Goats, amphorae, Whatsapp, wine aged in space, terroir, bats, non-fungible tokens and sexual confusion all crop up as we look beyond the Bordeaux stereotypes in a sponsored episode with the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB).
Sharing their expert views with us on the latest goings-on in the region are Bordeaux-based writer and critic Jane Anson (author of Inside Bordeaux) and Yann Todeschini of Château Mangot in St Emilion.
We discuss everything from sales to sustainability via soils, biodynamics, biodiversity (including why Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Lafite are ripping up vines to plant trees), orange wine, en primeur, the 2019 vs the 2020 vintage and experimental new grape varieties. And there are plenty of top tips along the way for wines and producers that challenge preconceptions.
Peter Richards MW (PR): What makes Bordeaux Bordeaux?
Jane Anson (JA): Probably a mix of frustrations and delights! Bordeaux has been making wine for 2,000 years and nearly 1,000 years under the current set up – chateaux on one side busy making wine then you have this weird system setting barriers in a way between chateaux and consumers, because you have brokers and then merchants sending the wine off to market. Makes it frustrating in many ways, there’s less clarity over pricing etc, and yet it also helps keep the mystique and it is also some of the smartest marketing of any food brand globally because you have thousands of merchants who are going out around the world and building up these brands and talking about them and it’s a very interesting place. There are so many inconsistencies and contradictions about Bordeaux but keeps it interesting.
PR: In your magisterial book Inside Bordeaux, you say, ‘Bordeaux is so familiar to us that we almost stop seeing it.’ What did you mean by that?
JA: I meant that there are lots of things we think we know about Bordeaux. We think it’s simple: Left Bank, Right Bank, Bordeaux is about big brands, Cabernet Sauvignon on the Left Bank, Merlot on the Right Bank. We tend to see Bordeaux as being a place that’s all about the money and we don’t necessarily connect it to the brilliance of the individual wines that are made here. For me as well, I wanted to, looking at this book, to start afresh, to get rid of those preconceptions, and understand what is really happening here today. When you look deeper, Bordeaux is a very exciting place, there are tons of winemakers pushing the boundaries. Then you look at history and realise that’s always been the case. I talked about the system – brokers, negociants – that keep Bordeaux at the front of people’s minds. But it’s also because right back in the 17th or 18th or 19th centuries, this is the place where things have moved. The first wine brands were made here; some of first wines put in bottle; some of the first malolactic fermentations: so many firsts have happened in Bordeaux and then gone out to the rest of the wine world.
PR: And not just because it was a wine centre but also a trading hub – a harbour, the rivers, connecting trade, was that part of it?
JA: Yeah, you cannot take away the location. There’s location in terms of terroir but also location in terms of route to market, and that has been crucial to Bordeaux throughout its history.
PR: You focus on Bordeaux’s terroir and soils in the book. Making the point this is an under-appreciated aspect of Bordeaux. How are things changing in the Bordeaux vineyard today?
JA: That was without doubt one of the things I found the most fun to talk about and where I really felt I was moving the conversation on. That’s what you want to do when you start writing a book of this size. What we’re seeing now is a very interesting transition: where people are doing an awful lot more studying of what’s happening in their vineyards and how to bring out best of each individual plot. Bordeaux will never be Burgundy: it will never have a ton of individual links between a single bottle and a single piece of soil. But we’re missing the point of that: part of the beauty of Bordeaux is this width of expression it has, if they can identify within a large 80-ha vineyard, how to make the best out of every plot, and treat it differently, right vines there, harvesting or trellising differently, then we as consumers are still getting a brilliant wine that’s a reflection of that vineyard. still get the best expression of that vineyard.
PR: So blending varieties and plots being one of the key strengths of Bordeaux. Whereas in Burgundy they tend to focus on the individual sites.
JA: Exactly. But it is actually quite cool. Just recently I was writing about the rise of single variety wines. It goes hand in hand: the more they get interested in what’s happening in the individual parts of their vineyard, the more they start thinking: that’s cool, that’s an unusual piece of heavy clay, I’m going to do a single variety bottling from that. So we are seeing that as well. But the beauty of Bordeaux is the complexity you get from blending wines across this big area in say the 1855 estates. We’re not going to lose that. But need to start recognising that as a strength.
