Friday, July 31, 2009

Virginia Wines – Fun, Elegant and Distinctive

It’s hard to believe that Virginia is now 5th in the nation in terms of wine production, but it is true according to several Virginia wineries I have visited this past week. What’s more – Virginia has over 140 different wineries and 7 AVA’s (American Viticulture Areas). The most prolific AVA in terms of total number of wineries and highest production rate is the Monticello AVA – where Thomas Jefferson’s famous house and estate are located. At the same time, there are also many wineries about one hour’s drive outside of Washington DC in what is called “Mid-Northern Virginia, but is not yet an AVA. I was fortunate enough to visit both areas, as well as the Shenandoah AVA, and I found the wines to be elegant and food friendly. Maps and directions can be found at

This was not my first time to taste Virginia wines, as I’ve tried them at the Unified Conference in California each year during their trade show tasting, as well as during the Grand Harvest wine competitions. I’ve always been very impressed by the viogniers – for which Virginia has already achieved much acclaim, but while here this week, I found myself equally impressed with some of the cabernet francs and petite verdots. In addition, they seem to be experimenting with other unique varietals, as we encountered tannat, touriga national, rkatsiteli and others!

We flew into Dulles on Saturday, June 27th and then drove 2 hours to the Massanutten Resort in the Shenandoah Mountains. It is a beautiful resort with 2 golf courses and a ski area, as well as many activities. Our condo is perched high on the hillside and we are surrounded by the tree covered hills. Just a few miles up the road is the famous Skyline Drive that runs along the Appalachian Trail.

On first glance, it doesn’t appear to be a place where you would think of planting grapes. There are many trees which had to be cut down, the weather is humid, and the soil is primarily red clay. However, there are several wineries within a 20 minutes drive, and one hour away is Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia; Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home; and a multitude of wineries. Of course, this is where Jefferson had his original vision of growing grapes and encouraging every family to live the Agrarian Ideal by farming and making wine. Unfortunately, though he tried to plant his vineyard 7 different times between 1774 and 1816, it always failed due to the powdery and downy mildew that haunt this part of the world. Today, however, his vision is alive and well, and there is a burgeoning pride in Virginia wine.

The first night we arrived, we stopped at a grocery store and I bought a bottle of 2005 Merlot from the Williamsburg Winery in southern Virginia. It was a great deal at $9 and we weren’t sure what to expect, but it was pleasant, elegant with subdued plum fruit and soft tannins. Definitely more European in nature that the big concentrated fruity wines of California. However, it paired quite well with the meatballs we had the first evening – around 11pm when we finally made it to our condo, after a 3 hour plane delay in SFO. However, it was only 8pm at home, so we were still wide awake.

Waking up the next morning, however, was more challenging, and if the front desk hadn’t called us at 9am to invite us to a timeshare presentation who knows when we would have awoken. We politely declined the presentation and enjoyed coffee on the deck in the warm 80 F weather while viewing the amazing Appalachian Mountains rising around us.

After checking out the resort and golf courses, we had lunch at the Fareways Restaurant and I was delighted to see that they offered a flight of 4 Virginia wines for only $6. Of course, I promptly ordered it, and they brought it out with impressive presentation on a wooden board with all 4 wines proudly presented and a card describing each wine. I am always pleased to see restaurants which feature local wineries in this way, even though they were missing vintage dates:

Rapidan River Semi-Dry Riesling with a rather subdued nose for a Riesling but citrus and peach on the palate and diesel plus residual sugar (RS) on the finish. Simple and straight-forward, but we found out later it was actually “American” grapes made in Virginia.
Horton Rkatsitel – lovely floral nose; honeysuckle, peach and citrus palate. Good attack, but rather cloying finish with some yeasty notes. I had only had a Rkatsitel once before – from Bulgaria – and I thought the Virginia one was better made. The most prolific grape in Russia, this is a varietal that is not often found, so it was fun to be able to try it. There was a trace of RS on this one, but not as sweet at the Riesling.
Prince Michel Merlot – Red berry and plum nose; medium bodied with a very tart finish and high acid. Not as elegant as the merlot we had the evening before, but the acid allowed it to work well with food. It paired well with my sirloin burger.
Prince Michel Cabernet Franc – Lovely violet nose, medium body, but strong herbal palate with sour finish.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Chateau de Crain, Entre-Deux-Mers

I had never visited this part of Bordeaux before and was surprised to see how lushly green it is with rolling hills and many ancient chateaux and fortresses. It was only a 20 minute drive from the restaurant to Chateau de Crain, and yet it felt like we had quickly entered another world. Entre Deux Mers is one of the oldest parts of Bordeaux and it seems to have a magical unspoiled quality – almost as if fairies might live in the fields and trees.

