Graves, a wine region that deserves serious consideration
By Alain Echalier – Photos: Courtesy of the estates, posted on 29 August 2022
More often than not, only seasoned connoisseurs are familiar with Graves, despite the fact that the area produces very affordable, signature Bordeaux wines in a complete range of styles. Alain Echalier gives us a run-down of the appellation and offers a detailed visit to a selection of wineries.
The ‘Graves’ and ‘Graves Supérieures’ appellation area extends across a strip of land approximately ten kilometres wide along the left bank of the Garonne, from Bordeaux to Langon, circumventing Sauternes and Barsac.
At Chateau Clare woodland is never far away
A showcase for terroir
Unlike many French appellations which refer to their home villages, the name Graves alludes to its soil strewn with pebbles, gravel and stones of varying sizes, washed down by the river Garonne across the geological ages. The gravel is occasionally mixed with silt and clay. This type of soil has several advantages:
- It is poor because it has little organic matter, so the vines are not over-indulged and therefore produce concentrated grapes.
- This concentration is further enhanced by the drainage afforded by the gravel, which prevents the vines from receiving excess amounts of water.
- Lastly, the soils reflect the sunlight, with the gravel radiating heat on the grapes thereby improving ripening.
The region has an Atlantic climate, with the nearby ocean and rivers providing temperate conditions. Vines bask in good sunshine and climate change has meant that years with less summer sunshine – often challenging vintages – are becoming few and far between. Climate change is also at the root of extreme weather events, however – frost, hail, heavy downpours and the spread of fungal diseases such as downy and powdery mildew and pests. Also, in the event of severe drought, irrigation is now legally authorised with special permission – it remains expensive, however, and still very uncommon.
Wine has been made here for longer than in the storied Médoc region. In fact, Graves was more highly prized until the end of the 18th century. The name ‘Vin de Graves’ first emerged during the region's era of prosperity between the 16th and 18th centuries, when exports to the United Kingdom and northern Europe had already begun in earnest.
Present-day vineyards cover 3,500 hectares farmed by 240 winegrowers, more than 80% of whom live locally. The region therefore has a vibrancy and strong community spirit, in contrast to its more northerly neighbour which can sometimes seem a little bleak. Here, wine tourism allows you to meet genuine farmers.
Out of the 20 million bottles produced, two-thirds are red wine, made primarily from Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot, with the odd dash of Cabernet Franc, Côt – the local name for Malbec – and Petit Verdot. The white is made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, with some Muscadelle occasionally added. Both reds and whites are often matured in wooden barrels to soften the tannins and enhance aroma. The Graves Supérieures appellation, which refers to sweet white wine made from over-ripe grapes, now accounts for just a fraction of overall production. With the introductions over, a visit to some of the local wineries is a must.
Chateau Clare, where vineyards flirt with woodland
Middle-aged Thierry Carreyre and his wife are now at the helm of this 15-hectare estate. ‘Clare’ is named after Claire, the love of a family ancestor’s life. The couple are fifth-generation incumbents. They live on the farm and through hard work have managed to almost double their vineyard acreage. Thierry looks after the winemaking process whilst his wife is tasked with sales.
Thierry Carreyre is the winegrower at Chateau Clare
The winery is located in a clearing in Landiras forest, in the South-West of the Graves appellation area. As Thierry explains, their situation naturally promotes a form of agro-forestry. The nearby forest offers many advantages, one of which is protection against spring frosts. The soils are slightly cooler than in other parts of the region, and this is mirrored in the wine styles. The winery is equally sheltered, rendering the use of temperature-controlled tanks during winemaking redundant. Here, the gravel is deep, going down 5 to 6 metres, which is perfect for drainage and allows the roots to plunge deep into the soil in search of water.
