By CJ Juntereal
Let’s talk about French wines—in particular, Grands Crus Classés. In 1855, Emperor Napoleon III requested a classification system for France’s best Bordeaux wines. So brokers from the wine industry ranked the wines according to a chateau’s reputation and trading price. They ranked the wines in importance from first to fifth growths—crus. And then, within each category the chateaux were ranked according to quality. The result was 60 red wines from the Medoc region, and one from Graves, and 27 sweet white wines from the Sauternes and Barsac regions. The classification stands to this day—87 wines considered the best, out of thousands—and the wines are revered among wine lovers.
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Yann Schyler, the eighth-generation head of Schroder and Schyler at a wine tasting event called Taste of Gold, organized by Sherwin Lao of Golden Wines, Inc. Schroder and Schyler is a 300-year-old negociant that owns Chateau Kirwan, which is on top of the list of the 14 Troisièmes Crus or Third Growth wines. Negociant is the French term for wine merchant, and in Bordeaux there’s a pretty complex negociant system in place.
The important thing to remember is that in Bordeaux the top chateaux sell their wines only to negociants. So if you’re visiting wine country, there’s virtually no chance of being able to knock on a chateau’s gates and ask to visit their wine store!
Schroder and Schyler traces its roots back to Germany, when Schyler’s ancestors arrived in Bordeaux in 1739. The company became a top negociant and, by 1905, had an exclusive contract with Chateau Kirwan. Schyler’s great grandfather bought the chateau in 1925, making Schroder and Schyler both a negociant and a vineyard owner. Chateau Kirwan itself was originally Irish-owned. The Kirwan family was one of 14 merchant families dubbed The Tribes of Galway, who prospered from trade with Europe.
Chateau Kirwan belongs to the Margaux appellation, a region known for its terroir and reputation and, for a while, the number of chateaux that were considered underperformers. Chateau Kirwan was one of these, until in 1991 they hired Michel Rolland, who is widely acknowledged to be the best wine blender in Bordeaux. Rolland slightly changed the vinification process (the conversion of the grape juice into wine by fermentation), the chateau invested in new stainless steel tanks, and the wines began to live up to their potential. In 2015, Chateau Kirwan went through a major upgrade that took two years to complete. The upgrade included a new building, a new production facility, a new fermentation room with multiple concrete vats instead of stainless steel tanks, and a new aging cellar.
A lot of the information on Chateau Kirwan is contained in its beautifully designed website www.chateau-kirwan.com.
It’s worth going through for the detailed and easy to understand descriptions of the chateau’s terroir and its wines. The wine making process reads like a story, the words are lyrical as they describe why things are done, not just how.
Schyler himself is an engaging storyteller. He explained that Margaux wines are elegant and feminine, with a lot of complexity. French wine making, he said, is very agricultural. It is governed by the terroir, that complex confluence of all environmental factors that affect the taste of the wine. A wine maker’s responsibility, he added, is to express the soil and help things to happen, and to pass everything on to the next generation.
Chateau Kirwan’s 38 hectares are divided into 35 different plots planted with 40 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 percent Merlot, 20 percent Cabernet Franc, and 10 percent Petit Verdot grapes. The grapes are tasted every day to determine the perfect time to harvest each plot. Then they are harvested and sorted by hand, first by cluster and then by individual grapes. The new concrete vats allow the grapes to be vinified by plot. All that labor-intensive detail gives me a better appreciation for why the best wines are so expensive.
But what about the wines? Schyler related that Chateau Kirwan’s greatest vintage over the last 20 years was the 2010. A wine with lots of fruit, ripe tannins counterbalanced with acidity, it is drinkable over the next 25 years. He went on to say something that made everything I had heard about great French wines suddenly clear: “A great wine is not about lots of intensity and concentration. It should be something that makes you want to finish the bottle.” Elegance, finesse, length of finis, the perfect balance of fruit, acidity, and tannins are what make a great wine something you want to keep drinking.
We first sampled a 2013 Charmes de Kirwan, the chateau’s second label made from vintages that are not included in their grand cru classé because they didn’t meet the required level of perfection. The wine was soft and light, easy drinking and fresh, with notes of raspberries and ripe strawberries. At a much lower price than the grand cru, it makes a good intermediate level wine.
The 2013 Chateau Kirwan was fresh, with notes of cherry and black currant, and a little bit of spice. Schyler commented that it was maturing quickly and will be at its optimum from 2019 up to the next 10 years. We didn’t get to try the 2010, but were very happy with the 2011 Chateau Kirwan. Schyler explained that the 2011 weather had intense summer temperatures with a very hot and dry September that caused the vines to suffer from lack of water. Eventually rain allowed the harvest to take place under good conditions. The resulting wine has heavy tannins, roasted aromas and coffee beans on the nose, and a slightly peppery taste. It is a more powerful wine than the 2013, with a rich velvety mouth feel, and notes of black cherries and vanilla. It will last up to 25 years.
Chateau Kirwan has been involved in Bordeaux wine tourism for almost 20 years, hosting 12,000 visitors a year, and preparing 5,000 meals a year. Situated on the Cantenac Plateau, one of the highest points in the region, the chateau is a great place to visit and observe wine making in action. I’m still not sure if you’d be able to drink a 2010 vintage there, though!
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Chateau Kirwan and Charmes de Kirwan in various vintages are available from Golden Wines, Inc. at 02 638 5025/27 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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