Deep Roots: Humble Tradition and a Bright Future at La Gaffeliére

Sometimes folks travel for the luxury and the scenery.  We, on the other hand, are here on business to discover firsthand what a potentially great vintage has to offer. Regardless of how you plan it, it is often that the unexpected captures the magic of a place. I find that some of the most indelible events occur when you experience something authentic—which is exactly what we found on our first day in Bordeaux.

To get an idea of the kind of trip this is, you should know that we went straight from the airport, after flights from San Francisco to Paris and Paris to Bordeaux, right to a tasting.  No hotel, no unpacking…even a splash of water our face was an outside possibility.  In the deep end we went, and found ourselves in the heart of Saint-Emilion.  After a few stops, we arrived at the humble Chateau La Gaffeliére, a property that is a well-known name, but perhaps not as well known of a commodity, as it should be considering it’s enviable location.  For us, it only took two steps into the vineyard and it was clear that they cultivate their wines on sacred ground.  One look up the hillside you’ll see where the property runs up against Ausone.

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But La Gaffeliére has never experienced even a fraction of the fame of the $750+ Ausone.  This is not to say the two wines are crafted entirely from the same exact parcel - La Gaffeliére also has a vineyard parcel across the road that contributes to their grand vin (albeit a not-too-shaby piece of land sandwiched between Pavie and Pavie-Macquin).  But in 2017 things changed.  They decided to dedicate more of their production, even at the expense of producing a significantly lower quantity of the grand vin, to this specific hillside parcel abutting Ausone. They even went so far as to use the same barrels as their famed neighbors.  Not even wielding this knowledge, La Gaffeliére was one of our favorites in 2017.  But in 2018, it showed its roots with a unique finesse and ethereal profile that was a stark contrast to the already-scintillating, but more full-throttle versions of their 2015 and 2016 grand vin.

This tasting was to be followed by a dinner, but we never know what to expect – it is often a pulling back of the curtains where we could find a table set in the cellars or a team of chefs awaiting our arrival.  In this case, it was a table neatly set for nine in a rustic kitchen, which is also the home of proprietor Count Léo de Malet Roquefort.  As the dinner proceeded, with simple but delicious food that included veal tartare, whipped beets, and foie gras torchon, it became clear that this was a piece of traditional Saint-Emilion that few get a chance to glimpse.  When it was time for the main course, a bundle of vines were set alight in a centuries-old fireplace, on top of which a grate was set to grill steaks.  A homemade gratin and a pinch of salt made for a blissful meal that had such a unique sense of place and took all the showiness and pretense out of what is often considered necessarily to make pristine local ingredients shine.

And the wines…as mentioned, we were quite taken by the 2018 La Gaffeliére.  We haven’t had enough wines to use this as any litmus of the vintage, but it was great to see the degree to which they succeeded.  But dinner was another story.  A sumptuous 2003 La Gaffeliére led to Clyde’s blind wine of the night.  After laboriously and carefully pulling out the cork, he poured a sample for everybody.  In about a half a minute, our host called it as the 1955.  The quality of the wine was astounding, but it was equally as jaw dropping seeing it so quickly guessed when the wine is a glimpse of over sixty years in the past.  It shows a true, deep, and honest connection with wine and place for a vintage to sing so loudly to the family that crafted it.

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Shortly after we were put to the test with two more blind wines – an amazingly young 1970, and an equally enthralling 1964 – both out of magnum.  In these circumstances, having lived in the cellars for the past 50-or-so years no more than 20 meters from out dinner table, they tasted youthful, with many guessing vintages that were a few decades too young.  The night wound down, and we found ourselves with wine glasses spanning decades, in a house that was a piece of history in itself, feeling full from a meal of very few parts which were all perfectly done in their own simple and humble way. 

All in all, we still don’t have any strong indications of what the true shape of the 2018 vintage is (don’t worry, we’ll be tasting 200+ wines tomorrow morning).  But in a way, for those who love Bordeaux and find themselves traveling here from year to year, we found our dinner tonight felt like a homecoming and will easily be one of the great joys of a trip where much is still to be decided.

Ryan Moses