Day Ten, Second Stop: Chateau Angelus

We had to hurry over to our next appointment at Chateau Angelus – luckily there was pretty good signage on the way, or who knows how long it would’ve taken us to find the estate on the winding roads.  But when we did find it, wow – it was a hive of activity!

Chateau Angelus.
Chateau Angelus.

The Chateau itself  is undergoing renovations – there were workers, trucks and heavy machinery in front of the main entrance.  Right across the street in the vineyards, there were more trucks and workers – they had also started harvest that day.  We were met by a member of the Angelus PR team, who very kindly informed us that they were also shooting a video on the premises that day, so we were somewhat restricted by where we could go and when, within the Chateau.

A busy day, between harvest and renovations.
A busy day, between harvest and renovations.

By way of background, I was quite excited to visit Angelus, because of the stellar reputation of the wines.  It is one of only four premier grand cru classe A estates in the St. Emilion region – an honor recently bestowed on them in 2012 and a testament to the hard work of the family to bring the estate’s wines back to its original quality.  In fact, the brand has been getting more and more play lately – it has even been featured in one James Bond film – Casino Royale.  It almost made it into another, but unfortunately, all of the footage of Angelus in the second film ended up on the cutting room floor.

According to Ch. Angelus history, the estate began with Georges Bouard, who was born in 1544.  At the end of the 18th Century, Catherine (also known as Sophie) de Bouard de Laforest, who was born in 1773, married Souffrain de Lavergne and came to live at Chateau Mazerat in St. Emilion.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, Maurice de Bouard, acquired the enclosure adjacent to Mazerat. The estate then took on the name from a very ancient patch of vines in the center where the vineyard workers could hear the Angeleus (or the church bells), ring  from the three churches of the countryside: the Mazerat Chapel, The Church of Saint-Martin de Mazerat and that of St. Emilion.

Chateau Angelus was then extended little by little by his sons Jaques and Christian, who bought several adjacent plots until in the 1960’s it formed the property that Hubert de Bouard de Laforest, along with his cousin, Jean-Bernard Grenie, run today. They have shaped a legendary estate, steeped in tradition from the vines and innovation in their winemaking processes.  Hubert de Bouard is also in high demand in the region as a consulting winemaker.  We met him briefly, and one definitely gets the impression that he is a busy man.

Our lovely guide, Bong Tram, took us on a brief tour of the estate, where we saw more sorting going on as part of the harvest.  The newly remodeled parts of the estate were quite beautiful – we hope to visit again when it’s finished.  The large project was designed by the noted architect Jean-Pierre Errath, and included the creation of new cellars, new guest reception areas, work on the Chateau, business offices and a restoration of their famous bell tower.  The newly restored bell tower has 20 beautiful shiny bells, which can be controlled electronically.

According to Wikipedia, “The Angelus is a Christian devotion in memory of the Incarnation.  The Angelus devotion is usually accompanied by the ringing of the Angelus bell, which is a call to prayer and to spread good-will to everyone on Earth.”  In that spirit, Bong handed us what looked like a garage door opener and told us to push a button – suddenly, from the bell tower at Ch. Angelus, the American national anthem began playing in all it’s glory.  It was a pretty spectacular display, we admit, and one that you can imagine impresses their many visitors from the far reaches of the globe when their own anthems play.

Another shot with the bells.
Another shot of the Chateau with the bells.

From there, we drove with Bong to a smaller Chateau on the property where we could taste in relative calm from all the activity at the main estate.  Frankly, you could have put me in a closet and I would have still had a great tasting experience with these wines.  I was so delighted at what Bong decided to open – I’m still grateful for this tasting experience.  In fact, thanks to our time at Angelus, a few weeks later, back at home, I was able to pick a 1989 Angelus out of a double-blind line-up of aged Bordeaux – the flavor profile was just so recognizable to me.

Chateau Bellevue.
A smaller Chateau on the property.

While St. Emilion and the right bank are known for their Merlot-based wines, Angelus actually uses a fairly high percentage of Cabernet Franc in their blends.  In fact, 47% of the estate is planted with Cabernet Franc, which they care for very judiciously.  The vineyards of Angelus are planted on the South-facing slope, and the Cabernet Franc, in particular, are planted at the foot of that slope, which provides excellent drainage for the vines.  We happen to be big fans of the Cab Franc grape varietal, so it’s probably no surprise that we’re also big fans of Angelus.

Concrete vats.
Concrete vats.
Preparing for grapes.
Preparing for the grapes.

2009 Chateau Bellevue, Bordeaux – Very fresh ripe dark red/black fruit nose.  In the mouth, sweet red/black fruit, decent acidity and tannic.  Medium-full bodied, with a medium dark fruit tannic finish.  Still very young and slightly monolithic at this point, but will improve with more time in the bottle.

2006 Chateau Angelus, St. Emilion – Very fresh, very dark fruit and dark chocolate on the nose.  In the mouth, again very dark blackberries, black currants and dark bing cherries combine with dark bittersweet chocolate and spices.  This is a very elegant wine that is full-bodied and very complex, but it is also structured for the long haul.  The wine is smooth in the mouth and the ripe tannins are very fine.  This is such a beautifully elegant wine, that when you are just about to think this is as about as good as a St. Emilion wine can get, the 2005 comes along.

