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Bordeaux Avec mes Amis — Quatre

by Jon Rusciano

Proceeding toward the City of Bordeaux, elements reminiscent of the commercial “burbs” of any other aging metropolitan area appeared; small run-down business buildings, petrol service stations, apartments supporting unattended graffiti and modern-styled condominium developments representing investment attempts to revitalize depressed areas. Then, after crossing a series of railroad tracks, we emerged into an open area of vineyards, with two Chateau structures on either side of the roadway. One was Château La Mission Haut-Brion and the other our destination, its older sister at the “top of the rise,” Château Haut-Brion.

Besides the Chateau structure (a beauty) there were substantial numbers of interwoven support buildings, more than on any Bordeaux wine property I had seen to date. Passing through the entrance, we looked for signs indicating our designated parking place and the typical “Accueil” for where we were to meet our host. The signs were not easy to spot, and so we drove around to the back side of the facility, near the truck-docks, and found a quiet place to have lunch. For some unknown reason, the wind was blowing very hard and continued so throughout our break. We held tight to wrappers and water bottles in fear of losing them, littering. I spotted a worker who was coming back from lunch and asked for directions. She led the way, which was not very well marked. Upon entering, we stood in an ornate marble lined hallway at the base of some winding stairs, with closed-door business offices around. A sign indicated that our host (Laetitia) would be down to meet us at the appropriate time. We waited. About ten minutes after our appointment, I utilized a phone near the sign to reach her. Laetitia was surprised to learn that her notification buzzer had not sounded, unaware that the employee had let us inside using her pass-key. After the initial confusion, our tour of the facility began.

Between the years of 1525 and 1533, the winery’s founder Jean de Pontac, acquired the vineyard as a dowry from his wife’s parents and purchased a nearby mansion, which became the original Chateau. The current Chateau was built in 1549. By 1649, Arnaud III de Pontac had inherited the estate. His rise to prominence in the Parliament of Bordeaux brought recognition to his family and the wines they produced. By 1660, it was popular in the realm of English royalty, being a favorite of the English king Charles II. British aristocrats, who could afford the wine, referred to it as “Ho-Bryan.” Its prominence continued a century later when in 1787, Thomas Jefferson toured the property and wrote that it was one of four Bordeaux vineyards “of prime quality.” By 1855, the winery had changed ownership, but retained its glory being classified Premier Grand Cru. The property was acquired by prominent New York financier, Clarence Dillon in 1935 and has remained in this family’s possession and control ever since. Dillon’s granddaughter Joan Dillon, Duchess of Mouchy, took over the estate and purchased neighboring La Mission Haut-Brion in 1983 to expand the family’s holdings.

Laetitia explained that the property had 49 hectares (encompassing 17 different soil types) under vine, which produced eight thousand cases per year. Under the same ownership as La Mission, they utilize the same management and wine makers. The vineyard contains 46% Merlot, 41% Cabernet, 11% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. Blending of fermented juice is done before aging, “for better balance.” The blends are decided upon by a committee of three winemakers. Most of the barrels are made on-site by Coopers they employ.

Following the tour of the equipment and barrel storage areas, we were escorted into an ornate ballroom, where a table was set with glasses and open bottles for our tastings. We had the opportunity to sample the 2007 vintages of the Grand Vins from both sister estates. I would guess that both wines were in the final quarter of their ready-to-consume aging process. Both had a nose of dark plums and raspberries, with La Mission yielding a sweet leather fragrance as well. Neither wine was a heavy scoring powerhouse, but La Mission’s vintage was clearly superior. After our “Japanese type” photo session, we thanked Laetitia and departed.

Our final stop of the day would be at Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte. It was a matter of tracing our steps from the late morning visit, because the property was very close to Haut Bailly. The guys were excited, because this was the very first winery I had described to them in explicit detail, two years ago. We arrived a bit early for our visit and after wandering around the grounds for a few minutes, one of the female touring hosts confirmed our appointment. She indicated that she was going into the private quarters of co-owner Madame Florence Cathiard, since she was to be our host. Again, like my first visit, I was excited to be able to meet her. Yet, just like the first, she was not available. We were thus introduced to their assistant winemaker named Loic.

He took us through all the same tourist-type locations that most people receive, and the facility is very impressive indeed. Yet, by the time we arrived at the tasting room, Daniel Cathiard (“the man”) arrived and took over the tour from Loic. Evidently, Florence had felt badly about having faltered on her second promised encounter. Thus, Daniel was summoned, likely from their nearby mansion residence, to perform the promotional duties. In short, he was a delightful illuminated character, filled with exuberance for the wines they created and his plans for the future. We were treated to the 2010 SHL Blanc, a spicy dry white, with notes of apricot and peach. It was one of the best White Bordeaux wines I had ever tasted.

Then we sampled the 2007 Grand Vin, which was opened on the table, previously utilized by the last group. It had an essence of spicy licorice and currants, with a medium body. Since 2007 had not been a stellar year for Bordeaux, I knew that we could have tasted better. Daniel did as well. He asked for Loic to retrieve a half bottle of the 2010 vintage. It was opened and poured into glasses, while we talked about Daniel’s growing technique that he called “Bioprecision.” Although the property was not completely biodynamic, many all-natural methods were being implemented in the growing process. They had started developing their own root-stock in a private nursery on an island in La Gironde. Fertilization was coming from compost, replacing chemicals, and he had plans for a new cellar in a section of forested land recently acquired to the south of his property.

When it was time to taste the highly rated 2010, Daniel instructed Loic to open the hidden sub-floor cellar, his personal “Man Cave.” This had been the highlight of my first visit, and it was again for my friends. We took our full pour glasses down the steps and into this storage of vintages which dated back to the beginning of the wine estate. The wine we drank was still very young, but the spicy blueberry aroma and big yet complex fruit flavor made it an unmistakable top pick for that growing season. Daniel was as proud as a peacock of this vintage and to show off his treasured hideaway. We gathered around and had pictures taken with him. What a great guy!

The ride home was not as long or traffic-filled as I had anticipated. Our late final appointment had caused us to miss the bulk of the business traffic on the freeways surrounding the City. As we pulled onto the driveway, we saw Christophe’s van at the top of the hill. There would be another fine meal waiting. Unfortunately, Bob started showing some signs of sniffles, which would turn into a nasal infection, adversely affecting the later portion of the trip for him. For now, we ate, drank and were merry. Day One had been memorable, but there was much more to come.

Chateau Haut-Brion

La Mission Haut-Brion

Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte

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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