Thanks to the generous sponsorship of AXA Millésimes I had an unforgettable week in Bordeaux and the Douro Valley in early December 2014. Here are ten highlights of the Bordeaux visit.
As one might expect in December, the weather was mixed and it felt as though winter had just started. But on the first evening the sun shone brightly for my arrival at the group’s premier property, second growth Pichon Baron. There was even a time to admire Pichon Baron and the Comtesse across the road, and to see the entrance to the ‘noisy neighbour’, first growth Ch. Latour.
With the start of winter, the vines were finally going into a dormant state and so the winter pruning could start. It needed to – when you have 73 hectares of vines and you prune by hand you cannot do it all in late winter. From a consumer’s point of view, being out in the vineyard when it is 3º or 4ºC is genuinely humbling. You see the pruners and you are suddenly aware of what it is going to be like to spend the next three months of your life evaluating each vine before cutting it back to make the best start for next year’s growth and, eventually, fruit. And it makes some sense of the price of top quality Bordeaux. And yes they still do keep warm (and return some elements to the soil) by burning the vine cuttings in situ.
Wineries like to tell how much work they do by hand, whether that is in the vineyard and, less commonly, in the winery. Top quality Bordeaux is now a clever combination of very high class automation and traditional work by hand. In this picture you can see the Pichon workers racking wine from one barrel to another and checking with a light when the wine begins to run cloudy – just as you might with a bottle of venerable Claret at home. The difference is that you don’t have several hundred barrels to worry about. No doubt in time there will be a robot to do all this but for the moment it is still done by real human beings.
At noted, these days large, successful wineries have an extraordinary battery of high-tech weaponry at their disposal. The current favourite is the mechanisation of the optical optical sorting of berries after they have been destemmed. This means that the best wineries have three levels of sorting before a grape makes it into the first class lounge of the vat. First, the grapes are picked by hand so that only healthy, ripe bunches get anywhere near the winery. Then the bunches go on a vibrating conveyer belt which gets rid of leaves and other detritus before being surveyed by eagle-eyed workers on a sorting table prior to going into the destemming machine. Finally, the digital images are made of the berries on a further conveyer belt and anything that does not come up to the standards of the 100 top quality berries that have been photographed earlier will be blown off the belt by individual blowers! Clever stuff.
Sorry no photo – but trust me, an optical sorter looks like a large machine in a smart case.
AXA Millésimes use Ch. Pichon Baron for private hospitality which makes it one of the few grand chateaux that are still lived in. Our group was lucky enough to stay in the chateau itself. My room had a wonderful tower room as a sort of dayroom/writing room for the (very rare) contemplative moments on this trip. But the view was certainly worth it!
All the books on wine emphasise that Bordeaux shows significant variation from year to year. But there is nothing like tasting the same wine across the vintages to demonstrate this. And by ‘the same wine’ I mean the top wine of a chateau which has had the same vineyard, the same chief wine maker and which has adopted (with small developments) the same approach to wine making across those years. We had the privilege of tasting Ch. Pichon 2000-2011 with Jean-René Matignon, technical director of the chateau. And just in case we weren’t convinced, we had the great pair of 1989 and the 1990 to compare over dinner, a real treat. (1989 is very much more developed than the positively youthful and excellent 1990.)
And the highlights of the vertical tasting? First it became clear that wines of this style and quality definitely need a decade to begin to knit together the fruit and the oak, and for the tannins to soften and integrate: 2000 really shone and 2004 is beginning to look like a good rather than an OK vintage. The great trio of 2005, 2009 and, especially, 2010 still need time and will be remarkable. Do hang on to them if you want get the best out of them. The other really important point is that the wines of this class from good or ordinary years are very good at the very least. 2002 is a bit leaner than the others but is beginning to shine, while 2003 (the hot year in which only grapes from old vines were deemed to be good enough to go into the Grand Vin) is broad and rich. There is (nearly) no such thing as a bad year in a really great property.
