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‘Port de la Lune’ – A wine odyssey 2012


La Place de la Bourse

May/June 2012

‘Port de la Lune’ is the nickname given to Bordeaux because of its crescent moon shaped river, the Garonne which meanders from the Atlantic through the heart of the city. Since my trip here last year Bordeaux 2011- My Première Vintage I had wanted to return. And so it was, in late May I was on my way back to Bordeaux. This time with my good friend & wine buff Paddy. In advance, we had organised a trip to Chateau d’Yquem in Sauternes just south of Bordeaux. This Premier Cru Supérieur is the most expensive white wine in the world and would be a trip highlight for us both. However, we also booked our trip coinciding with the Lalande de Pomerol ‘Open Doors’ wine festival on 2nd & 3rd June. Tantalisingly close to Bordeaux, it seemed a great trip add-on, these Right Bank wines have a great reputation, but are overshadowed by their headline-grabbing neighbours in Pomerol & Saint-Émilion . We share an interest in learning the stories behind wine labels, so this would be a great opportunity to do so.

Lalande de Pomerol festival

With last years trip still fresh in my memory, the familiar flight from Edinburgh arrived at around 2.30pm local time. Taking the shuttle bus into town, we passed through Mérignac and looked out for Meriadeck. A few locals helped out by escorting us to our hotel beside the Palais de Justice tram stop. Getting our bearings didn’t take long in this bright sunny day. Grabbing a baguette to sit in the Place Gambetta, a small central park which is now a rather large oblong roundabout. This peaceful leafy setting was once where 300 people were guillotined during the ‘Reign of Terror’ that followed the French Revolution. Sitting in the sun, we made our plans for the day. After this late lunch, the tourist information was high on the agenda. We had no plan or clue how to get to Lalande de Pomerol other than knowing it was in the countryside near Libourne. I confidently thought since it was near Saint Emilion, that we could just jump a bus or taxi from there. But it was soon apparent that it wasn’t that easy. Many of the chateau’s for this festival were spread out and could only really be done by car. I enquired about car rental which would have been fine but for the fact that one of us could not then drink. Still a couple of days away, we had time to think about it.

Place de Comedie in a full moon

Reacquainting myself with the Cafe on Place de Comedie, we took time out from the warm sun to enjoy a cold beer, watching the trams and people moving around. I checked inside the bar to see my legendary Armagnac from the previous years visit. So much to see, I was keen to show Paddy some of the great things this city has to offer. Max Bordeaux’s wine emporium followed window shopping at top Bordeaux wine merchants. Central Bordeaux is quite easy to enjoy and its only when you enter the old town that its narrow streets can lose you. We opted for crowd-pleaser L’entrecote for dinner. Its simplistic bistro style has the efficiency and consistency levels seen in fast food chains but has charm where dinner formality is dispensed with, letting the art of conversation take centre stage. A family favourite, its set menu of green salad with walnuts and dressing to start is followed by Steak frites in a Café de Paris sauce. Waitresses danced around delivering the same dishes to everyone. Straw fries were silver-served and devoured with ease. The simple table wine with the restaurants name on the label is the only wine available and holds the history of this successful business. From its family vineyards Château de Saurs, they bought a restaurant in 1959 to create a route to market, its success continues to this day with restaurants throughout France.

l’Entrecote- Bordeaux

Conveniently across the road is l’École du Vin’s Bar a Vin, a must-visit for any wine-lover staying in Bordeaux. Paddy was overwhelmed by the decor, the wines and the value at 2-4 euros a glass. After chatting wine with our host, an Englishman who had been Head Sommelier for one of Marco Pierre White’s restaurants, we had some quite fantastic wines. A chilled glass of Chateau Haura 2009 Cerons- an 80% Semillon 20% Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine. A hidden gem from Pierre & Denis Dubourdieu, who are considered one of the top specialist in the wine-making process and the aging of white wines, this wine incredible finesse and was enjoyed several times over the course of our trip. We also tried the crisp white 2010 Graves- Chateau Haut-Selve, and the rich fruit driven Bordeaux-Right Bank 2009 Chateau Saint-Georges St Emilion. We found out quite quickly that a wine course at the wine school would be out of the question, it was booked until September. Afterwards a walk through the old streets to Porte Dijeaux an 18th century city gate led to a night cap & some late evening people watching at Cafe Dijeaux which overlooks Place Gambetta.

