Monday, May 18, 2009

Chateau Figeac, 1st Grand Cru Classe B, St. Emilion

We were welcomed by Audrey, the PR director and discovered that we were part of a scheduled tour with two other couples. However I asked so many questions about clones, types of yeast, and fermentation temperatures that she fetched the enologist and the viticulturist to meet with us as well. Chateau Figeauc is unique in that it is one of the oldest chateau in St. Emilion, tracing its roots back to the 2nd century AD when a Roman gentleman named Figeacus lived there. It is also unique in that it uses more cabernet sauvignon in the blend than is normal in St. Emilion – thus earning them the title “the most Medoc of the St. Emilions.”

Audrey told us that St. Emilion has 5400 hectares of grapes and 1200 estates, and that Figeac has 40 hectares with only 30% planted to merlot. The remainder is cabernet sauvignon and cab franc. 23 employees work full-time at the estate, though the number swells during harvest. The vineyard manager said the vines were primarily planted on rootstocks of ripara, 101-14, 5B, and a few older cab francs on SO4. He mentioned that their cab franc is so special that they are trying to do a clonal selection to plant more vines like it for the future. Since they border Cheval Blanc, they have similar fine gravely soil with less limestone than other wineries closer to St. Emilion, such as Ausone. Vines are trained double guyot with 1.5 to 1.15 spacing. They average 40 hectoliters per hectare, though the difficult 2008 vintage only yielded 28 – a story that was repeated at every chateau we visited. In June they do a green harvest. Roots go 10-12 meters deep. They are trying to use less copper and sulfur and plan to phase out all weed killers by 2010.

While viewing the vineyard, Audrey told us a fascinating story that I had never heard about the roses at the end of the vines. She said that in the past when horses were used to plow, they often ran over the last vine when they turned the corner. To prevent this, old timers planted roses with thorns that would encourage the horse to skirt the bush with a wider berth in order not to be pricked by the thorns. This sounded like the most logical reason I’ve heard regarding the true origin of rose bushes at the end of vine rows – the most common being for aesthetics or because the rose will show disease issues, such as powdery mildew, before the grape vines. Audrey also told us another rather sordid legend she said was from the Medoc about a man killing his wife and lover, burying their bodies in the vineyard at the end of the row, and planting red roses to hide the bloodstains. Ugh! I prefer the other reasons.

Winemaking = Hand harvest; triage; destem and crush a little; ferment in large oak foudres 3 weeks total maceration with special wooden grid used for pump-over (specific to Figeac). They produce 120,000 bottles per year; age in 100% new French oak with 8 coopers, medium toast; ML in barrel; rack every 3 months. Top every 2 weeks in beginning, then once a month. Fine with egg whites in January. Blend in February and bottle in July. No filtering. The enologist said they do not use protective gases (e.g. nitrogen, argon) in the process and that total free SO2 is around 25.

We were only allowed to taste one wine here, but it was lovely – a 1998 Ch. Figeac selling at around $100E. Ruby red in color, it had a floral nose and palate of cedar, violets, and some minerality. I also thought it had a pleasing touch of bret that added to the complexity. Though over 10 years old, it tasted very fresh with lively acidity and a long finish. Very elegant. Audrey reminded us that the Right Bank often has different preferred vintages than the Left – and that 2001, 1998, and 1982 were better in St. Emilion than the Medoc.

Lunch at Restaurant L’Enver du Deco. St. Emilion

Caroline had made lunch reservations for us at the charming L’enver du Decor restaurant in St. Emilion. Lori accompanied us and helped us select our lunch and wine. We all ended up ordering the Prixe Fixe lunch menu – which I think is always a good deal in France with fresh seasonal dishes. It started with a creamy white asparagus soup, and we each selected a different glass of wine to accompany this and then compared. Mike, my husband, had the local rose; I ordered a white Graves; and Lori had a white Pessac-Leognan. Next course was steak, potatoes and vegetables. We all switched to a red: Mike and I both had a Pomerol –but different vintages and Lori had St. Emilion. Dessert was a creamy pie, and we ended with an espresso and the local canales – small pastries made of egg yellows and placed in a special mold. Afterwards Lori showed us around a few shops, including her favorite local wine shop, and then we said good-bye. Lori kindly drove ahead of us to make sure we made it to Chateau Figeac safely.

