Rolling the Dice on Parker's 100pt Vintage
When Professor Denis Dubourdieu took the microphone on the eve of the release of the phenomenal Bordeaux class of 2009 -- a vintage that Robert Parker would soon compare favorably with 1959 and 1929 -- we would quickly learn about the growing season that would provide 19 perfect 100pt bottles. Dubourdieu asserts that there are a handful of elements that make for perfect vintages. Early flowering. A warm, dry spring, making for uniform berry size. Early veraison. Two or three dry, mild weeks before harvest. In 2009, at Chateau Martinat, Stephane Donze had it all.
When Stephane and Lucie Donze rolled the dice on Chateau Martinat, Stephane knew all about Dubourdieu's perfect vintage recipe. But even with all the risks the couple had taken, abandoning promising careers in Paris for a dilapidated farmhouse, a cellar in ruins, and 24 acres of pristine limestone, the two brightest stars of the Cotes de Bourg never thought they'd be actors in the professor's magical play.
In August, Stephane had already given instructions to drop fruit so as to further enhance concentration, thus trimming back the crop to less than three tons per acre. In the second week of September, the harvest began. Again, pickers were given marching orders. Recognizing the opportunity for the vintage of a lifetime, one that might validate 15 years of sacrifice, the crew was told to hand-pluck any desiccated berries, dropping profits on the limestone soil. The hand-clipped bunches were on the sorting table when an even more severe second tri would take place.
In copious years, Donze would produce up to 70,000 bottles of Chateau Martinat. By the time the dust settled in 2009, Stephane had cut the production in half! The accountants were less than thrilled, but Donze, behind those thick-rimmed glasses, was smiling ear to ear.
Lucie Donze is a tall blond with a playful, Nordic smile. As we sat at the lunch table at Martinat, she described the fateful night of October 1991 that would change the couple's life. "Both of us had worked extremely hard, and while we had no savings, we were living the life in Paris. We had a nice, small apartment near the Seine. Our jobs were challenging. From the outside, everything was perfect. But on the inside, Stephane was boiling."
That evening, Stephane, then a corporate executive with a large shipping firm, returned home at 8pm. Lucie had prepared dinner. Half a bottle of the last night's Sancerre was open on the table. Just one problem. Her husband wasn't hungry. "He told me he felt like he was in a tunnel running as fast as he could. But the faster he ran, the faster the further the light was pushed into the distance. I was worried. It was clear he'd had enough of the race. I had a choice. Either I could follow or it was my turn to run." Lucie looked at Stephane, now blushing and timidly smiling at the head of the table. Then she laughed. "I had no choice. I've never liked running!"
Over the next three years, the couple continued to work in Paris, each continuing to rise in their respective organizations. But each weekend, they'd take off, studying vineyard opportunities in Languedoc, the southern Rhone, the Loire and Bordeaux.
"We had no money," Stephane conceded. "So we narrowed our search to appellations where bankers were lending against the value of the land. In the end, it took three years. I never had any intention of moving to the Right Bank of Bordeaux, but the moment I saw the exposition and the limestone soils of Martinat, I was done."
There are several reasons why Donze has leapfrogged over much of Lalande-de-Pomerol and St. Emilion on his way to Right Bank stardom. The first is the aforementioned sorting in the vines and the sorting table. The second is the non-interventionist cellar protocol. The third is the labor-intensive practice of carrying out malolactic fermentation in barrel, offering more silken mouthfeel and supple backbone on release.
But most of all, the Michelin-starred ascent of Chateau Martinat seems to be most attributable to the still-obsessive commitment of the mind behind those broad-rimmed black glasses -- so unimaginably rewarded in the magical summer of 2009.
During our week-long stay in the Gironde, we tasted dozens of 2009 Right Bank Bordeaux, few of which are still available for sale. Chateau Tournefeuille, set at the boundary between Lalande-de-Pomerol and Pomerol facing Chateau Petrus, would outpoint Martinat. But not a single St. Emilion Grand Cru even had a chance.
The 2009 Chateau Martinat is a marvel. Brilliant deep purple to the rim, the nose is a luscious mix of crushed black fruits and plum, black cherry laced with violets. The attack is at once rich, dense and silken, infused with a juicy, palate-coating mix of blackberry and red fruits. Voluptuous on the mid-palate (speaking to the malolactic fermentation in barrel), softly braced by fine, dusty tannins, arguing gracefully for a ten year sleep in a cool cellar.