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A Century (Not Out): Talbot 1919-2010
BY NEAL MARTIN | OCTOBER 15, 2019
Christmas Day 1999. Turkey in the oven. Christmas tree swamped by presents, a majority of them exchanges between pets. A cucumber from Tigger to the tortoise (how thoughtful). Aquatic members of the tropical fish tank have clubbed together to buy millet for the budgerigar. The dog receives a chichi diamante-studded collar from the rabbit. (You can imagine the four-legged queue at Argos.) The family – humans, not pets – assembles for the meal, assorted siblings and grandparents gathering around the table, the ether heavy with gravy and over-boiled Brussels sprouts. Nobody here is an oenophile – far from it. Nevertheless, the family stemware, purchased in the early Seventies, is making a comeback tour. I squint and examine a glass, a bulbous design straight out of Georg Riedel’s worst nightmare, and discreetly brush off a thin film of dust. Soon it will be filled with a special festive claret that will reveal the joys of fermented grape juice to my unsuspecting family. The bird and its trimmings are served, and I ceremoniously begin to pour my precious wine, a 1955 Talbot. I stand back and await gasps of delight...
“Oh, it looks a funny color.”
“It’s a bit old, innit? It’s gone off.”
“Dad, is there some Liebfraumilch left?”
I should have known better than to pour a classically styled Saint-Julien to a family whose only forays into the vinous world were predicated on wine buoyed by bags of Süssreserve and preferably, as a seal of quality, a blue nun on the label.
I never proffered a wine of noble pedigree again. Henceforth any wine would be young, fruity and easy going.
Over my career I have conducted verticals of nearly all châteaux classified in 1855. Despite visiting many times, Talbot is one that has evaded my capture. To be frank, on some occasions I found it lagging behind its peers, including as part of group blind tastings. My palate is partial to classic Bordeaux; however, there is a limit and there will always be a prerequisite of adequate fruit, freshness, complexity and substance. The appointment of Jean-Michel Laporte, formerly technical director at La Conseillante, suggested that maybe these shortcomings would be addressed. I sincerely hope so, because I have a soft spot for Talbot. I want to see the largest Left Bank grandee perform as well as its Saint-Julien cohorts, such as Léoville-Barton, or its cousin, Gruaud Larose.
In December 2018, the Cordier family – Jean-Paul and Nancy Bignon-Cordier, accompanied by their three children, Philippine, Marguerite and Gustave –organized a vertical tasting at the château to celebrate a century of ownership. Here was my chance to investigate Talbot in detail, gain a clearer picture and ascertain whether my lukewarm reaction to some vintages is well founded or otherwise. Would I discover a period in time when Talbot was challenging the elite? Are there particular growing seasons that suit its terroir? Would they serve over-boiled Brussels sprouts at the post-tasting lunch?
John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, is said to have inspired the name of the château. He was a celebrated commander at the battle of Castillon, a popular and well-respected figure in the “golden days” when Bordeaux was under British rule. In his 80s, he was dispatched back to Bordeaux in 1451 to lead what transpired to be the final rear-guard action by Charles VII; he was killed after apparently going into battle unarmed. No record exists of him owning land, but his esteem was such that numerous places honor his name. Indeed, the famous Belleyme map refers to “Talabot” in Saint-Julien. There is little primordial history of the estate, though for certain the earliest proprietors were the Marquises d’Aux de Lescout, a family that hailed from Armagnac. Their tenure lasted some 200 years, during which time the estate was referred to as Talbot d’Aux. (Incidentally, the same family also lent their name to Patache d’Aux in Bégadan.) In 1855, Talbot was classified as a fourth-growth Grand Cru Classé, and then in 1899 the estate was auctioned off and acquired by Monsieur A. Claverie. He ran the property for a couple of decades before Désiré Cordier purchased it in 1918, just a year after picking up the door keys for Gruaud Larose.
