Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Medoc sub-region of Bordeaux

On October 8th, I attended a class at Decanter HQ in London led by Decanter Contributing Editor Steven Spurrier and titled Mastering the Medoc and Graves.  In a previous post, I reviewed the class as an event.  In this and subsequent posts, I will report on the regions, the houses, and the wines covered in the course.  I begin the series with a look at the Medoc.

The Medoc is a part of the larger (and storied) Bordeaux wine region which is concentrated around the Gironde estuary and its tributary rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne.  The region owes its winemaking prowess to a number of factors: (i) a temperate climate characterized by humid springs, hot summers, sunny autumns, and relatively mild winters; (ii) the warming influences of the Gironde and the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic Ocean; (iii) its soils (quartz and flint pebbles over a subsoil of marl on the left bank and clay, limestone, and some gravel on the right); and (iv) protection from the ocean winds by the Landes pine forest to the southwest.

The Medoc is divided into two sub-appellations, the Medoc to the north and the Haut-Medoc, with the Medoc covering 4700 hectares and the Haut-Medoc 4300.  The Medoc sub-appellation, called Bas Medoc in earlier times, has heavy, moisture-retaining soils which are much more suited to Merlot than the Cabernet Sauvignon which dominates in its neighbor to the south.  Many areas in the Haut Medoc have large deposits of gravel which were washed down from the Pyrenees thousands of years ago.  This gravel provides excellent drainage and ideal conditions for Cabernet Sauvignon which does not like "wet feet."  These gravelly soils also retain warmth and, in so doing, aid in the ripening of the grapes.

The Chateaux in the the Medoc have been ranked since the 1855 World's Fair and that 1855 Classification, as well as the Cru Bourgeois classification, have been covered in a previous post.

Within the Haut-Medoc appellation there are a number of communal appellations which are renowned for producing some of the finest wines in the world.  Beginning with St. Estephe to the south of Medoc, these communes hug the Gironde until ending with Margaux at the fork which heralds the beginning of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers.  St. Estephe covers 1200 hectares and its wines are considered to be rustic.  They are tannic, muscular, and long-lasting.  Pauillac is 1100 hectares in size with wines that are considered powerful, yet elegant.  There are 15 classed growths but three Premier Crus (Chateaus Lafite, Latour, and Mouton) in this commune.  St. Julien is the smallest of the communes with 900 hectares and has 10 classed growths.  Its wines age well and combine elegance with austerity.  Margaux covers 1300 hectares and its wines are thought to be the most "perfumed, feminine, and elegant."

I will cover the Graves region in my next post.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Interview with Dr. Tony Wolf, Virginia Tech Viticulturist, on $3.8 million USDA wine quality improvement grant

Virginia Tech (www.vt.edu) was recently awarded a $3.8 million, 5-year grant by the US Department of Agriculture's (USDAs) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) to lead a multi-state project designed to improve grape and wine quality in the eastern United States (US).  Within Virginia Tech the project will be led by Dr. Tony Wolf, Professor of Viticulture in the University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Director of the school's Alson H. Smith Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center.  I interviewed Dr. Wolf recently in order to gain a better understanding of the project's origins, objectives, deliverables, and measures of success.  This blog post summarizes that conversation.

Dr. Wolf has been with Virginia Tech for over 25 years, having been hired initially in the late 1970s as a Viticulture Extension Specialist when the University saw an opportunity to become involved in wine-grape education and research.  Dr. Wolf has continued with his statewide viticulture responsibility but added a significant administrative responsibility with his appointment as Director of the Alson H. Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in 2003.

The grant to improve grape and wine quality in the eastern US was awarded by NIFA at the conclusion of a rigorous peer-review process.  NIFA is the successor organization to Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Services (CSREES).  CSREES had relationships with state Departments of Agriculture and funneled research funds to those organizations based on the number of farms in the state.  The state organizations would subsequently allocate funds to in-state research entities.  This process is still followed to some extent through block grants to state agricultural organizations but, for the most part, USDA research funds are funneled directly to research organizations through peer-reviewed grants.  NIFA, according to Dr. Wolf, provides a transparent process for allocation of USDA funds.  A key NIFA funding vehicle is the Speciality Crop Research Initiative (SCRI) which was "established to solve critical industry issues through research and extension activities" and gives priority to "projects that are multistate, multi-institutional, or trans-disciplinary; and include explicit mechanisms to communicate results to producers and the public."  SCRI has a current-year funding budget of $47 million.