2005 Chateau Angelus, St. Emilion – This is very similar to the 2006 Ch. Angelus, but just increase everything by another notch.  Very fresh sweet dark fruit of black berries, dark chocolate and spices.  In the mouth, very deep dark blackberries, black currants, ripe dark bing cherries, baking spices and limestone minerality.  Full bodied and very concentrated, yet at the same time it feels light in the mouth.  The wine has very good acidity and a freshness to it, that I think comes from the minerality and just gives it a lift.  This wine is structured to last 50 years, but the tannins are ripe and so extremely fine.  Even though this wine is very tannic and can be enjoyed today, but I would highly recommend that you wait until at least 2020 to open a bottle.  The very long sweet black fruit and mineral finish, just does not quit in the mouth.  This is an absolutely wonderful and elegant Bordeaux of the highest level and will be a gem in any cellar.

The view from Chateau Bellevue.
A view of the vineyards.

Ch. Angelus also considers the 2005 to be one of its legendary vintages – we were privileged to taste it that day.  In fact, we longed to stay and finish the bottle (!), but we had one more pressing appointment.  Our thanks to Bong and her team – we certainly hope our paths cross again someday!

Day Ten: Tasting at Chateau Troplong Mondot with Lunch at Les Belles Perdrix

After spending the morning exploring St. Emilion, we headed out to Chateau Troplong Mondot for our first tasting of the day (a tasting after 10:00 am – what was the world coming to?? Ha.).  We had scheduled lunch in their restaurant at the Chateau, the lovely Les Belles Perdrix.  This was a truly amazing meal in a fantastic setting – we highly recommend it.  It had a bit of a Tuscan feel to the place – sort of laid-back and elegant all at once.

Restaurant Les Belles Perdix at Troplong Mondot overlooking the vines and the Dordogne Valley.
Restaurant Les Belles Perdrix at Troplong Mondot overlooking the vines and the Dordogne Valley.
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Part of the view from our table.

The food was anything but laid-back though.  The chef at Les Belles Perdrix was turning out some serious food – seriously good food, that is.  We had a little fun with our wine selection as well – the rose was one produced at the Chateau primarily for the restaurant’s use – it had a charming label and was a great compliment to our meal.

Some sort of foam with caviar starter.
Some sort of foam with caviar starter.  I started it before I remembered to take a picture of it!
Pressed tomatoes from the garden with cottage cheese and basil, "Snacked" tails of Dublin Bay prawns from Britany, souffle bread and black olives.
Pressed tomatoes from the garden with cottage cheese and basil, “snacked” tails of Dublin Bay prawns from Britany, souffle bread and black olives.  So good.
Creamy Guanaja chocolate with crunchy hazelnut "praline," slow-cooked Williams pears and lime sorbet.
Creamy Guanaja chocolate with crunchy hazelnut “praline,” slow-cooked Williams pears and lime sorbet.
The rose.
The  Les Belles Perdrix rose.

NV Le Rose – Les Belles Perdrix – A deep copper color, nice red berry fruit, very dry with just a hint of sweetness.  Very good acid and a nice smooth mouth feel.  A medium length clean finish of red berry fruit.  Very enjoyable and refreshing on a summer day.

After lunch, we walked around to the side of the Chateau and met up with our guide.  Troplong Mondot was one of the first red wine estates we had visited that was harvesting during our tour.  It turns out the right bank was harvesting a little earlier than the left.  Even as novices, we could easily see that the vines were just bursting with ripe grapes.

Ready for harvest.
Ready for harvest.

On our way to the winery, we stopped by the gardens of the owners of the estate and took in the views.

The estate, with it’s 33 hectacres, sits on the top of a hill; the gentle southwest slope overlooking the village of Saint Emilion and the sharp south-facing hill which extends to Chateau Pavie.

The vineyard is planted on this plateau where it has optimal sunlight and excellent natural drainage. The average age of the vines are thirty years old, planted in a limestone clay soil enhanced with sedimentary fragments of flint and chalk, which they believe adds to the quality of this terrior.

Their vineyards are planted with the Merlot that is the primary varietal of this region and the most widely planted.  This is what gives the power and structure to the wines of the right bank.  Most of these wines are blended with Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon to bring depth and complexity to the wines.

Bob and Christina Watt at Troplong Mondot.
Bob and Christina Watt at Troplong Mondot.
The vineyards.
The vineyards.
The beautiful gardens.
The beautiful gardens.

Here’s a bit of the history of Troplong Mondot, as told by the estate. In the beginning, the Mondot estate belonged to one of the most prestigious aristocratic families in Gironde: the de Sèze family.  In 1850, Raymond-Théodore Troplong acquired Mondot. It was Edouard Troplong who, at the death of Raymond, inherited the vineyard. Following a trend at that period, he added Mondot to his own name. Thus Troplong Mondot was born.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Alexander Valette, a wine merchant in Paris bought the property shaped by its previous owners. His son Bernard, inherited the estate, then his grandson, Claude, took over the property.  In 1981, Claude Valette entrusted the destiny of the vineyard to his daughter Christine.