Red wine accounts for 80% of output, with a ratio of 60%-40% Merlot/Cabernet-Sauvignon, giving the wines a decade or so of ageability. The vines are around 30 years old. Although 2019 was a fairly hot year for Merlot, once again, the coolness stemming from the forest extended hang-time. Thierry Carreyre is aiming to go above and beyond the requirements of HVE certification, so he sows cover crops in every other row of vines so as not to use weedkillers and uses biological control methods rather than pesticides. This has become a requisite, and is also what consumers expect.
The desired wine style is fruit-forward, with cherries. A decade or so ago, the couple sold their wines primarily to the trade then began bottling. The name of the first label was an obvious choice – Louis, after their son, now 10. In cooler years, they also produce a little rosé, but rather than use the Bordeaux Rosé appellation – because Graves cannot be used for rosés – they prefer to market it under the Vin De France label. That’s because the name Bordeaux has become slightly tarnished, says Carreyre, based on feedback from private customers gleaned during wine exhibitions.
At Chateau Clare, life is nurtured between the rows of vines
Domaines de la Mette : consistency
This winery belongs to a single owner, Jean-Baptiste Solorzano, and covers 82 hectares, including 62 within the Graves appellation area. It is divided into 4 different locations, producing wines marketed under 4 different chateau names (Château Millet, Prieuré-Les-Tours, Martin and Claron). Technical director Vincent Despujols introduces us to the estate.
Château Millet, in Portets, is the company’s hub. The chateau, rebuilt at the end of the 19th century, houses the farm buildings. Located on the banks of the Garonne, it is picture-postcard pretty and provides the perfect setting for hosting guests at open-day events.
The soils farmed across the different locations obviously contain gravel, but not just gravel, especially as you move farther away from the river. There is also limestone or small stony gravel. Harvesting is often early because the soils can be hot.
Most of the wines produced are red, with just 10 to 12,000 bottles of white a year. The white Grave appellation is not as well-known and some white vineyards have even be converted to red. Cabernet-Sauvignon is grown in equal proportions to Merlot. In fact, over the past ten years, Cabernet-Sauvignon has even been replanted because with climate change it is becoming increasingly relevant. Château Martin has 4% Petit Verdot and Château Claron 3% Carmenère. The vines are pruned very late in order to delay the growing season as much as possible, and avoid the risk of frost during the critical budburst phase.
There is no second wine here, every effort is poured into making the chateau’s four wines and the range delivers fairly consistent quality. Good concentration is the chosen objective. Pre-fermentation cold soaking lasting a few days is often used, then temperatures are gradually allowed to rise yet under supervision. The winery is equipped with temperature-controlled tanks for that purpose. The wines are matured in barrels, some with staves – or planks of oak immersed in the tanks – before being blended.
The wines have a price tag of 9 to 10 euros a bottle and are mostly sold in supermarkets, along with exports to the United States and Belgium. The aim is to produce wines that are enjoyable yet also show good length. The 2018s and 2019s are now commercially available and more recently, a little micro-oxygenation has been introduced to soft the tannins.
Wine tanks at Domaine de la Mette
Jean Médeville et Fils : a full range of Graves
The vineyards at Jean Médeville et Fils are now represented by the 7th generation of the family, brothers Jean and Marc. The family home is actually located on the other side of the Garonne, at Château Fayau in the village of Cadillac. Although the winery is situated on the ‘right bank’ the company boasts several properties on the ‘left bank’, in the Graves area.
Peyreblanque (or white stone) is an 11-hectare chateau named after its limestone soils. The earth is red but strewn with white stones. Situated 40 km South of Bordeaux, the property is perfect for crafting white wines matured in oak barrels. The focus here is on pre-fermentation and maturation aromas rather than the fruit.
Château du Mouret is located in the centre of the Graves appellation. It has 18 hectares under vine – the main purpose here is to produce fruit-forward wines. To achieve this, the fruit is processed at low temperatures. With its 15 hectares of vines, Château Boyrein is also designed for producing ultra-fruity wines; both produce red and white Graves. Lastly, Château du Seuil boasts 10 ha in Cérons. More about that later.