University's had "seen the writing on the wall," both in terms of the shift in the research-funding-allocation mechanism as well as the SCRI mission, and a number of land-grant Universities banded together to pursue a multi-state, multi-disciplinary project.  The first concrete step in this initiative was a planning proposal submitted to the USDA by Cornell University.  This planning proposal was funded by the USDA with Cornell University as the Principal Investigator (PI).

Grape growers on the eastern seaboard face a number of fundamental issues, to include unpredictable precipitation during the growing season and inconsistent quality definitions.  The project seeks to improve the quality of grape and wine production in the eastern US by attacking these problems as part of a standard research and extension project.  The planning process for development of the grant proposal was a dynamic one which began in mid-2009 and continued through November.  The final proposal included seven institutions -- North Carolina State University, University of Maryland, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Cornell University, Virginia Tech, and the Connecticut Agricultural Expansion Station -- and 22 PIs.

The project, as awarded, has four objectives: (i) promotion of grape quality; (ii) matching varietals to sites; (iii) development of a GIS-based approach to vine location; and (iv) dissemination of study findings to users.  Teams have been formed around each objective.

A specific example of one of the study areas is the exploration of cover crops in the vineyard.  Precipitation during the growing season in the eastern US aggravates canopy management as it results in too much canopy which, in turn, can lead to poor fruit quality and rot.   Cover crops can increase soil health but can also cause drought stress in dry years.  Cover crop research is ongoing in North Carolina, Virginia, and the Finger Lakes region of NY to test the use and optimality of cover crops in northeast US vineyards and its potential contribution to an increase in the quality of grapes produced.

A federally and state-funded project named NE-1020 is currently underway in the US.  This multi-state project seeks to understand the performance of wine grapes under different climatic conditions.  The GIS component of the Virginia Tech study will bring the NE-1020 project under its umbrella and incorporate its data and findings into the portion which is tasked with using GIS technology to match varietals with vineyard sites.

Dr. Wolf sees the primary project deliverables as being comprised of decisionmaking tools.   The first tool envisioned is a GIS system that would assist a prospective wine maker in determining whether or not a particular plot would be appropriate for planting grape vines and growing quality grapes.  This tool will be the extrapolation of a platform that is currently in place at Virginia Tech's Center for Geospatial Information Technology.  The second tool will be used to aid the grower in varietal selection based on elements such as soil drainage, etc.  This tool will be developed as a result of incorporating the NE-1020 project into the VA-Tech project.  The third deliverable will be an assessment/evaluation tool.  A 1000-person survey will be conducted by the Virginia Tech Center for Survey Research in order to baseline the current practices and state of knowledge of regional grape growers.  That survey will be repeated in four years in order to assess the impact of the project on the practices and knowledge of the growers.

In addition to the decisionmaking tools, Dr. Wolf foresees some deliverables that are more in the educational realm.  For example, there will be a research summit at the end of Year 2 to report on progress-to-date as well as preliminary findings.  In addition, there will be state-wide workshops with team members and end users for information dissemination and feedback-capture.  Finally, all research findings will be provided on the web and be accessible to end users.  The USDA has an electronic vehicle called E-extension which presents research information to users based on communities of practice by region.  The Virginia Tech research results will be available to users on that vehicle.

This project will be successful, according to Dr. Wolf, if (i) there is improvement in the perception of eastern US wines in the market; (ii) if they can see trends that growers are siting vineyards scientifically; and (iii) if there is an improvement in the sales and profitability of eastern US wines.  Historically there has been a stigma associated with the quality of eastern US fruit, varieties, and winemakers.  Improving the grape and wine quality in the region will go a long way towards dispelling that stigma.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cellar Tour and Dinner at Château d'Yquem with M. Pierre Lurton, GM: Decanter d'Yquem Weekend

We made our way back to Les Sources de Caudalie after the Château Cheval Blanc visit and, after stopping to take pictures at Petrus and a few other château, what had originally been billed as an afternoon free quickly became a mad dash to be ready in time for our transit to Château d'Yquem.

