A personal ad in the travel section of The New York Times many years ago started the whole thing. A few months later our wine correspondent Jim Walker, his wife Hélène Buisson, and two other couples embarked on what would truly be an oenophile’s trip of a lifetime. Here’s how it all began.
Arnaud Ratel was a truly fine fellow–gregarious, witty, creative and generous, a bon vivant and a true gentleman. We met in the course a doing business in Montreal and our friendship developed over the years, abetted in good part by a mutual love of the wines of Bordeaux. Often accompanied by our wives Nora Farah and Hélène, we enjoyed many a delightful meal washed down by a bottle or two of Château Palmer, Château Grand-Puy-Lacoste or another of their ilk. Lest one think that we were wealthy, wine-swilling dilettantes, back then these wines were not exorbitantly expensive, unlike today–see Gentleman’ Portion wine posts ‘When Bacchus Beckoned’ and ‘A Veritable Vinous Valhalla.’ Arnaud became a member in good standing of our august wine club (a marvellous excuse to enjoy good fellowship and share the spoils of our wine cellars) and we would frequently acquire new vinous treasures together, usually sourced from Bordeaux.
One day in early 1988, Arnaud called to say that his good friend Loïc de Kertanguy, who at the time was living New York, had spotted an ad in the travel section of the New York Times that just might be of interest. It read, ‘Bordeaux Bound – I am looking for a few wine lovers to accompany me on a nostalgic return visit to Bordeaux. For more information, contact François Chandou at …’ Loïc brought the ad to Arnaud’s attention, who in turn responded to François. He learned that François had grown up in La Fleix, a small village on the Dordogne about an hour up river from Bordeaux, that his family had owned a vineyard there for over 200 years (Domaine de Barbeyrolles–in the Bergerac wine appellation) and had studied under the renowned oenologist, professor Émile Peyaud. François and his wife Anne were living in Dallas where they had opened that city’s first wine bar and then operated ‘La Cave Wine Warehouse,’ a wine storage and retail business. François’ father, Raymond Chandou, who had managed Sovicorp, the sales agency for 35 wine cooperatives in the Bordeaux region, had recently passed away. François wanted to visit his father’s friends and business acquaintances as a way of saying his final farewell.
Arnaud went on to explain that this was not going to be just another pleasant romp through some ancient French vineyards. Mais non. Raymond Chandou had befriended the owners of most of the Les Grands Crus classés en 1855 Châteaux and we would not only visit and taste the wines of the likes of Château Margaux and Château Ausone, but we would also dine with some of those giants of the wine world. And, as if that wasn’t enough, François could also arrange to have us all ceremoniously enrolled into the prestigious ‘Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc et des Graves’ (since expanded to the catchy ‘Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc, des Graves’, de Sauternes et de Barsac–even today there are but 350 members).
Clearly this was the chance of a lifetime for true aficionados of fine Bordeaux. How could we resist? We couldn’t. So, Arnaud and Nora, Loïc and his wife Rebecca (Becky), Hélène and I decided that we were going to Bordeaux. We formally retained François to escort us on the grand tour and made our preparations for this delicious adventure.
Hélène and I cashed in an obscene number of air mile points to fly first class on Air France. Up till then my job required a great deal of air travel and I thought the accumulation of points would never end. Of course, shortly thereafter I was transferred to a new position that needed no travel and thus I deeply regretted my extravagance. Our next challenge was what to do about our daughters who were four and two at the time. We decided that Kate would stay with good friends and Magee with Hélène’s mom. It would be the first time that the girls were separated, a situation that caused great consternation all around.
Soon we were on our way. We joined Nora and Arnaud on the flight to Paris and then took the old slow train to Bordeaux. There we met up with Loïc and Becky and took a couple of cabs to the Hôtel Majestic, an elegant 18th century, 47-room establishment located in Bordeaux center not far from the Garonne River. After a much needed nap, Hélène and I strolled around the city which we found to be rather drab and shabby. That certainly is not the case today for Bordeaux has undergone a marvellous metamorphosis in recent years. We then joined the others for an early dinner (8:30 p.m. is early in France) and retired in eager anticipation of the next day’s adventures.