So which wine would you match with a spicy Cantonese or Sichuanese dishes? I can see you heading for a beer or, God forbid, a Coke. But what about some aged Sauternes? It works a treat as the nutty, caramel notes, along with a bit of sugar seem to offset spice and a bit of chilli. At Ch. Suduiraut we were treated to a master class in how Sauternes is made and tasted some fine vintages, recent and older. And we learnt about the particular needs of Sémillon which is the base of the wine: medium-high density planting (7,000 vines per hectare), wide spacing to ensure good air circulation to stop noble rot turning nasty, and the Tailleur Cot pruning system which seeks to make sure that berries are kept small. If the berries were too big they could not dry out under Botrytis attack as effectively. And then in the evening we drank a range of younger and older wines with the Chinese food. A real eye-opener.
It is great to travel with those whose like a glass or two of fine wine, have a level of understanding which exceeds and complements your own and are just good company. The last is important if there are quite long distances to travel – Pauillac is 90-120 minutes from Pomerol or from Sauternes. (This was such a great trip it is difficult to claim that it was hard work!) But in terms of good company take a bow Reto, Georg, Dani and Caroline. And it was also good to have five markets represented by the group so that we learnt how each market sees particular wines. We had represented here: Switzerland (some of whose medical clinics have amazing wine lists!), Austria, Czech Republic if now living in London and Washington DC.
At Ch. Petit-Village we were put to work (in the most gracious way of course) and asked to blend the best the best wine for the Grand Vin from five samples of Merlot plus a lots of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon. In real life technical director Marielle Cazaux would have more samples to play with but she took pity on us. The trap that some of us fell into was to put in higher proportions of the now delicious wine from younger wines, rather than the sterner wines from older vines which will come into their own at the projected start of the drinking period in 7 years time. To round off a great exercise we tasted blind our three sample wines against a fourth with was Marielle’s reference wine. Unanimously we all preferred the reference wine. We would make great diplomats if not expert wine makers! The other highlight here was seeing the horse ploughing. It is rented … but to work, not just for the sake of the cameras.
No doubt with the greater glory of Bordeaux and our studies in mind, AXA very kindly organise a visit to one of the First Growths. Last year it was Petrus (their neighbour at Petit-Village), this year it was nearby Cheval Blanc, famous for its devotion – shared by me – to Cabernet Franc. We had a fantastic couple of hours with Pierre Oliver, technical director, who shared both his technical expertise and unbounded enthusiasm for a great wine. And what makes a First Growth? Of course terroir and tradition. But then mostly relentless pursuit of the very best at almost any expense – whether that is in labour, money or time. The property has just 37 hectares which is not big by Bordeaux standards. These in turn are divided into 45 plots. And here ‘plot’ has a very specific meaning irrespective of size: a plot is one type of soil, planted to one grape variety with vines of the same age. As a result, each plot can be farmed individually with plot-by-plot choices being made about treatments, fertilisers, grassing, green harvest or not, harvesting date and so on. The fruit from those 45 plots is then vinified separately in one of the 52 vats (mostly cement) which adorn the super-modern winery. The winery is incredibly beautiful – but that is no doubt to inspire the workers … and the wines … to be extraordinary too.
It may seem bizarre to celebrate that Bordeaux as a region has a real wine culture. How could it be otherwise in the world’s largest fine wine region and the model for many other aspiring regions? But given Bordeaux’s reputation for wine trading and the corporate face of the wine business in this region it is worth celebrating its local wine culture. It is genuinely moving to see ordinary workers pruning by hand on a winter’s day. Equally, even if barrels may be washed and sanitised with latest generation technology, there is still a great deal of work going on by hand in the grandest chateaux. Despite all the automation there is more going on here by hand than in mid- and lower-market wineries. Then there is the landscape which is not as flat as its detractors would claim. OK, an altitude of 25m may be a genuine hill here but there are slopes and issues about aspect which are vital here, particularly given how near the soil the water table is. Finally, the people in the business really do have a love of wine which drives them as much as important issues about prestige and commerce. From my recent trip to the Graves and this one to the Médoc and Pomerol/St Émilion, I have come away with a feeling of Bordeaux as real wine culture … if on a very large and complex scale. There is heart in Bordeaux.