Monday, April 2, 2012
Tour de France de Vin: 6 Days, 7 Regions, 3500 km - In 6 Days through 7 Wine Regions of France
In February of this year I toured with my wife Annette Schiller 7 of France important wine regions within a period of 6 days: Champagne, Loire, Cognac, Bordeaux, Beaujolais, Bourgogne and Alsace.
Starting in the north-east of France in the Champagne, we passed though the Loire region, touched Cognac, spent 3 days in the Bordeaux region, crossed through France over to the Beaujolais and the Bourgogne and finished the tour in Alsace in the north-east of France. Basically, we did a kind of a circle, which, however, was not large enough to also include in the south of France the important wine regions we left out: Provence, Roussillon-Languedoc, the South West and the Rhone valley.
The purpose of the trip was to prepare a visit to Bordeaux of the Weinfreundeskreis Hochheim from September 2 to 8 this year, which Annette will head. This posting provides an overview of the February trip and an introduction to the September trip.
The first stop in February was in the Champagne region. We had lunch in Reims, visited Taittinger and checked out the little village of Ambonnay, near Epernay, where in September the group will have lunch in the Auberge St. Vincent and do a Champagne tasting at a small Champagne producer.
Interestingly, grapes from Ambonnay are the source of Krug's Clos d'Ambonnay Champagne. This single vineyard Champagne is the rarest (and most expensive) in the world. The Clos has been around since the year 1700, and the Krug family has been getting the grapes from here for three generations. In 1994 they bought the vineyard and changed the pruning methods and made their first single vineyard wine from the Clos the following year- the 1995, which currently sells for $ 2500.
See also: Champagne – An Introduction, France
Orleans, the Castles of the Loire and the Loire Region
When you drive from Champagne to Bordeaux, you pass through the Loire region. We stayed overnight in Orleans and checked out the town, hotels and restaurant. Of course, for dinner, we had an AOC Orleans wine.
My wife’s dog Oscar joined us for dinner. In France, up to fine dining restaurants, it is common to take small children as well as dogs.
In September, the group will tour Orleans, have dinner at Le Brin de Zin in the center of town and spend the first night in Orleans.
The Loire Valley is a large, key wine region of western and central France. The UNESCO has included the central part of the Loire River valley to its list of World Heritage Sites. The Loire Valley wine region includes the several wine regions situated along the river: From the Muscadet region on the Atlantic coast and Anjou, Saumur, Touraine and Vouvray between Angers and Tours to the regions of Sancerre and Pouilly (Pouilly-Fumé) just southeast of the city of Orléans in north central France and finally the Auvergne region in the south along the very earliest stretches of the river. We drove through the latter on our way from Bordeaux to the Bourgogne.
We did not stop in Cognac in February, but will do so in September to have lunch and a tour plus tasting at Hennessey.
There, we will learn that for a brandy to bear the name Cognac, an AOC, its production methods must meet certain legal requirements. It must be made from specified grapes of which Ugni Blanc is the one most widely used, twice distilled in copper pot stills and aged at least two years in French oak barrels.
Hennessy was founded in 1765 by Richard Hennessy from Ireland. Today, it is part of one of the world's largest luxury brand conglomerates, Moët-Hennessy • Louis Vuitton or LVMH.
Bordeaux – Left Bank, Right Bank and Entre Deux Mers
We arrived in the early afternoon in the Bordeaux wine region and stayed in Blaye, which was our hub during the February visit. In September, the group will stay 2 nights in Pauillac and 2 nights in St. Emilion.
The Bordeaux region is the second largest winegrowing area in the world, with more than 287,000 acres under vine. More vineyard land is planted in Bordeaux than in all of Germany.
The Gironde estuary dominates the regions along with its tributaries, the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers. These rivers define the main geographical subdivisions of the region:
The Left Bank is situated on the left bank of the Gironde and the Garonne, subdivided into: Graves, the area upstream of the city Bordeaux and Médoc, the area downstream of the city Bordeaux.
The Right Bank is situated on the right bank of the Gironde and the Dordogne, with St. Emilion and Pomerol the star wine regions.
Entre Deux Mers is the inland region sculpted into a somewhat irregular wedge by the two rivers that give it its name, the Pyrenees-sourced Garonne to the west and the Massif-Centrale-sourced Dordogne to the east.
