Tuesday, September 22, 2020

My Life in Wine Episode 6

"The sweetest wine makes the sharpest vinegar."   American proverb

In Episode 5, I had spent a mostly wine-free year at a Republic of China Air Force Base, in Taiwan, then transferred to my first U. S. Air Force assignment on a flying base in South Carolina, working with the C-5A Galaxy. From there it was a complete change of gears with a hitch in USAF Recruiting Advertising and Publicity, an assignment that took me and the family back to Denver and a renewed effort at growing my future career as a freelance wine writer. 

After many years of attending college classes between Air Force assignments, I finally got my bachelor's degree from Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan University), Denver, in 1979.  For a graduation present, my wife Janet and I went to Europe. By then, our two oldest sons were out of the house and Janet's mother agreed to stay with their younger brother. 

I had been to Germany and France courtesy of the Air Force, in the early 1950s, and also took a driving trip on my own throughout Italy, but except for my wine epiphany at a train station restaurant in France and the occasional glass of German wine, this would be a new wine experience for me. And it was Janet's first trip to Europe.

Months before we left Denver, I plotted a travel plan to wine regions in France, Germany and Italy, talked to some contacts about opening a few doors for us and wrote letters to wineries, asking for appointments. It seems quaint now to remember that business correspondence in 1979 was by letter and telephone and that you had to plan well in advance, allowing time for letters to get from Colorado to Europe and then wait for a reply. 

So, 41 years later, here I am trying to remember where we went in Europe in 1979 and how we got there and back. For most memory lapses, I usually consult my Copy Editor (aka, Janet) and we both jog our short memories for detail.

There is an essential problem with recalling a trip you took so long ago, especially when you're both much older and when long term memory is supposed to be better than short term. Unfortunately, I no longer have the itinerary from the 1979 trip (Who would?), so I rely on remembering bits and pieces of the trip... although I'm not sure the bits and pieces are from the '79 trip, or another one or two trips I took to the same location. 

You search for the right memory to fit the occasion and then: "Oh, wait a minute, wasn't it....?" Or you pause and then say with a chuckle, "No, that wasn't then, it was years later."  Finally, after an unproductive back and forth, moments of laughter, the fog begins to clear and details from the trip line up.

Eventually, my Copy Editor and I agreed to the best of our memories) on an itinerary for our first extensive wine trip to Europe. A caveat: The various wine stops may not be in the correct order, but I am comforted knowing you, the reader, don't know the difference.

Traveling on a writer's budget meant economizing, so we booked reservations on Condor, a German charter company, from Denver to Paris. After an hours-long delay, Condor got us there safely and in reasonable comfort.  I was only too happy to finally be on my way to see some of the wine regions and famous wineries I had only read about.

There probably is no better place in the world to decompress after a long flight than Paris. The first time I saw the City of Light was in 1955 when a friend and I drove from our Air Force station in Germany in my 1950 Chevy. We arrived late one night and were gob smacked at the energy of a city that seemed to be alive.  Except for newer cars and far more traffic, nothing much had changed in 1979 Paris, as we looked for our hotel.                             

Paris Art Galleries - Free Entry to Paris Art Museums
The Louvre

A wine trade acquaintance had recommended a small hotel on the Quay Voltaire, across the Seine from the Louvre. "What a great location," we innocently thought back in Colorado. "What a disappointment," we cried that night, in our hot, stuffy room, overlooking the Seine and the endless stream of traffic below our open window. Every big truck in France, hauling produce into Paris overnight, would stop, start up, shift gears and accelerate...all night, until it seemed like the traffic was thundering through our room. We looked at each and asked, "Did you see that traffic light on the quay under our window?"

So, after a few days of seeing the sights, through a haze from lack of sleep, we rented a car and headed for Bordeaux, where we had two appointments: Chateau Greysac, a Grand Cru Bourgeois in the upper Medoc and Chateau Prieure-Lichine, a Fourth Growth in Cantenac-Margaux.