We found Chateau de Crain quite easily as there were signs posted, and even though we arrived 10 minutes early, the owner Marie-Cecile Fougere was there to meet us. I had specifically requested to visit a winery in this area, and was pleased to see that Marie-Cecile was dressed like a California winemaker – in jeans and a black long sleeved shirt. The winery is separate from the ancient chateau that looks like a fairytale castle from the distance. However, Marie-Cecile told us that it is drafty and vacant, and that she lives in a small house behind the castle.

The winery, which looks like an ancient stone barn, is apparently the oldest chai in Bordeaux with the estate being described in records in 1290. Marie-Cecile said they have 47 hectares of red and 11 of white. The red (merlot, cab, CF, malbec) is Bordeaux AOC and Bordeaux Superior AOC, as only white wine (SB, Sem, Sauvignon Gris, and Muscadelle) falls under the Entre-Deux-Mers AOC. The soil is clay and limestone, and we could clearly see the white of the limestone in the dirt road. She told us that there were huge caves under the vineyards where they had quarried for limestone, and that for many years the caves had also been used to grow mushrooms. However, now the estate only focused on wine.

In the vineyards the spacing is wider at 2 meters x 1 meter to allow for mechanical harvesting. They have around 5000 vines per hectare, and though on double guyot, the trellising appeared higher to me. Total buds per vine are 12. They hedge and de-leaf mechanically as well. Method: lutte raisonne, with a consultant from the coop coming in once a week to check for insects, disease, etc – rather like the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) process in the US.

In the cellars, they produce around 250,000 bottles of red and 60,000 of white. Marie-Cecile says that even though they harvest mechanically, she personally performs triage on all of the grapes as they enter the cellar. For the whites, she does 20 hours of skin contact at a low temperature; crushes using a pneumatic press, and then ferments in stainless for 1 month at 15-20C using a selected sauvignon yeast. The wine does not go through ML or see time in oak, but she lets it rest on the lees and does some battonage in tank. She fines with bentonite, assembles one month before bottling and filters.

The reds are destemmed/crushed and then go through 4-5 days of cold stabilization in stainless steel (inox) tank before adding Mediterranean yeast. She ferments at 22-28C with a total of 1 month maceration. She hires a man to do pigeage 2 to 3 times a day in the beginning, and then does remontage with a little oxygen to finish. ML is also finished in tank, and then she presses and puts part of the wine in large 300 liter American oak barrels. The Bordeaux AOC gets 1 month, and the Bordeaux Superior receives 6 months. She purchases 40 new barrels each year, and only wants a “touch of oak” on her wines.

We tasted out of tank, which was rather fun. Starting with the 2008 Chateau de Crain Blanc, it was still cloudy, but had a fresh grassy nose; minerality on the palate and a very high acid. Marie-Cecile said it paired well with oysters. We then moved onto the 2008 Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superior in tank and tasted different lots. It was enlightening to see the variation in each one. Some were filled with ripe fruit, whereas others were harshly tannic. At the end she opened a magnum of 2006 Chateau de Crain Bordeaux Superior which was a dark ruby with ripe fruit, a hint of spicy American oak and vanilla. It was rich with soft tannins, and I would enjoy drinking it with food. We tried to buy a bottle of her white, but she ended up giving it to us. How very kind.

Chateau de Crain is able to produce all of their wine with only 5 full-time employees and a few consultants. Marie-Cecile sells much of the red to Carrefour, as well as to restaurants in Paris, the Novetel hotel chain, and small wine shops in France. She exports 20% to Japan, UK, Germany Switzerland and Florida.

Heading Back to Sonoma, California – since we had enjoyed such a large and late lunch, we just made a green salad and snacked on pate, cheese and wine back at the hotel while we packed. When the alarm went off at 4:30am, it was difficult to get up. As we stepped out of the hotel, we were surprised to find it was raining. Amazing that we had a whole sunny and warm week in Bordeaux, and the day we depart, it starts to rain. Thanks for being so kind to us – Bordeaux!

