Delivering Where It Counts: Meyney 1971–2017
BY NEAL MARTIN | JULY 07, 2020
The annual Southwold tasting is always a useful litmus test of which château is doing the business where it matters most: in the wine glass. The hype and marketing that shroud Bordeaux risk obfuscating who is delivering the goods, which is why I value peer group blind tastings. They can be enlightening at a minimum, and often revelatory. Wishing no disrespect to Meyney, it is not a hip name to drop in Bordeaux circles, for several reasons. There is no illustrious history. A bank owns the property, not some grizzled winemaker who can trace viticultural ancestry back to medieval times. Meyney is no eye candy like Cos d’Estournel, and its wine is affordable, ergo not viewed as investment-grade material, which, bizarrely, some wine-lovers seek. Meyney never made it onto the 1855 classification.
And you know what? All that is irrelevant if time and again Meyney produces a wine that in blind tastings not only performs admirably against more expensive peers but triumphs against all comers two years in a row. Conclusion? Something is happening at Meyney, and I had better investigate. As it turned out, I was in the nick of time, since my visit was the very last before COVID-19 eviscerated my diary. At the end of February 2020, I drove up to Saint-Estèphe to meet winemaker Anne Le Naour, explore more about Meyney’s history and the factors underlying its improvement, and undertake a vertical to ascertain when the turnaround happened.
The facade of Meyney. Nice, but it does not possess the aesthetic allure of Cos d’Estournel or the helicopter pad of Montrose.
The genesis of Meyney is shrouded in obscurity. Not being the most illustrious of properties, this growth tends to be overlooked by wine literature (Vinous excepted, of course). Meyney has ecclesiastical origins, perhaps sharing more in common with properties on the Right Bank. A convent known as both Couvent des Feuillants and Prieuré de Couleys was founded on the site in 1662, and this date is still visible on the portal leading toward the chartreuse. The estate was confiscated during the Revolution in 1789, and thereafter its history becomes a little opaque, although by the time of the 1855 classification it was owned by the Luetkens family from Sweden. One thing for certain is that unlike its peers, it did not become a Grand Cru Classé.
“We don’t know why Meyney was not classified in 1855,” Anne Le Naour told me. “There used to be a small harbor at the end of the property, so it would not have been hard to transfer barrels down the estuary [and down to the city where the merchants collated prices.] There are two theories about why Meyney was not classified. In 1855 the Luetkens family owned Meyney, and a different branch, their cousins, owned Château de Lamarque. Apparently the Luetkenses were royalists and since Napoleon III had commissioned the classification, he refused to show Meyney at the exhibition. The other theory is that this part of the family was simply not good at selling and the wines did not meet the minimum price for classification.”
The 1874 edition of Féret lists Meyney among the Cru Bourgeois just under Marbuzet and notes its sizable production of 180 tonneaux, compared to 150 tonneaux at Cos d’Estournel and Montrose. That had fallen to 125 tonneaux by the 1893 edition. In 1919 Désiré Cordier of the famous Bordeaux merchant family acquired Meyney from the Luetkenses, although some editions state that his son Georges Cordier was the buyer on the deeds. (I suspect Désiré bought it intending to bequeath it to Georges.) The 1949 edition of Féret states that by that time there were 30 hectares under vine, 35 hectares of pasture bordering the estuary and another 25 hectares of workable land; by the 1969 edition, the land under vine had expanded to some 50 hectares. In 2005 an era came to an end when Cordier/Mestrezat sold their portfolio of estates to the French bank Crédit Agricole.
In 2006 Thierry Baudin was appointed director general of Crédit Agricole's Grand Crus, and Prof. Denis Dubourdieu came on board as consultant oenologist. The following year saw the beginning of a three-year vineyard reorganization program that included raising the trellising of one-third of the area and opting to till the soil instead of weeding. Anne Le Naour became technical director of Meyney and oversaw all of Crédit Agricole’s Bordeaux estates in 2010, a crucial and assiduous appointment since Le Naour is one of the most respected winemakers in the region. I remember when I first met her at Rayne-Vigneau. We blind tasted a number of Sauternes together and I can honestly say that I have rarely encountered a taster with such perspicuity, reading each wine as if it had a bar code.
I asked Le Naour about her background and wine career, which was far more diverse than I presupposed.
