Saturday, June 27, 2009

Chateau Palmer, 3rd Growth, Margaux

It was a short drive to our 3pm appointment at Palmer where we were welcomed by Celine, the PR Director. As she walked us to the vineyard, it felt as if it were in the high 80’s F and we wished we had brought lighter clothing. Palmer has always been a personal favorite of ours as a special occasion wine, and it was nice to finally visit the chateau. Celine informed us that they have 55 hectares and adjoin Chateau Margaux. They have no clay, and are primarily gravel with sand – situated on the top of the Margaux terrace. The vines average 40 years old with 47% merlot; 47% cab, and 6% PV. What is unique about Palmer is that the owners decided to plant so much merlot on the best land – which is normally reserved for cab. This is because they love merlot – it is a “heart decision” – and the results show in such an elegant velvety wine.

The vineyard practices and winemaking are rather traditional. Vineyard: 1 by 1m spacing, 10,000 vines per hectare; rootstock – 3309 and Ripara. 8 buds per vine; luttee raisonnee; green harvest in July. They also employ Danish students for harvest and have 40 full-time employees.

Winemaking: triage; destem/light crush; ferment with selected yeast (F13) in cone-shaped stainless (49 different sizes) at 28-29C for 8-10 days alcoholic – 20 days total maceration. Delestage. ML in both tanks and barrel. Vertical press with 10-15% of pressed wine in gran vin. Age 21 months in 50-55% new oak (16 months in 25-30% new for 2nd label); medium to medium+ toast with 6 coopers. Top every 2 weeks for first 3 months; then every 3 months with racking. Fine in oak with 5 egg whites per barrel (boxed eggs); followed by 2 more rackings. Blend in February. Finish in June. Light filter before bottling.

We tasted 4 wines: 2001 Alter Ego Palmer – 67% merlot; ruby; nose of earth and violets; complex palate with leather and dark fruit. 2008 Alter Ego Palmer – opaque red-purple; bright grapey nose; ripe on palate with velvety tannins and moderate complexity. 2008 Chateau Palmer – 51% merlot; opaque red-purple with black depths; very floral nose with dark fruit and minerality; Concentrated; velvety tannins; long finish. 1996 Chateau Palmer – opaque dark garnet; secondary notes of truffle and leather; very fresh on the palate with great acid, coffee and dark fruit. Complex; very long finish. Yes!

Chateau d’Issan, 3rd Growth, Margaux

Do not follow Google Map directions to Chateau d’Issan or you will find yourself on a road that passes the front of the chateaux, but where there is no access. By the time we had figured this out, we were 15 minute late to our next appointment with Clarisse, the PR Director at Chateau d’Issan who had spent time studying English in both New York and Seattle and had a delightful American accent. She also has exuberant energy and walked us around the vineyards and through the ancient fortress from the 1600’s with its own moat -- explaining the history and telling us that Eleanor of Aquitaine was served the wine of d’Issan at her wedding. Very impressive.

The chateau is large with 110 hectares, but only 40 of which are Margaux AOC. The others are Bordeaux Superior. Clarisse showed us that the Margaux vineyards were slightly higher and on clay and limestone, with some gravel and sand. They produce 100,000 bottles of Margaux, and employ Danish students to help with harvest.

Winemaking is traditional: triage, destem, another triage, crush. Davis yeast added to stainless steel tanks ranging from 70 to 200 hectoliters in capacity. A shorter fermentation from 10-14 days at 28C with 2 gentle pumpovers per day (remontage). ML also takes place in stainless. 5-8% of pneumatic pressed wine is added to the free run for the gran vin. Aging takes places in 50% new oak for 18 months, medium toast. They blend and fine in January, and undergo a light filtration using mobile bottling.

Clarisse shared two fascinating facts with us. The first is that she had to create more than 150 back labels for the 2007 vintage – in order to meet the requirements of all of the countries to which they export. The second was her terrifying tale of the hail storm that destroyed more than 50% of their 2008 crop in less than one hour. She showed us several vine shoots, and we were shocked to see how large the large hail dents were.