When we started out, the light was failing and it was fully dark by the time we got to our destination.  Based on the vehicles' climb up the slope to the château, and the orientation of the lights in the distance, one got the sense that the daytime view would be dramatic.  There was some disappointment that we would not experience that view on this visit (a feeling that was enhanced when M. Lurton mentioned, during the introductions, that the daytime view was spectacular).  We turned into a gravel driveway and pulled into a darkened courtyard that was surrounded on all sides by buildings and/or walls.

There was a commotion to our left and three people came crunching towards us in the dark.  One of the two males gave Sarah Kemp a welcoming peck on the cheek and then proceeded to shake everyone's hand.  This was Pierre Lurton, General Manager of both Château dYquem and Château Cheval Blanc.  He was accompanied by Valérie Lailheugue, who was introduced as being responsible for Corporate Communications but, as the evening wore on, it became evident that she was the institutional memory of the Château.

After these "in-the-dark" introductions, M. Lurton indicated that we would go visit the cellar.  He said that  he was not going to spend a lot of time on the workings of the Château as we would probably find it boring after two days of listening to similar material.  The cellar was fronted by a brightly lit foyer whose walls were decorated with framed pictures of vines and bunches of grapes. M. Lurton stopped in front of these pictures and began to speak.

He begun by informing us as to his responsibilities at both Yquem and Cheval Blanc and indicated that he was also making wine in Argentina.  He referred to d'Yquem as possessing "sensual terroir" and said that its 105 hectares (the Yquem website says 188 hectares of which 113 is under vine) sits in the middle of the 2000-hectare Sauternes appellation.  He briefly explained the botrytis-formation process and told us that the traditional Yquem blend is 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc.  The grapes are picked beginning in the middle of September and continues through an average of six waves.

As we walked through the cellar, M. Lurton continued his discourse.  Wines from individual plots are stored separately in the fermentation room.  The wines are stored in 100% new oak and are in barrel for 34-40 months.  Annual production is between 500 and 1000 barrels.  The Chinese market has been good for the company but the biggest consumer of d'Yquem continues to be Italians.

After leaving the cellar we repaired to the tasting room.  Glasses were already set up in anticipation of our arrival and M. Lurton and Valérie went behind the bar and began pouring the 2007 d'Yquem for us to taste.  M. Lurton indicated that the 2007 vintage was a good one in Sauternes.  The grapes were late-picked because of an Indian summer with the earliest picking on September 10th and the last of six waves occurring on November 6th.  The wine has 125 g/l of residual sugar and 14% alcohol.  It has a golden color and, on the nose, botrytis, rust, intense pure fruit, light honey, peach, pineapple, and a sense of the complexity that is embodied in the wine.  The wine exhibits a little spiciness and a very long finish.  It was bottled 8 months ago.

Upon completing the tasting we decamped to the courtyard and made our way over to the Reception and Dining rooms.  We entered a small foyer and to the right was a cream-colored room with white trim and furnished with stunning period pieces.  On the walls were ancient-looking tapestries and paintings and, covering a part of the polished wood floor, a beautiful Parisian rug.  This was the room in which the champagne reception was being held.  I gingerly stepped into the room so as not to break anything.  My wife stepped right in and sat in one of the chairs to change from her cellar shoes to her dinner togs.  I held my breath waiting for the antique chair to break and bring her crashing to the ground and me a bill from Château d'Yquem for damage to their property.  But the chair held up and I started breathing again.  In my relief I hastily downed a glass of the Veuve Clicquot which had appeared as if out of thin air.

The reception lasted for about 30 minutes before we were summoned to the Dining Room, the setting of which is shown in the picture below.  A seating chart on an easel showed where everyone would be sitting and individual name tags stood at attention on a sideboard.

