And yet, like many other travelers, we had come for the wine. There was a piece to the puzzle of understanding France somewhere in the vineyards, and we had arranged for a guide to help us find it. Ronald Rens, the English-speaking President and Wine Master of the Bordeaux Wine Experience is an expert at making the Bordeaux region accessible to his guests. Originally from the Netherlands, Ronald began his love affair with Bordeaux while on numerous vacations. The purchase of Chateau Coulon Laurensac enabled him to share his expertise with his wine tours. Just 20 minutes by car outside of Bordeaux, the limestone chateau was a fitting starting point for exploring the region.
Ronald has now been collecting and studying the wines of Bordeaux for over 25 years. Ronald and his wife Margaret have renovated and opened their home to those looking for something beyond the typical wine tour. There's no room service or bellman at the chateau, just new friendships and understanding about the complexity of winemaking to be found. Chateau Coulon Laurensac is an ideal environment for learning about wine, at any level, encouraging visitors to take their days slow and allow their senses to take over.
Weeping willow trees, blooming flowers and a driveway of pebbles were all covered in a lovely morning dew when we rose for breakfast before our first day of wine touring was to begin. Arriving late to the chateau, Margaret greeted us kindly and left us to enjoy a plate of cheese, charcuterie and bread along with a bottle of the region's famous 2005 vintage. Staying in one of the self-catering apartments, we had the usage of a dining table, small living area, and separate bedroom. It was easy to see days happily pass without visiting a single vineyard.
Passing through a small gate to the pool area, we first saw the expanse of the property. A wine-producing chateau in the past, we learned that the room we were now staying in had originally been part of the winery. A sun terrace was the location for breakfast, with floor to ceiling glass windows on three sides. One long table encouraged conversation between guests, with a maximum of 10 people staying at the chateau at any one time.
Croissants, fresh fruit and yogurt were arranged on the table. Pots of coffee and tea and juice were passed as introductions were made. An American couple had just arrived from Paris as well, and had signed up for the "Best of Both Worlds" tour. On the first day, they would explore the Medoc region, on the left bank. Their second day would find them in St. Emilion and Pomerol, with the chance to develop a taste for the differences between the regions.
Many chateaux in Bordeaux aren't open to the general public. The difficulty in arranging your own visit to the region is complicated by a variety of factors, and often first-time visitors don't know where to begin. Ronald had made all of our appointments for the day, bringing us to 3 of the top chateaux. Providing a bit of 'infotainment' about wine and the region, Ronald shared his knowledge and introduced us to the winemakers. This was my main interest, to meet the people and families behind the tradition of producing wine. Over the course of the day, it was confirmed to me just how much winemaking is a labor of love.
I was glad not to be behind the wheel, maneuvering small turns and obeying one-way signs en route to our first chateau in Saint Emilion. The Bordeaux Wine Experience removes all the hassle from touring the vineyards, leaving visitors free to concentrate on the wine. I sat back and took in views of the countryside as Ronald explained the nature of Bordeaux wines, all blends of the grape varieties of the area.
Lavender clung to vines on the walls of Chateau Canon as we pulled into the driveway. We were introduced to Geraldine, my first glimpse into the pride of the region's winemakers. Owned since 1996 by Chanel, Chateau Canon produces 75% Merlot grapes and 25% Cabernet Franc. The rich fruity smell of these grape varieties met us at the door. We were led inside to a room lined with towering stainless steel vats. The next room was the resting place for French-oak barrels. The 2008 vintage was labeled and aging. The recurring words of the tour were 'passion and patience', both essential elements in winemaking.
I had read about terroir, but lacked an understanding of what a generative source of passion it is for the French. They are proud of their soil, of the differences that contribute to the flavors of their wines, of understanding the terroir and how it is different from that of their neighbors. After seeing the long room of resting barrels that produce 70,000 bottles a year, I got to take a tour deep under the terroir itself.
Saint Emilion was built from limestone. This uniformity gives the buildings a certain strength and charm. As Geraldine described, this leaves the land below 'like swiss cheese.' With holes where blocks of limestone were cut out for building, beneath the soil is a quarry with long tunnels and high humidity. Chateau Canon had direct access to one of these quarries, and we descended a stairway for a tour.
