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Première Bordeaux — Semaine Prochaine — Mardi Apres-midi

by Jon Rusciano

There was ample time from the conclusion of the visit at Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron to do a bit of exploring in the realm of Saint-Estèphe (viticultural district north of Pauillac).  One of the properties of interest was Chateau Montrose which bordered “la Gironde” estuary.  Attempts to contact this estate were met with emailed responses that the facility was being remodeled, and thus not opened for guests.  To explore the southern limits of this district, maps were utilized for directional help.   I traveled westward toward the water and then north again on the coastal road (D2-E2, yes reminiscent of Star Wars) stopping at the first Chateau property in sight.  The plan worked, as I crept along the drive which accessed Montrose.  The Chateau was modest but beautiful, yet there appeared to be no ongoing construction at all.   Good luck prevailing and with no one in sight, I snapped some photos before departing.

Chateau Cos d’Estournel was my 2 pm. appointment.  This visit turned out to be the least impressive of them all.  There was a locked gate and a call box at the front entrance, so I approached and announced my name.  The voice barked back that I was early.  I acknowledged my transgression, but asked if I could please just pull in and park beneath one of the shady trees while awaiting the proper time.  Without a response, the gate started to open.  I entered and parked.  Purloined morsels from the hotel’s breakfast buffet made for a modest lunch, so the car’s windows were lowered, and a restful hour commenced, eating and watching the remodeling efforts of workers at Chateau Cos Labory, across the street.  Impatient for my appointment, I began wondering around the grounds to take exterior pictures of the place, similar to Smith-Haute-Lafitte the first day.  The Chateau seemed to be in almost too perfect shape to be considered an old structure.  On my way back toward the car, an Asian fellow named Benjamin approached and asked me to join him inside.

From the moment of entry, the vision was paralyzing.  The interior of this place had no features of an 18th or 19th century Chateau.  Its current owner had opted to gut the place (including the second story framework) and create an environment one would have encountered in Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland.  The walls and ceiling were all dark and featureless, with spotlights mounted into suspended ceiling sections, illuminating various ground floor stations of interest in this  scripted tour.  Benjamin did not have a great command of the English language, yet had memorized his lines.  He led me from light beam to light beam as if a small boat were whisking me along to each exhibit.  I whispered to myself “Yo ho ho, and a bottle of Rum,” several times to make the experience complete.

We entered an adjoining building where barrels were stored and the wine was created.  A similar theme continued, although viewing of these areas was from a suspended walkway over the top of the large chamber.  The structural steel columns were all clad in backlit, cut sections of mirrored glass.  There was not an elaborate history of the estate offered.  A bit of research on the world-wide-web turned up the following abbreviated account.

Original ownership of the property as a vineyard was by Louis Gaspard d’Estournel in 1791.  His last name was attached to the estate along with the word “Cos,” which was the derivative of a French word that translates as “hill of pebbles.”  Louis mismanaged the property and thus it was acquired by debt collectors in 1811.  Ten years later Louis returned with a consortium of business investors to acquire the property again.  By 1852, the estate was back in heavy debt, and Louis had to sell to a London banker.  In 1917, the property returned to the ownership and control of various Bordeaux families who held it until 2000, when it was purchased by a Swiss investor.  Today it is managed and operated by Jean-Guillaume Prats, one of the previous family owners of the late 1990’s.  There are 91 hectares under vine, planted with 58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 38% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.  Annual production of first and second labels is approximately 25 thousand cases.

At the conclusion of a short tour, we approached the wine tasting table, positioned under another cluster of spotlights.  I sampled the 2008 Cos, which was tannic and characteristic of black cherry.  In my judgment it was not the most stellar of wines that could have been showcased.  It needed several more years of aging before being offered as an example of a mature wine.  Barrel tastes were not offered.

Departing, I noticed a Pauillac vineyard with an ornate cross near enough to the road to access without suspicion.  On the cross were the Latin words “Posuerunt Me Custodem in Vineis,” which translated to English is “They Made Me Keeper of the Vines.”  These crosses, placed amidst the vineyards in numerous estates, were a prayer for Christ’s protection of their plants from the scourge of pestilence, as once experienced with the Phylloxera blight in the late 19th century.

My next appointment was 4:30 pm. at Chateau Pontet-Canet.  Not aware of the short distance between these final two vineyards (when booking), I was again early.  Instead of waiting, I just pulled up to the location of the visitor’s center and asked for my email contact, Melanie TESSERON.  She placed me into the care of Jean-Michel COMME, their vineyard-master.  He was nearby, having finished a long meeting with some French négociants, earlier in the afternoon.  He started talking with me with the vigor of someone enthused about his work.  This was destined to be a superb treat.  First came a brief history of Pontet-Canet.

In the early 18th century, the property was owned by Jean-François Pontet, a local politician.  The estate was named Maison de Canet.  His heir Pierre-Bernard, developed the vineyards but died in 1836, and their care waned.  It was during this slump that the estate received its fifth-growth classification.  In 1865, Herman Cruse acquired the land and employed Charles Skawinski to restore the vineyards to prominence.  It remained in the Cruse family until 1973.  The troubled property was purchased by Guy Tesseron, a Cognac magnate, who with his son Alfred (and Jean-Michel) returned the estate to that of a respected classified growth property, with wines rivaling most second-growths.

