Wednesday, May 16th – Day 12, Pugnac, Bordeaux, Saint Emilion
It was a stupidly early start for us (well, not for E and W) because we were off on an excursion into the vineyards of Bordeaux. Our restaurant owning friends at Rascills had recommended that we take a long look at Winerist for getting the most out of trips to wine growing areas, and finding ourselves in Bordeaux, I’d taken them at their word and had a look to see what trips were available. We settled on their full day trip to Pomerol and Saint Emilion, through Ophorus, at a cost of €130 per person. The trip would involve no more than 8 guests, in an air-conditioned minibus, with our own dedicated tour guide, and we would get to visit three vineyards, with tastings at each, and would also visit the medieval town of Saint Emilion, where we would have time for lunch. The pre-sales service was most impressive, with answers to my questions about the difficulty of getting into Bordeaux during the early morning rush provided rapidly and accurately (as it turned out).
The bad news was we needed to be at the Bordeaux Tourist Information office at 12 Cours du 30 Juillet by 09:30. We set the alarm for 06:00 and headed out onto the road by 07:30. This meant we were at the rendezvous in good time. It meant we had time to buy a new batch of Bordeux City Passes, and then use them to book a dinner cruise on the Garonne at a 25% discount. With time to spare, we nipped next door into Baillardran for a coffee and a canele, and then congregated outside to wait for our driver to come and collect us.
By 09:30 we were in the bus, and Hugo, our guide, was filling us in on the Bordeaux appelation and how it all works, including the information that Saint Emilion contains around 850 chateaux, a chateau basically being any building on a piece of land that has vines on it, no matter how tiny said building is; it could even be a garden shed and still be a chateau. Hugo was incredibly knowledgeable, spoke excellent English, and was more than happy to engage with us all. We were quickly out of town and heading towards Saint Emilion. Our first stop was one of the Pomerol vineyards, Chateau du Tailhas, where the charming Aurelie showed us round the vines, explaining the way in which grapes grow and develop, and how they are trained and pruned and harvested, and speaking entertainingly and amusingly about the wines as if they are particularly awkward children who need to be pushed to leave home.
She was happy to answer any questions any of us had, discussing the ways in which they try to protect the crop, and explaining that the massively empty field next to where we were standing was about to be replanted with new grapes, the old vines that were there previously having been grubbed out after frost damage to the vines in 2017 meant they really would not have had much to harvest. Their intention to replace the vines “some time in the future” became “might as well do it now”.
We were then guided into the chai (where we learned about the tanks that are used for the initial vinification, which at du Tailhas are a choice of stainless steel or concrete, both of which have their pros and cons when it comes to maintaining a steady temperature.
We would hear a lot about these tanks during the day, with opinion varying on which is best. The one thing all three of the vintners we visited agreed upon was that French oak barrels were the way to go. On how long they should be used for, it again varied, between one and two years, but again there was consensus on who they should come from, all three places using the same three coopers.
Finally we returned to the house where several wines were set out ready to be tasted. We’d been told that if your were after the best possible Bordeaux wines, you could do worse than to rely on the rule of 5/10, with 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 being particularly good.
We tasted several wines and Lynne and I agreed that we particularly liked the 2008 because we are not patient people, and do not want to wait for the 2015 to be ready to drink. Laying down wines for a decade or more is fine when you’re in your 20s or 30s, but not when you’re pushing 60 in my opinion. I want wines that will be good to drink now. We also liked the 2008 because it had developed a splendidly jammy flavour, the fruit dense and lovely, and so we asked about returning to the chateau in two days time, with the car. We really didn’t want to have to drag a couple of cases back with us via public transport and a boat cruise. That would be fine, Aurelie said, though I’m not sure she expected to see us again.
From there we were back in the minibus, with Hugo explaining how the classifications for Saint Emilion wines work, with only four chateau making it to the top level (but also how there are apparently certain things they need to have that have absolutely no bearing on the wine and its quality, such as private parking for the security of VIP guests!), and 14 in the second level. It’s clearly a process that is rife with controversy, which is understandable when you see the prices the top four get away with charging for their wines (€2000 a bottle in some instances, more as the wines mature). We were utterly stunned by this price list – and yes that does say €15,950 for a single bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.
Before there was more wine, however, we were treated to a brief but informative tour of Saint Emilion, which is a glorious place, another UNESCO World Heritage site, and as a result an obvious tourist trap. We started in the Collegiate church, formerly a monastery church, now the parish church for Saint Emilion. It has something of an identity crisis going on, one end of it being solidly Gothic in style, the other Romanesque, as if someone had bolted two different churches together.
The cloisters are beautiful and contained some fascinating art works.
The main piece seemed to be a depiction of the apocalypse in a serious of panels, some monochrome, some colour, which wasn’t exactly cheerful, but was rather wonderful. I particularly liked the almost medieval style of the work, though I had no idea who the artist was or why it was currently sitting in the cloisters. I have since found this so I have a better idea. I would say that if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a look, though you’ll need to get a move on as it’s only there until July 2018.
