No matter how often you visit this place, it still beguiles you. The transition from the dreary detritus and strip malls of the Bordeaux conurbation to the wealth and imperious Proustian splendour of the Medoc is almost seamless.
From each side of the D2 the vines stand tall, straight and proud, in immaculate rows, lining the gravelly earth like bearskin-clad grenadiers parading for some local dignitary, or, more elegiacally, like the massed white headstones of a battlefield cemetery.
For the anoraks, it is one legendary châteaux after another.. “Oh, look, there’s Latour, don’t see that every day, do you… oh, hang on, there’s Pichon Longueville on the right… and there on the left is Lafite Rothschild…” It’s as if a sports fan was able to travel down one road with all the world’s famous stadia on either side. Oh, look, there’s San Siro, oh, and over there is Yankee Stadium, oh wait, there’s the MCG…
Our first destination is Château Preuillac, a Cru Bourgeois estate in the Médoc, near the village of Lesparre. Our host is Ken Lee, a Bordeaux-based Singaporean consultant whose schoolboy looks mask a hard business edge, and who spends the entire journey on his mobile phone, chatting away in a mixture of Hokkien, Mandarin, Cantonese and Malay, but who – touchingly – ends every conversation with a “bye bye, bye bye!”
Preuillac is an imposing château. Built in 1869, and formerly in the hands of the Mau family, it has been refurbished and renovated by Ken’s new owners and is ripe for re-assessment. Standing in the 30-hectare vineyard (split roughly between cabernet sauvignon and merlot with a smattering of cabernet franc), winemaker Nathalie Billard explains that the estate lost 10% to April’s devastating frost, but considers they were lucky.
Then we move on to Nathalie’s pride and joy: three new 160 hectolitre foudres, newly commissioned by her, which have joined the existing decades-old foudres and which will act alongside the oak barrels to fashion the wine. Here, they are looking for classic claret, and a brief tasting of the 2015s and 2016s shows they are on the right path; the ’16 in particular is a really, really elegant wine: dark berries, beautiful young fruit, broad, rich, complex, obviously young, oaky. With a bit of luck, it will be spectacular.
But, sadly, this is a whistle-stop tour, and we have to jump in the car, where Ken’s colleague, Dimitri, drives us through the Bordeaux rush hour to our base, Château Senailhac, a drop dead gorgeous, all-singing, all-dancing, bells and whistles, full monty of a château, complete with personal assistant, and ours – and ours only – for the
full week. Sinking into a 19th century chaise-longue, I tell Bev that I feel like James Bond. “So that means you must be Pussy Galore.” The website promises an “Unforgettable Stay.” Blimey!
Next morning we head out east to the right bank. You are struck (as ever) by the difference between this hillier landscape and the flatter Medoc we visited yesterday. Here, it looks as if everything has been thrown together in an artisanal, higgledy-piggledy way, a bit louche and in need of a haircut, more rambling than the formal stand-to-attention correctness of the Medoc. It wears its wealth lightly. Mind you, it also has more surprises: Cheval Blanc looks like a spaceship which has landed in a fold in the hills and is now floating on a sea of vines.
Our first appointment is at Château Mayne Blanc in Lussac Saint-Emilion. Chatting with chief winemaker Jean de Cournuaud, we hear more about the frost – but this time the news is much more devastating. They lost 90% of the crop. “All of our vineyards north of Libourne were lost.” He pauses. “But, life goes on.” In the winery he proudly shows us his fermenting eggs – the first in Bordeaux. “The main advantage is that they allow for a very soft pigeage.”
We taste a selection of 2015 and 2016s (these to be mostly blended out of tank in January) We purr with contentment, and the Cuvée St Vincent in particular has a fabulously rich nose, with serious dark and broody tannins. Firm, not harsh. Long, long finish.
We approach Libourne from the “wrong side” – the east – rather than the more usual approach across the bridge, and this throws me completely, until the Dordogne and the familiar quaint quayside come into view. Thirty minutes away in Fronsac, Château Puy Guilhem is a 14-hectare vineyard with a spectacular view of the spire of the Saint-Emilion Monolithic Church.
Winemaker Pierre Sallaud discourses on the difference between Fronsac and Canon Fronsac, both of which are made at the property. “Well, actually, there actually isn’t a great deal of difference. The Canon Fronsacs should have dense tannins and be slightly bigger, whereas the Fronsacs might be slightly softer and lighter.”
We taste the ’09 Fronsac – there is really generous fruit, still young, tannins beautifully integrated. Superb claret. This, and the ’10, is ready to drink now, but the later vintages we taste – the ’14s, ’15s and ’16s – are even better. I compare the ’14s: the Fronsac has very sweet fruit, rich and already drinkable, medium weight, very good balance. Good gutsy wine. The Canon seems younger in its development, more spritzy, with tannins that are still harsh. Apparently, I’m not the only one who prefers the Fronsac to Canon Fronsac: Pierre tells me that James Suckling does, too.
The following day we taste at Château Plain Point, undergoing renovation and set to be spectacular. The more recent wines are much better than the older
vintages. Back in the Entre-deux-Mers, then, and to Château Plaisance, where we are entertained by an affable winemaker, Ludovic Labarrere, who shows us some wonderfully forward 2016 Bordeaux and Cotes de Bordeaux wines.
The 2015 Bordeaux is beautifully ripe, kicking way above its weight. I prefer this to the Cotes du Bordeaux, which seems a little tougher, less obvious and less chatty. Meanwhile, the 2016 Bordeaux is a bit of a wild teenager, vivacious young fruit not yet set. I get raspberry syrup, vermilion. And, from somewhere in the near distance, quince.
We’re on a mission to source good value wine from lesser-known appellations, so next morning we drive up to Blaye and I get lost.
The last time I was here was about 15 years ago. Château Solidaires used to be famous for white wines, and the tank sample of Montfollet le Valentin (60% Sauvignon/40% Semillon) has a gorgeous melon and spice nose and lovely minerality. We’re after more of this, so we amble over to winemaker Jacques Chardat’s chic and modish house on the edge of his vineyard, where he and his wife Sabrina put on a marathon tasting and then roll out a stupendous four-course lunch.
This epic repas floors me, but just as I’m wussily starting to flag, I spot Jacques’ collection of vinyl stacked next to what looks like some very expensive hi-fi kit. Jacques, who is obviously a bit of an ex-hippie, spots my interest – “Formidable!” – jumps up and puts on Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy at full blast. This is the first time I’ve been accompanied by Robert Plant at a tasting – and, God, it’s loud.
Suddenly its Knebworth 1975 all over again, as Jacques launches into some kind of jerky, staccato dark Parisian blues jive and belts out “Let me take you to the movies, Can I take you to the show….”, while I do my frenzied air guitar bit à la Jimmy Page. Meanwhile, MW Bev is trying to ask extremely serious and relevant questions above the racket: volatile acidity, yields? while rolling her eyes at our antics. What on earth possessed her to invite me along?
“Every time I went into the vineyards I felt physically sick. I just kept staring at row after row of ruined vines. I felt like weeping.”
The next day we are with Estelle Roumage of Château Lestrille, standing in one of her vineyards in the Entre-deux-Mers, while she recalls the night of 26-27 April when the frost took away virtually her entire crop. In our job you sometimes forget just how fine a line winemakers have to tread, even in traditionally rich areas such as Bordeaux and Burgundy.
Estelle provides the backbone of our Bordeaux range and is exactly the type of producer we love to work with in other parts of the wine world but which are hard to find in Bordeaux. She has the quaintest of operations. She shows us round her vineyards in her battered and much loved 2CV, then drives the short
distance back to her house and winery, which stands to one side of the D20 route de Creon, with her boutique wine shop on the opposite side of the road. This is where we taste.
The Lestrille 2010 has a lovely spicy nose, excellent dark fruit flavours and chunky weight. The Capmartin 2010 is lovely and soft, fleshy, plump, almost sybaritic; a Botticelli of a wine.
The next day we drive around the rocade to Pessac Leognan and our final call at Château de Rouillac. As we get out of the car we stare in wonderment. It is not quite Versailles, but it’s not far off.
One of the first owners was Baron Haussmann, who acquired it in 1864; the luminous facades, the square courtyard with its appointments, the stables, are all his. In 2009 businessman Laurent Cisneros fell under Rouillac’s spell and set about bringing the estate back to life, showing the same determination as he did when playing professional football for Cannes alongside Zinedine Zidane, before turning his father’s small heating company into a thriving multi-million euro business.
Laurent has spared no expense in lavishing attention on the property and delights in showing you round the distinguished house, the state-of-the-art winery and the stables. And it is here that we meet the real star of the show: Titan, the mighty dray horse who ploughs the land (Laurent believes in sustainable farming.) Bev, taking one look at him, looks like a schoolgirl at her first pony show. And now it is my turn to adopt a dignified mien. Yup.
Back at the winery, the wines are looking beautiful and I predict greatness in the near future. A 2015 white shows soft nuances of toast, butter, lemon, and on the palate its class is obvious. The 15 red shows a classic nose, with a touch of vanilla, plum and cigar. Very stylish. The whole place is.