Soon joined by her husband, Xavier Pariente, they have worked tirelessly to continue to improve the quality and the reputation of their wines worldwide. In 2006 Troplong Mondot became a Premier Grand Cru Classé.

Harvested berries.
Harvested berries.
The waiting vats.
The waiting vats.
Christina's friends at home would've loved the chandeliers in this tasting room.
Christina’s friends at home would’ve loved the chandeliers in this tasting room.
I thought the sphinx was pretty cool too.
I thought the sphinx was pretty cool too.

Here’s the wine we tried on our visit:

2006 Troplong Mondot, St. Emilion – Absolutely beautiful nose of small dark berries, chocolate and subtle spices.  In the mouth, deep dark rich blackberry fruit, chocolate, some spice and minerality.  Very good acidity and a strong ripe very fine tannin structure.  This wine has a very long dark fruit and tannic finish.  This wine is still a very young, but it is excellent and will get better as it ages gracefully over the next decade and will drink well for two more decades past that.   A wine to look for as a gem in the cellar.

Buoyed by the fact that we were finally getting to experience harvest, we headed off to our next appointment at the famed Chateau Angelus…

Day Ten: Exploring St. Emilion and Dinner at l’Envers du Decor

It was a bit of a drive from our hotel to St. Emilion, and we had no idea what to expect.  Our tour operator had recommended that we do a guided tour of the medieval village and underground monuments.  We’re not really big “guided tour” people, but we decided it might be interesting to learn more about the area, and we were glad to learn more, since we spent a fair bit of the next two days here.

Christina in St. Emilion.
Christina in St. Emilion.
Overlooking the town.
The view overlooking the town.
Beautiful town.
A famous church steeple.

When we pulled into town, we were immediately charmed by how cute it was – it was definitely a destination worth exploring. In fact, we found ourselves wishing we had decided to just stay in St. Emilion for the last two days of our trip, as it would have made the driving a little more agreeable and it was a really enchanting spot.

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Cute cafes.
Cute cafes.
Another cafe.
Another cafe.

We started out with a trip into the catacombs and ended with a tour of a massive underground church – truly an impressive site to see.  They didn’t allow you to take photographs inside the monuments, but this gives you a feel for the style.  All of the monuments were carved into the living rock.

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We spent an afternoon the following day poking into shops and exploring through the winding streets.  My wife spotted this storefront, and insisted we take this photo:

My favorite.
My favorite champagne.

We met this guy while wandering around:

More friendly than he looks.
More friendly than he looks.
This guy is more friendly than he looks too.
This guy is more friendly than he looks too.

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And we hung out here for a while one day while waiting for dinner.  The town had something we had never experienced before – they played music throughout the streets in the early evening.  While we were wandering through town, Cat Stevens was singing “Hey baby, it’s a wild world,”  and Boston was asking to, “Let me take you home tonight…” Made the whole place feel like a laid-back party, and it was a little surreal with old American pop songs as the backdrop.

We lingered here for a while in the afternoon.
We lingered here for a while in the afternoon.

Which was a good thing, because this was the trick – our hotel was too far away to go to, and our dinner reservations were traditionally later in the evening, so we wound up with two days of long afternoons in St. Emilion, killing time.  I managed to pass a lot of time quite well browsing in the many, many wine shops in town.  It was interesting to see how many of them there were.  They were certainly hungry for business, though given my collecting habits at home and the prices of the wines now vs. on release, it didn’t make a whole lot sense, in my opinion, to buy and ship from there. But to buy and drink that night – that was a whole different story!

One of the many wine shops in St. Emilion.
One of the many wine shops in St. Emilion.

We’ll skip ahead and mention that after our afternoon tastings and after hanging out in the courtyard cafes, we enjoyed dinner at L’Envers du Decor on the first day in St. Emilion. We had seen the restaurant written up in many places, so wanted to give it a try.  It was actually a pretty casual affair, and to be quite honest, we were so tired and knew we had an hour drive back to the hotel in front of us, so we gave the rest of our bottle of wine to the nice couple at the table next to us, who had just arrived that day from Chicago to start their trip.

l'Envers du Decor.
The restaurant l’Envers du Decor.

Dinner was good though, and so was the wine.  Here’s what we had:

2005 Chateau Fontenil, Fronsac – Deep black/purple color with a dark ruby rim.  Dark blackberry and slight red currant flavors, with very bright acidity and good ripe fine grained tannic structure.  Smooth in the mouth, medium bodied, with a medium-long black fruit tannic finish.  This wine is still young, but it is already drinking well today.  Chateau Fontenil did a very nice job with their 2005 and it is a good value wine in Bordeaux.  Drink over the next ten years.

Up next – our day in reverse – going back to lunch at Les Belles Perdrix and our tour of Troplong Mondot!

Day Nine Dinner: La Grande Vigne at Les Sources de Caudalie

Okay, we admit it.  We approached yet another white tablecloth dinner with a little trepidation – more heavy food.  We were delighted to find that La Grande Vigne just did it all so perfectly – it was all so good.

