St.-Emilion is known for an eclectic bunch of vignerons. A large appellation that’s divided into numerous small properties, the area prides itself on being a foil to the suit-and-tie crowd of the classified growths on Bordeaux’s Left Bank. The garagiste crazes of the ‘90s, when winemakers played a game of one-upsmanship with their wines, aiming for bigger and bolder along the way, was the appellation’s loudest pronouncement of that culture. While things have quieted down a bit today, it still makes sense that Jonathan Maltus would have set up shop here. I caught up with Maltus during my visit through the region this past December, and tasted his range of 2009s.
Maltus is a Nigeria-born, U.K.-schooled former engineer who caught the wine bug while selling some Cahors for a friend in the early ’90s. He soon found himself shopping for vineyards, and wound up buying Château Teyssier and a few hectares of vines in Vignonet, along the southern limit of the St.-Emilion appellation.
“I went from having 520 employees to being the only employee,” said the affable Maltus, who speaks with a light British twang. “I realized I liked wine, but not Cahors, so we scraped up and bought 5.5 hectares in ’94. We bought the house because it was pretty, not for the terroir,” he laughed.
Maltus joked that the vineyards around the house are just sand over water, not ideal for high-quality production. But that didn’t slow him down. He converted the stable into a winery, renovated the house, and steadily acquired more vineyards, including better-situated ones, to bring his current holdings to 52 hectares of vines. [Note: There is no connection between Maltus’ property and the Château Teyssier in Montagne-St.-Emilion.]
Going with the offbeat nature of his fellow St.-Emilion vignerons, Maltus also started off by eschewing the standard négociant channels to sell his wines. All was going well until the weak 2007 vintage though, when his clients balked at buying their usual amounts. Since then, he’s sold his wines through the négociant channels like the majority of châteaus in Bordeaux.
It’s not the only concession Maltus had made along the way as he’s learned the ins and outs of Bordeaux. An unabashed modernist, Maltus proudly shows off the reverse-osmosis machine in his cellar.
“Anything that can make the wine better, I embrace,” he said. “I can bring grapes in at 30° Celsius and have the vat down to 4° C in minutes. We totally embrace the technological aspect. That’s probably a result of the garagiste movement. It was a movement about winemaking, admittedly, and not so much about terroir. People were trying to outdo each other. The result of that is we have better tools in the cellar, while we have also realized we still have to start in the vineyard.”
“For example,” he continued, “I don’t feel technology can elevate the quality of the fruit from the vineyards on the plain. I embrace technology but understand that terroir is ultimately the limiting factor. I enjoy the idea of trying to perfect something, while being naive about it.”
To that end, Maltus has focused on a Burgundy-styled system for his portfolio of wines. The basic bottlings form the base of the pyramid and account for the majority of the production. Smaller and smaller cuvées run up the quality pyramid, based on single-vineyard selections from around the appellation's better sites in the lower-yielding limestone plateau atop of the appellation.
The Château Teyssier Bordeaux Supérieur Pezat 2009 is sourced from vines on the flatter soils, just outside the St.-Emilion appellation. It shows fresh cherry and blueberry fruit with a friendly texture and light spice notes on the finish. Maltus doubled the density of vines in the vineyard to improve quality.
“We’re trying to make a Bordeaux that we can be proud of,” he said. “Not cropped at 60 hectoliters per hectare or something like that. By doubling the density we brought this down to 45 hl/ha or so, which makes a big difference.”
The Château Teyssier St.-Emilion 2009 is sourced from vineyards around the château itself (“My sand over water,” said Maltus), along with parcels that have been acquired over the years in better areas, including some next to Château Monbousquet. A total of 32 hectares of vines go into the blend, which is lush and fruit-driven, with delicious plum, blueberry and blackberry fruit laced with lots of sweet spice and licorice. It has a velvety finish and is definitely not a shy style, but has purity.
The Château Teyssier St.-Emilion Château Laforge 2009 is a 92/8 blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc sourced from five parcels that cover the three main terroirs of St.-Emilion—gravel, sand and limestone—all cropped at four bunches per vine. It delivers a big blast of blueberry and raspberry fruit, with lots of fruitcake and sweet toast in a very flattering style.
“Laforge came about because my wife said her parents were coming to live with us. This property came up for sale, with a house and 3 hectares of land, so I could put them there,” said Maltus with a wink.
The single-vineyard bottlings get a little extra push during the vinification, cold macerated for 10 to 12 days, then pigéage while fermented in wooden vat, before moving to barrel for malo. The barrel aging had been entirely new oak previously, but in the ’09 vintage for the first time, just 80 percent new oak was used, another concession from Maltus.
“We like weight on our wines but we also like freshness, so we dropped the new oak on the single vineyards,” he said. “We’re also picking one or two days earlier, but not dramatically more. We’re reducing maximum fermentation temperatures from 31 down to 28. We’re taking it off the skins a little earlier and then reducing a little of the oak. We’re taking a foot off the gas a little bit.”
The Château Teyssier St.-Emilion Le Carré 2009 is sourced from a parcel purchased from Château Canon, located next to Clos Fourtet, on clay and limestone soils. The 80/20 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend (just 300 cases) is bright and juicy, with racy blueberry and fig fruit and a lovely violet perfume. It’s sweet and long on the finish with very bright minerality. The Château Teyssier St.-Emilion Les Astéries 2009 is next door to Le Carré, just 100 meters away, a parcel that used to go to Fonroque. The level of clay is thinner and the limestone base is harder, with the resulting wine taking on a denser and blacker profile, with more fig, blackberry, cocoa and graphite notes and a more muscular finish. There are just 300 cases of it as well.
“I like to serve Le Carré and Astéries side by side because I believe that there is a lack of focus on terroir in Bordeaux,” said Maltus. “The garage movement was a great engine for change, but it was terrible for terroir. Yet from excesses in fashion you get a compensation. Without the garage movement, the first-growths wouldn’t have gone to double sorting.”
The Château Teyssier St.-Emilion Vieux Château Mazerat 2009 is just the second vintage for this cuvée. Sourced from parcels that border the eastern side of Angélus (clay over limestone), the 65/35 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend is pure and driven, with supersilky raspberry and blueberry fruit and a long, velvety, broad, smoky finish. The Château Teyssier St.-Emilion Le Dôme 2009 is from a parcel that borders the western side of Angélus (formerly a parcel of Vieux Château Mazerat). The 80/20 Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend is brighter, with blue and purple fruits, lush floral and licorice hints and a long, sweet, tobacco-filled finish. It shows better focus and precision through the finish than the more powerfully-rendered Vieux Château Mazerat, and flirts with classic quality.
“At 80 percent of the blend, Le Dôme is possibly the biggest expression of Cabernet Franc in Bordeaux, so if you don’t like Cabernet Franc, it’s not your thing,” said Maltus.
There’s a richly layered white wine here as well. The Château Teyssier Bordeaux White Clos Nardian 2009 is a 40/40/20 blend of Sémillon, Sauvignon and Muscadelle, all barrel-fermented in 65 percent new oak. It shows lush apricot, papaya and heather honey notes with lemon curd and straw underneath. There’s a flash of star fruit to keep it honest, but this isn’t shy about its flash, with a long, rich finish. It’s another example of Maltus’ modern approach balanced by a realization that wine starts in the vineyards.
Said Maltus, “Any technological thing needs to be balanced by the thought, ‘Are we doing the right thing?'”
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.]
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — February 18, 2011 9:54am ET
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