Bordeaux – much more than just wine

In the world of wine we talk about Bordeaux all the time, we all know what we mean by the word. Strangely though I take it for granted and never think about what we do not mean by it. And we do not really mean the city of Bordeaux at all. I have been to Bordeaux quite a few times over the years, but have hardly ever seen the city itself.

P1060603

The Garonne in Bordeaux

No, by Bordeaux we generally mean the wines of Bordeaux and the vineyard areas around the city where the grapes are grown and these wines are made. So I was delighted to be invited to spend some time in Bordeaux recently getting to know the city a little and some of the delights that it has to offer the visitor.

P1060471

Bordeaux’s beautiful La Porte Cailhau.

Of course wine looms large in Bordeaux and is hard to avoid, especially – I suppose – as we were guests of Olivier Dauga the larger than life consultant wine maker, style guru and former rugby player. Yes Olivier wanted us to taste his wines and to understand his views on winemaking, but he also wanted us to experience his Bordeaux, his friends as well as the restaurants and bars that he loves.

P1060501

The ever colourful Olivier Dauga – I started to wonder if he always matched the paintings?

It was to be a wine visit with no vineyards, wineries or bottling lines. In fact the only vines I saw all trip were the ones that decorate Bordeaux Airport. I had met Olivier before, in London, at a tasting of his Ukranian wines and knew that he was a very interesting winemaker and well worth talking to, so I was really looking forward to the trip.

Our little group was put up in the lovely Maison Fredon, an arty boutique hotel in the Rue Porte de la Monnaie. It is housed in a beautiful old house and only has 5 rooms, but each one has a distinct personality and is furnished in a different and quirky style. The hotel is the latest venture of Olivier’s friend Jean-Pierre Xiradakis who has been one of the stars of the local restaurant scene ever since he created La Tupina – just over the road from the hotel – in 1968.

La Tupina from my window.

La Tupina from my window.

La Tupina is a lovely relaxed restaurant that specialises in the flavoursome traditional food of Bordeaux and the Sud-Ouest. This includes foie gras prepared in many different ways and a wonderful array of grilled and spit roast meats.

Spit roast chicken being cooked at la Tupina - photo courtesy of La Tupina.

Spit roast chicken being cooked at la Tupina – photo courtesy of La Tupina.

Apparently when Jean-Pierre started here the area was pretty run down and considered to be far from the centre. Now he has made the area quite the place to go to for good food. In fact Jean-Pierre calls Rue Porte de la Monnaie the ‘Rue Gourmande‘ as over the years he has created quite a few interesting bars and restaurants here that includes the informal wine bar / bistrot Cave Bar de la Monnaie and Kuzina the Greek influenced fish restaurant – after all Jean-Pierre’s surname is Xiradakis! As if that wasn’t enough the Café Tupina is a lovely neighbourhood bar while the delightful Au Comestible is a casual restaurant and fine grocery store – Jean-Pierre is right, this street really is foodie heaven.

P1060599

Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

Jean-Pierre showing us how to cook asparagus.

Jean-Pierre showing us how to cook asparagus.

La Tupina.

La Tupina.

The next morning we were up and ready to explore the city with a stroll around the old ramparts and the lively Marché des Capucins, the historic food market of Bordeaux. The place is a delight to stroll around with fabulous fish stalls, butchers, charcuterie stalls, bakers, cheese stalls, greengrocers, basque food specialists  – and, as is normal in civilised countries, the odd bar to provide liquid refreshment.

Marché des Capucins.

Marché des Capucins.

Bordeaux is a terrific city to wander around, the centre is small and so none of the distances seem daunting and there is always something to catch the eye and bring the lovely narrow streets to life, whether its interesting shops, churches, peaceful squares or lively cafés.

P1060474

Place Saint-Pierre.

Repairing the cobble stones.

Repairing Bordeaux’s cobble stones.

Our wanderings were not just random by the way, we were touring the city centre and stopped off here and there for a tasting of some of Olivier’s wines. Our first such pit-stop was at one of the city’s many fabulous wine shops, La C.U.V. or Cave Utile en Ville or Urban Wine Shop is a great place to while away a little time looking at the array of bottles from all corners of France and beyond. The original branch is situated in 7 Place Maucaillou, very near the market, the little place has that village-like feel of a place where people actually live and work. So successful have these self confessed inquisitive terroirs lovers been that they have opened a second shop in Place Nansouty, which just goes to show – that contrary to what people think – the French consumer is open to trying and buying wines from places other than their own region and country. In fact one of the things that particularly delighted me about Bordeaux was the vibrant wine shop and wine bar scene with the differences between the two often being blurred.