THIS was the place that Christina finally had foie gras prepared the way she had been seeking it – mission accomplished.  Admittedly, at this point so many months later, we don’t remember a whole lot more about the meal, except that it was all excellent, and we left knowing it was a restaurant we’d definitely like to visit again sometime.  Even if you’re not staying on the property, the food is worth the visit to the hotel.

The fish.
The excellent turbot.
Delicious lamb.
Delicious lamb.

What we do have notes on is the wine we enjoyed at dinner.  We highly recommend it:

2009 Chateau Cantemerle, Haut-Medoc – Very subtle nose of deep red/black fruit with a hint of oak.  In the mouth, deep blackberry and a little red currant, with spices complicating it all.  Very savory in the mouth, smooth on the palate and very good acidity keeping everything lively.  Full bodied, good ripe tannin structure and a long black fruit finish.  This wine is drinking well now, but with a little more time in the cellar, this wine will be a very elegant and rich wine to savor.  This is an absolutely beautiful wine, especially for the price point.  If you are looking for an economical complex red Bordeaux wine that will age two decades, this is a must buy wine.  As good as the 2009 Cantemerle is, the 2010 is supposed to be even better, but I have not tasted it yet.  At this price point though, you can’t go wrong, buy both.

Whew. It was another long, but fascinating day of activity.  At this point, there were only two days left in the tour – a bittersweet thought.  Coming up next – we explore the right bank in St. Emilion…

Day Nine: Visit to Le Chai Furtif (The Stealth Cellar) at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte

We went back to the hotel, grabbed bikes, and met Mr. Cathiard on the road leading to the Chateau.  We were doing our best to look casual and at home on the bikes – on the very gravelly road with his two enthusiastic dogs bounding along beside us – while we listened to Mr. Cathiard talk about his latest project.

Bob on his bike.
Bob on his bike.

We admit, we were sort of expecting a cellar underground in the forest, so we were listening with great intent as he described the project.  We began to realize what it really was after a few minutes though.  Not really a second label, but a second wine altogether, Chai Furtif was a winery nestled in the woods, built with the highest standards of sustainability in mind.

The Chai Furtif.
The Chai Furtif.
The dogs names were Barrel...
Their names were Barrel…
And Corkscrew.  Perfect.
And Corkscrew. Perfect.

Mr. Cathiard explained that the goal of the project was to be in balance with the forest.  The winery is built in an abandoned quarry, and built of materials that blend with its surroundings.  It’s almost spa-like, with its canopy of trees overhead, making it a very peaceful, serene place.

More art installations.  This one moved.
More art installations.
Forgive us, we can't remember the symbolism of this piece, but it's still really fun.
Forgive us, we can’t remember the symbolism of this piece, but it’s still really fun.

Technically speaking, they spared no expense to make it eco-friendly, with low energy consumption, renewable energy sources and minimal environmental impact in mind.  To that end, they use a unique system to capture the CO2 released during the fermentation, turning it into sodium bicarbonate and rendering this normally harmful bi-product, harmless.  (They have thoughts on what they will also use the sodium bicarbonate for as well – possibly in beauty products.) Everything from the extra insulation in the walls to the low consumption lighting, the solar generated energy, and the regeneration of rainwater to use in their viticulture practices, all feed into the master plan for this very thoughtful cellar venture.

A beautiful vat room.
A beautiful vat room.

Mr. Cathiard sees it as the next generation in winemaking, and we admit, it was a fascinating departure from everything we had seen so far!  At some point, we’ll have to get our hands on the wine produced here so that we can taste the fruit of all of this very diligent – and beautifully designed – labor.

Bob Watt with Daniel Cathiard of Chateau Smith Haut Lafite.
Bob Watt with Daniel Cathiard of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.

Thank you, Mr. Cathiard, for a wonderful adventure!

Day Nine: The Surprises of Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte

After the missing key debacle, we raced out of the hotel and through the vineyard to make our appointment at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte – thank goodness we didn’t have far to go for this meeting! The Chateau and its surrounding area is beautiful and so relaxed – it just invited you to stay for a while – which we did, as it turns out.

Chateau Smith Haut Lafite.
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte.  The columns you see in the picture are from the entrance to the hotel behind us.
The grounds.
The grounds.
Pretty pool.
Pretty fountain.
A staircase leading into the event space in the Chateau.
A staircase leading into the event space in the Chateau.

The vineyard is located in the Graves region, named so for the gravelly soil in the area.  They pick by hand to ensure quality, and use an optical sorting machine to further guarantee that only the best grapes make it into their blends.  Smith Haut Lafitte is also one of a very few wineries to have it’s own cooperage, making barrels onsite.

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Beautiful fields.
The cooperage.
The cooperage.

Our guide was really engaging and informative – we began by hearing the history of the chateau, of course, interspersed with facts about the current family that owns the estate.  In 1990, Daniel and Florence Cathiard purchased the estate and put together their winemaking team.  It is a very enterprising family, as we soon learned.  Daniel Cathiard is perhaps best known as a former ski champion – a member of a famous French Olympics team.

