An American Betts on Bordeaux

Sommelier-turned-winemaker Richard Betts' latest project is a Bordeaux collaboration with François Thienpont
Oct 1, 2012

I caught up with Richard Betts the other day. Betts, the former sommelier at the Grand Award–winning Montagna at the Little Nell in Aspen, former partner in the Betts & Scholl brand which made Rhône and Aussie wines, current mezcal producer with his own Sombra label, general all-around hipster … And what's he doing now? Making Bordeaux.

You remember Bordeaux, right? That region with the crazy high prices that forgot about their friends in the U.S. market? That region that went chasing pie in the sky in Asia? That region that's too old fuddy duddy or too corporate for today's cool wine drinkers? You know—that region whose wines we all, deep down, really want to be able to drink more of?

So what's he doing in Bordeaux of all places?

"The idea is to marry enthusiasm and opportunity," said Betts. "We've watched Americans turn their back on Bordeaux. Then the Bordelais went to Asia, but Asia has suddenly turned to Burgundy. So, now there's an opportunity again for Bordeaux to find a consumer. And I think I bring the enthusiasm. It's the largest AOC in France, but maybe they lack the enthusiasm themselves to get it done. That's why I like working with François. He gets it. He wants to do new things. He wants to be in the U.S. market."

Betts is referring to François Thienpont, the well-connected négociant and member of the family which owns Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan and Château Puygueraud and manages several other high-end Right Bank estates including Pavie Macquin and Beauséjour Duffau-Lagarosse. Betts met Thienpont in Bordeaux last year, they tasted together at Puygueraud and soon a new label was born.

Called St.-Glinglin, which roughly translated means "when pigs fly," said Betts. "Or, making good Bordeaux for a cheap price. Or me going to Bordeaux to make wine," he added, laughing.

There are two bottlings from the 2010 vintage to start, including a Francs Côtes de Bordeaux. The wine is made entirely from Merlot and vinified in cement vat, using fruit sourced from Château Puygueraud and Château Peyroutas. Set to retail for $20, it's plummy, polished and lightly toasted, with an engaging, juicy profile and light tug of earth on the finish.

"The true upsell is the down-sell," said Betts. "Show someone what you can get for less, you make a friend, and then they come back for more."

A step up from that tasty value is the St.-Emilion, made from fruit sourced from châteaus Larcis Ducasse and Trimoulet. Vinified in a mix of cement and wood, the 70/30 Merlot and Cabernet Franc blend is fleshy, with lots of dark plum fruit and a solid layer of sweet toast that's integrated but will need a year to unwind fully. There's a nice strong tug of clay on the finish too for added grip; it's set to retail for $35.

The wine is sourced from some parcels on limestone, but predominantly from the clay slopes in the middle of the appellation, though Betts seems less obsessed with a "vineyards first" approach.

"It's a sommelier approach," said Betts of how he's putting the wines together. "I let the wine inform my decision by tasting lots and making a blend, rather than worrying about geology or vinification first. There's nothing wrong with working a problem backward."

"But of course the vineyards matter, and that's another reason it's been great to work with François on this. The Thienpont viticulture is the same at Le Pin and VCC as it is at Puygueraud. So both the St.-Emilion and Côtes de Francs are cropped at [2.5 tons per acre]. They're really trying to farm better, no matter the terroir."

There are 1,500 cases of the Francs Côtes de Bordeaux and 500 cases of the St.-Emilion; both are being made at Puygueraud. The wines are due to be released here in the next month or so. Betts is dipping his toe in the water to start, but he hopes he's able to inject some life into the Bordeaux game and bring it back into fashion here.

"There's boatloads of room to grow," he said. "It's Bordeaux, so there's lot of material. And lots of good material."

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