This story happened in Bordeaux in May this year, during Le Week-end des Grands Crus. This year a number of right bank properties, in Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, received visits on the Sunday. Our booker-in-chief booked three visits for our brave and enthusiastic trio, since that was the number of time slots available. The other two visits, both quite pleasant and interesting, were at Le Bon Pasteur and Château Pavie Macquin, and I’ve already blogged about those two. He had also booked us into a better lunch in Saint-Émilion – there’s a two hour gap between the morning slot and the first afternoon slot – at Le Clos du Roy, where the booker-in-chief previously had failed to get a reservation, but had better luck this time. Since the morning’s visit at Le Bon Pasteur was fairly extensive and we were hosted by Michel Rolland’s talkative son-in-law, it turned out at the end of that visit that we were in bit of a hurry in order not be late for our lunch. In a difficult-to-book restaurant it might not be safe to turn up too late, even in France. We did however run into some parking problems. Parking can always be difficult on busy days in Saint-Émilion, where most of the town is closed-off to cars and you have to circle around to explore alternate spaces, but this time it was worse than usual. So that caused us some extra delay.
The lunch itself was absolutely amazing, and I was particularly impressed by the entrée chosen by me and one more in our company, a pot au feu de foie gras. Crossing a stew and a piece of foie gras (I think it was duck) seemed a bit bold, but I thought I’d give this creation a chance. It turned out to be served in a miniature version of an enameled casserole/pan with lid. Inside was a vegetable “stew” with small and very crispy young vegetables in vegetable stock, and on top of this a generous piece of foie gras. This was a surprisingly good combination, with an exiting contrast between the soft piece of liver and the crispy vegetable. To this way of serving foie gras, a red wine was an excellent combination, and I would like to make it known that in general I find foie gras an excellent excuse to open a bottle of Sauternes or another sweet wine of a reasonably powerful or spicy character.
The wine we had for lunch was Château Destieux 1998, in this vintage still a “plain” Saint-Émilion Grand Cru, but now a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé. The wine was surprisingly young and I scored it 90 points. (I didn’t note down anything more, there was also a lunch and some company to keep me busy.) For main course I believe I had veal with something ravioloi-like, but it was the entrée that was really memorable.
We made a brave effort to finish our lunch reasonably quick, and even skipped dessert, but in France it is difficult to rush some things. I’m not just referring to the lunch as such, where I agree that one should avoid indigestion by rushing it, but to the process of getting the bill and paying. To be frank, I don’t know of any other commercial, sales-funded activity anywhere in the world where the owners or employees often seem so uninterested in finalising the actual payment as they often are in French restaurants. Waiters that just minutes before had a hawk’s eye for empty glasses, dropped napkins or whatever, are suddenly struck by partial blindness when you try to get eye contact, or wave discretely to get attention once it is time to pay and get going. The reason for this phenomenon deserves to be the subject of a lengthy Ph.D. thesis, and it should be lengthy because I would like to see it explore how this irritating phenomenon could finally be corrected! In any case, this meant that when we at late last had paid what we should and returned to our car (remember the parking problems – we had to park some distance away, basically outside the town) we should ideally already had arrived at the location of our next visit. The next château wasn’t that far away, but it turned out to be more difficult to find than expected, so the minutes continued to tick. When we finally arrived at the right place, we were upwards of half an hour late. We naturally understood that this might mean that we would miss the entire visit (for me, the pot au feu was well worth this), but we still thought it was worth checking if we were still able to joint the tour, since the tasting itself always is the last part. Honestly, I’ve seen a number of barrel cellars before, so the first part feels less difficult to miss out on. However, the door turned out to be locked when we arrived, with no signs of a door bell or any sign with a phone number or any explanation of how delayed visitors would be able to get into contact with those on the other side. The building wasn’t too large, though, so we circled around to the back and found the large windows of a tasting room, where we could see some wine glasses and a few bottles being ready for the tasting soon to begin. However, not a soul was to be seen, so we concluded that the hosts probably had led the visiting down into the deep cellar and hadn’t heard our knocking.
Before I continue it might be a good idea to mention were this story takes place: Château Beau-Séjour Bécot. This property is located to the west of Saint-Émilion, in the former parish of Saint-Martin de Mazerat, on the plateau rich in limestone which surrounds the town of Saint-Émilion, and where most of the best wines of the appellation are produced. This property consists of 16.5 hectares (41 acres) of vineyards, of which 70% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Franc, and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon, and they use 80-100% new oak for their wine. The property is classified Saint-Émilion Premier Grand Cru Classé B, the second highest level in Saint-Émilion. (Anyone who is curious about the Saint-Émilion classification in general can read the final part of the blog post on the visit to Pavie Macquin.) The used to enjoy the same classification in former times, but in 1985 they were demoted to regular Grand Cru Classé after the owner had incorporated vineyards from two other, non-classified properties in the production of Beau-Séjour Becot. In 1996 they made a comeback at the level of Premier Grand Cru Classé B, so the vineyards added turned out to be up to standard (which the owner had claimed all along), and they have stayed at this level since.
