I was excited to spend the final three nights of our trip in my favorite place, and home base in Bordeaux for the last ten years, Margaux. This sleepy little town is the home to some of the biggest names in the wine world including the Premier Grand Cru Chateau Margaux, and the powerhouses of Ch. Rasan Segla, Ch. Lascombes, Ch. Palmer and a host of others that firmly establish this as part of the high rent district in Bordeaux.
I became attached to this little slice of wine paradise when I stopped into Cave L’Avant Garde in 2004 because they had a sign outside that said “We ship anywhere in the world.” We lived in Canada at the time and I didn’t believe they would ship there – they didn’t – so I had a couple of cases shipped to my parents home in North Carolina. The following year I celebrated my fiftieth birthday in France with friends, and we began with two nights in Margaux. On the first night a group of us walked up to Cave L’Avant Garde to buy some wine for dinner and I met the owners Wayne and Cathy for the first time. They had some wines they wanted me to taste and I invited them to bring them over to the hotel and sit outside and enjoy them with our group. Much to my delight and surprise they agreed. The rest, shall we say, is history.
In 2006 Bill and I took our sons to France for their High School graduation and the four of us were having lunch at the Relais de Margaux (where I stay when I’m in town) when we came up with the idea for the club. We went directly to Cave L’Avant Garde and asked Wayne if he was interested in being our contact on the French side of the business and he immediately agreed. I’ve spent at least a week there every year since 2006 and I always feel like I’m coming home when I arrive.
On this morning we would have our final “wine pick-up” at another one of my special places – Chateau Beau Rivage – with two of my favorite people, Christine and Guillaume. Christine’s family owns the Nadalie Cooperage – a barrel making operation whose barrels I see in chais all over wine world – and while her brothers make the barrels, Christine (pictured with me in the column on the right) makes the wine. Whenever I visit a winery I look in the barrel room to see if they are using Nadalie barrels and most of the time they are. Christine makes great wine – both Chateau Beau Rivage and Clos la Boheme – and we have enjoyed several vintages of each in the club. Guillaume works for Christine as a sales rep for both the barrels and the wine, and I have been working with him for the last six years ever since we took the 2002 Chateau Beau Rivage in the club that some of you will fondly remember. I wish I still had some.
We arrived at the tonnellerie office and were greeted with big hugs from Christine and Guillaume and it is always great to see them both. Christine let Guillaume give us the tour and he began by showing us the fascinating and labor intense barrel making operation. We started by walking though the yard where they keep the wooden slats that will become barrels, then on through the factory that molds them, toasts them and finally closes them up for delivery. Guillaume is a great guy and as we pass by each “station” in the barrel making plant he shakes every hand and chats a little with each man. He is that kind of guy.
From there we drove over to Chateau Beau Rivage and spent a few minutes in the vineyard before going in to the chai to taste the wines. Christine had just blended the 2014 vintage the day before we arrived and she didn’t want us to taste it – too young – but the cellar master poured it for us anyway and it is wonderful! When I taste a wine this young, I am really just looking to judge the density of the fruit and the complexity, including the tannins that remain on my pallet. I can’t wait to taste it next year when it is ready.
After our tasting we returned to the tonnellerie where they also have a very nice restaurant and Christine joined us for lunch. We shared a beautiful lunch with Guillaume and Christine and washed it all down with some of her wines; an absolutely delightful dejuner with Christine regaling us with stories of winemaking and what it was like to grow up with three brothers. I really enjoy these two people and would have liked to hang out with them all afternoon, but we had one more chateau to visit and then our first blind tasting so by 2:00 we said our “good byes” and departed.
We left Beau Rivage and drove back to Margaux and our appointment at Chateau Lascombes, one of the best and most popular wines in Bordeaux. This is another fairyland chateau that is covered with beautiful green vines on the exterior and has a glass domed ceiling in it’s tasting room that is absolutely gorgeous. They work very hard to make great wine and it shows. At the end of the tour the guide explained that she thought we were all wine professionals and she had prepared a different kind of tasting for us. She was a little apologetic but we were thrilled. We’d been doing the standard tasting routine for a week and it was awesome to try something different. Instead of tasting from different vintages of Chateau Lascombes, we tasted the individual varietals that went into the blend and then finally the blended wine. Amazing! This was an incredible way to taste and one I had never done before. The remarkable thing was that the individual varietals – merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and petit verdot – where each huge and massive by themselves but the blend was soft and elegant, exactly what you expect from at top wine in Margaux. I have no idea how they make this happen but every sip was fabulous. It was an incredible tasting and I was really glad we stopped here.
By 6:00 we were at Cave L’Avant Garde and ready for our first blind tasting. Patrick from Chateau Tour Bicheau showed up to join us in the tasting and I was thrilled to see him. We began with the Left Bank wines since Patricks wine is with the Right Bank group. Many years ago I made the mistake of having a winemaker join the blind tasting that included his wine. I didn’t like the wine, gave it a bad review and when we pulled the cover off the bottle I was very embarrassed. Lesson learned; no more blind tasting with winemakers whose wine is in the assembled group. I love it when a winemaker joins us for the blind tasting, but now they only taste other wines.
We removed the foils and corks, wrapped the bottles in paper completely covering the labels, numbered each bottle and began our tasting in silence. The one hard and fast rule for blind tasting is that there is no talking. Each person tasted the twenty-two wines, made their notes and when everyone was done we compared our opinions. The only sound was that of sipping, spitting and the incredible jazz stylings of the incomparable Miss Sarah Vaughn. Several years ago we began the tradition of listening to Sarah Vaughn while we taste and her soft tones, incredible range and perfect styling provide the quintessential setting for evaluating fine wine. (listen to Sarah Vaughan: https://youtu.be/yJ-9IBZaydQ )
When everyone was done tasting we compared notes. There was not much agreement on the wines, and Patrick didn’t give great scores to any of them – typical of winemakers from the opposite bank – but I thought there were some real standouts in the group. We were considering wines mostly from the difficult 2012 vintage and while it is a tough vintage there are some good wines. The trick is to sort through all the plonk and find the really good ones. We choose ten to take to dinner with us.
We gathered the bottles and headed up the D2 to Lion D’Or in Arsac, one of the more famous establishments in the Medoc. Two years ago the young chef bought the place from the former, legendary owners and he is doing a fabulous job. I had several wonderful meals there last year – including our wine tasting – and they remembered me as soon as we walked in. They set up a big table on the back terrace and we hauled in our collection of wines, ordered our meals and relaxed after a long day. Three of us had the beef on the menu, and they set up small table next to ours, brought out the beef on one huge plate, placed it on that table and started carving it for us. It was more beef than I’ve ever seen served and after the three of us ate as much as we could we had only finished less than half of what they brought. Then for desert, they brought the largest ice cream dish I have ever seen. It’s no wonder I’m beginning to look like Orson Wells!
The wines paired well with the food and there are several that I am very excited about and will be great for the club. Several had changed dramatically after they had been given the chance to open in the couple of hours since we first tasted them blind and they were really beautiful with the beef. I am feeling good about our Left Bank selection and excited for you to enjoy these great wines next year.
At almost 11:00 we drove back to the hotel (yes, we had a designated driver) and a few of us were in the mood for a nightcap. We took a bottle of Sauterne and walked around to the back porch overlooking the golf course to put a final closure to our day. We sat in the dark, sipping the nectar of the God’s, watching a fiery orange moon rise over the vineyards and thinking how fortunate we were to be there. It was a truly magical end to a glorious day. Tomorrow the Right Bank.