Chateau Petite Village - Pomerol

We awoke to slightly cloudy skies, but by late morning they faded away and we were treated to another sunny blue sky with a high of around 68 F. After a pleasant breakfast with Bernard, we packed our luggage and said good-bye, but not before buying 2 bottles of his wine – 2003 to drink now and 2005 to save – as well as 2 of the boxed bottles of merlot salt he was selling. We then headed towards our destination in Pomerol, passing Ausone and Cheval Blanc along the way – both estates I was privileged to visit last April.

We then drove to Chateau Petite Village – a short 10 minute drive through the vineyards, and were greeted by Lori Julia, the PR director who provided an excellent tour of the winery. Originally from San Francisco, Lori spoke excellent English with an American accent. She explained that the rather strange name of the chateau of “petite village” came from the fact that the center of Pomerol was once thought to have been near the chateau. Indeed Pomerol is tiny – consisting of one small main street and a beautiful church. However, all around the village you can see famous names such as Petrus and Le Pin. Lori pointed out these properties to us while we walked around the Petite Village vineyards – the origins of which were thought to be planted in the 18th century.

With only 800 hectares of vineyards in the Pomerol AOC and 140 producers, most are quite small. Petite Village is one of the larger ones with 11 hectares arranged in a triangle shape on gravel, clay, and the distinct red iron pan rock of the region. With 75% planted to merlot, the vines are single guyot with 1.5 to 1.3 spacing and yield 4 to 6 bunches per vine. They achieve 35 hectoliters per hectare and employee lutte raisonnĂ©e viticulture. An interesting fact that Lori shared was that Pomerol is the most expensive vineyard land in Bordeaux ranging from $60k to $2 million Euros per hectare – which calculates out to around $300E per vine. However, Pomerol is not filled with the massive and ancient castles of other regions – but has smaller wineries, with many looking like fancy barns.

At Petite Village, the grapes are picked by hand with the first triage (selection) in the field and another very careful one in the cellar using a sorting table with an elevator that gently lifts the grapes at each phase along the way. They are destemmed, but not crushed and gently transported to new, square, black, cement fermentation tanks (the winery has just been refurbished and looks like a work of art). The tanks are built in different sizes – though it doesn’t show from the outside – to accommodate different sized lots. All grapes are fermented separately by lot and varietal. Indigenous yeast is used with a 3 day cold soak, 10-15 day alcoholic fermentation at 29C, and a post maceration – causing total maceration time to last around 20 days. Pigeage and pump-overs are conducted 3 – 4 times per day. Lori showed us the pigeage pole which looked rather like a large steel pogo-stick.

After fermentation the free run juice is pumped to barrel, while the remainder is pressed with a vertical basket press. ML takes place in barrel with the Chateau Petite Village first label receiving 60-70% new oak for 14-16 months with medium toast. They rack 3 times, adding SO2 as needed. They blend in Jan/Feb in stainless steel tank and fine with egg whites at the same time. The wine is then placed back into barrel before being bottled in April using a mobile bottling line – which is common for smaller wineries in both Pomerol and St. Emilion. There are only 5 full-time employees at Petite Village, though they are part of the famous AXA Millesimes group of 8 European wineries.

We tasted the 2004 and 2005 Ch. Petite Village and found the first to be a dark red garnet with a spicy fruitcake nose and earth, herbs and anise on the palate with fine tannins. It was made in the softer more elegant style of Pomerol, but had the leaner herbal edge of the cooler 2004 vintage. The 2005 was a much darker red-black color with a cassis/plum nose and palate, great velvety tannins and firm structure and med++ acid. Definitely a more concentrated wine, but still possessing the finesse of Pomerol.

Another Sunny (and Lazy) Day in St. Emilion (Sunday, May 3, 2009)

We slept well and enjoyed listening to the crickets and frogs outside of our window. Breakfast is included in the rate of $98 Euros per night to stay at Chateau Monlot, so we headed downsides to the charming dining room where we feasted on good coffee and too many fresh and heavenly croissants of every type. Bernard, the owner, joined us and invited us to join his family for lunch at 1pm, as well as a tour of the wine cellars. What a friendly place! We gladly accepted.

