Vine Hooligans discover Utopia

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Flag of France  , Aquitaine,
Friday, August 22, 2008

You know you are in France when people all around you are wielding baguettes and cigarettes and there's wine at every table. The French have a fascinating lifestyle but by far the most fascinating is their insatiable passion for wine and it's not hard to understand why once you've sampled some of their finest wines. Being the biggest exporter and consumer of wines the French know better than anyone else; how to produce, mature, market and drink wine and there is no better red wine producing area in the world to witness this first hand than in Bordeaux.

Sadly we only had three days in Bordeaux so we wasted no time booking three back to back wine tours. Of course we could have done this type of tour independently but the major difference to visiting vineyards in Australia, New Zealand or even South Africa is that you often can't just arrive at a Château without an appointment. Together with the fact that many of the wine makers or staff do not speak any English (not that you need to speak French to enjoy their wine but it does help to understand how it is made), so you can either learn to speak French or join a tour with a knowledgeable translator, plus they drive you around. The Bordeaux Tourist Board who are very focused on promoting the area had put together some amazing non-profit tours that were clearly very popular.

Due to the often high demand on some of these tours and since we did not book far enough in advance Inge-Marie and I were not able to attend the same tour on our first day in Bordeaux. As luck would have it there was one seat left on the Medoc area tour and a seat available on the through the beautiful Sauternes wine region. Inge-Marie and I decided that she would attend the sticky sweet Sauterne tasting and I would attend the museum and Medoc tour and we'd compare notes later the evening.

My tour started at the Bordeaux wine museum which walks you through the history of how wine was first produced in the area, how the merchants played and important role in trading the wine and how their very important control boards were put in place to ensure consistent quality from the various regions. An interesting fact about the city of Bordeaux that I did not know is that the city is built on a marsh so just about every building near the river had to be built on hundreds of piles.

Once we had a better understanding of the entire process we got down to the most important part of the wine industry which is the wine itself, we eagerly sampled a typical Bordeaux white wine and then a nice juicy red. From the museum we made our way through the back streets of Bordeaux passing some of the historic sites and streets till we finally got to the restaurant where we would be having lunch.

The restaurant specialises in wine and cheese but also prepared some typical French cuisine. The lunch was nothing short of remarkable and consisted of a goats cheese started served in a delicious creamy sauce, it sounds extremely rich but it was surprisingly light and very tasty. The entree was followed was the most delicious piece of duck I had ever eaten. It was apparently prepared by slow cooking it with herbs and then maturing it for a year in fat and then briefly cooking or heating it before serving it. It sounds like a heart attack waiting to happen but the final cooking process left a delicious dark piece of duck with a light crispy skin. I savoured every bite as it melted in my mouth. During the lunch we also got to taste two lovely Bordeaux reds which went perfectly with the food.

As if I hadn't already clogged all my arteries after the started and yummy duck we were lead downstairs to their cheese room which must have had 100 different varieties of cheese. The idea was simple, you could sample to our to our hearts content. Needless to say the smell in the little room was a little overpowering but the huge selection of cheeses made it all worth the stench, some of the cheeses had so much mould on them that if you looked closely enough you might find that they had begun growing feet and might very soon walk off the plate. I selected a small piece of as many as my plate could hold and made my way back up to the restaurant. I had no trouble devouring the delicious cheese with the new wine that was served that complimented every bite. To really finish us off we were finally served a slice of apple pie which rounded off an amazing meal.

With our bellies full we joined the afternoon tour to the famous Medoc wine area. We visited two estates the first being a small 2ha family estate and the second the more prestigious Chateau Agassac. Both had very interesting Bordeaux wines on offer made according to the strict controls et our by the AOC or Appellation d'origine contrôlée and for example that to be classified a Bordeaux wine your wine had to contain all or at least one of the following; Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc.

IMH: The Sauternes or Golden Wine tour was more an academic exercise as we do not really drink that much sweet wine, apart from the odd dessert wine after a elaborate meal. These wines are usually also more expensive, due to the cost associated in making such a wine. It turned out to be a fascinating day and I leant a lot, but I definitely tasted enough sweet wines for a while.

In 1855 a classification was created to present the most famous Bordeaux wines at the Paris Universal exhibition. The responsibility for drawing it up was given to the "Bordeaux Trade Brokers". The idea was to establish a classification based on many years of trade experience, which was the recognition for each estate of its Terroir (a French term to denote the special characteristics that geography bestowed upon the wine) and reputation. The Sauternes and Barsac was included in this classification to produce only sweet wines, by means of Botrytis cinerea (noble rot) from Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grapes - but is mostly a blend between Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc. What makes the Terrior of the Sauternes so special? Well, the Saturnes area used to be underwater and covered by the ocean, many years ago. The result is a gravel rich top soil layer and a bottom soil layer filled with historic fossils. Specific Châteaus were classified as first or second class. At each of the three Châteaus we visited, we were taken for a tour of their facilities and tasted at least two vintages. The first wine was usually younger (e.g. 2004) and aged for the minimum required time according to the accreditation and is often enjoyed as an aperitif, where the second wine has been aged for longer and is most often enjoyed as a dessert wine. One thing that stood out from the Sauternes tasting for me was the complexity of the "golden wine", where before I just focussed on the 'sweet' part of the taste.