As it happens, Baron Francois de Gunzberg, the owner of Ch. Greysac lived in Paris and I had arranged a luncheon meeting with him before we left the city. Chateau Greysac was founded in 1973 by de Gunzberg and a small group of friends. Having never met a French baron, I didn't know what to expect, but he was entertaining and unpretentious, providing us with a little Medoc history and the directions to Greysac, just north of St. Estephe.

Unfortunately, directions were not the Baron's long suit, so we drove around for a while, looking for the village of Begadan, and finally, by accident, we pulled up to a small village grocery store, with a sign reading "Begadan." At the front of the store were two elderly men, in the traditional blue worker's clothes and rubber boots, having a nice chat. 

Hoping that one of them, spoke English, I excused myself and asked for directions to Chateau Greysac.  Then, I stood there, shifting from one foot to the other, for what seemed like five minutes. "These men must be deaf," I said to myself. So, I repeated my question. 

Finally, one of the men stood up, turned away from me, pointed down the road we had just driven up and mumbled what I think was "la gauche" and "kilometers."  Then he sat down and continued his nice chat. 

Turns out we were not that far from the chateau and as we drove up to the chai, two grinning men came out to meet us.  One was the oenologist (winemaker) who spoke broken English and the other man was his Portuguese assistant who spoke no English. At one time, in Bordeaux, the wine was made by the maitre d'chai (cellarmaster), but today most chateaux have both an oenologist and a maitre d'chai.  In 1979, the Bordelaise did not use the title "winemaker."

                             2006 Chateau Greysac, Medoc | prices, stores, tasting notes and market data

After some starts and stops, various hand gestures, a lot of laughs and a little help from my Copy Editor who called on her high school French, we toured the winery and tasted a few vintages of the wine, including a barrel sample of the final blend of mainly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, with small percentages of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. 

Usually, a barrel sample is drawn by removing the bung, inserting a wine thief and with a thumb over the hole at the top end of the glass pipe, withdrawing the wine. The winemaker surprised me, though, by taking a hammer-like tool with a sharp point at one end and driving the point through the barrel head! Then, he raised the hammer handle slightly, releasing a thin stream of wine.  Once he had filled our glasses, he took a small wooden peg from his apron pocket and handed it to his assistant. Then, the winemaker quickly removed the metal punch, his assistant inserted the peg and, flipping the tool around, the winemaker hammered the peg home. 

I couldn't decide if this was a trick to impress the visitor or if this winemaker routinely punched holes in expensive barrel heads.  At any rate, Greysac rouge out of barrel was impressive and bright, tasting very good for a young wine. The two older bottled wines, were even more impressive and just beginning to show some complexity. Ch. Greysac 2015 is priced at $20.

We waved goodbye, found our way back to the main road and headed back to Bordeaux city and our hotel.

In Episode 7, we visit Alexis Lichine's bedroom, sample Sauternes and foie gras near the Bordeaux airport, then take the long drive to Burgundy, south to Barcelona, back into France and more.


Next blog: How Much is Enough?

Contact me at boydvino707@gmail.com


Friday, September 11, 2020

Bordeaux Dry and Sweet Whites

Of all the world's grapes, Sauvignon Blanc is the leader of the 'love it or loathe it' pack."
                                     Oz Clarke, British wine writer  

Versatility is the hallmark of a few wine grapes, none more so than Sauvignon Blanc.  Being versatile means that the winemaker can fashion the grape juice into a dry wine, a sweet wine or a wine that combines the best of both grapes.  

 In the Bordeaux district of Graves, Sauvignon Blanc blends with Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Gris to make some of the most distinctive dry white wines in the world. Further south, the same quartet of grapes are used for the unique classic sweet wines of Sauternes and Barsac.  Similar in style to Sauternes, but lacking the complexity, are the less expensive sweet wines of Sainte-Croix-Du-Mont, Cadillac, Loupiac, Sainte-Macaire and Cerons. 

