Château Siran 1918-2008
BY NEAL MARTIN | JUNE 10, 2020
In December 2018, Edouard Miailhe, the proprietor of Château Siran, invited me for a vertical tasting of his wine. I was in the area assessing the 2017s in bottle. How could I refuse? It was a fascinating retrospective, and my intention was to write up the article in early January. Alas, last year’s spell of ill health threw my plans into disarray and consequently the reviews gathered dust on my hard drive. Finally, I have gotten around to publishing these notes – better late than never. Perhaps with the 2019 Bordeaux primeur campaign revving its engines/spluttering into action (depending on your sentiments toward the region), this is an opportune moment to focus upon a property that has improved immensely in recent years and remains comparatively affordable. How we need that in times like these!
Louis and Edouard Miailhe pictured here at the end of World War I.
The etymology of Siran comes from the 13th century, with reference to a town between Perpignan and Narbonne where you will find a “Château de Siran,” now a hotel owned by an aristocratic family. Records show that vines were once productive on that site and one can speculate upon a tenuous link. The genesis of Siran becomes less murky moving forward a couple of centuries. In the 15th century, a dignitary by the name of Guilhem de Siran offered refuge to the monastic order of Saint-Croix that settled in the locality and founded the parishes of Macau and Labarde on the Labarde plateau. During the French revolution, Count La Roque Bouillac owned the estate. He emigrated in 1791 and left his daughter Jeanne at the property. She married Alphonse, Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec.
The original purchase deeds are housed in a glass cabinet by the entrance of the château that was constructed during the first half of the 19th century. On January 14, 1859, the Lautrec family sold the estate to Monsieur Barbier for the sum of 130,000 francs, a down payment of 30,000 francs having been made the previous year. (Of course, the name Lautrec is synonymous with the famous painter, and it was indeed Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s grandparents who sold the estate. Their ancestors had owned Siran at least as far back as the 1700s.) Monsieur Barbier had two daughters, and they married two brothers of the Solberg family, stockbrokers in Bordeaux city and owners of Château Marquis de Terme. Bankruptcy forced them to flee to Argentina, and the Solbergs’ properties were seized, apart from Siran, since their spouses’ names were on the deeds. In 1885, Siran came into the hands of the evocatively named Lovely Solberg. I asked proprietor Edouard Miailhe what inspired her unusual name. He answered that his cousin is also called “Lovely,” so I deduce it is a family tradition. Lovely Solberg married Monsieur Ellie-Edouard Miailhe, at which point there were approximately 11 hectares under vine.
Thereafter Siran remained in the hands of the Miailhe family. They are descended from 18th-century courtiers and négociants, Edouard Miailhe famously running Pichon-Lalande from 1926. Prior to World War II, the vineyard was planted with mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec; Merlot was planted after the war. As I recounted in my recent article examining the 1945 vintage, the Miailhe family were forced to relocate to Siran after German officers requisitioned the château to billet their troops. Edouard Miailhe’s son William Alain inherited the Pauillac Growth in 1959 and simultaneously took over the running of Siran. The family had accrued shares in Palmer and Dauzac, in addition to tracts of land in the Lande region. With such a diverse portfolio of estates, inheritance was complicated, and it was not until 1978 that the family agreed that Alain’s sister, the indefatigable May-Elaine Lencquesaing, would become proprietor of Pichon-Lalande while William Alain was bequeathed Siran.
William Alain’s son and the current proprietor of Siran, also named Edouard Miailhe, was born in 1967, the nephew of May-Eliane Lencquesaing, who remained the matriarch of Pichon-Lalande until its sale to Louis Roederer in 2006. Miailhe is naturally an outgoing and lively proprietor, a bon viveur/ family man with impeccable English, outspoken and candid in conversation. I think that is partly because he had an outsider’s perspective upon Bordeaux for many years, not necessarily a bad thing. Miailhe has rapidly become assimilated into the Bordeaux firmament and, as well as running Siran, he was appointed president of the Margaux appellation.
As Miailhe grew up in Bordeaux and Paris, I asked about his childhood memories of visiting Bordeaux. “When we were small, we went to Pichon-Lalande and Siran, but nobody was living in any of the châteaux back then,” he replied. “It was just to spend a day in the countryside. I had no idea that one day I would be living in Bordeaux making wine. I thought I would work in the car industry. But I ended up in finance, which was what my father expected me to do. In 1993, I started working in Paris, and around 2003 or 2004, I was in the Philippines. It was there that I began enjoying wine more and more. My parents retired in 2007, and I told them that I would be happy to take over the property, but I didn’t move to Bordeaux permanently until 2015. Together with my children, we inherited the property in 2011, and it was then that I knew I would move back. I have four children, three boys and one girl, two in Bordeaux and two in boarding school. They love the wine, but who knows who will click with actually making wine as their livelihood.” I ask Edouard where his interests lie beyond wine. “Outside wine, I love vintage cars. I have two here, an old Mercedes and an old BMW. I love driving them and fixing them.” Indeed, one of his Mercedes is parked in the courtyard and no doubt he strokes its bonnet every morning.
