The Amazing Châteaux Race may be a bit of an overstatement, but my classmates and I did visit five châteaux in Bordeaux in one day. I would say that’s an impressive feat. But the credit goes all to my classmate, Alex, and our wonderful wine professor, Eric Riewer. Alex was kind enough to work with Eric and arrange an extraordinary trip for 13 ESSEC MBA Luxe students. The five châteaux were: Château Brane-Cantenac, Château Pontet-Canet, Château Pichon Longueville Baron, Château Mouton Rothschild and Château Ducru-Beaucaillou.
Château Brane-Cantenac introduced us to their state-of-the-art optical sorting machine. This machine uses cutting-edge technology and lets the user set parameters to sort the grapes. You can sort by weight, color, size and so much more. I’m sure it speeds up the sorting process and leads to a higher quality of grapes. Last year, there were only five châteaux with this kind of technology; this year, there are about 20.
They renovated their buildings to make them more sustainable with natural cooling and heating systems, energy-saving air movement and humidity control. I enjoyed the wines at this second growth winery because the tannins in the wine weren’t as harsh and more silky. Château Brane-Cantenac takes pride in their “balanced wines.”
Founded in the 18th century, Château Pontet-Canet was almost a complete 180 compared to Brane-Cantenac. We went from seeing a piece of high-technology to a vineyard going back its roots. Château Pontet-Canet produces organic, biodynamic wine. This means no chemicals, pesticides, weed killers or fertilizers are used on their vineyard. To prevent diseases and improve the immune system of the vines, Pontet-Canet uses a special homeopathic product, consisting of herbal teas and other natural elements. What I found most fascinating was the fact that the vineyard is shifting from tractors to horses to plow the land. Apparently, the tractors have too much pressure and end up crushing a lot of vines. They developed horse carriages to plow and then spray their herbal treatments. Currently, they have five horses who plow 40% of the land. Their goal is to get 10 more horses in the next five years and they will be able to plow 100% of the land. In terms of the fermentation process, they only use natural yeast, prolonging the fermentation to two to three weeks. This is opposed to powdered yeast, which can finish the fermentation process in about five days.
We were so lucky because we were able to visit during Bordeaux’s harvest season. We watched people sort the grapes around tables and then put into a machine to be destemmed and sorted. It was really fun to watch the whole process and see the harvesters in action. While tasting wines at Pontet-Canet, we met the owner Alfred Tesseron. I could not believe the kind of access our teacher, Eric, was able to provide us. It was like he knew everyone in Bordeaux. It was incredible to meet the man who made so many changes to Pontet-Canet and established it to its current glory.
Château Pichon Longueville Baron was gorgeous. It had a beautiful reflection pool in front of it and was just breathtaking. As I stood outside taking photos, I couldn’t help but feel like I was taking in part of their heritage, which dates back all the way to 1694. We saw the harvesters remove the wires off the vines (from far away it looked like leaves were flying off the vines). Most of the harvesters actually hail from Spain who come every year just for the season (this seemed common in many châteaux). We tasted six wines, including their popular 2009 and 2010 vintages. I loved both of these vintages, but the 2009 was less acidic and more enjoyable. I’m definitely going to have to buy a bottle for my parents when I go back to the States.
Château Mouton Rothschild is a 1st growth (Premier Grand Cru) wine, an accolade only given to five vineyards in Bordeaux. Premier Grand Cru is the highest honor and the classification has been set in stone since 1973. It definitely was a privilege to set foot on this château. Besides being a 1st growth wine, Mouton Rothschild is actually known for its labels on the bottles. Every year, one artists is chosen by Baroness Philippine de Rothschild to design the label (previous artists include Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso).
Unfortunately, Mouton Rothschild is currently undergoing renovations and guests cannot tour the premises (it will be another year before it is open to public), but we were at least able to taste the 2012 vintage. It was interesting to taste the 2012 vintage because it is actually not ready for final consumption. It still needs to be aged in the barrel for several months. I wish I had a more discerning palate to detect whether or not 2012 was going to be a “good year.” Alas, my tastebuds are not that sophisticated.
Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is another vineyard that is embracing technology. They use a Selectiv Process Vision to sort their grapes by color, weight, etc. Our guide explained to us why he believed technology and man are creating better tools that will lead to higher quality grapes, including infrared sorting machines. He, personally, was not a big supporter of biodynamic wine and believed that it was not the wave of the future. It was really interesting to see five châteaux in one day because we were really able to compare them. Château Ducru-Beaucaillou was so different from Pontet-Canet who is trying to almost go back in time by using horses and all-natural processes.
We learned why European oak are always used in wine oak barrels. It turns out American oak doesn’t have the natural pores that are needed for the slow oxidation of wine. However, American oak is good for bourbon and actually adds flavor to the bourbon.
At Ducru-Beaucaillou, we got to try the 2012 vintage straight from the metal vat. This was before any sugar had been added. First of all, it was a deep purple color and smelled like fermentation. One small sip was all anyone could handle. It was tart (no, just plain sour). I was impressed with Ducru-Beaucaillou because they’re also embracing marketing. The label for Croix de Beaucaillou was designed by Jade Jagger, Mick Jagger’s daughter. So if you want to be just a little bit closer to the Rolling Stones, you can drink Croix de Beaucaillou. As it turns out, I wasn’t the biggest fan of Croix de Beaucaillou (I did like Ducru-Beaucaillou’s other wines though).
It was a fantastic trip and I’m so glad I went. I don’t think I would have ever been able to gain so much access to so many famous vineyards and I’m so appreciative of Eric for opening all the doors. I’m definitely ready to explore more regions like Champagne and the Loire Valley!