“A French insurance company owns a Chateau?” the woman’s voice says, incredulous. Yes, one can imagine that most people think that a top wine chateau in Bordeaux is owned by a French aristocrat, yet the world has taken quite a turn since the days that this might have been the case.
Today the French insurance company AXA owns several wineries which produce the world’s most exquisite wine, such as Chateau Pichon Longueville, Chateau Suduiraut, Chateau Petit-Village, Chateau Belles Eaux, and two other properties outside France, Disznoko in Tokai and Quinta do Noval in Portugal.
Imagine – just for a minute – if by some sweep of a magic wand, you were able to be sprinkled with fairy dust , escorted atop a magic carpet, and spend the week at these properties as AXA’s special guest?
This is the exciting thing that happened to me and four other students in the Master of Wine educational program who won a scholarship based on essays we submitted. It was the absolute trip of a lifetime for everyone, especially students like ourselves who need these examples for our exams.
Sunday: Dinner in a Chateau
Julian, one of the friendly AXA staff people, picked myself and another student up from our station in a shimmering black car, and as if to highlight the drama of our destination, swirled the car into the impressive lengthy driveway of Chateau Pichon Longueville, where we would stay during our visit and dine tonight.
Words can’t describe the glamour of this enormous fairy castle of a chateau illuminated at night under the darkening sky. It was a thrilling moment, one few people in the world ever really have the opportunity not only to see, but to experience first-hand.
Patricia, another friendly AXA employee who expertly manages the Chateau, shows me to my room and if you look at the Chateau below, you can see that the bedroom I am given is in that second floor turret! The space is actually an extension of the bedroom, as it is a round room with a card table inside it.
During dinner, the five of us are ushered into the drawing room where we are served champagne and canapés by the charming hostess, and then make our way to the dining room. It is incredibly glamorous and the cuisine (mushroom soup and steak) is paired with Chateau Pichon Longueville 2000 (delicious with its black currant and tobacco flavors), Les Tourelles de Longueville (their second wine), 1990 Chateau Pibron – another AXA acquisition. I absolutely loved this wine with its notes of Prince Edward cherry tobacco and truffle. You can read more about its history by one of my favorite Internet scribes, The Wine Doctor, here
Dinner concluded with Chateau Pichon Longueville 2001, very black and intense, with delicious notes of tobacco, vanilla bean, black current, and black licorice. Dessert was served with the delicious 5 Puttanyos 2001 Tokaji from Disznoko, AXA’s property in Hungary.
Monday: Tour of the Chateau Pichon Longueville Vineyards and Winery
After a very formal coffee and croissant breakfast, we were met by the energetic blonde Corinne Michot, who along with Marie-Louise Schÿler, Director of Communications, spent several weeks planning the extensive details of our very extensive trip to various AXA properties in France and Hungary.
Corrine had a very glamorous life before AXA, working as a top sommelier and wine director for several prestigious restaurants in London and the world. Today she drives us the short distance to the Pichon-Longueville vineyards where we meet Jean-Rene Matiger, the technical manager who has been at Chateau Pichon Longueville since 1985.
Jean-Rene is an extremely likeable, energetic man who seems genuinely delighted to see us, and with his quick step and enormous strides, leads us proudly through the Chateau Longueville vineyards, which at the moment have a buzz of activity.
It is the harvest, you see, and the workers are here to pick. We learn they are the chateau’s regular workers who come from Spain each year, and when the wine harvest is finished, they continue to pick other types of produce throughout France. Treating workers well is very important to every chateau, as grape selection (ensuring only the most perfect grapes make it into the wine) is a primary element of a good wine.
Workers are housed at a hotel about a half hour from the property, and arrive by a large bus. At the end of harvest, which is scheduled for that Friday, there is a very big party and its correct execution (read, really great food, wine, and fun) is of key importance to Jean-Rene. The party sounds so exciting I wish I would have still been in town for it!
Luckily, though, we are able to get a feel for what it might be like when we have lunch at “la table des vendanges” with Christian Seely, the Managing Director of AXA Millesimes. I have met Mr. Seely many times before – a very elegant gentleman who is as kind as he is business savvy. The crowd of us enter the light, airy, modern room and take a seat at long rows of table. Some of the workers are still finishing their lunch, which today is a delicious tomato and mozzarella salad, roast pork, various vegetables, and of course, cheese and dessert. As this is France, wine is served as well – C’est le vie!
