Primeurs Week in Bordeaux

Last week the world descended on Bordeaux to taste the 2009 vintage. This is one of the most hectic weeks of our year, with a constant stream of visitors throughout the day and usually a dinner every night, but it is one that we look forward to.

Although one can make an argument that there are more appropriate times in the life of a wine to make a judgement of its real intrinsic quality than the month of March after the harvest, the reality is that this is what everyone tries to do.

Judgements are made about the quality and style of the year, and about the relative performances of the individual properties. For us as producers it is a time of excitement and anguish. The result of all that we have been doing in the vineyard and the chai is held up to the scrutiny of the wine world. We of course have our own ideas about our wines, but we are probably too passionately engaged with what we are doing to give a truly objective judgement ourselves (although we try our best to do so). So it is down to our visitors to give us their verdict, whether they are journalists or members of the world wine trade. Will they confirm all that we believe to be true about the quality of our wines? Will they notice what we have been trying to do?

The place where we receive most visitors is the tasting room at Pichon. I spent time last week at Petit-Village as well, but a couple of days were spent at the Pichon tasting room. It is a fascinating and very enjoyable experience to taste our wines with different visitors throughout the day, and to hear what they have to say about the wines and the year. Some of course say nothing, usually the journalists. In this case, one receives the visit, one tries to gauge the reaction by the enigmatic facial expressions of the taster in question, and then one waits to read what they have to say. However, enough people have expressed themselves openly to confirm the general impression that 2009 is a great vintage, and the “buzz” about Pichon, Petit-Village, and Suduiraut has been highly positive. Now we must wait for the verdicts to roll in to give a composite picture of the wine world’s judgement of the vintage and of our wines.

For what it is worth, I love the 2009 vintage. I have tried to taste everywhere I could and I believe there are some very beautiful wines out there. The ones I like best are those that I consider to have captured the essence of the 2009 vintage at their properties. These wines have a lovely purity of fruit, intense concentration, but are marked above all by a harmony and balance, and an extraordinary elegance and silkiness of tannins, perfectly enrobed by the fruit, in spite of the very high level of tannins that are analytically in the wines. There are some that have pursued a more extractive route, and their wines are marked by more obvious tannins but also extreme concentration of fruit, and I think that 09 will be a year marked by stylistic differences between those who have pursued elegance and finesse and those who have gone down a more power driven route. But in  general the wines are wonderful, and I think the opinion seems general that it is a great year for Bordeaux. So much attention is focussed on the amazing reds this year that it is easy to forget that 2009 was also a great year for Sauternes. The Suduiraut is one of my favourite wines ever from the property, with extraordinary richness and complexity, but marked, in the same was as the best red wines, by the wonderful balance and harmony  and elegance of the year.

We received a group of distinguished journalists at Petit-Village for a group tasting of the UGC wines of St Emilion and Pomerol. One of the advantages of hosting such a tasting is the opportunity to talk to so many journalists during one visit, but the other is the opportunity it gives one to slip into the tasting room after they have gone and taste all the wines oneself. I tasted them all first with their labels showing, making copious and detailed tasting notes (purely for my own benefit), and then tasted them all again blind, making tasting notes again. I then tried to reconcile the two sets of tasting notes. If you have never done this kind of thing, I recommend it as a rather disconcerting exercise in humility! But it is fascinating to see the differences in perception in the two cases. Probably in an ideal world one would always taste twice, once blind and once not: there are obviously positive things to be said about both methods.

Naturally, while the world is concentrating its attention on the 2009s, life goes on in the vineyards and chais.  I took these two photographs of the first buds of 2010 at Petit-Village while the 09s were being tasted. Spring is in the air, and it feels very good after what has been an unusually hard winter, not just in terms of the weather.

first buds of 2010 at Petit-Village

First buds of 2010 at Petit-Village

first buds of 2010 at Petit-Village

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To Disznókő for the blending session for the 2007 Aszú wines

As so often at this time of the year in Hungary, it was very cold, with a lot of snow, but we were lucky to have some wonderful sunshine, which showed off the vineyard to great effect. Here is a photograph of the tasting team in the snow: I could not resist this photo opportunity, although naturally, the serious tasting and blending took place inside!

