HAVING known Yann Schyler, a member of the family that owns Chateau Kirwan, for a good few years now, including having had an exclusive one-on-one interview with Yann during his Manila visit less than two years ago (which appeared at this column October of 2017), it was therefore extremely fulfilling for me personally to finally get to visit his chateau earlier this year. Yann himself and Chateau Kirwan general manager cum technical director Philippe Delfaut were present during my stopover at the chateau. Chateau Kirwan is a classified 3rd growth (troisième cru) in the sacred Bordeaux Wine Classification of 1855, and is from the Margaux appellation.
The Margaux appellation also happens to have the most chateau entries, representing 21 or over 1/3 out of the present 60 classified growths from the 1855 list, with Chateau Margaux (of the same eponymous regional name) as the appellation’s only 1st growth. Chateau Kirwan has been with the Schyler family since 1925 — closing in on 95 years now.
MORE THAN A FACELIFT
Like many of the Grand Cru Classé chateaux both from Bordeaux left and right banks, Chateau Kirwan also underwent a major renovation. After two years of extensive work, Chateau Kirwan unveiled its new building with improved functional and aesthetic features in 2017. Unfortunately I only got to see the chateau at night because of several other Bordeaux stopovers during my travels through the wine country. But even at night, the façade of the new building was still something to marvel at. The entrance to the new building is flanked by a giant arty structure masterfully sculpted by Paris-based Belgian artists Kinga and Anatoly Stolnikoff. The huge structure is an intricately designed giant vine with details on branches, foliage, and roots made from laser-cut steel. However, when you look much closer at this vine sculpture, you will see that the branches are actually not covered by leaves but with letters forming words that are related to wines. Among the words I saw were “reserve,” “magnum,” “gironde,” “ferment,” and I am unsure if other words were in French or not — but really, it was very clever.
The chateau used to have two buildings that were separated by a narrow road inside the compound, but now it has been transformed into this one augmented building. The chateau now has a modern production facility, a bigger sorting area, a vertical destemmer, a new fermentation room with 37 customized concrete vats, a new barrel room with the best French oak barrels from the most trusted cooperages, a new big cellar with more than enough space for aging new vintages, and, most importantly, now everything is efficiently connected from the fermentation vats to previous existing cellar (unlike before the renovation).
The 37 tulip-shaped concrete vats were custom-made in Italy to the specification of Kirwan to ensure that the wines achieve the best expression their blessed terroir can give.
There is now a beautiful reception area that is very conducive in welcoming visitors. The fresh setup also allows for more a tourist-friendly experience with modern touch-screen displays complete with several language options, and a suspended walkway around the winery that allows visitors to watch how the winery operates without disturbing the workers.
Unknown to many, Chateau Kirwan has actually one of the highest percentage of petit verdot in its blend. I myself did not realize this. I have always thought that fellow Margaux neighbors Chateau Palmer, or even Chateau Lascombes would have more petit verdot in their Grand Cru wines, like 5-6% in their blend than those in Kirwan, but I was wrong.
Actually a significant 10% of Chateau Kirwan’s present vineyards are planted to this varietal. While cabernet franc, the other wheel in the cabernet sauvignon and merlot dominant Bordeaux blend, is all the rage especially in the Saint-Emilion appellation (thanks to Chateau Cheval Blanc), I feel petit verdot could be a difference maker in Margaux, or even in Medoc.
Petit verdot is not easy to grow as it is a very late ripening varietal that can often come in too late to harvest correctly in Medoc, but when picked at its right physiological stage, this varietal can offer the Bordeaux blend some extra structure in both color and body, and nice aromatics associated with violets and dark fruits.
I did a barrel tasting of the Petit Verdot 2018 vintage with Philippe Delfaut at their cellar, and I loved the fruitiness, tartness, and structure of this batch. It may also be no big coincidence that Philippe used to worked for Chateau Palmer some 10 years ago before joining Kirwan and more petit verdot is being considered for new Chateau Kirwan vintages. Chateau Kirwan also has good quantity of cabernet franc, as 15% of their vineyards is currently planted to it.
EXCITING NEW VINTAGES
Chateau Kirwan has had a very good streak of highly rated vintages in recent years starting with 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 (despite the great frost in Bordeaux in this tough vintage, albeit smaller production), and this 2018 that is shaping up to be another classic vintage in the making. The 2017 vintage also marked the first time the chateau’s new facilities were fully used. This means that from the start of harvesting, to the transferring and handling of berries on its way to the vat room for hand sorting, to the actual vinification process. With modern technology and precision at its disposal, things are indeed looker brighter and brighter for Chateau Kirwan.
Below are my customary tasting notes of the four most recent Kirwan vintages tasted at the chateau, including tasting the latest two vintages (2017 and 2018) direct from the barrels:
• Chateau Kirwan 2015 — “opulent wine with lots of fruits from blackberry to plum, cassis, vanilla, nice acid structure with juiciness on the palate, silky with complex pepper and flintiness on a long lingering finish”
• Chateau Kirwan 2016 — “still quite heady, vivacious, intense ripe black cherry, herbal, thyme, vanilla, very fresh on the palate with licorice tones, supple and round, rich and long on a still tight and restrained finish; not bad to drink now, but should drink more deliciously over long aging”
• Chateau Kirwan 2017 (from barrel sample) — “surprisingly approachable, lots of fresh cherries on the nose, herbal, cinnamon bark, capsicum, nice coffee-latte mid palate taste, good concentration, very round, fresh and fruity at the end”
• Chateau Kirwan 2018 (from barrel sample) — “intense, robust, lots of red fruits, acid is still racy but already pleasantly juicy, tannins are bitter-sweet, medium bordering full body, a lot of complexity still unfolding from earthiness to cedar, still too young to judge, but all the elements point to another excellent wine in the making”
Chateau Kirwan wines from multiple vintages, including limited back vintages are available from Golden Wines, Inc. at 638-5025/27 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The author is a member of the UK-based Circle of Wine Writers. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at email@example.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.