Our visit to Bordeaux in September was a revelation! This might seem a surprising statement about such a famous region but the level of access we enjoyed to the very hearts of top estates was extraordinary, giving us a depth of insight into the beginning of the life of a wine that I think none of us was expecting.
We quickly discovered on our arrival that the harvest of red grapes – particularly Merlot was in full swing, with the whites already safely in vats. 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.
As the day by day account shows below, it felt as if we had been let into the inner sanctum. We tasted the freshly picked Merlot grapes at Chateau Beychevelle as they waited their turn to approach the sorting table, and we were incredibly lucky to sample botrytised Semillon grapes at Chateau d’Yquem. Witnessing carbon dioxide bubbles inside the vats at Dauzac, exploring the terroir at Chateau Biac and sampling fermenting juice at Chateau Croizille taught us a huge amount in a very short space of time.
This was a very special time to visit and we felt warmly welcomed by everyone we met.
Thursday – The Left Bank
We had already kicked off with an excellent first night dinner at the renowned institution – La Brasserie Bordelaise. Foie Gras, delicious gravadlax, confit de canard, fromages and delicious desserts – a perfect start to our tour.
Our first full day took us the hallowed vineyards of the Left Bank, to the northwest of the city. Our first stop in Saint Julien was the wonderful 4th Growth – Chateau Beychevelle. Simply oozing history, it is now part owned by Suntory and they have made a significant investment in the winery and cellars.
We took a wander into the winery itself. Tractors were arriving – brimming with boxes of freshly picked grapes which we duly gorged ourselves on before witnessing their journey through the sorting table and optical selector which is very high tech kit to ensure only the best berries make the cut. We also saw at first hand some pumping over and vats of grapes at the very beginning of their journey to greatness.
A blind tasting followed which focussed the mind somewhat. With only limited information to work with, we had to assess theyear and whether it was the Grand Vin. Superb wines with a great contrast between years which reflected just how good 2009 was.
From Beychevelle it was a 40 minute ride to lunch at Chateau d’Agassac – a Cru Bourgeois estate in the most picturesque of castle and moat setting. We enjoyed a very elegant lunch of pumpkin risotto, a spicy turkey creation and a carrot cake dessert.
With no time for a power nap, a five minute drive took us to the 5th Growth Chateau Dauzac in the commune of Margaux. 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 we witnessed another first. Built into the side of the large wooden fermentation vats were glass panels that 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. A chocolate and wine pairing combining three different wines with Cuban, Indonesian and Costa Rican dark chocolate worked well for most of us, with the richer darker style pairing well with the more concentrated tannic styles of wine.
Friday — Chateau d’Yquem and Graves
An uncharacteristically early start was required in order to make our 9.30am appointment at the legendary Chateau d’Yquem.
With time to stop in the village of Sauternes for a coffee, we had a stunningly beautiful day with gorgeous morning light and evidence of the swirling mists that are essential for inducing the development of the noble rot.
The visit to Yquem was nothing short of extraordinary. 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. Simple yet sublimely elegantly furnished we waited in eager anticipation.
First up was the Y de Yquem 2016 – 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. A wonderful first taste and only the €150 price tag blocked my way to buying a case.
Then the Grand Vin – Chateau d’Yquem 2014. 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.
The bus seemed quiet as we pondered this experience on the way to lunch in Langoiran. However, we soon perked up as we swept into the Brasserie Saint Martin right by the river Garonne and tucked into a hearty local lunch. Salads, salmon and goats cheese, followed by steak and frites and crème brulee and chocolate fondants washed down with some delicious local wines.
From the Brasserie, it was a short hop to Chateau Biac. Owned by former Lebanese banker Tony Asseily who bought the estate in 2006 this was both an amazing contrast and an incredible story. Because it is situated on the other side of the river to Graves, it falls under the AOC Cotes de Bordeaux which is not regarded highly. However, Chateau Biac has a natural amphitheatre of vines, and lies in the apex of the river, and Tony has been advised by some of Bordeaux’s most renowned oenologists and winemakers that it has quite superb terroir.
Tony clearly has a passion to ensure that his wine receives the recognition it deserves and has invested heavily in the estate. He took us on a detailed tour which encompassed the fascinating diversity of terroir, some state of the art winery equipment and proof in terms of a superb tasting, culminating in a bottle of his very first vintage – 2008. 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.
What a day!
Saturday— the Right Bank
Our destination was Saint Emilion – famed for its Merlot and Cabernet Franc based reds and home to such illustrious Chateaux such as Cheval Blanc, Pavie and Ausone as well as something called Petrus around the corner in Pomerol!
We stopped at Chateau Croizille which is a Saint Emilion Grand Cru and embarked on a rather remarkable tasting adventure.
Carlos Carvalho hosted our visit in an expert manner as we began in the small vineyard right by the winery. Facing rows of all six grape varieties – Merlot, Cab Sauv, Cab Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmènere – with bunches of ripe grapes still hanging, we were able to taste and contrast the sweetness and tannin levels of the fruit itself. Into the winery and Carlos presented us with a 2 day old fermenting juice, followed by a Merlot that had literally just finished its fermentation. A truly fascinating experience for us all.
The property comprises two estates – Chateau La Tour Baladoz and Chateau Croizille. 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 Cab Sauv component.
Having tasted the grapes and fermenting juice we moved into the simply stunning tasting room with probably the best view in the right bank. We tasted through a selection of wines that illustrated the contrast in style of new and traditional and joined the dots for many in conversion of grape to wine.This was a fabulously instructive visit.
We headed into Saint Emilion for lunch at the appropriately named Lard et Bouchon – an old favourite and a supposedly light meal became somewhat drawn out as we tucked into some rather delicious 2010 La Bastienne Saint Emilion.
Back in Bordeaux and Bistrot Le Glouton (I feel I surpassed myself in my choice of aptly named restaurants on this tour) was the venue for an excellent final night dinner. Duck stuffed ravioli, beef and dauphinoise, mature cheeses and some gourmet patisserie filled any remaining gaps.
This tour proved to me that it is possible to find authenticity and value when visiting Bordeaux, and I am now planning another tour, most probably in 2019.
“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