January 7, 2011 Château Canon-la-Gaffelière
Château Canon-la-Gaffelière Grand Cru Classé
merlot (70%), cabernet franc (25%), cabernet sauvignon (5%)
Happy New Year. I couldn’t stay away. Welcome to One Brilliant Bottle, year 2011.
As those who have been following the blog may have noticed, even though a goodly proportion of the wines over the past year have crossed the ocean from France, this is the first red wine from that most famous of French viticulture regions — Bordeaux. The reason? It has a lot to do with the depth of my pockets. A more significant factor is the reluctance of most Bordeaux producers to embrace organic methods. Here, more than anywhere else in the world, wine is very big business. Tinkering with vineyard practice has generally not been in the cards. Tradition is all. And tradition since the 1970s, unfortunately, has continued to see the broad use of fungicides and pesticides.
There are significant exceptions. St-Emilion’s Château Canon-la-Gaffelière is one of them. The property experienced wine production in Roman times, and perhaps that was even the case in the 17th century when the area around was the site of a leper colony. (From which its name originated: gaffet, meaning leper.) Its modern history dates from the purchase of the property by the Von Neipperg wine family of Germany in 1971.
Comte Stephan von Neipperg has been in charge since 1985 and has transformed what was at the time an estate in severe decline, producing lacklustre wine. Von Neipperg can easily list the changes, (as quoted in Andrew Jefford’sThe New France): “Getting closer to nature, sorting the fruit, using wild yeasts, working with wooden tanks and not steel, working with whole berries, using pigeage (punching down of the cap), working with the lees, reducing sulphur, fermenting very slowly…”
To the list Stéphane Derenoncourt (the now-celebrated oenologist he hired) adds the elimination of chemical treatments. “When you treat, you kill,” he says. “It’s not a philosphy of life, it’s a philosphy of death. All of life is a chain. When you remove a link from the chain, nothings works.”
Château Canon-la-Gaffelière is a single plot of 19.5 hectares on the slopes of St-Emilion’s limestone escarpment. The soil is clay-limestone and clay-sand, with the sand component increasing as the slopes level at their base. The vines are on average 45 years old, and now, subsequent to the introduction of organic and biodynamic methods, are deeply rooted. No longer is the soil compacted and lacking in oxygen and micro-organisms. Even in winter it looks rather healthy.
So Bordeaux can indeed change. And for the better. The estate has returned to its position as one of the top crus classés of St-Emilion. With each successive vintage of the past decade the press has reached ever higher in its praise. Von Neipperg is now seen as one of the most influential estate owners in Bordeaux.
Château Canon-la-Gaffelière Grand Cru Classé 2002
2002 was not considered a terrific vintage in Bordeaux. (The 2005 for example, which was, takes a significant leap beyond my price limit.) Yet, to judge by what I experienced in the glass, in the hands of good winemakers the vintage can more than hold its own. There was a major parcel of aromas to begin — deep, dark plum compote, old world spices, smoke and oak. A medium-full, fresh mouth (that would be the relatively high proportion of cabernet franc). Surprising measure of tannic grip. Solid, seductive. In fact I’m liking the left-over quarter bottle of wine that I drank a few days later even more than the first experience of it on New Year’s Day. A year older, a year wiser. $$$