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Hello from French Wine Country

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Martis Camp Sommelier and Camp Lodge Manager Joshua Plack is on a six-week tour of French Wine Country, traveling through Bordeaux, the Northern Rhône Valley, Burgundy and Provence. Read along with his blog entries as he visits vineyards, meets winemakers, samples wines and shares his knowledge of history and terroir influencing the products of these regions.

This entry is Part 1 in the series.

>> Part 2: Left Bank Bordeaux — Dry Wine

***

Hello from France. I’m Joshua Plack, Sommelier/Camp Lodge Manager at Martis Camp. I hope you’ll enjoy following me here on a six week tour of French wine country. Thank you for all the support. Being on this path is so great, and your encouragement has come in many different ways, pushing me to really go for it. I’ve become a bookworm studying history, geology and weather. My greatest skill is communicating that knowledge to all kinds of PEOPLE.  I hope this blogs finds you well. It’s fun to write. At the bottom of this first post I’ll add my winery itinerary.

Made It/Right Bank Bordeaux

Hello everybody. I made it safe and sound, got luggage, a passport stamp, and behind the wheel of my Renault. Next stop: Paris rush hour traffic with the motos zooming by and a few laughs figuring out the toll system. Quick tip, the “t” does not mean get a ticket and proceed, the t plus green arrow is the lane you want.

Emerging on the southwest side of the city I put the travel coffee mug I had packed to use right away, enjoying croissant and coffee behind the wheel. Destination: St. Emilion, about five hours southwest of Paris. It’s a medieval town with streets just wide enough for modern cars. After checking into my new home, I went for a walk around town — 20 minutes and you’ve seen most of it. It has vineyards on all sides, a moat and architecture dating back to the 12th century.  I love it here! I enjoyed dinner at a fun restaurant that had a bar to eat at and sampled my first Right Bank wines.

St-Emilion-2

Francois

Over the next two days I will visit nine wineries in two appellations — St. Emilion and Pomeral. This is the international headquarters for Merlot. The standard blend is 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc. The soils are clay, limestone, pebbles and sand, in that order from top to bottom. Like all of France, this terroir was once under water. The plateau of St. Emilion dried up in a period that calcified sea creatures into what is now limestone. A vineyard’s exact altitude dictates the soil make-up and it’s very variable.

Pomeral-soil-clay-sand-and-pebbles

Clay-and-limestone-at-Barde-Haut

Each type of “dirt” gives a different quality to the wine. Limestone gives structure; clay richness; pebbles and sand good drainage that creates an inadequate hydration environment. This struggle is ultimately good for fine wine as less, more concentrated fruit is produced. The other main info you need for this conversation is that Pomeral is tiny — 150 producers with no official classification. St. Emilion is big — 800 producers with a confusing classification:

Top – St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe “A”
2nd – St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe “B”
3rd – St. Emillion Grand Cru Classe
4th – St. Emillion Grand Cru
5th – St. Emillion

There are four wineries in A, 14 in B, 64 in Classe, and 180 in Grand Cru. The Wine Cellar Insider website has more for my team that wants homework. St. Emilion has a lot of sub-par product with Grand Cru on the label. You have to be careful with a prestigious region that has so many producers. It’s easy to buy an average quality bottle for $100.

Pomeral, on the other hand, is known for having very few below-par producers with most of its 150 being very good.

Pavie-barrel-room

At the collectable level, both can age well. Classified St. Emilion wines are so structured that they need the 10+ years just to knock off the power. Pomeral takes a different path. Known for having round fruit and more subtle power (sans limestone), a Pom can be enjoyed younger. The top dogs will age as many years as you can wait.

Cheval-Blanc-from-Figeac

Last piece of academia before winery stories. Pomeral and St. Emilion appelations share a border. The limestone plateau of St. Emilion runs downhill into the clay, gravel and sand of Pomeral. Wineries near the border can share some of the attributes I’ve been discussing. Cheval Blanc (1er A) and Figeac (1er B) are two such producers. Both are just on the St. Emilion side of the line.

