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Archive for Merlot

100 Days After the Flowering Comes the Tasting

We learn something new each time we visit one of Bordeaux’s winemakers.  The rule of thumb here is, 100 days after the vines flower comes the harvesting.  The harvest of the local Sauvignon Blanc grapes and the earliest red varietal, Merlot, is already underway.
 
Tuesday, we visited Chateau LaFargue, a modest, yet award-winning property in Pessac-Leognan appellation south of Bordeaux.  We went to pick up a case of 2004 red which we had purchased last year as futures.  Not content to just “grab and go”, we stood at the tasting bar as the acutely sophisticated (and knowledgeable) blonde sales manager offered us tastings of whatever we desired.  And even threw in a wooden case with “tampon” (the end piece with the chateau’s insignia and name stamped on it)
 
We wanted to taste the 2000 and 2003, reputed as excellent years.  We were more impressed with their Cuvee Prestige blends, which spend 18 months in new barrels aging, and are harvested from the older vines.  The 2000 was Steve’s favorite, and Claudia preferred the 2003.  That year was so hot and dry that everyone had to apply for an exemption to exceed the maximum 13% alcohol level.  We know.  We were here 6 months of that year (including having a pacemaker installed!).  Since the tap roots of these vines delve down 100 feet for water, in spite of drought they still produced excellent wine.
 
The wine books chronicle what each month’s weather was like for a given year, and relates how it affects the wine.  For 2006, for example, they might write:  “there was a heat wave July 12-25, with a cool, rainy August.  On Sunday, September 10, there was a long and violent rain, with thunder rolling like massive bowling balls down the lanes of the sky.  Some parcels received damage, but the harvest had already been brought in at other properties”.  After hearing the final earth-shatteringly loud thunder bomb, we were sure the entire wine harvest had been vaporized!  But the winemakers said it had not hit the ground.
 
The 2004 is said to be a moderately good year, but the 2005 is the year that everyone is getting excited about.  Lucky, because French wine sales had dropped precipitously for several years.  Now, exports are up 18.6% through May (IHT 8/8/06), based mainly on avid international demand for the 2005.
 
The supermarkets all run “Foire aux Vins” promotions and print color catalogs in September.  J-P and Rachel again invited us to the after-hours gourmet wine tasting event at Intermarche this year.  Hundreds of faithful customers were anxiously milling about the wooden wine crates from all over France.  There was the clink of bottles being loaded into carts and the buzz of conversation.  People lined up 10 deep around the food as if they hadn’t eaten a crumb in days.  I saw one thin older man shoveling fresh Arcachon oysters into his mouth as fast as he could.  Soon the trays of cheese cubes, fatty sausages, fine ham, and olives were gone.  The trays of foie gras on baguette lasted only seconds with this crowd.
 
We re-connected with the well-muscled and fashionably-dressed Stefanne (fluent English speaker who visits Napa properties).  Pouring generous glasses of the sweet white 1999 Sauternes called Roumieu, he offered to take us to Brane-Cantenac and other properties later in October when our guests arrive.  We also talked with the sommelier pouring “foreign” wines, some Chilean, Portuguese and Argentinean.  There were no American wines on offer.  The French are super sensitive to their recent failures competing with the rest of the international players, so they don’t let in much non-French wine.  Only if the importer’s name is Rothschild or Lurton does it get in.
 
One might think that all French wines are expensive.  This is true in fine wine stores in America.  But here, where wine is food, prices are fine.  Gold-medal winning Grenache/syrah from the villages of the Cotes-du-Rhone costs 2 to 6 euros.  An Alsace Riesling or Gewurztraminer might run 3-6 euros.  The Loire Valley cabernet franc- based reds run 4-6.  The generic Bordeaux are 3-5, with the reds from the right bank running 6, and the southern Graves cost 8.  Only Burgundies and the prestigious Grand Crus run you big money.  Chateau d’Yquem, the top Sauternes, was 157 euros a bottle .  So here, even with the euro exchange rate being so high (1.27 dollars buys one euro), you can still drink high quality wines at affordable prices.
 
Of course, we are only consuming red wine for health purposes, not because of the convivial, fun atmosphere around here.
 
