Blending Perfection: On Creating Wine in Bordeaux, by Beverage Director Tim Riley

cos_viewtolafiteIn January, Bordeaux is cold and wet.

On the morning I arrived, the air was damp; the sky a lifeless shade of gray.  I met Laurent and Alan near the baggage claim, and soon was in the back of Laurent’s black Audi, whipping north on the A630. After a stop at a bakery near Arsac for a baguette, we wound through the vineyards of Margaux on our way to Château Monbrison.

Compared to the illustrious estates further north, Monbrison – a property that dates to 17th century – seems homey, though not inelegant, its main building looking more like a farmhouse than a château. Also unlike most other Medoc estates, Monbrison is family owned; Laurent and his wife, Pascal, live on the land and make the wine.

monbrison_barrelroomBut I wasn’t there for Monbrison – or Bordeaux. I was there to blend.

In addition to owning Monbrison, Laurent is also partners – with Alan – in LVDH, an American importer, and works with various wineries across France. At my behest, he had obtained over thirty tank and barrel samples with which to blend. My goal was to create a red wine that we could sell in all of the Bagby Group restaurants – an offering that would, in a way, define who we are and what we believe about wine.

After a shot of espresso I ripped off a large hunk of baguette and set to work at a long wooden table in a room adjacent to Monbrison’s main office. Laurent and Alan had obtained samples from several domaines, but within minutes one had clearly stood out: Domaine de Bois de Saint-Jean.

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Domaine de Bois de Saint-Jean is a small estate located in the little town of Jonquerettes, just east of Avignon in an area of the Rhône Valley known as Châteauneuf de Gadagne. For reasons that remain somewhat unclear, Gadagne was not placed – nor did it even apply to be placed – in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation when it was drawn up in 1923, despite being just miles away and sharing similar soil types and topography.

Perhaps the vignerons of Gadagne were less concerned about the details of appellations in the early twentieth century than they are today. After all, it wasn’t until many decades later that Châteauneuf-du-Pape would attain the worldwide fame it enjoys today – or command world-class prices. Or maybe Gadagne’s estates were simply too young and not entrenched enough to demand their placement.

Certainly the latter was true for Bois de Saint-Jean, for in 1923, the Anglès family – like so many others at the time – were growers; they sold their harvest each year to negociants or nearby wineries. In fact, it would be almost sixty years before a young Vincent Anglès would try his hand at making wine, and another two before the domaine was officially begun.

In the early 1990s Vincent was joined by his brother Xavier, and as their father Joseph grew older, the two took increasing control of the estate. Today, while still based in Gadagne, the brothers have expanded, and now dutifully farm vineyards in Vacqueyras, and as of 2012, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where they purchased a tiny plot, less than an acre in size.

The wines the brothers produce are simply stunning; classically Rhône in style: rich, spicy, heady and complex. One is already featured on our list at Fleet Street Kitchen – the L’Intrépide Côtes du Rhône – and it is highly recommended, a perfect accompaniment to any of Chef Becker’s lamb or beef dishes.

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blending_table2Blending wine is a difficult task and one that almost certainly sounds more fun than it is.

When dealing with young wines – the grapes that made that wines I had in front of me that morning at Monbrison were picked no more than twenty weeks before I tasted them – the differences between them seem incredibly minute. Nearly all are full of fruit, and finding secondary flavors can be hard. Certain wines – in this case the Syrahs from Bois de Saint-Jean – are also fiercely tannic; tasting them repeatedly exhausts the palate.

After setting aside the wines from other wineries I was left with five bottles from Bois de Saint-Jean: two were Grenache, two were Syrah, and one was Mourvèdre, a lesser known but important Rhône varietal. Each wine was given a number that linked it to the parcel of vines from which it was sourced. I took brief notes on each wine. For the 38 Grenache, for example, I wrote “plump, rich, ripe, delicious – the backbone [of the blend]!” For the other Grenache, sourced from vines planted about a hundred years ago by the brothers’ great-grandfather, Joseph, I simply wrote “wow.”

blending_tim

With these initial thoughts in my head I proceeded – with assistance from Alan – to blend the wines in various proportions. I tasted each blend we created – and there were nearly two dozen – took notes and made subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) adjustments. A blend of one and half parts No. 31 Syrah and one part 38 Grenache was “floral, detailed, round and silky, but structured.” I inversed the two and found the resulting blend “broader and richer, classic, but with a ripe, almost Californian feel, and a rich, sweet fruited mid-palate.” An equal parts blend of the two was “more peppery,” but also “more precise and more elegant.”

Decisions did not come easily. At points I sat and stared at the wines in front of me, perplexed, trying to imagine what they would taste like once bottled and in front of guests in our restaurants. I thought of our farm and our chefs, trying to picture our cuisine with the various wines.

blending_table

In crafting what became the final blend, I arrived at a wine that I am convinced will be as at home at Ten Ten American Bistro  (I simply cannot wait to try it with our Steak Frites) as it will be at Fleet Street Kitchen, and our upcoming Towson restaurant, Cunningham’s.

It is, like I hoped, a wine that reflects our restaurants and our values – a wine that is handpicked and artisanally produced from sustainably farmed grapes. While it will not arrive for several months, I am thrilled to share it with our guests.

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lunch_cheeseWith the wine complete – Laurent, in tasting the final blend, pronounced it simply “fantastic” – the three of us walked from the winery to Laurent’s house where his wife Pascal had prepared lunch. Alan poured a young white from Savoie producer Jean Perrier, a welcome respite after hours of tasting reds. Pascal’s lunch was simply prepared but each item was delicious – a first course of zucchini with fresh cheese, a main course of duck breast, followed by cheese and then a gâteau des rois for dessert.

With the duck, Laurent poured his 2005 Château Monbrison. Though still tightly wound, the wine was understated, but strikingly elegant, classy, and precise. It was classic Bordeaux – I jotted a quick note that said “this is how red Bordeaux is supposed to taste.” It was a fitting end.

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