“I was born in 1976, and I grew up in Paris, far away from the vineyard. As my parents were involved in the catering business, my father as a chef and my mother as a chief editor for a hotel and catering newspaper, tasting and smelling food or wine quickly became a natural custom for me. In 1995 I tasted a bottle of Château Latour 1982 and I was hooked. I went on to study Agronomy at the École Nationale Supérieure Agronomique (ENSA) de Montpellier. During my agronomist engineering degree, I specialized in viticulture and oenology and trained at various wineries to experience different kinds of vineyards, including Domaine Laroche, G.H. Mumm & Cie and Château Beychevelle. After graduation I joined Yering Station Winery in the Yarra Valley for a vintage with Tom Carson before returning to France in 2001 to work as winemaker for the négociant Ginestet. In 2002, the opportunity arose to work with Bernard Magrez, initially as cellar chief for négociant William Pitters, supervising the 17,000-barrel cellar and the manufacture of pre-bottled cocktails, as well as bottle preparation for wine, whiskey and tequila. I was a bit frustrated not being involved in vineyard production and winemaking, but as a young female engineer and oenologist and not coming from the ‘inner circle,’ I was lucky enough. When Bernard Magrez sold his wine brands, I followed him and worked as a vineyard and winery manager for some of his properties in the north of Médoc and learned a lot working with Michel Rolland. Then I took charge of supervising several châteaux, such as La Tour Carnet, Les Grands Chênes and La Tour Blanche, also traveling to California to develop Magrez’s Napa project and to Japan. In 2010 I joined CA Grands Crus as general technical manager and took part in their restructuring that had begun four years earlier. Except at Château de Santenay, I was in charge of all aspects of technical management at their estates. In 2019 I became executive director and now I am in charge of Burgundy and Bordeaux properties.”
One important decision in recent years was to abandon four 210-hectoliter vats and replace them with smaller 80- and 110-liter vessels. Optical sorting debuted with the 2011 vintage. Chemical use was eschewed from 2012, when chef de culture Jean-Louis Soussotte left the company, having overseen the vineyard since 1968; perhaps his departure encouraged more lateral thinking. The next year saw the introduction of a treatment tunnel (see below), and in 2016 biodynamic trials commenced in eight hectares of the vineyard, though they were suspended in 2017. In 2018, Thomas Hernandez took over as cellarmaster from Denis Rabaud, who had directed the winemaking since 1990. Fabien Faget is the current estate manager, having joined the Group in 2011 as manager of Château Blaignan.
Le Naour, center, opening the bottles with her team.
“Meyney is a 51-hectare estate,” Le Naour explained. “In 2020 there is one 46.25-hectare block of vine in production, out of a total of 48.5 hectares planted. The vines are located mostly on gravel soils over clay, with sandy soils toward Tronquoy-Lalande and silty soils toward the river, which is where we find the best Petit Verdot. At the top of the incline the gravel is around three meters deep and there are veins of blue clay around 60 to 200 meters deep, the same blue clay as in Pomerol. The vineyard comprises 35% Merlot, 15% Petit Verdot and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon. There has only been a small change with a little more Cabernet Sauvignon (2–3%) in recent years. The Petit Verdot is quite historic at Meyney. It was certainly planted [in the same percentage] during the Fifties. Five of the seven hectares of Petit Verdot are a massal selection from Gruaud Larose [planted in 1951], as the châteaux used to share the same owner. We are now using a new massal selection from the existing vines and replanting half with those and half from clonal selection in order to maintain genetic variety. We use different rootstocks, mainly 101-14 nowadays, but also Gravsac and some old Riparia and SO4. The vines are pruned in the classic Médocian way, double-Guyot, adapted to the vines’ vigor. The vines are planted at 7,600 per hectare. We are increasing the density, now planting 1.3m x 1m instead of 1.5m x 1.1m.”
“We started organic farming a few years ago. In 2019 this represented half the surface, and we are aiming toward the entire vineyard, though we are not concerned about certification. We have our own vegetable garden with bees and so on and this enhances biodiversity. Meyney was also one of the first properties to use sexual confusion. Since 2013 we planted more than 700 meters of hedgerow to protect the environment and another 200 meters this year. Also, we use a tunnel to confine the spray, and this allows us to recycle the drops that do not land on the leaves, enabling us to use 30–40% less product. We are also working on a project to become sustainable, producing our own electricity and reusing water. The grapes are picked by hand and sorted on a vibrating table, the first crewed by 4–8 people, depending on grape variety. We then use an Oscillys de-stemmer that is very efficient, and a Pellenc optical sorting machine. There is another sorting table that weighs the berries before they enter the vat room, and then we do a five-day cold maceration at 5–8°C.”
