Thursday, March 22, 2012

Adventures in Aquitaine

A day of adventure from the French Atlantic coast in the west to Saint-Emilion in the east “Aquitaine:  The ancient name for a region in France that includes Bordeaux within its regional outline.  It is a fascinating region having as its borders the Atlantic Ocean in the west, Spain and the Pyrenees Mountains to the south/southeast, and in the west vineyards and farms that dot the landscape.  The northern border is partially composed of the Gironde River, which is the most important natural resource for Aquitaine as this river feeds the core lands of the greatest vineyards the world knows: Bordeaux. 

Pessac-Leognan & Graves

We started the morning heading southwest from the city of Bordeaux making our way to the communes of Pessac-Leognan and the Graves for cru red and white wines.  Our first stop was in Leognan at the venerable Chateau Haut Bailey.  From there we would head to Graves for our second stop at the almost-First Growth, and just as legendary, Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion.  On our way there we drove by Pape Clement which is the oldest wine estate in all of Bordeaux that recently had its 700th harvest.  Across the street from LMHB was Haut-Brion, but it was closed for Chateau renovations so we could not make an appointment for a tour.  We were a tad late to both appointments due to the traffic getting through that region of Bordeaux as it is quite pedestrian.  This region I would say is equivalent to what we in the US would consider to be the suburbs.  The Graves is the most populated place I have yet to see a vineyard as they sit in the middle of a regular pedestrian neighborhood.  I find this quite remarkable and a testament to these Chateau for their presence and resistance to development.

Chateau Haut-Bailly

Haut-Bailly sits in a more rural part of Leognan, surrounded by trees and fields on 70 acres of vines.  The Chateau is one of the oldest in all of Bordeaux and about 100 years ago the wines were thought of in the same class as First Growths like Chateau Lafite-Rothschild and my favorite Chateau Latour.  Its modern story begins with the Sanders family that hailed originally from Belgium and was a merchant in nearby Barsac.  Daniel Sander purchased Haut-Bailly and sold it later to American banker Robert Wilmers in 1998.

The charming and very welcoming Veronique Sanders (daughter of Monsieur Sanders) met us upon our arrival and showed us around the estate, walking us through the vineyards and the beautifully maintained grounds.  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot vines are planted in rows 1 meter by 1 meter (1M x 1M is tight) and are planted on a mosaic of clay and limestone.  The Merlot grows primarily on the clay sections and the Cabernet Sauvignon is planted on the limestone mounds.  Veronique mentioned that Haut-Bailly is the highest part of the Graves at 48 meters above sea level.

Next Veronique led us indoors to understand better the wine-making process at Haut-Bailley.  We started in the fermentation room where the concrete vats stood side by side on two sides of the room.  This is usually the first place the grapes come inside after sorting and de-stemming.   It was surprising to see so many concrete fermentation vats in France because in the US we see mainly steel and wood vats to ferment wines.  There are steel tanks that are used to ferment the second and third label wines.  The second and third wines of a Chateau are the plots of wine that do not make the cut into the Grand Vin that allow for a better Grand Vin, or first wine, because it allows for a stricter selection process of what juice makes it into the Grand Vin.  We later made our way to a transition room where the wine goes from tank to barrel to age in newly toasted or once used French oak barrique.  The Grand Vin is aged in 50-60 new French oak, the second wine is aged in 20% new oak.  The barrel room was cool and dark, as it should be so these wines can rest from 18-24 months before they are ready for bottling.  Once they are bottled they are stored in the cellar on their sides for 1 year before they are given a label and then shipped around the world to consumers that likely paid for the wine via the futures process 2-3 years prior to this point. 

We moved to the tasting room to sample a few of the wines.  In the past I have tasted the 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 and I have to say the elegance and power of the Haut-Bailly is unmistakable. 

 2007 La Parde de Haut-Bailly (2nd wine) – A typical Grave nose of scorched earth with bright red fruits.  Excellent acidity, great with food, good balance if a little lean because of the weak 2007 vintage conditions.

2007 Chateau Haut-Bailly (Grand Vin) deeper nose, more structure, more weight and palate presence.  Nose of rocks and earth, darker fruits with some toasty oak, well balanced, fine and silky tannin, good acid.

