I was able to get a real sense of how good it could be on the first day of November at Chateau de Tiregand when Francois-Xavier de St €xupery showed me round his full vats and the first fermentation was well under way. Then came the treat. He opened a tiny tap in one big vat and let an inch or so pour out into my glass. That was the Merlot, full of fruit, light and easy but already round in the mouth.
Then he did the same for the vat of Cabernet Sauvignon and again for the Malbec. For the first time I really understood why the winemakers say Merlot for the fruit, cabernet sauvignon for the structure and Malbec for the spice. The hints of white pepper and cherries and blackberries were already apparent on the Malbec.
The cabernet was harder to assess as I tried to comprehend what exactly was meant by structure. Partly it was the tartness that comes from the light acids and the tannins which allow wine to mature and age well. Partly it was the sense of depth, of potential waiting to reach its full.
I was struck by the warmth of this liquid, in its halfway house between grape juice and becoming wine, when the yeasts are doing their work of converting sugar into alcohol. Red wines usually work best at this time at about 80-85 degrees fahrenheit. Much hotter than that and the yeasts go on strike. White wines are normally kept at a lower temperature, around 65-68 degrees.
These were early times in the making of the wine. The Cabernet had only been in the big stainless steel vat for three days. And this was only the first part of the fermentation process. The next process, which often takes place in the oak barrels, is called the malolactic fermentation. It is not strictly speaking a fermentation at all, since it is not the yeasts doing the work but a bacteria called Oenococcus which takes in the tart malic acid and turns it into the milder, creamier lactic acid. (Yes, the same that we find in milk). That is why some wines are called fat, from the creaminess that rests in the mouth.
Making the wine is a natural but complex and fascinating process. Fermentation makes the carbon-rich sugar molecules split, releasing carbon dioxide and becoming acetaldehyde which in the absence of oxygen becomes ethanol.
With 450 of the very expensive (up to 1000 euros for the best quality) oak barrels in his cellars, Francois-Xavier has something close to half a million euros worth of wood, before we even think about the wine that the barrels hold. And it is not just the quality of the oak that matters but the interior toasting. When I saw the word noisette (hazelnut) on the side of his new barrels I asked in my ignorance if he was using a different wood. He smiled forgivingly and said No, it referred to the colour of the toasting inside the barrel.
Noisette was a light toasting which would give a hint of caramel and cinnamon. A medium tasting would give a touch of honey and coffee and a dark toasting would convey smoke and butterscotch, even a suggestion of molasses.
If you are allowed to roam around a chai, the place where the wine is made, you will see incomprehensible chalked letters and numbers. These identify not just the grape but also the specific area of the vineyard along with the age of the vines. Ch de Tiregand uses its younger vines to make their second wine, Montalbanie. The mature vines are used to make its classic Pecharmant and in very good years the wine from the best parts of the vineyard will become a Grand Millesime, a great vintage.
Francois-Xavier is quietly confident that 2019 will be a Grand Millesime year, but don’t even think about being allowed to taste some until late 2021, maybe 2022. And having recently been awed by a magnum of the Grand Millesime 2009, I wouldn’t think of opening the 2019 until at the earliest 2025. And I’m hoping to still be around then to do so.
So for my annual twelve days of Christmas drinking recommendations:
- Ch de Tiregand Grand Millesime 2015. €21.00
- Ch de la Jaubertie, cuvee Mirabelle red. €16.90
- Clos de Breil. cuvee Odyssee red. 2016. €12.10
- Ch Puy Servain, cuvee Songe. The 2011 is drinking perfectly now. €25.50
- Ch de Belingard, cuvee Reserve. €10.70
- Ch Feely, cuvee Grace, 2015. €20.
- Ch de Payral, Petite Fugue, 2017 €8.00
- J de Savignac, cuvee Lisa, 2018, €8.50
- Ch de la Vieille Bergerie, cuvee Quercus, 2018, €11.00
- Les Tours de Verdots, 2018, €10.
- Ch de Lestevenie brut, €9.00 (the best fizzy wine in the Bergerac).
- Ch Le Fage Monbazillac, 2015, €22.00.
This column written by Martin Walker originally appeared in the December 2019 edition of The Bugle.