On a recent trip to Bordeaux with 34 other Masters of Wine students, we visited 10 châteaux (castle/winery in France) in 2.5 days. It was an intense pace filled with mouthwatering food and world class wines and more castles than most of us have ever seen. We spent a few days upfront in the charming town of Bordeaux. We stayed right in the town center at the comfortable Aparthotel Adagio which had apartment-style rooms that were much larger than typical European hotels. The town is very walkable with quaint streets lined with shops, patisseries, and incredible chocolate shops. We walked into every chocolate shop we saw, each one having different yet equally amazing Easter dessert displays. There were also many restaurants, several with outdoor seating. We had dinner at the Brasserie Bordelaise which had an incredible wine list as well as fantastic veal, scallops, and unbelievably good mashed potatoes. We also took several walks along the banks of the very wide Garonne River which flows through town about 10 minutes from the hotel. There is a lot more to see in Bordeaux so allow a few days if you visit (we only had about a day there).
Brasserie Bordelaise and chocolate shop
We kicked off our châteaux tour in southern Bordeaux drinking sweet wines at Château Doisy-Verdines in Barsac followed by another sweet wine tasting and wonderful dinner at Château Rieussec. At Château Doisy-Verdines, we tasted ten sweet wines from 2010-2011 and got a great education in how the different growing areas and vintages result in very different tasting wines. As I wrote after some earlier Bordeaux tastings this year, I really love the laser focused acidity of Barsac. The 2011 Château Climens (Barsac) was once again exceptional as was the extraordinary 2011 Château Suduiraut from Sauternes. It was helpful to sample Barsac and Sauternes side by side to get the nuances of both. Generally speaking, Sauternes, which lies just slightly south of Barsac, is bigger, bolder, and sweeter if that’s possible.
Sweet wines at Château Doisy-Verdines
At Château Rieussec, we did a brief vineyard tour and what an interesting one it was. It was our first glimpse into some of the real differences growing- wise in Bordeaux. The very low vines and gravel soils of Bordeaux were immediately apparent. The famous gravel was piled up in little mounds around the vines in such abundance that someone said it looked as if someone had transported a truckload of gravel in. The vines are grown much lower to the ground in order to capture every bit of heat in this marginal, cool, and wet climate. The other very noticeable thing is how densely planted the vines are (8000-10,000 vines per hectare). This is at least twice the amount compared to what you might see in California as a point of reference. Since we visited Bordeaux in March, nothing was in bloom so the multitude of vine stakes and trellises were clearly visible for miles.
Moving into dinner, we had a fascinating pairing of a dry and sweet wine with each course. Our host, Mr. Charles Chevallier (GM), wanted us to see that sweet wines can be used throughout an entire meal and he was right. The sweet wines were surprisingly complementary to everything we ate. That said, I was thrilled to see a few dry reds from their owner, Domaines Barons de Rothschild, just to break up the sugar rush I was enjoying. To put the sugar in context, a normal table wine usually has less than 4 grams of sugar per liter. Sweet wines from Sauternes are usually around 130-140 grams of sugar per liter so it’s a substantial uplift in sweetness and a bit wearing on the palate when you taste many at once.
Tuscany has wild boar, Piedmont has veal, and Bordeaux has foie gras. We had more foie gras than I’ve seen in my life starting with our dinner at Château Rieussec. Many other decadent courses were served along with several different vintages of Château Rieussec (2011, 2008, 1997, and 1985) which gave us a tremendous opportunity to see how Sauternes age. All of these wines had varying percentages of the dominant Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grape varieties. The complexity, deep color, and amazing array of flavors were truly remarkable. My Château Rieussec favorites were the floral and citric 2008 and the apricot, marmalade, and orange peel nuanced 1997. The 1985 was off the charts exceptional and almost had amontillado sherry notes to it with dried raisins, nuts, and spice. The 2008 Château Duhart-Milon (73% Cabernet Sauvignon and 27% Merlot) was also fantastic with black currant, bay leaf, smoke backed by dusty tannins. After all of this sugar, none of us got any sleep but it was a tremendous experience.
1985, 2008, and 1997 Château Rieussec
The next day we headed off to Château Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien. Global warming was visibly present here as our host told us that Merlot was not needed as much anymore as ripeness was no longer an issue. Merlot (which ripens earlier then Cabernet Sauvignon) was historically grown in Bordeaux as an insurance policy during cold and difficult ripening years. Wine counterfeiting is a current issue with prestigious wines such as these and one method they use to discourage counterfeiters is engraving the Château name on the bottom of the bottles. We had an extensive tour and concluded with a terrific tasting of 10 different Grand Cru Classés wines from the different regions of Bordeaux (Saint-Estèphe, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Margaux). It was fascinating to taste the nuances of the different sites and soils. In general Saint-Estèphe tends towards the highest acidity (being the furthest north) and Pauillac is known for its dense and concentrated wines. Margaux is the furthest south which contributes to its wines being the lightest of the bunch and it often has the most Merlot in the blends whereas St. Julien is somewhere between Margaux and Pauillac styles as it physically lies between them. Our final two wines were a 1995 and 1996 Léoville Poyferré. Both were fantastic with the 2006 slightly better with black cherry, plums, mouthwatering acid, dusty tannins, and a powerful finish. Perfect start to the day!