Wine Grapes in Bordeaux
There are five red grapes varieties grown in Bordeaux region: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc which give vigor, tannin and good aging capabilities; Merlot which brings softness and suppleness (Merlot is the most planted red grape in Bordeaux); Malbec and Petit Verdot, which are used in lesser proportion. White wines are produced mostly from Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon.
The Left Bank is predominately more Cabernet Sauvignon based and the Right Bank more Merlot based. The Graves area produces both red wine and white wine. The area of Sauternes and Barsac are more known for the botrytized dessert wines. Entre Deux Mers is known for its white wines.
Cotes de Bourg, Blaye, Cotes de Blaye and Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux
These are the 4 wine appellations in the north east of Bordeaux, i.e. where you enter the Bordeaux region when you come from the north, as we did: Cotes de Bourg, Blaye, Cotes de Blaye and Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux (formerly Premieres Cotes de Blaye).
Until not so long ago, the Bourg and Blaye areas were major sources of Négociant-branded red Bordeaux wines. But increasingly, producers have moved to Château-bottling.
Without any doubt, the star of the region is Chateau Roc de Cambes: In September, we will taste the Cotes de Bourg wines of Chateau Roc de Cambes at Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf in St. Emilion, as Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf owner and winemaker Francois Mitjavile also owns this Estate. The 2010 en primeur sells for Euro 45, which is exceptionally high by Cotes de Bourg standards.
We crossed the Gironde by ferry boat in order to go to the left bank wine areas.
See also: Bordeaux: The Wines of the Bourg and Blaye Regions – An Introduction
Graves and Pessac-Leognan
Graves is the birthplace of Bordeaux premium red wines. It was here that the region first gained its reputation, as early as the 14th century – hundreds of years before Dutch wine merchants and producers drained the marshes of the Medoc, which is further up north.
The Graves appellation does not cover the famous and more prestigious wines of Sauternes and Barsac, which are nestled within the boundaries of the Graves, but are independently recognized because of the high quality of their sweet white wines, nor does it cover Pessac-Leognan.
The prestige of the Graves name was somewhat reduced in 1987, when the Pessac-Leognan appellation was carved out of the northern end of Graves, encompassing its most respected producers, including Haut-Brion, La Mission Haut-Brion, Laville Haut-Brion and Pape Clement (named after Pope Clement V, who came from Bordeaux City and who ordered its original vineyards to be planted in the 14th century). Interestingly, each of these chateaux is located within the southern city limits of Bordeaux City.
Medoc and Haut Medoc
Its larger, southern section is known as the Haut-Medoc and it is here that more ultra-premium wine is produced per hectare than anywhere else in the world.
The northern section, once referred to as Bas-Medoc, also produces quality wines, but to nothing like the same extent. Its wines are made under the generic Medoc appellation.
The Haut-Medoc is home to four of the most famous appellations in France: Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien and Margaux. They account for the majority of the wines produced here. The remainder is produced under the Listrac, Moulis appellations and the more general Haut-Medoc title.
See also: Bordeaux Wines and their Classifications: The Basics
North of Pauillac, its most famous chateaux are the two second growths, Chateau Cos d'Estournel and Chateau Montrose.
Two of the top five of the 1855 Classification of the Medoc were in Pauillac: Chateaux Latour and Lafite-Rothschild. They were joined by Chateau Mouton-Rothschild in 1973, in an almost unprecedented addition to the ranking system.
Pauillac's two second-growth producers were once a single entity: Chateau Pichon-Longueville. At some point before 1855, this property was divided by the intricacies of France's Napoleonic inheritance laws, giving rise to the Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron.
In September, the group will spend 2 nights in Pauillac at Hotel lL Vignoble. The group will have dinner at Le Vignoble and at Le Saint Martin, with the former including a guided wine tasting.
See also: (German) Winemakers in the World: The German Roots of Baron Philippe de Rothschild
Saint-Julien is sandwiched between the more famous appellations of Pauillac and Margaux. Pauillac has three of the five Medoc first growth and Margaux has one. Saint-Julien makes up for its lack of first growth chateaux by being home to five second growth estates: Chateaux Leoville Las Cases, Leoville Poyferre, Leoville Barton, Gruaud-Larose and Ducru-Beaucaillou.
In September, the group will have a tour and tasting as well as lunch at Chateau Leoville Poyferre.
