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Côtes of Many Colours  (February 27, 2003)

Think of Bordeaux and what springs to mind? The great growths of the Médoc and Graves? Elegant, towered chateaux with rose bushes defining the rows of vines? Bordeaux futures at dizzying prices? Wines you have to lay down for fifteen years?

There is another Bordeaux that has nothing to do with the 1855 Classification, a Bordeaux where you can find first-rate table wines at prices the most frugal wine drinker can afford.

This is the Bordeaux of the Five Côtes – Bourg, Blaye, Castillon, Francs and Premières Côtes de Bordeaux. Less fashionable, more affordable. I toured the Côtes during the 2002 harvest, and here is what I found.

Côtes de Francs
Vineyards: 50 km NE of Bordeaux, 10 km East of St-Emilion, adjoining Côtes de Castillon.
Area: 500 hectares
Average size of domaines: 6 hectares
Average annual production: red 29,000 hectolitres, white 1,000 hectolitres
Growers: 77
Cooperatives: 1

 
  Philip Holzberg in his vineyard at Château Franc-Cardinal

In November, 2001, my friend Philip Holzberg, late of Vancouver, fulfilled the dream of every wine lover. He bought a château in Bordeaux.

Actually, it's a farmhouse with three separate vineyards totalling less than 10 hectares not far from Château Puyfromage. But he makes a château-bottled wine.

Château Franc-Cardinal is located in Bordeaux's smallest appellation, Côtes de Francs, in the village of Tayac, which boasts an 11th-century castle and a 12th-century Roman church.

 
The 12th-century Romanesque church in Tayac, Côtes de Francs  

Now Philip has a foot in both of France's most prestigious regions, because he also owns a 26 per cent interest in Domaine de Clivet, with vines in Les Pierres Blanches and Les Vris vineyards in the Côte de Beaune. "I built it myself from scratch and took the Ministry of Agriculture diploma necessary to become an exploitant," he explains. The total production: 200 cases of Pinot Noir.

But he is a claret man at heart, since he and his South African winemaker-partner basically consume all the Burgundy they produce themselves. "We were making garage wine," he says, "before the term was invented."

Château Franc-Cardinal's three parcels of vines are 2 kilometers apart in an idyllic pastoral setting of gently rolling hills, cow pastures, hay fields and woods. They're planted to 70 per cent Merlot, 25 per cent Cabernet Franc and 5 per cent Malbec and produce between 4,000 and 5,000 cases a year.

"I bought the property for the vineyards. The previous owner, Jean-Louis Lacour, kept the vines like a gardener," says Philip. "He and his wife Jeanine used to sell in bulk but bottled 2–3,000 bottles for himself and restaurant clients."

Lacour called his wine Domaine du Cardinal. Philip, with deference to the region – and to distinguish the wine from his Burgundy – changed it to Château Franc-Cardinal for the 2000 vintage.

 
  Philip Holzberg discusses the new vintage with Jean-Louis Lacour and his wife Jeanine

The Lacours are still very much in evidence, as they like to visit their old vineyards and help out when they can. In fact, they were there the day I arrived, and we tasted four vintages together. All the wines are fermented in cement tanks and only the 2001 was aged in oak.

1997: Very youthful purple colour, holding to the rim. Medium-bodied with an earthy, blueberry flavour and soft tannins (86)
1998: Purple colour; spicy nose of violets and red berries, very delicate, light and fruity with a blueberry finish (88).
1999: leaner with red currant and pomegranate flavours, light with fresh acidity (85).
2000: first Château Franc-Cardinal vintage – dense purple colour with a bouquet of lavender, red berries and blueberries; well-structured and more intense but still fruity and charming (89).
2001: (bottled 4 weeks previously) dense purple; Merlot sings through on the nose as crushed blueberries. A little shy but with good fruit (88+).

Other Côtes de Francs wines tasted and worthy of your attention: Château Lalande de Tifayne 2000; Château Puygueraud 1999.

Premières Côtes de Bordeaux
Vineyards: on the right bank of the Garonne, forming a narrow band 60 km long and 5 km wide, from Bordeaux to Langon.
Area: 3,400 hectares
Average size of domaines: 12 hectares
Average annual production: red 180,000 hectolitres
Growers: 300
Cooperatives: 2

 
  Juha Berglund, proprietor of Château Carsin, Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux

"I'm the only Finnish wine producer on an economic scale in the world," claims Juha Berglund, the extrovert and highly voluble owner of Château Carsin, located in Rions, near Cadillac in the Premières Côtes de Bordeaux. The land is hilly here, unlike the flatness of the Graves directly across the river.

With a group of Finnish investors, he purchased the property in 1990 to make New World-style wines in Bordeaux.

To this end he hired an Australian engineering company to create a small replica of Brian Croser's Petaluma winery. From his 57-hectare site he produces 50/50 white and red, including the unusual Château Carsin Signature Etiquette Gris, 100 per cent Sauvignon Gris. There are only 50 hectares of this variety in France and four of them are planted here.

Berglund is the unofficial hostel for travelling Finns, it seems; the day I visited there were seventeen sleeping around his office and under the billiard table, including a two-star Michelin chef from Finland who was busy in the kitchen.

Château Carsin 2000: deeply coloured with a nose of cedar and chocolate with a rich, muscular structure and a red berry flavour – quite unlike any red wine I've tried from this region (88).

