Bordeaux's New Kids on the Plateau
Having achieved great success in their home appellations, the owners of Haut-Brion, Pingus, Le Pin and Kendall-Jackson look to duplicate their achievements in Saint-Émilion.
While the Médoc region of Bordeaux has always exhibited the essence of stability and tradition, Saint-Émilion has been the free-spirited flower child of this world-famous winemaking region.
The vignerons of Saint-Émilion waited until 1955 before instituting a classification system, and they then created one as flexible—and litigious—as the Médoc’s was rigid. And over the last decade, Saint-Émilion’s limestone plateau was the center of the garagiste movement, whose innovations in the vineyard and cellar changed how all of Bordeaux grew grapes and made wine.
Now the excitement on the Right Bank is the influx of the new kids on the block, or rather, “on the plateau,” over the past few years. Famous winemakers who have made their marques in other wine regions now seem as irresistibly drawn to properties on Saint-Émilion’s famous limestone ridge as Richard Dreyfus’s character was drawn to Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
First to come were the now-late California wine entrepreneur Jess Jackson and his longtime winemaker, Pierre Seillan, buying Château Lassègue, just down the road from Château Pavie.
In the past two years, Peter Sisseck, of Dominio de Pingus in Spain’s Ribera del Duero, bought Château de Rocheyron, and Jacques Thienpont of Le Pin in Pomerol came a few miles east to establish his new estate, L’If, in Saint-Émilion.
And last summer, Domaine Clarence Dillon, the company that owns the Left Bank firstgrowth Château Haut-Brion, purchased Château Tertre Daugay, a somewhat neglected property at the western end of the plateau, and renamed it Château Quintus.
Of course, successful winegrowers often expand outside their appellations, but generally into lesser-known territories where new or existing vineyards are relatively inexpensive. By contrast, Saint-Émilion has a strong heritage of great wines, and the land is certainly not cheap.
Not only did Jean-Philippe Delmas’s employers at Clarence Dillon give him additional winegrowing duties when they purchased Tertre Daugay in June 2011, but they also gave him a 25-mile commute. Delmas, who succeeded his father, Jean-Bernard, was already technical director of Haut-Brion and its three sister brands.
“We had been looking for a new property a long time,” Delmas says. “We believe we found the right terroir. The vat house is new, built about three years ago, but the vines need a lot of work.”
As Tertre Daugay, the 40-acre Quintus estate was fairly famous in the mid-to-late 1800s, but has largely been considered a sleeper since. It is planted with 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.
Eager to show off the château’s new wines, Delmas and his team worked diligently through the summer of 2011 to produce an acceptable vintage. They felt confident enough to present it in limited quantities this year at Haut-Brion during the en primeur tastings—65 barrels of the estate wine and 66 of the newly branded second wine, Le Dragon de Quintus.
Quintus is officially closed to visitors during renovations, but I stopped by for a quick glance, and it indeed had that distressed look that foreclosed properties and “handyman specials” often exhibit.
“The Romans often called their fifth child Quintus,” Delmas says, explaining it was Domaine Dillon’s fifth “child,” following the red and white wines of Haut-Brion and La Mission.
Knock on any cellar door on the Right Bank, and chances are good a Thienpont will open it. Though not as prolific as the Lurtons, the Thienpont network of brothers and cousins—among them Alexandre, Nicolas and François—own, manage or consult for more than a dozen properties in Saint-Émilion, Pomerol and adjoining appellations. The family also has a presence in the négociant business.
Among the more interesting family members is Jacques Thienpont, who became one of the first garagistes when he established Le Pin in 1979 in the dirt-floor garage of his small country house in Pomerol (his primary residence is Belgium). Although Le Pin remains a small, iconic estate, Jacques and his wife, journalist and Master of Wine Fiona Morrison, built a modern cellar there a couple of years ago.
There was some surprise locally in 2010 when the Thienponts purchased the somewhat larger (about 15 acres) Château Le Haut-Plantey in Saint-Émilion, east of the city.
“It’s next to [Château] Troplong Mondot, near the water tower,” Morrison says, “and we’re trying to adapt Pomerol winemaking to Saint-Émilion.”
