Always outspoken, the maverick winemaker that is Jonathan Maltus gives his verdict on Bordeaux 2019 and much more besides. Since 2004 Maltus has championed single vineyard winemaking in Bordeaux, imitating the Napa direct-to-consumer wine club model, and pulling back from 200% oak as a winemaking style. With ambitions to get Le Dôme classified status in 2022 he was in top candid form, speaking direct from his chateau in St-Emilion.
Maltus is not shy when it comes to exploiting critics’ scores. He explains how when Decanter magazine singled out one of his wines as a star of the vintage he whacked the price up the next day.
It is surely the first and last time that a Bordeaux winemaker will compare one of his wines to Gary Glitter.
During an insightful masterclass with Jonathan Maltus, to launch the 2019 vintages of Pontet-Labrie, Le Dôme, Château Teyssier and Vieux Château Mazerat, Maltus referred to his 2007 wines as being like “Gary Glitter on steroids.”
He cut a slightly pained look to one side and said “No, that’s not right is it.” It was a classic example of how these refreshing Zoom masterclasses are a bit like that series of Uncut albums that were in vogue in the 1990s – what you see is what you get, unfiltered by PR or marketing – a winemaker in their own home, no frills, with Lockdown fashions and haircuts.
To those who do not understand the reference, before Gary Glitter was convicted of paedophilia, he was a chart-topping glam rock pop star in the 1970s. His backing band and the songs themselves were renowned for having a hefty, relentless and almost primeval power. Completely OTT. Todd Phillips controversially used one of the songs in the scene in The Joker where our anti-hero dances down the steps for the first time dressed in full garb.
The point that Maltus was making was to explain how up to 2007 he had been vinifying his wines in 200% oak – in other words using new oak barrels twice during the ageing process. It was a style that in 2008 he turned his back on and scaled back to 80% new oak.
“We needed to do something to get the critics back,” he said.
Single vineyards direct to consumer
Maltus is speaking from his home in St-Emilion at a time when he is having to send the new 2019 vintage to critics, rather than have them come to Bordeaux for the en primeurs. “It’s a weird situation because you can’t present the wines properly, and also it’s 70% higher at the moment to send out samples.”
Before this 2019 online tasting gets properly underway Maltus reels off what various critics have been saying of the wines and the vintage. This event is organised by Honest Grapes whose wine club has an exclusive crowdfunded single vineyard wine Pontet-Labrie; Maltus produces other exclusives such as Le Lastau for Naked Wines.
It’s a direct to consumer wine club model borrowed from his time in Napa, and one that should stand him in good stead given the latest DTC trends.
Since the 2015 vintage Honest Grapes has offered the 300 case allocation to its Grand Crew Classé members at over £1k a case with buyers encouraged to sign up for a three-year period. From a winemaking perspective it is a lean towards the single vineyard Burgundian model with its emphasis on ‘terroir’, in particular the elevated ground of the côte in St-Emilion, an approach where 200% oak does not fit.
What it means then is that Maltus’ relationship with the critics is of paramount importance, particularly with the 2019 vintage, which, in the absence of tastings will rely heavily on trust on the buyers’ part.
This relationship started proper with a ‘hole in one’ when Robert Parker gave Maltus 100 points for Le Dôme and effectively put him on the map just four years after Maltus bought the 3.2 hectare vineyard in St-Emilion – which were from parts of Vieux Château Mazerat which Maltus later acquired in full in 2008. It seems the relationship has been carefully fostered ever since. Tellingly, when Maltus talks of Decanter magazine’s appraisal of one wine “They made it the star of the vintage, so next day we whacked up the price.”
Tom Harrow, wine director of Honest Grapes, says that it was the consistently high scores from US and UK critics that was one of the factors behind them adding Pontet-Labrie to its portfolio.
Just that little bit of a maverick
Maltus is a maverick and has always painted himself as a bit of a rock and roll rebel – as big and bold as his style of winemaking – which ‘used to go to 11’. He recently bought a triptych of Dick Polak photographs of Mick Jagger and has hung them in the dining room of his Chelsea home. He has also recently completed ‘And Now’ a “vanity project” album, recorded at Abbey Road Studios. “It was really cool eating at the canteen where John Lennon did”. The individual properties, Château Tessier and so on, do not have their own websites, rather they all come under the umbrella site ‘JCP Maltus Vigneron & Winemaker’ on maltus.com. The website is filmed in that Anton Corbijn-cool style with very high production values and lots of slo-mo. Foster + Partners, which recently completed a new white wine winery at Chateaux Margaux is building him one next to Angélus.
The ambition here is for Le Dôme to receive classified status in 2022, having had a new ‘discreet’ co-owner investing in the property since 2017, Maltus has stayed on as a consultant.
You can imagine that when he first moved to Bordeaux in 1992, Maltus must have turned a few heads and ruffled a few feathers; he learnt the ropes for a couple of years before buying the 5.5 hectare Château Teyssier and then has expanded ever since to over 50 hectares making a wine he refers to as “Sunday claret”.
Maltus was one of a number of winemakers who were referred to as ‘garagistes’ – like Jacques Thienpont at Le Pin – who were making wines in such tiny amounts by global standards that they could just as easily have been making the wines in their garages. The Right Bank movement ended around 2001 with Le Dôme one of three that went on to become ‘proper’ wines.
The decision to make the wine 80% Cabernet Franc-dominant came about purely by accident, he says, when he bought the wrong grapes… “I thought we had bought a load of Merlot,” adding “But Merlot is like the plump woman you used to go out with, while Cabernet Franc is the women you end up marrying.”
When talk turns to the new 2019 vintage Maltus sounds more like a native Bordelais than an Englishman abroad. “Le Dôme is the best we’ve ever done… which is always true of the one you’re about to sell,” he adds.
He rates it alongside 2015, 2016 and 2018 as being “very good…not roasty, toasty, the acidity is higher than ’18. But it has the depth and density of 2018 and 2010 but with the sexiness of 15. At Angélus they have described 2019 as ‘perfect for greedy wine lovers’,” he says.
“But it’s interesting how one great vintage follows another – 2009 and 2010, 2015 and 2016 and 2018 and 2019, but where ‘15 and ‘18 are open ‘16 and ‘19 have more persistence. You will end up drinking 2018 before you drink 2019.”
Another interesting point is that the Covid-enforced delay of the tasting of the new vintage is a good thing for Maltus who believes that showing the wine in May rather than April gives a better indication of where the wine is headed.