Monday 18 June 2018

A Taste of Branaire-Ducru

Producer: Château Branaire-Ducru

My first experience with wine was not from a glass, but from a book. Apart from being known for children’s novels such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Matilda, Dahl also delighted in writing short stories that often had an unexpected twist. One such story was Taste, in which a wine critic accepts a bet from a rich man over whether he can identify a bottle of wine that is served to him blind. The critic has his eye on the rich man’s daughter and wagers two of his houses for her hand in marriage. He goes through an elaborate show of tasting the wine and describing its qualities, stunning the rich man when he is able to identify the producer and vintage accurately. The twist is that the critic already knows what the wine is, having spotted it earlier in the rich man’s study. The tasting scene is brilliantly detailed, and it is clear that Dahl knows quite a bit about wine. When he passed away one of the items that was buried with him was a bottle of wine from Burgundy.

Recently I came across the wine that was mentioned in that story, Château Branaire-Ducru. This is a wine from the St-Julien appellation in Bordeaux and was included in the 1855 classification as a fourth growth. Its neighbour is Château Beychevelle (noted for its “dragon-boat” label), which Branaire-Ducru was once part of until the mid-17th century. In 1988 the property was purchased by Patrick Maroteaux who modernised the winemaking, including implementing a gravity-flow system to handle the grapes in a more gentle manner and prevent over-extraction. The quality of the wines improved, with the additional bonus that Branaire-Ducru was still reasonably priced for a classed growth. Patrick passed away in 2017 and the winery is now in the hands of his son François-Xavier.

Besides running the estate François-Xavier has also taken over the duty of promoting the wine overseas and was in Singapore as part of the International Congress of Chinese Cuisine and Wine organised by Ch’ng Poh Tiong. I will digress to explain that the ICCCW is an annual event featuring tastings of renowned wines led by their proprietors. The day is capped by a luxurious dinner pairing wines with Chinese food, usually finishing off with a fine whisky (this year it was the Macallan Rare Cask). An encore dinner (see this link for details) is being held on the 12th of July. For the Branaire-Ducru tasting, François-Xavier had supplied us with wines from the 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2010 vintages. We were also able to sample the second label from Branaire-Ducru, called Duluc de Branaire-Ducru. As every year part of the vineyard needs to be replanted, fruit from younger vines go into Duluc de Branaire-Ducru until they are mature enough for the grand vin. François-Xavier compares the two wines, saying “They have the same style and the same philosophy, it’s just a question of complexity”. Duluc de Branaire-Ducru also contains a higher proportion of Merlot in the blend (around 40%) as compared to the grand vin which is usually 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc. These percentages mirror the proportion of the grapes planted in the vineyard.

There are three pillars that underpin the Branaire-Ducru style, according to François-Xavier. The first is fruit purity, in terms of aroma and flavour. For this reason the oak treatment is kept to a reasonable level, around 15-20% new oak for the second label and 60-65% for the grand vin. The second is freshness, so that consumer can enjoy the wine in its entirety. Agreeing with this, Poh Tiong commented that “The genius of Bordeaux is to be able to stay fresh and relevant, like an interesting conversation. There is no point drinking a wine that is not fresh, because after a mouthful it tires you; it’s like eating a fruit that is overripe.” The last point is elegance, and here François-Xavier is referring to the quality of the tannins. “It’s not difficult to have a lot of tannins and a big structure, and we have the great fortune to have the terroir which can provide a lot of structure, but it is more complicated to have a very elegant structure”.

While 2010 was no doubt a great vintage, 2012 and 2014 were also considered very good. It was interesting tasting these wines alongside the 2013 vintage which is generally thought of as a light, early-maturing year for Bordeaux. I have also reproduced abridged notes for the 1934 Branaire-Ducru from Roald Dahl’s short story – it's a tongue in cheek reminder that we shouldn’t be too pompous in our descriptions.

Tasting notes:

1934 Château Branaire-Ducru (taken from Taste by Roald Dahl) – A very interesting little wine – gentle and gracious, almost feminine in the aftertaste. Demure and bashful in the first taste, emerging shyly but quite graciously in the second. A little arch, perhaps, in the second taste, and a little naughty also, teasing the tongue with a trace, just a trace of tannin. Then, in the after-taste, delightful consoling and feminine, with a certain blithely generous quality that one associates only with the wines of the commune of St Julien.

2014 Duluc de Branaire-Ducru – Deep ruby with a purplish tinge. Shows light cranberry fruit with present but not intrusive tannins. Very approachable already and quite mellow. Slightly short on the finish but lots of polished fruit.

2012 Duluc de Branaire-Ducru – Deep ruby with just a hint of garnet. Oak apparent on the nose with a charry note. Dark currant fruits, tobacco and toast on the palate accompany medium tannins.

2013 Château Branaire-Ducru – Light-bodied with savoury notes and fine-grained tannins, reflecting the style of the vintage. It has fine acidity and black fruits with a slight dustiness to the aromas. Doesn’t really have the stuffing to go the distance but a pleasant drink right now.

2014 Château Branaire-Ducru – Offers a generous and supple fruit profile. A good representation of the Branaire-Ducru style, with a good balance between oak flavours and dark fruit, lovely freshness and rounded tannins. A long finish with classic Bordeaux cedary notes.

2012 Château Branaire-Ducru – After six years this wine is starting to throw some sediment, and the fruit profile has evolved some earthy, loamy notes, along with some iron-like notes. Crushed blackberries and roasted espresso appear on the palate. It’s a well-structured wine but I prefer the elegance of the 2014.

2010 Château Branaire-Ducru – Beautiful violet aromas with underlying dark fruits. This is a complex and sophisticated wine heralding from a very successful vintage. The palate is rich and generous, offering mouth-coating flavours and well-integrated oak.

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