Morning brought clarity to our trip itinerary. Seeing an open-air concert being set up in Parliament square, discovering a big wine tasting at Bar a Vin and the heatwave continuing over the weekend, helped us decide to spend more time exploring Bordeaux. Brunch was on the go from one of the Paul boulangeries. Walking into town, we were drawn to a street market of producers from the central French region of Auvergne and tried their deliciously creamy Saint-Nectaire cheese for the first time. I stopped to buy formal shorts on the busy Rue Sainte-Catherine. We decided to join an afternoon open top city bus tour, not something I’m a major fan of doing but had been won over on a Florence city bus tour a few years ago. However, it was not long before we realised the driver was pretty much only that. Although pleasant enough, Bordeaux is just as nice seen by foot and when he rattled his tip jar just before the end more vigorously than his performance as a tour guide, we smirked his effort. Ice cream at a posh boutique followed in the Les Grand Hommes shopping mall. On the mall’s lower level Paddy bought some Brie de Meaux from a stallholder who had just won awards. An early dinner at chain-place Hippopotamus on Cours de l’Intendance was actually quite good. Freshly made Caesar salad and a perfectly cooked grilled Steak set up a big weekend night out. Once we headed for the bustling l’École du Vin’s Bar a Vin and tasted some remarkable wines on show. Château Carbonnieux Blanc from Pessac-Leognan, 2005 Château Le Crock from Saint-Estèphe, 2007 Château La Conseillante from Pomerol and 2003 Cru Bordenave a Sauternes (70% Sauvignon Blanc,20% Semillon,10% Muscadelle).

Afterwards in the old town an English speaking French girl who had lived in Brighton recommended we try Café Brun for a drink, which was a great choice. After a Leffe Ruby beer in Café Brun, we followed a mass of people filing down the narrow streets to Parliament square. Sharp eyes from Paddy got us a free table at Cafe L’Ombrière with prime view of the DJ set that was about to start. While Paddy stuck to his favourite Sauternes, I ordered a cooked Armagnac, but not by intention. So I went to bar to find that the Cafe kept the good stuff next to the cooking area. Anyway, Paddy charmed our neighbouring table by buying the birthday girl a rose. After the music stopped around 1am, people moved on and we followed the crowd to find a late drink. Down a narrow street packed with people we stumbled upon 07 club, which I didn’t like the look of but Paddy was already in and it turned out a good night. After leaving, we got chatting away to some locals and headed home but went the wrong way down rue Sainte-Catherine 3am and reached Victoire thinking it was Porte Dijeaux! Luckily the trams were still going and we got back to Hotel de Ville stop and our hotel was only a short walk from there.

a hot day in Bordeaux

 

Morning brought bright sunshine. The beauty of our hotels location was the lovely 10 minute stroll into the centre, passing the imposing Bordeaux University and past the Saint Andre Cathedral. We picked today for a relaxing, helped by a fuzzy head.By lunchtime it was a searing 100F with no a cloud in the sky. Some fast food at lunchtime helped clear the fuzziness and a wander around the shops on the busy rue Sainte-Catherine led to us perusing an extensive display of Riedel glasses in Galeries Lafayette. Because it was too hot we decided it was the perfect time to visit the wine museum. Only a couple of stops on line B tram took us from Quinconces to Chartrons. Music and tannoy commentary from a skateboard park drew us over the road by the riverside to watch the competition. Beside the SkateParc is Hangar 14, a modern waterfront redevelopment event hosting venue. We had a great view up the Garonne river to the sky-filling Pont Bacalan-Bastide, a bridge under construction that will rise high in the sky to let tall ships pass through. The heat was now becoming unbearable so we headed into the Chatrons district, the historical trading area for Brodeaux. Now we walked through the quiet streets with cafes, antique shops and a residential area with traditional buildings with wooden shutters.