Désiré Cordier was an extremely successful merchant and businessman, establishing his namesake company in 1886. Bernard Ginestet described him as a person who liked to thumb his nose at the Bordeaux aristocracy, ergo he never achieved any higher standing than mayor of Saint-Julien. Jacques Cordier, who had a penchant for classic cars, then took the helm, followed by his son, Jean Cordier. Jean passed away in 1993, and at this point the exclusive distribution via the Cordier négociant company ceased. Management of the estate passed to Jean’s daughters and their husbands – namely, Nancy Bignon-Cordier, who married Jean-Paul Bignon, and Lorraine Cordier, who married Thierry Rustmann, the latter relinquishing their interest to focus on Château Sénéjac.
I have met Jean-Paul Bignon a few times over the years. The word that immediately comes to mind when I think of him is “jolly;” he is loquacious and affable, always with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face. This is sometimes a rare commodity in Bordeaux, which has a tendency to take itself too seriously. On March 1, 2018, Jean-Michel Laporte took over from the retiring Jean-Pierre Marty as technical director of the estate, heralding a new chapter for the Saint-Julien property. Charged with reinvigorating Talbot, he is bound to make some changes. His task will be to meliorate the wine while keeping the signature of Talbot intact, a subject that shall be broached in my concluding comments.
Pictured at the tasting, Jean-Paul and Nancy Bignon-Cordier
Talbot is located directly north of Gruaud Larose. Most people will have espied the water tower driving up the D2 artery in Saint-Julien; it belongs to Talbot, although the estate has never used any water itself, tempting as it must be with the recent spate of dry growing seasons.
The property faces southwest and stretches up to the Pauillac border. It is the largest classed growth, comprising some 160 hectares with 110 hectares under vine, and has increased in size through piecemeal acquisitions in recent decades. Unusually for the Left Bank, the vines have always remained as a single block, which rises to around 23 meters. The current composition of the vineyard is 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 4% Petit Verdot, the latter a pet favorite of Nancy Bignon-Cordier. The soil is a mixture of gravel and sand over sandstone bedrock, with more clayey parcels scattered across the vineyard. Toward the western flank, the gravel is shallower and the higher proportion of sand means that these parcels tend to produce lighter wines. Unusually, Talbot includes parcels of white varieties, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, first planted in the 1930s by Georges Cordier for personal consumption. There are currently around five hectares of white varieties (80% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Sémillon) in commercial production as Le Caillou Blanc de Talbot. Approximately 2,500 cases are produced each year. Chef de culture is Damien Hostein.
I will summarize the vinification based on the current modus operandi, though this is not how the ancient vintages in this article were made. Of course, the harvest is conducted by hand. The large size of the vineyard necessitates coordination of over 120 pickers, though one advantage is that all the vines are in a single block (no ferrying pickers from one parcel to another and losing a couple en route). The fruit undergoes a rigorous sorting both in the vineyard and upon arrival at the vat room. The berries are destemmed and sorted optically using the popular Tribaie machine. Alcoholic fermentation used to be conducted in 25 white steel vats, installed in 1968 and covered in blue tiles, each holding 16 hectoliters. In benevolent vintages, space could be a problem, and excess production was occasionally stored in 4,000-liter wooden casks in addition to traditional barriques.
In 2012, Talbot inaugurated a new barrel cellar designed by Bordeaux architects Nairac and Vacheyrout. Covering some 1,500 square meters in order to accommodate around 1,800 barrels, it features an arresting design, with each pillar created like branches of a tree, splintering into four “trunks” as it reaches the ceiling, giving the appearance of a forest. The red wine is matured for approximately 18 months depending upon the vintage, which seems to be shorter than the 26 to 30 months employed in the past.
The barrel cellar at Château Talbot, designed by Nairac and Vacheyrout , © Johan Berglund
The vertical tasting encompassed the entire Cordier era, with one vintage from each decade. Laporte explained that the selections were not intended to be the best of their decade, but rather a vintage that is deemed representative. Readers should note that I have incorporated some useful background information on the growing season, picking dates and blends provided by the château within the respective tasting notes.
