JULIAN HITNER TORONTO WINE CONSULTANT

"For love of everything that is wine"

SATURDAY, JANUARY 6, 2007

~A short essay on my first visit to the village of Pauillac, written as I sip a glass of Jumilla (I cannot afford Pauillac)~

     As lifetime experiences go, few have been more enjoyable for me than my first visit to the quiet wine-producing village of Pauillac. Located in the Médoc region (or 'Left Bank,' as some people call it), Pauillac is home to some of Bordeaux's most prestigious wine estates, including three 'First Growths' and a host of other famous 'Classified Growth' wineries, numbering eighteen in total.

  In its own right, Pauillac is a beautiful little place, replete with architecturally-fascinating (and highly aristocratic) chateaus, fields of lovingly-tended vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot (along with a little Petit Verdot, for good luck, as some might say), and, most importantly for an outsider such as myself, a delightful community of outgoing, hospitable local inhabitants.

     It was to Pauillac, a village numbering less than one thousand inhabitants, that my train pulled up from the city of Bordeaux (right on time, might I add, a feat for any sort-of engine operating on tracks as far as I am concerned) on the morning of 20 August 2005. For the record, my timing for a visit could not have been more suitable. Meteorologically, the sun was shining bright and the temperature was warm; one could even tell that the vines themselves were enjoying these splendid conditions. Even more exciting, weeks before, I had scheduled an appointment to visit the wonderful 'Second Growth' estate of Château Pichon-Longueville Comtesse-de-Lalande (henceforth, Pichon-Lalande), and I did not want to be late. I was expected at 10:00AM.

     On leaving the train station, however, I was instantly beset by a somewhat unexpected problem, in that the map I had brought along was insufficient to properly direct me to the chateau. Fortunately, a local Pauillac villager, a kind-hearted resident of some sixty years of age (at least that was how old she looked), was quick to jump to my aid. Encountering her right outside the station, she was on her morning walk, and was kind enough to actually guide me to the chateau. In any event, it was not out of her way, as the estate turned out to be on her walking route.

     From what I can recall, the journey to Pichon-Lalande took only about twenty minutes. On the way, however, we walked right through the actual village of Pauillac. In recollection, aside from the bakery, there were practically no shops open for business as we passed through. This, of course, was to be expected, as it was only 9:30AM on a Saturday morning. Still, one could instantly tell that Pauillac was a pleasant little place to live, with early-risers taking their dogs out for a walk (though not picking up after them, might I add) and a few little children playing hopscotch on the sidewalk outside the bakery, with their parents inside smoking a few cigarettes with the baker. In terms of architecture, with several exceptions, most of the buildings in the centre of the village are recognizably regional in style: two or three stories in height, remarkably grey (and a little black with soot) in color, and containing closed shutters on practically all of the windows. Put simply, what makes Pauillac so architecturally special are not the buildings of the actual village, itself, but the magnificent chateaus surrounding it.

     On leaving the centre of the village, my companion and I passed the site of one famous chateau after another. For me, this was a fascinating experience, that is, being able to view (sometimes in multiplicities) the actual chateaus of estates I had read about in the many wine-books I have lying around the house. Almost all of them were imposing in size (albeit some more than others), marvelously decorated, and scrupulously maintained; one could tell that many of these estates possessed vast sums of capital, and were not afraid of illustrating this fact. However, since I had no appointments with any them that morning, there was no way I was simply going to start knocking on doors and hope for a tour (such is not the way things are done anywhere in Bordeaux, at least not usually). My only appointment for that morning in Pauillac was for Pichon-Lalande, and that was perfectly fine by me.

     In all, my visit to Pichon-Lalande was a lovely experience. Aside from being shown the vineyards, the well-maintained gardens and grounds, the winemaking facility, the art collection, and the cellar, I was also privy to sampling a variety of most delectable vintages. My compliments to my hosts, whose names I cannot for the life of me remember! Let this be a lesson to others: whenever visiting prestigious wine estates, always try to memorize the names of your hosts so you can mention them in future essays.

     Returning to the purpose of this composition, however, I suppose that my description of my visit at Pichon-Lalande is something of a digression, as it arguably only partially relates to my experiences in the actual village and vineyards of Pauillac, itself. Retracing my steps to the matter at hand, then, for me, I suppose it was really subsequent to my visit to Pichon-Lalande that I truly came into my own in Pauillac.

     After I bade farewell to my hosts, I set about finding my way back to the 'centre' of Pauillac; I say 'centre' because Pichon-Lalande is located in the hinterland of the Pauillac commune. It was one of the most memorable half-hour walks I had taken in a long time. Up until that point in my life (keeping in mind that I was only twenty-two years of age at the time of this visit), I had never actually walked on my own before in a wine region, let alone one as prestigious as Pauillac.

     Thus, it was really quite a thrill for me to be walking along the roadside back to the centre of the village, pausing to gaze at the rows of vines (which number about 1,200 hectares in total and, individually, reach only about a metre in height) and the soil with which their roots intermingle and thrive – the soil, particularly in this case, being the direct source of some of the most elegant and long-aging bottles in the world. From time to time, I bent down to feel the soil, itself, remarking at how gravelly and sandy it was --- this being the type of soil (though unsuitable for farming) most experts have long denoted as being ideal for producing high-quality wine.

