Location: France, Bordeaux, Left Bank- Graves
Grape(s): White- Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscadelle, Sauvignon Gris
Red: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec (allowed but not planted)
Soil(s): Mixture of sand, gravel and light clay known as boulbenes
When in Bordeaux one almost has to realize that one is in a different world. When we were rolling out of bed for the first time in 10 days without the assistance of an alarm clock, we for the first time discussed our attire. We were going to Chateau Pape Clement that afternoon, and almost surely jackets were necessary. The formality of the situation was quite a change from the laid back approach we had been working with everywhere else before. After all, we were about to visit a Chateau who had been founded in the early 14th century.
Pape Clement was named after Pope Clemént V, the archbishop of Bordeaux who was the first Pope to have his seat outside of Rome. It was this Pope that gave name to Chateauneuf-du-Pape (the new house of the Pope) as the papacy fled Italy to Avignon. The conflict with the Catholic church made trade and the ability to move goods from the Mediterranean up the Rhône river impossible due to the blockade of Marseilles. Clemént, born Bertrand de Got, being from Villandraut near Bordeaux, wanted wine of high quality near his residence, and thus the historic region was born. In Bordeaux, his family had been well established for many generations and it was these connections that helped Bertrand to become chaplain to Pope Boniface VII, which led to him being proclaimed Archbishop of Bordeaux, and later pope. His reign was not a popular one by any means. He assisted King Philip IV in wiping out the Knights Templar by joining him in declaring them heretics and enemies of the church. On Friday the 13th of October, 1307 the entire order was arrested, jailed, and eventually tortured and executed, some say because the order had become self-sustaining and not compliant to the rule of the church (it may have also had something to do with the fact they were the richest landowners in Europe and Philip IV had driven France to the verge of bankruptcy). Regardless of what history labels his reign, he is the namesake of this historic Chateau.
My favorite Bordeaux wine I have personally tasted thus far was 1989 Pape Clemént. I came in a bit biased, but I have to say, left confident that my preference was a solid one. We arrived at Alice, a bookstore, wine shop , and restaurant in Bordeaux-Lac owned by the famly of our friend Pierre-Arnaud Hourquebie. We were introduced to Lionel Labat, export director of Pape Clemént for Europe and the Americas. The winery is part of the mega portfolio of Bernard Magrez, the French wine mogul who has been on a tear to purchase vineyards around the world and showcase them through his wide network of marketing and distribution. We tasted his projects in Uruguay, Morocco, and Southern France alongside another picture perfect Bordeaux meal. The wine from the Gerrouanne region of Morocco, “Kahina”, truly stood out. Named after a 7th century Berber princess who unsuccessfully resisted to Moorish occupation of her land, this blend of Syrah and Grenache is about as pleasing a wine that we are proud to offer at Reeds. Warm, spicy, and very fruit driven, this wine leads with strong notes of raspberry and clove and is perfect on its own or with our Whole Roasted Pork Tenderloin.
After lunch, it was time to head to Pessac and see the grandure that was, is, and always will be Pape Clemént. We arrived to a location that surprised the hell out of us. The Chateau is located square in the middle of the bustling suburb of Bordeaux that is Pessac. I have never seen vineyards appear in the middle of an urban landscape, it was cause for a raised eyebrow. When we entered the grounds, it was like we were teleported into some otherworldly oasis of history, architecture, and vines. The first feature we were shown was a transplanted olive tree dating back 1800 years. The precedent was set. We toured the winemaking facilities, again immaculate in the standard of Bordeaux. We asked about the harvest, and how many people are involved in picking and sorting the grapes. The response was that two shifts of 100 persons, 25 on each sorting table were utilized in the winery. In the vineyards, there was another hundred. The number alone is staggering, considering the largest number of seasonal employees we had encountered thus far was around 25. The pickers are asked back year after year to ensure quality, and getting a harvest position here is much tougher than you can imagine. The most breathtaking part of the tour was the secret cellar located in a tucked away corner of the Chateau that held some of the rarest and oldest bottles we had ever seen. In what could be best described as a cross between chapel, cellar, and catacomb we were shown vintages going back to 1894 (at least those were the oldest we could make out). It says something about a cellar when our birth year of 1985 (not a bad vintage by any means) was still considered too young to be included in this cellar.
