Sending Valentine’s Day best wishes. Thank you for following my blog,
It’s mid November, on a cool yet hazy, sunny day when we navigate our way through Pessac on the outskirts of the city of Bordeaux to find the entrance gates of Chateau Haut-Brion. We have a 3.00 p.m. appointment for a visit to the wine estate.
The whisper of history murmurs to us as we enter the Chateau Haut-Brion driveway. Saying nothing, we listen to the echoes of nearly five centuries since wine has been made at Chateau Haut-Brion. Wine has been produced on this land for centuries before that. Before finding our way to the parking area, we stop and take photos of gnarled vines in their closely planted rows.
The whisper of history tell us that:
In 1533, Jean de Pontac, by purchasing an existing noble house in Haut Brion united it with the vine growing land, leading to the birth of the Chateau Haut-Brion.
In 1660 – 1661, the cellar records of King Charles the Second of England, who was known to be a bon-viveur extraordinaire, note 169 bottles of “ Vin de Hubriono” (sic) are held for guests at the royal table.
In 1663, Samuel Pepys, the famous English diarist, wrote that he had drunk at the Royal Oak Tavern in London: “…I drank a sort of French wine called Ho-Bryan (sic) which had an especially good taste that I had never encountered before. “
In the 17th century, writers were commenting on the nature of the soil in the area of “white sand with gravel” and the particulars of the terroir.
In 1787, the American Ambassador to the French Court, Thomas Jefferson, later the third President of the United States, visited Chateau Haut-Brion. A wine connoisseur, he also commented on the nature of the gravelly terroir. In his writings, he identified four great wine houses of the area including Chateau Haut-Brion. In this, he anticipated the identification of Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Lafite, Chateau LaTour and Chateau Margaux in the official classification system of 1855, as Premiers Grands Crus wines of the Gironde. Chateau Mouton-Rothschild was reclassified to Premier Grand Cru in 1973 and added to the prestigious list.
Chateau Haut-Brion changed hands several times during the centuries. There is an apocryphal story about one of the owners in the Pontac family in the 17th Century. It is said that he lived to over 100 years, an age almost unheard of at that time. This gentleman attributed his longevity to his daily glass of Chateau Haut-Brion!
The present owners since 1935 are the Dillon family. The current head of the Domaine Dillon is Prince Robert of Luxembourg, who is a great grandson of Clarence Dillon, the New York financier and purchaser of the property. Since the purchase, the family has invested significantly in the property through a program of continuous renovation, innovation and improvement both to the historic chateau building and to the winery facilities.
On this particular November afternoon, after ringing the intercom bell at the visitor entrance, our guide, who was informative about the estate and interested in our visit, joins us. Following an introduction to the past and present owners through the medium of their portraits, we are given a detailed look at the topography of the vineyard and its proximity to the neighbouring estate, also owned by the Dillon family, which is Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion; a story for another time.
During our visit, the wine making process is explained to us. At Haut-Brion, our guide explains, traditional approaches are employed while at the same time using modern and efficient equipment with a program of regular reinvestment and improvement. For any aspiring wine maker, an opportunity to work at Haut Brion would seem a great privilege. My impression is that wine making at a wine estate with such a historical context would be more a vocation than an occupation.
One of the things that I appreciate at Chateau Haut-Brion is that it has its own cooperage service or barrel maker on site. Supporting and fostering these artisanal skills such as barrel making in the wine industry is important for their continuation. This on-site barrel-making workshop is “the fruit of a partnership between Haut-Brion and Séguin Moreau” and has been in place since 1991.
All wine starts with the soil in the vineyards, the selection and management of the vines and the choice of particular varieties for individual parcels of land. The high standard of care of these vineyards to produce grand cru wines has been consistent over the centuries.
The conclusion of most wine tours is to taste the wines produced on the property and our afternoon at Haut-Brion is no different. We are guided to the 18th century Orangerie, which was renovated in 2001 and is used as the tasting room.
We are offered the 2011 vintage wines, which our guide tells us, are just being opened now. Haut-Brion records indicate that 2011 was a very good year for their wine. It was the driest year registered since 1949. With enough rain in the summer to allow the vines to work their magic, the harvest took place from August 31 to September 27. All this data and more are recorded by Chateau Haut-Brion and available for review.
