OK, so you’d expect to come away inspired by a trip to Chateau Margaux having spent an hour or so with the marvelously enthusiastic Paul Pontallier. You’d also expect to have a more profound sense of the natural beauty and deceptive simplicity of fine winemaking after spending some time with Alfred Tesseron at Chateau Pontet Canet. And you’d have to be made of stone not to be awe inspired by the new chais assembled by Jean-Guillaume Prats at Chateau Cos d’Estournel or the quality of his controversial 2009 grand vin whatever your verdict. But would you really expect to be all fired up after a visit to Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse? Probably not, but that’s just what happened to me after I’d spent an afternoon there. I’ll explain more later but first some background.
In 2004 Crédit Agricole established their ‘Grand Cru’ wine portfolio when they acquired a string of properties from the then debt ridden Cordier company. Amongst these were Chateau Grand-Puy-Ducasse, Chateau Meyney, Chateau Blaignan and Chateau de Rayne Vigneau. There were a few other estates wrapped up in the purchase too but these have been since sold. The remaining chateaux were pretty astute purchases as each of the properties had a potential that simply wasn’t being exploited by the previous owners – an opportunity to add value in investment speak – presumably something on Crédit Agricole’s agenda given that ‘CA’ is France’s number one retail bank and a major investor looking for long term opportunities.
Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse, well known both for being the only Pauillac cru classe actually located in the town of Pauillac itself, was equally well known for, let’s be honest, not being as good as Chateau Grand-Puy Lacoste. Not that Ducasse was ever badly made and no-one there prior to its sale to Crédit Agricole deserves the criminal record that I think, arguably, the Quie family deserves for their ‘management’ of Pauillac’s Chateau Croizet Bages in the past. No Grand Puy Ducasse’s wines were sometimes good, but even in the best years they lacked the flair and ambition of their peers.
Chateau Meyney too had lost its way a little. It produced serious, full-throttle St Estèphe in the 1960s and 1970. The 1961 and the 1970 tasted in the mid 1990s were terrific wines, bold and strapping. This quality would come as no surprise if you visit the property, with Chateau Montrose and Chateau Calon-Ségur as its immediate neighbours. Yet by the late 1990s Meyney was no longer in the St Estephe top tier nor the value the once was and badly needed to raise its game. The same was also true of Chateau de Rayne Vigneau, another estate with enviable terroir in Sauternes, but one where the wines weren’t living up to that potential.
Then there was Chateau Blaignan, a cru bourgeois nestled in what you might term the Médoc profunde. I’m not sure it’s ever been on anyone’s radar particularly. I had the wine several times in the past and it was unremarkable. Nevertheless this large property, 100 hectares or so, has some pretty interesting terrior with a variety of exposures so the potential was always there, but the cellar, formerly so small, dictated all the wine making choices. Merlot had to be picked, crushed and fermented inside a few weeks as otherwise there wasn’t enough fermenting space for the Cabernet Sauvignon arriving hot on its heels. This didn’t just mean that the Merlot fermentation was rushed but the variety would also have been under pressure to be picked early to get it in the vat room as-soon-as-possible. Those circumstances didn’t really call for a winemaker just someone who had worked in air traffic control.
So just what have CA Grand Crus managed to do with these properties in the last six years? Well surprisingly quite a lot. I say surprisingly because turning around any wine estate is a bit like turning an oil tanker, it usually takes quite a while and huge effort. Try doing that with four estates at the same time. Only organisations with deep pockets can do that, and Crédit Agricole has pockets deep enough. That old wine business adage about making a small fortune in the wine business is absolutely true. You have to start with a large one.
So firstly there has been significant investment across all the properties. At Grand-Puy Ducasse there has been a comprehensive vineyard replanting programme [still underway] and there certainly much more polish and sophistication to the wines made here now. The 2009 is pretty impressive and has put on more weight and sophistication during élevage. Chateau Meyney too has also regained some of its sheen and the 2009 again is terrific here, albeit produced in probably St Estephe’s finest vintage in a generation. At Chateau Blaignan a shiny new cellar full of stainless steel means the wines can be made properly and not in the chaotic manner they were previously. I was particularly impressed by a tank sample of the 2009 shown to me, which was concentrated and full of fruit, and also juvenile samples of 2010 Merlot and Cabernet which looked deeply coloured and dense. Once these new wines are in bottle Blaignan should be a great value Médoc buy.
But it’s not just been a case of throwing money about or the good fortune of a string of good vintages – although these help enormously. Credit Agricole has also shown impressive shrewdness in assembling an extremely talented team, not least in securing the services of the group’s winemaking consultant Denis Dubourdieu, Bordeaux University’s Professor of Oenology. Taste Chateau de Rayne Vigneau in 2009 you can surely feel the guiding hand of Dubourdieu. His own Barsac property Chateau Doisy-Daene is one of the region’s benchmarks. So taken together CA Grand Crus portfolio of wines are now worth serious consumer attention, not least because prices at the properties have yet catch up with the real improvements in quality, particularly given the price hikes elsewhere in 2009.
