Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France for his 2017 vintage Bordeaux barrel tastings. While there, he's visiting the châteaus of some of the region's top estates, as well as some up-and-coming new producers.
With all the corporate glitz and glamour that Bordeaux has, it's easy to forget the region has more than its fair share of family operations doing good work. Domaines Henri Martin is just that.
The company was started in 1939 with the purchase of some vines in St.-Julien, vines which went on to become part of Château Gloria. The company is now run by Henri Martin's son-in-law, Jean-Louis Triaud, 69, who joined the team in 1974. Along the way châteaus St.-Pierre in St.-Julien and Bel Air, a cru bourgeois in nearby Cussac, were added. And the company is now in its third generation, with Jean Triaud, 35, joining in 2005.
Jean-Louis did his stage at Latour, giving up his budding political science career to learn wine on-the-job. "You learn from others," he says. "All it takes is curiosity and patience. I was not educated in wine per se, but with observation and experience. I can't say why something happened, but I know how to correct something that may have happened."
A rugby fan and player, Jean-Louis enjoys competition. And he's also sanguine about the vagaries of competing in a business where Mother Nature is the ultimate boss. "The frustration is you get one crop per year," he says. "If it's bad, you have to wait one year to try again. If it's good, you only have one year to profit."
The Triauds brought in technical director Remy di Constanzo, formerly of Cos-d'Estournel, in 2000. In 2015 they gave him a spanking-new cellar facility to work with, located right on the main round that cuts through St.-Julien. With a range of vats of varying sizes, two optical sorting lines and automatic remontage (pump-over) system, the cellar has the technical aspects to keep pace with modern Bordeaux. All the properties' wines are vinified and aged under one roof: Bel Air totals 84 acres producing about 12,000 cases annually; Gloria is 123 acres and 20,000 cases; St.-Pierre comprises 42 acres and accounts for another 5,000 cases.
Note: These wines were tasted non-blind. Official barrel scores and tasting notes for wines submitted to Wine Spectator's blind tasting here in Bordeaux will be published at the end of my trip.
The 2017 Bel Air is a blend of 60 percent Cabernet Franc and the rest Merlot, offering a bright and precise red currant profile carried by a delightfully crisp-edged, chalky minerality.
The 2017 Gloria was produced at a healthy clip of 3.4 tons per acre (as with Pauillac, St.-Julien was unscathed by the spring frost). A blend of 61 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 26 percent Merlot, a hefty 8 percent Petit Verdot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc (with 40 percent new oak), this wine brims with brambly energy along with a kirsch-laden core backed by tar and anise notes. It has its usual grippy feel overall, but with an inner purity that should blossom with cellaring.
While the Gloria label is well-known in the U.S., it's the 2017 St.-Pierre that quietly leads the trio here. It's sourced from old vines (60 years and up) located primarily on the plateau of St.-Julien near Léoville-Barton, and despite their age, they turned out a solid 3.3 tons per acre in 2017.
"Old vines don't give less because they are old. They give less because they haven't been pruned properly," says Jean-Louis with a bit of pride. The 73 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Merlot and 7 percent Cabernet Franc blend sees just 50 percent new oak. It's quite supple and pure with very solid plum, cassis and cherry compote fruit flavors carried by persistent structure. Fleshy but defined, it's sneaky long. Modestly placed among the fourth-growths of the 1855 Classification, this wine has breed and class and often flies under the radar.