New-wave winemakers are using old-school techniques to liberate Bordeaux from itself, writes Max Allen.
The best way to take all your preconceptions about Bordeaux and shake them upside down is to try the ethereal wines of Château le Puy. The same family has run this estate since 1610 - two and a half centuries before the renowned 1855 classification cemented the reputations of Bordeaux's lofty First Growth châteaux, Margaux, Lafite, Latour and so on.
There's no architect-designed winery, no consultant helping to craft luscious modern wines to win high scores. Instead, 13th- and 14th-generation vignerons Jean-Pierre and Pascal Amoreau grow grapes and make wine as their ancestors did: biodynamic farming, ageing in big old barrels and in some cases bottling without any additions - including sulphur dioxide preservative - and following the cycles of the moon.
Before I first tasted their extraordinary, terroir-driven wines, it seemed France's dynamic artisanal, organic and natural movements had passed Bordeaux by. I've since discovered alternative producers there. Not many, but enough to get excited about - especially as some of their wines are now shipped here. The most high-profile example of the new wave in Bordeaux is classed-growth Pauillac château Pontet Canet, which converted to biodynamics in 2005, reintroduced horses to the vineyards and is now fermenting wine in amphorae.
Another is Château Peybonhomme-Les-Tours in the less famous Côtes de Blaye. "We converted to biodynamics," says owner Jean-Luc Hubert, "because we live in the middle of our vineyard and we wish to live in the middle of a natural space for our health.
But also to get a wine that reflects our place, and the biodynamic viticulture is the best to get that."
A particularly exciting development among new-wave Bordeaux winemakers is the use of lesser-known grape varieties. Rather than being made from cabernet or merlot, or sémillon and sauvignon, many of these newer wines focus on the white grapes muscadelle and the rare sauvignon gris, and the so-called "minor" red grapes such as malbec and carménère.
Winemaker Tom Munro lived and worked in Bordeaux before moving to Australia. He now imports a great range of new-wave wines from the region with his business, The Other Bordeaux. "Before I first went to Bordeaux all I knew about it came from headlines about the establishment - all the classed-growth châteaux, the well-known labels," he says. "But I went to work on the southern edge of the region, miles from the marketing machines, moguls and phonies, where wineries are run by real people - small family businesses not living off the reputations of the 1855 classification but acting creatively to build their own identity."
That creativity is leading to some terrific wines.
And unlike all the eye-wateringly expensive wines from Bordeaux's establishment, there's some good value, too.
SIX ALTERNATIVE BORDEAUX TO TRY
1. 2013 Château Peybonhomme-les-Tours "Le Blanc Bonhomme"
White Bordeaux in a Burgundy bottle? Talk about breaking the rules. The wine is a straight blend of sémillon and sauvignon but is unusually exquisite: crisp pear, ripe grapes, late-summer flowers. $42, Bibendum
2. 2013 Château de Bel "Echapée Bel"
Made almost entirely from the "third grape" of white Bordeaux, muscadelle, this is gorgeously rich and heady, with jasmine and honeydew melon and a savoury finish infused with soft herbs. $35, The Other Bordeaux
3. 2012 Château la Grolet "Les Vacances de Monsieur Merlot"
If only all merlot were as delicious as this: vibrant red fruit and inky plum followed by a touch of gravelly tannin. And a Jacques Tati gag on the label. $32, Bibendum
4. 2012 Château Tire-Pé "Les Malbecs"
I'd never tried a 100 per cent malbec from Bordeaux, so this was a treat: dense purple, firm and sinewy at first, though time in the glass revealed deep flavours of juniper, liquorice and plums. $45, The Other Bordeaux
5. 2012 Château de Bouillerot "Cep d'Antan"
Cep d'Antan means "the old-fashioned varieties", and this blend of carménère, petit verdot and malbec is fabulous. Dark meaty fruit and gravelly tannin sweep across the tongue. $35, The Other Bordeaux
6. 2011 Château le Puy "Emilien"
Give this as much air as you can before you drink it: double decant it hours before and watch as its firm, meaty, savouriness opens into fragrant, ethereal fruit and elegance. $95, Andrew Guard