After catching flights from Islamabad to Paris and onto Bordeaux – I’m with friends in the city of Blaye and enjoying free time after four years spent working in Asia.
The good news is that conditions appear to have been optimal for the 2014 vintage. That’s a relief. After stellar vintages in 2009 and 2010, the years 2011, 2012, and 2013 were unremarkable by comparison.
This may have been one reason why the mood was particularly festive and bubbly at a party which friends Les and Clarissa invited me to on Saturday night at the home of friends Alain and Dominique Bredin – physicians and members of a local wine tasting group.
Within minutes I met some of Right Bank Bordeaux’s most colorful winemakers.
Isabelle Chetty shared the story of how she abandoned France when fifteen years old, took a job as a butcher in New York, then traveled the world working on cruise liners before spending time in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands (St. Thomas is my birthplace, so we chatted about the isle we share in common). Eventually, she returned to Bordeaux where she and her brother now own and manage Château Mercier (Appellation Côtes de Bourg) with 23 hectares (57 acres) of south and west-facing slopes that include clay and gravel soils.
Isabelle shared generous helpings of her 2010 Cuvée Prestige, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec. I later learned how the wine goes well with Pyrénées cheese (coincidentally, I purchased the same Pyrénées at an open air market in Blaye that morning, where the vendor wearing a red beret insisted on pouring us glasses of red wine to drink while we tasted his cheese).
Corinne Chevrier-Loriaud shared some of her 2007 vintage Château Bel-Air La Royére (Blaye – Côtes de Bordeaux) a hearty blend with an intriguing composition of 70 percent Merlot and 30 percent Malbec. Great promise with this winery.
When he was not busy charming his audience, I greeted Yann Bouscasse. We first met last July. Previously the owner of the third largest container shipping company in the world, Yann and his wife Florence decided to move to Bordeaux – where they now own Château Cantinot. I had the fortune to buy futures in 2009 Cantinot years ago, and the cellared vintage is now balanced and a joy to drink.
What else is new? The $9.7 billion Tours Bordeaux high-speed rail project – begun in 2012 – will be completed by the end of 2015. It will shave more than an hour off train travel times from Paris to Bordeaux, reducing a typical three-hour twenty-minute ride to less than two hours. This is the world’s largest rail concession contract, meaning that the consortium that designs and builds the rail line will also operate and maintain it for fifty years. The project is massive, and the road between the City of Bordeaux and Blaye shows the buzz of construction and earthwork projects. Soon, Parisians will visit the southern wine world of Bordeaux for a day. No doubt many Bordelais will appreciate choosing to live outside the city. Regardless, the rail line provides evidence of how Bordeaux’s economy is revving up.
I live and work in an Asian country where the population’s religion is predominantly Islam. I drink within a diplomatic enclave at a restaurant associated with the French embassy. The waiters (all are male) have become friends over time. They pass me a wine list soon after I enter. Because none drink alcohol, they are unable to recommend new wines on the list, but only tell how each sells compared to others.
For four years, this little walled-in enclave with decent wine and food have helped make the experience of living in this foreign land not unenjoyable. By ‘enclave’ I mean it. You pass through multiple road blocks and pat downs to enter. Why? Security. Consider recent events in this nation: 45 people were killed last week in a suicide bombing at the Wagha Border; days ago, a Christian couple (parents of three children) were bludgeoned by neighbors, strapped to a tractor and hauled around dirt roads, then finally shoved alive into a brick kiln to be incinerated by rural neighbors in Punaj Province. The reason? They reportedly (and this is questionable) criticized another religion. So far this year, 160 women (and those are only the known victims) were doused with acid and disfigured by men intent on ruining their beauty for diverse, ludicrous, reasons.
The wine list here is chosen by a young Frenchman (Jean Jacques) with an excellent sense of taste and value. He also added maps of wine regions, and lists of typical grapes from each.