Wine and Trade Museum

The Wine and Trade Museum gives you an incredible insight to the origins and growth of the wine trade. Some interesting facts about the city’s turbulent history. Like Britain’s rule of the city for nearly 300 years in the Middle Ages with the marriage of  Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The bottle is an English invention from the 16th century and it was Irishman, Mr Mitchell who created the first bottle factory at Chatrons. It was the Dutch who introduced Sulphur processes in preserving wine in the 17th century. Later, in the 19th century, Château Cos d’Estournel owner Louis Gaspard d’Estournel started a new fashion of sending wine to India, for them to age faster from the heat and ship rolling, making it ready to drink on its return. Well worth the visit we then checked out a colourful semi-naked art collection before tasting some Bordeaux wines and watched a short film about the Bordeaux wine regions. Feeling much rejuvenated, we walked back to town by the river passing a large cruise ship docked next to the Quinconces. Shaded trees were filled with family picnics and people relaxing in the heat. A late afternoon stroll led to Lillets aperitifs and a walk through the old town. Without much thought we walked passed many restaurants and made the mistake of picking a random choice for dinner at Les Provinces next to Cafe Brun on Rue Saint-Rémi, not exactly the authentic South-Easten French cuisine we were looking for, truly forgettable experience. However, our spirits were high ahead of a planned Organic wine tasting at l’École du Vin’s Bar a Vin.

Biodynamic tasting at Bar a Vin

Our cheese board for the Biodynamic wine tasting was a hit-list of some of my personal favourite French cheeses: Ossau Iraty Bio, Comté Marcel Petite Bio, Tomme d’Aquitaine Bio. Our choice of the Biodynamic wines tasted were; Grand cru Vieux Pourret Dixit – St Emilion, Chateau La Croix De Roche & Chateau Petit Bichon – Graves. France has a rich history in natural husbandry and so this was just a small but impressive selection on offer. A great tasting and evening of French wine and cheese chat. On our exit we were unexpectedly met with a change in weather. The air cooled, a light breeze and dark skies opened to release a monsoon style deluge of rain. Midway to safety we made a run for the Opera House as lightening lit the whole sky around us. Loud rumbles of thunder were not far behind. We made it to the steps but were soaked in the process. Under the stunning archway canopy of the Opera House we watched people run towards us screaming for shelter. The thunder and lightening continued while we waited for it to pass. Like drowned rats we eventually went in to dry off in the opulent old worldly Opera House cafe. Ornate decor with chandeliers and tall grand pillars centering the large room. Luckily we got a table and guests looked round at us and others ill-prepared for the weather. This was old school clientele, lots of American accents and well-heeled tourists. “Deux bières, s’il vous plait” was our cautious order. We gazed up at the ornate ceiling and in there it was like their was no storm outside at all. Thinking that the storm had passed, we went outside but the rain was still lashing down and bouncing off the stone square. Taking initiative from others we ran towards the tram shelter only 100 yards or so away. Soaked through in this short run we then jumped a tram only minutes later to the Hotel de Ville stop. Met with more heavy rain, we asked locals for the best way back for us. It was to run behind the Saint Andre Cathedral and take the tram stop again only another 100 yards. Nearing the stop with other runners in the dark trying to make the small glass covered shelter a guy in an electric wheelchair was caught up in the panic of people and crashed into a tree. I was right behind him, so I grabbed the chair and turned him around to get him to the safety of the tram shelter. On our one stop to Palais de Justice, the very busy tram was full of ill-prepared people chatting about the dramas. Another run the couple of hundred yards back to hotel led to splashing puddles and wet feet. What a dramatic change in weather.

