The phrase “Wine Tasting in Bordeaux” quite understandably conjures images of palatial châteaux with intimidatingly haughty staff pouring wines which, albeit delicious, bear prices reaching up into the four figures. But like all stereotypes, this image tells only part of the story. There is another Bordeaux of smaller, family-owned wineries centered on one of the loveliest medieval towns in France. Here, on Bordeaux’s Right Bank in Saint-Emilion, welcoming wineries produce exquisite reds that stand toe-to-toe with the best wines in the world. A recent tasting we attended at Chicago’s Spertus Institute reconfirmed that fact.
Because the inland Saint-Emilion appellation tends to be cooler than regions closer to the ocean, Merlot and Cabernet Franc dominate wine blends, rather than later-ripening Cabernet Sauvignon. As a result, Saint-Emilion wines often taste richer, fuller and less tannic than Left Bank Bordeaux, which means they can usually be consumed sooner after release. While many Saint-Emilions cellar well, to be sure, there’s rarely a need to lay them down for a decade or more to enjoy them.
We tried 16 different Saint-Emilion Grands Crus Classés (a large step up from basic Grands Crus) from the 2010 and recently released 2012 vintages, and discovered wines that never failed to be gorgeously fruity, concentrated, refined and thoroughly delicious. The most common flavors we encountered were ripe dark cherry, mocha and white-pepper spice, which make for quite a seductive combination. The 2010 Château Bellefont-Belcier is a perfect example. Enticingly aromatic with lots of cherry fruit, it builds with restrained power, culminating in focused spice and elegantly supple tannins. We also loved the spicy 2012, with its pure fruit and excellent balance.
Another notable example was Château Clos de Sarpe, poured by Charles-Antoine Beyney, the only son of the current owner, who will be the fourth generation to own and manage the winery. “I’m building a data center right now, so that’s very different from wine,” Beyney confided, “but someday I will have to take over.” The 2010 vintage by this biodynamic winery tasted particularly fine, with flavors of dark red and purple fruits, chocolate and leather. It had more fine-grained tannins than the powerful and rather masculine 2012, which had an almost port-like aroma with a delightful overlay of eucalyptus freshness, in addition to the characteristic dark red fruit and chocolate tones.
We also met Marie Pourquet, who owns and runs the commendable Château Grand-Pontet with her mother. Its wines ranked among the most forceful of those we tasted, due in part to the unusually large amount of Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend: 7.5 percent in the 2012 vintage and 15 percent in the 2010. The 2012 still felt young, with sublime aromatics, wonderfully big fruit and a rather sudden bang of tannins on the finish, whereas the 2010 vintage had already integrated, offering ripe and open fruit, powerful white pepper spice moving seamlessly into the tannins on the end. The 2010’s beautiful balance is even more impressive considering its strikingly high alcohol content of 15.5 percent!
The winery we’re most excited to visit in person is Château Fonplegade, on a south-facing slope not far from legendary Château Ausone. Most wineries in the area accept visitors for tours and tastings (by appointment), but Fonplegade ensures that the experience is truly memorable. We chatted with its American owners, Steven and Denise Adams, who assured us that they want to really spoil their guests. “We take only one party at a time,” Denise explained, “because we’re interested in the right people coming, not a lot of people coming.” Guests can take a mule ride in the vineyard, and in the cellar, “we give visitors cashmere shawls to wear if they’re cold,” Denise continued. And, unusually for the area, Fonplegade offers appointments for tours and tastings seven days a week.
Fonplegade takes its winemaking as seriously as its hospitality. Its wines, a blend of 95 percent Merlot and 5 percent Cabernet Franc, would make a convert out of the staunchest Merlot-phobe. The exciting 2012 felt like a taut spring waiting to uncoil, with ample dark red and purple fruit, tightly focused spice, intriguing notes of mushrooms and earth and a touch of minerality. In the 2010, the spring had begun to release, with more open fruit, some voluptuous mocha and, surprisingly, more powerful tannins. Like many wineries in Saint-Emilion, Fonplegade is slowly reducing the amount of new oak its wines see, in order to better emphasize the quality of the fruit and the character of the terroir.
Mr. Harper recommends L’Hostellerie de Plaisance right in the heart of the town of Saint-Emilion, but those who prefer to stay in the city of Bordeaux or at Les Sources de Caudalie can easily visit the area as a day trip. Pessac-Léognan, noted for its sumptuous whites, and Sauternes, world-famous for its sensational dessert wines, would make ideal complementary excursions. The Travel Office can help arrange private winery tours and tastings throughout the Bordeaux region.