Monday, May 3, 2010

The Terroirs of St. Emilion and the 2004 Vintage

B-21s Annual Bordeaux Grand Tasting and Sale had advertised a seminar titled "The Terroirs of St. Emilion and the 2004 Vintage" which was to be led by Stephane Derenoncourt, proprietor of the right-bank property Domaine de L' A and consulting oenologist to many.  Like many other travellers in that time period, Stephane fell victim to the the travails of the Icelandic volcano and could not meet his B-21 commitment.  With an agility belying its age, B-21 quickly arranged for Jeffrey M. Davies, the American-born, Bordeaux negociant, to step in to fill the gap.  The seminar retained its original title but was sub-titled as "The Wines of Stepahne Derenoncourt ... presented by Jeffrey M. Davies."

The story of Stephane Derenoncourt, his rise from relative obscurity to the pinnacle of the wine world, his right-bank wines, and the 2004 vintage in St. Emilon have all beeen succinctly covered in the January 6, 2009 edition of the Organic Wine Journal so we will not plough that ground again.  Instead, we will detail the property not mentioned in that article (Chateau Clos de l"Oratoire) , pass on any insights gleaned from listening to Jeffrey on that day, and share the findings from that day's tasting.
Davies was extremely laudatory of Derenoncourt's farming practices.  Davies felt that his aeration practices afforded the vines better protection in both rainy and drought periods and, in addition, allowed them to extract more mineral complexity from the soil.  His predilection for dry farming stressed the vines and forced vertical growth and the associated increased complexity of the resulting wines.  Davies also felt that the lack of crushing and pressing during the sorting process allowed for fruitier, softer wines.
We began the tasting with the 2004 Chateau Clos de l'Oratoire, wine produced from a 10-hectare vineyard residing on clay, limestone and Fronsac "molasse" ("sandstones, shales, and conglomerates formed as terrestrial or shallow mineral deposits in front of rising mountain chains") for the hillside plots and clay and sandstone for the foothill plots.  This 35-year-old vineyard is planted to 90% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Cabernet Franc.  Grapes for the 2004 vintage were harvested (Merlot, October 5th through 7th; Cabernets, Octber 16th) into small plastic crates, twice sorted, and then fermented in temperature-controlled oak tanks.  Malolactic fermentation occured in 80% new oak barrels with aging on fine lees.  The final blend was 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc.
On the nose, this wine displayed characteristics of sandalwood, licorice, dark chocolate, and mushrooms.  It had good acid, good length, and pronounced aromatics.  Davies identified length-of-finish as a good indicator of a quality wine and also pointed out that the lack of oaky notes signified good integration between the tannins and wood.
La Gaffeliere, a Premier Grand Cru estate, is located in the foothills looking south to the Garonne on sandy-clay soils.  In the 1500s and 1600s, the Chateau, which has been in the same family since the 1400s,  served as a hospital for lepers.  Derenoncourt, according to Davies, began working with this estate in 1983.  When right, again according to Davies, this wine exhibits quintessential elegance.  Qualities exhibited by this wine included chocolate, black fruit, some vegetality, phenols, spice, and saltiness.  It had green tannins and a rich, silky softness.  This wine was aged in 100% French oak, a practice that Davies sees Bordeaux dialing back on as oak and toast tend to hide the fruit. The probable final blend for this wine was 50% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Franc, and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.

Jeffrey was very enamored with the Clos Fourtet.  The vines sit on soil that has a little clay and a lot of limestone.  The wine has a great mouthfeel and is fresh and delightful to the taste.  For Davies, everything is in harmony as the wine is beautifully balanced, with great length on the finish.  This wine is approachable now but, in Davies view, can be cellared for an additional 10 years.

Davies pointed out that Stephane started his career at Chateau Pavie Macquin, a vineyard that sits on a clay-limestone plateau.  The wine exhibited forest floor, dank minerality and mineral complexity.  It had a good mid-palate and good tannin and acid structures.  Davies believes that this wine has a drinking window of about 10 years but, that being said, he is reluctant to place drinking windows on Bordeaux wines.  In his view, the best vintages in Bordeaux can now be drunk young, medium-young, medium-old, and old.

I had hoped that with the vineyards having similar viticultural and vinicultural practices, resulting from the commonality of Derenoncourt's oversight, any differences that came through would be a reflection of the terroir associated with a specific wine.  But, as indicated in the notes, the wines also differed in final blends, another factor that would affect the perception of the wine by a taster.  All in all this was a very interesting exercise with seminar attendees having an added layer beyond what was expected in that we had the opportunity to have Jeffrey Davies expound, in his inimitable style, on Derenoncourt, his practices, his wines, and the terroir of St. Emilion.

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