Now it might seem a bit strange that we were to begin our Bordeaux adventures with a visit to its northern neighbour Cognac, but that’s what we did. You see, I had done a significant bit of business on my employer’s behalf, the Royal Bank of Canada, with the folks at Maison Hennessy, the cognac producer founded in 1675 by Richard Hennessy, an Irish officer who served in the army of army of Louis XV. When their Quebec agent heard that we were going to Bordeaux, he insisted that we spend a day with the Hennessys in Cognac.
We had wisely hired the services of a local bus company for the duration. Our driver, Christian, a very likeable fellow who was chock-full with local knowledge, delivered us mid-morning to the rather imposing, industrial hodgepodge that is Maison Hennessy. By the way, they are the largest producers of Cognac, crafting more than 40 per cent of the region’s total output. We were warmly greeted in the main reception area by a charming chap who took us on a tour of the production facilities with all its copper stills and assorted tubing. We were then ushered down into the cellars where ancient barrels of Hennessy nectar patiently awaited their turn to be added to the finest Cognac blends. A dark green, almost black, moss-like growth covered the ceiling. We were told it was nourished by the trace amount of Cognac evaporating from the barrels. They called this seepage the ‘Angels’ Share.’ Then to our great amazement the cellar master knocked the bung out of a barrel marked 1900, inserted a pipette and poured us each a generous portion of the deep amber liquid. Oh my!
We returned to the main floor and were ushered into a very large and very grand dining room that was festooned with all manner of flowers, candles and silverware. In the middle was a huge dark wood table set for 18 or so guests. Tantalising aromas filled the air. Our hostess, a member of the Hennessy family, asked us all to be seated according to our place cards. Hélène was cheerfully perched directly across the broad expanse of table. After a few words of welcome, things started off most auspiciously. Three lovely langoustines (like crawfish) along with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc magically appeared before each of us. I was delighted to note that other guests attacked these tasty crustaceans by hand and I proceeded to join them in the manual assault. We were then presented with little crystal cups of lemon water after laying waste to them … perfect for cleansing the palate before the next course. As I was lifting mine to my lips I glanced across the table and noticed Hélène shaking her head and gesturing maniacally. Could it be she was having a seizure? Her histrionics, however, gave me an instant to notice that other guests were dipping their fingers into the lemon juice. Yike! They were finger bowls. Disaster narrowly averted.
The main course arrived which presented another challenge. An attractive display of meat, vegetables and potatoes was presented ‘butler service style’ on large silver trays that were held at shoulder height on the left side each diner. The guest was then to use the serving utensils to migrate the food to their plates. The lady beside me was obviously an old pro at this method of serving for she deftly selected her desired delicacies from the proffered tray and neatly arranged them on her waiting plate. Then it was my turn. I somehow managed to clumsily transfer my choices without depositing anything on my shoulder or lap. But, oh my, you should have seen my plate. It looked like an Irish stew had been detonated there.
The remainder of the meal passed relatively uneventfully and pleasantly. We ended our Hennessy visit with coffees and snifters of Cognac, of course, in an adjacent sitting room. They were serving their ‘Hennessy XO’, my father’s favourite and, as it turned out, the Hennessy family’s preferred tipple (even though they produced a much more expensive selection branded ‘Paradis’). Here are my tasting notes: ‘The nose radiates dried fruit and chocolate. It is elegant and robust revealing balance, roundness and harmony among aromas underlined by the strength of peppery notes and vegetable fragrances from the oak. It finishes with a lovely long aftertaste conferring the last sweet notes of cinnamon and vanilla.’
So went our first day in Bordeaux, even if it was spent delightfully in Cognac. In next month’s post I will regale with tales of our visits to Château Ausone in Saint-Émilion, (including the great macaroon caper), and to Châteaux La Mission Haut-Brion and Haut-Brion in Graves. We will also leave our hotel in Bordeaux and encamp in the just renovated Chateau Beaumont in the Médoc … where a toilet seat mysteriously cracked.
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