An Aside -- In the United States, the name Cadillac implies top-of-the-line luxury car. To the Bordelaise, though, Cadillac is a small wine town named for French explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit in 1701. There is, however, an apocryphal tale about the supposed connection between the Bordeaux town and the American car.  Supposedly, Gene
ral Motors named their new automobile Cadillac, after the company GM had sampled the local sweet wine and thought it had the taste of luxury.   
Graves Blanc One of the the unique features of the Graves is that it is the only region on the Bordeaux left bank to produce both white and red wine.  Red Graves (GDBOW, September 2, 2020) is made from the same five varieties as is its neighbors in the Medoc.  As for tasting a difference, some say it is the minerality found in Graves wines. 
Prior to 1987, dry white wines from the Graves were known simply as Graves Blanc. Local legislation renamed the most celebrated part of the Graves to Pessac-Leognan, a nod to the two best communes in the area. Noted chateau such as Haut-Brion now would become a Pessac-Leognan estate. The change affected all of the properties in the 1959 classification of the Graves as well as other chateaux in the area. 

Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon Sauvignon blanc Wine Grape, grape PNG clipart |  free cliparts | UIHere
Sauvignon Blanc

Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle are grown in Pessac-Leognan on light sandy soils, while the red varieties are planted on more gravelly soils. Still, Pessac-Leognan whites have that distinguishing Graves mineral character not found in Sauvignon Blancs elsewhere in France.

An exception might be Pouilly-Fume, a 100 % Sauvignon Blanc, from the upper Loire Valley. Pouilly Fume is often described as "flinty."  Another difference between Pessac-Leognan and Loire Sauvignon Blanc is the use of barrel fermentation and aging used in Pessac-Leognan. Traditionally, Pouilly-Fume and its better known neighbor Sancerre, were unoaked Sauvignon Blancs, but in recent years, younger winemakers broke with tradition so that there are now oak-aged wines from both Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume.

From the way Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon characteristics play off each other, the blending of the two grapes seems to be an ideal pair. Sauvignon Blanc's flavor profile leans toward green plums and passion fruit with a grassy note, while Semillon adds a warmer riper note of figs, honey and beeswax. Semillon tends to be a tad low in acidity, but in Pessac-Leognan white wine that deficiency is compensated for by Sauvignon Blanc's mouth-watering citrusy acidity.
Sauternes and Barsac
As the Garonne flows westward toward the Gironde estuary, it passes by the district of Sauternes and then the smaller Barsac, before eventually reaching the city of Bordeaux. The sweet wines of these two places are unique in Bordeaux.

A Remembrance: A number of years ago, on a visit to Sauternes, I was invited to dinner at a prominent chateau that made only a sweet wine. We gathered for an aperitif, the current vintage of the chateau wine, with savory finger foods. I was mildly surprised at the pairing, but more so when we sat down for dinner and saw only Sauternes on the sideboard.

My hosts, of course, wanted to convince me that Sauternes wasn't just for dessert and was an acceptable choice with various dishes, even beef steak. On my first trip to Bordeaux, Sauternes with pate de foie gras was served. I thought, what an odd pairing, but somehow the richness of the liver fat and sweetness and texture of the wine went surprisingly well. This was years before I had ever heard of umami. Each course brought a different vintage of the Sauternes, until the oldest was served with a simple dessert or plain cookies and fresh ripe pears and apricots.

For American wine drinkers, Sauternes and Barsac are synonymous with sweet white French wines often used as dessert or to accompany a simple dessert. But while they do share a number of similarities, the two are different wines. 

Sémillon - Wikipedia

The similarities: Both wines are made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle; both derive their unique flavors from a beneficial mold called Botrytis cinerea (the so-called "Noble Rot"); they rely on conditions to be just right for botrytis to develop and not turn into damaging grey rot; because nature may or may not cooperate, the wines are expensive to make. 

The differences: Sauternes is more than twice the size of Barsac; Sauternes dominates the marketplace for French sweet wines; all Barsac wines are entitled to use the Sauternes appellation (although the reverse is not true); Barsac wines dominate the Second Growths, with 8 of 14 wines, in the 1855 Classification of Sauternes-Barsac, while Sauternes has 9 of 11 First Growths and Ch. d'Yquem, a Superior First Growth. 

The other important difference is the flavor and character of the individual wines. At its finest, Sauternes has a honied sweetness, with hints of ripe apricots and peaches and a trace of beeswax.  All of this, with impeccable sugar-acid balance. Overall, Barsac wines are lighter but follow the same flavor characteristics.