Before lunch, though, Jean-Rene gave our group a very extensive, insider’s view of the high tech winery with all its bells and whistles.
First, though, let’s mentally revisit the vineyard. The grapes looked super ripe and perfect, yet for a second growth like Chateau Pichon Longueville, they have to be absolutely flawless. Hand picking the grapes (which is much more expensive than mechanical harvesting) is only the first line of defense.
We tour the grape reception area, where boxes of grapes are deposited between men and women working the first sorting table. Standing on either side, they examine the grapes as they pass down the table, pulling out any obvious rotten grapes. Then, around the bend, is another sorting table, where yet another team takes another look a the grapes to insure perfection. Yet these days at top Chateaux in Bordeaux, a sorting table isn’t enough – now they have purchased the expensive optical sorting machine, which ensures absolutely perfect, uniform sized berries.
Seeing all the perfect berries roll down the belt after the optical sorting machine was amazing, each berry was the same size thanks to a computer program that ensures uniformity. And the berries looked delicious – I could not wait to see how they would taste!
In the winery, Jean-Rene spent a lot of concentrated time explaining the Chateaux’s new gravitational system. It is a very clever system, and very expensive – the beautiful berries I just described gently pass through a hose before the stainless steel fermentation tank, and then gently are deposited in whole berry form atop something that looks like a stainless steel escalator, though instead of a “flat” step the step is more of a spoon so that the grapes are secure.
When they arrive at the top of the vat, a worker gently guides them to a miniature crusher located on top of the fermentation tank, so that the juice that falls into the stainless steel vat is as fresh as it could possibly be, with zero chance of oxygenation.
We were able to climb the stairs to see this miracle in action, absolutely invaluable for a student as the day may come (will come) when we would have to actively describe this process.
The Control Room
Jean-Rene took a great deal in pride in showing us the control room in his winery, which looked like a high-tech spaceship from its circular nature. The control room was packed with computer-like machines that gave various readings. From here, Jean-Rene could monitor the chemical activity of every wine in winery.
One key thing to realize is that a technical director means wearing many hats, and Jean-Rene seems as comfortable talking to workers in the vineyard as he does operating the NASA-like computers in the control room.
Corrine Michot gave us an excellent tour of the cellar, both the “old cellar” and the new cellar which is gorgeous and so high tech it even has “skylights” that allow a visitor to look up at the sky through a thin film of water, as the cellar is located below the water table.
Barrels are filled with gravity, and then protected from oxygen with carbon after malolactic fermentation is complete. The barrels are made of French oak from seven different makers at a medium toast. The barrels are racked every three months, and fined in the barrels (not mixed together in tanks). The general mix is 90% new oak, 20% 1 year oak. The lees are kept in the barrel and is used to form a wine meant for internal consumption.
Gravity: The Taste Test
So earlier, I described the gentle way the whole berries are coddled to the top of the fermentation tank. Do you think there is a difference between grapes that are gravity fed to the tank, or pumped in?
Christian Seely led a very interesting test, in which we tasted two groups of base wine: Group 1 was 2008 Merlot, and Group 2 was Cabernet Franc. In both cases, the wine I identified as smoother and better balanced was gravity pressed, so proof that this really is the answer for Chateaux able to afford it.
VerticalTasting Chateau Longueville 2000 – 2009
One of the highlights of the itinerary the AXA team put together is a vertical tasting of Chateau Longueville from 2000 to 2009.
The wines were all delicious, but my favorites were the
– 2001 with its silky cherry notes, sweet vanilla, and delicious balance along with flavors of mocha and casis;
– 2003 with its notes of Prince Edward Cherry Tobacco, vanilla, and ripe fruit;
– 2005 with the flavors described above along with more ripe red integrated and concentrated fruits, much more extracted too …
– 2006 very extracted with smoke, plums, tobacco, and seductive ripe fruit;
– 2007, very smooth with notes of spice and vanilla – incredible integration and balance;
2009 showed very well, very powerful and extracted with a substantial mouth feel and good tannic structure.