The tasting consisted of two wines from that fateful vintage, which of course, turned out to be quite good after all. The first was the 2008 Blason d’Issan which was a dark purple-blue color with a ripe grapey fruit nose/palate with some spice and a touch of violets on the finish. Good concentration and easy to enjoy. The 2008 Chateau d’Issan was opaque red-purple with a navy hue. It had a lovely perfumed nose of violets and earth, with good concentration, subtle spices and a long finish.

Lunch at Le Lion d’Or Restaurant, Arcins

After Cos, we headed South on the D2 and stopped to take photos of Lafite and Pichon – two estates I had visited last year while it was raining. Finally I could get a nice photo of them in the sun. Then we drove to the small village of Arcins where Caroline had kindly made reservations for us at this very famous Medoc restaurant, and we were impressed to find that every table had a reserved name tent on it with the name of person dining – including ours. Bottles of all of the top chateaux filled the wine shelves along the wall, and soon every table was filled with chattering customers – many bringing in their own bottles of wine. It was obviously a very popular place filled with wine industry elite.

As usual, we ordered the menu of the day and were very impressed at the amount of food we received for only $15E per person – including a glass of red Bordeaux! Not knowing this, we ordered a half bottle of white Graves. It went well with the first two courses of pate and then a vegetable soup. The main course was fish stew in a spicy red sauce which paired very well with the glass of red wine. Next were cheese; then dessert; and finally coffee in the outdoor patio. A very good experience.

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, 2nd Growth, St. Estephe

Another sunny day and beautiful breakfast at Chateau Beausejour, and then we checked out because we were relocating to downtown Bordeaux that evening. It turned out to be an extremely hot day – in the mid 80’s, which I’m sure broke some temperature records for the region. When I called home to Sonoma, we discovered it has been raining there since we left—while Bordeaux had been sunny and warm. Rather ironic that California was much cooler than France, but then Sonoma/Napa really needed the rain.

Chateau Cos d’Estournel, 2nd Growth, St. Estephe – we were greeted by the Marketing Director, Geraldine, at Cos d’Estournel, which is still undergoing renovation. Despite this, it is nevertheless an amazing architectural feat with its sandstone walls and Oriental pagoda towers, as well as the elephant motif. We had read the history of the chateau and enjoyed the colorful stories about the wine being shipped to India and back in the1800’s because Louis Gaspard believed they tasted better after the journey. They have a museum in the visitor center which documents some of these tales and more, and they also sell logo wear including polo shirts and the famous silk scarves.

Geraldine started our tour in the vineyard and we had to dodge bull-dozers and walk on boards to reach it. The first thing we noticed was the grass growing between the rows – something that is quite rare in Bordeaux, as most estates like to show off their gravel. Geraldine said they have 91 hectares with south facing slopes, of which 70% are cab; 28% merlot; and 2% CF. They are primarily clay and limestone with less gravel than Pauillac. They use GPS in the vineyard; prune to 8 buds per vine, and harvest 30-35 hectoliters per hectare (27 in 2008).

I must admit though, that the vineyards are eclipsed by the amazing newly renovated cellar. The amount of money that went into building this must be staggering, and I would imagine may take years to achieve a decent ROI. It is a 3 level gravity flow operation beginning with triage; a cold tunnel; and destem/crush on the top level after which the grapes are gently rolled to the tank openings in small stainless boxes on wheels. I asked if that slowed down the process a bit, and she admitted that they had a bit of back-up with the 2008 vintage (the first to be processed in the cellar), and were trying to work out the kinks.

The second level holds the most impressive display of cone-shaped stainless tanks I have ever seen. The cellar looks like a work of art with 72 bronze colored tanks which range in size from 19 to 115 hectoliters in order to accommodate different sized parcels. Probably the most amazing aspect is that they have installed 4 elevators so that the wine never has to be pumped -- but is instead gently lifted to perform delestage (pulling juice from the bottom of the tank to cascade over the cap which follows the cone shape so that the juice re-integrates and extracts differently each time.) The only time they pump is to clean the tanks with water. Fermentation takes place with natural yeast, and ML is performed partially in tank and completed in barrel. Only 7% of pressed juice, using a vertical basket press, is combined with the free run for the gran vin.

