Tuesday 14 April 2015

Oslo Syndrome: pimping up Calon-Segur, restraining Cos, and whatever you do, don't mention Michel Rolland at Figeac

It’s fascinating to see the way two St Estephe properties, both wonderful in their own way, have taken different directions.

I tasted Cos d’Estournel and Calon Segur 2014 during en primeur last  month and was mystified by one and delighted by the other.

I have always loved getting up into the St Estephe badlands and seeing the warm yellow stone of Calon Segur. There was always something otherworldly about  it – the great draughty orangery with its stone fireplace was empty of all furniture apart from an oak table, with the courteous winemaker Vincent Millet standing behind it.

The chateau and the outbuildings were always deserted (I never seemed to go there but at dusk), the whole place in a state of elegant decay.

And the wine. There is a reason Calon is held in such esteem by the British trade. It has always been luscious and opulent but also was the most classic, restrained, delicate and fresh of the St Estephes. It made Phelan Segur down the road look brash and rustic, Cos positively meretricious (but more of that later).

Calon was bought two years ago by an insurance company, Suravenir (for €200m, my friend Jane Anson reported on Decanter.com). It's lost no time in sprucing up the property.

Calon-Segur - the new tasting room...
This was my first time at there since the sale. The first thing you notice is that the grounds look rather more svelte. Did they always have those sculpted  bushes? And isn’t the gravel rather deeper and more groomed than before?
There’s central heating – tropical – and bits of artiness, bottles sitting atop perspex plinths, and a large oil (a shiny copy) of the founder, the Marquis of Segur, looking as if he too thinks things have taken a turn for the worse.

A new tasting room has been carved out of the great reception room. There are fiddly lamps festooned  with fake-industrial wiring, lots of steel and glass furniture, pointless louvres on the windows and other bits of tat. It all looks very expensive and busy and has all the character and tastefulness of a big city Sheraton.

...and the old
All that of course could be forgiven. This is Bordeaux after all, where sublime wines come from the most pretentious and overblown surroundings. But the wine has been polished and primped along with the rest of the place. Calon 2014 is an example of what I’ve dubbed “Oslo Syndrome”. It’s the sort of wine that a tableful of businessmen at an upmarket restaurant in Oslo, or any major city of the world, would expect to be pleased with. Oslo Syndrome wines are polished, with dense and present tannins, well-presented fruit, just the right amount of acidity. Above they have to taste like a 100-point wine, or what people imagine a 100-point wine should be.

Calon 2014’s got all this. It’s powerful and ripe and modern, meaty and juicy, with fine  fresh juice to the mid palate. But it contains 19% merlot in year when merlot is bursting with fruit, and that gives it its international, ripe red fruit sheen. Just like the chateau, all the character’s been sucked out of the wine.

Vincent Millet’s explanation: We had to put it in, he said, because it was excellent and low in alcohol, so it wouldn’t  dominate. He said he and their consultant  Eric Boissenot “had a feeling that this was going to be a great year for Calon.”

Lots of people agree. James Lawther MW liked it and reminded me you have to be careful with primeurs. The way a wine tastes depends on the time of day you go, on your mood, and the dynamic of the group you’re with. “And nowadays you can tweet your opinion of a wine and it’s gone around the world in ten minutes.”

How much input would the company have  had? One of my fellow tasters has worked with producers who have been taken over by big finance corporations and he said there’s normally a good deal of interference. “They love to come down and do some tasting, have a bit of input into  the blend, feel as if they’re making a difference. It’s like owning a football team or newspaper.” They are also – of course – very keen on profitability. Mme Gasqueton, the redoubtable former owner, may have had very different ideas as to what constituted a healthy bottom line.

Cos goes the other way

...right to blow its own trumpet: Cos d'Estournel
(pic Panos Kakaviatos)
So it looks as if Calon is going one way, while Cos is going the other. For the last two vintages, since Aymeric de Gironde took over from Jean-Guillaume Prats*, the wine’s transformed. You no longer turn with relief to Pagodes and GoulĂ©e (the second third wines) as a relief from the exorbitance of the first wine. de Gironde has a light touch which is exactly in keeping with the current taste for restraint. Cos 2014 is intense, classic, with a central core of concentrated blackcurrant fruit, lean and fresh and delicious and absolutely of its place. We felt a similar change in the style last year, but put that down to the impossible vintage 2012, which demanded a lean style. Now it's clear that de Gironde is set on bringing Cos back to its St Estephe roots.

(* JGP is working for LVMH and getting very excited about an extraordinary project on the China-Tibet border - see my article on Wine-Searcher, and Jane Anson's very complete blog on Decanter.com. She went there - I didn't)

“Calon’s always behind the curve,” one of my companions said. “Now it’s gone all international and fruity when everyone else is looking for restraint. And Cos is going the other way.”

And if you mention Michel Rolland just once more, I'll scream and scream until I'm sick

Sad, isn’t it? It reminds me of poor old Figeac and the way they hired Michel Rolland just as Robert Parker retires. You’ll remember that Eric d’Aramon disliked Parker so much that he set the dogs on him whenever he turned up for a tasting. Then Mme Manoncourt, after sacking her son-in-law (want a tip? Never marry the boss’s daughter), was on the phone to Rolland before you could say “microxygenation”, because as everybody knows he and Parker are thick as thieves, and a few 98-pointers would be a certain path to Grand Cru Classe 'A' status. But as soon as the consultant's signed up at €5000-plus a day, Parker hands over to Neal Martin and Mme Manoncourt looks pretty damn silly.

Anyway I asked the energetic winemaker there, Frederic Faye, a casual question about Rolland and his input (he’s quoted prominently in the 2014 blurb, and Faye isn’t). “Let’s get this straight,” he said, “I’m the winemaker. Michel is just a consultant.” “So how often does he come?” “Hardly at all, once or twice a month, maybe less, I don't know, it's not important.” “But he helps with the blend?” “No, he doesn't 'help' with anything. I do the blend. He just advises.”

It was all very painful. I just couldn’t bear to ask my next question, which was, if Rolland is so unimportant to Figeac, why put his name all over the brochure? Indeed, why employ him at all? After all, there are many properities which manage without him.

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