Jimmy and Debbie Lin in beautiful French wine country
If there is one Mecca of wine making, Bordeaux has to be the one. Some may argue that Burgundy is every bit as profound and perhaps even more intricate, but for me, the wines of Bordeaux reign as the standard bearers of all wines.
So you can imagine my delight when I was invited to perform with the Bordeaux Symphony Orchestra. What a perfect excuse to visit this famed wine country! On most of my concert tours, I arrive, rehearse, perform and leaves. On this trip, I had to allow myself a bit of extra time. This opportunity was too tough to pass up.
I began to make plans six months before the trip. I was on tour in the US with the fantastic National Orchestra of France (Orchestre National de France), I mentioned my Bordeaux trip to the conductor Charles Dutoit who instantly pulled me to meet the general manager of the orchestra, Patrice d'Ollone. As it turns out, Patrice's cousin is the manager the famed winery Pichon-Lalande, Gildas d'Ollone. Arrangements would be made for me to tour the winery and to be given a tasting.
On a warm October afternoon, I arrived in Bordeaux. As eager as i was to head straight to wine country, I realize I was there to give concerts. The work I chose to play was the very difficult second concerto of Bela Bartok. My wine-fest had to wait. But I was determined to learn as much as I can about Bordeaux. Usually, I work inside the concert hall and rarely set foot in an orchestra's office. But I needed to find out if additional visits to wineries can be arranged. So I marched into the symphony office asking for help. The staff was incredibly nice and called a local négociant (wine trader) and I was immediately on my way to his office.
Eric, the négociant, was warm and outgoing. We chatted at length about various famous wines of Bordeaux. He spoke about the power of wine critic Robert Parker whose reviews can impart great impact on the prices. Thus even the most august wineries have been known to change their wine making styles to suite the taste of Parker. I was bewildered by the idea that a single American wine writer can sway the thinking of wine makers in these grand wine estates many of which are centuries old!
I also learned during my dinner with Eric that a good bottle of Sauternes sweet wine can be served at the start of the meal as it goes exceedingly well with fois gras (duck or goose liver). Then the same bottle can come back to accompany dessert. Eric also had successfully arranged special appointments for me to visit Haut-Brion as Mouton-Rothschild. I was delighted to know I would visit three top chateaus of Bordeaux.
Although I was in the heart of wine country, I had to spend the days leading up to the concerts practicing and rehearsing. My wine search and research were confined to the wine center in downtown Bordeaux. I studied the map and planned my wine tour like a military operation. As magnificent and demanding as the Bartok Concerto was, it was tough not to think of the vineyards just outside the city.
The morning after my last concert, I bolted for the car and headed south to Graves. My first stop was a first growth--Chateau Haut-Brion. As I drove, there was no hint of rolling grape vines. All I saw was continuous urban sprawl. I thought I had gone off in a wrong direction and felt like I was heading into an industrial zone. It was not until I saw a sign over a high wall that read "Chateau Pape Clement" when I realized I was in the right area. But it was hardly typical wine country. I fully expected a shopping mall to materialize at any corner.
After passing a set of nondescript commercial buildings, I suddenly saw two tall gates: One on the right read La Mission Haut-Brion, and the left Haut-Brion--two grand estates and two grand gates facing each other. Behind each gate were acres of grape vines rustling gently in the autumn breeze. I was greeted warmly by a staffer. When the tour was about to begin, an American couple drove up. They had no appointment but simply wanted to look around. I invited them to join us. We walked through Haut-Brion's barrel making workshop. Most wineries import their barrels, be it French or American oak, but Haut-Brion makes their own. I was taken to the cellar to do some barrel tasting. The wines in there were from the harvest a year ago and should be still a year from bottling. As wine was siphoned from a barrel a poured into my glass, I knew I was cradling a glass of a first-growth but much to my dread, I could not taste nor smell much. The wine was too cold! If anyone has put red wine in the refrigerator for too long, the wine gets cold and can become somewhat tasteless. This is what was happening. I knew i'd like to take the glass to a warmer room and let it naturally open up. But I also knew I still need to head north to visit other estates. I didn't have all day in Haut-Brion, as appealing an idea as that was. So I resolved to taste Haut-Brion later in proper retail bottles.
On the way upstairs, I was shown Haut-Brion's private wine collection. All their bottles were stored in a dark and slightly humid stone underground cave. One dim light bulb hung over these sleeping gems--many from other top chateaus and dating all the way to early 18th Century. My guide told me that when the estate was put up for sale, some displeased staff members sold most of the bottles in the collection. The Dillon family, who were the new owners, had to go out and buy back as many of the bottles as they could. Since many of the bottles were extremely old and rare, Haut-Brion had to bid in auctions to get their original collection back!