So far, so good. The big question is how far can CA Grand Crus go? Can they get to the next level and achieve what say AXA Millesimes have with their wine portfolio? Well their ambitions were signalled pretty clearly to me when I arrived on a sunny November afternoon at Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse two weeks back and met Anne Le Naour, just as the last of the red wines were being pressed off their skins in the chais. Anne joined CA Grand Crus in early in 2010 as technical director not just for Grand-Puy Ducasse but for all the properties in the group and was nabbed from the teeth of the Bernard Magrez empire. If anyone has the intelligence, talent and determination to push these properties as far as they can possibly go then surely it is this impressive young woman. Amongst other things – including a winemaking stint in the Yarra Valley in 2001 at Yering Station which certainly shows an open mind – Anne worked previously at Chateau La Tour Carnet. As turnarounds go, La Tour Carnet’s is about as profound as you can get, going from one of the least impressive Haut-Médoc classified growths to one of the most impressive. Of course Bernard Magrez had the cash and there is the ubiquitous Michel Rolland on hand advising, but as La Tour Carnet’s estate manager working there since 2004 surely much credit must be due to Le Naour to herself. I imagine that Magrez must have been sad to let her go.
Certainly Anne Le Naour herself comes across as a positive person who is very excited about the job she has been given and the opportunities it presents. Following her on a tour of CA’s Medoc properties her easy yet assertive manner seems to have won the respect of her colleagues in the various cellars, no small achievement in a male dominated environment known for its resistance to change. Not that she’s the only woman about mind you. At Grand-Puy Ducasse she’s been joined by a young, new Maitre de Chais Cécile Bernier, actually another evacuee from Chateau La Tour Carnet where she had worked as an assistant winemaker. Cécile seems to approach her job with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm as Le Naour herself.
At Grand-Puy Ducasse there is a lot is planned and there is still a lot to do. The next step, following the vineyard replantings, is to break down the vineyard parcels further to even smaller parcels to micro manage their picking. Already in her first vintage here in 2010, in what seems to be a very promising year, Anne Le Naour was determined to only pick plots when the achieved the right degree of ripeness. If this meant a stop start approach to the picking then so be it. There was in fact a four day gap between the picking of the last few plots of Cabernet Sauvignon. Following on from this the next logical developments for Grand-Puy Ducasse then will be in the cellar, putting in smaller fermenters to allow for the selective fermentation of each plot. This sort of system, now commonplace amongst the very top estates, will help the grand vin here immensely. There has also been a lot of work improving the quality of the oak barrels they have been using. It’s a fascinating time at this estate as Le Naour and her colleagues try to elevate Grand-Puy Ducasse to the next level and all in all an unexpectedly exciting chateau visit. Francois-Xavier Borie at Grand-Puy Lacoste – watch out!
The following wines were tasted at Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse and Chateau Meyney on Wednesday 10th November 2010:
Chateau Meyney, St Estèphe, 2007
Reasonable depth, still some purple at edge; earthy looking; attractive nose, some red fruits, roundness, minerals, some depth and grip on the palate. Filling out. Grippy finish. Later more tobacco notes, meats and earth, mid-weight and feels harmonious. 86+/100
Chateau Meyney, St Estèphe, 2008
Stronger, earther red, purple edge; quite ripe notes, cherry, spice and chocolate; quite attractive softish palate initially, then the structure becomes evident with tannin and acid. Feels like it might lack some depth and concentration but may fill out. A bit disjointed at present. Needs time to settle. 87-88/100
Chateau Meyney, Estèphe, 2009
Saturated colour; really opaque; purple at edge; dense and powerful feel to the nose; brooding, cassis notes; lots of red fruits here – succulent- with spicy notes. Palate is deep and dense and concentrated with lots of fruit and extract – quite fleshy. Very good length. Coffee and oak on the finish – overall lots of extract and flavour. Great effort. 91-93+/100
Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse, Pauillac, 2008
Deep concentrated colour; red purple at edge; blackcurrants, cassis, some tobacco leaf; quite forward nose; blackcurrants, good grip and structure, acid and tannin; lots of grip and acid, should come together as there is flesh. Needs 5 years. 88+/100
Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse, Pauillac, 2009
Very saturated colour; tight to the rim; very dense wine on the nose, blackcurrants, flesh, more depth, very ripe nose and rich, some tobacco notes also; great palate which has not surprisingly filled out considerably since the wine was shown at the primeur tastings. Lovely blackcurrant fruit, cassis, rich and opulent; almost velvety quality here; dense yet supple and lots of ripe tannin. This is now looking a terrific wine, full of flavour but also freshness here too. Pure. Surely the best Ducasse yet? 13.7% alcohol 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot 92-94+/100
Tags: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, Anne Le Naour, Bernard Magrez, CA Grand Crus, Cabernet Sauvignon, Calo, Cécile Bernier, Chateau Blaignan, Chateau de Rayne Vigneau, Chateau Grand-Puy Ducasse, Chateau Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Chateau La Tour Carnet, Chateau Meyney, Chateau Montrose, Cordier, Crédit Agricole, Cru Bourgeois, Denis Dubourdieu, élevage, Médoc, Merlot, Michel Rolland, Pauillac, Sauternes, St Estèphe, terroir, Yarra Valley, Yering Station