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Bordeaux | Project Sunlight - A Winemaker's Education

Tag: Bordeaux

Sampling Wine Across Europe

We’ve visited a lot of wine regions over the past 20 years or so, but as our interest in viticulture and winemaking has grown, we’ve begun looking at vineyards and wineries with new eyes.  That was especially the case on our most recent vacation, where we visited Venice, London, and Bordeaux.  Especially Bordeaux.  But I’ll get to that later.

While we enjoyed the winery visits we made in years past, it was a different kind of enjoyment from today.  Then, we would taste wine in

Murano, Italy - who knew this would be a gateway to a vineyard?

Murano, Italy – who knew this would be a gateway to a vineyard?

Sonoma or Napa or some other wine valley, and buy a bottle or two to take home.  Sometimes we might hire a limo or go in a van or micro bus tour with other couples, and those were great times that I wouldn’t trade away for anything.

Today, though, we are as interested in what goes on behind the scenes – in the vineyard and in the cellar – as we are in tasting the wine.  Actually, they’ve become related pursuits.  When we visit wineries, ideally we’d like to look at the vines and talk to vineyard managers about the soil, the climate and all of the other things that make their wine special.  We want to see the cellar and the barrel rooms (although I sometimes feel that when you’ve seen one barrel room, you’ve seen them all), and we want to talk to the winemaker about the vintages we’re going to taste, the challenges that they faced in each of those years, and the approach they take to making the wine.  And then, of course, we want to taste, but only after we know something about the vines and cellar practices.

That’s the ideal; the reality usually falls a bit short.  Actually, it usually falls a lot short.  Most tasting rooms in the United States are staffed by novices with limited knowledge of the wines they’re pouring, and it’s rare to find a winery where we can see the vineyard and talk to someone who knows anything at all about the vines.  Of course, there have been days when we’ve been able to realize that ideal.  And a week ago, in Bordeaux, we hit the mother lode.

The vineyard inside the medieval gates on Mazzorba.

The vineyard inside the medieval walls on Mazzorba.

First things first, though.  We had decided to start our trip in Venice, where we thought we’d relax and adjust to European time in a leisurely way.  And truthfully, we just love Italy in general and Venice in particular.  This trip, we decided to go for a change in scenery by staying in Murano, a small island that is perhaps a 20 minute vaporetto (water bus) ride from Venice.

On our second day, we ventured over to Burano, an island known for lace and, for us, the scene of some of the most memorable meals of our lives.  As it happens, Burano is connected by a bridge to another small island – Mazzorbo – and on Mazzorbo, there is a small restaurant and inn with a vineyard.  The vineyard is just over two hectares in size, and it is entirely surrounded by medieval walls that were rebuilt in 1727.  According to the web site, the vines are mostly ungrafted, which means they are growing on their own roots, rather than on an American rootstock that is immune from phylloxera, the aphid-like insect that nearly destroyed the European wine industry in the 19th century.

Old as the walls are, the vineyard itself was planted just three years ago, the same year that we planted our own small hobby vineyard.  So, of course we were interested in comparing notes with the vineyard manager.  Alas, this is one of those times where our expectation fell short of reality.  We had the opportunity to wander through the vineyard, but unfortunately, the restaurant and tasting room were closed for an event, and most of the folks we hoped to talk to were missing.  Well, maybe next time.

The ancient city gate, the Porte de Borgogne, as viewed from the Terrace of our Bordeaux flat

The ancient city gate, the Porte de Borgogne, as viewed from the Terrace of our Bordeaux flat

But it’s pretty hard to be unhappy in Italy.  We had a number of great meals and some lovely wine.  And there’s something special about walking around under the Italian sun.

London didn’t afford us any opportunities to visit wineries, but between the British museum, the British Library, Kensington Palace and the wonderful London theater, we had some good meals and good wine.  And we did enjoy several wine bars.  One was the “Green Man and French Horn,” a bar that specializes (exclusively) in wines from the Loire Valley.  I found that surprising.  I suspect most people don’t know Loire Valley wines very well, if at all, and I didn’t know much about most of the wines on the list.  But there were some familiar wines, especially the Chinon, which are based on Cabernet Franc, and the Viognier.  Both grapes, by the way, do exceptionally well in Virginia, and we have both growing in our own vineyard.

