WineInk: Château Biac visits Aspen
There are over 6,000 wine producers in Bordeaux, France — the world’s most important wine region — and each has a unique story. But none quite like that of Château Biac.
This past week, Aspen welcomed Gabriel Asseily, the winemaker and scion of the family that owns Bordeaux’s Château Biac. He was on an “off season” sojourn to America to pour his wines, tell the story of the Château, and generally share good vibes from Bordeaux. In addition to making stops at the top restaurants in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Dallas, where he had meetings with potential clients, he spent some time in Old Snowmass with his good friend and longtime Aspenite Len Olender, who hosted a casual tasting. It was Bordeaux in the mountains.
In a region known for its many beautiful châteaux, Biac has a special charm.
“My family was looking for a property in Bordeaux where my parents might retire,” Asseily explained about how they came to acquire the Château back in 2006. “The only rule we had was, ‘no vines and no wine production.’” He laughed in retrospect.
As luck would have it, while looking for their dream home, they rented a guest house on a spectacular property that, though somewhat rundown and surrounded by vineyards, spoke to them. It was the location that sold the family. Uniquely situated high on a hill, the château is blessed with a commanding view to a wide turn of the Garonne River below.
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“It was the perfect place for our family,” said Asseily.
The Asseily family, which has their roots in Beirut, Lebanon, but also is tethered to London, soon discovered that besides a world-class view, there was another distinct benefit to the location of their estate that has roots dating to the 17th century: the soils.
In Bordeaux, there are two predominant types of soils that have historically been deposited by the Dordogne and Garonne rivers, which flow through the region and shaped the countryside. On the Left Bank, the southwest side of the meandering rivers, the soils are gravelly, marked by small rocks on the surface, perfect for late-maturing and tannic cabernet sauvignon grapes. The gravels force the vines to work, to dig deep into the earth for their nutrients, producing powerful, structured, tannic wines. The wines from the Left Bank are led by cabernet sauvignon and supported with lesser and varying amounts of merlot, malbec, cabernet franc, and petit verdot in the blends.
But just across the river to the east and north on what is referred to as the Right Bank, the soils are much different. There, clay, sand, and silt, rather than gravel, make up the top layer of the soil. These soils are more suited for producing rich, concentrated wines that have a little softer mouthfeel and are less tannic. On the Right Bank, merlot is the grape that dominates the blends.
It may seem like a subtle difference, but the entire structure of Bordeaux is based on making wines that take advantage of these soils and blending wines that emphasize the differences in the grapes and the dirt in which they are grown.
“Bordeaux has always been about terroir and doing what is asked by the land,” said Asseily about the power of the soils.
“When we bought the property, we were fortunate to have a chance to meet with Patrick Léon,” he said. Léon, who died in 2018, was one of France’s most respected modern winemakers and consultants, having had a hand in the production of iconic wines including Château Mouton-Rothschild in Bordeaux, Château d’Esclans (Whispering Angel) in Provence, Almaviva in Chile, and Opus One in Napa Valley. “Patrick told us that we were in a unique place because the soils of our vineyards are a combination of those found on both the Left Back and the Right Bank. We have soils that are gravelly in spots and clay based in other places.” In other words, the proverbial best of both worlds.
Asseily attributes this good fortune to the location of Château Biac on the bend, or turn, of the Garonne River, which as it receded over the millenniums, left the two different soil compositions adjacent to each other at this very place. Because Château Biac had two different soil types, they could make wines that were dictated by the earth, not convention or the rules of the region.
“Patrick became the winemaker for our red wines, and he could produce wines that were led by the best grapes of a particular vintage. Some years the blends were dominated by merlot, other years by cabernet sauvignon. Patrick was able to make the best wines from our vines,” Asseily said.
After Léon passed, the responsibility for production of the red wines has passed to Asseily, who while still in his early 40s is about to release his fifth vintage. “Patrick was more than a consultant; he was a friend of the family and he encouraged me to take this journey.”
Today, Patrick’s son, Bertrand, and vineyard manager, Gilles Rey, both consult with the family and remain integral parts of the team that has modernized and restructured both the vineyards and the winery at Château Biac.
Château Biac has four wines in its portfolio. There is a dry, well-balanced white wine called Felice made from the traditional Bordeaux white grapes, sauvignon blanc, and semillon. Then come two red Bordeaux Blends, the more casual Felix Cuvee (named for Felix the Cat) and their flagship wine, the Château Biac. And finally, there is a lovely, sweet white wine produced using the time-honored traditions that are employed in the famed Sauterne and Barsac wines. The wine is called Secret de Château Biac, and the grapes, which have been infused with the Noble Rot: Botrytis Cinerea, are meticulously hand-picked, one-by-one to use in the alchemy that creates this special nectar from the vines. The two white wines are produced under the deft hand of winemaker Christine Sourdes.
Part of the charm of Château Biac undoubtedly is a product of the enthusiasm and personality of the budding wine maker Asseily, who has clearly found his calling amongst the vines and in the winery. Oh, and in the barrel room as well.
“I love my barrels. Each cooper we use brings nuances to their barrels that I find to be very much like people,” he explained when asked about the oak he uses. “For some wines, I need to have very clear direction and structure, so I use barrels that I call ‘the accountants’ because that is what they bring. For others, I want excitement and energy, and for this, I use a collection of barrels I call ‘the students.’ They begin as freshman and then matriculate as they go through the aging process from freshman to sophomore and so on.”
But then there are some very special barrels he names for his most cherished of friends. “This past year, I had a cabernet franc in one of my best barrels. It reminded me of my friend Emi. She has an elegant and complete presence that is effortless. For a special barrel of Petit Verdot, I gave it the name Alessandra because I knew it would be good. It reminded me of how my friend just creates an ideal harmony, how she defines strength without needing to show it off.”
This is just the beginning of the new age for Château Biac, and we look forward to the next time Gabriel Asseily brings a taste of Bordeaux to Aspen.