It was the spring of 1988. Day three of an oenophile’s dream visit to Bordeaux dawned for our wine scribe Jim Walker and his troop of thirsty tipplers. The day’s destinations … Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.
The third day of our Bordeaux wine region caper took us (Arnaud Ratel and his wife Nora Farah, Loïc de Kertanguy, Hélène, our guide Fançois Chandou, our driver Christian and me) eastward up the Dodogne River to the Bordeaux Right Bank appellations of Saint-Émilion and Pomerol. (Check out my Gentleman’s Portion posts O! Bordeaux – Arrival and O! Bordeaux – Gravitas in Graves to see what we were up to the first two days.) The ride from the City of Bordeaux across the bucolic French countryside to the town of Saint-Émilion took about half an hour. As ploughed and newly planted fields gave way to a sea of budding vines, we knew we were arriving at our destination. Christian parked our small bus amid a slew of Roman ruins and we began the descent into Saint- Émilion.
Suddenly, part way down, Christian squatted at an open basement window and called out to someone inside one of the old stone buildings. The wonderful aroma should have tipped us off. Macarons! Moments later a boxful of the succulent little morsels was thrust upon us by a disembodied hand from the aromatic murk within. They were still warm and begging for us to put them out of their misery. So, off we happily trotted, munching the tasty little devils as we reconnoitered the absolutely delightful town.
Saint-Émilion is old. The Romans planted vineyards in the area as early as the second century. In the fourth century, the Latin poet and statesman Decimius Magnus Ausonius heaped great praise on the quality of the region’s grapes (and, we assume, its wines). The town, previously called Ascumbas, was renamed after the monk Émilion, a travelling confessor who migrated from Brittany and settled in a cave carved into the limestone cliffs there in the eighth century. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Saint-Émilion is chock full of vibrant art galleries, all kinds of tempting restaurants, expansive plazas, fine wine shops and fascinating Romanesque churches, one carved right into the cliffs. One has to be part mountain goat to navigate the narrow, cobbled lanes which become even more treacherous when damp. Perish the thought of high heels!
In due course, we came upon our morning’s vinous destination, Château Ausone. Its wines were designated one of the top four in the Saint-Émilion appelation in the official 1955 classification, the others being Château Angélus (my personal favourite), Château Cheval Blanc and Château Pavie. In the not too distant past Ausone was jointly owned by the Dubois-Challon and Vauthier families. They did not see eye-to-eye and eventually the Vauthiers bought out the Dubois-Challon clan in the mid-1990s. Alain Vauthier became managing director of Ausone, while Heylette Dubois-Challon won the right to live in the chateau until her death in 2003. The quality of Ausone’s wines waned during the lengthy period of familial squabbles and Pascal Delbeck was hired as winemaker in 1976 to set things right.
It was Pascal who met us on the front steps of the rather imposing, architectural mishmash of a chateau. He had the look and bearing of a Cistercian monk and in docent fashion led us on a walking tour of the property. The 17 acres of vineyards are planted with equal quantities of Merlot and Cabernet Franc yielding a total annual production of the first and second wines of an annual average of a paltry 2,400 bottles.
We then trooped down to the dank and musty cellars carved into the limestone and beheld a truly eerie sight. It was if we had entered a troglodytic cavern filled with barrels and all sorts of wine making paraphernalia. Following a walkabout, Pascal unlocked a rusty old wrought iron gate and led us into a chamber that looked like an ossuary, but instead of old bones there were ancient bottles like the three bottles of 1851 Ausone pictured.
At last it came time for tasting (my favourite moments). Pascal shepherded us through a flight of both the second wine, Chapelle d’Ausone and the Grand vin Château Ausone. One of the latter was the 1983 vintage.
The noted wine author and critic Robert M. Parker, Jr. had this to say about it in the fourth 2003 edition of his book Bordeaux, A Consumer’s Guide to the World’s Finest Wines: “A very successful vintage for Ausone, this wine seems to be close to full maturity, but knowing the history of this château, it is not unforeseen that it can last another 50 or more years. The wine shows a dark garnet colour with considerable amber at the edge. Sweet notes of fruitcake, spice box, underbrush, licorice, and jammy red and black fruits tumble from the glass. The wine is medium bodied, round, nearly opulent by the standards of this château, with a spicy, somewhat pinched finish. Anticipated maturity: now (2003) – 2025+; 91/100.”