Obviously the bottom floor (3rd level) is the barrel room, and they have broken tradition to combine 1st and 2nd year barrel rooms into one very large one. The gran vin receives 80% new oak (40% on the second label); medium toast from 8 coopers; 18 months. Racking, topping, and fining with pasteurized egg whites is the same process used at other estates. There is a gentle filtration before bottling. 80% of wine is exported with the USA, UK, and Japan being the largest markets. Production ranges from 200,000 to 350,000 bottles per year.

Geraldine treated us to a vertical tasting of the 2003, 2004, and 2005, which was a sheer delight since I am so enamored of St. Estephe. The difference in the vintages shown through quite clearly: 2003 Cos – opaque ruby with slight garnet edge; ripe fruit, spice and cassis on the nose/palate; soft velvety tannins; plush. 2004 Cos – opaque red-black; beets and earth on the nose; closed with minerality and coffee on the palate; sharp tannins and acid. 2005 Cos – opaque red-black; elegant cassis nose; dark fruit, tea, spice, and minerals on the palate with a perfect balance of med++ acid; tannins; allspice oak. Excellent complexity and well concentrated with a surprising red fruit finish.

Dinner at Chateau Pomys, St. Estephe

When Mike and I visited Bordeaux in 1996, we toured Ch. Mouton-Rothschild and stayed overnight at Chateau Pomys where we had a memorable stay. Wanting to revisit such a happy memory, we made dinner reservations at Pomys and found it to be just delightful as the last time. It was a warm evening and the crickets chirped cheerfully as we made our way to our table around 7:30pm. Though their wine list is not extensive, we wanted to try the estate wine, which is St. Estephe AOC – one of my favorites, as I really enjoy the austere style. The wine steward recommended the 2002 Ch. Pomys, which she said was opening up nicely. We agreed, and enjoyed tasting the wine as it evolved through the meal, with a lovely sharp acid, minerality and dark fruit. They had several menu choices, but we decided to opt for the one that began with foie gras served in a crème brulee style. We had a glass of sweet Bordeaux white with this, which was a nice pairing. The main course was beef for Mike and lamb for me (though rather overcooked), and I ended with the cheese plate while he tried the chocolate dessert. A very delightful dinner and walk down memory lane.

Chateau Talbot – 4th Growth, St. Julien

Next stop was Chateau Talbot, about 10 minutes drive south of Pauillac in St. Julien, and hidden behind a lush curtain of green ivy covering its ancient walls. We were met by Jean-Pierre Marty, and appreciated his practical approach to winemaking and international experience – having worked all over the world making wine, including Australia and China. Starting in the vineyard, he explained that St. Julien has a different quality of gravel and sandy clay than Pauillac and with less limestone. Like many estates they use no weed killer or insecticides, but will use non-organic sprays when necessary to combat disease. They attach the small brown boxes of “confusion sexual” to the vines to thwart moths – which we saw in most every vineyard, and are also a common practice in Burgundy.

They plow 4 times per year; have 3-4 buds per guyot, and prefer not to do green harvest, if possible. They use a system where each worker is assigned a specific plot in the vineyard for which he/she is responsible – and is paid according to results. Jean-Pierre explained that this is different from some of the team approaches used by other estates – and fosters a strong feeling of commitment in the workers. They are quite large with 107 hectares (5 in white) with 66% cab; 25% merlot and the rest in PV/CF. Average vine age is 35 years with the majority on 3309, 101-13 and ripara rootstock. 50 hectoliters per hectare.

