On to the highlight of our French wine trip… Bordeaux.
The drive from Beaune to Bordeaux took about 7 hours with traffic, and we had an appointment for a tour and tasting at a specific time in the afternoon, so a leisurely drive it was not. We stopped for a 10-minute gas station lunch (even the French can’t make cold convenience-store sandwiches palatable) and arrived at Château Pape Clément in Pessac, a small town in the Bordeaux region, a few minutes late for our tour but right on time for a windy, rainy mess. Luckily our tour guide hadn’t made it very far, and we were able to join quickly.
This chateau has quite the history – it’s the oldest vineyard in Bordeaux, planted in 1300(!), and its original owner was Pope Clement V when he was a mere archbishop. Traditional methods rule at Pape Clément – grapes are harvested and sorted by hand, with no machinery. The grapes are poured from the top into massive vats made of stainless steel and wood, and artificially chilled to a certain temperature so that the skins split and the juice is released without crushing. When this happens, the juice goes to the bottom and the skins, seeds, and stems float to the top – but the juice needs contact with the skins for the full flavors of the wine to develop. So, the manual labor continues, with brawny men using massive poles to force the skins down into the juice. As we later learned in our subsequent Bordeaux tours, many wineries have machinery and automated processes for these functions – but not Pape Clément.
We continued our tour into the cellars and the tasting room, where we had a lengthy conversation with the man in charge of tastings. Château Pape Clément is a Grand Cru classé, and so the wine is rated by the best of the best experts, including Robert Parker. Our host told us about a trick he once played on Robert Parker – in 2002, they put a wine in front of him and Mr. Parker didn’t care for it, pushing it aside. Five years later, Mr. Parker was there again, and as a joke they snuck the same wine he’d previously tried into the tasting. Mr. Parker apparently took one sip of it and said, “Guys, I told you five years ago that I never wanted to taste that wine again!”
After our tasting, we headed into the city of Bordeaux to check into La Villa, our chambre d’hote. I have to say, we really got lucky in our B&Bs and chambre d’hotes during our trip – all of our hosts were fantastic and so incredibly helpful. Sylvain, our host, welcomed us and asked if we’d like to sit down for a few minutes to be introduced to the city. We had no idea that we’d be getting a geography and history lesson all smashed into ten minutes or less! Wielding a map, a pen, and a glass of wine, Sylvain showed us everything we needed to know about the city, pointing out key restaurants, tourist spots, wine bars, and “dreadfully tacky cheapy stuff that you should avoid”. Armed with this knowledge, we ventured out into the city in search of dinner and arrived at one of Sylvain’s main recommendations, Le Petit Commerce. We stuffed ourselves with delicious seafood and waddled home for a good night of sleep, because we had four back-to-back winery tours scheduled for the next day.
We left early the next morning for Pauillac, the appellation in the Bordeaux region where our first winery visit was located. Pauillac is about an hour outside of the city of Bordeaux, but it took us nearly 2 hours with the soul-crushing traffic leaving the city. Bordeaux’s streets are narrow and crowded, and we often sat through three or four light cycles before finally making it through, only to be immediately stopped by the next light one block over. Luckily, Richie’s mantra is Be Prepared (stolen from the Boy Scouts, I suppose) and we had budgeted plenty of time.
We arrived at Château Pichon-Longueville, a Deuxième Cru in the Bordeaux 1855 classification system. (The classification system is interesting… basically in 1855, Napoleon organized a classification system for Bordeaux wines as part of their display in the Exposition Universelle in Paris. These classifications have largely remained unchanged today.) It was a rainy morning, so while we briefly admired the vineyards and the house from the car, we dashed into the building and met our guide for the tour. It was just the two of us, so we had a private visit of the vineyards, the vat room, the cellars and the tasting area.
I didn’t take any photos on the tour, which I immediately regretted. I had this idea in my head that most of the wineries we’d see would be virtually identical, with only the châteaux and the taste of the wine to differentiate them, but I quickly learned that wasn’t true. Each winery had some unique aspect – whether it was the completely manual process of Pape Clément or the charming interior of a tiny, family-run winery we visited later, each had its signature item. Pichon-Longueville’s, for me, was the circular vat room. Their production area had recently been renovated (as 2009 and 2010 were very good years in Bordeaux, many of the châteaux had undergone recent improvements) with a central, circular vat room. Just outside this vat room was a large corridor with hallways to access the areas for aging, bottling, and distribution, making it very efficient to get from one stage to the next.
Afterwards, we stepped out to a nice surprise – sunshine!
As we were admiring the estate and those of the neighbors, our guide pointed out something interesting. France’s estate tax has risen so high that many families are unable to afford the “death taxes”, and so the majority of chateaux in Bordeaux, despite being family-run for generations, have been sold to corporations. Insurance companies in particular seem to like owning these wineries – Pichon-Longueville, in particular, has been owned by AXA since 1987. They claim it’s a diversification tactic, but I imagine the perks of the château and the wine industry are a nice bonus.
