Story by Morton Hochstein
Photography courtesy of Manos Angelakis, Château Leognan, Château Biac, Château d’Arcole.
Travels Of An Ecotourist
Many years ago I asked a friend who traveled frequently in Italy to recommend lodgings between Siena and Florence so that we might tour the wine country and visit those two cities. He suggested an apartment in the house of a wine consultant in the heart of Tuscany, almost equidistant between the two cities. Perfect, I thought, and set off for three weeks in Duda. Yes, that was its name, as in the Camptown Races minstrel song by the American composer Stephen Foster. But this Duda was a far cry from any racetrack, or population center.
Duda is not on the map. We knew it was near Greve, a small Italian town which is the capital of Tuscan wine country, and we questioned many people in that community who had heard of Duda. Finally, over pizza, we found an ancient villager who said it was up in the hills, about four miles away, With difficulty we navigated a long and winding road, only partially paved, finally emerging high on a mountaintop into a hamlet of a half dozen houses guarded by seven elderly women all dressed in black. They studied us carefully that afternoon, that evening and the next morning and continued to monitor our comings and goings day and night.
It was a hot summer and though we would have preferred to return to our apartment to wash up between touring and dining, we decided that one trip down and one trip back each day on those twisting roads was more than enough. Hot and sweaty we never returned to our apartment for a break in the day’s activities. After a week of torturous driving, occasionally seeing wreckage of cars that had not survived the hill’s hazards, we tossed in our towels, forfeited rent, and enjoyed the rest of our summer at a Swedish hotel on the beach at Castiglione Della Piscaia, near Elba.
Though I had resolved never again to visit Italy in summer, I was back in my ecotourism mode again a few years later, lured by a winemaker to stay at his farmhouse in another area of Tuscany. This was in the days before GPS and while it was difficult to check in at the winery, it was almost impossible to locate the small cottage we had rented. The house was extremely rustic and I would not have made the deal had I seen the facilities beforehand. We lasted there for less than a week, discouraged by nights of eking our way homeward on dark, unmarked, unpaved paths, wondering if we ever find our way back to that cottage in the woods.
Discouraged, we threw in the towel once again. In daylight, unable to find our way to the winery, we left the keys at a highway tavern and headed for the beach once more
But I remain an ecotourist and in recent wine journeys in Bordeaux, I located three vineyard hostelries which are many levels removed from the humble accommodations where I suffered in Tuscany.
We opened our exploration in Bordeaux, a bustling city which is the gateway to the wine region which shares its name. The bustle comes largely from a huge population of young people, since Bordeaux reputedly has more colleges than any city in France, including Paris. The streets throng with students and are choc-a-bloc with bistros whose menus are matched to the financial level of those students. While many visitors to Bordeaux head for the famed wineries of the Medoc, we shifted our attention south and west to Graves and wineries further west.
We stopped at Château Leognan, a relatively new producer in Pessac Leognan, home to some of the most prestigious wines in Graves. Leognan is a new winery, having been established in 2000 when Phillipe and Chantal Miecazes purchased an ancient chateau and vineyards, whose fields had supplied grapes to Domaine De Chevalier, one of the most honored white wine produces in Graves.
Their first three wines won gold medals in international competition in Bordeaux, Lyons and Brussels. Leognan produces an AOC red that is 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. An elegant wine, it is dark purple, with aromas of red and black fruit on the nose. Lush and smooth on the palate, the 2010 comes from a great vintage that will be drinkable for many years to come.
The château is fifteen kilometers from the city of Bordeaux and is close to many of the great vineyards of Graves, Barsac and Sauternes. Travelers here live in the château, which houses four large bedrooms, each with private bath, suites and one family suite consisting of two double bedrooms with bathrooms, living room and kitchen. In addition to a bountiful breakfast, ample room, solitude and freedom from traffic and friendly atmosphere, visitors can also tour the vineyards in a horse drawn carriage. I checked the guest book, which was full of enthusiastic comments from French vacationers. Apparently English and American tourists have yet to discover its pleasures.
See the website for rates: http://www.chambrehotebordeaux.fr/chambredhotes_eng.html.
Oddly I would like to visit here again, not in spring or harvest time and not in warm weather, but in winter when the foliage has faded and the river's dazzling twists and turns are more visible. On the lovely summer day when we were at Biac, we watched from high atop its mountain home as a huge barge moved ponderously upstream carrying a massive segment of an airbus. The piece would be offloaded at a nearby port at Langon and then travel by road to Tolouse where Airbus has its assembly plant.
