A bright but crisp January morning greeted Tim Sykes and me as we left our hotel en route to our first and arguably most important visit of the trip, Maison Sichel, longtime suppliers to The Wine Society and the people behind our top-selling The Society's Claret for more than 25 years.
The Garonne River runs through the heart of Bordeaux
Sichel's office is based just a short walk from La Cité du Vin (the swish new wine museum on the Quai de Bacalan) and overlooks the mighty Garonne river. This is still the same site that the family established as its base in 1883. Back then, they operated as an acquisitions office procuring wines for the family businesses in Mainz, London and New York. Now, with six generations of experience and successful trading allowing the acquisition of vineyards and châteaux, they are also growers and winemakers.
If you'd like to read more about this family's fascinating history, we interviewed Charles Sichel a few years ago when he visited us in Stevenage to celebrate 25 years of working together
We were met by Charles Sichel who gave us (mainly me) a brief history lesson of the premises and the company as he led us to the tasting room. Here we met with Yvan Meyer, Sichel's technical director.
Putting together The Society's Claret
Yvan had prepared seven wine samples ranging from 100% merlot to those with a proportion of both cabernets (sauvignon and franc) and one that had a relatively high percentage of malbec. Yvan's extensive experience with this wine allows him to pre-select parcels that bring characteristics desired for the style we are looking for but also offering something of the individuality and personality of the vintage.
Tim got to work, initially selecting two merlot-dominated parcels and blending them together. The result was a wine bursting with ripe red fruits. In went a third parcel, this time with more of the two cabernet grapes. This added depth, darker fruits and a little floral complexity.
A forth parcel was added. This tipped the scales back in merlot's favour, providing more aromatics and lifted fruits whilst still retaining the structure. Parcel number five entered the fray to add some tannic grip, concentration and to elevate the sweet fruits.
Writing it down like this makes it all sound simple enough; the reality was anything but and I was deeply impressed with the skill and experience of both Tim and Yvan and the minute detail that goes into the blending process.
After a few tweaks and discussions that included how the wine will look in the next 12-18 months, The Society's Claret 2018 was born.
Tim Sykes blending The Society's Claret
Charles Sichel, Tim Sykes and Yvan Meyer blending The Society's Claret in Bordeaux
Moving on to taste from the Sichel portfolio and learn more about the 2018 vintage
Following this, we tasted a range of wines (and vintages) from both properties owned and distributed by the Sichels.
Conversation was varied but the main topic was the 2018 vintage. Mildew was an issue for Sichel – as well as many other producers we spoke with. Their crop was reduced by as much as 30% in places. As well as the lower yields, there was uneven ripening, even on the same bunches. This caused difficulty when picking the grapes and highlighted the need for attention to detail and real skill at harvest.
The lower yields also meant that potential alcohol was quite high due to the greater concentration of sugars in fewer berries. By way of illustration, whilst average alcohol levels for Bordeaux are generally in the region of 13% to 14%, in 2018 there are more than a few wines with levels at 14.5%+.
Château Angludet (100% owned by the Sichels and their family home since the 1960s) didn't make any wine in 2017 due to severe frost. Mother Nature didn't spare the property in 2018 either with yields down to just 10 hl/ha.
Tim was back in Bordeaux in April to assess the 2018 vintage and select wines to offer members en primeur. In the meantime, we were pleased with how our Society's Claret was looking and we are sure members will be very happy with it when it comes on stream later this year.
Where to go next?