PR: How much innovation are you seeing, like single varietal wines?
PR: What we’re seeing is a lot more experimentation. Again, that’s what I love about the idea of reconnecting with terroir. It becomes fun. And Bordeaux is in this phase of understanding more about organics, biodynamics, really really trying to be serious about the fact that for too long, because they had these big estates, they did short cuts to ensure the vineyards worked well and looked good. There’s a real sense now you can’t do that, it’s not feasible or sustainable. Can’t do short cuts to get to grapes. So there’s an awful lot of biodiversity happening. I’m going to Cheval Blanc this afternoon, there they have a big agroforestry programme – they’ve actually pulled up 3,000 vines to plant 3,000 trees in the vineyard. It’s a really fantastic programme. They also have chickens, goats, there’s a whole farm going on now at Cheval Blanc. This is one of the greatest estates in Bordeaux, they charge an awful lot of money for wines, and they are symbolising this kind of renewed sense of engagement with vineyard that’s going on in Bordeaux right now.
PR: That’s really interesting. Because pulling up just one vine at Cheval Blanc must have a massive financial implication!
JA: Exactly. Lafite is doing same thing. Pulling up 3 ha of vineyard to plant trees and to do biodiversity programmes. Again: serious financial implication.
PR: Are you seeing it on wider level? Cheval Blanc and Lafite are top estates, they can afford to do stuff. Sustainability is a buzzword now in Bordeaux but historically France is one of the heaviest users of pesticides. Are things really changing all across the scene?
JA: Everywhere in France by 2030 has got to, across all appellations, have introduced green measures into their cahier de charges, or quality charters. So in a way it’s easy to say: we’re fabulous. But actually they’re being told to do this at the same time. But yes, every level of Bordeaux. Appellations like St Emilion, very early on, it’s been 3 years now, have said: if you want the name St Emilion on your label, you must have not necessarily organic but doing some kind of certification to show you’re serious about environmentalism. Also now 70% of Margaux is signed up to biodiversity charter, again the same deal. The hard thing is when you’re in AOC Bordeaux or Bordeaux Superieur, where you don’t have so much money per bottle, you need to make a lot of bottles for bottle to even potentially have a profit. That’s tough, I’m really impressed when you see those guys making an effort.
PR: Talking about climate change. What’s your take on the new grapes varieties authorised like Touriga Nacional and Alvarinho?
JA: As of January this year, it was allowed for planting. Up until this point they were just talking about it. Now you are seeing vineyards planting. But it will be another 3 years before they can use them, will only be max 10% for blend. This is still a period of trial. If after 10 years they decide it’s not working, you’ll have to pull it back up again. So people are a little bit wary to go ahead. I’m seeing a number of estates planning to trial, having planted, not planning to put it in their first wines. So we’ll lots of separate vinifications over the next 4-5 years to see how works. My own personal feeling is I hope we don’t see too widespread adoption of it, I hope we see people understanding they currently have lots of tools they can use – bring down canopy cover for less photosynthesis, trying to bring sugar levels down. You can even have less dense plantations as obviously one of the problems is scarcity of water in hot dry summers. Looking at clones, rootstocks, all these things to react better to what is unquestionably more challenging conditions. So it’s interesting, understandable why they’re doing it but I hope they find ways within their current varieties to cope with climate change. One thing we’re seeing that I’m really enjoying is a lot more Petit Verdot even on the Right Bank, gives higher acidity, structure and freshness, is a really nice small part of blend. We’re even seeing more Cabernet Sauvignon even on Right Bank. So people are experimenting and working within the current rules. These new grape varieties are a nice extra potentially.
PR: You mentioned Petit Verdot: there seems to have a big rise in alternative varieties?
JA: Yeah, we talked about the 100% varietal. There’s a couple I’d recommend. Ch Bellevue in the Medoc, always makes brilliant Cru Bourgeois level wines, they have a 100% Petit Verdot, awesome, totally recommend it. There’s also a cool estate in Entre-Deux-Mers, Ch Marjosse, owned by Pierre Lurton of Cheval Blanc, his home estate but ‘just’ Bordeaux Superieur and Entre-Deux-Mers. He’s just introduced this year a range of super interesting 100% varietal wines, pretty sure Carmenere, 100% Semillon, Muscadelle, Merlot. Got a really good range, worth checking out.
