Day 1 – Sunday, Opening Night
The 2014 YPO Bordeaux Fantasy trip started off Sunday, June 22. The evening featured an unplanned extra event that was sprung on the group shortly after their arrival. With little rest from their flights, the group checked into their hotel, Sources de Caudalie. Located in the heart of the Pessac Leognan appellation, surrounded by vines, trees and rock -strewn soils, the property offers unparalleled views of the Bordeaux wine region. A few of the early arrivals managed to find the time for a light lunch in the vineyards, others unpacked, and one or two intrepid souls opened a bottle of wine before leaving on their first experience in Bordeaux.
Sunday is normally an impossible date to fill in Bordeaux. Yet the group was able to visit and dine at Chateau Malartic Lagraviere with the owner Severine Bonnie. The well-known and highly regarded estate provided a tour and tasting of several wines from multiple vintages from their Bordeaux estate. We were then invited to the owner’s personal family home for another tasting, which included an opportunity to sample wines they produce in Argentina’s Mendoza region. Dinner with the owner was the perfect introduction to Bordeaux and the trip. About the same time as the clock struck midnight, the group returned to the hotel for some much needed sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a busy day.
Day 2 Monday
The first full day began with a personal tour led by the Chateau
Following the group’s debut visit to the region, they returned to the scene of the crime. The hotel, Sources de Caudalie is owned by the Cathaird family, who also own Smith Haut Lafitte one of the top estates in the Pessac Leognan appellation, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte. Smith Haut Lafitte recently earned 100 points for their 2009 vintage from Robert Parker, and the 2010 is not far behind! While the group was already familiar with the red wine of Smith Haut Lafitte, they were not as experienced with the equally sublime white wine of Smith Haut Lafitte. The estate director hosted the members for an underground tour of the cellars and winemaking facilities before owner Daniel Cathiard joined us for a tasting in the new James Bond-esque hidden cellars. Following the tasting, the group enjoyed a special lunch with Daniel Cathiard. The group wasted no time asking a plethora of question about the estate; ranging from winemaking to tax planning and more. Since the hotel and winery are connected, it was an easy stroll to their rooms from lunch. Ready for more, the guests took advantage of their break using the time for a nap, espresso or to dress for dinner.
In every wine region, there are always fun, and occasionally blistering, debates and arguments as to which producer is the best in the appellation. Those discussions take place in every region, including Bordeaux, California, Italy, Burgundy, Australia and beyond. There is never going to be an agreement on who is the best producer—except when it comes to Sauternes. Sauternes, the home of Chateau d’Yquem, produces what many wine lovers consider the best sweet white wine in the world. Ask any Sauternes aficionado or winemaker to name the best chateau, and only one name is mentioned: Chateau d’Yquem! Not knowing where they were going for dinner, the group broke into an enthusiastic round of applause when the coach pulled up to the famous gates of the picturesque castle of d’Yquem. Once the doors opened, you could read a book by the whites of their smiles as they were welcomed to this legendary estate. Situated at the highest point in the appellation atop rolling, verdant hills, Yquem looks down on all the other estates, literally and figuratively!
The private visit took in the cellars, vineyards and famous courtyard. Following a detailed look at the inner workings of Yquem, the president of the chateau, the affable and charming Pierre Lurton, warmly greeted the group. After introductions, Lurton soon began pouring unlimited amounts of Yquem as an aperitif, which boasted an endless array of lush, sweet and bright honey-slathered fruits and silky foie gras. Pure decadence in a glass. Calligula would have been happy; the group certainly was.
Talk about location, location, location! We shared the moment on the historic private family balcony of Chateau d’Yquem. The veranda afforded us the identical view Thomas Jefferson admired when he visited the estate in 1784! If this was not enough, the group was invited into the private family-owned chateau for a unique guided tour and additional appetizers with—you guessed it—more Yquem before dinner!
It’s possible to have too much of a good thing, but not for this group. The dinner at Chateau d’Yquem consisted of foods created to complement the unique flavor profile of Yquem. That was a perfect day for any wine lover. Time to sleep. Tomorrow promised to be a long day…with a surprise or two.
Day 2 Tuesday
At 9am sharp, the group, still wearing the glow from last night, made their way on to the bus bound for the Pessac portion of the appellation. Informed they were going to have a religious experience, the bus made its way to Chateau Pape Clement. The estate is now using drones to photograph the vineyards. These drones take images that capture the photosynthesis of the leaves and vines, letting the vineyard know what is taking place with the vines at all periods of the growth cycle. This affords more precise information about what each parcel of vines needs and the perfect moment to pick. After the presentation, the group visited the small family chapel and cellar (with bottles dating back to the late 1800s) and tasted several wines from the stable of owner Bernard Magrez before being ushered back to the bus.
The vineyards situated in Pessac are unique for their location in the heart of the city. It was a short drive before encountering another unnamed vineyard. Two minutes after that, the bus gently slid into its space at Chateau First Growth in 1855, Haut Brion has been considered one of the best wines in the world for centuries. It is the wine of kings and wealthy enthusiasts alike, and even Thomas Jefferson raved about its unique qualities.
