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A Day in the Médoc
The Médoc, the low, gravelly peninsula north of the city of Bordeaux, between the Gironde estuary and the Atlantic ocean, may be one of the world's most historic wine regions as well as one of its best. Making wine for more than a millennium, Bordeaux and its wine have been linked with the English-speaking world since its Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine married King Henry II of England in 1152, introducing the English to the joys of claret and creating a love affair that has never abated.

Although Bordeaux covers a wider realm, and some of its most fabled regions (Graves, Sauternes, Pomerol and St.-Emilion, to name a few examples) lie outside the Médoc peninsula, the concentration of great wineries in Médoc is noteworthy, and so is the marketing savvy that led the region's merchants to "classify" its top properties in 1855, a canny move that still rings cash-register bells a century-and-a-half later.

Now, with rising demand and prices pumping major capital back into the region, it offers a yeasty mix of beautiful old chateaus (the mansion-like buildings that house many of the wineries) with shiny new winery equipment and facilities.

Our friend (and Wine Lovers' Discussion Group participant) Alex Rychlewski, an American who lives in Bordeaux and makes his living as a French translator, accompanied us on a daylong tour of four favorite wineries, which he arranged with the assistance of the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB).

Chateau Palmer

Palmer
Tour guides at Chateau Palmer take pride in pointing out that the property adjoins the renowned Chateau Margaux (visible at upper left). It is not known whether Margaux returns the compliment.
We began our day at the southern end of the Médoc, well under an hour's drive from downtown Bordeaux, at this famed third-growth property that in my estimation (and, I think, that of many other wine lovers) is consistently one of the finest wines of Bordeaux at any classification level.

Like many major Bordeaux properties, the winery, though traditional and well-kept, is not particularly tourist-oriented; visits - a standard one-hour tour conducted by a member of the winery's staff - must be arranged by appointment well in advance, and the tasting at the end of the tour is generally limited to one bottling: A bottled barrel sample of the most recent vintage:

Chateau Palmer 1999 Margaux - This barrel sample, bottled three days before our visit, is an opaque blackish-purple in color. Fresh fruit and sweet oak aromas segue into extracted fruit flavors with crisp acidity over strong tannins. The finish is redolent of violets and literally lasts five minutes, staying with me all the way out to the parking lot. Young but showing great promise.

Chateau Beychevelle

Beychevelle
Gleaming with much recent renovation and exceptionally hospitable tourist facilities, this excellent fourth-growth illustrates the Médoc's conventional wisdom that the best vineyards grow "within sight of the water." Its impressive chateau building, first built in the 17th century, is one of the oldest in Bordeaux, overlooking a long, sloping lawn that ends at the water's edge.

Chateau Beychevelle 1999 St.-Julien - Very dark reddish-purple. Closed nose, some oxidation (bs opened yesterday). Full, toasty oak, very tannic. Awkward but promising. Contains 45 percent Merlot, 49 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 6 percent Petit Verdot.

Chateau Beychevelle 1998 St.-Julien - Very dark garnet. Black fruit and cedar aromas with a whiff of anise, very appetizing. Mouth-filling and ripe, structured and balanced. Tannic but approachable; keep an eye out for this one ... bottling in mid-May, it will ship in the fall and will probably reach US retailers after the first of the first of the year. Contains 43 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 43 percent Merlot, 6 percent Cabernet Franc and 8 percent Petit Verdot.

Lunch at St.-Julien

I'm afraid I've lost the name of the restaurant that Alex chose for us in the village of St.-Julien, but let the record reflect that it was a fine meal, well accompanied by a white wine from the list and a red we purchased at a wine shop in the village:

Ch. Loudenne 1997 Médoc Blanc - Pale straw. White fruit, grass and oak evident on the nose. Crisp and fresh, a bit on the oaky side, but the wood is well integrated with the fruit.

Ch. Poujeaux 1989 Moulis-en-Médoc - Very dark garnet. Cassis and cedar on the nose and palate.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville

Sylvie Cazes-Regimbeau
Sylvie Cazes-Regimbeau operates the computer of Chateau Pichon-Longueville's high-tech fermentation room, where a glass-enclosed "control tower" oversees a circular room filled with gleaming steel tanks.
This spectacular, high-tech winery - one of the few properties in Bordeaux built in modern times with wine-loving visitors in mind (although reservations for visits are still strongly recommended) - was purchased in 1987 by the French firm AXA-Millésimes and is managed by Chateau Lynch-Bages owner Jean-Michel Cazes. AXA-Millésimes organized an architectural competition to turn the winery's production facilities into a modern showplace, while retaining the classic Nineteenth Century chateau building as its centerpiece. In the ensuing decade, Cazes has clearly restored the wines of this once-faltering second-growth property to competitive status.

We had the privilege of having Cazes' sister, Sylvie Cazes-Regimbeau, as our hostess for a tour and tasting of barrel samples.

Chateau Pibran 1999 Pauillac - Inky dark purple. Minty cassis. Light, peppery, tart.

Les Tourelles de Longueville 1999 Pauillac - Very dark garnet, shy nose. Black fruit, tart tannins. Not showing much now.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville 1999 Pauillac - Inky dark, almost black. Deep but delicate cassis aromas. Black fruit and lemon-squirt acidity, a load of tannins.

Chateau Pibran 1998 Pauillac - Very dark garnet. Meaty, ripe, acidic. Good structure.

Les Tourelles de Longueville 1998 Pauillac - Inky garnet; perfumed, incense. Leathery black fruit, good extract.

Chateau Pichon-Longueville 1998 Pauillac - Very dark purple. Delicious Bordeaux scents, cedar and cigar-box and ripe black fruit. Tart and tannic, already drinking well, but time will serve it well.

Chateau Montrose Chateau Montrose

Northernmost of the four wineries in our visit, this renowned Saint-Estephe property is located within sight of the Gironde. Like Beychevelle, its "front yard" descends gracefully to the water, where ships once docked to pick up shipments of wine directly from the winery. A second-growth, it consistently produces stylish wines. The genial winery manager Philippe de Laguarigue took us around for a casual, enjoyable tasting and tour.

La Dame du Montrose 1998 Saint-Estephe - Dark ruby, tasty perfumed black fruit nose and palate.

Chateau Montrose 1998 Saint-Estephe - Inky blackish-purple. Ripe black fruit and sweet oak, a hint of browned butter; ripe and tannic flavors, young and tart.

La Dame du Montrose 1999 Saint-Estephe - Blackish, opaque. Cassis and leather, closed. Anise and fennel and black fruit, lean and astringent.

Chateau Montrose 1999 Saint-Estephe - Inky garnet,shading to black. Cedar and caramel. Lean and tight, but intense, clean fruit shows much potential. Winery manager Philippe de Laguarigue tells us that the influential U.S. wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. dismissed this wine on barrel tasting as "watery" and gave it a dismal rating. Watery!? This makes no sense. Inky, maybe, but this dark, sturdy wine is anything but watery. My guess: Parker erred in his notes and rated the wrong wine, a human mistake that can afflict any critic. Perhaps so, Laguarige said, adding a Gallic shrug and a laughing, "why me?"

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All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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