It was a privilege to taste these ex-cellar wines, many in magnum format and some older ones reconditioned. Details can be found in individual tasting notes. That said, my overall impression is that no one bottle obliged superlatives or altered my view of Talbot. This was no revelatory exercise that altered pre-held opinions or prompted me to upgrade existing scores. That is not to suggest that the wines were poor in any shape or fashion. Each and every one was fascinating and, more often than not, delicious to imbibe. I admire that throughout the decades the style remains faithful to what both Talbot and Saint-Julien ought to be. Some sages, such as Bernard Ginestet in his Saint-Julien book (1984), opined that the longevity of Talbot does not equal those of its peers. I am not convinced by that assertion, and it was certainly disproven by a vigorous magnum of 1926 Talbot, from a useful but forgotten growing season that lies in the shadow of 1928 and 1929. In benevolent vintages such as 1945 and 1947, performances were commensurate with those vintage reputations.
A more refined observation is that perhaps Talbot does not meliorate as well as other Saint-Julien crus. This is a contentious accusation, one that could be leveled at the appellation as a whole and what might differentiate the wines from Pauillac. Talbot does not “kick on.” It does not ascend to an echelon that would enhance its reputation. Tasting through these vintages, I felt that there is a limit to what Talbot can achieve that is predetermined by the propitiousness of its terroir. Apologies for relegating the discussion to numbers, but it underlines why none of the wines breached the 95-point level, even if some came within touching distance. Case in point, the outstanding 1986 Talbot: structured and masculine, in keeping with the leitmotifs of that year, yet fresh and balanced, endowed with greater complexity than the 1982 Talbot that I tasted as part of a 1982 horizontal a few months earlier. Another is the 2010 Talbot. It showed better than previous bottles and looks very promising for the future. Both of these are signposts of how Talbot might progress in the coming years.
Reflecting further, I conjectured that the large size of Talbot might hinder its potential but also provide Laporte with the means to take it to a higher level. The estate has the capacity to produce thousands of cases of Grand Vin each year, which means they could apply an even more draconian selection that would elevate quality. It is not a homogenous terroir, and perhaps zoning in further upon specific parcels and deselecting others could impart more breeding and backbone. (In a sense, this is what Christian Seely instructed when he took over the management of Pichon-Baron.) Such an approach has a palpable effect on the quality and consistency of the Grand Vin, as evinced by the vertical tasting that I recounted on Vinous earlier this year. Could Laporte do likewise with the Cordiers’ blessing at Talbot? Laporte would certainly be the right man for the job. When I broached the subject on a visit in September 2019, he told me how he is seeking a Talbot with greater midpalate depth. This is exactly what the wines need to keep up with their peers, and it calls for examining the vinification, particularly the skin maceration, as well as the way the vin de presse is used and the subsequent barrel aging.
This was a thoroughly informative and enlightening tasting. Although there is no headline wine that incited a deluge of superlatives, the wines conveyed the style of Talbot over the years, a style that has remained remarkably consistent. I adored ancient vintages such as 1926 as much as recent successes like the 2010. At the same time, my role as a critic is to put wines in context, argue where I would place them qualitatively vis-à-vis their peers and explain my reasons, for readers to agree or otherwise. I am not going to hide the fact that I have always wanted Talbot to perform better. The estate is now at a crucial juncture after a century of ownership. Does it want to continue as it has done in the past? Or does it put history aside, take a good hard look at itself, make some bold decisions and unlock that intangible limiter that impedes Talbot from achieving something greater? From speaking to Laporte, it is the latter. His appointment was a bold decision, and what lies ahead might surpass the first 100 years. By that time, I hope my family will have developed an appreciation for wine, encouraging me to finally serve a bottle of Talbot for Christmas once again.
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