From left to right: Christian Seely; László Mészáros, MD of Disznókő; Andrea Hanyecz, Commercial Director of Disznókő; Zoltán Kovács, Technical Director of Disznókő; Aymeric de Gironde, Commercial Director of the AXA Millésimes properties, Daniel LLose, Technical Director at AXA Millésimes.

From left to right: Christian Seely; László Mészáros, MD of Disznókő; Andrea Hanyecz, Commercial Director of Disznókő; Zoltán Kovács, Technical Director of Disznókő; Aymeric de Gironde, Commercial Director of the AXA Millésimes properties, Daniel LLose, Technical Director at AXA Millésimes.

A fine Aszú wine should of course be served chilled, so we profited from the natural conditions. I can recommend this way of preparing your glass of Tokaji, and the thought occurred to me that this would be the perfect wine for a ski-ing holiday, a great deal better for you than a glass of hot red wine with a slice of orange in it. 

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The great historic vineyard region of Tokaj is one of the most romantic places in the world. The long and turbulent history of this region, marked as it has been by both glory and tragedy, would make a great book. For centuries recognised as one of the great wines of the world – the preferred wine of Voltaire, Frederic the Great, the Tsars of Russia, Louis XIV – Tokaj suffered enormously in the 20th century from war and politics. The re-emergence of the region began in the early 1990s, with the collapse of the communist system. We acquired the historic Disznókő vineyard in 1992, and set about replanting most of the vineyard, building a winery, and began the process of recreating a great Tokaji wine at Disznókő.

Here is another photograph, which shows the tasting team again, but with the Disznókő winery and vineyard in clear view, together with, in the background, what we like to believe to be the most beautiful tractor shed in the world.

Disznókő tasting team in front of Disznókő winery, vineyard and tractor shed

None of these buildings existed when we acquired Disznókő. It has been an enormous pleasure and privilege for us to participate in the renaissance of one of the great vineyards of Tokaj, and also in so doing to participate in the renaissance of the entire region.  My predecessor at AXA Millésimes, Jean-Michel Cazes, was one of the leading architects of this process, and also the driving force, together with Daniel LLose and the Disznókő team, behind everything that was done at Disznókő in the 1990s. Today the situation of Tokaj is transformed since the early 1990s. Several of the great historic properties have been restored to former glories, but also, and very importantly, a large number of enthusiastic and talented young winemakers have set up on their own in smaller properties to produce exciting wines that are on the way to making Tokaj once again one of the great wine producing regions of the world, and certainly one of the most dynamic places to work.

We were at Disznókő to blend the 2007 Aszú wines. The year had some points of resemblance with the 2000, very rich and ripe, with relatively low acidities. The resulting wines are enormously seductive already, the stylistic opposite of, for example, a year like 1999, which was also very rich but with high acidity and a very strong mineral backbone, for which it is necessary to wait as long as possible. Watch out for the 2007 Five Puttonyos Disznókő Aszú when it reaches the market in a year or two! We also produced a remarkable Eszencia in 2007.

It is characteristic of a region in the process of re-inventing itself that different actors are pursuing different paths. Some believe the future lies in the development of the dry wines, in particular of the noble Furmint grape; some are developing a late harvest style, a delicious compromise between the richness of the Aszú wines and the very dry and mineral character of the Furmint grape when it has no residual sugar. Personally I believe that the greatness of Tokaj resides principally in its Aszú wines, in particular in the five and six Puttonyos Aszús, magical wines, with a unique personality, complex, rich, fine and balanced, capable of ageing and developing for a century or more, but perfectly delicious when young. At Disznókő we produce a dry Furmint, a Late Harvest, and a range of Aszú wines, with a very limited production of Eszencia in some years, but I think it is fair to say that the Five and Six Puttonyos Aszú wines are the real focus of our activity. If you have not tried one of these wines yet, I recommend you to do so: they are among the very great wines of the world, available at what is for us still an unjustly low price!

László Mészáros, tasting a Disznókő 6 Puttonyos Aszú in the vineyard

László Mészáros, tasting a Disznókő 6 Puttonyos Aszú in the vineyard

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How do you time and organise the pruning?

