BACK FROM THE GRAVES

A rededication to quality is bringing this neglected region of Bordeaux new prosperity.


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Graves, once an almost forgotten region, is now offering some of the best values
—as well as some of the most drinkable wines—in the whole of Bordeaux, the largest wine-producing region in the world. Best known in the past for their white wines, today's producers from Graves are just as likely to focus on the increasingly well-made reds.

Graves is the oldest wine-growing region in Bordeaux and the closest to the city. Some of its vineyards—notably Châteaux Haut-Brion and Pape-Clément—are now within the city's ugly suburban sprawl, oases of green in the middle of concrete. Most of the other great vineyards are within a 20- to 30-minute drive of the city center, focused around the villages of Léognan and Martillac.

This northern section of the Graves is in its second decade as a distinct appellation, Pessac-Léognan. It separates almost all the classed growths of the Graves (and most of the finest estates) from the rest of the region. Its creation in 1987 came from political lobbying by the northern Graves owners, who were concerned about the generally poor reputation of the rest of the region.

The effect has been to create two worlds in the Graves—one of the haves in the north, the other of the have-nots in the south. That this state of affairs is beginning to change is the result of the efforts of a handful of chateaus in the south, pushing up quality and encouraging other chateaus by their example.

There are certain stylistic similarities between the red wines of the two Graves. The quality and depth of flavor in the northern Graves is higher, but both halves have a harmony and balance that sets them apart from the rest of Bordeaux. They do not have the power of the Médoc or the opulence of Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. Typically what they have is a lightly smoky aroma followed by generous red fruit and balanced tannins. The whites are creamy, often today with wood flavors and a crisp natural acidity. Both reds and whites can age well.

A GRAVES CASE OF WHITES

97 Domaine de Chevalier 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $95. This legendary white, produced in tiny quantities (typically, several hundred cases a year), has been
modernized without losing the complexity that made its name. The fruit is richer today, with great concentration and hints of honey to go along with the creaminess of the wood. But it is the roundness and the depth of flavor that make this one of the world's great whites.
94 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $62. Powerful, concentrated fruit with smoky wood flavors, dominated by Sauvignon Blanc. This is an exceptional wine, showing great promise, with richness from wood and ripe fruit. It should age well, although it's ready for drinking now.
92 Château Malartic-Lagravière 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $30. A powerful, floral wine, with intense and complex flavors of melons, peaches and lychees, wrapped in fine essence of vanilla. Balanced, with delicious acidity giving shape to the wine. Editors' Choice.
91 Château La Louvière 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $35. It's the fruit that makes this wine. Rich, fullbodied, wide open and generous, and made in an approachable, early maturing style, this wine has great elegance and a fresh crispness from the Sauvignon Blanc in the blend.
90 Château Larrivet Haut-Brion 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $42. A ripe, full-flavored wine, with rich, oily texture from the Sémillon. Toasty, perfumed and herbaceous but also beautifully structured and rich. Should age well over the next 10 years.
90 Clos Floridène 1999 Graves; $25. Denis Dubourdieu is an enology professor at the University of Bordeaux, so he should know his stuff. And he does. Fabulous ripe, creamy fruit make this a beautifully balanced wine. The palate is ripe and creamy, with exotic spices and the weight of a fine white Burgundy. New wood and tannins complete the package.
89 Château de Chantegrive 2000 Graves; $13. One of the best values in whites from Graves—a finely balanced, beautifully ripe wine with good concentration and depth of flavor. Attractive honey flavors make it immediately accessible, and the aftertaste is fresh with delicious acidity. Best Buy.
89 Château de Chantegrive 1998 Cuvée Caroline (Graves); $22. This wine, named after the daughter of the present owners, goes for the big time. Smooth, creamy, toasty flavors and delicious ripe acidity make it taste more Californian than French. It is soft, mature and deliciously rich.
89 Château Villa Bel-Air 2000 Graves; $NA. Honey and cream aromas make this an immediately attractive wine. Rich, generous tropical fruit and new spicy wood flavors leave a clean, fresh taste in the mouth. Owned by the Cazes family of Château Lynch-Bages.
88 Château Brondelle 1999 Graves; $18. Spicy, new wood aromas, with butter and toast flavors, dominate. But there is also honeyed fruit and balanced acidity.
88 Château du Seuil 2000 Graves; $25. This is still a young wine, shown by its straw color and green highlights. But given a year, it is going to be delicious, with light green fruits, attractive new wood flavors and a well-judged tannic element.
88 Château Villa Bel-Air 1999 Graves; $15. The 1999 vintage from the Cazes-owned estate is lighter than the 2000. It is a fresh, very drinkable wine. There is an almost irresistible combination with the aromas of honey and spice and the flavors of floral fruits, vanilla and toast.