According to company history, he had taken over his father’s chain of supermarkets in 1970, transforming it into the tenth largest mass distribution group in France, with 15 hypermarkets and 300 supermarkets.  At the same time, he launched and developed a chain of sporting goods shops – Go Sport – in France, Belgium, Spain, and California.

Daniel met his wife Florence while on the French Olympic ski team in 1965. She then worked with him managing Genty and Go Sport for ten years before launching her own advertising firm, later becoming Vice President of McCann Europe in 1985.

In 1990, Daniel and Florence sold all their business interests to buy Château Smith Haut Lafitte. Over a two year period, they invested massively in renovating both the winery buildings and the 18th century manor house built by George Smith, where they decided to live and to devote their energy to their newfound passion: making outstanding white and red wines.

His daughters clearly caught the entrepreneurial bug as well.  Together with their husbands, one of his daughters runs the Caudalie spa and beauty and healthcare products organization, and the other runs the resort at Les Sources de Caudelie, and Les Etangs de Corot,

We had just learned all of this, and about Daniel and Florence’s interest in collecting modern art and sculptures (there are some great pieces on the property), when Daniel Cathiard joined us in the vat room.  A charming gentleman, he walked with us to the cellar and the cooperage, and finally to the tasting room – which was more like a living room, replete with leather couches.

As we tasted, we learned even more about the estate’s approach to winemaking.  Mr. Cathiard calls it BioPrecision, which is essentially a way of describing their marriage of bio diversity, traditional winemaking practices such as horse ploughing, along with new innovations and technology such as a satellite imagery system, to produce wines in the most natural, respectful and precise ways possible.

The stainless steel vats.
The stainless steel vats.

It was fun to learn more, and try some wines with Mr. Cathiard – especially since we already have these wines in our cellar!

The barrel room.
The barrel room.

2010 Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc – Very bright floral white peaches and a little melon on the nose.  In the mouth, white peaches and melon again, but with noticeable stone minerality and wonderful acidity.  This wine just sings in the mouth.  The wine is medium bodied and has nice ripe tannins on the long stony white fruit finish.  This is an absolutely lovely white Bordeaux to drink now or to put in the cellar.  Smith Haut Lafitte is more known for their red wines, but their white Bordeaux is one to look for.

2010 Smith Haut Lafitte – Beautiful blackberry and dark red bing cherry fruit on the nose.  In the mouth, very dark ripe fruits of blackberry, black currants, bing cherries are combined with a good dose of minerality.  This full-bodied wine has very good acidity, great structure and the ripe tannins are very fine.  The wine has a nice long, sweet black-fruit stony finish.  This is a stunning wine that will age gracefully for decades.  Absolutely beautiful!

I have been buying the wines from Smith Haut Lafitte since the 2000 vintage.  The wines consistently have beautiful fruit, wonderful minerality and a very fine tannin structure that will let them age effortlessly for decades.  I believe Smith Haut Lafitte is making wines that compete directly with the First Growths and Super Seconds, for a fraction of the price.  These wines are an absolute steal in price for the quality you get in the bottle.  If you have not tried the wines of Smith Haut Lafitte, by all means, do it.  I am very happy that I have quite a bit of their wine in my cellar.  Both the red and white wines are on the must buy list.

We thought our visit was winding down, but it turns out Mr. Cathiard was just warming up. As if having had a sudden inspiration, he walked to a panel on the wall, pushed a few buttons, and we watched as the floor opened up to his private underground cellar – it was very fun and very James Bond of him.  On display was an impressive array of vintages from the estate. He pointed out the 1961 vintage, which he said was the most expensive vintage of all – the vintage that convinced him to purchase the estate.

Looks like a perfectly normal floor.
Looks like a perfectly normal floor. (Though you can see it start to separate in this photo – we didn’t know what was about to happen, so we were lucky to grab this “before” shot.)
The "ah ha" moment.
The “ah ha” moment.
I want one!
I want one of these!
Heading down for some fun.
Heading down for some fun.

He had some other very cool art in the space, though Christina had to take a step back after looking into one particularly fun installation that appeared to go on forever.

They had great art like this everywhere.  Very cool optical illusion.
They had great art like this everywhere. Very cool optical illusion.
A very well stocked cellar with some great vintages on display.
A very well stocked cellar with some great vintages on display.

Perhaps inspired by our enthusiasm for his secret cellar in the floor, as we prepared to depart, Mr. Cathiard asked us if we might like to go see his stealth cellar in the forest.  We weren’t sure what that would be all about, but we weren’t about to say no.

Before we knew it, we were on bikes, riding through the vineyards, heading into the forest…

What exactly were we getting ourselves into...?
What exactly were we getting ourselves into?

To be continued…

Day Nine: A Leisurely Afternoon at Les Sources de Caudalie

Authored by Christina

We had been moving so fast, we hadn’t had time to really enjoy our hotel, except for a few minutes before dinner here and there.  After our visit to Chateau Haut Bailly, we were pleased to spend the rest of the day today exploring at our hotel, the beautiful Les Sources de Caudalie, which had been highly recommended by many people.  Located among the vineyards at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, it was a perfect respite from all the running around we had been doing.