There are other diplomatic restaurants/bars/clubs nearby: Canadian, Australian, British, American. Due to security, it can be challenging and difficult to gain entrance to most. Also, other wine lists are often inferior in terms of quality. This remark is not snobbish – but true. By inferior I mean many other wines are fruit bombs lacking character or complexity. It’s like watching a movie heavy on action and thin on plot or acting. Think of watching Casablanca. Why does it remain classic? There’s an intriguing plot set in a semi-exotic locale with excellent acting by Humphrey Bogart. You’re entertained because of quality and originality at many levels.
It’s the same with wine.
The wine list at this restaurant is not extensive, but includes decent Bordeauxs (with bottles from St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Emillion, and well as good quality bargains from Blaye and Bourg). There are often Rhones, at least one white Burgundy, as well as an Alsace, Mosel, or Rhine Riesling.
I love to visit this restaurant, because the guests are from diverse international backgrounds – Norwegian, Moroccan, French, American, and dozens of other nationals. Because of constant job turnover, the faces change over the space of months, not years.
Last weekend I spent time with three friends – Claudio from Argentina (but with a Spanish passport and a home in Portugal), Alfred from Sierra Leone (just back from a visit to Uganda), Steve from Australia (now owning a home in Malaysia with his Japanese wife).
Here, we leave work behind, appreciate the truth that violence is not destined to rule the planet, and appreciate that a good way to break down potential animosities is by sharing time and meals with people from different backgrounds. Here, we enjoy the company of good friends, decent food, varied wine, fresh stories, and different opinions.
In a few weeks I shall leave this country. I cannot begin to describe how wonderful it has been to work with local staff – polite, courteous, hard-working, and generous people. Yet, for legal reasons related to religion – they are not allowed within the walls of our favored social venue here in the capital city.
Tolerance is born with dialog, and dialog can begin by sharing food and ideas in the company of diversity.
Farewell to you and your wonderful staff, Club 21. Au revoir.
The Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean do not produce wine. Those living on any of the inhabited two hundred (of over a thousand) coral reef atolls earn their income from fishing or tourism. The highest point on the islands – a golfing tee – is less than ten feet above sea level. All wine is imported (it’s a four-hour flight from the capital of Malé to Dubai, and a one hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka).
The arrival scenario here to the capital city of Malé is unique: walk outside the airport, cross a road, and you stand before an ocean shoreline pier lined with ships waiting to buzz you out to your destination island.
Prepare to unwind.
The Maldives is Islamic, and alcohol you bring into the country is confiscated at customs. However, you’ll be provided with a receipt – and allowed to pick up your bottles on the way out. Resorts operate bars that serve visitors. On exiting the country, the duty-free store at the airport will happily sell you a range of bottles – including first-growth Bordeaux wines.
There are no wine surprises here – most resorts serve basic fare that include both inexpensive and costly Chilean, Californian, French, and New Zealand reds and whites and bubbles to help you unwind during the late afternoon on a white sand beach while watching a gorgeous sunset after a day of diving, snorkeling, sailing, or just reading and taking it easy.
The short video above shows that rather than spending time working on a wine post this past week – I’ve simply been on vacation. Peaceful and quiet. Remedial. With some intriguing aquatic friends…
Most visitors are from Asia and Europe. For example, this is Monsieur and Mademoiselle Roger, from a village near Lille in France. They have come to this same resort for 34 years and speak not a word of English. Filled with energy, they invited me to meet them in the morning to go see ‘a show.’
Curious, I met them at 10.00 am. They led me down some back alleys to where a chef was preparing food by chopping up chickens and throwing scraps into water – where a dozen basking sharks and ten sting rays eagerly tucked into the grub. Children stood nearby (but not too near) taking photos and laughing.
Soon after this visit, the Roger’s and I sat at the sand covered bar, where they drank glasses of scotch before lunch. One evening we shared wine before dinner. The retired doctor raised a glass, called the Maldives parfait, and then toasted to our mutual health – “a votre santé.”
