Tim's Wine Tour Blog

A Left Bank lesson in terroir

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Fliss, Tim’s wife is writing this tour’s blog, please forgive me if I go overboard on detail. I’m halfway through studying for the Diploma in Wine and can get a little overexcited about finer points of viticulture, vinification and appellation rules.

On the way to the first visit Tim shared some fun facts. Bordeaux produces 900mn bottles a year and though its reputation is based on its famous red and sweet wines, the vast majority of its wine sells for under  €3 / bottle. So our Médoc day was an opportunity to understand why some wines sell for many (even thousands of) times the price of others.

Driving through the Médoc would be a rather underwhelming experience for any non wine anoraky type.

Château Margaux
Château Margaux

The coach took us through business zones, loads of suburbs, shopping parks, woods and finally vines.  It was all very flat. Compared to Prosecco, where I’d been on tour in June, with its gorgeous landscape of steep hills terraced vineyards and pretty towns it was plain boring.

If a field appeared between the vines and woods it had scrubby grass and a few cattle or horses or big bales of hay getting damp in the drizzle. No olive groves (like Puglia), lavender fields(like Provence), not even any fruit trees which you’d expect in New Zealand. And definitely no vegetable gardens which are a feature of most of the villages we drive through on the way to visit wineries on tour in Europe.

Now my studies have told me that the magic of the left bank of Bordeaux is its gravelly soil. And once the clever Dutch had drained the marshes in the 17th Century, it’s s good thing the Médocians had vines to plant because if not today all there would  be are some sawmills and abattoirs rather than glamorous Châteaux and lovely restaurants. Here’s why.

At Château Giscours (Third Cru Classé growth in Margaux appellation) they have mounted on the wall a section of the soil under their vines. This gravelly rocky stuff interspersed with layers of clay and sand goes down for 20 metres. You wouldn’t want to till this soil, and you wouldn’t want to pay the water bill to irrigate anything you planted. But plucky vine roots will find their way down in search of water and the further they go the better the wine they can produce. So the very best estates (eg first growths like Château Margaux) are on croupes or mounds of extra heaps of gravel making their roots go even deeper and giving the benefit of the tiny incline sloping down towards the river for a bit of extra sunshine in the morning.

Hand sorting of grapes at Giscours
Hand sorting of grapes at Giscours

I realise I’ve strayed into too much detail. In a sunny moment in the vineyard we saw the densely planted vines (high density planting promotes competition between plants forcing their roots to go ever deeper), and tasted the amazingly sweet berries. At the winery we saw the freshly picked bunches being hand sorted, then mechanically destemmed, and after a final sorting with an unbelievably expensive bit of kit, the optical sorter, heading off via chilled pipes to go into the fermentation vessels.

And after admiring the 1,500 barrels in the cellar our host Madeleine led us through a tasting of their wines.

Giscours (their beautiful château is on display at the Cité du Vin in Bordeaux – see cover pic), have 90ha vineyards in the Margaux appellation and make their first wine from the older plantings, la Sirène, their second wine comes mainly from 30 year old vines.  We started with their rosé, made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, which was very enjoyable, and then la Sirène 2014 – which is 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Franc.  A good introduction to its big brother Château Giscours, which has more Cab Sauv, and demonstrated fabulous classic ‘left bank’ character increasingly as we worked through the 2011, 2008 and 2005 – complex dark fruit, becoming more dried with maturity, cedar wood, tobacco, and a lovely combination of fruit and tannins, softening as the wines became older.

Back to the gravel – Cabernet Sauvignon is later ripening than Merlot, needing more warmth during the growing season, and particularly unhappy in damp conditions.  Hence the Left Bank gravels of the Haut-Médoc and Graves suiting it, and their wines being dominated by it, with the consequentially higher tannins, longer ageing potential and for some people greater elegance and finesse, compared to the Merlot dominated wines of the Right Bank.

We left beautiful Giscours and Stephan, our coach driver, navigated through Margaux, passing famous names such as d’Issan, Palmer, Lascombes and Château Margaux itself.  At the Le Lion d’Or restaurant in Arcins we enjoyed a lunch of salad, roast quail and a café gourmand dessert, with local wines, and then drove into Saint-Julien, passing yet more famous names, Beychevelle, Gruard Larose, Léoville Las Cases and Poyferre.  The spaces between the rows of vines seemed to be getting stonier, and then we were in Pauillac, passing Latour, the Pichons, the Bages and finally arriving at Château Larose Trintaudon. 

This estate is owned by Allianz insurers, along with neighbouring Larose Perganson, Château Arnauld (very close to Arcins where we had had lunch), and Château de Pez in Saint Estèphe. It has had a distinguished history under the ownership of many famous Bordelais families, and as we discovered is striking a great balance between high quality and affordability.

Olivier, the export manager, explained the history and took us into the winery.  Harvesting was to begin tomorrow, and despite the rain of the last couple of days, things look promising: a bit of leaf trimming will deal with the worst of surface water.   Trintaudon is planted at 7,000 vines/ha and will be mechanically harvested, Perganson is a smaller estate, with denser planting and will be harvested by hand.  The vineyards for both are on the parish boundary between Pauillac and Saint Julien and have some very prestigious neighbours, and our tasting confirmed their quality. 

We compared the 2014 of Trintaudon, Perganson and Arnauld (all a bit young but fantastic fruit and tannin), and then a Perganson 2008 and a Trintaudon 2003 from magnum.  The latter two had beautifully balanced fruit and tannin, great elegance and lovely finish.  

We met the evening rush hour in Bordeaux, but managed to settle into our rooms in time to walk out and to the Brasserie Bordelaise, where we arrived slightly dripping thanks to a torrential downpour – the story of the day, weatherwise, but no impact on our mood.  Despite our three course lunch we managed a three course dinner, the ox cheeks were particularly delicious.  The walk back to the hotel despite some drizzle, allowed us to enjoy the late evening atmosphere of Bordeaux’s buzzy streets and bars.