Following their introduction and tour of the property, the group was introduced to estate president Jean-Philippe Delmas, who invited everyone into the private chateau and home of the Dillon family for a long, luxurious lunch. While most people are familiar with the red wine of Haut Brion, the estate’s white wine, Haut Brion Blanc, is even more expensive and much harder to find. Tasting multiple vintages of Haut Brion with the president of the chateau again brought smiles to the group. They headed home for a bit of rest and leisure, but the day was not over yet.
Before the trip, the group was aware of Chateau Haut Bailly, even if it was more for their reputation than their wine. This quickly changed once they began experiencing the wines of the estate. Upon arrival, the group was greeted by the previous owner of the property, the lovely Veronique Sanders. After selling to an American in 1998, Veronique remained with the property, which only continued to improve with each passing vintage. Today, it is difficult to find a better wine from this appellation that continues to earn extremely high scores from Robert Parker in almost every vintage. Following a quick tour and tasting, she invited the group for Champagne and small bites in the garden. Surrounded by lush vines, flower gardens, mature trees and neighboring chateaux in every direction, it would be difficult to find a more beautiful scene. For most of the group, this was more than enough. But belonging to the school of thought that more is better, Veronique invited us into the private home for dinner.
Most people are not going to be invited to private homes and and their chateau for dinner. Sadly, they are not going to experience this chef’s cooking, which is a shame because he has the talent to manage a multi-starred restaurant. The previous chef at Haut Bailly was extraordinary. He left a few months ago to open his own restaurant in Bordeaux. Having dined with Veronique Sanders multiple times over the years at Haut Bailly. I was dubious when she told me the new chef was even better. This was my second time in just as many months visiting at Haut Bailly. He really is that good! With everyone in the group savoring each bite, they seemed to be in complete agreement!
In Bordeaux, of course there is wine at dinner. And what better way to get to know wine than by a blind tasting? By this time, the group had already experienced a few small blind tastings to help train their palate. At Haut Bailly, we were treated to a flight of 5 wines, all served blind. Keeping things fun, guests were only asked to declare their favorite wine. I was asked to name the vintages in order. Much to my relief, I scored 4 out of 5 correctly. Following coffee on the patio, we made our way back happy and satiated. Tomorrow was another day, and the group was ready.
Day 3 – Wednesday
Fully packed and with luggage in tow, the group made their way to the Medoc. The best hotel in the Left Bank of Bordeaux is Cordeillan Bages, where the group stayed for the remainder of the trip. The day started off with a surprise visit to Chateau Latour which was closed for construction. The group experienced an insider’s view of the bottling line in action, followed by a visit to the owner’s private cellars. With wines dating back to the 1800s, this was a treat for everyone. The highlight of the visit was, of course, a tasting of Latour!
To say the next visit was not far would be quite the understatement. Following our time at Latour, we easily moved next door to Chateau Pichon Lalande. The vineyards of Cos d’Estournel, the famous estate in St. Estephe. Following a quick tour of the cellars and winemaking facilities, which included an explanation of the estate’s unique elephant motif, the group enjoyed a tasting of a wine that some tasters—even Robert Parker—called the best young wine they have ever tasted. Scoring 100 points from Parker, the 2009 Chateau Cos d’Estournel left a palate-staining impression on the entire merry band of tasters. Overheard in the background, the “Thank God it’s nap time” comment went unheeded as the group quickly headed home to change for dinner.
The endless parade of Robert Parker 100 point-rated wines continued with a stop at Chateau Leoville Poyferre in St. Julien. Scoring 100 points in 2009, Leoville Poyferre remains a benchmark chateau in the appellation. One of the owners guided the group through a tour of the estate from both sides of the road, a sight most visitors aren’t fortunate enough to experience. Following the tour, the group was led into the room where professional visitors participate in a special blind tasting of Leoville Poyferre. To keep things fun and easy, the group was presented with the 2009 (which scored 100 points) and the 2010 (which scored almost as high). With some guests leaning to the opulent 2009 and others preferring the bigger, more powerful 2010, results were mixed. So, what question yielded the unanimous answer? An invitation to dine at the private family home.
The charming and classically French Chateau Le Crock is situated in St. Estephe, in the middle of Montrose and Cos d’Estournel. Dinner with the family included another blind tasting. While all the members of YPO were only asked if they liked the wines or not, I was asked to play “Guess the wine and vintage.” I successfully identified all the wines and a single vintage, but only came close to naming the other vintages at Chateau Le Crock. Still, it was a fun game to play. Speaking of games, the World Cup was taking place, and the entire group was invited to the family room to watch with the owner. After a few minutes, realizing how late it was, sadly, we could not finish watching the game. So, we said goodnight and goodbye. After all, tomorrow was another day.
