Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Finding Quality & Value in Sainte-Foy and Francs Côtes de Bordeaux

During a week-long trip to the Côtes de Bordeaux regions in July, I had the chance to meet winemakers from two of the smallest of the five appellations, Francs and Sainte-Foy.

Francs is home to about 40 winemakers, while Sainte-Foy only about 20. As I tend to find in smaller, lesser-heralded regions, the winemakers I met here seemed to have a cooperative spirit, an ethos that a rising tide of attention on the region's wines will lift all boats.

Most of the Côtes de Bordeaux wines are made in small quantities and sold within France itself. The value of these wines has been evident to me for years, and the wines feature prominently in shops and bistros throughout Bordeaux. Of the export market, China leads the way, followed by Belgium, while the United States comes in third.

The vineyards in Francs are spread among the rolling hills on the northern banks of the Dordogne River. Lots of limestone soils here fit the Merlot grape well, but Cabernet Sauvignon makes up 25% of red grapes, followed by Cabernet Franc. Semillon leads the pack of white grapes here.

Sainte-Foy is the smallest and newest of the Côtes de Bordeaux appellations, joining the union in 2016. East of the city of Bordeaux, along the Gironde River and near the mouth of the Dordogne River, the clay and limestone soils here support vibrant Merlots, along with a good amount of Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyards are spread among the communes outside of the town of Sainte-Foy, and the average estate is about 20 acres.

During a lovely lunch at Chateau La Peyronie, located in the Francs Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, I had the chance to taste through a bunch of Sainte-Foy and Francs wines. Unfortunately, only a few of these wines seem to be available in the U.S. The price points (when available) are based on Wine-Searcher averages.

I'm hoping that I see more and more of these wines on U.S. shelves. The high quality, relatively low price points, and early-drinking appeal of many of these wines make them quite attractive.

My notes on the wines I tasted are listed below.

2018 Château Martet Blanc - France, Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Sainte Foy Côtes de Bordeaux

Aromas of apricot, orange, with lemongrass and white pepper. Very bright on the palate, but bountiful tropical fruit (grapefruit, peach, pineapple), with mineral, floral and chalky tones. Plush texture but fresh, very good stuff. Semillon with Sauvignon Gris, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. (89 points)

2018 Château Puyanché Blanc - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Creamy and inviting on the nose, apples, pears, honey. On the palate, this barrel-fermented wine stands out, but it’s also quite nuanced and vibrant. Creamy, plush and leesy, but there’s a talc, mineral and chalk essence that I really like. Eye-opening stuff for me. 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Semillon, started in stainless steel and aged seven months in barrel with lees stirring. Insane value here. (91 points)

2016 Château Franc Cardinal - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Nose shows strawberries, cherries, roses, sweet smelling herbs. Smooth on the palate, light tannins, medium+ acid. Raspberry and strawberry-driven with earth, cola, coffee tones. Light and fresh fun style. Merlot with 24% Cabernet Franc and 4% Malbec aged eight months in French oak. (87 points) 

2016 Château Galouchey - France, Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Sainte Foy Côtes de Bordeaux
Fresh strawberries and cherries on the nose. Light tannins, fresh acidity, juicy and fruity but easy-drinking with subtle earth and leather notes. Fun, simple, in a good way. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 12 months in French oak. (86 points)

2016 Château Coutelor La Romarine - France, Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Sainte Foy Côtes de Bordeaux
Dark currants on the nose with bell pepper and roasted herbs. Bold tannins with fresh acidity, dark and crunchy currant fruit. Nuanced earth, coffee, pepper. Cabernet Sauvignon with 5% Merlot. (88 points)

2016 Château Laulan - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Cherry compote on the nose. Plush yet shows moderate tannins, with cranberry, strawberry, pepper and spice. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec aged 12 months in oak. (87 points)

2015 Château Godard Bellevue - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Sweet and rich and saucy on the nose. All sorts of jammy fruits, plush texture and light tannins, low acidity. Jammy, forward style. Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon aged 12 months in oak. (84 points)

2015 Château Le Prévot - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Juicy and dark aromas with sweet coffee, black pepper glaze. Rich and fruity with moderate tannins, fresh acidity, and tart currant fruit. Coffee, cocoa, pepper tones. Merlot with 10% apiece of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. (87 points)

