Calgary Wine Life: Maison Sichel Masterclass with James Sichel

3 11 2018

James Sichel of Maison Sichel

James Sichel is on a mission.  One of five brothers who comprise the sixth generation running the family-operated Maison Sichel, born in Margaux to English parents, James grew up among the history and legacy of Bordeaux and is now charged with connecting a whole new generation of wine drinkers with the fruits of his family’s labour, and rekindling the passion of those who think Bordeaux has passed them by.  There is a view among some modern drinkers that the region has ossified, become beholden to ancient classifications and over-reliant on score-chasing, stratospherically priced speculative investment bottles that are detached from the land and the soil and everything human and natural that goes into making great wine.  There are parts of such a criticism that may stick, but there is so much more to Bordeaux than four-figure futures bottlings and producer tiers; it is a massively prolific producing region and has somehow become an under-the-radar source of superb Tuesday night offerings (particularly, in my opinion, on the white side of the ledger) and sub-$100 luxury splurges.  James’ quest is to bring value Bordeaux back to the rest of the world, to steer the focus away from the elitism that can accompany 1st growth price tags and to allow a fresh audience to rediscover the true beating heart of Bordeaux.  The audience seems to be responding:  Bordeaux sales in Alberta are up 24% this year as compared to last.


Maison Sichel is a complex entity.  Based in Bordeaux since 1883, they are part estate producer (they own over 350 hectares of vineyards in various different appellations), part winemaking negociant (they work with and source grapes from a series of smaller growers in southern Bordeaux then make wine, including their value flagship Sirius, from the fruit) and part discerning merchant (they sell other hand-selected partner estates’ wines other those estates’ own labels).  On the whole, if you search for the whole Sichel range on its website, you end up with 189 producer results, from straightforward cheap and cheerful offerings all the way up to Chateau Palmer, one of the premier wine estates in the world.  The Sichel family’s pride and joy, however, and James’ current home, is Chateau Angludet, a Margaux estate that is now highly regarded but was on the verge of ruin when the family purchased it in 1961.  It is now their hub and the pinnacle family pursuit.  Aside from Angludet (and a highly savvy prior investment in Palmer in the 1930s), the Sichels own Chateau Argadens in Bordeaux Superieur and Chateau Trillol down in Corbieres.  James’ brother Benjamin Sichel is the winemaker for all three family-owned estates.



James was on day 10 of a Canadian tour when he took the time (ahead of a sold-out black tie dinner) to lead his Alberta import agent through a portfolio tasting of many of the Maison Sichel offerings available in the province.  I was fortunate enough to sit in on the session and experience my own reacquaintance with a region that too often bypasses my attention.  There were ELEVEN wines poured, so from here on out I will try to be brief.  [Editor’s Note:  I did not succeed.]

2015 Chateau Argadens Blanc (~$25)

Bordeaux is not a hilly region, but Chateau Argadens, located 60 km south of the city of Bordeaux, is about as high as it gets here, 110 metres above sea level.  Acquired by the Sichel family in 2002, the property features both limestone-based soils (where white grapes are planted) and clay-based soils (where you find the reds).  Maison Sichel has engaged in a significant revitalization of the chateau and its vineyards, modernizing the winery, ceasing the use of pesticides and herbicides and taking steps to increase biodiversity in what was once a near-sterile environment.  There are now beehives at the Chateau, as well as a free-roaming local rare breed of monster-sized chicken that the Sichels are trying to nurture back into prominence, both of which animals can be found on the Argadens label if you look carefully enough.


The Argadens Bordeaux Blanc is 65% Sauvignon Blanc and 35% Semillon in 2015; each variety was separately fermented in barrel and then left on its lees to mature for 3-4 months before being blended and bottled.  The result is lush and musky, featuring beams of honey-lemon Halls, crystallized pineapple and eucalyptus aromas leading into a cascading, rolling palate bordered by sneaky understated acid.  Fresh leaves freshness swirls across lemon zest, Thrills gum and vanilla bean flavours in a thoroughly enjoyable start to the proceedings.

