The Spirit Animals of Bordeaux 2016

Take pity upon the flock of Bordeaux winemakers. Think about it—come mid-March, feckless inquisitors like myself troupe down to the region demanding to taste wines from barrel, our suitcases stuffed full of the same old questions and INAO-approved thumbscrews in case they dodge any answers.

“When did you start the harvest?”
“What is the percentage of new oak?”
“Compare your wine to another vintage?” 

The Bordelais must feel as if they are stuck on an infinite loop. Even though châteaux furnish each visitor with a luxurious technical booklet of which Taschen would be proud—all burgeoning with statistics, graphs that would baffle Stephen Hawking and superlatives gushing like the Victoria Falls—journalists simply must hear information uttered from winemakers’ mouths. After four of five weeks answering the same questions, they must yearn for those idyllic summer months vacating down in Cap Ferret, eating fresh oysters and occasionally wondering whether véraison has finished (or not). 

To relieve winemakers of their ennui, this primeur I posed one identical but unorthodox question at the beginning of each visit and requested an answer before I departed:

“If your 2016 was a type of animal or bird, what would it be?”

Simple enough, simpler than some of the more obtuse questions I have previously asked in South Africa. Truth be told, it is always interesting to see winemakers taken outside their comfort zone and reflect upon their wine from a different angle. Okay, okay... I know your beloved newborn wine is “the best ever,” “magical” or “totes amazeballs.” But for a moment let’s get metaphorical, poetic even. 

At first, the winemakers glazed over all askance, but any quizzical expressions quickly vanished and soon they all entered the game and appeared to enjoy the unexpected task—sometimes too much. A small number exited the tasting room so that proprietor and winemaker could confer privately for ten minutes. They seemed to be discussing this more than the date to start the picking. Some interviewees realized that their answer had to fit in with their manicured brand image and as a consequence, their reply could jeopardize their career. Three emailed me a few days later requesting me to alter their answer. 

Conclusions? First, although the question was specifically related to the 2016 barrel samples, I got the impression that a few were unconsciously revealing how they perceive themselves—or at least, wish to be perceived. Second, the 2016 vintage is quite feline. (Christ... how many replied black panther?) I banned that answer in the end, to the chagrin of many wannabe panthers. Third, there were interesting commonalities between châteaux. Who were the two Saint-Émilion châteaux promoted to Grand Cru Classé “A” a couple of years ago? Pavie and Angélus. Both Gérard Perse and Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal saw their 2016s as leopards. Meanwhile, there is an oceanic tussle between the killer whale at Petrus and the Great White shark stalking the waters of neighboring Lafleur. Indeed, the most fearsome and predatory appellation seems to be Pomerol where we find not only those two aforementioned sharks, but also two panthers… and a Labrador, presumably one with a short life expectancy.

Montrose is a roaring lion inside a cage, whereas Cos d’Estournel is a lioness prowling outside. Meanwhile, Calon-Ségur is an eagle soaring above them, although it might be prey to Lafon-Rochet and La Consillante, both in the form of a phoenix. Talking of fictitious animals, there is also Pegasus at Haut-Bailly since both Véronique Sanders and Gabriel Vialard could not choose between a horse and an albatross and therefore blended the two, plus a griffon courtesy of Christian Seely, name-checking one of Pichon Baron’s crus. 

Another popular choice was a shire horse, although surprisingly Pierre Lurton went for a jaguar instead of the obvious white horse. (At least it wasn’t another panther.) Thomas Duroux, always quick on his wits, was one of the only winemakers whose answer was anecdotal—touching, even. Emmanuel Cruse at d’Issan was the only winemaker whose answer was historical. The question inadvertently uncovered a side to Florence Cathiard that I never knew about: Her love of zoos. In fact, she told me that there is a zoo in Pessac and at one point, she considered investing in it. She got quite wistful thinking about it, so much so that I wouldn’t be surprised to find a small menagerie for guests staying at Caudelie next time I visit.

The funniest answer was probably Clos Fourtet’s Mathieu Cuvelier’s, and although replying “cockroach” was obviously tongue-in-cheek, I ruled that he couldn’t withdraw his answer. Nicolas Audebert’s answer of an oyster was puzzling until he told me his clever explanation. Whether Juliette Bécot’s Peppa Pig will entice four to six-year-olds to start drinking Saint-Émilion remains to be seen. (Thus far, I haven’t seen an episode of the children’s animation featuring Daddy Pig’s trip to the local “Wine Circle.”) To be honest, I’m still trying to fathom out Alexandre van Beek’s giraffe and I contest his assertion that giraffes are humble. They look a bit snobbish to me, as if they look down on everybody. Credit to him, though. He kindly did not reveal the question to his wife Véronique Sanders before my visit to Haut-Bailly, though he did wind her up by forewarning that I would be asking “an important question.” 

I am sure some psychiatrists will have a field day analyzing all of these replies—I stress that it’s just for fun.

