By now those who follow the Barefoot Blogger know that I’m a wine lover, not a wine connoisseur. That didn’t stop me from signing up for the Secrets of Great Wine tour offered by the Tourist Office in Bordeaux.
Starting with a walk through the historic wine merchant district, the Chartrons, we traced the route of wine — from barrels that came into warehouses straight from the fields, to barrels that left the district to be transported around the world from the Gironde River.
As good luck would have it, the guide for the tour was a direct descendant of one of the wine merchants of the district from 1812 to 2004 — the Calvets. Along the way Mme Calvet told us about her family life during the time when the merchant trade and the neighborhood were bustling with activity — before warehouses were converted to schools and offices and apartments.
As a child, Mme Calvet lived in the building that now houses the Musée du Vin et du Négoce. In fact before her father (Patreice Calvet) retired, the father and daughter designed the museum at the behest of the city. They used family artifacts to tell the story of the merchant trade of the past.
Mme. Calvet shared the memory of her father tasting wine each morning. He would drink from small glasses lined up on a table in his office. He’d spit out the wine after each taste, then pass judgement on each before selling new wines to his customers. At that time, the wine merchant was solely responsible for the reputation of the wines — not the vineyard. The merchant produced the wine, barreled it, aged it and sold it. It was not until the eighteenth century that bottles were used to age wine!
Following a wine tasting at the museum and lunch at a neighborhood cafe, those of us on the morning tour joined a larger group for a 40 km drive to the small town of Saint Emilion.The rainy day drive into the countryside beyond Bordeaux was a perfect time to relax.
The route was through miles and miles of vineyards. Along the way, it was obvious that the recent cold snap had severely damaged much of the crop.
Saint-Emilion, the Medieval Town
Soon we arrived at Saint Emilion. Named for Émilion, a cave-dwelling monk from Brittany who created a monastery there in the mid- 700s, Saint Emilion has long been of interest to travelers and pilgrims. The site is, in fact, a stopping point along the Santiago de Compostela route. It is said Emilion escaped persecution by the Benedictines and lived an ermetic life here where he performed occasional miracles. Early pilgrims came to the town on the chance they could be healed or saved. After his death, the monolithic Church of Saint Emilion was built by his followers (photos no longer allowed). The cross-shaped church (125′ x 66′) that is carved through limestone rock is the largest of its kind in Europe. Today tourists flock here to see the cave where he lived (the Hermitage); the underground church that includes the catacombs; and the Holy Trinity Chapel that was built the thirteenth century. The town is a UNESCO site, along with the surrounding vineyards (the “jurisdiction).
Saint-Emilion, the Vineyards
Saint Emilion vines were among the earliest cultivated in the region — first by the Romans, later harvested by monks. Today the area is protected as a UNESCO site and is one of the largest wine producers in Bordeaux. They have the widest range of wines and styles, as well. The distinctions are dictated by both the soil and terrain — sandy or limestone rock — and choices made by the wine maker.
Our tour made a leisurely stop at Château Haut-Veyrac, a Grand Cru producer of fine wines of the highest quality. The energetic and knowledgeable guides from the vineyard stepped us through the process — from grapes and vines to bottles on the shelf.
At Château Haut-Veyrac, they are held to standards above the norm, intended to distinguish the area’s finer wines from more everyday wines.
After the lessons on wine-making and the tour, it was time for a tasting and more lessons. It’s all about color, aromas and your own tasting impressions.
So much wine, so little time!
There are not enough hours in the day to learn and experience the secrets of Bordeaux wines. Interestingly, one new fact stands out. Do you know there are often rose bushes in a vineyard. It’s because roses are susceptible to fungi and other diseases that affect grapevines. The health of the rose bush indicates good or bad conditions for vines.
And I thought they were just for decoration!