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.