Bordeaux, as we always teach in the wine school, is a blended wine. That's what gives its best bottles such balance and complexity, and it's a skill that has been built up over generations.
Recently, however, more and more chateaux have been bottling (or perhaps more accurately, made a point of talking about) 100%, single-varietal wines. I have followed a few of them on this blog, namely a 100% Malbec from Blaye (Chateau Magdeleine Bouhou) and of course several 100% Sauvignon Blancs - the most famous being Pavillon Blanc at Chateau Margaux.
So I was thrilled to receive an invitation to a 'Mono-Cepage' lunch last Sunday with Alex and Christine Rychlewski. Alex is a translator and wine expert who has lived in Bordeaux for the past 25 years, and he very gamely drove up and down the region collecting nine different examples of 100% varietal Bordeaux for us to try over lunch. And Magdeleine Bouhou wasn't one of them!! (nor, not surprisingly, was Pavillon Blanc...).
We had a fascinating discussion over each one, with the conclusion being that often, in less than perfect years, there is a good reason why Bordeaux blends its wine (to smooth out any ripening problems in one variety with the soothing blanket of another, for example). But there were also some wonderful wines, and almost all came in at under 15 euros.
The wines were as follows:
Chateau Bertranon 2008, Bordeaux Blanc
100% Muscadelle (12%ABV)
An interesting wine, one of the only 100% Muscadelles that I have heard of in Bordeaux (although I have since found out that Vincent Lataste makes one in his 'Bordeaux Cepage Collection'). This has a naturally low alcohol level, and was served as an aperitif, well-chilled. Typical dominant flavours of this grape are apples and white peaches, and the nose is always very fragrant, but for me this example was quite round and rich, with lots of apricot alongside the peach, perhaps because it was aged on sauvignon lees, with lees-stirring.
Cave des Hauts de Girond 2009, Bordeaux Blanc
100% Sauvignon (it didn't specify whether Blanc or Gris on the label. Again 12%ABV)
A slight blush colour, like a Roussanne. We wondered if this meant it was Sauvignon Gris, although apparently not. This was the least interesting for me - perhaps because there really are some fantastic examples of 100% Sauvignon Blanc in Bordeaux, so it was up against far stiffer competition. Among the obvious (good) competitors are Dourthe No 1, Divinus (de Chateau Bonnet) and Chateau Rochemorin. Still, not faulty in any way, and a good price at around 5 euros.
Chateau Memoires, 2007, Bordeaux blanc
100% Semillon (12.5%ABV)
A really ejoyable wine, with plenty of texture and rich mouthfeel, wiht lemony zest (with some cashew nut) of Semillon, but also a good lift of acidity on the end of the palate. You tend to find 100% Semillons more frequently in Australia (at least displayed as such on the label), and of course in Bordeaux the few that are 100% are invariably sweet, such as Ch‚teau des Mille Anges from Cadillac. This is a dry version, and successful.
Chateau d'Osmond 2006, Haut-Medoc
100% Petit Verdot (13%ABV)
I'm a big fan of Petit Verdot, and love its spiciness and depth of flavour, but was a little disappointed with this wine. I just think that, in Bordeaux, you need a truly hot year to get the best out of PV because it is so tough to ripen up fully, and 2006 didn't quite deliver the goods - a little heavy and overly tannic. Still, good to see these being made (I still remember a lovely version from 2003, made by Ch Le Luc Regula in AC Bordeaux Superieur, called Max after the chateau owner).
Chateau Perayne 2005, Cuvee Artemis
1005 Cabernet Franc, Bordeaux Rouge (13%ABV)
This worked better than the Petit Verdot, perhaps because it's a more forgiving grape, and perhaps because of the vintage. Enjoyable mouthfeel, with soft red fruits but also plenty of personality. Again, this is a grape that I really enjoy (I'm thinking of some wonderful examples made down in Irouleguy by Domaine Brana). In Bordeaux, Cuvee Damnation by Chateau La Roque Mauriac makes an almost 100% (around 80% I think) cabernet franc, as does Jonathan Maltus at Le Dome - but both of these are more 'gourmet' and powerful than the Perayne example (both use oak, wheras Perayne is all stainless steel). Pretty, charming and easy drinking.
Le Coeur de Castenet 2005, Bordeaux Superieur
100% Cabernet Sauvignon (14%ABV)
There are lots of single varietal cab sauvignons from Napa, Australia, Argentina, Chile, South Africa... but surprisingly few from Bordeaux. After a little trepidation, this turned out to be one of the best of the lunch. From Chateau Castenet, and winemaker Francois Greffier, there was plenty of evident oak, but overall this was a smooth and enjoyable wine that costs around 12 euros.
Les Malbecs de Tire Pe, 2007 Bordeaux
100% Malbec (12.5%ABV)
This is a grape variety that keeps getting more and more attention in Bordeaux, of course fuelled by its boom in Argentina and to some extent Cahors. This was of course not the easiest vintage, and the wine lacked some bite (at least compared to the Cab Sauvignon beforehand), but there was still some attractive spice and depth of flavour, and I'm sure there is plenty of potential for a few smaller producers to carve out a niche here. Aged in large(ish) wooden barrels of 300 and 400 litre from owners David and Helene Barrault.
Chateau la Croix Taillefer 2001 Pomerol
Lovely to head to a Pomerol towards the end of lunch, and to an older wine - the colour was far more advanced, with soft russet red (interesting also as a way of showing how quickly merlot evolves compared to some of the other red grapes on display here), and gently ageing summer fruits on the palate. Very pleasurable, a wine to sink into. As with Sauvignon Blanc, this is the most popular of the single-varietals in Bordeaux, and it's not hard to find good examples (without having to head all the way up to Petrus).
Chateau Climens 1998 Sauternes
100% Semillon (14.2%ABV)
Back to a single varietal Semillon, this time served with a slice of apple pie, as befits a gorgeous glass of richly scented, beautifully sweet-sour Sauternes. Definitely showing what can be done with this grape, Climens produces here a very impressive glass of wine, with honeyed richness and toffee hints, but with carefully-placed lemon and lime, bringing it to a point on the finish that was far more savoury than sweet, just as you want.
All in all, a fascinating lunch, very kindly organised by Alex and Christine.