Just in case you did not believe me, here is Edouard Miailhe posing outside the heavy steel door to the nuclear bunker-cum-wine cellar.
A total of 24.6 hectares of vine occupies the Labarde plateau, which is shared with Château Dauzac, Prieuré-Lichine and Giscours. There is also 11 hectares of Bordeaux AC that the property labels Château Saint Jacques, and two hectares of Haut-Médoc labeled Château Bel Air de Siran - the latter exclusive to one négociant. Accompanied by Edouard’s dog (for what is a château owner without his faithful hound?) we leapt into his 4x4 to inspect the vines close up. “There has been huge work done in the vineyard,” he explained en route. “We are looking for more maturity in the berries and a more even crop across all the plots, better cellar management to do more selection through the smaller vats.”
“Thanks to the Merlot and Petit Verdot, there is a lot of typicité in Siran,” Miailhe told me. “Siran is the gourmandize of the Merlot and the spice of Petit Verdot. Petit Verdot is usually 7% to 12% in the final blend, Merlot 48% to 55%, but we are increasing the Cabernet a bit with new plantings. The field blend presently consists of 46% Merlot, 44% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot, and planting density is 10,000 vines per hectare. Of our 34 plots, 11 have been completely replanted, while 35,000 vines, equivalent to 3.5 hectares, have been complanté (planted between existing vines.) One thing that was great is that my father never used chemicals. We do a lot of canopy management to reach maximum maturity. For example, we usually do ten passages to counter mildew but we only did six in 2015. We do anti-mildew and anti-botrytis sprays, but there are no pesticides or herbicides. It is too risky not to do any sprays.”
“Everything here is double-Guyot pruned. I have employed a ‘French champion’ of pruning, Michel Duclos, who has trained my guys how to prune in a good way. He works for Ets. J-P Moueix. Duclos explains what you have to do for the next couple of years, the way of pruning, to start the vine on a good basis. He also works at Marquis d'Alesme. We conduct de-leafing and green harvesting, although the latter is not always necessary – it depends on the growing season. We use cover crops on two plots as they were too productive."
The barrel cellar at Château Siran.
Siran is one of the prettiest properties in Margaux, with its pastel pink exterior and tranquil courtyard, trees and verdure surrounding the outbuildings. As you enter, the winery is housed on the right-hand side and the visitors’ reception, tasting room and barrel cellar on the left. Underneath lies a nuclear bunker. Spooked by Three Mile Island, former proprietor William-Alain Miailhe constructed an underground chamber where he could escape should the Russians decide to drop a nuclear bomb on Bordeaux. (There are better ways to protest about primeur prices, but you never know what might happen these days.) Nowadays it houses his son’s extensive wine cellar, so in the event of a nuclear attack, anyone taking refuge there will be able to drink well.
I ask Edouard about his approach to the harvest. “We taste the berries with the team to decide when to pick. There are just two days during which you must pick the grapes for optimal ripeness. Forty local workers pick the fruit. They don’t mind if we stop the harvest between the different grape varieties. Most of them live in Blanquefort, so they stay in the area.”
Facing the château façade, you will find the vat room housed in the right-hand building. On the left-hand side of the courtyard are the barrel cellar and château museum, which was renovated in 2012. Inside is a collection of artifacts assembled by Miailhe in 2014, some 300 pieces of art dating from the third century BC to the 19th century: silver, glass, porcelain and pewter objects that are all related to wine, including porcelain Bacchus, Burgundy tastevins, Jacquot pots and Vieillard plates. It reminded me of May-Eliane’s collection that once greeted visitors at Pichon-Lalande, though her nephew assures me that this is an entirely different collection (and indeed, she specialized only in glassware).
“The cuvier was built in 1990 and renovated in 2014. Up until 1989, we used concrete vats,” Miailhe told me as we toured the vat room. "The vats are all stainless steel and range in size between 60 and 180 hectoliters to allow more accurate fermentation. They all have automatic temperature control. We recently received a new Boucher de-stemmer, the Delta Oscillys model, the same model as at Château du Tertre and Château Beychevelle. It works so well that we have removed half of the sorting tables. We also work with traditional and peristaltic pumps for the de-stemming. There are also four wooden vats that were installed in 2005. We do a fresh maceration, but not a cold maceration, at 10 or 11 degrees depending on the vintage. Sometimes there is délestage, but again, it is not automatic. We tend to do more into remontage."
