Beyond Cultism on the Right Bank
Conversations about Bordeaux at K&L—both on the phone and sales floor—will more than ninety percent of the time center around the wines of the Mèdoc; maybe the Graves as well if we're looking outside the holy trinity of Pauillac, Margaux, and St. Julien. We're a Left Bank store by focus. We always have been. We love the classified growths with their cabernet base and their long-lived potential. The Right Bank, however? Yeah...we dabble a bit there, too; but over the years it's generally been with nowhere near the level of enthusiasm or passion we show for the other side of the river. The reason for that disproportion is pretty simple: the merlot-based wines of St. Émilion and Pomerol have been cultivated by a rather cultish crowd over the last two decades and the prices have soared as a result. The top names like Ausone, Petrus, and Cheval Blanc are consistently priced between $500 to $1500 a bottle, making a trip across the Dordogne quite steep for those interested in learning more about the region. We've largely stayed out of that game. That's not to say there aren't other interesting wines on the Right Bank, it's just that historically they haven't carried the same reputation or prestige as some of the Mèdoc's second and third growth properties. That perception is starting to change, however, as is the conversation at K&L. We're learning that a renewed focus on vineyard management over the last twenty years has retooled some of the Right Bank's formerly mid-tier châteaux into serious contenders. Properties like Canon, Vieux Château Certan, Pavie, and La Mondotte have upped their game over the last few vintages (even outscoring their higher-priced neighbors), creating a new group of what we typically call "super seconds" on the Left Bank (second-growth properties that come close to first-growth quality for a much more reasonable price), albeit without the official ranking. Dig a bit deeper, and you'll find that the commitment to great winemaking extends far beyond the region's cult producers and into the realm of overlooked value. It's an exciting time to explore the Right Bank, if you ask me.
To be honest, I had never even heard of Château Fonplégade until we drove by it last year on our trip through St. Émilion, but when I saw that it neighbored Ausone and Belair-Monange on the famed south slope—the Côte Sud—I was curious to see how it compared. Given the terroir and the potential for greatness in its vineyards, we all thought the wine could be spectacular, but few of us had ever tasted it (Ralph and Clyde hadn't tasted a bottle since the nineties). Sure enough, once we got back home and popped a few bottles of the newly-arrived 2014 vintage, that assumption was confirmed. I was immediately taken in by this wine, both by the deep-fruited aromatics on the nose and the concentrated palate of rich fruit that lasted for over a minute on the finish. There's a lot of stuffing here, not just plump merlot like some people assume is always the case with St. Émilion wines. Everything about Fonplégade make it a total sleeper on the Right Bank: it's storied history, location, recent commitment to organics, and—of course—the price! It's exactly the type of wine that I'm interested in discovering right now: an under-the-radar value with typicity. I want affordable St. Emilion that helps me better understand what's happening in the region. As a comparison, I checked out the 2014 Dassault, another sleeper we only found because the Vinous publication literally described it as a sleeper value. I had to look it up in my old, beat-up Parker book where I was surprised to find the famed critic describing the producer as one of the most dependable in the region. He claimed that while Dassault wines were primarily made to drink in their youth, you would rarely come across a bad bottle. Simple, but typically damn tasty was his summary. I concurred. It has rich and robust fruit, a supple mouthfeel, and plenty of structure on the finish. This isn't merlot as we've come to think of it in the post-Sideways era.
We discovered what is perhaps the best value in St. Émilion—Tour St. Christophe—after a lunch meeting with Hélène Garcin at Barde-Haut where we noticed the terraced vineyards across the way from her patio. After doing a little research, we learned the property had been recently purchased by the Kwok group who had put a ton of money into reviving those gorgeous slopes. The property was the first to release its pricing during the 2015 en primeur campaign (a more-than-reasonable $22.99), but we went back and grabbed a gang load of their 2014 release: a fleshy, mouth-filling wine that wowed our entire staff for the same price. I think what's most exciting about these wines is that many of them are entirely new adventures for our Left Bank palates here at K&L. We've become accustomed to staying in the Mèdoc over the last two decades, to the extent that we're perhaps a bit late to the party here. Better late than never, however! Those feeling priced-out or off-put by the rising prices of Bordeaux would be well served by giving the Right Bank another look. For me personally, the process has been invigorating, rewarding, and delicious.