French Wine Tour 2014 - June 19

June 19 Thursday

9.15am we were on our coach and headed for our morning appointment at Château Pontet Canet and were delighted to be met by Daniel who had hosted our visit in 2012, which had been excellent, welcoming and informative. He recognised Virginia and I immediately and we quickly updated him on our current tour and progress of FWD Co. with its new premises and exciting additions.

Pontet Canet was first planted in 1891 and consists of 81-hectares that are planted variously in Cabernet Sauvignon (62%) – Merlot (32%) – Cabernet Franc (4%) – Petit Verdot (2%) with the roots travelling up to 15-metres down in search of moisture. It is owned by Alfred Tesseron who also owns several other Bordeaux properties along with the highly regarded Cognac House, Tesseron Cognac. Daniel led us straight to the vineyards where he shared with us the viticulture philosophies of Château Pontet Canet, which are organically and bio-dynamically certified. The first thing our group noticed was the horses at work ploughing the vineyards, which is part of the bio-dynamic approach; they currently run a team of five horses with two more in training and plans to expand to ten when the new stables are completed. Under bio-dynamic management only herbal based fertilisers are used and the reason for using horses to plough the vineyards is to avoid damaging the roots via heavy tractor wheels. All application of herbal sprays is done in conjunction with phases of the moon, which is directly related to the varying energy levels of the vines within the moons cycle. There is a lot of unproven methodology behind these practices but if you explore the principles further it makes pretty good sense. And Michel Chapoutier whom Robert Parker refers to as a winemaking genius has farmed his owned estates bio-dynamically for over 20-years as has James & Annie Millton at Gisborne and their wines completely validate this approach.

Daniel then led us inside the winery; first to the grape reception area, which is on the upper floor where all the handpicked bins of fruit are received, sorted, very gently de-stemmed then gravity fed directly into the wooden vats below in readiness for fermentation.Daniel had set up the tasting of a barrel sample of the 2013 en-primeur release here and the wine impressed…

Château Pontet Canet 2013 – it is a highly aromatic wine with strong floral, sweet black fruits, graphite and spices perfectly engaged with each other. The palate is brightly flavoured (very concentrated due to a 50% reduction in crop levels) with fresh black fruits infused with hints of briar, black tea, black currant and integrated savoury notes. It's warm, rich and juicy with great purity and freshness… one to look out for.

In 2013 the vines naturally produced yields circa half that of normal with small thick skinned berries giving a higher concentration of skin to pulp which explains the high levels of concentration in the barrel sample we tasted.

We then headed into the winery where concrete tanks are used as they provide similar oxygenation properties to the wine as barrels/vats. The inside of the tanks are sprayed with tartaric acid which acts as a barrier to preventing the wine from leeching through the concrete walls whilst allowing oxygenation (measured amount of exposure to oxygen which increases the structure and mouth feel). The batches are regularly pumped over to achieve a gentle extraction during post maceration in tank/vats (approximately 3-weeks exposure to skins) before transfer to small oak barrels for 18-months maturation. Pontet Canet have developed small egg shaped concrete maturation vessels slightly larger than oak barriques, which breathe similarly and due to their shape create a natural vortex keeping the lees in constant suspension giving the juice continuous exposure to lees… they prefer to age the Merlot in these vessels as opposed to oak barriques. Finally we descended into the underground library cellar, which contains Pontet Canet dating back to 1942; these wines are re-corked every 25-years and are kept for the personal use of owner Alfred Tesseron, special tastings and for swapping with other leading Châteaux.

