I am sitting in a quiet café in sun drenched St Raphael on the Cote d’Azure spending the afternoon relaxing and catching up after an amazing week in Bordeaux. This years wine trip was a group tour that was an eight day extravaganza beginning in St Emilion, venturing to Sarlat and Domme, then back to Graves, up to Begadan, on to Pauillac and finishing in Margaux. We visited nine wineries and two Cave Cooperatives, toured a barrel factory, stayed in ancient cities and ate more amazing meals than I thought humanly possible. In other words, it was a fabulous time! Over the final two evenings – and one afternoon – we blind tasted almost forty wines to select ten for the club.
I won’t torture you any more with the tourist recap but I will try to highlight the wine searching part of the trip and bring you up to date on what we discovered.
Vinexpo is every other year on the odd years (2013, 2015, 2017 etc.) and it is the easiest way for us to find new wines and new winemakers. With the wine world gathered in one place for a week it is easy to taste one hundred wines a day and really narrow our selection for blind tasting. On the even years we have to do more selective searching and this year was one of those years.
I landed in France on June 9th and for the entire first ten days the weather was cold and rainy, but fine for wine tasting. I spent the first couple of days near St Foy le Grande getting acclimated and poking around the Montravel region, which is just east of St Emilion between there and Bergerac. They make some great wines (Chateau Laulerie is from here) and it is an up and coming region that I want to explore more. This time however I didn’t find much except the free bottle of wine they left in my hotel room – which I didn’t even open but decided to stick in the blind tasting just for the heck of it.
My friend Eric joined me and our serious searching began a couple of days later –as we spent three days in Cote de Blaye. Cote de Blaye is north of the Medoc and across the Gironde river from Margaux and Pauillac. We have only imported one wine from this region of Bordeaux over the last ten years (1999 Roland de Garde) and have mostly ignored it because we have found such great wines in the Medoc, St Emilion and Pomerol. There are good wines here and it was time to dig in a little deeper.
With eight thousand wines produced in Bordeaux every year I have to have a way to sort through them to find the great ones. My strategy is to find a good local restaurant with a large wine list and over dinner I begin a conversation with the waiter or sommelier. I let them know I am an importer from the US and ask them to recommend wineries for me to visit and taste. They are usually locals who know the region well and are very familiar with the wines. This is how we found the aforementioned Chateau Laulerie. I also ask my current French contacts for recommendations.
We arrived in the town of Blaye in the evening and by the next afternoon I had a list of about ten wines to taste and four wineries to visit so we started making appointments for tasting. I had never heard of most of these wines, but as I tasted some of them at restaurants and visited the various chateaux I was impressed by the quality of the wines. This area is mostly merlot based and reminds me a lot of St Emilion at typically a fraction of the price.
2012 is a tough vintage in Bordeaux. After two great vintages (2009 and 2010) they struggled with an aggressively average vintage in 2011 and then an even more difficult vintage in 2012. 2013 was a complete disaster and most of the good wineries didn’t even make a wine – or at least they didn’t make their “first” wine. Chateau Pierhem, Chateau Reclos de La Couronne, Chateau Beau Rivage and Chateau Tour Bicheau did not make wines. They sold their fermented juice to negotiants to make wines for grocery stores.
On our trip we tasted mostly 2012’s and it is not a great – or even good – vintage. It is not as bad as 2013 but it is not great either. The wines are typically thin and uninteresting. Be careful when you are buying wine in the store and stay away from the 2012 vintage in Bordeaux. We have been very selective and have found a few we feel great about including in the club but it has taken a lot of work to sort through the plonk to find the really great ones.
After our three days we had nine wines from Cote de Blaye to put in the blind tasting and next year I am going to make an effort to track down more of these wines at Vinexpo. One of the wineries still had some stock of its 2002 and 2003 vintage. We put those in the blind tasting and I’ll let you know how they did.
We were off to a good start to the trip and I was looking forward to seeing the group and showing them my Bordeaux. I’ll tell you about that in the next letter.