The tasting was quite impressive, but then again it should have been. Chateau Pape Clemént is one of 13 Graves wineries classified as Grand Cru Classé, a designation going back to 1953. When asked why the Chateau was not classified equally in whites, the response was that the focus of the winery was not as heavily oriented on whites then and as with anything else in the left bank, change comes at a snail’s pace. Nevertheless, the Pape Clemént Blanc was awarded 100 points for the 2009 vintage by a wine critic of great stature (I will leave out the name as I do not follow ratings as closely as Bordeaux would like me to). The red was incredibly complex even in its youth showing notes of cassis, plum, forest floor, cocoa, rosemary, bitter chocolate (it is Bordeaux and new French oak is a prerequisite) and a lingering finish of fine leather and peppercorns fading into a pool of black cherry. The white was even better, showing ripe (almost tropical) notes of pineapple, peach, and mango balanced with gravel, vanilla (oak again) and fresh parsley. The blend on the Blanc is a bit unusual as it incorporates 45% Semillon with 43% Sauvignon Blanc, 8% Sauvignon Gris, and 4% Muscadelle. The wines showed great balance, even with the abundance of oak and a very high degree of ripeness in the red. But that is Pape Clemént, you almost expect a sort of bravado in its youth, that mellow with time but adds complexity and elegance. It is almost a mirror on the culture of the region.
We asked Pierre about the négociant in Bordeaux and what it provides the consumer. Being a négociant himself, he was I’m sure treading carefully. For those (most of us) that are not familiar with this system, it is unique to Bordeaux. Chateaux have never been too interested in the mundane side of sales. They deal with courtiers who negotiate with négociants, who deal with importers, who deal with courtiers in the export market (allocators for all intents and purposes), who allocate the wines to distributors, who sell to retailers, who sell to you. If that sounded like a racket, it is. But this is Bordeaux, this complex system ensures that those that want the wine (and have bought it over long periods of time) will always receive their vintage allocation. To break into this business, at least on the French side, takes family or external business connections and many years of experience (tryouts). Pierre relayed to us that he became involved with this business due to his family’s involvement in the retail market via their store. In the world of centuries old family run companies, they are young, but are fairing well. The status quo changes here about as much as the Queen of England, so an overhaul of the multi-tiered delivery system is about as likely as a Dennis Kusinich presidency (sorry D, but it’s not happening any time soon). The futures system (why the consumer or distributor pays for Bordeaux wines 2 years before receiving them) may take a jolt with Chateau Latour announcing that it will hold release of its wines for 10 years starting with the 2012 vintage, but I highly doubt it will collapse, or even stumble. This ensures the continuity of supremacy of established, wealthy producers in the region.
After dinner, we headed off to do something truly Bordelaise, a trip to the beaches in Arcachon. This is the home of the tallest sand dune in Europe, and a weekend getaway from the crowded city. We shared a bottle of Lanson on the beach and then had a few dozen oysters nearby. All in all, we felt at least partly Bordelaise, at least for a short time. This region is full of history and tradition, and even though purists and cynics (I used to be or still am one of them) will stick their nose up at established Chateaux like Pape Clemént for utilizing very ripe fruit and an abundance of oak, who cares? The wines are still turning out to be extremely well made, extremely age worthy, and extremely complex (if you disagree with the last point wait for at least 10 years). I know it sucks to hear it, but sometimes its true- expensive wine takes time to evolve into a true representation of elegance. Like people, in its youth its brash and blatant, screaming drink me now. With some age, the hubris fades (or hides) and the subtle more complex flavor profiles take hold. This is a wine you can have a conversation with, a wine that will make you wrangle an opinion out of it rather than blurting it out just so it can be heard. There is a huge difference between Pape Clemént 1989 and 2009, 20 years of experience will do that do most living things. The 89 is still my come to Jesus moment with Bordeaux, I wonder if in 20 years I could try the 09 again and say the same…
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