Winemaking is traditional to the region, with the exception of an amazing new sorting machine for the second label called a Tribaei de Triviti. Though still with some issues as a new technology, we were surprised to learn that it can mechanically deselect up to 15% of grapes to avoid “greenness” by using a “flood of juice.” Fermentation with selected yeasts takes place in both large wooden foudres equipped with micro-ox and stainless steel (both cone-shaped). Maceration 3 weeks; delestage (more vigorous pumpover which involves pumping all wine from bottom of the tank to top to flood the marc); and ML in tank. He believes that the wooden foudres provide better extraction but they are much more difficult to clean and maintain. Liquid sulfur protects the wine in tank while going through ML. Aging in 50-60% new oak; medium toast. Only rack 3 times per year; blend in June. Free SO2 = 30-35. 43 full-time employees. Mobile bottling (they were bottling when we arrived).

We tasted 3 wines: the 2008 Chateau Talbot, which was a dark ruby with bright fruity nose/palate and velvety tannins. Good concentration, but not too heavy. Elegant, medium++ finish, nice acid. 2005 Constable Talbot – earthy cedar nose with a hint of bret on nose; herbal cherry on palate. Ripe tannins. A good food wine. 2005 Chateau Talbot – medium ruby with purple depths; cedar, coffee and minerality on the nose, with dark fruit on the palate and none of the touches of green we found on the Constable. Very good balance with med++ acid, big tannins, and a powerful finish.

Chateau Pontet-Canet, 5th Growth, Pauillac

After departing Margaux we drove north along the D2, passing many famous chateaux until we came to Pauillac. We had the prix fixe menu at the charming Pauillac Café along the river, and then made our way to Chateau Pontet-Canet, where we met with the very charming Jean-Michel Comme, viticulture and winemaking director. With his perfect French-accented English, he regaled us with the progress of biodynamics in the vineyard, and we watched fascinated while a large draft horse pulled a plow through rows to aerate the soil.

The story at Pontet-Canet is all about their transition to biodynamics that was slowed slightly in 2007 when they were forced to spray with non-organic substances to halt the assault of powdery mildew. However they are back on track this year with great reviews on the 2008 en primeur. The chateau is over 300 years old; has 81 hectares with spacing ranging from 1 x1 or .95 x 1.2 on primarily 3309 and 101-14 rootstock, with an average of 6 buds on double guyot yielding 35 hectoliters per hectare. It is 62% cabernet sauvignon with the remainder being merlot (32%) and cabernet franc/petite verdot. 14 hectares have been converted to biodynamic farming.

Jean-Michel views the vines as children, which must be trained properly during the pruning season “with rules” so that they are in balance the rest of the year. By doing this well, he attempts to avoid such practices as hedging, suckering, and green harvest. His passionate viewpoints on the subject make him fascinating to listen to, and he appears to be a first-mover in the Medoc by advocating these practices – which are more common in Burgundy and parts of California. He says the “soil is alive” and must be nursed back to health after years of abuse.

Most of the story here is in the vineyards, but the winemaking practices are also novel in that he believes in having someone “watch” the fermentation constantly to “listen to and smell” any nuances of change – rather than rely on electronic readings. Grapes are hand-picked in small 7-8 kilo lugs; triage; destem/crush; natural yeast; no saignee. Fermentation takes place in cone-shaped cement vats with standard pump-overs – 3-4 weeks total maceration. Pneumatic press; 66% new oak; standard elevage practices yielding around 350,000 bottles with 50 full-time employees.

Though he offered us a chance to sample any vintage, we asked to try the 2008 Chateau Pontet-Canet which he was so enthusiastic about. After tasting it, we could see why. The wine was purple-black opaque with incredible concentration and a very rich nose of ripe fruit, cigar box, and herbs. The texture was velvety with a very long finish, and a touch of cranberry. My husband enjoyed it so much, that on Thursday night we purchased a bottle of the 2005 second label for $29E at E. Leclerc – which we were told carries the best selection of wine in France (indeed we were amazed to find a grocery store that sells Petrus and a vertical selection of Mouton Rothschild!). The wine took about an hour to open up and greeted us with ripe simple fruit on the nose/palate. However after 60 minutes, it transitioned into a lush, deep cassis with layers of complex flavors.

