There was always a bottle of Bordeaux in our fridge when I was growing up. That, and several Marks & Spencer pork pies, Dijon mustard, and my father's favorite beer Heineken. When I was about twelve years old, I can remember looking at the label of a bottle of wine and wondering about it. As I grew up, the history behind all of these labels became very real.
Chateau Pichon Longueville, Pauillac
A few years back, I took my wife and daughter to Bordeaux, as we stood on the gravel vineyards of Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste in Pauillac I asked my wife, breaking the silence of history, ”do you think some of our friends back in California would be interested in making a trip to discover the mysteries of Bordeaux?” The vines were in full flower mode, it was pretty in the vineyard, and of course, there is that certain je ne sais pas quoi to Bordeaux, perhaps something romantic which incurs nostalgia. The owners of these estates are custodians of time. The estates themselves date way back and bygone days are palpable. One can be transported back to Louis 15th times with all of its decadence and accouterments given a little imagination. After what seemed like a century of breathing in the history, Jessica answered my question; “you're kidding me, right?” We both stood there motionless.
Chateau Fombrauge in St. Emilion
Let me give you a little color on Bordeaux so you can understand the wines a little better. The city sits on the river Gironde. You can see the old Customs House and the Bourse. Bordeaux's wine market was set on the banks of the river Gironde, around Le Quai Des Chartrons, a famous area in the city where most of the people in the wine business set up shop as far back as the 1500s. The boats came downriver from Pauillac, St-Estephe & St-Julien, towns located in the Medoc, and at Le Quai, the growers unloaded their barrels of wine. The Dutch, British, & Irish merchants who had by now settled in Bordeaux, bought and then exported these wines all around the globe. I find it very cool that Bordeaux has stood the test of time. The architecture is changing and there has been an incredible amount of investment back into the logistical side of the business. New fermentation rooms and modern equipment and farming methods have been employed but wonderfully, the culture of making full-bodied, refined & approachable wines remains completely unchanged. Moreover, the bustling city of Bordeaux is a UNESCO world heritage site. This speaks for itself.
Chateau Clinet, Pomerol
The market has always been somewhat difficult to understand because of the nature of the enigmatic three tier system. The system: chateau, broker, merchant, otherwise known as La Place, was put in place way back in the day, but is still very much intact.The estate sells the wine to the merchants by way of an intermediary known as a courtier or broker. Many of the producers (chateaux) were guilty of having an aloof nature and appeared unapproachable. This attitude made the tricky process of comparing and contrasting wines difficult. You have to understand that there was always an element of investment in these wines as the prices rarely went down. It was more or less unheard off up to just a few years ago to invite guests to Bordeaux to visit estates. Only in the last ten to fifteen years with the new generation of winemakers, have things become less opaque. The international MBA has of course played its part too. A more modern way of thinking! As I mentioned above, to know these wines means researching the culture of the estate owners and their past vintages. Drinking these fabulous wines can bring nostalgia, there is a sense of where was I then, and what was I doing…. We tend to open these wines on special occasions. The drinker will sometimes reminisce and describe their memories through the wine.
A magnum of Chateau Figeac 2012
The pursuit of information is paramount. It is a personal satisfaction phenomenon…. The more you know, the more you want to know. Once your interest has been piqued, you could well find yourself examining weather charts contrasting annual rainfall levels. Who knew? This leads me to try to add color to what a tasting is actually like, what to look for, and how the wines are described. I recently attended a vertical tasting (a tasting of several different vintages of the same wine) of Chateau Figeac at Duclot here in their LA office with Frederic Faye, the chief winemaker. These are some of my notes taken from the tasting. By the by, Frederic was charming and educational. It was an afternoon like no other.
Typical gravel soils of the Medoc and the Graves Appellations.
Our tasting consisted of the following vintages; 2000, 2007, 2008, 2009, and finally the 2012. The variety in the wines was astonishing. The 2000 had wonderful fruit, and at 18 years of age was magnificent. I can only imagine how good it could be halfway through the bottle. The 2007 was pretty, but the flavors disappeared quickly. The 2008 offered so much more than the 2007. It was more elegant and lead to spirited conversation. The 2007 vintage was set up to be magnificent. However, before the harvest there were heavy rains which caused all kinds of problems in the vineyard, consequently many have shunned the vintage. The 2009 was perhaps one of the nicest wines I have ever tasted. It has everything; style, fruit, so many different flavors and years and years of evolution ahead. It is hard to believe that 2010 was equally excellent. The 2012 was similar to the 2008 but not as generous and appealing. The 2008 is what the French would refer to as 'Une Année Classique', or typical Bordeaux vintage. Classic Bordeaux years can be sometimes underestimated…. perhaps some drinkers are expecting more from them. I will explain. Perhaps they believe that every year should be a 2009 or 2010, which is impossible. Perhaps investing a little more time to understand the effect that terroir and weather patterns have on any given harvest would be valuable. Two good years in a row would normally see the vines exhausted and unless there is adequate rainfall the following winter, the next vintage will prove to be difficult in the flowering season.
