Last fall my wife Barbara and I enjoyed a two-week visit to France with an immersion in the wines and traditions of the Old World. As the cornerstone of this trip I was invited to guide a wine tasting adventure for 21 passengers on the barge Caprice through the Canal de Bourgogne in the heart of Burgundy.
Before connecting with our group in Paris as a prelude to the barge cruise, Barbara and I decided to spend a few days in Bordeaux. And what an experience it was visiting memorable chateaux and historic towns while absorbing the history and culture of this world renowned wine growing area.
Visiting and tasting at the chateaux of Bordeaux is very different from similar experiences in the heralded winegrowing areas of the U.S. Here we place great emphasis on the "tasting room" experience while in Bordeaux there are few tasting rooms per se and visits are more oriented to the history and culture that often span many centuries. Yes, tasting can be an important part of the visit but the lineage of the generations and evolution of the vineyards dominate the conversation.
We were fortunate to arrange for very personal experiences at nine of the most highly respected chateaux of Bordeaux. Day one took us to Pomerol and St. Emillion on the Right Bank. We met with the very engaging and charismatic Jacques Thienpont, founder/winemaker of Chateau Le Pin and co-proprietor of neighboring Vieux Château Certan in Pomerol. Then after lunch in St. Emillion at Troplong Mondot we ventured on to Chateau Petrus and met proprietors Jean-François Moueix and son Jean Moueix gaining further insight into the wines and history of their property.
Day two took us to the Left Bank and the Médoc region for personal tastings and tours with Managing Director Paul Pontallier at Chateau Margaux followed by a very educational time at Cos d'Estournel. We concluded the day at Mouton Rothschild. On day three we ventured to Pessac-Léognan with a morning visit and extensive tasting at Château Haut-Brion, sister property Château la Mission Haut-Brion and Quintus (their newest venture in St. Emillion).
Just visiting these esteemed properties and meeting the people was a joy in itself but more than that I gained a further appreciation of each chateau far beyond the tasting experience. Granted the wines were all outstanding as expected. But being able to capture the essence of history and grandeur demonstrated by each estate in its own individual way was a true gift.
I was not surprised to observe the immaculate vineyard and viticultural practices in place but learning more about the distinct soil and exposure differences in neighboring vineyards at Le Pin and Vieux Château Certan as well as Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion was a real eye opener. These subtle differences were confirmed when tasting the wines.
If architecture or landscape design is your fancy, Bordeaux will not disappoint. Cos d'Estournel has a storied history dating to 1811 when original owner Louis-Gaspard d'Estournel (aka "the Maharajah of Saint-Estèphe") celebrated his conquests in India by creating the chateau with the sculpture gardens and building design reflecting his experiences. All of this in stark contrast to the newer and ultra-modern fermentation room and barrel cellar.
At Margaux the sprawling gardens and surrounding forest are the perfect setting for many historic centuries-old buildings serving various needs of the chateau including a complete barrel production facility. And at Mouton we stood in an open square surrounded by several buildings dating from the 16th century to present day, all reflecting the estate's history and very similar in design.
The differences on the Left (Cabernet Sauvignon dominated) and Right (Merlot and Cabernet Franc dominated) Banks consist of far more than the grapes grown. On the Right Bank you have a series of very small properties (most from 3 to 20 acres) closely aligned with a strong emphasis on vineyard planting of all available land and few gardens. On the Left Bank the estates are further apart and far larger ranging into the hundreds of acres where immense gardens often sit adjacent to far larger vineyard areas up to 100 acres and more.
Bordeaux is truly a land of the old and new coming together in a vast array of expression with the common thread being the high quality of wines produced. There is a strong nod to cutting edge technology while maintaining an unwavering respect for history and tradition.