Interestingly enough, however, we left about a glass in the bottle and tried it the next evening to find that it had already turned. This was in sharp contrast to the 2003 St. Emilion from Ch. Monlot which still had a bright acid and fresh spice after being open for 3 days. Regardless, Ch. Pontet-Canet has now become a new favorite of my husband, and I am very intrigued by the biodynamic journey of the estate and wish them the utmost success.

Chateau Kirwan, 3rd Growth, Margaux

We awoke to a sunny blue sky, and I spent an hour relaxing in our private living room reading over my research notes on the wineries we were to visit that day. Conveniently hot water and tea were available before breakfast. The evening before, Annie had asked us what time we wanted to eat, and we had agreed on 8:30am. Therefore, at the appointed time, we entered the all white dining room to a crackling fire in the white fireplace. The large dining room table, which comfortably seated six, was covered with an antique white lace tablecloth and a very beautifully arranged petite dejuener of coffee in a French press (obviously), warm milk, orange juice, fresh croissants, home-made bread; home-made marmalade and other jams. Annie wished us a friendly “bonjour” and then brought out organic yogurt with fresh strawberries. In the background, opera music was playing. A very tasty and elegant way to start the day.

Chateau Kirwan, 3rd Growth, Margaux – first stop on the day’s schedule was Chateau Kirwan in Margaux. We were greeted by owner Nathalie Shyler, who spoke perfect English, and escorted around the grounds, vineyards and cellars. We were accompanied by her charming female assistant from Poland. Nathalie has won numerous awards for wine tourism, and it is obvious why. She exudes warm hospitality and passion for the estate. Chateau Kirwan is an incredibly beautiful place with an 18th century chateau, lovely gardens, and a brand new state-of-the-art visitor center where they offer such varied events as wine dinners and kids fun day at the winery. Very clever and unique!

Starting in the vineyards, she explained that they have 37 hectares (170,000 bottles) with some gravel on top, but layers of deep clay underneath – very good for merlot. The issue is that the clay gets so hard that they need to install PVC pipes to drain it – terra cotta pipes in the old days. She mentioned that many of the Margaux properties, including Chat. Margaux (which I visited last April) and d’Issan, have to installed drains deep in the vineyard to drain the water. The vines are on double guyot, which is common in Bordeaux with an average of 28 years in age. Spacing is 1 by 1 meter. Pruning is 4 buds per guyot or 8 clusters per vine. Viticulture is lutte raisonnée. Green harvest in July.

It was after this visit that I began to appreciate how challenging viticulture is in Margaux. Not only do they have the challenge of clay soil and drainage, but Nathalie also described the process of “lou sor so lage (English pronunciation). This involves using a tractor with “big knives” to cut 1.5 meters deep into the clay soil every 2 years to break it up so the vines can grow better. She said that in 2008, they only achieved 29 hectoliters per hectare – though the AOC allows 50-53.

Another fascinating story with this visit is the Irish connection to Bordeaux. I never knew that many Irish came to Bordeaux in the late 1700’s – just as they came to the USA – to flee religious prosecution and famine. At that time, Bordeaux was an industrious port with many ships and much lucrative trade, so it was an attractive place to relocate for the Irish. Nathalie said that Kirwan is an Irish name, as well as Lynch-Bages and Barton. The Irish were called the “wine geese” because they “flew” from Ireland to Bordeaux. She also said that O’Brien (Haut Brion) is an Irish name, though when we visited Haut Brion they told us it was from the old French and means “little hill.” I suspect that both explanations are correct.

Winemaking: Hand harvest; 46 separate parcels; triage; destem and crush; ferment in combination of stainless (inox) and cement. Davis yeast; 2-3 weeks maceration – if too many tannin, stop earlier. Goal is elegance. Press in vertical basket press. Do ML in tank/cement. 60% new oak; medium toast; 4 coopers. Blend in January, and then back in barrel. 2 cellars (first and second year – as is common). Racking every 3 months. Fine in barrel with egg whites in 2nd winter. Bottle in July with mobile bottling truck; light filtration. 20 full-time employees with up to 50 at harvest. Uses traceability software to track grapes/wine by parcel/plot.