The flight home was uneventful. KLM treated us well in coach and gave us wine from South Africa. We left Bordeaux at 6:15am on Saturday, May 9 and arrived back in San Francisco at 1:10pm on May 9. The weather was sunny and warm. My mother told us it had rained the whole time we were in France, and that yesterday was the first sunny day. Perhaps the sun was following us?

Lunch at Jean Marie Amat Restaurant in Bordeaux

Since May 8 is a holiday in France, we were not sure if we would find restaurants open. So the evening before we attempted to make an online reservation at the very famous Jean Marie Amat in the gutted Chateau du Prince Noir. Barnard from Chateau Monlot had recommended it – providing a nice article written by the New York Times. However, by morning we had still not heard back from them, so I telephoned and was delighted to hear them say they had received my request and were holding a table for us at 1pm.

Unfortunately finding the restaurant is much more difficult than making online reservations. We got hopelessly lost in the old and hilly town of Lormont across the bridge from Bordeaux. We finally called the restaurant for directions and they asked if we had a GPS. When we said no, I could hear them sigh into the telephone. Eventually however, we found it by their clue that it was behind a grocery store.

The site is impressive – encased in the old Chateau overlooking the bridge. Décor is modern with white Corian tables and no table cloths. I really enjoyed the large framed photographs of the hands of winemakers. We ordered the famous 30E lunch menu with glasses of white and red wine. It was absolutely heaven, and the service was perfect. I would eat here again anytime.

The lunch menu started with an amuse bouche of fish soup. First course was tartare de thon aux olives, which looked like a sculpture on the plate with a pleasing scoop of beet sorbet. We enjoyed both of these dishes with a white Graves. Next was pastille de pigeon et salade d’herbes. Mike described it as spicy pigeon with pine nuts, saffron and cinnamon encased in pastry. It was heavenly. The salad was the freshest I’ve ever tasted with mint, basil, and a spring carrot that looked like it had just been picked from the garden. We had this course with a Bordeaux Rouge that was very well made. Dessert was ananas – a masterpiece of caramelized and grilled pineapple on a bed of chopped mango, apple, tiny strawberries and garnish of fresh spearmint. It was served with a side of pineapple sorbet. We finished with coffee, canales, and small petite fours. Wow!

Chateau Haut-Bailly, Cru Classe de Graves

Only about a 5 minute drive and we arrived at Haut-Bailly to be greeted by Noemie, the Marketing/PR Director who provided an excellent tour. We started in the vineyards, where we saw that they had a mixed field blend of cab, merlot, and CF – fascinating. The soil is gravel and sand – very porous and as they are on a small hill (48 meters), it is excellent for cabernet sauvignon of which they have 64% planted on their 30 hectares of red.

Some of the vines are quite old – up to 90 years. Double guyot, 8 buds. 1x1 spacing, 10,000 vines per hectare, achieving 45 hectoliters per hectare. Noemie was the first person to use the word “sustainable farming” instead of lutte raisonee. They perform green harvesting as needed.

Winemaking: triage, destem/crush, ferment in cement tanks ranging in size from 35 to 70 hectoliters. They begin with a 3 day cold maceration, and use both selected and natural yeast. Total maceration is 2 to 3 weeks with gentle pumpovers (remontage) twice a day – 28C. They prefer elegant wine with soft tannins. Free run and a minor percentage of Bucher pressed wine goes into 50-60% new oak for ML and 16 months aging in medium toast with 8 coopers. They blend in May and do a gentle filter before bottling. With 20 full-time employees they produce 150,000 bottles per year.

An interesting discussion we had with Noemie was regarding the benefits of cement over stainless steel. All of the chateaux seem to differ in their preferences, with some using large oak foudres and others using stainless, cement, or a combination. Obviously foudres are much more expensive and difficult to clean – so that decision is clear to me. However, cement and stainless are both easy to clean and maintain. She said their winemaker’s philosophy is that cement is better because it provides a more homogenous fermentation – just like cooking with clay casserole pans verses stainless steel pots. I thought this was an excellent analogy.

