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Leisure: Grand Coup

Jack Smith

“They say the eskimos have 50 different words for snow,” Francois Nodet, cellar master at Château Lafite-Rothschild, muses as he leads the way across the vineyards into the Rothschild cellars. “Here in the Médoc, we have 50 different ways of saying ‘a small hill.’ ”

This is with good reason. Called côtes, croupes, puys, and a multitude of other names by the natives, the gentle sloping terrain defines this swath of land along France’s Gironde River. The hills, formed by Pleistocene glaciers, overlie a subsoil of fine gravel, forcing the vines that cover them to send their roots 60 feet into the ground in search of water. In the credo of French winemaking, this primal struggle for survival endows the wines of the Médoc with a distinctive terroir—part geology and part microclimate—that makes each wine unique.

Its terroir, says Nodet, gives Lafite its remarkable longevity. To demonstrate this, Nodet leads the way to the cellar’s “library,” a barred chamber housing bottles of Château Lafite dating to 1797. “They’re all still drinkable,” says Nodet, who tastes each vintage once a year to make sure. Likewise, its terroir earned Lafite inclusion—along with châteaux Latour, Margaux, and Haut-Brion—as a first growth during the famous Bordeaux Classification of 1855.

Much has changed since then. Bordeaux has seen château owners come and go. The country’s vine stock has been replaced or grafted onto hardier rootstocks from the New World. New winemaking techniques have been introduced. But as Nodet observes while pouring a glass of the most recently bottled vintage, a Lafite 2000, the terroir endures.

So, too, does the verdict of 1855.

When first published, the Bordeaux négotiants’ list of four first growths, 12 seconds, 14 thirds, 11 fourths, and 17 fifths was the object of considerable controversy. In 1973, after a half century of effort, Baron Philippe de Rothschild, cousin to the Lafite branch of the family, succeeded in having his Château Mouton-Rothschild elevated from second to first growth. Baron Philippe notwithstanding, few of Bordeaux’s château owners would challenge this hierarchy today because, as one of Lafite’s neighbors explains, it has served them well.

“In the world of the very wealthy, the symbols of accomplishment are seemingly limitless,” says Jean-Guillaume Prats, CEO of second growth Cos d’Estournel, as a servant delivers midday coffee to the château’s sumptuously appointed parlor. “If you want to buy an expensive home, you may look in Beverly Hills, Vail, Paris—the choices are endless. Art? There is lots of art. The same with yachts; there is no end to them.”

But to have a château in Bordeaux? That, he says, is another matter entirely. “There are only so many grand crus, and they are known around the world,” Prats observes. What’s more, the demand for a grand cru château has always exceeded the supply. “Unlike in California, nobody has ever lost money buying a classified vineyard. If you hold on to the property for five years, it is a guaranteed gain. Even if you have bad management, you can get your money back.” Finances aside, Prats adds, it is fun to own a château. “There are lots of dinners, fetes, ceremonies with medieval robes, and plenty of ritual. It’s a small business, but there is tremendous prestige.”

Yet this class system constrains the château owners as much as it elevates them. “This is not a normal business,” Prats continues. “We are not Hermès or Louis Vuitton—we cannot create a brand. We cannot produce more wine to meet a demand, and we can never raise our prices beyond Lafite. Cos d’Estournel is at the top of the second growths, and we can try to be as close to Lafite as possible. But if it says Rothschild on the label, we will never beat it.”

So it has always been. But now a growing number of small Bordeaux winemakers are challenging this long-standing status quo. They are planting vines on land the château aristocrats have spurned for generations and creating wines using techniques disdained by the grand crus. These upstarts are attracting an international following of oenophiles willing to pay astronomical prices—in some cases $1,000 a bottle and more—for bottles labeled Château Valandraud, La Mondotte, Château La Forge, Château Branon, La Gomerie, Pavie Maquin, and Marojallia—names unknown a decade ago.

