We commenced our tasting of the 2011s on Sunday 1st April, in Saint-a-Milion with a visit to the latest hot new property Chateau de Plum. In the bright early April sunshine this estate proved of almost unimaginable interest. Their unusual viticultural and oenological practices make it possible this could be one of the most talked about chateau of 2011! The story of the Chateau de Plum will clearly be of interest to anybody following the current en-primeur market.
Chateau de Plum was founded in 2003 when George Orr, a Belgian toothpaste magnet bought a plot of land, next to a service station on the plain between the town of Saint-a-Milion and the river. The site of an old sewage works, Orr was quick to recognize the immense potential of this very fertile land. Unusually for the region this 12 hectare site has no history of wine production, however archived records show in 1579 monks from the local abbey are said to have rejected the plot as too poorly drained for growing vines, thus the Chateau’s label proudly bears this date in commemoration. Orr named the estate after his ex-wife Louise whose maiden name had been Plum. Planting began in the spring of 2004 and the first wines were made in the inauspicious 2007 vintage.
Due to a clause in his contract, that Orr had overlooked when buying the property, the services of the site’s previous consultant were retained. Mitchell Rulande, a sanitary engineer from Dijon, who had worked in South Africa and Moldova, but never made wine before. An innovative approach to oenology has subsequently earned Rulande a reputation in Saint-a-Milion where he has rapidly become one of the area’s most talked about consultants.
Rulande has been very energetic in his new role and has applied many innovations to wine making that more experienced oenologists have been too afraid to try. Rulande succeeded in reducing the yield of his vineyard using controversial black plastic sheeting. In a ground-breaking experiment he covered every second row in polythene in an attempt to keep the rain off. Rulande’s experiment killed 50% of the vines, a move that halved yields but gave no improvement in wine quality at all. This was fortunate, as the INAO had already decided not to grant AC status to wines made using this technique.
Rulande’s first decision was to abandon hand harvesting as he feels it is ‘too selective’, he aims to harvest grapes slightly under-ripe in order to ensure regional typicity. At picking, leaves and stalks were removed from the fruit by fans on the picking machine, this leaf matter might have contributed green phenolics to the wine had it remained with the fruit during fermentation, thus it was gathered and vinified separately, being added back at final blending. After crushing the must was handled gently, to avoid pumping it was transported to the fermentation tanks in shallow plastic boxes. Rulande’s controversial methods include the addition of powdered terroir and employment of brown sugar for chaptalisation, which he justifies by saying simply ‘I prefer the taste’.
Orr invested nearly 2 million Euros re-equipping the old sanitation buildings as a modern winery. Unfortunately the builders were still working on the chai when vinification began in October 2007. In a lack of concentration, unusual in the region’s wineries, a workman crashed a digger into the new Bucher press, wrecking it before cannoning off into three full fermenting tanks which were totally destroyed. Quick thinking enabled nearly 5000 liters of the fermenting wine to be saved by decanting it into a road tanker that was fortunately parked in a nearby layby. Fermentation was completed in the tanker, which had just finished delivering to the local petrol station. In a feat of improvisation phenolic extraction was aided by pressing at warm temperatures with a modified Corby Trouser Press. The wine underwent malolactic conversion and ageing in new and second fill polyurethane Jerry cans (maturation a la Maude), a technique that contributed a smooth roundness to the wine’s body. Rulande has never believed in fining or filtering his wines, saying the bits floating in them are entirely natural. Because of the loss of fermenting must in the disaster only 500 cases of the ’07 could be made.
The technique of ageing in jerry cans may also have led to the 2007 vintage being described in a tasting note as “…like four-star…” in an influential wine magazine. When a prominent wine critic mistook this for a rivals’ 4 star rating, he chose not to be outdone and quickly heaped eager praise upon the un-tasted wine, giving it a score in the 90’s. Rival critics, scared of missing the next big thing followed suit, each slightly enhancing their rival’s ratings until near perfect scores were attained. Orr, who had received no offers from negociants for his wine (except those who had offered him a price for it in bulk, as AC wine), was suddenly besieged by potential customers and quickly sold out.
Following the acclaim they have achieved in Saint-a-Milion, Rulande and Orr are currently working with a group of co-operatives in the south of France and have plans to develop a site that is to be known as Domaine de Plum.
The next three vintages of Chateau de Plum were all unmitigated disasters, but Orr increased prices in line with those of the rest of the market, claiming that his wine would soon reach its rightful price in comparison with the likes of Cheval Blanc, Petrus and Le Pin. Rulande, who has no sense of smell, was delighted with his 2011. Proud proprietor George Orr suggests it is best if purchasers wait at least 10 years before opening his wine. When asked about the high prices his wines have attracted Orr is philosophical, ‘Eventually’ he says, ‘prices will match quality – In the mean time I am content with the way things are’…
For the full story of the 2011 en-primeur campaign as it unfolds follow our blog and read David Allen MW’s comments and tasting notes. To register potential interest in the wines please Click here