Mon 3 Oct 2011
When you’re on a wine tour, you never know what the next visit is going to bring. On our schedule for the last day of this trip to Entre-Deux-Mers, the entry said merely: “9h30 – 11h00 — Visit Chateau L’Escart in Saint-Loubés with Damien Laurent.” Sounds pretty low-key, but we had a terrific time at Chateau L’Escart and encountered the two wines mentioned in the title of this post, which are available in the U.S. but with geographical limitations.
The chateau, built in 1752, sits in the middle of the village of Saint-Loubés. It’s not a true mansion — we saw some of those — being more of a large and refined stone farmhouse whose center block holds the family quarters — strewn when we visited with children’s toys and scooters — and whose wings encompass barrel-aging rooms and other winemaking necessities. As you can see from the aerial photograph, the estate includes various other outbuildings and sheds, a small park and then the vineyards beyond. Proprietor and seventh generation winemaker Damien Laurent is personable and articulate and clearly loves his work. “Wine is human,” he said, as we sat outside tasting through the wines of Chateau L’Escart, “vineyards, soil, what goes on around here. You cannot sit down for an hour and get the whole picture. It’s more complicated. We don’t have the same tools as the big chateaux. We are small. I am on the tractor. I’m in the tank room, on the phone, I sell the wines. We do it all alone.” And then — because the day feels perfect and the harvest is almost complete — “September is the tender month. I love September. It’s beautiful.”
Chateau L’Escart produces about 220,000 bottles annually — French winemakers always speak in terms of bottles — which means about 18,330 cases. A whopping 80 percent of that wine is exported, to Canada, Australia, the United States, Belgian and, inevitably, China, a huge wine-thirsty country of increasing importance to French producers of any size because there are too many people making wine in the country and more wine than French (or European) consumers can absorb. The output at L’Escart is overwhelmingly red, based on merlot, malbec, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc; a mere 5,000 bottles of white are made, “a warm-up,” Laurent said, “for the reds.” The appellations are Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur (about which more soon).
The estate is run on organic principles, with explorations into biodynamic methods, though Laurent insisted that he is skeptical of some of the biodynamic movements more esoteric practices.
First on the roster of wines we tasted was the basic-level Chateau Bergey 2009, Bordeaux, a blend of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon and
40 percent merlot that sees no oak. (Estates in Bordeaux often bottle their various grades of wine under different chateau labels.) The color is a lovely cerise-magenta, and the aromas are an exquisite weaving of potpourri, lavender, graphite, black currants and blueberries, with touches of wild raspberries, cedar and tobacco. This displays real grip and presence, with vivid acidity, a penetrating mineral quality, plenty of earthy tannins and round, spicy black fruit flavors. Why do wineries in California so rarely deliver such quality for the price? Very Good and perhaps even very Good+. “The price is the U.S. is about $8,” said Laurent, “certainly under $10.” If you live in New York, North Carolina or Texas, run, do not walk, to the nearest retail store and browbeat your friendly wine merchant into procuring this for your house red. Great Value.
But — always a “but” — even better at not much more cost is the Chateau L’Escart Cuvée Eden 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a blend of 60 percent merlot, 30 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent malbec from 35 to 45-year-old vines. This is the wine, frankly, that made my colleagues and I cast sidelong glances at each other, giving the nod with raised eyebrows and mouthing the syllable “Whoa!” Here, at an irresistible price range, is a wine of lovely balance and integration, with all elements working in harmony. There’s plenty of tannin, of course, plenty of the gritty briery-minerally-earthy elements we expect from the clay-and-limestone soil that nurtured these grapes — and don’t forget that 2009 was a superb year in Bordeaux — and yet there’s also a surprising sense of delicacy and refinement, along with a factor of resonance that has to be called confidence; the wine is packed with ripe, slightly macerated black currant and black cherry flavors bolstered by taut acidity and permeated by dense spice and chewy tannins. It will drink nicely through 2014 or ’15. Definitely Very Good+ and another Great Value at $13 to $15.
The next step up for Chateau L’Escart is the Omar Khayam label, introduced with the 1998 vintage. The connection is that the great Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), was a mathematician as well as a poet and astronomer, and Damien Laurant’s father was also a mathematician; each vintage of the wine, a beverage about which the poet was fond of writing, features a different verse. The grapes for the Omar Khayam label, as it’s spelled, derive from 50 to 60-year-old vines; the wines age in all new oak barrels from 16 to 18 months. About 830 cases are made, depending on what the year allows. The blend changes but is dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The appellation is Bordeaux Supérieur. We tried the 2009, the 2004 and 2003. The 2009 version is well-balanced and integrated for being so young and being influenced by new oak; it would be best from 2013 through 2020 or ’22. The ’04 was smoother and riper, more fleshy and meaty, with spiced and macerated black fruit scents and flavors supported by sufficiently lively acidity and dense tannins; it’s a warm, spicy, earthy wine for drinking through 2015 or ’16. From the extremely hot year of 2003, Omar Khayam offers fleshy and roasted black and red fruit, heaps of graphite and gritty tannins but feels a bit hollow in the middle and finish, lacking the balance of the ’09 and ’04, which I would rate Excellent, while the ’03 would rate Very Good. The price is about $35.
The last wine was the estate’s top-of-the-line Agape 2009, Bordeaux Supérieur, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon that aged 15 months in new Burgundy barrels (which are slightly larger than the standard 225-liter or 59-gallon Bordeaux barrel.) Not marketed in the U.S., the wine is certainly well-made for the type but at $50 a bottle seems no more interesting or compelling than hundreds of similar wines made all over the world.