By Kareasa Wilkins
It was January of 2003 and I had just finished a five-month stint living in England. I had recently graduated from college and didn’t really know what I wanted to do next, but I knew I wanted to travel and I knew I wanted to learn more about wine. Using up almost everything I earned working in England, I bought a month’s stay in Bordeaux at a French language school, complete with my own apartment a few blocks from the school. I could’ve chosen just about anywhere in France to study French, but I chose Bordeaux because I wanted a chance to experience what is possibly the greatest wine region in the world.
The French lessons turned out to be grueling (I was the only person in my class who had never had a single French class before) and the port city of Bordeaux with its neo-classical architecture, lush parks, and enticing patisseries, though charming, was freezing in January. I spent most of my days running back to my apartment from school to huddle under a warm blanket. But my first weekend there, I discovered Bordeaux’s office of tourism, which offered jaunts to the local wine regions. I signed up for the tour of Barsac and Sauternes followed by a tour of the Medoc the next week and, for my final weekend in Bordeaux, a tour of St. Emilion. I remember riding in a small white tourist van with travelers from Japan, England, and Scandinavia. The skies were gray, and the trees were bare, and as we left the vast expanse of the city, to the rural French countryside, there was little more to see than the miles and miles of barren vines laid out before us. Our final destination on the day of the Sauternes tour was Chateau Guiraud. A wrinkled old man, perhaps the winemaker, or perhaps simply a tour guide, took us into what appeared to be an old barnyard packed with oak barrels. He poured us some sweet nectar and spoke in gravelly French about the beauty of noble rot. I was so seduced by the liquid gold in my glass, I spent what little money I had on two 750ml bottles. Back at the apartment I put one away in the closet to bring home with me, and the other I put in the refrigerator. I bought a wedge of Roquefort at the Carrefour market that day and for the rest of my stay in Bordeaux lived on bleu cheese and Chateau Guiraud Sauternes. Everyday after my French lessons, I would stop at the patisserie next door to my school, buy a baguette, and go home to lunch on a few slices of Roquefort and bread with my glass of Sauternes. That month I was cold and lonely, and despite spending five hours a day learning the local language knew barely enough French to get by. But somehow my glass of Guiraud each day made things bearable. When I smelled the aromas of honey soaked pears I always seemed to get Edith Piaf’s La Vie En Rose stuck in my head and I’d think of the wonders of Europe, and remind myself that even though it was a bitter winter in Bordeaux, I was lucky to be there leading a life of the mind and the vine.
Once I returned to the States, I kept that second bottle of Chateau Guiraud in the back of my closet for years. Sauternes age brilliantly, and I wanted to save it for a special occasion. In 2009, a co-worker of mine who was studying for the WSET hosted a dinner party, and I opened the bottle, a 1998 vintage. The wine was every bit as unctuous as the one I savored in my small Bordeaux apartment and had taken on a rich complexity of stone fruits and lingering sweetness. I was home again, but in that moment I was transported back in time to the days when I was living on nothing but bleu cheese and noble rot.
Last night my mom and I were in Palo Alto to go see the performance at the local theater. Afterwards we went to a restaurant/wine bar that had Chateau Guiraud by the glass on its dessert menu. It was a 2006 vintage this time, but I couldn’t help but order a glass for memory’s sake. While the food at the restaurant was only slightly above average quality, as soon as I smelled the brown sugar sweetness of the Sauternes, I wanted to linger there all night, with Edith Piaf playing the background noise in my head, remembering that little piece of my life spent in the old world, that Southwesterly part of France that has so much history, the place that introduced the world to quality wine, the place that arguably made wine not just a beverage but a commodity, and the place that gave my dreary January days a little bit of sunshine.
If you have a wine memory you’d like to share, please post it in the “Leave a reply” section.