The typical blend of grape varieties in the red wine at Haut-Brion is Cabernet Sauvignon 45%, Cabernet Franc 15% and Merlot 40%. These wines are created for laying down and building a cellar for future enjoyment. The Haut-Brion recommended life of the 2011 vintage is from 2020 to 2035. In 2017, we are tasting this wine in its teenage years; in the process of ageing and developing its full expression of the terroir and all the wine making expertise that has gone into its production.
Standing in the Orangerie, tasting these magnificent wines and looking out at the garden and the old Chateau itself, has to be a memorable wine moment. So much so that when I look back, I remember hearing the whisper of history and at the same time, tasting the richness of the red wine, the deep black fruit, the chocolate aromas with developing smoked tones and that sensation of enjoying a beautifully crafted wine.
A December 2017 article in the British weekly magazine, Spectator, written by their wine writer, Bruce Anderson, summed up this sentiment well when he wrote about “wines of a lifetime.” Coincidentally, in that article he also refers to a Chateau Haut-Brion wine, in that case a 1959 vintage that he enjoyed with a friend.
In preparing to leave, we thank our guide for our visit.
For me, the visit to Chateau Haut-Brion will be up there in my list of chateaux visits of a lifetime.
Chateau Haut Brion: http://www.haut-brion.com
Note: A point of appellation detail: Chateau Haut-Brion retains its 1855 Premier Grand Cru classification although it is not in the Medoc area. It is in the Pessac Leognan appellation, which was previously part of the Graves appellation. (See the attached map of Bordeaux and the Neighbouring Regions.)
Spectator magazine: http://www.spectator.co.uk
It’s that time when people attempt to make sense of the passage of time over the past year. We think about what’s been achieved, or perhaps not achieved or let slip and what to focus on in the following year.
Spending time each year in both Canada and Europe, I attempt to share information in a supportive way about wine from areas where I have some familiarity. In this way, wine can open doors to culture, art, geography, history, people and understanding. Having the opportunity to lead a tasting of Canadian wine in London is one example of this.
One of the major experiences shared this year by the areas I am familiar with has been the challenging effect of climate change: wildfires in Western Canada and hailstorms and diminished rainfall in parts of France. Addressing nature’s unpredictability through science, intellect, creativity, and imagination will be a major challenge for the wine industry going forward.
At the same time, I see the continual quest for improving wine quality. This is a topic of great interest to me that I discuss with an oenologue friend in France, who shares his knowledge and helps me increase my understanding of the subtleties of wine making.
This common search for insight, whether on a global level or personally in the glass, is one of the ongoing pleasures and challenges of deepening my learning about wine and winemaking.
A big thank you to the wine makers and many others who have generously given their time during the year to discuss wine making in its many guises with me and a big thank you to you, the reader, for joining me on the learning journey.
Best wishes for 2018 from,
Reflections on 2017:
Winery proprietors Sylvie Chevallier and Marc Ducrocq are living their dream at Château les Hauts de Caillevel. Nearly twenty years ago, after careers in the corporate world, they decided to change course, live in the country, raise their children in a pastoral setting and make wine. Sylvie and Marc see themselves as partners with nature in the creation of wines from their property.
After successfully completing oenology courses, Sylvie and Marc settled themselves at Chateau les Hauts de Caillevel in 1999 with the objective of making wine in the most environmentally friendly way they could. This approach culminated in their official certification as a “Bio” or a biologique/ organic farm in 2010, an achievement that deservedly gives them a sense of pride and satisfaction.
The vineyard is located high above the river valley on the plateau village of Pomport; approximately 20 minutes drive from Bergerac. Château les Hauts de Caillevel offers camping facilities as well as tastings to visitors. It’s a relatively small wine producer farming 18 hectares of which 8.70 hectares are red grapes and 9.30 hectares are white grapes and they produce eleven different wines.
Driving along their expansive drive to the house and vineyard office, I feel the peaceful calm of this pastoral setting at the edge of the escarpment, which faces across the valley to neighboring villages. It’s the same sense of benign energy I have felt at another Bio winery in the Region, where I expected to see a unicorn appear from the surrounding woods at any moment.
