The Wines of Jonathan Maltus: Tasting & Drinking
Posted by Chris Kissack - The Wine Doctor
2nd August 2015
My encounters with the wines of Jonathan Maltus have - apart from the widely distributed and good value Château Teyssier of course - were in the early days not that frequent. So it is always a delight to encounter them, and that was my feeling when I spotted a line up of wines from the 2011 vintage at a négociant tasting during the primeurs in early 2012.
The wines were - especially taking into account the vintage, and what rather questionable efforts some other châteaux had managed - an extraordinary success story.
I told Jonathan as much when I saw him later in the year, and he attributed his success in the vintage to the deleafing decisions taken through the growing season. Unlike many of his peers, they didn't deleaf on the first opportunity, so when the heatwave came later in the summer the fruit was still protected by the canopy, and so they avoided sun-burning to the grapes. Later they deleafed both sides at the same time, thereby avoiding the rot. The wines were concentrated, polished, fresh and characterful. They are one of the few addresses where 2011s can be bought with confidence. It's yet another feather in the cap of Le Businessman, something else for his peers to look at and, for those perhaps more open-minded, to learn from. These are successes he has built upon in more recent vintages, including difficult years such as 2012 and 2013.
Indeed, from his base in Vignonet, Jonathan Maltus must today be one of the most significant names in St Emilion. Not only has he built up what must surely be the appellation's most successful wine brand in Château Teyssier, he was also an early and significant figure in the garagiste movement with Le Dôme. This latter cuvée is a remarkable wine; it is the richest expression of Cabernet Franc in all Bordeaux, and one of the most interesting expressions of St Emilion, and yet it was ineligible for inclusion in the most recent revision of the St Emilion classification because of stipulations relating, if I understand correctly, to the possession of dedicated cellars. The fact that Le Dôme is vinified at Château Teyssier and constitutes just a small proportion of the Maltus portfolio is enough for it to be excluded, regardless of the quality of the terroir (which only contributes 20% of the classification score), what is in the glass, or the wine's significance to the appellation.
The Maltus style is not gentle; although he looks for elegance in wine, by which he means acidity and a fresh balance rather than greenness (Jonathan is very certain on this point), the wines all have a very rich, creamed-fruit, substantial character, and are not short on concentration. Tasted at the primeurs the wines certainly display this character, but tasted a few years down the road they shed their baby fat to reveal concentrated layers of flavour and character, but happily (for my palate) not so much of the creaminess. As a result, the wines ultimately reach a place that I really enjoy; tasting Le Dôme, even with just five years in bottle, is a real joy. The style also works very well at the other end of the spectrum, however, as the confident Château Teyssier, from the supposedly 'lesser' sandy terroirs of St Emilion, could wipe the floor with most Bordeaux brands with this level of production. Maltus is a man for all pockets, it seems. (9/7/03, updated 8/1/13, 2/8/15)
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Jonathan Maltus: Château Teyssier
As I have already described in my introduction, Château Teyssier, the hub of Jonathan Maltus' operations in Bordeaux, is located in Vignonet, one of the five St Emilion communes, down on the sandy plains below the more exalted limestone côtes and plateau on which the town sits. The property has a long history of wine production, stretching back as far as 1714 when it was little more than a farm. Things stepped up a gear when the estate was purchased by historian Jules Roy (1844 - 1914) in 1869, who was responsible for the construction of the very pretty château which still graces the estate today, as well as a revitalisation of the vineyards. Thus throughout the 20th century Château Teyssier was a well established wine-producing estate, but otherwise little of note appears to have happened here, at least until the arrival of Jonathan and Lyn Maltus in 1994.
At first there was only Jonathan, his wife Lyn and one employee to run the whole estate, covering everything from winter pruning to making and marketing the wines. Today the vineyard has expanded to something like 50 hectares, and over the years since they purchased the domaine Jonathan and Lyn have instigated a series of modernisations, rebuilds and refurbishments. The château was restored, with an interior design in the French style, although on a very recent visit in 2012 it had been extensively modernised, making Teyssier into a 21st-century home to admire and envy (which means I admire it, whereas my wife envies it).