As I drove north on D-2 highway, the commercial urban concrete landscape started to yield to beautiful vineyard green. Familiar wine names popped up left and right as I drove through Margaux, Haut-Medoc and St. Julien on my way to Pauillac. It was hard not to drive off the road as I was busying looking at all the names while figuring out if I had enough time to make stops later. However, nothing was going in to get in the way of visiting my next first growth estate--Mouton-Rothschild.
Mouton-Rothschild's wines were not always deemed first growth. In the original 1855 classification of Bordeaux wines, only four estates were classified as first growth: Lafite-Rothschild, Margaux, Latour and Haut-Brion. Through significant upgrading and tireless campaign by the long-time owner Baron Philippe Rothschild was Mounton-Rothschild elevated to first growth status in 1973. Mouton's wines are not only famous for their opulent taste but also for their great art work on the labels. Many great artists like Braque, Picasso, Dali, Kandinsky, Miro and Chagall all have painted labels for Baron Philippe Rothschild and his wines. So it is natural for the winery to house a wine museum. The museum was colorful and wonderful to visit but my focus was on wine and asked my guide to take me to the cellar for a tasting. On the way there, we passed by the huge fermentation tanks. It was right after harvest so the tanks were full. I was asked to walk quickly through the area as fermentation often can give off gases and it was not the safest area. I did note, however, that these tanks were made of wood rather than stainless steel as used in most wineries. The technology would seem much more quaint and antique next to my next stop, Pichon-Lalande. But Mouton always make superb wines even in difficult vintages, so they must be doing something right.
As great as the first-growth estates are, one of my long time favorites has always been Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande, or Pichon Lalande as it is most commonly known. Situated only a short drive away from Mouton-Rothschild in Pauillac, it sits majestically next to highway D-2 across from its former sibling estate Pichon-Longueville Baron (the estate originally containing both wineries was called Pichon-Longueville and it was split into two in 1850) and is immediately next door to Latour. In fact, it is impossible for my eyes to tell where Latour's boundary ends and where Pichon Lalande's property begins. It is worth noting that many Bordeaux wine estates are housed in majestic and beautiful castles. The twin Pichon castles stand sentry opposite each other overlooking the highway. Both castles are immaculately maintained with beautiful gardens and manicured lawns all around. Each is a true grand estate. Chateau Latour is named after "La Tour" which means "The Tower." In the middle of their vineyard stands the round fort tower which was built in the 14th Century. It is said that wine was already made on that property around the same time. These three neighbors make one of the most distinctive landmarks in Bordeaux.
Chateau at Pichon-Lalande
When I was escorted through the Pichon Lalande winery, I thought I would again have to try to discern the relative quality and potential of the barrel wines while the wine is barely 12 degrees (centigrade) cool. But this time, my courteous escort told me that after visiting the cellar, there is a small bottle of barrel wine waiting for me in their kitchen where the wine has stood for an hour to get up to a normal room temperature. It was from this bottle where I became even greater an admirer of Pichon's wine making skills. The wine was still about 10 to 12 months before bottling and yet it already showed a good deal of roundness and lushness supported by good balance between structure and forward fruit. Unlike most Medoc wines which favor Cabernet Sauvignon, Pichon's typically higher percentage of Merlot in the final mix likely brings out more softness and suppleness. Thus that signature Pichon silky elegance is already much in evidence no matter how young the wine may be.
Unlike the wooden fermentation tanks in Mouton, Pichon's tanks are new stainless steel giants. They are monitored by a bank of sensors and computers keeping a constant read on temperatures and adjusting them when necessary. It seems to be cutting edge technology to me.
I was invited to linger on the estate ground for as long as i wish. So I wondered out onto the vineyard. On this warm and sunny day, all was quiet around me. Harvest had taken place. So I picked a few left over grapes. I assume they were Cabernet Sauvignon. The skin was thick and there was hardly any "meat' we expect from our super market varieties. But each grape was full of juice and they were sweet. I wonder why they were not picked. Since I could not tell the boundary between Latour and Pichon, I wasn't sure whose grapes I was chewing. But I was certain I was munching on some of the most elite and expansive grapes in the world.
With the setting sun behind me, I gazed upon the vineyards, the iconic tower of Latour, turreted castles around me and the Gironde river just a few miles from meeting the Atlantic. This was a beautiful picture indelibly etched in my memory.
The incredible grounds of Beychevelle
On my way back to the city center, I stopped at Beychevelle in St. Julien. I chose not to taste for I had already tried some of the finest Bordeaux had to offer. Instead, I took a stroll around its famous garden as dusk settled over everything. This is really lovely wine country. I was one happy guy. It was a day well spent!