Blending Session: Chateau Petite Village
In the afternoon, one of the highlights of the week was the opportunity to create a blend of Chateau Petite Village (another AXA property) for the 2009 vintage with Ch Petite Village technical director Serge Ley and Daniel LLose (Technical Director AXA Millésimes). When I’ve blended wine in other classes, it was usually a more elementary activity that involved nothing more than personal taste. On a desk, one was presented with the five allowed varietals of Bordeaux, a syringe, and beaker with measurements. One simply used personal taste as a guide.
In this activity, we were given criteria such as:
– The total volume (imaginary) for the 2009 harvest is 340 Hectolitres of wine, being a potential of 43,000 bottles.
– At this stage of aging, the harvest is made up of 8 different lots of volumes from 20 to 80 ha
Taking into account:
– The quality required for a premium wine
– The economical / qualitative conditions
– The potential quality of the 2009 vintage
Blending Objective: At least 60% of the total volumn available should make up the premium Wine, being a minimum of 26,000 bottles
We were divided into three groups, with each group making a blend of premium wine. During the final blind tasting, the 3 wines would be tasted with a 4th reference wine for 2009, which the chateau already blended, as well as the 2009 blend realized by the MW team from the previous year.
What transpired in those hours is a bit complex to describe here, yet it was an excellent lesson about what a Chateau has to think about, as in addition to the above the chateau must take into account the allotment for the “second wine.”
Leading this exercise was the very affable and clever Daniel Llose, a key figure at AXA and who I came to know quite well at the end of my trip in the Languedoc, and whom I shall describe more fully there.
Dinner at Chateau Kirwan
That evening, we were privileged to have a tour, wine tasting, and dinner at Chateau Kirwan in Margaux with the charming and dedicated Nathalie Schyler, who is Director of Tourism.
Chateau Kirwan is a gorgeous place, and we arrived just at dusk with the Chateau illuminated against the night sky. Nathalie showed us the winery and cellar, and we enjoyed a tasting of several vintages before dinner in her private apartment. Ms. Schyler is also a pioneer in developing the idea of inviting groups (usually business groups) to arrive at the Chateau for lunch or dinner paired with the Chateau’s wines. This is good business branding as it helps sell the current release and at the same time, sends Chateau Kirwan ambassadors to various countries in the world.
Visiting Chateau Suduirant
Today we visited the AXA Chataeu Suduiraut property in Sauternes, escorted by the lively Corinne . We were met by the very affable Pierre Montegut, the technical director, and from that moment it was clear the day would be very enjoyable.
The Vineyard of Chateau Suduiraut
“Here are shears – now we cut!” said Pierre after showing us around the winery and leading us into the vineyard. It was a gorgeous Fall day and the air was crisp with promise. As during the Chateau Petite Village event, we were divided into teams and instructed on how to cut the botrytized grapes while leaving the others intact … a much harder task than you would imagine!
Magic of Botrytis
The magic of Sauternes occurs every Autumn, in the area where the cool spring-fed Ciron river meets the warmer Garonne river south of Bordeaux. As a result of the different temperatures of the rivers, a fog develops, enveloping the vineyards and encouraging the development of the fungus Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) on the already ripe grapes. Over several days the moist early morning fog encourages the grapes to continue to shrivel and rot, while the afternoon sunshine completes the desiccation process which concentrates the sugars.
Workers make several trips through the vineyards to pick grapes at the optimum moment, with “optimum” being the key word. For centuries, jittery owners have struggled with the dilemma of holding out for more botrytized grapes and risking destruction from hail or rain, or of staying safe with an early harvest that may have less concentrated sugars.
Collecting the Grapes
If I understand Pierre correctly, there is still time to “wait” in the hope of more botrytis. And indeed, it is interesting to see that on the vines, some of the grapes in the very same bunch are a vibrant green, while others are tiny raisins.
Pierre instructs us to cut only the raisins from the bunch, yet I find it easier to pull the raisins out one by one, as they do in Tokaji. The grape picking experience is quite in contrast to that of Chateau Pichon Longueville in that the raisins could be handled more roughly than 2nd growth Bordeaux grapes.
The other teams have more luck cutting huge bunches of botrytized grapes, so Pierre playfully guides us to an area with more abundant ripe fruit. My partner cuts, I resume my individual berry picking, and soon time is called and we bring our pails to Pierre to be processed into must.
