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A Taste of Bordeaux

Last week I was very fortunate to take a trip to Bordeaux with our new supplier, Waddesdon Wines Rothschild Collection. When I received the invitation, I naturally jumped at the chance to visit not only one of the most acclaimed wine regions in the world but also one of the most prestigious families in Bordeaux, Rothschild. What’s more, this was my first time in Bordeaux and I understood the adventure ahead of me. Finally, I would get to see the vineyards, terroir & wines that I have studied and tasted, on occasion, over the past 6 years…

Before our plane had taken off it was evident that travelling with James, our very generous host, and Igor, Head Sommelier of China Tang at the Dorchester, would be a very enjoyable experience. With good humour and an expert knowledge of wine, we were sure to have many an entertaining conversation. I was in great company.

We touched down at Bordeaux airport ahead of schedule and made a call to Phillipe, Export Director for Baron Rothschild. Phillipe, who also happened to be our designated driver for the first leg of our journey, informed us that we would find him “in a Citroen”. Needless to say, we were shortly united and on our way to our first destination. Whilst we travelled, Phillipe gave a brief history, interjected most brilliantly with anecdotes, of the family, and of the region.

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Our first stop was a pleasant picnic spot on the bank of the river where we feasted on French baguette, jambon & salad – just what we needed following an early start. With our hunger satisfied, we continued on our journey to Mouton Cadet, widely considered Bordeaux’s most successful brand. Created to be sold all over the world and at an affordable price, Mouton Cadet was quite a revolution in the 1930s. Baron Philippe de Rothschild was also the first to introduce estate bottling – where wine is crushed, fermented, finished, aged & bottled in the same location. Up until then, winemakers had sold their wines to the negotiants prior to bottling.

These days the set up at Mouton Cadet is one of epic proportions. With a full technical laboratory to test the quality of their wines, corks, bottles and so on, they currently produce around 9 million bottles of Mouton Cadet rouge a year. Its popularity and reputation are understandable when you consider its consistency & quality. We were fortunate to tour the vineyard and taste a variety of other wines from the oenophile & producer before it was time to move on. I was in awe as we passed many a familiar name – châteaux & vineyards that I have tasted or longed to taste, with little more than a foot of land separating them. It is a wonder that neighbouring châteaux can produce such different styles and expressions of wine.

Next stop, Mouton. We arrived as the sun was shining and what a glorious collection of buildings & vines. Once again, we were given a tour of the vineyard, the winery, the cellars and the museum in which many artefacts from the family are kept, including original artwork from the artists that created labels for Mouton. Remarkably, they date back to 1945.

The soil is worth a mention too as it is notably gravelly, which helps retain heat from the sun. The gravel extends for several metres covering a clay-limestone base which produce rich & powerful wines with strong tannins. The nearby Gironde helps irrigate the vines which are set on small hillocks to provide good drainage and exposure to the sun.

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The grapes are hand-picked, sorted and then “gravity-fed” into oak vats of various size. Here the wines are fermented, using cutting edge technology, before they are transferred to new oak barrels, topped up by hand and clarified & stabilised with egg white. They are then left to mature for about 20 months, although halfway through the process they are moved from the Grand Chai to the Second Year Cellars. I couldn’t help but feel I was in the presence of greatness as I wandered, breathing in the heady smell of oak and wine as it aged and prepared itself for legendary status.

I should mention that the En Primeur tastings of the 2015 vintage had taken place just before our arrival, a significant annual event in Bordeaux where wines are sampled mid-way through the ageing process to determine the quality of the vintage and future pricing. As such, we were fortunate to taste some fine examples of a great new vintage. Château Clerc Milon, Chateau d’Armailhac & Château Mouton Rothschild will remain in barrel until 2017 but despite their current youth, showed very well indeed – fruit forward, strong firm tannins and yet an openness belying their age. I favoured the Mouton, with its great smoothness, sturdiness, power & elegance, whilst the Clerc Milon tried hard to follow suit with its undeniable rich black fruity tones and similar smoothness.