Our favorite wine bar, though, was “The Ten Cases,” which serves a dozen or so different wines, but orders just ten cases of each.  Once those ten cases are finished, the wine is gone from this bar forever, and ten cases of a different wine are ordered in its place.  We loved the food, and loved the wine. If we lived in London’s Convent Garden area, where it’s located, I suspect we would dine there on the order of once a week.

Trying to fit in with the Bordelais - I think i've made it!

Trying to fit in with the Bordelais – I think i’ve made it!

After London, we moved on to Bordeaux, which was something quite special.  Our apartment looked out over the ancient city gate, the Porte de Bourgogne, and the Garonne River.  Inside, there was a small wine rack on the wall with four bottles of Bordeaux.  The information folder explained that some guests arrive too late to be able to purchase wine; in those cases, they should open the bottle of their choice and replace it with another.  The bottles weren’t terribly exciting – Bordeaux Superieur, for example – but I’m sure they were fine.  As it happened, we didn’t arrive too late to purchase wine of our own, and I opted for an inexpensive St. Emilion to keep handy for a late afternoon- early evening glass on our terrace.  I think I might have paid a grand total of 9 Euros for it, and it was delicious.

On our first day, still tired from waking at 3:30 a.m. in London to get to Gatwick for an early flight, we wandered through the town center, and sat down at a small café for some wine and cheese.  I believe the wine was a Pauillac, and it set the pattern: we didn’t have one bad glass of wine the entire visit.

But it’s one thing to enjoy a bottle of wine at a restaurant, wine bar or tasting room, and quite another to get outside the city and tour the great wine estates.  We did both, and I’ll focus on the estates we visited in my next post.

May 16, 2014 | By | Reply More

Getting Ready for the Spring Planting

We’ve learned a lot about viticulture (so much so that if we were in the army, the body of knowledge we’ve accumulated would fal­l under the heading of “knowing just enough to get us killed”), and so we’re feeling like we want to plant a larger vineyard this Spring.  “Larger” is a relative term, of course; given that we’re starting with a vineyard of seven vines, it would be hard to go smaller.  We’re thinking of something between 100 and 200 vines.

Our Nelson County vines are feeling lonely – hopefully this Spring we’ll give them some company.

Most people in the business, even most backyard vintners, would regard that as a small undertaking, but it’s large for us, especially since we won’t be living close to this vineyard for at least the next few years.  Everything we plant has to be maintained, and that includes spraying very soon (within 24 hours) after any rainfall that drops more than three-quarters of an inch of water onto the vines.  So, while the number of vines we’re considering is very small by most standards, it’s sizeable by the criteria most relevant to us.

However, it makes the question of what grapes to plant – and how many different types of grapes to plant – much  more complicated.

In a small vineyard like ours, it’s probably best to plant relatively few types of grapes, since it’s easier to process 50 gallons of one type of wine that 25 gallons each of two varieties.  Well, we’re going for fun, not efficiency, so we’re thinking of four or five, all in the Vitis vinifera family of European-style grapes.  There are others, such as Norton, a Virginia original, that are much easier to grow (less spraying, less worry all around), and many Virginia wineries say that Norton is their most popular grape.  But again, we intend for this to be a labor of love, so while we’re not going to disregard entirely issues of suitability, we’ve decided to grow varietals that we love.

First off, we want a white, and Viognier has been named Virginia’s signature grape by the Virginia Wine Board.  We wouldn’t agree that Viognier is the best grape, period, for Virginia, but among whites, we do think a Virginia Viognier is something quite special.  Chardonnay and other whites do well here, but I think Viognier grown in Virginia has the potential to be world class.  So, Viognier makes the cut – three (or maybe four) to go.

Next, we’d like to have some kind of desert wine, and after drinking a bottle of Petit Manseng from Veritas Vineyards over the weekend, we decided to add that one as well to the shopping list. Two down, now on to the reds.

We like Bordeaux-style blends, so we want to choose from among the great grapes of Bordeaux:  Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc and Petit Verdot. (I’m not counting Malbec, which I doubt will do well on our property.)  We’ve had all four from Virginia wineries, so we know they’re at least realistic options.