Claudia and Steve
9/13/06

“Open Doors” Bordeaux Wine Festival 2007 – Part II

Our gite is on the fringe of the southern Bordeaux appellation called Les Graves (gravel pebbles on soil, sand or clay).  The grape varietals consist of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and smaller portions of Malbec and Petit Verdot.  The exact percentage varies enormously from year to year, and between chateaux.   Each year, the winemakers of this district open to the public for tastings, visits, and eating delicious food.  Today, we visited 6 properties.  The event runs for 2 days between 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.  The theme this year is wood, and its influence on the taste of wine.

Jean-Francois and sister Isabelle were waiting for us when we showed up at the cellar door of Chateau Guillemins near Langon, at the southern limit of the appellation.  We were welcomed with kisses, hugs and smiles.  They said they’ve been talking about us for a month and wondering if we would come.  Amidst the antiques, paintings by J-F, honey, fruit jellies, and fermentation tanks, we tasted 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, and the 2002 sweet white wine called l’Exotique.  They are still holding back the coveted 2004.  We bought a case of 2000 Cuvee Margaux and regular 2000.  With promises to return next year.

Our next chateau was Respide.  Alfonso couldn’t make it this Saturday to play salsa for the attendees.  We tasted their 2004 Callipyge (50/50 Merlot/Cab) gold medal winner and 2005 (65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon), bronze medal winner, and bought a bottle of each.  Since the food was still in preparation, we moved north, to the sweet white wine district of Barsac, to the 16th century Chateau Massereau that backs up to the Ciron stream whose mists create the conditions for the noble rot that makes possible the sweet white wines of this area.  They make a pricey red as well as a very expensive sweet white, so we tasted and bought their generic tank-aged 2004 Bordeaux Superieur.  The chocolate maker from the Basque Country near Spain didn’t show, so we phoned Chateau St . Agreves in Landiras to see if they were cooking.

Mais, oui!!!  Of course, finding these obscure chateaux is never easy, with signs approximately the size of postage stamps, hand lettered.  Our pointed remarks to the House of the Wines of Graves as to the danger of cars suddenly stopping and turning once they are actually able to read the tiny signs have had no effect.  They continue to reuse the same minuscule signs year after year.

We were totally surprised and pleased at the warm welcome we received at Chateau Saint Agreves, including a 3 course meal (no charge).  We began by tasting the 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2003 special blend, and 2004 and 2005.  The percentage is 26% Cabernet Franc, 26% Cab. Sauvignon, and 43% Merlot in the 16 hectare vineyard. 

The congenial hostess led us to a picnic table with a huge bowl of bread, and gave us nice napkins and 2 plates of delicious raw salmon marinated in herbs and oil.  Next, the grillmaster produced duck breast, chestnut puree, squash and pumpkin, as well as a pork sausage.  The dessert was prunes in armagnac.  Even a coffee after the meal was offered to us!    The owner’s wife then toured us through their cellars, with explanations in English (she had spent time in England and Long Island ).  We were off down the road with a case of the 2003 and some happy memories of conversations with the people here.  This event is all about personal contact and conviviality.  We’ll be back!

Back across the autoroute in the community of Cerons, we visited Chateau Bourgelat, where the young owner Antoine was serving 2004 and 2005 Graves as well as 2005 Cerons and 2003 Sauternes sweet whites.  The buildings were covered by red ivy that waved in the brisk wind.  Water streamed down the urn fountain, glistening in the bright sun.  The place to be was the duck tasting bar in the courtyard, where a sarcastic duck liver grower from the Pyrenees was telling all kinds of untruths.  However, we think we won the day, because by the time we left, we had convinced the men at the bar that Steve was a Basque, that his great-great grandfather was born in Pamplona ( Irun ) and migrated to the U.S. 100 years ago.  They kept telling him how good he looked in his Basque beret, and commented on his typical Basque features!

The last chateau was the Emigrant (l’émigré).  The owner emigrated to Spain in 1793 after the French Revolution and his properties were sold.  A recently arrived Englishman warned us that only the white wine was any good, so we tasted and bought a bottle of their sweet white wine, and headed for home.

