Thursday, 31 March 2011

Bordeaux: A City With Much More Than Wine To Offer

One of the real benefits of helping friends in their vineyard in southwestern France is that when you are not slogging away amid the vines or sorting out hundreds of meters of thin stainless steel wires there are countless ways to occupy yourself.

Well known to people in the wine trade, the city of Bordeaux is less well known to travelers who limit their time in France to Paris or the Provence beloved of travel brochures. They are missing something by overlooking this revived riverfront city of stunning 18th century architecture, wide pedestrian streets, parks, restored waterfront, active cultural life, and, of course, good food and wine. During the last few decades most of the old buildings have been cleaned, restoring the soft yellow/gold color of the Girondin stone.

By the early 18th century the city was thriving with one of the busiest ports in France sending wine and other products all over the world. The less salubrious side of this trade was an active slave trade where ships from Bordeaux would take part in the infamous Triangle Trade between Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. With the city’s increasing wealth the city fathers and the royal representative, the Intendant, transformed the crowded, cramped medieval city by tearing down old walls and expanding the city with about 5,000 new buildings, among which are the Hotel de Ville, Place de la Bourse, and the Grand Theater. For those who favor the narrow twisted streets of medieval Europe there is still plenty left in the older sections of Bordeaux to satisfy the most avid devotee of the 15th century.

The 18th Century Grand Theater
The revolutionary fervor that swept over France in the late 18th century put an end to this phase of renovation, and the city struggled to come to terms with the new regime. Although the residents were quick to change the name Place Dauphin to the Place de la Republique, they remained ambivalent about the revolution. As soon as possible the name of the square was changed again to Place de la Nation and, finally, to the politically acceptable Place Gambetta after the late 19th century premier Leon Gambetta. Plans for a massive structure honoring Louis XVI were shelved when the architect was told that perhaps it was not the best time to honor the unfortunate Louis as he was being trundled out to the guillotine in Paris. The political dexterity of the Bordelais can be seen the multiple names for many areas. A handsome square might now be called Place de la Bourse, but right next to this sign are the older names of Place Royal and Place de la Liberte. One can’t be too careful.

Place De La Bourse
Bordeaux was also the temporary home of the French government in 1870, 1914, and 1940 when it decamped from Paris during wars with Germany. During the German invasion of June 1940 the city was inundated with refugees and witnessed the heroic act of the Portuguese consul, Aristedes de Sousa Mendes, who, against the wishes of his own government, issued 30,000 visas to Jews and others desperate to get out of France ahead of the Gestapo. De Sousa Mendes’ act of conscious cost him dearly. The Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar immediately dismissed him, he was driven out of his legal profession, and left penniless. He died in poverty in 1954. It wasn’t until much later that his name and reputation were resurrected. In 1966 he was recognized at Yad Vashem in Israel as the Righteous Among Nations. In 1987 the Portuguese finally granted him the Order of Merit, and a few years later he was restored posthumously to the diplomatic corps and made an ambassador.

Assuming you have ‘done’ the city you can always travel about 45 minutes to the wide, pristine Atlantic beaches that stretch for miles from Cap Ferret in the south to the mouth of the Gironde River in the north. If you prefer more sedentary pleasures to cycling or swimming there are several good restaurants in the town of Cap Ferret that overlook the Bay of Arcachon, famous for its oyster beds. The area is extremely popular with the Bordelais and it can sometimes be a challenge to get a booking in the middle of summer. However, just a little way out of town are a number of what can best be described as shacks with rickety piers jutting out into the bay where you can dine on a plate of oysters, pate, a little wine and freshly baked bread. All this for about €12.

Venturing just a little further you get to the Ile de Re, about 20 minutes from La Rochelle. Again, pristine beaches and small harbors like St. Martin de Re that have been tastefully transformed from fishing villages to tourist destinations. Proximity to La Rochelle and Paris via the TGV make Ile de Re popular year round. It was difficult enough to get a restaurant booking on a chilly weekend in March, and I hesitate to think what July and August might be like.