PR: Top tips! Thanks. What about winemaking changes you’re seeing in Bordeaux lately?
JA: I’m sure it’s happening all over. Bordelais do love to move in packs. But we’re seeing more amphorae, larger oak casks, less oak use generally. Not in top estates, they need it, they’re charging a lot for wines that can age through the decades, so they do need oak for that. But you’re seeing a lot more flexibility at lower levels. A few orange wines! Another recommendation I’d have is Ch de Cerons, a small property, just started an orange wine. A Bordeaux version, 2 or 3 days, if that, skin contact. So orange wine ‘lite’, but it’s great, called Coucher de Soleil, means sunset, which is a lovely name for an orange wine.
PR: Isn’t it just! Turning back to commercial side of things: En primeur. The system has come in for a lot of flak and there’s been a lot of change – Latour withdrawing completely. More and more chateaux holding back stock, so you can’t buy it as investment option because the chateaux want to take the profits that the market’s been taking. It’s understandable but there’s been a lot of change. Will en primeur soon be a thing of the past?
JA: It’s understandable they’re doing it but also to me slightly incomprehensible at same time. Because they have benefitted so much from this system. Not just financially. But in terms of global renown of Bordeaux. A lot of chateaux now are forgetting that. A lot of the reason they’re so globally renowned, and are in every country worldwide, it’s because they have ensured over the centuries that there’s a reason for wine buyers and sellers to stock it. So everyone can make money from it. It’s a little naïve to think that’s no longer the case, to think just their brand alone is enough. Yes you can go straight to consumer but Bordeaux makes a vast amount of wine and they sell in every country around the world, that’s a lot of logistics, the brilliance of negociants is they take the hassle out for chateaux for getting into all markets. So I can understand why they want to keep it, and it’s true our mode of consumption has changed, we don’t have cellars, so there’s a benefit for them to keep it and sell it at later date. But the idea that they also want to take all the profit out at the same, it’s concerning for them and for the long term future for en primeur. That said, last year 2019: one of those weird years where everyone was happy. Some because they thought it wasn’t going to happen and it did. Wine buyers and sellers: they made some money, so they were thrilled. And the end consumer: got fantastic wines at a great price. And for me 2019 better than 2020 consistency across the board. And if you were lucky enough to buy last year and now you see prices for 2020…boy are you happy.
PR: So is 2020 one to forgo or a must buy?!
JA: Well there are some great wines. I really enjoyed it. Not as consistent as 2019 but some of my favourite wines, particularly St Emilion, were some of my favourites for years. But now you see the price increase, I’d still say: go for 2019. If you can afford to buy 2020, you’ll be happy with the wines. But you’ll find a better deal going for 2019.
PR: Other favourite vintages to drink?
JA: 1996 – if you can drink 1996 Medoc, particularly the classifieds, god they’re good right now. Just tasting delicious. I love 2005 always, so balanced elegant but powerful vintage, probably my favourite vintage of Bordeaux. I’ve started to love the 2000s. I was a 2001 girl for a long time but now 2000s have opened up, softened, really starting to come into their own.
PR: Leoville Barton 96 was a seminal wine for Susie and me. Unfortunately we have none left now!
JA: Can’t be that many still out there, but if you can track them down, get hold of them.
PR: Is Bordeaux in danger of losing contact with everyday wine drinker through this commercial system you’ve described?
