One of the quiet, unsung heroes of the Wine Trade, Tony Laithwaite was recently awarded a CBE for services to wine both in the UK and globally. The timing was perfect to celebrate this well -deserved “gong” as he so self -deprecatingly calls it, as this year is the 50th Anniversary of his eponymous company. Originally this began with forays back & forth to France in a rather ramshackle old van filled with cases of wine direct from the producer, followed by an open letter to the Sunday Times tackling the problem of fraudulent wine which resulted in the creation of the Sunday Times Wine Club now celebrating its 46th anniversary, and today Laithwaites lists wines from Uruguayan Tannat to Moldovan Pinot Noir, through to Fine Wines from the leading estates in the more classic regions – and most other regions in between.
Back in 1985, Tony created the Confrères, a group of loyal clients who believed in his “Direct from the Vineyard to the Consumer” philosophy and backed the investment at a Château on the Right Bank. The success of the Confrère project has been outstanding, and some 34 years later, Love Wine Food had the pleasure of organising a private wine tour for members to inaugurate the renovated Château La Clarière, joined Tony and his son Tom Laithwaite.
Landing in Bordeaux, our first stop was for lunch at La Terrace Rouge, with its beautiful views over the vines of St Emilion, enjoyed with a glass of Chateau Thieuley in hand. One of my personal bête noires is the modern style of Bordeaux Blanc that only use Sauvignon Blanc, which are so mono dimensional. How delightful to drink this wonderful blend with a hefty percentage of Semillion and the aromatic Sauvignon Gris as well as SB giving the wine a complexity of ripe fruits but with good balance of citrus and white flowers. It paired very well with seasonal asparagus & smoked sturgeon from the region. The Chef is a friend of the Laithwaites having worked close to their HQ in the UK, and the slow roasted rump of veal was the perfect foil for the Merlot Cabernet Franc blend of Clos Magne Figeac. But star wine of lunch (ably assisted by a dried fruit caramel tartlet) was the Lions de Suduiraut from Sauternes, a hedonistic balance of acidity & sweetness, loaded with enough notes of Marmalade to make even Paddington Bear blush!
Our base for this celebration tour, was the lovely Château Grand Barrail, close to St Emilion. As the sun shone through the art deco style stained glass windows, throwing pink, green & blue reflections which danced across a battalion of wine glasses, it seemed the ideal time for a glass of Laithwaites Champagne. A perfectly executed Spelt Risotto of summer truffles made the wine pairing of Le Coin Blanc made by 100% Sauvignon Gris, sing with spiciness and a just a hint of oak to balance out to a rich mouthfeel. Chocolate is always such a hard call to pair with wines, but our choice of the Maury La Font del Bosc, from Grenache complimented the dessert of Valhrona Chocolate Entremet as if had been made for each other! Wonderful end to the first evening with Tony explaining about the wines, despite the very noisy frogs on the terrace after dinner!
Castillon La Bataille is home to Laithwaites Le Chai au Quai, which sits on the banks of the tranquil Dordogne River. A gentle meander through the narrow alleyways lined with bougainvillea, led us to the honey coloured stone Chai, originally built in 1856 and today is HQ to Laithwaites wine production, sourcing grapes from all across France. Winemaker Mark Hoddy weaves his magic on a range of wines, not just from Bordeaux but from the Languedoc, Minervois and beyond. The philosophy is to make the best wine from a particular parcel of grapes, unfettered on many occasions by sometimes outdated appellation rules – such as La Chimère, a surprising and attractive blend of Rhône Syrah & Bordeaux Merlot.
Mark had arranged a blending session to put the palates of the Confrères to the test. Once the initial terror of being asked to create a new blend had worn off, the noise levels and laughter rose along with some healthy competitiveness creeping in amongst the barrels.
After so much hilarity, palates needed enlivening after so much tannin, so a welcome glass of Harrow & Hope NV, made by Tony’s son Henry at his estate near Marlow. Made from the three classic varieties of Pinots Noir & Meunier with Chardonnay, but with the Pinot Noir shining through in the glass, this is an excellent example of why it’s an exciting time for English Sparkling wines.
The predicted heatwave had landed and so lunch was inside the barrel hall, where even the gleaming stainless steel vats were bedecked in festive bunting! A host of wines waited to be discovered over lunch: La Voûte – a Chardonnay with good oak management to let the ripe exotic fruits come through: SCG – a voluptuous blend of Syrah, Carignan and Grenache from the Languedoc, the delicate Le Champe des Etoiles Pinot Noir and the rather unusual Le C du Chai.
