A Study In French Oak

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-19-2014

Clos-Fourtet-label-webLate last week, David White and I got together for dinner at Medium Rare, a DC restaurant that serves nothing but steak and french fries.

With steak, the drink choices were obvious: Bordeaux varieties. David brought something from the New World and I brought something from the Old. We ended up with two wines of great quality that could handle a judicious amount of oak:

2004 Chappellet “Pritchard Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon

1998 Clos Fourtet St. Émilion

A little bit about the wines.

Chappellet was founded by Donn & Molly Chappellet in the late 1960s after André Tchelistcheff suggested they make wine on Pritchard Hill. I would have taken his advice, too. Pritchard Hill is a rugged, high elevation site east of the Silverado Trail overlooking lake Hennessey with a constant breeze from the Foss Valley. Though it’s difficult to farm, the results appear in bottlings — producers like Continuum, Colgin, David Arthur, and Bryant Family are also willing to deal with the struggles of the land for the resulting concentration and longevity of their wines.

Clos Fourtet is one of the handful of “Clos,” or walled, vineyards in Bordeaux’s right bank. The walls date back to when it was a fort for the town of St Émilion. In the mid-1950s, the focus of the vineyard was brought to Merlot, which was natural considering the clay driven soil on the right bank. Merlot now occupies 85 percent of the plantings, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon at 10 percent and a mere 5 percent of Cabernet Franc. This vintage, 1998, was a seminal year for the right bank. While the big boys in Margaux and Pauillac were experiencing late-season hail and rain, the right bank was ripening and harvesting its Merlot like a champ. Vintage-driven prices seem to leave great value inn Pomerol and St Émilion. 2008 was another example. Seek them out.

Both of the wines exhibited great, long, sweet tannins driven by fruit ripeness and oak (the Chappellet saw 100% new French oak, while the Clos Fourtet saw 80%). The Chappellet was undoubtedly riper and more fruit driven, whereas the Clos Fourtet was drier, savory and had a touch of Brett to it (no complaints). Each has a solid 10-20 years left for prime drinking.

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