Grand Regent Hotel and taking shelter at the Opera House

Next morning there were no signs of the previous nights bad weather. Our late Sunday morning stroll through town saw us drop by some market stalls beside the Opera house before darkening skies returned and led us to get the 302 bus to Saint-Émilion from beside the tourist office. Others joined us on this well-trodden day trip to the hilltop medieval village and tour of the Right Bank countryside. I still held hopes of trying to get to at least one of the Lalande de Pomerol events. Strolling up the side of Saint-Émilion we passed Grand Cru Classé vineyards. Wines with just Grand Cru after them aren’t as grand as they sound or as in Burgundy. Popping into the village tourist office, the impromptu inquiry only confirmed the lack of local transport links to nearby Lalande de Pomerol. Luckily we were already in one the worlds most beautiful wine areas and World Heritage site of Saint Emilion. We stopped at Le Bistrot du Clocher for lunch and enjoyed a croque-monsieur with a Bordeaux Blanc. Wandering through a few fine wine merchant shops we found ourselves chatting wine and whisky with Juilien at Vignobles & Chateau. Discussing harvest predictions, the fame of local wine producers and fine wine cask finished Scotch whisky’s, we were rewarded with a fantastic tasting of Chateau Corbin Michotte 1998 and a Chateau Figeac 2009. Château Figeac is a Premier Grand Cru Classé (Class B) and is the largest estate in Saint-Émilion, producing a superb Left Bank style blend (35%Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc, 30% Merlot) in 100% new oak. It was interesting to try the older wine and a good vintage against the best recent vintage 2009.

Château Corbin Michotte & Château Ausone, Saint-Emilion

Some local wine superstars were on display which we’ve both been lucky enough to try some limited vintages like Cheval Blanc 2004. Pomerol are unclassified wines but Pétrus (95% Merlot, 5% Cab Franc), Château Le Pin (100% Merlot) are icons and frequently the highest paid red wines in the world. Chateau Trotanoy 2011 (90% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc) is also highly respected but doesn’t host the same price-tag.Château Ausone (50% Cabernet Franc, 50% Merlot) like Cheval Blanc (57% Cabernet Franc, 40% Merlot, small of Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon) is one of only four Premier Grand Cru Classé (Class A) and a firm favourite with villagers. Further walks around this beautiful old town led us back on ourselves but on different streets. A visit to Clos Des Menuts Grands Cru with its incredible medieval cellars carved out of the rock was a great example of how the town stored its great wines.

Chateau la Rose Brisson

A lovely chateau tour of the Galhaud family’s Chateau la Rose Brisson. Wine chat and tasting with a charismatic guide from the Alsace region, we then tasted a couple their 1st and 2nd wines. Nearby was also Château Guadet Grand Cru Classé on rue Guadet before popping by local garagiste wine legend Jean-Luc Thunevin’s wine shop.

Thunevin’s wines

He is famed for his Château Valandraud wine a Premier Grand Cru Classé B, but is also known for the quirky modern range named after his nickname ‘Bad Boy’. His first in the range is Bad Boy- 95% Merlot / 5% Cabernet Franc. Baby Bad Boy – a 70% Merlot / 30% Grenache blend. Bad girl – a Crémant de Bordeaux. The main man himself was over in Hong Kong for the Vinexpo at the time of our visit. We then headed down the old streets out of the village to get the train back to Bordeaux. But first we stopped for patisserie and spoke with the jolly baker at the boulangerie who opens 7 days for the local demand for fresh bread. Passing the famous vineyards of Château Ausone and Château La Gaffelière just outside the village. A short roadside stroll leads to the small Saint-Émilion train station. Warm sun and a wine glow we waited with other tourists. A large train approached and we boarded with a couple of American doctors. The train was packed and it was a stop before I got a seat but it was not long before we crossed the Garonne river again to Bordeaux.

