We were lucky to snag 2 spots in 2015 for The Bordeaux Grand Cru Harvest Tour put on by The Bordeaux Wine Experience. Five great days of tasting and learning about incredible Bordeaux wines. Days 1, 2 and 3 were very informative and included a lot of tasting of Bordeau wines. Day 4 had big shoes to fill.
Graves and Sauternes
Day 4 again started with our standard French breakfast at Château Coulon Laurensac where our group of 13 was staying. When the croissants are this good, how are we not going to gain weight!
Then we boarded our bus along with our very knowledgeable and personable host, Ronald Rens, to take us through Pessac-Léognan in the Graves and then south in Sauternes country. On todays agenda were three more premier winery visits and tastings, not to speak of a wonderful lunch, and then dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Going back to the real world is going to be hard….
Chateau Haut Brion/La Mission Haut Brion
Our first stop was at Chateau Haut Brion/La Mission Haut Brion. This 16th-century winery is the oldest, the smallest, and probably the most innovative of Bordeaux’s First Growth wineries. For example, it was the first to top-off and rack its wines and the first to move to all stainless steel tanks. The company also has its own cooper and produces most of the barrels for its red wines (although not its whites), toasting all to a light medium.
As Graves is a very gravelly area and is the warmest of the Bordeaux regions, it is typically the first to pick its grapes. The Haut Brion estate is separated from La Mission by a road, and the wines are so different from each, that they are sold under different labels.
- Haut Brion wines have a smoky aroma and a deeper, earthy, tobacco-like taste.
- La Mission wines are slightly lighter, with a less pronounced aroma and more of a chocolate taste.
This region, and these two vineyards, also produce a white wine (a combination of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) that is almost as prized as their reds. And since it was during harvest time, we first watched some pickers heading out to the fields with their empty baskets.
As the grapes came back from the fields, we then watched the initial sort. Next was a visit to the tanks, the cooperage and the barrel room (at least the second-year barrel room, since barrels for each of the two years are stored in different rooms).
Then the best part: heading to the tasting room to sample 2007 wines from each of the company’s two premier labels (Château La Mission Haut Brion 2007, Grand Cru Classé de Graves, AOC Pessac-Léognan and Château Haut Brion 2007, 1e Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan)With each bottle selling for 300-500, euros in 2015, this was the only way we would ever taste these. While we generally preferred the lighter, more fruit-based La Mission, 2007 is not our favorite vintage. Perhaps we can return for the 2009 vintage?
On to our next stop. Chateau Haut Bailly grows its grapes on the top of a hill in Graves (the Pessac-Léognan region). As a result of the location, its grapes have better access to wind and better drainage. And the grapes near the bottom of the vines get an even greater benefit of being close to the gravel, which retains and give off heat in the evening when grapes higher on the vine have already cooled down.
At the winery, we watched them bring grapes in from the harvest, and toured the wine-making facilities and the cellars. Unlike the case with other wineries, Haut Bailly relies exclusively on concrete tanks for the first fermentation process and then does the second fermentation in the same wooden barrels in which the wine is aged. Stainless steel tanks are used only for blending.
Tasting Chateau Haut Bailly Wines
And of course we had a tasting. The Chateau Haut Bailly 2012, Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan is blended for complexity and ageability, and the second label of Chateau Haut Bailly, Grand Cru Classé La Parde de Haut Bailly 2012, AOC Pessac-Léognan has a higher percentage of Merlot and is blended to produce a more fruit-driven wine that can be drunken younger.
And Then There Was Lunch
But then came the real treat—lunch at Chateau Haut Bailly’s private dining room, with Chef Jean Charles Boisson, one of the region’s new breed of top chefs. Since he cooks in a chateau, he is not eligible for a Michelin star. But if he was in a restaurant, we are sure he would get one based on the absolutely wonderful meal that we had.
Our lunch experience began in the chateau’s parlor with Champagne Pol Roger, Extra Cuvée de Reserve, AOC Champagne and three very good, very interesting (not to speak of very pretty) amuse bouches. We then adjourned to the dining room where we were treated to a delicious four-course lunch, paired with three of the winery’s wines. Every dish was absolutely delicious, as well as artistic and the service was first class. We began with a foie gras and morel ravioli in a mushroom reduction finished with small foie gras squares and baby morels, accompanied by a very affordable fruit-based La Parde de Haut Bailly 2011, AOC Pessac-Léognan.
The main course was pigeon and roasted figs in a concentrated poultry gravy with a nice, agreeable Chateau Haut Bailly 2008, Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan. Then came the cheese course, which included a very good, shaved, flower-like arrangement of Tete de Moine cheese accompanied by Chateau Haut Bailly 2007, Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan. We finished with another phenomenal dish, Cremeux chocolate with coffee emulsion, accompanied by coffee or tea.
What a wonderful experience. And did we mention it was an incredible meal? This was truly the best meal of the tour. But we still had one place to visit: Chateau d’Yquem.
Chateau d’Yquem is Bordeaux’s highest classified winery. It produces the “Nectar of the Gods” —the only Premier Grand Cru Classé Supérieur Sauternes wines made primarily from Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, (in Sauternes typically with a little Muscadelle, but not so at Yquem).
Its grapes are grown in the most humid area of the Bordeaux region. They get early morning mist from the relatively cool Ciron River feeding into the warmer Garonne. The atmosphere facilitates the growth of Botrytis. This so-called Noble Rot punctures the skin, pulls water from the grape and creates a very, very concentrated juice with an added distinct flavor from the botrytis.