JA: What is genuinely happening is that Bordeaux is splitting quite a lot. You have the icon wines and the top estates. They have their market, no question, they’re brilliant. They last for decades. They’re wonderful wines, will always have market, we might get annoyed at the prices but some are happy to pay them and will get enormous pleasure when they drink them. But there’s also another side of Bordeaux, this is where we’re starting to see cool changes and evolutions. Eg Chateau Darius, St Emilion Grand Cru, they minted a non-fungible token, you can buy a digital version of Ch Darius, you can make it exchangeable for a real bottle of wine. They released it at £100 per bottle – it’s a fun new way of doing it. But it created a massive buzz, engaged with a whole new kind of consumer. That’s fun to see. Then you have some of the best value but brilliant wines are the smaller guys doing interesting stuff. There’s another place, Clos Nanou in Northern Medoc, they have ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines back to mid 19th Century, bottled as a separate cuvee, you can buy for under 30 euros in Bordeaux. It’s a magical wine, talks of 150 years of history, so there are smaller cool estates out here in Bordeaux, it’s just finding them. Hopefully Inside Bordeaux helps, there are lots of great people writing and talking about Bordeaux, so many fun ways to find out what’s happening in this region.
PR: The average price of a bottle of wine in the UK is about £5. For everyday bottles, is Bordeaux still an option? Or do you have to look higher up the price spectrum to get bang for your buck?
JA: If we’re talking about under £5, after taxes etc, it’s difficult to buy that and give winemakers a decent cut and return. Once you guy £5-10, maybe you’re being a little fairer to the person who produced it. I’d say: go to own label Bordeaux, you get great stuff from BBR, Wine Society. Because they’re working with the best producers cos they’re bringing in their better labels. So that’s a great short cut, to know you’re getting a good winemaker, going through brilliant buyers who care about quality and don’t want to put their name on it unless it’s good. I’d also say: look at the smaller estates that are owned by well known people eg Eric Boissenot, a consultant with his own estate, Ch les Vimières le Tronquera, good value Medoc made by one of the best consultants in the world. Also big estates that have smaller properties. All about shortcuts with Bordeaux – so much wine made here. You need to have shortcuts to use to get value.
PR: Moving to the other end of spectrum…Ch Petrus aged in space that you tasted. Share your thoughts!
JA: That definitely was…I will never repeat such an incredible tasting. Fun: so undercover, completely embargoed. Tasted it then until the press conference weeks later. So a very fun day. Will it change the world? I very much doubt it. But any time you taste Petrus it’s an event. Tasting a Petrus: one was earth produced against space Petrus was definitely something incredible. And I could tell a difference – not better or worse but different. What felt to me: the side of Petrus where you get violet flowers and florality, that was heightened, but so was the smoky aspect of the wine when it ages, that also had evolved. I don’t know if it meant it had aged more quickly or just meant some reaction from being up in zero gravity or it must have gone through a lot of pressure from leaving earth being shot up to the space station. I couldn’t tell you why there was a difference, but there definitely was.
PR: And the price…
JA: That’s a difference too!
PR: What was an expensive wine is now a stratospherically priced wine! What does the future hold for Bordeaux?
JA: Bordeaux is not going anywhere. It will remain a point of reference for world winemaking. It will be only one of many centres of excellence. As it already is. The best winemakers here recognise and love the great wines of the world. And they know Bordeaux only benefits from that. What I’ve loved seeing is the rise of other icon wines going through the Place de Bordeaux. We’ve had Opus One, Almaviva for a long time. But every year we’re getting more of the great wines of the world. Works in several ways. At first Bordeaux was a little suspicious. But what they realise now is it helps establish them as centre of wine excellence globally. And it keeps the dynamism. At the beginning, you said chateau are holding more back at their estates. The fact that other international wines are saying: OK you do that, we’ll happily come in and take the expertise the negociants have to offer, and get them to help us do this impressive global distribution, that’s an interesting thing as well that maybe the Bordeaux chateaux should take note of.
PR: Thank you Jane.
JA: Thank you, so lovely to speak to you!
Susie Barrie MW (SB): How have you and Karl as the next generation, changed things? Is it hard in a classic appellation like St Emilion?
Yann Todeschini (YT): Bordeaux is very known. Then St Emilion is very known. So of course, we have the appellation and the prestige, which is quite heavy for a company like us. But we are Italian natives. This is a big chance for us, my father immigrated, started in the family wine business with nothing. So the estate is from my mother: my father bring the immigrant part, to be very open minded, to innovate. And with Karl we did studies in viticulture and oenology, we travel a lot so we continue this new spirit. So we are a family estate but always informed by immigration, passion, youngness. So all this brings to Mangot, each generation brings something.
SB: So you have that Italian influence. Do you agree with the stereotype of as a very traditional region?