Château Teyssier: Vineyards
Initially the wine was sourced solely from the Teyssier vineyard which surrounds the chateau, although being only 5.5 hectares this is not of great size and could not meet the increased demand for the wine that exists today. As the wine has gained in popularity Jonathan has chosen to increase production to meet the increased demand, rather than simply increasing the price. Thus rather than develop yet another exclusive and expensive St Emilion marque, Jonathan has built up a recognisable, affordable and widely distributed Bordeaux brand. It is perhaps this common-sense approach that has led some in St Emilion to name Jonathan Le Businessman. The vineyards acquired in order to increase production are all located on the sandy plain below St Emilion, and are worked on a fermage basis, so Jonathan and his team control all aspects of viticulture. The approach in the vines is traditional rather than following any organic or biodynamic philosophy.
The vineyard has thus now expanded to more than 50 hectares, part-owned and part worked en fermage, and there are now twenty permanent employees on the team. This makes Jonathan one of the largest landholders in St Emilion, perhaps second only to the Vauthier family of Château Ausone who, according to Jonathan, tend something in the order of 80 hectares. It is thus today clearly a very different business from the one Jonathan and Lyn acquired in 1994.
Château Teyssier: Wines
The vinification is managed at the Teyssier cellars, with one cellar dedicated to the wine of Teyssier itself, and a second cellar dedicated to the single-vineyard cuvées described in the subsequent pages of this profile. Although these cellars underwent some refurbishment when Jonathan acquired the estate, they have recently also been subject to an extensive rebuild, demonstrating Jonathan's continued commitment to investment and improvement here. The fermentations for Château Teyssier are in stainless steel vat, whereas in the single-vineyard cellar the fermentation vessels are all wooden. Walking into the Teyssier barrel room feels a little like entering the cellars of a ancient left-bank estate, such is the scale and imposing nature of the room. But then as Jonathan says, "our clients visit Lafite and Latour, and then they come here", so it seems they have to be given something special to look at!
Both the cellars and the rather grand barrel room are fully air-conditioned, and the barrels themselves are stored within an Oxoline system which allows any barrel - even one at the very bottom of the stack - to be worked upon without disturbing those resting above. All the bottling is done on site using Jonathan's own bottling line. Although a significant investment for him Jonathan enjoys having his own bottling facility to hand; a number of the single vineyard wines are very limited in terms of production, perhaps only 300 cases in some instances, and having his own line gives him the flexibility he needs to be able to bottle in such low quantities. The head winemaker is Neal Whyte, originally from Peebles in Scotland although he comes well qualified, with an oenology degree from Bordeaux University under his belt. He started work at Château Teyssier in the mid-1990s, and was responsible for the first vintage of Le Dôme in 1996. He assumed the lead role, looking after the entirety of the Maltus wine portfolio, in 2005.
The principle wine here is Château Teyssier; I am not aware of a second wine, and I imagine that fruit harvested which is deemed to be of inadequate quality is sold off. A typical annual production for this wine now tops 15,000 cases, and Jonathan thus stakes a claim as owner of the largest single St Emilion marque. With recently made fermage agreements, however, this figure is soon set to exceed 20,000 cases per annum. Of this, much is sold through Jonathan's own distribution system; a quarter is sold during the en primeur scramble, and another quarter is sold to just four négociants. With such a large production the wine is naturally popular with négociants looking to fill large orders, as it is a marked contrast to the normal state of play around St Emilion, where many estates amount to just a few hectares, and therefore have very small production levels. (9/7/03, updated 8/1/13, 2/8/15
Jonathan Maltus: Single Vineyard Wines
Of all Jonathan' single-vineyard wines, it is without doubt Le Dôme that is the best known, perhaps as it rode the garagiste wave during the late 1990s. Today, however, there are other wines in the portfolio that challenge it, in terms of quality at least, if perhaps not in their status as 'wine icons'. This section of my profile of Jonathan Maltus and his wines deals principally with Le Dôme, but also looks at a more recent addition to his portfolio, Vieux Château Mazerat, the story of which is certainly intertwined with that of Le Dôme.
