There’s talk of “new” winemaking in California today—as in producers who are beginning to look beyond the rigidity of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, and towards the potential for great wine outside of the Napa Valley. When you think of Bordeaux, however, with it’s own cabernet-dominated culture, the word “new” doesn’t really apply to anything about the region. The great wines of the Mèdoc are still classified by a ranking system established in 1855. They’re still sold by a courtier system that was established in the 1600s, run by a series of middlemen that continue to control the inventory as they have for centuries. Bordeaux is one of the most-historic and beloved of all wine regions in the world, still drawing the attention of international markets all over the world striving to create their own wine culture. The wines can age for decades, are coveted by collectors globally, and are the standard by which all other clarets are judged. That being said, there is little upward movement in Bordeaux, and a lesser amount of interest in producers outside the heralded communes we’ve come to know. While properties can change hands between owners, which can ultimately change their perception in the minds of wine drinkers, what they cannot change is their class designation. The first growths are set, the lines have long been drawn, and the respect that comes from those historical designations are fixed.
Despite the lack of upward mobility in Bordeaux, there is still a sense of optimism from the latest generation of winemakers. Take Thibault Despagne for example, the owner of Château Mont-Pérat—an estate in the Entre-deux-Mers region of Bordeaux that sits between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers near St. Emilion and Cadillac. His family purchased the 18th century estate from a pair of Algerian brothers back in 1998, replanted the vineyards, and set out to create a new heritage of their own under the Côtes de Bordeaux designation—a classification that gets little attention from wine drinkers who see the region as Right Bank or Left Bank. Entre-deux-Mers is on neither side, however; it’s right in the middle.
Near the water is exactly where Thibault wants to be, however. He and his wife Anne met while surfing on the Garonne one afternoon and they both enjoy the outdoor lifestyle that the area provides them. “You can actually surf on a river?” I asked him, quite surprised. “Yes,” he told me, “It’s quite a famous wave. We’ve had a number of renowned surfers from around the world come through here. It’s becoming quite trendy, actually. Our secret little spot is no longer a secret.” We stayed for dinner at Château Mont-Perat last night, joining Thibault and Ann in their cozy kitchen for a lovely evening.
We started with oysters, blew through a few bottles of Château Mirambeau rosé and white (the family’s other property in Naujan-et-Postiac), cooked up a few steaks on the grill outside, and talked about the business as we ate. Thibault opened a magnum of 2005 Château Mont-Perat to have with the entrecôte. I was taken aback. It was far better than I expected it to be, the soft red fruit of the riper vintage still lingering on the palate ten years later. This was serious Bordeaux. “We have really good terroir here,” he said in between bites. “We thought this property was quite underrated when we bought it. The Château sits in the middle of the vineyards, so it’s beautiful. But there is also a lot of limestone in the soil. We thought it had potential and I think this wine proves we were right, don’t you think?”
The next morning we took a walk around the property and got a good look at the vines. “You can see that all the vineyards are planted on these hills, which are rather sandy at the top, but as you move down the soils are more clay and limestone,” Thibault mentioned. When he bought the property almost twenty years ago the vines were in rough shape, so the family decided to rip out the existing roots and replant with cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc, and semillion. “We planted all high-density vines which helps the roots to dig deeper into the earth and results in lower yields with smaller clusters of berries. People thought we were crazy at the time.” Striving to make more than simple table wine in the Entre-deux-Mers probably did seem a bit crazy back in the late 90s. Most farmers in the area were working to increase their volumes, not sacrifice them in the name of higher quality fruit. “I want to make the first growth of Entre-deux-Mers,” Thibault said later on. “The terroir is here, you just have to work harder to obtain it.”
I spent the other part of the morning talking with Anne, trying to entertain her young daughter Alba, while my friend Charles and Thibault took a look at the winery. I was explaining to her the Francophile mindset of many American wine aficionados, and how it can often seem more like a contest than an honest appreciation. She laughed and said, “It’s the same thing here. We have French people who are obsessed with American things. Look at the surfing, for example. I have a lot of friends who dream of moving to California. I think it works both ways.” Just like I’ve spent years traveling back and forth between France, falling in love with the culture and lifestyle, Anne has spent years working near Huntington Beach for American fashion brands like Quicksilver. She's seen a similar perspective—the pretense that can exist on both sides. But between two cultures, between two rivers, there’s an optimism about the future of Bordeaux and the potential for top-quality wine outside the prized appellations. It exists outside all the perceived conceptions we carry about great wine. While Thibault was concerned about his secret surf spot being discovered, I was thinking how nice it would be to keep his Château Mont-Perat wine completely to myself—my own little secret wine outside the mainstream. Like most good things, however, they’re eventually found out. That’s part of the reason I was there visiting, right?