Chateau Angelus – hot on the heels of Cheval Blanc
8th Oct 2012
The strengths and weaknesses of the St-Emilion democracy.
Two St-Emilion Chateaux made history in Bordeaux this month: Chateau Pavie and Chateau Angelus were promoted to the coveted Premier Grand Cru Classe A status – until recently this top spot was only held by the illustrious properties Cheval Blanc and Ausone. It is not before time. Chateau Angelus has consistently been one of the top-performing Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classes over the last 15 years. Our feelings over Pavie are less enthusiastic, admittedly we have only sampled one vintage (2003) of the wine, but that was an over-extracted, half-baked and jammy mess of a wine which Parkers apparently loves. Angelus, however, wowed us back in May when we undertook a tour of the Bordeaux region courtesy of Cellar Tours.
So in case you were wondering - Angelus is so named after an adjacent vineyard where devout winemakers could supposedly hear the Angelus bell tolling from the town's churches. Founded in 1909, the estate was simple known was L'Angelus prior to 1990, one of the many changes current owner Hubert de Bouard instigated, when he took over the reins in 1885. The de Bouard family had controlled and successfully run the estate since 1921, although things slipped a bit in the 70s and early 80s.
Hubert De Bouard's first task as newly installed steward, was to convert to organic viticulture and ban the use of chemical herbicides and pesticides. He broke tradition by learning from the Burgundy masters techniques of fermentation like pigeage (punching down the floating cap of skins with a metal rod) He also became a leading light for implementing sustainability practices in St-Emilion, something that until his tenure at Angelus was largely ignored by the wine community. The Bordeaux establishment and his neighbours must have cast a suspicious eye at Angelus, braking with century old tradition but now they simply cast a envious one. Placing the wine in the 2006 Bond film, Casino Royale, was another stroke of marketing genius. You have got to hand it to the guy, he knows how to sell!
De Bouard will, however, admit today that the estate was under-performing in the mid-1980s, prompting such intense effort to bring the quality back up to 1st growth standard. No such accusation could be levelled at Angelus now. Balance is the word that comes to mind when tasting his wines - powerful and extracted to be sure, they are also deeply coloured, concentrated and magnificent wines that age for decades. They are always produced with well-adjusted oak treatment (22 months in 80% new oak barrels) and are never, at least in our experience, 'overdone.' If you can, look out for the 1995 and 2001, both were outstanding vintages and will last for many years to come, according to the experts!
The de Bouard family can perhaps now breathe a sigh of relief, for although their hard work continues they have at least been vindicated. Some will have questioned the wisdom of Angelus challenging the 2006 classification, which kept the estate at the Premier Cru Classe B status they were awarded in 1996. The money, time and effort spent will undoubtedly though be recuperated by price rises for future vintages, the downside of this promotion. In 2009, Angelus was released a prices significantly lower than competitors Cheval Blanc and Ausone. Our advice is to snap-up older, cheaper bottles while you still can.
The entire exercise also perfectly illustrates what is right, and wrong about the St-Emilion classification system. It is entirely logical and apparent that the quality of an estate’s wines will vary over the years, cementing their status for all eternity as the 1855 Medoc classification did is ludicrous. Brane Cantenac as a 2nd growth – we don't think so. Their wines have been reasonable, at best. The St-Emilion establishment recognise this simple fact, and accordingly revise the classification every ten years. The flaw in the system is the emphasis that the syndicate place on release price, when deciding if a property is fit for promotion. Quality should be the sole criteria, less we encourage higher and higher prices from Bordeaux. It also, in an extremely perverse way seems to punish those, like Chateau Figeac (another great estate) who always release at reasonable prices. But that said, flawed as the set-up arguably is, it is still a million miles ahead of the system across the Gironde.
As a final side-note, we also must congratulate Angelus as being one of the first to wake-up to the value of wine tourism in St-Emilion - traditionally an area of great dis-interest for the Bordelais. They have recently invested several million euros in a visitor centre and welcome tour groups and private visitors. If you are going to take a trip to St-Emilion, which incidentally is an Unesco World Heritage site and extremely beautiful, vibrant town, then Angelus should definitely be the first port of call. There are several options. Arblaster & Clarke are a reputable, UK based tour company that run several groups visits to Bordeaux each year. Prices are reasonable. Bordeaux Wine Tours, are also a good option if you want a locally based outfit, although a bit over-priced for their two-day excursions we feel. If you want a more high-end, personalised touch then go for Cellar Tours. We have dealt with them in the past and they offer excellent, VIP tours of all the Bordeaux wine regions. Not cheap, but everything is really first class on their wine excursions.
See you at Angelus!