The First Wine Tasting
Here we had our first formal tasting of some of the wines that Olivier makes in his role as consultant winemaker. I had spoken to him a little before this and I was very impressed by what he sought to do. It is his intention to respect the wishes of the owner in terms of style and to faithfully reflect the terroir of the estate. He does not seek to impose his own winemaking style on the wines at all and there was a great deal of difference across the wines that he is responsible for. Often you can tell if the same winemaker has made a range of wines, but in these it was nigh on impossible to detect a common style. There was a common thread though, which was fruit and delicacy – none of these were blockbusters, but none were dusty either – which is pretty much exactly the style of wine that Olivier told me he approves of. Simply put he seems to believe that wine should be approachable and enjoyable – and I certainly think those are laudable aims.

This first tasting was all red wines and, with one exception, they were all from Bordeaux. If you are looking for good quality and value red Bordeaux then you could do a lot worse than try any of these:

2010 Château Les Gravières de la Brandille, Bordeaux Supérieur
65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. I really liked this unoaked, juicy claret and think it would make many friends who want a good medium bodied dry red that has ample fruit and supple tannins. 86/100 points.
2010 of course was a great Bordeaux year of course, but so was 2009 and you can buy the 2009 in the UK from Stone, Vine & Sun @ £9.75. 

2010 Château Roques Mauriac Cuvée Classique, Bordeaux Supérieur
40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Another unoaked clare that I enjoyed, it has a freshness and fleshy quality to the fruit that makes it very drinkable and pleasurable, especially as the tannins are very soft. 86/100 points.
I am told that it is available in the UK from Virgin Wines @ £9.49.

2011 Château de Rivereau, Côtes de Bourg
70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon – although Olivier did say there was a drop of cabernet franc here too. This has a little time in oak and it showed with some coffee tinges and fruit cake spice just adding a little complexity to the supple fruit and attractive, clean chalky tannins. 86/100 points.

2011 Château de La Jaubertie, Bergerac
This estate is of course not in Bordeaux, but nearby Bergerac, but this area makes wines in a similar style and offers superb value for money. Jaubertie is famously owned by the Ryman family of stationery fame. 60% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10% Malbec with 20% fermented in barrel and the whole wine was aged on the lees for 6 months with 10% aged in new American oak for 6 months. I thought this was a nice wine, direct honest and juicy with a slight oak spice tinge and a delicate herbal green edge to the black fruit. Nicely balanced, very drinkable and utterly classic, but well made – 86/100 points.

2011 Château La Pirouette, Cru Bourgeois Médoc
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 25% aged 12 months in new oak barrels. The extra class and complexity showed here. There was a precision to the wine and a structure to it that made it very clean and taut, but still had good fruit and lovely balance. 88/100 points.

Amélie Durand with her red wine.

Amélie Durand with her Cuvée Amélie red wine in La C.U.V.

BTCA032010 Château Doms Cuvée Amélie, Graves
80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 25% aged in oak barrels, one third new. This is the top cuvée from the estate and is named in honour of the owner’s mother, while the estate is run and the wine is made – with Olivier’s help – by the owner’s daughter, Amélie. She was there to present her wines to us and what’s more she drove me to the airport the next day when I had been left behind!
I like Amélie’s wines, very much indeed. They have an elegance and a finesse that pleased me, as well as good concentration and balance. The fruit was fleshy and plump while the oak spice was nicely integrated giving mocha notes and complexity. There was a nice cut of acidity too and the tannins were ripe and not astringent – 90/100 points.

The Second Wine Tasting
Having done the reds we set off once more for a stroll through Bordeaux’s attractive cobbled streets to sample some of Olivier’s white wines along with some excellent local seafood at Le Rince Doigt, a casual little place that calls itself a guinguette , guinguette à fruits de mer in fact and it aims to be a seaside seafood bar in the middle of the city. To give that relaxed holiday feel  the whole place was dressed up as though we actually were on the beach, with sandy floors and deck chairs and the simple menu was wonderful with oysters, moules frites, moules farcies, spicy cod fritters and much more.

