The Rothschild family in Bordeaux owns some of the most iconic castles in the region, including Château Lafite Rothschild and Château Mouton Rothschild, both located in the municipality of Pauillac in the Haut-Médoc district (note: they are owned by different sides of the Rothschild family). These estates are two of the five Grand Cru Classe castles in this area, and the wines are among the most coveted of all red wines in the world.
But the family also owns other castles in Bordeaux that are not as famous as their two flagships. One of these is the Château Clarke in Listrac-Médoc, located nine miles northwest of the city of Bordeaux, a few miles south of Pauillac. What is remarkable about this property is the relationship between quality and price of its red wines; Since Bordeaux has been criticized for its high prices, it is comforting to know that there are dozens of local estates that produce impressive wines that do not cost the proverbial arm and leg.
Château Clarke is recognized as one of these estates, and when one considers the Rothschild name, it is a good tribute. Now with the latest release of the 2018 offering, Château Clarke is celebrating 40 years, so this is a good time to explore the history of this excellent property.
Château Clarke bears the name of the Irish family who bought the property in 1771. Edmond de Rothschild, great-grandson of James, owner of Château Lafite Rothschild, bought Château Clarke in 1973 and immediately sought to make the necessary changes to update the vineyards and facilities.
The first vintage under the ownership of Edmond de Rothschild was 1978; the mixture at the time was fairly typical of this district, with slightly more Cabernet Sauvignon than Merlot, with small percentages of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Fabrice Darmaillacq, who started his work on the property six years ago and currently works as technical director (he oversees winemaking), notes that Edmond started pulling vines of Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in favor of Merlot. “Château Clarke is located on pure clay and limestone soil, which is something very unique in Médoc,” comments Darmaillacq. Since Merlot is perfectly suited to clay soils, a change was made in the wine blend to include a large percentage of this variety. “We have now reached a balance between 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and we will continue to do so,” said Boris Breau, CEO of Compagnie Baron Edmond de Rothschild, of which Château Clarke is a part.
I tasted six vintages of Château Clarke, with a few of these from excellent vintages, such as 1989 and 2016; I also tasted 1979 (the vineyard’s second vintage under Baron Edmond’s ownership), 1996, 2006 and the current 2018, along with a 2019 vintage of their white wine, known as Le Merle Blanc.
Darmaillacq and Breau commented on these wines – here are some of their thoughts.
1989 – “This was an easy vintage for the winemaker and winemaker. The difficulty was not to produce excessive or massive wine, just retain the freshness and elegance.
“” I think you can enjoy 1989 for twenty more years, I hope. “I would not be surprised as it has great potential as it is concentrated and mature. There is acidity and structure along with firm and mature tannins. You need to age. Maybe in forty more years it will be a standout.” – Fabrice Darmaillacq
“This 1989 was a serious achievement. For the first ten years, winemakers still taught the estate. For the first ten years, the wines were overproduced, with too much production on the estate. 1989 marks a certain kind of maturity. The winemakers knew the estate better and mixed with much more precision. This 1989 represents all the work we did for almost 20 years on the property and we are very proud of this achievement. ”- Boris Breau
1996 – “The vines were now 20 years old, which may be the best time to produce good wine. 1996 was not the perfect vintage; it was a little difficult in the early years. But today we consider 1996 a prestigious vintage because other wines from the left bank are still very fresh, very clean and well-balanced. The merlot was very intense. ”(FD)
This was the last vintage of Edmond who died the following year. The wine turned out very, very nice. ”(BB)
2009 – “Before 2009, we had some vintages that offered over-extraction, e.g. 2008 or 2006. 2009 was interesting because it was at a level that was between this strong extraction and the elegance that underlies these wines. ”(BB)
“The first part of the spring and the beginning of the summer were very wet. We had a very intense development of leaves and grapes; it was a vintage with large grapes. This was important in the end for the extraction and balance of the wine. After that, the summer was very hot and dry, and the grapes were very concentrated, but with the large grapes, you do not extract in the same way as in 2010, which had small berries.
“The size of the grapes in 2009 kept a good balance between tannins, which allows for a soft extraction. The tannins were elegant and perfectly ripe and there was healthy acidity. ”(FD)
2016 – “2016 was a mix between 1989 and 1996. The first part of the growing season was rainy, while the second part was very dry and sunny. The tannins were almost perfect in terms of maturity. It was an Indian summer. We could wait for each package to mature and we could understand each package and be able to choose the best date.
“We had no pressure that year, it was easy for us. We had time to discover the vineyard and the potential of the vineyard. ”(FD)
Darmaillacq proudly points to the achievements and success of Château Clarke over the last four decades, “We have changed the date of the harvest. Of course we looked at the right sugar and acidity, but the most important thing was the tannins, to pick their perfect maturity. We tasted a lot of grapes every day.
“We work with details, with precision, and that’s something the previous team may not have done … A perfect wine for us today is one we can enjoy right after bottling or 40 years later.”
My notes on six vintages of Château Clarke red and one vintage of their white wine, Le Merle Blanc:
La Merle Blanc from Château Clarke 2019 – 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 10% Semillon, 10% Muscadelle and 10% Sauvignon Gris. Straw; aroma of spearmint, Bosc pear and a light touch of freshly cut grass. Medium-bodied with good fruit depth, notes of orange and pear in the palate, good acidity and persistence. The wine has good freshness and ends clean. Good complexity and nicely styled, this is not a powerful white, but one should enjoy over the next 3-5 years. (90)
Chateau Clarke 2018 – 70% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Bright purple; aroma of black plum, anise and purple iris. Medium-bodied with excellent maturity, good acidity, medium-sized tannins that are finely tuned, well-integrated wood notes. Forward and appealing now has this filling and structure to drink well for 10-12 years, maybe even a few years longer. (92)
Chateau Clarke 2016 – 70% Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep ruby red with purple edges; aroma of black plum, black mint and eucalyptus. Medium-bodied with a rich, well-structured diaphragm, medium-bodied tannins, very good acidity and beautifully integrated wood notes. Classically styled, this needs time to show greater complexity-top in 12-16 years. (94)
Chateau Clarke 2009 – 70% Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Light ruby red with purple edges; aroma of mocha, black cherry and camphor. Medium-bodied with very good fruit depth, medium-bodied tannins, good acidity, very good persistence and a finish with notes of brown herbs and black spices. This has begun to develop into a secondary and even tertiary phase and is proving to be quite good. A few more years in the bottle will round this off even more; peak for 7-10 years. (91)
Chateau Clarke 1996 – 55% Merlot, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon. Ruby with brown edges; beautiful aromas of chanterelle mushrooms, dried leather and dried cherries. Medium-bodied with very good concentration, good acidity, medium-bodied, elegant tannins, nicely integrated wood notes. This has aged well and offers some classic older Bordeaux notes; peak in 5-8 years. (92)
Chateau Clarke 1989 – 50% Merlot, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Cabernet Franc. Deep garnet with brown edges. Classic aged Bordeaux aromas of mushrooms, dried red berries and thyme. Medium-bodied, this has beautiful acidity, elegant tannins, excellent complexity and impeccable balance; the finish has notes for cigars and brown herbs. Ideally, this drinks well now and should have another 7-10 years of life ahead of it, maybe even longer. (95)
Chateau Clarke 1979 – 48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 42% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Franc, 2% Petit Verdot. Deep garnet with a light brown edge. Scents of roasted cherries, oregano and mushrooms. Medium-bodied, this is quite elegant and has good acidity and round tannins. The styling is quite elegant, but the wine is a touch light and is top notch. Enjoy the next 2-5 years. (88)