For many wine lovers, especially those with traditional tastes, Bordeaux is the pinnacle of all wine regions to visit and somewhere that I have been visiting the vineyards and estates for 18 years. So where better to escort the first Wine Tour that I organised under the banner of my own company, Love Wine Food than the Wine Estates of Bordeaux.
A Private Wine Tour for members of a Livery Company from the City of London, the tour was accompanied by Derek Smedley MW as their wine consultant. The tour was with the view of tasting wines for their court cellar for Livery dinners, so a cracking tasting pace was set to taste a wide range of wines!
We started in style at the beautiful Château Smith Haut Lafitte located in the Graves, which is conveniently located en route from the airport to the city of Bordeaux. As we drove into the property, we passed the glorious huge sculpture of a leaping hare by British artist, Barry Flannagan set in the heart of their Cabernet Franc vines, which to me is always the welcoming image of the estate – but there have an impressive collections of such artwork dotted around the property. We also continued past their rather lovely timbered Spa Hotel, Les Sources de Caudelie, which sadly the tempting treatments such as the Crushed Cabernet Scrub were not on the programme for this Gentlemen only group, who were focusing more on drinkable Cabernet!
Last year was a celebration year for Daniel & Florence Cathiard, the owners of Smith Haut Lafitte, as it was the 25th anniversary harvest of the estate under their control – and also the 650 harvest since SHL began in 1365. Today, SHL is seen as one of the top estates of the region, but that is thanks to the dedication of the Cathiards, as previously the wines seemed to be under achieving. Their hard work in the vineyards, towards a natural approach, increasing the biodiversity, working with horses on some of the vineyards has resulted in wine that are smooth and yet with structure.
In their delightful tasting room, we were welcomed by the always stylish owner Florence Cathiard and their Wine Maker Fabien – following a special visit to their library cellar with a very impressive super-sized bottle pourer designed for large format bottles but looked slightly Heath Robinonesque!)
As a style, I found their reds were delightfully smoky. The Petit Haut Lafitte 2012 was surprisingly open and felt as though there was more Merlot than the 45% on the label, very smooth and approachable. The SHL Rouge 2007, considering that it was a hard year with a bad lead into Autumn was drinking well already and again lovely black fruit with overtones of Lapsang Souchong (as I was invited to leave my school common room for drinking Lapsang, I’ve always had a tendresse for smokiness in food or wine!) .
But for me the star of the tasting was the SHL Blanc 2011 –attractive white flowers on the nose led to the verve from the Sauvignon Blanc (90%) and the lovely floral and flintiness from the 5% of Semillon as well as the well- judged addition of 5% Sauvignon Gris giving the white fabulous texture. Putting my patience to the test, leaving it a while in the glass it really opened up – truly wonderful.
We continued into the centre of Bordeaux for our first night in the heart of the city, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The architecture, much of it neo classic makes it a great city to explore on foot, through the medieval squares which are part of the pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela down to the impressive Place de la Bource overlooking the River Garonne.
Whilst it’s wonderful to visit the actual wine estates, we simply did not have time to fit everyone in , so over dinner our brilliant wine guide, Derek Smedley MW, chose a tempting selection of wines from other regions. The Chateau Grande Clotte Blanc 2012 paired rather well with the starter of warm lobster salad, with the tender beef cheeks paired happily with the L’Esprit de Chevalier 2010 and as a comparison Fronsac Chateau Fontenil. But for me the star wine was from Pomerol, the Clos René 2010, which showed ripe black cherries and plum – wonderfully seductive.
The region of Sauternes lies to the South East of the city, and our first tasting visit the next day was to Château Suduiraut. The localised climate often misty is the perfect place for botrytis cinerea (otherwise known as Noble Rot) to develop, resulting in the greatest sweet wines.
The threat of the construction of a high speed rail link has been one of the main discussions in the region since last year. It would splice the river Cormins in three places and alter the delicate micro climate which is responsible for the creation of the Noble Rot and ultimately these rare wines. Although do read the well balanced article by Andrew Jefford on the subject (link below) – it’s a hard decision.
