Day 3 – an Ontological Question…
The atmospheric pressure went down. This makes tasting more difficult, as wines tend to close up under these conditions. The day will be dedicated to the wines of the Cercle Rive droite et Rive gauche; 200 wines to taste – a trifle. With one’s ass screwed to a chair, tethered to one’s keyboard, in a manner similar to that of Bartleby the Scrivener, one comes out eight hours later, dazed and surprised that one was able, once more, to cross this double circle. Here is an ontological question that should bug every wine taster locked in this fascinating process: how much should one love wine to accept this trial without being tempted to whisper, “I would prefer not to…?”
Day 4 – True Beauty
The day starts with a tasting of the wines of La Grappe at La Gaffelière. Stéphane Derenoncourt is present, surrounded by his assistants, Julien Lavenu, Simon Blanchard and Frédéric Massie. Amongst the wines tasted, I find very good wines, successful ones, and a gem that changes the course of life: Les Carmes Haut-Brion. I had already loved it last year; in the course of the week, it will haunt me softly, like an ideal figure. Pavie-Macquin is a stone’s throw from La Gaffelière; I meet Nicolas Thienpont and his team. The wines are sapid and enjoyable. One is reminded that philosophy deals with wisdom; as the wise Nicolas Thienpont writes in the introduction to his wines and the estates he manages: “The beginning may be beautiful, yet true beauty is in the end”. A perfect statement, worth pondering during the (long) way that takes me from Saint-Emilion to Martillac, where Florence and Daniel Cathiard celebrate 25 years at Smith Haut-Lafitte! This charismatic couple has already lived several lives. Firstly, as ski champions in the French national team; then, as entrepreneurs, with the Genty Cathiard and Go Sports stores, which they sold in 1989 to start a third life with the purchase, in 1991, of a sleeping beauty, the Smith Haut Lafite estate. During 25 years of hard labour, the estate was reborn, and took its place among the important domains of Bordeaux. This was due to the quality of the wines, but also to the unrivalled flair for communication displayed by Florence and Daniel; each in their own way, they always unflinchingly share the message of the wines of SHL. The parents are still very active (they recently bought minority shares in the purchase of Château Beauregard in Pomerol by the Moulin family), and the new guard is represented by their two daughters, Mathilde (who created Caudalie) and Alice, who manages Les Sources de Caudalie.
The party begins with a vertical tasting of the estate’s wines. It is fascinating to see the evolution of the style and the underlining of the terroir over the years. As I compare the wines, I can sense three stages: I find a more defined presence of the terroir from 1995 onwards. 1998 is the start of a change in style through a more precise balance. The third stage, from 2010, becomes more subtle. The magnums of 2005 and 1998 SHL are enjoyed over a meal prepared by the talented and discreet Nicolas Masse, the chef at the restaurant La Grand’ Vigne.
Later, in the middle of the night, just before sleep catches up with me, I have fleeting memories of the past. 1968. The Winter Olympics in Grenoble. Killy, Périllat, the Goitschel sisters, the champions and the forgotten ones. Is beauty at the end? It is definitely found in the purity of the line, the light trail, the trajectory that each of us leaves behind.
Day 5 – Hello Sadness!
It is the first official day of the Primeurs. They have come from all over the world. They are all here for the week of L’Union des Grands Crus, and the marathon of the non-aligned and of the unavoidable. The wine merchants and the journalists. Amongst the latter, oldies and celebrities parade their aphorisms, handing down judgment from one Bank to the other. Jacques Dupont blasts this sad spectacle in the weekly Le Point:
“This is the week of Mercedes minivans, black cars and sad men. Apart from the buyers of the major distribution chains, who work hard and do not hide their pleasure at tasting great wines and dining on old vintages in the châteaux, many tasters display the undertaker look favoured by male models and rock bass players”.
All bass players; they are all mimicking John Entwistle or Bill Wyman. With the exception of Masna and myself, of course! Masna is the soul of the Enogea magazine; he has a high reputation in the wine world as a rebellious aesthete, an individualist who hates “tasting machines” and social occasions. I have been enjoying his company for several years. We sometimes share the same perceptions; when we do not, we are enriched by our differences. After a stop at Haut-Brion, almost hidden by the drizzle, I meet up with Alessandro Masnaghetti at Château Picque-Caillou for the tasting of the Pessac-Léognan wines; they are disappointingly inhomogeneous. Is it because of the gloomy weather? After a quick lunch, we make our way to Guiraud, where the Barsac and Sauternes await, all lined up. Some are radiant and inspired; other are more enigmatic. One needs to concentrate, get back to the subject, understand the subtle balances, the diverse levels of evolution, the light under the coating of breeding. A little later, in Yquem, Sandrine Garbay, the cellar master, explains the idiosyncratic character of the vintage, with the help of graphs. This Yquem is serene, pure and stylish. Everybody agrees about the strength and conviction of its purity. Deep inside, we are rendered speechless; this is not the husky, sombre wailing of Thunderfingers’s bass (as Entwisttle, of The Who used to be known); this is Bach. A fugue. Which will remain nameless. It is time to be on our way again.