The first course was a Medley de Saint-Jacques aux Truffes (Scallops with truffles).  The presentation was excellent and a member of the wait staff circulated with a bowl of brown truffle sauce as an accompaniment.  Some diners poured the sauce directly over the course while others placed it on the side.  This course was paired with the 2007 vintage of Y, the Château's dry white wine.  The wine had a botrytized nose to go along with nuttiness, rusty nails, lemon zest, grassiness, tropical notes and white fruits.  This wine paired very well with this course.

The second course was Noix de Veau (round filet of Veal), Girolles (chanterelle mushrooms) et Tombée d'Epinards (cooked-down spinach).  This course did have an optional rust-colored sauce as an accompaniment and was paired with a 1996 d'Yquem.  The wine was delicate and fresh and less rich than the 2007 tasted earlier.  I found this pairing to be a little rocky as my palate kept asking "where's the red?"

For our next course we had a selection of cheeses (Comté, Roche baron, Bleu d'Aurergne).  The final course was a Gratin de Pamplemousse (crusted grapefruit) and was paired with a 1988 d'Yquem.  This wine had an excellent bronze color and was rich but balanced.  This wine paired excellently with this course.

This was a truly excellent meal both in terms of the gustatory items as well as the environment that was created for us that evening.  The setting was fabulous and will be imprinted on my memory for a very long time.  M. Lurton was a gracious host and was ably assisted in that endeavor by Valérie.  M. Lurton regaled us with story after story drawn from his personal experiences and Sarah matched him tale for tale.  It was a pleasure to be sitting next to her, and diagonally across from him, so that I could absorb both the words and facial expressions of these two as they bantered back and forth.

We did not want to leave. But, alas, we had to.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Lunch at Château Cheval Blanc with Pierre Clouet, Technical Director: Decanter d'Yquem Weekend.

Château Cheval Blanc knocked our socks off on Saturday.  Technical Director Pierre Olivier Clouet had just spent 90 minutes expounding on the theory and practice of viticulture and viniculture and now he was set to host us at a champagne reception and sit-down lunch.

As we made our way into the reception room, we were met with flutes containing Dom Ruinart 1998, a wine described by the House as "the ultimate expression of Chardonnay."  After we were all appropriately "armed" the wait staff began circulating with an hor d'oevres of thinly sliced sea bass on toast points.

At the conclusion of the reception we were shown into the dining room.  The room was tastefully appointed with palm trees and potted plants and with a long, oval-shaped dining table running down its center.

We chose our seats, perused the menu (cream-colored, elegant construct, with flowing script and a brown tasseled ribbon), and waited for the fireworks to begin.

The first course was Mozzarella de Bufflone (Buffalo Mozzarella), Brunoise de Légumes et Copeaux de Jabugo (mixture of vegetables and Spanish Ham shavings).  This course was accompanied by a 2003 vintage of the Château's second wine, Le Petit Cheval.  In describing this wine Pierre talked about jam, licorice, and menthol notes as well as freshness, maturity, and balance.  This vintage was aged in 100% new oak.  Further expounding on the philosophy of the Château, Pierre indicated that the taster should focus on the mid-palate when tasting either Le Petit Cheval or Cheval Blanc.  The Château's goal is to have the wine on the palate at all times: attack, mid, and finish.  The mid-palate comes from the fineness of tannins and is a function of the soil.  In the case of Cheval Blanc wines, the tannins have density with silkiness.

The second course was Dos de Cabillaud (Cod back), Purée à l'Ancienne (Mashed potatoes with aged olive oil) and was accompanied by the 2001 Cheval Blanc.  The wine was fresh and presented red berry notes, spice, menthol, licorice, and violet.  The wine showed excellent concentration and density and had a long finish.

The third course was Fromages Affinés (Refined cheeses) while the final course was Salade de Mangue (diced Mangoes), Macarons et Grog à la Passion (Macaroons and Passion Fruit punch).  It was at this time that we got our first glimpse of the "big cat", the amber-colored nectar of the gods, a bottle of d'Yquem.  The 1997 vintage of this wine was poured to accompany our dessert.  As can be seen in the picture below, the wine has a rich golden color and was an aromatic delight.  Very rich on the nose with a plethora of tropical fruit notes.  Silky on the palate with a smooth, ultra-long finish.