It’s a chilly, misty December day and we are dressed warmly for the weather. I have made an appointment to visit the winery and meet Sylvie Chevallier on the recommendation of a colleague in the Confrèrie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès, the wine confrèrie I have had the pleasure of being a member of for several years. Sylvie Chevallier has a reputation for making good wine, recognized by the Guide Hachette. She is also someone who is recognized for her significant contribution to the area through her community work over the years.
December is a busy time for winemakers and so I appreciate the opportunity to visit this winery, which I did not know about previously.
As it turned out, Sylvie had other vineyard priorities she had to attend to on the morning of our visit. Undeterred, we have the pleasure of meeting her husband Marc. Over a coffee and warmed by the wood burning stove in their office, we settle down for an interesting conversation with Marc about wine making at Château les Hauts de Caillevel.
Several things stand out from that conversation that imply to me that here are two people who are risk takers and confident in their vision of making their own path in the wine-making world.
After completing their oenology training, they learnt about winemaking on the job with the help of external, experienced wine consultants.
They include in the suite of grape varieties that they grow an indigenous grape variety in the region called Périgord Noir, which has a lower alcohol by volume percentage than the typical varieties. In this way, they believe they are responding to the trend of consumers wanting to enjoy wine but with lower alcohol levels.
They grow Chenin Blanc, a grape variety more usually associated with the Loire Valley in France and in South Africa. According to AOC regulations, this variety can be blended in small quantities in the Bergerac Region white wine and Sylvie and Marc use Chenin in this way. They also make a 100% single varietal Chenin Blanc wine outside the AOC Bergerac Wine Region framework. I am interested to taste this as Chenin Blanc produces some of the greatest white wines in both Touraine and Anjou-Saumur in the Loire Valley. It’s a white wine that ages well.
We have a wide-ranging conversation and exchange of ideas about wine making both in France and Canada. We also talk about the trend to organic winemaking and the overall reduction in chemical usage, whether vineyards are formally certified Bio or not, that is widespread across the Bergerac Wine Region.
Towards the end of our visit, I ask Marc what was the biggest surprise in being a wine-maker over the years? His immediate response was the effect of nature and how one is at the mercy of the weather. His view is that wine-makers have to be a fatalist to accept what the weather brings. It’s an important reality check to hear this comment. I expect that wine makers also have to an overarching sense of optimism to cope with the unpredictability of nature.
After a pause, Marc also comments that the other surprise for him is how difficult it is to market wine due to various complications in the related processes. He feels this is a real issue for the smaller local wine producers, who can have difficulty making a living.
We run out of time to taste the wines of Chateau Les Hauts de Caillevel and so a return visit in 2018 will be planned. We do take a quick tour of the tasting room and I buy several wines including the 100% Chenin and a 2015 red, called Ebène, which is a Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend, to enjoy at home.
I appreciated Marc’s candour about the realities of being a wine chateau proprietor. Having the opportunity to visit and speak personally with winery proprietors in this way is for me, what makes wine come alive; recognizing that flow from grape to glass.
I look forward to a return visit.
The Sadoux family, father and son, both called Pierre, are leaders in the wine region of Bergerac.
I’m not just saying that.
They have been elected Vigneron of the Year 2018 in the Guide Hachette, the French guidebook for wines and champagnes. It’s not the first time they’ve been recognized in this way.
Five generations have been in the wine business including a grandfather/great grandfather who was a ‘tonnelier’, that is a barrel maker or cooper, a key artisanal occupation in the wine industry.
I think of this family background as expertise that is bred-in-the-bone: formal oenology education enhanced by family mentoring. Similar to an excellent apprenticeship program, it’s probably the best way to learn and achieve mastery in a chosen field.
It’s this mastery that I hear when I listen to both Pierre Sadoux, father and son, describe wine–making approaches at Château Court les Mûts in Razac de Saussignac, Dordogne, SW France.
On a sunny December day with autumn sunshine playing on the vine leaves that are multi-coloured from soft faded green to gold and scarlet, we head off to Château Court les Mûts to meet with Pierre Sadoux fils/son for a tasting of their suite of wines.
