plateau of Pomerol east of Catusseau. Currently, the property covers 4.6 hectares (11.4 acres) planted with 70% Merlot and 30% old Cabernet Franc. Clos du Clocher has been on a winning streak over the past decade following a complete renovation of the cellar, where cement and stainless tanks are in place. Clos du Clocher 2015 and 2016 were part of a recent tasting presented by this writer (Commanderie de Bordeaux, 2020). They both exhibit substance, richness and structure, meriting scores well into the 90s. Clos du Clocher has been at the edge of the radar screen for a while. It is well worth the fair price for its current level of quality – and its esteemed appellation (Fig. 8).

Figure 8. Clos du Clocher deserves to be known more widely. Image Clos du Clocher.

Yet another Pomerol, Château Bellegrave (Fig. 9), makes our list. It is not a new undertaking, but remains in the shadows despite being the darling of many Michelin-starred restaurants. The name may hold back awareness as it is easily confused with others carrying the same moniker in Pauillac and Saint-Émilion. Established by Jean Bouldy in 1951, the estate is now in the hands of Jean-Marie Bouldy and his wife, who were joined by their children a few years ago. Their vineyards cover 8.5 hectares (21 acres) and are planted with Merlot and Cabernet Franc in a 3:1 ratio on soils of clay and sand over gravel (Fig. 10). Organic certification was obtained in 2009. This is a medium-weight Pomerol with red fruits and refreshing acidity. Bellegrave is not a showstopper, simply a satisfying drink which marries harmoniously with foods. A classic Bordeaux, in other words.

Figure 9. Château Bellegrave, Pomerol, not to be confused with other Bordeaux wines of the same name. Image Château Bellegrave.
Figure 10. An aerial view of Château Bellegrave. Photo from video, Château Bellegrave.

Clos Romanile is a recent arrival in Saint-Émilion, created by Rémi Dalmasso, cellar master of one of the appellation’s most remarkable success stories, Château Valandraud. The clos is now a mere 1.8 hectares (4.4 acres) planted with 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Production is minuscule, around 1,500 bottles. Both the 2015 and 2016 presented by this author at a recent seminar (Commanderie de Bordeaux, 2020) exhibited ripe, concentrated black fruit and berries, evident new oak and defining structures. A tad less extraction will raise it to a higher level. Clos Romanile is a promising wine to follow and see how the Valandraud connection shapes its progress.

 

Château Tour Saint Christophe, a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, is a recent acquisition, taken over in 2012 by Peter Kwok and his daughter Karen. There are six other Right Bank properties in the Kwok portfolio, among them Bellefont-Belcier (vignoblesk.com). The vineyard covers 20 hectares (just shy of 50 acres) on a clay and limestone soil. Considerable work has been done on the château and surrounding land. Remarkable for Bordeaux, vines are planted in part on narrow terraces supported by dry stone walls on a hillside overlooking the Saint Laurent Valley (Fig. 11). Grapes are Merlot (80%) and Cabernet Franc (20%). The fermentation is in concrete, with about one-fourth directly in barrique. This micro-processing technique, called vinification intégrale, is increasingly favored on the Right Bank. The result is a modern expression offering mature black fruits and berries offset by defining tension. 5,000 cases were made in 2016, which seems plentiful compared to the micro crus highlighted in this article. Pricing is very attractive.

Figure 11. Château Tour Saint Christophe and its vineyard terraces, atypical of Bordeaux. Photo Château Tour Saint Christophe.

Another dynamic estate in Saint-Émilion is Château Barde-Haut, whose most recent vintages reflect years of investments by Hélène Garcin and Patrice Lévêque (whose charm comes through easily in the accompanying video). Between the two, the couple owns and oversees multiple wine estates, among them the highly regarded Clos l’Église in Pomerol and Bodega Poesia in Argentina. They acquired Barde-Haut in 2000 and completed an innovative “green” renovation in 2012 featuring a stylish, modernistic winery (Fig. 12) with solar panels where the wine moves by gravity. That same year, the property was awarded the title of Grand Cru Classé in the new classification of Saint-Émilion. A variable blend, usually around three-fourths Merlot together with Cabernet Franc, Barde-Haut is a finely crafted, well-defined rendition allowed a high proportion of new barrels (four-fifths or more). The couple’s lofty aim is to elevate the estate to the rarified ranks of the Premiers Crus Classés, and they seem to be the perfect team to do so. Hélène Garcin explained their motivation: “It’s a beautiful piece of land…We felt that the property deserved the best. Because it’s our wealth, our terroir. We want to express that” (Mullen, 2017). Luckily for Bordeaux fans, the production of this 17-hectare (42-acre) vineyard is close to 6,000 cases, making the wine relatively obtainable. Elan is the word that comes to mind to encapsulate Château Barde-Haut.

