Saint Emilion is one of my favourite appellations; not only does this AOC produce lovely wine but it is also surprisingly pioneering. It was, afterall, the centre of the garagiste movement and is also home to a set of innovative and experimental winemakers (see my blog Unclassifiable Bordeaux and White Saint Emilion). It certainly houses some characters and I thoroughly enjoy each visit there. Saint Emilion is also attracting famous winemakers who have Grand Crus in other regions. Unable to expand in their home AOCs they keep a keen eye out for promising wine estates in other appellations which have bags of potential. Saint Emilion seems to be the top pick – only last Friday I wrote about Domaine Clarence Dillon (owners of First growth Chateau Haut Brion in AOC Pessac Leognan) expanding their new Saint Emilion estate Chateau Quintus with the acquisition of Chateaux L’Arrosée and L’Armont.
It doesn’t stop there. Saint Emilion has seen significant investment from Chinese entrepreneurs and businesses who have snapped up chateaux over the past couple of years. Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé have also expanded their production by purchasing neighbouring estates (Premier Cru Classé B Chateau Clos Fourtet bought 3 Saint Emilion chateaux this year).
In 2010 Jacques Thienpont, owner of Chateau Le Pin in AOC Pomerol (one of the most sought after – and expensive – wines in the world) bought Chateau Haut Plantey (previously known as Chateau La Bouygue) close to Chateau Troplong Mondot and Valandraud in Saint Emilion. Years ago this relatively small, low key property formerly belonged to the Abbots of Margaux. The vineyard covers nearly 20 acres and was renamed Chateau L’If by the Thienponts. L’If means Yew Tree in French (Le Pin means Pine Tree). The estate is managed by Cyrille Thienpont and the grapes grown are 70% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Franc and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine made its debut at En Primeur in 2012 and only around 1,650 cases are produced.
I am intrigued as to whether investment and acquisition by the ‘big boys’ is a good thing for Saint Emilion or not. You could say that their interest in the AOC will benefit Saint Emilion, lifting its profile further, bringing employment and investment to the region. Or you could say that multi-million pound businesses are squeezing out the little guys in the area. A case in point is a conversation I had with a Thienpont not so long ago about garagiste Chateau La Fleur Morange. Regular readers of my blog will know I have a soft spot concerning this tiny chateau and have nothing but respect for its owners Jean Francois and Veronique Julien. It has just been made a Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classé – a meteoric rise through the ranks having only been in existence for a decade and a half! Thienpont’s attitude was that of ‘do we really want another of these types in our ranks?’
An odd comment considering that their Chateau Le Pin is classed as the predecessor of garage wine. Garage wines / garagiste / vins de garage / boutique / microcuvée / micro chateau / super-cuvée all refer to a style of wine making from small or tiny plots of vines. Notably Chateau Le Pin was founded on less than 5 acres and the wine was produced by microcuvée in the farmhouse basement.
Is this attitude evidence of elitism, of a closing of the ranks against the little guys? You decide. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on whether the inroads made by the prestigious chateaux of the Medoc into Saint Emilion are for the better or the worse.