We tasted 4 wines: 2006 Le Parde de Haut-Bailly – red/purple; cassis and spicy nose/palate; soft tannins and med+ acid. Very approachable and easy to drink. 2006 Ch. Haut-Bailly – opaque red-purple; tight red fruit; highly concentrated with spice, minerals and velvety tannins. Long finish and good balance. 2003 Haut-Bailly – red-purple; ripe fruity nose; soft tannins with cherry on the palate, but fades a bit on the finish. 2008 Haut-Bailly – red-purple, almost opaque, and the most beautifully perfumed nose I smelled on the whole trip. The wine had spice, floral, plum and cassis, with excellent concentration and velvety tannins. Elegant but powerful.

Chateau Carbonnieux, Cru Classe de Graves

On Friday we woke for the first time to cloudy skies, but the day was still rather warm at around 67F. Rather sadly, we got in the car to head out for our last day of winery visits. Once again Google Map failed us and we had to call Ch. Carbonnieux to apologize for being late and to ask for directions. They told us to go all the way to the town of Leognan and then to turn left at the cemetery. This worked beautifully and we were happy to arrive and meet the owner, Philbert Perrin, who provided a most enchanted tour of the estate.

He explained that Carbonnieux was one of the oldest properties in Bordeaux started by Benedictine monks in the 13th century. They have 90 hectares (45% white and 55% red), and are one of only 6 cru classe in Graves that produces two colors of wine. He told us the famous story about the monks selling the white wine to the Sultan of Turkey and labeling it as “mineral water.” It was the sultan’s favorite drink for many years. Thomas Jefferson also visited Carbonnieux in the 1700’s and wrote about it along with Haut Brion in his journals.

The vineyards are gravel with clay and some limestone. Age of the vines ranges from 27 to 32 years. They average 40 hectoliters per hectare and produce 500,000 bottles (rather large). They are on double guyot with a total of 8 buds per vine.

For winemaking, I wanted to focus on the white since Carbonnieux is so well known for their excellent white Pessac-Leognan. After triage, they destem and lightly crush the grapes, then place them in cool temperature controlled oval tanks for one night of skin contact. Next they are pressed using a pneumatic press, and then placed in a cold tank (8-10C) for a 3 day debourbage. Alcoholic fermentation is started in stainless using selected yeast, but finishes in barrel. They have 35 different parcels, and the wine spends 10 months in 25% new oak where it receives battonage every week. Philbert demonstrated how to do battonage with a special barrel they had set up for visitors. The wine is also topped as needed; and is blended in July in stainless. It also receives bentonite fining and is lightly filtered before bottling. It is protected by gas when moved or in tank (CO2 and nitrogen).

We tasted two wines: 2005 Ch. Carbonnieux Rouge – medium ruby; bright berry nose/palate; complex with a mineral finish. Smooth tannins, good concentration and nice balance of acid, fruit and light oak. Very approachable now. Elegant. 2007 Ch. Carbonnieux Blanc – glowing straw with white rim; grass and pineapple nose; melon and grapefruit on the palate with a very long, juicy finish.

Chateau de Malle, 2nd Cru Classe, Sauternes

It was only about a 10 minute drive from Yquem to Ch. de Malle outside the small town of Priegnac. We were met by the winemaker, Vincent Labergere, who was also the general manager and wore other multiple hats including direct sales to visitors. While we were there, several other people dropped by, and soon we had a small party of people touring and tasting with us. It was quite enjoyable.

Vincent explained that they had 27 hectares of sweet wine (70% sem; 27% SB; and 3% muscadelle), but they also had 13 hectares of red Graves and 3 hectares of white Graves. However, we asked him to focus on the sweet wines, because that is why we had come to Sauternes. When asked about the muscadelle, he admitted it was very sensitive to grey rot, but when it did well he felt it added a lovely lift to the wine.

In the vineyard, they achieved 13 hectoliters per hectare; used 30 to 35 people to pick 3 to 5 times, and had 30 different parcels. He pressed only once in a pneumatic press, and then fermented for 2 to 4 weeks using natural yeast – or Bergage? if it didn’t take – in 30% new oak. He blends 3 times: in February, August, and May and leaves the wine in oak for 1 year and then moves it to tank. He said the primary reason is they don’t have enough room or enough barrels. They use an interesting configuration of stainless steel tanks on the top level and cement on the bottom. They also rack, fine, and filter the wine and he usually averages around 230 mg per liter of SO2.