St. Martin On Ile de Re
If you’re feeling a little peckish you can always visit the rich food markets found throughout the Gironde region. It can take the better part of a morning following your wife around the markets sampling a little of this and a little of that, listening to her chatting to the farmers about the quality of the asparagus, bemoaning the lack of taste in Spanish strawberries compared to the native French varieties, and finally settling on a certain number of vegetables and a leg of new season’s lamb. Thus heavily armed Mariella is ready to go home and prepare dinner for some friends and introduce them to an ancient Greek way of preparing a leg of lamb, marinate it in milk and honey for the better part of day and then slowly roast it.

After this brief hiatus it is back to Clos Monicord where there is always something that has to be done.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Wine Is An Expression of Nature

One of the many traditions and regulations governing production of wine in the Bordeaux region is that you can water vines only when they are newly planted. All the rest are at the mercy of natural rainfall. While this might seem to put France at a disadvantage to other wine producing countries like Australia and the United States where growers can irrigate at will, it makes perfect sense to at least one Bordeaux producer.

“If you believe in the concept of terroir, as we do, then you must rely on nature and not artificial irrigation. Terroir  is the unique combination of topography, climate, and soil that makes our wines distinct. Maybe the terroir  in some places is not suitable to wine production and they have to rely on irrigation. Wine is an expression of nature, and we must respect nature,” said Vincent Rapin, owner of  Domaine de Valmengaux.

However, because Joep Bakx at Clos Monicord planted more than 2,000 new merlot  vines this year we were faced with a large watering task. Each of them had to be watered – by hand. This involved a tractor towing a large water tank with someone, - his daughter Audrey, me or his wife Mireille – manning the large diameter hose from the tank and giving each plant about two liters of  water. This was to ensure that the young roots were secured and headed deep down into the rich limestone and clay rather than splay out sideways.

While waiting for the tank to get refilled I could always join my wife Mariella and pull more pruned vines apart and place neatly in the middle of the row. If that didn’t take up enough time I could always help string new wire at a higher level than the old wires. The higher the wire, the higher the leaves grow, the higher the leaves grow the more sunshine they get, and the more sunshine the leaves get the more sugar the grapes get. All very nice in theory, but at the moment I’m trying to get four or five small diameter wires stretched down the 100 meter rows without getting them in a hopeless tangle. Fortunately at this point the tractor returns with a full tank and I can get back to soaking my shoes and watering new vines.

Once all the watering is done, old pruned vines cleaned up and new wires stretched each of the two shoots remaining on the vine must be gently pulled over and tied to the low wire. In the case of  Clos Monicord and the new field this amounts to about 50,000 vines or 100,000 shoots that have to be fastened by hand to the wire. When the leaves start to grow they must be fastened to the wires to guide them up and not out. Then, around June, when the grapes start to appear many of them should be pruned to increase the sugar content of the remaining grapes.

When faced with all this hand work it is sometimes easy to forget what the end product is all about. People have been making wine in the Bordeaux region since the Romans settled here in about the 3rd century AD. Henry II, King of England and Duke of Aquitaine – and husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine – was a great lover of the region’s wines and began exporting them to England and started the strong British connection with Bordeaux wines.  With rich land –limestone, clay, sand, gravel -  and favorable weather it is easy to see how Bordeaux became a center of wine production. The region now produces more than 700 million million bottles a year, mainly red but with some well known whites as well.
The End Product
The theory of turning grapes into wine is simple enough, but it takes the great skill of wine makers with years of training to turn grapes into memorable wine. It starts when they taste the grapes to determine if they are ready to be picked. They carefully bite the grape, chew the flesh and pits, and then the skin to test the flavor and how long it stays on the tongue. They are looking for the right amount of sugar and the all-important tannins that occur naturally in the grape pulp, skin and pits. If the tannins are unripe the wine will taste very bitter. Wine laboratories around the world are doing a great deal of work to understand exactly how  these chemical compounds known generally as ‘tannins’ work, but what is known for sure now is that red wines require tannins in the right amount to age and improve. The astringency and bitterness you might taste in a wine comes from the tannins. Only after careful tasting in the field will the wine maker declare whether the grapes should stay on the vine or be picked straight away without risking a turn of bad weather.