The wines are aged in the new air-conditioned barrel cellar, which can be heated in winter if necessary. Four cooperages are used – Cadus, Demptos, Vicard and Taransaud – and the Grand Vin is usually raised in around 35% new oak. Hubert de Böuard from Château Angelus assists with the blending and also inspects the vineyard, following on from Michel Rolland, who consulted between 1997 and 2003, and Denis Dubourdieu, 2003 to 2013. Between 30,000 and 40,000 bottles of their deuxième vin entitled "S de Siran" (known as Château Belle Garde until 1992) are produced, in addition to around 100,000 bottles of the Grand Vin. It was Edouard's father’s idea to use artwork on the labels, since 1980 à la Mouton-Rothschild, each one related to a topic that year – for example, the French Paradox in 1993. “The first ones had a political theme, but he was told it is better not to do that. The last picture label was in 2005. People said we were copying Mouton. Some countries loved it and some didn't care.” Edouard Miailhe discontinued the labels because he wanted to focus upon the vineyard.
For many years I felt that Siran was coasting a little on its reputation and needed a shot in the arm in order to create a great Margaux. That necessitates money and a proprietor dedicated to seeing it through. Edouard Miailhe arrived at exactly the right time. “I want to realize what the terroir can do and what the brand can do,” he said. “I think we are at the level between Third and Fourth growth.” I also broached the subject of how more and more consumers are drinking their Bordeaux prematurely, before it has reached its plateau of maturity. “Great Bordeaux is nice after eight to ten years, but people are drinking Bordeaux younger and younger. The 1999s to 2003s are beautiful to drink now.”
I asked Miailhe what distinguishes Margaux as an appellation. “Margaux has a delicacy and finesse that I don't think Saint-Julien and Pauillac have. This is something that should be recognized more. I think all [Margaux] châteaux have improved in quality in recent years. Maybe Margaux should put their hands together to promote the great quality of the wines. Maybe part of the reason Margaux was never consistent is because it is a large appellation and the terroirs are so different.”
This was the second time I had undertaken a vertical of Siran. At the beginning of my career, I found that the Siran tended to be a bit overripe for my palate; it is only in recent years and following changes in practices that I have seen the potential of this vineyard being realized. This particular vertical featured a sequence of vintages ending in the number eight. Ancient vintages of Siran are not revered as much as Palmer or Brane-Cantenac, although in my experience they can over-perform.
The 1918 Siran was the oldest bottle and demonstrated how old and forgotten vintages have a propensity to age well. After exactly one century, it still offers vestiges of drinking pleasure, even if it has faded. As expected, the 1928 Siran showed much better, no surprise considering it is one of the standout pre-war vintages renowned for their longevity. This was much more vigorous, an old dame still going strong with a really quite gorgeous bouquet and tobacco-tinged palate. Perfectly stored bottles will still drink well. There was no 1938, so we skipped to the oft-overlooked 1948, a useful vintage that was stronger on the Right Bank than the Left. This had an odd chlorine/swimming pool scent that I usually find on old Sauternes. There was decent body and substance, and it improved over a couple of hours, seeming to gain freshness and harmony, even if it remained a bit rustic.
There was no 1958 or 1968, but a 1978 Siran evinces a property that had lost its way, like many estates in that decade. It is now austere and lacking the fruit of both older and more recent vintages; rather hollow and best drunk now if you are holding on to any bottles. The estate improved during the 1980s, and the 1988 Siran is a pleasant surprise, presenting an endearing rose petal nose and a mature, cohesive palate with a persistent finish. I was not expecting much, as some 1988s have begun to dry out, but this suggests that another decade is not out of the question. Finally, the 1998 Siran did not quite match the 1988. Michel Rolland had been taken on as consultant, and the 1998 displays his penchant for a ripe style of winemaking, though juxtaposing the two, I felt that the 1988 had actually aged better despite being ten years older.
Readers should note that I augment these wines with additional vintages tasted in recent years, such as 1947 and 1961, plus recent vintages tasted at home, such as 2011 and 2012.
Wine lovers who are seeking to cellar a few bottles of Margaux but can ill afford the likes of Château Margaux and Palmer should take a look at what is happening at Siran under Edouard Miailhe. This is one of several fast-improving estates whose prices remain reasonable. And should the radio announce impending Armageddon, you now know which château you should head for.
See the Wines from Youngest to Oldest
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