Love for Claret – An indulgence in the Bordeaux terroir

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Suresh Bhalla tells the tale of how his love affair with claret prompted him to invest for a year in an acre of Lynch-Bages vineyard to produce his very own Bordeaux wine

L-R: Amar Bhalla, Lynch-Bages owner, Jean-Michel Cazes and Suresh Bhalla

For a landmark birthday some years ago, my wife of over 40 years planned for us to spend, with our family of three boys and a daughter-in-law, a week in Bordeaux. The early morning fast train from Paris arrived in time at the Bordeaux railway station, for the drive, followed by lunch and some spa indulgences, at the Smith Haut Lafitte Château, where we would be staying for the next six nights.

Suresh Bhalla

There were visits to various prominent châteaux, touring their winemaking facilities, indulging in lunches and dinners at their premises, and enjoying the beautiful surroundings of the wine growing communes of Pauilliac and Margaux along the drives. A memorable visit to the city of Bordeaux, ended with a magnificent dinner at Château Figeac with the owner, who also owns Laurent Perrier Champagne. This was followed by a spectacular display of fireworks celebrating European Heritage Day which ended our only day on the Right Bank.

After a tour of the winery, there was a surprise meeting with the owner of Lynch-Bages, Jean-Michel Cazes, as we were ushered into his office. His good wishes on our birthdays were accompanied by an impressive gift of an inscribed coffee table book on wine and food, authored by him and his daughter. It was time for lunch, and we strolled over through the village of Bages, to Château Cordeillan-Bages, the Relais & Château accommodations owned and managed by the winery. After a most enjoyable lunch prepared by a two-star Michelin chef, we were introduced to the VINIV programme.

We were advised of an opportunity to invest in the harvest of grapes for a year, on an acre of the Lynch Bages estate. An acre would yield one barrel of wine, that would fill up 288 regular bottles. The picking, crushing, and the vinification process to include fermentation in vats, followed by the maturing in barrels would be undertaken by Lynch Bages. We would then be expected to visit the winery to do our personal blending, approximately 12 to 18 months after the grapes were harvested.

After assessing the comparable cost per bottle, we decided on the investment in the fall of September 2013, for the 2014 vintage. We were informed that details of the date of the “Mash Up” – the blending, label design, bottle size choices, packing, etc, would be advised to us at appropriate times in the future. Amar made the commitment to VINIV on behalf of both of us and offered to handle the relationship.

Our inability to meet with others for an earlier “Mash Up” resulted in our arrival in Bordeaux in September 2015 for the blending. My brother-in-law joined us and we arrived in the morning at the blending venue, prior to breakfast, with a clean palate.

Laid out on a long table, in front of the lady conducting the blending were a large glass jar of the predominant Cabernet Sauvgnion, with Merlot, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc in smaller containers, all labelled, along with neatly arranged wine glasses and a marked container. She poured measured quantities of the three other wines, adding them to the 80% Cabernet Sauvgnion that we had requested, making a note of each of the amounts she added. We then tasted the blend, gave an opinion, and requested a change to another blend composition.

After about three attempts to rate different blends, we were joined by the Master Taster from Lynch-Bages. He tasted the two blends that our group of six seemed to have selected but remained divided on, and recommended a blind test, along with his participation. We eventually arrived at a consensus and thanked him for having facilitated our final choice.

Label of Raj Baj with a sketch of the turbaned Bhalla

With our blend back in the barrel for a few more months, we were asked to work on a label and, more importantly, name our wine. It was our initial desire to name the wine, Raj Bages. My pet name was Raja, hence the “Raj”, (that incidentally also referred to the British period in India) while “Bages” would provide an association with the Château that had initiated the whole effort.

We learned that the use of “Bages” would not be permitted and any resemblance in our label to Lynch-Bages or any other prominent Bordeaux wine labels would be inadmissible. Our next attempt at Raj Bagh (“Bagh”or garden in Hindi) did not have sustained appeal. We finally decided on a phonetic choice by seeking approval for Raj Baj, where Baj sounded like Bages. It was also an Indian word for Falcon, a bird of significance in Sikh lore.

After the name was approved we started to design the label. Although a pencil sketch of me with a turban on the label may have appeared egotistical, I was able to convince Amar, my partner, that it was perhaps the only opportunity to ever have a turban on a Bordeaux wine. Finally, we reached out to my youngest son, an accomplished writer, to help us with the “romance” copy that reflected the rationale and emotion behind the whole endeavour. It went on the smaller back label, behind the bigger label on the front of the bottle.

The final touch was to get an appropriate wine quote and a line sketch of some relevant building. Most traditional wine labels have a photographic sketch of the Château representing the wine producer. We chose a quote from Rumi, the 13th-century Sufi poet from Persia and decided on a line sketch of our Villa Kishti in the Caribbean on the island of Anguilla.

With the wine production successfully completed, we look forward to receiving the wine at our home in Toronto by the middle of 2016. Raj Baj will be ready to start drinking around 2019 although it’s most unlikely that we will be able to wait till then for the consumption of a few bottles! All the wine is for personal consumption among family and friends, to be enjoyed in the years ahead. ­

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