Day 4 Thursday
With classic French architecture as far as the eye can see, Bordeaux chateaux look exactly as you’d expect them too. But Cantenac Brown broke the mold when they built their chateau in the Tudor style. Seemingly out of style in the region, it’s stunningly beautiful. Yet as a private home, the estate remains closed to visitors. Unless, of course, you were with this YPO group! Following a quick tour and tasting, we were invited into Chateau taste the just-bottled white wine of the estate. As hunger pangs began, people started to steal glances at their watch, and we soon moved to the next destination.
With its distinctive flags flapping in the breeze, sharply pointed black towers and architecture, Chateau Palmer is easy to spot from the main road. As the bus pulled into the chateau parking lot, the group lit up. Clearly I was not the only one claiming Margaux wine. Upon arrival, the estate president treated us to a private tour of the new cellars and vat rooms. During lunch in the chateau, the group tasted Palmer’s rare white wine (which is not commercially sold) and a few vintages of Chateau Palmer. The wines were almost as exciting as the lively lunch, which was filled with uncensored questioning about Bordeaux, Palmer, the current marketplace and the future of Bordeaux.
Without question, the twin titans of the Margaux appellation are Palmer and Chateau Margaux. Following the group’s visit to Palmer, there was only one thing left to do: visit Chateau Margaux! Margaux is in a state of reconstruction that will be finished by next year. While that places some parts of the chateau off limits, the group began their visit next to the most amazing field of bright yellow sunflowers that extended as the eye could see. After learning a portion of the history behind Margaux, the group participated in a tasting led by Paul Pontallier, the extraordinarily charming president of the estate. Pontallier remained with the group for close to an hour, openly answering questions that ranged from winemaking to the cost of doing business as a First Growth.
After numerous tastings, visits and a long lunch, there was only one thing left to decide: where to go to dinner. The group made their way to Chateau Branaire Ducru in St. Julien. Before dinner, the estate owner and his wife treated the group to a fun blind tasting that showcased the 2009 and 2010 vintages. Clearly, this was not the same group that started out the week, as most people easily discerned the difference between the two vintages presented to them at Branaire Ducru. It was interesting to see how much better they had become at tasting and differentiating the vintages in such a short period of time. As an award for being such willing tasters, Branaire Ducru offered the group a second blind tasting. They poured three samples of the 2013 vintage from three different types of barrels, each with the estate’s unique signature. It was a fun learning experience for everyone involved.
Following the tasting, the group enjoyed Champagne and a series of small courses in the garden before dinner. Perhaps because it was family oriented, this evening became one of the best memories of the trip. The wines were great. The food was perfectly paired. The people were wonderful. What more could you ask for? Before I forget, the ride home was a blast! You have to ask the group why. Else, like the saying goes, what happens in Bordeaux stays in Bordeaux.
Day 5 The Grand Finale
The last day of the trip was packed. And by packed, I mean stuffed like a turkey about to be served for Thanksgiving. By request, the group asked to visit Chateau Lafite Rothschild, so we kicked off the morning with a tour of the estate. No matter how many times you’ve been there, a visit to Gruaud Larose, the popular Second Growth estate. Because we had a lunch set up and were running slightly behind, we only managed a quick tour and visit to the highest tower in Bordeaux before tasting a few vintages of Gruaud Larose.
Few wines from Pauillac are as popular as Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste. It’s rare today for an estate to combine great style, fair prices and earn high scores from Robert Parker. But that is exactly what Grand Puy Lacoste does. Wine, wine and more wine was still the order of the day. Following a tasting of multiple vintages of Grand Puy Lacoste, the group was invited to lunch by the owner, his wife and daughter. The experience of joining a true Bordelais family in their home for lunch was a memory none of the guests will forget. If that was not enough, we were treated to multiple decades of Grand Puy Lacoste, which back to 1982! The memory of Madame Borie serving the guests coffee to the group lingered as we bade our goodbyes and moved on to the final visit of the trip.
The final stop of the trip was at the popular Chateau Beychevelle. With perhaps the most beautiful garden setting in the Medoc, the sprawling chateau and impeccably manicured grounds must be seen to be believed. Following a quick tour, the group enjoyed their last blind tasting of the trip with 2009 and 2010 Chateau Beychevele, arguably the two best wines the property has ever produced. The visit was cut short as the group returned to the hotel to don their black ties and business wear for what many people consider the best dinner of the year: the Fete de la Fleur.
The gala of the year, Fete de la Fleur celebrates the flowering of each vintage. And in Bordeaux, a city known for its extravagance, that distinction says a lot! Even though close to 1,000 guests were in attendance, the gala is the toughest ticket in town. The dining room was packed with chateau owners, directors, negociants and wine lovers. Following the non-stop parade of appetizers, the dinner (which was hosted by the estates of the 1855 Classified growths) combined wine, fun, pomp and circumstances. Wines were delivered tableside accompanied by blaring trumpets and other types of music, lights and sound effects. The Mayor of Bordeaux, French Prime Minister and other distinguished leaders from around the world created an environment that is unequaled in the wine world.
Like the Eric Clapton song, it was “After Midnight,” the fireworks ended, and it was time to go. Until next year in June…