Feb 20th: Day 1 in Pessac Léognan
It seems Pessac was the most appropriate place to begin. It is often thought to be the birthplace of Bordeaux. It was also home to one of Jefferson’s favorite mid-week quaffers: Haut-Brion. Loaded with history, gravel and variety– from long-lived whites to beautifully perfumed reds, tiny family farms to Grand Cru Classe Chateau–Pessac-Leognan was remarkably varied and intriguing. It had a quiet, meditative quality to it. Bright eyed and bushy tailed, we were off to a great start…
Château Rouillac with Jean-Christophe Barron, Technical Director
We began at Château Rouillac, a humble estate off the beaten path with a storied history of various owners. They were a small team. Owner Laurent Cisneros bought the estate in 2010 and brought on Jean-Christophe Barron, the technical director, to execute his vision of an environmentally conscientious estate. Barron showed us the grounds and gave much praise to Eric Boissenot who came on as a consulting oenologist when they began. Some changes they have made is to return to traditional tilling by horse. Though it is only a portion of their vineyards currently (8 ha of the 24ha total), they are investing in one or two more horses so Titan (their employee of the decade) can get a little help out there. To them, the results have been phenomenal for them in creating more health in the soil and ultimately the integrity of the grapes. They have also been practicing organic methods (no synthetic herbicides or pesticides– a sentiment shared at each estate today, really). Rather than the limited and sometimes risky decision to go with Ecocert standards, they have chosen HVE (‘High Environmental Quality’) which acknowledges what they call ‘rational cultivation.’ Another way they implement this is through the use of essential oils (orange citrus on the grapes and leaves deters mildew/oidium) and various salts have shown to be effective in lieu of greater use of Bordeaux copper mixture.
Where many others today did not stress the importance of using press wine (the wine that is pressed off the skin after the free run juice has been extracted), Rouillac emphasized its crucial role in their style. They work off several select lots for the blending process, using press wine to bring structure and strength to the overall expression. They are also very strict about their barrel selection, going to the forest to choose which tree to be cut down and prepared for their use– a favorite forest being Berce (not as commonly seen) for a thinner, tighter grain.
In contrast to others we tasted today, these had the most vinous quality– pyrazines were more apparent but incredibly well-integrated and managed. It was the most economical of the estates we visited, with their top wine for about 25 euro. It is the only property in Pessac with highly regarded Eric Boissenot (known for his consulting efforts at all four 1st growths in the Medoc). Their style is quite elegant and avoids intense forms of extraction during fermentation– pigeage (punch down) only 2-3 times a day during fermentation and minimal remontage (pump-overs) and delestage (rack/return).
Domaine de Chevalier Cru Classé de Graves with Rémi Edange, Directeur Adjoint & Château Guiraud 1er Grand Cru Classé Sauternes with Didier Galhaud, Technical Director
This second visit marked itself first by being one of the few to wear ‘domaine’ for its name. Sixty hectares of a continuous plot, enclosed by a forest and run by owners who live on the property, a few steps from the vines, gives this winery a more intimate personality. Our guide, Remi Endage (directeur adjoint), was full of passion and excitement for the situation of their vineyards, oriented east facing without leaves for full light in the morning and leaf protection towards the west in the afternoon to prevent sunburn.
Their goal is to have minimal human interference with extraction in the winemaking process and to prolong the maceration of healthy grape skins post fermentation (he calls the skin ‘teabags’, where all the aromatic complexity is kept). In an effort to further this gentle extraction, the winery has been moving towards more temperature controlled concrete eggs and less stainless steel. This allows for more convection, and less pigeage and remontage. Thick concrete walls (in contrast to thin, inox) help to retain freshness in the wine, as he explains, as the skins are not as exhausted by temperature fluctuations. In a healthy vintage, like 2015 and 2016, they will macerate skins as long as 35 days. In a vintage like 2013, only about 12 days. Vintage 2013 saw severe sorting techniques and they spent about 5x what they would normally in a good vintage. But selling or scrapping the fruit in this rainy vintage was not an option. In Bordeaux, he explained, you take pride in making something good from a challenging vintage. It strengthens your brand, and integrity is maintained.