We tasted 3 wines: 2007 Ch de Malle Blanc – (dry white wine) pale yellow with a soft nose of melon; a lovely roundness on the palate; and a refreshing acidity. It was aged 4 months sur lies. 1998 Ch. De Malle Sauternes – yellow-gold color; honey and apricot nose/palate; very concentrated; med++ acid with a juicy finish. 2002 Ch de Malle Sauternes - pale yellow with white rim; honey and pineapple nose/palate; more delicate and a high acid. I preferred this style to the thicker 1998, but Mike liked the bigger wine, so we purchased a bottle of that.

After our tasting, we toured the 17th century chateau and gardens with a guide who explained each room to us in slow French so we could understand her. It was nice to finally find a chateau with furnished rooms. The owner still lives in part of the castle, and allows the other rooms to be toured as a museum. We found that most of the famous chateau are not lived in – and instead are only used for special events.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Chateau d’Yquem, 1st Cru Superieur Classe, Sauternes

Our appointment at Yquem was rescheduled to 3:30, which turned out to be a blessing because we actually didn’t arrive until 3pm. Taking the back roads in France – though scenic –takes much longer than the freeways.

We met with David Marc, the assistant winemaker, who provided a very informative whirlwind tour of the estate. Beginning in the vineyard, he explained that Yquem is situated at the highest point in Sauternes – 80 meters – and that the region gets 92 days of fog per year. He said that fog and wind are needed to make good sweet botrytised wine, and that it is the Garonne River, Ciron Stream and Leland Forest that creates these special conditions for Sauternes and Barsac.

As we stood on the hilltop next to the ancient fortress of Yquem dating from the 14th century, he pointed out other famous chateaux surrounding us. I thought once again how charming the region of Sauternes is – like a small fairyland with many castles and gently rolling hills. The little village of Sauternes with its pretty church, quaint restaurants, and friendly tourist center is also very nice. When I visited Chateau d’Arche last April and had such a wonderful tour and tasting, I wanted to return and stay in Sauternes. I guess it will have to be next time.

David explained that Sauternes is a total of 220,000 hectares and produces 2% of Bordeaux’s wine. Yquem has 115 hectares with 80% Semillon and 20% SB. They don’t believe in using muscadelle because of its tendency to grey rot. The soil is limestone, clay and a gravel surface. They must use drainage systems – both old terra cotta and new PVC. Rootstock is a mix of Ripara, SO4 and 101-14. Spacing is 1 x 1.5. They have 28 different parcels and use 4 teams totaling 200 pickers to pass through the vineyard 5 to 6 times to pick the botrytis grapes one by one.

The ripeness goal is 20% potential alcohol, which David said is challenging for other chateaux which often only achieve 17-18% and must chaptalize – however, Yquem usually always achieves 20%. There are 4 buds per vine, with the sweetness goal being 350 gpl sugar in order to harvest. Though the region allows up to 25 hectoliters per hectare, Yquem does only 8-9, and in 2008, they only got 2! They usually produce around 120,000 bottles per year, and have no second label. If the wine is not of high enough quality for Yquem, it is sold to another producer. According to David, LVMH, the current owner, is very supportive of quality and supports their strategy of not producing wine if it is not up to standards. For example, in 1992, there was no Yquem produced.

Winemaking: grapes are first pressed in a pneumatic press where 80% of the juice is received. They then are moved to a basket press where the other 20% -- usually the consistency of syrup – is harvested. The juice is then put in 100% new oak where it ferments for 2 weeks using natural yeast – but they may add selected if it doesn’t take off. All 28 parcels are fermented separately. Fermentation is done when the wine reaches 14% alcohol and 130 gpl sugar. At that point SO2 is added. David said oxidation is not a problem because the grapes are already oxidized when they are harvested.

The wine is blended in April in a vat, and then put back into barrel. It is kept in barrel for a total of 3 years, and during that time they always keep the glass bungs on top so they can watch for re-fermentation. If this happens, more SO2 is added. The wine is also racked every 3 months, and topped. It is fined with gelatin and filtered before bottling. The maximum SO2 is 350. He said that generally the final ph is 3.8 with an acid of around 6.5. 80% of the wine is exported.

