Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Evolution of Château Kirwan

20140102 Chateau Kirwan 1If her seven-week tour around Asia has been particularly rigorous, Mdm. Sophie Schÿler-Thierry does not let it show as she arrives for our lunch at the private dining room of Les Amis. Instead, she looks well-prepared and impeccably groomed in an olive green jacket and tortoise-shell spectacles. As Director of Communication and Market Development at Château Kirwan, Sophie is an experienced hand at promotion and public relations, a role that she created herself in the 2000s.

Not many people have the luxury of defining their own role, but Sophie is part of the Schÿler dynasty, who owns the Bordeaux negociant company Schröder and Schÿler. One of the firm’s shrewdest acquisitions was in 1829 when it bought Château Kirwan from the Guestier brothers. Initially, the wine was sold in Northern and Eastern Europe, but after the Iron Curtain put a dampener on exports, the firm crossed the Atlantic to find new markets in the United States, Canada and Japan.

Over an appetiser of tomato, mozzarella and sucrine salad drizzled with Provençal olive oil, Sophie shares that her next stop will be in Russia, where Château Kirwan will be poured at the Kremlin. Although the main market for Kirwan is still Europe, Sophie is keen to expand distribution. In her sights are Asia, India, the United Arab Emirates and Brazil. Production varies depending on the vintage. In 2009 hail reduced the crop by 35%, yielding only 6,250 cases, while production for the 2010 vintage stood at 14,500 cases. On average, around 170,000 bottles are produced annually, a third of which goes to the second wine, Charmes de Kirwan. Sophie likens the process of making wine to “raising a baby every year – a lot of work but also a lot of joy.”

Interest in Kirwan rose in the 1990s with the appointment of Michel Rolland as a wine consultant. Those of us present at the lunch had the good fortune to taste three vintages made by the celebrated oenologist, which displayed a balance between firm structure and depth of fruit. However, the château parted ways with Michel Rolland in 2007, feeling that his signature style was obscuring the spirit of the appellation. “There was an over exuberance of wood in the 1990s,” says Sophie. “Right now we use five different types of barrels from five different suppliers, but we are always experimenting with two or three others.”

Since 2007, the general management of Kirwan has been the responsibility of Philippe Delfault, previously the technical director at Château Palmer. “Château Kirwan has so much to say,” explains Sophie. “We needed someone full-time on the ground.” In 2008, an in-depth soil analysis was carried out to derive a better understanding of the potential of each plot. In turn, this allows Kirwan to tailor the grape variety to soil type. Clay soils for the Merlot, gravel mixed with a moderate amount of clay for the Cabernet Sauvignon, and deep gravel soils to bring out the best of the Petit Verdot. There is a higher proportion of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot in the grand vin, while Charmes de Kirwan has more Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Philippe is aided by Jacques and Eric Boissenot, recently described by The Drinks Business magazine as “the most influential wine consultants you’ve never heard of”. The father and son team advise on the blending process to highlight the purest expression of the terroir. Sophie compares the process to Van Gogh selecting the colours for a masterpiece, saying that it is critical to achieving the final result. Each grape and plot contributes something different to the grand vin – she gives the example of Petit Verdot as giving the wine colour and a note of spice that endears it to mildly spicy dishes.

I was asked at the lunch which wine showed the best, and it was a difficult question to answer. Sophie had been especially generous in showing us wines that were from very good to great vintages, and all lovely to drink now. The evolution in wine style since Philippe Delfault took over is subtle but definite, more apparent in recent vintages such as the 2010. The wines are more restrained, showing greater aromatic complexity and elegance. The high quality is testament to the painstaking management of individual parcels and strict fruit selection. While there have been some changes along the way, there is now a sense of surety at Kirwan in what they want their wines to express and how to achieve the desired results.

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Tasting notes:

Château Kirwan 2008 - Very deep ruby appearance. Toasty mocha on the nose with apparent oak, ripe and enticingly deep aromas with a hint of violets. Palate shows blueberry notes with black fruit on the mid-palate, structured with plump fruit that pulls back and glides towards an effortlessly long finish. Tannins are soft and ripe.

Château Kirwan 2005 – A dry and hot summer allowed the Cabernet Sauvignon grapes to ripen fully with no threat of rot. The wine has a heady perfume with notes of violets and generous fruit. The power of the vintage is felt on the full bodied palate, which has formidable but ripe tannins. A staying finish. There is no hurry to finish this wine – it shows potential for further development.

Château Kirwan 2003 – Sophie stated that during the summer in 2003 there was “not a single drop of rain for nine weeks.” Nevertheless, the water retaining soils saved the vines and yielded a wine that is concentrated but with sufficient acidity. Very light sediment observed. The nose displays ripe black fruits with clay earth and milk chocolate. Palate shows some warmth and characters of game and incense, with a note of spice on the finish. Slightly raisiny but not jammy.

Château Kirwan 2000 – Another warm vintage, which allowed the Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot to make their contribution to the blend. A deep ruby appearance with some sediment. Licorice, blackberry and light bell pepper on the nose, framed by oak, with a well-defined palate that ends with notes of spice and incense. Persistent length. Thoroughly enjoyable.

Vinum is the distributor for Château Kirwan in Singapore.

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