Category Archives: Bordeaux

Thoughts from Bordeaux

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2017-09-10 12.54.04Spending a few days in Bordeaux recently, I expected to be drinking some good red wine.  It didn’t work out that way!  Wherever we decided to eat, the most appealing dishes on the menu were fish.  And, while I’m quite happy to pair a nice tuna steak with a low tannin red wine such as Beaujolais, Valpolicella or even some Pinot Noirs, none of these is native to Bordeaux and the local Cabernet- or Merlot-dominated reds just don’t work. 

Fortunately, about 1 bottle in 12 produced in the Bordeaux region is a dry white, so I was still able to pursue my ‘drink local’ policy – and explore a group of wines that, for no particular reason, I often seem to ignore. 

Bordeaux’s dry whites fall into 2 distinct groups: the traditional style, now in decline, are mainly made using the Semillon grape with some Sauvignon Blanc added, with one, or sometimes both, varieties either fermented or aged in (mainly old) oak barrels.   More frequently now, you find wines with 100% or at least a very high proportion of Sauvignon Blanc – fresh, zingy and providing attractive drinking for a very reasonable price.  We found good examples of each style. 

Representing the modern group, Chateau Vermont from Entre Deux Mers had a lovely floral nose with pink grapefruit and peach on the palate and a clean, refreshing finish.  A simple wine, but quite moreish.  In a different league entirely and showing how good traditional white Bordeaux can be was L’Abeille de Fieuzal Blanc from Pessac Leognan, the best part of the Graves District, just south of the city of Bordeaux.  Full, rich and buttery with hints of smokiness but also lovely fruit: citrus and bitter orange and a long, complex finish.

But, good as these were, my wife knows how much I like Bordeaux’s luscious dessert wines and her picture above shows me enjoying one to the full – our accompanying puddings were about to arrive!

 

 

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Bordeaux’s Wine City

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Ever since Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin (City of Wine) opened last year, it has been on my ‘to do’ list.  So, when we visited that part of south-west France for a few days recently, we took the 10 minute tram ride from the centre and found ourselves in front of the very striking piece of architecture that was designed and built specifically to house the wine exhibition.Cite du Vin

Buying our tickets in advance on line (20 euros each if you specify a date, 5 euros extra for an ‘Open’ ticket you can use any day), we could (and should) have avoided the queues in the foyer.  But we eventually made our way to the 1st floor for a fascinating display on ‘Georgia, the birthplace of wine’.  Dozens of artefacts, some dating back more than 2000 years, combined with a couple of short films and some very detailed display boards (in English and French) told the story of the early days of wine and highlighted how some ancient processes – like fermenting in clay urns buried in the ground – were still being used today.  Sadly, this part of the exhibition is only temporary and will close in early November to be replaced by something as yet unspecified.

One floor up and you move into the main display area – and firmly into the 21st century.  Here, equipped with multi-lingual headphones, you are faced with a series of interactive screens dealing with different aspects of the wine world.  Click one and you can choose from a number of famous growers and wine makers talking about their wines; another and you join a virtual dinner table with top chefs and sommeliers chatting about food and wine matching.  All very cleverly and glossily presented and with admirably little jargon.  One problem: there is just so much to see, you need to be very selective – or come back several times.

After a couple of hours here, we started thinking of lunch.  There’s a formal restaurant on the 7th floor (pre-booking essential) or the ‘Latitude 20’ wine bar on the ground floor where we can recommend the cheese or meat platters (1 is plenty for 2 people to share) together with a glass of wine from an interesting and eclectic list – the soft and warming Georgian red is worth trying.

Before leaving, be sure to take the lift up to the Belvedere on the top floor where you can enjoy a glass of wine (included with your ticket price) and have a marvellous panorama over the city of Bordeaux.

 

 

The Most Popular Grape

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There’s more Cabernet Sauvignon planted in the world than any other wine grape – almost 300,000 hectares (just over 700,000 acres) according to the comprehensive study published by the University of Adelaide in 2013.  That area has more than doubled since 1990 and is almost certainly still growing.  There are now commercial plantings of the variety in more than 30 countries.

I’m not surprised at its popularity with growers; it’s a grape capable of producing very high quality red wines and its name is widely recognised by wine lovers – always a help with marketing.  But it needs to be grown in the right conditions: too cool and you get unripe, leafy flavours; too warm and the wine tastes of jammy or cooked fruit. 

Interestingly, in its home region of Bordeaux, you almost never see a wine made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon – there, they usually blend it with Merlot and other varieties – a legacy of the time when that part of France was, on average, a couple of degrees cooler than it is today and growers regularly struggled to ripen their Cabernet.

But elsewhere – California, Australia, South Africa, Chile and the ‘new kid on the block’, China – 100% Cabernets are common and it’s not hard to find a really good bottle, for example Robert Oatley’s Finisterre from Margaret River in Western Australia.  2017-09-03 15.07.33The climate there is ideal with warm, dry summers meaning that harvest can often take place as early as February (equivalent to August in the Northern Hemisphere), minimising the threat from autumn rain. 

Finisterre is quite restrained and subtle but has the lovely sweet blackcurrant fruit flavours that I always associate with a good Cabernet Sauvignon, topped out with some soft spice and just enough tannin to suggest that the 2013 vintage has a good few years more ahead of it.  Usually £18.99 at Waitrose, but it’s worth waiting for one of that supermarket’s regular ‘25% off’ offers when this wine becomes a great bargain and one not to be missed.

