A “Novice” in Bordeaux

by Chuck Hayward

A “Novice” in Bordeaux

Post by Chuck Hayward | Friday, April 2nd

Working in the wine business has many benefits, not the least of which is the opportunity to travel. In my two-plus decades in the industry, I’ve had the pleasure and fortune to visit many of the world’s great wine regions, to taste the wines, meet the winemakers and sample the local cuisine. As wine is inextricably tied to the course of human history, visiting such places has allowed me insight into the culture, politics, economics and spirit of these areas that few outside the industry will ever know. What is incredible to me now, after having been here for nearly a week, is that during these many years I've never been to Bordeaux.

Taking notes at Tertre Roteboeuf

The wine industry has roots in many places— the hills of the Douro Valley, the steep slopes of the Mosel, the caves of Champagne. But it all pales in comparison to the history and traditions that populate Bordeaux. Without the agricultural traditions and social forces that developed here, there may not have been a modern wine industry at all.

It’s exciting to see an area like Bordeaux for the very first time, but with the palate of an industry “old-timer”. This visit has made me feel new all over again as I swivel my head to and fro to take in each and every vista of hillside vines and wineries hidden behind groves of trees— places whose wines I have tasted many times, but have never visited. For me it has been an incredible freshman immersion, tasting and re-tasting for understanding, but with the palate I've gained from years of experience instead of the innocence of my first days in the business.

There are a few things that I can take back with me about my first visit here. For one, it is a big business with an arm that reaches clear around the globe. There are few wine regions that command the attention of the entire world— Bordeaux is one of them. I have met industry representatives from many countries in these past days, some buying, others selling, while even more are here to learn or are working to support our tasks.

Second, I’ve quickly learned that Bordeaux is a complex and diverse area. This is most readily identified in its grossest geographic form— the difference between the left and right banks of the Gironde. The right bank regions of Pomerol and St. Emilion, home to merlot based wines, are populated with small estates on gently rolling hills. You get an impression of artisanal winemakers crafting tiny amounts of fine wine in small cellars filled with the few barrels they can maintain by themselves. The left bank is populated by larger wineries reigning over large estate vineyards. The vineyard landscape is flat and covered with grayish-white pebbles as far as the eye can see. Here, the chais are large, cathedral-like rooms that ask us to kneel to the majesty of cabernet.

Finally, as we taste the newly finished wines we are able to really distinguish the difference between the two basic regions on the palate. The merlot is ripe and round and many of the young wines are so fruity and succulent they could be drunk right away. The left bank wineries are making enticing wines as well, and you quickly see the power of cabernet as the wines here are more structured and robust.

I am excited to have discovered a whole new palette (and palate!) of scents and flavors. And I’ve caught myself grinning, eager to try samples again and again as I did when I was first learning about wine. It was easy to ignore Bordeaux for many years as I chose to specialize in other wine regions. Perhaps what has impressed me the most is how Bordeaux has brought me back to my first days in the business. That power is hard to resist, and I can see now why it has been so successful over the centuries. Bordeaux is not back, it has always been here.