Les Sources de Caudalie.
Les Sources de Caudalie.
Christina at the front entrance of Les Sources de Caudalie.
At the front entrance of Les Sources de Caudalie. (I used the vintage hipstamatic photo app on my phone, which I think adds to the romance of the place.)
Another view of the entrance.
A view of the back entrance.

We enjoyed a light lunch on the terrace, watching the ducks in the pond, and then took a walk around the property, before enjoying a glorious massage at the namesake spa.

A view of the terrace where we had lunch.  Bob didn't use the same app I did for his photos, thus, you get a little of both in our recaps.
A view of the terrace where we had lunch. (Bob didn’t use the same app I did for his photos, thus, you get a little of both types of photos in our recaps.)
Another view of the terrace where we enjoyed a terrific lunch.
Another view of the terrace where we enjoyed a terrific lunch.
The view of the pond from our terrace.
The view of the pond and another guest cottage from our terrace.
So sweet.  Wonder if you could take the rowboat for a ride?
So sweet. Wonder if you could take the rowboat for a ride?
Ready for a conversation...
Ready for a conversation…
A cute nook.
A cute nook.
We never had the time to play a game...
We never had the time to play a game.
But we did have time to grab a glass or two of the Lynch Bages Blanc de Blanc one night.  Yum!  I miss that wine...
But we did have time to grab a glass or two of the Blanc de Lynch Bages one night. Yum! I miss that wine…
Our room was located in this building.
Another building on the property.

Post-rubdown, we luxuriated in the sun by the pool.  Bob ran back to the room to grab some wine – and came back with a split of Krug!  Of course.  For once he didn’t manage to smuggle it over in his luggage – he actually managed to purchase it back when we were in Bages, and chill it in our room, all without me noticing.  This is one of his favorite tricks.

Our room was next to the pool.  The building behind it is the separate spa.
Our room was next to the pool. The building behind it is the separate spa.
It just so happened that our afternoon in the sun was on the warmest day of the trip - lucky us.  It was VERY warm though - unseasonably so.  Little did they know, the heat wave was about to turn to rain though.
It just so happened that our afternoon in the sun was on the warmest day of the trip – lucky us. It was VERY warm though – unseasonably so.  An interesting year for the grapes!
The man and his Krug.
The man and his Krug.

All said and done, I have to say, I much prefer the Krug trick to the one he played next.  We realized our afternoon in the sun had to come to a close, because we had a late afternoon appointment on the property to tour the Ch. Smith Haut Lafitte winery.  Upon arriving back at the room, however, we were missing Bob’s room key.  Where could it be?  A frantic search ensued, as we were already running a wee bit late.

Can you guess where we found it?  In his spa robe pocket, retrieved by the maids after it had traveled down the laundry chute!  Mystery solved, we cleaned up as best we could and ran, breathless to our next appointment…which turned out to be another fun adventure!

We didn't start out on bikes, but we sure did end up on them...!
We didn’t start out on bikes, but we sure did end up on them…!

Day Nine, First Stop: Chateau Haut Bailly

We were warmly greeted at Chateau Haut Bailly by a member of their PR team.  In addition to spending time touring the estate and discussing their winemaking practices, she and Christina also spent some time talking about marketing in Bordeaux.  In particular, the level of international acclaim the region gets, and how the various chateau decide where to spend their marketing efforts.  It’s always an interesting conversation, but generally ends with the same conclusion – the UK is the backbone, the US is the elephant you can’t ignore and China is the darling that they hope won’t ditch them at the ball.  (Our words, not hers!)

Chateau Haut Bailly.
Chateau Haut Bailly.
They had recently renovated some of the buildings.
They had recently renovated some of the buildings.
The front of the chateau.
The front of the chateau.

The Chateau Haut Bailly estate was founded in the 14th century.  The vineyards are planted on limestone and fossilized shells, which gives a unique character to the wines produced here.  The vineyard is also located at one of the highest elevations in the Graves region of Bordeaux.  Chateau Haut Bailly did extremely well in the 19th century, where is was given the classification of “cru exceptionnel” among the Bordeaux Grand Crus Classes.  In the Graves region of Bordeaux, only Ch. Haut Brion and Ch. Haut Bailly were considered at the top.

Today, an American couple, Robert & Elisabeth Wilmers, own Ch. Haut Bailly, purchasing it back in 1998.  Robert Wilmers is currently the CEO of M&T Bank, and his passion for the estate is evident in all of the work he has invested in raising the quality of Haut Bailly’s wines to their former glory.  They have 26 thermal-regulated traditional cement vats for the fermentation process, ranging in sizes from 30 to 120 hectolitres.  The 26 cement vats enable them to ferment the different lots separately.  They definitely had one of the more impressive cement vat installations that we saw on our trip.  They also use modern stainless steel vats for the blending process.

The traditional cement vats.
The traditional cement vats.
The newer stainless steel vats.
The newer stainless steel vat room.

Here’s what we tasted:

From half bottle to Melchiore.  No, we didn't taste all of that!
From half bottle to an 18 liter Melchior (two cases of wine in one bottle).  No, we didn’t taste all of that!

