The alumni association of sommeliers-conseil organised a master class with Fiona Morrison, Master of Wine (MW), on Bordeaux. And I had the pleasure of being there. Not only does Fiona Morrison hold the most prestigious title in the wine world, she is also married to Jacques Thienpont, the Belgian owner of some of the most famed estates in Bordeaux, such as Château Le Pin, Vieux Château Certan, and l’If. That makes her very well placed to talk about Bordeaux, obviously, but also about the wine culture of the Belgians, as she lives and works in Belgium.
One of the first things she learned after coming to Belgium was that good wine for Belgians means red wine, and Bordeaux… Yes, generally speaking, we do have a classical taste. Belgium is even the biggest importer of right-bank Bordeaux, beating China, Germany and the US! It actually makes you wonder why we so often describe our life style as “Burgundian”…
It’s a real pleasure to listen to Fiona. She is obviously very knowledgeable, but also very passionate, funny and down to earth. In little more than one hour she took us through more than 40 years of history in Bordeaux winemaking, highlighting the main mile stones in the past, and looking to the future of Bordeaux. Here’s a couple of highlights :
1982 : the beginning of modern Bordeaux
The 60s and 70s were not a time of greatness in Bordeaux, according to Fiona. Scandals, such as the use of wine from Algeria, did not do much good for the reputation of Bordeaux. There was also very little attention for the composition of the soil, a lack of good infrastructure and resources in general. She remembered her first visit to Bordeaux and gave us the example of winemakers adding blocks of ice to the barrels of white to cool the wine! Temperature control has become so obvious nowadays that people don’t realise anymore how things were done in the old days…
1982 was a very good vintage, and Robert Parker helped a lot by praising the wines to the skies and giving several of them 100 point scores. Even though Fiona does not seem to share Parker’s taste for big wines, she does appreciate what he did for Bordeaux. All of a sudden Bordeaux was sexy, and above all, this brought in a lot of cash to Bordeaux. That money was used to invest in good infrastructure, including technology for temperature control.
The investments in better infrastructure and technology were accompanied by the advent of laboratories and consultants. More and more estates started sending samples systematically to laboratories to test the phenolic ripeness. Whereas ripeness in the past was simply measured with refractometers, to measure the sugar levels, more and more emphasis went to different elements, including the anthocyans (for the colour) and the ripeness of the tannins. Again, all of that seems pretty evident nowadays, but back then these things were not so obvious.
The consultants that put their stamp on Bordeaux were Michel Rolland, Stéphane Derenoncourt, Kees Van Leeuwen and Denis Dubourdieu. If you have seen the documentary Mondovino, then you will know Michel Rolland. Fiona described him as the consultant who advises winemakers how to make 100 point wines. Since she is no big fan of Parker, you can probably guess what she thinks of Rolland… Her preference clearly goes out to people such as Derenoncourt, Van Leeuwen en Durbourdieu. Derenoncourt and Van Leeuwen played an important role in pushing winemakers to look at the soil and integrate that aspect in their vineyard management. Dubourdieu was a real wine scientist and did a lot of research on aroma precursors and on the reasons behind aromatic complexity.
Current and future trends
The global trend towards organic winemaking is also clearly present in Bordeaux.
Sexual confusion is an example of such a practice that is getting more and more commonplace. It involves the use of feromones to confuse male insects so they do not fertilize female insects. Another example is the use of whitewash, a sort of calcium powder that has mildly antibacterial properties and protects against heat. The whole aspect of canopy management is also evolving substantially : instead of pulling off all the leaves above the bunches of grapes to give them maximum sunlight, a balance is now sought in the shape of “dappled light”. This avoids sunburn and still leaves enough air through to reduce the risk of powdery mildew.
And yes, impossible to talk about the future of Bordeaux without talking about global warming. Fiona was very clear about that : it’s a reality. The weather is becoming more and more extreme : hail, rain, wind, sun. There seems to be no middle ground anymore. The recent hail storms were a sad example of the effect of these extremes. The risk of sunburn is also much more an issue now than it was in the past. I asked Fiona whether she would like to have the possibility to irrigate. And the answer was clear : sooner or later we will to need to have that discussion with the authorities, because now we are losing vineyards!
What did we drink?!
All that was very interesting, but what’s a master class Bordeaux without a good old claret in the glass! We started off with a duo of white Bordeaux : Les Charmes Godard 2014, Francs Côtes de Bordeaux, vs Château Couhins 2014, Pessac Léognan. The latter clearly had a more ambitious profile with sumptuous exotic fruit and oak aroma’s. Les Charmes Godard was interesting, however, since it has 25% of sauvignon gris, of which Fiona said it is gaining in popularity, and that to the detriment of muscadelle. Sauvignon gris is very aromatic and has good acidity, which is needed in times of global warming.
The first pair of reds was La Roque de By 2014, Médoc vs La Source of Château Goubau, Côtes de Castillon. Or left-bank vs right-bank. A fun game to play, but not that obvious in this case, as both wines were pretty accessible and made for drinking. That means that the tannic structure of these wines was very soft, hardly noticeable in fact. For me it was the leather aromas in La Roque de By that gave the cabernet away, but the difference was not huge. By the way, Château Goubau is a recent acquisition of the Thienpont family and is transformed in L’Hêtre, of which the first vintage will be 2016. Hêtre is the French word for “beech”, adding to those other “tree wines” such as Le Pin, or “pine tree”, and L’If or “yew”.
The second pair of reds was Château de Carles 2012, Fronsac vs La Tour Figeac 2012, St Emilion Grand Cru Classé. Two wines made by foreigners, Fiona laughed. Even though Château de Carles is made by a Parisian, that still is a foreigner in the eyes of the Bordelais… La Tour Figeac is in German hands. And I’m not sure if I can make conclusions based on that, but the aromas of La Tour Figeac were very ripe, with ripe strawberry, almost reminiscent of a… Spätburgunder! But a nice wine, no doubt about it, well made, smooth. The contrast could hardly be bigger, with Château de Carles being much more cool climate, and a tad austere, especially compared to the lavish Tour Figeac.
And then the last duo. Unfortunately, no Le Pin… But we got Vieux Château Certan, Pomerol, not too bad either! La Gravette de Certan, the second wine, preceded Vieux Château Certan. And the point that Fiona wanted to make here was that 2013 can actually deliver good wines, despite the horrendous reputation of the vintage. And I had to admit that the Vieux Château Certan was a fine wine, with cherry, leather, blueberry, good acidity, ripe tannins, and a very, very long finale! No astringency here. Which also proves Fiona’s point that winemakers simply have no excuses anymore to make bitter wines. At the price tag of the Vieux Château Certan, that’s the least I would expect…