A few hardy Confrères braved the sun for a meander around the medieval village of St Emilion – leaving the others to retire to the cool air conditioned Chateau hotel for a post prandial siesta whilst muttering about “Mad Dogs and Englishmen….”. The exquisite small town of St Emilion was gearing itself up for the celebrations of 20th anniversary of being listed as a UNESCO World heritage Site. The heat rising from the polished, well -worn cobbled streets meant that a stroll around actually meant darting into the best Macaroon shop in town (deliciously delicate and irresistible) followed by a swift retreat into a cool courtyard for a chilled glass of Bordeaux Blanc!
On the crossroads in one of the small villages of the Right Bank was our evening appointment at le Comptoir de Genes. The musical notes of a very French Trio drifted across the air to greet us with songs by Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel and a healthy helping of Django Reinhardt. The Comptoir is a wonderfully relaxing, welcoming bistro and second home for meals to Tony and his team when visiting La Clarière. The wine list is no mere tome of bland pages, but islands of wooden cases dotted around the restaurant, so you can simply wander from case to case, read the back labels & tasting notes before deciding!
We kicked off with an unusual white, Cabernet Blanc, which was a first for everyone on this grape variety, followed by JMS Sauvignon Blanc, named after Laithwaites Head wine maker, Jean Marc Sauboua, who has created an excellent example of complexity thank to the barrel fermentation as well as crisp freshness – delicious with the sea bass carpaccio starter. The South West of France is renowned for its duck and so the Magret de Canard called for a punchy red, the Belle Roche Cabernet Sauvignon, which was all blackcurrant & spice with a velvety finish – a heavenly match.
On our last day, driving through the picturesque narrow lanes, Tony pointed out the places that launched his love of wine, including the site of the archaeological dig which was his original reason for being in the region – until he quite rightly was diverted into a new passion for the world of wine.
Château La Clarière, the spiritual home of the Confreres was the highlight visit and it nestles in the Bois Jolie with views across the Dordogne Valley and across to St Emilion. Thankfully the heatwave had a bit of a lie in, so that we could have a stroll through the meticulously tended vineyards in the company of Jean-Marc Sauboua, their talented head wine maker, with a glass of Wyfold, the English fizz made by Tony’s Wife & Business partner, Barbara at her vineyard in Oxfordshire.
A spectacular tasting awaited in the new barrel hall, with JMS, Tony and Tom working well as a trio of presenters, gently (ish…) joshing each other. JMS had dug deep into the library stock to show Château La Clarière in four vintages – 2018 -2009 – 1999 – 1989, and a fascinating comparison of vintages. But the great surprise (though possibly only to me!) was La Clarière Blanc 2018, a blend of Semillion & Sauvignon Blanc, with 60% barrel Fermented and 40% in stainless steel – an explosion of white flowers in the glass, multi layered palate including peaches, a real delight! Next up was JMS’s own venture in Rioja, Altos R Pigeage, which shown in magnum , was simply stunning. All the dark fruits of Tempranillo, with sexy chocolate, cedar and smooth fine tannins.
A quick saunter through the barrel hall, breathing in that unmistakable (and expensive!) smell of new French oak barrels (they really should bottle it as a perfume!) , led to the Château’s terrace where a refreshing apéro awaited before the final lunch in the very newly completed Grand Salon of Château La Clarière. Truly impressive how the Château has been restored with sympathy and vision, and the beautiful fireplace which the name of the property etched into the pale stone was just beautiful. A smoked trout and celeriac starter was ideal with the refreshing Rosé de La Clarière and the sixth vintage of the tour of Clarière competed the Confrères true full immersion and understanding of the wines from this exquisite wine estate, and the result of the passion & belief of one man. But there is a solid team spirit that exists at Laithwaites, and this was easily shown by the “mystery” Sauternes that JMS produced like a magician at the end of lunch – not even Tony knew about that project – but from the smiles, it looks like being a future success!
What better way to end up three days of enjoying the company of Tony & Tom Laithwaite plus the home team of winemakers, discovering a great range of wines – and understanding why 54 years ago, Tony thought that this small area on the Right Bank was paradise – the Confrères all agreed!
For more information on how to become a Confrere, contact : firstname.lastname@example.org