On the Trail

Two Feet In the Graves

David Driscoll

On the Left Bank of the Garonne, south of the city, lies the appellation of Bordeaux known as the Graves—a region with an incredibly gravelly soil (hence the name “Graves") that produces red, white, and sweet wines with great minerality. The vines dig deep into the rocky terroir and soak up the essence of the earth, translating that special character into the wines themselves with a quality that has increased significantly over the last few decades. Within the Graves is a sub-apellation known as Pessac-Leognan, from which most of the area’s top wines originate. We stayed the night at Château Le Thil, a stunning property with lush gardens and an abundant amount of wildlife, before heading up the next morning to tour some of our favorite estates. Seeing that we were just around the corner from Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte, that seemed like the best place to begin our day.

Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte is one of our favorite Bordeaux producers at K&L, an estate whose white wines are actually much more famous than its reds. But the property wasn’t always so heralded. It was in 1990, when Daniel and Florence Cathiard—a pair of former Olympic skiers—decided to purchase the château and dedicate themselves to restoring the vineyards. Our owner Clyde Beffa visited the winery soon after with his friend Bill Blatch and a relationship was formed that has lasted for over twenty years since. Smith-Haut-Lafitte is one of the most picturesque properties in all of Bordeaux, a sweeping swell of vines highlighted with majestic skies that seem to change their light and color from minute to minute. We tasted through the 2015 en primeur releases and were just as impressed as we generally are with the wines. The sauvignon blanc/semillion blend is clean and fresh, full of crushed stones and citrus with just a hint of almond skin on the finish. The red is a balanced and finessed combination of red fruits and steely, stony acidity. We were joined by the winemaker Fabien Teitgen who mentioned that the cabernet was quite strong in the Graves this past year, matching what we had heard from various other Left Bank châteaux. Both Phil and I were quite taken by the château itself and the wines we tasted.

Since we were staying for lunch, Daniel invited Phil and I down into the cellar to help choose a few bottles for the meal. The underground cave located down a steep and winding set of stairs is as romantic as it gets—a low-lit, low-ceiling den with roots from the orange trees outside its walls permeating the rocky floor. “You can smell the orange blossoms,” Daniel said as we descended into the basement, “and I keep the roots to help to drain the moisture.” We ended up with bottles of 2010 Smith-Haut-Lafitte Blanc, a 1990 and 2005 Rouge, as well as a Sauternes from their Baston-Lemantagne property just a few miles away. The meal was superb and the balance of white, red, and sweet wine with the food was a welcome respite from the red-dominated dinners we’d been gorging on all week. I was practically beaming by the time we finished the apple tart with a glass of that sweet elixir. 

After a memorable and truly-inspiring time at Smith-Haut-Lafitte, we hightailed it over to Pape Clément, named after the person who founded it: Raymond Bertrand de Got—the man who would eventually become Pope Clément V. With vineyards that date back to 1300, making it the oldest property in the Graves, the château received its name after Bertrand was elected as pontiff in 1306 and subsequently moved the papacy to Avignon. More than 700 years later, the winery makes one of the most coveted clarets in the region, perhaps just behind famed first-growth Château Haut-Brion for tops in the Graves. 

The religious decor within the estate is almost as ornate as the Vatican itself! We tasted in a beautiful parlor with intricate artwork and an atmosphere of supreme holiness. The Pape Clément wines were impeccable, the white an ultra-fine laser of pure acidity and subtle hints of citrus, while the red stood out from the initial sip. With 56% cabernet in the blend, the ripeness of the varietal comes through right away and carries the cuvée through until the finish, which slowly dissipates as the tannins melt away. Both wines are on my short list for personal purchases, but the 2013 Blanc (which is supposed to be better) might be another good option while we still have some left for pre-order. Alex and Ralph both thought it was one of the best whites of that vintage.

And, of course, since we were nearby we thought we might as well pay a visit to Haut-Brion—one of the best wine estates in the entire world. Suited up in our Sunday best, we waited in the hallway in great anticipation before heading upstairs for a private tasting of the 2015 en primeur offerings.

It's always a little intimidating to taste with such a prestigious producer like Haut-Brion, especially considering several of the wines we would be tasting would likely clock in somewhere between $500-$800 per bottle upon release. While the Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion red wines are legendary, the whites are often much rarer and much more expensive. Ralph leaned over and said to me, "Take your time with those wines and drink them slowly. It's likely the last time you'll ever get to taste them," referring to the 2015 vintage. They were indeed other-worldly, especially the La Mission Haut-Brion Blanc with its pale green color and sublime delicacy on the palate. I drank every single drop and licked the rim of my glass afterward. The reds also showed well and were surprisingly ripe and powerful, the grand vin clocking in at a robust 15.1% ABV. 

Walking out of Haut-Brion, I took a moment to admire the linear rows of vines extending as far as the eye could see to the horizon. Bordeaux is an incredibly diverse region of wines, climates, and topographies. Even if you were to drink nothing but Bordeaux for the rest of your life you'd probably still never really get to understand it as intimately as you might hope to. Many famous critics have based their entire careers just on this one region and they're still learning new things. I've spent over a week here so far and I feel like each day I end up with more questions than answers. It's exhilarating though. Bordeaux is its own adventure with its own intricate industry built to fulfill and supply the desires of curious drinkers like myself around the world. It's been quite an education seeing that complex network of producers first-hand during the 2015 en primeur, and it's definitely left a mark on my psyche. I'm hoping it won't leave  as large of a dent in my bank account. I've definitely caught the bug. I'm infected. This place is magical. 

-David Driscoll