Bordeaux Trip September 2013

Sep 30, 2013 by

Bordeaux Wine Trip (31 August – 5 September 2013) Written by John Pride

It was from the classical world of Greece in April to the classic wine country of Bordeaux for the Association’s second trip of the year.

As with Alsace last year we travelled by coach with the aim of bringing back some well-chosen bottles or cases. Most of us assembled at the Compass Inn at Tormarton for the first stage of the journey to Portsmouth, where we picked up the rest of our party and boarded the night ferry to Le Havre.

Day 1

The long journey to Bordeaux, passing through the Loire, saw us arrive at our destination in good time to choose suitable restaurants for dinner. Firstly, however, we met Hamish Wakes-Miller from the Bordeaux négociants, Vintex, who, over a welcome glass of Dourthe Sauvignon Blanc 2012 in a local restaurant, outlined the arrangements for the next few days and started explaining the vagaries of the Bordeaux system for the selling and distribution of the wines. It was a theme he was to return to at various time during the visit.

Day 2

For our first day of visits, we headed north from Bordeaux into the Médoc, stopping briefly outside Château Margaux where some of us had a chance encounter and chat with the château’s famous winemaker, M. Paul Pontallier. We then proceeded through St. Julien, halfway between Bordeaux and the mouth of the Gironde, to Pauillac for our first visit.

Château Lynch-Bages (5ème Cru Classé de Pauillac)

Lynch Bages one example room

Lynch Bages one example room

This fifth-growth property, which regularly punches well above its category, stands on one of the best gravelly sites of the Bages plateau. As one might guess from the name, it is one of several Bordeaux châteaux founded by Irishmen. It belongs to the Cazes family that also owns the cru bourgeois Château Ormes de Pez in St. Estèphe and properties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Minervois and Australia. The second wine is Echo de Lynch-Bages.

State of the art winemaking equipment was introduced in the 1970s, the old methods ending in 1975. Unlike many wineries where one can see the odd piece of old equipment lying about, Lynch-Bages has preserved in one room examples of the old items in sequential order to give a picture of how the wine used to be made. One traditional practice that has been maintained, however, is that of racking with glass and candle. In their wine library we were shown a half bottle of Lynch-Bages that had been taken into space by a French astronaut on board Discovery.

After the tour we tasted the 2006 vintage of both Lynch-Bages (79% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot) and Ormes de Pez (58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc).

Following the visit to Lynch-Bages a somewhat confused lunch was taken at a restaurant in Pauillac before we headed further north to St. Estèphe.

Château Phélan-Segur (Cru Bourgeois)

Phelan Segur

Phelan Segur

Currently owned by the Xavier Gardinier family, this cru bourgeois has 90 hectares of vines, planted on clay and gravel. It has a very modern approach to winemaking without losing sight of proven traditional methods. Careful plot management is the key and we were shown a map of the vineyards that revealed the optimum time for picking the various grapes. After picking, an optical scanner sorts out the grapes that are to be used; the waste (about 10%) are rejected by computer. About 25% of the juice is drawn off early (the saignée method) to make rosé.

We had a tasting in a lovely, elegant Louisiana-style entrance hall which, to our surprise, led into a large vat room. This is a legacy of the decision by its Irish founder, Frank Phelan, to construct a building that would be his home, his wine cellar and his vat room. We tasted three vintages – 2008 (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot), 2009 (58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc) and 2010 (51% Cabernet Sauvignon, 49% Merlot). The second wine is Frank Phélan.

We moved back to Margaux for the final tasting of the day.

Château Lascombes (2ème Cru Classé de Margaux)

This second-growth château, just to the north of the village of Margaux has a mix of soils – clay-limestone, clay-gravel and gravel. Merlot accounts for half of the grapes grown, the rest being Cabernet Sauvignon (45%) and a little Petit Verdot (5%). Here, too, there is a blend of modern and traditional methods. One innovation is the Oxoline rack system used in preference to the traditional bâtonnage for stirring the lees as the wine ages. The barrels are rotated twice a week for four months and thence once a week. It is the only such system in the Médoc.