Words and Wine – Book Review
If you like wine, but squirm at words churned out to describe it, here’s a book for you.
How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto by Eric Asimov tells how it’s okay to disregard looking for a quill of three thousand nouns and adjectives to describe wine. (How many Americans have even tasted a gooseberry? And just what is ‘tapenade and lavender’?)
Chapters alternate between stories about appreciating wine and wine regions, with the story of Eric’s own career. As a long time wine writer for The New York Times, Asimov explains how a few strong descriptors – instead of detailed minutiae of tasting notes – are usually adequate to describe a wine. He also questions whether it’s necessary to describe a wine. As long as we’re smiling, who needs it?
In a chapter titled The Tyranny of the Tasting Note, Asimov writes:
“…I’ve found that people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.”
“…the flowery litany of aromas and flavors does little to capture the experience of a fine glass of wine.”
“…exaggerated language makes it far more difficult for people to enjoy wine without fearing that they somehow don’t understand what they are tasting…”
In a chapter titled Drinking by Numbers, Asimov elaborates in simple terms how scoring wines, and purchasing wines according to scores, can suck mystery and beauty out of appreciating wine. He offers the importance of considering context.
“Considering context requires asking crucial questions. Where will you be drinking this wine? With whom will you be drinking it? What will you eat? What’s the weather, the mood?”
Whereas the 100 point scoring system has merit, Asimov tells how it fails to consider context. That cheap but wonderful wine you drank with your beloved on a sunny evening on a beach that provides golden memories? Context. That overpriced red that you winced at while drinking with overcooked beef and annoying company? Context.
Asimov’s words reflect those of my friend Les Kellen, who, speaking of wine, tells friends:
“Wine can taste different at different times depending on what you’re eating, the temperature, even who you are with.”
Asimov is an experienced traveler, and has been privileged to taste a great range of diverse wines – at all price points. His writing also shows that he’s a normal guy who worked hard to gain his experience. He appreciates the benefits of discovering the magic and mystery of wines without depending on words or scores to point in any direction.
Perhaps he best sums up wine’s beauty in the second chapter:
“As much as we learn about it, as much as we know, it is at its heart a mystery.”
This book tells how exploring that mystery can provide joy.
If you love wine, but are still mystified as to why, you’ll appreciate this book even more.
Nice one Mr. Asimov.
“Wine talks…It has a million voices. It unleashes the tongue, teasing out secrets you never meant to tell, secrets you never even knew. It shouts, rants, whispers. It speaks of great things, splendid plans, tragic loves and terrible betrayals.”
So begins the book Blackberry Wine, by Joanne Harris (author of Chocolat). The book opens to the speaking voice of a bottle of wine – a 1962 Fleurie. This wine tells the story of a man named Jay – born the same year the wine was bottled. Pushed to the back of a cellar with two comrades – a Château-Chalon ’58, and a Sancerre ’71 – the trio stay happily away from the ‘metallic chatter’ of other bottles nearby, including a Dom Pérignon, a Mouton-Cadet, and a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka.
Then, six weeks before the story of this book begins, six other bottles arrive. “The strangers. The Specials…each with its own handwritten label and sealed in candle wax.” These wines were made not from grapes, but from other berries – including elderberry and blackberry. They are a lively crew who laugh and whisper. These bottles are inextricably related to the story of a man living upstairs: 37-year old Jay Mackintosh, author of a best-selling book titled Three Summers with Jackapple Joe.
The book soon splits into two parallel stories – one taking place beginning in 1975, when Jay was a youngster in rural England, and the other beginning in 1999, when Jay lived in London. The first story tells of Jay’s encounters with a charming semi-hobo named Joe (the protagonist of his later book), and the other tells of how Joe flees London and his girlfriend to live in a country house bought on impulse in France (primarily because the photo of the building reminded him of an image Joe once shared of his French dream house).
Modern day Jay comes to terms with loose ends from his childhood, while also embedding himself into colored and troubled rural interconnections east of Bordeaux.
