When it comes to France’s winemaking rules and regulations, it seems the thought is «less is more.» In theory, the name of the producer, region, classification and vintage on the label should be enough to tell you everything there is to know about what’s inside the bottle. But some French winemakers have decided to dispense with the rules and traditions.
Up until the early 1900s, Bordeaux winemakers often added small percentages of Northern Rhône Syrah to their wines if they had a difficult vintage. In 2004, Château Palmer in Margaux made an experimental cuvée (only 100 cases), called Historical 19th Century Wine L2004. It’s a blend of 85 percent 2004 estate fruit from Palmer and 15 percent Syrah from Hermitage.
«Most of the great names of Bordeaux used to have a little bit of wine from the north of the Rhône to improve the color and depth of the wine,» explained Palmer winemaker Thomas Duroux. «They had to do this sometimes since they had difficult vintages. We now know how to deal with difficult vintages. But I was very curious to understand what would happen if we did [this] with the wine we have today.»
The wine will only be available in select restaurants in the United States, said Duroux. He tried to make the wine again in 2005, but it didn’t work since the Bordeaux component was already so concentrated from the strong vintage. «In 2004 it worked very well. In 2005 with 15 percent of Syrah, it doesn’t really change. To change it I’d have to put in more Syrah,» he explained, adding that he’ll probably try again with the 2006 vintage, since the overall quality is considered lower. A little Syrah might help a lot. «It’s just experimental stuff,» he said. «Maybe also a little controversial.»
Of course, this wine will probably be out of reach for most, since there’s so little of it. For everyone else, there’s winemaker Alexandre Sirech. His new wine, Les Deux Terroirs, is a non-vintage Merlot-Syrah blend of grapes from several parts of France.
Born in Bordeaux, Sirech was a wine sales rep by the time he was 18, and later had a long, on-and-off career with spirits giant Pernod-Ricard. At one point he was working with the company’s Cuban arm, in charge of young and old rums that were regularly blended in order to maintain a consistent product. It was then that Sirech realized he could do the same thing with wine.
|Labels for French wines such as Sirech’s cannot display region-specific information.
«I wanted to make the most pleasurable wine possible for less than $20,» said Sirech. «Vintages have limitations, so I decided to blend regions as well as vintages.» His first bottling of Les Deux Terroirs was 90 percent 2005 Merlot from the Bordelais and 10 percent 2003 Syrah from southeastern France (under French law, Sirech is not permitted to say if any components came from official AOC regions, such as a certain part of Bordeaux, the Rhône or the Languedoc, for example).
Though Sirech’s first cuvée was only just over 800 cases, the next blend and bottling was five times as large. Part of that bottling is now available in the United States. In a blind tasting held in Wine Spectator‘s New York office, which included several Merlot-based blends from different regions around the world, Les Deux Terroirs scored 85 points.
Sirech simply tastes wines after they’ve finished malolactic fermentation, and decides whether or not they’ll suit the style he strives to maintain. If he does, he buys the wines. «I have complete freedom,» he said. «If Gigondas is great next year, I can use that.» He starts with a 50-50 blend of Merlot and Syrah, and modifies it until the blend tastes like the previous bottling. Different parts of the blend are fermented in new oak, old oak or stainless steel. «I want a consistent flavor and structure profile with each cuvée.»
Good a wine as either Sirech or Duroux might make, the bad news for both is that since they operate outside the regional rules with these particular wines, they automatically get the lowest French designation, «vin de table,» on the label. Neither winemaker can list the appellations the wine came from on the label, either. Les Deux Terroirs can only display the varieties–Merlot and Syrah–and France. Duroux even had to take the drawing of Château Palmer off his front label, since vin de table cannot, by law, have an illustration of a particular place on the label.
But the strict rules haven’t stopped Sirech from doing his best to make a good, consistent house wine that’s reliable in restaurants and at retail alike. Because Sirech’s wines can vary so radically in composition from year to year, the back label of Les Deux Terroir indicates the bottling year as well as the peak drinking period. The 2006 cuvée, for example, suggests the wine be opened between 2007 and 2010. He’s also explored making a white blend, but that’s proven to be more difficult. «It’s a Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay blend, but I’ll only release it if it’s good enough,» said Sirech. «Right now, the product is good, but the price is wrong.»
So for the moment, Sirech remains squarely focused on the red Les Deux Terroir–and keeping it consistent. «I’ll only increase the volume to the point that quality can stay strong,» he said.
Les Deux Terroir will be available in New York, Florida and Illinois at the end of May 2007.