Thursday 19 April 2012

At Chateau Phelan Segur

(This article first appeared in The World of Fine Wine, May 2012)

In 2006 Thierry Gardinier sat down with Michel Rolland and hatched a plan to produce a new cuvee. It would be a ‘statement’, something that would show what the gravelly St Estephe mounds could produce if you really pulled out the stops. The result was Fée Aux Roses, a Cabernet-Merlot mix, taken from the oldest vines on the estate, five or six days maceration, fermented in barrel. The result is a wine that journalist Jane Anson described as ‘Rich and intense with some chewy tannins, but far from overpowering, [with] a wonderfully silky texture and a real elegance.’

Only the fact that I’ve mentioned St Estephe in the foregoing paragraph would give the uninitiated reader a clue that we’re in Bordeaux and not, say, Napa. Just look at the bottle Fée Aux Roses comes in: broad-shouldered, heavy, with a punch that swallows your fist entire.

I recently tasted the 2008 Fée with a friend, a knowledgeable amateur. We both agreed it is an excellent, well-made wine. ‘It’s soft, ripe, obviously Merlot-heavy,’ he said. ‘Not Medoc, though. It’s far more St Emilion or Pomerol than St Estephe. And it’s drinking young.’ And then the coup de grace: ‘Delicious but commercial.’

Fee Aux Roses hasn’t appeared on the market yet (Gardinier, I sense, would be far happier to forget it altogether – when I asked for more details he emailed, ‘Communication on Fée aux Roses is not “d’actualité” for Château Phélan Ségur’). The question with such super-cuvées is always, if your very best grapes were going into this, what’s going into the Grand Vin? It’s a very New World idea, to create a ‘Reserve’ (usually called after one of the owner’s children), to show ‘the true potential of the terroir’. They are all laudable concepts and ones that can produce wonderful wines, but it’s just not the sort of thing they do in Bordeaux.

Phelan is in Bordeaux but – in many ways – not of it. St Estephe, for a start, is always a far longer drive than you expect, some way beyond the manicured lawns and exotic weeping willows of Chateau Lafite, the furthest outpost of civilization for many. And St Estephe seems different, somehow. Sleepy even by Bordeaux standards, the village seems barely populated even on a weekday afternoon.

The handsome 19th century Chateau Phelan Segur and its vineyards sit high in St Estephe between two illustrious neighbours, Calon Segur to the northwest and Montrose to the southeast. Its 70ha of vineland consists of gravelly alluvial deposits - sand and stones, on gentle slopes that offer some of the finest drainage in the region. And what stones they are – some of the Phelan plots would not be out of place in Chateauneuf du Pape.

Thierry Gardinier

The quality of the soil is literally brought into relief at a point where Gardinier improved the lie of one vineyard by levelling it off, creating a terraced bank in which you can see a cross-section of the land. It is nothing but vertical sand and stone a metre deep.

There’s no doubt as to the value of Phelan’s holdings: in 2010 Gardinier sold 22ha of vineyard to Martin Bouygues of Montrose for €900,000 a hectare, the biggest sale ever in St Estephe. He doesn’t consider the land he sold to Montrose the best he had – ‘half of it was very good, the rest was limestone and clay,’ he says. ‘It was a genuine business decision. We wanted to liquify some cash.’ Indeed – the €20m-odd was used to buy a majority share in the Taillevent group in Paris, of which more later.

The vineyard Gardinier lavishes most attention on is the 25ha Houissant, acquired in 2002, and the origin of the long-standing coolness between him and another formidable neighbour, Jean-Guillaume Prats of Cos d’Estournel.

They were both after that land, a well-placed source told me. ‘They fought to the death over it.’ As well they might. Gardinier considers it the jewel in the Phelan crown.

Houissant is being husbanded with meticulous care. The rows were grassed over two years ago in order to reduce yield – at 7000 vines per hectare the vine density is lower than the 8,500–9000 vines per hectare on the rest of the property. At the moment the vineyard consists of 15 hectares of Merlot and eight hectares of Cabernet, but they are ‘going to change the whole vineyard to Cabernet,’ Gardinier says, in line with his five- to eight-year plan of making Phelan 70% Cabernet, as opposed to today’s 55% Cabernet and 45% Merlot. ‘Houissant has the potential to make 90% of Phelan Segur,’ he thinks.

Phelan is a curious mixture. Its wines are regarded as classic (Hugh Johnson considers it ‘strong and reliable…one of St Estephe’s best’)  but it always seems to have a whiff of the iconoclastic about it.