We were only allowed to taste one wine – the 2005 Ch. D’Yquem, which was a pale yellow color with a white rim and a nose of honey and dried apricots. On the palate, I received the same, but also fresh peach and some marmalade. It had a nice acid and a med++ finish with a rounded mid-palate that was pleasing. The wine seemed very well balanced. Indeed, when I asked David what set Yquem apart from its competitors, he said it was their specific terrior that provided the “Yquem balance.”

Lunch on the Beach at Archaron

After our very pleasant visit at Haut Brion, Naomie invited us to stop by La Mission, which we did. Another lovely estate. From there, we decided to drive the 45 minutes west to the ocean and have lunch on the beach at Archaron. The drive took longer than we thought because of road work, but we enjoyed the charming seaside town with its colored houses of white and red stone. Wandering along the beach boardwalk, we found a café and purchased sandwiches and sparkling water and sat on a beach to watch the waves. It was around 70F with a slight breeze, but there were people sunbathing and jumping in the water.

As our next appointment was in Sauternes, we decided to take a back road, but got lost several times and nearly ran out of gas. We tried to buy gas at several gas stations, but none would take VISA credit cards. People told us we needed a blue card? There were no attendants to give cash, so finally in desperation at the 3rd station – which was at a Carrefour, and they refused to take cash until 2pm! – we begged a nice old man to use his blue card to buy us $20E worth of gas and we paid him in cash so we could make it to Sauternes.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Chateau Haut-Brion,1st Growth, Pessac-Leognan

I was surprised to see how close this very famous chateau is to downtown Bordeaux. Since it is so old – dating from 1525 – I’m sure that the old city of Bordeaux was much smaller when Haut-Brion was established, and that no one expected the Bordeaux subdivisions to spring up around such a famous wine estate.

We were greeted by Laetitia, the PR Director, and she began our tour with an overview of the vineyards using a model of the property. Haut Brion has 48 hectares of red grapes (45% merlot, 45% cab, 9% CF, 1% PV) and 2.8 hectares of white grapes (53% SB, 47% Sem). The soil is a mixture of clay, sand and gravel with a small amount of limestone for the white grapes. Rootstock is 3309, 420A for merlot, and some Ripara. They believe in diversity in the vineyard and try to insure they have a mix of clones. They use lutte raisonnée, and try to avoid pesticides and insecticides. Spacing is 1 x1.5 with double guyot with 4 buds. They average 44 – 50 hectoliters per hectare, but were down 50% in 2008.

Laetitia said that the vine age averages 36 years, and that they replace 1% of the terrior each year. The 1% that is pulled out is usually low in production or diseased. She said they then let the soil rest for 2.5 years and plant a cereal related to peas which is called “veces.” She said it helps to kill the worms in the soil.

Haut Brion means “little hill” in the Old French. It is currently owned by the Prince of Luxemburg, and they also own La Mission Haut Brion which they purchased in 1983. Both properties are managed by the same General Manager and Winemaker. There are 80 employees, with 25 working in the vineyard. They are also one of only 3 wineries in Bordeaux that has its own cooperage on site – the other two being Ch. Margaux and Smith-Haut Lafite.

During harvest, they taste in the vineyard in the afternoon and only pick parcels that are ripe during the first 2 hours of the morning. We met with the lab enologist for a while, and he explained that taste is the most important factor in deciding when to pick, but they are also hoping for a ph of 3.4 to 3.5 on the reds and around 3.2 on the whites. Baume for merlot is usually 13 – 13.5 and 12 – 12.5 on cab.

Winemaking is unique in that they use a specially designed stainless steel tank divided in half so that alcoholic fermentation occurs on the top and ML on the bottom. Inside the tank is a sloped piece of metal to allow the workers to remove the pomace (marc) after fermentation in a safer manner. They believe in following traditional vinification methods, but with a focus on continuous improvement. All grapes go through triage in the vineyard and on tables outside the cellar. Reds are destemmed, crushed, and pumped up to the 2nd level where the tanks are. They use 2-3 different types of selected yeast, with Davis 522 being preferred for reds.
Maceration is 14-18 days with gentle pumpover (remontage). Their goal is elegance with fine tannins. The free run wine flows to the bottom of the tank where ML is added. A Busher press is used only for the 3rd level wine.