Figure 12. The clean, cool and unabashedly contemporary design of the chai of Château Barde-Haut. Photo bodegapoesia.com.

Northern Rhône

            The first stop in the Rhône is at Domaine du Coulet in Cornas, owned by Matthieu Barret (Fig. 13), who also offers a range of appellations apart from his estate vineyards. The wines are certainly not a secret, but they are hardly widely known. In part, this may be due to the nature of Cornas, which can be demanding for many tasters as a young wine: concentrated and structured with a pronounced acid backbone. To many, however, this pure Syrah is emblematic of the Northern Rhône. Matthieu Barret’s first vintage was 2000, and he quickly adopted a biodynamic regime. Cultivating 11.1 hectares (more than 27 acres) by hand and horse on the terraced hillsides of Cornas, he utilizes well-seasoned 500-liter casks for the first year of aging, and a combination of concrete vats and eggs for the second. He releases up to four separate bottlings, of which Brise Cailloux is the most plentiful at 15,000 bottles (Fig. 14).

 

This is artisanship at work.

Figure 13. Matthieu Barret in his cellar. Photo Bobo Selections.
Figure 14. One of Barret’s four cuvées of Cornas.

Another vigneron of note in the Northern Rhône is Aurélien Chatagnier (Fig. 15), who set up his own domaine in 2002 with a single hectare of vines he farmed but did not own. Slowly over the next decade, he cobbled together an estate of nearly 8 hectares (just shy of 20 acres). His offerings take in many appellations of the Northern Rhône’s right bank such as Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie, and Cornas, but Saint-Joseph – in both red and white forms – is the bread and butter of the range (Fig. 16). He prefers a warmer maceration for his Syrah-based wines (30° to 32° C or 86° to 90° F). Jeb Dunnuck wrote that “Chatagnier’s 2015s were impressive across the board” (robertparker.com, Dec. 2016). Here is another source of authentic Rhône wines.

Figure 15. Aurélien Chatagnier. Photo Paris Wine Company.
Figure 16. Aurélien Chatagnier’s principal Saint-Joseph, a 100% Syrah sourced from parcels in four communes and matured in used barrels. Image Paris Wine Co.

Not far away on the opposite bank of the Rhône is Domaine Melody in Mercurol. The owner, Denis Larivière, struck a partnership in 2010 with Marlène Durand, native of Tain, and Mark Romak. The fruit is no longer sold to the Cave de Tain. They say their approach is somewhere between tradition and modernity. Melody makes several cuvées of Crozes-Hermitage, red and white, from organically farmed grapes spread over 44 acres. The estate has Syrah in the proven terroir of the Plain of Chassis (origin of Jaboulet’s long-lived Thalabert bottling) which is the foundation of their top wine, Premier Regard. Étoile Noire (Fig. 17) comes from vines more than 45 years old in the north of the Crozes zone.  The 2017 was described by Joe Czerwinski as “full-bodied, creamy textured and showing superb concentration and balance…” (robertparker.com, Jan. 31, 2020). What else needs to be said?

Figure 17. Crozes-Hermitage Étoile Noire of Domaine Melody. Image Domaine Melody.

An intriguing footnote – not owing to the wine itself but to the negligible number of bottles – is the ultra-artisan Côte-Rôtie of Domaine Chambeyron-Manin. From a half-hectare parcel, this is a starkly honest paradigm of a time gone by from the Côte Brune. Tasters speak of violets, black fruits, pepper and smokiness. This pure Syrah is the antithesis of a “technical” wine: indigenous yeasts, long whole-bunch fermentation in cement, aging in cask (some new), no fining or filtration. Sadly, they only make 2,000 bottles. You will probably have to make a trip to Ampuis to find it at the family’s country store, Les Jardins de la Côte-Rôtie. Complete the experience by picking up some local cheese such as Rigotte de Condrieu and one from Ardèche (www.jardins-de-la-cote-rotie.fr).

