Taking over coverage of Bordeaux—a region that produces more wine than the whole of Australia—has been rich with interest, so I’ve decided to dedicate this year’s “Reviewers’ Favorites” entirely to the reds and whites of the Gironde. Bordeaux has never been producing better wines; and yet Bordeaux, long the heart of the wine trade’s business, continues to hemorrhage market share. Why? The reasons will have to wait for another article, but I hope that this selection may interest readers who have given up on Bordeaux—or who have forgotten that the region’s excitement isn’t limited to a few dozen famous labels.
The late Anthony Barton, who passed away earlier this year, was one of Bordeaux’s great gentlemen and will be remembered for his wit and generosity as well as his track record for producing high-quality, age-worthy wines for prices that never succumbed to the one-upmanship that so few Bordeaux proprietors seem able to resist. Langoa-Barton exists somewhat in the shadow of its nobler sibling, Léoville-Barton, with vineyards further inland and a higher proportion of Merlot, yet its quality has never been better and the market hasn’t really caught up. Readers who forget a case of the 2019 vintage in their cellars for a decade or two certainly won’t be disappointed.
Stéphane Dief, whose family worked for Mouton Rothschild in the 19th century, started Clos Manou in 1998, producing two barriques of wine from a 0.12-hectare parcel in Saint Christoly, some 15 kilometers to the north of Saint-Estèphe, "out where the buses don't run." Growing little by little over the years, he now owns 18.5 hectares of vineyards in morcellated parcels that encompass three essential terroirs: gravels (where Cabernet Sauvignon is planted), sand and clay-limestone (where Merlot is planted). In his acquisitions, Dief has always sought out high-density plantings, and when he replants, it's at 10,000 vines per hectare (and up to 13,500 vines per hectare for a parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon). Using massal selections from Bérillon, any missing vines are replaced, and the vineyards are cultivated under the rows, with mowed grass left between. Neither herbicides nor pesticides are employed. Shrugging off my compliments regarding their impeccable condition, Dief says that he considers his practices merely "normal viticulture"—even if these are norms that seldom few obtain today, even among well-financed classified growths. Harvest is by hand, parcel by parcel, into small crates, with gentle, rather reductive vinification in more than 30 small vats, which is followed by vertical pressing and maturation that varies by variety, Cabernet Sauvignon seeing some new oak (from Tonnellerie Baron) and Merlot maturing in concrete. Today, as at so many addresses, extraction isn't pushed so hard (fermentation temperatures are limited to a maximum of 26 degrees Celsius), and new oak's presence is more discreet. The results of Dief's exigent viticulture and thoughtful, precise, artisanal winemaking are consistently brilliant wines of real class and character, and they deserve to be far better known.
The inimitable Jean-Marie Guffens, a Belgian theater school graduate who created one of Burgundy’s greatest domaines in the Mâconnais, also produces white wines in Bordeaux. White Bordeaux is an unfashionable category among serious wine lovers, and it’s easy to see why: enzymed and cool-fermented in stainless steel tank and hit with high doses of sulfur dioxide, many of these wines exhibit caricatural varietal aromas of Sauvignon Blanc and questionable balance on the palate. What people forget is that this is a recent phenomenon: in the past, the great dry white wines of Bordeaux were based on Sémillon, fermented in barrel and matured on the lees. Guffens, however, hasn’t forgotten; and this vinous, characterful white demonstrates that Bordeaux can still produce wines that will interest discerning drinkers.
A Wine from a Producer That Exemplifies Sustainability:
Sustainability occupies an increasingly prominent place in the public discourse of many Bordeaux châteaux, but few estates have gone as far as Cheval Blanc, publishing an 85-page manifesto for what technical director Pierre-Olivier Clouet calls “agroecology” and rolling out cover crops, hedges and fruit trees interplanted among the vines across the whole vineyard. Monoculture is out, polyculture and biodiversity are in, and Clouet and his team are proving that this is possible even in one of Bordeaux’s most intensively farmed neighborhoods. Cheval Blanc was one of my nominees for this year’s Robert Parker Green Emblem awards, and the brilliant 2019 vintage demonstrates that the best stories are those that one can taste.
A recurring refrain when I travel around the region is that “Bordeaux isn’t expensive!” Faced with a wine as good and as inexpensive as the 2016 Tronquoy-Lalande, I can only agree. This estate occupies the second vineyard planted in Saint-Estèphe, after the Clos of Calon-Ségur, but its Royalist owner didn't participate in the 1855 classification due to his disapproval of Napoléon III. The vineyard itself consists of a single 30-hectare block on an eight-meter-deep gravel ridge directly behind châteaux Meyney and Montrose. Certified organic with the 2021 vintage, Tronquoy-Lalande has never seen herbicides; and after its acquisition by Olivier and Martin Bouygues in 2006, the winery was redesigned with input from the late Jean-Philippe Delmas, equipped with two-tiered stainless steel tanks after the model used at Château Haut-Brion. Ably overseen by Yves Delsol, who has worked at the estate for 30 years and thus knows its every detail, the style is seamless, complex and concentrated, with structural elegance that reflects the quality of these gravel soils more than it does any stereotypes of Saint-Estèphe rusticity. Indeed, in any revision of the 1855 classification, this estate will clearly win classified growth status. Tronquoy-Lalande isn't sold en primeur, so readers can still find the 2016 on the marketplace.
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