At Château d’Yquem, the 15th-century estate nestled into southern Bordeaux’s rolling green fields, it’s the ugliest grapes that give the sweetest wine. Purplish-yellow like the vivid hues of a fading bruise, the fungus-festered fruits hang from the vines shriveled and carpeted in a thin layer of grayish fuzz. One of Mother Nature’s strangest surprises, this mold turns to gold. These infected grapes are the secret behind one of the world’s most coveted sweet white wines, Château d’Yquem, the only wine in the Sauternes 1855 appellation with the distinction of Premier Cru Supérieur.
It was a thrill to take a walk in the fields to see where these ugly-duckling grapes grow. Plucking the desiccated fruits from the vine and pressing their woolly skins into your tongue, a rush of adrenaline accompanies putting something that looks absolutely rotten between your lips. It stirs up the same sort of flutter in your chest that comes right before you jump off a cliff into an ocean. It’s consciousness-expanding, too, realizing something which looks so foul could possibly taste so heavenly.
The phenomenon known as “noble rot,” found only in the appellation from where Sauternes derive, sees early-morning fog drifting across the vineyard rows, creating the perfect conditions for this hyperlocal fungus to thrive. Sucking water from their host grapes, a mix of Sémillon and Sauvignon blanc varieties, this dehydrating botrytis impresses a unique route to high-sugar content. While the sugariness of other sweet wines comes from a late harvest, the infected grapes transformed into Sauternes like d’Yquem are plucked from the vines around late September to early October, ensuring a nectar sweet but not cloying.
Maintaining the house lives up to its 300-year-old winemaking reputation, Pierre Lurton, from one of Bordeaux’s most famed wine families, heads operations at Château d’Yquem. He’s also the winemaker at Château Cheval Blanc, about an hour’s drive away, in the Saint-Émilion appellation. We were fortunate enough to visit Château Cheval Blanc and meet him (a visit and encounter which is the exception rather than the rule). It was there at Château Cheval Blanc on the property adorned with red roses, that Lurton gave us an intimate audience. With a rugged square jaw and a charming French accent, the winemaker is a natural raconteur. He had one story about a fox terrier latching itself on to the cuff of someone’s trousers, another about when he first showed up on the doorstep of Château Cheval Blanc. Interviewing for a job there at only 32, they noted his family name was so famous, maybe it’s possible, they suggested, he could use his mother’s maiden name. He could, he offered, but his mother’s name is Lafite. The irony, of course, is that Lafite is another of Bordeaux’s oldest winemaking families. Though named after a white horse, Château Cheval Blanc is a red wine, primarily a mix of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Lurton, who says he favors picking the Merlot early and the Cab late, describes the resulting elixir’s tannins as “like cashmere.” With the distinction of Premier Grand Cru Classe A, Cheval Blanc is the most sought after Saint-Émilion and its 1947 vintage is celebrated as perhaps the greatest wine in the world. In their constant pursuit of perfection, over the last decade, the house underwent a major renovation of its winery, soliciting French architect Christian de Portzamparc to build a state-of-the-art facility. While its modern concrete design juxtaposes the historic château, its sinuous design imitates the gentle hills of the surrounding pastoral landscape. Inside the cellar, the concrete tanks built for aging fermenting the grapes, echo these same curves.
The diversity of terroir encompassed in the 100-acre vineyard, including eleven different types of soil, is one of the factors that goes into making Château Cheval Blanc such an outstanding wine. When Lurton first became the house’s winemaker, his uncle told him the terroir is so good, even if you make many mistakes, the wine will still probably turn out alright. He laughs recounting the story of familial teasing. But of course, the extreme attention to detail in Lurton’s
winemaking process minimizes the risk of error. The decision for when to pick grapes in a particular plot of vineyard land, for instance, is left for the very last minute to ensure the harvest has exactly the desirable sugars, aromatics, and tannins. The workers who pick these grapes by hand are informed only the night before by text message—another example of the immersion of tradition and modernity at Château Cheval Blanc.
All the while stimulated by these storied lessons on winemaking, the expansiveness of the French countryside’s seemingly infinite fields of green puts one unassailably at ease. The days and nights were filled with countless highlights: The morning fog on the lake just after sunrise at Domaine des Etangs—an 11th-century château oozing with rustic elegance in Bordeaux-neighboring Massignac, or the bottle of smokey 1998 Dom Ruinart we shared the night before.
The earthly smell of the pond at Les Sources de Caudalie, or the rejuvenating salt water pools at the Bordeaux property’s famed spa. Clos19’s tour was curated for the mind and soul, the palate and psyche. It was the kind of multi-sensorial experience that urged you to put your smartphone away and revel in the moment, but still there was the perfect dish for Instagramming, foie gras in the shape of a kumquat at Domaine des Etangs’s Dyades restaurant, as delicious as it was photogenic.
Amidst, all the champagne and caviar, the exclusive access and enviable vintages, there was one small detail on the trip that was as stirring as it was simple. During dinner at La Grand Vigne, the restaurant at Les Sources de Caudalie which boasts two Michelin stars, between courses, the server appeared with a silver platter of geranium leaves—to set the mood for the next dish, she explained. They felt like velvet and smelt like peppermint. I wrapped the leaf in my purse after and took it back to my room after dinner. Placing it inside the hotel’s bedside table drawer, I thought of Brett in The Sun Also Rises and her bull’s ear. Eventually, the spicy scent of the geranium leaf faded but its literary echoes lingered long after I’d boarded a plane back to New York.
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