The indoor beach at Le Rince Doigt and yes that is John Salvi!

The indoor beach at Le Rince Doigt and yes that is John Salvi eyeing the table football!

So we settled on to our indoor beach and the white wines started flowing – sometimes my work is just too hard. I really like white Bordeaux wines, I think they are very underrated – like white Rioja – and can be some of the best – and best value – dry white wines around. These were my favourites here:

2012 Château Les Combes, Bordeaux Blanc – although the estate is in Lussac-St. Émilion
90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Sémillon – no oak, but 3 months on the lees.
A lovely beautifully balanced and aromatic dry white bursting with elderflower aromas, green fruit, lemon, lime and salad herbs, the lees ageing has introduced a nice layer of complexity too. A very good dry white, much more interesting than budget Sancerre – 86/100 points.
Available in the UK from Stone, Vine & Sun @ £9.75. 

2012 Château Marzin, Bordeaux Blanc
Sauvignon Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.
I liked this bright dry white with its crisp green fruit aromas and slightly fatter smoky palate that reduces the impact of the acidity – 85/100 points.

2012 Château Piote, Bordeaux Blanc – although the estate is in Lussac-St. Émilion
70% Sémillon and 30% Colombard.
Virginie Aubrion makes some lovely organic wines and this relatively unusual white blend is very attractive with real herbal characters, even some lavender, and a nice touch of weight on the palate – 85/100 points.

BTBG062012 Château Doms, Graves
60% Sémillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc.
Amélie’s white wine was my absolute favourite here and really is fine. It is unoaked, but still has lovely weight and creamy texture backed up by fresh, crisp acidity, this really punches above its weight. Right now it is fresh and lean with crisp mineral acidity with the texture just adding some plushness and creaminess. It will age well becoming richer and creamier – 90/100 points.

The Cheese Course
Rather than have dessert we took some of our favourite bottles with us and strolled down to the Fromagerie Deruelle which is an amazing cheese shop in Bordeaux’s Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges. I always love cheese shops, they are truly fascinating places to spend some time – the only problem is they always cause me spend far too much money. Deruelle is one of the very, very best cheese shops that I have ever visited with all the cheeses perfectly stored, all clearly labelled and beautifully presented.

P1060566

Part of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

More of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

More of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

Here were treated to a taste of 3 different cheeses to try with a white wine, a rosé and a red wine. The cheeses were:
Palet Frais – a fresh goat cheese from Lot et Garonne.
L’Estive – a (semi) hard sheep cheese from the Basque country.
Fourme de Montbrison – is a hard cow’s-milk cheese made in the Rhône-Alpes and Auvergne.

In my opinion the 2012 Château Les Combes white was the best with the cheeses as it went perfectly with the first and second cheese, the Fourme seemed to overpower everything really, so needed a really big red wine with lots of fruit.

Our cheese tasting.

Our cheese tasting.

The End of the Line
So we were now approaching the end of this wine trip with no winery visits and we finished in one of this lovely city’s trendy wine bars – La Ligne Rouge. Right by the beautiful La Porte Cailhau, La Ligne Rouge is a great place where you can browse the shelves from around the world and buy a bottle to take home or drink there with some cheese or charcuterie. They specialise in artisanal wines, often organic or biodynamic and have a terrific range from across France, especially Roussillon and the Languedoc – Bordeaux wines would seem to be in a minority in their range. Surprisingly they list more wines that come from places other than France and have a great selection from Spain, Austria, Chile, Argentina and much more, so next time you are in Bordeaux drop into this lovely shop…bar…shop – whatever, it’s a great place.

Olivier at La Ligne Rouge.

Olivier at La Ligne Rouge.

This was a wine trip with a real difference and I enjoyed it very much. It was very interesting seeing a totally different side to Bordeaux and experiencing for myself what a terrific place it is to stay, to walk around, to eat in and to drink in.

You could do a lot worse than visit Bordeaux for your next break.