2008 La Parde de Haut Bailly – Very bright floral red cherries, high acid and good mouth-feel.  Medium bodied with a nice structure of fine tannins.  Sweet, spicy red fruit on the medium length finish.  This is a nice 2nd wine.

2008 Haut Bailly – Deep dark ripe spicy blackberry fruit nose.  Smells like a blackberry pie.  In the mouth, very dark delicate black fruit, with very good acidity keeping it lively.  Nice structure of very fine tannins on the long dark spicy black fruit finish.  This is an excellent 2008 Bordeaux wine, beautifully made.  This will also be a great value in comparison to the competition.

We left Ch. Haut Bailly to head back to our hotel nearby for lunch.  It was turning out to be a gloriously warm and beautiful September day…perfect for lounging by the pool!

Day Eight, Final Stop: Charming Chateau Guiraud

There was something almost magical about our final destination for the day, Chateau Guiraud. Maybe it was the time of day (mid-afternoon), and the way the sunlight played off the facade of the stone building, but it seemed a very warm and welcoming place, not quite as imposing as some other Chateau in the region.

The charming Chateau Guiraud.
The charming Chateau Guiraud.

We actually found this to be a good metaphor for the entire visit at Guiraud. Our lovely guide started by telling us stories about the history of the Chateau. It began as the “Noble House of Bayle,” when it belonged to the Mons Saint-Poly family. In 1766, Pierre Guiraud, a Bordeaux merchant of Protestant faith purchased the estate. The Guiraud label is one of the only black labels on a Sauternes bottle from the region, and this was apparently somewhat deliberate, as the new owners were considered the black sheep of the area. They were not local, not Catholic, and their political views also greatly differed from the prevailing local sentiment. On his death in 1799, Pierre’s son Louis, succeeded him. It was under Louis Guiraud that the estate was saved from a severe devaluation which had begun in 1793, becoming a famous château well-known for its wine. On Pierre’s death in 1837, his son Pierre-Aman inherited a well-established property. Within 80 years and three generations, various families succeeded each other as owners of the estate. The legend was born in 1855 when Château Guiraud became a Premier Grand Cru de Sauternes.

The estate.
The estate.

Also according to the Guiraud website, during a dinner in early 2006, Robert Peugeot, an industrialist, and three wine makers, Olivier Bernard of Domaine de Chevalier, Stephan Von Neipperg of Château Canon La Gaffelière and Xavier Planty, the estate’s director, decided to buy Guiraud. They signed a purchase contract on July 20, 2006, thereby uniting their shared passion for wine, gastronomy, nature and hunting.

Chateau Guiraud had just begun to harvest.
Chateau Guiraud had just begun their harvest.

Chateau Guiraud had begun harvest the day we arrived, so we were lucky enough to meet the estate’s director, Xavier Planty. We were also lucky to taste some very nice vintages from Guiraud:

2010 Petit Guiraud – Very bright light fruits with a good dose of spice and very good acidity, lively in the mouth. Medium bodied and long spicy fruit finish. This is an excellent 2nd wine.

2003 Chateau Guiraud – Ripe peaches, apricots and spicy orange marmalade, very good acidity for the vintage. Very long finish of peaches, a little orange rind and spicy honey. This is an excellent 2003 Sauternes.

It was fun to watch Christina taste these wines. She had a very positive reaction to the 2003 Chateau Guiraud, and I will say I found it to be a more complete wine than the rest of what we tasted that day as well. In general, I have not liked the Sauternes from the 2003 vintage. I have found them lacking in acidity and a little too cloyingly sweet for my taste. What I discovered, is that Chateau Guiraud uses the 30% – 35% Sauvignon Blanc in their blends, where most Chateaux only use 0% – 15%. This extra percentage of Sauvignon Blanc give the wines of Chateau Guiraud more acidity than the other Chateaux in Sauternes. Knowing that I prefer Sauternes with higher acid, it makes me very happy that I have a fair amount of wine from Chateau Guiraud resting in the cellar. The 2001 Chateau Guiraud is an excellent Sauternes and a very good value for the quality.

The tasting room.
The tasting room.

Ah, what a day. Now we were headed back to the hotel. We spent most of the next day lounging about at Les Sources de Caudalie – and having a few fun new adventures – can you say underground cellar? Stay tuned…

The stunning trees lining the drive at Chateau Guiraud.
The stunning trees lining the drive at Chateau Guiraud. Hard to leave such a pretty place…

Day Eight, Second Stop: The Esteemed Chateau d’Yquem

My wife first fell in love with Chateau d’Yquem at the Poncho Wine Auction in Seattle at least a decade ago.  The auction had set it up so that every time someone won the bidding on a live auction item, you would also get a glass of 1983 Chateau d’Yquem from a six liter bottle.  Some friends of ours at the auction “won” a lot of auction items, so they had a lot of Yquem flowing their direction. We were pleased to be the lucky recipients of  their “spare” glasses.  It was at this moment that Christina had her first wine epiphany about Sauternes and Chateau d’Yquem in particular.

