The train had rocked me to sleep after leaving Paris. A short three hours and few stops later, the whistle of the conductor announced we were pulling into Bordeaux. I almost expected the train station to be surrounded by chateaux, vineyards in long straight rows and winemakers carefully tending their vines.
Instead, I found myself in the center of a city where two rivers meet, home to many creative kitchens and a display of architecture that would inspire exploration of the city rather than the wine region.
And yet, like many other travelers, we had come for the wine. There was a piece to the puzzle of understanding France somewhere in the vineyards, and we had arranged for a guide to help us find it. Ronald Rens, the English-speaking President and Wine Master of the Bordeaux Wine Experience is an expert at making the Bordeaux region accessible to his guests. Originally from the Netherlands, Ronald began his love affair with Bordeaux while on numerous vacations. The purchase of Chateau Coulon Laurensac enabled him to share his expertise with his wine tours. Just 20 minutes by car outside of Bordeaux, the limestone chateau was a fitting starting point for exploring the region.
Ronald has now been collecting and studying the wines of Bordeaux for over 25 years. Ronald and his wife Margaret have renovated and opened their home to those looking for something beyond the typical wine tour. There’s no room service or bellman at the chateau, just new friendships and understanding about the complexity of wine-making to be found. Chateau Coulon Laurensac is an ideal environment for learning about wine, at any level, encouraging visitors to take their days slow and allow their senses to take over.
Weeping willow trees, blooming flowers and a driveway of pebbles were all covered in a lovely morning dew when we rose for breakfast before our first day of wine touring was to begin. Arriving late to the chateau, Margaret greeted us kindly and left us to enjoy a plate of cheese, charcuterie and bread along with a bottle of the region’s famous 2005 vintage. Staying in one of the self-catering apartments, we had the usage of a dining table, small living area, and separate bedroom. It was easy to see days happily pass without visiting a single vineyard.
Passing through a small gate to the pool area, we first saw the expanse of the property. A wine-producing chateau in the past, we learned that the room we were now staying in had originally been part of the winery. A sun terrace was the location for breakfast, with floor to ceiling glass windows on three sides. One long table encouraged conversation between guests, with a maximum of 10 people staying at the chateau at any one time.
Croissants, fresh fruit and yogurt were arranged on the table. Pots of coffee and tea and juice were passed as introductions were made. An American couple had just arrived from Paris as well, and had signed up for the “Best of Both Worlds” tour. On the first day, they would explore the Medoc region, on the left bank. Their second day would find them in St. Emilion and Pomerol, with the chance to develop a taste for the differences between the regions.
Many chateaux in Bordeaux aren’t open to the general public. The difficulty in arranging your own visit to the region is complicated by a variety of factors, and often first-time visitors don’t know where to begin. Ronald had made all of our appointments for the day, bringing us to 3 of the top chateaux. Providing a bit of ‘infotainment’ about wine and the region, Ronald shared his knowledge and introduced us to the winemakers. This was my main interest, to meet the people and families behind the tradition of producing wine. Over the course of the day, it was confirmed to me just how much winemaking is a labor of love.
I was glad not to be behind the wheel, maneuvering small turns and obeying one-way signs en route to our first chateau in Saint Emilion. The Bordeaux Wine Experience removes all the hassle from touring the vineyards, leaving visitors free to concentrate on the wine. I sat back and took in views of the countryside as Ronald explained the nature of Bordeaux wines, all blends of the grape varieties of the area.
Lavender clung to vines on the walls of Chateau Canon as we pulled into the driveway. We were introduced to Geraldine, my first glimpse into the pride of the region’s winemakers. Owned since 1996 by Chanel, Chateau Canon produces 75% Merlot grapes and 25% Cabernet Franc. The rich fruity smell of these grape varieties met us at the door. We were led inside to a room lined with towering stainless steel vats. The next room was the resting place for French-oak barrels. The 2008 vintage was labeled and aging. The recurring words of the tour were ‘passion and patience’, both essential elements in winemaking.
I had read about terroir, but lacked an understanding of what a generative source of passion it is for the French. They are proud of their soil, of the differences that contribute to the flavors of their wines, of understanding the terroir and how it is different from that of their neighbors. After seeing the long room of resting barrels that produce 70,000 bottles a year, I got to take a tour deep under the terroir itself.
Saint Emilion was built from limestone. This uniformity gives the buildings a certain strength and charm. As Geraldine described, this leaves the land below ‘like swiss cheese.’ With holes where blocks of limestone were cut out for building, beneath the soil is a quarry with long tunnels and high humidity. Chateau Canon had direct access to one of these quarries, and we descended a stairway for a tour.
During the time of construction, only 50% of limestone should have been removed from the quarry, leaving the other 50% as a foundation for the building above. Unfortunately, as much as 80% was taken from beneath Chateau Canon. Reinforcement projects have been completed and the structure is now considered safe. Originating from the 13th century, Geraldine pointed out circles of black smoke on the ceiling, where ancient torches had left their mark.
A wine tasting in a bright room upstairs was next. All morning we had been hearing about the famous 2005 vintage, where France experienced the dream set of weather conditions for producing a wine of excellent-quality. It was called a ‘once in a lifetime vintage.’ According to Geraldine, it is still too early to drink it. Known for an ability to age well, Bordeaux wines develop with time. Emphasizing that nothing can speed up this process, Geraldine showed her respect for the winemaking process. At our tasting, a bottle of the 2004 vintage was presented. Our host called it an ‘under-acknowledged’ vintage, and praised its mineral qualities.