At 6.30am I arrived at Gatwick rather bleary eyed where I met Jascot’s Alastair ‘Little Mac’ McClelland sitting over a coffee and croissant. As neither of us had visited a French Chateau or vineyard before, our conversation was limited to ‘so…what are you expecting?’
After meeting up with the rest of the group – a friendly and lively mix of guys and gals in the wine trade – we trundled off through the back streets of Bordeaux, parked up in the central square and made our way to the prestigious L’Ecole du Vin (Bordeaux Wine School). After an hours speedy catch up on the Bordeaux-Basics,we were ready for our first tasting.
Around the table at Chateau Puygueraud.
To my utter joy and delight, I quickly discovered we weren’t just having a tasting but would be sampling about 15 wines over a four course lunch! Pure heaven. And this was our first introduction to Bordeaux white grapes; I have up to now only been particularly familiar with Bordeaux red, so this was a real education, and since that introductory tasting, Bordeaux whites have found a special place in my heart.
The main grapes used in this area of France for white wine are the zesty, fresh, acidic and floral Sauvignon Blanc combined in various quantities with the fleshy, fruitier and fuller Semillon, that is also used to make their world-renowned sweet wine (I was very quickly corrected for calling it dessert wine…). Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle also play a small but distinctive role. A particular favourite of mine was a Sauvignon Blanc (40%) and Gris (40%), and Semillon (20%); it was so fresh and fruity with a lovely long finish that you were satisfied from first smell to long after it has slid down your throat.
Foot-long steak from Jan’s uncle’s farm cooking over the fire.
We travelled down to the AOC Cotes des Bordeaux and ended our day at the stunning Chateau Puygueraud. Jan Thienpont, who owned the vineyard with his brother, talked us through the transformation from agricultural land to vineyard and winery; his uncle still owned a small farm and orchard interwoven between vines. They grow their own grapes, but also use those of their neighbours to make their wine; coming from London where everything is signed in blood and reviewed by lawyers down to the last dotted ‘i’, I was surprised to discover that their agreements were based purely on a hand shake. Jan’s philosophy to winemaking (grow grapes sustainably, help thy neighbour’s business as well as your own, and produce wine that everyone can enjoy) really inspired me. With our white asparagus, foot-long steak cooked over his fire and enormous bowl of wild strawberries all produced within a 5k radius, we had a selection of wines ranging from the traditional Bordeaux blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon to the lesser known Petit Verdot and a 100% Muscadelle. What a treat to have such a range of fantastic wines laid out around the kitchen table.
The next day, I was especially excited to jump on the bus (water in hand) as we were off to the legendary region of St Emilion! As a personal favourite of mine, I was full of anticipation and our first stop to Chateau Clos du Prince did not disappoint. Their estate is just 3Ha, and owned by 24 year old Nicolas Prince. Given his age and the tiny size of the estate, I was intrigued to taste their wines. Would they be a bit ‘experimental’, would the size of the estate impact on their quality…? We tasted a vertical of 2004, 2005, 2009, 2010 and 2011, all made in the same way with the same percentage of grapes (80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc) and as with many vertical tastings, what stood out were the differences in character throughout the vintages.
You often hear ‘this was a great year’ but what does that really mean? Well, how the acidity, tannins, alcohol and fruit are balanced is a good indication, and for me the 2004 and 2010 were simply sublime. I felt like I was defying ‘wine-law’ by not falling in love with 2009 but I strongly believe wine, like food or art, is subjective. There isn’t always a right or wrong, good or bad, just individual taste.
Vertical tasting at Chateau Clos du Prince with their vineyards in the background.
Our final stop was to Pessac-Leognan, Chateau Bouscaut, one of just 6 estates classified Grand Cru Classée for both white and red wine. The previous owner of the estate, Monsieur Lurton, bought 10 estates in Bordeaux, and conveniently had 10 children! The Semillon vines were over 100 years old, and they aged both the Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc in oak, which created a smooth richness that is not so common on the UK market.
The whole trip was a whirlwind of extraordinary food, beautiful scenery, and amazingly hospitable people against a backdrop of some of the most outstanding wines I may ever taste. Although Bordeaux is renowned for Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, I have fallen hard for Bordeaux white wines. So go ahead, give them a go and I hope you will harvest the same love affair that I have.