Mel Jones asked a very good question about pruning, and I decided to post the answer in the blog. I consulted with Daniel LLose before replying, so that is the explanation for the unusually detailed technical information in this posting!

“How do you time and organise the pruning? Do you start at one side of a site in December and just work across to the other, then on to the next site or go variety by variety, old then new vines, or some other system. Also, is there any plot/variety that you prune later, to postpone budburst, or to make anything else happen or not. I suppose I’m asking for Pichon, but would be interested to hear about Suduiraut as well.”

Pruning at Pichon

Pruning at Château Pichon-Longueville Baron

The purpose of pruning a vine every year is multiple: to regulate the vine vigour, to control the vegetative state and to ensure a perfect sanitary state.

The basic principle of pruning rests on the fact that the fructiferous buds (ie the shoot that will grow from this eye will bear fruits) are positioned on wood from the preceding year. Pruning has therefore the aim of remodeling a vine plant in order to keep a certain length of wood (in one or two canes) on which there will be a clearly defined number of buds (according to the criteria laid down for production volumes). Each bud will give a new branch which will bear one or two fruits according to the grape variety.

The pruning of the vine can only take place once the sap is descending, so that the plant is going into hibernation. In general, we consider that it is possible to prune when the leaves have fallen. It is also easy and more convenient to prune without leaves. The pruning begins here in mid-November and can last throughout the winter. One can prune until the end of March. But at this time, the plant is beginning its activity again, the sap is therefore in rising mode, and they say in the vineyard that “the vine is crying” since the sap can drip from the wood cut during pruning. Some properties organise pruning by teams in order to advance more quickly block by block.

At Pichon for example we practice pruning by “prix-faits”. Each vigneron has the same parcels to prune each year: it is the group of these parcels that is known as a “prix-fait”. The notion of “prix-fait” implies therefore a separation of the vineyard into individual parcels, both in terms of prix-faits and in terms of vignerons. The fact that each vigneron takes care of the same parcels every year is a big qualitative advantage. Each individual vine is thus always pruned by the same person who can from one year to the next direct the development of the vine and better preserve its longevity if he respects the rules of good pruning.

The concept of “prix-fait” indicates also a method of remuneration: the vignerons are paid by the “prix-fait”, that is to say x euros per thousand vines pruned. The prix-fait of a vigneron is carefully made up of a blend of different parcels so that each vigneron has a judicious and balanced mixture between the different grape varieties (at Pichon Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) and the differing vigours of the parcels, this vigour being chiefly in relation to the age of the parcel: the older the parcel becomes, the lower will its vigour be.

The pruning method used at Château Pichon-Longueville Baron is the Guyot Double.

The pruning method used at Pichon is the Guyot Double

The pruning method used at Pichon is the Guyot Double

A vigneron can prune between 800 and 1000 vines per day. During a pruning campaign, the vignerons of Pichon have on average 50,000 vines to prune. But the work of pruning itself is not the only work that the vigneron has to do during this period. It is also necessary to prepare the vine so that it is ready for the next vegetative cycle. Pruning in Guyot Double is a method that makes trellising obligatory.

When a vigneron has finished pruning a parcel he must restore to good condition the structure that supports the vine, that is to say the posts and the supporting wires. This work is undertaken before the “pliage” which means tying down the canes. The ‘pliage’ consists of attaching the two canes of a vine plant, to the supporting wire, so that the shoots that sprout from the buds of this cane grow according to the plan of the vegetation). This dimension of the “prix-fait” enables the vigneron to prune all his parcels within the time available.

“Pliage” = tying down of canes. Pichon Baron in the background

“Pliage” = tying down of canes. Pichon Baron in the background

The pruning work is organized in a methodical way. The pruning plan parcel by parcel is made according to the grape varieties but also according to the precociousness of the terroirs. In general the more precocious terroirs are pruned last so that the vine does not start its vegetative cycle too early: this can limit the effects of frost at the beginning of Spring. In fact a late pruning will retard the budburst of the vine (the phase during which the buds begin to open). The young vines (of less than 5/6 years) will always be pruned last as they always tend to start their vegetative cycle earlier than older vines. By pruning them last, one also retards the beginning of the vegetative cycle.