This was an excellent meal from top to bottom. Every course was exceptional and went exceedingly well with its pairing partner even though some of these would not have been my personal pairing choices going in.  The consistency of the Buffalo Mozzarella and the presence of the ham shavings were very agreeable with the freshness and balance of the Le Petit Cheval while the presence of the aged olive oil and the medium body of the cod complemented the Cheval Blanc.  And what about the d'Yquem? Pure heaven.

As we staggered out of the dining room, there were two thoughts on our collective minds: (i) we had just had a phenomenal experience and (ii) the Yquem champagne reception and dinner was only three hours away and two of those hours would be occupied in traveling back to the hotel and then to Château Yquem.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Château Cheval Blanc visit with Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director: Decanter d"Yquem Weekend

We arose on Saturday morning and, after breakfast, boarded two vans for transit to Château Cheval Blanc.  Master of Wine James Lawther was especially helpful during the course of the journey, pointing out the landmarks and points of interest as we traversed this hallowed ground.

As we turned into the road on which Château Cheval Blanc is located, James pointed to a nearby château and identified it as Château l'Evangile, the producer of one of my favorite Pomerols.

After we disembarked into the château courtyard, three men came hurrying up to greet us.  The youngest of the three (barely out of diapers I would say) introduced himself as Pierre Olivier Clouet, Technical Director of Cheval Blanc and, he said, he would be leading the tour as well as hosting us at the subsequent sit-down lunch.

Prior to 1832, according to Pierre, Cheval Blanc was a part of La Tour Figeac, the vineyards of which lie northwest and west.  Cheval Blanc consists of 37 acres (35 of which are planted to vine at any one time) and is planted 60% Cabernet Franc and 40% Merlot.  The Château is only one of two in the St. Emilion Appellation which is classified as Premier Grands Crus Classé A (the other is Château Ausone).  The Château has been in the hands of the Laussac-Fourcaud (later Fourcaud-Laussac) family continuously until it was acquired jointly by LVMH and Belgian businessman Albert Frère in 1998.  Pierre Lurton, of the famed Bordeaux Lurton family, was installed as General Manager after the acquisition (While at dinner at d'Yquem later that evening, M. Lurton regaled us with a funny story regarding his interview for that position.  I will recount that story in my post on the Yquem visit.).

Continuing the discussion, Pierre noted that St. Emilion was characterized by Merlot and limestone but that there was no limestone on the Cheval Blanc property.  Cheval Blanc stands at the limit of Pomerol (and at this time he points out l'Evangile, Petrus, Certan) and has huge dollops (my word, not his) of Pomerol soil. The Cheval Blanc soil composition is 40% clay, 40% gravel, and 20% sand.  This is important to the château because, in his view, 80% of wine quality potential lies in the soil; excellent wines come from good soil.  The soil at Cheval Blanc is poor in nitrogen and water -- very dry -- and this stresses the vines into producing lots of tannin, aroma, and acidity.

The factors that he focuses on in managing the vineyards are: quantity of grapes produced, maturity, and protection against diseases.  The château manages quantity through winter pruning, green harvesting, and soil fertilization.  Vines are pruned in the winter to retard development.  The goal is to have 7 buds/vine plant but the pruning is vine-specific and a particular plant may end up with more or less.  Using this process, vineyard workers can only prune 300-400 plants per day.  Green harvesting reduces the likelihood of rot and increases concentration in the remaining grapes.  The château sprays to protect against diseases but in decreasing quantities.  They are moving more to planting vetch (a flowering plant in the legume family) on fallow soil in order to purge and aerate the soil.

Pierre identified three types of maturity: technology, aromatic, and tannin.  He sees technology maturity as revolving around finding a good balance between sugar and acidity, with acidity being key to the ageability of wines.  Aromatic maturity strives for freshness, with greenness at one end of the spectrum and botrytization at the other.  Tannins flow between density and ripeness.  These three maturities need to be optimized on the same day in order to begin picking fruit.

After this discussion in the courtyard, we moved into the cellar to discuss vinification.  Pierre pointed out the heavy cranes overhead and indicated that they were in the midst of a major expansion project which would provide additional space for storage and small fermentation vats.