2009 Chateau Haut-Bailly (Grand Vin) Silky tannins and a really long finish.  Plush and creamy texture. finesse and power, with balance and precision. Classic Grave nose with crushed rock/earth, with darker red and black fruits, just a little toasty oak.  Black cherry and creme d'cassis, excellent oak integration on the palate.  60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Merlot, <3% Cabernet Franc, <1% Petit Verdot.  It’s really amazing how good the 2009 are drinking this early in their maturation process.

We thanked Veronique for the wonderful tour and tasting and looked forward to buying the 2009 when it was to become available via futures in a few weeks.  We also look forward to coming back sometime in the near future when we make it back to Bordeaux next.

Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion

We made our way (late unfortunately) to the hallowed grounds of La Mission Haut Brion.  LMHB is the sister property to First Growth Haut-Brion located across the street.  One our way in we also passed Pape-Clement amongst all of the sprawl and development, which comes as a surprise but when you think about how old these properties are maybe its not that big of a surprise to see all of these ancient properties amongst homes, warehouses, and condo buildings?  Thomas Jefferson himself visited these hallow grounds on his tours of France as our fledgling country’s first ambassador to France.  One can say he was the first American Oenophile, or wine geek.

As we arrived at the entrance to the grounds you knew you had arrived at a special place.  Ancient, storied, and hallowed were just a few of the words that came to mind as we walked around the property to find our tour that had started without us.  It was nice wandering through the grounds on our own, admiring the classic church-like architecture and ornamental design.

We caught up with our tour in the fermentation room as they were finishing there on their way to the barrel room.  The fermentation room was tall, but narrow and tight, almost cramped in my opinion.  The barrel room was enormous however, leaving plenty of room for 2010 that was still on the vine.  Only 2009 remained in barrel as the 2008 vintage was just bottled. 

After the barrel room we made our way to the tasting salon where we sampled First Growth Chateau Haut-Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion from the 2004 vintage.  2004 is not my favorite vintage, being a lighter, more elegant style it is less expressive than classic vintages such as 2000 or 2005.  However those great vintages would be too young to drink now, 2004 is a good choice along with 2001 and 2002 to enjoy now.  Depending on your tastes, 2003 is even accessible to an extent, but that depends on the Chateau that made the wine.

LMHB has 26 hectares of vines planted, while Haut-Brion has 48 hectares of vines planted. Only 600 cases of the white wine from LMHB are made on average in a given vintage.  Barrel aging takes place in 70-80% medium toast new oak for 18-22 months.  The barrel room is manually controlled above ground for humidity and temperature regulation.

2004 Chateau Haut-Brion – Earthy, quite terroir driven with leather, deep, yet bright red fruits like cassis and cherry, the mid-palate expands with a clear and precise expression of terroir, with some cigar box, good balance and length for the vintage.

2004 Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion – 42% Merlot, 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc.  Higher acid, light to medium bodied, soft tannins, black and red fruits, currants, subtle creaminess.  Complex, yet subtle the wine grew as it unfolded in the glass. 

The Great Dunes of Pyla

We made out back to the car, took a few quick photos across the street at Haut-Brion and made our way west for lunch.  We were to take in the Arcachon Basin and the Great Dunes of Pyla on the Atlantic Coast.  About a 45 minute drive east got us to Archacon on the southern side of the basin.  We parked near the beach and walked out to the walkways along the beach lined with hotels and restaurants with wonderful seaside views.  We took a brief walk checking the restaurants out to make our pick.  We looked for one that was crowded but with a prime table available for us to sit down at.  We found the perfect place (forget the name) and sat down to put down more than our share of fresh oysters and split a whole fish entrĂ©e.  We had a dry Bordeaux white (Sauvignon Blanc with a dash of Semillon, sometimes rarely Sauvignon Gris) and also what came recommended from an American was Sauternes with oysters.  Little did I know that Sauternes with Oysters only works if it’s an older vintage, maybe 20 years of age to it, and a specific oyster that is only in season around the Christmas holiday.  Oh well, the sweet Sauternes was still good with the oysters but I still preferred the dry white wine with the oysters and mignonette.  We then walked off our lunch by cruising the walkway along the beach taking in the sunny and breezy weather; this is what vacation is all about!  We took a walk down a long pier, walked in town some and then made out way back to the car to make our way to the dunes.