Other Premières Côtes de Bordeaux tasted and worthy of your attention: Château Jonchet 2000, Château Langoiran 2000

Premières Côtes de Blaye
Vineyards: 45 km north of Bordeaux, facing the Médoc.
Area: 5,500 hectares. In effect, 5 appellations (Premières Côtes de Blaye red and white, Côtes de Blaye white, Blaye red and white)
Average size of domaines: 15 hectares
Average annual production: red 300,000 hectolitres, white 30,000 hectolitres
Growers: 800
Cooperatives: 5

Château Roland La Garde produces some of the best wines of the appellation. Owner Bruno Martin plants more densely than his neighbours, relying on a high proportion of Merlot (78 per cent) because he finds Cabernet Franc "too hard" in his clay-loam soil. He uses Malbec for colour, concentration and a black pepper note.

Martin makes three qualities of blended wine – Tradition, Prestige and a Grand Vin. He also makes a varietal Malbec.

Château Roland La Garde Grand Vin 2000: dense purple colour; smoky, cedar, vanilla nose, masking the fruit at the moment but the palate tells you it's there in great concentration; firm, intense black fruit ands licorice flavours (90+).
Malbec 2000: dense purple, tobacco, vanilla and spice on the nose; mouthfilling, earthy, peppery, blackberry and currants with a tannic finish (88).

 
Château Segonzac in Blaye  

Château Segonzac is another winery to watch. All five Bordeaux varieties are planted on its 30 hectares (Merlot predominating at 60 per cent). The chateau has a commanding view of the river across from St. Julien. Three wines are made – Tradition, Vieilles Vignes (40-year-old vines, 50/50 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon) and the flagship Héritage.

Château Segonzac Héritage 2000: (70 per cent cabernet Sauvignon, 20 per cent Merlot, 10 per cent Cabernet Franc) dense purple colour; smoky, toasty, oak-driven, rich ripe fruit, well balanced but still gripped with tannins. A terrific wine that needs time (90).

Château Le Raz Caman is situated at the same latitude as Pauillac. Jean-Francois Pommeraud uses a fair whack of Malbec in his wines. Both the 1999 and the 2000 vintage (scored 89 and 90 respectively) have a lovely raspberry character with great structure. The 2000 is fatter, spicier with an elderberry note. Good value wines.

Côtes de Bourg
Vineyards: at the confluence of the Dordogne and the Gironde
Area: 3,800 hectares
Average size of domaines: 10 hectares
Average annual production: red 220,000 hectolitres, white 1,200 hectolitres
Growers: 550
Cooperatives: 4

Château Rousselle is a must-see for visitors. The chai is a riot of colour and the steel tanks are named after the Seven Dwarfs. The proprietors Vincent and Natalie Lemaître produce a very unusual rosé: white wine added to red juice left in new barrel oak barrels. They have 17 hectares in Bourg and two more in Blaye (from which they make another wine under that appellation called Château Haut-Vigneau). They also run a Bed & Breakfast (two delightfully furnished rooms), an ideal jumping-off point for touring Bourg & Blaye (e-mail: chateau@chateaurousselle.com).

"The wines of the five Côtes are not for keeping a long time like Médoc and Graves," says Jacques Eymas of Château Gros Moulin. His family has been growing wine here for ten generations. A stone windmill dating back to the eighteenth century, depicted on the label, dominates the château, which is situated a kilometer south of town of Bourg. Gros Moulin 2000 spent 9 months in oak. A deep purple wine with a bouquet of spice and plums, full-bodied and powerful, forward with soft tannins (89).

Château Roc de Combes is owned by François Mitjavile, proprietor of La Tetre Rôteboeuf in Saint Emilion. The compact vineyard of 13.5 hectares sweeps down to the river, planted to 65 per cent Merlot and 35 per cent Cabernet Franc. The wines are massive and dense, spending two years in 100 per cent new oak. A tank sample of Merlot 2002 tasted like raspberry jam. The 2001 Merlot from barrel was firmly structured with concentrated plummy fruit. The best wine I tasted on the entire trip was a half bottle of Roc de Combes 2000, succulently sweet fruit with floral, vanilla and clove notes. The oak has not fully integrated yet but the tannins were soft and round (92).

The second wine labelled as Domaine de Combes comes under the basic Bordeaux appellation, since the fruit comes from three hectares on the flat land nearest the river where the drainage is not as good as on the slopes. The 2002 was light with a floral, cranberry and redcurrant flavour, finishing firmly (86).

Château Guerry is a 22 hectare estate, set high on a hill with sloping vineyards. Its proprietor, Bernadette de Rivoyre, produces elegant, long-lived wines with a high percentage of Malbec. Over lunch we tasted the 1996 (mellow, floral, red fruit with well integrated oak (89)), 1999 (elegant blueberry flavours, intense, round and well structured (89)) and 2000 (dense purple with rich, ripe fruit and floral notes (90)), finishing with the 1990 (mature, licorice and dried fruits, sweet blackcurrant and truffle flavours, a venerable claret (91)).

Other Côtes de Boug wines tasted and worthy of your attention: Château Rousset 2000; the white wine of Château de La Grave 2001 (one of ten white wine producers in Bourg: Semillon and 30 per cent Colombard, 50 per cent aged in American oak, the rest in stainless steel).

Recommended Côtes de Castillon wines: Château Valmy Dubourdieu Lange 1999, Château d'Aiguilhe 1999.

 

 

 

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