We first visited Château de Malle, which is classified as second class, but presents itself as a museum and was fascinating to visit. Château Guiraud, a fisrt class and apparently more prestigious Château offered not only amazing wines, but a delicious 4 course meal accompanied with a different sweet wine with each course. The Foie Gras combination with sweet wine was superb, not to forget the heavy blue cheese combined with the richest creamiest of the sweet wines. Château Clos Haut-Peyraguey is also classified as first class, but by that time I was sweet right to the back of my teeth and could not really appreciate the wines on offer. We did pass the Château d'Yquem, classified as the best first class Château and the tour guide made quite a fuss of them, so I guess they're very prestigious (read: with wines probably too expensive for us).IMH

Day two we both went on a walking tour along the Garonne River and through the Entre-deux-Mers area with a very charismatic French lady called Marié. The weather was absolutely perfect and from the start of the walk we were entertained by her funny stories and endless wine knowledge. We were a very small group on the tour which was nice as we got to meet and chat to most the people in the group. We particularly got on well with a nice Australian couple from Brisbane, Andrew and Emma who we had a great time chatting with. The walk was very relaxed and took us through beautiful little villages, along picturesque country roads and along rows of vineyards bursting with fruit only stopping occasionally to taste a few ripe grapes and eat handfuls of wild berries which we picked off many of the wild bushes along the way.

We also visited two family owned and operated wine properties along the way, the first was one of the largest wine producer in the area, Château de Marsan where we were taken on an impressive tour of their facilities and warehouse. After the tour we were seated at a large oval table in their massive tasting room where we were fed a delicious picnic styled lunch filled with a whole variety of duck pate, bread, an assortment of vegetables and cheeses. During the lunch a variety of their wines were brought out for us to sample and there were no measly tasting portions here but rather nice full glasses of what ever you liked. We had a great lunch and tasted some amazing wines and left the premises very reluctantly. Fortunately the next wine farm was only a short dive and walk away and we soon got stuck into the next tasting.

During the two visits we bought a bottle or two of the wines we enjoyed most and decided to meet up with Andrew and Emma in Bordeaux later that evening to continue the tasting. Since BYO is taboo in France we decided to buy a few gourmet pizzas and enjoy the wines in a little park nearby (apparently its ok to drink in public areas).

Our last wine tour was in to the one of the worlds most famous vineyard regions and listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, St Emilion. The St Emilion wine region is situated around the medieval village of St Emilion and the area produces some of the world's most famous wines and borders on the Pomerol area which is well know for Château Pétrus which typically weighs in at €1200 for the cheapest bottle. Other world famous wines produced in this area are Château Ausone and Château Cheval Blanc which are the only two wines currently classified as Premiers grands crus classes in the area.

Our first visit for the day was to a fifth generation wine estate called Beau Sejour Becot which had 15 km of limestone caves below their vineyard where they stored and matured their bottles of wines. Throughout the Bordeaux area you will find extensive networks of lime stone caves which originally started as quarries where the lime stone extracted was used to construct many of the buildings in the area. The constant temperature of 10 -13 degrees and high humidity are perfect for storing and aging of wines.

Part of the visit to the estate was a tour of their underground cave network that once used to store bones from the graveyard next door so it was not uncommon to see bones and skulls around along the tunnels. The temperature drops rapidly as you enter the caves and due to the high humidity this makes it a perfect place for mould to grow so the air is very stuffy and damp. We were guided through many narrow tunnels past thousands of bottles stacked up against the walls waiting for the day the cellar master decides they are good enough to drink.
Since this was such a prestigious cellar we were only able to taste one of their wines which was delicious but for € 41 a little too expensive considering that the bottle would benefit from another of 10 years of cellaring.

The next estate we visited was also a family owned company and after a brief tour of their premises we were taken to their workers canteen for a sumptuous lunch which included a variety of duck and pork meats, bread, cheese, fruit, salads and desert, all accompanied by their estate wine. After the hearty lunch we headed for the village of St Emilion where we had free time to explore this ancient little village. We took a tour of the ancient caves and the amazing underground cathedral which is said to be the worlds second or third largest. The village was filled with hundreds of wine boutiques, restaurant and coffee shops and gave you the feeling you were taking a walk in the 16th century.

Later that evening we chose to cover all the other Bordeaux areas by going to the Ecole du Vin where we were able to sample glasses of wine from areas such as Château Margaux, Saint-Estephe, Graves and the Bordeaux Superieur. My favourite of the night was the Château Margaux while Inge-Marie preferred the wines from the Saint-Estephe area, this was a perfect way to spend out last evening in this amazing part of France.

You would need months if not years to sample many of the amazing wines from this area and our visit to Bordeaux has given us a new respect for French wines. Previously we were always disappointed when we'd bought and tasted French wines but now with a better understanding of the different wine regions and wine making techniques I think we will be able to make a much more educated decision.
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