Southern Rhône

There are several names to flag in this part of the Rhône Valley, closer to the Mediterranean. There are flat vineyards on terraces as well as hillsides, but not the vertiginous slopes of Côte-Rôtie or Cornas. Many more grape varieties are planted, and nearly all wines are blends.

 

Perhaps the least familiar of Rhône crus – the top tier of the Valley’s appellation hierarchy – is Rasteau. It remains in the shadow to a degree, having been elevated to cru status only as of the 2009 vintage. Rasteau is in the main a dry red and sometimes a vin doux naturel (naturally sweet fortified wine). Élodie Balme makes both styles. At least half Grenache is mandated by the rules with variable shares of Syrah and/or Mourvèdre. Rasteau can be one of the richest and most fruit-endowed of the Southern Rhône blends. Among the leaders of this denomination, Élodie Balme remains rather confidential. She created her domaine in 2006 when she was in her early twenties. Stylistically, her stated aim is to tame the strength and structure of Rasteau, introducing elegance and finesse with gentle extraction. Concrete cuves are preferred along with a very few well-seasoned demi-muids. The warm and colorful labels seem to mirror the wines themselves (Fig. 18), which include a basic Côtes du Rhône and a Villages. Pleasure awaits.

Figure 18. The colorful presentation of Élodie Balme. Image Domaine Elodie Balme.

Adrien Roustan is the youthful talent at Domaine d’Ouréa (Fig. 19) who brought new life in 2009 to a family holding of 20 hectares (nearly 50 acres) on which eight varieties are planted. The estate is certified organic. There are four red cuvées: Vacqueyras, Gigondas, a regional Côtes du Rhône, and a Vin de France called Tire Bouchon (“corkscrew”) whose grape mix features old cultivars such as Aramon, Oeillade and Counoise. The five Gigondas parcels are situated along the slopes of the jagged Dentelles in the zone known as Grand Montmirail. They are planted at elevations up to 520 meters (more than 1,700 feet). As is true for the red Vacqueyras (there is a white and a rosé version as well), Gigondas (Fig. 20) sees only concrete in this cellar. There is no wood, in other words, to alter the expressive fruit in the reds of Domaine d’Ouréa.

Figure 19. A stunning panorama of vines and the Dentelles de Montmirail. Photo Domaine d’Ouréa.
Figure 20. The Gigondas of Domaine d’Ouréa sourced from five parcels on the slopes of the Dentelles. Image Domaine d’Ouréa.

Château Gigognan is an estate in the admired and long-popular appellation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, largest cru of the Rhône. There are many superb properties here and, it seems, few newcomers. Standards are high. The property (Fig. 21) was taken over by Anne and Jacques Callet quite a while ago (in 1987), and they have gradually revamped the château itself, creating a well-appointed B & B. The cellars have similarly been refurbished. Still below the radar of most Rhône fans, Gigognan has a substantial property of 74 acres in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation as well as 104 acres in regional Côtes du Rhône. Their estate was certified organic in 2009 and has made steady progress. The Clos du Roi cuvée (Fig. 22), based on 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah, has received good notes from critics. Cuvée Cardinalice is their flagship label and relies on up to 100% old-vine Grenache. Jeb Dunnuck wrote in his review of the 2015s: “I rarely find the wines of this historic, large estate in the US, but the wines are consistently enjoyable” (robertparker.com, Oct. 2016).

Figure 21. Château Gigognan. Photo Ville de Sorgues/sorgues.fr.
Figure 22. The Clos du Roi bottling of Château Gigognan. Image Château Gigognan.

Discoveries await in this contrasted collection from Bordeaux and the Rhône whether you lean toward an aristocratic property or an artisan grower. There is something for every wine lover who is willing to experiment. The thrill is in finding the unexpected! This is not an exhaustive list: It goes without saying that many other names could have been mentioned. In the second part of our look at rising stars and hidden talents, we will consider a wide-ranging mix which will take us on a world tour, with stops in distinctly different locales. For now, we have to be content with virtual visits, but that will change.

REFERENCES

References

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