 

Reaching out across the World

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As a major trading port, Bristol has been reaching out across the world for centuries – and a wine tasting I went to this week really brought that home to me.

It was organised by the Bristol-Hannover and Bristol-Bordeaux Twinning Associations who are celebrating their 70th anniversaries this year, having started just after the 2nd World War in an effort to reach out and support other devastated European cities.

The tasting itself was on board a replica of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, that, in 1497, sailed from Bristol and across the Atlantic to become the first Europeans known to have landed on the North American mainland (although Norse sagas suggest that their sailors may have done so several centuries earlier).  The original ship was lost but the replica was built here in the city in the 1990s and repeated the original voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary.  These days, the ‘new’ Matthew is used for educational purposes, appears in films and television programmes and is a major tourist attraction in Bristol Docks.  And, of course, it can be hired for events – including the wine tasting I mentioned earlier.

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And the fact that the tasting was hosted by Mimi Avery, on behalf of the historic Bristol company that bears her name (it was founded in 1793), also fitted the ‘reaching out’ theme.  Mimi’s grandfather, Ronald, was one of very few British wine merchants to actually visit foreign vineyards and meet the growers while her father, John, travelled widely and introduced many New World wines into the UK that have subsequently become iconic.

But, let’s not forget the wines: 

DSCN1503of course Mimi found some interesting bottles from Bordeaux to show us.  And, although Hannover is not a wine producing area of Germany, we tasted some attractive examples from elsewhere in that country.   But, perhaps Mimi’s most innovative thinking went into our aperitif: a Prosecco which reflected John Cabot’s Italian heritage (he was previously known as Zuan Chabboto, although his name has long been anglicized).

So, all in all, a fascinating and most enjoyable evening and a perfect example of how generations of Bristolians (and adopted citizens, such as Cabot) have reached out across the world.

The Price of Bordeaux

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A case of red wine was sold at auction last month for £11000.  Admittedly, it was Château Latour, one of the most prestigious estates in Bordeaux and from the highly acclaimed 2010 vintage, but it set me wondering whether any wine is worth almost £1000 a bottle.  And, of course, the buyer of this case is likely to have to wait at least a decade before the wine is at its peak, assuming, that is, that he or she is going to drink it, rather than (more likely) re-selling it at a profit.

The prices of top wines are now silly – the Liv-ex Index calculates that they have tripled since 2004 – and the sad fact is that it is putting the best wines way out of reach of most wine lovers.  When I first started taking an interest in wine, you could buy one of these top Bordeaux for about 20 times the price of an ordinary wine – just about affordable for a really special occasion – now that figure stands at 150 and rising steadily.

So, for those of more modest means, is there any way you can sample a decent Bordeaux?  Happily, I’d say yes!  Look for wines with the words ‘Cru Bourgeois’ on the label.  These are from estates which fall outside the Classified Growth system.  Many are, nevertheless, well situated and with talented and dedicated winemakers.  But, because they are not listed among the privileged few, prices are far more reasonable.

A couple of days ago I opened such a bottle that I’d kept under the stairs for a few years – even lesser bottles take a while to reach their peak. 

Senejac BxChâteau Senejac 2006 had become nicely mellow and mature with soft, leathery flavours and a long spicy finish.  You’d probably pay around £15 – £20 for the equivalent today.  Don’t expect the length or complexity of a Latour, just really pleasant drinking – and at a sensible price.

Rotten Grapes make Great Wine!

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Ask a wine lover to name a sweet wine and chances are the reply will be ‘Sauternes’. This golden nectar is made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes (with occasionally a little Muscadelle as well) in a tiny area 6 miles long by barely 4 miles wide a short drive south of Bordeaux. Both the location and the grape varieties are vital to making Sauternes the wine it is.

Sauvignon Blanc is a naturally high acid variety and so adds refreshing ‘lift’ to the wine which, without it, could be dull and cloying. But it’s the Semillon that holds the real key. It is a very thin-skinned variety and, as such, is very susceptible to rot. Rot is normally an enemy to winemakers, introducing off flavours into wine, but in certain circumstances, a particular type of rot becomes a friend. And in the warm, damp, humid conditions often occurring during a Bordeaux autumn, this so-called ‘noble’ rot (or botrytis) can be found most years.

Botrytis works in a strange way. It attacks the berries and makes dozens of pin-prick holes in them. Add a little sunshine and, as the grapes are warmed, the moisture inside them starts to evaporate through the holes, concentrating the sweetness in the berries so that, when they’re picked and sent to the winery for fermentation, the yeast struggles to cope with all the sugar. It converts some to alcohol, but plenty remains to give a wonderful, luscious sweet wine.

Sauternes Ch FilhotThe most famous name of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem, sells for hundreds of £s a bottle, but the Château Filhot (pictured) is a remarkably good, elegant and affordable alternative, available quite widely including from Grape and Grind of Bristol for £12.99 a half bottle. Enjoy with desserts, of course (tarte tatin is a great match), but also with some blue cheese – Roquefort would be the traditional choice, but St Agur or the creaminess of a Dolcelatte would go well too.