Château Suduiraut today is owned by the French Insurance Company Axa, who also own four other domaines in France, the outstanding Port estate of Quinta do Noval in the beautiful Douro Valley in Portugal and Disnoko in Hungary. They welcomed us with a fascinating tasting hosted by their wine maker Pierre Montegut. Showing the 1989, 1999 and 2006 was great to see how the style of the wines has changed under Pierre’s aegis. The 1989 was classic traditional style, very deep colour almost milky toffee like flavours. The 1999 had very fresh good acidity, slightly minty, fresh apricots. The 2006 was a delight – incredibly freshness despite the 138 grams residual sugar – pure marmalade (Frank Coopers not Robinsons if you wish to be pedantic!), attractive noble rot elements on the nose pairing with tangerines and herbs on the finish. A very good job in what Pierre assured us was a difficult vintage.
As we headed back to the Graves for our lunchtime appointment, there were some interesting discussions of how much Sauternes should be bought – and are the occasions to drink it getting less? Personally, I think serving Sauternes with a dessert is a waste of both the wine and the food (with a few notable exceptions such as caramelised orange cake) – but put it with a salty blue cheese such as Roquefort and it’s a match made in heaven. Of course in Bordeaux, there is much Foie Gras produced and a glass of Sauternes is the default pairing locally with that delicacy – but I would suggest opening a bottle of Sauternes when a friend pops over for a chat – it needs no more than good company and conversation!
Château Haut–Bailly is located in the Graves appellation and today owned by the American Robert Wilmers. In order to keep continuity at the estate, he has kept Veronique Sanders of the family who had owned the estate since 1955. It was great to start the visit in their vineyards , which still has four hectares of 100 year old vines of the original varieties of the Bordeaux blend – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Carmenère, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
Before lunch, a tasting of course including the 2015’s of all three of La Parde, Chateau le Pape and Château Haut-Bailly, which has all six grape varieties in the blend including 4% of Petit Verdot as shown by the delightful spiciness in a wine so young. We also tasted their Rosé which was appealingly refreshing after so much young tannins.
They have an excellent in house Chef, who had prepared lunch including a smoked tuna followed by Duck breast, which paired superbly with the Haut-Bailly 2011 though the 2008 with cheese was also showing well.
For the Left Bank section of the tour, we were staying in the village of Margaux and so it was a short hop that evening to the beautiful ivy clad Château Lascombes for our first visit in the Margaux appellation. One of the issues with a wine tour so focused (it was a professional tour to taste wines for their Livery hall cellar after all!), is that tastings can rather blend (excuse the pun) into one another. So full marks went to Lascombes, who showed all three grape varieties of the 2015 separately – so pure Merlot followed by pure Cab Sauv followed by pure Petit verdot. It was a fascinating tasting to taste them all individually – the Merlot relatively soft for such a baby, the Cab Sauv quite succulent and not as austere as expected and the glorious Petit Verdot with good freshness with white pepper and bay leaves. To follow then with their two 2015 wines in blended format made a great comparison. A welcome glass of fizz on the terrace before some older vintages of Chevalier and Lascombes over dinner in the Château rounded off a lovely evening showing that Lascombes is back on form again.
Next morning began with “just” a “local” visit – to the iconic Château Margaux, 1er Cru Classé. The walk along the tree lined avenue down to the world famous and instantly recognisable Chateau, with its Ionic columns, gives me goose-bumps each time. This time, it was also tinged with sadness, as was not long after the untimely death in 2016 of the charming Paul Pontallier, who was such a superb ambassador for the property and had experienced 33 harvests at Margaux. But I was keen to see the new cellars designed by Norman Foster – very impressive and has been very sympathetically constructed to blend so well with the outstanding traditional cellar.
One can get a little “barrelled out” after so many cellar visits – so it was interesting to be able to watch the in house coopers working on the barrels at Margaux. It goes almost without saying that the tasting was stunning – tasting both the Grand Vin and the Pavillon Rouge both 2006, with that time in bottle to show its excellence was a real treat!
Continuing to the Saint Estèphe classification in the north of the Medoc for a very different style of wine, our next tasting was at Château Montrose. Standing in the sunshine in their vineyards that sweep down to the Gironde estuary, it was easy to understand their dedication to green energy and have installed 3000 square meters of solar panels (brilliantly not visible to not spoil the lines of the Château).
