In Search of the Hanging Tree: Montesquieu Winery Explores the Vineyards of St. Emilion
June 24, 2011, by: Stephen George
“Is this the hanging tree?” I asked.
I stood on a grassy path flanked by vines on both sides, staring up at a tall tree with large branches spreading wide. Oak? Elm? I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t really matter. All that mattered was whether this was THE tree, the one that – according to legend – the townsfolk of St. Emilion used for executing criminals many years ago.
We had broken free from our tight tasting schedule in order to take up this quest. That Tuesday, our first day of 2010 tastings at Primeurs, we did Cheval Blanc and the Rolland Collection at Le Bon Pasteur, followed by Michel Rolland’s consultancies at Chateau Soutard and then Stéphane Derenoncourt’s consultancies at Chateau La Gaffelière. Wednesday brought a full morning of tasting biodynamic wines at Ch. Fonroque followed by a cross-river haul to take in the wines of St. Julien, St. Estephe and Pauillac at Ch. Branaire Ducru, and then a dash to Ch. Lascombes to sample Margaux before the day’s tastings closed. We began Thursday morning early with the St. Emilion tasting at Ch. La Couspaude before heading back to the Left Bank for Graves and Pessac-Leognan – both rouge and blanc – at Ch. Malartic-Lagravière, and then back again to La Gaffelière to finish tasting Stéphane’s wines and chat with some of our producer friends there.
If you’re counting at home, that’s over 500 wines tasted in three days, not counting bottles we enjoyed during our dinners or at the late-night producer parties we attended. This kind of professionalized indulgence is par for the course during Primeurs week, but still, by Thursday afternoon we needed a break that didn’t include swirling, sniffing or sipping.“No, that’s not it. I thought it might be, but now that we’re here it doesn’t seem right,” Fonda said, scanning the horizon. “The hanging tree is clearly visible from inside the city of St. Emilion, so I think it must be the one over on that ridge.” She pointed to another tree across a block of vines that stood at the very edge of the plateau, its branches stretched starkly against the afternoon sky.
It was Fonda’s idea that we should embark on this expedition. A little adventure would do us some good, she reasoned – clear our minds, lighten our spirits, cleanse our palates even.
It was a good idea. Not only did it give us a break from the tasting grind (a thoroughly delightful grind, but a grind nonetheless), it got us out into the beautiful vineyards surrounding the medieval hilltop city, those rolling hills of vines that make St. Emilion one of the most picturesque places in the world.
But the clincher was this: these weren’t just any vineyards we’d be roaming. The hanging tree stood on the estate of the great Chateau Pavie Macquin.
Ahh, Pavie Macquin. *Sigh.* Give me a moment while my heart skips a beat or two, allow me a minute to regain my composure.
You have to understand – for me, only Cheval Blanc rivals Pavie Macquin for the title of Favorite Winery on the Right Bank, and the race is probably too close to call. I’m not alone in that judgment: Fonda feels the same way. Our other travel companions Hélène and Tony are likewise enamored with the wine. And Stéphane, who began his winemaking career at Pavie Macquin almost twenty years ago and still makes the wine there, affectionately calls the property “my baby.”
While the allure and quality of many other top names in Bordeaux come and go depending on the vintage, year in and year out Pavie Macquin manages to maintain the kind of depth, complexity, and freshness that makes it one of the greatest ever expressions of Merlot. This is thanks to the heady combination of Stéphane’s sensitivity and devotion as a vigneron, and the property’s spectacular terroir. We’re talking old vines planted in some of the best limestone/clay soils in the region on one of the appellation’s highest plateaus. Slope, exposure, subsoil, density, microclimate – all near-perfect, all geared toward creating the most sublime expression of St. Emilion terroir that nature can muster.
I had tasted Pavie Macquin many times from a number of vintages young and old, out of both barrel and bottle, in Bordeaux and at home. I knew all the facts and figures. I had tasting notes galore. But I had never done the most important thing – I had never stood among the vines or walked upon the ground that was responsible for this cherished wine. Now was the time: we were off to find the hanging tree – a whimsical excuse for a sacred pilgrimage to the mecca of St. Emilion.
We loaded into our rented Mini Cooper convertible, me behind the wheel, Hélène to my right, and Fonda and Tony perched behind us with rumps on the rear hood, feet on the back seats and hair whipping in the wind. Our traveling mascot Mycat came along too, even though Tony was threatening to use up one of the toy cat’s nine lives by hanging it on the tree – you know, just to see if the limbs were still sturdy after all these years.
