Thursday, August 14, 2014

Wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux: Gardens and Castles

“My family has been growing grapes since the French Revolution,” says Pierre Jhean, winemaker for Henri de Villamont in Burgundy, France.

“I grew up on a vineyard in Bordeaux and learned how to prune the vines when I was young. It was only natural to want a career in the wine industry,” says Stanislas Garaud. “As Export Area Manager for Veyret Latour, I can travel the world as well.”

Pierre and Stanislas were in Saskatoon in May to present their wines, which are distributed by Doug Reichel of Fine Wines Sask. The Saskatoon Co-op Wine, Spirits & Beer Store has the largest selection of Burgundy wines in the province, including 11 of Pierre’s wines.

Stanislas Garaud, Veyret Latour
Growing Up in Wine Country 
Stanislas Garaud, Export Manager, Veyret Latour 
 “I thought I knew a lot about wine because I grew up in Bordeaux,” says Stanislas, “but I was only familiar with Bordeaux wines. As an export manager, I’ve had the opportunity to travel and to taste wines from around the world. Now I realize how lucky I am to have been born in France with so many excellent wines.”

Veyret Latour represents a hundred different wineries, including Henri de Villamont and the most important Bordeaux Grand crus wineries.

Pierre Jhean, Director & Winemaker, Henri de Villamont 
Pierre decided to focus on winemaking [as opposed to growing grapes] after visiting an analysis lab with his father. After working under other winemakers for a number of years, he was given responsibility for making the wine in 1989.

“It’s a difficult job,” Pierre says. “I’m a full-time judge. The weather is different every year, so every vintage is different.” In addition, Burgundy is composed of over 600 small vineyards, each of which has its own micro climate and geography. “Every time I moved to a different winery, I had to learn about the soil,” Pierre says.

Pierre tastes the new wine every month and the date of bottling is based on his tastings; it’s not the same every year. “The winemaking changes depending on the weather,” Pierre says.

“Winemakers develop their senses in a way that doesn’t normally happen,” he says. “I have a vivid memory of the ’79 vintage.”

Gardens and Castles 
Compared to Canada, France is a small country. And yet each wine-growing region is distinctive. Pierre and Stanislas provided me with a helpful introduction to the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux.

“Meursault is one of the largest appellations in Burgundy with 400 hectares,” says Pierre, “but it’s small compared to the vineyards in Bordeaux. Henri de Villamont has only 10 hectares, which is about average.”

Each vineyard, referred to as a ‘clos,’ is surrounded by a stone wall and has its own natural and climatic conditions. “One field may be right beside another, but the soil changes and that changes the wine,” Pierre explains.
Pierre Jhean, Henri de Villamont

The vineyards are planted on the slopes leading up to the mountains in Jura and the Alps. The hillside location provides them with better resistance to freezing, protection from the westerly winds, maximum sunshine and natural draining.

Burgundy stretches from Dijon in the north to Macon in the south. “Dijon is foggy. There are no vineyards north of Dijon apart from Champagne, which is more acidic and doesn’t require the same quality of grapes,” says Pierre. “By the time you reach Macon, you’re in the south of France and it’s one degree warmer.” The temperature varies from 18 to 25 degrees Celsius in the summer, and there can be a lot of humidity. Winter brings cold winds.

The top two varietals in Burgundy are Pinot Noir (35%) and Chardonnay (49%).

Pierre says that he uses a different yeast for each of his wines as this can help the winemaker. Many of the wines are aged in oak. Fifty percent of the Macon Mancey 2009 was aged for 10 months in barrels, 45% of which were made from new oak. “If all the wine had been aged in barrels it would taste like California Chardonnay,” Pierre says. “I wanted to retain the minerality and herbs.”

Burgundy wines can be very expensive as they come from small vineyards with a very limited production. But there are wines in almost every price category. The Regional and Village appellations (representing the areas where the grapes were grown, sometimes right in the village itself) provide good value at a reasonable price. The Premiers and Grands Crus appellations are more expensive, but wine lovers will appreciate their quality. And the Crémants de Bourgogne are made using the same grape varietals and the same method as Champagne, but in a slightly different area.

The Bordeaux wine region lies on the left and right banks of the Garonne River. The climate varies a great deal, as does the soil, so there are 56 appellations. The gravel soil on the flatter left bank is best suited to Cabernet Sauvignon, while Merlot is the dominant varietal grown in the clay soil of the right bank.

 It’s worth studying a regional wine map as most of the top wines come from the left bank. “The higher you go on the left bank, the more you’ll find wines that are strong and powerful,” says Stanislas. “If you like less powerful wines, choose Margaux or Moulis. If you like stronger wines with more tannins, choose wines from the northwest like Pauillac or Saint Esteph.

At 50-100 hectares, the Bordeaux wineries are much larger than the Burgundy wineries but still smaller than the ones found in California. There is a château on many of the properties – hence the name of the wines (e.g. Château Margaux).

Unlike Burgundy with its focus on single varietal wines, the Bordeaux wines are a blend. The exact percentages vary from year to year, depending on the weather and the grapes. For example, Le Blason de la Tour Carnet Medoc 2011 is a blend of 78% Merlot, 19% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Cabernet Franc. “Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon is much softer, more drinkable than New World Cabernet Sauvignon,” Stanislas says.

I prefer a fruitier, less powerful wine with less tannin, so my favorite of the Bordeaux wines I tasted at the Co-op liquor store was Château L’Argilus du Roi 2008, a blend of 5% Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc, 55% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Bordeaux wines were first classified in 1855, and Stanislas believes the designations hold true today. “It’s amazing how sharp they were without the tests we have today,” he says.

Burgundy and Bordeaux offer such a diversity of wines for all tastes and for all wallets. I strongly recommend looking through the collection at the Co-op Wine, Spirits & Beer Store. I also recommend their wine tastings which are very well put together with a separate tasting room, bread and cheese to go with the wines, and excellent explanations and information.


Doug Reichel said...

Very nicely written, Penny. You've captured a bit of the magic that makes quality Bordeaux and Burgundy wines the benchmark for great wines in the world. Doug Reichel

Penny McKinlay said...

Thank you, Doug. I really appreciate you giving me the opportunity to talk with some of your winemakers.