The berries are put into a miniature outdoor press – the kind that has to be operated by hand! And after the first pressing, Pierre lifts the weight of the press and rearranges the grapes so as to get another pressing. This hard manual labor is great to experience, and really makes one recognize that before the glitzy, high-tech, computerized wineries of today winemakers must be capable of serious manual labor.
The must from each of the three teams is measured for sugar content – obviously the higher the sugar content the more valuable the must.
We taste several vintages of Chateau Suduiraut, all different yet similar in that they have amazing freshness and acidity with good minerality on the finish. I very much liked the 2002, and found a curious note of a caraway seed along with saffron and East Indian spices. The 1999 was a beautiful gold color, with that curious candied rye seed once again, along with apricot, cling peaches, and tight minerals.
Chinese Food with Sauternes
Yet another highlight of the day was the opportunity to explore pairing Chinese food with Sauternes. As many of us (at least myself) wrote in our essays, it’s important for Sauternes producers to explore ways of serving this wine with meals, instead of waiting until the end of the meal when the diner may be too sated to have more wine.
Our lunch was catered from the well-respected and very popular Au Bonheur du Palais restaurant in Bordeaux. Pierre tells an interesting story about how he discovered their restaurant and was surprised to find the owner recommending an inexpensive Alsace wine. Pierre was impressed by the delicious food, excellent wine recommendation, and became a regular.
The Sauternes pairing with spicy Chinese food is a huge success. There were many courses, beginning with some sort of fried calamari and continuing on to shrimp with chili, meat, and salmon with a somewhat sweet barbeque type of sauce. Both the unctuous texture of the Sauternes, its acidity, and sugar matches the weight and texture of the dishes served. You can set up this pairing in your own home and see how it works for you.
Michelin Star Dinner: La Table de Montesquieu
If this wasn’t enough excitement for the night, Pierre and Corrine and AXA treated us to dinner at a fabulous 1 star Michelin restaurant called La Table de Montesquieu. It was small and very modern with white walls and clean lines. We enjoyed many delicious wines from the various AXA properties with our dinner, and had a lot of fun as well. Both Pierre and Corinne have a very infectious sense of humor and have been friends for quite a while, so it was a very lively evening.
Jetting to Hungary
Because of a threat of a strike, we took an earlier plane to Hungary to visit the Disznoko property in Tokaji. Joining us were some journalists friends based in Bordeaux, as well as Marie-Louise Schyler who with Corinne and others planned our trip.
We arrived at the hotel just in time for dinner, where we had the pleasure of meeting Lazlo Meszaros, Managing Director of the property. Lazlo is a very intelligent, kind, man who is passionate about wine and very excited to show us Disznoko. He took us to a fabulous and very elegant restaurant where we enjoyed Tokaj wine with specialties such as cantaloupe soup, and actually experienced violin players who came to play at each table.
This night at dinner I also met two key women who were to be our guides, Geraldine Giroux, marketing manager who works very closely with Marie-Louise Schyler and travels to all the properties, and Andrea Hanyecz, whose title of sales manager for Disznoko doesn’t seem to match her many and varied responsibilities. During our stay in Tokaji, Andrea would be our fearless leader, making sure we got to all the wineries on time and were excellent fed and cared for.
The next morning, we took a bus to Disznoko arriving at the property on a crisp gorgeous morning with sun bouncing off the nearby hills. We are greeted with coffee, pastries, and walnuts from a nearby tree. Lazlo has taken the step of preparing a special itinerary for us, personally inscribed with our names. Very impressive!
In past centuries, the estate had been an icon of Tokaji wines. It had fallen into disrepair after the socialist era, and since AXA acquired it in 1992, it received the investment necessary to bring it back to its former glory. The modern (new) winery was designed by Hungarian architect Dezso Ekler in a way that resembles a village. The old winery had been turned into a restaurant, Yellow House, where we will have dinner.
Presentation from Lazlo Meszaros
Lazlo leads us into the winery where he tells us more about the region and the grapes. The climate is continental, with the fluctuation between cold winters and hot summers rendering it ideal for the production of botrytized wine. The soil is firm clay settled on volcanic rock, rich in minerals. It has a very good structure and ideal water retaining ability. Also very important, the soil warms easily to radiate heat towards the vines.