Here we were, knocking on the door of said property, and pressing our noses against the windows of their tasting room, hoping that the visiting group would emerge from the Merlot-infused cellar somewhere in our line of sight. And, lo and behold, after a while they did emerge, and we were waved around the building and allowed through the no longer locked door. We said bon jour, looked suitably embarassed, and the most francophone of us apologised for us showing up so late, and received the expected no worries typ of response. After that, we discretely joined the rest of the visitors in the tasting room.
After some more moderation in French from the hostess, they started to pour a wine into glasses and hand these out to the visitors. The order they served the audience was a bit random, but it seemed strange that the handing out of glasses subsided without us having received any, and that the two hosts started to sniff their own glasses. It didn’t seem to us that the visiting group was so huge that they couldn’t see who had received a glass and who hadn’t. The more francophone of us then discretely pointed out to the co-host that we hadn’t received any glasses. The reply he received was that the tasting was part of the tour of the premises that we had missed, and that we therefore couldn’t taste their wine. Do note that the visit required booking in advance with the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, so we weren’t exactly a random lot of bypassing bums who just came knocking on their door. We definitely were quite late, due to pot au feu eating, payment issues at the restaurant, parking issues, navigational issues, and so on. Why they let us in and indicated that our arriving late was no big deal was suddenly somewhat unclear, since we were not welcome to take part in the tasting, and the tasting was the end of the tour. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really travel to wine regions for the “pleasure” of standing in a tasting room and looking like a fool while other people are actually tasting wine. It’s sort of more enjoyable to actually be tasting myself. But, after a while, we actually got a glass each. I honestly can’t remember if my friend talked to the co-host again and negociated, or if it was due to the embarrassment caused by the very surprised look on our faces and our ensuing conversation in Swedish. But I do remember that we didn’t receive the glasses with some sort of “oups, this turned out very wrong, of course you’ll taste with the rest” attitude, we rather received our glasses with a grimace that told us that we had better be very grateful for actually being allowed to taste ze wine of this property.
The wine in our glasses strangely turned out to be a 2003, a very hot vintage which produced highly atypical and somewhat controversial wines. The wines did get good reviews by some critics (such as Parker) when they were young, but have not been to everyone’s liking. That’s not the vintage I would have chosen if I wanted to give a representative view of a Bordeaux property. This was my impression of what I received in my glass:
Château Beau-Séjour Bécot 2003
Nose with sweet red and dark berries, some minty notes, almost eucalyptus, definitely a sweet nose. Palate with ripe and sweet red berries, slightly noticeable alcohol, medium tannins with rather friendly structure, aftertaste with sweet red berries, and here the tannins bite a bit more. Good concentration, not particularly balanced. Fully drinkable now, probably risks disintegration with additional cellaring, 88 p.
My intention was that my note would not be affected by how we were received. But I do have some problems with some 2003s, and in my opinion, Merlot should not get extra heat if it is to retain its balance. (Without the extra alcoholic feeling I had probably scored the wine 90 p.)
After a while the visit turned out to be over, without any more bottles being pulled out. One (1) was the number of wines served. The number of wines served was one. A single wine. There were two bottles located at different trays of wine glasses, but this only turned out to be two bottles of the same vintage, 2003. Also those who showed up on time, and had to forego the pleasure of eating pot au feu with foie gras, were served nothing more. This could not exactly be called generous. Admittedly, the visits were free of charge, but not “free for all” since there was a limited numbers of places and booking was mandatory. Some sort of “contemporary industry standard” in Bordeaux for regular visits to better producers is to offer two wines for tasting – one (young) vintage of the first wine/grand vin and one vintage of the second wine. Then we’re talking about tastings that you book on your own anytime during the year, at those producers who are willing to receive visitors. Already this “industry standard” is more frugal than that of any other wine region I have visited. I find it quite fascinating when a producer manages to be even less generous than this during a special visitor’s weekend, with common marketing from an ambitious producers’ organisation. That indicates a very strange view on how to treat visitors, some of them from far away, as well as current and potential customers. Do note that UGCB nowadays focuses all the visits to one of three subregions (Médoc, Graves, or the right bank) per year, and it is only during the Sunday that visitors are received. Those châteaux who volunteer to receive visits (far from all of them are open), will receive this type of visits no more than one day every three years! Admittedly, this day consists of three slots, so they do have to entertain three groups of visitors. As a comparison to the one wine of Beau-Séjour Becot, Le Bon Pasteur thought four wines, including three vintages of their first wine, was a suitable number, and Pavie Macquin treated us to seven wines, including two vintages of the first wine.
To be fair to the region as a whole, and to give a balanced view of what one can expect when visiting, I would like to add that the attitude usually encountered in Bordeaux is usually very friendly and pleasant. The Le Week-end des Grands Crus, that premiered in 2006, was created to give private consumers better possibilities to taste the wines on location. This was more difficult before. During the exhibition on the Saturday, there are a couple of hundred wines to taste, two vintages from each château. Possibly, Beau-Séjour, despite the two hosts being rather young, showed Bordeaux as it apparently came across to private visitors some time ago. A couple of decades ago, it apparently was common in Bordeaux to only offer visitors a barrel sample of the most recent vintage, and no other tasting opportunities.
My view about Château Beau-Séjour Bécot after this visit is this: may the wine louse gobble up their vines! 🙂
Swedish version here.