Our next winery experience was essentially the polar opposite. We drove to Château du Retout, in the Haut-Medoc appellation about 10 kilometers away, and were greeted by a woman who looked much more like someone’s grandmother than a tour guide. That turned out to be correct, as we’d rung the bell of the private residence of the family (whoops!). She told us to follow their dog, Lola, around the back of the property, and as we did, we met the current owner, Hélène, and her husband. This winery is still a family operation, passed down to Hélène from her father. As we toured the small operation, Lola happily followed us from room to room, wagging her tail and hopping nimbly over the various pipes and hoses on the floor being used to clean out the bottling equipment in preparation for the next month’s work. The most unique aspect of this winery, apart from its size compared to the other places we’d visited, was the use of vintage concrete vats for the maceration and fermentation of the wine. Hélène explained that like most industries, wine-making has its trends. Originally, the maceration and fermentation took place in wooden vats, which were expensive, nearly impossible to maintain constant temperatures, and difficult to clean thoroughly. Most modern facilities now use stainless steel vats, which (while still expensive) are perfect for maintaining temperatures and easy cleaning, but in the 60s and 70s, concrete vats were all the rage. This family upgraded their machinery in the 60s and still uses those 50-year-old concrete vats to this day.
Another great aspect of the smaller winery? Price. Bordeaux wines are incredibly highly-priced for the vintages that are considered superior (such as 2009 and 2010). The “first wine” of Pichon-Longueville, which we had tasted that morning, sells for about 100 Euro, depending on the vintage. However, the best wine of Château du Retout sold for about 12 Euro. There’s a lot that goes into that price difference – and I can honestly say, having tasted the first wines of several Grand Cru wineries, that the wines are worth the price tag. But if you want to drink a great Bordeaux without breaking the bank, you can!
We grabbed a quick lunch in a tiny town in the area – and the only memorable thing about the meal was that from the moment we walked in, to the moment we stepped out 45 minutes later, an instrumental version of El Tango de Roxanne played on a constant loop. No one else seemed disturbed by this whatsoever… for a moment I thought we were caught in some kind Groundhog Day effect.
Our next visit was at Château Lynch Bages. Here, while the winery has a fully modern process, they’ve retained their old vat room showing how wine was made before modern technology. The equipment and machinery is installed just as it was originally in the 1800s and was used until the 1970s, I think. Because there was no automation, they relied upon gravity, pulley systems, and railroad tracks within the building to move the heavy machinery from place to place.
Our last tour of the four was at Château Prieuré-Lichine in the Margaux appellation. Here, we once again had a private tour, and this was by far the most comprehensive and educational tour of our entire trip. The tour was two hours and the theme was Terroir – the aspects of the land, the soil, the climate, and of the grape varietals that work together to produce a wine that is characteristic of a certain appellation or region. Our guide was named Ulrich, and he was really the ideal guide. He answered all of our questions thoughtfully, and he was quite unbiased, truthfully answering questions that other guides might dodge. For example, we discussed whether wines from the 2009 and 2010 vintages are really worth the prices they command – and as we walked through the vineyards looking at some of the plantings, Ulrich would shake his head and point our poorly pruned vines or exposed rootstocks that should be covered. The exposed root was actually pretty educational itself – at past visits to wineries, the guides would mention the Phylloxera problem of the late 1800s and that it was resolved by grafting French vines onto American rootstock, but they didn’t go into details. Ulrich explained that in the mid-to-late 1800s, the invention of the steamship allowed for faster transit between the Americas and Europe. There was a particular type of aphid that was of American origin, and had never reached Europe before because this aphid died in the long transit across the ocean. Steamships arrived much more quickly – the aphids survived the journey – and the French vines, unused to this particular pest, were destroyed. Since American vines were resistant to the pest, it was thought that French vines, grafted onto American rootstocks, might allow French vines to prevail against the blight. It was a success, and to this day many of the vines that are in French vineyards have American roots.
Prieuré-Lichine also had a unique feature – brand-new, modern concrete vats, alongside the concrete vats from the 60s. Older concrete vats were replaced by stainless steel due to problems with the porosity of the concrete (causing leaking or evaporation), but through some experimentation with the type of concrete used, a modern concrete vat was developed that has all the benefits without the drawbacks.
It was at this winery that Richie finally found a bottle of 1982 wine! Just like 2009 and 2010, 1982 was a banner year for Bordeaux production – and it’s also the year of Richie’s birth. Our guide found this bottle on one of the top shelves of the cellar’s reserves and graciously pulled it down for a photo op. Sadly, we couldn’t find any 1983 for me.
I really loved our tour with Ulrich and would highly recommend it for anyone – it would be worthwhile for everyone, from those with no knowledge of wine-making to those who have visited dozens of wineries. Plus, Ulrich was full of gems – like his explanation as to why the rooster is the symbol of France (“Why, because only the rooster can crow loudly and proudly while his feet are standing in sh*t!”)
Thus ended our day of tours, and we returned to Bordeaux, laden with bottles of wine and exhausted.
Given that we have 3 more days of sightseeing to cover… I’m going to cut this off here and revisit Bordeaux with Part 2 later this week.