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Rebirth of the forgotten Bordeaux

Thanks to canny investors, the least well-known Bordeaux commune, St Estèphe, is witnessing a turnaround in fortunes.

Bordeaux is not only the most famous vineyard in the world, it is also one of the largest and most diverse with some 37 regions, producing many different styles of wine. David Copp introduces us to some which might not be as well known as others.

Of the four great communes in the Médoc, St Estèphe is the least well known, probably because it is furthest from Bordeaux. When the Bordeaux aristocracy began planting the Médoc in the 17th century they preferred their estates to be within an easy ride of Bordeaux. St Estèphe was simply too far away, too unfashionable and altogether too rustic for most of them to even consider.

Things may have stayed that way had it not been for the Ségur family. Jacques de Ségur, having planted vines at Lafite, encouraged his son Alexandre to do likewise at Latour, and set the example for his grandson, who married the heiress of Calon.

Nicolas Alexandre de Ségur (1674-1755) inherited Lafite and Latour but chose to live at Calon, an old and very large mixed farming estate which then comprised much of the modern-day commune of St Estèphe. He used his wealth wisely, employing the most experienced vineyard managers and cellar masters to make distinctive wines that were widely appreciated.

Unfortunately, after his death his heir became seriously indebted and the estate was broken up: further fragmentation took place after the introduction of the Napoleonic Code which insisted on the division of property between all legitimate heirs.

Thus, the large single Calon estate of yesteryear was divided into several different properties. Today there are around 50 individual châteaux and a large number of smallholders, most of whom are members of the cooperative. But there were far fewer in 1855 when the classification of the Médoc wines was made, and only five St Estèphe wines were listed. As a result, St Estèphe was less significant to the trade than its more famous neighbours Pauillac, St Julien and Margaux.

However, worldwide prosperity in the 1990s strengthened the demand for fine Bordeaux wines, and several sophisticated investors, attracted by the quality of the terroir and its reasonable cost compared with other major regions, acquired land in St Estèphe.

They carried out extensive soil mapping and replanted their vineyards accordingly, modernised their wineries, improved viticultural practices and brought in highly qualified winemakers to produce and then select the best grapes for their grands vins.

The net result has been a dramatic improvement in the overall quality and finish of St Estèphe wines. They still retain their inherent strengths – deep, dark colour, firm structure and full-bodied flavour  – but they have become decidedly more charming when young and rather more elegant in their maturity.

The five grands crus classés (Cos d’Estournel, Montrose, Calon Ségur, Lafon-Rochet and Cos Labory) led the way, supported by exceptional bourgeois growths such as Château de Pez, Haut-Marbuzet, Ormes de Pez and Phelan Ségur. However, the smaller, lesser-known châteaux have followed the leaders in everything but their pricing policy, so that the commune boasts some of the best value-for-money wines that claret enthusiasts can buy.

You will be able to read this feature in full in the October edition of the drinks business magazine. Click here to subscribe.

David Copp, 23.09.2010

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