“In the Nineties there was more a ‘recipe’ approach to winemaking,” Le Naour continued. “They would say: extract until you have a 100 IPT! We don’t even think about IPT anymore. The vats are 50 hectoliters and larger. They are tasted every day and we exchange views on how to conduct the extraction and change the pump-over or temperature accordingly. Color comes easily at Meyney because of the higher percentage of Petit Verdot, and the massal selection tends to produce small berries. We never suffer a lack of structure. Here we are more worried about avoiding rusticity. The total vatting period is around four weeks.”
“The wine is matured for 12–15 months in barrel with 30–48% new oak depending on the vintage. The second label is aged in used barrels with 10–12% new oak. We use eight cooperages: Sylvain the most, but also Baron, Taransaud, Raymond, Seguin-Moreau and Quintessence. Two barrels are employed to mature the same wine so that we can compare them with other cooperages. We invite them to the château to blind taste them. We no longer use a medium-plus toasting. We use around 5–7% vin de presse with a little more for the Deuxième Vin. It’s the final piece of the puzzle we put in place at the end.”
The barrel cellar at Château Meyney.
Le Naour kindly lined up vintages of Meyney from 1988 onward, although presumably due to this writer’s year of birth, they had cracked open a jeroboam of 1971 Meyney. Alas, drinking the entire contents of the jeroboam before driving back down to Merignac airport was out of the question, so there was plenty left, which I hope the Meyney team enjoyed the following day. To be honest, it was never really a Left Bank vintage and there was no denying the rusticity of this wine, which is quite iron-y on the nose with juniper and cedar. It delivers adequate fruit on the front palate and its finest attribute is its smooth texture. It just falls away rapidly on the finish.
I added several tasting notes from my own cellar that suggest that in the 1980s, Meyney lagged behind its peers. The 1982 Meyney is now rather flat and uninspiring, surpassed by the 1988 Meyney that was opened as part of the vertical, your quintessential “old-school Claret.” Just don’t leave bottles too long. I found the 1995 Meyney disappointing given the vintage, and the 2003 Meyney commendable though far short of the likes of Montrose or Cos d’Estournel, which overcame the merciless heat of that summer with such aplomb. To be honest, the latter half of the Noughties did nothing to convince me that Meyney was not just a good Saint-Estèphe, to put it harshly, an also-ran in an increasingly competitive appellation at the top of the pyramid. Meyney needed to take a hard look at itself and pull its socks up – and that is exactly what it did in back-to-back triumphs in 2009 and 2010. The name started coming to greater prominence and its reputation began to improve in the eyes of consumers. Both vintages are drinking supremely well now but have years ahead of them.
Of the three ensuing vintages, the 2012 Meyney is showing the most promise, with commendable weight and density, though the fantastic 2014 Meyney eclipses them all, even the 2009 and 2010. This is where everything starts to get serious and the improvements implemented at the estate yield results in the glass. The fineness of the tannins becomes more noticeable, and, as revealed in this vertical, Meyney begins to be imbued with greater precision on the finish. Subsequently, the 2015 Meyney is one of the unheralded gems of the vintage, a rare instance where a Saint-Estèphe is better in this year than in 2014. There is more grip here, plusher fruit, and greater structure than in previous vintages; on this occasion it pips the still-magnificent 2016 Meyney, which remains impressively focused. The 2017 Meyney is probably earlier-drinking than the previous three vintages, but unlike before, when a more challenging growing season would predict an inferior Grand Vin, it is only a notch under the 2016, a credit to Le Naour and her team in instilling Meyney with far greater consistency.
It is always a pleasure to focus on a property that has shown so much improvement in recent years while remaining incredibly affordable. A quick glance at market prices suggests you can pick up all the highly rated recent vintages for less than £30.00 per bottles ex-tax. Frankly, you can pay a lot more for a Bordeaux wine that is half as good. Credit must go to Le Naour and her team, who have really taken a once enjoyable but rather rustic and inconsistent wine and placed it comfortably at the front of the Saint-Estèphe peloton. Perhaps with bottle age the caliber of Montrose and Cos d’Estournel will begin to tell; after all, they have a track record in terms of longevity. But who is to say that in 20 or 30 years, the current vintage of Meyney will not be talked about with the same reverence? One thing is certain: this is a vastly improved wine, and surely, as the song goes, the only way is up.
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