Tram B, not unlike the New York subway system in the summer, has its own special micro-climate (technical term). Described by some as ‘surprisingly tropical’ it is consistently a departure – and somehow always surprisingly so – from the weather conditions on the outside of the tram, particularly during early morning journeys to school.  Dressing oneself in the morning is a careful exercise of selecting clothing appropriate for the walking portion of the trip, but that can also be divested quickly and with a minimum of arm movement, as once inside the tram, one is hemmed in on all four sides by other students drawn, like mosquitos to light, to the various campuses in Pessac.  (Mosquitos are clearly still on the brain chez moi.  N.B. The plugins are far more effective than the sprays.)

The infamous Tram B passing the opera house. My morning walk takes me across this field.

Proof that we are working hard.

Proof that we are working hard.

While the first week of ‘school’ is quite the immersion experience, it doesn’t stop there.  We continue at the weekend with my first harvest experience: picking Merlot at the Château Pierre de Lune. It is an early start, as the picking begins at 8 am, but the estate is small (less than 2 hectares) so we are nearly done by lunchtime.  It starts raining so we pop inside for a quick lunch, which turns out to be a massive feast: heavy on duck, roast chicken, veal; light on vegetables.  I dig it. We finish the last few rows after lunch, and it must be the wine that helps us move faster, as we’re completed the harvest a scant 20 minutes later. Gratitude flows as easily as the wine and shortly thereafter we are on our way home, arms full of the 2010 vintage from each of the château’s two labels, one of which we have tested (and thoroughly enjoyed) at the lunch. I have high hopes for the other one.

It is a good introduction to the practical side of the winemaking process, as Monday morning (the afternoon even more so) represents a sharp uptick in the science content (and sadly, subsequent downtick in the drinking content).  The program is organized in multi-disciplinary modules, rather than traditional single-subject courses, so we have several different professors – and perspectives – during the first module on the Fundamentals of Viticulture and Enology. Throughout the week we discuss the chemistry, biology, engineering equipment and vineyard management involved in the grape development and vinification process. It’s an interesting and exhausting way of approaching the subject, as the non-technical students like me are reeling with new vocabulary and mildly terrified by the diagrams. That said, we have some hands-on experiences that help pull the information together – a return to Château Luchey-Halde to review the equipment involved in the red wine-making process, and access to the tasting lab.  Tastings are scheduled for 9AM on Friday mornings, which is either a clever ploy to prevent us from having late Thursday nights, or a genius plan to help us start our weekends early…

We hang on to the prof’s every word at Luchey-Halde. The chemistry needs a little help going down. Tasting is when it all comes together.

There’s French class in there too; we are all separated into different classes. Mine contains a slew of Brazilians who are on exchange to Bordeaux for a year. They speak to each other in French, not even in Portuguese, which is the first sign that I have some serious catching up to do!  My strategy is to convince other classmates to join my class so we can commiserate in a language that is neither Portuguese nor French, if necessary. (Update: ploy is successful, I have two familiar faces in my class for next week!)

Friday afternoon is free, so a handful of us take off to visit a vineyard in Pomerol, a village adjacent to St Emilion, and home to some of the highest-priced wines in France. Château Croque-Michotte is in the throes of harvesting Merlot (yes, everyone’s Merlot is ripening at the same time) but the owner, Pierre, takes three hours out of his day to show us around the estate and even quiz us on our knowledge of classical piano composers.  For him, the harvest is the most relaxed time of year: the tough decisions have already been made all year long – all he has to do now is collect the grapes. He has illustrious neighbours; Petrus to the north, and Cheval Blanc to the south.  They all grow the same grapes (well, Petrus is 100% Merlot vs. Croque-Michotte’s 74%), and have the same method and soil, but of the three only Croque-Michotte is organic. Pierre maintains a yield (33 hectaliters vs. 50 hectaliters per hectare) well below what is required by the appellation, which he insists is key to the health of his vines and the quality of his wine. His wine is pretty spectacular, so clearly whatever he’s doing is working.

croque michotte

Getting our hands dirty at Croque-Michotte; the church at Pomerol in the distance; and an impromptu concert to wrap up our visit.

The next day, we head to the vineyard of a classmate – Château Carsin – the only Finnish-owned château in Bordeaux, in the appellation of Côtes de Bordeaux.  After three frustrating/character-building hours of navigating highway road closures, we show up and are immediately appeased with a glass of their Sauvignon Gris, and a tour of the property.  We’ve been hearing all about the wines in class, and even had a chance to taste the 2009 during the first week, but it’s really good to see first hand how experimental they can be.  The wine-making philosophy is new world turned traditional – a description of their evolution since purchasing the property in 1990 – the current aim is to create wines as authentic expressions of the soil through vineyard rather than cellar practices. We learn how to “Kippis!” – Finnish for Cheers – and explore the expressions of the red, the rosé, and the Sauvignon Blanc/Gris blend for ourselves.  The wines stand out on their own, but the delicious food, good company and beautiful scenery are welcome additions to the party.

Selfie game is strong at the Chateau Carsin. A secret stash of balsamic vinaigrette. The Carmenere reminds me of Ontario autumn.

Selfie game is strong at the Château Carsin. A secret stash of balsamic vinaigrette. The Carménère leaves remind me of autumn in Ontario. (Please send pics!)

Do French angels get a share of balsamic vinegar, or do Scottish angels just take everything???

Scottish angels take a share of anything they want.

There always seems to be a twist at the end, and this visit is no different.  Sure enough the owner, Juha, invites us to hop into his large jeep to go to the ‘vinegar factory’.  He’s using some of the grape must to make balsamic vinegar, which ages for up to 25 years in a barrels.  As the barrels are not completely sealed, a little vinegar evaporates each year (do angels get a share of balsamic vinegar too, or only whiskey?) and the reduction is then moved into the next, slightly smaller, barrel.  We taste a little at each stage, and the result. Is. Delicious.  We bid a reluctant goodbye, but only after Nea promises to host Thanksgiving (the debate as to whether it will be Canadian or American is still ongoing), and we head home.

There are food festivals all over Bordeaux on Sunday; wandering through La Bastide and sampling the tastes of Aquitaine is a perfect way to wrap up the weekend before starting week 3 at school.

After having visited three vineyards – four including Luchey-Halde – this past week in Bordeaux, I can safely tell you that despite the little drops of rain here and there, everyone is reporting a great harvest.   It won’t be ready for a few years, but be sure to keep an eye out for the Bordeaux 2015s!

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