In contrast to Saint-Julien, Saint-Estephe and Pauillac, where the vineyards belonging to one chateau are typically in one single zone, in Margaux, even vineyards belonging to the wealthier chateaux are dispersed and mixed in with those of their rivals.
In September, the group will have a tour and tastings at Chateau Brane-Cantenac, 2ieme grand cru classe and at Chateau Margaux, 1iere grand cru classe.
See also: Henri Lurton and his Chateau Brane Cantenac Wines
Listrac, Moulis and Haut Medoc
While there are no classed growths in either Moulis-en-Medoc or neighboring Listrac-Medoc, there are high-quality wines made under each appellation .
West of Saint-Julien is Chateau de Camensac, a 5ieme grand cru classe, which sells it wines under the Haut Medoc appelation. The group will tour the winery and taste the Chateau de Camensac wines in September. The 2005 vintage sells for Euro 25.
Moving to the right bank, St. Emilion is a beautiful, little, ancient village, where we enjoyed a lovely lunch on the main square in February.
In September, the group will stay 2 nights at the Ibis Hotel in St. Emilion, will enjoy a tour of the village of St. Emilion and have dinner at L’Envers du Décor and La Cote Braise in St. Emilion. In terms of wineries, we will visit Chateau Tertre Rotebeuf and Chateau Figeac.
Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf and owner/winemaker Francois Mitjavile entered the international wine scene in the mid-80s, when it got excellent ratings by Robert Parker and others. Francois is in no way mainstream. He does not sell his wines through the negociants system, nor has he bothered to apply for the St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe classification. But the 2010 en primeur is at Euro 150 and the excellent 2005 currently at Euro 240 per bottle. I am looking forward to returning to Chateau Terte Roteboeuf in September. We will also taste the wines of Roc de Cambes in Côtes de Bourg, which is also owned by Francois.
Chateau Figeac: Quoting Bordeaux expert Panos Kakaviatos "It is not an accident that some people call Figeac the Medoc of St Emilion…" Chateau Figeac is a Premier Grand Cru Classe B. The 2005 vintage sells for Euro 125 per bottle.
The St. Emilion Satellites
The four Saint-Emilion satellites are Saint-Georges-Saint-Emilion, Montagne-Saint-Emilion, Puisseguin-Saint-Emilion and Lussac-Saint-Emilion – all located to the north of the village of Saint-Emilion. They are known as satellites because the area's more prestigious wine estates historically resented these supposedly inferior wines using the Saint-Emilion name.
In September, the group will visit Chateau Beausejour – in Puisseguin- St. Emilion - and also have lunch there with the winemaker/owner Gerad Dupuy. This is insofar a very special visit as Chateau Beausejour is a ”green” winemaker with the wines certified by Ecocert.
See also: At Château Beauséjour in AOC Puisseguin-St.Emilion – A Vin Bio de Bordeaux
Pomerol has no system of classification for its wines. It has acquired a very high profile in a short space of time. While the appellation was barely acknowledged in the middle of the last century, wines like Chateau Petrus and Chateau Le Pin now command higher prices than those of the long-established Medoc.
We only drove through Pomerol, which is a church plus a couple of houses, but, of course had to stop at Chateau Petrus.
Fronsac and Canon-Fransac
Travelling from St. Emilion to Blaye we would pass through Fransac and Canon-Fronsac, but did not stop.
The City of Bordeaux
The city of Bordeaux is a jewel. Victor Hugo once said: “Take Versailles, add Antwerp, and you have Bordeaux.” Baron Haussmann, a long-time prefect of Bordeaux, used Bordeaux’s 18th century, big-scale rebuilding as a model when he was asked by Emperor Napoleon III to transform a then still quasimedieval Paris into a “modern” capital that would make France proud. The city was ruled by the English for a long time, which is why Bordeaux seems to have an "English flair". Bordeaux is often referred to as "Little Paris". The city has recently been classified by UNESCO as an “outstanding urban and architectural ensemble”. Bordeaux has a million inhabitants, including a lively university community of over 60,000.
Bordeaux is a flat city, built on the banks of the Garonne River. The Garonne merges a dozen kilometers below the city with another river, the Dordogne River to form the Gironde Estuary, which is biggest estuary in France.
In September, the group will visit Millesima, a large negociant, and will have lunch at the Bistro Les Negociants.