The proportion of native grape varieties mirrors that of the wine region as a whole:
60% Furmint: this noble variety gives firmness and strength to the wine. It ripens late, has a lively acidity.
30% Harslevelu: this local variety has loose clusters and a pleasant aroma.
9% Zeta: a cross of Furmint with Bouvier.
1% Yellow Muscat: an aromatic variety.
At the time of full ripening, before botrytis, Furmint, Harslevelu, and Muscat grapes are harvested to make dry wines.
Now, in mid-October, it is the time to harvest the Aszu grapes and in the vineyards the pickers are out in full force. Lazlo leads us into the field where we watch pickers, and then are given shears ourselves.
Unlike Chateau Suduiraut, we are encouraged to pull berries instead of clusters. Lazlo is very specific about the exact type of berry to be plucked … it must be very dark and small. Pickers clearly must go through the field several times a day to get even a half bucket of appropriate grapes.
The grapes are taken to a large container, where a man steps inside and stomps on them to reduce volume and begin the release of free run juice. This juice is pumped out to become Essencia, leaving the residual pulp for masceration with a base wine. Base wine is created from berries remaining after the picking, and fermented about 14 degrees for three weeks. Then the Aszu berry pulp and the base wine are mascerated for 48 hours in ratios of 1 kg to 1 litre in stainless steel tanks that can hold quantities in multiples of 140 litres. For example, 140 kg of Aszu (7 puttonyos or 20kg each) when mascerated with 140 litres of base wine becomes 4-0 litres of 7 puttonyos wine.
The Aszu is run off to casks, and a slow second fermentation takes place for at least two years in underground cellars. During this time the Aszu wines come down to the 5 or 6 puttonyos level. The skill of creating the best Aszu wines is in the blending, which is where Lazlo shines.
Lunch in the Fields
Disznoko is a gorgeous property with an incredible view, and it was such a fabulous idea by all who planned the trip to have a picnic lunch.
Of course, I was expecting just sitting on the grass and having a sandwich, but AXA went all out with a catered affair, complete with a barbeque grill and selections of Dry Furmint and some offdry wines as well.
At my table I had the good fortune to be seated with Marie-Louise Schlyer, looking very elegant in her Kenzo scarf and gold earrings, and one of the Bordeaux-based journalists.
Secrets of the Cellar
Lazlu takes us on a magical tour of the cellar, where the bottles of wine glow orange in the darkness like some luscious gold elixir. He carries with him a very elaborate glass object, seemingly very old and traditional, which he uses to take the wine from cask and into our glasses.
This is a dream for sweet wine lovers and wine students, since we are able to taste so many varietals and so many vintages at so many stages in their evolution.
Then he takes us to the hallowed area where the Essencia is aging. It is richness beyond belief!
Lazlu put a lot of energy and effort into arranging a vertical tasting, and it was extremely interesting to see how different the vintages presented themselves. Even more impressive was Lazlu’s incredible knowledge of all the vintages and weather patterns. This quality is shared by all the AXA producers I’ve met.
Overall, we tried the 1993 (dried fruit spices, slight coffee), 1995 (creamy), 1997, 1999 (surprising blue cheese and candied lemon!). 2000 (white peach) and 2002.
Lazlo arranged a dinner at one of his favorite restaurants, Ős Kaján in Tolcsva, and it was charming! He is a very elegant host on AXA’s behalf. This restaurant is very eclectic and popular with VIP type people – a top politician from Spain was at the next table. The hosts knew him well and it was a great place to spend the last night as a group.
Touring Budapest and Other Tokaji Wineries with Andrea Hanyecz
Andrea is a young and very energetic individual who we first met at our first dinner in Budapest and acted as our guide through the entire trip. When Lazlo was not dazzling us with his brilliance and showing us the secrets of Disznoko, it was Andrea who was taking us to fun local restaurants in Tokaji (Goulash, anyone?) and leading us to presentations at other Tokaji properties such as Royal Tokaj, Oremus, and Hétszőlő.
The Tokaji portion of the trip was incredible and extremely valuable as a wine student – AXA went all out to really give us a picture of the region in all ways: Disznoko, of course, yet also the other major producers. And from the simple goulash lunch one had the opportunity to see the ‘locals’ and get a real feel for the spirit of the people.
