Famous for its elite châteaux classified in 1855, the Médoc is the source of some of the world’s most expensive wines. Yet this privileged peninsular to the North of Bordeaux is also home to a number of smaller often family-run properties that too benefit from its climate and its soils that are ideal for the production of quality wines. Today there are 700 other producers making rich smooth wines that represent excellent value for money.
An American wine importer recently professed that he had stopped selling wines from the Médoc at all. The Grand Cru Classé wines had become too expensive for his customers and he found that in the past the smaller château produced wines that were too tannic and rustic for their taste, taking too long to become ready for drinking (if they ever did).
Médoc Wines – ‘time for a re-taste’
Over the past decade there has been an exponential improvement in the ‘smaller’ wines of the Médoc, today supple, rounded and destined to be consumed earlier. In the past the sign of a good wine was its ageing potential. Today due to an evolution in reasoning and changes made in both the vineyards and in the winery, these wines can be enjoyed young, yet still having the capacity for ageing. This shift has occurred throughout the Bordeaux wine region but it has had its most significant effect in the Médoc due to the challenges of ripening the late Cabernet Sauvignon grape in the temperate climate.
What makes the Médoc so sought after for wine production?
The word Médoc comes from the Latin ‘inmédio-aquae’ which means ‘in the middle of the waters’. It is a peninsula that stretches over 100 kilometers to the North of Bordeaux forming a thin triangle with the Cordouan lighthouse marking the very tip of its land mass. It is true that water borders every edge of the Médoc, with the Gironde Estuary to the East and the Atlantic Ocean to its West. At the Bec d’Ambès the Garonne River which comes from the Pyrenees to the South and the Dordogne River from the Massif Central to the East, merge to become the 70 kilometer Gironde Estuary on its way to the Atlantic. These wide muddy waterways are pushed by the force of the ocean and are affected by powerful tides.
The Médoc’s proximity to all this water helps to regulate temperatures, reduces frost risk and creates a convectional pull creating constant air movement which helps to aerate the bunches of grapes, reducing the risk of rot in this humid oceanic climate.
The region is covered with well-drained gravel soils which heat up during the day and favour the ripening of the late harvesting Cabernet Sauvignon grape, the original variety of the region, the ‘Biturica’ dating back to Celtic times before the Romans. The gravels lie in bands of various depths from 20cm to 3 meters.
These soils have perfect natural drainage, are well-aerated, poor in organic matter and in their austerity, are perfect for the production of few but concentrated grapes, essential in quality wine production. The vine’s roots plunge down to reach the water table for a supply of enough, but never too much water, bringing with it nutrients and trace elements.
Historically, the Médoc was an isolated forested marshy area devoid of vines until the Middle Ages when vines were planted around the religious priories such as Cantenac and Macau and gravel ‘croupes’ or shallow hills that rose above the marshes were found to be well-suited to vine-growing (and not much else). It was not until the 17th century under instruction from Henry IV that the Dutch, with their skills of draining their own low country or Pays Bas, were commissioned to drain the marshland and enabled the expansion of the vineyards in the Médoc.
The 1855 Classification – not just a snapshot in time
The classification was drawn up following a request from Napoleon III to the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce to compile a list of the most highly rated wines in 1855 for a display at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. They in turn asked the city’s brokers, who took the recent track record of highest prices. There was already a pattern emerging some years in advance of this. Despite its late start, it was the Médoc that starred in the 1855 classification having the most highly priced wines at the time.
What is the Médoc today?
The Medoc is made up of 16,000 hectares which is divided into 8 appellations, some of the most famous in the world. There are two general appellations that divide the area Haut Médoc (to the south) and the Médoc (to the north. These two appellations represent 63% of the total hectarage.
There are in addition 6 village appellations from North to South; Margaux, the lesser-known Listrac and Moulis (to its North West), then St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe.
The Médoc’s Classifications
There are a total number of 750 or so independent wine producers in the eight different appellations. Only 8% were classified in the 1855 classification, a total of 60 properties in which turned out to be a genius marketing coup. They are the elite and are known throughout the world.
That leaves just under 700 or so independent wine producers to differentiate themselves. 35% of these are classified as Cru Bourgeois, another classification which began in 1932. This system has been completely overhauled in the 2000s and represents a reliable indication of superior quality in the Médoc of the smaller properties indicated by the traceable hologram on its label. In 2010 there were 260 properties over 4400 ha (27%) representing a volume of 38% of the wine production in the Médoc. (In addition there are 44 (6%) Cru Artisan producers, a new category that started in 2006 to promote the very small wine producer).
