Wine Review: Famille Sichel Bordeaux Tiers

15 04 2018

By Peter Vetsch

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

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What a Bordeaux progression looks like.

Bordeaux is one of those regions that any aspiring wine geek finds out about roughly 15 seconds after beginning their vinous adventure.  It leads off many textbooks, is (rightly) touted as the spiritual homeland of red grape overlord Cabernet Sauvignon and its consigliere Merlot and is held up as a must-try area both so that new oenophiles can get a sense of the classics and because top-flight Bordeaux can be so memorable that its first-chapter place in all future textbooks is likely assured.  Of course, all of that comes at a price, one that seems to be increasing by the year, as wines from the top chateaux become more luxury commodity and less agricultural product and as international demand in new markets shoots through the roof.  So what are the non-obscenely wealthy wine-curious to do?  Here’s one way to start:  find a reputable producer and taste your way up their lineup, through the quality tiers and nesting-doll classifications layered throughout the Bordeaux appellation.  Even if you don’t make it all the way up to the grand vin flagship of the chateau, you will end up with a really good sense of what makes this rarefied region tick and also start to understand why those tiers exist in the first place.

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I was fortunate enough to test this tasting theory with the wines of Famille Sichel, a producer with whom I didn’t initially think I was familiar until discovering that they are the owners of one of Bordeaux’s hidden gem producers, Margaux’s Chateau d’Angludet.  While the winery is centuries old and the Sichel family’s history in Bordeaux is almost equally entrenched (they have been established in the region as a negociant since 1883 and are on their sixth generation of family ownership), their two paths didn’t cross until the 1960s, when d’Angludet was in a state of extreme disrepair and was bought and revived by Peter Sichel thanks to an extensive replanting and restoration program.  Current proprietor Benjamin Sichel continues both the negociant business (under the Maison Sichel banner) and the Chateau’s estate bottlings with a heavier focus in the vineyard and a defter touch in the cellar.  I have previously enjoyed Chateau d’Angludet on numerous occasions and now got to experience the trail of bottles that leads up to it.

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2014 Maison Sichel Bordeaux (~$20)

Other than the near-unbelievable $20 price tag, there are a couple of immediate hints on the label that this is an entry-level bottling.  First, the wine uses the generic “Bordeaux” appellation rather than one of Bordeaux’s multiplicity of sub-regions, meaning that the grapes were sourced from more than one sub-area (in this case, they came from both the Right Bank and Entre-Deux-Mers).  Second, the grapes used in the blend (Merlot [65%] and Cabernet Sauvignon [35%]) are actually stated explicitly on the front of the bottle, which almost never happens in traditional French wine regions and usually indicates a wine geared towards the casual drinker who may not have memorized the different red Bordeaux grapes but still wants to know what they’re drinking.  This is a negociant wine, meaning that the grapes did not come from Sichel-owned vineyards but were purchased from external sources, but unlike with many negociant offerings in Bordeaux, the grapes were actually vinified by Sichel in their own winery facility, Cave Bel-Air.  Sichel uses long-term growing contracts to give itself a say in how the grapes are grown and when they are harvested, helping to ensure that they can shape how the key component of the Cave Bel-Air wines makes its way to the winery.

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Sichel’s starter Bordeaux is a surprisingly deep semi-opaque ruby hue and features tangy blackcurrant and blackberry fruit aromas laced with green leaves and bell pepper, incense and jasmine — part primary, part herbaceous and part exotic.  The pleasantly weighty mouthfeel and glossy vanilla and dark fruit are overshadowed slightly by an undercurrent of pervasive pyrazine, that green herbal note that can often be seen in Cabernet (and is most prominent in New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc) and that here shows up in the form of cut grass and tomato leaf.  A twinge of sourness creeps into the black cherry flavour, but nothing ventures close to bitterness and the finish is clean.  If you don’t mind a bit of leafy rusticity in your Bordeaux, this would make for an enjoyable weeknight sip and an excellent old-school introduction to the region.

86 points

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Cork Ratings:  4/10 & 5/10 (Busy graphics don’t work with that granulated cork texture; quality of cork increases but visual interest decreases with the d’Angludet.)

2015 Maison Sichel Margaux (~$48)

From the broader region of Bordeaux we go to one of its premier sub-regions, Margaux, located in the south of the western Medoc, an area which in turn is widely known as the cradle of top Cabernet thanks in part to the Left Bank’s gravelly soils.  The Merlot/Cab ratio is predictably switched here, to 65% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot (possibly the only world grape to bear my initials).  Maison Sichel’s consumer-friendly negociant mission reveals itself in the winemaking techniques used, eschewing extensive aging (only 6-8 months in barrel) but encouraging aggressive exposure to oxygen during fermentation (pump-overs twice daily) and even during maturation (racking every 4 weeks) to soften any harsh edges and help open the wine up earlier.  When combined with Margaux’s traditional stylistic elegance, the result is a deft and approachable red that is friendly to newcomers without losing its Old World identity.

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As one might expect thanks to the higher proportion of Cab, this is a touch more purple in colour, but also more translucent in the glass.  Whetstone, cinnamon, dark flower and hot rocks aromas hover over a bed of red raspberry and grape fruit that stretches from one side of the wine to the other.  The fuller and riper flavour profile is pleasantly offset by a more potent tannic structure that lends some bass and ballast to an otherwise buoyant palate.  In this lush vintage, Margaux’s traditional elegance threatens to be overrun, but secondary notes of terra cotta, copper and dust help hold the potent fruit in suspense just enough.

88 points

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2014 La Reserve d’Angludet (~$48)

If you guessed that the use of the Chateau’s name signalled a step beyond the negociant lineup, you would be correct:  this is the second-label wine of Chateau d’Angludet and is made from all estate fruit, from the same 34 hectares of vineyards from which the grand vin is sourced.  In fact, the main wine and the Reserve understudy follow identical paths in vineyard and through vinification, only being earmarked towards one bottling or the other through a series of tastings of the finished wines by Benjamin Sichel during maturation.  The 2014 Reserve is comprised of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot, although these percentages will vary year over year as different selections are made for the Chateau’s top bottling.  This is an interesting use of the “Reserve” term, which in many New World wineries is employed to distinguish the producer’s top wine but which in most cases has no legal meaning and thus can be employed in other circumstances such as these.

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The Sichels boast that this wine “offers the best quality for price in the entire Margaux appellation”, and they may not be far off.  More so than the prior two bottles, this offers up a classic young-Bordeaux nose, all cassis, compressed grape, vanilla bean, blackberry and sandpaper, bright and fresh but deep.  The palate is impeccably balanced between pure fruit, jumpy acid and rocky structure, clearly a cut above and with a long life ahead of it.  It ideally needs a bit of time to fully come together, but the dark fruit, florals, gravelly minerality and vibrant tangy energy are threaded together expertly; in a few years the seams will stop showing entirely.  Just a beautiful wine and a worthy bearer of the Chateau’s name.

90+ points

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