87-88 points


2016 G de Guiraud (~$30)

The dry white offering from the famed dessert wine haven Chateau Guiraud in Sauternes, which like all wines from this producer is certified organic, gives the legendary sweet wines from the estate a good run for their money.  Exactly half Semillion and half Sauvignon Blanc, the G de Guiraud is not just fermented in barrel, but in ex-Guiraud-Sauternes barrel, then spends 7 months aging on its lees.  It is immediately sharper, more perfumed and more floral than the Argadens on an emphatic, tropical nose, with far more prominent structure (including some oak tannin) on a full, broad frame that remains deft and avoids opulence.  Marmalade, honeycomb and orange zest yield hints of Sauternes’ confectionary flavour profile while remaining fully dry.  This is serious, powerful, ageworthy wine that is an absolutely ridiculous value at this price.

90-91+ points


2017 Chateau Trebiac Blanc (~$22)

Chateau Trebiac is in the central part of Graves, in the very southern part of Bordeaux.  The two immediately notable things about this white (other than its exceptional price point) are that it is 100% Semillon (in this vintage at least), foregoing the standard Sauvignon Blanc companionship that appears in most white Bordeaux, and it is entirely fermented and matured in stainless steel tank as opposed to barrel.  These manifest in an absolute laser beam of a wine, as energetic and bright as I’ve ever seen a Semillon, emitting piercing sweet grapefruit, Flintstone vitamin, fennel, chalk and even strawberry aromas and balancing its moderate heft and weight with acidic, citric, mineral, linear drive.  It may not have quite the layers or complexity of the G de Guiraud, but I could drink this every day.

89-90+ points


2015 Sichel Bordeaux Rouge (~$20)

On to the reds!  The Sichel family’s namesake brand is focused on easy representative value, well-made and correct wines reflective of their sites of origin, for immediate drinking at an impressive price.  On top of this general Bordeaux appellation bottling, they also make a Margaux (see below) and a Sauternes, each created from at least partly purchased fruit.  The basic Bordeaux is a classic entry-level split of 65% Merlot and 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and packs a surprising array of telltale regional flavours into a medium-bodied, fully translucent ruby frame:  rich dusty currant, black cherry and raspberry fruit accented with chocolate shavings, topsoil and licorice, moved forward by gentle yet gripping powdery tannin.  If you had a single $20 bill and had to answer the question “what is Bordeaux all about?”, this would be a reasonably solid place to start.

86-87 points


2015 Sichel Margaux (~$48)

You would assume that going from the wider Bordeaux appellation to the more specific and renowned Margaux region would be a step up in expression and quality, and you would be correct.  James Sichel was born and raised in Margaux and his family has numerous connections with the producers there; this bottle was made out of such connections, from grapes sourced from top Margaux producers out of lots that didn’t quite mesh with the top cuvees being made by those producers that year.  He was sworn to secrecy as to their identity, but at least confirmed that no part of the grapes for this wine came from a winery that retailed in Alberta for less than $100.  This is darker, deeper, richer, purer than the introductory Sichel Bordeaux, with newly introduced elements of blood and mesquite, charred tomato and tar wrapping around the grape and blackberry fruit.  The lingering aristocracy of tobacco/pipe bowl and rocky, earthy bass tones leave a compelling final impression.  This is showing exceptionally well in its youth, at less than half the price of any of its component parts.

89-90 points


2014 Chateau Perron (~$39)

And now for something completely different – a sojourn over to the Right Bank of Bordeaux, the global playpen of Merlot (this bottle is 80% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Cabernet Franc).  Chateau Perron is located in Lalande-de-Pomerol, just north of the world-famous Pomerol whose name is happily appended to it; it’s not often that particular proper noun shows up in conjunction with anything that costs less than $40.  Although not directly a Sichel estate, Perron is itself a multi-generational family-run winery, so they’re a comfortable fit in the portfolio.  After the deeper, heftier Margaux, we’re back to translucency here with a wine that is noticeably smoother and less structured, Right Bank to its core.  Tangy red and black fruit and cherry Nibs swirl among more savoury bursts of leather, sweat and seasoning salt, ending on a prominent note of emery board/hot rocks/asphalt that grimes it up just enough to make it interesting.  A well-tailored split of fruit and not.