We are each finding our own place on the market rather than being ‘alternative’.
‘For sure the classified growths helped to construct the image of Bordeaux’, claims Marc Ferté, General Manager of Domaines Lapalu, one of the Médoc’s largest wine producers with seven different Cru Bourgeois châteaux over 250 hectares of vineyards. They produce 1 million 700 thousand bottles. The company was first created in 1964 when Claude Lapalu returned from Tunisia and bought Château Patache d’Aux in Bégadan, Médoc. ‘Today our Médoc wines help to complete what Bordeaux can offer on the world markets. We are each finding our own place on the market rather than being ‘alternative’. Being Cru Bourgeois helps visibility. Our wines offer good value for money and are particularly attractive to relatively newcomers to wine such as China.’
The company employs 70 people and sells 100% of their wine direct rather than passing via the traditional merchant route. ‘This gives us a valuable direct contact with consumers of our wines in the different markets and the feedback cannot be helped but be reintegrated into what we do. It is certain that the wines produced today are more approachable ‘but always staying in the Médoc style’ with on average of around 60% Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend at Patache d’Aux for example.’ As most producers in the Médoc appellation, the grapes are harvested by machine. ‘We have an economic approach to our work to keep costs down to be able to represent good value for money on the market but it is important that each of our properties reflect their particular terroir.’ Half of their wine is exported to around 30 different countries and half is destined for France.
Main properties (www.domaines-lapalu.com) – Médoc: Château Patache d’Aux, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, Château Le Boscq, Cru Bourgeois Médoc, Château Plagnac Cru Bourgeois Médoc, Château Lacombe Noaillac Médoc. Haut-Médoc: Château Liversan, Cru Bourgeois, Haut Médoc, Château Lieujean, Cru Bourgeois, Haut Médoc
Famous Neighbours just Next Door
Three quarters of all producers are located in the general Médoc and Haut Médoc appellations, though many are close to, or neighbours, to famous classified growths. It is a question of boundaries says Jean-Pierre Marie of Château Cambon La Pelouse, Haut-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois. His property is situated just off the D2 ‘Route de Châteaux’ in the small ‘Margaux’ village of Macau sandwiched between Cantemerle (Haut Médoc) and Giscours (Margaux), two well-known classified growths. Jean-Pierre Marie does not claim to have identical soils but his vineyards do touch. His wine Cambon La Pelouse is Haut Médoc the appellation of which covers around 4500 hectares over a large area. A hectare of appellation (not classified) Margaux sells for around 1 million Euro, Haut Médoc sells for ten times less, at 100,000 Euro. He bought the 38 hectare property in 1996 and extensively replanted and built the winery. Today his wine is one of the most well-known Haut-Médoc and he employs 20 people.
He does think his wine represents good value for money. His challenge though is the competition of other Cru Bourgeois from the Haut Médoc appellation. ‘There is a ceiling which caps my prices, we are perceived as being easily interchangeable.’ He has another property of 27 hectares, Château Trois Moulins, Haut-Médoc, Cru Bourgeois and has recently bought half a hectare of prime Margaux vineyards ‘l’Aura de Cambon’ to help link the name of Cambon with its geographical location on the edge of Margaux. (www.cambon-la-pelouse.com)
St Estèphe at the top of the Haut Médoc, benefits from having five classed growths including seconds Cos d’Estournel and Montrose today owned by the multi-rich Michel Reybier and the Bouygues brothers. According to Château Tour de Pez Commercial Director Alexis Angliviel de la Beaumelle, there is solidarity amongst its fifty odd independent wine producers helped by the Cru Classé big players and also some influential families such as the Cazes family of Lynch Bages who own Ormes de Pez, the Cuvelier family of Léoville-Poyferé who own Château Le Crock and Champagne Roederer who own Château de Pez. They help to propel the appellation. There is still progress to be made to get the appellation to become better known ”Unfortunately having St Estèphe’s most beautiful château, Cos d’Estournel on our door-step does not encourage visitors to come any further along the D2 ‘Route de Châteaux’ says Alexis Angliviel de la Beaumelle. ‘It is a very historical area with a special atmosphere being so close to the Estuary and the Ocean. A high number of properties in St Estèphe are still family-owned and many owners live in their properties.’
