Approaching the Vouvray estate of Prince Philippe Poniatowski by car – as our entourage did in February 2004 – it would be easy to pass it by unnoticed. Set in a quiet, semi-residential and semi-industrial street not far from the sleepy center of town, nothing about its initial appearance screams of wine greatness. Even passing by the crowning glory of the estate, the single vineyard Clos Baudoin, one could be forgiven for not noticing anything particularly special.
But standing in the caves of the winery, excavated into the hillside directly below the Clos and behind the estate house, the heart of one of the hidden jewels of Vouvray is fully exposed. The cave’s ceiling, high overhead, lies below 15 meters of the rock, clay and limestone which make up the soil base of the Clos Baudoin. The vines have dug so deep in search of nourishment that the tips of their probing roots can be seen dangling in mid-air. The caves serve not only as the final hunting ground for the vines above but also as the winery and bottle storage facilities for the estate. If ever a case could be made for extending the definition of “terroir” to include a winery, here’s the evidence. Every bottle stored in these caves bears a trace, on the air-end of the cork, of the cellar shmuts that coats the dark, moist walls. And every wine from 2001 back bears an aromatic suggestion that is hauntingly evocative of this subterranean home.
Philippe is the third – and would be the last – generation of the Poniatowski clan, descendents of the last Polish royal family, to run the estate. The original six acres of the property were acquired by Philippe’s grandfather in 1918. The story of that acquisition has been recounted many times yet always bears repetition. Having discovered the wines of the Clos Baudoin at his favorite lunch spot, Au Petit Riche in Paris, Philippe’s grandfather, a successful industrialist, decided to buy the property when he learned it was in danger of being uprooted, somewhat ironically, to make way for industrial expansion. As is typical in the small-farm wine business, the Poniatowski family fortune has been shrinking ever since. Philippe assumed ownership of the entire property in 1970, buying out his brothers’ shares to become the sole proprietor.
Since taking the helm, Philippe produced two flagship wines each year. The cuvée called “Aigle Blanc,” named for the white eagle which is part of the Polish royal family’s insignia, represents a blend of fruit from multiple vineyard sites, including Poniatowski’s portions of Le Mont and Le Haut Lieu. The flagship of the estate was always the “Clos Baudoin,” a single vineyard, monopole bottling from arguably one of the best sites in Vouvray. In the best vintages for sweet wines, it was not unusual for multiple cuvées or selections of each to find their way to market with slightly different labels and at different times and price points. He first began exporting wines to the US in 1982. Later, Poniatowski purchased two adjacent vineyards in 1988, christening the wine produced from them “Clos de l’Avenir” (vineyard of the future) when the wall separating the two plots collapsed, creating a larger “new” site, shortly after his assumption of ownership. Finally, limited quantities were produced of another single vineyard bottling from the one-acre “Clos des Patys,” sold exclusively to Restaurant Jean Bardet in Tours.
Prince Philippe, a true gentleman estate owner, was never a farmer or a winemaker. Instead, he chose to hire oenologists and viticulturalists while running the business aspects of the property himself. Through the 1996 vintage, M. Poniatowski had managed his hiring decisions well, bringing in talented staff who turned out some of the most memorable wines ever to have passed my lips: a searingly bone dry, mineral laden 1984 “Aigle Blanc;” delicate, nuanced demi-sec cuvées such as the 1996 “Aigle Blanc” and the stonier 1995 “Clos de l’Avenir;” and stunning, potentially ageless, constantly evolving moelleux wines from the great back-to-back years of 1989 and 1990, whether the single vineyard “Clos Baudoin” cuvée or the theoretically less illustrious “Aigle Blanc” bottlings.
A new estate manager brought in as of the 1997 season, though, turned out to be a bad hire. The wines produced between 1997 and 2001 would turn out to be inconsistent in quality, not living up to the potential of the property. Realizing his errors and with an eye to selling the estate, Monsieur Poniatowski hired the young, talented François Chidaine – vigneron at his own estate on “the other side of the river” in Montlouis – to take over all wine making and farming responsibilities. Chidaine would be charged with the challenge of bringing the vineyards and, of course, the wines back to their potential.
