By Chef Dad
As we make our way through Europe, it’s fascinating to learn about cultures that have survived despite the fall of their sovereign empires, and while we were sad to leave Spain, we could stay in Basque Country for just a bit longer. Somehow or another, the Basques have managed to maintain a language, culture, and fair degree of political autonomy for about two millennium in this little corner of Europe along the Bay of Biscay between Bilbao, Spain and Bayonne, France.
We stopped in Bayonne mostly because it’s the first good place to stop in France, and we saw no need to wait any longer than we needed to to get crepes. It was a pleasant surprise, and fun to catch a short concert from this group of Basque traditionalists near the French market.
After that, it was time to head to Bordeaux and our house in the French countryside. Perhaps that’s a bit cliche, but it was still fun to say out loud–“We’re going to stay in our house in the French countryside.” Sometimes we have realizations like that on this trip.
We took a fair bit of time weaving our way to Bordeaux that day, so we were happy to just stay inside that evening, and Mr. N and Miss A loved exploring this adorable little home located not too far from the iconic right-bank town of Saint-Emilion. We had the most gracious host, and despite not sharing a common language, she and Kristy managed to understand each other very well. We instantly felt welcomed and like part of the family. She brought us goodies including treats for the kids, fresh eggs, foie gras and wine from her husband’s vineyard in Bergerac for us to sample (a few of those made it into our bags as well!). It’s hosts like this that make staying in Airbnb places so worthwhile. She was a treasure and made us feel at home, despite being so far from home.
After some time for the kids to play and an evening of rest, it was time to check out Bordeaux wine country! It’s a good idea to make arrangements with the wineries ahead of time, and we chose places to visit by the very scientific process of sending a bunch of e-mails late Saturday evening to an alphabetized list of wineries near our cottage, then waiting to see who was able to give a tasting on a Sunday in early February. This method actually worked out really well–we found three wonderfully different chateaux to visit.
First up was Chateau Lapelletrie, an old and traditional winery with huge old concrete vats for aging the wine. Concrete vats like these aren’t typical of the places we’ve been to visit in the U.S. and we didn’t see them in Spain either, but we saw quite a few of them through Bordeaux.
Chateau Lapelletrie was under construction and going through changes in the vineyard and the winery, and it would be fun to come back here in a few years. We’re excited to see how things change. They also had a place for the kids to occupy themselves–much appreciated!
While the kids played pop-a-shot, we got our first wine tasting in a Bordeaux Chateau.
The French are very particular about place when it comes to wine–terroir is their word for it, and the very complicated labeling and classification systems are designed to maintain that focus. It’s easier for an American winemaker to fix a weak vintage with blending or irrigation, or to tear out one varietal and replace it with another. Here the target is to make the wine that best represents the time, place and tradition of the vineyard. It is helpful to taste with that in mind.
After Chateau Lapelletrie, we headed in to the town of Saint-Emilion, which was nearly empty on this Sunday of the off-season, but would be fun to return to. There are wine shops everywhere, and fantastic views of the area.
After a visit to town, we headed to our second winery, Chateau Champion. Champion is also a small winery relative to some of the larger estates, and felt more modern than Lapelletrie. Here we took another short tour and had a chance to sample their particular expression of terroir. The Saint-Emilion wines are Merlot-dominated and easy drinking, but there is still much variation from one place to the next.
After Chateau Champion, we visited Chateau de Pressac, our first really grand Bordeaux Chateau. Pressac is a former castle that is privately owned, and the owners actually live there so you can’t tour it, but you can walk the grounds.
This hillside, down below the castle, contains three distinct types of soil that make for very different terroir. Pressac was the most formal and elegant of the chateaux we visited on our first day, but it would not hold that lofty ranking for long. In the morning, we were headed to…
…Chateau Mouton Rothschild! Mouton Rothschild is one of the Bordeaux First Growths, the group of five elite wineries that sit at the top of the Bordeaux hierarchy. Mouton Rothschild is a left-bank winery, a good long drive from Saint-Emilion and the right bank, but worth every second. The left bank produces mostly the traditional big, bold Bordeaux blends that people usually first think of, with Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot leading the way.
The winery tour was very impressive, with absolutely immaculate facilities and state of the art giant oak tanks for fermenting. I could have done without the other Americans on the tour with us, and I think their college-aged daughter, our kids, and our tour guide felt the same way. (Mr. N and Miss A even commented on their inappropriate winery behavior!)
Every space is both beautiful and impeccably clean, with the highest attention to detail possible. The Rothschild name is wine royalty, and they certainly had a treasure collection worthy of kings. Unfortunately, they’re not available for photography. They also had a museum with an exhibit of wine labels that have been designed by some of the greatest artists of the 20th and 21st century–Picasso, Chagall, Andy Warhol, even the film director John Huston.
The tasting room, at least for our tour group, was beautiful, but actually fairly modest. We got to taste three wines, including the 2007 Chateau Mouton Rothschild (label by Bernar Venet), and all three were excellent. We didn’t opt for that one, though–we would like to send the kids to college some day — but we got a bottle of the Clerq Milon that will stay in our cellar for a special occasion down the road.
I’m glad we had the chance to visit Chateau Mouton Rothschild, one of the most fascinating and storied places in the wine world, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mr. N and Miss A, who received glowing reviews from our tour guide for good behavior. She said she wished all kids were as well behaved as ours, and I think Kristy would agree with me in saying that their behavior was clearly better than some grown-ups in our tour group. So thanks, kids!
Next up, Chateau d’Agassac, where kids can take a self-guided tour of the grounds, solving a little mystery and rescuing the princess from the castle in the vineyard. There are a few places in Bordeaux that provide distractions for kids, and this was a fun one. It was our fifth Bordeaux winery and fifth distinct experience. I suppose that’s why we keep doing it.
We got to wander the grounds for a while, moving from station to station, until finally ending up in the castle, where our tasting host, Edgar, bestowed titles of royalty on Mr. N and Miss A. The kids even left with a bottle of grape juice derived from Merlot grapes, which they insisted tastes just like Grandma’s blackberry cobbler. They are saving this particular bottle for Mr. N’s birthday this summer.
We then embarked on the long drive back to our cottage, but on the way we decided we simply must visit one more place on our way out of town in the morning, so we set up an appointment with Chateau Soutard, and again we had a very new and very interesting experience.
Our expert tasting host took us through a tour of the very modern facilities, then led us underground (on a really cool glass elevator) to maybe my favorite tasting room on the trip (but please don’t get mad if I change my mind when we get to writing about Szepasszonyvolgi).
The underground setting gives the modern facility an air of mystery and history, and the backlit tasting table is perfect for gazing through wine glasses. We really enjoyed this one. We also picked up a bottle of the 1969 vintage, which will be the oldest wine I’ve ever had when we drink it at the end of our trip. They have a lot of library wines from different years, and our host indicated that the ones they have available now are ready for drinking now, so we decided to indulge in this bottle to celebrate our adventure before we head home.
Fortunately, we don’t have to go home for a while! With the Sherry triangle, Rioja and Bordeaux in the rear view mirror, it just so happens that Burgundy and Alsace lie on the road ahead.
Château Mouton Rothschild:
+33 5 56 73 21 29
15, rue du Château d’Agassac
33290 Ludon-Medoc, France
+33 5 57 88 15 47
1 Lieu-Dit Soutard, BP4
33330, Saint-Emilion, France
+33 5 57 24 71 41