Inside, they are justly very proud of their new barrel hall, part of a 7 year renovation , where the dramatic lines of the barrels draw towards the 11 metres high ceiling over 1000 squares metres of barrels. The tasting was good to taste the 2012 vintages of their three wines side by side. As a classification, St Estèphe can be a little austere when young, but tasting the lovely blackberry notes of their 2012s, I could understand why Steven Spurrier had referred to it as “Latour like in depth” at a previous tasting.
So many big complex red wines in one morning, has several people thinking about lunch – so we headed swiftly to Château Lynch Bages in Pauillac, where a tasting of Ormes de Pez and the Grand Vin both in 2011 convinced me that the 2011 were showing so much better than I had expected from that variable vintage given the journalists reviews. The dynamic Jean Michel Cazes renovated the village of Bages next to the Château and so there we were welcomed by the enthusiastic staff of Café Lavinal. To kick start the palates after so much tannin that morning, the perfect antidote was the Blanc de Lynch Bages 2014, blend of Sauv Blanc, Semilion and a touch of Muscadelle to lift the aromas as well. An attractive Echo de Lynch Bages 2009 followed but the star of the lunch for many was the Grand Vin of Lynch Bages 1998, 75% Cab Sauv, 15% Merlt, 8% Cab Franc and 2% of Petit Verdot adding spice.
Our next visit was to the family owned property of Château Grand Puy Lacoste in the same classification. Owner Emiline Borie hd prepared an outstanding tasting for us – in what is one of the most difficult slots of the day to taste, so it’s no small achievement that the wines were so impressive. It was great to taste both the Grand Puy Lacoste and the Lacoste Borie in 2015 – but then to do those again in 2012 along with their other property Château Haut Batailley, whose 2012 was rich and succulent with lovely notes of blackcurrant and liquorice.
As we did not have time to cross over to the Right Bank on this short tour, Derek Smedley had chosen a great selection of Right Bank wines to taste at the brilliant Cave D’Ulysse. A favourite destination for many wine lovers when in the Medoc, this spectacular wine shop (it seems rather an understatement to refer to it as such) has a stunning range of wines – and so we took our places for a private tasting with the very knowledgeable Dominque making a great double act with Derek.
Fugue 2009 from Château Nénin in the Pomerol classification was silky and delightful. Staying with Pomerol, Château Beauregard 2008 showed elegance possibly due to the higher amount of Cabernet Franc which added a complexity and spice.
From Château Troplong Mondot, in St Emilion, we tasted the 2008 vintage, which despite being seen as a less than perfect year was showing beautifully with sweet fruit from the Merlot dominant blend. The vineyards of Château Canon are but a stone’s throw from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of St Emilion, and interesting to hear they are planting more Cab Franc due to concerns about climate change. The 2006 that we tasted was all blackberry fruit and dark chocolate – sublime. To end the tasting, we skipped back to the Left Bank to end with Château Rauzan Ségla 2004 from Margaux– gorgeous smoky nose with raspberries on the palate and endless finish.
A short meander along the Left Bank brought us to our lunchtime visit at Château Léoville Barton, in St Julien, always one of my personal favourites – not only for the superb wines they produce (apparently that their UK allocation for the 2015 En Primeur sold out in one day) – but for the wonderful Franco – Irish hospitality (with a hint of Danish) of the Barton family. In the beautiful gardens of the family residence of Château Langoa lined with roses, we were welcomed by the newest generation of the family to join the estate. It was a sobering thought that on various visits, I have now been hosted at the property by three generations of the family, from the charming Anthony, through to his daughter Lilian and now her children Damien & Melanie. After a tasting of the 2015’s of Leoville Barton, Langoa Barton and also Château Mauvesin their property in Moulis, it seemed time for a glass of Champagne in the courtyard with Eva Barton, Anthony’s wife. Wines over a delightful lunch – with beautiful table settings of flowers from their gardens – ranged from La Croix Barton Blanc which paired well with poached sturgeon, through a superb Langoa Barton 2009 whose silkiness was heavenly with Fillet of Beef with seasonal morel mushrooms and ending with a delicious Léoville Barton 2004 – which has liquorice and chocolate but brilliant minerality as well – quite delightful now only 12 years after the vintage, it will age incredibly well.