It belongs to no classification: Gardinier resigned the presidency of the Alliance des Cru Bourgeois in 2010 after withdrawing the chateau from the running. He does not bother trying to persuade the Conseil des Grands Crus Classés en 1855, the governing body of the 1855 classification, to adjust the listing, as they did when Chateau Mouton was elevated to First Growth status in 1971. ‘It would be too much effort to lobby,’ he told me, and in any case, the Place de Bordeaux - the system by which negociants trade the wines of the region – already considers Phelan a ‘cru classe assimilé’.

What about joining the new Cru Bourgeois breakaway group, the former Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnels -  Chasse Spleen, Les Ormes de Pez, de Pez, Potensac, Poujeaux and Siran – that boycotted the new Alliance Cru Bourgeois system, and forming their own group? He won’t do that either: ‘We are above all of them. We have all the attributes of a cru classé. We are a great name. We have more than 200 years of history, and we have great terroir in a top appellation.’

The Gardiniers are outsiders. The family is from Picardy; they made their money – lots of it – in fertiliser. In the 1970s, when Xavier Gardinier put his money into phosphates in Florida, The New York Times said it was ‘probably the most successful French investment in American resources’.

They had moved into Champagne in 1946, buying 2000 acres of hunting forest, planting vines, marrying into the Lanson family, acquiring Champagne Pommery and then selling the lot in 1983, snapping up Phelan, pretty much on its uppers at that stage, a few years later.

There was never any doubt as to Xavier Gardinier’s intentions. As soon as he took over Phelan he declassified three consecutive vintages and launched a multimillion dollar lawsuit into the bargain. As Jane Anson notes, ‘one of [Xavier Gardinier’s] first decisions was to recall, or refuse to sell, three consecutive vintages from 1983 to 1985.’ He even filed a US$57m suit in San Francisco against the Chevron Chemical Company, accusing the company of supplying the chateau with an insecticide, Orthene 50, that made the 1983, 1984 and 1985 vintages ‘undrinkable and unmarketable’.

According to the New York Times, ‘Phelan-Segur's suit, repurchasing the 83 wine, withholding the 84s already sold, cancelling the sale of some 85s, withholding the rest of the vintage and replacing 2,500 contaminated barrels, cost at least FF45m, or between US$7m and US$8m’.

Phelan now is part of a much grander empire, run by the three Gardinier brothers, Thierry, Laurent and Stéphane - their father Xavier is a still-formidable though ailing presence. The Gardinier holdings encompass an orange plantation in Florida which Stephane runs, the luxury hotel Chateau Les Crayeres in Reims, run by Laurent, and the Paris-based Taillevent group, which Thierry is in charge of. The ethos of the business, Thierry said, is what he calls the art de vivre – ‘everything has wine and food at the centre’. Taillevent is a huge undertaking: there is the luxury hotel at the Arc de Triomphe, L’Angle du Faubourg restaurant, and the Caves Taillevent wine merchant.

So Gardinier himself spends a small proportion of his time in Bordeaux.  The day to day running of the chateau is in the hands of managing director Veronique Dausse and chef de cave Fabrice Bacquey, who has just taken over from the veteran cellar master Alain Coculet.

Dausse is another outsider – she arrived in Bordeaux intending to buy an ice-cream business and found herself being interviewed by Gardinier and then offered the top job. She accepted the offer on the condition that she could have ‘100% autonomy’. It’s quite plain, seeing her and Gardinier together, that they are as ambitious – and unconventional – as each other, and united in a common philosophy.

‘I took the job as a challenge – that we can be the first great chateau to succeed outside the 1855 classification,’ Dausse says.

In Bordeaux but not of it. The Fee aux Roses episode is telling. How many other estates of the reputation of Phelan have done something so declassé? The Bordeaux way is to go down the scale, producing third and fourth wines. The statement wine has something of the arriviste about  it, not to mention hubris: ‘I have arrived, and this is what I can do.’

The reason I mention Fee Aux Roses is because I think it says something about the kind of people the Gardiniers are. Thierry has an endearing entrepreneurial streak that is more kitchen-table than Alan Sugar. He’s proud of the spiffy narrow barrows he designed to save the pickers’ backs, and he told me about a home-potato-growing device called H2gr0w [sic] that is frankly loopy – although he’s patenting it and has persuaded his brothers it’s worth investing half a million euros in. ‘The urge to experiment is in my DNA’, he says.