Another unique aspect of winemaking at Haut Brion is the fact that they blend the parcels after ML – usually in Nov/Dev, with 3 experts on the blending team. They prefer to blend without the influence of oak, so they can taste the terrior from the different plots. The wine then goes to 70-80% new oak in January for 18-22 months. They top twice a week for the first 3 months and use the glass bung. Then they insert a wooden bung and turn the barrels on their sides. After that they rack and top every 3 months and add SO2 at 25-35 ppm. Total SO2 is around 120-130 with 30-34 free.
Barrels are rinsed 3 times at each racking. They have a first and second year cellar, and are the only winery we visited that is still cracking real eggs into bowls for fining – 4 to 5 eggs per barrel. The wine is then racked 2 more times before a light filtration and bottling on their own bottling line. Control of every step of the process and a strong focus on quality is very evident here.

We learned less about the white wine making process, but fermentation does take place in temperature controlled stainless with no ML. Selected yeast is VL3 for sauvignon blanc and LV1 for Semillon. The wines are aged in 20-30% new oak barrels for 9-10 months sur lies with battonage. The enologist said they use gas (nitrogen) to protect the white wine when it is moved and in tank. Interestingly, their whites often fetch a much higher price than the reds. 80% of the wine is exported, with the USA, UK, Belgium, Luxemburg and Japan as the largest clients.

We tasted 5 wines: 2008 Le Clarence de Haut Brion – medium ruby-purple; ripe fruit on nose, but less on palate. Delicate with smooth tannins. 2008 Haut Brion – darker purple-red with a nose of berries and anise; palate of red berries with chewy tannins, good concentration, a very long finish and a touch of chocolate. 2004 Haut-Brion – medium ruby with a hint of garnet; cedar, cassis and cigar box nose; red fruit and spice on palate; long finish with good tannin structure. 2008 Haut Brion Blanc – still cloudy, straw colored; wonderful nose of grapefruit, grass, and mint; citrus and melon on palate with a pleasing roundness, high acid, and touch of minerality on the finish (55% Semillon).

The City of Bordeaux and Hotel des 4 Soeurs

We actually made it to the outskirts of Bordeaux from Palmer in 20 minutes by taking the D209 along the river as suggested by Google Map. However once we reached the city, the directions quickly disintegrated and we found ourselves hopelessly lost in a strange section of town. I telephoned the hotel and they told us they were located near the Grand Theater and to park at Tourney. From this, we were able to use our Hertz map to painfully make our way into the heart of the city and finally find the hotel. Parking prices are rather sharp at $19E per day, but it was exciting to be in such a great location.

The Hotel des 4 Soeurs ($95E for a double; breakfast $8E), booked by Caroline, is located right in the center of town. It has a wonderful bar with outside tables where we sat in the sun and ordered drinks, watching the people pass by. Our room was small, and the air-conditioning didn’t work well, but the location in the heart of Bordeaux encouraged you to explore the city, rather than stay in your room. We took a lovely walk along the river; wandered down the streets and looked at the many shops, and eventually had dinner at the very charming Le Noailles Restaurant across from the hotel. Since we were still full from our big lunch and the hot sun, we ordered a large salad with goat cheese that paired well with an icy watermelon-flavored Bordeaux rose. We then walked back to our room under an almost full-moon that lit up the sky, and made the warm evening seem even more enchanted.

I first saw the city of Bordeaux last April when I visited, and was very impressed with the beautiful old buildings; fountains; statues; river walk; and downtown pedestrian area. It seems like a small Paris to me. When we visited Haut-Brion the next day and were describing how pretty we thought the city was, we were surprised to learn that just a few years ago the downtown area was covered with black grime and the river was an unsafe area. Due to the efforts of the mayor, UNESCO, and the citizens, Bordeaux is now a very beautiful city, and an intriguing place to visit.

Despite the charm of downtown Bordeaux, Mike decided that trying to drive the rental car down the one-way streets and frequent road-work deviations was too stressful. Therefore, after our one lovely evening in town, we decided to relocate to an apartment hotel near the airport and off the Rocade (the very convenient outer highway that circles the city of Bordeaux). Though not romantic, it was practical as we had a 6:15am flight on Saturday morning, and it also provided easy access to Pessac-Leognan, Sauternes and Entre-Deux-Mers – our destinations for the next 2 days.