by Paige Donner
On a recent wine tasting trip to Bordeaux, time was the essential essence of it all. It was time, and the immeasurable value of it, which truly stood out for me.
Time – Here we were, journalists, at best, acquaintances – asking the highly specialized and talented, unique-in-the-world, wine makers, technical directors, owners of world-famous estates (in several instances), to make time in their late summer, pre-harvest schedules to welcome us into their world.
In many ways, I felt, it is really only the presumptuousness of us journalists and media types that we would ask so much of this rarefied – and hard working – cadre of world-class wine estates. But here we were, we had asked, and we had been told, Yes!
Two days is not a lot of time to fit in both the Right Bank and Left Bank of Bordeaux. But we were ambitious, and determined – determined to fit in as many of these grand Bijoux St. Emilion, Pomerol and Médoc estates as we possibly could in the span of 36 hours. Château Cheval Blanc, Château Nenin then Château Léoville Barton, Château Léoville Las Cases, Château Léoville Poyferré, Château Pichon Comtesse and Château Beychevelle.
Time – Is there anything more precious in the world that anyone has, but time?
That thought kept percolating in my mind as I contemplated the full-bodied freshness of these Bordeaux ’18s that everyone is so excited about; and sipped on the elegance that the exceptional ’15s and ’16s are refining into; delighted in a Poyferré 2005, a Léoville Las Cases 2002 and an utterly surprisingly fresh and fruit forward 1970 Chateau Nenin.
Accompanied by two specialized wine writers on this trip, I listened to a continual dialogue between them and these respective château owners, wine makers and technical directors about notes of graphite and pencil shavings for cab francs (Cheval Blanc), the importance of avoiding Brett (brettanomyces – a 1998 that we tasted), and the percentages in the blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot and how many months the wine is left on the lees.
But despite being privy to all this technical knowledge and insider winemaking info, the one ingredient that seems to be the invisible yet connecting thread throughout it all, is Time.
It takes infinite amount of time and care – and know-how – to tend the vineyards. Pierre Olivier Clouet of Cheval Blanc pointed out to us that you can take the Château out of the Cheval Blanc and you will still have great wine. But take the vineyards from the château, and you will be left with more or less nothing.
Video by Paige Donner © 2019
The 2 1/2 hours he spent with us explaining the philosophy behind Cheval Blanc and the infamous wines they produce on this one-of-a-kind estate in St. Émilion is, in my mind, more valuable than any sip of Cheval Blanc ’16 and Petit Cheval ’16 that we were treated to in their tasting rooms. Because time is something irreplaceable, even more ethereal than a sip of a St. Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé A 2016.
And, truly, time is what sets apart the ’18s from the ’16’s, the ’05’ from the ’10s.
What is great wine, but time in a bottle?
At Château Nenin in Pomerol, the grand château that has music coursing through the roots of its vineyards, we were again treated to an abundance of time and attention. A walk through the vineyards began our escapade, where we tasted, fresh off the vine, a Merlot berry and Cab Franc berry. Tasting like this drives home the contrasting explosive sweetness of the ripe Merlot. The last days of August are a perfect time for this.
This was followed by a cellar tasting of their ’15s and ’16s. With a top-off of a barrel sampling of ’18. But Florent and Antoine of Domaines Delon weren’t done yet, because they had prepared a blind tasting of 10 wines for which we were to assign to the proper vintage years. The ’98 and ’05 are so distinctive that they were easy to place, but the ’06 and ’07 were such similar vintages, with only a nuanced difference in tasting profile, that none of us got that one. The mystery bottle, which turned out to be a 1970 Château Nenin of which they keep a grand total of 100 bottles in their cellars, surprised us all. Mature, yes. That you knew straight away from the color and the bouquet. But the freshness, the juice, the present but softened tannins had none of us guessing that it was 50-year- old wine.
Time. Time in a bottle. What is great wine but time in a bottle?
The next day’s adventures began in the Médoc. Lilian herself had only too kindly responded to my request to visit Langoa Barton with the team of 2 wine journalists. But I had not expected her to spend the morning amiably chatting with us amidst the ambiance of a frenetic pace of preparing for harvest in her majestic oak cellar rooms.
There are few things better than Irish wit, and Madame Lilian has that, so the anecdotes she regaled us with as she walked us through the beautiful gardens of Langoa Barton, with its resident swans and orange tree, and the working kitchens and bread ovens, put in good use every year during vendanges, was, well, priceless. How often do you get a direct descendant of one of the Wild Geese personally give you the family history behind Léoville Barton and the Barton family’s Wild Boar coat-of-arms, imprinted throughout the property? (Anecdote: Someone once asked her if they ever use the bread ovens to bake pizza for the picking crew during vendanges, for whom they provide there daily meals throughout harvest time. ‘You could call it Tony’s Pizza!’ the person suggested. Her response: Well, because my father (Anthony Barton) doesn’t like pizza and he doesn’t like to be called Tony!’ )
Time spent like this, almost makes tasting the wines an after-thought.
But I also feel, more and more, that is one of the real pleasures of not being a ‘wine writer’ but focusing more on wine lifestyle. The human aspect of it all.
Because what is a life well lived but time?
At Léoville Las Cases, the estate just next door there in St. Julien, we had the occasion to taste their ’16 back to back with their ’18. As well as taste their Petit Lion. As an estate often considered a 1st Growth (its vineyards border Latour and gently incline all the way down to the Garonne), it is marvelous to imagine there was a time, two centuries ago, when Las Cases, Poyferré and Barton were all one estate. It is Las Cases that ended up being parceled into three Classified Growth estates, so not inaccurate to think of it as the “mother ship.”
Again, what is the difference between ’16 and ’18 Las Cases? Time.