For botrytised Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc to develop properly, conditions must be just right. In the fall, when the cool waters of the Ciron tributary flow into the warmer Garonne, evening mists develop. The following day, the mists burn away encouraging the growth of Botrytis cinerea. The development of botrytis increases grape sugars, tartaric acid, while developing aromas and flavor. Without botrytis, you have only a sweet wine that lacks complexity.

Bordeaux wines are among the most diverse and best in the world. In recent years, prices have put some of the wines beyond many budgets, but there are still bargains to be had. In the future, we'll look at more moderately priced petit chateaux and St. Emilion satellite wines. 


Next Blog: "My Life in Wine" Episode 6

If you have something you'd like to see covered in a future blog, email me at boydvino707@gmail.com.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Marvelous Medoc and Graves

"Bordeaux calls to mind a distinguished figure in a frock coat...He enters his moderate enthusiasms in a leather pocketbook, observing the progress of beauty across his palate like moves in a game of chess." 
                          Frank Prial, former New York Times wine columnist

There was a time when all red wine based on Cabernet Sauvignon aspired to be like the great reds of the Medoc.  About 1970, rivals started to emerge, but the storied Cabernet blends of the Medoc and Graves never lost their attraction.

Understanding the Medoc and its wines is the foundation for understanding all cabernet-based wines that followed. 

The Medoc is a part of Bordeaux, a wine region in the Gironde departement along the west coast of France. The Medoc peninsula is northwest of the city of Bordeaux, a major port on the Garonne river and the center of one of the world's most important wine regions.
419 Medoc Vineyards Photos - Free & Royalty-Free Stock Photos from  Dreamstime
Medoc old vines
Throughout history, noted wines have been associated with memorable natural scenery -- Cape Winelands of South Africa, France's Loire Valley, Mendocino's Anderson Valley in northern California -- yet the flat and featureless landscape of the Medoc, denies the greatness of its wines.  The overworked adage that "great wine is made in the vineyard," is nowhere truer than it is in the Medoc.

Medoc Classification -- In 1855, Napoleon III staged an exposition in Paris. To attract and impress dignitaries, event officials requested a classification of the leading Medoc chateaux. Bordeaux wine brokers issued a five-class ranking of 60 Medoc chateaux plus one Graves estate, Ch. Haut-Brion, and a separate two-class ranking of chateaux in Sauternes and Barsac. "Classified Growths," later to be named "The Official Classification of Medoc and Graves 1855" was based on the quality of an estate's wine relative to the price of the wine at that time.  Although a number of chateaux have changed management and one or two have ceased making wine, the only official change to the classification occurred in 1973, when after extensive lobbying by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Ch. Mouton-Rothschild was elevated from second growth to first growth. 

Maintaining a chateau and vineyards in this rarefied club, takes a lot of euros, but it can be argued that such high overhead justifies charging hundreds of dollars for a bottle of chateau-bottled wine. According to Wine-Searcher, the current price for Ch. Mouton-Rothschild is $673, Ch. Calon-Segur (3rd Growth) is $134 and Ch. Batailley (5th Growth is a relative bargain at $64.

Cabernet Sauvignon is king in the strip of vineyards sandwiched between the Gironde estuary and a mix of marshland and forests that extend west of the vines to the Atlantic ocean. Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot support Cabernet Sauvignon as blending components.  Only red wine is made in the Medoc and, in fact, white wine from the Graves district, south of the city of Bordeaux, accounts for only about 10% of total Bordeaux wine. (Grave blanc and Sauternes will be the focus of the next blog.)

The northern most part of the Medoc is called the Bas-Medoc, an area of about 14,000 acres of vineyards, far more than the more higher rated Haut-Medoc vineyards. Wines produced in the Bas-Medoc use the Medoc appellation.

Moving southeast from the Bas-Medoc, the elevation rises slightly nearing the Haut-Medoc  communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac and Saint-Julien. There is a break between Saint-Julien and the wine commune of Margaux, then the southern part of the Medoc appellation, more open space and finally the northern suburbs of Bordeaux.