The vista from the manor house overlooking the vineyards and the Garonne is dazzling, rivaling anything I have enjoyed along the Rhine in Germany, over Lake Lucerne in Switzerland and in my native New York state, the view of Lake Keuka with autumn colors reflecting on the water.
Yasmina Asseilly, spokesperson and general manager for her parents, guided a group of wine journalists through the vineyards, and the winery and wined and dined us on a sun-dappled terrace. The view on that sunny afternoon was dazzling, but she said it would be even better in winter.
Her parents, Tony and Youmanna Asseilly, had rented for many years in Bordeaux, away from their native Lebanon. Enchanted with the area around Blaye, they sought out a vineyard property. At a gathering, a wine consultant told them there was only one worthwhile site in the region. It was Biac, the one they were considering. The family bought the property in 2006 and engaged the consultant, Patrick Leon, to make their red wines. Leon came with superb credits after 20 years at Mouton Rothschild and also in California where he crafted the Opus One collaboration between Rothschild and Mondavi.
Yasmina told us the winery need much work before being updated to its present high-tech sate, but that the manor house was in excellent shape. “We inherited a jacuzzi so large that it would have emptied the Garonne if we filled it” she quipped.
Enologist Patrick Leon makes three reds: Chateau Biac, a carefully nurtured top of the line Bordeaux blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. Those ratios change with the harvest and may change drastically with the most recent vintage which underwent a tumultuous growing season. In New York, the Biac lists for $65, while its similar, though less painstakingly assembled siblings, B de Biac and Cuvee Felix, sell at $47 and $22. The Biac is essentially elegant, well rounded and easy to drink red in an almost California style, though more polished and not as fruit forward as many reds from Napa and Sonoma.
As Michelin so famously says, it “is worth a detour,” in this case a dizzying ascent from the road along the Garonne into the vineyards to enjoy the stunning view sloping down to the Garonne. The gites, three duplex farmhouses almost buried in the vineyards, are stylishly comfortable, equipped with about every amenity you would find in a four star hotel, and are far more commodious. They accommodate small and large families and, says Yasmina, often several related family groups. At overflow time, there are also two smaller apartments available. While rentals like this are nominally French predilection, Americans appear to have found the place. A California family, their wagon loaded top and bottom, was leaving on the day we visited.
Château d’Arcole is a Grand Cru St. Émilion whose history dates back to 1796 when Jean Barthe was part of Napoleon’s victorious army at the battle of Pont d’Arcole. Using reward money from his emperor, Barthe purchased a parcel of vines in Bordeaux, laying the foundation for a wine dynasty that endured for two centuries and been passed down father to son, through seven generations.
In 1992, Veronique Barthe, the first female born into the family since the French revolution, broke the mold when she inherited the estate and became a member of the nation’s growing ranks of female winemakers. She and enologist Phillippe Gardere operate d’Arcole and Chateau La Freynelle in Entre Deux Mers, another historic Barth family property.
D’Arcole is a small vineyard, just 11 acres surrounding a group of ancient farm buildings. Recently renovated, the site includes a state of the art winemaking facility and aging cellar, as well as guest quarters. The fields are planted to approximately 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, which is the basic formula for their one label, Chateau d’Arcole 1796. The formula varies according to the vintage and could alter drastically after this year’s tumultuous growing season.
In the 1960’s, before the terms became fashionable, the Barth family pioneered sustainable agriculture and became the first vineyard in St. Émilion to practice organic farming. With preservation of the environment as a guiding principle, Barthe and Gardere use no weed killers, pesticides or fertilizers and deploy only natural products to protect he vines.
Their wine is a dark brooding monster with strong aromas of black currant and blackberry on the nose and on the palate. The 2010 vintage, a great one throughout France, yielded a serious wine that will age well and grow in appeal for the next decade.
The Barthe guesthouse is a comfortable, well furnished gite, with an open dining terrace looking out at vineyards just a few meters away With an emphasis on muted colors, it is hardly the rustic lodging that one might expect when booking deep in the heart of a vineyard. Its kitchen is modern and completely equipped and there is a pool when guests tire of visiting tourist attractions in nearby Bordeaux and St. Émilion.
For the lodgings at Château d’Arcole: http://www.homelidays.com/saint-emilion/gite637903fr1.htm
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