The name “L’If” is a word play on the French word if, meaning yew tree, and the English word denoting choices and possibilities—and L’If is a match for sister estate Le Pin (the pine tree) in Pomerol.
L’If is managed by the next generation in the person of Cyrille Thienpont, son of Nicolas Thienpont, Jacques’s cousin.
On a late March visit to the estate, which has something of a rundown cellar, Cyrille explained that five acres are located about a mile away from the winery, adjacent to Château Lassègue. More nutrition is being added to parts of the vineyards, and vines are being better matched to the terroirs.
“We’ve plowed out some Cabernet Franc and putting it into Merlot,” he says.
When I tasted the 2011 L’If during primeurs, Jacques Thienpont said the wine would probably retail for $22–$23 per bottle.
“If my name is on the label, people will be expecting a lot,” he says. “But they have to know right now, they are not getting Le Pin.”
About a year before he died in April 2011, Jess Jackson was chatting as the evening sun disappeared behind the coastal range west of Vérité, the Sonoma County estate he built with winemaker and business partner Pierre Seillan.
Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay may have brought Jess, a former lawyer, and his wife, Barbara Banke, fame and wealth, but it was the Frenchman’s work at Vérité that had garnered him Jackson’s respect.
“Pierre and I have the same dream and passion for land and grapes,” Jackson said, “and he brought the technical skills that were needed.”
Jackson then launched into a story about how Pierre almost wasn’t allowed to work in the U.S.
“I wrote State, I wrote Immigration, I wrote the President and said, ‘If you don’t let Pierre into the United States, you’re making a big mistake!’” he laughed.
As friends and partners, Jess and Barbara and Pierre and his wife, Monique, launched Vérité in 1998, Tenuta di Arceno in Tuscany in 2002, and, in 2003, bought the 60-acre Château Lassègue and its companion property, Château Vignot.
Together, they have invested heavily to keep Lassègue at or above its grand cru designation. They use small-batch or micro-cru fermentations, as many organic techniques as possible, their own barrel company and a gigantic tractor that plows three rows simultaneously.
During en primeurs last spring, Hélène Seillan and Julia Jackson, the daughters of Pierre and Jess, led tours and tastings, while Pierre’s son Nicolas explained his role as emerging winemaker at the estate, of which he is gradually gaining control from his father.
“There is work to be done here,” Pierre says, still moving with the vigor of the rugby player he once was. “It cannot be done in one generation.”
Peter Sisseck made his name with Pingus in Spain, but his roots have always been in Bordeaux.
Sisseck had gone to Ribera del Duero looking for vineyards for his uncle, who had a property in Graves where Sisseck worked. While consulting at Hacienda Monasterio, Sisseck found some old Tinto Fino bush vines, which became the genesis for Pingus, the overnight sensation he launched in 1995.
As he explains while taking me on a tour of Rocheyron—which he purchased in 2010 in partnership with Silvio Denz, owner of Château Faugères in Saint-Émilion—Bordeaux was partially responsible for his success at Pingus.
“I brought my first Pingus here during primeurs,” he says, acknowledging the widespread practice of nonlocal wine producers and wine merchants getting together outside the official Bordeaux barrel tastings, “and when it was over, I had 34 clients [importers and distributors] from around the world!”
While in Spain, Sisseck also managed Clos d’Agon, a property part-owned by Denz. When Rocheyron became available next door to Château Faugères, he and Denz bought it.
“This is the last property on the east side of the plateau before it changes,” Sisseck says. “It’s seven hectares [approximately 17 acres], one of which is 60-year-old Cabernet Franc, which is difficult to find in Bordeaux. Overall, it’s 80% Merlot.”
At Pingus, Sisseck mixes organic and biodynamic farming, and he would like to use organic methods in Saint-Émilion.
“But you always have an ideal that you have to adapt to reality,” he says. “I’m trying to make a modern ‘old wine.’”
Employing the Faugères winegrowing team, Sisseck uses a regimen of concrete vats for fermentation, “very little” pumpover, simultaneous malolactic fermentation and only 20% new cooperage (“I hate new barrels!”).
“Right now,” he says, “I’m making too many cuvées, but I’m trying to learn the terroir. Sometimes it’s a real challenge logistically.”