Our research trip with the San Francisco Chapter of the Commanderie de Bordeaux is over. First and foremost we need to thank our organizers, Kent Baum and Chuck Horn. They did an exceptional job of organizing and Kent had the sometimes thankless task of keeping us on time. It was an extraordinary trip. I was hesitant about whether it would be worth it before we went, but as I reflect on it some two weeks later it was truly one of the more interesting, rewarding and educational weeks that I can ever remember.
We also need to thank our numerous hosts. Some people who were particularly warm, helpful and patient with our questions stand out. Florence and Daniel Cathiard at Smith Haut Lafitte (Daniel, I would like to ski with you someday), The entire Bonnie family at Chateau Malartic LaGraviere, Emmanuel Cruse at Chateau D' Issan, Bernard de Laage de Meux at Chateau Palmer, Ailene Baly at Chateau Coutet, Jean-Pierre Meslier at Chateau Raymond Lafon, Count Alexandre de Lur-Saluces at Chateau de Fargues, Paul Pontallier at Chateau Margaux, Alfred Tesseron at Chateau Pontet Canet (Alfred, I am going to help you find the right US Property), and Jean-Michel Caze at Lynch Bages. I hope I get to see all of them again. And, if any of you (mentioned above) read this. We hope you will visit our modest little winery in Napa, soon.
But, what did I learn?
It all starts in the vineyard. I have heard this over and over again, and heard it during my wine making studies at UC Davis. I believe it. And, I believed it before I went to Bordeaux. But no where is it as evident as it was in the great vineyards of Bordeaux. Each vine was carefully tended and it showed. Crops were beautifully balanced and there was seldom a shoot that was out of place. Hedging vines appears to be an art-form in Bordeaux and the vineyard floor always seemed perfect whatever management technique was being used.
Everyone has the best Terroir. I have always been intrigued about how each winery in the Napa Valley has a story about why their grapes are the best and why they have the best possible Terroir. Bordeaux is no different. Each winery has a story about why they are successful on their land. There is, however, a big difference between Bordeaux and Napa in that respect. In Bordeaux, some group of politicians, lobbyists and winemakers got together way back in 1855 and decided who made great wines and who did not. If you were favored to be classified a first growth then, you still reap the benefits, and they are huge. Fortunately, or unfortunately, many things have changed since 1855 and some of the wineries that were not first growths then have soil, techniques and ultimately wine that is every bit as good as the first growths. Pontet Canet comes to mind as the most appropriate example. Only classified as a fifth growth in 1855 it is now farming its vineyards and making wine equal to the best. The bottom line and the lesson learned: There are many, many great wines in Bordeaux. Forget the ones that cost $1,000 per bottle, forget Parker's ratings and forget about what you hear about prices in Hong Kong and China, and move on. There are many, many wines that don't cost any more than a good bottle of Napa Cabernet that are on par with the $1,000 bottles.
Sort the grapes by Hand. Virtually everyone there does it, probably because they can afford to, given the high prices that the wines command. But there is no question that most everyone there seems to think that it makes a difference. Larger Napa wineries could learn something here. Those of us with small wineries do it, most big guys don't. It is unfortunate because it does make a difference.
Extended Maceration. For those of you who do not make wine, extended maceration is the period of time that the newly fermented wine is left in contact with the skins following the completion of the fermentation of the sugar in the grapes into alcohol. As I have questioned Napa winemakers it is not a "standard practice." Many wineries do it, more do not. While I was in school at Davis, my winery partner, Ralph Bashioum and I wrote a well researched paper on the topic that concluded that the benefits far outweighed the risks. That view was certainly confirmed in Bordeaux. Everyone, EVERYONE, does it. For at least a couple of weeks and often more. And I don't think it is just tradition. They do it because it has worked for centuries. Manage it carefully and it yields rewards.
Not many Stainless Tanks. The best Chateau are still using wooden vats. The winemakers told us that they take a lot of maintenance and that they are hard to clean, but they all firmly believe that they get more consistent temperatures in the vats during fermentation and better wine as a result. Concrete is also used regularly and there are many new vats built from concrete. I asked one owner, if he was building an entirely new winery today what would he use and his response was a 50/50 mixture of oak vats and concrete vats. No stainless steel.
No Punchdowns. During fermentation, virtually everyone I asked indicated that they were pumping wine over the cap during fermentation. No manual punchdowns and no mechanical or hydraulic punchdowns. And they do fewer pump overs than we do. Maybe that is made up for during the extended maceration period. This might be a result of large operations, but there did not seem to be the same zealot like approach that some Napa wineries have about making everything gravity fed. Insisting that everything be gravity fed is, most likely, almost as much hokus pokus as taking all of the recommended steps to be a perfect Bio-dynamic vineyard.
Shorter Barrel Time. Few Chateau were using 100% new oak and NO ONE was leaving wine in the barrel longer than about 20 months, except in Sauternes where the white wines might be left in the barrel for as long as 36 months. To me it seemed that even the great wines were not using more than about 80% new oak and 16-18 months in the barrel seemed to be the right amount of time for most of them. We are very likely to shorten our time in the barrel as a result. Tune in later to see what we have decided. We will certainly look at the issue more carefully.
Drink Sauternes more often, with more food. The owners of numerous Chateau in Sauternes are all adamant that they do not make a dessert wine, they make a sweet wine. We had a couple of meals at which three different Sauternes were served with three different dishes. While it clearly works with Foie Gras and similar very rich food, we found that it also worked well with a salad course with a strong vinaigrette, perhaps Balsamic, It also worked well with a light fish course. And, serving it as a foil for Roquefort cheese seemed quite normal. One of the Sauternes Chateau owners even went so far as to say, "Don't use it as a dessert wine, it doesn't go that well with pears or with apple desserts. Drink it opposite Roquefort cheese, but don't drink it with apple strudel." I intend to buy a bit more and drink it more often. Lesson learned.
Both the 2009s and 2010s are great. "Each Vintage is better than the other."
And what is the Best Wine that we tasted during the trip? While it would be hard to beat the 1982 Margaux that we had with dinner at Chateau Margaux, my opinion, that it is absolutely foolish to engage in a discussion about what is the best wine when you are tasting many good ones, was reinforced. When asked which of our own wines I like the best, my response has become standard. " Do you have children? If so, which one do you like the best?"
Forget the points and forget Robert Parker. He is only one guy and it is guaranteed that you have a palate that is different from his. That is why I have not commented, in relative terms, on most of the wines we tasted and drank. To compare them, one to the other, is to do many of the wines an injustice and to do injustice to our hosts. All of the wines were good. There wasn't a "dog" in the lot. When drinking wines side by side, always remember to ask you self, "How are they different?" not, "Which one is better?"
Treat each wine you drink as an experience to be savored, to be thought about, and appreciated. Enjoy It, Don't Compare It. It is Magic
The Best Quote: Said one Chateau Owner, " I look to create Emotion in the Glass."
May you seek and find Emotion in every glass of wine you drink from now on.
Merci Beaucoup, Au Revoir, Bon Voyage. We had a wonderful time. Thanks again Kent and Chuck for organizing.
And thanks to each reader for following.
Now back to Blogging about the winemaker's issues, problems and solutions.
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