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Where It All Began – Part 5

Where It All Began is a five part series written by Ian Hanna – a story of the early days of John Hanna & Sons and his first product hunting trip to Europe. You can click here if you’d like to start from the beginning of this series.

Marit and I departed Burgundy for a visit to the Jungfrau area of Switzerland. Often very important parts of our “wine” trips around the world are the times we actually get to spend away from wine! It reminds us that history, culture and many other parts life – though often closely allied to wine – can be just as alluring, informative and exciting when they are not.

Our trip to Switzerland was one of the delightful times we’ve enjoyed over 39 years (33 of married life). On the heels of an important trip to Burgundy, we were now able to forget about wine for a while.

In these early days, we always travelled by train. The ubiquitous Eurail pass made train travel unbeatable. The cost was amazingly low and first class train travel was (and remains to this day) an efficient, effective and comfortable way to get from city to city, throughout Europe.

We spent a couple of days near Lauterbrunnen (down the valley of the same name, about 15 km south from Interlaken), just below the mountainside villages of Murren and Wengen. From here we took a full day excursion on the cog wheel railways up through Wengen to Kleine Scheidegg and from there to the Jungfraujoch – the highest railway station in Europe.

After a relaxing couple of days in this spectacular mountainous region of Switzerland, we traveled again, by train, across the Golden Pass from Interlaken to Montreux, around the top of Lake Geneva and on to Grenoble, France.

From Grenoble, we made our way down the Rhone, across the south of France to Narbonne and then northwest past Carcassonne and Toulouse, into Bordeaux. We arrived quite late in the evening and found a room near the train station where we were to meet Pam and Jack the next morning. They had arrived by car and were already staying at the magnificent Hostellerie de Plaisance in Saint Emilion – about a 45 minute drive, east of the city of Bordeaux.

The Hostellerie de Plaisance is one of the truly great hotels in which we have stayed over the years. At the time of our first visit in 1978, it was owned by a displaced Quebecois who had turned it into one of the most impressive hotels, anywhere in the region.

The hotel is situated on the roof of the 11th century Eglise Monolithe, carved out of the limestone cliff immediately below. For centuries, this village, first established in the 8th century, was prevented from expanding outward to avoid damaging the exceptional vineyards that grow right up to edge of town. So, instead, expansion has been vertical. The hotel entrance is only a few feet from the the church’s rooftop belfry.

Pam and Jack stayed there a number of times over the years – their favourite room on the second floor at the very south end of the building. It had a lovely terrace, immediately adjacent to the bell tower, with a marvellous view south over the Dordogne River Valley where they loved to enjoy leisurely breakfasts.

We toured the Medoc on the first day – a veritable Disney world of wine with spectacular Chateaux – so many great names from Margaux to Lafite and from Mouton to Latour – a one day tour could never be enough to see it all, but we took in as much as we could. We had recently enjoyed Chateau Batailley and Chateau La Lagune at home – both were available at reasonable prices and we took the time to stop and visit these properties. It was a terrific experience – just the beginning of a deeper understanding and appreciation for the great wines of this region – one which we have continued to nurture, ever since.

On the second day in the Bordeaux region, we drove southwest, through the Entre deux Mers and across the Garonne to reach the areas of Graves and Sauternes. I have vivid memories, to this day, of the huge Plane trees lining the roads from Sauternes to the Graves. We saw (but did not visit) the illustrious Chateau d’Yquem. The entire Sauternes area, especially near the village of Sauternes was magical and remains one of my very favourite places to visit. The fact that I adore the wine may have just a little to do with this.

Although we started our visit in Sauternes – we had planned to drive north to see the most famous wineries of Pessac Leognan – before returning to the hotel in St. Emilion. I had worked for a short time in Toronto for the Basil D. Hobbs Company – importers of the wines of noted Bordeaux wine merchants, Louis Eschenauer. One of their brands was a little known, inexpensive red Graves called Chateau la Garde. It was particularly easy to identify on the shelves as it was in the custom Eschenauer bottle, which was squared off on four corners (as though the round bottle had been squeezed, just a little, to create four sides). It was a remarkable value – available in 1978 for $4.85 per bottle – it was one of the great values of the day.

A visit to Chateau la Garde was on our “must-do” list. We had located the property on our trusty Hugh Johnson’s Wine Atlas of the World and drove off to find it. The picture on the label, gave us a clear idea of what the Chateau looked like – but when we arrived at the place on Hugh Johnson’s map – there was nothing but a very old, ruined house on one side of the road and a dilapidated barn on the other.