During the time of construction, only 50% of limestone should have been removed from the quarry, leaving the other 50% as a foundation for the building above. Unfortunately, as much as 80% was taken from beneath Chateau Canon. Reinforcement projects have been completed and the structure is now considered safe. Originating from the 13th century, Geraldine pointed out circles of black smoke on the ceiling, where ancient torches had left their mark.
A wine tasting in a bright room upstairs was next. All morning we had been hearing about the famous 2005 vintage, where France experienced the dream set of weather conditions for producing a wine of excellent-quality. It was called a 'once in a lifetime vintage.' According to Geraldine, it is still too early to drink it. Known for an ability to age well, Bordeaux wines develop with time. Emphasizing that nothing can speed up this process, Geraldine showed her respect for the winemaking process. At our tasting, a bottle of the 2004 vintage was presented. Our host called it an 'under-acknowledged' vintage, and praised its mineral qualities.
We drove through the center of Saint Emilion on the way to our next chateau. I looked at the buildings from a different perspective, having just emerged from the tunnels that supplied the materials. The town was added to the Unesco World Heritage list in 1999. A few turns later, we arrived at Chateau Angelus, the winemakers of James Bond himself. In popular Casino Royale, Bond orders a bottle from Chateau Angelus while on the train with his new love. Ronald informed us that if you call the Chateau, and are put on hold, you wait to the James Bond theme music.
Jean Bernard, one of the owners, greeted us in French and English, wearing a Burberry scarf around his neck. This was a man who had devoted his life to winemaking, and weekly tastes his barrel samples, strolls his vineyards, and enjoys the sun of Bordeaux. I was struck with the unmistakable feel of a family-operation, who have passed along their skills and knowledge from generation to generation. A playful dog who had mastered the task of luring guests into a quick came of catch presented a tennis ball. We gladly played along before passing into the winery.
Over the course of the day, we heard strong arguments for the use of stainless steel, oak or concrete vats. Each argument was presented with such mastery, that afterwards, I couldn't possibly consider the relevancy of a different type of vat. Until the next argument was just as persuasive as the first. Jean Bernard seemed to have a great approach, and used different types of vats for different purposes. An oak vat, he explained, gave the wine a stronger flavor at a younger age.
In the tasting room, we were given the honors of a barrel sample from the 2008 vintage. To my palate, it was difficult to imagine what the wine would blossom into. Jean Bernard talked about the wine the way he talked about his children, tenderly, and with hope for the future. Recalling the weather conditions of the year, he and Ronald made predictions for the wine. Guests can't help but experience a pang of envy for these men who have devoted their lives to something that arises within them such passion. Here, on a Wednesday morning, they were slaves to nothing but wine.
Graciously, Jean Bernard couldn't let us leave without tasting one of his masterpieces. He retrieved a bottle from the 2001 vintage, unwrapped it from tissue paper, and smiled at the pleasant pop of the cork. While he didn't swallow the barrel sample, he couldn't resist the full experience of the 2001. With the comment, 'It is just about time for an Apertif!' he finished his small glass. It was indeed time for lunch, to prepare our stomachs for a last tasting, and enjoy some French fare with another bottle.
We strolled through Saint Emilion en route to one of Ronald's favorite restaurants. L'Envers du Décor was just across the street from a well-stocked wine shop. It is here that Ronald helps his guests select wines, especially those of an older vintage, for a great price. Across the street, the table tops and long bar are made from the lids of cases of various chateaux. A creative way to show pride in the product of the region, it served as inspiration when the wine list arrived. A large decanter was produced, and the server seemed to take pride in the full presentation of the bottle. A hearty soup was a great complement to a chilly morning, seared duck breast with crispy skin had a delicate sauce and chocolate cake was washed down with a large café au lait.
After the coffee, there was more work to be done, and we left Saint Emilion for Pomerol. We passed the famous Chateau Petrus, and learned that they don't accept visitors. We turned down the drive of Chateau Gazin, and were greeted by the sun-kissed face of one of the owners, Nicolas. While the pebbles crunched under our feet, we learned of his family story. Finally after 4 generations, he joked of acceptance into the society of Pomerol. We saw cases of his wine ready to be shipped to Canada, New York and Australia.
