Internet watch: it is now 14 days since the technician was here. Me: 0; French administration in the service sector: 1.

Making sure we know a little about what we're tasting.

Making sure we know a little about what we’re tasting.

There’s no accounting for taste. We start the week out with an introduction to our audit teams. There are three different companies and six different teams involved, to identify what’s going on with the fiscal numbers from real wine estates in the Bordeaux area. We have almost two months to complete the work, so you can imagine that it’s going to be complex. The first half of the exercise will be to decipher the French documentation and accounting style and identify a few areas worth further analysis. I’m going to need a few drinks for this one… Fortunately, there’s an international wine dinner schedule early in the week. This is our opportunity to a) drink wines not from Bordeaux, which is harder to come by than you may expect, if you’re located in Canada or the US, where availability of a wide variety is the norm. And b) mingle with the other wine students here at the school. It’s my first time drinking Russian wine (no, no, not vodka), so truly an international experience!

The Jurade in all their regalia.

The Jurade in all their regalia.

This week I’ve decided to play hooky from school for one day. It turns out that my parrain is good friends with the President of the Jurade (the centuries-old ‘brotherhood’ of St Emilion wine producers), who has organized a day of visits and tasting for us. A good reason to skip school, non? St Emilion has a different system of classification from the Médoc, even though the words sound exactly the same. There are 7 different classifications of quality, from lowest to highest: St Emilion AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlé), Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Grand Cru Classé B, Grand Cru Classé A, Premier Cru Classé B, and Premier Cru Classé A. Unlike the Médoc (and Graves) classification, which has barely changed since 1855, the St Emilion classifications are updated every 10 years – which can either delight or anger the estates that gain or lose status in the revisions.

The first visit of the day is to the Union of Producers. This is different from the Jurade because this is more like a cooperative – small vignerons sell their wine to the Union for it to be blended with the grapes (of the same quality) from other small estates, but even Grand Crus sell their grapes to be vinified (made into wine) by the Union, which is unusually… cooperative… for this particular region, and means the Union plays a huge role in ensuring that wines of varying levels of classification are still up to the standards of the appellation.

A glockenspiel of wine bottles. A big fermentation room at the cooperative. Barrels as far as the eye can see.

A glockenspiel of wine bottles. The big fermentation room at the cooperative. Barrels as far as the eye can see.

For the second visit, we call at Château Angelus, a recent beneficiary of the classification system, having been promoted from Premier Cru Classé B to Premier Cru Classé A in 2012. The area was named Angelus long before the Château was there. It was at this site that locals could hear the sounds of the bells from three different churches ringing for the Angelus, combining to produce a reverberating tintinnabulation (truly – I may never use that word properly ever again, but that is definitely the right descriptor for this), hence the name. With the promotion to the “A” rank, they’ve undergone a two-year renovation which continues to honour the tradition of the bells.

St Emilion soil map

So many different kinds of soil in St Emilion! The bell is a rough approximation for Château Angelus’ location on the Côtes, or the limestone hills (orange) sloping down from the limestone plateau (yellow). Apparently one of my professors is responsible for having mapped out the different soils.

They welcome me by playing “Oh Canada” on the newly installed carillon. (If you listen carefully, you can hear my surprise, followed by my parrain chuckling at my response. True mentorship, right there.) As we learn later in the week, Bordeaux appellations are delineated more by political history than singularity of terroir, as the borders of St Emilion owe more to the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the time, and consist of over 10 different kinds of soil. The vineyards of Angelus sit on gently rolling hills of clay and limestone, just off the limestone plateau that distinguishes many of the Grand Cru/Cru Classé estates in or immediately around the town of St Emilion. The difference for Angelus means that Cabernet Franc grows particularly well, and nearly half of the blend is made up of these grapes, though it’s still dominated by Merlot, as is typical for a wine from St Emilion.

The new welcome hall, the Nave, is naturally bright – it’s designed with elements of cathedral architecture, with a clearstory of windows above, but also to resemble the upside-down hull of a boat. The wood is oak, fittingly, and icons depicting the lifecycle of the wine grapes are engraved into the crossbeams above. The bell motif echoes again in the barrel room; the undulating ceiling represents the sound waves coming from the bells up top. Vintage 2012, being the first year of Premier Cru Classé A, receives the gold-plated treatment.

The new welcome hall, the Nave, is naturally bright – it’s designed with elements of cathedral architecture, with a clerestory of windows above, and also to resemble the upside-down hull of a boat. The wood is oak, fittingly, and icons depicting the lifecycle of wine grapes are engraved into the crossbeams above. The bell motif echoes again in the barrel room; the undulating ceiling represents the sound waves coming from the ringing of the bells. Vintage 2012, the first year of Premier Cru Classé A status, receives the gold-plated treatment.

