Tobacco, blackberries, leather, dark cherries, musk, licorice. Since I enjoyed a two hour class of wine smelling and tasting at the ecole du vin in Bordeaux, I now recognize more than just the scent of red wine when entering a barrel cellar. And now that we are going around tasting wine on two of the thousands of chateaux around Bordeaux, I know how to swirl the wine in a glass, smell it twice, before tasting and spitting it out like a pro. My fellow travelers, young American IT hipsters and a middle aged couple working for Google, have all been schooled too, so we are soon comfortably hanging on bars in tasting rooms, discussing the different aromas.
Outside, the wide vineyards spread along dividing white roads, and our tour guide is full of stories about each different estate. We are driving through the Médoc, famous for these châteaux, some 1,500 vineyards, the ocean, beaches and pine forests filled with animals. There is the village of Saint Emilion, a World Heritage Site, famous for its Romanesque cathedrals, limestone houses and a viticulture that dates back to the Middle Ages.
In Bordeaux, the mansions that the owners of the estates built are called Chateaux, the French word for castle, and it is easy to see why. Even though they don’t really look like castles, many have an unmatchable grandeur. Built with limestone the color of old parchment, surrounded by pristine grounds and flanked with rows of immaculate green vines, it’s impossible not to get a sense of the history and prestige of these old houses.
Grand Old Families
Owning an estate is for the rich, certainly, but we learn that there are fewer grand old families around. The day before our trip to the Medoc, I visited Les Carmes Haut Brion, which is right in Bordeaux itself. The last member of the Chantecaille-Furt family still lives in the beautiful house in the middle of the best vineyards. The winery itself is ancient, set up in 1584, when a local gifted a water-mill to a group of friars. They managed the estate until the French Revolution and the Chantecaille-Furt family had Les Carmes Haut Brion until 2010, when it was sold to Patrice Pichet, head of a Bordeaux real estate company.
These modern investors – companies or wine merchants, some of them from China, buy the chateaux from the old families, modernize them and improve the wine making process. At Les Carmes the new owner was not only a wine lover, but also an architecture enthusiast. So he hired the famed architect and designer, Philippe Starck to create new wine making facilities, a reception area and barrel cellar. After our walk along the grand old mansion and the vineyards, we stop at a modern building, which resembles a boat that is floating in a body of water. The inspiration behind this design came from how Bordeaux wines were first exported over the water, the chateaux’s Stephanie Libreau told me. Wine tourists are something new on this estate. « Most of our visitors are professional wine connoisseurs, or are people who are interested in architecture, » Libreau says.
In the Medoc, we learn that the most important people who live on the estates, apart from the owners, are the wine makers. “Our wine maker has been with us for over ten years,” Christelle Terrasse tells us in Château Cantenac Brown while showing pictures of the owner and his wine maker receiving famous guests. A Scottish man built this mansion in 1860, the only Bordeaux chateau designed as a traditional Tudor estate in the entire region. British businessman Simon Halabi, bought it from an insurance company in 2006 and he used his fortune to turn it around.
Of course, it’s one thing to have a beautiful estate, it is quite different to have vineyards that produce good wine. Wine growing is all about Terroir, as I learned at the school in Bordeaux, this is term defined by the climate and ground where the vines are planted. Here in Medoc, the soils are mainly made up of gravel and pebbles, which retain very little rainwater. The roots of the vines delve very deeply into the subsoil to find their nourishment, causing the vines to undergo water stress, which is a good thing. Apparently, it produces wines of truly great character.
Christelle Terrasse takes us outside, where the rows of vines are struggling up between chunks of white chalk. The whole wine growing process has to stay completely natural, she explains, meaning that the vines are not irrigated when the weather is dry. The only tool is to deleaf – keep the vines low, cut the leaves on the eastern side so they catch enough morning sun, and leave the ones on the other side to protect them from the burning afternoon sunlight. “Every day, we think about what the weather is going to bring and we act accordingly,” Terrasse says. Even the bright colored roses, we learn, are there for a reason. “Someone discovered that the fungus that used to attack the vines, would go to the roses first.”
To show what happens next, Terrasse takes us around the majestic house, into a perfectly manicured garden. Here are the buildings where during the harvest the grapes that have been hand-picked are screened on a vibrating table before being taken into the vat house. “It’s the most exciting time of the year,” says Terrasse. The wine making itself, we learn inside, is a long process of fermenting in separate barrels and vats, blending, aging in vats, and finally bottling. The best part of the wine tours is the visit to the room with the vats, where all these different wine aromas fill the air and wine makers walk around doing mysterious things. At Chateaux Les Carmes they could even dim the lights, so tourist pictures would come out in beautiful dark golden colors.
Art and Wine Fanatics
The next vineyard is Chateaux Silan and it also features a museum, the Collection Cellar, which holds about 300 artefacts all linked to wine, a treat for the art and wine fanatic. Silan has been in the same family for over 150 years, and is now under management of the 7th generation. This management is, apart from wine making, also very much geared towards tourism. The owners have built a rooftop wine bar, so we can enjoy the view of the vineyards and neighboring mansions, before we are taken back for the last wine tasting of the day.
In just two days I’ve gone from someone who knew nothing about the great red wines of Bordeaux to the kind of person who sticks their nose into a verre du vin for quite some time before drinking it, discussing the smell and taste of fruits and spices. I’m not a wine connoisseur, or course, but after seeing the chateaux of Bordeaux, I am definitely on my way.
Also Read: Bordeaux, a New Golden Age