BORDEAUX, France — On my first visit to this magnificent wine-producing area in southwest France several years ago, I didn't truly appreciate what I saw.
Oh, the names of the great chateaux were familiar, but wine had only just begun to interest me.
Seeing those grand vineyards was like listening to my dad and uncle talk about Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio back in my pre-adolescent years when I was learning about baseball: The names were familiar, but a '45 Lafite meant no more to me on that earlier trip to Bordeaux than a 56-game hitting streak did at my first game.
I'm still a wine neophyte, alas; I can't afford to drink truly fine wine regularly. Frankly, I don't think I could develop a good wine palate even if I were rich as a Rothschild--which may be a blessing, since I would otherwise be in danger of becoming a full-fledged wine snob.
But I drink decent wine regularly now and I've read a great deal about it. Moreover, several friends give me bottles of wine as birthday and Christmas presents and I periodically buy wine for my own modest cave.
Second Time Around
Thus this second visit to Bordeaux seemed a good opportunity to peer at a few stately chateaux from the highway and match them with bottles of wine enjoyed or read about.
The vineyards are outside the city on both sides of the Garonne River that lies on the city's eastern border; many are open to (and have guided tours for) the public. My friend Lucy and I chose to visit first the Sauternes area, home of the best sweet wines in France, so we left our hotel, La Reserve in Pessac, just outside Bordeaux, and drove about 40 minutes south.
A glass of Sauternes goes well with dessert or fresh fruit (preferably a ripe peach) or can be enjoyed by itself, after dinner and there was a special pleasure in driving leisurely past Chateau de Rayne-Vigneau (the first Sauternes I ever tasted), Chateau Suduiraut (I got a great bargain of some '70 Suduiraut two years ago), Chateaux Rieussec (a bottle of '55 is in my cave) and, especially, Chateau d'Yquem, the greatest of all sweet wines (I still have the label from the '67 d'Yquem given to me for my 1982 birthday).
Thanks to Roland Flourens, the owner of our hotel--and Herve Valverde, the sommelier at the restaurant Dubern--we were provided with introductions to the owners of two Sauternes chateaux: Raymond-Lafon and Haut-Bergeron. At both we were given personal tours and tastings of recent vintages. It was fascinating.
Sauternes are the product of a process known as pourriture noble ("noble rot"), in which a microscopic fungus, botrytis cinerea, attacks the grapes, causing their juice to evaporate and concentrating their sugar. As a result, the grapes producing Sauternes yield only about one glass of wine per vine, whereas the grapes that produce red wine provide about one bottle of wine per vine.
Raymond-LaFon--of which I had not heard and which is only now becoming available in the United States--is owned by the manager of Chateau d'Yquem, is surrounded by the vineyards of d'Yquem and, in some years, produces truly splendid Sauternes.
(Jean-Pierre Meslier, son of the owner of Raymond-LaFon, told us with great pride that his father's standards are so high that in 1974, when heavy rain severely damaged the grapes, Raymond-LaFon discarded its entire crop, producing not a single bottle of wine--one of only three Sauternes chateaux to make this costly decision.)
Some of this information is pure trivia, of course, but when you're interested in a subject--baseball, computers, politics, sex, wine--nothing seems too trivial. In fact, our tour of Sauternes was so enjoyable that the next day we drove north along Route D2 into the Medoc, home of the great Bordeaux red wines.
Again we had an introduction, courtesy this time of Miklos Dora, a French wine representative I met several years ago at a wine-tasting in Los Angeles. Dora's friend, Jean-Michel Cazes, proprietor of Chateau Lynch-Bages, also gave us a tour and a tasting.
Then, since it was clear and sunny and warm for the first time in 10 days, we bought some bread, fresh fruit, roasted rabbit and local sausage and had a picnic lunch on the quay overlooking the Garonne before resuming our drive amid the trees and vineyards of the Medoc. It was all gorgeous--a splendid way to pass an afternoon.
The hillsides and vineyards were green for as far as we could see. The sun sparkled on the river. We drove by one stately chateau after another and--surprise!--several looked just like the pictures on the labels on their bottles.
Finally, we stopped at Chateau Margaux, one of the loveliest of the chateaux and one of the greatest and most delicate of the top-ranked Bordeaux. As we walked alongside the vineyards I smiled and thought of the bottle of '75 Margaux my close friends Alan and Leesa gave me for Christmas two years ago. It's still in my cave. Maybe when it's ready to drink, we'll invite them over for dinner.