Recently, I was fortunate enough to have been part of a three-day work visit to the wondrous vino-filled Chateauland that is Bordeaux. I don’t want to spoil the ending or anything, but it was pretty much the best trip of my life.
The aim was to go to meet some producers, taste some 2010s and get a feel for how Bordeaux, and wine-making areas in general, operate. It was my first time visiting proper vineyards and I was super excited, albeit a bit worried about my liver, and making a show of myself in front of my colleagues. As it happens, we all just spent 72 hours being tipsy, snoozing on the bus, wearing silly hats (well, just me, but anyway) and eating more good food than I have had in my whole life combined. Wanna see? Right then.
Chateau La Garde
Landing in Bordeaux at around midday after a 5 hour journey, you could be forgiven for thinking we might want to go straight to our hotel. OH NO. We were on the first coach to Chateau La Garde: in the Pessac-Leognan area of ‘Graves’ on the Left Bank of Bordeaux. Graves is so-called because of its soil: classic gravel. Apparently, ‘graves’ literally means ‘pebbles’, and there were plenty of them about.
It was a bit of a culture-shock, going from airports and taxis and the ‘I’m sorry you can’t take that much toothpaste through customs, you’re a terror risk’-type mentality, to this:
It was so silent, and so idyllic with the timeless red-roofed buildings and green vines stretching as far as you dared to look, it was quickly hard to believe there was a world outside of Bordeaux.
We had a tour in the scorching sunshine, and then we had lunch with Nathalie Schwarz; a dynamic, engaging and exceptionally knowledgeable woman who kept us thoroughly entertained.
- Smoked salmon steaks, served with three white wines, all of which had Sauvignon Blanc as part of the blend, with varying levels of Semillon. They gave the salmon a beautiful zing.
- Roast duck with wild asparagus and spicy mushroom slices (they appeared to give me an ENTIRE duck on my plate), served with three reds of varying ages but all very typical in terms of the Bordeaux blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. They were so tasty with the juicy duck, and had a little spice to match the mushrooms.
- Strong but sweet Comté cheese, with two mature reds that mellowed the cheese and seemed to blend with it as one, and a gorgeous oak-aged white (one of the ones we’d drunk with the salmon) that really enhanced the smokiness.
- Strawberries with a caramalised balsamic glaze, basil and mint. Heaven on such a hot afternoon.
Sorry I can’t be more specific on the wines – we were so tipsy after lunch I neglected to write them down… they were all from La Garde obviously, and were all absolutely exquisitely made.
Nathalie told us that the estate was on the route for the Bordeaux marathon, and each year the runners stop by for a tasting despite having 28km left to run! There is lots of giggling and dancing, and often the runners have to be shooed away to join the rest of the race. Sounds like my kind of marathon.
We then drove to Chateau Haut-Bailly, also in Pessac-Leognan. The afternoon was getting even hotter, and we were sleepy with wine and sun, but their head technician of the vines, Gabriel Vialard, kept us very entertained.
Their vines are planted closely together (only 1m apart) to improve concentration, and he also explained why there are these gorgeous roses at the end of each row of vines:
Roses get the same diseases as vines, but they present signs of them significantly earlier. They’re not just a pretty face: they’re an early warning system.
The cellars were being repainted in preparation for the Bordeaux Wine Festival (which happened in June) – it was like they were getting ready for a Royal Visit.
The tasting this time focussed on vintage, and longevity. It was one of the most informative tasting of the entire trip. The wines we tasted:
- Chateau Haut-Bailly 2010 – A perfect year, this wine is really built to last: it had amazing acidity and grip. This is beautifully concentrated, a marker of great things to come.
- Chateau Haut-Bailly 2009 – fruity, plummy and soft. Made for earlier drinking than the 2010, but of equal quality in the here and now
- Chateau Haut-Bailly 2008 – similarly grippy to the 2010, with interesting minerality and stalkiness – another wine that needs time, but my least favourite of the three.
- La Parde de Haut-Bailly 2008 – the second wine of Haut-Bailly, this has similar complexity but is softer, indicating it isn’t made to last as long as their first wine. Good if you like the quality but don’t have the patience!
We finally got to our hotel – the charming Chateau Pey La Tour Bordeaux Country Club – at around half five. It isn’t what you’d call five-star accommodation, but my goodness are the surroundings beautiful! I’ve always wanted to sleep in a vineyard:
Before I go, (I’ll do part 2 in the next day or two) I just want to show you where we went for dinner that first evening. In the heart of the city of Bordeaux is the most gorgeous Restaurant L’Estacade. When I say it’s on the river, I literally mean on the river – it stands on great big stilts on the water – and it doesn’t get much prettier than this.
We had Champagne to start the night, (and I can’t think why I’m showing you a photo of the person who poured it for us…!) and we liked our surroundings so much we took a photo, silly hat and all:
I must admit the reason I love this photo most is it looks like Craig (the dashing blonde in the middle!) is wearing a giant spike on his head. Bless him, and darn those pesky Church spires.
By silly coincidence we had the same starter and main as we had for lunch (never before have I eaten so much duck in such a short space of time, but I can’t say we complained!) but the dessert was worth a mention: tarte tatin, proper French style. Until that point we’d all be saying how we weren’t used to eating so much, and definitely couldn’t eat anything else. Then out came this resplendent, juicy, sticky dessert with the softest vanilla ice cream. I don’t think any of us left any.
And then, as it got dark, we were met with sights like this:
If I didn’t feel drunk on the wine (and… well, I think we all did, actually) then I’d have been utterly trollied on the surroundings anyway.
Magnifique. More soon…