By Rick Riozza
Once when I was young, I decided to take off to France on my first adventure out of the states. And although I had some years of high school French, my plan was simply to drink plenty of wine as moi français always gets better after a few glasses.
Wide-eyed, I landed in Paris and quickly made myself comfortably at home. But as the fun few weeks in the City of Light passed so swiftly, I knew I had to get to the south of France before all the money ran out. For whatever reason at the time, I took the route via the west coast with the Atlantic on my right. It was a decision that forever made me a Bordeaux wine lover as opposed probably to a Burgundy fan had I taken the eastern route through Bourgogne.
Bordeaux is the largest fine wine district on earth. It is a symbol for great wine and the model for the whole world, with over 275,000 acres producing over 880 million bottles of wine every year. The area’s inventive blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cab Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, and Carménère as made for the great wines of history and affected the type of California Red Blend you may be drinking tonight.
Getting off the train at the historic city of Bordeaux, I checked out the famed Port of the Moon where wine commerce has existed for over 600 years. I then ducked into a quiet looking bistro, for a meal and some wine, and soon found myself at a table with two very talkative women, who once they found out I was an American, insisted that they “show me around”.
Little did I know that these women were famous here in France, and when they introduced themselves as Bridget Bordeaux and Marilyn Merlot—well, it sure kept things fun. And did they have contacts in this town or what! From many wine-nitch hole-in-the-walls to elegant restaurant bars, these women—and me in tow, seemingly had the Carte Blanche going on.
Often joining us at the table, the girl’s proprietor friends kept popping up with this “new” rosé or that old Pomerol to enjoy and talk about. For as much as this town has been vino haven for so long, the wine conversations were fresh, enthusiastic with a joie-de-vivre ever present. Everyone here was proud to be Bordelaise.
Needless to state, the scene was cinematic and dynamic, and in a matter of hours we were on horseback traipsing through the vineyards in Cantenac just south of the Margaux commune. The girls clearly had a destination in mind as we headed deep into the woods of huge trees and natural ponds. And there we came upon it: Chateau Cantemerle. A perfect Sleeping Beauty chateau of three hundred years past. Riding up to the historic building on horses was like traveling back in time.
It’s one of the oldest properties in the Bordeaux wine region. In the early ‘70s, many Bordeaux properties had not yet experienced the huge influx of monies that would come later on when wine was big-big business. Prior to 1981, when the Cantemerle estate was purchased by a wealthy corporation, it was not in the best of shape. Of the 284 acres that were planted when the estate was classified in 1855, only 49 acres were in working condition. But the disrepair only added to the charm and careworn staff knew the spirit of the place was as cherished as ever.
In 1855, when the Classification of the Medoc took place, Chateau Cantemerle, 5th Growth, was accidentally left off the list of classed chateaux. It was at the insistence of Madame Villeneuve-Durfort that her property be reinstated in the classification. That re-addition became the first of only two changes ever in the Classification. (Mouton-Rothschild lobbied to 1st Growth in 1973)
We were welcomed into the chateaux for the weekend as though we were family and were generously poured wine from time to time from their wine cellar. And we had the pleasure of having their newly bottled 1970 vintage. Chateau Cantemerle is generally a medium bodied, light, fresh, elegantly styled Bordeaux wine that drinks well young and is usually best enjoyed during the first two decades of life.
The 1970 Vintage notes from the Wine Advocate state: “This wine continues to evolve beautifully and has turned out to be one of the sleepers of the vintage. The fragrant bouquet of plums, fruitcake, cedar, and spicy oak is followed by a medium-bodied, concentrated wine with gobs of fruit, excellent length, and overall balance. The wine appears to have just entered the plateau of maturity. This is undoubtedly the best Cantemerle made during the seventies.”
At our final meal at the chateau, the amiable and rotund cellar-master spoke poignantly about losing his own small winery across the woods last year, when one of his workers negligently allowed the fire-torches, that lit the wine cellar at night, to catch the whole place on fire. He lost all the wine in his barrels—except for one. But he talked more about the great feast his family and staff went on to enjoy and celebrate with that one barrel of wine, in spite of the catastrophe. “What was done, is done and no one died. We will make wine again. A votre santé!—to life and good health!”
In the year 2000, the vintage in Bordeaux was majestic. I went on the futures market and got me a couple-three cases of Chateau Cantemerle for about less than $10 a bottle. When the cases were delivered about three years later, you couldn’t keep down the memories of some wild weekend in Bordeaux.