Bordeaux: Nice, If You Know Your Place

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It was no surprise that so many great Napa Valley winemakers came to the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting. It is often the best winemakers who pay close attention to what is going on in the outside world. Michael Sulacci of Opus One, Tony Biagi of Plump Jack, Tom Rinaldi of Provenance (even wearing a suit and not a Hawaiian shirt), Nicki Pruss of Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, and others were all there putting their taste buds through the paces.

I also met up with Chris Phelps, the great winemaker formerly of Dominus and Caymus, and now at Swanson. Chris and I are fellow Francophiles, and we often share French language books and recordings. He spent several years in Bordeaux at the university there, studying wine, and also making wine, in the mythic 1982 vintage. I am always happy to see Chris and chat with him because he always has a good story to recount, with an engaging narrative in French or English. As usual, he didn't disappoint me.

"You, sir, are clearly not a gentleman."

Chris told me a quintessential Bordeaux tale. He had had some free time during a cold Bordeaux winter and was encouraged by his employers to go visit some châteaux--to get out of the cellar and get some new ideas.

He decided to visit the venerable old Château Figeac, which gets its name from the Roman family Figeacus, which owned a large villa there in the second century, of which there are scant remains.

Figeac is one of the greats of the gravel plain, or Graves de St. Emilion area, where soils are composed of alluvial gravel that is well-drained and produces very dense wines with exceptional complexity and ageability. The grape of choice here is Cabernet Franc, but Figeac has a high percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon--rare in St. Emilion. It gives the wine a more ridged backbone and structure in great years, and a wicked greenness in bad years.

Chris entered the paved, snow-covered courtyard, past the two, spiked top pillars that form the entry, to the imposing, three-story façade of honey limestone that makes up the château itself. He went straight to the cellar. There, he was happy to find a large fire burning. The Cellar Master giving the tour told him he could leave his hat on because of the chill.

After a taste of the delicious wine and a tour of the grounds, Chris went back with the Cellar Master to the fireplace to warm his hands. Just then, the owner, at the time the very old, very proud, always ascoted Monsieur Thierry Manoncourt, stared rudely at Chris and walked across the room and out the door toward the parking lot.

Chris walked out to his car, a Renault 4L, a sardine can on thin tires. There was Manoncourt giving him the evil eye. Chris, mystified, asked if he needed any help with anything. Manoncourt proceeded to chastise him for not removing his hat in the cellar when he his eminence passed: "You, sir, are clearly not a gentleman."

I had a different experience when I worked next door to Manoncourt at La Tour Figeac for several years. His eminence was always wonderful to me, giving me several bottles of fantastic wine for free, including his legendary 1982. He also provided a lot of good advice when I asked for it, especially in the vineyard, and entertained me with interesting stories.

With Manoncourt, though, one could see that there was clearly a caste system in St. Emilion, and you were not his equal. I was always mindful of my manners and dress. I knew my place.