If you’ve been to Bordeaux chances are you made it to the right bank. There you’ll find several famous appellations vying for attention including Pomerol, the smallest of Bordeaux’s most esteemed.
And in this AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protegee) where there are lots of families who own and run smaller wineries you’ll find a small but large producer, Château de Sales. Perhaps you aren’t familiar with them. They’ve been discreet until now.
This is a château where the family lived for more than five centuries. At 92 years of age the second wife of one of the grandfathers continues to enjoy its charms daily. While other family members chose to live off the property over the years, annual gatherings bring them all together: the remaining grandparents, 14 cousins, and their 45 grandchildren. All are descendants of François and Jean de Sauvanelle at Château de Sales.
I recently had a Château tour and tasting accompanied by my friend Evelyne Resnick. We discovered that this sleeping giant is about to shake the world.
A Bit of Château History
Deemed a historical monument in 1996, the Château has a fascinating background. Dominican monks owned the property prior to 1464, where they farmed the land and planted fruit trees. Unfortunately nothing else is known about this and earlier periods because the archives were burnt during the French Revolution.
Bertrand de Sauvanelle acquired the property and house in 1464. Between the 16th and 17th centuries his direct descendants, François and Jean de Sauvanelle, built what you see today: a Château in the Chartreuse style. Common to this style is a Pigeonnier perched on top of a large stone gate. Used to house pigeons for years the family eventually turned it into offices.
There’s a stream behind the Château, “La Barbanne”. It’s a natural border between the Lalande de Pomerol and Pomerol appellations. Having a fondness for nature and the out-of-doors they designed a park and mirror pond between the stream and château. These were established between 1770 and 1780.
At the start of the French revolution the family men, including two of their boys, departed to the safety of Spain to preserve the legacy passed to males. The ladies ended up in jail. When Robespierre died after the revolution, noble families were freed. Once home the ladies found their furniture gone and two thirds of the property lost. The last son also returned. History recalls him saying, “I’m the owner!” at which point the estate was returned to him. This man, Mr. Deshaygue, was a direct descendant of the Sauvanelle’s. He never married and had no heirs. In 1818 he passed the property and Château onto his grand nephew, Alexandre Delaage.
During the Second World War German officers of Rommel used the Château. Luckily they took good care of it!
Marriages and children over the years resulted in Henri and Marguerite de Lambert overseeing the Château, its wines, and vineyards. There are currently 47.6 hectares (118 acres) of vineyards planted on gravely, sandy, iron oxide soils: 73% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Cabernet Franc. The entire estate is 90 hectares.
The latest family member to retire was Bruno de Lambert (the son of Marguerite Delaage and Henri de Lambert) after years at the helm. The 14 cousins who now co-own Château de Sales appointed Marine Treppoz as corporation president. She and her cousins represent the 25th generation at the head of the property. They recruited Vincent Montigaud as CEO, a 23-year veteran of Baron Philippe de Rothschild.
The Sleeping Giant Awakens
During my visit I spent time with Montigaud tasting their wines while discussing changes and technology this new management team is bringing to Château de Sales.
In The Vineyard
Montigaud is working beside his technical manager, Frédéric Laborde, and vineyard consultant Gilles Rey. Rey works with several châteaux in and outside of the Bordeaux area, such as Château Mouton Rothschild in Pauillac.
There are varying proportions of clay, limestone, sand, and gravel on the right bank offering cool, well-drained, yet poor soils where Merlot thrives. Château de Sale sits mainly on the later two, different from the plateau of Pomerol where there’s more clay. Gravel has the advantage of retaining and reflecting heat and thus aiding in grape ripening.
A complete soil analysis is underway to determine nutrient levels. Understanding the soil will assist the team with vineyard related decisions moving forward.
Recent changes include Pruning methods that were altered after the 2017 harvest moving from Guyot single to Guyot mixed.
And other changes are progressing with an objective to obtain berries at optimum maturity. Wines have, and will continue to be harvested by hand.
In the Cellar
Consulting winemaker Jean-Claude Berrouet assists the team. He brings years of experience including 40 years at Petrus in Bordeaux and Dominus Estate in California. Changes include use of thermo-regulated concrete tanks. They’re presently used for alcoholic fermentation, a very traditional method. The plan is to use smaller capacity stainless steel vats for increased precision with regard to temperature, maceration length, etc. Over time they may be phased out. Use of large wood casks is also under experimentation for malolactic fermentation.
Grapes from each parcel are vinified separately. After the second fermentation (malolactic) is complete, they taste all lots and select the best, blending them for their premium wine, Château de Sales. The wine goes into four types of barrels for aging: new, one, two, and three-year old Bordeaux barrels. Wine in each barrel is tasted during a 12-month period to ascertain how it’s evolving. During this time the decision to continue or stop aging in oak is made. Once stopped, the wine goes back into concrete tanks for fining before bottling. Time frame from fermentation to bottling is about 18-months, depending on the vintage characteristics.
For the 2017 vintage, usage of new oak was increase to 15% (previously only 5%). They don’t want oakier notes in the wine but increased complexity and overall quality while keeping the style round, fruity and elegant.
Grapes not selected for the grand vin go into their second label, Château Chantalouette. Interestingly a law passed in 2000 prohibited wineries from using a completely separate name for second wines. Having a different name caused confusion among consumers who were not able to identify such a wine with the primary Château. But if the second brand was copyrighted before 1983, you could continue using it. Thus Chantalouette lives on. It was copyrighted in 1973 by one of the forward-thinking great grandfathers.
Aging of Château Chantalouette is different — both tanks and barrels are used. 30% of the 2017 vintage went into used barrels with the remainder in stainless tanks to keep optimal fruit expression and produce a different style of wine from the grand vin. Chantalouette is a wine for immediate delight.
While Château de Sales can be enjoyed young, like many wines of Bordeaux, it improves with age. For Christmas dinner in 2015 the family tasted wines in vintages of five: ’55, ’75, ’85, ’95, and 2005. Apparently the 1955 drank fabulously!
2017 was a very difficult year in Bordeaux with a warm start and finish, extreme highs and lows, and devastating frost and hail. Château de Sales escaped some of the weather and produced an approachable, unfussy, delicious wine.
Cherry, blue and blackberry with soft spice and bay laurel, the palate is fresh, acidity relatively low, and tannins silky. A round mouth feel with a tactile sense of aliveness and north of medium body. So elegant at this young age – wow! 78.5% Merlot, 12.5% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Cabernet Franc
Château de Sales Pomerol 2015
This wine was lighter in color than the other two yet more substantial. It’s a dual-fruit-personality wine of red cherry and less ripe blackberry that displays superior balance and faint cinnamon oak hints. The tannins are drying yet polished. While drinkable now, this wine has an acid-tannin structure that will carry it into the future. It certainly has a seductive appeal yet my gut tells me to wait several years and it will share its true glory. 82% Merlot, 9% both Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon
Château de Sales Pomerol 2010
Showing beautifully, intense cherry, blackberry and prune aromas are intoxicatingly delicious. The overall balance of fruit, acidity and tannins is remarkable. It does have tannins yet they are chewy-rich and plush. The highlight is the spicy pine and touch of savory; it adds a thought-provoking complexity to this elegant yet serious wine. 82.5% Merlot, 12.5% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon
These are great examples showing that wines dominated by Merlot can provide pleasure in youth yet age for years. Château de Sales is definitely a producer to watch!
A special thank you to Marjorie Voriot, Oenotourisme Manager, for her help with historical facts.