Almost everyone agrees that Cab Franc does well in Virginia, and we’ve had good Cab Francs from many wineries.  In addition, the dozen Cab Franc vines that we planted in our two separate “vineyards” seem to be doing quite well, despite the late planting.  So Cab Franc seems like an easy choice.  But the results we’ve observed from Cab Sauv and Merlot are a bit spottier.

We’ve had very good Merlots from King Family Vineyards, among other wineries, and we tasted a lovely Merlot at Barboursville Vineyards Saturday, full of fruit, and very drinkable.  I’ve also had a few Cabs from Virginia wineries that I’ve enjoyed, including one at Barboursville last weekend, but on the whole, I have to say that I haven’t loved Virginia Cabs as much as I would have liked.  It would be nice to have one of the two for Bordeaux blends, and while my heart is always with Cab Sauv, my head tells me that Merlot is the better choice for us.  This is a tough one.

That brings me to Petit Verdot.  Two years ago, I had never tasted Petit Verdot as a varietal, and I can recall being surprised the first time it was offered in a tasting room.  I remember enjoying it, but thinking of it as a bit of a novelty.  I had grown up believing that Petit Verdot was a blending grape that was used in small amounts to correct acidity in Bordeaux blends.

A few weeks ago, when we decided to give Petit Verdot serious consideration for our vineyard, we visited a couple of wineries that bottled this grape as a varietal.  Both were sold out, which we thought was a good indicator of what wine-drinkers think of Virginia Petit Verdot. 

 

Phoenix, the Vineyard Dog, inspecting BOW's tank room. Here he is walking away from a tank after discovering that it was empty.

Our major concerns at this point were all practical.  Petit Verdot is a late-ripening grape, at least as late as Cab Sauv, which we think might be hard to grow, and that concerned us.  On the way home from Nelson County Thursday, we stopped at Barrel Oak Winery (BOW), which is not only dog friendly (Phoenix the Vineyard Dog was traveling with us), but we thought it featured a Petit Verdot (PV for the rest of this post).  

Alas, BOW was also sold out of PV.  However, we lucked out.  Sharon Roeder, who owns BOW along with husband Brian, and serves as its winemaker, took us on a tour of the winery, and offered a barrel sample of the 2010 PV. 

It’s not so easy to tell how a wine will develop as it continues to age in the barrel, and then ages some more in the bottle. But I was just blown away by this Petit Verdot.  It’s a big, bold, exuberant wine that is just full of fruit.  I would have loved to have poured a bottle and taken it home.  However, this wine has a ways to go before it’s bottled sometime in the Spring of 2012.  Before bottle aging starts, it will have spent 15 months in oak.  Fortunately, BOWs 2009 PV will be released in a couple of months.  I expect to be first in line.

So, that tasting eliminated by doubts about growing Petit Verdot. Maybe it’s more difficult than other grapes, but the results are surely worth it.  And while I agree that Viognier is Virginia’s signature white grape, I’m wondering if Petit Verdot will join Cab Frank as the Commonwealth’s (by my reckoning) signature red.

So, we’re done to Viognier, Petit Manseng, Cab Frank, Petit Verdot, and maybe Merlot. Now the real challenges begin.  How much of the total vineyard to plant next Spring?  How many of each varietal?  And which nursery to buy the vines from?  Tough questions.  Probably best to ponder them over a glass of wine.  Maybe a Virginia Viognier.  

 

 

August 25, 2011 | By | 1 Reply More

2010 Chateau Pavie: A Wine that is either Amazing or Awful

Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic, blogged last week about a controversy over the 2010 Chateau Pavie, which is considered one of the great wines from St. Emilion.  In his May 24 post, Mr. Asimov compares Robert Parker's rave review of the wine (tasted as a barrel sample) with that of John Gilman, whose web-only publication, A View from the Cellar, represents a new generation of wine criticism.

So, two critics, one wine.  You'd think the reviews would at least be in the same ballpark.  But you'd be wrong.  Parker rates it as nearly perfect, and Gilman describes it as "absurdly overripe, unpleasant to taste and patently out of balance."  And that's just for starters.  Continue Reading–>

May 29, 2011 | By | Reply More
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