Planning: I always do intense internet searching for any trip. Through searching, reading about tours, blogs, trip advisor and other reviews, I found castles where anyone can spend a night and it’s reasonably priced for such a special venue.
Tip: If you email or call properties directly, often times they will give you a better rate than online. You may have to ask for it, but most places will do it.
It’s 5.5 hour drive south to Bordeaux through the Loire Valley from Paris. After stopping briefly at Chateau Chambord, and a quick rest stop for a freshly made salad, we arrived in the village of Pessac in the Graves AOC, and went straight to our Aparthotel. No frills, it was just to sleep and awaken to head first thing in the morning to our blending master class at our first castle of the trip, Chateau Pape Clement. This grand chateaux was the first named chateaux in Bordeaux, in the 14th century, located in the commune of Pessac, listed in both in the Graves and the Pessac-Leognan classifications (shows they make great wine), a Grand Cru Classe, 2nd growth, on the left bank of Bordeaux.
A little on the layout of Bordeaux: The region of Bordeaux is made up of a left bank of the Gironde Estuary, comprised of the Garonne and Dordogne Rivers, and the right bank of the rivers. Bordeaux itself is a city on the left bank, surrounded by appellations long known for the finest wine in the world. The Medoc is made up of 8 appellations: Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux, Saint-Julien, Pauillac, and Saint-Estèphe. There are sub-regions, the most notable are Graves for red, white and sweet wines, Pessac-Leognan for reds and whites, Entre Du Mer for dry white wines made from Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc; and Sauternes and Barsac for sweet white wines. On the right bank is St. Emilion and Pomerol, known for the soft, chalky, big red wines driven by Merlot. Think Petrus. There are other notable regions on the right bank, but we couldn’t see it all – just the bigs.
Facts: Red wines from Bordeaux are a blend of primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, perhaps with some Petit Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc in the blend.
White wines from Bordeaux, depending on the village, are a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. The percentage of Sauvignon Blanc is higher depending on the commune, but most are oaked, dry and complex. If it is Sauternes or Barsac it will be sweet.
In Graves, the red wines are merlot or cab blends of varying percentages based on quality of the year. They are able to use petit Verdot, Malbec (Cot) and Cabernet Franc in the blend, using smaller percentages. They also make dry whites.
Graves means gravel, as the soil is predominantly gravel. This is key for drainage of the heavy rains. If a chateau is in Pessac-Léognan, that is also a classified premier cru, so they are covered by two classifications of regions. Typically Cabernet does better on gravel, as the gravel forces vines to grow really deep, and Merlot does better in clay, which ripens earlier as the clay holds more water. The blends are driven by the year and the success of the crops. Chateau Pape Clement has so much property, that they have vineyards throughout Bordeaux and have many soil types to choose from.
When we arrived at Chateau Pape Clement, we were first greeted by Erwan, with whom I had been corresponding. He immediately checked us in and provided us amazing espresso while we waited for our class. We greedily drank our expressos, listening to organ music in the foyer. It was pretty surreal, sitting in this 13th century castle, listening to this music, sipping expresso. Erwan then brought us over to our blending class in their tasting room. There we met Jonathan who showed us around the beautiful grounds of this 13th century chateau.
A little history of the place: Chateau Pape Clement is the oldest wine estate in Bordeaux. They began farming for wine in 1252. The owner, Bertrand de Goth, then became the first French pope in 1305, under the name of Clement V. Jonathan told us the story of the nobleman who built the chateau and later became the first French pope. He showed us the gardens where their chefs grow their fresh herbs. He showed us their vineyard soil, made up of sand and gravel, ideal for filtering water. He then shared with us how the chateau is completely organic and biodynamic and the incredible technology they use for growing and sustaining their vines. At the chateau, they offer lodging, tours, tastings, sales and many wine classes through their wine school. www.chateaupapeclement.com
New technologies: The owner of all of the chateaus is Bernard Marquez. He owns over 40 vineyards worldwide, but the 5 he has in the Bordeaux region are all winemaking chateaus he has restored and opened to the public. He introduced modern day technology into his vineyards and wine making.
He uses drones to patrol the vineyards. The drones give the Cellar Master and vineyard workers a view of their extensive vineyards, how they are growing, if they have encountered disease and what temperatures and other challenges the vines could be facing.
They also use connected barrels. These barrels contain monitors which connect to their computer system. This enables the wine makers to monitor the wine continuously as it ferments inside the barrels.
Fact: A trademark of French vineyards is to grow red roses at the end of a row of vines. This serves a dual purpose, 1. because roses are sensitive plants and of course for their beauty. If they do look diseased or are dry, this is a sign to the winemaker that there is an issue.
During our tour, Johnathan took us into their barrel room. It part of the former chapel, though they definitely still worship wine. We walked in, and there were robes from the 13th century, leftover from a time after the pope residing here donated the chateau to his church choir. There were many artifacts left over and we were encouraged to touch and feel everything. We toured the rest of the estate and the grounds and were then lead to our blending class.
Blending class: We were fortunate enough to be the only students for our personalized tour and class. Johnathan provided us with Chateau Pape Clement’s 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon and their 2018 Merlot, both fresh from the barrel, as well as measuring instruments and various glasses for tasting. Our job was to pretend we were winemakers and create the perfect blend. Blending classes typically represent the style of the region where you take the class, so I usually try to take these classes on my first visit to a region.
In our blending class, the Merlot and Cab bottles were presented to us. We tried the two varietals, then tried a 50/50 blend and then continued with various percentages of the two wines. After much trial and error, and definitely a slight buzz, I concluded that the Merlot was more to my taste and my blend ended up being close to 75/25 merlot/cab. (My blends will not win any awards, but the classes definitely give you an idea of the taste and terroir of the region.)
Michelle and I filled our bottles with our respective blends, corked them, put the foil on them and chose names for our wines. Johnathan printed out our labels and we applied them. I will save my blend to drink on my birthday this year.
We headed back to the castle to check in.
Entering the castle I was transferred back to another time. Organ music continued to play in the foyer. The decor was beautiful and the house was grand. There was a music room, a hunting room, a breakfast room… I felt like I was visiting Downton Abbey as a guest coming into their rooms. All of the artifacts were on display for the guests and we were encouraged to view 1200+ year old texts and items on our own. As I mentioned earlier, the owner of the chateau, buys and restores promising chateaus. He also purchases antiques for them at auction. His philosophy is that artifacts should be enjoyed not locked behind glass.
For more history, see their website, www.chateaupapeclement.com.
We checked out the rooftop deck and then headed out to visit the city of Bordeaux about a 25 min drive from our chateau. On the way, we took back roads so we could visit the hallowed grounds of Chateau Haut Brion. Visitors typically need an appointment months in advance there, so we walked around the grounds on our own got a good feel of the gravelly, sandy soil before heading into the city. It was surprisingly unremarkable as the property is bordered by many run-down buildings, but it was still really neat to visit and touch such historic grounds.
We then left Haut Brion
and headed to the Cité du vin, the new wine museum opened in Bordeaux.
This was really cool!