87-88 points


2015 Chateau Argadens Rouge (~$25)

You may remember the romantic tale of the Sichels’ revitalization of Chateau Argadens from about an hour’s worth of reading time ago; this is the red half of the estate’s equation, a split of 63% Merlot, 32% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc, the latter a surprisingly rare component of this multitude of red Bordeaux blends.  The red Argadens meets and exceeds the compelling standard set by the white above, largely by elevating the complexity at this price point and this region to new heights.  This particular bottling is notably minty and leafy (thanks, Cab Franc?), with black pepper and charcoal adding depth and blueberry, Saskatoon berry, rock dust and a warm cedary sauna element filling in the blanks.  I could not stop coming back to this one; it was not designed to be a decades-aging monument, but it punched well above its weight in terms of playing sweet fruit off of oak and earth and the rest of Bordeaux’s regal array of flavours.  The pride the Sichels place in their estates clearly shines through.

88-89+ points


2014 Chateau Trebiac Rouge (~$24)

Graves’ Chateau Trebiac’s leaner, purity-focused approach to winemaking featured in the white context above is equally employed in the Chateau’s red, a 70%/30% split of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that sees only 3 months in barrel before being moved to stainless steel tanks for 9 further months of flavour-interference-free aging.  The focus here is on displaying youthful fruit in a true pop-and-pour bottling that is not intended for significant aging.  Merlot’s fruitcake-y nose is enhanced by strawberry leaf and dusty soil; the palate is an easy-drinking combination of red cherry fruit and spice, more modern in style and with less tannic backbone than the wines immediately prior.  This was very easy to enjoy, but in terms of bang for buck I would probably be inclined to spend the extra dollar and bring home the Argadens.

86-87 points

2015 La Reserve d’Angludet (~$48)

It is only fitting to end the story of this tasting’s reds with the wines from Sichel Family HQ at Chateau Angludet, which clearly carry a higher emotional resonance for James, a level of devotion that shows through in the glass.  La Reserve d’Angludet is Chateau Angludet’s second label wine (and an example of how the word “Reserve” has no specific legal designation or meaning in France and many other countries in the world) and is made from the estate’s younger wines, which are generally 10-12 years old.  The 2015 is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot; this last varietal makes up 10% of the plantings at Angludet and is a huge part of the estate’s flavour profile.  La Reserve is a semi-opaque ruby-purple and steals the show with a remarkably silky and voluptuous body, pure satin in the glass, deep and dense but effortless and supported by pulse-racing, mouth-watering acid.  Embers, violets, sandpaper and endless dark fruit make up the flavours, but this wine is truly a story of texture, and it’s almost a bonus that it happens to be absolutely delicious on top of it all.

90-91 points


2014 Chateau Angludet (~$95)

The grand vin of the Sichels’ home estate comes from the land’s older vines, which range upwards of 50 years old.  Angludet features 80 hectares of vines planted on an elevated heavy gravel plateau, and its flagship wine is a pinpoint reflection of these soils, layering notes of warm pebbles, magnets, quarters, granite and steel on top of deep blackcurrant fruit and dark flowers.  This is superbly balanced even at a young age, its increased tannin levels aligning seamlessly with its energetic primacy, its elegance and length on full display already even though there is clearly still more here to be revealed with age.  But opening a bottle this soon and finding it happily and effortlessly approachable created mental echoes of James’ fervently expressed desire of bringing Bordeaux back to the average consumer; if the top label of the Sichel empire can succeed at this task, the standard is set for the others to follow.

91-92 points


2013 Petit Guiraud Sauternes (~$30/375mL)

When you taste three white wines and SEVEN red wines in a single sitting, why not finish off with some Sauternes?  This second label of Sauternes powerhouse Chateau Guiraud has a bit more obvious of a second-label moniker than La Reserve d’Angludet above, but its reception among our palate-fatigued group hammered home the fact that the entry-level bottles from this area can be some of the very best wine bargains around on Earth.  Since the production of Sauternes is entirely dependent on the development of the beneficial mould botrytis cinerea on the grapes (which dehydrates them and concentrates sugars and flavours), even the grapes that don’t make the top wines of the best producers are condensed time bombs of exceedingly complex flavours.  This Sauvignon-Blanc-heavy dessert blend started the flavour Rolodex and didn’t stop:  celery salt, orange rind, lemon meringue, wet grass, pink marshmallows, shredded coconut, carrot cake, green apple Jolly Ranchers.  These combined with carefully controlled levels of sweetness, an astounding feathery lightness on the palate and razor-sharp acidity to create an epic finish to a highly educational tasting and a hearty send-off to James as he carried forth to spread anew the gospel of Bordeaux.

91-92- points



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: