Celebration of Wine at Château La Clarière

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.

Tony Laithwaite, Laithwaite Wines
Tony Laithwaite

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.

chateau la clariere

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 : confreres@laithwaiteswine.com

Grand Salon of Château La Clarière


Left Bank & Right Bank Bordeaux

Waking up in London to the snowfall of the “Mini Beast from the East” was not the best weather to kick start Day One of a recent private Bordeaux Wine tour that I had the pleasure to organise for a London Livery Company – especially when the tail of the BA plane has to be de-iced before departure! But soon off to land in Bordeaux bathed in sunshine.

Taking the classic Route des Châteaux (rather more prosaically known as the D2), our wine guide, the esteemed Derek Smedley MW pointing out the Chateaux, the list reading like a desert island wine list as we meandered from the Haut Medoc through Margaux, St Julien and onto Pauillac to our first hotel.  A converted Chartreuse, the glorious Cordeillan Bages  surrounded by vines, it was the ideal place for a reviving glass of Blanc de Lynch 2015. 60% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% each of Semillon and Moscatel creates an aromatic delight – rounded mouthfeel but lightened with incredible notes of tangerine.

Château Lascombes in the Margaux appellation has had a chequered ownership over its history (including a spell under British Bass Charrington), but today the property is firmly back with quality wines, in great part thanks to their General Manager Dominique Befve, who welcomed us for an evening tasting visit. Against the backdrop of the ivy clad Chateau, listening to Dominique’s charmingly accented English, we heard about their concentration on the viticulture – to the point that 80% of their wage bill is spent in the vineyards and only 20% in the cellar.  In the barrel hall, emptier than usual which was a stark reminder of the frosts that hit in April 2017, when the estate lost 40% of their production. Unusually for the appellation, Lascombes has a higher percentage of Merlot in its vineyards of about 50%, the remainder being Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. No better way to illustrate this than tasting the 2017’s from barrel – just a fortnight ahead of the annual En Primeur Campaign. Each of the three grape varieties tasted as a separate component. Rich ripe fruit of the Merlot, tighter note on the Cab with more linear acidity and the herbal peppery notes of the Petit Verdot – but they were all united by fine supple tannins. Dominque also made an ad hoc blend of the 2017 in the glass – fascinating to taste at this stage in its life.

Le Chevalier, the second wine of the estate, but  2010 was soft & approachable – perfect with the ravioli (despite the amusing menu translation of “Creaminess of Undergrowth”!). Onto Le Grand Vin 2011 which happily paired with the pigeon, before the 2009 which was heaven with the Comté, still young but with depth of character. Obviously no sweet wine at Lascombes and so with dessert, a Barsac from Dominque’s friends at Chateau Coutet 2005 (magnum) – a delicious, rich wine with great balance.

Apricot and muted cerulean shades of a beautiful sunrise  made an early morning stroll around the vineyards of Pauillac hard to resist, a chance to recharge the energy levels before a big day of wine tasting ahead! Away in front of me, the Gironde estuary was perilously high, hence the flood alerts worryingly in place.  Heading into the warmth of Château Latour was the perfect shelter from the rains. I am not a fan of videos at wine estates – so many are either Disney Like or corporate puffs of pretty pictures, a macho voice over and mean absolutely nothing! However, at Latour they have a brilliant interactive screen which shows the plots of the vineyards with great depth of information. Later this year, the vineyards of Latour will be certified as organic, but within the Clos of their main vineyards, they are already practising biodynamic agriculture. Following the writings of Rudolph Steiner, this is  a brilliant and effective holistic approach of returning life to the soil.  I am a huge supporter of Biodynamic wines and  the attention to detail that goes along with biodynamic processes ,such as Latour’s use of 10 horses working the vineyards for reducing soil compaction.

In the cellars amongst the hundreds of barrels, the team were racking the wine in the traditional way using a candle to check the clarity of the wine. A task carried out 5 times in the first year of the wine’s life, and then gradually less, given the numbers of barrels, this task must seem akin to painting the Forth Bridge.  Latour’s style is powerful, complex and with huge aging potential. The Pauillac de Latour was quite relatively light reflecting the 2013 vintage, the Les Fonts de Latour had good fruit, but of course it was the Grand Vin 2006 which showed the real character of Latour. Lovely dark chocolate, blackcurrants as well as cedar and coffee with good length. Despite being already 12 years old, this is a wine still with a long way to travel.

Staying in the Pauillac appellation, Château Grand Puy Lacoste awaited. One of the oldest estates in the Medoc dating from the 16th century, the Borie family came to own the estate in 1978. Owned & managed since then by Francois – Xavier Borie, this Grand Cru Classé estate produces wines of consistent excellence.  Perhaps the family’s attitude to their wines is best summed up by this quote from Xavier  "I do what I love, what I believe in. We want to build Grand-Puy-Lacoste's renown on consistent quality rather than showy effects. I'm suspicious of wines made for competitions; I prefer that Grand-Puy-Lacoste create a reputation based on the long term, vintage after vintage. Pretentiousness, fleeting fashion and short-term media attention is not what we do.".

Tasting the two wines – Lacoste Borie and the Grand Vin both in 2014 & 2015 was fascinating and showed the estate’s style. In 2015, the older vines in the vineyards had a good resistance to the strong heat and gave sweet ripe fruit, and thanks to the 5% of Cabernet Franc in the Grand Puy Lacoste ’15 was outstanding – and will try my patience to cellar it for another five years at least!

The Medoc has many beautiful Châteaux but very few are actually lived in, so what a privilege to be welcomed into the family home of Grand Puy Lacoste, by Francois Xavier & Marie Helene Borie who live in this gorgeous property. A reviving glass of Champagne, before a delicious lunch, devised by Madame Borie – paired with a selection of GLP vintages. The notes of the black cherry of the 2009 Lacoste Borie worked  well with the earthiness of the mushroom tarts, whilst the GPL 2005 showed extreme elegance & finesse. For the cheese the GPL 2000 with its hint of smoke and liquorice was delicious! Charming company in a beautiful setting and world class wines – what a real honour to be enjoyed!

Château Ormes de Pez, located in the St Estephe classification is owned by the charismatic Jean Michel Cazes. A brief tasting stop to taste two of his properties wines side by side. Ormes (Elms) de Pez (peace) is naturally very different stylistically to his Pauillac estate of Lynch Bages.  Ormes ‘16 showed very sweet fruit, highly untypical of its classification whilst the Lynch Bages ’16 was all bilberries and rather inviting. Compared to the 2011 from both estates, it was interesting to revisit the Lynch Bages 2011, which whilst perfectly nice, did not have the wow factor as when I last tasted it two years ago – but I think that may well be down to the distracting weather outside – for it had started snowing! This was rapidly turning into a wine tour of four seasons in one day to misquote Crowded House!

Unheard of in the Medoc this late in March, the snow made for a magical arrival at Château Pichon Baron, which with its turreted towers is already one of the most fairy tale properties in the region. Welcomed by the ever charming Nicolas Santier, a brief cellar walk through, as the snow fall increased outside, Nicolas lined up a tour de force tasting. A flight of 2016’s, 2015’s and a couple of older vintages of the Grand Vin to complete.  Pichon Baron is owned by Axa Millésimes, who own a host of other well-chosen estates, including Château Pibran, further north in the Pauillac appellation. Pibran ’16 was all ripe blackberries balanced with spice and drinking alarmingly well now.  The Tourelles de Longueville is not precisely the second wine of Pichon Baron in the accepted sense, as the grapes most come from one particular specific plot (Saint Anne).  In the ’16 the Tourelles was appealing thanks to a higher percentage of Merlot. Les Griffons de Pichon Baron (the name arriving from the estate’s coat of arms) is understandably known as “Pichon for the Impatient”  and in ’16 was delicious cassis, whilst the Pichon Baron ’16 was peppery and hints of cherry. In the flights of 2015’s, Les Griffons has lovely notes of chocolate and black fruit, rather too easy to drink now but will repay a little patience – and is incredibly good value for this quality of wine – not something one can say too often on the Left Bank! To end the tasting with a further three vintages Pichon Baron was fascinating. Although still technically infanticide, the '15 was voluptuous, deep cocoa notes and black fruits, with a purity of elegance – sublime. The ’12 was a challenging vintage with lots of rain, and shows a slight restraint but that having said, paired with some lamb chops BBQ’ed over vine cuttings would be rather lovely! The ’10 was starting to open up into its aging plateau and showing the time in bottle.

Battling the snow storm (yes really!) into the illuminated Château, where a welcome glass of Champagne Agrapart was waiting. The hospitality of the Bordeaux Châteaux that kindly open their doors to us is legendary – and no more so than the habit of offering a reviving glass of fizz after all the tannins in the tastings. Pichon’s choice of Champagne was interesting from the Cotes de Blanc, whose winemaker uses Burgundian approach in his vines, whilst remaining very Champenois in his cellars. Almost biodynamic in the vineyards, their wines are exciting with a good minerality.

One of the other Axa properties is Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, and interesting that due to the ever diminishing market for Sauternes, they are increasing production of their dry white wine “S” from that estate. Principally from Semillion grapes, it was the perfect foil for the scallops in sorrel sauce. A hugely indulgent main of Charolaise beef (cooked to perfection by Chef Thibault) needed a wine with attitude, so step up the Pichon Baron 2007 in magnum – muscular, almost masculine (if I dare say that) and depth of complexity. In comparison the Pichon Baron 2006 (magnum) was linear and  great balance between acidity, fruit & tannin. Both equally seductive, just for different foods or moods. Sauternes is such a glorious wine that it is a shame so many people have fallen out of (or never gained!) the habit of indulging in this unctuous, golden, rich honeyed wine with hints of clementine. The Suduiraut 2005 was delicious enough on its own but picked up the tonka beans and fresh fruit in the dessert perfectly.

Château Margaux is always such an honour to visit, with the iconic Neo Palladian Villa at the end of a tree lined avenue. The new cellars by Sir Norman Foster in 2015, have been well designed to integrate alongside the existing buildings which are listed as a national monument. Inside, the James Bond style futuristic cellars are immaculate, allowing the white production to take place in the same property as the red. Margaux is one of only a handful of estates in Bordeaux that has its own in house cooper, making and taking care of their barrels. The Grand Vin 2004 was classic Margaux, lots of blackberries, blackcurrants, slightly herbal notes – very balanced. But for me, the delight of the Pavillon Rouge 2009 with its elegance, fresh redcurrants and slight cloves on the finish – sheer heaven. With the arrival of the estate’s third wine, and greater selection, more plots that were originally destined for the Grand Vin, now find their way into the Pavillon – it far outperforms its second wine status.

An impromptu tasting was slotted in (too cold to visit the vineyards!), so we called into the excellent Cave d’Ulysses in the village of Margaux.  A veritable Aladdin’s Cave for wine lovers, the shelves hold tempting vintage verticals from all the leading Bordeaux Chateaux as well as covering all other French wine regions – and beyond. Quite a rarity in a region that traditionally has been a little insular in admitting that wine might be made elsewhere! The incredibly knowledgeable Dominique decided to show a couple of wines blind to liven up the taste buds. An excellent Vouvray from the Loire was all white flowers and apricots, whilst the Rauzan ’13 was wonderfully smooth for that vintage.

Château Leoville Barton in St Julien is always a highlight of any visit to the Left Bank, and where better to finish our time on this side of the River. The Barton dynasty started in 1722, when Thomas Barton left Ireland for Bordeaux. We were welcomed by the 10th generation, Lilian Barton Sartorius and her daughter wine maker Melanie, for a refreshingly honest and amusing cellar visit. The 2016 Langoa Barton was for me the star of the tasting, amazing length and velvety mouth feel.  Over lunch, their white, La Croix Barton Blanc ’16 worked well with the Oeuf en cocotte, but the Langoa 2006 was the perfect match with the slightly spiced duck (think warm spices such as cumin & star anise rather than hit of chilli)  picking up the spice of this wine. The Leoville Barton 2004 served with the cheese really showed off their Super Second status, and one can understand why Lilian’s Father, the wonderful Anthony Barton has compared it to the excellent 1996 vintage. Hard to follow but a delicious Raspberry Charlotte with the first French strawberries of the season made for a sensational end to a delightful lunch with the Barton family.

The Right Bank called for our last night near the beautiful town of St Emilion. This medieval town with UNESCO World Heritage Site status nestles on the plateau above Roman Limestone caves. Time for a relaxing dinner at the L’Envers du Décor, favourite wine bar of many of the local winemakers thanks to  their extensive wine list.  I love tasting from little known appellations, so Derek’s choice of Hauret du Piada from Cerons (Barsac) was a welcome start – it’s freshly balanced sweet Semillon was an excellent match for the Foie Gras. But the wine of the evening was Château Beauregard 2009 from Pomerol, reminding me why I love wines from that classification – abundant red cherries, hints of chocolate, wonderfully fragrant – superb!

J P Moueix, own two properties in Pomerol, one in St Emilion (as well as two in the Napa Valley). So to contrast the two neighbouring appellations,  starting off with a visit to their St Emilion property, Château Belair-Monange. From their superbly located vineyards, it is an excellent view across the plateau and gives an idea of scale of the limestone quarries, topped by a mere dusting of clay top soil.  When Moueix bought Belair, it took them four years to consolidate the quarries, using concrete the equivalent of twice the cubic volume of the inside of the cathedral of Notre Dame! Just 10 minutes away, is their property of Château la Fleur Petrus in Pomerol. The immaculately tended vineyards on the gravel & clay plateau of Pomerol are sown with oats or mustard plants between the rows. Our host, the knowledgeable Genevieve Sandifer is currently working on a history of the estates, and so it was fascinating to learn that Pomerol was founded by the Knights Templar. In the tasting, having the St Emilion and Pomerol wines side by side in both 2015 and 2010 vintages was a master class in terroir. The Fleur Petrus ’15 with good black fruit, firm but ripe tannin and a lift from a small addition of Petit Verdot. The 2010 Fleur Petrus had a delightful marzipan note on the nose, followed by perfectly balanced red fruit – my tasting note ended simply with the instruction to self “Buy”!

A short hop across the vines was our lunchtime appointment at Château Petit Village, still in the Pomerol classification. Great vineyards visit, explaining their sustainable philosophy in the vines, such as using pheromones to promote an integrated pest management system. Their Wine Maker, Diana Berrouet Garcia,  took us through a few wines before lunch, showing the 2014 of a classic vintage showing good freshness and the 2015 displaying all the power of a rich vintage. One of the most fun parts of planning a tour for me, is the pairing of the food & wine at Châteaux meals. But in all red wine regions, it can be hard sometimes to choose a starter that is not yet more meat, but which will pair happily with rich complex reds, so I was delighted that the smokiness of aubergine and the earthiness of mushrooms worked so well with the Petit Village 07 from magnum.

Heading towards the airport, there was time for one last visit in the Graves appellation to Château Haut Bailly.  Welcomed by the always charming Veronique Sanders, a stroll to the “magical hillock” of the property where six different varieties are planted over 4 hectares and up to 20% of the main blend is still sourced from these 100 year old vines. The vineyards can vary up to 20 metres in altitude which gives a great range of diverse growing patterns and complexity in the end wine. An outstanding tasting in the Château, of five vintages showed the link that to me represents Haut Bailly’s wines – pure elegance. Starting with the 2017 (a sneak preview ahead of the En Primeur campaign) showed great freshness and sweet fruit, the delicious 2014 coffee, cocoa & red fruits, the 2012 with  notes of sage on the nose, 2008 had strength yet balance and drinking rather well now, whilst the 2010 being one of their best vintages ever, is a blockbuster of a wine and will happily sit in the cellar for a long time yet.

A wonderful tasting to end these four days exploring the wines of Bordeaux. I look forward to my next Bordeaux Tour in June!