Château Cheval Blanc's vinification process is "classical."  Sorting is essentially by the pickers in the vineyard who select the best bunches.  These bunches are carried to the sorting tables in small baskets for additional assessment before being pressed.  Juice flows into concrete fermentation vats and when a vat is full fermentation is initiated by adding artificial yeast to the mix.  Artificial yeasts are used to guard against the risk of incomplete fermentation resulting from the exhaustion of natural yeasts during the process.  The juice is pumped over the cap three times per day and this pumping over continues until fermentation is complete.  Maceration continues for 15+ days until a 4-member committee calls a halt to the process. Malolactic fermentation occurs in vats because this yields, according to Pierre, purer fruit and greater elegance.  After malolactic fermentation, the wine is racked and sulfur is added.

Blending occurs 6 months after fermentation.  The wine is aged for 16 to 18 months in new French oak with racking every three months.  They protect against oxygen during racking by using nitrogen to force wine from a full barrel into a clean empty barrel through a connecting, air-tight rubber tube.  Using this process, 33 barrels are racked every day, with 5 weeks required to rack all of the cellars.  After 6 or 7 rackings, the wine is left to be clarified by gravity.

Barrel quality is assured by conducting blind tastings with coopers- and Cheval Blanc staff.  These tastings are done across all coopers and then for the barrels from a single cooper.  This process is utilized to select coopers as well as to improve the tightness-of-fit of the barrels sent to the Château.

At this point we concluded the tour and proceeded to a champagne reception and lunch.  These will be covered in a subsequent post.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Château Smith Haut Lafitte Cellar Tour and Les Sources de Caudalie Dinner: Decanter d'Yquem Weekend

Photo courtesy Ogodinho with permission.
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte is a property located in the Pessac-Léognan commune of the Graves sub-region of Bordeaux and is owned by Florence and Daniel Cathiard, former members of the French National Ski Team.  Decanter had arranged for Yquem Weekend participants to visit the winery for a cellar tour at 6:00 pm on Friday and we showed up on schedule for this opening event.  The tour was listed as optional but, in a testament to the high interest level of the participants, everyone showed up.

The tour was led initially by Xavier Feuillerat, the individual in the winery tasked with that activity. According to Xavier, the château can trace its roots back to 1365.  The name is derived from the Old French word Lahite -- hill -- and, thus, Haut Lafitte is top of the hill.  In 1770 the property was bought by one John Smith who modified the château's name by adding his surname in the primary position.  At one time in its history the château was owned by Lodi Duffour-Duberger, one-time mayor of Bordeaux and the individual who had been charged with the development and ratification of the 1855 Bordeaux Classification.

The current owners were married in 1968.  Daniel's father ran a grocery chain which he went home to manage after his father died in 1970.  In addition to growing that business into a major mid-market chain, Daniel launched a sports-themed chain called Go Sport and both of these businesses were sold in 1990 and Château Smith Haut Lafitte bought with the sale proceeds.

The property consists of 67 hectares, 56 of which are planted to red wine grapes.  Xavier indicated that the white wine grapes were farmed biodynamically with the plots ploughed by horses, no insecticides, and vines pruned only when the moon was in a certain phase.  The white wines are fermented in 50% new French oak over a 3-week period and stored on the lees for 12 months with battonage.  The composition of the white wine is 90% Sauvignon Blanc, 5% Semillon, and 5% Sauvignon Gris.  The composition of the red wine is 35% Merlot, 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 10% Cabernet Franc.

By this time Madame Cathiard had joined the tour and taken over leadership responsibilities and proceeded to refute the claim of biodynamic farming.  She said they would never be biodynamic.  The château does use organic compost and plough with horses but the latter is, according to her, to avoid compacting the soil in a particularly fragile area.

James Lawther, Madame Cathiard, and Technical Director Fabian Teitgen
According to Madame Cathiard, when they bought the property 20 years ago, they were concerned with the fertility of the rootstock and have had an ongoing vine-replacement program to address this issue.  The oldest vines on the property are 52 years old and can go 6 to 7 meters into the soil.

It takes 3-5 years before they begin picking grapes from the new plants and the press from these grapes go into the second wine (Les Hauts de Smith).

