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When winemaking becomes obsessive-compulsive disorder

Part two of our guest blogger’s Bordeaux wine odyssey

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When winemaking becomes obsessive-compulsive disorder

Image: Cher MacNeill

November 27 2011
Tom Harrow

Wine blogger Tom Harrow has embarked on a helicopter trip of Bordeaux wine country.

Our destination was La Tour Carnet, its moat filled with black swans and interior walls adorned with inscriptions by Montaigne, whose family once owned the estate. While its reds are getting better and better (as evidenced by a vertical with our truffled veal), we started with the château’s white: two vintages, five years apart, to show how the grassy and vibrant sauvignon, which defines the wine in youth, gives way to the gentler complexity of the semillon with time. Bordeaux blanc was once the mainstay of the UK’s mid-market before a dreadful vintage in ’91, and some entrepreneurial Australians brought an end to its serious production. However, the region continues to produce a large volume of sauvignon grapes (more in fact than anywhere else in the world apart from the Loire, with its Sancerre and Pouilly Fumé) and the best producers, mostly in Pessac to the south, make some wonderful wines that remain the preserve of the cognoscenti. Subsequent flying around after lunch aided digestion and a tasting across the river at Fombrauge in St Emilion (just for the sake of it) revived us from post-prandial slumber in time for dinner.

We were staying at Pape Clement, the flagship estate and personal office of Bernard Magrez, one of Bordeaux’s and in fact France’s most significant individuals. Monsieur Magrez has 35 wineries around the world under his banner, 10 in Bordeaux, others in Languedoc-Roussillon and Spain, others still as far afield as Morocco, Uruguay and Japan. However, Pape Clement remains the jewel in the crown, a recent re-classification by Liv-Ex, the Fine Wine Exchange, indicating that it deserved 2nd growth status. On a previous stay, I interviewed its patrician proprietor, who remains a dynamic if controversial force in Bordeaux, and asked if he saw any comparison between himself and Clement V (the heresiarch pope after whom the château is named), an iconoclast who moved the papacy to Avignon in the 14th century and fractured Christendom for three generations. Sufficient time must have passed since the deathly pause that followed that enquiry, as his handshake seemed warm enough on this occasion. I also have a heavy beard these days.

Rather rudely, we did not drink any wines from the Magrez stable at dinner, preferring instead a vertical of one of my favourite Bordeaux, Clos du Marquis (the ’96 by far the most compelling), a nice exposition of which is to be found in the notes of friends The Critical Couple (www.thecriticalcouple.com). Pape Clement (second picture: the crypt) has been restored to period splendour, with the addition of modern en-suite bathrooms in all of its five bedrooms; Dangerous Liaisons – just more sanitary.

The next morning, en route south to Sauternes, as we were driving between Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion, one of our party observed that the last time he had dined there had been with proprietor Madame Dillon, her son the Prince of Luxembourg, and Bill Clinton. The latter’s presence had resulted in an enthusiastic plundering of the château’s private reserves to accompany dinner, as the previous American president to visit had been Thomas Jefferson, the renowned Bordeaux enthusiast and avid collector of Haut Brion. We had a more humble repast in Sauternes at a little place full of locals and vineyard workers who periodically threw piles of dried vines on an open fire on to which simply seasoned Charolais beef sirloins were laid to take the bleu out of the flesh. This was of course a perfect opportunity to enjoy the sublime pairing of foie gras and sauternes, a combination whose origin here is almost certainly accompanied by a picturesque and wholly apocryphal tale. I had the woodcock instead. There was only one sweet wine from the region I was interested in sampling that day.

D’Yquem (first picture) is literally in a league of its own. During the Bordeaux classification of 1855, it alone was designated Premier Grand Cru Classe; a solitary A* above the pedestrian A’s of Latour, Lafite, Margaux and Haut Brion. It has been suggested that if you combine the elegance of Climens and the power of Rieussec, its greatest rivals, you can approach its stature, in some vintages at least. Such a bizarre alchemical experiment, while amusing, would ennoble none of the parties involved. It also stands apart, again literally, on the highest peak in Sauternes, looking and lording it over all the other estates. This exposition and aspect contribute to its continuing dominance almost as much as its commendable devotion to elitism: while many viticulturists talk with pride about the rigorous selection process that goes on in the vineyard and sorting tables during the harvest, none come as worryingly close as D’Yquem to showing the hallmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder. You may choose to believe that talk of multiple passes (or tries, as they are known) through the vines, picking only those individual grapes that show sufficiently advanced botrytis, is fanciful, but the many forlornly discarded bunches, with less than half a dozen berries plucked from their number, attest to the truth of this savage selection. Or the pickers are just lazy.

Next we crossed the river and headed to St Emilion, passing the brand new winery building at Le Pin in Pomerol. This rarest and most exquisite of all the garagiste wines on the Right Bank famously boasted quite the most nondescript of structures: a shack, not a château, with laundry more likely to be fluttering than flags, more prosaically it now had a neat, modern complex to house its almost priceless contents. The town of St Emilion is the Bordeaux of postcards and imagination and it is very charming, although the very steep, cobbled streets encourage one to look down as much as around at the various pretty boutiques and cafés. Like Siena, it is no place for heels – and I don’t imagine President Sarkozy visits often.

Dinner at the two-Michelin-starred Hostellerie de Plaisance was playful and highly adept. There is no menu – one concedes to the suggestions of chef Philippe Etchebest, a smart move given that he is a formidable gastronomic talent but also a former rugby professional and boxing champion; if he had suggested I sit on the floor and eat sugar cubes with some dishwater before helping de-crumb the tables, I would have cravenly acquiesced with gusto. He didn’t, thankfully, and dinner, even well out of range of a flying tackle or five-punch combo, was excellent and an opportunity for me to host a horizontal tasting of 2003 vintage. Canon La Gaffelière, Bon Pasteur and Lynch Bages all showed that this atypical and rapidly maturing vintage nevertheless currently offers very attractive drinking, hedonistic and blowsy almost, but generous, yielding and supple.

Part Three of Tom Harrow’s account of his trip will be published on Wednesday November 30.

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