A GRAVES CASE OF REDS


95 Château La Mission Haut-Brion 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $165. Hugely opulent wine from the sister chateau to Haut-Brion. Firm tannins, richly spicy wood and a wonderfully firm, but generous structure, make this a great wine. It is stylish, more open than the Haut-Brion of the same vintage, and likely to mature more quickly, over 15 years.
95 Château Pape-Clément 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $65. A stunning wine, black, dark and powerful. Huge, solid spicy fruits are there, as well as concentrated, rich wood and tannins. The finish shows an elegant side, smooth and perfumed. This is developing into a great wine. Give it at least six years. Editors' Choice.
92 Domaine de Chevalier 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $75. A wine surely destined for long aging. Powerful tannins, structure and huge wood flavors show what a baby it is at the moment. But it will be worth the wait, when the rich chocolate fruit and dark, black flavors come into their own. Hold for at least 10 years. Cellar Selection.
91 Château Haut-Bailly 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $35. Fine, deep purple-colored wine, revealing both its vibrant fruit and its solid tannins which show it will age. Vanilla and sweet black currant on the palate, ending with elegant freshness. Haut-Bailly is performing well at the moment, and this wine shows the property at its best.
90 Château de France 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $30. A beautiful, richly perfumed wine. The elegance covers a powerful array of wood and tannic flavors balancing concentrated black fruits and sweet spices. It should develop well over the next four to five years.
89 Château Bichon Cassignols 1998 Grand Réserve (Graves); $NA. Powerful, chunky wine, with sweet, juicy black fruits. It is ripe, attractive and immediately appealing. I loved the wood and solid fruit. It will also age well.
89 Château de Chantegrive, 1998 Graves; $15. Nice and ripe. Chocolate and vanilla vie with ripe, modern polished fruit in this sophisticated wine. It's bright, deeply colored, and its sweet perfumes and tarry flavors give it a generous feel. Ready to drink, but will age. Best Buy.
89 Château de Fieuzal 1998 Pessac-Léognan; $27. A solid, chunky wine, full of firm but rich tannins. The wine has a ripe, fruity heart camouflaged by wood and a dry element that will soften with age. Give this at least six years' cellaring.
88 Château de L'Hospital 1999 Graves; $NA. Perhaps the new wood flavors of this wine are too much at the moment, but the rest is outstanding. Dry, but solid black fruits and complex structure promise depth and richness once the wood has settled down. Give it at least four years.
88 Château du Seuil 1999 Graves; $25. A finely balanced wine showing firm fresh wood flavors along with rich, dark fruits. It is immediately attractive, but the finish, firm and dry, promises good aging ability. Try in four to five years.
88 Château Perin de Naudine 1998 Graves; $NA. Dusty, smoky aromas give way to sweet wood and ripe cassis flavors. There is attractive balanced acidity and a complex mix of wood and dry tannins. This is still young, with its dry, firm aftertaste. Give it five years.
87 Château Saint-Robert 1999 Cuvée Poncet-Deville (Graves); $NA. A powerful yet polished new wood-dominated wine. Aromas of smoke and toast, but on the palate there is some solid, chunky black fruit. The wood needs to settle down over the next three to four years before the wine is fully mature.

Traditionalism and innovation sit side by side in the southern Graves. "In the Graves, it is a real mixture," Florence Dubourdieu says. "There are those who try hard, and those who do things the way their fathers did. In recent years, some people have taken more care and are booming as a consequence."

Dubourdieu is someone who should know. Her husband, Denis, is a professor of enology at the University of Bordeaux. At Clos Floridène, their Graves estate, they are producing wines that show the full potential of the region. Their red wine has the modern characteristics of new wood and polished fruit, as well as concentrated flavor.

But it is their white wine for which the Dubourdieus are best known. Denis was the first to introduce a Burgundian style of white winemaking to Bordeaux. This involves alcoholic and malolactic fermentation in barrel, and lees stirring. These techniques produce wines that are rich and creamy, with greater depth of flavor than stainless steel-fermented white wines. It is a return in some ways to the past, but with additional knowledge and understanding.

The techniques of Dubourdieu and a handful of others like him—Peter Vinding-Diers, a Dane who worked at Château Rahoul and now works in Hungary is another—have shown that the southern Graves can at least aim as high as the illustrious estates of Pessac-Léognan.
The model is Domaine de Chevalier in Pessac-Léognan, whose white wine, produced in miniscule quantities (maybe 1,000 cases in a bountiful year), is legendary. With its balance of oak, concentration and flavors of honey, it shows what can be done with the traditional Bordeaux blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.