The first stop for the crushed grapes is the stainless steel temperature controlled fermentation tanks where the wine is held for three – four weeks. This fermentation/maceration period is critical, and each wine maker has a slightly different approach depending on the type of wine he wants to produce. It’s hard to say one method is better than another. It depends largely on taste preferences. Common variables are yeast, sugar/alcohol percentage, oxygenation, pulp extraction, and possibly a second fermentation. Some wine makers will add enzymes to enhance a particular taste that they are trying to achieve or perhaps help mask the harsh taste of a young wine. All of this is done in a large room that could rival most hospitals for cleanliness, and careful records are kept of every step of the way.
Fermentation Tanks
After the fermentation and maceration most quality wines are put into barrels of French oak that hold 225 liters. These barrels are an expensive part of the process with each one costing €625 and used no more than two – three years. The premier chateaux will change barrels each year. While quality wine manufacturers will use nothing but oak barrels, makers of more ordinary wines will keep the wine in stainless steel tanks and drop in large sachets of oak chips to add a bit of flavor. But purists insist, particularly with the common grape varieties in Bordeaux and Burgundy,  nothing but oak, sometimes scorched  to varying degrees (strong, medium or blond) to regulate the flavor of the oak, will allow the gentle aeration and enhancement of the tannins that give structure to the wine, or generally add the flavor that separates the good wines from the ordinary.
The Critical Oak Barrels
But all of this is several months away. Right now there’s more wire to string, more pruning, more shoots to tie down, etc., etc.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Real Work Behind Your Favourite Wine

The next time your wine dealer waxes eloquently about the ‘bouquet’, the ‘structure’, or the ‘sophistication’ of your favorite vintage spare a thought for the laborers who struggle for months with unglamorous agriculture in vineyards all over France just to get their grapes to yield that elusive bouquet, structure or sophistication so beloved of wine writers and merchants.

The agricultural work is more than doubled when, as our friends Joep and Mireille Bakx have done, you want to upgrade a 14-hectare, about 35 acres, vineyard they recently purchased from someone who left the business. Among dozens of other tasks, hundreds of new wooden stakes must be placed at the end of rows of vines, thousands of new metal stakes must be placed – in perfect order – down the 100-meter rows, and miles of  new wire must be strung in each row so the vines can grow to the appropriate height. Then the space between the 50,000 vines must be weeded carefully. Old, unproductive vines must be dug out and then the soil carefully prepared for the new vines – vines that take 5 – 10 years to produce a grape worthy of turning into wine. All this is before the crucial skilled work of pruning that goes a long way toward determining the quantity and quality of the grapes. Oh, and once the pruning is done the unskilled labor, moi, has to pick the pruned material that has become entangled with the wires and place it in the middle of the row. While machines are used wherever possible, most of this work is done by hand.
Joep, Audrey and Mireille Bakx

The long, complicated journey from vineyard to your wine cellar actually begins even before the first vine is planted. The story really starts with the sacred French terroir itself– the very land that supports the vines that produce the grapes. This almost mystical concept of terroir  (loosely translated as a combination of geography, geology, micro-climate and accumulation of human knowledge) is what the French insist distinguishes their wines from all others. What is the combination of clay, limestone, sand, gravel? Is the terroir well positioned high on a south-facing slope or is it on the flat alluvial land bordering the river? How much sun and rain? Does the grower know how to work with all these elements to make superior wine? What is the best type of vine for any given soil? In the Bordeaux region, by far the largest wine producing region in France, these are predominantly merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, malbec and sauvignon blanc . The other famous regions of France have their own grape varieties.
The Important Part Of The Vine

We decided to take a break from Eastern Mediterranean affairs and spend several weeks in a small town near Bordeaux, on the right bank of the Gironde River, with the Bakxs and learn, literally from the ground up, about the production of the grapes that yield the precious liquid that one day will take pride of place in your wine cellar. I can make no claim to having a sophisticated palate, but rather than begin with the tasting part of the business I wanted to learn the process that ultimately results in someone swirling the wine around in a glass, examining it, sniffing it, tasting it, nodding sagely, and pronouncing it good, bad or indifferent.