Bordeaux Wine Guide – a user friendly reference book

Like many people who enjoy wine I’m a real hedonist. I like the good and sensual stuff of all types. Wine of course figures very high on the list – it’s how I make my living after all. Food is pretty important too though – in fact I hardly ever eat anything else. Like wine the love of food incorporates so much about culture, travel and history that enjoying different food helps make sense of the world and makes other people interesting rather than alarming – I often wonder what people who don’t like food actually do when they travel – answers on a postcard please.

If I can’t actually have some wine and food or travel somewhere interesting, then the next best thing is to read about it, so I love books. As a consequence I own a lot of books about exotic places, books about food and books about wine. I need a lot of wine books too as I constantly have to look things up and check facts and I don’t like to just rely on Wikipedia!

With Christmas coming I thought it might be nice to tell you about some books that I am enjoying and that all you other hedonists out there might find useful, either for your own pleasure or as gifts for others.

By the way if you were planning on giving me anything, please remember that I already have these!

Three books have caught my fancy of late and I will tell you all about them, but am starting with the one that is purely about wine:

Chris Kissack, aka the Wine Doctor, relaxing with something other than Bordeaux

Pocket Guide to the Wines of Bordeaux
by Chris Kissack
Published by MagBooks at £6.99
Also available from Amazon and on Kindle

I know Chris and like him too, he writes an amazingly fine and encyclopaedic wine website called The Wine Doctor, which I find a very useful resource. Well this is the more portable spin-off – no battery life, wifi or 3G signal required either, just a pocket. Actually my only quibble is with the size of this book, exactly how big are your pockets Chris? At 21 cm X 14.8 cm it doesn’t fit any of mine, but hey I’ll stick it in a bag – or perhaps a Christmas stocking.

Chris does write about other wine regions, but his great speciality is Bordeaux and as it is the largest fine wine region earth and the home of fine wine I can understand why. Just like his website, this book is a labour of love and it shows. Chris is steeped in the wines of Bordeaux (quite literally sometimes) he loves them with a passion so strong you cannot help but be swept along, what’s more he has an incredible eye for detail, so this book is full to bursting with useful information and the odd unexpected nugget. For instance I was unaware that the great Château Haut-Brion have 2 hectares of non-permitted grapes including Pinot Noir and Sangiovese.

In the main I would regard this as a book to refer to rather than sit down and read and I can imagine that it could become an indispensable work of reference for anyone who wants to get serious about the region. The contents are attractive and well laid out with clearly marked sections that have in depth, yet easily digested, chunks on all the topics you need for a working knowledge of the region or for buying Bordeaux wines – whether for drinking pleasure or investment.

Amongst the many good things in here is a detailed look at the vintages from 2003 to 2011 and brief notes on the rest back to 1990. There are profiles and histories of the Premier Cru Classé Châteaux, Chris’s personal selection of the top Bordeaux Châteaux for reds and the great sweet wines of Sauternes as well as his top tips for good value.

As if all that isn’t enough there are sections on how they grow the grapes and make the wines as well as chapters that give you sneaky little insights into all the appellations of the region and the various classifications, from the 1855 (official) to the 2011 (unofficial) along with Graves, St Émilion, Sauternes and Cru Bourgeois.

I had better stop heaping praise on Chris before his head totally explodes, but this is an excellent reference book and I intend to keep my copy handy. It contains pretty much anything you need to make your Bordeaux buying and drinking a less haphazard experience and is a perfect gift for those just starting to get into wine – especially Bordeaux.

I will tell you all about another couple of books very soon, so keep coming back.

Cru Bourgeois – great quality & value from Bordeaux

Cru Bourgeois Clarets – polished and renewed for 2009

Of all the world’s great wine regions it is Bordeaux that is dearest to my heart, for the simple reason that the first really good quality wines that I tasted were from there. Many of you are aware that I love Spanish wines and almost anything left of field, but wherever else I roam I am always drawn back to the red wines of Bordeaux. Sadly I have not been to Bordeaux often enough or, as prices have risen, drunk nearly enough of the stuff and I would very much like to put that right.

Well, recently I was in exactly the right place to start that process. Last year I reported in detail on the new Cru Bourgois classification for the Médoc district of Bordeaux. I attended the first unveiling of the new classification last year and the explanation of the new selection process as well as the principals behind it. If you need to catch up on the background my article from last year explains all – read it here.

