Friday, 10 September 2010

Day 36 – Bordeaux begins...

After a four hour drive, with a little break for lunch, I arrived in the ‘Bordeaux’ wine region, more specifically the town of Blaye (pronounced ‘Bligh’), situated right on the Gironde river. I went straight to the little port, as tomorrow I intended to take the 20 minute ferry ride across the Gironde to LaMarque in the Haut-Médoc.

Across the Gironde to Médoc

Unfortunately, when I arrived to confirm the sailing times, there was a notice to tell me that the ferries were striking tomorrow! So, I will have to take the 2 hour long way round by road... A little frustrating with the short notice, but there’s nothing to be done, so best to make the most of it.

I decided, therefore, to ease my frustration by tasting a few wines from the local appellations at the Maison du Vin. They really must choose their staff based on friendliness and helpfulness, as the lady was delighted to facilitate a little tasting, so I tried 4 wines, 2 whites, then 2 reds:

1. AOC Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux – Château Monconseil Gazin 2009 (white) – A 90/10 Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon blend with a flinty, citrus nose (slightly floral) and grapefruit and floral on the palate with a mineral aftertaste.

2. AOC Premières Côtes de Blaye 2008 - Château du Grand Barreil - «La Révélation» Des Vignobles Denis Lafon – This 90/10 Sauvignon Blanc/Muscatel had a raisin and vanilla nose and to be honest a little planky (not subtle wood!), but to taste a rounder citrus fruit flavour with a very subtle smokiness.

3. AOC Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux (Grand Vin de Bordeaux) - Château des Matards 2008 – This 80/15/5 blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc had a nose of red and black cherries, hints of blackberry and cinnamon and on the palate, cherries and currants, with tannins and the heat of the alcohol. For me, it was too young, the parts hadn’t yet integrated, but another 2 or 3 years and I think this would be very nice indeed.

4. AOC Blaye – Château Montfollet 2007 – Aromas of rich dark fruits; blackcurrant, black cherry, plums even, as well as dark chocolate. In the mouth the dark cherries, more like conserve with good tannins, ooh and a little note of coffee!

I took the opportunity to walk around the citadel at Blaye, built as a defence on the estuary against the English; beautifully preserved with quaint cobblestone streets and wonderful views across the estuary to Médoc on the other side.

I made my way the few kms to Pontet, my resting-place for the night and was warmly welcomed by the owner, who, when I explained what I was doing in France, asked if I would be interested in accompanying 2 of her other guests to a tasting at a local vineyard that evening... Oh course, I said “Yes, please!”

I was told the couple were American, but when I met them, while they now live in Washington DC, only the wife, Jennifer, is American, hailing from Ohio, while her husband, Adrien, is in fact French from the Auvergne.

We enjoyed a two and a half hour visit to La Bretonnière vineyard, where the owner, Stéphane Heurlier, took us through the whole winemaking process... He was absolutely passionate about his craft and his product, even so far as to source different barrels to age the different wine types, before blending, to find the wood most sympathetic to the individual grape variety.

Once again, a superbly warm welcome and a joy to listen to someone just so enthusiastic about what they do. Surprisingly, he had only started making wine in 1992 when he returned to France from working in New York. His family background is one of crop farming in Northern France, but he had always had an interest in wine and decided to do this.

So, to his wines – M. Heurlier has two vineyards, one here and one further south near Bourg, which falls within the Côtes du Bourg appellation:

1. AOC Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux – Château La Bretonnière 2009 (white) – A 20/50/30 blend of Sauvignon Blanc/Sauvignon Gris/Sémillon with a citrus/yellow grapefruit nose and an elegant fine citrus flavour on the palate – a subtle floral note as well.

2. Now, for this one, no AOC just yet... this was a very special white wine made by literally going through the vines, grape by individual grape and selecting the best to make a blend in the same proportion as before and fermenting in barrels. On the nose, the vanilla and a slight hazelnut aroma were detectable, but to taste... an elegant raisin, apricot blossom just off-dry wine. It was stunning. Unfortunately not for sale!

3. Château La Bretonnière 2009 – Clairet – This is not strictly a rosé wine, but it is certainly not red… It’s just the saignée process has been extended to give a rich deep pink wine, which is served chilled like a rosé. The blend was 95/5 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon and when you smelled the wine, it was just like strawberry jam and similarly strawberries to taste. There were slight tannins, but this added to the wine. The finish was long and just a fabulous alternative to those rosés that make you wince...this was beautiful.

4. AOC Premières Côtes de Blaye – Château La Bretonnière 2006 (red) – An 85/15 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon, which he explained, was made up of 10 to 15% of wine aged in barrels, the rest in the stainless steel tanks. On the nose, this was cherries and blackberry and to taste: quite a light red fruity wine, with hints of blackberry and mild tannins.

5. AOC Côtes du Bourg – Château Tour de Guiet 2007 (red) – A 70/30 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which smelled of red cherries and hints of strawberries. To taste, it was very fruity, notes of plum jam and integrated tannins which gave a nicely rounded wine.

6. AOC Premières Côtes de Blaye – Château La Bretonnière 2006 (red) – the difference between this and ‘4.’ is that this wine was completely aged in oak, which was immediately obvious on the nose, alongside the cherry and plum aromas. To taste, a very structured wine, where the oak gave a smoky quality to the ripe plum and cherry flavours. There were more tannins, but they were integrated into the wine perfectly.

7. AOC Côtes du Bourg – Château Tour de Guiet 2002 (red) – A 70/30 Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon blend which had been aged in oak. Deep rich plum aromas filled the nose and these were repeated in the flavours in the mouth along with a sweet spiciness and from the oak, hints of coffee.

M. Heurlier’s passion and attention to detail are definitely paying dividends as he is producing some excellent wines. For those drinking wine, it is lucky he is situated in the not so well known Côtes de Blaye, because if he had a reputed AOC, I think these wines would be much more expensive.... and deservedly so! One to look out for!

We bid farewell to the vineyard and headed back to the château... Jennifer and Adrien kindly invited me to join them for dinner at a local restaurant, L’Escale (I think.... it doesn’t matter, as I wouldn’t ever recommend it!!)

The three of us walked up the road to the restaurant and I went through the usual rigmarole of explaining I was vegetarian. Well, we had a really grumpy waitress who really wanted to be as unhelpful as possible... Even Adrien, a French chef, was quite surprised (unpleasantly) at the attitude, but it wasn’t just directed at me... Jennifer’s tuna was overcooked and there was a distinct lack of care to the table... wrong size glasses, no glasses, missing cutlery.

BUT... even the worst of service and the most mediocre of food can be made up for with good company... and that I did have. Jennifer and Adrian are a really lovely couple; we talked easily and I felt completely comfortable in their company for knowing them only a few hours. We ended up just laughing and thoroughly enjoying the evening, even when we got soaked in a heavy shower of rain on the walk home!

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