The winery has an on-site cooperage which produces three barrels per day.  This production is sold to the second label and to Cognac and Armagnac producers and some used in-house.

Madame Cathiard took us into a sub-basement with access secured through an electrically operated door which opened upwards from the floor.  As we descended into the room she indicated that it was named Le Paradis -- the paradise.  On the left-hand side of the room was a table on which lay every size of wine that is produced at the château, proceeding from smallest to largest.  On the right side of the room was a line of bottles of the château's red wines arranged from oldest to most recent.  At the front of the room was a glass cube containing a wine bottle which, through the influence of imbedded mirrors, appeared to be the entrance to a hole stretching to infinity.

Photo courtesy of Ogodinho. Used with permission.
Photo courtesy Ogodinho. Used with permission.
At the conclusion of the cellar tour Madame Cathiard took us to the château's tasting room where we tasted the 2008 vintage of the white wine.  Madame Cathiard described it as evolving nicely with aromas of grapefruit and white flowers.  James Lawther, the Decanter MW accompanying us on the trip, described the wine as having freshness and balance with visible but harmonious oak, and grapefruit and apricot on the nose, exuberance on the palate, and good length and depth.

At the conclusion of the visit we thanked Madame effusively and wended our way back to Les Source des Caudalie's La Table du Lavoir restaurant for dinner.  One of the thoughtful things that Decanter had done was to check for food allergies/preferences ahead of time and to pass that information on to the locales at which we ate.  The menus were presented to us with options or personalized for those with specific needs.  The menu for the dinner at La Table du Lavoir was as follows:

Course 1:  Onion tart with anchovies and black olives, rocket salad parmesan or Foie gras from the Landes with Lillet caramel and toast; accompanied by Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2007.
Course 2:  Sea Breem filet à la plancha, ink of squid risotto, red sweet pepper juice or Duck magret, seasonal mushrooms and juice; acompanied by Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Rogue 2000.
Course 3:  Warm soft chocolate cake, Bourbon vanilla ice cream or Figs tart, almond milk sorbet; accompanied by Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte Rouge 1998.

This was a great getting-to-know-you dinner and set a phenomenal baseline of communication for the entire group.  By the way, the 1998 was the preference of the group as the 2000 needed to be decanted fro a while.

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Review of Decanter's d'Yquem Weekend Event

Decanter had billed it as a Bordeaux Readers d'Yquem Weekend and, at the end of the day, the Readers had had a lot of d'Yquem and (maybe as a result) a singularly exhilarating weekend.  This post reviews and assesses the overall program while subsequent posts will examine the individual elements in greater detail.

I became aware of this event when I visited Decanter's HQ in London a few weeks ago to attend the Steven Spurrier class on Mastering the Medoc and Graves.  While we were at lunch Steven mentioned the event and shared the promotional literature with us.  As laid out, Decanter proposed a weekend in Bordeaux with the following features:  Limited to 16 people; Les Sources de Caudalie as the hotel of choice; cellar tours of Châteaus Smith Haut Lafitte, Cheval Blanc, and d'Yquem, each tour to be led by a senior manager of the Château; post-cellar-tour lunch at Château Cheval Blanc and dinner at Château d"Yquem; transportation to and from all events; Decanter senior managers and a Master of Wine to accompany tour members on the trip.  I saw this as a fantastic opportunity to be introduced to Bordeaux from the top and, simultaneously, have the opportunity to interact with Decanter senior management and a Master of Wine for an entire weekend.  I jumped at the opportunity.

I flew into the Bordeaux airport a little after midnight on Thursday and spent the rest of the night at a hotel in the city of Bordeaux.  I headed out Les Sources de Caudalie a little after 1:00 pm.  I had never stayed at the establishment but was familiar with it through the writings of George Taber.  In his book In Search of Bacchus (Scribner, 2009), Taber described it as "... a small luxury hotel" whose "rooms are furnished with antiques, no two of them the same. One suite is in a fisherman's hut built on stilts in a small artificial lake."  We were given notice of our impending arrival at Caudalie by the sight of the square, squat tower with big, bold letters announcing Château Smith Haut Lafitte.

