Not Your Average Cellar, Not Your Average Tasting

La Cave á Part's owner, Martin Puyoōu (left), with Côte Montpezat's winemaker, Jean-François Lalle (right)

There are tastings… and then there are tastings—as in the ones that open your eyes a bit, break down some prior misconceptions, and introduce you to a few new concepts. I enjoy just about any tasting where I get to try new wines. However, the one I attended this past weekend took things to a level beyond just learning a new flavor profile or checking off another grape variety.

It took place at this tucked away wine shop in Talence (a Bordeaux suburb) called La Cave á Part, which very loosely translates to “Not Your Average Cellar” (or less loosely, “the cellar a bit different”). I was the first to arrive that evening, which was quite fortunate because I had a chance to chat with the owner, Martin Puyoōu, who gave me a briefing on his store.

Right away you’ll notice this is not your typical Bordeaux wine shop. There’s almost none of the classified growths and there’s a fair amount of wine from other French regions (yes, finding non-Bordeaux in Bordeaux can be a bit of a challenge). Martin explains that not being a vrai Bordelais (he hails from Pays Basque), nor well-connected with one of Bordeaux’s esteemed merchant families, makes it nearly impossible for him to acquire the classified growths.

However, having spent many years in the restaurant business in Bordeaux, he’s come to know many of the region’s petit chateaux (name applied to Bordeaux’s non-classified growth producers), as well as other regions throughout France and abroad. Through these connections he has been able to source an eclectic selection of quality wine from Bordeaux and elsewhere that you likely won’t find in supermarkets, nor the shi shi shops adorning the downtown streets and other tourist hotspots.

The tasting we attended that evening featured a presentation by Jean-Francois Lalle, the winemaker of Château Côte Montpezat, which is located in the Bordeaux appellation of Côtes de Castillion. His presentation included a tasting of Côte Montpezat’s rosé, white and red wines, followed by a vertical of the wines of Château Haut-Bernat (located in the nearby appellation of Puisseguin Saint-Émilion). Both estates are owned by Dominique Bessineau and together form the company Les Vignobles Bessineau.

Overall, the wines were nice… but it was the knowledge that came with the presentation that made this tasting unique. Highlights include the following pieces of enlightenment:

  • The magic that is decanting: I actually knew very little about the proper utilization of a decanter until this tasting. I understood it opened the wine, but never experienced the actual transformation. We wound up decanting both the ’08 Ch. Cote Montpezat blanc and the ‘99 Haut-Bernat. When first trying the white wine (prior to decanting) all I could taste was oak. Indeed half the wine had spent 4-6 months in oak, but it was so strong I couldn’t even detect any fruit. However, after less than 10 minutes of decanting the wine evolved into something very interesting. It became balanced with a nice mix of fruit, subtle oak and earthiness, plus an appealing white pepper finish. Though not as complex as the great white Bordeaux of Pessac-Leognan, it was for sure a fun wine to taste.

As for the second wine we decanted, the ’99 Haut-Bernat, my first impression was “flat, dead… with an old, stale stench”. I pretty much wrote this wine off as being past its prime and then some, much like Monty Python’s infamous dead parrot. However, after a mere ten minutes of decanting a miracle occurred. The wine bounced back to life—it became flavorful and spicy, yet so smooth and balanced. I had witnessed a resurrection.

  • Not your average Bordeaux rosé: There are two aspects which make Ch. Côte Montpezat’s ’09 rosé, Le Canon de Côte Montpezat, a bit unusual: 1) Its fruit was intentionally picked unripe and 2) It’s not really all that pink.

In regards to the first aspect, Jean-François was intentionally going for a light, dry rosé with a low level of alcohol that could be consumed at lunch without making you woozy (yes, I guess you could say there’s such a thing as “lunch wines” in France). However, since the ’09 vintage featured a long growing season, the grapes also contained more sugar which translates to higher alcohol levels (assuming you’re aim is to obtain a fully-fermented dry wine). So, the grapes for Côte Montpezant’s ’09 rosé were intentionally harvested before they fully ripened so they would not contain as much sugar. Personally, I could immediately detect the unripeness in the wine. It wasn’t off-putting, but not something I gravitated towards either. However, the wine had a real nice body to it. Maybe it’s something I need to get accustomed to… or maybe it just needed some lunch.

As for the color, Jean-François explained he almost couldn’t get AOC Bordeaux Rosé status for his wine because it doesn’t look at all like a regional rosé. Its color is salmon, much like a Provence rosé. However, in Bordeaux, the rosé wines are much darker, often with magenta tones. Concerning “le Canon”, this 50:50 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend spent all of six hours in contact with the grapes’ skins (whereas the typical Bordeaux rosé has 12 to 18 hours of skin contact).

  • The flavor of terroir: Once you taste enough Bordeaux, you’ll start noticing that many of the red wines have a distinct black pepper aspect to them. I described the ’04 Haut-Bernat as being a “quintessential Bordeaux” in that it too featured the spicy, black pepper finish. Jean-François told me that it has to do with the terroir in that “clay gives the wine black pepper and limestone gives it minerality.” (Remember: for red Bordeaux, clay = black pepper; limestone = minerals).

Which leads me to my next point…

  • Côtes de Castillon is Saint-Émilion’s kid brother: If you’ve heard of the appellation Côtes de Castillion before then you’re already ahead of the game. It is situated just to the east of St. Emilion and features the exact same clay and limestone soils—though as you can probably imagine, the wines here sell for a lot less than their westerly neighbors. So snatch up those CdC values while you can!

If you have the opportunity to visit Bordeaux, do try to visit La Cave á Part (the tram drops you off within a quick walk of the store) and say hello to Martin. Also, check his blog to see if there’s a tasting while you’re there… and oui, the tasting is in French, but you’ll get used to it!

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