What a sight we must have been – our tiny topless vehicle overstuffed like a clown car, puttering up and down the steep, narrow cobblestone streets of St. Emilion and then, once we emerged from the city, zooming around the sloping countryside curves a hair too quickly for my mother’s taste.
The temperature was perfect – 75 degrees, the bright sun to keep us warm and a light breeze to keep us cool.
There was only one problem: We knew where we were going – but we didn’t know how to get there.
We didn’t have a map or directions of any kind, but Fonda and Hélène had been to the tree before on a previous Bordeaux trip, so I assumed finding it again would a breeze. Not so. It had been several years since their previous visit to the tree, and Pavie Macquin’s cellarmaster had guided them there on that occasion.
The old “lick-your-finger-and-see-which-way-the-wind-is-blowing” method wasn’t working very well, at least initially. So we had to make our way via trial and error. This took a while, as we zipped up one bumpy road that dead-ended into a block of vines, then another that led to a farmhouse, then a third that took us back to where we began.
But I must confess, casting about here and there was far more fun than if we’d known the way. At one point, we found ourselves off-roading on a vine-lined path we thought would lead us to Pavie Macquin. Instead, it led us to a grizzled local man, armed with a rather vicious-sounding dog, who seemed none too pleased to find us on his property. Rather than face our foe, we practiced a time-honored survival technique: frantic retreat. I’m proud to report that I can handle a stick shift as effectively in reverse as I can in third gear – at least when my life is at stake.
Of course we eventually found Pavie Macquin. Once you’re there, you wouldn’t confuse it with anywhere else in the world. It’s unmistakable: those thick gnarled stumpy vines, so perfectly tended yet wild and free; the green grass growing between the vine rows; the stunning views of the surrounding countryside – vineyards as far as the eye can see – and the spire of the St. Emilion cathedral at the top of the ancient city across the valley; the old, rustic stone farmhouse that houses the cellar behind its famous red door; and, of course, the silhouette of those majestic trees edging the property.
Most of all, there’s a beauty to that place which, once you’ve experienced it, settles into your soul in a way that’s kind of hard to explain, except perhaps by analogy. There are other places that have this sort of effect on a person – the Swiss Alps, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Falls. Once you’ve seen them – once you’ve breathed in the icy mountain air, or gazed across the vast canyon into the setting sun, or felt the cool spray of the tumbling water – you carry that particular sensation of beauty with you always.
It’s even better with wine. Because when you’ve been to a vineyard whose wine you love, you can see, smell and taste the product of what you’ve experienced – the spirit of the place, captured in a bottle. Thanks to my time in the vines of St. Emilion, whenever I drink Pavie Macquin – or any good Right Bank wine, especially one made under Stéphane’s care – my mind is filled with the memory of feeling the rough old gnarled vines, of scooping the top soil into my hands, of surveying the pitch of the vineyard sloping down to the valley below with a panorama of St. Emilion in the distance. The beauty in my memory rubs off on the wine itself, enlivening my experience with it, as I am taken back to that moment walking among those vines, searching for that hanging tree.
We did finally make it to the real hanging tree, of course. And as expected, we engaged in some historical pageantry during which Mycat gamely took one for the team (I’m happy to report that he seems to be enjoying his new second life much more than his first). Doing so was meant to be a bit of fun (or a bit of sadism, depending on your affection for toys), nothing more. Yet somehow, enacting an old-fashioned hangin’ gave our experience even more meaning. It sounds silly, I suppose. But for us it was a picture of the history of this place, a reminder that for centuries, while eras and governments came and went, while people lived and – literally – died on this plateau, the vines of St. Emilion gave forth their bounty, harvest after harvest producing wine that has gladdened the heart of generations.
As we left the tree, I hiked back to our car with wistful reluctance. Like all of us, I drink a great many wines whose vineyards I never get a chance to visit. That’s life. But now, having experienced the vineyards of St. Emilion, and having witnessed how it affects my enjoyment of wine from that region, I am reminded of how critical it is to get as close as possible to the source of the wines I love to drink, so that I can love drinking them all the more.
I can’t go to every vineyard myself, but with a little bit of effort, I can do the next best thing: I can seek out the reflections of the wine’s winemaker, who works the land day in and day out. And I can borrow memory from those who have been to the region themselves, searching for their own hanging tree.