You see, this was Christina’s first time tasting any Sauternes, much less Yquem.  After tasting the ’83 Yquem and not knowing how expensive it is, she told me that THIS was her favorite new wine.  I smiled and said, “Great, now your wine habit is more expensive than mine.”  We had a good laugh and I remember that moment every time we drink Chateau d’Yquem, which of course, is never often enough.

Christina Watt at Chateau d'Yquem.  Pilgramage complete.
Christina Watt at Chateau d’Yquem. Pilgramage complete.

The Chateau d’Yquem estate is quite impressive – here’s some quick history.  Back in the middle ages, Chateau d’Yquem was owned by the King of England, who was also the Duke of Aquitaine at the time.  In 1453, the southwest of France was again brought under control of the French crown by Charles VII.  In 1593 a local noble family of Jacques Sauvage was given the feudal rights over d’Yquem.  History showed that special winegrowing practices and late harvesting already existed at this time.  A few years later, the Sauvage family built the present Chateau and purchased more land around it make the current d’Yquem property known today.  In 1711, under the reign of Louis XIV, Leon de Sauvage d’Yquem, which had nobility status, was granted full ownership of Chateau d’Yquem.  In 1785, Leon de Sauvage d’Yquem’s great-granddaughter, Francoise Josephine married Count Louis Amedee de Lur Saluces.

Three years later the Count was killed in a horse riding accident and Francoise Josephine took over the management of the property.  The family maintained ownership of the d’Yquem property, until 1996, when the famous luxury goods company LVMH, purchased half of the property.  Unfortunately, the relationship between the family and LVMH was not a good one.  After multiple lawsuits, LVMH purchased the remaining half of Chateau d’Yquem in 2004.  LVMH then arranged for Pierre Lurton, who was already managing their other property, Cheval Blanc in St. Emilion to take over management of Chateau d’Yquem.

Another view.  The Chateau has a very Medieval feel to it.
Another view. The Chateau has a very Medieval feel to it.
The enormous turrets.
The turrets.

Chateau d’Yquem is located on top of a hill and is the highest point of elevation within the Sauternes region, which gives it a unique micro climate.  The vineyards of Yquem are planted with 80% Semillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc.  We joined a group meeting under the shade of a tree on a small hill overlooking the vineyards to begin our tour.  It was a hot day, and we were all grateful for that bit of shade!

Overlooking the vineyards of Chateau d'Yquem.
Overlooking the vineyards of Chateau d’Yquem.
The cellars - dark, but an impressive sight.
The cellars – dark, but an impressive sight.

It was fascinating to learn that the same people generally harvest the grapes for Yquem year over year.  While this is not necessarily unusual for wine estates, what was unusual was that the same people generally pick the same few rows each year, so that they get to know their vines very intimately.  Given that they pick multiple times in a season – up to 13 times to harvest the individual grapes at their optimal ripeness – you can see how having the same people picking would be a great advantage.  You can also see how heartbreaking it would be for those workers when a year turns out to be disappointing with the weather, especially because Yquem is one of the few Chateau that will simply not declare and release wine in what they feel is a truly bad vintage.  The years that Yquem has not declared a vintage are: 1910, 1915, 1930, 1951, 1952, 1964, 1972, 1974, 1992 and 2012.  They say it happens about once a decade, and it is a true testament to the level of quality they expect from their esteemed estate.  (It also explains the pricing and comparison to liquid gold.)

Heading out of the cellar to the tasting. Interesting architecture.
Heading out of the cellar to the tasting. Interesting architecture.

To that end, it was pretty funny to watch the group tasting the Yquem after the tour.  The tour guide mistakenly left an open bottle on the counter with about a quarter of a bottle left.  One of the gentlemen quickly spirited it away and gave himself a VERY healthy second pour, even tilting the bottle to his mouth and licking the last drops off the lip of the bottle.  I admit, we grimaced, but he seemed perfectly okay with his decision.  The guide caught the faux pas a little late, but quickly grabbed the other open bottle and very firmly replaced the cork before others had the same idea.

Part of our group in the tasting room.
Part of our group hanging out in the tasting room.

It is widely known that there is Sauternes, “and then there is Yquem.”  If it is a good year or  just an okay year, there is a noticeable difference between Ch. d’Yquem and everyone else in Sauternes, but it is more noticeable in the off years.  I have not found this to be the case in the other regions of Bordeaux or anywhere else in the winemaking world.   I do have to say though, that starting with the 2001 vintage, there are some unbelievably well made Sauternes out there now.  The competition is catching up to Yquem, but Ch. d’Yquem truly is still the King of Sauternes.

We tried the 2007 vintage that day, which was drinking pretty well, though it wasn’t knock-your-socks off good – even Christina with her deep affinity for Yquem quickly realized it was missing a little of the sparkle present in most of their wines.  Here’s my review:

2007 Chateau d’Yquem – Bright pineapple, spicy honey, dried apricot, good acidity, slightly cloyingly sweet.  Very good length in the mouth, sweet and spicy on a very long finish.  This is an excellent Sauternes, but only okay for d’Yquem.

Next up, the delightful Chateau Guiraud…