St Estèphe – a love renewed

I well remember the first time I tried a half decent claret, one that did not have the word on the label that is. How sophisticated I felt and what a revelation it seemed. I shied away from the costly 1982 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose – £4.99 a bottle, how wish I had bought 20 cases or so – and kept to the more modest Château Meyney 1977 Cru Bourgeois St Estèphe at £3.99.

That experience, which was a good one, was pivotal in fixing my view of red Bordeaux wines. From that moment one I knew I liked them, respected them and desired them, sadly I could seldom ever afford them and it has remained that way ever since. Bear in mind too that was in the days when a bad vintage, like 1977, bore no relation to a good one at all – not like now.

Anyway I digress, ever since that lowly, affordable – those were the days – iffy vintage Cru Bourgeois I have had a thing for St Estèphe. I have even owned some 1982 Montrose in my day, somewhere too I have a last bottle of something that allegedly does not exist – non-vintage Cos d’Estournel, which is a blend of  the 1961, 1962 and 1963 bought for a few quid in the Hungerford Wine Company’s closing down sale.

Perhaps I was not hugely appreciative of elegance in those days and saw the communes’ reputation for producing harder more rustic wines than the rest of the Haut-Médoc as a virtue as then I knew I was tasting something. I used to think cheaper St Estèphes had ‘grip’, I wonder what that was and how I would react to it now – badly I should think.

Anyway during the last twenty years or so I have sold many a petit Château and Cru Bourgeois from St Estèphe and retained that mental picture of hard edged, but often rewarding dry red wines, savoury, with firm tannins and a dusty character. I have been an apologist and champion of that style to many a baffled consumer that was looking in vain for fruit!

Sadly, my relationship with Bordeaux has become a lot more tenuous as the prices have risen, so I was thrilled to be invited to a claret tasting and dinner. Even more excitingly it was a St Estèphe, Château Clauzet – I had never heard of it, but it is barely one and a half kilometres from that first claret I ever tasted.

Baron Maurice Velge

Château Clauzet may be old established, but as an estate with ambitions it seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, since 1997 in fact when the engaging Belgian, Baron Maurice Velge purchased it.

He bought the Château itself and the original 10 hectares in 1997, but since then the estate has grown to its current 30 hectares, 27 of which are in production.  Right from the start the Baron was ambitious and so sought out the hugely talented José Bueno, who worked at Mouton for many years, and put him in charge of the vineyards and winemaking. Their aim was to introduce the sort of attention to detail more commonly associated with a Premier Cru Classé.

José Bueno

The vineyard is spread out in little parcels distributed around the commune, which means the vines have some prestigious neighbours; Cos d’Estournel and Haut-Marbuzet in the south near Pauillac, Montrose, Calon-Segur and even the Meyney of happy memory further north.

I have always been taught that the Médoc favours Cabernet Sauvignon over Merlot and that continues to be the official line, but increasingly when I show a wine from the left bank it is more likely to be nearer a 50/50 blend than the classic 70/30 of the text books. My experience of Clauzet reinforced my view that things have changed over the last quarter of a century, the vineyard here is planted to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot with the remainder being Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot – they told me that the finished wine is always virtually identical to the make up of the vineyard.

Because of my recent experiences in Virginia I was intrigued by the Baron’s championing of Petit Verdot. When I asked him what it brought to the blend, there was no hesitation at all in his reply – ‘elegance’.

Intriguingly my 1997 copy of Duijker’s The Bordeaux Atlas, which predates the Baron’s purchase of the estate, says that Clauzet grows 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, so the blend has indeed changed, along with the fortune’s and reputation of the estate.

Why, you may wonder am I writing about this relatively little known St Estèphe? Simply because the wines are really very good indeed and they thrilled me. The Baron was adamant that the challenge in St Estèphe is to make elegant wines, the power is a given – that is the old reputation of the place after all.

To illustrate what they are trying to do and what they have achieved at Clauzet we started with a tasting of the 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 which were all excellent in their different ways, the stand out wines for me were:

2010 Château Clauzet

Bright beautiful colour, very vibrant deep plummy purple.
Gorgeous nose of vibrant black plum fruit with fermentation notes, alcohol and very soft spice.
The palate was incredibly smooth, round, ripe and concentrated with deep rich fruit – must like notes come through and the tannins are very soft and ripe.
Very pleasurable and promises very well, the finish is all about alcohol and fruit at the moment, so it will last a long time, but right now it is a hedonistic delight – 90/100 points.