All day we had been hearing about the influence of Robert Parker. A leading US wine-critic with an international influence, he rates wines on a 100-point scale. His tasting notes have an influence on setting the prices for newly released Bordeaux wines. His 'Wine Advocate' is published six times a year, and Parker also contributes to publications such as Food & Wine magazine and BusinessWeek. In Bordeaux, he's mentioned affectionately by his first name, or just 'Parker'.
The time of year had come to set prices. The new vintage is put to the test during the 'April Exam' when it is finally tasted and rated by critics. I learned that Chateau Angelus had made a bold statement and revealed their price first. Now the other winemakers were learning of this move and had to set their own prices. And yet, none of this seemed to bother the owner at Chateau Gazin. He escorted us into the tasting room, and opened a bottle from 2006. Over a glass we enjoyed his stories of the area relayed in perfect English. Terroir seemed to decorate every few sentences.
Upon returning to Chateau Coulon Laurensac, Ronald treated us to a tour of his wine cellar and descriptions of some of his prize bottles. A collector for over 25 years, Ronald has a wide collection of wines. Among his prize bottles are Chateau Mouton Rothschild 1973, their first vintage as a First Growths with a beautiful Picasso label. In 1993, controversy arose in Chateau Mouton Rothschild when the label contained a drawing of a nude girl. Ronald has both this bottle, and the bottle with a blank label that was sent to the USA. The oldest bottle in his cellar is from 1914, Chateau Giscours.
Over dinner at relaxed La Tupina, Margaret and Ronald described the various options for their wine tours. Four to six times a year, they run a weekly tour for the full Bordeaux Wine Experience. Throughout the year, they have other options for those wanting to explore the region. Like the winemaking, this tour is personal. Good meals and good wine are the finishing touch to a day in Bordeaux, and often Ronald brings his groups to La Tupina. An open hearth was the centerpiece of the restaurant, where the chef roasted chickens and prepared his famous French fries. Slow braised lamb, seared scallops and homemade apple tart graced our plates. We were greeted by the chef himself, who was pleased to welcome back his recurring guests.
Our whirlwind tour finished as we arrived back to the chateau. A restful night beneath a soft luxurious duvet awaited us. While the Bordeaux Wine Experience achieves the feeling of staying at a beautiful country home, the touches of a five star hotel are missing. You won't be going to Chateau Coulon Laurensac for the fluffy towels or luxurious products, but will feel at home without the need to lock your door. Fresh flowers and a champagne toast greet guests and the familiar faces of Ronald and Margaret ensure a comfortable stay.
The following morning, over breakfast in the sunroom, we prepared for departure from Bordeaux. With a map in hand, we had a bit of time to explore the city before train time. Ronald entered the room dressed in a suit, ready for a tasting of the 2008 vintage from some of the best Chateaux, including Chateau Margaux. Exuding a respect for the wine and winemaking, Ronald is a man who has found his passion in life, and more importantly, found a way of sharing it with others.
A morning spent in Bordeaux found us wishing for more time. Just a half hour before train time, we stumbled upon a beautiful square just coming into the sun. People were already at 11am getting comfortable in the best seats, having a coffee before lunch, extending their meal. With well-preserved architecture, plentiful shopping and a river dominating the landscape, it was clear time could be well spent in Bordeaux.
We were on to Provence, and one of the most unique hotels I've ever encountered. Traveling deep into the South of France, the sun beat strongly on the vineyards as they zoomed by. The American couple we had met at breakfast were somewhere in Saint Emilion, fulfilling a lifelong desire to live this French dream. The Bordeaux Wine Experience and Ronald himself have succeeded in building a bridge between France and those who love, or want to love French wines.
Many guests travel to Bordeaux in conjunction with a trip to Paris. Easily served by high-speed train, a quick 3 hours brings you to the main station of Bordeaux. (Bordeaux-St Jean) From there, a line of cabs waits to bring you the final 20 minutes to Chateau Coulon Laurensac. Upon arrival, your transportation is arranged for the rest of your stay.
Where to Eat:
Saint Emilion: L'Envers du Décor
Bordeaux: La Tupina
What to Do:
For once, leave the planning to the experts. Ronald and Margaret will tailor an experience based on your requests. The surprises along the way are part of the fun.