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The Curve


Louis Guida

A Bordeaux and a Napa cabernet sauvignon, a Burgundy and an Oregon pinot noir, a Chablis and a Carneros chardonnay. Wines made from the same grape varieties a continent apart are different. Drunk alone and drunk with food, the proof is in the tasting.

Some of the reasons for this European-American difference became apparent to me during a visit to the Bordeaux wine region about 10 years ago, when I toured Chateau Figeac, one of Bordeaux's premiere wineries and an old and beautiful estate.

My wife and I were staying in the nearby village of St. Emilion. We called Figeac on a Saturday morning and, much to my surprise, the proprietor, Thierry de Manoncourt, answered the phone. Mentioning my previous work at Beaulieu Vineyard in the Napa Valley, we asked if he might have time for us to make a brief visit to the chateau. M. Manoncourt said he had attended wine school with Andre Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu's renowned winemaker, and readily invited us to come.

We stayed longer than anticipated, spending an early afternoon visiting and tasting. Among other things, M. Manoncourt told us of past visits to Figeac by a celebrity Napa Valley winery owner. Each time the Napa vintner toured Figeac, he asked M. Manoncourt detailed questions about the chateau's vinification methods - fermentation times and temperatures, pumping the cap of fermenting wine, pressing, topping, racking, fining, and so on. He wrote down every response.

M. Manoncourt related this tale with a sense of bemusement. Why share so freely what in America is considered inside information? The answer became clear a bit later as M. Manoncourt described his vineyard surrounding the chateau. He pointed outside a window to a slope in the land - "la courbe," he called it, the curve - and described it admiringly. The way it accepted light, the way it helped the vines drain.

Figeac, which covers about 85 acres, once included the vineyards of what is now the top rated Chateau Cheval Blanc and two other smaller chateaux. No other vineyard, in Bordeaux, Napa, or elsewhere, had the Figeac slope. The Napa vintner couldn't take that with him.

I encountered the same attitude elsewhere in Bordeaux. Like the Napa vintner, I was interested in learning the details of vinification. I didn't have a winery to apply them to, but I'd been conditioned in California to value the primacy of technology. I was surprised, wherever I asked, at how freely those details were imparted.

To M. Manoncourt, and other Bordeaux winemakers, technology obviously has its place. It's discussed, even embraced, and few would want to fall behind the curve. But the curve they ultimately care about isn't technology's but nature's. At Figeac, Cheval Blanc, Petrus, Haut Brion, Lafite, and other chateaux the identity of a wine is rooted in a distinct combination, impossible to duplicate, of sun and rain, vineyard and vines, soil and slope.

© 1998 Louis Guida

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