The group will not have the time to do what we did in February: Enjoy various Bordeaux wines by the glass at Bar á Vin, the wine bar in the Maison de Bordeaux (of the Conseil Interprofessionnel Du Vin De Bordeaux (C.I.V.B.)
and dig ourselves into a Plateau des Fruits de Mer – remember, to the west of Bordeaux is the Atlantic Ocean and the sea-side town of Arcachon, noted for its oyster production. Near Arcachon is the biggest sand dune in Europe.
We stayed overnight at Hotel des 4 Sœurs, set in an authentic XVIIIe century bordelais building right next to the Opera. This establishment is a real institution in Bordeaux – Wagner took up residency there in Mai 1850.
Chablis and Beaujolais are formally part of the Bourgogne, but wines from those two sub regions are usually referred to by their own names.
Beaujolais is generally made of the Gamay grape which has a thin skin and is low in tannins. Beaujolais tends to be a very light-bodied red wine, with relatively high amounts of acidity.
Beaujolais is a large wine producing region. There are over 20,000 ha of vines planted. The only difference between basic Beaujolais and Beaujolais Supérieur is this slight increase in alcohol. A large portion of Beaujolais sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais-Villages AOC, the intermediate category in terms of classification, covers 39 communes/villages. Several of the communes in the Beaujolais-Villages AOC also qualify to produce their wines under the Mâconnais and Saint-Véran AOCs. The Beaujolais producers that produce a red wine under the Beaujolais-Villages appellation will often produce their white wine under the more internationally recognized names of Mâcon-Villages or Saint-Véran.
Cru Beaujolais, the highest category of classification in Beaujolais, account for the production within ten villages/areas in the foothills of the Beaujolais mountains: Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.
In February, we arrived in the evening after a 500 km drive across France in Creches sur Saone, just at the northern border of Beaujolais, a stone throw away from the Maconnais. We stayed overnight and had a fabulous dinner at Hotel Hostellerie de la Barge. In September, the dinner I hope will be as enjoyable as it was in February.
Although Bordeaux produces about four times as much wine every year, Burgundy’s 30,000 hectares of vineyards are considered to be of equal importance, producing some of the most exclusive wines on earth.
Burgundy wines come from several distinct sub-regions. From north to south they are the Cote de Nuits, Cote de Beaune, Cote Chalonnaise and Maconnais. Chablis, situated in an isolated pocket of limestone hills to the north-west, produces white wines so different in style from those of central Burgundy that it is often considered to be a separate entity.
The two key grape varieties of Burgundy are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Gamay and Aligote are also grown throughout the region, producing more-rustic styles of wine. Gamay is used in the red and rose wines of Macon, while Aligote has its own appellation in the form of Bourgogne Aligote.
Wine production in Burgundy operates in three distinct ways. The first is through negociants, who buy the grapes or wine from several smaller producers and sell it under their own names. The second is via co-operatives – organized groups of grape-growers who pool their resources to establish a winery for collective use. The third method involves wine producers who own both vineyards and a winery.
Burgundy is the most terroir-oriented region in France. Immense attention is paid to the area of origin, as opposed to Bordeaux, where classifications are producer-driven and awarded to individual chateaux. A specific vineyard or region will bear a given classification, regardless of the wine's producer. The main levels in the Burgundy classifications, in descending order of quality, are:
Grand Cru wines are produced from a small number of vineyards in the Côte d'Or and make up 2% of the production at 35 hectoliters per hectare. The origins of Burgundy's Grand Cru vineyards can be found in the work of the Cistercians who, among their vast land holdings, were able to delineate and isolate plots of land that produced wine of distinct character. There are 33 Grand Cru vineyards in the Bourgogne.
Premier Cru wines are produced from specific vineyards that are considered to be of high, but slightly lower quality; they make up 12% of production at 45 hectoliters/hectare.
Village appellation wines are produced from vineyard sites within the boundaries of one of 42 villages. Village wines make up 36% of production at 50 hectoliters/hectare.
Regional appellation wines are wines which are allowed to be produced over the entire region, or over an area significantly larger than that of an individual village. These appellations can be divided into three groups:
AOC Bourgogne, the standard appellation for wines made anywhere throughout the region; these wines may be produced at 55 hectoliters/hectare.
Subregional appellations cover a part of Burgundy larger than a village. Examples are Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes de Beaune and Mâcon-Villages.