Visiting Mas Belles Eaux
Though Tokaji was the official end to the AXA most generous trip, we had the option of going on to other AXA properties around the world.
I love the Languedoc and was very eager to visit the AXA property Mas Belles Eaux.
So Monday morning, myself and another MW student were picked up at the hotel AXA so generously secured for us by the very handsome and charming technical manager, Cedric Loiseau.
The Languedoc, located in the south of France, borders the Mediterranean between the Pyrenees and the Rhone Valley. It has mild winters and hot, dry summers, and has been a wine growing region ever since Greek and Roman times.
The vineyard of Mas Belles Eaux stretches over 90 hectares of sun-blessed hillsides. Soil consists of the complex terroir of Villafranchian gravel over red clay and alluvial soils.
The Mas and its vaulted cellar built in the 17th century are the oldest buildings of the estate, and is very romantic looking. A new winery has been constructed and we will see it later that afternoon. The estate was called Belles Eaux because of the numerous springs around the property which run down into the Peyne River and have a unique effect on the terroir.
In the parking lot of the Mas, we are surprised and pleased to see Daniel Llose, who lead the blending competition of Chateau Petite Village. He is here to help explain the magic of this gorgeous terroir.
We gather together in a single car to tour the vineyards. Daniel and Cedric show us a map, indicating how the decision was made to re-organize the vineyard in terms of the different soils an in-depth survey has brought to light. Grapes planted include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Carignan.
We drive through the vineyard, getting out several times to see the trellis system, examine the soil, and taste the grapes. Harvest is finished yet some (delicious!) bunches remain.
What’s most interesting is that Cedric has an Apple application for his iphone that alerts him to soil conditions – the AXA technical directors must be among the most tech-savvy on the planet!
The premiere wine of Mas Belles Eaux is Sainte Hélène, which features carefully sorted and selected grapes that come from plots situated up on the plateau, the highest point of the estate. This wine, a blend of several grape varieties, is vinified according to a method specific to Mas Belles Eaux and then aged for 15 months in French oak barrels.
Visiting the New Winery
We visit the new winery and I, for one, am very impressed. It is very new and clean and shiny with extremely modern stainless steel fermentation tanks and numerous bells and whistles.
We taste the 2009 vintage and other vintages in the sleek, very modern tasting room on adjoining the Mas. It is run by Yann Aguilhon, a very energetic gentleman. The space is gorgeous and during summer, Yann has turned it into a venue for a weekly tasting party.
As a whole, the wines are very well-balanced with delicious flavors and moderate alcohol despite the hot climate. Cedric has taken obvious care to create such balance and elegance. The discussion turned to the challenge of informing the public that the Languedoc is a region where one must know the producer.
Mas Belles Eaux, for example, is a high quality wine available at a competitive price. Yet a consumer can find a badly made wine with high alcohol and from high yields from the same region, and make the assumption that all Languedoc wines taste a certain way. Public education is crucial, and that’s why the tasting room and its parties is such a good way to market the winery and establish the brand as one that stands for quality.
Cedric, Yann, and Daniel take us to a fantastic lunch at an incredible restaurant in the mountains. It is run by a young Italian couple and the food is incredible. What a fabulous experience!
The Afternoon Visits
Cedric was kind enough to arrange visits to two other properties where we could see examples of how other producers run their cellars. They are not named here because they really pale in comparison to the cleanliness, organization, and high-tech facility of Mas Belles Eaux.
Yet the comparison is important because it really allows us to see how state of the art Mas Belles Eaux really is, and how AXA has rescued yet another excellent property from a similar fate.
If Cedric is charming, his wife Carin is equally so. My fellow MW student and I were honored to be invited to dinner with them at a very quaint restaurant in Sete, a region by the sea that is very popular in summer.
Daniel could not join us for dinner, as he had to rush back to Bordeaux to taste at Chateau Pichon-Longueville the next day.
I was so honored that he drove all the way down to the Languedoc to be with myself and my fellow MW student, and have that incredible mountain lunch with his. His commentary during our visits to the Mas Belles Eaux properties and also the other wineries were quite valuable. He is an extremely modest man and its possible he does not recognize his value to the wine community and as a mentor – both young AXA winemakers as well as students such as myself!
Thank you AXA
Many many thanks to AXA and the Institute of the Masters of Wine for making this scholarship possible.