Everything’s bigger in Bordeaux (Bordeaux, France – Day Two)

How did Bordeaux become the most important wine region in the world? With 120,000 hectares it is by far the largest single viticultural area in France, and when you consider the density of planting here that results in a lot of production. It has some of the highest and lowest yields in France as well, which means you can have some of the best quality and the lowest. Bordeaux was the first region I visited in Europe back in 2010, and it amazed me the size of the area and the extent to which vineyards are planted here. In spite of the quantity of wine they produce they seem to do a pretty good job of selling it, and the reason has less to do with quality and more to do with image. Bordeaux has developed one of the strongest connections with quality in wine second only to champagne. Through the classification system that designates quality of vineyards, to the glamour of the chateaus and then to the system of selling, all combine to make bordeaux wine one of the most immediately recognisable but also mysterious. My second day was spent at two estates on the left bank; Chateau Montrose and Chateau Pichon-Longueville.

The soils of Saint-Estephe

On my second day I ventured north from Bordeaux city up the Left Bank towards Medoc, and the first winery I visited was Chateau Montrose in Saint-Estephe. One piece of advice I would give to anyone visiting estates on the Left Bank is to give yourself plenty of time to get there, as there is always traffic, you never drive as fast as the speed limit, and there are hundreds of traffic lights. Due to the delays I suffered on the road I was late to Chateau Montrose and was unable to meet with the CEO, but when I arrived I was looked after by Marianne Massat-Lassale who is from Montreal and is responsible for welcoming visitors to the chateau. Like several of the wineries I was visiting in Bordeaux Chateau Montrose is in the middle of renovations of the cellars, and so I wasn’t shown anything by my host. What I got to do was have a wander around the vineyards where I saw people thinning the shoots and leaves by hand to open the canopy in preparation for the warmer weather which has finally arrived to ensure healthy ripening of the fruit. There are plenty of healthy bunches of cabernet sauvignon and merlot out in the vineyards, but there is a lot of green harvesting that needs to be performed because of couloure and the occasional poor fruit set. I tasted the 2008 vintage over an interesting discussion about philosophies of wine at Montrose. Click here to read the notes.

Clearing shoots and leaves at Chateau Montrose

The second winery I visited in the afternoon is owned by the insurance company AXA, who also own Quinta do Noval in the Douro that I visited last week. Chateau Pichon-Longueville was created back in 1850 only five years before the first classification of vineyards in Bordeaux. Previous to this the estate was much larger but was divided up between the sons and the daughters of Pichon and Longueville, who each established their own chateau wineries across the road from each other in Pauillac. The chateau that the sons built here is one of the most impressive in my opinion, and was completed not long after the split. The winery changed hands several times until , when it was purchased by AXA to join the few other estates they already owned in Europe. There were a number of elements of the business that they wanted to improve, most importantly the cellars which were completely rebuilt under the grounds as you enter.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville

Modernisation was important, but even more so was the ability to perform better sorting of the fruit by using sorting tables and optical sorters. Smaller vinifications were also possible with smaller fermentation tanks to be more selective with parcels during the blending process. Thanks to them building down they were able to introduce gravity to the winemaking rather than pumping. More recently they have decreased the volumes of the first wine in an effort to increase quality, and thus the second wine has started to be more accessible and better quality. The tasting I enjoyed with Nicolas Santier was one of the best I had in Bordeaux, partly because I was actually able to sit down whilst I tasted, and also because I was able to not only look at the 2011 barrel samples but also a few older vintages of the first wine to see how it developed and what influence there was from different vintages. Click here to read my notes from the tasting.

The heart of the Pichon-Longueville winery

Click here to see more photos from my second day in Bordeaux, France. My third day is spent on both sides of the river and catching up with a bordeaux merchant.

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