It is not the case at Pichon since the terroirs are such that they represent very few risks of Spring frosts, but there is also a way of diminishing that risk by pruning in two phases. Pruning in guyot double is a “long” pruning method: the canes of wood (called in the Médoc “astes”) have a length of about 50 cm on which will remain at the pruning only 4 or 5 buds. The cane is kept longer in order to enable it to be attached to the supporting wire (the “attachage”). The useless buds at the end of the wood are therefore removed: the cane of wood is debudded on a third of its length.



To avoid risks of frost in very cold terroirs, the cane is maintained straight without being attached. In this position, the terminal buds will open more quickly and thus delay the opening of the buds at the base of the cane. If there is a spring frost, in this way only the terminal buds will be affected since the buds which are important for the production of grapes will not be sufficiently open. It is then only necessary to prune the vine a second time to remove the terminal buds and to attach the cane to the supporting wire.

In relation to the pruning at Château Suduiraut for example the principles are exactly the same, the important difference being that the pruning method is totally different. The pruning at Pichon is “long” with two canes of wood with 4 or 5 short spurs with two eyes enabling the reshaping of the plant in the following year.

The pruning at Suduiraut in particular and in Sauternes in general is a “short” pruning. It is not far off being a pruning ‘en gobelet’ ie for single bush vines, but the gobelet is positioned in a single line which is that of the row of vines in order to permit an efficient trellising of the vegetation.

Each short spur is composed of two eyes and the 4 or 5 arms of the vine making up the vine have been formed in order to make a fan, positioned in the row of the vine.

A short spur – Château Suduiraut

A short spur – Château Suduiraut

The pruning at Suduiraut is a “short” pruning, a “planned gobelet”

The pruning at Suduiraut is a “short” pruning, a “planned gobelet”

One can call this method of pruning a “planned gobelet”. Given the grape varieties in question (Majority Semillon and a little Sauvignon Blanc) this short pruning makes it possible to reduce the potential yield of each vine. This low yield is obligatory in order to have the earliest maturity possible. This element of early maturing is essential in order to enable the botrytis to install itself on the ripest grapes possible.

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To the Languedoc for the blending session for the 2009 wines of Mas Belles Eaux

After weeks of freezing temperatures in Bordeaux, it was a pleasure to enjoy more Southern temperatures: the difference between -6 and 12 degrees celcius is appreciable, and underlines the climatic differences between the two regions. Before the tasting we toured the vineyard: I have a special affection for Mas Belles Eaux. These photographs may give you some idea why.

We acquired the two vineyards of Sainte Hélène and Belles Eaux in 2002, and merged them together to form the property of Mas Belles Eaux. Since then transformative work has taken place in the vineyard, notably in the trellising, replanting, or regrafting of large parts of the property. However, some parcels needed no changing at all, and this magnificent plantation of old vine Carignan is an example.

Old Vine Carignan at Mas Belles Eaux

Old Vine Carignan at Mas Belles Eaux

These wonderful old vines, planted in the 1940s, planted in the heart of the noble terroirs of the property naturally produce a very low yield of superb wine, full of depth and character, which we use in the blend for the Sainte Hélène Grand Vin, but also bottle in small quantities as a Single Varietal Carignan under the Mas Belles Eaux label. I opened a bottle of the 07 at home on Sunday and was struck by how fresh and balanced it was, but also by its finesse, not a characteristic I would automatically have associated with the variety before I got to know it a little better.

Mourvèdre is another variety that I have enjoyed becoming more familiar at Mas Belles Eaux. Fortunately there were already several hectares planted, but the results have been so encouraging that we decided to graft some old vine Cinsault with Mourvèdre to increase the proportion of this noble variety in the vineyard.

Mas Belles Eaux - Grenache Noir on the right, just before pruning - Mourvèdre on the left

This parcel is at the summit of the Mas Belles Eaux slopes.