I don’t mean just the time spent in the bottle. It is time that is invested each year in the vineyards. It is the time that mother nature accords each season’s dose of sunshine or rain or hail or frost. It is the time it takes to harvest these historic vineyards.
Visiting 5 chateaux in the Médoc in one day is a packed schedule, even if they are all in St. Julien/ Pauillac-St. Julien/ and Beychevelle-St. Julien.
So time for lunch was allotted a grand total of 45 minutes.
Daphna, hostess on the barge Tango, and her Captain, invited us along with the nice young men from Domaines Delon onto the boat to have lunch with them. But the drive from St. Julien to Fort Médoc where the barge was moored took longer than expected. So lunch with them condensed from 45 minutes to 20 minutes.
Not a lot of time to do a meet-and-greet. As the guide and organizer of this press trip, I have to say that it was very difficult to turn down a flute of Ruinart Champagne during lunch! Though I did indulge in a tasting of the 2002 Las Cases the Domaine Delon gentlemen brought with them. Excruciating to have to spit it out. All in the name of staying level headed and on track for the rest of the 3 chateaux scheduled for that afternoon.
Needless to say, at 2 0’clock, the appointed time when we were to be at Léoville Poyferré, and welcomed by the owner of the chateau herself, Madame Anne, the rest of the crew were still elbow deep into their Lillets.
And this is where time can sometimes be a struggle. The tug and pull of, Let’s Go! vs. Let’s stay!
After 15 minutes of this, it was finally conceded that lunch had to be consumed and that to keep the Madame of a great Médoc estate waiting on us for over a half an hour was just too uncouth.
Of course, there is Italian time and there is Swiss time and there is French time. There is also Médoc, Bordeaux time. But as journalists is it really in our best interest to be so narcissistic as to think that a half an hour+ of someone else’s time, especially pre-vendange, is not something of great value? Stealing someone’s time like that feels like such a trespass. In my mind, it is the equivalent of walking into someone’s cellar and opening a bottle, and then drinking it, that they have not offered to me.
Graciousness, however, is the hallmark of breeding. Lovely Anne had for us a plate of Grand Cru chocolates, made locally in the Médoc with the must from her 2nd Growth grapes, to go with her ’16s and ’18s when we arrived. Château Léoville Poyferré, we were reminded during the tour of their vat room, was awarded 100 Parker points in 2009. And some are already comparing ’18 to the ’10s.
At Poyferré we were again treated to berry tastings in their small pedagogical plot they keep for this purpose in their courtyard. This time it was Cab Sauvignon and Merlot. Needless to say the taste of Merlot left bank vs. Merlot right bank grapes are not the same profile. Is it here where we taste the soils? Of course, the answer is soils and so much more…
The drive from Poyferré to Pichon Comtesse is no more than 8 minutes. Of course we had called ahead after lunch to alert them that we had succumbed to the cliché wine journalists 30-minute+ lateness lag. Which had now turned into 40 minutes.
For a winemaker of a world famous estate to hang out waiting for guests to arrive, guests who had begged him to let us come and visit and who had made exceptional time in his schedule to accommodate us himself, it is a truly remarkable thing to see him welcome us so warmly and enthusiastically upon our arrival. Again, graciousness is the hallmark of good breeding.
The last time I tasted at Pichon Comtesse was with my father when he was still alive. This château holds special memories for me, and always will. Sitting up there in that glass-enclosed room above the steel vats, looking out over the vineyards of Comtesse and the adjacent Latour, leading down to the Garonne, brought back cherished memories of time spent over a glass of wine.
We started with Château de Pez, their sister property just up the road in St. Estèphe. And then continued onto vertical tastings of La Reserve de la Comtesse ’16, ’17, ’18 and Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande ’16, ’17, ’18.
Not being a technical wine writer, the best description that leapt to mind as soon as I tasted the Pichon Comtesse ’18s was: We saved the best for last!
People who work in the Médoc put in full work days and then go home to their families at the end of the day, like normal folks. For most people who work in the grand châteaus of the Médoc, that means an extra hour or more drive to get home. Since Juppé left as Mayor back in May, the roads in Bordeaux have been blocked and congested in areas due to several of the tram stops having been destroyed. Hopefully the new mayor will get things under control again soon and have the tram running smoothly again in no time, but until then, the Bordelais are quick to tell you that driving anywhere these days is a huge investment in…time.
So our last appointment of the day, at Beychevelle, the ‘Versailles of the Médoc’ was intentionally scheduled to fit within these perameters. But all professional courteousness thrown out the window, and here we were arriving 45 minutes late. Thank goodness, the director of the estate, the always kind and correct Philippe, personally knew both of the wine writers and so cut us a Do Not Pass Go card out of, well, simple gracious kindness.
Rather than just a tasting, something that appealed to only half the group, the other half was really eager to see the now-famous art exhibit by François Avril. It has been getting so much attention that people are coming all the way to the Médoc just to see the art exhibit inspired by the Bordelais carrelets (emblematic fishing cabins along the river) in Beychevelle’s modern new vat room. And, oh by the way, maybe taste some of the wines. As a wine lifestyle writer, this makes perfect sense to me. Because you can taste the wines anywhere, but you can’t see the art exhibit unless you are there, in person. That is, unless you invest the time to show up and be there yourself.
And to show up in person takes time. Valuable, precious, remarkable, ethereal time. From all parties.
And time, once gone, can never be gotten back.
Perhaps that is the true value of wine. I get all the other things: terroir, varietals, enology, weather conditions, philosophy, grand and historic estates. But at the end of the day the thing that sets apart must and fermenting grape juice from wine is what? It is the hands of time and hands that have invested their precious time into wine.
Time. Is the Essence.
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