For our last two visits, we headed from our hotel to Pauillac to visit two of the most renowned estates of the classification, which until 1850 once part of the same property – Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande and Château Pichon Longueville Baron.
At Comtesse, the elegant and enthusiastic Nicolas Glumineau, their winemaker and General Manager welcomed us on the lawn, which has one of the best views of the Medoc, across to the Gironde, overlooking the vines and the tower of neighbouring Château Latour, and bordering St Julien . Indeed nine hectares of Pichon Comtesses’ vines are in St Julien, but for historical reasons are permitted under the Pauillac appellation. After a fascinating cellar visit, with Nicolas’ refreshing honesty about their approach to vinification, he had prepared a great tasting including the Reserve de la Comtesse 2009 as well as the Grand Vin in 2009, 2005 and 2003 vintages. The style of Pichon Comtesse’s wines are often referred to as feminine and indeed there were lovely violets on the nose as well as elegance and cassis and some spice. The 2005 was showing so well with great harmony and will age so well.
Crossing the rather less than prosaic border of the main road D2, we moved to our next visit at Pichon Baron, which today is owned by AXA, whilst Pichon Comtesse is owned by the same family that own Champagne Louis Roederer. The Château is one of the most impressive properties that line the “Route des Chateaux” – and spectacular when floodlit and reflected in the small pond in front at night. A tasting hosted by Nicolas Santier was a brilliant oversight of the terroir of the estate – starting with one of their other estates in Pauillac, Chateau Pibran 2011 which was bright red fruit, of their second wine Les Tourelles 2011 which was fresh and linear before heading into a vertical of the Grand Vin of Pichon Baron 2011 – 2010 – 2009 – 2006.
This admirably set the scene for dinner in the stunning private dining room of the Château where we were joined by the exuberant Christian Seely, who now heads up the Axa’s wine portfolio. His passion for their wines shone through, it is always a delight to have the opportunity to listen to Christian, whose approach to wines is refreshingly unstuffy. Lovely to taste the Dry White Wine from their Sauternes Property, Château Suduiraut and continue with another mini vertical of older Grand Vin from Pichon Baron. Personally, the wines of this property are the quintessential Left Bank for me – they are born with a view of good cellar aging, but show remarkably well after only even seven years. Dark and brooding in colour, the Grand Vin is packed with black fruit, ripe tannins and an undercurrent of power. Their wines are often described as the more masculine mirror to the femininity of its neighbouring Comtesse. But this is rather too simplistic for me, as the wines of Pichon Baron have been showing more voluptuousness in recent times. Axa also own Quinta do Noval the iconic Port producer, so there was much delight when three ports rounded off a spectacular evening – including a delicious nutty Colheita.
Sadly that was our last visit on this Bordeaux Private Wine Tour, and the last day was a simple transfer to Bordeaux airport – but of course, the Roncade as usual held delays en route – and so we indulged in some of the local specialities Cannele to pass the time!
For several years, I have been disillusioned with Bordeaux, in part rather fed up with the apparent determined disregard for the market and consumers when the En Primeurs campaigns no longer reflect vintage standards (with a few notable exceptions). But also as Cabernet Sauvignon is not my favourite grape variety, then if Bordeaux is on the menu, I tend to lean to Right rather than Left Bank. The wines tasted on this tour, reopened my eyes to the delight of Bordeaux – and with some vibrant wine making going on, this is no longer a traditional wine region resting on its laurels, but there is dynamic vision looking to the future – and the wines are singing with energy again (But a plea on reasonable pricing for the 2016 En Primeur Campaign S’il Vous Plaît!)
The renovated city of Bordeaux is also such a buzzing destination for a Gourmet City break with fabulous foodie shops, naturally lots of wine stores and great restaurants – watch this space for my write up for a Gourmet Weekend in Bordeaux.
If you would like to learn more about private Bordeaux Wine Region tours please do contact me.
To learn more about the Wines of Bordeaux visit Bordeaux.com