But beyond all that, above the statements, the flexing of the muscles, the general restlessness, is the high seriousness of the Phelan project. The watchword now is quality, at every level, and sparing no expense. I visited at the beginning of September when the first Merlot was coming in and the team was trialling the new US$100,000 Bucher Vaslin optic sorter, which processes grapes at a rate of up to 10,000kg per hour. There are a few of these huge machines around – Mouton uses one, as does Opus One. You set your ideal parameters of grape shape and colour, and optic technology does the rest, at bewildering speed.

Gardinier frowned at what looked like perfect grapes being spat out into the reject bin. ‘We just need to adjust it a bit,’ he said. He’s happy with the trial, he says. It is ten times faster than hand-sorting (which they still do on bunches), and far more accurate. ‘Look at this,’ he says, showing a blur of sorted grapes whizzing along on their conveyor. ‘Before, there would have been scraps of stalk getting in. Now we have only the pure grapes.’

Tasting the wines, you see the progression over the last few years. In a vertical you notice that 2004 marks a watershed. The 2001 is a magnificent wine, with a lovely taffeta nose, delicate sweet berry fruit, soft persistent tannins and juice-laden acids. It is wonderful, understated, a very fine rather old-fashioned St Estephe. Then the 2002, with its dryish length, is again in that lower register. Then the anomalous 2003, a trumpet blast of sweet fruit and cooked berries.

But alongside the 2004 I’ve written ‘Modern age’ in my notes. It has the trademark leather, mocha and cedar box nose and refreshing palate but there is a new quality to the tannins and the character of the wine. For the first time there is a roundness to the palate, and the tannins show density and power that you don’t find in the earlier vintages. If the 2002 is in a minor key, this is major. It is a modern wine. From now on – the 2005, the 2008, and the pre-eminent 2009 and 10 – the hallmarks are richness, density, purity and power.

When I put this idea – that the style is moving into a ‘modern’ phase – to Michel Rolland, he was wary (he’s nervous of a word like ‘modern’, so often used as a stick to beat him with). ‘I’m not so sure about that. We are simply aiming for more volume and sweetness in the mid-palate – that is where the real quality lies. What we have achieved in 2009 and 2010 is where we want to be, with more definition, a purity of style, freshness and above all density in the mid-palate.’

For Gardinier, 2010 sets the standard. ‘For its richness and density of tannins, and fruit. This is the benchmark.’ Later he tells me, ‘The terroir speaks for itself . It is obvious when we taste a vertical of Phélan Ségur.  Elegance, balance, precision , the quality of the tannins bringing great ageing potential, aromatic complexity, mocha, dark chocolate and spice when they are young; leather, truffles, cigar box when they are getting a little bit older.’

There is no mention of Phelan’s achilles heel: astringency and a certain dryness of tannins and length, which is notable on vintages like the 2007 and 2002. Gardinier – or more accurately, Veronique Dausse and Rolland – are working, above all in the vineyard, to achieve that great aim of richness and density.

They may be looking to the future but they are also impatient with talk of iconoclasm – they don’t want to be seen as meddlesome innovators. I sent an email just before Christmas asking Dausse and Gardinier their opinion of my idea that the 2004 vintage seems to mark a step-change in the development of the style, and my phone rang almost immediately. It was Dausse, on holiday in St Lucia  (I could hear sounds of fishing tackle being chucked around in the background).

‘It’s very difficult to see any kind of breaking point in the style,’ she said. ‘There’s a consistency  that we notice whenever we do a vertical.’

But, she added, it’s not a question of there being no evolution. It is more a question of building layers, adding components as the vintages progress.

‘For example, the 2001 is all about elegance and precision. We want to keep that elegance and also try to bring richness and density.’ She used the word enrobé, whose literal translation, ‘coated’, conveys nothing of the delicacy of the original French word.

She hated my description of the 2001 as ‘old-fashioned’ and repeated that the qualities that make it great, the classical elegance of the tannins for example, were qualities that they were taking great pains to keep. The 2009 and 2010, those examplars of the new style, would be ‘the best of both worlds, with the elegance and refinement plus the density of tannins.’ It will be an altogether more powerful wine than 2001, she said.

Every conversation in Bordeaux – every conversation anywhere, about wine – eventually comes back to those twin holy grails, power and finesse. This is what the team at Phelan Segur have set their sights on. And this is what I think the overblown Fee Aux Roses (and they’ll despair that I’ve come back to it yet again) was all about. It’s as if they have taken charge of a wonderful complex machine and opened every valve to see what it can do at full pitch. Having made their adjustments, they can throttle back and let the thing run itself, sweetly, with the lightest hand on the lever.

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