St Emilion – the Lost Boy

The news this week (ok, last week) was the 2012 review of the St Emilion classification.  I won’t add to the drabble already written on this but Jancis writes here, the self-effacing Gil Lempert-Schwartz here and, if you can bear the pop-ups, Decanter covers it here.  The headline is that both Chateaux Angelus and Pavie are now rated as “Grand Cru Classe A” along with Chx Cheval Blanc and Ausone.  This is high company.  For what it’s worth I tasted a lot of Angelus here and scribbled a bit on Cheval Blanc here.  Pavie and Ausone are in the pipe.

I’ve never really got St Emilion.  I’ve been there almost every year for the past decade; I’ve tasted the trophies and the trash.  I’ve seen what appeared to be a chemistry experiment going on in the vat room at Pavie and I’ve been genuinely moved by the almost Burgundian experience that is Tertre-Roteboeuf.  If you ask me what the best of St Emilion is, my response will be: L’Envers du Decors (top resto but don’t go if you’re in a hurry), the view from the top and, yes, that winemaker’s daughter.

Which is all a bit rambling, but the rambling is sort of the point, or the lack of it.

The whole idea of giving a region an appellation is, literally, to give it a name.  Which rather means that the name should mean something.  I like coffee; you like tea.  We know what both are and we can make a decision on which we want.  Or, in plain English: the group of individual properties that share the appellation St Emilion should share a common character, a common theme.  Some sort of common characteristic that variations of terroir, or the work and style of a winemaker, will work on like a sculptor works on his clay, or a cook works on his beef, or a painter works with his oil.  Beef is beef, clay is clay, oil is oil.  Let’s spell it out: Pauillac tastes like Paulliac.  Grand-Puy-Lacoste, Lynch-Bages, Batailley, Latour, whatever: they taste of Pauillac.  There is consistency.  The only consistency that I find in St Emilion’s characteristics is the sheer inconsistency of them.  The simplest question is this: what does St Emilion taste like?

As far as the current “Grand Cru Classe A”s taste like, I’d say that Angelus tastes like Angelus and Pavie tastes of Pavie.  The themes aren’t far apart, though if Angelus is Dr Who then Pavie is the Matrix .. Pavie is just further down the line of what I would call manipulation, special effects, and that is not a criticism of either property.  Cheval Blanc tastes of class and wealth and Ausone, on a good day, tastes of Elysium.  On a good day, that is.

But none of these four share a common taste as far as I’m concerned.  If Angelus and Pavie have even a passing similarity it’s that you can taste the winemaking in both of them, and that’s it.

My opinion on the situation is this (and I have a similar feeling about Chateauneuf-du-Pape, another patchwork region that has a fan in Mr Robert Parker).  The terroir in St Emilion is diverse – you just need to look at it to see that two chateaux, a stone’s throw from one another, will have two quite different soil characteristics.  You have a mixed bag for starters.  Add Mr Parker to this and you have the huge incentive to owners of these soils to make wines that will please his palate.  At one end of the scale taste Ch. Fombrauge pre and post Magrez.  At the other taste Ch. Pavie pre and post Perse.  There is no other part of Bordeaux where the winemakers “make” their wine to such a degree (though something may be starting in St Estephe).

Angelus and Pavie may have their detractors.  My notes on twenty-five years’ of Angelus read well, and if the 2005, 2009 and, ok Neal, the 2006 develop as well as the 1989 or 1990 then I am firmly on the side of Mr de Bouard.  As far as Pavie is concerned, we are all still judging a child – it will take another ten years (at least) of bottle age for the Perse Pavies to show whether or not they are brides of Christ or brides of Frankenstein.  On verra/we shall see.  The funny thing is that, ignoring Tertre-Roteboeuf (as I haven’t had enough of it), my St Emilion of choice really shouldn’t taste like St Emilion either on account of the fact that it’s two thirds Cabernet (both Franc and Sauvignon, roughly half-half).  I just love Figeac.  And if this is all a bit random, a bit lacking in direction, then I am happy to leave it so.  It’s rather the point.

I have no idea what St Emilion tastes like.  One of us is lost.