Here you see a parcel of Grenache Noir on the right, just before pruning, and on the left a parcel of Mourvèdre that has been grafted onto Cinsault, reasonably old vines, in this case planted in 1973. In the distance you can see the Black Mountain. This parcel is at the summit of the Mas Belles Eaux slopes.

As with the Carignan, we use Mourvèdre for the Sainte Hélène blend (and Les Coteaux) but also bottle a small amount as a single varietal under the Mas Belles Eaux label. In fact I opened a bottle of our 2008 Mourvèdre on Sunday at the same time as the Carignan, purely for the purposes of comparison, and it was fascinating to see the marked difference in style between the two. They were judged equally enjoyable – the levels in the bottles descended at almost exactly the same rate – but wholly different. This is an experiment I can only encourage you to make yourself, preferably on a regular basis.

Mas Belles Eaux - Grenache grafted onto Old Vine Cinsault

Grenache grafted onto Old Vine Cinsault

Here is a closer look at a recent grafting. In this case, Grenache grafted onto Old Vine Cinsault. We have had considerable success with grafting onto old vines here. This enables us to benefit from the age of the vines and their extensive root structure, but to change grape varieties when we feel appropriate.

Syrah is though, at the heart of the blends for both Sainte Hélène and Les Coteaux. Here are some of our finest Syrah, in the parcel known as la Cacarie.

Terroir of Mas Belles Eaux

The Terroir of Mas Belles Eaux

You can see something of the terroir of Mas Belles Eaux from this picture, deep beds of Villafranchien gravel mixed with ferruginous clay, which gives the soil its typical red colour, and which gives finesse and elegance to the Syrah planted here.

In fact the colour – and indeed the gravel – shows more clearly in the next picture, which is of some older vine Grenache, in the parcel we call Gil. The sun was just setting, which exaggerates the red colour a little, but it really is red.

Grenache Vines at the top of the Belles Eaux plateau

Grenache Vines at the top of the Mas Belles Eaux plateau

These photos should give some idea of why we decided to buy here. We spent over 18 months searching before we found Mas Belles Eaux : there is some serious terroir here, capable of producing great wines. There has been a steady progression in quality since we began work in the vineyard. Our aim is to make terroir driven wines here, that express the place they come from: either through a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan, or sometimes from a single varietal bottling of any of these. There is something magical about the land here, and our aim is to express this in the wines of Mas Belles Eaux.

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Pruning at Petit-Village

On the eve of the Christmas period, the vineyards can seem bleak and cold, but this time of year has its own charm, and of course, the cycle of life in the vineyard continues. At Petit-Village this morning, where the pruning is under way. This is one of the toughest tasks in the vineyard, taking place as it does in the cold and damp of winter. Here is a view of one the merlot parcels at Petit-Village.

Pruning at Petit-Village

On the left you see young vine merlots that have not yet been pruned, on the right old vine merlot that have just been pruned in the Guyot Simple method.


A not yet pruned young vine

Here is a close up of a young merlot vine, just before pruning.


An already pruned old vine

And here is a close up of an old merlot vine that has just been pruned, though not yet tied up.

After a tour of the vineyard, we tasted the wines of 2009 in the Petit-Village tasting room. For the formal blending sessions of Petit-Village Stéphane Derenoncourt, our consultant will be with us with members of his team. But today it was Daniel Llose, Serge Ley, technical director of Petit-Village, and myself. It was a profoundly exciting tasting. A lot has happened at Petit-Village in recent years, including a major replanting of part of the vineyard, and a total reconstruction of the winery facilities. Stéphane Derenoncourt joined us as consultant in 2006, the new winery became operational in 2007, and the results have begun to show in the wines of the last few years.

The 2009 wines that we tasted this morning are simply outstanding, and may be the best Petit-Village we have ever made, with wonderful intensity of fruit, freshness, volume and harmony. We are looking forward to showing this wine in the spring tastings next year!

Here is a picture of Daniel LLose and me feeling cheerful in the Petit-Village tasting room.

Daniel LLose (à droite) et Christian Seely (à gauche) dans la salle de dégustation de Petit-Village

Next post will probably be in January. In the meantime I wish you a very Happy Christmas And New Year and I hope that you will open some great bottles with friends and family. 

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