Memorable scenes include young Jay protecting himself from bullies by clutching a magical bag of charms provided by Joe, and a surprise visit from his ex-London girlfriend – intent on bringing unwanted fame (and a television crew) to Joe’s new home village.
Characters in the book include liars, thieves, unlikely heroes, and an amiable ghost. The story concludes by the same bottle of 1962 Fleurie. For a vicarious plunge into railway, riverside, canal, and agricultural territory of rural England and France combined with a protagonist hunger to explore, Blackberry Wine is a decent read.
My siblings recently sent copies of poems we read while growing up, a few of which we had to memorize (as required) for school. These included Ozymandias (King of Kings) by Shelley, and Fair Daffodils by Robert Herrick. There was also mention of Poems on the Underground in the UK (where passengers appreciated poetry placed on billboards), as well as Poetry in Motion, where the same took place along New York’s public transport system.
Good verse includes compact, powerful imagery that hits our emotions. Poetry is the literary equivalent of – ? Perhaps Red Bull. Or whiskey. Maybe wine.
During the opening scene of the classic movie Bottle Shock, a helicopter cruises over hills and vineyards while a voice recalls words of the writer Robert Louis Stevenson (which are also written on the entrance sign to Napa, California), that ‘Wine is bottled poetry.’
Shakespeare never doubted the power of the grape, and in Antony and Cleopatra wrote:
Come, thou monarch of the vine,
Plumpy Bacchus with pink eyne
In thy fats our cares be drown’d,
With thy grapes our hairs be crown’d!
Cup us till the world go round,
Cup us till the world go round!
John Keats’s wrote Wine Poem: Women, Wine, and Snuff
[* always shall be]
Go fetch to me a pint o wine,
And fill it in a silver tassie;
That I may drink, before I go,
A service to my bonie lassie:
Jonathan Swift wrote about the power of an empty wine bottle, unearthed in 1722, in Stella’s Birthday – describing it as though it were a womb containing medicine.
Behold the bottle, where it lies
With neck elated toward the skies!
The god of winds and god of fire
Did to its wondrous birth conspire;
And Bacchus for the poet’s use
Pour’d in a strong inspiring juice.
See! as you raise it from its tomb,
It drags behind a spacious womb,
And in the spacious womb contains
A sovereign medicine for the brains.
Part of the poem Ode to Wine, by Pablo Neruda, is below. This Chilean romantic had homes in both the city of Valparaiso, as well as along the coast of Chile. I was fortunate enough to visit both when I began writing Vino Voices years ago. Inside his beach house we learned how Neruda, renowned lover and poet, drank wine out of multi-colored glasses because he believed they changed a wine’s flavor.
My darling, suddenly
the line of your hip
becomes the brimming curve
of the wine goblet,
your breast is the grape cluster,
your nipples are the grapes,
the gleam of spirits lights your hair,
and your navel is a chaste seal
stamped on the vessel of your belly,
your love an inexhaustible
cascade of wine,
light that illuminates my senses,
the earthly splendor of life.
Want to invest in a decent book of poetry? Consider the classic Norton Anthology of Poetry, a serious tome to plonk beside your nightstand. 100 Best-Loved Poems, a bit slimmer, includes more classics than contemporary verse. My favorite, because it’s a paperback stuffed with verse, and also light enough to have packed away for a two-year trip to Africa with the Peace Corps years ago, is Immortal Poems of the English Language.
Next time you’re alone with a glass of wine, turn off the TV. Try enjoying some verse instead.
Médoc means middle territory, appropriate for the French wedge of land seated between Atlantic Ocean waters on the west, and the Gironde Estuary to the east.
Pine trees grow on the ocean side of this land strip, while swamps and vineyards sprawl eastward. The soil is crappy. It’s so poor ‘you couldn’t even grow potatoes here,’ our energetic guide, Matthew, told us. But vines that struggle through nasty soils often produce excellent wines. Combine that truth with the underlying complex limestone substrate, ocean winds deflected by a massive pine forest, well-drained gravel soils, seasoned winemakers, the best French oak barriques, and the particular soup of all natural elements on the Médoc – the terroir - and the resulting ‘left bank Bordeaux’ wines are some of the most prestigious, and expensive, in the world.
