On the Trail

Awaking in St. Émilion

Jeff Garneau

I think I have waited nearly all my life to write the following line: ”I awoke this morning in Saint-Émilion at dawn to the sound of the Angélus bells.” Today is Friday, the next to the last full day of our weeklong review of the 2016 vintage in Bordeaux and I am not ashamed to admit I am exhausted, both mentally and physically. A rushing, pell-mell schedule of tastings, surviving on three to four hours of sleep each night, and today the most grueling event of the week: a marathon six hour tasting of hundreds of wines with the folks at Joanne, the largest of the Bordeaux negociants and a key partner of ours in both our pre-arrival and vintage wine sales programs. Today we tasted not only with our own six-person team, but also with a colleague from the east coast: the president of Zachy's Fine Wine in New York, Jeff Zacharia. Wanting to make a good first impression we were, predictably, late for our appointment, but after a round of introductions we soon fell into a companionable routine as we made our way through the extensive list of wines being poured.

At our private cabana, we tasted our way through the Côtes de Bordeaux, the wines of the Médoc, Haut-Médoc, and Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estephe. It was a great opportunity to retaste many of the wines we had encountered earlier in the week, double checking our impressions of them, and a chance to taste those wines we may have missed. It was great also to get Jeff’s opinions about the vintage and to compare notes on our favorite wines. We took a quick break for lunch, a few minutes only to wolf down some Champagne and foie gras, and we started in again, beginning with the Graves and Pessac-Léognan and continuing on through a host of wines from Saint-Emilion and Pomerol. We finished up with a palate-cleansing slate of whites from the Graves and Pessac-Léognan, but had to leave Jeff to taste the Sauternes on his own as we raced off to Mähler-Besse in Bordeaux for a tour.

The pristine conditions of the Mähler-Besse cellars and the age and character of the wines stored there are of legend in the Bordeaux wine trade. The rare opportunity to get a glimpse beyond its doors was too good to pass up. I wandered as if in a dream past stacks of wooden cases full of the best wines in Bordeaux from the early decades of the twentieth century: ’45 Mouton, ’61 Palmer, ’82 Latour. All too soon we found ourselves offering our thanks and saying our goodbyes.

We headed next to Château Le Thil near Smith Haut-Lafitte in Pessac-Léognan where we would be spending our final two nights. We had a brief half hour to freshen up before heading out to dinner at the private home of Pierre-Antoine Casteja, owner of Bordeaux negociant Joanne (and our host earlier in the day). We were served a multi-course meal in gracious surroundings and in good company, including once again that of Jeff Zacharia, who joined us for dinner. At the table that night we were served three blind wines. My colleague Ralph Sands, a veteran of some fifty trips to Bordeaux, immediately recognized the first wine as the 2000 Pichon Lalande from Pauillac. We struggled a bit with the second wine, which turned out to be the 1986 Margaux, Margaux. 

The final wine, which seemed so youthful, full of lively acidity and sweet fruit, astonished everyone when it turned out to be the 1961 Ducru Beaucaillou, Saint-Julien. Clyde, however, capped the evening when he presented Pierre-Antoine with a bottle of the 1929 Chateau Doisy from Barsac. Opening it on the spot Pierre-Antoine generously presented it to the table along with dessert. The wine was unbelievably fresh, possessed of a rich sweetness with hints of caramel and dried apricot. It was one of the most powerful wine experiences of my professional career and I wept tears of joy.We get to sleep in a little tomorrow morning, and are then heading south to Barsac to meet with Berenice Lurton at Climens. The rest of the day we have off to wander around Bordeaux a bit before tasting and dinner at Smith Haut-Lafitte. Things are winding down at last. News of the day and some final thoughts on the vintage still to come.

-Jeff Garneau