The dunes were not far, maybe 15 minutes from Arcachon and we made our way quickly from the parking lot to the walk way to the stairs that scale the 350 feet to the top of the dunes.  We were shocked at how big these dunes were and how stable they seemed.  People were hang gliding and what looked like parasailing from the tops of the dunes out over the Atlantic.  It was a wonderful and refreshing change from the wine and dine that most of Bordeaux had been about for us.  Looking west from the tops of the dunes it was odd to see the Atlantic from this side and know that directly across that expanse was New York and home for us.


That was all we had planned for the day’s activities.  That evening we had a reservation at one of the best restaurants not only in the region but in all of France.  We made our way back to Bordeaux to relax in our hotel room at the Regent for a little while before we headed east over the Gironde to dinner on the right bank in Saint-Emilion at Hostellerie de Plaisance.
In a word, our dinner that evening at Hostellerie de Plaisance was ‘unforgettable’.  From the moment we arrived, you could sense the magic of this ancient village.  You could see and feel the history all around you in the architecture, the surrounding hills, the narrow and winding cobblestone walkways and roads that circle the ancient Romanesque village.

Hostellerie de Plaisance, Saint-Emilion, Bordeaux

We were greeted at the front of the restaurant next to the patio and asked if we would like to have our amuse-bouche outside on the patio or inside.  It was a gorgeous evening so why not!?  The sun was still up so there was plenty of light highlighting the views north, east and south east from the village center where the restaurant was located.  We started with some bubbly and were brought two cool and crisp glasses of Champagne.  

What came next was an immensely good sign of things to come.  We were brought a tree like instrument that had glass blown bowls hanging from it like ornaments.  Inside of each of these glass blown ornaments was a tasty bite combining traditional and exotic ingredients that woke up our palates with a delectable punch of flavor and creativity.  Oyster and pineapple in one, foie gras mouse and caviar in another, and the last one I recall something with those wonderful truffles and caviar!  We toasted to a start our wonderful evening and savored our first bites.  I perused the wine list that was chock full of Saint-Emilion wines I had never heard of.  We found a wonderful wine from a small Chateau that made old school claret.  I had never heard of them and have only seen the wine for sale once since we have been back here in the USA.  We wanted an older vintage with some age so that it would be more elegant and not overpower the meal so we chose a 1998.  1998 was a stellar year on the right bank and the wine had great tannic structure, yet had wonderful finesse and elegance. 

Once the tables started to be seated we were whisked inside to our table and the team at Hostellerie de Plaisance got to work.  Philippe Etchebest has assembled a solid team of men and women to ensure the diner has one of the most memorable culinary experiences one can imagine.  We selected the tasting menu and were wished “good luck” by the towering maitre’d’. 

We had a palate cleanser and then another amuse-bouche, before we got to the first dish on the tasting menu.  This happened repeatedly until we were stuffed and made our way to the end of the tasting menu.  I am butchering the descriptions here but some of the ingredients in each course were caviar and prawns; lobster and coconut; monkfish and a vegetable reduction broth; and lamb spit with a selection of licorice and balsamic and grapefruit reduction.  Next up was the cheese cart, before the 2 main deserts.  We were allowed to choose 3 cheeses, each a healthy serving.  Alongside the cheese were toasts, dried fruits, and some jams/jellies.   

Just when you thought it was over, we were surprised with more excellent food in the form of desert.  There were additional small bites, candies, cookies, chocolates, and things like lollipops that were offered from a candy cart stocked with all had made sweet treats.  There were offerings of tea made from leaves cut table-side from a selection of tea trees and bushes on the tea cart.  Freshly pressed coffee or espresso was my choice but if you love tea this was a really special treat. 

When all was eaten and we could barely move ourselves from our seats, we called it quits and ended what was one of the most memorable meals we had ever shared.  When we talk about our top 5 meals, this one is always in the top 5 and more often than not is our #1 choice.  I can’t recommend Hostellerie de Plaisance more for a meal you will never forget.
Now that was what I call a day in Aquitaine!


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