Complicating matters, it turned out that while farming and wine making had slacked during the late 1990s, the Prince had also not been keeping up with his sales and marketing duties. His efforts to sell the estate were being stymied by the inclusion in the overall package of a huge library of back-vintage wines. Our tasting with Philippe would turn out to be almost as depressing as it was educational, as he introduced each wine not with information about the vintage or stylistic characteristics but rather with the number of bottles remaining in his caves. He clearly approached our time at the tasting table, much more so than during our more typical visits, as a nitty-gritty opportunity to sell us on some of those wines.
Essentially retired, and at least in his eighties, the Prince, though still stoically attached to the property and its wines, was clearly looking for a viable exit strategy.
- Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1995 (Lot 1)
6900 bottles still available in Poniatowski’s cellars. 9 grams residual sugar; 6 grams acidity. Aromas of honey and spring flowers followed by very mineral, flinty palate. A tad oxidative.
- Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1995 (Lot 2)
3200 bottles. Less rich than Lot 1, with a more limestone driven nose. Much fresher fruit and livelier on the palate.
- Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1995 (Lot 5)
6000 bottles. Quite similar to Lot 1 but slightly earthier. The driest of the three.
- Vouvray “Clos des Patys” 1995 (Lot 1)
3000 bottles; could be commercialized as “Aigle Blanc.” Ripe, fresh and elegant fruit. Creamy texture and tooth tingling acidity. The best of the ‘95s.
- Vouvray “Clos de l’Avenir” 1998 (Lot 1)
The 1998 shows woodiness more than any other Poniatowski wine I’ve ever tasted. Funky, with heady citrus oil tones on the palate.
- Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 2001 (Lot 1)
4000 bottles. Soft, very forward fruit, with lemon oil and acacia blossoms on the finish. Very friendly; would make a good aperitif.
- Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 2001 (Lot 1)
5000 bottles. Dry. Round texture with loads of acidity. More mineral and less fruit driven than the 2001 Aigle Blanc. Short finish. Sadly, not up to the standards of the vineyard.
- Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1997 (Lot 1)
48 grams residual sugar. Rich, low-acid and pretty tasty, with a hint of mintiness on the finish.
- Vouvray “Aigle Blanc” 1997 (Lot 2)
8000 bottles. 42 grams residual sugar. More intensely aromatic than Lot 1, with earthy tones and oily fruit though not as mineral as Poniatowski’s wines can be. The better by a hair of the two 1997 lots.
- Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1989
68 grams residual sugar; 6 grams acidity. An effusive nose of honey and wildflowers, with the presence of pure, clean botrytis (which affected 30-50% of the fruit). Intense citrus oil, fat texture, great length.
- Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1990
79 grams residual sugar; 5.5 grams acidity. Sweet nose of mango and peach nectar. Opulent but not as nervy as the 1989.
A broader view of the Clos Baudoin (February 2004).
- Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1964
This bottle pre-dated Philippe’s stewardship of the family estate. A rich golden hue, still bright and glowing, showed in the glass. Mushrooms and leaves on the nose followed by astounding freshness on the palate. Great acidity. Complex and even a bit closed, with rich apple fruit lingering on the finish.
- Vouvray “Clos Baudoin” 1945
When we saw Philippe reach for the 1945 bin in the cellar, we tried not to let our excitement show. When we realized he’d selected a Sec cuvée, we also did our best to mask our disappointment. 1945 was a great vintage for dry Vouvray but also produced some top sweet wines, which would be much more likely to have successfully weathered the last sixty years. Amber, almost Cognac-like appearance in the glass. Madeirized, with apple cider vinegar and nougat tones on the nose. Showing more like an Amontillado Sherry on the palate. Not even a suggestion of fruit remained, yet the wine was still interesting from an academic perspective.
Tasting completed and goodbyes said, I couldn’t help feeling that a wonderful history and the potential for continuing greatness, accompanied by a contrasting sense of despair and decay, had seemed to imbue nearly every aspect of our appointment. That bottle of 1945 Clos Baudoin, still clinging to a thread of its former glory although almost entirely faded, was strangely symbolic of the aura of our visit on that cold February morning.
The Prince finally reached an agreement of sale for the property in 2007, handing over ownership to François Chidaine. The wines have already undergone a facelift and made a drastic turnaround since Chidaine’s first year as winemaker in 2002. It will be interesting to track the future of the wines and the estate under his stewardship. In the meanwhile, another look, presumably the last, can now be had at some of the greater of those wines we’d seen aging in the Prince’s cellars. Bottlings of Aigle Blanc and Clos Baudoin from both 1989 and 1990 have recently reappeared on the US market, giving us all one more chance to taste a little of the past.