On the Trail

Enjoying the Unexpected

David Driscoll

Part of the excitement in traveling to any location for the first time involves the recognition of familiar landmarks, like the Empire State Building in New York or the Eiffel Tower in Paris. We've seen these iconic pillars in photos and in movies for our entire lives, then all of a sudden they're standing in front of us in all their glory—the elation! Upon attending my first ever en primieur tasting in Bordeaux this past Spring with our veteran team of tasters, I had the same jolt of electricity upon visiting some of the canonic producers of the Médoc: Château Latour, Haut-Brion, and Pichon-Baron, for example. I'd spent almost ten years tasting these wines at K&L before finally setting foot inside their illustrious estates, getting the chance to sample the coming vintage's cuvée along with other esteemed industry folk. It was thrilling to say the least.

While it's certainly become normal for touristic travel to center itself around the expected and traditional landmarks of the world, I've always found that my most memorable moments on the road have occurred where I least expected them to. It's always been the surprise of the unknown—the joy of the unexpected—that has stuck with me over the years. I like to think that I'm pretty familiar with the wines from the Left Bank's major châteaux, but when it comes to Pomerol and St. Emilion, I still have a lot of learning to do. Of the ten days I spent in Bordeaux this past April, I think the most enjoyable experience took place on the Right Bank, touring through some of the smaller properties and meeting some of the winemakers in person. Perhaps none was more impressive than our tasting at Château Barde-Haut, the St. Emilion property purchased by the Sylvan Garcin-Cathiard back in 2000 that's been churning out stunning wines ever since. I think at first we were most excited by the spread of fresh salads and vegetables awaiting us in the Barde-Haut dining room. We had gorged ourselves on nothing but meat and butter for a week straight at that point, so the idea of sitting down for a casual, delicious, and somewhat healthy meal had all of us breathing a sigh of relief. 

Soon, however, the excitement transferred itself to a series of delicious wines sitting on a nearby table. We were hosted by Hélène Garcin-Lévêque, Silviane's daughter, who now manages Barde-Haut along with her husband Patrice. I liked her immediately. After a week of business suits, four hour lunches, and traditional procedures, Hélène invited us in to relax, let our hair down, and talk casually as we tasted through the line-up. The extended Garcin family has a number of holdings in Bordeaux. Hélène also manages Clos l'Eglise in Pomerol, as well as Haut-Bergey in the Graves and Branon in Pessac-Léognan (not to mention Poesia in Argentina). Her uncle Daniel also owns and operates Château Smith-Haut-Lafite. While I'm a fan of all those properties, it was Barde-Haut that captured my heart that day in St. Emilion. There was something about the effortless and straightforward character of the wine that reflected Hélène's attitude that afternoon. They were synonymous in their ease; neither was stuffy nor attempting an air of sophistication or pretense. Like Hélène, the wine was honest, charming, and delightful. While we were there to taste the 2015 vintage, we were able to do a little direct business for some back vintages as well, stored at the estate and shipped to us here in California. I was enthused by the dealings because it was clear to me that Barde-Haut was the type of Bordeaux I wanted to be telling my customers about back home—a precocious, under-the-radar producer that offers serious bang for the buck and certain amount of elegance along with it.

Barde-Haut sits on a typical St. Emilion soil of clay with a bit of chalk underneath, but the upgrades that the Garcin family has made in the cellar are what have propelled the wine to new heights over the last fifteen years. All the work during the harvest and winemaking is done by gravity now, protecting the fruit from early oxidation due to broken skins or damaged grapes. Fermentation is done in a combination of wooden, concrete, and stainless steel vats and the wine goes into French oak for eighteen months afterward. What's lovely about the wine is its pureness of fruit (which is a majority of merlot), with silky and fleshy overtones. It's balanced by subtle earthy accents and fine tannins in younger vintages, but as the wine ages it develops into incredibly potent flavors of mushroom and soy that meld beautifully with all that fruit. It was the 2004 vintage that took my breath away that day at Barde-Haut, and now that the wine is here (and available for a very reasonable $29.99 due to our direct purchasing without middlemen or importers) it's just as spellbinding as I remember. I popped a bottle on Christmas to enjoy with my steak and I instantly flashed back to that day in St. Emilion. Barde-Haut was an unexpected pleasure during a trip full of expected indulgence. It's the property that I look back upon most fondly still today. 

There's always a certain amount of enjoyment from realizing a long-anticipated visit. I think there's a more lasting bliss, however, from uncovering something new and unanticipated. I'm hoping some of our customers can experience a similar surprise by taking home a bottle of the 2004 and enjoying the unexpected.

-David Driscoll