Bordeaux's Youth Movement
Having become more involved over the last few years in K&L's Bordeaux department, the foundational pillar of our company today and the burning passion of our store owner Clyde Beffa, I've seen first hand the transition that the modern retail structure faces moving forward when it comes to the French category. Personally, I too love Bordeaux because I've learned at the side of America's most renowned Bordeaux retailer. I've learned first hand to love the flavors, the history, the diversity, and the romance of classic French claret. I love everything about the culture and the cultivation, as it's everything that I enjoy about wine appreciation. That being said, I'm not blind to the challenges we face marketing to a new generation of drinkers, one that prefers curated and unique experiences over integration into a long-standing and traditionally-focused genre. But that's not all we're up against when selling Bordeaux to tomorrow's wine enthusiasts. We're talking about fine wines that have quadrupled and quintupled in price over the last few decades, that are sold years in advance requiring pre-payment reservation systems, that need to be stored for further decades until they reach peak maturation, and that are marketed almost entirely by critics whose points make or break the success of each subsequent vintage. In my opinion, Bordeaux will need a youthful shot in the arm in order to maintain its dominance and move beyond a rigid system of negotiants and courtiers, an insurgence of new blood that will captivate an audience in search of something outside the norm that they can enjoy here and now. That's why I decided to spend my Sunday in the region with two of my favorite young producers, starting with Hélène Garcin-Lévêque and her husband Patrice at Château Barde-Haut in St. Émilion.
As you come over the hill to the east of St. Émilion, you can see the iron red buildings of Barde-Haut beyond the sprawling vineyards, a working windmill spinning nearby. It bares little resemblance to some of the time-honored châteaux on the Left Bank with their Downton Abbey-esque classicism. It's much more like a modern farm, committed to energy efficiency while spending most of the money on the winemaking itself, rather than keeping up aesthetic appearances.
I spent the entire afternoon having lunch with Hélène and Patrice, tasting the newer 2016 and 2017 vintages from their four main properties (Barde-Haut, L'Église, Poesia, and d'Arce), and talking about life and wine in their beautiful dining room. Nothing about their approach to wine is intimidating or imposing, but rather fresh and exciting. Hélène is a ball of energy and she's as funny as she is engaging. I've written about her many times before and we've hosted a few tasting events together in Redwood City, but I never get tired of introducing her wines to new K&L customers who think Bordeaux is too complicated or complex for their more modest interests. While the wines are top notch and high in quality, in no way are they difficult to understand or outside an affordable price range. The 2015 d'Arce for example is twenty bucks and it's one of the most drinkable and enjoyable values of the outstanding vintage. It's not overtly tannic, earthy, or course in any way. It's lush, loaded with fruit, but it still maintains a sense of restraint and balance. I can't imagine anyone not liking it, even die-hard California fans who want richer and fuller texture from their reds. After lunch, Patrice the winemaker, ever the reserved figure in contrast to Hélène's dynamism, stoically dipped into the 2017 barrel samples to give us a preview of what's ahead. While 2017 was a vintage ravaged by frost, the hills around Barde-Haut protected the vines from much of the cold and the wine ended up just fine. I was downright shocked, to be honest. It was fruity and lush with plenty of ripeness to balance the acidity. I'd been led to believe 2017 was a bust on the whole, but once again I learned not to rely on generalities when it comes to vintage reviews.
After lunch, we said our goodbyes to Hélène and Patrice and headed south toward Cadillac to meet up with our friend Thibault Despagne who runs an estate in the Entire-deux-Mers region, between the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, called Château Tour de Mirambeau. 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. Both his reds and whites are well-made, affordable, and approachable in their youth. They're food-friendly and balanced, but also entirely drinkable on their own. We spent the evening hanging out at his home, checking out his vines, and drinking through his fantastic portfolio of wines. “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.”
Unlike many of the structured, more traditional, slow-moving and old school Bordeaux dinners I've experienced over the last ten years, eating at Thibault's house is a much more modern affair, unrestricted and free-flowing like a casual party with great booze. Like Hélène, he's young for a château owner—in his mid-forties—and he's much less stuffy in his approach to wine than the average Bordelais winemaker. We paired his outstanding Mirambeau blancs with sushi and smoked fish before popping open some of the juicier reds while grilling various meats in the backyard. Everything I tasted was well-made and delicious, precocious and unpretentious. While properties can change hands between owners in Bordeaux, 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 is fixed. Despite a lack of upward mobility in Bordeaux, there is still a sense of optimism from the latest generation of winemakers. They're no longer letting themselves be fenced in by classical expectations and the restrictions of tradition. Thibault recently declassified some of his Bordeaux wines, calling them "Vin du France" under a label called Free Spirit. "We wanted to be free from the structure of limitations," Thibault said as we ate. "It's about freeing your mind." Expect to see wines from Thibault at K&L in the near future.