I really wish I had a case of it to see how it develops.

2009 Château Clauzet

A touch of Garnett showing with touches of darker colour.
Rich fruit on the nose, red and black with some soft spice too. Some very delicate caramel and fig too.
Lovely texture, svelte and smooth with the rich, ripe fruit balancing the tannins until the finish when they show up a bit more. Also nice acidity giving freshness and balance. Shows great promise for when the complexity develops.

Very clean finish with some minerality & liquorice spice. The tannins are not aggressive and the wine is beautifully balanced and integrated – 90/100 points.

2004 Château Clauzet

More perfumed, dried fruit, smoky gamey notes and hints of spice.
Luscious sweet dried ripe fruit on the palate quite mouth filling with a slightly creamy texture. Very supple tannins and loads of fruit. The finish still shows firm fine tannins, but the fruit slightly dominates them. Very good with a somewhat inky finish which I kind of like and it was very long with nice integration – 91/100 points because it has developed some lovely complexity.
This wine showed some development and gave a clue as to how the two younger wines will age. 2004 is a surprising vintage, much derided at the time, but good examples like this are really showing that perhaps we can no longer generalise about these things.

By the way the other vintages received high scores too and I would happily drink any of them.

Château de Côme
Later with dinner we tried some wines from the sister property Château de Côme which has less gravelly soils than Clauzet, a sandy limestone in fact that suits Merlot a little more, so the blend here is 50% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

We tasted the 2008, 2005 and 2003, again I thought they were all excellent and enjoyable, but the 2005 was the star for me:

2005 Château de Côme

Magnificent wine, full of ripe fruit with very delicate tannins, cleansing acidity and a lovely supple texture to the palate – a beautiful wine, balanced and fine – 90/100 points.

This was a great tasting experience and really opened my eyes to how good modern St Estèphe can be, certainly when it is made with the care and attention shown at Château Clauzet. The two most famous Cru Classées apart, St Estèphe has lived in the shadows somewhat, always considered a safe bet in the absence of anything supposedly more refined from St Julien or Margaux.

We were fortunate to get to try these wonderful wines in their natural habitat too, with good Bourgeois French cooking – a type of food that seldom receives the attention it deserves. It is what France’s culinary reputation was originally based on after all and as such can be the perfect accompaniment to classic French wine.

'the smoked eel came from The Dutch Eel Compamy - which is based in Lincolnshire, but the fish themselves came from either Lake Como or Greece' - Henry Harris explains the menu

Anguille fumée et salade de Ventrèche (bacon), sauce buerre rouge

We were at London’s Racine and Henry Harris did us proud with a smoked eel and bacon salad then rump of lamb with peas and broad beans before finishing with a superb array of cheeses.

Quai d'agneau Printanière

The whole meal was perfect with pretty much any of the wines and showed how food friendly good claret can be. The surprise for me was how well the eel worked with red wine, the wine’s flavour was somehow flattered by the smoky notes of the fish and the flavours of the wine melded perfectly with the eel.

On this splendid showing I think that over the last twenty years things have changed beyond recognition in St Estèphe and the Baron really does not need to worry about finesse – he and José seem to have the knack of coaxing it out of their vines.

One of the things I most admired was the tannin management, which they put down to careful extraction – concentrated sure, but not too much. This made the wines, supple and flattering which emphasises the fruit that the wines have in abundance.

As well as concentration there was always a balancing freshness in these wines and I think it is that which gives them their finesse. This lifts them above the merely enjoyable, correct and typical. These are wines of passion and the overwhelming sensation when you taste them is of elegance far above what you would expect from more normal St Estèphe. Château Clauzet and Château de Côme are not that old style of hard and rustic wine, these are fine clarets that luckily for us are sold at a pretty sensible price – long may it continue.

Château Clauzet is available in the UK from Fine & rare Wines Ltd

8 thoughts on “St Estèphe – a love renewed

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