In France, these boutique wines are called vins de garage, or garage wines, because they are made in such small quantities—some literally are made in the winemaker’s garage. In private, certain members of the Bordeaux establishment have other names for them. “For me these vins de garage are quite a joke,” says Patrice Turquet, executive director of the Commanderie de Bontemps, a guild of grand cru château owners from the Médoc, Graves, Sauternes, and Barsac. “It is quite easy to make good wines in small quantities. If they wanted, every château in the Médoc could make their own vin de garage. They could select their oldest vines, make a special bottle and special label, and sell it for a higher price. But when you make a small quantity of wine, it is known to only a limited number of people. Do you think Lafite, Margaux, or Yquem would be known worldwide if they produced a small quantity of wine each year?”

This is not the first time that the French have seen certain wines soar on demand without the blessing of the establishment. Petrus was little known beyond its village of Pomerol in the 1950s, when, according to legend, New York restaurateur Henri Soulé invested in 1,000 cases at $12 a case. His investment paid astronomical dividends in the 1960s, when first lady Jacqueline Kennedy served Petrus at the White House, causing the price to soar to $1,500 a case. In the early 1990s, another low-volume producer from Pomerol, Le Pin, became the wine of the moment.

Neither of these, however, were considered garage wines; the classification did not exist until a French critic coined the phrase in 1992. Before this, says Jean-Michel Cazes, owner of Chateau Lynch-Bages, such wines would have been deemed crus artisans, table wines made by local farmers. The difference between the former and the latter is simple, says Cazes. “A cru artisan is a wine that has not yet been discovered by a critic.”

More precisely, one might say, the critic. It is a foregone conclusion in Bordeaux that the impetus behind the garage wine phenomenon is none other than that bête noir of the Bordeaux wine establishment, American wine writer Robert Parker, creator of the 100-point Parker scale.

Parker denies neither his role in the garage wine movement nor his enthusiasm for the genre but expresses surprise that anyone could take umbrage at the wines’ success. “I don’t understand why they’d get upset,” says Parker. “Any time I give a wine from St. Emilion or the Médoc a high rating, it says something good about Bordeaux. How can anybody find anything wrong with taking an obscure piece of property and using low yields to produce the purest, most uncompromising wines possible? The best of these have been dazzling wines.”

Nevertheless, one wonders if Parker has ever considered what his support of the garagistes might do to the prestige of the grand crus, the future of Bordeaux, or perhaps even the grandeur of France itself?

“I’m not reviewing history,” Parker responds tersely, “I’m reviewing wine.”

Therein lies the problem, for in Bordeaux, wine and history are inextricably intertwined. It is a tight-knit, provincial place where gentlemen still play court tennis, the racket sport rooted in the Dark Ages, and where commerce is often fraught with overtones of the 19th century. “We are like a British gentleman’s club,” says Patrick Maroteaux, owner of Château Branaire, a fourth growth, and president of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux. “We welcome everyone—as long as they are at the top.”

It is a pragmatic place where tradition enforces its own circular form of logic; suppositions are not so much tested as confirmed. The aforementioned Classification of 1855, for instance, was a prime example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When ordered by Napoléon III to rank the country’s finest wines, Bordeaux’s negotiants eschewed a blind tasting, which could have proven embarrassing for either the tasters or the most prominent châteaux, or both. Instead, they based the Classification of 1855 on the most quantifiable expression of a château’s terroir: price.

It is no small irony that today, the most talked about wines in all of Bordeaux are assailed as having no terroir at all. What they do have, complains the establishment, is boldness in place of nuance, density rather than delicacy, sex appeal in lieu of restraint. In short, they are wines the way Parker, the world’s most powerful critic, likes them.

If this is so, it is a coincidence, says Murielle Andraud, who with her husband, Jean-Luc Thunevin, is credited with sparking the garagiste movement. “We are not doing anything just for the critics,” says Mme. Thunevin, an athletic-looking woman with jet black hair who appears to be in her 40s, as she moves along a row of vines at their Château Valandraud, snipping with pruning shears as she goes.

Still, one can hardly blame her antagonists for presuming that some sort of Faustian bargain was struck. After all, short of selling your soul, how does one go from owning a bar on the brink of bankruptcy—as Jean-Luc Thunevin did—to creating some of the world’s most coveted wines—as he does now—in a few short years? Mme. Thunevin laughs. “There is nothing secret about what we do,” she says. “You can find everything we do in the history books. The big château owners are just too lazy to do the same thing.”