Before beginning, one point of interest which may aid us in our journey through the portfolio, relates to the Maltus nomenclature; the blended wines - Château Teyssier and Château Laforge (which I discuss in the next instalment of this profile) are denoted by the term château, the single-vineyard wines (Le Dôme, Le Carré, Les Astéries and so on) are not. The only exception to this rule is the newest wine, discussed below, Vieux Château Mazerat.
Having purchased Château Teyssier in 1994 Jonathan Maltus had equipped himself with a pretty château in a good appellation although perhaps not on the grandest terroir, Vignonet being located on the sandy plains of St Emilion. Nevertheless he had the opportunity to make good quality wine in potentially large volumes. He was conscious, however, that the rather modest profits from producing such a wine would never allow him to develop and improve the estate in the way that he wished. Looking around to what others were doing in St Emilion at the time, Jonathan witnessed the birth of the garagiste movement, a phenomenon that resulted from the work of Jean-Luc Thunevin who was making a new wine, Valandraud, in a backstreet garage in the centre of St Emilion. The wines were hugely concentrated, bathed in new oak, opulent and stylish and - importantly considering Jonathan's position - selling for a much higher price than many other wines of the appellation. Jonathan concluded that this was the way forward for him, but he quickly realised that such a venture undertaken using fruit from the sandy vineyards around Teyssier would be doomed to failure. He clearly needed to acquire some more suitable vineyards, with more prestigious terroir.
After a chat with the bank manager and agreeing a loan Jonathan began the hunt, and he struck gold with a parcel of vines right next-door to Château Angélus. The vines belonged to two brothers, and following the death of one of the duo his portion of the estate was sold off. Jonathan secured the plot for his new project, and christened it Le Dôme. Like all of the Maltus vineyards Jonathan acquired following his purchase of Teyssier this is sited on more prestigious soils, and is a wine much more about terroir than brand or volume. At least that increasingly seems to be the case today; when it started (the first vintage was 1996) Le Dôme was one of the original 'garage' wines, released in the same year as La Mondotte from Comte Stephan von Neipperg, and thus there was perhaps more concern with 'winemaking' - including 200% new oak (which, for those who don't remember the garagiste era, was a year in new oak, followed by running off into more new oak for a second year) - than with terroir. This is no longer the case today though, as this regimen was a feature of the vintages between 1998 and 2001 only. The oak was reined in with the 2002 vintage, and a further a shift in style, less turbo-charged and more elegant, came in 2007, achieved first by earlier picking to obtain greater freshness in the fruit, which also spends less time on its skins in the winery. Today, it is not just Le Dôme that sees less new oak, as this is true of all wines across the Maltus portfolio.
Le Dôme Vineyard
The vines are located beyond Château Angélus, on the road towards Berthonneau heading west out of St Emilion, and was always easy to spot thanks to the presence of a pair of roadside markers (pictured above). In early 2015, however, all the stone markers (many of which are pictured in this profile) were replaced by the more commonplace vineyard markers. This is a shame, as I liked the stone posts Jonathan had erected, but being low-set they were unfortunately prone to being knocked over by tractors.
Its location is envious, and it is not hard to imagine Jonathan being pressurised to sell, especially now his principal neighbour has been elevated to premier grand cru classé A status and clearly has money to spend judging by the major refurbishment since undertaken. There are 3.5 hectares here, planted in 1956 (after the frost, I assume) and 1970, and are dominated by Cabernet Franc which accounts for 80% of the vineyard, with the remaining 20% all Merlot. This ratio is transmitted through to the wine, making Le Dôme (rather than the more commonly cited Cheval Blanc) the strongest expression of Cabernet Franc in the Bordeaux region. The soil is sandy, over deeper crasse de fer, an iron-rich soil I would have associated more with Pomerol than St Emilion. At the end of the vineyard, on the roadside, sit a small collection of buildings accompanied by a couple of pine trees (which begs the question.....I wonder why he didn't name the estate Le Pin?), which Jonathan occasionally visits for family barbecues among the vines.