We then walked to the upper part of the town, and the bell tower of the monolithic church where the original Saint Emilion had his hermitage. The were super views of the whole town from up there, though the weight of the tower is apparently now causing problems for the church which is basically a cave carved out of the rock below it, which means that visitor numbers have to be limited.
We did also briefly look at the Hostellerie de Plaisance, which looks like our sort of place, though the prices made our eyes water a bit! It has a 2 Michelin starred restaurant, but we decided not to go there for lunch… Instead, we asked Hugo where he would recommend for good, regional cooking, and he made two suggestions, the one we took being the very pleasant Lard et Bouchon, described by the Tourist Information website as a “restaurant and wine bar is located in Chateau Larmande‘s former cellars” where it “enjoys the perfect air conditions of a 14th century cellar”. It was a hot day outside so the cool cellar was very welcoming, as were the front of house staff.
We ordered aperitifs (of course we did) and had a study of the menu du jour, deciding that once more we would not have starters because we’d just end up falling asleep in the afternoon. Armed with our new found knowledge, we also tackled the wine list from a much more informed position, ordering a half bottle of 1999 Chateau Cadet-Bon, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
It went well with the veal sweetbreads, which were well cooked and served with mashed and croquette potatoes, and a small handful of seasonal vegetables.
Lynne had a confit duck leg, with the same accompaniments.
It wasn’t a stunning lunch, but it was solidly well cooked, well presented and we were happy at the end of it. We didn’t have dessert, we didn’t even have cheese, we just walked back through the winding steep streets to rejoin the party. What the others did, we have no idea – they were pretty uncommunicative, the Japanese couple because only the wife spoke any English, the American couple I have no idea why, though they did open up a bit later in the day after a few more wine tastings.
We went next to Chateau Guadet, which is actually in the town itself (with its vineyards a stone’s throw from the front door). Here we were again shown the chai, with those same oak barrels, but here only the concrete tanks, not stainless steel. The owner’s son, Vincent-Petrus Lignac, showed us round, and then took us to see the underground tunnels they use to store the wine. Apparently they put aside 1000 bottles of every vintage for the family’s own use and as a sort of wine archive, and have done since 1901. It’s naturally cool down there, but to keep it that way visits can only last for four minutes. It’s also down a very steep stairway which you need to negotiate sideways or backwards, rather like being on a ship. As a result, the Japanese couple opted to stay in the garden and wait for us, as he was not especially young or mobile.
No photos were allowed so I can’t show you the cellars, but the garden is very peaceful and lovely, and the Japanese couple were most amused when we popped up at the other end to where we’d vanished underground before.
Guy also talked about the fact that they, like many other wine makers in the appellation, have moved first to organic production, and then to bio-dynamic planting and growing. There is a suggestion that in the next decade or so that will be the case with all the growers in the region. I find it hard to be convinced by the who bio-dynamic thing, but the people we spoke to all seemed utterly certain that there were benefits to it, and I suppose it’s just a way of taking working with the seasons a step further. Anyway, after that we walked to one of the many, many wine shops in the town, with Guy then taking us through a tasting of several of his and other people’s wines.
We settled on a case of 2015 Chateau Martet Réserve de la Famille AOC Sainte-Foy Bordeaux, unusually made from 100% Merlot grapes. In addition we picked up a case of dessert wines, and were able to arrange to have it all shipped back via UPS. That was a far better option than having to carry it back to the bus up the steep, slippery paths from the town square. It was hard enough hauling ourselves up there.
Back in the bus, we had one more chateau to visit, and one more tasting to look forward to. This time we went to Chateau Grangey, which has as long a history as the other chateaux, but not in its current form. Franck and Elodie Mio are the young couple now running the place, his parents and grandparents having had other jobs rather than being full time winemakers. The result was that the grapes were sent to the cooperative cellar of the Union des Producers of Saint-Emilion. That all changed in 2009, when Franck took over, and starting in 2012, carried out a complete restructuring of the winery and all the buildings. He and Elodie made their first wine on site in October 2013, and we tasted that, plus some of the other wines that have been produced since. First, however, we needed to see the winery itself, and again there was agreement on the French oak barrels, and not on the tanks (stainless steel, computer-monitored and controlled here).
I found the flatness of the vineyards especially fascinating after our Mosel trip last year. It always seems odd to me that such different terrain can be used to grow what is essentially the same thing.
The tasting was good, and again we made a note to come back on the Friday, having checked that they would be open to sell us some wine then. Visit over, Hugo rounded us up and took us back to Bordeaux, dropping us off tired but happy at the Tourist Information office with one last nugget of information to keep us entertained. Apparently there is a good market for any wine that doesn’t make the grade, with much of it being added to the 2% that goes to the government for the use of the French armed forces. The extra is sold for cosmetic use, most of it to Caudalie!