Quite frankly, I was a little disappointed in it and all the others that we tasted. I found them to be a little lean, closed and excessively tannic. Could it have been the macarons? (Note: Alain Vauthier replaced Pascal in the mid-90s and with the assistance of consultant Michel Roland the succeeding vintages showed marked improvement). By the way, you can latch on to your very own bottle of 2013 Château Ausone for $899.85 at the LCBO, a mere bag of shells!
We bade Pascal a fond farewell and after a quick lunch in the village traversed the short distance to Pomerol and its foremost winery, Château Pétrus (it can be well argued that Château Le Pin belongs in the same company). I always thought that Pétrus was owned by Christian Moueix, but in fact it is owned by his brother Jean-François Moueix and his children. Christian did oversee the production of 40 vintages ending his involvement in 2011. It is a small estate, only 28.4 acres and it produces just one wine, Pétrus (no second wine) from only Merlot Grapes (since 2010). Christian and Jean-François’ father Jean-Pierre Moueix acquired controlling interest in the estate in 1964 and hired oenologist Jean-Claude Berrouet to join him in the management of the property. It was M. Berrouet who greeted us at the unprepossessing winery/country house.
After introductions, he took us on a stroll around the property. The vines averaging over 45 years of age are located on a plateau in the eastern part of Pomerol where no doubt the drainage is excellent. I was interested to note that the soil was comprised mostly of black clay. Odd things interest me!
Jean-Claude then escorted us into the winery where we sauntered past the old cement tanks and winemaking equipment as he regaled us with pithy comments about the production of one of the world’s most expensive wines. By the way, you can snag a 1999 Pétrus at the LCBO for a stratospheric $3,865.00 the bottle. It would certainly be something swell to swill at your next barbeque. You can understand why Pétrus is one of the world’s most counterfeited wines.
We then traipsed after Jean-Claude to the tasting room where several vintages of Pétrus awaited our discerning palates. I have to admit that I was in total awe. Here’s what Mr. Parker had to say about one of the wines we sampled: “I remember how thrilling the 1981 Pétrus was from cask, but it has never performed as well from the bottle. I have continued to downgrade it. In this tasting (12/95), the wine exhibited an understated, light, washed-out personality, with vegetal cherry/coffee-flavored fruit in the nose intermingled with scents of spicy oak. Tart, lean and austere, this is a Médoc-tasting wine without any of the Pétrus sweetness, chewiness, or unctuosity. This must be one of the most overrated wines of the past two decades. As there was virtually no sediment in this 16-year-old wine, I wonder if it was excessively fined and/or filtered? Anticipated maturity: now-2015.”
Missing from Mr. Parker’s description is a characteristic aroma that I have detected in every bottle of Pétrus I have tried (I can assure you that such occasions have been sadly limited), including the ones just sampled – a mix of mushrooms and truffles. His comments seem a little harsh, but it should be noted that they were scribed seven years after our visit. Perhaps the 1981 Pétrus had closed up in the intervening years. All in all I quite enjoyed these famous wines, but could not help feeling that their prices were running amok.
Our third day in Bordeaux had been quite astonishing. We were introduced to two of the most famous wine estates in the world, enjoyed the many delights of the village of Saint-Émilion and got to devour some of the finest macarons in creation. Not too shabby. In my next post I’ll tell you all about Château Ducru-Beaucaillou and its marvellous owners, the Borie family.
In closing, we just came across this photo taken on the first day of our Bordeaux expedition while at Maison Hennessy in Cognac. Here I am awash in their finest cognacs while Hélène looks on approvingly. Never in my life have I had so much fine brandy – before lunch!
PS: Be sure to check out what’s happening at Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club if you are interested in some really great wines mostly from the Southern Rhône.
Please “like” our blogs, if you have enjoyed our musings, or add a “comment” — clickable at the top or bottom of each story. The search function works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous stories.