I am the first to admit I have a few character flaws. Actually no, I am the second. My mother usually beats me to the crunch, just to keep my feet on the ground obviously. Like many, I am prone to the odd snap judgement and the occasional generalisation. I am also a hopeless romantic, especially when it comes to wine, and the idea of a mud encrusted vigneron crooning quietly to his barrel, coaxing it through the final stages of fermentation holds far more appeal for me than the multimillion pound art deco ‘wineries’ that are popping up at a rate suggesting it is the vinous version of a pissing contest.
February 27, 2013
Expectations of affectations exposed. Back In your box Harper
With this slight bias in mind you can imagine that I had prepared my inner romantic for a lonely week in Bordeaux; a region that in my mind is the epitome of style over substance. In my mind my mother needs to have a serious word – their feet have well and truly left the ground. However I am going to do something that I very rarely do, and that is to admit that I have been wrong. Doubtless there are many soulless monsters in silk cravats roaming the echoing corridors of many a chateau in Bordeaux planning their next stratospheric price increase, however the handful of Bordelaise I had the pleasure of meeting this week has been a humbling experience.
It started with a negociant, who, far from being the cut throat commercial face of Bordeaux was an engaging and honest man who gently guided us through the why’s and wherefore’s of the business. He was not focused solely on the greenbacks as I had assumed anyone not directly involved in growing the vines must be, but was passionate about the wines they sold and about the people they worked with. It was day 1 and I was already having to rethink my preconceptions.
Second up in the removal of my Bordeaux blinkers was a visit to Bon Pasteur in Pomerol. It is owned by Michel Rolland, a successful oenologist who consults for about 120 wineries across the globe. Now…I am no mathematician but 120 wineries scattered across the world is going to take up a hell of a lot of your time, so my expectations for these pricey wines were that they would be impressive but formulaic. What I hadn’t anticipated was the charismatic winemaker Benoit Pedrot. With a disarmingly frank smile and a twinkle in the eye you knew that this was a man who not only knows his apples, but who loves them. He spoke with both clarity and passion on the innovations he and Michel had worked on, charting the discoveries that each experiment led to. If you are as impatient as I am you will understand the patience and dedication this kind of research takes. The wines themselves were bold and rich, well reflecting the confidence and energy of the man making them. Bordeaux 2: Harper 0
The penultimate feather in the Bordelaise beret was a visit to Chateau Haut Bailly in Pessac Leognan. I am not one who generally believes in vibes and energies, but the instant feeling of calm that you felt at Haut Bailly convinced me that the whole place had been feng shuied. Our host was as elegant and beautiful as the wines proved to be. I was genuinely disappointed when we had completed our tasting and it was time to leave, it was a place I could happily have spent many hours wandering the vineyards or quietly working my way through the vintages. More on this winery in a separate post.
Last up was a visit to the legendary first growth Chateau Margaux. We started off with a predictably impressive cellar tour, though I had to stifle my gaffaws when our guide’s mobile phone rang out with the tune ‘it’s all about the money, money, money’. How fitting. This is, however where the last of my anti-Bordelais feelings crumbled. In this bastion of wealth and success we sat down to a tasting with the humble, passionate and insightful Paul Pontallier, General Manager of Margaux. When asked if he was happy that Margaux was considered the feminine one of the big five he responded with typical Gallic charm: “any man who knows anything about women, knows that femininity does not mean weakness”. At this point all the men in the room were desperately taking notes on French charm and the women were applauding his perceptiveness! We tasted an eye opening flight of Cabernet, all from the 2012 vintage but from different terroir’s prior to blending. The stylistic differences could fill pages, and highlighted the incredible art that blending is. Where one wine was aromatic and forward, the next showed steely minerality, and the final a superb structure of tannin and acidity. Anticipating the sum of the three, and indeed the many other micro plots that comprise the final Grand Vin, it is no wonder this wine consistently holds its place among the world’s greatest. It appears it is all about the terroir, terroir, terroir after all. Finishing up the experiential tasting we were treated to a glorious lunch with Margaux 99 flowing from the heavens.
So thank you Bordeaux for teaching me that prejudices are there to be broken down.