Leaving the Gare St Jean, we decided it was dinner time and to go straight out in town somewhere. That somewhere was at the Italian restaurant Ragazzi de Peppone. Just a 5 minute walk after jumping off the tram at Place de la Bourse. It turned out a good choice. Getting the last table outside was lucky and watching the table next to us receive their pizzas made our order easy as well. Pizza Ultima with Parma ham, a thin crispy, table-covering sized main course was exactly what we both felt like. Our waitress directed us to the wine cellar to choose our wine. We settled on an Italian Masi which matched the Italian food. Soaking up the al fresco warm evening we enjoyed some banter with other tables and the friendly staff.

quaint wine cellar at Ragazzi DaPeppone

A nightcap on the way back through the old town ended our busy and thoroughly enjoyable day. Up early the next morning for the main event. I had email booked our Château d’Yquem visit in Sauternes months earlier. I made a major faux pas by calling Château d’Yquem, Lafite by accident. My poor excuse was, sending emails to all the top Bordeaux winemakers, but forgot to change a previous salutation. Embarrassed by my amateur mistake, I apologised profusely and was genuinely quite surprised when they invited us for a visit. Smarted up we took a morning tram to Gare St Jean and had brunch at the Paul boulangerie cafe outside. Don’t ask my why but I always like a chocolat chaud at some point in a France trip and so that’s where I had mine. Snaking through the busy station we headed to our platform for the 12.24 train south to Langon. Passing Cérons and Barsac, miles of vines float past the right-hand-side of the train.

Château de Malle, Preignac

As seen from the Bordeaux – Langon train just after Preignac station, Château de Malle’s domes and beautiful setting make it picture postcard view. Château de Malle is a rare historical monument of the 17th century Gironde, and its garden (created by Alexandre Eutrope de Lur Saluces-1724) is classified in the ‘Remarkable Gardens of France’. Its Sauternes wine is Second Cru Classé in the 1855 classification. This unique chateau straddles two prestigious AOC, Graves and Sauternes and so as well as Sauternes dessert wine, they make Graves white and Graves red wine here also. Arriving at Langon, we had pre-booked a taxi straight from the station to Château d’Yquem. The journey took out of the small town and into the breathtaking countryside of Sauternes. A lifetimes ambition to visit this famous vineyard came down this 15 minute journey. The liquid gold of Sauternes’s most prestigious château awaited. The sun shone through silver-lined Columbus Nimbus clouds as we drove past Château Rieussec. A right turn and we had Château d’Yquem vines on our left. A left turn off the main road and we were on the long driveway down through the vines towards this mythical château.

Château d’Yquem, Sauternes

Château d’Yquem dominates the local landscape, sits higher than others around and is visible for miles. With fine views of near neighbours Lafaurie Peyraguey, Rayne-Vigneau and Rieussec, just a few of the other châteaux which surround the estate. It also dominates the 1855 classification of Sauternes and Barsac, with its own private ranking of Premier Cru Supérieur.