The humidity allows the grapes to mature very slowly and botrytis forms only late in the season. And, since the grapes are not harvested until they have very high sugar content, the first wave of picking may not begin until late September. Even then, harvest is all done by hand, grape-by-grape, rather than by the cluster. And it proceeds in waves, which can begin in September and in some years, last until Christmas. Picking is not done until the grapes reach the sugar level required to produce a potential alcohol level of 20 percent—approximately 40 brix.
What happens if Botrytis doesn’t develop properly; if the Noble rot turns into unpleasant acid or gray rot? Or what if rain, hail, or snow destroys some of the grapes? Then the vintage can be lost completely. This happens about one vintage per decade and happened in 2012. Or the yield (which is typically one glass per vine, compared with about a bottle per vine for Medoc or St. Emilion wines) can fall even further. The average yield, is only about seven to eight hectoliters per hectare, compared with 45 hectoliter government-mandated maximums (and 42-43 actuals) for many non-dessert Bordeaux wines. No wonder Chateau d’Yquem is so expensive.
How do they ensure that each vine, cluster, and grape gets the TLC it deserves? Since the weather is impossible to control, they try to control every other part of the process. One person is responsible for tending a designated segment of the vineyard for the entire year. Even more obsessively, they own the cattle whose manure is used for fertilizer (to make sure the cattle eat and live right to produce the right manure)—and the grass that is used to produce the hay eaten by the cattle.
Once the grapes are harvested and hand-inspected twice for quality, they are put into oak barrels (100 new barrels) for two years—both for the first and second fermentations. They remain in the barrels for two years before being bottled. During this period, each barrel is continually checked for quality and discarded if it doesn’t meet standards, It also goes through two blending processes.
After touring the beautiful grounds atop the hill (with other Grand Cru Sauterne producers surrounding d’Yquem on lower slopes of the hill), being awed by the fortress-like chateau, and touring the winery, we were more than prepared for a tasting. Our guide chose a Chateau d’Yquem 2005, 1e Grand Cru Classé Supérieur, AOC Sauternes (670 Euro per bottle in 2015) On the first nose, we smelled honey, vanilla, and apricot. In the second nose, the aromas evolved to caramel, pineapple, apricot and honeysuckle. The taste confirmed these aromas along with a unique mushroomy taste imparted by the Botrytis.
And what if you prefer a dry white wine to a sweet dessert wine? Chateaux d’Yquem also offers a dry white wine (named “Y”) that typically consists of about 75% Sauvignon Blanc and 25% Semillon—compared to the inverse for Chateau d’Yquem.
Ending A Great Day with Dinner
After a brief stop at our chateau (where we tried walking around in vain to work off calories from lunch), we headed back into the city for dinner in the town of Bouliac. The Michelin-starred Le Saint James is supposed to be the best restaurant in the Bordeaux area. It is known as the “balcony of Bordeaux” for its panoramic views. Nicolas Magie presided over our meal and provided a highly individualized interpretation and presentation of classics from the Aquitaine.
We enjoyed a four-course dinner, with each course paired with wine (of course). We began with a tasty amuse bouche of deep-fried escargot with anise cream sauce, followed by foie gras with smoked fig leaves, figs, and hazelnuts paired with Chateau Chantegrive 2012 (Blanc), AOC Graves.
The next course was pan-fried sea bass in vodka butter with crab/caviar balls, cabbage flowers, and lime (with the same wine), followed by roasted veal (and parsley-lemon, compressed pear, and a celery mixture) served with Mademoiselle “L” 2012 par Chateau La Lagune, AOC Haut Medoc.
Then came a two-part dessert: A pretty good cold currant crunchy tart and salty caramel, chocolate, and supposedly blueberries (which none of us could find). A Sauternes dessert wine (Chateau Doisy-Dubroca 2010, 2er Grand Cru Classé, AOC Sauternes) accompanied the dessert.
While the food was generally good, it barely compared with lunch. In itself, nothing could compare to lunch so this may not be entirely fair. But we did feel that the staff seemed somewhat amateurish and needed some training. Nice try, but Chateau Haut Bailly won by a unanimous decision!
The wines we tasted this day are:
- Château La Mission Haut Brion 2007, Grand Cru Classé de Graves, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Château Haut Brion 2007, 1e Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- La Parde de Haut Bailly 2012 (second wine of Chateau Haut Bailly, Grand Cru Classé), AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Chateau Haut Bailly 2012, Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- The Bordeaux Grand Cru Harvest Tour September 2015 at First Growth Haut Brion Champagne Pol Roger, Extra Cuvée de Reserve, AOC Champagne
- La Parde de Haut Bailly 2011 (second wine of Chateau Haut Bailly, Grand Cru Classé), AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Chateau Haut Bailly 2008, Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Chateau Haut Bailly 2007, Grand Cru Classé, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Chateau d’Yquem 2005, 1e Grand Cru Classé Supérieur, AOC Sauternes
- Chateau Chantegrive 2012 (Blanc), AOC Graves
- Mademoiselle “L” 2012 par Chateau La Lagune, AOC Haut Medoc
- Château Larrivet Haut Brion 2006, AOC Pessac-Léognan
- Chateau Doisy-Dubroca 2010, 2er Grand Cru Classé, AOC Sauternes