To be sure, few of the large operators can match the Thunevins when it comes to attention to detail. In 1990, the couple acquired their first plot of land in St. Emilion, about 1.5 acres. For Mme. Thunevin, the little vineyard evoked memories of childhood, helping in her mother’s garden. “That’s where I learned to plant, to prune, and to grow things. So I didn’t think of our vineyard as agriculture; I thought of it as our garden.” When she first began working in their vineyard, says Mme. Thunevin, nobody was practicing “green harvesting,” a technique that involves pruning the early buds in May to reduce the yield and concentrate the sap. “The châteaux used to do it a century ago. It’s a painstaking, laborious process. But with the advent of machinery, those with the best terroir found they could get by without doing it, so they abandoned the practice. People saw me cutting back the first buds in May and shook their heads. It was too complicated, they said.”

In summer, the Thunevins cut away the leaves shielding the Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes from the sun. Come harvest time, the grapes are left on the vines as long as practicable—sometimes well into October—then picked one by one to avoid bruising the fruit. After being individually sorted and de-stemmed, the grapes are crushed by hand, and the juice is gently poured—not pumped—into oaken fermenting tanks. Ultimately, the wine is only lightly fined using fresh egg whites before it is bottled unfiltered.

With its 1996 vintage, the Thunevins’ seventh, Parker awarded Château Valandraud the kind of raves most grand cru estate owners could only dream of. “Opaque purple color, nose of roasted herbs, black fruits, high-class toasty oak,” the critic wrote while awarding Valandraud a 95 rating. Alas, only 400 cases were made that year. Since then, the Thunevins have expanded their holdings and subsequently their output, but most wine lovers are as likely to catch a glimpse of the Loch Ness monster as to enjoy a sip of Valandraud—at any price. “The only way you can buy a case of Valandraud is to be on M. Thunevin’s list,” says an assistant. “And the only way to get on the list is to convince him you will remain a buyer for the next 10 years.”

Thus, from the perspective of the Union des Grands Crus, the garagistes are irrelevant. “These wines don’t exist in the real world,” says Maroteaux. “People talk about them more than they drink them. Five to 10 years ago people said, ‘This is the future of wine.’ Two years ago, it was still trendy. But now, can you name me 10 garage wines? I think it is over.”

Yet some of Maroteaux’s own members don’t see it this way. “The vins de garage have done great things for the Médoc,” says Prats. “They’ve brought a new sense of competition. For a long time, if you bought one of the big names, you didn’t have to improve your wines; the important thing was to just not make any mistakes. But now, here are the garagistes making a fine, expensive wine out of nothing. It behooves us, with our better background, better management, and better soil, to surpass them.”

Rather than surpass the garagistes, some château owners, including Count Stefan von Neipperg in St. Emilion, have joined them. In his muted hacking jacket and ascot, the count is the very picture of the grand cru aristocrat as he leads the way into a vaulted tasting room decorated with the family crest. In the early 1990s local authorities thwarted von Neipperg’s plan to merge two of his five estates on the grounds that one (Château Canon La Gaffelière) was a classified grand cru and the other (La Mondotte) was unclassified. Nettled by this interference, the count decided to prove that La Mondotte’s terroir was the equal of any in St. Emilion. In doing so, he adopted the garagiste model: “green harvesting” for low yield, using gravity feed into new oak fermentation tanks, and eschewing filtration before bottling. The result is a wine Parker has described as “The ultimate garage wine. Ultra concentrated, frightfully expensive, yet worth every cent.”

The count sounds very much like a traditionalist, however, when he speaks of his nearby rivals Petrus and Le Pin. “They are from Pomerol,” he observes. “There is no terroir in Pomerol. If there were, there would be a grand cru château in Pomerol.”

Another grand cru estate that has adopted the garage techniques is Château Pontet-Canet, a fifth growth neighbor of Château Lafite. “It is a very good neighborhood,” estate proprietor Alfred Tesseron observes dryly as he leads his visitor to a vast second-story hall with large, plastic manholes in the floor. “Everybody talks about vins de garage. I make wine in a garage, too. It’s just a very big garage.”