The map had been very accurate, to this point, but since this was a small and rather unknown property, we decided perhaps it had been slightly misplaced, in this case. So we drove into the nearby village of Martillac to get some accurate directions. As we reached the tiny square, in the middle of town – a young man on a moped came along. Jack waved him down and in his broken French, asked him if he could direct us to Chateau la Garde (which we knew was nearby).

He waved us ahead – leading the way on his motorized scooter and we followed. Taking the same route back from where we had just come (it seemed Hugh Johnson wasn’t so far off, after all), we reached the very same dilapidated barn and rundown house (there was a hole in the driveway, so large that a tractor wheel had been used as a marker – to prevent vehicles from driving into it).

Our motorized tour guide stopped and pointed at the ruin, proudly proclaiming, |”Voici …. ici c’est “. My father tossed him a 10 Franc coin and thanked him as he accelerated away.

This was the day we realized that just as you should never judge a book by its cover, you should remember that artists can take substantial liberty when arriving at the final design on a wine label!

For our third day in the Bordeaux region, we planned a tour of St. Emilion and Pomerol. We had decided to dine at La Reserve, in the Bordeaux suburb of Pessac. This famous Hotel/Restaurant located just on the outskirts of Bordeaux (quite near Chateau Haut Brion), was a famous place with a huge wine list and we were looking forward to ending our first trip to France with a superb meal in this special place favoured by the wine trade.

Our host at the Hostellerie de Plaisance, however, had very different ideas. After inquiring as to where we were dining that evening, Jack proudly announced we had made reservations at La Reserve in Pessac. Well, our host would have none of that!

He would prepare, he promised, a superb meal we would never forget…. simply return to the hotel after our day of touring and tasting and he would have a meal prepared to rival the finest, anywhere. We put ourselves in his hands – he assured the most wonderful preparations of the finest local cuisine – it would be a marvel!!

Well – there was no way we could turn down such a magnificent offer. We had been warmly welcomed at this great hotel and perfectly cared for during our stay. We all agreed this would be the best way to finish our visit to Bordeaux, so we immediately cancelled La Reserve and accepted our host’s offer. (In fact, I had the opportunity to dine at La Reserve a few times in the years that followed – none of them would turn out to be nearly as memorable as the fabulous night at the Hostellerie du Plaisance, that night!)

A long day visiting wineries in Pomerol and Saint Emilion brought us back to the Hotel by about 6:00 PM. After time to refresh we met at the entrance to the dining room at 8:00 PM sharp. The dining room at the Plaisance was classical French – very brightly lit with eggshell colours and pure white table coverings and waiters in black attire. The table was set with a number of glasses for each setting… we were obviously about to tuck into a special repast.

Our host arrived and served Champagne to begin. Menus were at each place and he was there to translate where needed or explain if desired. We would start with solid Bloque de Foie de Canard (solid pressed duck liver) followed by Filet Charolais Ensemble de Boeuf en Croûte (Whole Charolais Beef Wellington) followed by cheeses and selection of sweets.

The wine to match the Foie de Canard had been chosen for us – it was an amazing 1967 Sigalas Rabaud (a superb vintage and a great producer). This was the classic Bordeaux match of Sauternes with Goose or Duck Liver and it was one of the most extraordinary dishes any of us had ever had.

Marit, who adored smoked Salmon, had her heart set on this as her starter and she insisted on having it instead of the Foie de Canard. The waiter tried, in vain, to convince her that she was going to miss a very special dish – but she stood fast and ordered the salmon anyways. It came out first, an enormous platter-like plate, likely 16 inches in diameter, completely covered in gorgeous sliced salmon. Soon after our Foie de Canard arrived, accompanied by the monumental Sauternes (they brought a small plate for Marit to try as well).

My wife loved the Salmon but she quickly learned (and will confirm to this day) that, though wine and food matches are very much a personal preference, Sauternes with Smoked Salmon is not something she would highly recommend.

To accompany the superb whole tenderloin of Charolais beef, wrapped in puff pastry and roasted to absolute perfection, we chose 1964 Petit Faurie de Souchard. This St. Emilion Grand Cru was aged beautifully and we could not have chosen a more delicious wine for the moment.

In 1969, the owners of this fine estate removed the word “Petit” from the name (Chateau Faurie de Souchard) making is slightly easier to distinguish it from the neighbouring Capdemourlin family’s Chateau Petit Faurie de Soutard.

Traditional French service saw the Beef Wellington carved and served tableside – the wine was spectacular and matched this elegant dish perfectly.

We made the right choice to stay at the hotel for dinner – we enjoyed outstanding wines (at relatively reasonable prices), service was impeccable – all in all, the meal was perfect.

And so was the entire trip….it was the first great taste of many more to come…

Ian Hanna – John Hanna & Sons Ltd.

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