Château d’Yquem tour and cellar

Château d’Yquem 2008 tasting

Leaving the taxi we had some 20 minutes to spare before our 2pm appointment. It gave us a chance to look at the vines and take some photos. After being buzzed in we were met by our host and taken to the tasting room(as above). It was not long before other guest appeared, some being from the US, Switzerland and Greece. The tour started by walking to the opposite edge of the gardens overlooking the picturesque valley and vines below. A slight breeze, clouds and the smell of freshly cut grass from the gardeners working at the time. A history, talk of the local landscape and wine growing was followed by a tour of the cellars. The gardens were filled with lavender and roses reminiscent of an English garden. These gardens were quite new only developed in 2009. Downstairs in the dimly lit cellar our guide talked about the wine making processes. She answered our queries and talked about these unique botrytis affected wines ‘noble rot’ which she said was discovered by the Greeks in 5 B.C. A walk back past the gardens to the tasting rooms was filled with wine chat and photo taking. Our guide then went to get some of this ‘nectar of the gods’. On a glass table the wine was poured and we all watched in anticipation. We we tried the 2008 vintage (500 euro a bottle), a good vintage for d’Yquem. The liquid gold was beautiful, fragrant and deliciously sweet but had excellent minerality. A simply superb experience and great chat from our host. we eventually meandered out into the Sauternes sun shine. As we waited for our return taxi a large group of French tourists appeared for their tour. Alexander Lur Saluces, the famous previous owner of d’Yquem is now at Château de Fargues working his knowledge on their wines after the Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) group took over Château d’Yquem in late 1996. After the taxi to Langon train station, we had an hour or so before the next train to Bordeaux. So we took time out at Le Rendez-Vous de la Gare to enjoy some Leffe Ruby and peanuts whilst savouring our d’Yquem visit. The train station filled with school kids and the journey back to Bordeaux was lively. Each stop gave way to a quieter carriage and a short siesta. Back in Bordeaux, we took a tram back to Quinconces.

Our last dinner in Bordeaux was at the Chef Pascal Nibaudeau’s Brasserie l’Europe, in the opulent Grand Regent Hotel. Sitting outside in a beautiful early summer evening, the posh brasserie on Place de Comedie sits directly opposite the Opera House. Its in the spirit of the Belle Epoque and looking to evoke the great French 19th century brasseries. But it hosts a very reasonable 22 euro menu which included a chilled glass of Bordeaux Blanc. For main course was beautifully tender Tuna steak with Asian style salad. Dessert, exquisite poached meringues in a chilled raspberry broth topped with a seeded pistachio crisp. A trip to the bathrooms was like a tour of the hotel and led from one opulent room to another. Unfortunately we couldn’t hang around as we had arranged to meet friends at you guested it, Bar a Vin.

dessert at Regent Grand Hotel Bordeaux

Our last night at favourite wine haunt, Bar a Vin was brief. We had Cremant de Bordeaux Layteryron Brut, 2005 Château de Claribès, Sainte-Foy Bordeaux (East of Entre-Deux-Mers and taken over by a English couple on that year). We met friends who lived in Chatrons and thought it was only fitting that we went for a few catch-up beers, so we took off through the old town to Café Brun. Lovely glasses of Leffe Ruby, chats of French cinema and business plans followed. I guess the only gripe about Bordeaux is the extra tax on spirits that made having a whisky or Armagnac a costly affair. A late night walk along Rue Saint-Rémi to Place Gambetta and farewell hugs and it was back to our hotel. A swipe-card malfunction meant an early morning repair before bedtime.

Bar a Vin – (two very different pictures of Bacchus, God of Wine) – Cafe Brun

Greeted with another sunny morning, we enjoyed brunch at Le Quarant’Huit (48 hours) at Palais de Justice before our inevitable departure from this beautiful city. A shuttle-bus back to the airport and within hours we were back in the cooler climes of Scotland. Our last picture from the plane(below) left us yearning for a return trip, to the Left Bank perhaps?

The muddy Gironde Estuary, Pauillac and Left Bank estates with the Atlantic ocean in the background

Although we tried some quite fantastic wines here is a top 5 wines we tried on this trip:

Château d’Yquem 2008 – sublime and enhanced by our visit to this famous Château

Château Trotanoy 2011 simply stunning!

Château Figeac 2009 Saint Emilion – from a legendary vintage which has a long w

Château Gruaud- Larose 2008 Saint-Julien AOC Second Growth

Château Haura 2009 Cérons dessert wine was beautifully balanced with sweetness and minerality.

J’espère vous voir bientôt!

Now my liver needs a holiday..

An indepth story of our Château d’Yquem tour will soon follow.

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