The vines are pruned down to four bunches per vine, which means yields here are very low, 30 hl/ha being typical. There are two green harvests during the growing season, once in the summer and the other at véraison. The fruit is hand-picked and then transported the short distance to Château Teyssier, where it is sorted bunch-by-bunch and then after destemming grape-by-grape. The fruit is moved by conveyor into a wooden vat, where it undergoes a cold maceration before temperature-controlled fermentation. Jonathan hasn't shied away from the use of technology in the past, and some wines have seen reverse osmosis or micro-bullage in the past, although it is only correct to point out that in more recent years Jonathan has moved away from this level of intervention. Thereafter the wine goes into new oak for malolactic fermentation and élevage. The oak regimen is also much more restrained than it was in the early vintages, when the wine would be racked from new oak barrels into more new oak, as described above. Today, however, all the single vineyard wines including Le Dôme see 80% new oak and 20% second-year oak.
Vieux Château Mazerat
The property of which Le Dôme was originally part was owned, as indicated above, by two brothers, and was named Vieux Château Mazerat (or VCM as Jonathan refers to it). In 2008 the surviving brother decided to retire (and he died shortly thereafter - proof if any were needed that retirement is bad for you), and Jonathan was able to purchase what remained of the Vieux Château Mazerat vineyard. This vineyard is thus a much more recent addition to the Maltus portfolio than its sibling, Le Dôme.
This little island of Maltus vines is located to the east of Château Angélus, and thus lies between Angélus and the town of St Emilion itself, sandwiched between the vineyards of Château Canon on three sides, and Angélus on the fourth. The soils are somewhat different from those of Le Dôme, with clay and limestone dominating, perhaps not surprising as we are that much closer to the côtes and plateau here. The varietal mix is almost the reverse of Le Dôme, with 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Franc, the vines in a single 3.5-hectare plot which encircles a rather tired-looking cabin (pictured above). The vineyard management and winemaking is essentially the same though, with a double green harvest, meticulous sorting, fermentation in wooden vat after a cold maceration, and a more restrained use of new oak. (9/7/03, updated 8/1/13, 2/8/15)
Jonathan Maltus: Other Single Vineyard Wines
Alongside the famous Le Dôme and less widely appreciated Vieux Château Mazerat come two other single vineyard cuvées, Les Astéries and Le Carré. There is also a blended wine Château Laforge, made using fruit from all three of St Emilion's principal terroirs, and a white wine named Le Nardian.
Of the other Maltus single-vineyard wines it is perhaps worth coming to Les Astéries first, not least because this was the first of these other single-vineyard sites that Jonathan purchased. The vines are located on a back road, close to Château Fonroque (it was indeed once part of the Fonroque vineyard). Although the vineyard engenders a sense of isolation, the vines sitting in the shadow of some ruined buildings (pictured below), they are in fact a very short distance from the town of St Emilion itself.
The soils here are clay over a particularly hard variety of limestone known as calcaire à astéries, from which the vineyard takes its name. There are just 1.2 hectares of vines, and these are of a considerable age, more than 80 years, the vineyard having survived the great frost of 1956. The varieties are planted in a field blend, approximately 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc. Although these were doubtless once harvested all together, today they are harvested according to ripeness, each vine individually identified and tagged. Otherwise, the work here is as it is for the other Maltus vineyards and wines, with double green harvesting, hand-picking, destemming, cold maceration and fermentation in oak vat. The signature note of Les Astéries here is minerally freshness, making it distinctly different from Le Carré, something that I find comes across on the nose as well as the palate.
