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In 2017 I ran a very successful tour to Bordeaux, at harvest time. At popular request I ran two further, sell out, tours in 2019. All the tours allowed us to gain an understanding of a region that is so famous it is almost frightening!
On all three tours, the harvest of red grapes – particularly Merlot was happening, with the whites already safely in vats. I worked hard to secure visits as a number of wineries are firmly closed to visitors during harvest and with the vagaries of the weather, there is always an element of uncertainty about how much and what you might get to see.
At virtually every visit we saw the care and attention that goes into the harvest – from the hand sorting of grapes, to the monitoring of the wine fermenting in barrel. We tasted grapes on the vine, freshly picked grapes awaiting their turn to approach the sorting table, and in 2017 we were incredibly lucky to sample botrytised Semillon grapes at Chateau d’Yquem. We saw carbon dioxide bubbles inside the vats, listened to the yeast producing them, and even sampled fermenting juice. We learnt about the massive significance of terroir across the regions of Bordeaux, and broadly got to grips with the complexities of its Classification system.
This was a very special time to visit and we felt warmly welcomed by everyone we met, and came away with a much enhanced understanding of Bordeaux – and love for- its reds, whites and sweet wines.
The Left Bank
Over the three tours we visited estates in Margaux, Pauillac and Saint Julien.
In Saint Julien in 2017 we visited the wonderful 4th Growth Château Beychevelle. This simply oozes history, it is now part owned by Suntory and they have made a significant investment in the winery and cellars.
Tractors were arriving – brimming with boxes of freshly picked grapes which we duly gorged ourselves on before witnessing their journey into the winery. A blind tasting followed which focussed the mind somewhat. With only limited information to work with, we had to assess the year and whether it was the Grand Vin. Superb wines with a great contrast between years which reflected just how good 2009 was.
In 2017 we had lunch at Château d’Agassac – a Cru Bourgeois estate in the most picturesque of castle and moat setting.
In Margaux we visited the 5th Growth Château Dauzac in 2017. This was another estate with a lot of history and yet packed with innovation. The Bordeaux mixture (lime and copper sulphate) was invented here as a defence against mildew. In the winery, a glass panel in a fermentation vat enabled a clear view of the effect of carbon dioxide as it pushed the mass of crushed grapes up to the top of the vat. This was wonderfully educative as one visual moment was worth many hundreds of words. Here we experienced the Bordelais fixation on matching their wines with chocolate with a wine pairing with Cuban, Indonesian and Costa Rican dark chocolate. The richer darker style paired surprisingly well with the more concentrated tannic styles of wine.
In 2019 we visited Château Giscours, a 3rd Growth estate with a beautiful house and garden. Our tour of the winery, seeing the sorting table at work, and having more of the terroir explained to us, helped us understand what goes into making very elegant wine.
After lunch in the Lion d’Or restaurant in Arcins our coach took us north to Pauillac where we visited the highly esteemed Cru Bourgeois estate of Château Larose Trintaudon, for a visit and tasting of their wine and those of their fellow Cru Bourgeois estates Larose Perganson and Château Arnauld. We compared the 2014 vintage of all three, and older vintages of Perganson and Trintaudon, which showed the lovely maturity these wines can achieve.
Our visits to the legendary Chateau d’Yquem were extraordinary. In 2017 we were lucky enough to not only witness the grapes arriving, but also to taste the hallowed, botrytised grapes themselves. Call me geeky, but I can’t express the excitement adequately – a truly momentous occasion in my wine life!
From the winery and barrel cellar it was then into the tasting room.
First up was the current vintage of Y de Yquem – their dry white which they make in very small quantities. Predominantly Sauvignon, this was a mind blowing tasting moment and gave us an insight into the epitome of highly expressive, intense and powerful white wine.
Then the Grand Vin – Chateau d’Yquem. James Suckling has given this vintage 100 points. A masterpiece of sweet wine making. This was a historic tasting moment for all of us that we are unlikely to forget. Words can barely do justice to the intensity, concentration and freshness. Given the attention to detail, intensive labour and replacing every barrel every year, the 350 euro price tag was worth every penny.
Our second visit in 2019 was to Château Guiraud, which is literally next door to d’Yquem. This is one of the oldest estates in Sauternes, and the first Premier Cru Classé to be certified organic. Its founders were both Protestants and Republicans, not the most popular flavours of the month in the early 18th Century, and steered a distinctive course, including adopting a black label to honour Napoleon Bonaparte and the Republic when he died. Their wines were excellent and offered a far more affordable access to high quality Sauternes dry and white wines.
The Right Bank
Our focus was Saint Emilion – famed for its Merlot and Cabernet Franc based reds.
Château Croizille and Château La Tour Baladoz are Saint Emilion Grand Cru estates, owned by a Belgian family who have with ambitions for La Croizille to be be recognised a Premier Grand Cru at the next classification in a few years.