 Les Sources de Caudalie is directly across a narrow street from Château Smith Haut Lafitte but we had to delay our entrance into the property while another taxi backed gingerly out of an even narrower stub-driveway that serviced the hotel.  Once we unloaded the car and stepped into the entranceway, I had a clear sense that this was a special place.  The lobby was small but well appointed and looked out on the artificial lake described by Taber.  Beyond the lake ran row after row of gold-, rust-, or brown-robed vines whose leaves individually reflected the seasons impact. The reception staff were courteous and helpful without being fawning.

Our room was not ready so we had lunch and then hung at the bar drinking champagne.  While at the bar we met Sarah Kemp, Decanter Publishing Director. She was very disarming and our interaction at this initial meeting signaled that it was going to be a fantastic weekend.

Our schedule called for assembly in the hotel lobby at 5:50 pm for an optional tour of the Château Smith Haut Lafitte cellar, said tour to be led by Decanter Contributor James Lawther MW.  At this juncture I was introduced to the other members of the tour group (12 of us in all) as well as members of the Decanter team whom I had not previously met.  We took a short walk in the dark to the Château Smith Haut Lafitte cellar and was ushered into the building to begin our tour.  The tour was initially led by a senior staff member at Smith Haut Lafitte but Madame Cathiard, co-owner of the property, joined our group shortly after the tour began and guided us the rest of the way in.

Madame Cathiard gave us a spirited and enthusiastic exposition on the winery and its wines and set an overall high tone which was maintained by all of the wineries that we visited over the course of the weekend.  I will cover the winery visits in greater detail in future posts but, at this point, would like to provide my perspective on the event as a whole.

Decanter  over-delivered (not a bad thing) and, in so doing, exceeded my wildest expectations.  I live for memorable experiences and this one truly fit the bill.  We had cellar tours of Châteaus Smith Haut Lafitte, Cheval Blanc, and d'Yquem led by Florence Cathiard (co-owner), Pierre Olivier Clouet (Technical Director), and Pierre Lurton (General Manager), respectively, and, in so doing, gained insights into the workings of those enterprises at a level (and in a setting) that would have been difficult to realize had I pursued it on my own.   In addition to the cellar tours, we had sit-down meals at Cheval Blanc and d'Yquem that were hosted by M. Clouet and M. Lurton, respectively, and nothing relaxes a wine person like good food and their own wines.  They were very relaxed.

One of the results of the event was that like-minded individuals were brought together on hallowed ground.  We are all wine collectors who love talking about wine and sharing a glass of wine and good food with good friends.  We all saw the d'Yquem event as a "must do"; and did.  I enjoyed every one that I met and will have ongoing relationships with a number of the people that I met there.

The final contributing element to the success of the weekend was the human element: the Decanter team.  They worked unceasingly to ensure that the weekend lived up to its hype.  Emma scurrying about with her ever-present clipboard, whipping service-providers into shape, herding recalcitrant readers between events in order to keep us on track, and ensuring that the spa worked as advertised by taking the first honey-something-or-other wrap.  Lacey working diligently behind the scenes with an ever-present smile and upraised glass.  James was a peach. A Master of Wine who has not read his own reviews. Who was helpful and always ready with a detailed explanation or tasting note when called upon.  He gave running commentaries as we drove through the various communes and even stole us away for a trip through St. Emilion while the other van was making a Macaroon stop.

Sarah was wonderful to be around.  She is exceedingly knowledgeable about wine issues, events, trends, and people and appears to be well-connected in Bordeaux.  She is a great conversationalist who loves laughter; and a glass of wine.  When I asked what were her objectives in launching the event, she said she wanted to share her experiences with the magazines' readers.  I asked about her measure of success and she said "You guys still speaking to us in the breakfast room on Sunday morning."  Her easy banter with Madame Cathiard and M. Lurton attests to her connectedness and relationships with the leading lights of the community.  During the dinner at d"Yquem it was was obvious that they had socialized a lot because they almost had to cast lots to determine who would tell the next story; stories which they both seemed to know.

This was an inaugural event and, in my opinion, it was stunning.  Decanter does not know if/when/where they will have a second event but if they do you can bet your life on one thing.  I'll be there.