For renowned wines, there are the usual suspects: three châteaux classified in 1855 as Premier Crus (Lafite, Latour, Margaux; the fourth, Haut-Brion, is located south of Médoc, within Bordeaux city) and another added in 1973 – Mouton Rothschild.
Yet the beautiful Médoc is electrified by contradictions. It is traditional yet anachronistic, conservative but liberal, pure and still polluted. The strict, ancient laws of viticulture and wine production adhered to locally are admirable: irrigation is illegal, wines must be produced from grapes grown on châteaux properties – not imported, and for red wines to be labeled ‘Bordeaux,’ they must include a blend from at least two, but no more than six, specific grape varietals. (Whites, making up only eleven percent of Bordeaux’s wine production, usually include three varietals, although a total of nine are allowed.)
But the ranking of which châteaux produce the best wines is an anachronism. Four of the five top Bordeaux Premier Crus were ranked highest by Thomas Jefferson during his visit in 1787, and re-ranked the same by the French in 1855. This accepted classification system has not changed since, with one exception: the addition of Mouton Rothschild in 1973, in a dodgy act of political legerdemain.
To agree on the utter validity of this century-and-a-half old ranking system is a compliment to Thomas Jefferson as well to Emperor Napoleon lll. Otherwise, it is nonsensical. Soils change depending on how they are cared for, as well as due to effects of erosion; climates shift to favor slightly different patches of land over time; excellent winemakers may be replaced by mediocre, and winemaking techniques have improved dramatically during the past two decades, much less century. The dogmatic adherence to an ancient classification system flies in the face of logic, natural resource economics, and science. Yet regardless of discussion over the history of the classification system, the entire region of the Médoc as a whole retains a valid reputation for producing excellent red wines.
There is also the conservative versus liberal slants on wine production. Chateau Pontet-Canet, a stone’s lob from Premier Cru Mouton Rothschild, was classified in 1855 not as a first, but as a far lower fifth grow. Yet it now produces wines that sell for a fraction of those from neighboring Premier Cru lands, and are often ranked as highly. Wine Spectator Magazine rated the 2005 Mouton slightly lower than the Pontet-Canet, yet it sells for over $500 a bottle, while you can get a bottle of the Pontet for about a hundred bucks. And while the 2009 Mouton may rank a tad higher than the 2009 Pontet, a bottle will cost you two to three times as much as the Pontet.
Pontet is also now embarking on some vineyard techniques that might appear liberal within the local context, certainly in a universe separate from most of their Médoc brethren.
To understand this is to grasp an agricultural perception of the difference between pure versus polluted. Some soils of the Médoc have been nuked with fertilizer and pesticides for decades. The result? No one is quite sure what soup of trace chemicals they’re quaffing down with each sip of their beloved Bordeaux. Whereas most of these stately châteaux selling bottles for the price of small diamond brooches utilize traditional fertilizer and pesticides, others forge ahead with more ecologically sustainable ways of keeping their soils healthy. Pontet-Canet is now certified as a biodynamic wine producer. Considering that it is located in the heart of the traditional wine-producing country of Médoc, that’s like hanging a Jackson Pollack painting next to a Monet at the Louvre – certain to raise eyebrows.
But whether or not you subscribe to all biodynamic practices – be they planting and harvesting by lunar cycles or spraying nettle teas on your crops – biodynamic methods are fundamentally healthy for soils, and promote the notion of working in concert with natural cycles, rather than trying to dominate them. The practice encourages bugs to return to abandoned soils to burrow and aerate the land. Pontet-Canet is also moving toward using horses rather than tractors to work the soil – resulting in less compaction and erosion.
The results? Taste to find out. You won’t be disappointed.
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