Alongside Les Astéries, Le Carré is the other principal single-vineyard site in the Maltus portfolio. The vineyard lies on the D243 which heads west out of St Emilion towards Château Figeac. It is a more recent addition to the portfolio. It lies next to Clos Fourtet and was once part of Curé Bon, which was acquired by John Kolasa of Château Canon in 2000; this part was sold on, however, which was how it came into Jonathan's hands. In the first few vintages the fruit went into the blended wine Château Laforge (of which more below) before he realised it was of too high a quality for blending. The soil is very typical for the region, with clay over ordinary (as opposed to astéries) limestone, and the varieties are planted in the commonly encountered ratio of 80% Merlot to 20% Cabernet Franc. There are just 1.1 hectares planted.
The vineyard management is as described for Les Astéries and the other Maltus wines, and in the cellars the only notable difference is that with such a small volume of Cabernet Franc brought in this variety is fermented in barriques rather than larger vats. Despite this vineyard and Les Astéries being separated by just 200 metres, the two wines are remarkably different, this cuvée less minerally and more robust in style. The first vintage was 2005.
The remainder of the Maltus portfolio is no less fascinating than the single-vineyard wines described above, and we begin with a unique blended wine, Château Laforge.
Château Laforge is a unique expression of St Emilion. In this appellation which is characterised by several distinct terroirs - the limestone plateau and clay-limestone slopes, the sand of the plains closer to the river and in the western parts, and the gravel on the border with Pomerol - it is usual for wines to remain true to one particular terroir. This is certainly true of the rest of the Maltus range, whether the wine in question be the blended Teyssier all from sandy soils, or the single-vineyard cuvées. The one exception to this rule is Château Laforge, a wine made from a blend of fruit from vines planted on sand, gravel and clay over limestone. For this reason the vineyards are dotted across the appellation, but one is located in a very prominent position alongside the D122 as it heads out of St Emilion. Despite this unusual blended approach the style is no less opulent than other wines in the Maltus portfolio.
There is one very welcome white wine to be found chez Maltus, this being Le Nardian, a Semillon-Sauvignon-Muscadelle blend. Previously named Clos Nardian, the wine was rechristened as there has been a clamp-down on use of the term clos in Bordeaux (unless you have a true clos, in which case no problem), the change coming with the 2012 vintage. The fruit was originally sourced from a vineyard managed by Jonathan on a fermage basis, but unfortunately a few years ago the owner declared he would be taking the plot back, and he thus gave Jonathon the requisite period of notice, which is at least three years. In order to continue on in the same style Jonathan decided to plant, following on with the same proportion of the three varieties, which is 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 40% Semillon and 20% Muscadelle, and the most recent vintages of Le Nardian come from this new vineyard which is close to the centre of St Aubin de Branne, a small village on the other side of the Dordogne.
The plot is small, with just 1.4 hectares of vines planted, and the soils are clay over limestone. The pruning is particularly severe, reducing the numbers of bunches to just three per vine, giving yields typically in the order of 22 hl/ha. The fruit is harvested by hand and gently pressed before chilling in vat. The grapes are then transferred to barrel for the alcoholic fermentation. Production is very limited, typically just 250 cases per annum, under the generic Bordeaux appellation.
Although the notes above provide detail on the most significant wines from my point of view, one or two other wines are worthy of quick mention. From a Bordeaux-centric point of view Pezat is an important cuvée, a wine made from vines planted on lesser soils outside the St Emilion appellation. As I have already described in my Château Bauduc and Domaine de l'A profiles, these lesser vineyards were often planted with widely-spaced rows to facilitate machine picking. Jonathan did what others have done, increasing planting density by adding new rows of vines in these wide gaps, and he also trained the vines much lower. The result is an easy-drinking and approachable wine named Pezat. Looking beyond Bordeaux, however, Jonathan has also made wine in Australia and in California, under the World's End label, which I consider to be beyond the scope of this Bordeaux-focused profile. (9/7/03, updated 8/1/13, 2/8/15)
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