"Islands of Happiness" at L'Eglise Clinet

by Chuck Hayward

"Islands of Happiness" at L'Eglise Clinet

Post by Cory Gowan | April 4th, 2012

Arriving at L'Eglise-Clinet

As we packed our three cars and made our annual migration from the Left Bank over to the Right for our last days in Bordeaux, we put together the mosaic of the 2011 Bordeaux vintage. Although weather patterns can tell part of the story, there is no substitution for one-on-one conversations with vignerons, and, of course, tasting the actual wines. It was at a negociant tasting where Denis Durantou’s wines singlehandedly confirmed our suspicions that Pomerol may be appellation of the vintage. So directly afterwards, we did what any savvy Bordeaux buyer would do - we squished three into the back seat and made the long trek across the Gironde and Dordogne rivers into Pomerol.

Aside from a quick trip to Chateau Le Gay in 2010 and one ill-advised “back roads” (long story) journey to Cheval Blanc last year, I had actually never been to the village of Pomerol  - and I almost missed it once again. The only business of note in the tiny town was a small office of La Poste, and what I can only describe as an open-air junk shop with a man in overalls tinkering away. The rest of the landscape was all low slung buildings and a gentle sea of vines.

The church of Pomerol, set against L'Eglise-Clinet vineyards

It’s long been said that the quality of Pomerol vines directly correlates with how close they are to the church at the top of the Pomerol plateau. If this is the case, then Denis Durantou’s L’Eglise-Clinet must be the best of the best as its main vineyards stretch directly from the church grounds to the doorstep of the small farm building that acts as his Chateau (I couldn’t help feeling that the word “Chateau” in L’Eglise-Clinet’s name is an attempt at humor considering I had just been to dinner at Margaux a few nights before!). In fact, this small building sits right next to a very old cemetery which at one point in time was attached to the Pomerol church that was demolished in the 19th century. So in reality, these vineyards lie directly between both Pomerol church sites!

It was immediately apparent that there was indeed a big difference between this property and the grand Left Bank estates. After Margaux's Downton Abbey, this was way more gardener's tool shed. As we pulled up, we spotted a small group of journalists outside, sipping samples out of a wine thief and spitting in the vineyards. It was here where we met Denis Durantou and commenced one of the best tastings of our 2011 Bordeaux en primeur visit.

Winemaker Denis Durantou

I was told Denis spoke practically no English, but as it turned out, this was not the case. As his shyness and quiet demeanor peeled away, we learned a great deal about his wines and his philosophy towards winemaking. In addition to making L’Eglise-Clinet and its second wine (Le Petite L’Eglise), Durantou also crafts the St. Emilion label Saintayme, Montlandrie from the Cotes du Castillon, as well as La Chanade and Les Cruzelles (both from Lalande de Pomerol). All these fresh samples were showing beautifully and should provide exceptional values for 2011. It was our second time tasting them that day, and both times they showed terrific purity of fruit and a seamless quality that could prove to be the hallmark of Durantou’s 2011s.

Durantou grew more conversational the longer we were there, so I asked him to expand on the “Islands of Happiness” philosophy that was inscribed at the top of our tasting sheet. With a sheepish grin, he told us that this was his way of explaining why Pomerol produced such good wines in 2011. Pomerol, you see, was his “island of happiness.” While everyone else focused on the drought, odd weather patterns, and the lack of a cool spring season, he found it easy to produce great wines. Part of this was due to the clay soil which has very good water retention, and also makes up most of Pomerol. In a vintage with little rain, those vines planted in soils with good drainage shut down due to lack of water. But not in Pomerol, where the clay soil retained moisture and allowed the vines to fully ripen.

2011 sample

Durantou explained that another factor contributing to Pomerol’s success was the fact that there were no storms in the immediate region that damaged the grapes. His final reason for likening his 2011s to an “island of happiness” is because his cabernet franc vines (15% of the vineyard) became fully ripe, a rarity for his vineyards and a reason the wines had such intense aromatics. “I respect the berries and only extract the best,” he summarized.

For him, these factors produced grapes with great tannins and a good level of sugar with great acidity in the berries. He quickly dismissed the idea that 2011 is a “classic Bordeaux vintage,” claiming it has negative connotations. Instead, he said the vintage produced Pomerols of impeccable balance, and that Bordeaux drinkers are really always on the hunt for this equilibrium. According to Durantau, no one wants the wines to be “too much.” For him, 2011 proved to be an “easy vinification,” with the same level of tannins as 2010 but with better balance. He then echoed a common theme we’d heard throughout our tastings - that 2011 is a modern-day 2001 vintage. To prove his point, Denis disappeared for a moment and came back with a bottle of 2001 L’Eglise-Clinet which he uncorked and poured for us to taste.

At 13.5% alcohol (the same as 2011), the 2001 was absolutely divine. Sweet and evolved, but with terrific density to the fruit, it was very balanced and easy to enjoy. A rich, potent wine, in Denis’s words, it was “better than 2008.”

Charming presentation of finger sandwiches to accompany the tasting

As we marveled over this bottle of 2001, a small tray of finger sandwiches appeared at the table and we split off in small groups to focus on the tasting. After our glasses were empty, Denis generously brought out a bottle of what he called the grape that “is the best translator of terroir:” A 2009 German Riesling Kabinett!

Sidenote: Denis’s wife is an artist (he calls himself “her sponsor” with a sweet chuckle), and her colorful artwork is on display around the small tasting room as well as in their business cards which fold out to reveal a shiny silver “no drip” foil circle used to pour wine. There is certainly no shortage of charm at L’Eglise-Clinet!