Olivier Bernard, whose family owns this 86-acre property, is an exemplar of what the whole region needs. Open, innovative and always willing to talk, he has spent lavishly at Domaine de Chevalier, building new cellars and improving the vineyard. For him, what has happened in Pessac-Léognan is what needs to happen in the southern Graves. "When Pessac-Léognan was established as a separate appellation, it was bad for the south, because all the classed growths of the Graves were in the north," he says. "At the moment, there is not enough investment in the south, but I think over the next 10 to 15 years there will be a lot more.

"Of course, there will always be differences between Pessac-Léognan and the southern Graves," continues Bernard. "For a start, there is more Cabernet Sauvignon in the north. That is because it is warmer in the north. We can harvest 8 to 10 days before the south. We have more gravel stones in our soil that reflect the heat better. The greater amount of Merlot in the south tends to make lighter wines. We also have denser planting—at Domaine de Chevalier we now have 4,000 plants per acre, as a result of replanting, while in the south the average is only 1,600. That affects yield per vine and also the quality of the fruit. But these are all things that will come to the southern Graves eventually."

At Château Haut-Bailly, Véronique Sanders agrees that investment is the essential element in improving the wines. Her family sold the property to an American investor, Robert G. Wilmers, in 1998, but she remains as manager. "In the last 10 years, Mr. Wilmers has been able to invest more money," says Sanders. "That has been typical of Pessac-Léognan in the 1980s and 1990s. There is no Graves classified growth that has not improved, and in many other nonclassified properties, there has also been investment."

This is the level of investment—running into hundreds of thousands of dollars—that the southern Graves needs. And gradually it is happening. Château de Chantegrive, one of the leaders in the Graves appellation, is an example. Created from nothing a little over 30 years ago by Henri Lévêque, when he bought eight acres in 1968, it now encompasses 226 acres, by far the largest estate in the region. Lévêque's children now run the property, whose handsome cellars and spectacular landscaped grounds are more reminiscent of Napa than Bordeaux.

Domaine de Chevalier owner Olivier Bernard

The new generation has adopted new ideas, with lower yields as a key ingredient. Henri Lévêque was as interested in quantity as quality. Now, since the 1998 vintage, quality is everything. It shows in the quality of the firm tannins in the 1998 red and in the prestige white, Cuvée Caroline, which gets nine months of lees stirring in barrel after fermentation.

Investment has also come to 61-acre Château Rahoul. This estate was always a pioneer in the Graves, especially with the use of stainless steel for white-wine fermentation in the 1980s. Now owned by Champenois Alain Thienot, the cellars are more classically Bordeaux, with alleys of barrels, than those of Château de Chantegrive. But the pursuit of quality—low yields and the use of partial new wood aging as well, ironically, as a return to fermentation in wood for white wines—is following the same path.

While Chantegrive and Rahoul may have been the advance scouts, they paved an important path for the pioneers in their wake. The Cazes family, which owns Château Lynch-Bages in Pauillac, has created 59-acre Château Villa Bel-Air out of nothing in 12 years. Its vineyards now cascade down a rounded hill, with the chateau—a small hunting lodge—perched on the top.

Smaller Graves properties are flourishing as well. Château du Seuil, owned by Welsh expatriate Robert Watts, has already established a reputation for its white. With the 2000 vintage, the reds have reached the same level. At Château Magneau, the Bruno and Jean-Louis Ardurats now own 98 acres in La Brède, the village of the southern Graves closest to Pessac-Léognan. Their 2000 vintage is rich and rounded, with vanilla and new wood flavors—an evolutionary step forward from the vintages of the 1990s.

In fact, although both the southern Graves and Pessac-Léognan have been moving forward over the past two decades, it was the excellent 2000 vintage (and to a lesser extent, the 1998) that marked a complete revolution. There was a coming of age as the quality leaders reaped the rewards of their investments.

Hundreds of acres of vines were replanted in the 1980s. "Now, at last, they are producing their best fruit," says Domaine de Chevalier's Bernard. He and many other proprietors in Pessac-Léognan undertook a massive replanting program, bringing fallow land back into use and renovating existing vineyards. Châteaux Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Carbonnieux, La Louvière (part of the empire of estates owned by the Lurton family) and Château La Garde (owned by négociant Dourthe) were among them.

The rewards for these efforts were there to see at the en primeur tastings of the 2000 vintage. There were high ratings for reds from many chateaus—Pape Clément, de France, de Fieuzal, Domaine de Chevalier, Bouscaut. For the southern Graves, there was praise from many of the most demanding palates in the world—the wine trade and the media. The standouts included Châteaux de Chantegrive, Bichon Cassignols, de l'Hospital and Saint-Robert. These are the leaders of the "nouveau" Graves as the region reasserts itself in the 21st century.

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