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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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+.
This will change a bit but gives you an idea of what I’m up to. Thanks for reading. – Joshua
Barde-Haut – St. Emilion
Angelus – St. Emilion
Clinet – Pomerol
Figeac – St. Emilion
Cannon – St. Emilion
Pavie – St. Emilion
Coutet – St. Emilion
L’Eglise – Pomeral
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
Marc Morey – Chassagne-Montrachet
Caithard – Vosne Romanee
Armand – Pommard
Lafarge – Volnay
Bachelet – Gevrey-Chambertin
Gerard Mugneret – Vosne-Romanee
Bonneau du Martray – Corton
Clos de Tart – Morey St. Denis
Arlaud – Morey St. Denis
Georges Mugneret – Vosne-Romanee
Patrice Rion – Nuits St. Georges
Dujac – Morey St. Denis
Tour du Bon – Bandol
Tempier – Bandol
Esclans – St. Tropez
Canorgue – Luberon
Burgundy (week two)
Jadot – Savigny Les Beaune
Hold for Wasserman
Hold for Wasserman
10:00 DRC – Vosne Romanee
4:00 Roulot – Mersault