We were neighbors with the Bakxs in Istanbul for years, and their dream was always to return to France to expand the small vineyard called Clos Monicord that is right next to their house. Last year they took the plunge and purchased the additional land.  The locals shake their heads at the goals Joep has set for himself and the amount of work he has already accomplished. Fortunately for Joep and Mireille, their daughter Audrey shares their enthusiasm for the project and, in addition to helping with the marketing, drives out from Bordeaux most days to work in the fields.

But the locals are forgetting one thing. Joep is Dutch, and, the Dutch often combine a fanaticism for the land and a compulsion for perfection. It’s sort of the ‘work is good, more work is better’ mentality. No short cuts are even considered. I can appreciate this well from my own Dutch ancestry and experiences working for my late brother-in-law who was also from sturdy Dutch stock and could write the book on fanaticism for land and compulsion for perfection. The best way to motivate people like this is to tell them something cannot be done.  Then a steely look with a dangerous glint comes into their eyes and they will move heaven and earth to prove you wrong.

Last fall we joined in the vendange, but quickly decided we wanted to do more than just pick the grapes. So last week we packed up the car, loaded the bicycles and left cold, damp London for the long drive south to Bordeaux. Once we crossed the Channel the weather immediately began to improve, and by the time we got to Le Mans we could open the window and smell spring in the air. We had visions of going into Bordeaux for concerts and museums, visiting several of the fine restaurants in the area, and travelling to various famous vineyards in the Medoc, Pomerol, or St. Emilion.

The first day in the fields dispelled any such notions of frivolity. The weather was glorious, brilliant sunshine and about 15 degrees centigrade. That wasn’t the problem. The sheer amount of work kept us slogging away until the sun went down around 6:45. Unfortunately in March the sun goes down later and later each day which means we can string more wire, pound more posts, pick out more pruned vines, etc. etc. I began to look longingly at the setting sun willing it to go down just a bit faster. When the sun finally set behind the western slopes we slumped on the trailer and gratefully let the tractor haul us back to Joep’s house. Think the work was over?! Far from it. There is more scrubbing and cleaning to do in the winery itself.

By the time I pedaled home and staggered in the door it was about 8:00. Any thought of restaurants or other evening entertainment was quickly dispelled as my head dropped on the table half-way through dinner of lovely foie de veau. Welcome to the life of a farmer.

In other posts I will take a look at the industry from the point of view of a vigneron, or grower. Once the wine is produced how does he market it? How does he cope with the increasing competition from all over the world? How does he deal with the declining wine consumption in France itself? Can he actually make any money in this business, or is it a true labor of love? And most of all, when so many others are selling their vineyards what gives Joep the confidence that he will succeed in this difficult task?

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Turkey's Selective Support of Popular Uprisings

Turkey’s much vaunted rejuvenated role in the Middle East is in danger of unraveling before it gets started as the prime minister cannot make up his mind whether the popular uprisings throughout the region are a good thing or a bad thing. During the demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square Prime Minister Erdogan lost no opportunity to show his support for the demonstrators and to lecture Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak about listening to the people.

It is a pity that the brave demonstrators in Iran and Libya did not receive any such support from the usually outspoken Turkish prime minister. They were left to suffer at the hands of thugs and mercenaries as the Turkish leadership sat silently in the stands watching the blood flow in Teheran and Tripoli. Erdogan even went so far as to denounce the recent unanimous vote by the UN Security Council to impose sanctions on what is left of the Gaddafi regime. Erdogan once again isolated Turkey by completely misreading the facts of the situation and ranting that the sanctions would only hurt the Libyan people. In reality the sanctions amount to an arms embargo and freeze of the Gaddafi family assets – nothing that would hurt the long suffering people of Libya. One wonders how he explains the fact that even Ibrahim Dabbashi, Libya’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations, thanked the Security Council for the vote.