Didier Galhaud, manager of Château Guiraud, joined us for lunch at Les Ailes. We tried his 2015 Château Guiraud Blanc Sec (a category that is booming right now, going from a 30,000 bottles to now 250,000 bottles of production in the past five years). 50% Semillon and 50% Sauvignon Blanc, 70% aged in two year old barrels that once held Sauternes. For him, this gives more depth and texture to otherwise straightforward white blend. 2014 Château Guiraud Sauternes was outstanding– showing lifted acid and promising complexity. His wines aren’t as weighty as some others. He never chapitalizes, as this is the common culprit for excessive bulk on the palate– a less genuine expression of terroir for him. I asked him about his feelings about cryoextraction, a technique where grapes are frozen after picking in order to crystalize moisture and for more concentrated must from the grapes. While he was not a proponent and would not encourage it unless absolutely necessary, it offers a way to still use the essence of the grape (‘suss-subtraction he called it’), where chapitalization is adding something that is not natural to that grape for the mutual desired effect of body or concentration. When finishing our discussion on key markets for Guiraud, they expect China to pass their most important importer–the United States–very soon. There is a larger potential for sweeter wines, plus it is a budding, immense market where they intend to focus more energy and efforts. When asked about what the younger generations were drinking (aside from bubbles, rose, cocktails and craft brew), learned that they had no idea what hipsters were and that there was a particular cult following of Beaujolais, Chenin blanc and Cab Franc natural wines going on in the U.S. They were quite literally shocked about this phenomenon.
Visit 3: Château Haut-Brion 1er Grand Cru Classé de Graves & La Mission Haut-Brion
“Extracting perfection from the potential.” This is a line that surfaces in the short film they have us watch when we enter the quiet hallways of Haut-Brion. From barrel ageing to stainless steel tanks to clonal research– Haut-Brion has always been a step ahead with innovation. They do three sortings of grapes: First, by those hand harvesting in the field, choosing only the finest bunches. Next, on the sorting table. Finally, after destemming, with an optical sorter. As opposed to some of the wineries earlier in the day, their remontage program is quite extensive– running mechanically every 6 hours for the first fifteen days of fermentation, keeping wine on the skins an additional 7 days. Finally, for maximum control, they have their own cooperage, where 80% of their barrels are made. They partner with Seguin Moreau, select the forests from which they would like their oak, and the wood arrives to the in-house cooper for assembly and toasting (all medium). A ring of woody chestnut protects the oak from parasites.
We drive just across the way to visit La Mission Haut-Brion, assumed by Haut-Brion in 1983. It is, quite literally, sandwiched between the vineyards of Haut-Brion . They share the same soils, orientation, climate and vast range of soil depth (1m-6m deep). Both are the first to harvest, due to the fact they have a microclimate 2 degrees warmer than the rest of Pessac (even in a later-ripening year like 2016, they began picking reds on Sept 19, when many of their neighbors throughout Pessac began at least a week later). And so what of the difference? Shouldn’t they be similar? Here, our guide explains, they believe in the human element to shape terroir. The choice of rootstock, variety choice, blending, press additions (they occasionally do when the vintage or blend requires it), vineyard spacing, density (HB=8,000 vines/ha, M= 10,000 vines/ha)— all these decisions make a subtle yet profound difference on the wine’s style and personality. Where they have had 6 centuries to shape Haut-Brion, they’ve only had La Mission for 35 years.
In the glass, 2011 Haut-Brion and La Mission shoulder to shoulder, there were pronounced differences. The former was more reserved, structured and tightly wound with intense tannins full of potential. There was a focused red-fruited center with leathery, meaty undertones. A mineral component pulled these moving parts together. For La Mission, it was more perfumed and lifted with alpine raspberry/strawberry notes and red cassis. It was well-integrated on the palate and the tannin had a finer, clay-like texture. It was a real eye-opening comparison to taste these together. A very generous treat indeed.
Château les Carmes Haut-Brion with Guillaume Lardeau, Winemaker
This was a fascinating visit, as opened my eyes to the interconnected fluidity between tradition and innovation, classic and more modern approaches in the winery. While this winery practices organic philosophies, they actually find Ecocert to be limited. While it might be better than nothing, to Guilliaume it promotes closed-minded thinking and understanding of the botany. What is good for some vines and parcels are not good for others. The health of the soils and quality of grapes needs more than regulations set out by these organizations–and it should be very unique to each producer.
They work off 25 ha and own 3 horses to turn the soil– a detail he feels is one of the most important for maintaining the integrity of the terroir. Most interesting are the vessels they explore for both fermentation as well as aging. The utilize everything from stainless steel to concrete to traditional oak as well as ancient small amphorae. They are curious to experiment and realize there is so much to know. They want to differentiate from others in Bordeaux by taking risks based on some of their greatest inspirations from wineries around the world. In their cellar, in fact, they have a wall of wine–showcasing those from Chave and Petrus to Lafon and Trevallon… These serve to humbly remind them of greatness achieved and of how much there is to understand. They are excited to bring this perspective to such a traditional place as Bordeaux.
His 2013 was wonderfully ripe and talkative– not at all the impression we have been given on a vintage that scarcely found the light of day in my local market. Tannins were supple but stated. There was really little pyrazines– a trait he feels can only be managed in the vineyard by pulling leaves on the early side and lots of hands on management selecting only the best bunches at harvest. It was a balanced combination of Merlot (39%), Cabernet Franc (21%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (20%) that handled 40% new oak with ease and integration. This was a terrific showing for a vintage that has been hammered on a bit much.