2015 L'Eden de Lapeyronie J. F. Lapeyronie - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Plummy, cherries, earth on the nose. Full and velvety on the palate with suave tannins and fresh acidity. Currants and plums mixd with cocoa, pepper and cedar. Well done. 50% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc aged in 30% new oak. (88 points)

2014 Château de Francs Les Cerisiers - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Nose shows saucy red and black currants, cocoa, scorched earth. Plush feel, velvety tannins, this is a juicy, sweet plum-dominated wine with some interesting anise and roasted coffee tones. 90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. (87 points)

2012 Château Moulin de Gueyraude - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux
Smells of plum cake, prunes and sweet black licorice candies. Tannins are smooth, medium acidity, with plums and prune fruit. Notes of coffee and black tea. Merlot with 10% apiece Cab Franc and Cab Sauv. (85 points)

2016 Château Lapeyronie - France, Bordeaux, Libournais, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
Sweet plums on the nose with roasted figs, cocoa and earth. Quite refined and fresh with juicy cherries and figs. Lovely acidity and freshness. Really vibrant, crisp, floral, but plenty of red fruits. (90 points)

2016 Château Tour de Goupin - France, Bordeaux, Entre-Deux-Mers, Sainte Foy Côtes de Bordeaux Liquoreux
Sweet honey and tennis balls on the nose. The palate is rich and unctuous, showing medium-low acidity, and flavors of apricot, orange marmalade. Sweet but seems a bit thin the same time? All Semillon from 50-year-old vines in clay and limestone soils. (85 points)

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Adapting to a new climate reality in the Côtes de Bordeaux

Merlot vines at Chateau La Peyruche.
I was gearing up for a day of touring vineyards and tasting dry red wines in Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, yet I felt anxious. The temperature reached 104 Farenheit the day I arrived, and I had been reading about the record-breaking high temperatures across Western and Northern Europe. Prone to heat exhaustion and missing my air conditioner at home, I hydrated feverishly, soaked my cooling towel and hung it around my neck, as I headed out for the day. It reached 108 degrees that July afternoon.

The intense heat wave passed halfway through the trip, as rain fell on these vineyards for the first time in more than a month. And while this was one for the books, bouts of extreme heat are becoming more commonplace.

Known for its iconic sense of history and tradition, Bordeaux winegrowers and vintners are reassessing how they operate in light of climate change. From picking grapes earlier, to altering their blends, to considering new grape varieties altogether, winemakers are utilizing different tools to brace for the impact of a much warmer climate.

To be clear, I felt no sense of panic from anyone I spoke with about this topic. Winemakers all over the world are struggling with how to adapt to climate change (some more than others), and when it comes to farming, change is constant.

But as I talked to people in the wine industry during a week-long trip, I found a stoic acceptance that climate change will drastically alter the landscape of Bordeaux wine. Adaptations are necessary, and well underway.

Earlier this summer, the Bordeaux winemaker’s syndicate voted unanimously to amend rules for the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations, allowing for seven new grape varieties to be included for wines bottled under these appellations.

France’s National Institute for Agricultural Research has been testing dozens of grape varieties for years, to determine which might fare better in the hotter, drier climate to come. Among the new grape varieties are: Touriga Nacional (renowned grape of Portugal’s Douro Valley); Arinarnoa (a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat); and Marselan (a Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache crossing). White grapes like Petit Manseng and Albariño will also be permitted for white blends. These grapes may soon be included in these Bordeaux wines up to a combined 10% of the blend.

The move would only affect two appellations, but Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur make up about half of the wine produced in the entire region. The change still needs approval from the French government, so the process will take time. But this would be the first amendment to these appellation rules since the 1930s, and it demonstrates that Bordeaux winemakers are doing what they can to hedge their bets.

During my visit to the Côtes de Bordeaux (a group of appellations spread among the Entre-Deux-Mers and Right Banks) the shifting climate was a hot topic of discussion. All the winemakers I spoke with seemed to have a wait-and-see approach to planting these new grape varieties. While no one I spoke with voiced any objection to this move, neither was anyone chomping at the bit to plant Marselan — although one winemaker told me he had planted Albariño years earlier.