The 30 hectare property of Tour de Pez (named after its 13th century tower) was bought in 1989 by Philippe Bouchara and completely renovated. It has 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot in its vineyards. http://www.tourdepez.com
Neither Classed nor Bourgeois, following their own Path
Probably one of the most successful ‘smaller’ producers is the Dubosq family who run the 70 hectare Château Haut-Marbuzet in St Estèphe. Sandwiched in between two giants owned by very rich newcomers, Cos d’Estournel and Montrose both second growths in the 1855 classification, the estate’s wines are world-renowned for their silkiness and opulence, rather different from the appellation’s traditional image. Although selling for a fraction of the price, the soils are similar to its illustrious neighbours, the grapes are hand-picked and aged in 100% new oak barrels from a selection of France’s forests. No flying winemakers here, Bruno and Hughes Dubosq work with their father Henri who makes the wine, to continue the family tradition where passion and hard work reign. It was their grandfather, Hervé who in the 1950s, pieced together tiny plots of vineyards and started establishing the name that is today so well-known.
It could be a story rather like David and Goliath but the Dubosq family follow their own path and it seems to be working. Neither classified and no longer choosing to be part of the new single level Cru Bourgeois classification (they were originally Cru Bourgeois Exceptional), they have over 20,000 private clients who buy their wines regularly (also Château Mac Carthy, Château Chambert du Marbuzet) and export Haut Marbuzet around the world.
Cabernet Sauvignon – King of the Médoc
In response to the need for more supple, accessible wines, some producers in the Médoc have increased the percentage of Merlot in their vineyards substantially. Many value the nobility of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape that differentiates their wines from the volume of predominantly Merlot blends found in the rest of Bordeaux and feel this is not the way to go.
‘I am a defender of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, it is what is typical of our terroir, ‘ claims Pascal Bosq who represents the 5th generation of his family to run Château Lounier a 40 hectare Cru Bourgeois property in Listrac. ‘You need to know how to treat it, to be patient and wait for it to ripen. For sure mistakes were made in the past, Cabernet was planted in soils more suited to Merlot because they were less frost-prone areas. As vineyards have expanded in size we can be choosier as to where we plant our Cabernet.’ His vineyards are planted with 50% Cabernet Sauvignon 40% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot.
He is also a fanatic of the very late ripening Petit Verdot and produces a 100% varietal wine ‘Cuvée Pierre’ in good vintages in homage to his late father. He has another property, 15 hectare Château Cantegric Haut-Médoc, which has more Merlot in the blend, 50% Merlot and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon.
‘Now we have mastered the ‘savoir-faire’, what we could benefit from is a decent communication budget to ‘faire savoir’ for our wines to become better known.
He admits that ‘Listrac suffers from a lack of notoriety having no Grand Cru Classés. I believe we missed an opportunity when Edmond Rothschild (of Lafite) bought Château Clarke in 1973. We as an appellation could have embraced this better at the time to help the renown of Listrac’.
Moulis wine producer François Bernard and his son Jonathan run Château Lestage-Darquier, a 10 hectare vineyard which is situated to the west of the gravel plateau of Grand Poujeaux. This is some of Moulis’ finest terroir and is located next to the appellation’s most famous property Château Chasse Spleen. Its clay limestone soils enables a relatively high percentage of Merlot to be grown – 43% Merlot but the predominance is always Cabernet Sauvignon with 55% in the blend and 2% Cabernet Franc. ‘One must always stay within the Médoc style’ François Bernard feels. Despite having no Cru Classé properties, a number of famous family properties help the image of Moulis such as Chasse Spleen, Poujeaux, Biston Brillette and the Sartorius-Barton family (of Léoville-Barton) are moving into Moulis’ Château Mauvesin.
At Home in the Vines
Bernard Lartigue built up his domain Château Mayne Lalande starting with one hectare in 1982. Today he has 20 hectares, located in no less than 48 different plots, and a successful bed and breakfast business in a beautiful peaceful setting on the edge of the woods in Listrac (www.lescinqsens-bordeaux.com). Lying 30 kilometers from the Atlantic and a stone’s throw from the Gironde the grapes ripen in a temperate climate, ‘the wines’ he says, ‘should never be excessive’ and aged with a delicate use of oak. He believes in authentic wines. The concentration of ripe Cabernet Sauvignon in his wines (50% of the blend usually) brings an elegance, finesse and balance to the wine which is he believes is unique to the Médoc region. Merlot should be picked not too late, to add a fresh juiciness.
He perhaps best represents the advantage that the smaller family producer has over the employed technical teams that make the wine in many of the classed growths. ‘I am passionate about my vines, they tell me everything I need to know’ he professes. He lives in his vineyards and is never far from them. ‘Making good wine is simple.’ he says, ‘It is all about observation and intuition. I taste my grapes to decide when they are ripe and have been doing that for 30 years. One must never lose touch of the essence; the vine and its grapes. If one is always on the internet doing research, analysing, you can become disconnected and miss out on the essential, and that is what is happening in the vineyards.’