     Soil and vines aside, as I walked along the roadside back to the centre of the village, I also came across rows of small and unassuming homes. What struck me instantly was how these little, insignificant dwellings, which were probably built sometime after the war, were oftentimes located right next to a large vineyard site, undoubtedly owned and utilized by a famous chateau. Looking at them, I couldn’t help wondering at how the local villagers must have felt about living next door to such world-famous wine estates as those of Pauillac. Did these people work in the wine industry? Did they get to try the expensive wines produced by these estates for free (unlike me, who actually has to pay for them), on account of being virtual neighbors with them? Throughout my visit to Pauillac, I never really did receive a definitive answer to these questions.

     On reaching the tourist office, the Maison du Tourisme et du Vin (henceforth, Maison), I sampled five different Pauillac wines they had on offer; to my enjoyment, all were delicious, if not much better than Jumilla. Moreover, the people who worked at the tourist office were all very friendly. Interestingly, most of them were about my age; they were young, local residents working at the tourist office as a summer job. While at the Maison, I had lengthy discussions with several them, mostly about what it was like to live in such a wine-oriented village as Pauillac. As it turns out, most young people in Pauillac, aside from helping bringing in the grapes in late-September and early-October, are really not that interested in entering the prestigious local wine industry, at least not for a long-term commitment. Rather the reverse, most young people residing in Pauillac (at least those I met during my visit), on reaching full-fledged adulthood, seem to have aspirations of relocating to the actual city of Bordeaux, itself, citing daily life in Pauillac as being too uneventful for their youthful taste. Still, as I spoke with them, it was clear that they were undeniably proud of the chateaus in their midst, as well as the glorious wines they produce.

     By the time I was finished at the Maison, having learned a great deal about what it was like to live in Pauillac (especially for young people), it was well into mid-day, and it was time to have lunch. Walking along the road adjacent to the Gironde River, about two bocks south of the Maison, I came across several restaurants with exterior facilities. Though I cannot remember the name of it, I settled upon an establishment that appeared suited to my needs: the place was full of people speaking to one another in the French language (always a good indicator of quality) and the menu, which was posted on a little chalkboard next to a wall, included Pauillac’s most famous non-liquid delicacy – rack of lamb.

   Settling down to my small table, I remember ordering, as an aperitif, a glass of Barsac (La Chartreuse de Coutet, the ‘second wine’ of Château Coutet, vintage 1992), a sweet wine made from botrytis-affected grapes. Gazing out on the river and sipping my wine (which was absolutely delicious), I got out of my small backpack an unused postcard I had just purchased at the Maison. (Interesting note, the photograph on it was the estate of Château Palmer, located, ironically, not in Pauillac but in the almost equally-prestigious wine-producing commune of Margaux, which was just a few dozen kilometres south of Pauillac). Addressing the postcard to my parents back in Toronto, I recall writing on it all the events I had experienced that morning, and how I was currently waiting patiently for my lamb to arrive at the table while enjoying my wine.

     The lamb, when it finally arrived, turned out to be excellent; it was quite tender and moist, with a delicious balance of moderately-herbed seasoning, along with a superbly marbled meat-and-fat content. To accompany such a dish, I ordered a glass of plain ‘Pauillac,’ a simple wine produced by a co-operative of local winegrowers. It (the wine) also turned out to be superb.

     By the time I had finished my meal and was appreciatively full, I was more than ready to proceed to my afternoon appointment, this time at the highly-prestigious 'Second Growth' estate of Château Pichon-Longueville Baron (henceforth, Pichon-Baron). My appointment was scheduled for 2:00PM. Located, not surprisingly, right across the road from Pichon-Lalande, it was not particularly difficult to retrace my steps to reach the chateau. I simply proceeded along the same road I had used to get from Pichon-Lalande to the Maison. This time, however, as I walked past the rows of vines, I really felt no need to bend down and feel the soil, so the journey to the estate was a good deal quicker. I did, though, indulge myself in the picking of a few grapes off the vines for sampling (this was in spite of the fact that they were sprayed with pesticides, which did not occur to me at the time I consumed them). On the whole, they were very good grapes, ripening at an exemplary pace and worthy of the vines from where they came --- I could see why my hosts at Pichon-Lalande had been adamant earlier that day in telling me that the ’05 vintage was probably going to become legendary.

     On reaching the imposingly-aristocratic chateau of Pichon-Baron, however, I encountered a problem I was not exactly expecting. The estate and surrounding vineyards, beautiful and impeccably maintained, was completely devoid of any people to greet me – in other words, the place was empty! Disappointed, I waited outside the visitor's entrance for about half an hour; no one came. However, while waiting, I was amazed at how, about once every five minutes, people in cars would pull up to the estate parking lot to take pictures of the chateau and then leave. Obviously, these people were not locals, so who were they? Most likely, they were merely passersby stopping to get a shot of one of the most beautiful chateaus in the commune of Pauillac. Perhaps they were even 'wine tourists' like me.

     Now, as I mentioned a moment ago, I waited for about half and hour, after which I decided to make my way back to the train station. By then, it was 2:30PM, and I wanted to do a little browsing of the wine stores in the city of Bordeaux before they closed for the day. I was also rather tired by this time, having walked about thirty-five kilometres in the course of just five hours. Although I was a bit upset that I was unable to see Pichon-Baron and view their winemaking facilities, I nonetheless felt unmistaken in my impression that I had successfully been able to get a feel for what the village of Pauillac was all about: kind people (both young and old) who guide you to chateaus and tell you about themselves; princely wine estates where you had better get your appointment times straight; beautiful vines growing atop soil, with the latter being akin to a vegetable farmer’s worst nightmare; lamb that ranks among the world's finest; and wine that is, in my mind, rightly called ‘Pauillac’ for a reason.

     Take what you want from this very latter statement; I have to finish my Jumilla.

COPYRIGHT 2007

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