Lascombes

Lascombes

We tasted barrel samples of the individual grape varieties from the 2012 vintage – Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot – followed by samples of the same vintage of both the second wine, Chevalier Lascombes (50/50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and the first wine (48% Cabernet Sauvignon, 48% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot). It was an interesting way to end our day in the Médoc.

Day 3

We headed south from Bordeaux through Pessac, now a suburb of the city, and Léognan into the Graves region. The Graves appellation dates from 1953; it was reformed in 1959 and the Pessac-Léognan appellation came into being in 1987 to cover the northern part of Graves.

Domaine de Chevalier (Grand Cru Classé de Graves)

At one of Pessac Léognan’s top châteaux we were welcomed by Adrian Bernard, one of the sons of the owner Olivier Bertrand who is the new President of the Union de Grands Crus de Bordeaux. Adrian is based in Shanghai where he spends a good part of the year. He outlined the significance of the Far Eastern market for the Bordelais and gave us an insight into the importance the Chinese attach to the prestige of buying, and being seen to buy, the very top names.

The property is surrounded by the pine forests of Les Landes and stands on gravel with a clay-gravel subsoil. The nights here are cool and the grapes are harvested in the morning when they are at their freshest. Adrian passed on a tip on how to judge if a grape is ready for picking: for reds, taste the grape, spit out the juice and keep the skin in the mouth; for whites, spit out the skin and keep the juice in the mouth.

Domaine de Chevalier is as famous for its white wine as for its red (some might say more famous). The white grapes are harvested about a month earlier than the red. Hence we tasted the 2004 vintage of the red (about two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, almost a third Merlot with a tiny amount of Cabernet Franc) and the 2008 white (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon). No Cabernet Franc has been used in the first wine since 2007 and they are considering grubbing it up. The second wine is L’Esprit de Chevalier.

Lunch cooking on day three

Lunch cooking on day three

We drove on to Sauternes for lunch in a local auberge, and a quick tasting and a bit of a buying spree at the Maison du Vigneron Sauternes before making our way to Château Guiraud.

Château Guiraud (1er Grand Cru Classé de Sauternes)

Here again the introductory talk took place out of doors under the trees. Augustin Lacaille, who has the splendid title of Ambassador, was our host. Château Guiraud is certified organic and its 100 hectares of vineyard, made up of 65% Sémillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc, stand on gravel with clay subsoil. The grapes are picked berry by berry in several passes through the vineyard, on average five to seven times per row; a very costly, time-consuming and risky business. One risk is that a botrytised grape that has been pecked by a bird will oxidise and can infect the rest of the bunch. Regulations stipulate that there must be at least two pickings, although in the very hot vintage of 2003 that was relaxed to one. One bush will yield one glass of wine. Usually the Sauvignon Blanc is picked first. The Sauternes harvest in 2013 will be a little later than usual. At Guiraud fermentation in new French oak barrels takes three to four weeks. The barrel are then cleaned and reused for the dry white for six months ageing. Towards the end of the visit we were joined by the Château’s director, Xavier Planty and his daughter Laura.

Our tasting comprised the dry G de Guiraud 2012 (70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sémillon), the second wine Petit de Guiraud (65% Sémillon, 35% Sauvignon Blanc) and the 2009 Château Guiraud itself (same blend as the second wine). However good they might be, the dry whites of Sauternes and Barsac can only be designated as AC Bordeaux.