That first vintage of the newly revamped Cru Bourgeois was the 2008, the new one is the much more exciting 2009. The tasting panels have now done their work and the results are in and 246 wines have achieved the coveted Cru Bourgeois status for the 2009 vintage – three more than last year’s tally. Having seen the unveiling of the new classification last year I was anxious to see how things were progressing. I had a favourable view of the wines last year, but was slightly concerned that as Cru Bourgeois is a guarantee of a minimum quality that it might lend itself to a sort of general sweeping up of otherwise unclassified wine. So I was pleased to  be able to taste a good representative range of these wines.

Continue reading

A Fine Balance – why expensive wines and cheap wines often bore me

I am feeling increasingly marginalised in the wine world, my view of wine just does not seem to fit the modern market:

The Expensive Side

Books and critics, magazines and the twittering classes talk about the Cru Classés and En primeur Campaigns (what an ugly phrase), but to me that has as much to do with wine as investing money in Laithwaites. It is not really any longer about the wine, but the money and potential for profit. Much the same can be said about the sort of wine that the American magazines often discuss, these rich ‘collectors’ – the word means someone rich enough to buy a lot in this instance – smiling in front of their new purpose built cellar complete with a glass-walled showroom for their Petrus collection – that isn’t about wine either. Neither are the hugely expensive California Cabernets or Super-Tuscans anymore, they are all about esteem, branding, marketing and other people’s perception of your taste and wealth. It is the modern obsession with brand writ large and describing these as wine is a bit like saying that staying at the Peninsular Hotel in Hong Kong is travelling.

These wines can be great, but very few of us can afford to drink them and as they are more often bought for investment hardly anyone does seem to drink them, so in reality there is hardly any point to them from a wine perspective. That is why I mainly ignore such wines and focus on things that are more affordable and interesting – to me.

Continue reading

St Estèphe – a love renewed

I well remember the first time I tried a half decent claret, one that did not have the word on the label that is. How sophisticated I felt and what a revelation it seemed. I shied away from the costly 1982 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose – £4.99 a bottle, how wish I had bought 20 cases or so – and kept to the more modest Château Meyney 1977 Cru Bourgeois St Estèphe at £3.99.

That experience, which was a good one, was pivotal in fixing my view of red Bordeaux wines. From that moment one I knew I liked them, respected them and desired them, sadly I could seldom ever afford them and it has remained that way ever since. Bear in mind too that was in the days when a bad vintage, like 1977, bore no relation to a good one at all – not like now. Continue reading

A pair of elegant red wines

The other day I was fortunate enough to taste two very different wines. They were like chalk and cheese in many ways and yet I think they would appeal to the same sort of drinker.

One was a really classic wine, I know this term is overused, but the wine in question is a Cru Bourgeois Bordeaux that I have tasted on and off throughout my career and one that is much loved by the UK wine trade – Château Caronne Ste Gemme.

The harvest at Château Caronne Ste Gemme

Located just to the south of the commune of St Julien in the Haut-Médoc (number 3 on the map), Caronne Ste Gemme often has some of that famous village’s cedary style, which to many Brits is the quintessence of claret. Unlike the mass of estates further north, this property is on its own, but it occupies some impressively deep, superbly drained, gravel soils which help it to produce concentrated wines from its 45 hectares of vines that are made up of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Petit Verdot and 37% Merlot. Continue reading

Cru Bourgeois reborn

It is a sad fact of wine life that many consumers find French wine terms confusing. Often it is not the fact that they are in French, as much as they are confusing concepts to translate. Cru Classé, Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classé, Premier Cru, Premier Grand Cru Classé all have a meaning that gets somewhat lost in translation. What is more, the same word or phrase can mean subtly different things in various regions of France.

I often tell my students not to go looking for logic in French wine terminology, as that way madness lies.

I really think it is best not to translate them and just to accept them as they are. Strangely I was taught that Cru means ‘growth’, which always struck me as odd and not an easy word to sell to the consumer. Happily, I have researched it myself and discovered that one of its meanings is ‘vineyard’, which is altogether more satisfying and simple to understand.

Replace Cru with vineyard, as well as translating classé and you have; Classified Vineyard, Great Vineyard, Classified Great Vineyard, Premier Vineyard and Premier Classified Vineyard. Which nearly make sense, anyone can tell that these words on a wine label imply that the bottle contains something that is highly regarded by someone. Continue reading