Barde-Haut

My first stop of 20 planned over nine days in Bordeaux was made special by Helene Garcin-Leveque. She is firing on all cylinders, heart in the right place, super wine brain, and business savvy. Along with her husband Patrice and a group of investors, she is going for it on the Right Bank with Clos L’Eglise in Pomeral, a new St. Emilion property Poesia, and Barde-Haut which is in the super high rent district right on top of the St. Emilion plateau.

Barde-Haut

The couple has a winemaking team and consultants, and is clearly making most of the winemaking decisions. They are all in and from what I tasted in the 2013 barrel from a rough vintage, they definitely know what they are doing.

There are no pebbles or sand at Barde-Haut. We’re talking clay topsoil on limestone shelf not far below. This is the great terroir of St. Emilion. It is in the (3rd level) Grand Cru Classe and reasonably priced around $50 per bottle. Now in the hands of this group, the quality and price will go up.

 Clos L’Eglise and Poesia

These are their two other Right Bank properties. Clos L’Eglise is a long time and well respected Pomeral property. Poesia is their brand new project on the plateau. Inaugural vintage was 2013, lots of re-plants on world class terroir. One to watch, 2014 Poesia should be excellent. This is Poesia France, not Argentina.

Helene-and-Poesia-winemaker

Helene Garcin-Leveque and Winemaker

The story here is that Helene invited me to return for more time with her on another day after my industry scheduled appointment. I rode shotgun as she checked on the other properties. When I asked her if the plateau soils alone or a mix of terroirs had the most potential to make a great wine, she replied “I don’t know. It’s not like Burgundy where they are trying to show great terroir through one grape. The essence of Bordeaux is showing great terroir through blending (Merlot and Cabernet)”.

She showed me all the subtle rises and declines that define all the vineyards around here. She pointed out the surrounding appellations of Castillon, and LaLande de Pomeral that produce value wines for the cheap and good category. Riding around wine country anywhere in the world with a local is where the fast paced learning kicks in. It was so great!

Here’s a link to the Castillion wines page at K&L.  I have not tasted any of these yet, but it’s where I’ll start searching for wines from the limestone plateau next St. Emilion for a fraction of the price.

Figeac

Flat out the best wine I tasted on the Right Bank. St. Emilion Premier Grand Cru Classe “B”. The terroir is a mix of all four components. When I asked the wine store boy to confirm Figeac’s greatness for me he told me that Cheval Blanc used to be Figeac’s horse house. “It’s not a mistake, eh?”

Chateau-Figeac

Chateau Figeac is one of Bordeaux’s oldest producers. They’re big at 150,000 bottles annual production from 100 acres of vines. Some big producers have lost their touch but Mrs. Manoncourt, four daughters and fourteen grandchildren are keeping the family business on top. They sell 100% of their annual production on futures, 80% on the export market.

Figeac-barrel-room

The tour is hit hard with the famous barrel room. The 2011 Chateau wine (their top wine), is the WOD (wine of the day). I’m not sure if it’s the even mix of Cabernet Sauvignon, Franc, and Merlot, or their meticulous attention to the oak regime they use. Either way, the WOD was the most aromatic wine I smelled all day, then delivered fruit and power wrapped up in an exceptionally well detailed wood blanket. Buy 2011 and/or the preceding great vintages of 05, 09, or 10 and they’ll bring the goods in 2025+.