It had been another fascinating visit and while many of the winemaking/viticulture practices in leading estates are similar they all have something unique and it was the oval concrete vessels for maturing the Merlot in the case of Pontet Canet. Royce Everett perfectly expressed the appreciation of our group in his thank you speech to Daniel while many of the group extended an open invitation to have him visit when he comes to NZ in future, which he is very keen to do. Back on the coach and within 5-minutes we were pulling into the Village de Bages (owned by the famous Bordeaux property – Château Lynch Bages) for lunch at Café Lavinal. If you go to Bordeaux and you are in the region of Pauillac you should pop in for lunch as the food is excellent, the wine selection very smart and well-priced, the service is fast and friendly and the ambience delightful.After lunch the group gravitated to a shop that offered a stylish selection of home/kitchen wares along with wine accessories and other items of interest. There were many quality and interesting items however our bags were already at their limit so we resisted the temptation and soon were back on the coach for a short drive to the doors of 1st Growth producer Château Mouton Rothschild for our afternoon visit.

We were greeted by one of Mouton's sommeliers ‘Jerome' who was quite proper and seemingly thinking here was another group that he had to get himself up for; little did he know his best group of the day lay ahead. He took us directly to a small theatre where we were shown a 15-minute video of the history of Mouton Rothschild… it was beautifully put together and stunningly narrated by the estates owner ‘Baroness PhilippineMathilde Camillede Rothschild' who was heavily involved in theatre in her younger life before taking over the reins of the estate from her father ‘Baron Philippe de Rothschild' when he passed away in 1988. They also own the estates of Château Clerc Milon, Château d'Armailhac and they produce the famous and accessibly priced ‘Mouton Cadet' plus have a joint venture Chilean wine project with Concha y Toro under the brand of Almaviva.

In 1855 the growth classification of the left bank Bordeaux Châteaux was initiated but the foundation was quite flawed in that growth status was decided largely on the price the various Châteaux were then selling for, as opposed to an assessment of vineyards/winemaking and quality similar to the Right Bank appellation of St. Emilion.And unlike St. Emilion who conduct a classification review every 10-years where properties can be re-ranked either up or down - the Left Bank has made only one isolated re-ranking in 159-years with the controversial but deserved upgrading of Château Mouton Rothschild from 2nd to 1st Growth in 1973. Mouton's motto pre the 1973 re-ranking was… ‘1st I am not – 2nd I do not want to be – Mouton I am'. After achieving an upgrade to 1st Growth status in 1973 their motto was revised to… ‘1st I am – 2nd I was – Mouton no change'.

Jerome then directed us to the amazing new winemaking and vat hall that was under construction when we were last here in 2012. 100-metres long and consisting of two floors the small bins of handpicked fruit (they employ over 600 pickers during harvest) are delivered to the top floor where hand sorting is followed by optical sorting prior to de-stemming then gravity fed to the large wooden vats for fermentation and post ferment maceration on skins for up to 20-days. After which it is aged for 16-18 months in 225-litre French oak barriques. The wooden vats have two transparent staves to enable the winemaker to check on fermentation and the levels. 125,000 bottles of Mouton are produced each vintage (subject to vintage conditions). Jerome then showed us the private wine library cellars that store 120,000 bottles of aged Mouton dating back to 1839 with each bottle subject to re-corking every 25-years. The 100-metre long great barrel hall was built in 1926 houses 1,000 barrels. Our last stop was the Rothschild's private art collection housed in specially conditioned rooms and the group spent 20-minutes marvelling over the many precious pieces and paintings. Then to the private tasting room where we reviewed the 2013 barrel sample of Mouton as follows…

Château Mouton Rothschild 2013 – ripe berry, herbs, spices, floral notes and smoky/graphite note preceded a concentrated palate with chalky tannin/texture. Black fruits, cassis, briar, graphite and mixed herbs permeate the bright, flavoursome fresh palate that has real promise.

The tasting completed it was left to John MacDonald to express the appreciation of the group, which he did with aplomb, recounting a fascinating and fortuitous experience he had had with Château Mouton Rothschild many years ago. After which we went out to the vineyards and had a group photo taken with our host Jerome. He was a reserved young man but had warmed hugely to our group who had made his task very rewarding with our obvious enthusiasm and thirst for information. We bade him farewell and boarded our coach back to Relais de Margaux for a quiet group dinner.