April 2 - First Day in Bordeaux

by Chuck Hayward

We arrived in Bordeaux at 5:15 p.m. and went straight to our hotel, the Burdigala. Not sure why this hotel came recommended, but quite frankly, it’s nothing more than an upscale Motel 6. The view from our window is of a ‘lovely’ old alley surrounded by rundown buildings and wet laundry lines strung across balconies. Occasional flower boxes to give it a bit of charm…but truly a far cry from our terrific hotel in Paris.

At 8 p.m. we had our first dinner with the trade at a quaint restaurant on the river Gironde called l’Estacade…actually more of a glass fisherman’s hut built on the wharf, with a beautiful view of the city. The dinner was hosted by Diageo Chateau and Estates, a leading importer of classified Bordeaux into the US. For a list of their imports, click here.

We were joined by the Sherry Lehman contingency, including Michael Aaron, its Chairman. Together, Michael and I talked about the ’05 campaign and shared some thoughts, concerns and excitement. Across from me sat Guy, from Chateau and Estates. Guy and his wife Marie (on my left) own a small chateau in Bordeaux and Marie is winemaker.He handles a lot of the sourcing of various wines from Bordeaux for Chateau and Estates and told me that he believes there are approximately 300,000 unsold cases of wines at the top Chateau’s from back vintages. Obviously we hope to tap into that inventory and bring them to you. In addition we were joined by Jim Smith and Mark Levin from Southern Wine & Spirits who carry the Diageo wines. Jim, the Import Manager, truly knows his Bordeaux and does a terrific job.

Of interest, but certainly not news, Guy confirmed that he is seeing a lot better management of the vineyards in Bordeaux. This includes the curtailing of yields by aggressive pruning, crop thinning and leaf-pulling to encourage proper airflow and sun exposure to the grapes. Of course, many of the top Chateau’s can afford to pay their people to carefully maintain their vineyards using these techniques. However, a lot of training and oversight is required to ensure that all the day laborers working the vineyards use the same care as the vineyard manger would. Guy said that even too much dust from the workers and tractors in the vineyard can lead to damaged grapes – the grains of sand that land on the grape can reflect too much sun in hot summer and ‘kill’ the grape.

He also said that yields can be as much as a fourth what they were only 20 years ago and that overall the vineyards are healthier and the grapes are smaller, albeit much higher in quality. Separately, he spoke about the importance of terroir and what makes Bordeaux so special. Many of the vines on the hillside have roots going down 13 meters, or 40 feet! They are truly reaching for those special minerals and other goodies unique to the soil of Bordeaux that help give those grape vines their unique characteristics that can only be found in this special place. Compare this to some vineyards in say South America that are watered regularly. How hard do you think the roots of the vines have to fight to reach the water and nutrients? Not quite the same is it?

Someone did bring up the question “so where will the first growth wines be priced en primeur?” Interestingly enough nobody cared to venture a guess! It really seems like there is a general nervousness in regards to the pricing of the ’05 futures. If I had to speculate I would say that the top Chateaus will most likely release their first tranche at fairly reasonable prices and then they will release the following tranches at much higher prices. That way the Chateau can say “hey, we told you the prices would be fair!” What they don’t say is that they only give you a miniscule amount of wine at first tranche and the bulk at much higher prices. We will keep informed so that we can react in a prudent manner.

For the gourmands out there, here was our dinner:

First course: Mullet tartare with light cream and trout eggs. Delicious. Much like a tuna tartar back in the U.S., but with a softer texture; very distinctive. The trout eggs were a bit salty and added another dimension to the dish. The dish was accompanied by an ’04 white from Graves.

Next was the main course: Baked sea-bass with beurre blanc sauce and polenta. The fresh fish was outstanding aside from the occasional bone. Wine was the ’02 Haut Bailly, which was quite nice, with soft tannins, good structure and a bit of dark fruit and toasty oak. Great wine…unfortunately not a great match with the fish. Of note, Parker has been giving great scores to this property since 2000. He says “This is an estate to watch now that American banking kingpin, Robert Wilmers, has turned loose a brilliant team that includes the ‘retired’ Jean-Bernard Delmas of Haut-Brion as a consultant…” Even in 2004, Parker gave the wine 91-93 points – not bad for a $35 bottle of wine.

The main course was followed by a selection of fromage and then a dessert that was quite interesting – Trio of crèmes brulees: Szechuan pepper, Espelette pepper, and chocolate. I have had many types of crème brulee but never with Szechuan pepper! Believe it or not, it was great. The Espelette tasted more like thyme and was a bit overpowering. This was served with a NV Krug Grand Cuvee, unique Champagne with style – very toasty yet lots of minerals, and a bit dark in color (could have been an older example).

Tomorrow I have private appointments at all the first growths, as well as a few others with my friends from the largest independent importer of Bordeaux into the U.S., Wine Warehouse, represented by Rob and Don - both veterans of these tastings. Don has come every year since 1977 and is very well respected in all of Bordeaux. Lunch is scheduled at Leoville Barton. Then I have a dinner with the proprietors of Picque Caillou along with Geoff, the Import Manager and Director of Education for Young’s Market, another large importer and distributor of wines and spirits in the U.S. I will report my findings upon my return to this lovely hotel room. Now it’s 2am and my first appointment is at 8am at Haut Brion so I think it’s time to turn out the lights. Bon nuit!