Baladoz is traditional and still uses cement tanks and a typical Merlot dominant blend, whereas Croizille has been rebuilt in 2012 with lots of stainless steel, new oak and a higher than average Cabernet Sauvignon component. This showed in our tastings of three wines from each estate – Baladoz had rich ripe plummy fruit with tannins that mellowed as we tasted older vintages, while La Croizille had more structure but with beautiful ripe tannins.
Château Beau Séjour Bécot is a Premier Grand Cru Classé estate, with the most wonderful ancient limestone cellars that used to connect its church to the village and a number of other growers via a labyrinthine network of tunnels. The sorting table and crusher/destemmer was in full flow as we arrived in 2019 and this gave everyone a great opportunity to witness at first hand the attention to quality at every stage of the process. Our tasting of four wines culminated in La Gomerie 2001, an amazing 100% Merlot from a tiny single vineyard.
In 2017 we had lunch at the appropriately named Lard et Bouchon, but in 2019 I secured a fabulous visit and tasting at Château de Ferrand, culminating in a sommelier hosted food and wine pairing. Adrien and Charlie were both highly entertaining and informative hosts, who ensured our tasting technique was up to speed with of two of their wines and then guided us through a pairing compeition: which wines best matched the two starters (a tomato tartare and spiced crab on avocado) and two mains (a compote of mushrooms with truffle sabayan, and a duck and foie gras ‘tourte’). Across the two tours we managed to produce six winners!
I always try to visit estates where we can meet winemakers, vineyard managers and ideally owners. It’s not just for their expertise, they generally (not always) have that added degree of passion and are happy to talk about the realities of making a living from wine as well as the lovely aspects.
In Bordeaux this is nearly impossible. Many of the best estates are owned by ‘absentee’ landlords, or are part of big corporate organisations. That is not a criticism, it’s clear the owners of La Croizille and La Tour Baladoz, or Chateau Guiraud, for example, are hugely passionate about and personally invested in their wines, they just don’t happen to be there all the time. And companies like LMVH and Allianz are clearly making big investments for the very long term in d’Yquem and Larose Trintadon/Perganson respectively.
So in 2019 we were incredibly lucky to meet, at Château Bouscaut in Pessac-Léognan, the owners, Sophie Lurton (of the famous Bordelais family), and her husband Laurent Cogombles. Their château is their home, so we were specially privileged to enjoy a tasting in a splendid salon, and some cheese served on their own dinner service!
Our tasting of three vintages of their flagship red: 1995, 2005 and 2015 demonstrated much of what we had heard about as we visited the winery- how they have changed the mix of grape varieties, and invested in new approaches to vinification. We also tasted two vintages (2014 and 2016) of their white wines, with four cheeses, a Brebis sheep’s cheese, and three cow’s cheeses: aged Mimolette , Comté and Gorgonzola. Added evidence for my campaign to get people drinking white wine with cheese, these elegant fresh wines with their creamy rich nutty oak undertones complemented them beautifully.
In 2017 we met former Lebanese banker Tony Asseily who bought Chateau Biac in 2006. It falls under the AOC Côtes de Bordeaux which while not as highly regarded as the Haut-Médoc or Pessac-Léognan, is home to some great producers. Some of Bordeaux’s most renowned oenologists and winemakers believe that Biac has quite superb, diverse, terroir, and the quality of the wines were exceptional (Le Gavroche has been serving his wines at lunchtime for the past five years!). We finished off with his utterly sublime sweet wine made from botrytised Semillon grapes. Utterly, utterly delicious.
On all our tours we stayed in central Bordeaux, which is a vibrant city, parts of which still have vineyards among the houses. Our dinners were at La Brasserie Bordelaise on the first night and Bistrot Le Glouton (I feel I surpassed myself in my choice of aptly named restaurants on this tour) for our final night dinner.
These tours proved to me that it is possible to find authenticity and value when visiting Bordeaux and I am sure we will be visiting again soon.
What my clients said about this tour
“Touring Bordeaux during the vendage added a huge extra dimension to this holiday which was easily the best yet. Visiting the beautiful and iconic Beychevelle estate in the midst of their hectic harvest activity was without doubt my favourite visit to date, at least, until we visited d’Yquem the next day!!! It was such a privilege to not only visit and drink d’Yquem but even to taste the grapes at various stages of Botrytis, and the dry white Ygrec was an absolute revelation. I can’t recall drinking a wine that has stopped me in my tracks like that for about 25 years! As usual, it was very clear that you had put a lot of effort into selecting a range of visits which encompassed not only a wide range of terroirs, wines, characters and business models but also a great variety of experiences. A horizontal tasting of the 2017 vintage at such an early stage of development – 6 Varieties of mature grapes still on the vines – was another great highlight for me! The excellent food too was, of course, another great highlight of the holiday and your selection of locations for our meals unerringly added a sense of place as well as fabulous cuisine. All this, and the beautiful city of Bordeaux and the pleasure of your company too! Well done Tim and thanks again, you have yet again surpassed your previously very high standards! ” – Graham Faul, Goring on Thames