We all have the dream—to maybe one day buy a little rundown winery in some out-of-the-way wine area and spend our time fixing up the place. Maybe a few acres of Grenache in the Languedoc for example, where costs and expectations would be relatively low and you could probably make your way without much trouble.
But how about a Bordeaux fixer-upper? One in St.-Emilion, located right next door to the famed Château Cheval-Blanc? Now that's jumping into the deep end. But it's exactly what Olivier Decelle and his wife, Anne, have done.
Who'd have thought the most interesting white wine I'd tasted all year would come from Bordeaux?
It would have been no surprise if some new white from the Rhône or the Loire, or a Riesling from Germany or the Finger Lakes, lit my fire this past year. Even something off the radar from the Jura would have been more predictably surprising than a white Bordeaux.
Yet there I was earlier this month, working in Bordeaux, blind tasting through 600 wines, focusing on the recently bottled 2009 reds. I started with a small flight of white, a mix of 2009s and '10s, when suddenly something electric hit my palate.
Château Phélan-Ségur missed out on the 1855 classification (it was instead designated Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels in the 2003 cru bourgeois classification, though that classification was nullified by legal challenges filed by disgruntled châteaus in 2007). Today, the estate releases its wine at a more modest price point vis-à-vis other Bordeaux, typically around $40 in the U.S. market, while maintaining a distinctively subtle, minerally style for its wine.
That style was on full display when I visited the estate while in Bordeaux recently, meeting with general director Véronique Dausse who gave me the opportunity to taste a complete vertical of the 2000 through 2010 vintages, as well as the 1995, 1990 and 1989.
A youthful-looking 62, Denis Dubourdieu has a swoosh of dark, wavy hair that shows just a few hints of gray. With his reading glasses hanging around his neck, he has a well-cultivated professorial look, fitting for a man who could easily be called the professor of Bordeaux. Since the 1970s, Dubourdieu has taught at the University of Bordeaux, and during his career, his influential research on white wine vinification and aging helped revolutionize how white Bordeaux is made today. Dubourdieu is also a vigneron in his own right, heading up Denis Dubourdieu Domaines, a family company based at his home property of Château Reynon in the Côtes de Bordeaux town of Beguey and headlined by his flagship estate of Château Doisy-Daëne in Barsac.
The 8 hectares of manicured gardens are beautiful and the old manor house has a hint of regal air to it. But Château Le Thil does not drip with the Bordeaux-styled pomp and circumstance that comes from many moneyed estates in the Médoc. Instead, the cellar facility is just a simple building that could have been plucked out of the Rhône countryside, and the history here is much shorter.
This is one of the new kids on the block, and the block has some big neighbors. Château Le Thil's 18 hectares of vines are set right in the middle of a triangle formed by Châteaus Smith-Haut-Lafitte, Carbonnieux and Bouscaut, three prominent names in Pessac-Léognan. De Laitre took the plunge in 1990, deciding to plant some vines without any background in wine and no immediate family wine history to call upon.
Game on. The 2009 Bordeaux tasting game, that is. After arriving just in time for lunch (how's that for planning ahead?) I got right down to it, tasting through some dry whites. From there, I worked through the morass of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur AOCs and turned up some interesting and tasty values, including the 2009 Bad Boy (Mauvais Garçon) bottling from Château Valandraud's Jean-Luc Thunevin.
While the tasting is large—I'll probably get through over 500 wines while here—I do take a break here and there to stop in at some châteaus. Last week I caught up with Hélène Garcin-Lévêque and her husband, winemaker Patrice Lévêque, to taste the 2011s from Pessac's Châteaus Haut-Bergey and Branon.