The Recent Evolution in Making Wine
Today there seems to be a precision and refinement in growing grapes and making wines previously only mastered by the Grand Cru Classé and now understood and increasingly practiced by many smaller producers.
Serge and Jean-Paul Barbarin of the 26 hectare Château Biston Brillette, one of Moulis’ most well-known properties, are examples of the new generation of wine producers today. Balancing the demands of the constant search of the fine-tuning to improve quality, with those of running a business. Their family have owned Château Biston Brillette since the early 1930s. ‘Biodynamic vine growing makes sense’ says Serge Barbarin, ‘but prohibitive to do on such a large scale. We do not have the economic latitude of the classifieds but we try and incorporate what makes sense qualitatively and economically.’ They work closely with an agronomist to understand the needs of the vine in the different plots on the estate throughout its life cycle. (www.chateaubistonbrillette.fr)
Serge Barbarin explains, ‘Since the 1980s there has been a steady evolution in the understanding of winemaking. Over the past ten years there has been an increased awareness, a consciousness of the effects of what we do on the environment at large. There has been a greater understanding of the environment of the vine, which lives in the same soil for decades.
Soil analysis has helped the understanding of how the vine nourishes itself, its need for nutrients and resources throughout its life, its actual need for water to produce quality grapes. The understanding of biodiversity with the encouragement of beneficial insects and the enabling of the plant to protect itself with its immune system working efficiently also plays a role. There is an increased focus on preventative rather than curative ‘medicine’, reducing chemical inputs by searching for alternatives such as cultivating and spraying when necessary, only at moments of high disease risk.
Due to efforts in the vineyard such as canopy management, leaf plucking and green harvest, the wine producer today reduces the vine’s burden and helps the vine to ripen its grapes easier. Growing grass between the vineyard rows absorbs excess water which aids assimilation in the grapes, giving more concentrated grapes and less disease due to lower humidity.’
A Better Understanding not limited to the Classed Growths
It seems that the new generation of wine producers today in the less glamourous appellations are making better wines. Plots of vines are treated differently. Gone are the days where there was a need to chaptilize (the addition of sugar to boost alcohol levels). Gone are the days when the key criteria for success was if one achieved the maximum yield at harvest-time ‘tu as fait le rendement?’
Today grapes are harvested riper, with a regular degree of alcohol of 12.5°C minimum. The moment to harvest is a decision that is today decided by analysis, much tasting in the vineyards and moreover by intuition in each of the different plots to find the best compromise between technological (balance between the sugar level and acidity in the grape) and phenolic ripeness in the skins of the grape. In the past the moment of harvest was decided by the analysis of sugar content in the grapes to see if the alcoholic degree would be attained!
And once the grapes are picked, the fine-tuning continues in the cellar with the different plots being vinified separately and differently. Extraction techniques and timings are altered according to the nature of the grapes harvested (soil type, age of vines, grape variety, ripeness).’
The Médoc & Its Eight Appellations
Total Number of Hectares: 16030 ha and independent 746 producers
– MEDOC Total Number of Hectares: 5136 (32% of total Médoc area) Total: 584 Wine Producers
239 independent – 104 of which are Cru Bourgeois (40% of their total) – 0 Grand Cru Classé
345 that sell via its cooperatives
Best Médoc ‘alternative’ châteaux: Le Bourdieu, Haut Caussan, Greysac, La Tour de By, Patache d’aux, Le Boscq, Lacombe Noaillac