We’ve been enjoying their wines for several years now. I find it interesting to revisit the winery and have a refresher on their range of wines as well as learn more from Pierre about their approach to wine making.
It’s the skill in blending different varieties that is one key to the traditional AOC wines made in the Bergerac Wine Region, as it is in the Bordeaux Wine Region to the west of the area. Single varietal wines are not produced here. The blending of the different varieties and the decision making that goes into that process to create a wine is one of the key differentiating factors in wines from different chateaux in the same region. The wine subtleties arise from the different percentages of individual wine varieties used by different wine makers to make a particular wine type.
It’s a bit like several people making The Best Chocolate Cake but each person changing the mix of ingredients with the result that the individual cakes taste different yet still calling each one The Best Chocolate Cake.
The Sadoux family make a range of seven wine categories: Bergerac Dry White, Bergerac Rose, Bergerac Rouge, Côtes de Bergerac Red, Côtes de Bergerac Moelleux (semi sweet) and Saussignac, a late harvest wine.
We taste our way through the range starting with the dry white and finishing with the Saussignac late harvest.
It’s in the discussion with Pierre of each wine we taste that his wine mastery comes to the fore. His detailed knowledge of each parcel of land; its history, soil structure including the varying depths of clay and limestone, and suitability for specific grape varieties is expressed with an intensity and concentration that commands attention. As he is talking, I can see he is seeing each parcel of vines in his mind’s eye, as he tastes the different wines and talks about the different elements that went into creating the particular wine. I know where the Malbec parcel is that he talks about and walk past it frequently.
Pierre describes the fluctuations in the grape harvest timing and quantities due to weather patterns, topography, rainfall, and all the interventions of nature, which are only some of the challenges facing a wine maker. He gives one example of the unpredictability of the weather as the April hailstorm damage that could affect one area of a particular parcel of vines but not the whole area. The hailstorm was devastating for some vine growers throughout the region and because of its time in the growing season, its effect will be felt over several years..
Wine production including the blending of the various varieties permitted under the AOC regulations for the Bergerac Wine Region is a major topic of discussion.
We take our time tasting the range of wines. I enjoy the crispness of the 2016 Bergerac Sec white wine with 40% Sauvignon Gris, 40% Sauvignon Blanc and 20% Semillon. Good with fish; I also like it as an aperitif wine. The 2015 Cuvée Annabelle with 30% Semillon, 25% Muscadelle as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris is more of a gastronomique wine suitable with a range of dishes.
In the red wines, anyone who enjoys the Malbec in South American wines will enjoy the Côtes de Bergerac red wine with 40% Merlot, 35% Malbec and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon. Dedicated Malbec fans will really appreciate L’Oracle 2014 which is blended with 60% Malbec, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. This rich wine with depth and resonance of black fruits, pepper, chocolate and toast will give pleasure for several years. Pierre tells us he believes his 2014 reds will age particularly well as they have more structure than the 2015 year, which has been heralded as a great year.
As we prepare to leave Château Court les Mûts, I remember to ask Pierre about his spouse Annabelle and the jewelry she makes from specially treated vine stalks decorated with pearls, crystals and various stones. He tells me she will be exhibiting her jewelry at the upcoming Saussignac Christmas Fair. I have bought several pieces of her unique jewelry already and always receive positive comments when I wear them so a visit to the Marché Noël will be in order. Annabelle sells her work through different craft fairs across France.
For me, this wine tasting and visit to Château Court les Mûts is about more fully recognizing the breadth and depth of knowledge and understanding of soil, land, terroir, as well as the vine growing and wine making processes that a successful wine maker must have. That’s not factoring in the marketing know-how that is also required and essential in an increasingly competitive global industry. It’s a formidable mix of knowledge, skills, temperament and in this case, legacy.
It’s not unusual to find multi-generational wine making families in the Bergerac Wine Region as in any agricultural area.
The expression bred-in-the-bone may be known to some as the title of a book by the late Canadian author Robertson Davies: What’s Bred in the Bone. That’s how I first became aware of it. It is an expression quite widely used by authors and means, “firmly instilled or established as if by heredity. “ It is traced back to a 15th century phrase: “what’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh”.