Wines of specific styles or other grape varieties include white Bourgogne Aligoté (which is primarily made with the Aligoté grape), red Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains (which can contain up to two thirds Gamay) and sparkling Crémant de Bourgogne.
Maconnais, Côte Chalonnaise, Côte de Beaune and Côte de Nuits (= Côte d’Or)
The Mâconnais produces mainly white wine on 6700 hectares of land. The Maconnais has 2 levels of appellation: Regional and Villages.
See also: Meeting Gregoire Pissot – the Winemaker at Cave de Lugny in the Maconnais – in Washington DC, USA/France
The fame of the Côte de Beaune vineyards is closely related to its capital, Beaune, the true historical and economic centre of Burgundy wine production. The Côte de Beaune has 4 levels of appellation: Regional, Villages, Premiers and Grands Crus.
The Côte de Nuits vineyard occupies a narrow strip of slopes which extends over 20 kilometres between Dijon and Corgoloin, and in places is only two or three hundred metres wide. The Côte de Nuits 4 levels of appellation: Regional, Villages, Premiers and Grands Crus.The Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits are the Côte d’Or.
Half a Day in the Bourgogne
The following day, we spent half a day in the Bourgogne.
We stopped in the town of Macon to check out options there. I had to see the famous Pouilly-Fuisse, which is an AOC in the Maconnais, producing outstanding Chardonnay wines. It is a stone throw away from Beaujolais. The Beaujolais King George Deboeuf grew up in Pouilly-Fuisse. Pouilly-Fume is an AOC further up north in the Loire region, on the opposite side of the Loire from Sancerre. Only Sauvignon Blanc is made here.
From there, we drove though the Maconnais and the Chalonnais to Beaune.
The Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune is a former charitable almshouse, founded in 1443 as a hospital for the poor and needy. The original hospital building, the Hôtel-Dieu, one of the finest examples of French fifteenth-century architecture, is now a museum. Services for patients are now provided in modern hospital buildings.
An important charity wine auction is held in November each year (formerly in the great hall of the Hôtel-Dieu). The Domaine des Hospices de Beaune is a non-profit organisation which owns around 61 hectares of donated vineyard land, much of this classified Grand and Premier Cru.
Pommard is just a couple of minutes south of Beaune. In September, the Weinfreundeskreis Hochheim will have lunch at the restaurant Le Pommard, right in the center of Pommard. The restaurant is owned and run by Philippe Delagrange, who also owns and runs Domaines Bernard Delagrange et Fils. The Domaines has quite a number of 1er Cru in Pommard, Beaune, Meursault and Volnay in their portfolio. I talked with Philippe Delagrange and tasted (and bought) some wine, while Annette checked out the restaurant for the September tour.
The final stop was at Albert Bichot in Beaune – famous producer and negocioant – to arrange for a tour and tasting in September.
See also: Meeting Matthieu Mangenot, Managing Director of Domaine Long-Depaquit in Chablis, France and Tasting His Wines
And off we were for a nice dinner in Alsace.
Alsace sits in the northeast corner of France, sheltered by the Vosges mountains to the west, which block out the dreary maritime weather that plagues so much of the rest of northern France and hard against the German border to the east. It has arguably France’s most picturesque wine villages, with hundreds of years old, beautifully restored, half-timbered houses.
The vineyards reach from around Wissembourg in the north to Mulhouse, 70 miles south. Some 12 million cases are produced annually from 32,000 acres of vineyards (13.000 hectares).
Alsace is a fascinating amalgam of the German and French. The end of the 30 Years’ War in 1648 gave Alsace to France. In 1871, at the end of the Franco-Prussian War, Alsace was taken by Germany. After World War I, it was once more part of France — until 1940, when Germany reclaimed it. With the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, Alsace became French yet again — and so it has remained.
While the great powers ruling Alsace alternated between the Germans and the French, I see more German elements in Alsace than French elements. For once, the German winemaking tradition is based on the concept of varietals whereas the French winemaking culture tends to believe in the concept of terroir. Alsatian wines are bottled under their varietal names, unlike virtually all other French wines.
See also: The World Class Wines of Alsace
We stayed overnight and had dinner at Winstub Gilg in Mittelbergheim. The following day, we visited Domaine Gilg and bought 2 cases of Alsatian wines and sparklers.
The final meal of the Weinfreundeskreis Hochheim in September will be at Chez l’Amie Fritz in Obernai/Ottrott.
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