Itinerary

This will change a bit but gives you an idea of what I’m up to. Thanks for reading.  – Joshua

Bordeaux

Right Bank

Barde-Haut – St. Emilion

Angelus – St. Emilion

Clinet – Pomerol

Figeac – St. Emilion

Cannon – St. Emilion

Pavie – St. Emilion

Coutet – St. Emilion

L’Eglise – Pomeral

 

Left Bank

Haut Brion – Pessac

Rauzan Segla – Margaux

Margaux – Margaux

Calon Segur – St. Estephe

Mouton Rothschild – Pauillac

Montrose – St. Estephe

Pichon Baron – Pauillac

Pichon Lalande – Pauillac

Cos D’Estournel – St. Estephe

Palmer – Margaux

Y’Quem – Sauternes

Suduiraut – Preignac (Sauternes)

Coutet – Barsac (Sauternes)

Northern Rhone Valley

Gaillard – Cote Rotie

Chapoutier – Hermitage

Voge – Cornas

Vincent & Philippe Jaboulet – Hermitage

Guigal – Cote Rotie

Jamet – Cote Rotie

Vernay – Condrieu and Cote Rotie

Ogier – Cote Rotie

Burgundy

Monday 11/3

Marc Morey – Chassagne-Montrachet

Caithard – Vosne Romanee

Tuesday 11/4

Armand – Pommard

Lafarge – Volnay

Wednesday 11/5

Bachelet – Gevrey-Chambertin

Gerard Mugneret – Vosne-Romanee

Bonneau du Martray – Corton

Thursday 11/6

Clos de Tart – Morey St. Denis

Arlaud – Morey St. Denis

Friday 11/7

Georges Mugneret – Vosne-Romanee

Patrice Rion – Nuits St. Georges

Dujac – Morey St. Denis

Provence

Tour du Bon – Bandol

Tempier – Bandol

Esclans – St. Tropez

Canorgue – Luberon

Burgundy (week two)

11/17

Jadot – Savigny Les Beaune

11/18

Hold for Wasserman

11/19

Hold for Wasserman

11/20

10:00 DRC – Vosne Romanee

4:00 Roulot – Mersault

***

>> Part 2: Left Bank Bordeaux — Dry Wine

Prosciutto-sandos-go-giants

Four-tiers-of-soil-at-Pavie

St-Emilion-at-sunrise

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8 Comments
  • Christine | Oct 29, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Have a wonderful trip Josh. I cant wait to see and read more about your travels and wine education. You probably already know this but be careful of the radar on the highways to catch unwary speeders. I learned the hard way last year in Normandy! à votre santé !

  • Greg Gretsch | Oct 29, 2014 at 12:49 pm

    Joshua – Looks like a fantastic trip! I look forward to benefiting from your experience soon 🙂

  • Leslie O'Neil | Oct 29, 2014 at 2:19 pm

    Where is your bike?

  • Nancy Anderson | Oct 29, 2014 at 2:25 pm

    Josh, what a fabulous experience for you! Clearly, you’re making the most of it. You are putting all those years of tasting to best use. The discoveries in store will reframe your palate — your whole understanding of what miracles can pour out of a bottle. You have constructed such a great base to build on. I’m so excited for you! Your presentation makes your experience come alive for the rest of us. Andy and I will pour a glass, sit by the fire and picture you scrambling up those glorious French hillsides. I love it! Just don’t pick any grapes. They fine you. Actually, all are probably crushed by now, I guess. Thank you for sharing, Joshy.

  • Peter Cunningham | Nov 14, 2014 at 5:46 pm

    Excellent reviews, Josh. Looking forward, as I am sure you are too, to you DRC experience. Nice way to finish!
    Peter

  • Alison Edelstein | Nov 15, 2014 at 9:17 am

    THANKS JOSHUA! I just ordered a number of wines to ship to Truckee from the K&L link, thanks for the fantastic recommendation!

  • jason mcnutt | Nov 16, 2014 at 10:28 am

    Great blog! Felt like I was riding around France with you! Safe travel Josh. Stoked that you are so passionate about wine!
    Keep up the good work and go see some French cinema for me. Jay

  • Nikki Price | Nov 19, 2014 at 1:45 pm

    YAY! DRC tomorrow! Looks like the trip of a lifetime. Safe travels and remember to get me my key chain from the DRC gift shop 😉

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