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News Flash: Underpriced, Classy Bordeaux Found in Castillon
By Panos Kakaviatos
Dec 22, 2020
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Taking a risk despite Covid-19 to travel to Bordeaux for articles recently published in wine-searcher about the 2018 vintage and a soon-to-be published report from Saint Emilion in Club Oenologique, I assessed 50 wines from the lesser-known appellation Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux.  

Just as I experienced in recent years with Fronsac, you can find relatively low-priced gems from this unsung appellation.  

With a variety of soils and exposures, the Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux was well known for its Middle-Ages port that delivered wine to royalty, and to the English.  Intervening years proved less glamorous.  By the modern 1934 classification, the wines were sold under the diminutive "Près [near] Saint-Emilionnais."   Since the 2008 vintage, the four appellations of Côtes of Blaye, Cadillac, Francs and Castillon entered into a union known simply as Côtes de Bordeaux.  

Although long overshadowed by Saint-Émilion, talented producers have been crafting fine wine in the modern era.  Brands like Domaine de l’A or the Château d’Aiguilhe from Stephan Von Neipperg have a large following in the United States.  

Welcome Freshness

Like other Right Bank regions, this appellation had fallen victim to excessive oak extraction fashion going back to the mid 2000s, but Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux more recently mirrors a change in style towards freshness.  I was happy to experience this change in the 2018 vintage vertical, organized by Jean-Christophe Meyrou of Vignobles K, which includes two wines from the appellation, as well as the Saint Emilion estate Château Bellefont Belcier, where I tasted the 50 wines blind.  

While a few wines were not up to par, either coming off as rustic or even giving off iffy aromas (perhaps derived from less-than-clean oak), most ranged from tasty to excellent.  All bottles cost at least €10 per bottle retail, to weed out cheaper supermarket brands often made from vines grown close to the river on lesser, sandy soils.  Some well-known brands cost well over €10 retail, but many that cost less proved just as good, if not better, than quality Saint-Émilion.  

Climate Change:  What, Me Worry?

Based on the Dordogne riverside town of Castillon-la-Bataille, scene of the last battle of the 100 Years War in 1453, the appellation counts well over 2,800 hectares of vines.  Some 230 families work in properties that average about 10 hectares each.  With an altitude difference of over 100 meters, three major types of terroir make Castillon complex:  Gravelly near the Dordogne river, clay soils at the foot hills that turn to clay limestone and then the excellent limestone plateau.  As vintages get warmer, the cooler climate of this appellation east of Saint-Émilion has proven a foil to climate change.  

After the blind tasting, I came away impressed.  Of course, as with all such tastings – from 10 am to 12:30 pm – I may have been too quick to judge, as the ideal would have been to spend more time with each bottle, but that is how such tastings work.  

Some Positive Examples

Although not available in the United States, the Château Blanzac by Romain Depons, a vineyard of about six hectares on clay and limestone with a south and southwestern exposure and some on the slopes, includes vines averaging 35 years of age.  For what should be about $12 retail, this blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon wine exudes a lovely nose, ripe fruit, and an engaging palate with tannic edge, but in a positive, structural manner.  Does not dry on the finish.  14.5% alcohol.  Clean and fine.  88/100

More “modern styled” wines, under the consultancy of Michel Rolland, also fared well.  Take for example Château de Laussac by Vignobles Robin.  Despite a somewhat sweeter profile, the 40-year-old average vines result in concentration and there is balancing acidity and freshness from this blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc, even though the aging took place in 100% new oak, with malolactic fermentation also conducted in new oak.  This retails at about $15 a bottle.  90

And kudos to the special cuvée Château de Laussac Cuvée Sacha:  The blend of 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc comes from vines averaging 45 years of age grown on fine clay and limestone soils.  This costs about $23 retail.  93

For greater freshness, Château Peyrou by Catherine Papon-Nouvel comes across especially refined, but it has power, too.  The 14.5% alcohol is nicely integrated in this blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc, with freshness and precision.  I like the structure and concentration as well, no doubt due to the high average age of the vines – at over 80 years!  Not sure if available in the United States, but costs about $30 retail in Europe.  Importers take notice!  92

One of my absolute favorites proved to be the Château Côte Montpezat Cuvée Compostelle.  Clocking in at 14.5% alcohol, the blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc comes from vines on clay limestone soils, averaging 35 years of age.  There is both power and finesse to the wine, with a certain youthful tannic aspect neither hard no drying, but requiring two or three years cellaring for optimal pleasure, although you can enjoy it today with thick steak on the grill.  Aged in 50% new oak.  And at under $20 retail, a bargain!  93

The cooler, blue fruit tones of Château Anvichar by Vincent Galineau reflects poise and refinement for the appellation, even if may seem now a tad standoffish, but there is no hard tannin or drying.  You get density and bite, so give it another three to five years in your cellar to resolve itself, and it will be fine.  14% alcohol and made from vines averaging 35 years old.  90

Among well-known brands, it was interesting to see how I preferred in a blind tasting the second wine of the famous Château Aiguilhe, the Seigneurs d’Aiguilhe.  Its palate has freshness and soft drinkability, with a hint of jam, but overall, it offers really pleasant drinkability.  Perhaps the first wine just needs a more time?  Available in the United States for about $20 retail.  91

Retailing for about $50, the rather expensive Domaine de l’A by Christine and Stéphane Derenoncourt is indeed classy, albeit with tannic edge (in a good way), and with well-managed extractions.  The blend of 75% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc was aged in 40% new oak.  Give it time and the score will go up.  92.  And yet, even better, when tasted blind, is the less expensive Château Le Rey Les Argileuses by Vignobles K, with pleasing tartness that makes you come back for more.  I like the freshness here more – aged only in stainless steel – and it proved to be one of my favorites of the tasting, even if it the preceding wine (due to greater density) may outlast it.  Retails for about $15.  93

Finally, do not hesitate to seek out Château Ampélia by Famille Despagne, also known for their Saint-Émilion Grand Corbin-Despagne among other wines.  There is a freshness that must be derived from limestone, I wrote while tasting it blind.  The blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc may seem (at first) a bit austere on the finish, but when I went back to it, I realized that that is good for aging, as the wine neither dries out nor gets hard.  Made from vines grown on the plateau of Saint Philippe Aiguilhe, which is to say, clay limestone over limestone, and a bargain at just over $20 retail.  93

Yes, that’s right, you just saw the word “bargain” in a column about Bordeaux!