Full circle (Bordeaux, France – Day One)

There is a kind of poetry to my arrival in Bordeaux at this point in my trip. After this week I will be taking a hiatus from the wine discovery for about seven weeks, travelling through the UK, Ireland and Northern Europe playing the part of the cliché Australian backpacker. After this I will be working the vintage in Germany and will be having a different wine experience to the one I have had over the past 10 months. This therefore means that Bordeaux is the last wine region I will visit until November when I finish vintage and finish off my French wine discovery in places like Burgundy and the Loire Valley. In a way my journey has been leading up to Bordeaux as it is considered to be the greatest wine region in the world. Wine consumers and critics are more widely enamoured of this region than any other to the point that Bordeaux wines often sell for exorbitant prices in secondary markets if they are from a prestigious house and a great vintage. Bordeaux has created such a strong image around itself, the wines and the appelations that very few wine connoisseurs would struggle to name at least one left bank appellation. This region is the reference for marketing, branding and wine style for so many regions around the world that the cabernet sauvignon variety is the most widely planted in the world. There are thousands of wineries around the world who attempt to produce wine in the Bordeaux model, using the classic varieties and winemaking techniques to produce robust full-bodied and oaky wines. Almost every country I have visited has at least one Bordeaux variety planted, and there are many examples of the blend from Germany, Italy, Portugal, Chile and the USA. So after being shown so many ‘bordeaux’ wines in my journey coming here to taste the original and still the best is like the end of a pilgrimage. My first day was spent in the south eastern parts of Bordeaux at Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere, Chateau L’Eglise Clinet and Chateau d’Yquem.
Outside the famous Chateau d’Yquem

In Saint Emilion there is an important family who own several wineries, two of which are Grand Cru class. This family is the Von Neippergs who are German Counts whose roots are back in the Holy Roman Empire, and who purchased these estates in 1971. The viticulture and oenology for the three Saint Emilian estates and the additional estate in Castillon is handled by one team but the wines are produced independently at each chateau. The marketing and administration is centralised at the Canon La Gaffeliere winery for ease of communication and logistics. The winemaking for the four estates is effectively the same with the major independent variable being the barrel age and maturation time before bottling. Having four estates offers a unique opportunity to produce one wine per chateau but market them in different segments at different price points. This is in comparison to the more common practice of offering a second or even third wine that is used to isolate only the best parcels and barrels for the top wine, and offer a more affordable alternative. For example the Chateau D’Aiguilhe wine is the entry-level product and is also the highest production with 50 hectares of vineyards to produce the wine. This however doesn’t mean that each of the wines has a very rigorous selection process to only use the best fruit each year. Having three estates in the one appellation also shows how different wines can be from the same small area depending on the soils and exposition. I was welcomed to the estate by Magali Malet who after a brief tour took me through a vertical tasting of the four wines from the 2007 vintage. Click here to read my notes on the wines.

The barrel cellar of Chateau Canon La Gaffeliere
The second winery I visited for the day was Chateau L’Eglise Clinet in Pomerol not far from Saint Emilion which is one of the smaller appellations in Bordeaux. I was welcomed to the winery by Denis Durantou whose family has owned the chateau for several generations and has run the estate since 1992. The chateau is fairly characteristic of this part of Bordeaux, with a small property consisting of hectares of vineyards and a very petite winery for producing only a few thousands bottles each year. It is chateaus like these that are what makes Bordeaux great, as they are the best examples of the terroir concept that is probably more applicable in Burgundy where they are working with tiny parcels of fruit rather than properties covering over 100 hectares in size. Denis first explained how small the Pomerol appellation is and that within the small area everyone generally harvest the fruit at the same time as they are all on the same exposition which is typically flat with the same varieties, and what defines each estate is the composition of the soil and how the wine is terroir is expressed. The very shallow topsoil consists of sandy loam with a little bit of limestone, but you don’t have to go very deep to find the very heavy clay that Bordeaux and the right bank are so famous for.
Denis holds some of the famous clay of Pomerol

In the winery Denis ferments the wines in stainless steel tanks rather than oak, and then allows the malolactic fermentation to be completed in tank rather than in barriques. He performs the first blend and places it in a majority of new oak only a few months before the En Primeur campaign each year, and then allows the wines to stay there for up to 18 months. In order to have the best quality each year he performs a rigorous selection and declassifies parcels as necessary into a second wine which is typically fresher and designed for younger consumption. A lovely element to the winery is the art made by his wife Marie Reilhac, much of which he has incorporated into the branding some way such as the lovely drop-stop he gave me. Denis showed me the two wines from the 2011 vintage from barrel, and you can read my notes here.

Some of the art by Denis’ wife Marie

The final winery I visited for the day is regarded as the most important producer of dessert wine not only in Bordeaux or France, but in the world. Chateau d’Yquem is one of those iconic names in the world of wine that commands respect and respect if you are fortunate enough to taste it. Back vintages of this wine from exceptional vintages are worth thousands of dollars, the kind of money you might spend on a new car. What is it about this particular chateau and its wine that makes it so special? The winery is located in the Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux further south on the left bank of the Garonne which is famous for its sweet wines made from white varieties like semillon and sauvignon blanc.

The Chateau d’Yquem crest

It is one of the oldest in this appellation with roots going back to the time of Louis XV whose cousin Count Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces married Francoices but left widowed at the age of 20. Much like the famous widow Cliquot she dedicated her life to improving the quality and name of Yquem until she passed away at 88 years old. The winery remained in the hands of her descendants until 1999 when internal disagreements resulted in them selling majority share of the company to the French luxury goods company Louis-Vuitton Moet-Hennessy who were very experienced in handling ultra-premium brands like Yquem. The winery is now 65% controlled by LVMH (coincidentally a former employer of mine) who have continued the uncompromising approach to quality but have introduced a number of new approaches to communication and image, including showing the wines En Primeur for the first time with the 2000 vintage. The tour didn’t really show much I didn’t already know and the tasting was of just the 2006 vintage. Click here to read my notes.

The soils of Chateau d’Yquem

Click here to see more photos from my first day in Bordeaux, France. My second day was spent on the left bank.

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