Saint Estèphe

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Pauillac

Saint Julien

  • “A top model. Refined and intelligent,” proposed Jean-Hubert Delon of Château Léoville Las-Cases, although when I insisted that it must be an animal, they suggested Mowgli from The Jungle Book. But Mowgli is the young boy—so in the end, they chose the tiger, Shere Khan. 
  • L’Ortolan.” [A French delicacy which some describe as “barbaric” since the small birds are killed by drowning them in Armagnac. Currently available at all participating branches of KFC in Bordeaux.] – Bruno Borie, Château Ducru Beaucaillou
  • “A polar bear.” – Matthieu Bordes, Château Lagrange
  • “A panther.” – Didier Cuvelier, Château Léoville Poyferré
  • “An albatross for Gloria and a shire horse for Château Saint Pierre,” Jean-Louis Triaud, Château Gloria/Saint-Pierre

Margaux

  • “We had a cat that we found in the vineyard last spring that had been hit by a car. Its two hind legs were broken. We thought it would die but you know what, we still see him running about in the vineyard. So it is that cat.” – Thomas Duroux, Château Palmer
  • “An alpaca” – Nicolas Audebert of Château Rauzan Segla, referencing his time in Argentina
  • “A giraffe. It is very high and elegant with enormous visibility. Giraffes are very fast but humble.” – Alexandre van Beek, Château Giscours/du Tertre
  • “A doe, a female deer.” – Edouard Miailhe, Château Siran. Unfortunately, he did not burst into a song from The Sound of Music.
  • “A stag. It is a regal animal.” – Laurent Fortin, Château Dauzac
  • The Lion King. Because we believe in the legend that d’Issan was served at the marriage of Eleanor d’Aquitaine, who became the mother of Richard the Lionheart.” – Emmanuel Cruse, Château d’Issan

Pessac-Léognan

  • “A panda.” – Florence Cathiard, Château Smith Haut Lafitte
    “An albatross,” suggested winemaker Gabriel Vialard at Château Haut-Bailly. “No. A thoroughbred horse,” insisted Véronique Sanders. Cue lengthy private discussion outside and finally they decided to combine the two and offered: “A horse with wings.” In other words… Pegasus. 
  • “If 2016 Les Carmes Haut-Brion was a small animal, it would be a Monarch butterfly because when you see it, it is a small, narrow and tapering animal, of great length. But when it opens its wings in the wind, it covers an incredibly large space, with diversified but completely integrated colors. When it flies, we feel a sensation of balance and plenitude. For me, that is how 2016 Les Carmes Haut-Brion is.” – Guillaume Pouthier, Château Les Carmes Haut-Brion (via email, which is why his answer is more verbose than others put on the spot)

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Saint Emilion

  • Un colibri. A hummingbird because it is bright, colorful, precise and lively.” – Frédéric Faye, Château Figeac
  • “It would be a work horse, for its power and elegance” – Pierre Olivier Clouet at Cheval Blanc. Pierre Lurton disagreed. “No. It’s a jaguar.”
  • “A leopard. The 2016 is powerful but very fine.” – Gérard Perse, Château Pavie 
  • “If the leopard hasn’t been taken yet, it would be our choice for Angélus!” replied Stéphanie de Boüard-Rivoal. Well, yes it had, by the other property that was promoted to Grand Cru Classé “A”. Why not two to keep each other company?
  • “A lynx.” – Pauline Vauthier, Château Ausone
  • “An oyster. It is a mineral like the plateau and when you open it you can find a pearl. And our winemaker Stephan works for an oyster family.” – Nicolas Audebert, Château Canon/Rauzan-Segla
  • “For me, a lionness. The lion combines power and majesty, the lioness adds the feminine aspect.” – Jean-Antoine Nony, Château Grand Mayne
  • “A black cat.” – Nina Mitjavile, Château Le Tertre-Rôteboeuf
  • “A wolf.” – Jonathan Maltus, Le Dôme
  • “An owl.” – Nicolas Thienpont/David Siure, Pavie-Macquin
  • “A cockroach,” replied Clos Fourtet's Mathieu Cuvelier, off the cuff. Now, from a PR perspective, his answer is probably the stuff of marketing nightmares. However, that is just Mathieu’s refreshingly sarcastic humor. His train of thought was that in the event of a nuclear attack then the 2016 Clos Fourtet would be the only wine that survives. And if that was the case, I would have no complaints.
  • “Peppa Pig,” answered Juliette Bécot of Beau-Séjour Bécot, as she is a young mom. Sure, her kids will be pleased. Peppa is always cool in my book.

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Pomerol

  • “A phoenix.” – Valmy Nicolas, La Conseillante
  • “A panther.” – Jean-Baptiste Bourrotte, Clos de Clocher/Bonalgue
  • “A Labrador.” – Ronan Laborde, Clinet
  • “A black panther.” – Alexandre Thienpont, Vieux Château Certan
  • “Two fledgling birds.” – Denis Durantou, L’Eglise-Clinet (referencing his artist wife’s latest work)
  • “A Great White shark!” – Baptiste Guinaudeau, Lafleur
  • “A killer whale.” – Olivier Berrouet, Petrus
  • “Buffalo. It’s a dangerous animal.” – Christian Moueix (their offices are decorated with large and striking portraits of buffalo)
  • “A unicorn, because it has always been a symbol of purity and power.” – Yseult de Gaye, Château La Création 

To view my full Bordeaux 2016 En Primeur report, complete with an introduction, tasting notes and scores, please go to: France, Bordeaux: Make Bordeaux Great (Again) – En Primeur 2016

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