I’ve just returned from an truly magnificent trip to Bordeaux. I was the fortunate and ever grateful recipient of a scholarship from the Commanderie de Bordeaux aux États-Unis d’Amérique. Six days, visits with over 30 wineries and touching nearly every appellation you can think of: Pessac Leognan, Margaux, St. Julien, Pauillac, St. Estephe, Sauternes, Bourg, Blaye, Fronsac, St. Emilion, Pomerol… In retrospect, this was one of the more illuminating wine trips I have been on in my life. Steeped in tradition and prestige, Bordeaux can mean so many things to wine lovers and professionals. For some, it is the pinnacle of complexity and terroir. For others, it is seen as expensive, exclusive and straightlaced, so as not to be included in the hip vernacular and snapshots amongst trade on Instagram with the occurrence of, say, Burgundy, Beaujolais or Loire wines.
Before I came to Bordeaux, I reserved a place for this region as the foundation of my academic pursuit in wine– it was the region I wanted to understand first. I respected its history, its important place amongst the world’s highest quality wines and its distinct commune expressions. What I did not expect, however, and what I am so grateful to have learned, was that within these communes, there is wide variety of techniques growers and winemakers are employing to reach a stylistic or, in some cases, a philosophical goal with their wine. In this way, I was able to see how even despite the traditions that have carried this region for hundreds of years–from variety selection to the use and importance of barrels– this is a region that prides itself of innovation, curiosity and advancement. As a result, I was invited to take a peek and explore these subtle, yet profound, differences.
What follows is the journey, day by day, as we explored the regions of Pessac-Léognan, Margaux, Pauillac, St Estephe, Fronsac, the Côtes de Blaye, Bourg and Sauternes. We quite touched upon nearly every corner we could in six days. While there was tremendous crossover in technique, the nuance of individuality and approach is what I want most to focus on here. Appellation rules dictate so much that needs to remain the same– from yields to varieties, density to ageing requirements. I will touch upon these particulars but want more to tell the story of their deliberate difference– for here we go outside the rules and better understand the role humans can play in terroir.
February 19th: Free sunny Sunday
There is no other feeling than that first night of jetlag lullaby sleep. So sound and complete, I crave it every time. This day, which I will not go on too long, was met with a casual stroll around the neighborhood. My gorgeous (affordable) AirBnB flat overlooks the Jardin Public on the Cours de Verdun. People are sprawled throughout, tummies on towels, reading books. Kids and dogs ran about the lawn. It was an active day with a gentle murmur to it.
I visited La Cite du Vin–a testament of sorts to wine education. This modern structure seemed to erupt from the river with purpose, against a background of industry and bleak surroundings. This was Disneyland for anyone with a passion for learning about wine. There was a polysensorial room, where people can discover the common scent identifiers in wine–not just Bordeaux, but from around the world. A cozy library is stacked with books both historical and contemporary ranging from those focused on degustation, technical winemaking, regional focus and history. Private classrooms were filled with learners taking a course. The museum itself was overflowing with tourism.
As I entered the main exhibition, I was given a headset to follow and interact with stations set around the room. From historical trade maps that explained the evolution and globalization of the world’s wine regions to videos with winemakers from New Zealand, Burgundy, Australia, amongst others popping up to explain vineyard technique and their effects on style, this was a great way to better understand the larger purpose and philosophy behind individual regions and estates. There were even separate stations going in depth on winemaking choices, from fermentation vessels, to cooperages, to bottling options. It truly was an imaginative, interactive ode to wine that seemed to be drawing many people off the main streets of Bordeaux to see.
The night ended at Brasserie Bordelaise, where I met my colleague, whom is an Advanced Sommelier through the Court of Master Sommeliers. This was an affordable, jovial place with great energy and casual feel. The list, while young, was interesting nonetheless. We enjoyed a 2010 Le Clementine from Château Pape Clement (stunning right now with evolved aromas of honey, white florals and a touch of stone fruit) and the 2006 Château DuTertre Margaux– a vintage that is loosening up so nicely, showing the elegance of Bordeaux without the wait. Perhaps not the longest finish, it is such an enjoyable, drinkable vintage right this moment.