Day 4

We crossed to the right bank for our last day of visits, passing through Entre-Deux-Mers, where the signs of the damage caused by severe hailstorms earlier in the year were only too obvious with entire blocks of vines removed. We proceeded via Libourne to Saint-Émilion, where the classification system was introduced in 1955 and then reviewed in 1967, 1976, 1986, 1996, 2006 and 2012. It has been the source of much dispute and legal wrangling. Saint-Émilion is the largest of the top quality Bordeaux appellations. Merlot reigns supreme here, flourishing on the limestone soil. A number of the properties have cellars that were once part of the extensive limestone quarries which were worked for several hundred years before quarrying ceased in the 1870s. In all there are 200 kilometres of cellars beneath Saint-Émilion.

St. Emilion

St. Emilion

Château Villemaurine (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé)

This is a property whose wines have recently been very well reviewed. A tour of the cellars gave us a very good insight into the quarrying. We saw areas where work had had to be stopped because the quarrymen had reached clay and in some places roots of the vines were clearly visible as they penetrated the clay. At Villemaurine everything is gravity fed. Cold maceration is followed by carbonic maceration and pigeage.

We tasted the second wine Les Angelots de Villemaurine 2007 and Château Villemaurine Grand Cru Classé 2010 (both wines 95% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc).

Château Pressac (Saint-Émilion Grand Cru Classé)

After a leisurely couple of hours in Saint-Émilion with time for lunch and a stroll around, we moved on to Château Pressac. Owned by Jean-François Quenin, who has invested heavily in the property, this picturesque château situated on a hilltop in lovely countryside with the Dordogne in the distance was upgraded in 2012 from Grand Cru to Grand Cru Classé. The original owner, back in the seventeenth century, came from Cahors and cultivated Malbec which became known locally as

Pressac

Pressac

Pressac de Bordeaux.

We tasted three vintages – 2008, 2009 and 2010.The cépage for all three vintages was the same: 60% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Carmenère & Malbec.

Château de la Rivière (AC Fronsac)

Leaving Pressac we drove through Saint-Émilion and Pomerol to Fronsac, once the source of the most prestigious wines from Bordeaux, but which went into decline following the phylloxera visitation of the nineteenth century. Our destination was Château de la Rivière, one of the leading properties in Fronsac and surely the most impressively situated, standing on a wooded hill served by natural springs. The soil is a mixture of clay, sand and limestone. Merlot accounts for about two thirds of the plantings with the rest being Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and some Petit Verdot. Beneath the château are extensive limestone quarries where the wines rest in a dry atmosphere at a constant temperature. It is owned by James Edouard Grégoire, a leading manufacturer of grape-harvesting machines in Cognac. As well as the grand vin, the château produces a second wine, Les Sources de la Rivière, a super-cuvée, Aria de Château de la Rivière, and a Sauvignon Blanc.

Group photo at Riviere

Group photo at Riviere

After a tour of the cellars, we enjoyed canapés and chilled rosé on the terrace and then went indoors for an excellent final dinner at which the château’s wines were served – the 2012 Sauvignon Blanc and the 2009 and 2005 red, the latter from magnums. They were impressive enough for some buying to be done! To finish, Hamish produced a magnum of Château Climens 2005 1er Cru Classé Barsac (100% Sémillon) to accompany the pudding.

Day 5

There is normally little to say about the day when we return home. However it was notable for being Geoff Collins’ birthday, and for the disappearance of our on-board supply of coffee, hot chocolate and tea. It seems that, as we were getting off from one side of the coach following our last visit, some light-fingered local had slipped in on the other side, grabbed the box containing the supplies and made off with it. In the end it didn’t matter much as the water system in the bus had broken down and we couldn’t have made the drinks anyway.

It was yet another excellent trip. The weather was perfect with virtually unbroken sunshine. As usual we learnt a lot, tasted and drank some excellent wines and thoroughly enjoyed each other’s company. A great vote of thanks must go to Geoff Collins who as always organised everything so ably, to Hamish who set up the visits, took us around the properties and supplied so much invaluable information, and to Brian, our driver, who had taken us to Alsace in 2012 and is like an old friend.

Text © John Pride 2013

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