courtesy of Chateau Olivier
Even when you own a property for centuries, sometimes you don’t know what’s there.
In 1886, Alexandre de Bethmann, mayor of Bordeaux and a member of a family with a long legacy in European banking and business (some of which helped finance the construction of the Eifflel Tower), purchased Chateau Olivier, a 528-acre estate located in what is now the Pessac-Leognan (Pay-sac Lay-yhown) appellation, one of Bordeaux’s most important.
With a tower and drawbridge, surrounded by a moat, centuries-old oak trees, and records of knights and noble visitors dating back to the 12th century, Chateau Olivier is the idealized minds-eye picture that many wine consumers have of a Bordeaux chateau.
After its purchase, the Bethmanns leased the vineyards for 150 years to the Bordeaux wine merchant company, Louis Eschenauer, while retaining the use of the chateau for themselves.
Alexandre de Bethmann in NYC
In 1961, the next Alexandre de Bethmann was born in Paris. When he was three-years-old, the family moved to New York City where his father, Jean-Jacques—continuing the family’s history in financial matters–worked as a stockbroker on Wall Street. When he returned to Paris a decade later, he maintained the tradition of using Chateau Olivier as a country home. But in 1982, Jean-Jacques terminated the lease agreement and began managing the vineyard with the assistance of agronomist and winemaker Laurent Lebrun.
After earning his MBA degree from Duke University in 1987, Alexandre began his own career on Wall Street. For the next 15 years life continued its normal flow.
Things started changing in the new millennium. In 2002, the Bethmanns discovered a map from 1776 that showed vineyards planted on a plot of land that was at the time, a wooded area. Jean-Jacques ordered a soil analysis of the entire estate and it revealed a 15-acre forested section of compact gravel—the ideal soil for growing cabernet sauvignon. The following year, the trees were felled and the new vineyard was planted with cabernet sauvignon. They named it Bel Air.
In 2010, at the request of his father, Alexandre performed an audit of the chateau’s business. It resulted in a new winery and shifting business procedures. After the death of his father two years later, Alexandre assumed responsibility for Chateau Olivier, dividing his time between New York and Bordeaux.
At a recent luncheon in Manhattan, Alexandre said the reclaimed Bel Air parcel was a “game changer” for the estate. Chateau Olivier’s long-time agronomist and winemaker Laurent Lebrun began harvesting Bel Air’s cabernet sauvignon grapes in 2006, incorporating them with Chateau Olivier’s merlot and petit verdot for its estate wine, or Grand Vin in Bordeaux’s wine lexicon.
Pessac-Leognan and the adjacent Graves, are the only major Bordeaux appellations permitted to produce red and white wines under their respective appellation labels. Chateau Olivier is one of a handful that is ranked Grand Cru Classe for both wines.
We began our tasting with the 2014 Chateau Olivier Blanc Pessac-Leognan. With 78 percent sauvignon blanc, the wine’s citrus-y pineapple and grapefruit aromas are front and center. The 20 percent semillon and 2 percent muscadelle softens sauvignon blancs natural acidity, and brings a round, full mouthfeel that reminded me of why I love lemonade on a hot, summer day. And the long, citrus-flavored finish underlined with a mineral dryness, instilled a desire for a second glass. 94 points. Retail prices range from $35 to $48, shop accordingly.
Our red wine mini-vertical started with the 2015 Chateau Olivier Pessac-Leognan that included 24 percent of Bel Air’s cabernet sauvignon in its blend of 55 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot and 5 percent petit verdot. Elegance permeates this vintage—aromas of blackberry and black olive with integrated tannins carrying the delicious, ripe blackberry and black-cherry-flavored fruit. It glides to a seamless, lingering finish. This barrel sample will be bottled later this year. 91-93 points. Future prices (amount paid before delivery in 2018) are an extremely reasonable $30 to $32; prices are usually higher after the wine is released to the market.
The Bel Air plot contributed 18 percent of the 60 percent cabernet sauvignon in the 2012 Chateau Olivier Pessac Leognan, with merlot fulfilling the balance.
I was greeted by black-cherry and cedar aromas, and welcomed the very tasty black-plum fruit flavor laced with plush tannins that let the wine finish on its pleasing fruit. It’s good for current drinking. 91 points. Expect to pay a very reasonable $35 to $45.
Fourteen percent of the Bel Air cabernet sauvignon is contributed to the refined 2010 Chateau Olivier Pessac-Leognan. The balance of the blend follows winemaker Lebrun’s recipe of 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot.
The 2010 Olivier reflected the style and substance of the 2012 wine with its black plum and cedar aromas, and very drinkable black fruit intertwined with soft tannins and a long, balanced finish. 90 points. Retail is a wide range of $36 to $51.
While the 2010 Chateau Olivier shares the aromas and fruit profiles—along with the round, appealing structure of the 2012 Grand Vin—I was focused on what the Bel Air cabernet sauvignon contributed.
Bordeaux’s 2010 vintage was substantially better than the 2012, and all things being equal, the 2010 Chateau Olivier should have been a bigger wine in all aspects: aroma to flavor to structure. But it wasn’t: The 2012 Olivier was its equal. In my opinion, what made it so was the Bel Air fruit. There was 4 percent more in the 2012—and the vines were two years older. To me, it showed the Bethmanns were right to declare the discovery of the ancient vineyard, and their replanting as Bel Air was, indeed, a “game changer.”
Photos by John Foy