A French Revolution

Garage wines are transforming Bordeaux

The harvesters are not picking grapes in front of a grand, wedding-cake château. Instead, they are working in a grubby garage in the village of St.-Emilion. Michel Gracia, a local stonemason, has transformed it into a winemaking cellar. The workers are picking the merlot grapes off the stems one by one and sifting them by hand to clear off any debris. "They work like gold miners," says Jeffrey Davies, an American wine merchant based in nearby Bordeaux, whose company, Signature Selections, exports the simply named Gracia.

Small-scale artisans and amateur winemakers such as Gracia are transforming one of France's most famous winemaking regions. Forget the old-style Bordeaux made from large yields of unripe grapes, which produced a bitter aftertaste and often required more than a decade of aging to become drinkable. The new "garage wines," the result of low yields, ultraripe grapes, and careful harvesting, pack the punch of delectable fruit from the moment they are bottled. Traditionalists suggest they won't age as well--a claim hard to test, since Gracia has been making wine for only three years. But it's hard to believe a full-tasting young wine won't mature into an enjoyable, even more complex one over time.

PRETTY PENNY. Most of the best garage wines are from around St.-Emilion, where growers own small plots they till themselves. Their wines may be hard to find--and expensive. Gracia, for one, produces 8,000 bottles a year, and each costs more than $100 in the U.S. But prices peaked in the 2000 vintage and are beginning to come down.

Better yet, many St.-Emilion producers are adopting garagiste techniques to produce less expensive wines. Many are made in nearby villages, where land is cheaper. Good choices for around $20 a bottle include Chantal Lebreton's Château Faizeau from Montaigne St.-Emilion, Gérard Perse's Clos L'Eglise from the Cotes de Castillon, and Michel Rolland's Château Fontinil from Fronsac (table).

Across the Garonne River, in the Médoc, some smaller châteaus are also beginning to use St.-Emilion methods. Stay away from the Médoc first growths such as Château Mouton-Rothschild, which have been slow to adopt new techniques, yet produce large quantities that cost more than the small-scale garagistes. Instead, try less prestigious names such as Château Charmail, whose owner, Olivier Seze, was the first Bordeaux grower to concentrate flavors by cold-fermenting wine, a technique adopted by the St.-Emilion garagistes.

Although Bordeaux is best known for its red wines, the region produces excellent whites, particularly the sweet sauternes. In this category, too, small, innovative producers are making fresher, fruitier, and more reasonably priced wines. A good example is the Dubourdieu family's $40 Château Doisy-Daëne. Not cheap, but it's a good alternative to the ultratraditional Château d'Yquem, whose 2000 vintage costs $350 a bottle. Denis Dubourdieu, a famed oenologist at the University of Bordeaux, produces some of the region's best dry white wines at his Château Reynon and Château Clos Floridène.

In Bordeaux, with 12,000 châteaus and 20,000 winemakers, quality varies, and many of the best-known names no longer offer good value. But Gracia and other upstarts show that Bordeaux still can produce wonders. In a recent tasting held in Japan, Gracia's 1997 reds finished first, ahead of even the famed Château Cheval Blanc. The irony: Gracia's construction company renovated Cheval Blanc's buildings. "When my clients, the aristocrats, first found out that I also made wine, they laughed," recalls Gracia. "They no longer are laughing." What counts these days is not the history or grandeur of the château, but the care of the winemaker.

By William Echikson

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