Jean-Michel continued by informing me that the vineyard was certified as the only biodynamic vineyard in all of Bordeaux.  He was proud of this fact.  They have 81 hectares under vine, with 62% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.  During the next two hours, he stressed to me the importance of understanding the thought process which went into biodynamic farming.  Over centuries of tending vineyards, before the development of pesticides and other chemical treatments for preserving the uninterrupted growth of vines, man utilized his understanding of the relationships between the sun, the clouds, the terroir and the creatures which could destroy a crop.  Thus, without the ease of reading a label on a bag of any chemical, the growers had to study all aspects of weather and the resulting effects on not only the vines, but the predators (bugs and diseases) which fed upon them.  Chemical treatments caused growers to become lazy, forgetting all the lessons of the past.  Those who now embrace biodynamic methods are studying the ways of the past, but also applying new aspects of the scientific process to help them advance.

He first related vineyard care to the Gulf War.  “The great campaign made monumental strides against the uniformed militia of Iraq, yet they could not completely kill the invisible enemy. Ultimate success can only come if we recognize and understand the enemy first.”  He asserted, “Knowledge offers the utmost power against any foe, and thus we must seek to understand why the pests come to the crop, so that we can use our sophisticated minds and prevent this.”  Jean-Michel continued, “It is an imbalance in the plants which invites  pestilence.  Totally healthy plants will not become diseased.  Thus we must seek natural means by which the plants can remain in peak shape as well as removing the temptations for pests to invade.”  He maintained that it was his solemn duty to “study nature and receive the message that it will convey.” 

Jean-Michel believes with all his heart and soul that successful care of vineyards involves “preserving plant identity.”  Pesticides suppress the full development of vines, as do methods of “hedging, de-leafing and green harvest” (all means of pruning vines and fruit during the life cycle of the grapes).  He insisted, “Beautifully cropped vines are like an ugly woman with make-up.  Viticultural beauty is achieved only through nature’s processes, and great wine is the natural expression of its vine.”

The estate is currently evolving away from the use of tractors, returning to horses for pulling the equipment required to travel between the rows.   Since the soil allows the free flow of moisture and nutrients to the root systems of plants, the weight of tractors and the resulting compaction they cause are detrimental to the surface roots of vines.  Numerous horses were present in the vineyards that day, but a few tractors were spotted as well.

As we talked, I spotted a tractor pulling a device which was dispersing a dusty cloud in its wake.  I exclaimed to Jean-Michael (with a smile) that I had caught him in the act of chemical spraying.  He insisted, “You have not!”  This was the perfect time to offer an example of his biodynamic methods to me.  First he asked if I had been in Pauillac that morning to notice the rain.  I replied I had been in neighboring Saint-Julien, but did observe the dark clouds to the north.  Then he responded, “It did rain in our vineyards, and because of the rain, the leaves of the plants became wet.  What you may not know is that the wet leaves of the vines, when rubbing together in the wind, make a noise attractive to insects which eat the leaves.  They hear the sound from afar and it is like an invitation to lunch.”  He continued, “The dust that you see behind the tractor is a harmless talcum powder which absorbs this water, eliminating the sound and thus the invitation.”  My eyebrows rose.  He followed with other examples of “intelligent” vineyard care which further enlightened me as to the intensity with which this property was eco-managed.

I asked if his methods had worked over the years since being implemented.  His response was “yes, for the most part.”  Jean-Michel did admit to one failure in 2007 when a pestilence hit the vineyard which was a total surprise.  None of the eco-friendly methods of dealing with it seemed to work.  As it damaged more and more of the vines, the stress of maintaining the course became overwhelming.  Jean-Michel confessed being so upset that he contemplated suicide.  Finally the owner, Mr. Tesseron stepped in and ordered the use of a chemical product, so that the entire crop was not lost.  Instead of breaking the spirit of Jean-Michel, this setback renewed his conviction to never allow such a reoccurrence.

We talked, standing in front of the Chateau before moving into the wine production and storage facility.  Most fermentation vats were traditional wooden slatted, but several new-aged concrete vessels had been added to the inventory.  We entered an old room with a long wooden table where two glasses and a bottle of the 2010 vintage were placed.  We sampled the new wine.  It was big and bold, but way too young and tannic to be enjoyable.  My palate has not yet acquired the sophistication needed to judge the ultimate high ranking of a great young Bordeaux wine, but from what I have experienced so far, this one should be remarkable, in time.

Driving back through the countless system of round-abouts for the last time on the way into the city, I realized this was my final winery visit in Bordeaux.  It had been one of the most interesting stops of the entire trip.  Each experience had possessed its own personality, and if compared to a family gathering at Christmas, Pontet Canet’s would have been the lengthy one-on-one encounter with “Aunt Alice” (yeah, you know her), the never-married PhD who expounds upon one well mastered topic throughout her visit.  Points and comparisons made are intriguing, yet you are not knowledgeable enough on the subject to argue otherwise.  No matter, I was thrilled to have had the opportunity.

The trip back to Madrid was flawless.  I spent two wonderful days there with my son, before returning home.  An Epilog to these experiences will follow.  In it I will share the essence of what I have learned from this adventure.  Keep a watchful eye…

Chateau Montrose

Chateau Cos d’Estournel

Chateau Pontet-Canet

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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