We have a brief stint in the tasting room – just long enough to taste Château Bellevue (across the street, their vinification is managed by Angelus), and of course the Angelus itself. I’ve only handed out 2 perfect scores for Bordeaux wines on Vivino since I’ve come here, and this is one of them.

Alas, we cannot linger all day, so we move on to Château La Domique, also in St Emilion, but located in the gravelly soils at the outskirts of the appellation. It resides in the grey section in the image above, neighbour to Cheval Blanc, (the wine I was talking about last week), and across the street from Petrus, another famous château just over the border in the Pomerol appellation.

La Dominique also shows some evidence of more recent renovations; the red siding cleverly designed to emulate the evolution of the colour of red wine in the glass. La Terrasse Rouge, the summer patio, is covered in the galettes of St Emilion - glass pebbles resembling the grapes. Inside the winery, the cuve room overlooks the vines, and beyond to Petrus.

La Dominique also shows some evidence of more recent renovations; the red siding is cleverly designed to emulate the colour evolution of red wine in the glass. La Terrasse Rouge, the summer patio, is covered in the galettes of St Emilion – glass pebbles resembling grapes. Inside the winery, the cuve (tank) room overlooks the vines, and beyond to Petrus.

We take a pause at La Dominique to partake of the restaurant, try the wine, and enjoy the view. The winemaker of Petrus ambles by to say hello. (I have a slightly belated holy shit! moment when I figure out who he is.) Then we return to the town to visit Le Manoir, the headquarters of the Maison Galhaud wines. I’m having déjà vu moments all over the place – I’ve been here before! St Emilion was one of the first places I visited when I first moved to France, described here ever so eloquently. M. Galhaud is the same person who sold me the sparkling demi-sec five months ago. It DID taste like Lambrusco! With such coincidence, there’s a part of me wondering what the chances are of a third coincidence: some friends of mine bought a bottle here in St Emilion several years ago, and left it with a shop to age. I’ll have to find out for sure, but it would be pretty funny if their wine is also here in the cellars here somewhere.

Traditional St Emilion barrel aging takes place in the limestone quarries under the plateau. Have we met before? These barrels come pre-used from Haut-Brion, one of the estates I visited a few weeks ago. The quarry also houses an old chapel, and you can still see the grooves where the workers stopped carving mid-block to go off to war.

Scenes from Le Manoir: traditional St Emilion barrel aging takes place in monolithic limestone cellars below the city. Have we met before? – these barrels come pre-used from Haut-Brion, one of the estates I visited a few weeks ago. The cellar also houses an old chapel. You can still see grooves in the ceiling above the bottles, where the workers stopped carving mid-block to go off to war.

It’s the end of the day, and time to bid the town adieu, but M. Galhaud leaves me with the local maxim: À St Emilion, toujours fidèle – To St Emilion, always faithful. I couldn’t agree more.

Back to reality – in class the next day, we’re talking about the impact of climate change on viticulture. In theory the impact of growability is a non-issue for my future plans in Prince Edward County, as warmth should only increase the possibilities for different grapes and help improve ripeness. But of course other issues go hand in hand with this – water conservation, fuel dependency, long term soil health – which continue to inform the sketch of my business plan, which is ever so slowly (but surely) starting to take shape.

And the check's have it... these are the great Bordeaux vintages of the last 10 years. (2005, 2009, and 2010, in case you can't see it.)

And the checks have it… these are the great Bordeaux vintages of the last 10 years. (2005, 2009, and 2010, in case you can’t see it.)

We wrap up the week with a day dedicated to the differences between appellation, terroir and vintage. This is such a fascinating subject – so much history and story-telling is involved, to explain why flavours and penchants for grape content in certain wines have evolved the way they have. We talk about why châteaus located right across the street from each other taste totally differently. We talk about what master-tasters are looking for when identifying various vintages or appellations in a blind tasting. It’s tough stuff, FYI. While the St. Julien appellation is smaller and has mostly one type of soil, Margaux and St Emilion contain many different types. The timing of sun and rain during the growing periods can have varying impacts on the flavour development of the Merlot or the Cabernet Sauvignon (the two major red grapes in Bordeaux wines) as their development cycles are slightly offset from each other. There is a LOT of memorization of soil data, yearly weather information and other tasting notes informing great tasters. (Mimicked closely by regular and frequent drinking…)

It’s finally the weekend, and the start of our February vacation. I’m hosting a few friends from home, so I take the opportunity to stock up on Tim Horton’s coffee and show off my new home.

The sun's out: the Monument aux Girondins at Place de Quinconces; exquisite stonework in a side chapel in the Basilique St Michel; a chocolat viennois and early-blooming tulips. Even the Pont St Pierre is light and bright by night.

The sun’s out: the Monument aux Girondins at Place de Quinconces; exquisite stonework in a side chapel in the Basilique St Michel; a chocolat viennois and early-blooming tulips. Even the Pont St Pierre is light and bright by night.

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