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.
Along with visiting some of the established players in St.-Emilion (Cheval-Blanc, La Mondotte, Canon), I also stopped in at some perhaps lesser-known estates that are nevertheless making significant changes in how they work. As a small group. they may represent the start of a broader shift in the appellation.
Much of St.-Emilion is currently defined by "sameness," namely slightly extracted wines that rely more on power. A hangover of the garagiste movement of the 1990s and early '00s, this style provides wines that deliver early impact. But it has also proven to produce wines that age by merely enduring, rather than developing. The original garagiste himself, Jean-Luc Thunevin, has steered his Valandraud toward a purer style for several vintages now, while other estates such as Clos Fourtet, Bélair-Monange and Canon further exemplify the style. Even Pavie, once the epitome of the ripe style, is shifting. And these are some of the most exciting wines in St.-Emilion today.
Clos St.-Martin owner Sophie Fourcade, 63, has been here since 1997, running the estate for her family along with the properties Les Grandes Murailles and Côte de Baleau. In 2013, the generational transfer was complicated, so the family sold off the latter two, while Sophie bought out the remaining shares and kept Clos St.-Martin for herself.
Maître de chai Benoit Turbet, 57, has been here since 1986, while consulting enologist Julien Viaud, 40, has been helping out since 2006 (he's been with Michel Rolland since 1997).
The 3.35-acre estate is located just next to Clos Fourtet and Beau-Séjour-Bécot, on the plateau with a west-southwest exposure. Yields typically check in around 2.6 tons per acre, yielding about 420 cases annually. Plantings in the vineyards are 80 percent Merlot, 15 Cabernet Franc, 5 Cabernet Sauvignon with vine age ranging from five years to 40 years old. Only a half-acre can be replanted at a time, as any more would seriously cut into production.
The cellar, which sits below Fourcade's house, was renovated in 2014. Changes began in 2008, when fermentation was moved to barrel from stainless steel tank, resulting in a fuller, rounder wine. Another key change was instituted in 2016, with the addition of two clay amphorae to the élevage process. With the small production this ostensibly brings the new oak percentage down to 80 from 100. The results played out dramatically in a vertical tasting of the wines from 2017 through 2005 that Fourcade presented.
Note: These wines were tasted non-blind. See the full 2017 Bordeaux barrel tastings report for more than 250 official barrel scores and tasting notes for wines submitted to Wine Spectator's blind tasting here in Bordeaux.
The Clos St.-Martin St.-Emilion 2005 is still quite structured, with a graphite spine holding sway over gently mulled plum and blueberry fruit. A chalky minerality is really showing through the finish here too, giving this a pleasantly austere feel. It's a touch shy on fruit, but the DNA of the vineyard is evident.
The 2006 is slightly angular, with light bay leaf and herbal notes to the fruit, while the 2007 also shows a slightly herbaceous side with bay leaf, lavender and mint; good efforts in these more modest years.
The 2008 is a surprise for this otherwise unexciting vintage, lighter in body but with lots of charm to the supple plum and blueberry flavors enhanced by the shift to barrel fermentation. Then the power duo of 2009 and 2010 come in, with the 2009 showing very expressive raspberry, blueberry and boysenberry fruit that proves how alluring the fruit profile can be, while keeping enough of a graphite edge to stay honest. The 2010 is tight, solidly built and brimming with graphite and chalk notes as the fruit is still held in reserve for now. The 2011 is bright and juicy and has begun to open up nicely—it's an overlooked vintage. The 2012 is a touch denser, fleshier, with the minerality nicely buried through the finish. The 2013 has good energy and depth, with a vibrancy through the finish that is impressive considering the lower vintage pedigree.
The 2014 is fleshy, with its typical blueberry and raspberry fruit profile, while an anise edge glides in with the graphite on the finish. The 2015 is the new high-water mark here, with a gorgeous velvety flow backed by a long echo of chalky minerality.
And then the 2016 dials it up again with gorgeous raspberry, blueberry and boysenberry fruit flowing through while light anise and black tea notes gild the finish. It has beautiful feel and length and a greater inner purity than the previous vintages.
With the 2017 Clos St.-Martin St.-Emilion, the evolution is fully formed, displayed in a warm and inviting wine with a pleasing roundness to its plum and blackberry compote notes, backed by light smoke and graphite nuances through the finish.
