As big as Bordeaux is—it is France's largest and most important wine region—it could not survive without change. The top châteaus are constantly striving to improve quality, tweaking vinification and viticultural techniques, utilizing technology and acquired experience to hone the fine details of their wines. Others are making more drastic changes—often reflected stylistically—as they move ahead. The epicenter of this group of châteaus sits atop and around the limestone plateau of the town of St.-Emilion.
From the merging of two estates into one and the ensuing development of Château Bélair-Monange by Christian and Edouard Moueix to the unmasking of terroir at Château Canon, going greener at Stephan von Neipperg's estates and the move to a purer style at châteaus Beau-Séjour Bécot, La Dominique and Clos St.-Martin, St.-Emilion is in the midst of its most electric and forward-thinking period since the garagiste-driven burst of the 1990s.
Château Troplong-Mondot now joins that group.
Estate director Aymeric de Gironde worked first for the AXA Millésimes properties (Pauillac's Pichon-Longueville Baron among them) with Christian Seely, then served as managing director at Cos-d'Estournel in St.-Estèphe from 2013 through most of 2017 before joining Troplong on the first day of the 2017 harvest.
Troplong-Mondot is prominent in St.-Emilion, home to the water tower at the very top of the bump that sits atop the plateau, 350 feet in elevation, the highest spot in St.-Emilion.
Troplong-Mondot totals 65 acres of vines, and an additional 25 acres were just recently acquired from Clos La Barde and Bellisle Mondotte. The vines average about 20 years of age and the estate produces an average of 10,000 cases annually, a solid amount in an appellation dotted with tiny estates. The vineyards are planted primarily to Merlot (85 percent), with 13 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and the rest Cabernet Franc. The recently acquired parcels will be mostly replanted, with the aim of bumping up the Cabernet Franc percentage.
Pesticides haven't been used here in nearly a generation, under the direction of former owner Christine Valette. The viticultural precision had also long been appreciated by Bordeaux insiders, but with inheritance issues looming, Valette decided to sell the estate, beginning a transfer in 2014 to insurance company SCOR that was completed in 2017. Enter de Gironde.
De Gironde was given the task of renovating the chai, overseeing the addition of new rooms for rent and revamping the restaurant, Les Belles Perdrix, which had been offering the most delightful lunch anywhere in the region. Today the grounds are a construction zone, with all the work being done at once, while the wine is made in a temporary facility just partway down the hill. Completion is set for 2020.
But while that work goes on, the wine must be made. And de Gironde has set his eyes on that as much if not more than the renovations themselves.
"The vineyards were always absolutely perfect here. No matter what, whenever you drove past Troplong, the vineyards were always in perfect condition, thanks to Rémy," says de Gironde.
That's Rémy Mouribot, 39, who has been as the estate for 18 years. And his attention to detail has always been evident, even in winter, when there is no foliage—the canes, waiting to be pruned, are uniform. The soil looks alive, the cover crop orderly and green.
But the wine had made in a full-blown, extracted style (though nonetheless of very high quality: I gave the 2015 a classic rating of 95 points). De Gironde wanted to see a greater sense of place and detail.
"When you extract, when you go for too much, you lose the little things," he says. "The idea was to pull back a bit, and get further into the details. To bring that minerality—and the soils here are unique—into the wine."
To demonstrate, we walk into the vineyards and de Gironde picks up a few softball-sized rocks, called pierres meulières, light orange in color and not at all the friable limestone chunks that are easily spotted in most places in the area. He picks up a second rock, strikes it across the first pierre meulière, releasing a decidedly smoky iron note: flint.
The very center of Troplong's vineyard, about 30 percent of the estate, has this heavy gravel and flint soil, unique in St.-Emilion. The outer rings of the vineyards turn to the more typical clay over limestone mix. In addition, the site, falling slightly down and away from the water tower as it does, enjoys a nearly 360-degree range of exposures.
"This soil here with Merlot," says de Gironde, pointing to his left, "is the same Merlot and same soil as here," he says, pointing to his right. "But look at how they are shaped, one east, the other west. They will speak in totally different ways. The idea was to allow them to speak in the wine."
To do that, the renovated chai will double its tanks from 19 to 40, including new stainless steel conical tanks, the same kind de Gironde had at Cos-d'Estournel. Smaller in size and with more exacting temperature control, they are "a Ferrari, compared to the truck," says de Gironde, motioning to a larger tank from the early 1990s. "When you turn, the car turns, quickly, easily and exactly—not like turning a truck around. I can set a temperature to 10.5° [C] and come back in two hours and it is perfect. In the bigger, cylindrical tanks, you have to come back in two days before the temperature is dialed in."
Other tweaks include dropping the level of new oak aging down to around 60 percent from 80 percent or more, finishing the blend just after malo instead of just before bottling, and eliminating sulphur additions until after the malo is complete.
The final blend of the 2016 was tweaked by de Gironde (the wine was made in the previous style, as de Gironde arrived in '17) and it shows the first step in the progression here, with a lighter hand and sense of freshness. The 2017, blended but not yet bottled, shows a fresh plum and cherry profile, with the fine chalky minerality that marks the wines from this area but has been deeply buried in previous vintages at Troplong, along with savory and cherry pit hints. It's a very different wine suddenly.
The real shift is most clearly seen in the 2018, though, still in its various parts, waiting to be blended. With pickings being done in smaller and smaller lots, different samples show a range of bright, juicy and vibrant plum, anise and violet notes, while others show a racy mineral aspect and more earth-tinged grip; there's more detail rather than a broad-stroke oak influence matched with prodigious fruit.
It's a noteable shift in style, and one that puts Troplong at the forefront of the changes afoot in this large yet once-again dynamic appellation.