|Merlot about to be picked, Chateau Pey La Tour|
But after arriving Sunday afternoon I undertook my own casual and uninformed exploration of the area, starting with a walk about the vineyards of Chateau Pey La Tour, where the press group with which I am traveling initially is stationed. With 30 guest rooms and a conference center, the chateau is as much inn as working winery. It sits on a slope overlooking 192 gently rolling hectares planted mostly to merlot, which to judge by the dark and swollen look of the grapes should be harvested most any moment now.
And speaking of the harvest, which is commencing in the region, the first startling thing I learned of Bordeaux is that about 85 percent of the grapes grown here are picked mechanically. That's the word from Patrick Carteyron, who since 1982 has owned and operated nearby Chateau Penin, where the group had dinner Sunday night. In California, many wineries boast that their grapes are picked carefully by hand. In Bordeaux, however, only the classified-growth estates make that claim. Hand harvesting, Carteyron suggested, is overrated. Mechanical harvesting, he says, is faster and more efficient. It's easier to get machines into the vineyards at a moment's notice than it is to round up a crew of field hands. Mechanical harvesting, in short, gives growers more control over the crucial timing of the harvest. More importantly, as laborers sweep through a vineyard they cut every bunch of grapes they encounter, regardless of how ripe the berries are. Mechanical harvesting, on the other hand, only shakes from the vines the grapes that are fully ripe and ready to fall. "When the fruit is ripe, it falls. If it isn't, it doesn't," said Carteyron.
Validation of the technique was pretty much summed up in the clarity and balance of his wines, which included the fresh, forward and unusually spicy Chateau Penin 2009 Bordeaux Blanc, a refreshing blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and semillon; the bright, aromatic and vibrant Chateau Penin 2009 Bordeaux Clairet, an delightfully frisky merlot; the forthright and seductive Chateau Penin 2008 GrandeSelection Merlot, which had both the supple fruit and sturdy backbone to accompany the thick and juicy rare-grilled cut of beef with which it was served; and the even fleshier and more powerful Chateau Penin 2007 Les Cailloux Bordeaux Superieur, so smoky and silken it was difficult to believe it also was solely merlot. These are wines that in the U.S. sell in the $10 to $20 range. Unfortunately, however, distribution beyond the East Coast is scarce, though Aurelie Dazinieras, the chateau's marketing director, is trying to get more of the wines into California outlets.
It's almost time to catch the van for today's tour, though it looks like I might be able to grab another espresso and croissant before climbing aboard. Heading into this tour I vowed to avoid drawing broad sketches of the French, but I do think it says something of the culture that my room at Chateau Pey La Tour doesn't have a hair dryer but is equipped with an espresso machine.