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Feb 25

A Few Days in France, Part IIa: Bordeaux

A short introduction:
Our friend Jay Erisman, from the EQ Center @ the Party Source,
took a trip to Bordeaux last year. A while back, he introduced us to
Part I of his journeys starting in Cognac. Since Kevin & I are in
Texas, Jay has graciously offered to share some more pages from his
travel diaries. Enjoy!

Part I: Cognac

______

After three days in Cognac, the second leg of my
trip to France went through Bordeaux. A look at the French wine map reveals a western
coastline studded with boozy treasure, as from north to south against the
Atlantic you get one classic after another: Loire Valley, Cognac, Bordeaux,
Armagnac. You almost feel sorry for the poor bastards sunning themselves on the
Riviera. Though I couldn’t make the Loire on this trip—which is a real shame,
because I sure love those Chenin Blancs—I was heading to the granddaddy of all
wine regions, The First Wine, the one that still sets the pulse for the rest of
the wine world. When Bordeaux speaks, Napa Valley listens.

Jay_01

Driving into Bordeaux was a nightmare. Basically, the entire
city is under construction. Bring a lot of patience with you to Bordeaux. My
hotel was just off the Place de Tourny, one of the city squares, which is not
saying much because there are beaucoup
Places in any French city. Also,
walking about this Place, one
definitely gets the idea that the French have dogs. Many, many dogs, if you
catch my drift.

At any rate, I cautiously picked my way to a recommended
(“they have a good chef”) bistro around the corner from the hotel. Some French
bistros are airy and inviting, while others are smoky and dark and a bit
oppressive. This one, Le Café Bordelais, fit the latter description, but the salad
I ordered for dinner proved that yes, they DO have a good chef. Around a tangle
of greens were arranged various parts of a duck. Like gesiers, which are a confit of duck gizzard and totally delicious. I could eat large
bowls, like breakfast cereal sans lait, of these duck gizzards. There was
a sublime duck breast that was at both smoked and cured, and which tasted entirely of smoke, and entirely of
cure. This dinner salad was the first of many foodie moments I had in Bordeaux,
the theme of which amounted to “Damn These People Eat Good.”

Chatting with the Café Bordelais bartender over dessert
showed some of Bordeaux’s darker side. Like other European countries, France is
experiencing an influx of immigrants, many from former colonies in North
Africa, which leads to considerable friction in society. The bartender, a twenty-something
immigrant, described Bordeaux in cynical terms as a “ceet-ay of
fook-airs.” When my credit card was
suddenly invalid, and they gently insisted on cash, I wondered if I was the one
being fooked (in the end it was an honest malfunction). Bordeaux is a
grimy-in-a-good-way city. It has been a center of commerce for many hundreds of
years, and by now is heavily industrialized, and even the wine, for all its
glory, is treated like a commodity. The construction that plagued me on arrival
is a step forward for Bordeaux, a chance to remake the city in a new image.

A Day with Delon and
d’Alton

A gray and drizzly Friday, March 23, 2007
took me into the Médoc, the triangle of land that forms the western bank of the
Gironde river. Wine names simply do not get more famous than the Médoc communes
that proceed in hall of fame fashion from the outskirts of Bordeaux. My guide
for the day was Yorick d’Alton, a Bordeaux négociant. Merchants like Yorick
have long played the main role in the selling, though not the making, of
Bordeaux. Compared to many of his peers, Yorick is particularly down to earth
and, though a native of Bordeaux, largely devoid of the aristocratic air that
often permeates the business of Bordeaux wine. I had a terrific time with
Yorick, the first of many outstanding guides I had in France.

Our primary appointment for the day was at Château Léoville Las
Cases. Las Cases lies immediately next door to, and even shares a building with
Ch. Léoville Poyferré. These are two of the three (with Ch. Léoville Barton)
Leoville estates in St.-Julien, probably the least known and most underrated
commune in the Médoc. Overshadowed by neighbors Margaux to the south and Pauillac
to the north, St.-Julien distinguishes itself with superb winemaking even from
lesser estates. Pauillac may offer more substance, but the average St.-Julien
will often be made to a higher standard. And here I was, at the best estate in
St. Julien, really one of the best in all Bordeaux.

Jay_02
Inside the gate at Léoville-Las-Cases. To the left of the
door is Las Cases, to the right, Léoville-Poyferré. There is no actual
“château” at Las Cases or Poyferré, as the original Léoville estate was
subdivided many years ago.

Léoville Las Cases is owned by the Delon family, which owns
several other estates scattered about Bordeaux. Las Cases abuts the first
growth Ch. Latour just across the line in Pauillac, a fact carefully pointed
out to me by winemaker Bruno Rolland. If you squint past the Las Cases
vineyards you will see the Gironde River in the distance. The river reminds you
of the origin of the famous soils that make up these vineyards, as successive
millennia of flooding river basins brought deposits of poor gravel soils, lousy
for growing crops but superb for wine.

Jay_03_2
In the distance, the Gironde River at Léoville-Las-Cases.

After a tour of the winery and cellars, Yorick and I tucked
into a full tasting of the Delon portfolio. What glories, I wondered, awaited
me in the elegant parlor cum tasting room? Back vintages all the way to 1982? A
small dram of 1961 Las Cases? No, you idiot, they’re pushing the oh-six
vintage. I tasted six barrel samples from 2006, from the entry level Chappelle
de Potensac (a “vin de picnic”, as
Bruno put it) to the top-of-the-line Las Cases. The latter was a seriously
impressive wine, inky dark and thick and forward, firm and stuffed to last many
years but also ripe and tasty at this very young age. I particularly enjoyed
the two wines from Ch. Nenin, the Delons’ Pomerol estate, which nailed the
essential character of Merlot as a good Right Bank wine should. And the Château
Potensac Médoc, which should retail for around $30, flashed fine detail and
mid-palate development. If the Delon family wines are any indication, 2006
should be a good if not great vintage in Bordeaux. (And early indications are
that prices will fall from the rapaciously expensive 2005 vintage.)

Jay_04
The full, proper name of the top wine is “Grand Vin de
Léoville du Marquis du Las Cases.” Las Cases’ second wine (and second from right in the photo) is Clos du Marquis,
made from a lesser terroir across the road and further from the river.

After Léoville, and a lunch in Pauillac, Yorick took me to Château
Mouton-Rothschild for one of their scheduled tours. I had requested a visit to
a first growth estate, and this was it. We were led ‘round the château by a German
guide, in a tour that included the impressive Rothschild gallery, full of
wine-related art. I missed the personal touch offered at Léoville Las Cases,
but there is definitely an aura to Mouton. I picked up a rock and put it in my
pocket. At the end our tour group split a bottle of—you guessed it—2006
Mouton-Rothschild. It was more impressive than closed down 2000 Mouton I once spat
out at a trade tasting.

Which brings up a good point about tasting very young
samples of exorbitantly expensive, formidably structured wine. I may have
tasted a fair amount of wine in my day (and I work with people who’ve forgotten
more than I know about wine). But barrel samples of first growth Bordeaux are
hardly my forte. How does a person
ever get experienced at tasting wines like these?

France_2007_157

In the first year aging cellar at Mouton-Rothschild.

France_2007_150

Old vintages in the Mouton cellar.

France_2007_159

A small plot of vines at Château Mouton-Rothschild. Note the
stony soil, good for draining water away from the grapes.

Stay tuned for Wednesday, when you’ll read a little more about Bordeaux.

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