Bordeaux games – part one

Winechap pits Left against Right Bank on a trip to Bordeaux

Visitors who spend time in London soon complain like locals about the crowds, traffic, weather, tourists, Central Line, prices etc… But it only takes a few days outside the capital before they start missing ATMs, sun-dried tomatoes, the presence of elegant footwear and being able to get a cab after 1am. Bordeaux inspires the reverse effect. From a distance, the focus can often be on the arrogance and intransigence of the Bordelais, the unjustifiable prices for vintages both weak (classic) and strong, the increasingly unsustainable en primeur system, and the fact that the Chinese and investment funds have made the top wines eye-wateringly expensive.  

But then you arrive in Bordeaux: passing between Haut Brion and La Mission in Pessac on your way in from Mérignac; a Lillet Blanc on your balcony at The Grand, overlooking the opera house; lunch and wine-celeb spotting at Le Lion d’Or, a short drive north on the D2 up to Saint Julien, left after two of the three Léovilles and onto the gravel-rich soils that produce the world’s greatest Cabernet Sauvignon; Las Cases gives way to the Pichons and Latour, then it’s across the Gironde, taking in the panoramic view from the Place du Clocher in Saint-Emilion; Poulet de Bresse on the terrace at Troplong’s Les Belles Perdrix; Cheval Blanc’s space-age winery; and blinking and missing Le Pin (the world’s greatest two-up, two-down château). And all is more than forgiven and hard to forget.

The team from Château Rigaud (from €14,000 per week for the whole property) was waiting as we taxied in at Bergerac airport and, having stowed various sets of golf clubs and the selection of bordeaux I had brought over from my cellar for the evening’s dinner, we set off towards Castillon, 20 minutes east of Saint-Emilion.

We were greeted on arrival at Rigaud by owners Anna and husband Aib with freshly baked lemon-drizzle cake and our choice from an open bar. One of the château’s many appealing features is that all drinks during your stay are included in the price, at least until you need replacement bottles of spirits.

Anna is quick to remind guests that Rigaud is not a hotel; it’s a catered château. For those who don’t have a beautifully appointed private mansion on the Right Bank with hot and cold running staff, this is as close as it is possible to get. Better, in fact, as you’ll never have to worry about the cost of heating the place in winter.

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The set-up is how you imagine Soho House’s Nick Jones might do things if he decided to open Bordeaux House. The comparison with the group – one of the UK’s most successfully exported franchises – is pertinent, not least because the Barwicks and their entire team are English. Head chef Steve Carss was a disciple of Rick Stein, and his partner in the kitchen, Rupert, was previously with Nathan Outlaw. With groundsman Phil and drivers also hailing from Blighty and even the house white made by an Englishman – the more than competent Château Bauduc, from Gavin Quinney – it’s like Aquitaine was never lost.

To accompany an impressive dinner we fired up a Left-Right (Bank) combo from three of my favourite vintages – 2005, 1996 and 1995. The 2005s were whites – Smith Haut Lafitte, one of the best dry whites from Pessac-Léognan across the river, versus Bernard Magrez’s Château Fombrauge from nearby Saint-Emilion. White bordeaux was more prominent in the UK before the 1990s and the influx of Australian chardonnay, but is now a rare find. This is surprising, given the region is the second-largest producer of Sauvignon Blanc in the world.

The situation needs to be addressed as the quality of the wines has never been higher. Half a decade or so in the cellar allows the Sauvignon to soften and the richer notes of the Sémillon to push through, and this development was particularly evident in the Fombrauge, which had a waxy, banoffee-pie character while the SHL showed more chablis-esque reserve.

The 95s followed ­– Léoville Las Cases and La Croix Saint-Georges. The former – the superior château and a personal favourite, but from a vintage that marginally favoured the wines of the Right Bank, hence supposedly squaring the odds for the Merlot-dominated Saint-Emilion – was monumental. If anything, its youth and the promise of more to come meant that the deliciously supple à pointe Croix was flattered by comparison.

Langoa Barton versus Beau-Séjour Sécot from 1996 was an unfair contest, even with the vintage favouring the patrician and polished Left Bank cabernet, as the latter was out of condition. It would have made a good addition to the gravy that accompanied the excellent roast duck, though.

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Check back on September 22 when Winechap heads to Puy Arnaud’s biodynamic vineyards and on to Domain de Bellevue’s 11th-century caves…

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