YT: Sometimes we seem, or people say, we’re atypical. We don’t want to be like that; but we are like we are. We appreciate other people from St Emilion or Bordeaux. We try to have the balance. I decide the marketing sense: tradition and modernity. The chance of St Emilion – is that it’s well known. Not because of worldwide renown we need to be old school and to do nothing. So we changed lots of thing: packaging, technical, grape varieties. Sometimes neighbours say: you are crazy, why do this, why experiment. Then 5-10 years later they say: maybe it’s not crazy, maybe you were right! And all the world like this, not just wine, crazy, evolves fast. You need to be in advance every time if you don’t want to be late.
SB: Love it! What are you specifically doing? You talk packaging, being innovative. What are you doing specifically that we might not expect of Bordeaux?
YT: For us, we started 2008 with Karl. We sell but we are both of us in the vineyard. For us 99% of the wine is done outside. When you have a good terroir, exposition, soils, old vines, it’s crazy not to spend time outside. So for us everything starts outside: so we started with organic in 2009/10 then go to biodynamic, now certified organic and in conversion to biodynamic. We employed people to help us to do this. We don’t have technical director or vineyard manager. My brother and myself do everything. We want this. Very important compared to Bordeaux. When you do the wine outside, when you have grape purity, when you taste berries and after few days in winemaking you want to respect. If you want to respect grapes, year after year, you decrease new oak and sulphur. So not a marketing decision to make sulphur free wines, cos it’s the fashion. Things go out of fashion. We do our wines with conviction. We go sulfur free and with amphora – because more we work outside, the better the wines gets, and aromatics alone with doing nothing in the cellar, was better. We are more and more lazy in the cellar!
SB: What does the amphora bring rather than stainless steel or another fermentation vessel? They are being used more and more.
YT: It’s strange but for us we try to do less and less things to do bring nothing. Crazy: we spend money and time but the aim is to respect the terroir. More you work in organic/biodynamic, more the grape itself is 90% of job done. Like spending lots of money in the market before dinner with friends. More money you spend in the market, less time you need to spend in the kitchen. Same for the grapes. Amphora bring nothing. They just age the wine, respect the grapes, balance, texture. We don’t want with new oak to bring aromatics, structure, tannins. The aim is to age to make micro oxygenation without bringing any aromas or more tannins. Just fruit tannins, the body of the extraction, no more. It’s just like a sauce for cooking – we eat and cook a lot – it’s the same. You do nothing – just keep the sauce, just take time: everything done. For us the amphora brings texture, mid palate, because Bordeaux sometimes criticised for body, wine very strong. People looking for more affordable, easy drinking wine. Bordeaux identity is body, core, tannins. So we want to keep identity of Bordeaux but want something also more affordable, drinkable, with food or without.
SB: So the image of Bordeaux: glam producers charging lots of money. The corporate winemaker, if you like. What do you think about that?
YT: We don’t criticise Bordeaux. We work with Bordeaux, we are very involved. Myself in Castillon, my brother in St Emilion, we’re very involved in AOC organisation. Our job is to evolve this historic system. So need to be involved to change the image. The problem with Bordeaux is it’s quite huge: we are 10,000 wine growers, so if only 5% of people with this image, the region can have this image. It’s like immigration – some people can speak about immigration etc, we speak about the 2% who have the bad effect. Same in Bordeaux – in all honesty, right now you have the best value wine of the last 5 years. Cos people changed. Most of the teams, even if company, bank insurance, have evolved. Lots of technical directors changed, gone organic, change last 5 years huge. The problem of image – very long to change image. We need 10 years. But now you can find wine in Bordeaux 10-20 dollars, easy, well done and clean wine.
SB: Is that important for the future of BDX? That we see wines less expensive but also well made wines at a decent price to afford?
YT: Very very important. For us we drink wine every day, don’t care if it’s Bordeaux, we taste for value for money and pleasure. Most consumers, of course you can drink bottle at 50-100 euros, sometimes, but when you drink wine for pleasure, we have wine in France for every occasion (save breakfast), you can’t drink wine from 50 euros all the time. So we make wine from 10-50 euros. But for most people, it’s wine at 10-15-18-25 euros. Even our classic Grand Cru organic is €25, it’s not huge, if you compare…even in US our grand cru can be $28-30. Compared to Napa Valley wine honestly, I think the value is there.