It’s too early to tell how vintners will weave these varieties into the larger quilt of Bordeaux wines. As I toured a new Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard on a scorching, sunny day, Bertrand Weisgerber (owner of Chateau La Peyruche in Cadillac) said he sees opportunity in having different options when planting or re-planting a vineyard. “It makes sense,” he said. “I think it’s a good time to try new things.”

Wine producers here have been adapting to climate change in their own ways for years and years, because they’ve been seeing the change in their vineyards first-hand. “The wine industry has been [one of the] first to face this challenge,” said Stéphane Apelbaum of Optimum Vineyard Management & Consulting. “It seems like we’re having two seasons instead of four.”

At Chateau Les Conseillans, in Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux, I tasted some beautiful Merlot-based wines and talked about the future of the grape. Here on the Right Bank of the Garonne, the early-ripening Merlot grape has long dominated, backed up by the other major Bordeaux grapes. But Apelbaum says, as the climate changes, he sees Merlot’s dominance fading.

Stephane Apelbaum at Chateau Les Conseillans.
Thirty-five years ago, he said, Merlot was often harvested fully ripe at levels that led to an alcohol content of about 12.5%. In current vintages, he said, Merlot grapes are being harvested with potential alcohol around 15% or higher. Merlot grapes can be picked even earlier (which many winemakers are already doing), but not too early, or you end up with bitter and unbalanced wines.

This Merlot dynamic is leading some winemakers in these Right Bank regions to focus more on grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec, which can ripen more evenly in warmer temperatures. And other, non-traditional grapes may feature more in future red Bordeaux blends. Apelbaum mentioned interest in Tempranillo as an option, given that long-term projections of Bordeaux’s climate start to resemble those of some warmer regions in southern Spain. Other winemakers I spoke with showed interest in Portuguese reds as well.

The changing climate can pose difficulties for winemakers trying to create balanced wines, said Patrick Honnef of Côtes de Castillon’s Chateau Page. But his Merlot-based reds (especially the 2016), showed that fresh, vibrant Merlots are still alive and well. “I would not say there is panic, but a lot of work to do,” Honnef said, adding that he would soon be visiting southern Spain to meet with winemakers and discuss how they’re adapting to climate change.

Even a region with such storied history and winemaking tradition, growers and winemakers will have to evolve and adapt with this new climate reality. At the same time, I found passionate winemakers who want to continue making wines that represent their house’s history, style, and terroir.

“We still have to respect the Bordeaux style,” Apelbaum said. “But we must prepare. We must face this.”

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wine Reviews: International Grab Bag

This week, I’m back with a catch-all report of wines I received these past few months but didn’t get around to reviewing until recently. (It’s been a busy and enjoyable summer, and I hope the same is true for you.) 

Smith-Madrone’s Spring Mountain wines are consistently some of my favorite from Napa, and I love their Chardonnay and Riesling. So, since I tasted these wines sighted, I tried to approach them with as much skepticism as possible. That said, the 2016s showed wonderfully. Crystal clear, pristine wines that are both begging for serious cellar time. And for the price, I’m still amazed these wines exist.   

C.V.N.E. comes through with some moderately-priced Riojas worth checking out. And Italy’s Garafoli provides three wines from Marche that offer some deliciousness and intrigue for the price. 

Lastly, Virginia’s Early Mountain delivers a juicy red quaffer for those late summer scorchers. 

All of these wines were received as trade samples and tasted sighted. 

2016 Garafoli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore “Podium” - Italy, Marche, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi
SRP: $26
Light yellow color. So perfumed, with aromas of peaches, limes, dandelion, floral potpourri, sea salt. Nice breadth of texture on the palate with vibrant acidity. Oranges, yellow plums, apricot, lots of fresh fruit, with plenty of sea salt and spicy floral potpourri, along with richer elements of honey and wax. Lots going on here. A single-vineyard Verdicchio, fermented and aged in concrete and stainless steel. (90 points)  

2018 Garofoli Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico Superiore “Macrina” - Italy, Marche, Verdicchio dei Castelli di Jesi Classico
SRP: $15
Light yellow color. So floral, with lots of honeysuckle and daisies, along with peaches, honeydew and limes. Lively and crisp on the palate with a pleasantly plump feel. Honeydew drizzled with lime, and I get these notes of chalk, minerals, punchy herbal tones as well. This is pure summer fun but also shows significant complexity, especially for the price. Aged five months in concrete and stainless steel. (88 points)  

