Le Verdon, France: Three Chateaux, a yummy lunch and an itinerary change!

First, an important announcement for those following our cruise itinerary: We are not stopping in Oporto, Portugal on September 21 due to a pending wildcat strike by the dock workers (Lisbon is still on). Instead, we will have a day at sea Friday. Second, they have elected to skip Casablanca, Morocco due to continued unrest on the 24th and have substituted a stop at the Rock of Gibraltar, off the coast of Spain. We regret we won’t see Oporto (it’s their loss – lots of cruise ship passengers were willing to spend Euros there, including us) but we have no problems with the other change and realize that these things happen. I’m sure the whining has commenced at the Destinations Services office and the Purser’s desk.

Now on to our adventure today: Quite a few months ago, I started researching private tours in the Bordeaux region. I found good recommendations for Bordeaux Wine Tours, owned and operated by Henri Challau, who grew up in the Loire region of France; his family owned a vineyard and he also worked as a sommelier. We corresponded and I eventually set up a tour for six people and we found two other couples from our Cruise Critic Roll Call to go with us (Karen and Ira from New York, Kellie and Len from Melbourne, Australia). Henri set to work on visits at three chateaux and also made a reservation at a popular restaurant in Margaux (Le Savoie).

Marina is large enough that she must dock at Le Verdon, which, if there was a middle of freaking nowhere in France, this would be it. This strange little port is at the very northern tip of the flat, marshy Medoc peninsula. The Medoc peninsula is the “left bank of Bordeaux”, situated on the west side of the estuary that runs down to the city of Bordeaux, about a two-hour drive south. The “right bank” region, on the east side of the estuary includes the St. Emilion growing region.

Henri was prompt at the dock; our weather today was surprisingly chilly and overcast and we actually had a little bit of rain. Our tour was centered on three Chateaux, Cantenac-Brown, in the Margaux region; Beychevelle, in the St. Julian region; and Pontet-Canet, in the Pouilliac region. Our brains were spinning with all of the facts that Henri and our tour guides at the Chateaux tossed out about this wine region, including stories about the growing process, wine merchants, wine futures, the big corporations that own many of the Chateaux, the Grand Cru rating system, and the second wines that many have added to their repertoire that allow for the use of younger vines (and wines).

We quickly realized that this is an incredibly complex business and the top wines from this area require a huge commitment, first from the winery, in terms of getting an incredible product from old vines, fermenting the grapes, aging the wine for at least 18 months in new French oak, blending it, bottling it, getting a futures price (and Robert Parker nod), bottling it, then expecting the consumer to cellar this wine (often upwards of €300 a bottle) for more than ten years.

Although I was very impressed with all of this, I’m sorry, but I can’t frickin’ wait ten years or more for a wine to age, when I usually want to pull something from our very small wine cellar NOW (or when we get back home :-)) to accompany a steak that Steve is grilling. For crying out loud, you might be dead or in the nursing home before you can actually drink that €2000 2009 Chateau Mouton Rothschild that you squirreled away with an elaborate inventory system to let you know when it will be “ready”.

The Chateaux were quite interesting – many of the buildings are genuinely historical, dating back to the noblesse oblige of the area in the 17th or 18th centuries. Steve posted some photos showing you what we saw today. However, other Chateaux are facades, never occupied, but built to give an identity to the wine label. As noted before, many are now owned by corporations. We found it interesting that AXA owns several of the major chateaux; we have an annuity investment with this firm and at least the futures for Bordeaux wines have weathered the economic turmoil, so maybe that’s a good thing.

As to the wine: The Medoc region blends Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and a few novelty grapes into balanced blends. A top “appellation” would have something like 46% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44 % Merlot, and a few percentage points of Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdon or Malbec. We all agreed that the third Chateaux we visited, Pontet-Canet, was the most interesting. They are developing “biodynamics” techniques that include the use of horses instead of tractors and other throwbacks to an earlier age of wine-making that is more organic. Their “second” wine was also the most drinkable that we tried all day. All of these Chateaux are heading into the harvest next week or in two weeks.

Finally, our lunch at Le Savoie in the tiny town of Margaux: Steve and I shared a charcuterie plate that was stacked with yummy pates and cured meats. We both had the duck, which was also unbelievably good. The bread was awesome and Steve ordered a scrumptious sabayon dessert with fresh fruits,that I shared with him. C’est magnifique!

We thought this was a great day and Henri was a fantastic guide. We now leave France for Spain.

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