Day 6 – From one Château to the Next
Early in the morning, I leave my abode to join Palmer in the Medoc drizzle. I cross the Cantermerle Park. “Please drive very slowly!” Botanist Louis-Bernad Fisher, who also designed Filhot and Les Carmes Haut-Brion in the 19th century, designed the park as we know it today. It is a truly magical place, with its age-old trees and its rare essences; I deeply regret that I never found the time to crisscross these bewitching 62 acres right outside the city of Bordeaux. I would have loved to wander along the straight lanes that cross a warren, go over the hairnet of brooks with their little curved bridges reminiscent of Japan. Big building works are still taking place in Château Margaux, and the place where Paul Pintallier welcomes journalists presents a charmingly and well thought-out precariousness. The wine is elegant, aristocratic and lithe. Monsieur Pontallier’s speech is perfectly oiled, as is his posture – the left hand lightly put inside the pocket of his jacket, and the right in a vitarka gesture, as in representations of Buddha, the left foot turned slightly to the right, in a pointe position, as if he was a dancer about to perform a leap. Very chic!
The tasting of the Listrac-Moulis and Margaux wines takes place in perfect conditions at Château Fourcas-Hosten, where we are welcomed by the owner, the Mommeja brothers, heirs to the founder of Hermès. The weather is unabashedly grey, veiled and shimmering. Swiss photographer Hans-Peter Siffert paces up and down the courtyard, hoping for a glimmer of light. Eventually he admits that he will concentrate on the interiors. So shall we. We try to go beyond the surface of the wine, capture its intimate truth – very changeable in view of the variability of the samples, emphasised by the weather conditions. The afternoon is spent as if in a novel by Céline, rushing from one château to the next, slogging from one drawing room to the other, grabbing umbrellas offered by spirited hostesses. In Lafite, I take advantage of a quiet moment to taste on my own, under the bushy yet benevolent eye of Charles Chevallier. In Cos, Dominique Arangoits, the technical director, welcomes me. Things go wrong in Montrose. A motley crowd, loud and undisciplined, has taken over the imposing drawing room. A debonair Belgian is enjoying Dame de Montrose 2014 and declares, “It is so good. I spit it in and swallow the lot!” What am I doing in this ship of fools? Thankfully, Calon-Ségur is not far, the sun makes a comeback and the miracle of the 2014 vintage blows me over with its precision and intensity. One more visit to Château Belgrave where the whole Dourthe team welcomes the tasters in an ideal manner. Finally, it is time for the joyful night at Phélan-Ségur to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a brilliant dinner orchestrated by Alain Solivérès, the chef of Taillevant, around wines from Phélan (1996, 2001 and 1989, in ‘impériale’ bottles).
I sense that the moment will be magical. Normally I should have been at the Yquem knees-up at the Grand-Théâtre, but I gave up the gift of ubiquity. It is too complicated. I chose Saint-Estèphe.
Day 7 – After the Archipelago of Wine Tasting
The weather is a little more clement this morning. 9am brings the first batch of tasters to Mouton. In the beginning, as the first electric cars are coming in, all is quiet. Then, a very voluble Anglo-Saxon group arrives. I ignore the noise as I taste the wines, but, in the end, I cannot avoid asking the question: are some people unable to ever be quiet? Do they speak in their sleep as well? The tasting of the UGC is taking place this morning above the new storehouse of Château Saint-Pierre. It is interesting to consider, in a blind tasting, the different levels of success among the Saint-Julien, the Pauillac and the Saint-Estèphe. This year, the winners are the last two appellations. Two hours later, we have nice weather. Finally!
My car slides along the estuary and its little fishermen’s sheds; I am heading to Saint-Seurin de Cadourne for a friendly visit to Jean Gautreau. He is having lunch in good company, facing the ocean of vineyards, like the captain of a ship whipping the open sea. The menu is unchanged: stew and peas. Aged 88, my friend Jean is in great shape. We exchange a few words; we speak of the magic of great Champagnes, of Zuberoa, one of my favorite Basque restaurants. The Primeurs market? Not a word, I swear. I still have a few visits before going back to the Right Bank. The major building works have been completed in Latour. Helène Genin, the technical director, welcomes me in one of the very attractive (new) sampling rooms. She talks about the May hailstorm and the cryptogrammic diseases that required a prompt reaction. We also discuss viticulture and its current practices: in 2014, half of the plots were done in biodynamics (this means about a third of the assemblage of top wines). She explains that the next stage will be to shift the whole Enclos to biodynamics; it is worked fully by horsepower. The last stop will be Pichon-Baron, before taking the unending road that leads to the Right Bank with the usual slowing down by the Aquitaine Bridge. Traffic in Bordeaux and its surroundings is getting worse, and I wonder how some consultants manage to make this journey several times a week. Sixty-six miles separate Pauillac from Saint-Emilion, yet one needs at least one hour and a half to get from one to the other.
In the medieval city, I begin my journey with a visit to Stefan Neipperg, perfectly attired yet without affectation. The presence of his Canon-La-Gaffelière, aristocratic and sapid, is magnificent – a perfect illustration that, even in this vintage, Cabernet Franc makes wine sing! At Muriel Andraud and Jean-Luc Thunevin, everybody has deserted the storehouses to sit on the terraces. Only Thierry Deseauve, Beckustator and I are left behind. Valandraud is a big success. Muriel and Jean-Luc invite me to stay on for the evening, but I decline; after the whirlwind of the last hours, I dream of a selfish evening, a light supper and the total change of scenery provided by In Siberia by Colin Thurbon, an invigorating book that I recommend strongly in spite of the seriousness of its subject. After the archipelago of wine tasting, here is that of the gulag.
Translation : Alex Limpach