Annie Harris puts her taste buds to the test on a tour of Bordeaux’s vineyards
Sitting alongside the Garonne river, the city of Bordeaux is surrounded by its world-famous vineyards. To the north is the Médoc and the communes of Margaux, Pauillac, St Julien and St Estèphe; to the south, the Graves and Sauternes; and to the east, St Emilion, Pomerol and Fronsac, known collectively as the Right Bank.
As well as being beautiful, the region produces the world’s highest concentration of fine wines, so is an ideal location for learning about the art of wine making.
I’m headed for Château Pape Clément, one of three gorgeous châteaux that Bordelaise legend Bernard Magrez has transformed into boutique hotels to host his new luxury wine tours.
Being a working vineyard of great repute, I hope to get an insider’s view of one of the most famous wine regions and discover some of the secrets of producing world-class vintages.
The French, as we know, are not short on style, and my journey starts by being collected from Bordeaux airport in a 1958 vintage Bentley (previously owned by Ian Fleming) for the short 20-minute journey to Pape Clément, where I am warmly welcomed and escorted to a typically French country house-style room.
Its shuttered windows overlook the vineyard, the room is decorated in muted greys and linden green, and the walls are hung with impressionist paintings by Bernard Buffet.
Above the bed is the canvas that was used as the 2000 Pape Clément wine label, part of Magrez’s expansive personal art collection. The room’s elegance is enhanced by an impressive black Baccarat crystal chandelier and matching Baroque fireplace.
Refreshed after a gourmet picnic in the grounds, I spend the afternoon exploring the estate, being expertly guided around the cellars and vat rooms by the wine director, Arnaud Lasisz.
He explains every step of the process, from hand-picking and de-stemming the grapes to fermentation, maturing, blending and bottling. The cellars here have wine dating back to 1893.
Next is a tasting in which I am guided through the identification of the classic flavour notes and the importance of the terroir – the special characteristics of the soil.
Château Pape Clément Grand Cru Classé is produced in the Graves region and the red wine uses 60 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 40 per cent merlot. The key flavours are wild berries, cherry, chocolate, a touch of smokiness, hints of oak and fatness – I’m no expert, and it takes me a bit of time to pinpoint some of the profiles, though I find the whites a little less challenging.
I never knew wine had structure, legs and so much personality.
That evening, I discover there is as much passion for gastronomy as for wine in Bordeaux. Dinner at the château includes local delicacies such as foie gras, truffles, duck and oysters and, when paired with Pape Clément wines, those tasting notes are brought to life. This is definitely wine to be enjoyed with food.
My palate now heightened and attuned, I spend the next day touring the other Magrez châteaux. Not by road, though – what would otherwise be a two-hour drive between properties can be done in 20 minutes by helicopter.
From the sky you can wonder at the hundreds of châteaux below, the sparkling river snaking through the vineyards and medieval villages.
The first stop is Château La Tour Carnet, the oldest in the Médoc. Its 12th-century house is moated and surrounded by immaculate gardens, which lead on to 32 hectares of vineyards.
I am met by winemaker Jonathan Martinet, who gives me a chance to test my new tasting skills and try to identify the fruity flavours. I am starting to recognise the difference – the wines of Haute-Médoc seem a little fresher and lighter, with a hint of blackberry.
I then head for Château Fombrauge in Saint-Emilion. Travelling to the Right Bank, the scenery changes to pretty rolling hills, the town’s sandstone buildings glowing in the sunshine – the jurisdiction is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
En route, I take a detour from the winemaking and explore the centre of Saint-Emilion. I wander around the maze of narrow cobbled streets and squares dotted with cafés, stopping to enjoy the atmosphere with a macaroon and an afternoon coffee before embarking on the next château tour.
Fombrauge is the biggest estate in Saint-Emilion with a 500-year-old history, a former Carthusian monastery that has been producing wine since the 16th century. There is so much attention to detail here – the bespoke barrels, the careful selection of oak, and the optimum timing of the harvesting.
I have high expectations when it comes to the tasting and I’m not disappointed – the wines are lush and aromatic, and, even better, I correctly identify the notes of cherry and chocolate that previously evaded me. Cheers to that.
- Luxury Wine Tourism can arrange one- to four-night bespoke tours. luxurywinetourism.fr
Bordeaux classification explained
Bordeaux is classified in more detail than any other wine region. Each sub-region has a different term for each rank of quality – for example, in the Médoc, Premier Cru signifies the highest quality of wine, while in Burgundy, Premier Cru is a step below the highest, which is Grand Cru. Confused? Here’s an explanation of the differences.
The Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855, a list of the top-ranked wines, named the Grand Crus Classés (Great Classified Growths).
Being classified carries the mark of high prestige, and the list has remained largely unchanged for centuries. Within the Grand Cru Classé list, wines are further ranked and placed in one of five divisions: Premier,?Deuxième, Troisième, Quatrième and Cinqièmes Cru.
The highest rank of Premier Cru has five wines. Four come from the Médoc region – Château Lafite Rothschild, Château Margaux, Château Haut-Brion and Château Mouton Rothschild – the last of these promoted to Premier Cru status in 1973 after decades of lobbying by its owner, Baron Philippe de Rothschild. The fifth, Château Haut-Brion, is produced in Graves.
Sauternes and Barsac
The top producers here were also given classifications in 1855. Château d’Yquem was the only producer given as a Premier Cru Supérieur Classé status, while 11 were designated as Premiers Crus Classés and 12 as Deuxièmes Crus Classés.
Some of the Premiers Crus Classés producers have been divided into smaller estates, increasing the number of Premiers Crus Classés to 15.
Some 16 châteaux were classified as Crus Classés in 1953. This list has been revised once, in 1959.
In 1954, 11 producers were classified as Premiers Grands Crus Classés, and 53 were designated Grands Crus Classés. The list is revised every ten years.
Bordeaux’s smallest wine-growing region has avoided the complicated classification process and was not included in the 1855 classification – labels read “Appellation Pomerol Contrôlée”. Its most famous château is Petrus, which produces one of Bordeaux’s most expensive red wines.