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 2 in the series.
Salut! Ça va très, très bien here in Bordeaux. With the restaurant closed coinciding with harvest, I chose to go to big Bordeaux first. The thought was that bigger producers would have staff to host me where small Rhône and Burgundy producers are all hands on deck through November 1st. I planned a Monday-Thursday in Left Bank Bordeaux with some of the biggest names in wine on my schedule.
On Sunday I checked out of my quaint Right Bank village and set off for the show. Wanting to check the location of my Monday morning appointment, I set my GPS for the first growth Haut-Brion. An hour later I arrived at the most famous gas station in the world — Gas Station Haut-Brion! After some great laughs and figuring out that I was only a mile from the famous château, I made the drive by and headed north.
Driving north I had some time to reflect on Haut-Brion’s city location. It’s the only one 60 classified Left Bank château not in the Médoc. It’s right in the middle of Bordeaux city! How could that be? The answer lays deep in the city’s political history and the wines from top vintages are exceptional. The road to Margaux was also not what I expected. Margaux is about 30 minutes north of Bordeaux and the vineyard-lined roads with big châteaux I had dreamed about were replaced by scrappy beach towns and pine tree forests. There was plenty of eye candy in my future, I just had to work for it for a few more miles.
Dinner in my hotel was just what I needed to catch up — foie, then steak with Pommes Dauphines. Those little soufflé potatoes are amazing and top my list of things to share with my friends in the kitchen when I get back. The show in the room was good, while the young, stinky waiter’s assistant was all flare, no substance. Does not read body language, runs the same gig at every table … I could help him.
Prime time Bordeaux is known as The Médoc. The layout consists of four towns/appellations of which I decided to stay in the southernmost, Margaux (rural). Next is St. Julien (cute), Pauillac (big), and St. Estèphe (gorgeous). The Médoc is home to the king grape, Cabernet Sauvignon. The 1855 Classification ranks 60 wineries into five growths and each town is known for a style and a blend. The Médoc is really a gold strip of world class vineyards. The Atlantic is just west by about 30 miles. I took the drive one afternoon to see how the Euros do beach life — lots of RVs. Wow.
Soil here is gravel (pebbles), clay, sand, and some white minerals. The Médoc is on the left bank of the Gironde River. Most of the top estates are about a mile west of the river as that is where the elevation from the river bank becomes rocky. As we’ve been discussing, the roots do need water but hydric stress is also key in the development of vines for fine wine. Too much water and you’ve got table grapes — tasty but far from interesting. As the elevation continues to rise, all under 100 feet elevation here, a sweet spot exists with all the soil components represented.
Values around here come from unclassified producers that are doing a good job, second labels, and my favorite: unclassified producers owned by classified growths. Many of these “second wineries” benefit from the resources of the big dog and have their own teams in place doing a great job. They are:
2013 Réserve de la Comtesse $40 (second label)
2011 Tronquoy-Lalande $50 (second winery)
2008 Capbern Gasqueton $25 (second winery; Janis Robinson says, “Uncomplicated and charming.” Exactly.)
The following three wineries stood out for different reasons (one from each area with what the appellation is known for).
Margaux: known for elegance
When a wine is hard to spit, you know it is great. Château Margaux produces the best Cabernet-based blend in the world. If I had to pick a mix of five wines to drink for the rest of my life, it would be on the list. Why is it so great? Terroir? Yes, and one other thing: Paul Pontillier. Paul has been the winemaker at Margaux for 32 years.
The tour is a bit short right now. Aside from being in harvest they are remodeling to put it lightly. Very exciting is that by the end of 2015 they’ll have a modern library with a viewing/tasting space overlooking the modern library. We’re talking about 300,000 bottles of Château Margaux from three centuries all underground. If you are ever invited to visit, drop everything. I tasted the ‘08 Château wine with Paul, a highlight of my four days in the Médoc.
As for the terroir, the soil is gravel, sand and clay in that order from the road downhill to the river. Without going too far on dirt, the Cabernet will not ripen in the clay too close to the river so they plant the Merlot there. The soil closer to the road, Paul says, is such great soil that anything would ripen there. Of Château Margaux in general Paul says that the tannins are always easy. “They are melted,” he says. I asked if the tannins are more aggressive on a bigger year. “Yes, but with more material the wine feels the same, in balance”. This one’s not cheap, friends. Enjoy a bottle on a special occasion from any vintage. This producer ALLWAYS nails it. I did ask Paul to come host a wine dinner at Martis Camp. Stay tuned.
St. Estèphe: known for power
Full name is Cos d’Estournel. Cos is the name of the town and Estournel is the founding owner’s last name (1820). He bought some vineyards here, liked it so much, then bought the town. 2008 Cos is WOD (wine of the day) status on a big day. Of all the wineries that preach no pumping, just gravity, this is the first one I’ve ever not been able to find a pump in. They actually have tanks in giant elevators on both sides of the winery that go up and down to maintain the gravity advantage. Great library, shares a property line with Lafite (Pauillac) and is one of two St. Estèphe super seconds. Collect with confidence, friends.
Pauillac: known for power
This tour includes the original Picasso that the 1973 label displays, a tapestry that looks at you as you move around the room, ancient wine artifacts, and yes, a 200,000 bottles state-of-the-art winery. Not to be missed if you are in the area. A world class art exhibit.
Here’s some more eye candy
Next post will be about the great, sweet wines of Sauternes.
Thanks for reading.
Joshua Plack, Sommelier/Camp Lodge Manager at Martis Camp