Tim's Wine Tour Blog

Grapes and People – the final pieces of the Bordeaux jigsaw

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Our final morning in Bordeaux took us to Graves.  This was a great opportunity to consider  two more ingredients that are fundamental to this region – the grapes and the people.

Obviously I’ve been mentioning grapes throughout the previous posts, but this was a nice opportunity to understand properly the four principle grape varieties that make up the majority of Bordeaux wine.    But first to owners….

Tim always tries 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.  As we have seen from the visits we made so far, 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 Gruiard, 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 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!

But before tasting wine or cheese, Sophie introduced us to Bouscaut and its vines.  They grown 10ha of white grapes,  Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon, and 45 ha of red, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but some Malbec.  Harvest (by hand) started for these on 2nd September, and on our visit to the cellar we were able to listen to the yeast fizzing away in the barrels.  The red harvest has just started (nothing happening on the day of our visit), and will continue to mid October, the Merlot and Malbec by hand, and the Cabernet Sauvignon being harvested by machine (apparently when it is very ripe, it is easy to machine harvest, although this is relatively unusual in the region).

Laurent took over to talk more about the grapes.  He started making wine at Bouscaut in 1999, and things have changed a lot – particularly the heat and lack of water in the summer.  But vines’ capacity to adapt never ceases to amaze him.  Luckily their soils retain water, thanks to the clay element (with limestone and gravel).  5% clay in a soil is sufficient for Cabernet Sauvignon, whereas Merlot, Malbec and the whites like a higher proportion (around 20%), making the soils cooler and slightly more alkaline.

Their oldest vines are Sémillon, planted in 1890.   They are now using cuttings from their own Sémillon vines for their new plantings (grafted onto phylloxera resistant rootstocks), rather than buying from nurseries.   Their oldest reds were planted in 1925, a lot more in the 50s-70s.  Some of their Merlot came as cuttings from Château Margaux, field-grafted onto rootstocks in the vineyard (rather than bench-grafted and raised in a nursery).  Merlot is a disease resistant vine but the Sauvignons (Cabernet and Blanc) are more at risk from esca, a relatively new fungal infection of vine trunks that is making unwanted incursions into France, in particular the newer nursery sourced vines rather than the older field-grafted ones.

In the winery, Laurent’s immense knowledge and passion for his wines showed even more.

They leave the white wines (which are fermented in barrel) on their lees, stirring them each week, as this assists stabilisation of the wine (reducing the need for sulphur).   He talked about how the 225 litre barrels (which on other visits we had learnt were 50 imperial gallons, holding 300 bottles), have a shape that encourages natural clarification of the wine through settling.  They are experimenting with amphorae to see if they can get those benefits with lower air exchange.  They use barrels for a maximum of three years, and are experimenting with acacia wood in some barrels.

Reds are fermented in stainless steel, Their blends depend on the year, they make the decision on how they will blend varieities towards the end of the year they spend in barrel.  Laurent is particularly keen on Malbec which adds spice and colour to the wines, and is experimenting with Petit Verdot.  They are generally increasing the proportion of these grapes and Cabernet Sauvignon and reducing their Merlot, in order to produce more structured, long-lived wines.

Our tasting of three vintages of their flagship red: 1995, 2005 and 2015 demonstrated much of what we had heard about.  The oldest has the highest proportion of Merlot, and was without doubt past its best, but still really attractive on the nose, with massively complex aromas of dried fruit, cedar, leather, coffee and chocolate.  The 2005, 40% Cabernet, 8% Malbec, also had a mature nose, but was much more lively on the palate, with loads of structure.  The youngest, with 56% Cabernet and 6% Malbec was surprisingly approachable – spicy and fruity on the nose, but very structured on the palate.

We then moved on the their white, and tasted two vintages (2014 and 2016) with four cheeses, a Brebis sheep’s cheese, and three cow’s cheeses: aged Mimolette (the orange one), Comté and Gorgonzola.  Added evidence for Tim’s campaign to get people drinking white wine with cheese, these elegant fresh wines with their creamy rich nutty oak undertones complemented them beautifully, though the blue cheese might have been a step too far (where’s a bottle of d’Yquem when you need it?).

Sophie and Laurent had made their departure, but we were well looked after by their friend Hervé, who had many stories to tell about selling Bordeaux wine in Switzerland and other parts of Europe. 

And then it was time to go.  Some of us were dropped at the tram station in Pessac, some caught a lift back to the hotel with Stephan, our fantastic coach driver, and the rest of us sadly bade our farewells and headed home, courtesy of easyJet.  

24 of us had had a wonderful trip, despite decidedly dodgy weather.  For me it revealed that Bordeaux wines can be expensive for a reason, but can also be very affordable and enjoyable, and that the whites in particular should be drunk more often.