The regeneration of Chateau Canon

I recently attended the Chateau Canon wine tasting at Glaziers Hall, hosted by BWI Ltd, the fine wine merchants. A flight from 1978 to 2008 was being served and was introduced by its Scottish winemaker who could be described as one the Bordeaux’s foremost vineyard turnaround artists.

John Kolasa worked his way to a Directorship at Chateau Latour in 1990, having come to help out in a vineyard on whim twenty years earlier. After seeing three different owners at Latour, he decided to accept an offer in 1993 to work for the Wertheimer’s, the family behind the haut couture house Chanel. The three Wertheimer brothers had recently been outbid by Francois Pinault on Chateau Latour and were casting their eye on Rauzan Ségla, an acquisition they followed on to Chateau Canon in St Emilion in 1996. They needed a safe pair of hands to steer these fallen angels back to their former glory, both had most definitely seen better times. It took 3 months for John to decide the move but the challenge was bigger and more exciting than sitting pretty at a First Growth. He took David Orr along from Latour and importantly, surplus to Pinault’s requirements, its legendary cook too!
Canon was originally called Clos St Martin and bought by Jacques Kanon, a privateer from Dunkirk who expanded the vineyard and built the maison de maitre. The property is sat on a big ‘sponge’ of limestone covered by a thin layer of soil – Canon’s grape varietyis split 60% Merlot with 40% Cabernet Franc. It was only in the mid 19th century it was baptised Chateau Canon. John found three things wrong at Canon. The property was subsiding because of St Emilion’s citizens eagerly over quarrying underneath (the 13ha part of Clos St Martin is based near St Emilion’s town center), tainted wood in the wine cellar was found and affected the quality of the wine, the vine roots were impregnated by a fungus that hits former fruit orchards. The first two problems were simple fixes and have since  been sorted out. The pourridé, however, required lifting the rotten vine roots out below 150cm and regenerating the soil over 4 years. Time consuming and expensive. To speed things up, John increased the original 18ha plot to 22ha by buying out an unaffected neighbouring vineyard called Curé-Bon in 2000 and convincing the French Wine Institute INAO that Bon Curé should be listed as a Grand Cru and merged with Canon, another Herculian feat! It comes as no surprise that Canon turned its first profit last year and John is still cleaning the pourridé out of the vineyard today. But the upside is huge: once the fubgus has been wiped out production will  leap from 6,000 cases to 10,000.
The painstakingly slow regeneration of Canon could also be felt inside the bottle and I found the thin red line of John Kolasa touch on Canon very attractive. He makes very elegant, classic, nearly feminine wines with amazing balance and purity. A trick he surely brought over from Latour? Refreshingly this makes canon stand out in St Emilion where most of his neighbours make over extracted giants.
Waiting at our table were the vintages of 2008, 2007, 2005 and 2003. Combined with Lobster Bisque, I found the 2008 a tad closed but could feel the pedigree trying to peak out with a a nose of cherries combined with cassis and blueberry with a bit of tar at the back. Its structure was great with a good balance of acidity and strong tannins giving some resistance and grip even though Canon uses 80 percent of new oak to let the wine do the talking. John intimated that his 2011 would probably only get 50% new oak casks. A good 91 points.
We followed on to the 2007. It was probably one of the better 2007s St Emilion I have drunk, it had an earthy, peaty nose with hints of licorice stick – this evolved to chocolate and Cherry Heering – fascinating! 90 points
The crowd pleaser was definitely the 2005, a great wine with an expressive and expansive sweet cherry nose. With discreet tannins, this is a beautifully classic bottle with a long lasting palate. This vintage only saw 60% new oak barrels. 92 points
I was slightly disappointed by the 2003 (who wouldn’t after the 2005!). I was attracted by a wonderful nose of red fruit jam but thought the palate was very short. This is the case across most of the 2003 vintage and the Canon should be drunk! Again little new oak barrels – 50% this time. 90 points
Things got a bit more serious with the main course: we were had 2001 and 2000 to contend with a Bresse Chicken Terrine with a Root Vegetable Compote. I always have an affinity for the 2001. It unfortunately stands in the shadow of the 2000, and it was an overcast vintage – the wines however are good value so was the Canon: I got a very spicy nose of star anise and cinnamon with a touch of raspberry. The wine was fresh and seductive with a bit of creaminess that makes you want more. 91 points
The big guns were blazing with the 2000. The vibrant nose had the similar spiciness of star anise, cinnamon as the 2001 with the addition of licorice but the palate was long and creamy. The wine evolved to raspberry and chocolate – a terrific wine. 92 points
The 1998 made me think of a Pomerol – given the 80% of Merlot that went in to it this seems logical and only 43% of the production went in to Canon, the rest went to Clos de Canon, its 2nd wine. This is also one of John Kolasa’s first vintages. We had to try a second bottle as we found the wine very green and woody at first. The second bottle was a cleaner version with Fig jam nose, dusty tannins that allow to a mint and cedar palate. Good but old school. 90 points
I was really looking forward to the 1978 as it would allow us to get a glimpse of Canon’s heritage and I wasn’t disappointed! This vintage got the entire production and no second wine was produced. The wine was still had a bright and young colour, its decaying nose was a decadent mix of mint and Parma ham shifting over to panettone and orange peel. At close to £800/€915 a case ‘in bond’ this is a snip for a 33 year old. 91 points
I was impressed by this flight and John capped it off well saying ‘We think long term, we want to make Canon, we want to make nothing else’. Having tasted across the vintages this still rings true andas Dutchman I thought Canon’s price strategy to be quite acceptable  and accessible to wine lovers who would like to have a taste of what is to come!
Karel Röell

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