Typical Late 1700s Bordeaux estate
To come full circle, this is a very exciting time to visit Bordeaux and its estates, as the younger winemakers are welcoming and enthusiastic. They want to show their wares and explain the intricacies of the year that was, the good and the bad, and finally we get to taste the end product. This is a welcomed paradigm shift which entered my thought process as it means I too can invite my clients to discover the magic of this claret colored juice. There are a few rudimentary pieces of information you should read below to sharpen your taste buds for your next Bordeaux tasting.
Notice the difference in the grassy clay type soils of Figeac on the right bank compared to the gravel deposits of the Medoc.
Bordeaux can be divided into four parts more or less. There are over 8,000 estates producing wine every year. The Medoc or left bank is famed for producing the Cabernet-Sauvignon/Merlot blends in a seventy to thirty ratio such as Lynch-Bages, Pichon-Longueville, Château Latour and of course Lafite. The wines on the left bank tend to be cellar wines and I firmly believe are excellent after their fifteenth birthday, of course depending on the vintage. They exude elegance and incredible flavors. Words can do no justice. Across the river on the right bank are the famous appellations such as St. Emilion & Pomerol. Most of these wines are Merlot based with smatterings of Cabernet-Franc. In general, the right bank wines drink a few years earlier than their cousins in the Medoc, however these too are aging wines and better after ten to twelve years. The blends are usually around eighty to twenty Merlot dominating the Cabernet Franc. The soil on the right bank is clay driven which holds water and suits Merlot best. You may have heard of some of these famous wines too, Cheval-Blanc, Figeac, Ausone, Le Pin, and La Fleur, of course there is Petrus too, I could go on all day.
Outside Chateau Figeac in St Emilion
Below these two famous appellations is the Entre-Deux-Mers region. This is the engine room of Bordeaux. Much of the wine made here is table wine of high quality. The whites are excellent and Sauvignon-Blanc dominated. They have an incredible backbone, vibrant fruit, enticing aromas, and balanced acidity levels. The fourth area is the Graves. Graves is French for gravel, which is the main constituent of the soil types in both the Medoc and the Graves appellations. These pebbles were deposited after the last glaciers melted in both the center of France and the Pyrenees. The tiny stones maintain heat during the warm summer days manufacturing energy necessary in aiding the metabolic rate of the vine. The soil type differs to the right bank in that it's more of a fine sandy-gravel composition which drains well but holds water lower down in the water table. These sandy gravel soils are perfect for growing Cabernet-Sauvignon. In short, you could not find land anywhere else in the world that is as suitable for growing Cabernet-Sauvignon, Cabernet-Franc, Petit-Verdot & Merlot. The perfect storm.
Dining Room Château Haut-Bailly
In 2014, I was invited to a tasting at Chateau Haut-Bailly with a highly respected Bordeaux wine writer. We dined in the private dining room at the chateau. It was exquisite & comfortably one of the finest dining experiences I have been lucky enough to experience. The kitchen is worthy of Michelin stars, yet remains private and unaffected. Private in that it is a family owned estate, however, they do accept bookings, and I promise you, it is quite an experience. The dining room is classically French with paintings and artifacts from Indochina and the Far East. As France has a colorful history and relationship with l’Indochine, my perception was that this room was somewhat of an homage to bygone days. The sheer elegance was delightful. It had panache. This is now my Bordeaux yardstick. We drank chateau Haut-Bailly 1994, 2004, and 2014. I was impressed by the attention to detail and concentration of my peers and I was learning throughout the tasting. I am so glad I got to participate and learned more of the protocols which are attached to these tastings and are indeed very serious matters. I still remember the structure of the 2014, soft elegant and delicious.
Table Setting Chateau Haut-Bailly
After lunch, I was invited to visit the private home of the estate owner, an old fermentation house that was then under renovation and known as Chateau Le-Pape (the Popes castle). Le coup de foudre is a French saying which means, love at first sight. Indeed it was. The house, although a private residence, would soon be open to the public and I felt immediately this would be the destination and focal point for any eventual trip to Bordeaux with guests. The attention to detail in the renovation work was a joy to see. Now open as a guest house, I would love to share this beautiful place with other enthusiasts. There is so much more than the wine. Bordeaux is a way of life, a slice of France, which is hidden from so many. Please read my next blog which will recount the magic of the trip made in October of 2017.
Pauillac Vineyard, Winter 2017