Clos Cantenac Saint Emilion Grand Cru "Petit Cantenac"
What do we mean when we say that a wine “tastes expensive”? As you might imagine, it refers at least in part to the aromas and flavors imparted by new(er) wood barrels used for aging. A French oak ‘barrique’ of 225-liter capacity (about 300 bottles of wine) can run north of $3,000 in some cases, so you can do the math as to what that adds to the wine’s price. But wood isn’t the only story—if it were, in fact, we wouldn’t be offering the wine.
To farm a vineyard properly, and carefully sort the harvested grapes when they come into the winery, costs money too, and it manifests itself in a wine’s texture and depth of expression on the palate. No amount of wood—or winemaking technology—can substitute for that, no matter how hard some try. THIs wine, a 2012 “second wine” from the St-Émilion Grand Cru Clos Cantenac, tastes of serious pedigree; it is lushly textured and palate-coating, but it also has an earthy savor that connects it to its place. As I mention further below, we were in Bordeaux a few months back tasting at many top properties (yes, crazy $$$), and this wine transcends its price point in comparison to its famous neighbors from the same AOC. The 2012 “Petit Cantenac” is an impressive effort from a small château that has been on the rise since its purchase in 2007 by Martin Krajewski (also the owner of Château de Sours in the Entre-Deux-Mers region). His team’s investments in the Cantenac vineyards have paid off—this “little” wine has a much bigger impact than its name or price would suggest.
Clos Cantenac now spans about 6 hectares of vines in St-Émilion, to the west of the city and fairly close to the banks of the Dordogne River. Soils are the classic “alluvial” mix of sand, gravel, and clay with a healthy dose of the acid-preserving limestone subsoil that differentiates St-Émilion from some of its Right Bank neighbors (such as the more clay-and-iron dominant Pomerol). After acquiring the property in ’07, Krajewski and his partners—a New Zealander, Marcus Le Grice, and the young French enologist Sebastien Lamothe, who died in a car accident in 2009—went straight to revitalizing the vineyards, re-introducing ‘cover crops’ between the vine rows and employing new canopy management techniques to ensure the healthiest fruit possible. Their farming approach is best described aslutte raisonnée(“the reasoned struggle,” wherein chemical intervention of any kind is reserved for only the most urgent emergencies).
My SommSelect business partner and I were in Bordeaux just a few months ago, tasting at both big-name and lesser-knownchâteaux. It provided valuable context as to what constitutes “value” in Bordeaux these days, and it re-ignited my passion for the region as a whole—a lot of wine professionals had kind of written off Bordeaux as either (a) a very “corporate” winemaking environment where wine style was being homogenized by a handful of famous consultants; (b) a place still reeling from years of damage from chemical/mechanized farming; (c) a place known more for 'mass,' rather than 'artisanal,' production. We experienced the complete opposite during our visit and were blown away by the number of small, unheralded properties turning out sustainably farmed, delicious wine with genuine personality. You’ll be seeing many of them here in the months to come.
Let’s kick it off with the 2012 Petit Cantenac from Clos Cantenac, a wine that is drinking beautifully now and should continue to do so for 5-10 years to come. A classic right bank blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon, it was aged in 40% new/60% “second pass” French oak barrels for 20 months. In the glass it displays incredible concentration and has an opaque dark crimson with dark purple highlights, and while there’s a hint of vanilla and warm oak spice right out of the gate it is nicely integrated with notes of black plum, blackberry, cassis, damp violets, licorice, cigar tobacco, raw cacao, and a dark, crushed-gravel and clay soil character. Medium-plus in body, with silky, well-burnished tannins and perfect freshness for a wine of this size, it has that “expensive-tasting” sheen to it without feeling like some sweet confection. The finish has an iron-tinged savor to it that roots it in the soil and leaves you craving some protein—be it a butter-basted steak from a cast-iron skillet or perhaps a recipefor braised beef shanks. It’s definitely an “impress your boss/father-in-law” kind of red that will drink beautifully for several years to come. That said, it offers tremendous pleasure now and needs only about 30 minutes in a decanter to show its stuff. Serve it around 60 degrees in Bordeaux stems and savor it slowly.