Feeling very privileged to taste such special wines ahead of many, we bid farewell to Phillipe & the château and drove back through the Medoc into the city itself, where we were treated to a special Opus One tasting. I know what you are thinking. Why would you drink Californian wine at the epicentre of world famous wines but then, who could possibly say no to such an invitation?

Opus One is the brainchild of Robert Mondavi (who will be making an appearance on our wine list) and the Rothschild family, who have been active in finding great terroirs outside of France, and investing in great wineries and winemakers to create new world wines with old world influences. The recipe works well and Opus One is a shining example. The Bordeaux blend, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, is round with silky tannins, a satin like mouthfeel and full of rich dark fruits that are laced with earthy undertones. They are quite simply stunning.

We were joined at this point by the remainder of our party – Stephen from WW and his client Jonathan, who is the wine buyer for a group of boutique hotels in Scotland and knows a thing or two about wine. They were just in time to join us as we made our way to the city for a traditional supper of champagne, plates of charcuterie, ribs of French beef, cheese and a taste of home – the simply sublime Château Suduiraut 2007. We list this wine at Bel & The Dragon but nevertheless, it was pure indulgence.

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The next morning Stephen took the driving seat as we made our way to Sauternes. There we visited Château Coutet, that produces rich complex dessert wines with a fresh acidity which make this undoubtedly one of the best wines in Barsac. Semillon contributes the lion’s share of the blend followed by Sauvignon Blanc and a touch of Muscadelle. The difference in soil is immediately apparent, with clay and limestone offering an underlying minerality to this sweet wine. The berries are harvested, selecting each one by hand only once it has reached the exact level of botrytis.

From there we headed to Margaux for a spot of lunch at a local bistro where we dined on foie gras and racks of lamb whilst sipping on a 2009 F E Trimbach Gewurtztraminer followed by a sumptuous Margaux. We swiftly drove on to our next destination, Château Clarke, owned by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. There we toured the simply stunning grounds and sampled a 2008 Château Clarke & a 2012 Les Granges. Château Clarke, predominantly Merlot, is grown on clay & limestone soil in the Listrac-Medoc and boasts dark berries, plums, liquorice & caramel notes. Les Granges is also merlot led, but this time from the Haut-Medoc. Again the soils comprise of clay over limestone, but here the leading flavour is vanilla with dense, elegant tannins. One thing is for sure, I could quite easily sit amongst the grounds with a glass of Château Clarke and disappear in its magical serenity.

Reluctantly we left but my spirits were soon lifted as we approached the iconic turrets of the Château Lafite. I could feel that we were about to experience something very special and that the highlight of our trip was yet to come. Led by their sommelier we toured the vineyard, winery, and cellars in complete and utter awe. Once again, the soil was gravelly with a mix of sand & limestone underneath. The wines, predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, are fermented in oak and steel vats in their individual parcels, to preserve the identity of each.

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Interestingly, Lafite is the only Château in Bordeaux to have its own Cooperage, so they can toast all of their own barrels on site. The wines are tasted a number of times separately before blending for the Grand Vin, which takes place after the first racking; the wines are then regularly racked during the 18-20 months they are aged. Lafite’s circular cellar where the 2nd year ageing takes place is a sight to behold and it was there we tasted the 2007 Château Lafite by candlelight. Elegant and charming with soft oak and a great length, this was my wine of the trip.

Last but not least we made our way to Château Palmer which was by far the most modern winery we had seen so far, traditional in essence and yet forward thinking. The passion our host exuded was infectious as we tasted Alter Ego & Château Palmer’s En Primeur 2015 offerings. Alter Ego displayed crisp, juicy fruits with violet tones whilst Château Palmer, was densely patterned with black fruits, tobacco and liquorice. Great products in their own right. I was not disappointed.

All good things must come to an end, our winery tour included. However, I will reminisce for years to come on a most enjoyable trip and welcome to Bordeaux. I could not have asked for more…

Posted 27th April 2016 by Georgie Kukielka

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