SB: There’s a lot of talk of sustainability these days. What does it mean for you at Mangot?
YT: I dislike this word because it’s too much used for marketing. It can be dangerous. Sustainability is mostly understood with the environmental aspect. For us it goes beyond this. It’s ethical – from production to sales. We need to produce competitive wine to allow us to remunerate our jobs and teams. If we want to do this job over 60 ha, we need good team. Sustainability is to have good team over many years. We have people working for us since 30 years. These people bring sustainability of knowledge and experience of the estate. You can better understand and improve. We want sustainability of humans who work with us. Also then sustainability of our customers – importer, retailer, customer. This sustainability enables investments in production, in organics. All choices outside cost money. We know our philosophy is expensive. Sustainability for me is the currency of the global system. Some people in wine in Bordeaux, you speak about chateau, but for me we are famers. Farmer makes crop – cow, milk, cheese, it’s all a cycle. We never need to forget that viticulture is agriculture.
SB: You are farmers. What of the practicalities? Isn’t it difficult in Bordeaux using less pesticides, herbicides, fungicides etc?
YT: For sure. It’s a complicated choice. But for me we choose our job, you know in ariculture/viticulture people say: it’s too sunny, too rainy, no. Chose your job, do it with passion. We know that vineyards are outside: you have sunny, clouds, storm. We have hails… Of course it’s very hard. And we are in the stronger period, stronger weeks for us, just finished frost. That is why we have 2 times more employees. So taking choice: if you want quality and quantity of grapes, you need more people. You need to finish at 11pm and start at 5am. It’s possible in Bordeaux. 10 yeas ago everyone said organics not possible in Bordeaux. 5 years ago everyone said: it’s only possible if you are very small. Now: the grands chateaux and Grands Crus Classés, it’s not more possible to say this. It’s not easy but it’s possible to do. With passion, with human investment.
SB: With dedication and time. Talking about France, you’ve made wine outside France eg US. You see the global picture. How do you see the future for Bordeaux?
YT: It’s like for a brand that’s well known. It’s hard to stay at a high level when you’re renowned. When you build a brand it’s easier cos you start with nothing. Maintaining a level is hard. But for sure Bordeaux can shine anew, it can regain how it used to be. For sure, Bordeaux has all the arguments for me to make the difference. You have value for money, people, new generation. The problem is communication. We are very bad about communication for global Bordeaux. If you speak in a simple way about your product and way you work, we need to speak to consumer. For us 90% of our end consumers say: for 10 years, I don’t drink any Bordeaux or go there. But now, come back. So now like a coming out for wine shops, bars, sommeliers. They say: we discover a new Bordeaux. It’s very fashionable. Bordeaux was fashionable a generation before us. We have a new wave, now hope so, for sure even big chateaux make big efforts. Driving in St Emilion, in 5 years, soils with weedkiller and chemicals, have divided by 4. For sure, 80% of the cellars don’t use any more weedkiller. It’s a huge evolution in 5 years. These people who have changed were against it 5 years ago. But things go fast. It’s a strength of Bordeaux: it’s big so can go v fast and be v active to make difference.
SB: As new generation, do you talk more and share more with other winemakers, more collaborative, than previous generations?
YT: I think and I hope so. We are maybe not representative. Often we organise not meetings but if we have a supplier or agronomist, we call a few friends, make lunch and organise this. We have a Whatsapp group with 60 growers in Bordeaux, we speak at midnight, 2am, because we don’t sleep with storm. We speak, exchange, a new process for spray/biocontrol etc. More and more this will help. We are not competitors, people can be cheaper, more expensive. Don’t care. We do the same job. We say: we were educated like this by our parents: we prefer to be the last of a good school than the first of a bad team. So I think the competition is a positive thing. In New World and Napa, people more open minded. Each one like a team behind his brand. We need to work like this.
SB: Yann, thank you so much!
YT: We are open for visits! Best to come and share the vineyards!
SB: Taste with you…
YT: For sure. Thanks!