To belatedly celebrate my dear friend Robert’s milestone birthday in August 2016, we went to the urban planning capitol and famed wine region of Bordeaux, France. We tasted our way through delicious restaurants and divine wines, largely on the merlot side east of the Gironde River, including the northerly Cognac region. (West of the river is predominantly cabernet sauvignon.)
Before hitting the vineyards, we did a tour and blind wine-tasting at Bordeaux’s fabulous, newish wine museum La Cité du Vin. To identify wines, we were given clues from food videos and aromas sprayed into the room! We finished our “cité tour” on the top floor in a glass tasting room with a glass of Bordeaux overlooking all of Bordeaux.
We also walked the city’s immaculate 15-kilometer city center, which by law adheres to a tight visual code of matching colors and no advertisements. Highlights were Place des Quinconces, the largest city square in Europe, by day and the reflecting pool at Place de la Bourse and Pont de Pierre by night.
After the cité and city, we hit winding, grapevine-laden roads for wine tastings. Lucky for me, Robert was driving! And unlucky for him, I was navigating. We well arrived at the Cognac houses of Hennessy, Rémy Martin and Camus for tastings of regional brandy (distilled wine). But finding wineries in small villages in the region of Saint-Emilion and surrounding areas was enough to drive us to drink. So, we did.
My haphazard navigating led us to a deserted Grand Cru estate called Chateau Lafon-Rochet in Saint-Estèphe. With no appointment, we got out of our rental car and looked for signs of life. We were arguably trespassing while walking in the backyard of the family home and meekly calling out “bonjour.”
Just as we were about to leave, another car pulled up in the driveway. An older, French gentleman – who turned out to be owner Bassile Tesseron – accompanied by his son and nephew, asked us in a suppressed irritated tone how he could help us. In our best French, we asked if we could do a winetasting.
“No” was on Bassile’s face but there was a round of hot potato among the eyes of the French men. After a quiet debate, Bassile and his son politely excused themselves and went into the house. Feeling dejected, Robert and I started to leave again when the remaining nephew said, “give me 5 minutes.” He disappeared behind the door of the winemaking building.
Perhaps after a quick sweep, our spontaneous host invited us inside for a private tour and barrel tasting! The winemaking room was the most sophisticated we had even seen with new modern technology, electronic controls and maps, and concrete and stainless steel vats. Our host, let’s call him “Mr. Congeniality,” knew precisely everything about the estate’s wines.
In a barrel room, he took two large eyedroppers and sucked up samples of merlot and cabernet sauvignon right out of barrels. He handed them to us along with large wine glasses.
“This is basically how we blend wines,” he said in French with a slight accent. “Go ahead, make your own.”
Robert and I toasted with glee. We were on the fruit bomb of wine tours, which Lafon-Rochet made public for the first time that year. Good timing on our part considering the winery was founded in 1855. (Its predecessor, Domaine Rochet, dates back to the 17th century!)
Naturally, our personalized tour ended up in Lafon-Rochet’s official tasting room, where Mr. Congeniality pulled out all the stops and corks. We tasted various red blends from 2005 to 2009, lingering over every sip. It was one great value Grand Cru wine over another without a sniff of snobbery.
“I spent the last 10 years in Argentina learning how to market wine,” said our gracious host. “I just returned to France to bring the art of marketing to this winery.”
That explained everything. He was the perfect blend of French winemaker and Argentine marketer.
“You have mastered marketing,” I laughed. “You’ve already converted us into loyal customers!”
After a total of three hours of touring, talking and tasting, Robert and I left with a case of wine, including magnums. We purchased more from Lafon-Rochet than any other winery in Bordeaux. Case in point, charm goes a long way.
Owned by Bassile as a fourth-generation family member, Lafon-Rochet is the epitome of a family estate winery. And it made us feel like part of the family.
“Making a fine wine is not a job, it’s a lifetime commitment,” Bassile once said.
Similarly, for Robert and me, tasting fine wine isn’t our job (though we’d like it to be), it’s a lifetime commitment. And Lafon-Rochet will always be part of it thanks to the conviviality of Mr. Congeniality … Santé!