First published in the Gilbert & Gaillard magazine in 2013 (www.gilbertgaillard.com) Photos copyright Haut Bailly (except Dubourdieu)
Graves, the birthplace of Bordeaux wines, is today overshadowed by Bordeaux’s more powerful wine regions of the Médoc , Pomerol and St Emilion. This has been caused by a number of setbacks in its recent history, but there seems to be a new dynamism taking hold in Bordeaux’s most ancient appellation that is taking it in the right direction.
As a wine region it has a lot to offer, located not far from Bordeaux, it has great terroir for growing grapes, rolling countryside and beautiful chateaux steeped in history, many of which are still family-owned.
Graves, the only appellation to be named after its soil, is where Bordeaux wines were born. Vines were first planted on the sunny banks of the left bank of the Garonne River way back over 2000 years ago in the stoney gravelly soils (‘las grabas de Bourdeus’) of the port of Bordeaux known then as Burdigala.
Today the region of Graves is one of Bordeaux’s largest, stretching from the city of Bordeaux itself 50 kilometres south to below Langon. It produces red and some of Bordeaux’s finest dry white wine and parts of the region have the climatic conditions to be able to produce sweet wine. The Graves has a ‘terroir’ that is well-suited to growing vines. Its warm gravelly soils are well-suited to the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, as in the gravelly Médoc, with Merlot and a small amount of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The white wine, both sweet and dry, are a blend of Sémillon and Sauvignon.
So with so much to offer, what went wrong?
Graves, classified as one of Bordeaux’s top four wines
With the draining of the marshland in the Médoc (to the North of the city of Bordeaux) in the 17th century by the Dutch, the rich families of Bordeaux began to build impressive châteaux on the gravel mounds near the Gironde River. It was many of these properties that became fashionable and started to command high prices. They were classified in 1855 into a five tier hierachy according to price along with two tiers of sweet wines from Sauternes and Barsac. Included at the top of the red wine classification with three other Médoc properties (Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild, Latour) was Haut Brion, the only property from the historic Graves appellation.
This according to Véronique Sanders of Château Haut Bailly was indicative of the change over of the power-base from the Grave region to the Médoc.
This still exists today. The high prices are kept for the Médoc, and a few wines from Pomerol and St Emilion. Haut Brion is the most demanded speculatively (along with La Misson Haut Brion and Pape Clement) but lags slightly behind the other first growths in terms of price.
Graves Top Growths Classification
First designated as an appellation in 1937, it was not until 1953 that the Graves organised its own classification, classing 16 of its top properties without a hierachy and, so far, no updating (apart from the addition of white wines in 1959). It was small in comparison to the 1855 classification which totalled around 60 or Médoc properties.
The 1959 Graves Classification
|Château Bouscaut||Cadaujac||red and white|
|Château Carbonnieux||Léognan||red and white|
|Domaine de Chevalier||Léognan||red and white|
|Château Couhins-Lurton||Villenave d’Ornon||white|
|Château de Fieuzal||Léognan||red|
|Château Latour-Martillac||Martillac||red and white|
|Château Laville Haut-Brion||Talence||white|
|Château Malartic-Lagravière||Léognan||red and white|
|Château La Mission Haut-Brion||Pessac||red|
|Château Olivier||Léognan||red and white|
|Château Pape Clément||Pessac||red and white|
|Château Smith Haut Lafitte||Martillac||red|
|Château La Tour Haut-Brion[b]||Talence||red|
Division of the Graves Appellation
In 1987 in a brutal move, the 16 cru classé ‘treasures’ were severed from the Graves appellation and the new micro-appellation of Pessac-Léognan was created.
The classed properties all came from one area in the North of the appellation and, as expressed by châteaux owner André Lurton, who spear-headed the movement, “the price of the wines was twice in the north what it was in the south”.
A number of dynamic families in this region have joined forces and despite constant pressure from urban development have made a name for the fledling appellation, despite its difficult name! They still rely on the Graves history and prestige. As says Veronique Sanders who runs the 30 hectare property of Château Haut Bailly, one of the 16 to be classified in the 1953 Graves classification.”I feel more Graves than anything else. It is our roots, our region. Like Margaux in the Médoc. The appellation is Pessac-Léognan. The region is Graves.”
She represents the fourth generation of her family to run Haut Bailly, though the property was sold to American banker Robert G.Wilmers in 1998, she runs it with the same passion.
“When one is a reference, it is not just about making wine. We have responsibilities, duties, to keep ahead, to be exemplary in everything we do, in every detail, in how we deal with people.”
Haut Bailly is representative of the modern efficiently family run property in Pessac-Léognan (photos copyright Haut Bailly)
Graves, stripped of its’ Treasures’
In 1987 Graves became in a single moment an appellation without any classified growths and little perceived value on the world markets.
As Graves producer Denis Dubourdieu explains, ‘they are classified Graves growths, not Pessac-Léognan. It was a fatal blow for the Graves.’
It had the effect of devaluing the name and price and confusing the identity of the wines simply labelled with the Graves appellation. The appellation began to lose its way.
As Henry Clemens, the new Director of the Graves Syndicat explains “at first it was thought to be a good example to show the rest of the Graves the way, but it has become evident that in fact it has been retrograde for the rest of the region which has fallen into the shadow of Pessac-Léognan.”
In 1992 the « Conseil des vins de Graves » was created for the collective promotion of both appellations on export markets and represents 400 properties. This November they will jointly visit Japan and China. ‘It works well together’ says Henry Clemens.
