Historically it was the robust oxen that worked the dense blue clay soils in the vineyards here in the north western corner of St Emilion and over the border into Pomerol. Horses were too fragile for the job, explained François Despagne, who has run the family estate of Château Grand Corbin Despagne, St Emilion Grand Cru Classé, for the last fifteen or so years. It was this dense clay soil with its blue hue and ability to swell and contract with water, that made the most well-known Pomerol, Petrus famous not so far away (it is located just to the right of L’Evangile).
This 28 hectare property has been in his family since 1812 though the family have been vineyard workers at the nearby Cheval Blanc since 14th century. (Large estates such as Leoville in St Julien, Figeac and Corbin in St Emilion were split up and sold in the wake of the French Revolution, producing many new properties that link their name to the old).
With an estate that has remained in the same family for so many decades, there are many stories to tell and I heard about these with delight during my morning with François a week or so ago. If St Emilion is a rectangle, the property is located up in its top left hand corner not far from Cheval Blanc. It is here the terrain starts to get more undulating before it becomes another appellation, that of one of St Emilions satellites, Montagne.
‘It is the most Pomerol of St Emilion’s’ he claims being located near to the prestigious plateau where Le Bon Pasteur, Petrus and Gazin are situated . As in this hot appellation over the border, they too find that their grapes are amongst the first to ripen in Bordeaux. This year with two weeks advance on a ‘normal’ year, François will be ready from 10 September to harvest.
With a background in micro-biology (studying the natural yeasts found in vineyards such as Petrus at the Faculty of Oenology with the famous Denis Dubourdieu) he joined the family property as a young man with a questioning mind and the need to have a scientific backup to ant new decisions taken.
In the past he explained, many decisions were taken by a sense of intuition, gained by spending many hours walking the vineyards and taking note of any clues that nature may provide. Living on the estate, this closeness to the vineyards prevails here but today here and elsewhere in Bordeaux’s châteaux, science plays a more significant role.
Mini experiments are taking place constantly in the vineyards, winery and barrel cellar. At Grand Corbin Despagne, over the years through soil analysis, 50 different small separate plots have been identified across the 28 hectares. Grape varieties and their root stocks have been selected to precisely fit the estate’s patchwork of different terroir.
Cuttings from plots of age old vines (some approaching 100 years of Merlot and Cabernet Franc) have been propagated to preserve the DNA of this ancient estate.
This fine-tuning is the stuff that makes the ‘modern’ wines of Bordeaux today – classic, fresh fruit flavours, harmonious, elegant, perfumed and precise.
In the past making wine in the warm and wet maritime climate of Bordeaux was rather erratic. It wasn’t until the 1970s with the introduction of agrochemicals that wine producers where able to make wine most years. Before that many difficult years (in the 60s for example 1963, 65 and 68 were ‘lost’ vintages) with no wine produced at all. In the years when there were grapes, producers compensated and made as many bottles as possible, with little reflection on the quality.
The 28 hectare estate of Grand Corbin Despagne has been organic already for a decade (and suffers from the ups and downs of yields that this entails – in 2008 for example yield was only 16 hectolites/hectare) and biodynamic practices are being introduced too.
What is the impact of organically grown grapes on the wine? Grapes grown organically or biodynamically tend to be ripe and ready to pick slightly earlier in the season (added benefit of less risk of rain storms) and seem able to maintain a higher level of acidity (alcohol levels are able to be lower too). This is good news with the heating up of the climate due to global warming . They tend to have a lower pH and with it a higher acidity.
What is the importance of pH in a wine? pH is the measure of the strength of the total acidity. Most wines have a pH of 2.9 and 3.9. In Bordeaux, wines should not have a pH more than 3.5 or 3.6 to taste fresh and well-balanced. This is sometimes difficult to achieve in warm years such as 2019.
There is another knock-on effect. Very ripe grapes have a high pH and need more sulphites to control spoilage (stop the development of micro-organisms). Organic production limits sulphate to a maximum of 100g/litre, Biodynamics to 80g/litre. Keeping additions of sulphites down enables more fruit flavour to come through on the palate.
What is the effect of global warming on Bordeaux’s grapes?
Global warming so far has helped the unstable maritime climate of Bordeaux, giving it riper, more consistent vintages through the last decade or so. Recent excellent sunny vintages include 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, 2016, 2018. We do not though in the future lose Bordeaux’s signature of freshness that gives them their elegance. It is this that makes them excellent food wines and relatively low in alcohol. Hotter growing seasons threaten to destroy this precious balance.
The early ripening Merlot grape will be the first to be affected by mounting temperatures. The cool soils of this region that range between clay and limestone will limit this impact better than the warm gravel soils of the left bank.
New varieties used to hotter climates (like the South of France and Portugal) are being introduced into the region and even new crossings are being developed.
Kees Van Leeuwen is a researcher at Bordeaux’s university on the impact of climate on the terroir and the grape’s potential for aromatics (he also works as a consultant at nearby Cheval Blanc). He believes that through precise vine management such as choosing the right rootstock, short pruning, canopy control) we can cope with the climatic changes without changing the Bordeaux recipe. The trend for rigorous leaf pulling that leaves the grape bunches bare and in direct exposure to the sun’s Ray’s on both sides of the vine (both during the morning and afternoon) that we see at Leoville poyferré in St Julien and at Angelus in St Emilion to produce rich, ripe wines that are high in alcohol may be coming to an end.
Tasting the wines from this property in the tasting room just off from the vat room and barrel cellar, I realised we were actually in the chateau itself. Usually the winemaking and living space are quite separate in a Bordeaux wine estate.
I found a natural harmony in these wines between the fresh fruit flavours and a certain savoury quality that made your taste buds tingle and salivate (and want to taste more!). The second wine 2016 Petit Corbin Despagne is delicious fruity, juicy very moreish. It has been produced since 1998 and represents normally one third of annual production.
The 2016 Château Grand Corbin Despagne was more restrained cedar, black fruits, nice touch of spice again this savoury quality and freshness I love. (It was just asking for tender piece of beef to accompany it!).
We then tasted an older vintage 2011 Château Grand Corbin Despagne which has suffered from being in the shadow of two great vintages prior to it. Still young, not yet tertiary bouquet but with Liquorice notes combining with blackcurrant. This ‘savoury’ quality again that is difficult to describe but gets your taste buds going…really lovely. It was a dry year up to august which was not very sunny (this is the month where you make the ‘mout’ the juice!).
We have heard about how important history has been at this estate, how this continuity has been updated by the rigours of science. Tasting these wines with their closeness to the taste of the grapes and the soil that they came from moved me somehow. And that’s art isn’t it?