Wine is often described in terms of its body, acidity, tannins, sweetness or balance. It’s not often, however, that wine is discussed in terms of its energy.
After overseeing the Château le Puy winery in Bordeaux for more than 400 years, the 15th generation of the Amoreau family knows something about the energy of the earth at its vineyards. That energy is said to start in the ancient cromlech — an array of upright stones similar to a small version of Stonehenge — on the property, but is amplified by biodynamic farming methods and then transferred to the grapes that grow in the vineyard. The energy ultimately ends up in the wines those grapes produce.
Attendees of the West Indies Wine Company Somm Series event on March 7 were able to hear Château le Puy’s fascinating story and then taste five of the wines produced there.
On hand to tell the story and lead the tasting was Harold Langlais, a partner and associate winemaker at Château le Puy. In his presentation of the wines, Langlais said he wanted to highlight the farming side of the winery and the methods used to get “the most authentic expression” of the vineyard’s grapes in its wines.
“Le Puy is not the Bordeaux you know,” he said, rattling off the names of the most famous wineries in the region. Château Le Puy is located on the Right Bank — or north bank — of the Gironde River, near the Atlantic Ocean coast in southwest France. The vineyard site is situated at 350 feet — the second highest elevation in Bordeaux — on the same limestone plateau as Saint-Emilion, which lies about 10 kilometers to the southwest.
Because of the higher elevation, Château Le Puy vines experience cooler temperatures than most of Bordeaux and thus offer “the expression of the plateau,” Langlais said.
“Most of the time, we harvest seven to 10 days after everybody else,” he said. “Because of that, the expression of the vintage might be different than the rest of Bordeaux.”
Cooler temperatures and later harvesting mean differences in acidity and fruit flavours, but the difference in Château Le Puy’s wines compared to others from Bordeaux are even more a result of the energy and terroir of the land, the farming methods and the winemaking practices.
Château Le Puy’s vines grow in a two-foot-deep layer of red clay soil that sits above a limestone shelf that the vine roots penetrate to add a minerality to the wines.
The vineyard is farmed organically — meaning no chemicals are used for fertilisation or pest control — as well as biodynamically, which takes into account the earth’s “energy” during astrological and lunar cycles.
“In everything we do, we consider this,” said Langlais, adding as an example the fact that Château Le Puy bottles its wines only when there’s a waning moon.
For the Amoreau family, the approach is about respecting life and finding harmony with the earth, the vines and even the animals on the property, Langlais said, referring to the horses that plow the vineyard. Years ago, motorised tractors were used to plow the land, but because the soil layer is so shallow, the tractors packed it down to the point that the vines experienced black rot in the roots. Local farmers suggested Château Le Puy go back to using horses to plow because they weighed less and wouldn’t compress the soil in the same way. Langlais said the winery did what the farmers suggested, which solved the black rot problem. In addition, he said the practice helped establish a connection between the animals and the vines.
“We developed what we call an ecosystem,” he said.
Although most modern wineries use synthetic yeasts to induce fermentation for consistency reasons, Château Le Puy allows natural yeasts in vineyards to do the job, and they don’t isolate any particular one of the more than 200 strains of natural yeast found on the property to do this.
“Yeast is the DNA of the wine,” Langlais said. “Our wine is made by the diversity of the yeast.” At Château Le Puy, less is more when it comes to all aspects of wine production, from the farm to the bottle.
“Every time you interfere with Mother Nature, you interrupt the natural balance, the harmony,” Langlais said, adding that Château Le Puy’s wines reflect that harmony.
“Our wines are integrated, not layered,” he said, referring to a characteristic of some wines that offer different “layers” of flavours and sensations in the mouth. “You feel a roundness in our wines,
Harmony in the wines is then linked to how people feel when they drink Château Le Puy’s wines.
“We consider ourselves more happiness makers than winemakers,“ he said.
Five different wines were tasted at the Somm Series event. The first was a rosé made by the fairly uncommon “saignée” method where some of the grape juice destined to become red wine is “bled” off during the early part of maceration, the process whereby the grape juice from red grapes is left in contact with the grape skins, imparting colour, flavours and tannins in wines. The result is a dark-pink coloured rosé that has some characteristics of red wine, making it more complex than most rosés, and an excellent wine for pairing with a variety of foods.
Guests then got to sample three different vintages — 2016, 2015 and 2000 — of Château Le Puy’s “Emilien” wines. Each wine displayed the expected differences that bottle aging brings, but each wine also had its own vibrant personality borne of vintage variation, some of which was probably attributable to the fickle interplay between 200 different strains of wild yeast vying for attention.
Although taste is subjective, the 2015 vintage offered a good compromise of what Langlais called “fruit, freshness, tension and finesse” between the younger, friskier 2016 offering and the older, less fruity and more refined 2000 vintage.
The tasting ended with the exquisite 2011 “Barthelemy” wine, a typical Right Bank Bordeaux blend of 85 per cent Merlot and 15 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon; however, the “typical” description stops with the blend make-up. This wine is produced from the best grapes Château Le Puy grows and then is made into wine using a minimalistic process that takes two years, with the timing of production tasks linked to the lunar cycles. The result is a complex, elegant and balanced wine with concentrated flavours.
Barthelemy is made in very limited quantities and is not currently available in the Cayman Islands, but Langlais had two bottles shipped here just so guests attending the tasting could sample the best wine Château Le Puy offers.