At just 39 years of age, Alexander Van Beek is in a cushy spot as general director of two neighboring Margaux properties, Château Giscours and Château du Tertre. I sat down with Van Beek here at my office the other day to talk a bit about Bordeaux.
Dutch by birth, Van Beek was hired first at Giscours in 1995, when fellow Dutchman and family friend Eric Albada Jelgersma bought the estate. (To learn more about Giscours, Jelgersma and Van Beek, read "Battle of Bordeaux," in the Oct. 15, 2006, issue of Wine Spectator.)
"I was out of school with a finance degree and about to do a stage at a bank back home, when I heard Eric had bought the property," said Van Beek. "Being a lover of wine growing up, I asked if I could help out there for a bit as soon as I heard he bought it. And I've never left."
Van Beek has helped oversee massive changes at both estates, which were run down and in need of help when they changed hands.
"At Giscours, there were some parcels where up to 45 percent of the vines were dead," said Van Beek, who noted in the first year at the estate 140,000 new vines were planted. Replanting and increasing the vine density (to reduce the yield per plant while maintaining the same production level) continue today. That ongoing reinvestment in both the vineyards and the cuveries has helped resurrect the two properties, which have different styles despite being neighbors, noted Van Beek.
"They have a lot in common of course, including a border. But du Terte is on the highest hill in Margaux, where there is less influence from the river. The soils are more gravelly and there's more Cabernet Franc in the blend," he said. "In contrast, Giscours is down by the river, with heavy clay soils, with far more Cabernet Sauvignon."
Château du Tertre has just 52 hectares of vines, producing around 14,000 cases annually of the grand vin, and another 5,000 cases of its second wine, Les Hauts du Tertre. The blend is just more than half Cabernet Sauvignon, with 30 percent Merlot and a hefty 15 percent of Cabernet Franc—though that can change from year to year, such as in 2009 when a surprising 7 percent of Petit Verdot made it into the blend. A barrel sample of the Château du Tertre Margaux 2009 showed gorgeous, mashed currant and warm tar notes, with well-embedded grip and a long, dark, smoky finish; it's clearly potentially outstanding. (The barrel samples were tasted non-blind; no one from the winery was present.)
Giscours, on the other hand, is a big estate, with 140 hectares of vines, producing up to 25,000 cases annually of the grand vin, and an additional 1,000 to 1,400 cases of its second wine, La Sirène de Giscours. The blend is typically two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon with 30 percent Merlot and smaller portions of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The barrel sample of Château Giscours Margaux 2009 that Van Beek left with me showed more perfumy, lilac-tinged aromas, with red currant and mineral notes and a long, mesquite finish. The lovely, polished grip of the vintage is there, but it's in a more refined style than the brawnier du Tertre. It's an impressive young wine for its precision and purity.
That precision is something that Van Beek is trying to achieve as he continues to look for ways to improve the wines. An optical sorting table—the newest rage in Bordeaux these days—was used for the first time in the 2010 harvest. It scans the fruit, separating out berries that don't meet specific size and color criteria. As with most folks I've spoken with in Bordeaux over the past few weeks, Van Beek sees another impressive young vintage in the queue.
"2010 is a really sexy vintage, with beautiful acidity. The alcohols are a little high, but the acidity is giving the wines a beautiful balance," he said. The vats of Merlot have already fermented to dryness at the properties and Van Beek said alcohols for the variety are in the 14 percent range.
"Cabernet Franc is excellent too, in the high 13s. It's still too early to say on the Cabernet Sauvignon. But it looks like they will be in the 13 to 13.8 percent range, which means the wines will balance out to 13.75 [percent alcohol] when they are blended," said Van Beek.
High alcohol is a buzzword these days, with some people decrying a trend toward riper, more powerful wines. While Bordeaux wines are certainly riper and more powerful than those made a generation or more ago, it's not the result of widespread crass manipulation in the winery as some people argue. Instead, it's been a natural progression as wineries have learned to harvest later for better phenolic ripeness while climate change has resulted in warmer vintages.
"In the past, there were thousands of tons of sugar sold in Bordeaux at harvest," said Van Beek, referring to the practice of chaptalization. "I would rather have a wine that is naturally 13.8 alcohol and balanced, than one that was picked unripe at 12.5 and then chaptalized a full degree or more."
Frédéric Ardourin is currently the maître de chai at the properties, working on the wines with Jacques and Eric Boiseneau who started wth the estate in 1998, after Van Beek cut ties with Michel Rolland. Van Beek has also brought in consultant Denis Dubourdieu as well. Ardourin spent several vintages at Château Latour, where he no doubt was well-schooled on the concept of "precision" in wines. Among the changes he's helped bring to the vinification process at Giscours and du Tertre is to handle the vineyard parcels separately, using smaller lots to micro-manage the vinification and blending process.
Precision. Details. Hard work in the vineyards. It's all showing results as Giscours and du Terte are clearly on an upward trajectory—and at the perfect time too, with the exceptionally promising 2009 and 2010 vintages lining up.
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