2016 Garofoli Rosso Conero Piancarda - Italy, Marche, Rosso Conero
SRP: $17
Deep, juicy purple color. The nose boasts raspberries and black cherries with smoky menthol, wild herbs, eucalyptus and pepper. Vibrant acidity, dusty tannins, with a solid core of red and black cherry fruit. Notes of smoky, charcoal, herbs, a bit sharp and linear, but there’s enough juiciness and complexity that it works. Spicy incense notes on the finish. 100% Montepulciano aged one year in oak. (88 points)  

2016 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Cune Crianza - Spain, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
SRP: $13
Vibrant ruby color. Nose shows juicy black cherries, spiced cranberry sauce, clove, roses and tobacco. Crisp, lively and fresh on the palate with dusty tannins. The wine is ripe and juicy but stays fresh and bright. Raspberries, cherries, topped in cocoa, dusty earth, roses, clove and mint. Lots of complexity here for a wine at this price point. An attractive, inviting, drink-me-now Rioja. (88 points)  

2016 C.V.N.E. (Compañía Vinícola del Norte de España) Rioja Viña Real Crianza - Spain, La Rioja Alta, Rioja
SRP: $16
Bright ruby color. Aromas of cherries, chilled strawberries, along with sweet roses, clay/earthy tones and cocoa powder. Fresh and bright, light tannins, juicy red fruit, crisp acidity. Cherries, raspberries and pomegranate mix well with roses, rhubarb, anise and mint. Fun, juicy, balanced, accessible but complex for the price. Aged 10 months in American oak. (88 points)  

2016 Com Tu - Spain, Catalunya, Tarragona, Montsant
SRP: $55
Rich purple color. Spicy aromatics with sage, pepper, creosote and mint, along with smoky cherries, sweet cranberry sauce, with cedar, coffee and incense. Juicy and full-bodied with suave tannins and moderating acidity, not too heavy for 15%. Raspberry and strawberry jam fruit mixes well with sweet coffee, mint, eucalyptus and pepper. The complexity is quite nice, smooth and accessible, totally delicious, but showing some complex floral, spice and earth tones. Grill-friendly stuff that packs a punch. A project from Rene Barbier Ferrer of Clos Mogador. 100% Garnacha from 35- to 50-year-old vines, aged 18 months in barrel. (90 points)  

2016 Smith-Madrone Riesling - USA, California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $34
Light yellow color. Gorgeous nose of salted limes, apricot, pineapple, with dusty, chalky, sea spray notes. Laser-like focus on the palate, quite dry and vibrant. Juicy yellow and green apples with limes, and a complex mix of limestone, ocean spray, mountain stream and crushed shells. Such a lively, complex, balanced and age-worthy Riesling. Smith-Madrone does it again, and this vintage is a stunner for the cellar. 12.8% alcohol, about 0.7% residual sugar. (93 points)  

2016 Smith-Madrone Chardonnay - USA, California, Napa Valley, Spring Mountain District
SRP: $40
Light yellow color. Aromas of juicy yellow apples topped in complex notes of honey, almond, cinnamon, sea salt, hay and chalk dust. Deep texture on the palate with pretty acidity and lovely balance. Yellow apples, candied lemons, orange peel and apricot, juicy and fruity but also airy and elegant. Salty, minerals, chalky, with notes of honey, nougat and hay. Gorgeous, deep, yet vibrant. Another beautiful Chardonnay from Smith-Madrone. Barrel fermented with 80% new French oak. I’d love to age this for five years. (93 points) 

2018 Early Mountain Vineyards Soif - USA, Virginia, Central Virginia, Madison County
SRP: $26
Deep but bright ruby color. Very pretty, juicy, fresh nose of red plums, candied cherries, bubble gum, with sweet pipe tobacco. Fresh and lively on the palate, light-bodied (12.3% alcohol) with soft tannins and zippy acidity. Plums, cherries, raspberries, super juicy but it’s also showing complex nots of earth, soy, rose potpourri and clove. So fun and delicious. An interesting semi-carbonic wine, a blend of 49% Cabernet Franc, 33% Merlot, 13% Petit Verdot, 3% Chardonnay and 2% Cabernet Sauvignon. Soif means thirst in French and Early Mountain certainly made a gulpable, juicy, low tannin, crushable red in this difficult vintage. (88 points)