As far as the appellation contro le'e (labeling) authorities are concerned, the sleepy backwoods commune of St. Laurent doesn't exist. It is not an officially recognized Bordeaux place name. Its wines may be sold only under the catch-all appellation contro le'e of "haut me'doc."
Yet, St. Laurent is the home of perhaps the most underappreciated -- and underpriced -- of the Bordeaux "great growths." Cha teaux La Tour Carnet, Camensac and Belgrave, despite inclusion in Napolean III's elite 1855 classification of the cha teaux of the Me'doc, are less well known than many crus bourgeois, and often sell for less.
Until recently, consumer indifference to these wines may have been justified. Isolated in the wooded hills behind the far more renowned commune of St. Julien, these cha teaux persisted in applying old-style methods of vinification that emphasized the robustness imparted by the area's relatively heavy soil. Though often packed with flavor, their biting tannins and harsh acidity earned them a well-deserved reputation for toughness. But today, new owners committed to modern enology have succeeded in bringing these sturdy backwoodsmen into the modern age.
One will today find deeply colored, forceful clarets with a distinct rich streak. The kinship to their refined, well-heeled neighbors just over the border in St. Julien, such as Gruaud Larose and Langoa Barton, is now obvious. But the wines have retained much of the fleshiness one looks for in wines from the less stony soils farther back from the Gironde.
The haut me'doc appelation contro le'e continues to present a problem for these wines, however. To many consumers, it automatically signifies wine of lesser quality than that produced in the "name" communes of Pauillac, Margaux, St. Julien and St. Este phe. It's worth recalling, therefore, that the only other haut me'doc great growths are La Lagune in Ludon and Cantemerle in Macau -- both strong candidates for elevation to second growths in any reclassification of the Bordeaux cha teaux.
What is behind the St. Laurent revival is the same thing that's behind similar rebirths at a host of other formerly sub-par great growths: The demand for top-quality second through fifth growths appears to be insatiable. These days, to own a classified growth and not produce top-notch wine is economic folly. Other revitalized cha teaux include Le'oville Poyferre' in St. Julien, Rausan Se'gla in Margaux and St. Laurent's nearest St. Julien neighbor, Cha teau Lagrange, which shared St. Laurent's isolation and decline for many years.
As legitimate crus classe's priced under $10, La Tour Carnet, Camensac and Belgrave are well worth consumer attention. But don't overlook the outstanding crus bourgeois of St. Laurent, either. Cha teaux Laroze-Trintaudon and Caronne St.-Gemme share the hearty St. Laurent style, and are also available at good prices.
Listed below are tasting notes and other information about these cha teaux. All are widely available in shops here.
La Tour Carnet: Fourth growth La Tour Carnet offers one of the most beautiful sites in the Me'doc, a storybook moated medieval castle. The quality of the wines here appears to be improving steadily with the increasing age of the vines, which were replanted in the mid-1960s. La Tour Carnet clearly partook of the great success of the 1982 vintage in the St. Julien/St. Laurent environs, but the fragrant, well structured 1979 and softer 1981 are also excellent choices.
Belgrave (Fifth Growth): Recently acquired by Dourthe, a prominent Bordeaux shipper, Belgrave appears finally to be participating in the St. Laurent revival. Vinification is now overseen by Emile Peynaud, Bordeaux's preeminent enologist. So eager was Dourthe-Peynaud to restore Belgrave's tarnished image that it reportedly asked for (and received) permission to bring in the 1979 harvest with its own staff -- even before the transfer of ownership was completed. The 1979 is pleasingly forward with a flavor intensity rarely found in this price range. The stylish 1981 and the rich, concentrated 1982 are even better. If not yet at the classified growth level at which Peynaud undoubtedly aims, Belgrave's wines now compete favorably with many of the better crus bourgeois in quality and value.
Camensac (Fifth Growth): The revitalized Camensac has been owned since 1965 by the Forner family, wealthy Spaniards who also own the popular Marquis de Caceras vineyard in Rioja and the cru bourgeois Laroze-Trintaudon (see below). Medium- to full-bodied in style, Camensac's well balanced wines age well despite their reputation for early drinkability, as the outstanding 1970 and 1975 have demonstrated. Recent vintages, including the ripe, deep-colored 1978, the more supple 1979 and the lush, tannic 1982, have been excellent as well.
Laroze-Trintaudon (Grand Bourgeois): The 400-acre Laroze-Trintaudon, which had been virtually abandoned at the time of the Forner takeover in 1965, now has the largest production of any cha teau in the Me'doc (65,000 cases). At around $6, Laroze-Trintaudon will embarrass many higher priced Bordeaux cha teaux and a host of California boutique wines with its forthright cabernet flavors and generous bouquet.
The contrast between 1975 Laroze-Trintaudon and Camensac of that year, however, is a revealing commentary on the difference between cru classe' and cru bourgeois wine. Produced less than a mile apart, in their youth there was little to distinguish them. The Camensac might have shown a bit more oak in the bouquet (owing to a higher percentage of new oak barrels for aging), and the Laroze-Trintaudon might have seemed somewhat more supple and less tannic. But both seemed like good wines with plenty of potential.
Five years after the vintage, the Camensac was aging nicely, but was still relatively tight, hard and closed in, like most '75 classified growths. The Laroze-Trintaudon, by contrast, was well along in its development, with good complexity and a big cedary bouquet. It was certainly the better choice if one were deciding which wine to serve with dinner that evening.
Today, the Camensac, though just approaching maturity, has really begun to blossom, with a rich berry-like fruitiness and a still developing earth-scented, floral bouquet.
The Laroze-Trintaudon is still a good wine; in fact, it tastes almost exactly the same as it did five years ago. Like many good crus bourgeois, it reached a very respectable plateau early on -- and has stayed there.
Caronne Ste.-Gemme: Though ranked a Grand Bourgeois Exceptionnel, Caronne Ste.-Gemme seems still to be lagging a bit behind the other good properties in St. Laurent in shedding its rustic ways. Given that caveat, Caronne St. Gemme is enjoyable as a big, full-flavored wine that harkens back to the days before the term "soft tannins" and "easy drinkability" crept into the wine lexicon.
Lagrange (Third Growth): Lagrange's rescue came by way of its purchase for a reported $2.7 million by the giant Japanese Suntory Ltd. wine and spirits firm in 1984. Technically a St. Julien, Cha teau Lagrange is from vineyards that border those of Belgrave and Camensac, and the wine has more in common with them than it has with most St. Juliens. The release of the 1983 Lagrange will be eagerly awaited, as the new owners, wasting no time getting their cha teau in order, recruited the master winemaker of Cha teau Le'oville Las-Cases, Michel Delon, to oversee the completion of the vinification that year.