When we asked about SO2, she showed us the small tablets they place on the bottom of the iron ring that goes into the barrel to clean it (burn) between rackings. She said they use 4 grams of sulfur at harvest and 2 grams at each racking – in general. The tablets appeared to be pure sulfur to me – yellow in color with a hole in the middle, rather like a lifesaver.

We also asked about the HACCP system and she confirmed it was now required in France – especially for export. They document and trace all steps of the process. I also asked about water and if it was recycled. She said there is a local coop for wineries to handle water waste, but that they have developed their own system and filter their waste water in a pond below ground. They pay to have it taken away by truck – which she said is common in the Medoc. We also discussed the French law requirement of submitting all lees and dried grape skins/seeds to the government for distillation. Again, this is not a law we have in the USA.

Nathalie mentioned that she was very happy about the advances in water recycling. She told us some horror stories – which were repeated by our guide at Cos d’Estournel – of the old days in which the estuaries and streams ran red during crush with the waste water from the vintages. Frogs, fish, and other animals died because of wine waste polluting the water. Now that has all stopped. Thanks goodness for progress.

We tasted the second label, 2006 Charmes de Kirwan first: ruby color, cassis/plum/herbs on nose with a spicy pepper finish on the palate. Good balance of acid, tannins, and fruit. Medium bodied. Next was the 2003 Chateau Kirwan: glowing ruby color; big fruit nose with plum and fruitcake on nose/palate. Very fresh with medium tannins and med+acid – in the fruit forward style of the hot vintage of 2003.

Hotel – Chateau Beausejou, Listrac-Medoc

We departed St. Emilion around 4:15pm and drove to our next hotel located in Listrac-Medoc. This time Google Map provided perfect directions and we arrived in exactly the 1 hour 5 minute time suggested. Perhaps I had mentioned to Caroline that today was our 24th wedding anniversary, and that is why she booked us into such a romantic French country manor house – because that is the only way you can describe Chateau Beausejour. With its lovely white limestone façade; built in the 1800’s, you are met at the door by owner Annie accompanied by her white Dalmatian dog. The house is divided in two parts with separate doors for the guest quarters (3 bedrooms) and the other side for the owners. Since no one else was there, Annie told us we had the whole bottom suite to ourselves. This included a living room with fireplace; bedroom; bathroom, and lovely balcony with table and chairs overlooking the garden – and all for $80E, breakfast included.

“White” is the first term that comes to mind in describing the house, with “romantic” and “feminine” as second and third. Obviously with an artistic and interior decorator background, Annie had decorated the house in French country antiques stained with old white finish and swaths of white filmy fabric and bows. Our bedroom had ballerinas painted along the ceiling with flowers flowing up the walls. Antique dressers; wardrobe, and even antique lingerie and old hats were used as decoration. Interior design books lay on table tops which lovely photos of other French country chateaux that matched ours.

It was fortunate that I always travel with music and was able to set up my MP3 player and speakers to add more romance to a room that ushered you back 100 years. With no TV, radio, telephone, Internet – my husband was at loss for a while. However, we unpacked with Annie’s help and then had a refreshing drink on our private patio overlooking the garden. I also recorded all of my winery visit notes into the MP3, which I try to do every time I travel so I do not forget the details of the visits.

Annie made us dinner reservations at Pavilon de Margaux, and we relaxed a bit before dressing for our anniversary dinner. The drive to the restaurant through vineyards and fields filled with yellow flower was beautiful – only 20 minutes to Margaux – but unfortunately we were not that hungry due to the large lunch. Therefore we just ordered an entree – to the obvious disappointment of the maitre’de – but both were exquisite. Mine was turbot wrapped in buckwheat pancake and incredibly moist and delectable. Mike had pork piled in artistic layers with potatoes and vegetables. To celebrate we ordered champagne. A lovely short dinner. Back at Annie’s we opened Barnard’s 2003 St. Emilion Grand Cru AOC and enjoyed a glass on the balcony before slipping into the big white bed with white lace sheets and down comforters.