Moving north to Saint-Estèphe, Château Lafon-Rochet is located on a dramatically beautiful and windswept hill, one of the few in Bordeaux. It is also, interestingly enough, located across from Château Lafite-Rothschild (one of the 5 famous first growths). The vineyards consist of 41 hectares and are marked in spots by stunning yellow mustard flowers which have returned over the past 10 years as more sustainable growing processes have been utilized. Three different soils are prevalent here – clay on gravel, clay, and sand. Four varieties are grown (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc). Most vines are an average of 37 years old. Two wines are made here, their first wine Château Lafon-Rochet (Cabernet Sauvignon dominant) and their second wine, Les Pélérins de Lafon-Rochet. Most of the estates we saw have a second (and even third wine) that use younger vines or more Merlot dominant blends. Our host, Basile Tesseron (owner) gave us a wonderful tour including showing us how to prune vines. He said that they also use drones which help them determine which plots have too much nitrogen or not enough water. All of this was followed by a marvelous lunch overlooking his vineyards. He and his family are extremely laid back and personable not to mention fantastic cooks. One of the meal highlights was perhaps the best homemade chocolate cake I’ve ever had. The wines were outstanding as well particularly the 1996 and 2002 Lafon-Rochet. The 2002 was spicy with black fruit and a lively full body. The 1996, still almost opaque ruby in color, tasted of blackberry, earth, mushroom and cedar and ended in a spicy smooth finish. They were truly beautiful wines and you can look for them at Binnys in Chicago. Incidentally, check out Lafon-Rochet’s website as they have some knock-out videos of the property and some of the best marketing material I’ve seen.
Mr. Hervé Berland (CEO) hosted us on a wonderful visit to the beautiful Château Montrose. Located in the heart of Saint-Estèphe just off the bank of the Gironde River, the Château is only 5 kilometers north of Pauillac. Château Montrose is composed of 95 hectares and remains one single plot. It is one of the few Bordeaux estates to remain a single plot. Four grape varieties are grown: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. Mr. Berland said that they like having the four varieties as each brings something different to the blend. Cabernet Sauvignon contributes the backbone and power. Merlot brings a feminine touch with aromatic flavors and silky tannins, Cabernet Franc contributes elegant aromas, freshness, and complexity, and Petit Verdot adds color and spicy pepper to the blend. Larger gravel is present over clay subsoil which provides sufficient water for the grapes. Drought has never been an issue here due to the clay subsoil which acts like a sponge.
The Gironde River provides a temperate climate and helps to moderate the growing conditions. The grape leaves never change color here as the weather is so consistent (no autumn). Frost has never been a problem here due to the moderate climate and drought pressure is also low (even in the warm vintage of 2003) due to the Gironde. A strong northwest wind blows across the vineyard from the ocean helping to blow away any humidity which helped remove unwanted botrytis rot in 2013. Rows are planted north to south in order to get full sun exposure.
We tried the 2012 Château Tronquoy-Lalande (57% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot). This wine was a deep ruby red in color with dusty herbs and plum flavors with medium acid, medium body, and supple tannins with a medium plus finish. Well balanced and elegant structure.
Next we tried the 2012 La Dame de Montrose (76% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon) was medium ruby red in color with ripe blackberry, sweet spice, and mint aromas. Dense complexity and finely structured with velvet tannins well balanced against linear acidity and a medium plus finish.
Last, the 2012 Château Montrose (57% Cabernet, 37%, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot) was an intense purple ruby color with medium plus aromas of black fruit, menthol, and sweet spice aromas. The palate had intense and complex flavors or blackberry, earth, game and tar with medium plus acid, alcohol, and body. Firm tannins with smooth texture backed a long powerful finish and concentrated structure.
We ended the first full day at the ultra modern Château Pédesclaux which was like something out of a James Bond movie. Walking into the winery, you pass by a stunning building which is an old Château preserved in its original state with glass wings added on both sides. It’s a brilliant structure that does a beautiful job unifying both new and old styles. The glass wings house rooms that can be rented out, possibly one of the most romantic vineyard stays one could imagine (and yes the glass rooms have curtains)! The tanks here are so beautiful and shiny that they almost look like silver curtains flanking the room which has a floating staircase in its center. I didn’t see a single fingerprint on anything throughout the entire tour which uses only gravity and no pumps to move the wine from harvest to tank to barrel. Starting in 2011, they began using 116 two-storied conical steel vats which have two tanks of different capacities housed in one vessel in order to have options for fermentation of different sized lots. As we saw many times over the trip, one tank is used per plot so it is especially helpful to have two tanks in one as it saves on space. About 200,000 bottles are produced from their 45 hectares. At dinner we had a truly unique meal of ravioli stuffed with sea bass followed by a pigeon entreé. We concluded with the traditional cheese plate (which I am a huge fan of) and a spiced chocolate ball with caramel. The French do know how to eat and I’ve never seen such beautifully prepared meals and tables as I did in Bordeaux.
Château Pédesclaux and two-story tanks
The wines we had to accompany this meal were: 2010 Château Lilian Ladouys, 2012 Château Pédesclaux, 2010 Château Pédesclaux, and the 1990 Château Lilian Ladouys. Needless to say the last one stole the show for me as it was a velvety smooth and sexy wine with lushly ripe tannins, dark plum, cedar, and a long poignant finish leaving no part of my mouth untouched. I also enjoyed the 2010 Lilian Ladouys which appears to be priced around $25 so that is well worth grabbing for later drinking. When I looked online to see the price for the 1990 I saw that it was around $678 so I’m glad I got to try that once in my life! Château Lilian Ladouys is the little sister to Pédesclaux and located north in Saint-Estèphe (Pedesclaux is in Pauillac).