The dynamic new Director has high hopes for Graves. Firstly he hopes to clarify the region’s geographical location and image. “We have much to offer, a prestigious image and fruity wines adapted to the modern market that represent excellent value for money. Wines that are approachable and easy to enjoy particularly suited to ‘initiating’ the new wine consumer.” With a background in telecommunication web-marketing and communication he has today’s tools to achieve this.
Momentum created by individual passionate Producers
Producers in Graves such as Nicola Allinson of Château du Seuil are counting on the new Director to do just that. The property that she runs with her New Zealand husband has 16 hectares of Graves, both red and white and they are able to produce a small amount of sweet Cérons too. Exporting 90% of their production mostly to the on-trade, she is confident about the future for Graves. ‘I am happy to be in the Graves appellation. They are approachable wines, good with food and yet they age well. I think today it is the region that is the most undervalued in Bordeaux. I believe that there will be a turn-around.’
Leading the Way
Despite the difficulties there is a momentum building up created by passionate producers such as Grave’s most well-known spokesman, Denis Dubourdieu of the outstanding Clos Floridene and Château Haura. With over 30 years of hard work he has shown what is possible and created a demand for his Graves wines on the world’s markets. Along with Château Chantegrive they are the Graves ‘leader’ properties, well-known for quality and good value for money. Dubourdieu appeals for more producers to join forces. ‘It takes, as he says ‘lots of passion and more than anything courage, a lot of courage.’
Time for Graves to regain some classified growths – its value.
There is a movement in dry white wine production in the sweet wine appellations of Sauternes and Barsac, many of which were classified in 1855. These small appellations lie as two little islands within the Graves region. The limestone chalky clay soils and are some of the finest white wine soils in the world for sweet and dry white production. Yet dry white wines produced here are illogically labelled as Bordeaux Blanc rather than Graves. The Bordeaux Blanc dry white of Yquem sells for over 150 euro per bottle! The solution is simple and history would come full circle.
GRAVES FACTS & FIGURES
- 3500 hectares
- 160,000 hectolitres
- 85% Red Vines (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot)
- 15% White Vines (Sémillon, Sauvignon, Muscadelle)
- 270 producers
The best producers in Graves: Château de Respide, Château St Robert, Clos Floridenne, Château Magence, Château du Seuil, Château Le Cossu, Château Doms, Château Chantegrive, Château Ferrande
- more than 1700 hectares
- 75,000 hectolitres
- 80% Red Vines (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Carmenère, Petit Verdot)
- 20% White Vines (Sémillon, Sauvignon, Muscadelle)
- 55 producers and 74 châteaux
The best producers in the appellation: Château Haut Bailly, Domaine de Chevalier, Château Carbonnieux, Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château de Fieuzal, Château Pape Clement, Château Latour Martillac, Château Couhins, Château Smith Haut-Lafitte, Château Olivier, Larrivet Haut Brion, Château Bouscaut, Château Le Sartre.
Graves, a Perfectly Natural ‘Terroir’ for Vinegrowing
Around 50 million years ago the Aquitaine basin was part of a large tropical sea which over time bcame overlaid with various layers of sedimentary deposits laid down on the limestone bedrock. Fossil shells can be seen in some of the soils in the Graves.
The gravels were transported from the Pyrenee Mountains by Glaciers during the Ice Age, some 2 million years. Over time the action of the River Garonne rounded the rocks into polished stones and pebbles of various sizes and colours. The gravels are made up shingle and sands and a unique geological mixture of ochre quartz and quartzites; white, red and pink jasper; agatoids, silex and lydian. The gravels lie in bands of various thickness from 20 cm to 3 metres depth.
The naturally drained gravelly soil provides a perfect supply of water to the vines, not too much to make sure that the vine’s annual switch-over of the nutriments from the vegetation to the grapes happens without fail.
The heat of the stones during the day helps to ripen the grapes through the night. The Atlantic ocean is not far away to regulate temperatures and any winds and storms are tempered by a vast pine forest. The River Garonne to the region’s immediate East also helps to regulate temperatures and reduce the risk of frost. The region is criss-crossed with a number of streams that provide a continual supply of water.
Its aerated warm soils enable deep penetration of the vines roots which are able to search for trace elements and nutrients in the deep soils eventually reaching the water table.
Graves, the Birthplace of Bordeaux Wine
With the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine in the 12th century to Henri Plantagenet, the future king of England, it was predominantly from the Graves region that in the Middle Ages, thousands of tonneaux of the ‘new bordeaux’ fine, light wines known as claret, clairet being ‘light’ in French were shipped to England for a period of over 300 years.
Graves, the birthplace of Bordeaux’s Château
Graves was not only the birthplace of Bordeaux wine but also where the concept of the Bordeaux ‘brand’ was created in the form of the ‘château’ with wine from vineyards from a particular property being bottled separately. Today Bordeaux’s most important trade-mark.
Château Pape Clement was one of the earliest wine properties and was founded in the 14th century by the future Pope Clement V.
The Preferred Drink of London Connoisseurs
The most famous Graves is Château Haut Brion, today a vineyard enclave close to the heart of the city of Bordeaux surrounded by urban development, which this year celebrates its 350 year anniversary. It played an important role in Bordeaux’s history. In the 17th century it was an example of a new style of wine, the New French Claret, which had the potential for ageing in bottle.As Samuel Pepys famously described in his diary in 1663 ‘drank a sort of French wine called Ho Bryan, that hath a good and most particular taste that I never met with.’ However the earliest mention of ‘Hobrionno’ was in the cellar record book of King Charles II in 1660.