Winechap is mid-way through a gambolling wine adventure in Bordeaux…
The next day – as the others went off for a good walk, and after I had lunched alone at the 16-seat dining table, enjoying iced Lillet Rosé and a ham baguette rustled up by Nathan Outlaw’s former sous chef – Anna took me to meet local Castillon wine hero, Thierry Valette. Thierry is an early pioneer of biodynamism. Its principles may still be practised rarely in Bordeaux, but they are finally being taken more seriously thanks to the unalloyed success of Pontet-Canet in Pauillac.
Originally a jazz singer of no small renown, Thierry, with his wiry frame, close-cropped silver hair and piercing cobalt-blue eyes, resembles how a latter-day Sinatra might have looked if he had kept the weight off – only his weathered, soil-hardened vigneron’s hands spoiling the picture. “Bio-dynamism without realism doesn't work,” he said straight off, as if used to allaying the suspicions of the sceptical, but then added gnomically “winemaking is a combination of homeopathy and physiotherapy”.
Amusingly, this is the sort of statement that both the biodynamic movement’s detractors and zealots would leap on to say their point has been proven but, as ever for me, winemakers’ philosophies are only of interest with regards to how they translate into the wine itself – and Puy Arnaud is every bit as reasonable as it is reasoned. The vineyards sit at 90m on the same chalky plateau as chateaux Ausone and Troplong Mondot in Saint-Emilion, benefiting from a very similar geology. The quality of the resultant wine is a reproach to the Bordeaux authorities’ decision to abandon Côtes de Castillon AOC in favour of generic Côtes de Bordeaux. Even Puy Arnaud's modest second wine, Cuvée Pervenche from the difficult 2012 vintage, showed a vitality, intensity and plushness that deserves wider recognition.
That evening we made our way down to Langoiran, whose picturesque iron bridge over the Garonne – an early work by Monsieur Eiffel – is almost directly below the garden terrace of Domaine de Bellevue, in whose 11th-century caves we were to enjoy dinner (first picture). I had become involved with this unique project – a members-only Bordeaux château and associated wine club, previously the subject of an in-depth How To Spend It feature – having met the chateau’s owners and, most importantly, tried the wine variously in London and in situ. Owner/winemaker Jean-Francois Boras hosted us and was enthusiastic about esteemed critic Steven Spurrier’s recent visit, during which he had praised the 2013 Merlot in barrel, one of the few triumphs on the Right Bank from the most taxing vintage since 1991.
The Grand Vin has an unusually high 40 per cent cabernet-sauvignon content, giving a structure, finesse and intense cassis perfume that is more akin to the reds from Graves on the Left Bank than its nearer neighbours on the Right. A vertical from 2013-2006 that showed off the cut of Bellevue's jib accompanied dinner by candlelight. This was followed by cigars and Martinique Rhum – a hangover from Jean-Francois’ days in the French Navy.
We transferred to Bordeaux the next afternoon, specifically the Grand Hôtel (second and third pictures), whose head concierge Julien Manuello and team can always be relied upon to make the arrangements essential for any successful trip – from organising a blind-tasting challenge and 2001 vintage dinner in the Pressoir D'Argent gastronomic restaurant or a hastily arranged picnic with his friend Denis Duffau-Lagarrosse on the terrace of the family's château (complete with their two back-to-back 100-point winning wines – ’09 and ’10) to provisioning for last-minute helicopter requirements and sufficient jeroboams of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs in the hotel's Black Diamond nightclub.
Heading round the corner to Max Bordeaux, a wine shop with a difference (here, with pre-charged cards, you can taste a variety of wines from enomatic machines – from a snifter of Château Marjosse 2007 for €1 to 75cl of 1998 Latour for €175), we conducted a comparison of 2004 and 2007s – Haut Brion and Angelus from the former, La Mission and Margaux from the latter, all drinking pleasantly now with the latter being a nose ahead in the class and aromatic-complexity stakes.
Pape Clément also made a really good ’07, which we sampled during a special tasting before dinner, the compact style of the château more immediately engaging in the lighter vintage. Alongside was the excellent value La Tour Carnet 2009; then one of the very rare Reserve de Magrez ’04 cuvée, with its darker fruit and toastier tannins; and finally, the extraordinary 15.5 per cent Pape Clément Blanc 2010 – all peppered pears, pineapple, vanilla pod, coconut and Brazils.
Dinner in the château's dining room was accompanied by an embarrassment of vinous riches. First was a horizontal of 2000s, arguably the most consistently enjoyable and hedonistic vintage currently drinking. Here Margaux's charming but lightweight Rauzan Segla was beaten to second place by Saint Julien's impressive Léoville Barton, but neither of these could hold a candle to the opulent elegance of the Ducru-Beaucaillou. However, this was ultimately beaten by its older self – the profound 1996 being arguably the wine of the night, although the Montrose 1982 that concluded proceedings certainly argued the point.
What was not in dispute, however, was the untouchable standard that maturing Bordeaux continues to set, with the contents of the bottles justifying (almost) everything that happens around them. If only one could say something similar about living in London….