Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Revival and revolution in Bordeaux … Hugh Johnson visits Le Chai au Quai

A scatter of skiffs, drifting disconsolate in slanting rain is the only shipping on the broad Dordogne. This was where barrel-barges tied up three-deep on the wharf, where wines from twenty villages started their voyage to the sea. There has been nothing in the warehouses of Castillon for decades, but there is action now. The broad pedimented front of Le Chai au Quai is once again open for business, with oak and wine, busy with courtiers and oenologists, reviving the era of the traditional quayside négociant.

I went over last week to taste the wines in their warehouse, half from different parts of Bordeaux, half from up-country, the rocky hills of Roussillon or even from Spain. The new concept is to have a central collecting, maturing and bottling warehouse for wines created by our wine makers. This was the first group assessment, to see what was working best, and what was missing, in a range of wines we will all be seeing in the months to come.

I was specially pleased to taste a line-up of what in the past was a négociant’s main standby: wines selected as typical of Bordeaux’s best-known communes. We worked down a line of the historic names: Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St Emilion, Pomerol.

In the old days these were blends of small lots surplus to châteaux’s requirements. Le Chai au Quai has taken a different approach, working with hand-picked estates and bottling their wines unblended, with all their character intact, under the name of the appellation they represent. Selling us half their crop in barrel benefits their cash flow and gives us the chance to mature, finish and bottle the wine precisely as we like it.

Certainly I have rarely seen a set of generic wines so convincingly encapsulate the tastes and smells, the mouthfeel and liveliness, that makes Pauillac and Pomerol, Margaux and Pessac-Léognan legendary names.

Will we ever get back to using barges?

Friday, 1 August 2008

Hugh visits Burgundy to find growers are raising their game …

We all need white Burgundy, or so we think. Red Burgundy is more of an option: there are so many serviceable reds out there that the precious pleasure of Pinot Noir is a special-occasion thing. If I’m right it may partly explain a phenomenon I noticed on a brief visit to Burgundy last week. The reds are becoming more interesting, more satisfying and more sharply defined. Every tasting from a line of barrels poses more intriguing questions: terroir, ripeness, flavours of toast or caramel from the barrel, depth of flavour (where from?), a singing cherry note in one sample and an earthy beetroot one in another. The winemaker finds them: he doesn’t put them there. How come he is finding more of them, liberating (it seems) tastes derived only from the grapes, therefore only the ground? It feels as though sensitivity is growing; as though farmers are waking up to subtleties they never noticed. Going easy on the sugar has something to do with it. It was routine to chaptalize: sacks of sugar went in the vat whether they were strictly needed or not. When farmers sold everything in barrels to merchants they were hardly even curious about what they were making. It would scarcely affect the price, and the merchant took the responsibility.

Now they bottle everything themselves they meet their audience face to face; have to answer questions that never occurred to them before. The wine, like the transaction, becomes more immediate, more transparent - for better or worse. Inevitably the grower raises his game – and we are the beneficiaries.

2007 was not a great Burgundy year. I found some good fresh wines for drinking soon, and some for 4 or 5 years away, but nothing much of real resonance to keep for your bairns’ bairns. The old growers’ routine would have been to bluster your way through, denying the difficulties. I still heard some curious statements about exceptional soils and miraculous escapes from rot. When you are eyeballing the guy, though, with the sample in the glass beside the barrel, there is nowhere for him or his wine to hide. You admit its imperfections and (if you are wise) learn to look for virtues. No virtues, no sale.

I’m not finding quite the same thing with white Burgundies at the moment. I remind myself how majestic they can be – sailing into the future with the assurance of the great reds. I drank a bottle of 1990 Corton Charlemagne recently which was still cruising. Not so many seem built to do that these days; the word plausible comes to mind too often. We need them, though; we’ll buy them.