The company pools production equipment. It produces two-thirds red wine and one third white. The red varietal range is divided between Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot. “We like Cabernet here”, says Marc. “The variety yields less opulent wines than single varietal Merlot, but it’s more balanced. And now that harvesting can be done quickly, we can pick Cabernet at precisely the right level of ripeness”. Marc handles vineyard management and his brother is tasked with winemaking. All the farms are being converted to organic, though Château du Seuil has been farmed organically for 20 years. “It makes perfect sense”, he says, “because I also go shooting and fishing!” Although they have never been strong believers in chemicals, the ban on some plant protection products, followed by glyphosate being outlawed, quite naturally led them to organic farming. When you reach middle age, you have to set yourself new challenges, which is why Marc enjoys using tillage and has also introduced a few bee hives.
Although the appellation sells quite well in France, sudden variations in the weather caused by climate change are causing problems. During our interview – in April – vineyards witnessed a 32°C change in temperature, in just one week. And rainfall is becoming extremely variable. This is only the start of challenges to come!
Marc and Jean Médeville
Vignobles Jaubert: promoting the appellation
Xavier Jaubert is president of this family-run firm, and his sister is CEO. It boasts a total 201 hectares, including 42 in Graves.
The high-end selection is made at Château Arzac, a vineyard site with 7 hectares of red vines (70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet-Sauvignon) and 3 hectares of white (70% Sauvignon blanc, 30% Sémillon). Located in the northern part of the appellation area, the vineyards are farmed by hand and by horse. Everything is fermented in barrels using gravity, to avoid altering the flavour of the juice. After two years’ maturation, the wines are bottled without being filtered.
Xavier explains that the Graves appellation holds a strong hand. Located just South of the famous Pessac-Léognan appellation, it is its younger sibling and before 1982, there was no difference between the two. Admittedly, he jokes, its name in English requires explanation but there are some real gems and good international acclaim.
It is important to understand that the array of terroirs here paves the way for a comprehensive range of wines, from concentrated to fine tannins, freshness and fruitiness. Another property, Chateau Lagrave d’Arzac, produces wines made in stainless steel tanks which sell in supermarkets for 6 to 8 euros.
The company also has a creative side. To help consumers engage with the vineyard sites, a QR code on the bottle label starts an application where the winegrower can pop out in augmented reality and join guests at the dinner table!
The winery at vignobles Jaubert
Graves supérieures and Cérons : witnesses of our times
These appellations are now only produced on a very boutique scale – only 11 producers are currently listed. The wines are entirely sweet white, made primarily from Sémillon and occasionally enhanced with a dash of Sauvignon blanc and Muscadelle. They must contain at least 34g/litre of residual sugar, but sometimes have a lot more. Although the famous neighbouring villages of Barsac and Sauternes are in competition with them, there is no denying that sweetness in itself – even though it is natural because it comes from very late harvesting and raisining on the vine – is no longer in vogue. Even the chateaux of Sauternes are increasing their production of dry white wine.
horses at work at vignobles Jaubert
Horse-drawn tillage at Château Arzac
Of the winegrowers we have featured, Vignobles Medeville and Vignobles Jaubert make or have made some, but in minute quantities which are sometimes bought by their wholesalers… for their own personal consumption! That’s a shame because these golden wines with their aromas of candied fruits make the perfect match for puddings or for spicy dishes.
After all, is the ultimate purpose of wine not to end up on the table? To sum up: white, fruit-forward Graves works for the aperitif; oaky white Graves pairs with elaborate fish dishes or meat in a creamy sauce; with lightly-flavoured meats or tapas, a simple red Graves is the right choice, whereas a powerful Graves is more suited to game. And for an afternoon snack or pudding, the go-to wine is a Graves Supérieures! All that for a few dozen euros. It’s time to treat yourself!
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