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A panoramic trip through French wine country

A wine blogger on his spectacular helicopter trip across Bordeaux

A panoramic trip through French wine country

Image: Cher MacNeill

November 24 2011
Tom Harrow

There is really only one way to travel around Bordeaux: by helicopter. First, you don’t have to rely on the region’s insufficient number of bridges to cross the rivers and, if you’re foolish enough to travel during the peak seasons, you’ll avoid the traffic and camera flashes along the sections of roads with a greater concentration of the more famous châteaux. It’s also much harder for the unremittingly vigilant gendarmes lining the routes to pull you over when you’re travelling at 120mph, 5,000ft above their scurfy heads.

Second, in the air you also realise in a much less tedious manner than crawling across the ground how sizeable and spread-out the region is. For example, to have lunch at Chez Pascal in St Emilion after a late-morning tasting in the cellars of Cos D’Estournel (a cross between Blofeld’s lair and the Buddha Bar) in St-Estèphe, then back across the Gironde for a visit to Léoville-Las Cases in St-Julien before turning south and arriving in good time to enjoy the vinotherapy spa in Pessac’s Les Sources de Caudalie before your Lillet aperitif, makes a chopper a must-have. And finally: when you’re airborne, châteaux are similar in size to the ones on their labels – identifying them in this way as you hover closer will never cease to entertain.

Bordeaux doesn’t really do sparkling wine (apart from the occasional, rather indifferent, crémant sauvignon and semillon), which was enough of an excuse to launch into another altitude tasting on the LearJet out from Farnborough. Intriguing observations and conclusions from our previous trial are available on winechap.com, but it was interesting once again to note the effects that cabin pressure and air quality had on different champagnes. Barnaut’s Grand Cru Bouzy blanc de noirs performed stoutly as expected, but the St Apollinaire Avize Grand Cru blanc de blancs from Leclaire, while less figgy and Bovrily, was surprisingly robust and hung on to its pleasing mousse impressively.

Landing at Mérignac, we were slightly delayed taking off in the helicopters as had to wait for the fog to roll up and out past the river bank, exposing the myriad fishing huts that project into the shallows on stilts from the vineyards and fields abutting the Garonne and Gironde. However, once we were aloft, the late-morning sun soon burnt away any lingering vapours, yielding a glorious panorama as we rotored from the south of the city north.

Swapping to the present tense solely for effect, I spot Giscours and then Boyd-Cantenac as we then sweep up past an old favourite – Palmer – and take a long roll around Château Margaux, unarguably the Medoc’s most impressive mansion. Then we are over the priceless heart of the region; its ventricle and aorta, St Julien and Pauillac, yielding first Beychevelle and Ducru-Beaucaillou then Langoa Barton and next the contrasting Léoville Poyferré (the most improved wine of the last two years) and Las Cases (perhaps the most consistent in all Bordeaux). Another pair, this time Pichons Baron and Lalande, follow with the surprisingly diminutive Latour (pictured) off to our right; now we are above Lynch Bages and the town of Pauillac itself with Grand Puy Ducasse practically nestled among the spires. Pontet Canet (now fully embracing biodynamism) marks the northern frontier before we enter the Rothschilds’ domaine(s): d’Armailhac then Mouton and now Clerc Milon and Duhart Milon are channelling us towards the holy grail Lafite which of course one expects to be glistening gold or at least have fireworks surrounding it like the Disney castle, but no: just building works.

The anti-climax is soon forgotten as we cross into St Estèphe, and I point out Cos d’Estournel, then Montrose further up, Meyney (ever dependable Cru Bourgeois) and finally Calon Ségur as our northernmost bound. Banking sharply, we return, passing Lafon Rochet, Grand Puy Lacoste, Haut Batailley and Lagrange before coming in to land for lunch.

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