The whisper of history: Château Haut-Brion,Pessac-Leognan, Bordeaux,France

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.

References:

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

2017 Reflections in the Glass

 

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,

elizabethsvines

Reflections on 2017:

 

Bred-in-the-Bone: Vigneron of the Year 2018, Château Court les Mûts, Bergerac Wine Region, SW France

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”.

References

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

Anyone for Rain Dancing in SW France Vineyards?

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?”

Perhaps.

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.

References

Sud Ouest Newspaper, November 13, 2017 Bergerac and Sarlat edition.

Wine and Architecture: La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux, SW France: a place for play and culture

I am looking at this exciting modern architecture on the banks of the Garonne river in Bordeaux and my imagination runs away with me.

La Cité du Vin

La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux

I can’t help thinking that this building reminds me of the Mother Goose children’s story of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, albeit a golden shoe when the sun shines upon it.   As in the nursery rhyme, there are even people in the “Shoe” as the building is a hive of activity of visitors engaging with the various exhibits about wine.

In all seriousness, it’s a building with a sense of liquidity, that reflects the curves in the river as the Garonne and then the Dordogne rivers join together as the Gironde estuary and empty into the Atlantic.  This waterway has been the key transportation link for centuries between the Bordeaux wines and their thirsty markets abroad, in particular the United Kingdom with its love of claret.

Architects Anouk Legendre and Nicholas Desmazières from XTU Architects in Paris have created this elegant building to showcase the international wine culture which celebrates and explores the place of wine in culture from the time of the Egyptians to the modern day.     It is said that not only does the colour of the building change daily and hourly with the weather but also with the changing light of the seasons, in the same way that the leaves on a vine change colour to mirror the seasons.

The mission of La Cité du Vin is to promote and share the cultural, universal and living heritage that is wine with the broadest possible audience.

It’s an ambitious focus but achievable in this beautiful and elegant city of Bordeaux whose very name is synonymous with great wine.   Building upon the City’s legacy of greatness, this modern conceptual building reflects the future orientation of the City and its wine industry.

La Cité du Vin is the initiative of the Fondation Pour La Culture et Les Civilisations du Vin.  It is heralded as a place of play and exploration – no wonder I recognize the playfulness of a children’s nursery rhyme.    All the senses are engaged as a friend and I explore the exhibits on display.

The founding principles of La Cité du Vin are:  passing on knowledge interactively,  experiencing things at your own pace, learning according to your own wishes.   These principles are demonstrated in the accessible way the information is presented.

Progress and technology are demonstrated in the Hi-Tech/Hi-Touch systems used to animate and personalize displays about wine districts around the world.   I am delighted to see film footage of the Okanagan Valley In British Columbia as the film illustrates wine areas around the world.

There are many interesting and fun opportunities to learn about wine, wine aromas, wine history, wine in the arts,  history – even Thomas Jefferson is present in the name of the Auditorium –  and,  of course, to enjoy wine tastings, wine and food pairings and even cooking classes. I look forward to experiencing these latter offerings on a future visit.

Cité du Vin

Thomas Jefferson Auditorium

One of the many great things about visiting Bordeaux is that it is very easy and inexpensive to get around using the modern, clean and efficient, Canadian, tram system. Getting to La Cité du Vin is no exception as there is a special tram station just outside the entrance.   In addition, the higher speed TGV train service has started between Paris and Bordeaux, making the journey in just over two hours.

At the end of our tour, which took several hours as there are so many interesting things to see and play with, we headed up to the tasting bar, Latitude 20, which has a spectacular ceiling made of wine bottles.  While tasting wine from distant countries, visitors can look out over the city rooftops.

Wine tasting room, Belvedere, Cité du Vin

Spectacular Latitude 20 tasting room with views over Bordeaux

La Cité opened on June 1, 2016 and excited interest and articles around the world.   Writers haven’t been quite sure how to describe this endeavour.  It’s been called variously: a wine theme park for adults, a museum, a cultural facility, an exhibition park, a museum-theme park hybrid, the Guggenheim to Wine, a cultural centre of wine, a world-beating wine museum, an over-the-top mega project, a playground for wine lovers.

La Cité du Vin is young and offers many opportunities for learning, for fun and entertainment.   In a way, it is refreshing that it defies precise definition and labelling.   For me, for now,  it will just be La Cité du Vin.

La Cité du Vin - experiencing the scale and colours

La Cité du Vin – experiencing the scale and colours

La Cité du Vin has an ambitious agenda of showing wine in the context of history, social customs, geography, geology, food and agriculture, oenology and the arts.    In this way, La Cité emphasizes all the reasons I am interested in wine as it opens the door to these subjects.

To quote La Cité du Vin text:  “…whether mythical, sacred, religious or magical, experience the culture of wine as a formidable epic which has shaped mankind and the way we live, which as been a source of inspiration in both past and present”.

Exactly.

——————

References

La Cité du Vin, Bordeaux    http://www.laciteduvin

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(Video) Celebrating French culture, wine and food in SW France #2

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(VIDEO) Celebrating French culture, wine and food in SW France

Driving down the winding road under a sunny blue sky towards Sigoulès, a village in SW France, I see in the distance coloured paper decorations stretched over the road at the village entrance and the large sign SIGOULES in yellow and gold letters.

 

 

It’s mid-summer and early in the morning. I parallel park in the field-cum-parking lot and feel the festive mood in the air as I walk over to the large central village square. People are up and about getting the place ready for the annual Wine Fair, including the gathering of the Confrérie du Raisin D’Or de Sigoulès. Stallholders are setting out their wares for sale: wines, olive oils, lavender oils and soaps, food items and all manner of regional products. They are anticipating the bustling crowds of visitors who will come over the weekend to celebrate and enjoy the local wine and food culture of the area.

I meet Joanna Urwin, a local film-maker who has generously offered to make a video of the festivities and we discuss “photo-opps”, where she can best position herself to film public events and where I will talk about Confréries and their activities.

Confréries have their origins in the guilds of the Middle Ages.  Today, they are an integral part of local tourism, economic development and cultural initiatives supporting regional products.   They were recognized by UNESCO in 2010 as an intangible cultural heritage; an aspect of the “Gastronomic meal of the French.”   Confréries also encourage the discovery of regions through such initiatives as well-attended music concerts and popular guided walks in the areas. The Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès also provides a bursary to a student engaged in wine studies, thus helping to support the education of the next generation of wine professionals.

Confréries operate in a reciprocal manner and members visit other confrérie events across France and in other areas of Europe.   This is representative of their value of conviviality and social connection.   Members of 45 other Confréries,  both in France and as far away as Belgium attend the event in Sigoulès.

The attached video, created by Joanna Urwin of VideoProFrance, provides an insight into this local Foire aux Vins and the annual public celebration of the Confrérie du Raisin d’Or de Sigoulès in SW France.

 

References:    To see video:

https://elizabethsvines.com/2016/10/01/(video)-celebrating-French-culture-wine-and-food/

UNESCO:  List of Intangible Cultural Heritage  2010   http://www.unesco.org

Conseil Français des Confréries,  www.conseil-francais-des-confreries.com

Monbazillac wine: Chateau Cluzeau.   http://www.chateaucluzeau.com

Joanna Urwin, http://www.videoprofrance.com

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