– HAUT MEDOC Total Number of Hectares: 4494 (28% of total Médoc area) Total: 392 Wine Producers
242 independent – 89 of which are Cru Bourgeois (34% of their total)
– 5 of which are Grand Cru Classé
(3rd Growth; La Lagune 4th Growth; La Tour Carnet 5th Growth; Belgrave, de Camensac, Cantemerle)
150 that sell via a cooperative
Best Haut-Médoc ‘alternative’ châteaux: Cambon la Pelouse, Liversan, Lieujean, Peyrabon, Belle-vue, Puy Castera, Cissac, d’Esteau, Beaumont, Trois Moulins
– Listrac Total Number of Hectares: 802 (5% of total Médoc area) Total: 74 Wine Producers
34 independent – 13 of which are Cru Bourgeois (5% of their total) – 0 Grand Cru Classé
40 that sell via a cooperative
Best Listrac ‘alternative’ châteaux: Fourcas-Dupré, Mayne-Lalande, Lounier, Saransot-Dupré
– MOULIS Total Number of Hectares: 642 (4% of total Médoc area) Total: 53 Wine Producers
43 independent – 17 of which are Cru Bourgeois (7% of their total) – 0 Grand Cru Classé
10 that sell via a cooperative
Best Moulis’alternative’ châteaux: Chasse Spleen, Poujeaux, Biston Brillette, Lestage-Darquier
– MARGAUX Total Number of Hectares: 1605 (10% of total Médoc area)
Total: 74 Independent Wine Producers – 11 which are Crus Bourgeois (4% of their total) – 21 of which are Grand Cru Classé (1st Growth: Margaux 2nd Growth: Rauzan-Gassies, Rauzan-Segla, Durfort Viviens, Lascombes, Brane-Cantenac 3rd Growth: Kirwan, d’Issan, Giscours, Malescot Saint-Exupéry, Boyd-Cantenac, Cantenac-Brown, Palmer, Desmirail, Ferrière, Marquis d’Alesme, 4th Growth: Pouget, Prieuré-Lichine, Marquis de Terme 5th Growth: Dauzac, du Tertre
Best Margaux ‘alternative’ châteaux: d’Angludet, Marsac-Seguineau, l’Aura de Cambon
– Saint Julien Total Number of Hectares: 802 (5% of total Médoc area)
Total: 24 Independent Wine Producers – 0 Cru Bourgeois – 10 of which are Grand Cru Classé (2nd Growth: Léoville-Poyferré, Léoville-Barton, Léoville-Las Cazes, Gruaud-Larose, Ducru-Beaucaillou 3rd Growth: Lagrange, Langoa-Barton 4th Growth: Saint-Pierre, Talbot, Brainaire-Ducru, Beychevelle
Best St Julien ‘alternative’ châteaux: La Moulin Riche, du Glana, Gloria
– PAUILLAC Total Number of Hectares: 1123 (7% of total Médoc area) Total: 88 Wine Producers
34 independent – 5 which are Cru Bourgeois(2% of their total) – 18 of which are Grand Cru Classé (1st Growth: Latour, Lafite-Rothschild, Mouton-Rothschild 2nd Growth: Pichon-Longueville, Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande 4th Growth: Duhart-Milon 5th Growth: Pontet-Canet, Batailley, Haut-Batailley, Grand Puy Lacoste, Grand Puy Ducasse, Lynch Bages, Lynch Moussas, d’Armailhac, Haut-Bages-Libéral, Pédesclaux, Clerc-Milon, Croizet-Bages)
54 that sell via a cooperative
Best Pauillac ‘alternative’ châteaux: Fonbadet, Haut de la Bécade, Bellegrave, Lagneaux
– SAINT ESTEPHE Total Number of Hectares: 1284 (8% of total Médoc area) Total 136 Wine Producers
56 independent – 21 which are Cru Bourgeois (8% of their total) – 5 of which are Grand Cru Classé (2nd Growth: Cos d’Estournel, Montrose 3rd Growth: Calon-Ségur 4th Growth: Lafon-Rochet 5th Growth: Cos Labory
80 that sell via a cooperative
Best St Estephe ‘alternative’ châteaux: Haut Marbuzet, Le Tour de Pez, St Estephe et Pomys, Tour de Termes, Meyney, Andron Blanquet, La Haye, Beau-Site Haut Vignoble, L’Argilus du Roi
THE MEDOC – KEY FACTS AND FIGURES
Vineyard Area 2012 : 16 030 hectares (16 % of the total of Bordeaux Rouge production)
63 % AOC Médoc and Haut-Médoc
37 % AOC Village Appellations
Average Production : 739 000 hectolitres (3 Years 2010-2012)
65 % AOC Médoc and Haut-Médoc
35 % AOC Village Appellations
Volume : 105 million bottles
55 % French Market
45 % Exports
Volume 2011-2012 : 46.5 million bottles
of which the European Union represents : 44 %
Other Countries : 56 %
Value 2010- 2011 : 1,04 Billion Euro (49 % of the total of Bordeaux Rouge)
of which the European Union represents : 40 %
Other Countries : 60 %
The ‘Alternative’ Places to Eat and Taste Wine in the Médoc
Restaurant Le Bontemps, 33460 Cussac Fort Médoc
Restaurant Chez Mémé, 33250 St Julien
La Winery; Cellar Shop, Tasting and Restaurant, 33460 Arsac http://www.winery.fr