Monday, November 19, 2007

The Last Vouvrays of Philippe Poniatowski

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.

The Clos Baudoin vineyard and its original walls date back to 1707.

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.

The estate house: cellars lurk through the door to the left, the Clos Baudoin lies above.

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.

Testament to the special qualities of the Clos Baudoin's situation, flowers bloom in early February.

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.

Tasting Desperation:

  • 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.

Tasting History:

  • 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.

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Anonymous said...

hey david - a few months ago at farm on adderly, a cute little place with hit or miss food in brooklyn, i was flabbergasted to see the 1990 pp Vouvray Argiles on the winelist - and you could order by the glass for $10! I of course did exactly that and was saddened by my completely oxidized wine. i agree that the whole thing is sad, but ultimately i think chidaine will be great for baudoin.

David McDuff said...

You raise oh so many points that bear discussion. First and most easily, I can't agree more as to the future of the estate in Chidaine's hands. The second half of the day, after our visit with Poniatowski, was spent with Francois -- both in Montlouis and Vouvray -- so stay on the lookout for that write-up sometime in the near future.

As to the 1990 Vouvray by the glass, first, a question. Was the bottle actually labeled as "Les Argiles"? This name wasn't in use until Chidaine joined the team in 2002. Its application to a wine from 1990 would suggest that he must have purchased some of Poniatowski's old stock and is now commercializing it at least partially under his own label.

Second, I'm always extremely wary when ordering wine by the glass as there's way too strong a chance that any given bottle may have been open for days. When said bottle is 17 years old, the risk of ending up with a stale glass increases exponentially. If it was a freshly opened bottle, then it was a bad one, perhaps damaged by a failed cork or mishandling at the restaurant. The 1990s I've drunk recently -- Aigle Blanc, Aigle Blanc "Vin de Tris," and Clos Baudoin (also from 1989) -- have all been in good shape, even youthful, albeit each bottle is a little different given their age. You might want to track down a bottle (rather than a glass) and give it another spin.

Anonymous said...

it might not have been argiles then, but there was a designation, not just vouvray. this might sound off too, but i want to say demi-sec - is that possible? i thought the same thing, that buying a glass was risky cause i had no ida how long open. so i asked the barkeep before ordering (we did this while sitting at the bar waiting for our table) and she opened the bottle for my glass.

David McDuff said...

Sounds like you just ran into a bad bottle, Neil.

If it wasn't labeled as Les Argiles then it was probably Aigle Blanc -- which would actually make more sense as I tend to doubt that Chidaine would have agreed to buy any of the old lots.

The menu at Farm on Adderly may have called the wine demi-sec, an accurate description of the RS levels in the 1990 Aigle Blanc, but the bottles don't say so. Poniatowski preferred not to list sweetness/dryness levels on his labels. In fact, I left a pretty strong quote from him out of my write-up:

"The best translation of 'Moelleux' is to not put it on the bottle."
- Prince Philippe Poniatowski, February 2004

Adam said...

A laggard contribution to this discussion -- I was at the Farm on Adderley around that same time and drank that same wine -- it was indeed the 1990 PP Aigle Blanc. We sent one bottle back: it was totally dead. The second one was probably the best $42 bottle of wine I've ever bought in a restaurant.

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