Haut-Medoc wines qualify for the communal appellation, with some using the Haut-Medoc label.  Factors such as gravel deposits, soil drainage and the placement of a vineyard to the Gironne affect the wine's quality and longevity.

While differences vary from chateau to chateau and vineyard location to vineyard location, these are the general characteristics of the four main commune wines: 
St. Estephe -- deeper color, higher acidity and a larger amount of Merlot in some wines. Noted chateaux: Montrose, Cos d'Estournel, Colon-Segur, Cos-Labory.
Pauillac -- vines close to the water, higher percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, more concentrated.  Noted chateaux: Lafite-Rothschild, Latour, Lynch-Bages, Pontet-Canet.

Ch. Latour vineyards along the Gironde estuary

St. Julien -- deep colored, subtle, long-lived.  Noted chateaux: Ducru-Beaucaillou, Lagrange, Beychevelle.
Margaux -- structured, concentrated, silky texture, perfumed. Notes chateaux: Margaux, Lascombes, Dauzac, Rauzan-Segla.

Aside -- When I first visited Medoc chateaux in the early 1970s, formality was the order of the day and expected of visitors. Estate owners and managers were not used to visitors and a formal appointment was expected and required. Business attire was expected and punctuality a must, with more than one visitor turned away, even with an appointment, for not being on time. 

My U.S. contacts had briefed me on the routine in advance. I had my appointments in writing and while no one I met with was ever rude, there was a formality that I as an American wine writer was not used to. When told I was from California, more than one person I spoke with reacted politely but seemed to be saying: "Ah yes, I understand they are doing something with grapes there." 

Of course, in time California red wine, especially from the Napa Valley, changed attitudes, opened chateau doors and forced the Medocains to recognize that there had been a shift and the Medoc was no longer the only game in town. 

Graves Rouge 
The Graves is a large 30-mile long wine region southeast of the city of Bordeaux. Situated on the left bank of the Garonne, Graves is known both for its red and white wines. The name Graves is French for "gravelly terrain."

Red and dry white wines have been made in the Graves, probably since the 17th century when the Dutch drained the marshy swamp known today as the Medoc. In 1987, the northern part of Graves was re-named Pessac-Leognan. We'll look at Graves rouge here, with the dry white wines of Pessac-Leognan and the sweet whites of the Sauternes and Barsac, the main focus of the September 12 blog. 

The varietal mix is the same in the Graves as in the Medoc, with Cabernet Sauvignon the main grape, supported by Merlot and Cabernet Franc.  As the name implies, the terraced soils are alluvial deposits of gravel and sand, giving the red wines a stronger "minerality" than those wines further north in the Medoc. 

Creeping urbanization has changed the face of the Graves over the years, with the northern border of the wine region touching the southeastern edge of the city of Bordeaux. The revered Ch. Haut-Brion and its neighbor La Mission Haut-Brion, among the best Graves estates, are surrounded today by vineyards. Although both chateaux are still identified as being in the Graves, they are, in fact since 1987, legally in Pessac-Leognan.

2009 looks set to be a vintage year for winemakers in France - Telegraph
Vintage at Ch. Haut-Brion
As noted above, Ch. Haut-Brion was accorded First Growth status in the 1855 Classification, the only wine outside of the Medoc to be included. It was another 102 years before the red and white wines of Graves got their own classification in 1953, amended in 1959. Just 13 red and nine whites are classified in the one-class ratings. 

The chateaux in The Official Classification of Graves of 1959 are listed alphabetically, allowing the likes of Ch. Carbonnieux, $20, to be listed ahead of Ch. Haut-Brion, $626. If you are looking for a relative bargain at the high end, Ch. La Mission-Haut-Brion, Haut-Brion's main competition, sells for $443. 

Why, you may ask, am I going to such lengths explaining these classifications?  Because, even after all these years, they are still a relevant and useful guide to buying Medoc and Graves red wines. 


Next blog: The dry whites of Pessac-Leognon and sweet whites of Sauternes and Barsac.

If you have an idea for a future blog, or a comment on any of the past blogs, email at boydvino707@gmail.com