“as it is” – ‘sans poudre aux yeux’
From the village of Saint-Emilion, head towards Pomerol, pass Cheval Blanc and turn right.” Easy to drive past, a small sign in front of a wooded driveway tells us we have safely arrived at the home of Jean-Noël Boidron, Château Corbin Michotte, Grand Cru Saint-Emilion. It is his son, Emmanuel who receives us throwing open the front door of this understated, cosy 19th century stone home.
There is no special tasting room but the family dining room and the guide is the charming owner himself, casual but smart with passion in his words and a twinkle in his eye. Just the personal treatment that my clients from California relish (I am a private wine guide). Emmanuel represents the 8th generation of his family to make Saint-Emilion here. Today it is Emmanuel with his younger brother who have taken over the reins. Their father, a well-known researcher at the Faculty of Oenology of Bordeaux, is always on the scene.
We start with a simple visit to the vineyards which lie all around the château, mostly old vine Merlot with some Cabernet Franc to add a little structure and spice. Just a stone’s throw away, we cannot help notice the modern svelte shape of one of Saint-Emilion’s most famous properties, Cheval Blanc. This is Premier Grand Cru Classé A, the top echelon of the Saint Emilion league table. Now owned by luxury group LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet & Hennessy). Looking to the other side of the property, we look over to the neighbouring appellation, Pomerol and its most renowned player, Petrus, famous around the world for its hallowed wine, the most expensive in Bordeaux.
And here we are being taken around by this authentic independent wine producer who spent his childhood playing in the vat-room and scrambling on the barrels. Rather a small player in comparison to the neighbouring giants and their revenues. This is the real Bordeaux, the 7000 or so smaller producers who work hard to make wine and sell it in an increasingly tough market. Essentially they are farmers, in touch with their soil and vines and in the hands of nature. 2015 and 2016, nature has been kind. 2017 already cruel so early on in the season in some areas of Bordeaux with late frost burning any chance of grapes later in the year.
View of Saint-Emilion medieval village
Saint-Emilion is home to over 800 wine producers who produce an elegant, silky wine full of the fresh cherry and plum flavours of the Merlot grape. It is here that some of the best Merlot wines in the world are produced. A league table devised in 1954 but updated every 10 years is supposed to help the bewildered consumer to find ‘the best wines’. Words such as ‘premier grand cru classé’ (4 ‘A’s and 154 ‘B’s in 2012) send the prices climbing. The second level is Grand Cru Classé – there are today 65 of them. The last reclassification took place in 2012 and number around 80 châteaux, those judged by a select panel to be ‘superior’ to the rest. Changes in the evaluation in 2012 has meant that these properties are judged not only for the wine but also for more subjective factors such as reputation and prestige. Additional points are awarded for wine tourism (parking, reception, tasting area)! The taste of the wine is only worth 35% of the score for the top ‘premier’ level. Châteaux now have to ‘look’ the part too!
Château Corbin Michotte has historically been part of this classification as a ‘Grand Cru Classé’. Due to the changes in 2012, it lost this status. Perhaps the entrance to the château is not grand enough or there is not enough gold or marble adourning the château. It is true what the Boidrons represent in their image and in their wine is real and authentic – something genuine not showy.
They only make their money from making wine and much of this is reinvested into the winery and property to keep up with the times. The wine cellar is equipped with a conveyor belt to enable gravity feeding of the grapes into the vats, they use peristaltic pumps so gentle that similar are used in blood transfusion.
But let’s get to the main subject, the wines. Emmanuel led us into the family dining room and surrounded by paintings and family memorabilia, and poured us three vintages of Château Corbin Michotte, Saint Emilion; 2014, 2011, 2008. Delicious, each one different reflecting the different weather patterns experienced in the year. Each one elegant and complex with a freshness that makes them perfect food wines. Genuine Saint-Emilion. We chatted to Emmanuel who spoke of the various vintages like children, different in their style needing different treatment to bring out the best in them. The first-hand knowledge and passion was palpable. We felt privileged to be able to discuss face-to-face with the person directly involved in the winemaking and grape growing.
Yet it is just this that lost him points in the recent classification evaluation. If he employed a guide, he would have had the points necessary to stay ‘Grand Cru Classé’. A number of inconsistencies in the process has made him contest the judgement (that means bravely contesting all of the châteaux that were promoted such as Angelus and Pavie that were promoted to the very top level, prices of which have soared since trebling their price in the recent vintages). One feels that it is rather a story of David and Goliath. An added twist is provided when you learn that Saint-Emilion châteaux owners whose properties benefitted from the recent classification were involved in choosing the judges on the classification panel.
Traditionally producers such as Emmanuel would rely uniquely on wine merchants to sell their wines. Today with the changes to the words on the label since 2012 he has had to work harder and sell as much as possible direct. Those clients with whom he had a direct contact have stayed the most loyal. He just has to work harder, travelling further and more often. His young family have had to support his frequent absences.
“I have not reduced the price of my wine. Why would I?” The wine is as good as it always has been. Recent improvements in the precision of picking different plots and the run of recent good vintages have produced some fine wines.
What do the words ‘classé’ mean on the label today of wines from Saint-Emilion? The message has become confused and more to do with external factors rather than the taste of the wine. The appellation on the other hand (this is not a classification) of Grand Cru Saint-Emilion is still on the label and refers uniquely to the taste of the wine and the fact that the appellation rules have been adhered to. By opting for this ‘superior’ class with its stricter rules (in comparison to the more generic Saint-Emilion appellation. This is perhaps more useful today as an indicator of quality.
Recently renovated, the winery wall and ceiling at Château Corbin Michotte is inspired by the Gingko tree outside the cellar door which symbolically represents eternity. One thing is for sure, this family and its wines are here to stay.
FROST DAMAGE 2017 Just heard that the devastating frost that hit Bordeaux on morning of 27th April has destroyed 90% of Corbin Michotte’s vineyards. Another challenge to face for them and many producers particularly on Bordeaux’s right bank.
Any vineyards under 40m have been burned with the bright fluorescent growth of buds, leaves and the future flowers and berries turned to a dark brown as though a fire has ravaged thousands of hectares. The only hope is that the vine will grow new shoots but these will normally be for leaves and not future bunches of grapes…hopefully there will be some aid offered. Many small producers will not survive this catastrophe even worse than 1991. In 1956 a winter frost and temperatures of minus 20°C killed vines. This late frost damages the young growth and eradicates yield for this year and will have some impact possibly on harvest 2018 too.