Next we wandered around the sunny grounds of the chateau taking pictures, and then Phillipe – the resident intern from North Carolina who is studying in Bordeaux to learn how to make wine so he can return to North Carolina and start his own winery – took us on a short tour of the vineyards. They are using double guyot on taller and wider spacing here – around 1.5 by 1.5 with primarily clay and sand soils. The vines had a small number of green leaves and just the beginning of clusters, but bloom is still a month or more away. He said they get about 45 hectoliters per hectare (3 tons per acre) – which is the St. Emilion Grand Cru limit. This winery is located in the St. Emilion Grand Cru AOC, rather than the St. Emilion AOC – however, it does not fall into the classifications for Premier Grand Cru Classe A, B, or one of the 55 Grand Cru Classe. For my friends outside of the wine industry, this concept is usually quite confusing – because many people get St. Emilion Grand Cru AOC confused with St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe.

After that we drove about 10 minutes to Pomerol and were able to located Chateau Petite Village where we taste tomorrow. On the way we passed Cheval Blanc, which is on the border of St. Emilion and Pomerol. We also located Chateau Figeac hidden on a knoll in some trees across from Cheval Blanc. It is one of the oldest and largest estates – dating from Roman times, and we will taste there tomorrow afternoon. It makes me sleep easier if I know where we are going the next day.

Arriving back at Chateau Monlot at 1pm, we were ushered into the garden where a lovely table was set out under the magnolia tree for lunch. We met Bernard’s beautiful wife and daughter, and were also joined by Andre the winemaker, Phillipe, the intern, and another couple visiting from London – both in finance and over for the weekend. I always get jealous when I hear of the European lifestyle of jetting to London, Rome, Vienna, or St. Tropez for the weekend. Must be nice! Anyway, we had a long, lazy delightful lunch of 3.5 hours chatting under blue skies and drinking many of Bernard’s wonderful wines. Most everyone spoke English, and we also did a few translations.

We began with a refreshing white Bordeaux from Entre-Deux-Mers with peanuts and chips as an aperitif. The first course was pork pate prepared by Beatrice, Bernard’s wife, and we had it with a high acid sweet Cadillac, which seemed to have an interesting hint of pine on the finish. The main course was lamprois – a local specialty of melt-in-your-mouth river eel from the Garonne. At first my stomach turned a bit when I realized I would be eating a huge “snake,” but it was cooked in red wine with leeks and was quite tasty. It reminded me of slow-cooked short ribs. The color was very dark – almost black – but it was very filling and paired quite well with the earthy merlot wines. Third course was an amazing platter of 4 different local cheeses. This was followed by a pear tart with espresso. The conversation was lively and intelligent, ranging from wine, art, finance, and philosophy. Andre, the winemaker, was able to describe the process of creating the reserve Ch. Monlot 2005 for which they have won several gold medals.

After lunch, we toured the cellars and saw the large cement fermentation tanks, as well as the stainless blending tanks, and the barrel room. They also use basket presses and crusher-destemmer. Phillipe said all grapes are destemmed before using a commercial yeast for fermentation, which lasts approximately one week.

Though we had meant to visit other Open Door wineries in St. Emilion, not surprisingly after the long lunch, we took a one hour nap. Refreshed, we headed back into St. Emilion to wander around and look at all of the ancient structures. We visited the fortress, bell tower, the church and took photos of the famous arch. Eventually we settled down for a light dinner in the main tourist plaza in a small outdoor bistro under the large church tower. Starting with a glass of Cremant de Bordeaux, I quickly switched to a local rose to match my wonderful salad of warm goat cheese with local ham. I think the Cremant was a mixture of sauvignon blanc, Semillon and muscadelle – it tasted like a bubbly white Bordeaux, but had a sweet finish. Not to my taste. Next time I might try a sparkling rose. This was my first time to try a Cremant from Bordeaux. I’ve never seen them in the States where we seem to sell more Cremant de Bourgogne, Loire, or Limoux.

