For anyone interested in wine, there is no better way to learn than to visit wineries. This is what I did in Bordeaux between 1st and 6th September this year (2008). Our small group was in the care of Wendy Narby from French Wine Explorers. Wendy was an excellent guide and hostess throughout the week, and as a former Grand Cru chateau owner herself gave us valuable information about all aspects of wine-making in the region.
From our comfortable hotel called the Cordeillan Bages at Lynch Bages we made our way down the D2 road south into the little village Margaux for a look around the great Chateaux Margaux. This First Growth chateau takes visitors by appointment only (and not that many). The immaculate chateau (constructed in 1810) and grounds provide the archetypal image of a wealthy Bordeaux winery. What was inside, however, was of more interest to me. We started in the fermenting room, where the vats are still made in traditional oak, although with the crucial (and now indispensable) addition of metallic coils to control the temperature during fermentation. The issue of oak versus concrete versus stainless steel was one that we came back to again and again during the week.
In the tasting room we tried Chateau Margaux 2004. The wine (which has a high 79% Cabernet Sauvignon content) was a beautiful bright purple colour. The nose was a soaring blast of violets and perfumed flowers, tempered only slightly by some damp earth aromas. On the palate the wine was extremely tightly wound, as one would expect, but with well integrated oak. Redcurrants and red berries dominated the mid palate, but at this stage in its evolution I found it a little lacking in fruit at the finish. It was certainly tart and acidic, and clearly needed at least five more years of cellaring. I scored it 93/100, mainly on account of the wonderful nose.
Lunch was at the elegant Pavillion Rouge restaurant which overlooks the vines of Chateau Margaux. We had two different Margaux reds with lunch. ‘Cru Bourgeois’ (although the classification has this year ceased to exist) Chateau Monbrison 2001 had a floral nose with some sour cherries. The wine filled the mouth pleasantly with chocolate and cherry notes. The finish (as is so often the case with unclassed wines in Bordeaux) let the wine down a little, with a slight souring and drying of the fruit. But a good table wine, which I scored 88 points. Chateau Rauzan-Segla 2002 is a classed growth also from the Margaux appellation. This wine was typically floral and perfumed. The palate was elegant and beautifully integrated. Oak, fruit and acidity were in perfect balance. It was certainly not a blockbuster (as Margaux’s generally aren’t) and perhaps lacked a little complexity for the quality of the terroir, but a delight with our food. 91 points.
After lunch it was back up to Paulliac and to the second First Growth of the day: Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Mouton is at the other end of the scale from Margaux in its approach to visitors, with a plush reception centre and (rather over-stylized) video introduction from the Baroness Rothschild (who took over the running of the property following the death of Baron Philippe de Rothschild in 1988). We raced around the chateau’s impressively modern facilities and sample vine plantings.
The one great thing about visiting chateau in person is that you often get to taste cask samples – which are samples of the current year’s wine before they have been bottled. I was intrigued, as this meant a first taste of the much maligned 2007 vintage.
We tasted cask samples from three of the properties owned by the Rothschild dynasty. Chateau Clerc Milon 2007 (also a Paulliac with terroir located very close to Mouton) was a deep purple edged with dark rose. It was full of intense black fruits and BBQ spices on the nose. On the palate it had a nice balance between fruit and acidity. It was decently presented with a not unimpressive length, but it was lacking a little in ripe fruit at the finish. Not bad at all, and certainly better than I was expecting – 88 points.
Next up was Chateau d’Armailhac 2007. This was deep purple with lilac edges, bright and inviting. The nose was tight with smoke, spices and a little damp wool/earth. The forward palate was not bad although tight and acidic. But the fruit was not strong enough at the finish and a tartness betrayed the difficult ripening conditions. 85-87 points.
It was a treat to taste Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2007 from the cask (although actually it was poured from pre-filled blank bottles). I wrote that the wine was purple and ‘dangerous looking’ in the glass. On the nose I found more damp wool and scorched earth aromas. The wine had a good chewy mouth with good balance and restrained acidity. The oak was harmoniously blended and I also noted a hint of green peppers. The wine had a decent level of complexity with liquorice and black cherries coming through on the mid palate. Pretty good effort for the vintage - 92 points.
Dinner was at the charming le St Julien restaurant in the hamlet of St Julien. The food is excellent and they have a great outside terrace on which to eat on warm summer evenings. With dinner we drank the second wine of St Julien classed growth Chateau Branaire-Durcu. This was ‘Duluc’ 2004. The nose was slightly closed but violent glass twirling coaxed out some rose petal aromas. In the mouth the wine was smooth and well balanced with chewy red fruit flavours and vanilla pod. 88 points. Then we moved up a notch to another classed St Julien Chateau Beychevelle 2004. This nose was an intriguing blend of glowing coals and black fruits. The mouth feel is smooth and harmonious with a velvety quality to it. It was good and I gave it 90 points.
I crawled into my comfortable bed back at Cordelian Bages wondering how professionals taste hundreds of wines in a day when just ten had pretty much exhausted me! But I was certainly looking forward to the rest of my week.