Despite its greater capacity—Pontet-Canet produces 250,000 bottles a year—the winery reflects much the same attention to detail that marks Château Valandraud. “Look,” says Tesseron, pointing proudly to a stack of plastic baskets that are smaller, lighter, and easier to handle than their predecessors. “I designed those myself.” Before these baskets, he explains, grapes would be picked from a vine and dropped into the old baskets, which then were hoisted onto a worker’s shoulder to be loaded into bigger containers for transport to the press. “Each time the grapes moved from one container to another, some of them would be smashed. This is much easier to handle and more gentle.”

Once the harvested grapes arrive on the second floor, they are sorted by hand before riding a conveyor belt to one of Tesseron’s movable presses, located over an open manhole to allow the juice to flow into the fermentation tanks on the floor below without any need for pumps. “It all helps to make a better wine,” says Tesseron, moving down the winery’s stairs toward the vineyards.

So, too, do the techniques employed in the vineyards, where the vines are planted precisely one meter from each other to provide necessary ventilation. “Pruning is a lot of work,” says Tesseron. If two grapes are touching, for example, one must be cut to avoid rot. If he sees a vine trying to produce too many grapes, he will grow some grass in between the vines to sap the energy. As for green harvests, he laughs at the notion that the technique began with the Thunevins. “We’ve been doing it here since 1986.”

Tesseron concedes, however, that the vins de garage made him and his fellow estate owners reassess their roles as winemakers. “Some of us have had estates here for generations, but what really is our job?” he asks. “I think it is to express what is unique about Pontet-Canet. Like the author of a book, I want to create a style for Pontet-Canet, but with wines that are different each year from the one before.”

Then he looks over the low hills to the Rothschild estate and adds conspiratorially, as if confiding a long-standing dream, “Maybe some day Château Lafite will say, ‘We’re the château next to Pontet-Canet.’ ”

Side Story
From the Garage to the Cellar
These Bordeaux garage wines are not only difficult to find but also difficult to acquire. “Few of these winemakers will sell direct,” advises Jeff Zacharia of Zachy’s (800.723.0241, www.zachys.com), the East Coast’s largest wine merchant, “even if a buyer shows up on their doorstep and pleads.” That, of course, is where his firm comes in, should you care to obtain one of the following 2000 vintages:

Château Croix de Labrie
Among the smallest of St. Emilion’s producers, Croix de Labrie was called a vin de salon when owners Michel and Ghislaine Puzio-Lesage aged barrels in their living room. Croix de Labrie is distinguished by its opaque purple color, aromas of roasted meat and coffee, and blackberry jam flavor. ($190)

Château Marojallia
Produced from a blend of equal parts Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, the 2000 Marojallia is characterized by a nose of cassis and intense fruit flavors, with distinctive tannins at the finish. ($195) 

Château Branon
Branon is located between Haut-Bailly and Malartic-Lagravière. The vineyard’s production is equally divided between Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which is blended and aged in 100 percent new wood barrels to produce a wine that is round and rich with aromas of mocha and tannins that assert themselves at the finish. ($225)

Château Valandraud
Produced from 70 percent Merlot and 30 percent Cabernet Franc grapes, the 2000 Valandraud is round and elegant with hints of cherry and toffee and a velvety finish. ($315)

Château Magrez-Fombrauge
With a strong, oaky nose and voluptuously fruity flavors, Magrez-Fambrauge is among the most hedonistic of Bordeaux’s wines. Though it was dismissed by Frank Prial of The New York Times as trendy, Robert Parker gave the 2000 vintage a rating of 98. ($400)

Château La Mondotte
Count von Neipperg’s dedicated winery, built in 1996, produces a wine sometimes described as “Parker style,” with a cherry nose and big fruits in the middle. Its tannins can be harsh when young, but La Mondotte was created to be cellared. ($525)

Château Le Pin
Produced from 100 percent Merlot grapes, Le Pin is a showy wine considered by French traditionalists as more in the style of California than Bordeaux. Its fruity flavors linger on the palate, sometimes to the point of overpowering food. This does not discourage oenophiles from purchasing a bottle—if they can find one. ($2,800)

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