As opposed to the subtle evolution at Clos St.-Martin, at Château Beau-Séjour-Bécot, Julie Bécot and her husband, Julien, are doing a full stop and complete 180.
Bécot's first vintage was 2001, and she began by working alongside her father, Gérard. Gérard started working at the estate in 1967, and had worked with Michel Rolland since 1982, the two being close friends. But when Gérard retired two years ago, Julie began to think about the transition ….
"I realized it was a time to consider the future," says Julie, a twinge of passion infusing her words. "I think we were guilty of a bit of excess. We increased the leaf thinning, the green harvesting and the amount of selection, all while harvesting probably too late. We thought we could control everything and we didn't want any risk. But risk is inherent with nature."
"We don't want to unravel the past.," she explains. "We want to utilize what we have learned, but we are in a constant search for authenticity."
"In 1955, the first St.-Emilion classification, we were classified Premier Grand Cru Classé, along with Cheval-Blanc, Ausone, Figeac, Clos Fourtet and others," chimes in Julien. "Just 10 estates. Today our location hasn't changed but the group has. And we began to think."
"We thought we were too interventionist in the vineyard," continues Julie. "Our goal is to transcribe the DNA of the terroir in the wine. We don't want to follow fashion. We want to make a wine that crosses trends and time. Our challenge is to come back to the roots."
To that end, after the Bécots worked with Rolland to vinify the 2016, they switched to consulting winemaker Thomas Duclos for the blend, ending the relationship with the famed couslting winemaker who had worked with their father for over 30 vintages.
"[Duclos'] approach is to be as little interventionist as possible in the cellar by producing the best fruit possible in the vineyard," says Julie. "In '17 the biggest change was picking earlier. In '17 we harvested Sept. 14 through 28. We typically used to start harvesting Sept. 24 or 25 and go to late October. Obviously '17 was an early vintage to begin with, but the aim and goal is to work this way."
"In the cellar we are now doing less pump-over and pigéage (punch-down), aiming for extraction through temperature rather than working the wine too much. We are also working with amphorae and changed the toast on the barrels from high to low toast. The wine was racked after the malo and that has been it. There was also no sulphur added in the tank or the barrel. We have yet to decide if we will make an addition before the bottling."
And with these dramatic changes, how does she feel with the "new" wine approaching its first-ever showing during this season's en primeur? "I can say that this was the happiest vintage in my life. It was such a passion-driven year."
But what about her father? "My father is very happy too," Julie says without flinching. "Because the wine reminds him of the wines he made in the early days, and he sees we went back to the roots."
The 2017 Beau-Séjour-Bécot is tight at first, but it opens very quickly, thirsting for the oxygen it has been denied so far during its élevage. It shows a very silky texture and beautifully pure plum, blackberry and black cherry puree flavors. Light bay leaf, lavender and tobacco note hang in the background while the fruit sails through the finish. It's remarkably fresh, unencumbered and gilded with a fine chalky minerality. I loved the 2015 from here, in a much better vintage where this sector particularly excelled. This is nearly as compelling, albeit it in a completely different style.
Heading back down the hill to the gravel Figeac sector, Château La Dominique is the flagship estate of Vignobles Fayat, which also includes châteaus Fayat in Pomerol and Clement-Pichon in the Haut-Médoc. The group also just purchased Château Aney, in Cussac, and will merge that property into Clément-Pichon.
Gwendeline Lucas is the general director, having joined the group in 2010 and now overseeing production at all the estates. She's turned an eye in the same direction as the Bécots.
"We think that is the way to go, aiming for freshness, minerality and balance," she says.
Along with the standard barrels, Lucas has brought in demi-muid (400-liter barrels) and egg-shaped polymer containers to age the wine, aiming to protect the fruit with minimal influence of oak taste. The barrels themselves are not opened during the élevage, and are instead fitted with special vales that allow technical director Pierre Meylheuc (who joined in 2006) and his team to oxygenate the wine and stir the lees in barrel while it remains sealed.
La Dominique was hit hard by the frost in 2017, losing 70 percent of its crop, leaving just 1.3 tons per acre for the grand vin. The 2017 La Dominique is a 70/20/10 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, the latter two making up a much greater-than-usual percentage of the blend, as Merlot was the grape most affected. While previous vintages have been solid examples of the riper style, with dark fig fruit and nicely integrated toast, the '17 is clearly in a fresher vein. It displays a red fruit profile of raspberry and red currant coulis, a twinge of tobacco and a solid graphite edge through the finish.