Château Court les Mûts http://www.court-les-muts.com
Les Bijoux Caprice de Vigne – Annabelle de Groote. Phone + 06 11 60 66 71
Guide Hachette www.hachette-vins.com
The vine leaves in SW France look beautiful at this time of year. Most days when I walk beside the vineyards, I photograph the vines and marvel at the changing nuanced colours of the leaves; gold, scarlet, bronze, green, and by extension at the changing colours of the landscape.
I never tire of looking at the view; the winding road disappearing into the distance, the tall, ghostly coloured water tower on the hilltop and the sprinkling of farmhouses. The straight lines of vines marching up and down the undulating landscape which fascinate and remind me of David Hockney’s colourful paintings of the Yorkshire dales.
There is even a friendly cat of no fixed address that parades each day in front of the local cemetery. I call him the Cemetery Cat.
At the same time as we enjoy the autumn sunshine highlighting the local beauty and warming us as we walk about, the local newspaper, Sud Ouest, is raising the alarm bells about the effects of climate change in the area, in particular the reduced rainfall.
Each day on the back page of the paper, there is a table showing the minimum and maximum temperatures in southwest France on the same day over the long term: 15, 30 and 50 years. The figures indicate that it appears that it is the minimum temperatures that have been affected; in other words the weather does not get as cold now as it did 50 years ago in this area. The newspaper also provides local 2017 climate statistics showing sunshine days are up and rainfall levels are down. 2017 is described as a dry and sunny year. The weather forecast for the next 15 days also indicates less rain than “usual” for this time of year.
The Sud Ouest local newspaper for Bergerac and Sarlat areas has a headline on Monday, November 13, 2017 that reads: Va-t-il falloir faire la danse de la pluie? In other words, “Will we have to do the rain dance?”
Certainly, some vine growers, aware of climate warming, are becoming concerned about the reduced level of precipitation at key moments in the vine production of grapes. In July this year, for example, there was 50% of the usual rainfall for the month.
The newspaper references individuals in the winemaking community who are saying its necessary to start the discussion and debate about vine irrigation in France, where it is essentially prohibited due to the multiple authorizations necessary to irrigate vines and with few exceptions for specific reasons, e.g. newly planted vines.
Currently, when there is lack of water, the stressed vines search for water in the ground below by sending down deep roots.
Vine irrigation is a sensitive topic. Some wine makers are concerned that irrigation will negatively affect or reduce the bountiful impact of vineyard ‘terroir “and lower the quality of the wines. Many believe that marginally stressing the vines helps to produce superior fruit. Some consider that France should allow vine irrigation as elsewhere in the world, where vine irrigation is well established. Others are concerned that irrigation will lead to increased production and affect the wine market and prices. Additionally, irrigation in periods of reduced precipitation will place demands on water management in the area, another consideration.
There is no question that the topic of vine irrigation in France will be on the table for discussion and debate going forward. This is an important discussion to follow in the wine world.
In the bigger picture, the reduced level of precipitation and increased temperatures affect more than the vineyards and wine making.
So, what to do?
Back to the newspaper’s question about rain dancing. Getting out the rain dancing shoes may be a good idea. It’s certainly one approach. However, I interpret the suggestion of rain dancing as code for the fact there is no easy answer to these questions. What’s interesting is that the local paper has taken the initiative to present a two-page article about the reduced rainfall this year. It has specifically commented on the impact on the wine industry, which is a major economic driver for the area.
Beneath the beauty of the area and the elegance of the wines are challenging issues to be addressed. Fortunately, there are imaginative, informed and creative wine makers in the area considering these issues and over time undoubtedly driving change in winemaking practices to accommodate environmental impacts.
Rain dancing? Perhaps, but to a new or different melody.
Sud Ouest Newspaper, November 13, 2017 Bergerac and Sarlat edition.
The mysteries of technology! You may have seen an article pop up on my blog called A Sikh Presentation. It was in error and apologies for any confusion. I haven’t had the good fortune to go to India but maybe one day.
Thanks for following my blog,
With best wishes,