This selective support of oppressive Middle Eastern regimes should come as no surprise because last year Turkey, when it was a non-permanent member of the Security Council, voted against Iranian sanctions. The combative Turkish prime minister even finds it difficult to say anything mildly critical of Sudan’s despot Omar al-Bashir, the subject of an international arrest warrant for his genocidal policies in Darfur. One supposes Erdogan could be excused in the case of Libya, however, because just last November he received the highly valued Gaddafi International Prize for Human Rights from the great man himself.

This and the fact that Turkish businessmen, many of whom are strong supporters of Erdogan’s party (AKP), have about $15 billion in contracts in Libyan projects may go a long way to explain Turkish selective concern for human rights. There is some concern that if Gaddafi scuttles away to some welcoming regime like Zimbabwe these contracts will become worthless overnight leaving the 10,000 Turkish workers there unemployed.

As he ventures out on these wild solo foreign policy initiatives there is some suspicion that the Turkish prime minister is bypassing the country’s experienced and professional Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The fact that Erdogan, who comes from a gritty Istanbul neighborhood and speaks no foreign language, disdains the cultured and multi-lingual Turkish diplomatic corps is well known. He likes to denigrate them by referring to the diplomats sarcastically as ‘mon chers’, a term he believes labels them as passive and effete whereas he, Erdogan, represents the real Turkey. When he was criticized for his attack on Israeli President Shimon Peres at Davos he angrily retorted, “I come from politics; I don’t know about the ways the mon chers behave. And I don’t want to know.” I wonder if the prime minister realizes just how much he sounds like the 'I Know Nothing And Am Proud Of It' Turkish version of Sarah Palin.

As Damla Aras notes in an article in the Middle East Quarterly, this split culminated in a written statement by 72 retired Turkish ambassadors and consul-generals sharply criticizing the government’s foreign policy and the prime minister’s lack of respect. As one of the retired ambassadors, Faruk Logoglu, points out the characterization of diplomats as a closed, elite caste detached from the rest of Turkish society is ‘neither true nor justified.’ He notes that they come from all levels of Turkish society and are selected on the basis of rigorous examinations. But there is no escaping the fact, as Logoglu continues, that their education, their career and experiences make them different from the average politician. I have often seen Turkish diplomats in various European cities groan quietly but put on a brave face as a plane load of Anatolian politicians would descend on their city with empty suitcases that they spent the next few days filling with goods from designer shops.

Up to now Turkish diplomats have prided themselves on their relative independence from whatever political party was ruling Turkey. They often told me with some exasperation that they were representing the country and not any political party. But this is about to change. Aras notes that a new law passed last summer stipulates that the diplomats will represent not only the Turkish Republic and its president but also the government that happens to be in power at any particular time.

The retired ambassadors are particularly concerned about the current shift in Turkish policy away from the traditional Euro-Atlantic orientation toward new directions, mostly the Moslem world. “Should the current political dynamics and trends persist Turkey will be a very different country in both domestic and external terms . . . Turkey will probably abandon its EU accession drive altogether …Its ties to NATO may come under increasing questioning. In short, Turkey’s place may no longer be in the Euro-Atlantic community, but elsewhere. . . it is certain that Turkey will no longer be the secular democracy it has been since its foundation, a society with a commitment to progressive civilization,” Logoglu added.

It is doubtful that Erdogan will pay any attention to these words. He has grown more confident in his own policies with each election victory and dislikes criticism from any quarter, least of all from people he considers effete snobs. What is clear is that Turkey’s diplomatic corps is going to get a lot of practice putting out fires created as the prime minister forges his own idiosyncratic foreign policy.