On the Trail

Refinement on the Right Bank

David Driscoll

There's one thing I can tell you for certain about the wines of Bordeaux's Right Bank: none of us at K&L are experts when it comes to the wines of the Right Bank. There are a number of reasons for that. First of all, production levels at many châteaux in Pomerol and St. Emilion are often a fraction of what estates like Lynch Bages or Pichon-Baron are pumping out on the Left Bank, so the wines are much more difficult to buy in quantity and we generally have fewer to sell. Secondly, you've got the whole merlot issue. It's been thirteen years since Sideways when Paul Giamatti shouted out, "I'm NOT drinking any *%#$@ merlot!!", but the after-effects are still with us (even though his character Miles ends up drinking a very expensive bottle of St. Emilion later in the film). We're still dealing with that silly and unnecessary stigma in America. Thirdly, the guys at K&L simply have a love affair with the Mèdoc. It's their personal preference and their particular passion, so that's the way our store tends to sway. But here's another thing I can tell you for sure about the wines of the Right Bank after today: I want to know more about the wines of the Right Bank.

While it's still considered Bordeaux across the banks of the Dordogne, the scene is much more mellow and reminiscent of Cognac than Pauillac with its carefully-manicured, farm-like image. The estates are smaller, the entirety of the vineyards often directly next to courtyards themselves, unlike in the Mèdoc where the larger châteaux will often have numerous properties scattered all over the region. You could probably make the case that the merlot-based wines of Pomerol and St. Emilion are the micro-wineries of the region—the craft producers trying to compete with the big boys across the water. It's not a perfect analogy as—believe me—there's plenty of cash on the Right Bank, but it's something to keep in my mind when trying to get a grasp on the wines. We started the morning with a very exclusive appointment at Vieux Château Certan, one of the most prestigious producers in all of Pomerol. 

Another reason that I like the micro or craft analogy as it pertains to Pomerol is because—as we've all learned with beer and whiskey—smaller doesn't necessarily mean less expensive. It often means exactly the opposite: lesser quantity, higher demand, therefore higher price. But when it comes to VCC, there's one very good reason for the three-figure tag: the wine is outrageously good. We tasted in the barrel room with head honcho Alexandre Thienpont who took over the winemaking at VCC in 1985. "We had a long drought at the beginning of the year, which is great for cabernet franc," he said as he poured us a flight of the 2015 expression. I held the glass to my nose; it was simply splendid. You could practically see the steam of the heady aromas leaving the glass it smelled so delicious. On the palate the wine is like liquid velvet, elegant and soft with tannins so fine they almost melt over your tongue like butter. "I am buying a bottle of this when it's released," I said to Alex. He nodded in agreement.

After VCC, we headed just down the street over to Château La Conseillante, a property that famed Bordeaux critic Rober Parker has enjoyed immensely over the years. The wines from the estate are darker, denser, and more brooding than the refined style we had just previously tasted and coat the palate with serious richness. We sampled both the Duo de Conseillante and the grand vin from 2015 and both were quite sexy right of the bat. There's a simple truth when it comes to these Right Bank wines: they taste waaaaaay better in their youth than the cabernet-based wines on the Left Bank. They're just much easier to take in with all the sweet plumpness from the merlot, and it made appointments like this one much more pleasant at 8:30 AM after we'd been up all night downing magnums of Latour and stuffing our faces with fried organ meats from God knows what part of the animal. I was impressed with these wines as well.

As we packed ourselves back into the van, Clyde began passing out white invitations to all of us in advance of our next appointment. "You're going to need this to get in," he said to me briefly. Get in? Get in where? "At Petrus," he said with a smirk. If there is such a thing as the Chanel of Bordeaux, it's definitely Petrus; a wine so exclusive, so expensive, and so desired by collectors all over the world it sells for thousands of dollars a bottle. Pulling up to the boutique estate was like walking into the Beverly Hills Club of the wine world with the industry's most well-known names. This was the big time and we were about to pass through the heralded gates.

What is it about Petrus that makes it so expensive, you ask? It's a combination of many things, but let's start with the fact that there's only 11.4 hectares of fruit on the property compared to say 78 hectares at the exclusive Château Latour. There are roughly 30,000 bottles produced each year which may sound like a plentiful amount, but believe me it isn't. Then you've got the terroir. The vineyards at Petrus exist on a plateau, a small hill in the middle of Pomerol that is has a very particular iron-rich clay soil. It's completely different than the sandier soils surrounding it. "There's also the weather," Clyde said jokingly. "It rains everywhere except Petrus because the clouds part and move around the vineyards as they pass over the property." Made from 100% merlot, the berries are hand-picked with a meticulousness that would make even the most OCD-ridden person shudder. They're not messing around here. At one point Ralph said to me, "There's not a vine in that vineyard that isn't under careful watch twenty-four seven."

I had only tasted Petrus one time previously, an older vintage from the 60s that a customer was nice enough to share with me many years ago. Holding a glass in my hand with the winemaker Olivier Berrouet was a much different experience. He's a young man, the second generation at the estate (his father was at Petrus for forty-five vintages before he took over). "The weather was with us all year," he said as we nosed our glasses. "It was almost a perfect vintage." The incredible thing about Petrus is how approachable it is in its youth and how elegant it tastes in spite of its merlot-dominant palate. "The danger of merlot," Olivier continued, "is that when it's ripe you need acidity or else it's flabby." The Petrus had plenty of acidity to balance out that incredible richness. It had plenty of everything. It was indeed wonderful as I think you can see from my colleagues' faces in the above photo.

-David Driscoll