Heading back to our chateau around 9pm, we were surprised to see a lovely pink sunset. It gets dark rather late here, but it was a beautiful ending to a long, lazy, sunny, and perfect day in St. Emilion.

Join the Party at Chateau Monlot, St. Emilion, France (Saturday, May 2, 2009)

My husband and I arrived in Bordeaux on May 2 at 4:40 in the afternoon to a sunny warm 70F degree day. After leaving rainy San Francisco yesterday (May 1) and the long flight to Amsterdam, it was a pleasure to finally arrive at our destination. However, as we exited the plane we were informed that all Americans, Canadians, and Mexicans had to report to security and fill out forms on the swine flu. Despite that small set-back we found our diesel car at Hertz and managed to drive to our hotel, the Chateau Monlot, in less than the hour that Google Map told us it would take. The drive was pleasant, with very little traffic, and the sky was a clear blue with green leaves unfurling in the small vineyards along the way.

As we approached the ancient town of St. Emilion, our directions finally gave out and we found ourselves lost in a maze of tiny roads winding through the vineyards. We had attempted to rent a GPS as last year’s candidate, Robin Langton, had suggested, but Hertz refused this request because we were returning the car to the Bordeaux airport before their office opened due to a 6:15am departure time on May 9. Fortunately Portes Ouvertes was going on in St. Emilion that weekend, so we saw many small red signs along the road pointing the way to wineries -- and then we saw one for our hotel, Chateau Monlot. That’s when we realized our hotel was also a winery! Portes Ouvertes, by the way, means “Doors Open,” and this weekend was winery open house in St. Emilion. How very fortunate!

So when we arrived at Chateau Monlot – a lovely old yellow limestone manor house in the vineyards 5k from St. Emilion, we found the owner, Bernard, holding a wine party in the garden. We were promptly invited to join as soon as we settled into our charming room on the second floor with private bath overlooking the back gardens and vineyards. Back in the wine garden, we were introduced to other guests visiting from the UK, USA, and Holland, and then were handed multiple glasses of wonderful estate wine – made primarily from merlot (90%) with 10% cabernet sauvignon. The AOC is St. Emilion Grand Cru and the wines showed refined tannins, dark fruit, and elegance. Very nice! We tasted through vintages 2003 – 2007, and found them all to be quite different. Some people preferred the more pronounced and chewy tannins of the 2007; whereas others expressed admiration for the fruit forward softer structure of 2003. The 2005 was massive and serious.

Around 7:30pm people started making dinner plans and we were invited to go to dinner with several other guests, but declined because we wanted to spend a romantic evening alone. So we headed into St. Emilion, found a parking place, and wandered along the amazing cobblestone streets admiring the views of the hills, church, and ancient structures. Reading menus we tried to find a table at 3 different restaurants, but they were all “complet” due to the holiday weekend. Eventually someone told us to try La Cote Brassie which was a charming place nestled in a yellow limestone cave with tiny candle lit tables. We ordered the $22 Euro prix fixe, which was an amazing deal: 4 courses, beginning with foie gras, then escargot, roasted duck breast, and then a salad and cheese plate for dessert. We shared a class of Sauternes to go with the foie gras, but made the mistake of ordering the very sad and insipid reserve house merlot for dinner. Though the wine did improve slightly by the third course, we made a vow to spend more money on good wine at the next meal.

Walking back to our car through the deserted winding streets was very romantic with a half-full moon and the sky full of stars. Of course, we got lost on the short drive back to the chateau because the streets are primarily one-way in St. Emilion and they forced us to leave the town in the opposite direction from which we entered. Fortunately we found some more of the small red Portes Ouvertes signs and eventually made it back to our hotel around 10:30pm.

Back to Bordeaux - May 2009

I was very excited to get a chance to go back to Bordeaux this Spring of 2009. This was due to a scholarship from the Commanderie de Bordeaux and the MW Program. Caroline, in their main office, organized my schedule and set up all the visits. To her, I am extremely grateful because I know how many hours of work this takes.

The following sections of this blog describe the wineries I visited on this trip -- beginning on the Right Bank, then along the Left Bank and ending in Entre duex Mers. I've also included hotel and restaurant information, as well as driving tips.