We are looking forward to tomorrow with Jean-Paul and Rachel in the northern part of the appellation.

Claudia and Steve
10/20/07

“Open Doors” Wine Festival in Bordeaux 2007 – Part I

It began as a sunny, cold day in the Graves Appellation. Our friends Jean-Paul and Rachel arrived to pick us up at 9:30 this morning.  It was freezing; we all wore many layers.  We drove to Chateau Coquereau in La Brede, southeast of Cestas.  We stood in the bright, cold sunlight, tasting some 2004 and 2005 reds, then we toured the “1750 aging cellar”.  It looked like an old barn, which it was.  The owner showed us his charming homemade welded tool for stirring up the cap of grape skins, and then a homemade “room” for keeping the fermenting juice warm (a huge black plastic tent which we entered, with space heater!).  The cousins and neighbors pick the grapes on this tiny 1.5 hectare property.  Munching cookies, we photographed the sturdy 130 year old lemon tree, and hoped they remember to bring it indoors tonight.

The Depiot family began to grow wine at the elegant Chateau Belon in 1606, and the same family is still in residence.  We had visited once before.  The owner’s foxy Bostonian girlfriend,  Beverly Como, had promised to deliver a case to our house in San Diego , but didn’t answer our e-mails when the case failed to show up.  To our surprise, she was still there, and claimed that her mother in law dropped the ball.  We tasted but didn’t take her up on the offer of 24 bottles for 100 euros.  We just couldn’t see drinking bottle after bottle of the same mediocre wine.

Next, Chateau de la Haut-Pommarede, in Castres, where we learned the estate sits on a deposit of gravel 60 feet deep.  The gravel regulates water, draining it in wet years, and holding it in dry ones.  The owner demonstrated how to make a blended wine.  He drew off some Merlot from the 2006 barrels, and poured it into our glasses for tasting.  Then, he drew off Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon plus Malbec and combined it with the Merlot in our glasses.  The complexity level rose, and so did our opinion of his wine.

But first, we took advantage of the 5 euro plate of meats with glasses of 2002 and 2004 red.  The owners bustled around setting out tables in the sun, now warming us (and bringing the bees).  At other tables, Russians and French families took their lunches. 

After a coffee, we returned west to the Chateau de Castres.  Magnificent 300 year old trees frame the golden stone building owned by the Baron of Poitevin at the end of the 17th century.  The winemaker toured us through the modern facility, complete with beehive shaped conical tanks with temperature controls and new oak barrels.  The tasting took place in a charming room to the right of the main house, with wood burning in the fireplace.  We tasted the 2003 and 2004 Chateau de Castres, and bought the 2004 Tour de Castres (60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet France /Petit Verdot).  The owner’s mother, elegantly attired in autumn yellows and blues, with Chateau de Castres apron on, greeted us kindly and fed us cookies and coffees.  The room connecting the main house with the tasting room was a winter garden with enormous palm tree and other potted plants kept warm with hot water radiators and original tiled floors.  Comfy and classy.

Our next target was the Chateau de Couloumey, in Beautiran. The home is an austere classical chateau, with magnificently decorated interiors. There is a graceful pigeon tower in the large courtyard, with white doves crowding into the niches.  Of all the many castles we have seen in the past 7 years of this event, this was the first where we received a tour of the dining room, kitchen and entry hall.  Walls magnificently painted with figures, period furniture, custom tablecloths, mirrors, oriental rugs, all in good taste, but the castle itself in need of ceiling and ornamental repairs.  We strolled around the back grounds, with a former chapel converted to office.

The sun was beaming, so we decided to check out one final chateau – le Chateau de Calens.  We couldn’t find it last year, with those pesky little signs leading nowhere, but J-P persevered.  The winemaker seemed indifferent, and the red Graves was pretty bad.  We asked a few questions about what they had served on the buffet at noon, as a possibility for next year (sausages, fried rice, pasta), and then made our way home.

It was a beautiful and interesting day.  The only thing we can say is, there are still 20 more wineries left that we haven’t seen, so we’ll be back next year for more!

Claudia, Steve
11/22/07

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