Chris Evans, host of BBC Radio 2’s Breakfast Show, came to Bordeaux earlier this month with his lovely wife Natasha for an extensive wine tour. Here’s what we got up to, along with some holiday snaps. (To enlarge any picture, click on it.)
Tuesday: Chateau Haut-Brion
From Libourne, it was 45 minutes to Chateau Haut Brion in Pessac. It’s a bizarre setting for one of the world’s most famous wines, first mentioned in English by Pepys in seventeenth century London. A wonderful old, gravelly vineyard, with a beautiful old chateau, set in the ugly, modern outskirts of Bordeaux, with a TGV train line cutting through the middle of it.
All visitors are greeted with a video, which is really a collection of pretty photographs, set to relaxing classical music and a voiceover by the owner, Prince Robert of Luxembourg. ’I doubt they’ll put you in front of the video,’ I said, ’but they just might.’ They did. It was dangerously soporific.
After this rather touristy introduction to such a wonderful estate, our guide Laëtitia looked after us very well.
Two of the more interesting aspects of the tour at Haut-Brion is the lab, where some returned ’corked’ bottles of wine were being analyzed, and the in-house barrel maker. Unfortunately the cooper wasn’t there, but we saw a great many of his barrels.
We then tasted the full line-up of 2008s, including the red and white wines of Chateau La Mission Haut Brion next door, which is under the same ownership. The reds are more of an even mix of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot than we’d had on the Right Bank, the dry whites a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. We felt the 2008 reds were some way off before they’re ready to drink but it was a generous and interesting tasting nonetheless.
Tuesday: Les Sources de Caudalie
Our next stop was for Chris and Natasha to check into their hotel, some 20 minutes from Haut-Brion, heading out of town. I’d recommended Les Sources de Caudalie as it’s the best country-house hotel in the region, and a good base from which to explore both the city of Bordeaux and the so-called Left Bank (the west side of the river Garonne and the Gironde estuary). It also has an excellent vinotherapie spa, using vine and grape-based treatments to make you look and feel beautiful, and two restaurants.
’Come and have a drink at the bar before you head home’ said Chris. It was tea time. ’Can we have the wine list?’ he asked the batman. ’Oh look, Clinet,’ he said. The 2001 was half the price of the 2000, and just as good. ’Let’s start with that.’
The tasting had clearly not finished for the day. Vieux Chateau Certan, from the same vintage, soon followed, along with a bottle of Clos Fourtet 2003, one of the better wines from St-Emilion in that vintage.
Will Lyons, the London-based wine critic of the Wall Street Journal, joined us for a glass of Pomerol. He was in the area and had politely but cunningly tracked us down for a brief interview with Chris about his interest in wine.
Will departed for a prior dinner engagement and I tried to do the same. The plan was for Chris and Tash to have a quiet dinner together.
They were having none of it, and insisted I join them for supper in the Table du Lavoir restaurant at the hotel.
After some Champagne to refresh the palate, Chris asked the young sommelier to choose a Bordeaux from the cellar, and to serve it blind at the table in a decanter.
Chris was straight in there, confidently, with ’Left Bank.’ ’2004 – Pichon Lalande?’ I guessed, diving in. ’You’re half right’ said Tash, who’d seen the bottle. ’St-Julien’ said Chris. After throwing a few more chateau names about, we got there. Ducru Beaucaillou 2004. St-Julien. (Pichon Lalande’s a Pauillac, with vines bordering on St-Julien, darn it.)
For someone new to this game, Chris was learning fast.
Wednesday: Caudalie, Bordeaux and la Tupina
The following day was designed to be a break from barrels and too much wine chat. The hotel is right amongst the vines at Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, so we’d provisionally arranged a tour of the winery there in case Chris and Natasha had withdrawal symptoms. There are also plenty of other chateaux within a few miles that are worth a visit, such as the excellent Chateau Haut-Bailly.
A mid-morning visit to the spa at Caudalie was welcome but they didn’t make the optional visit to Smith. Instead, they spent the afternoon in the city of Bordeaux. If you’re going to spend a few days visiting the region, the centre of Bordeaux is a must.
How beautiful is Bordeaux ? lockerz.com/s/286183659
— Chris Evans (@achrisevans) March 6, 2013
For dinner, I’d booked them into the restaurant La Tupina, famous for its classic cooking from South West France and the best known of Bordeaux restaurants. Chris pinged me an email from town, asking if Angela and I would like to join them, as a thank you.
As with several local restaurants, La Tupina encourages the local wine trade – growers, brokers, négociants – to frequent their establishment by having a relaxed approach to BYO for professionals. It’s always best to ask them on the phone first but they’ve never said no to me, or if they have, I’ve misunderstood.
That way, if someone’s buying us dinner, then we can contribute with a decent bottle of wine or two. The bottle of ’99 Mouton Rothschild I took would have set us back a fortune on the list, while it cost me about sixty quid en primeur, as far as I recall.
Chris wanted to buy a bottle too, asking my advice as we peered into the Eurocave wine cabinet which holds the best wines in the house. I could not bring myself to recommend the most famous names. I was dithering, not unusually. ’Gun to the head?’ was his way of getting an answer. As soon as I said ’Chateau Angelus 2001’, I knew it was a mistake. It’s a lovely wine but still an infant, even with an hour in the decanter.
I was finding out that Chris has fairly traditional, classic ’British’ taste in wine – he enjoys red Bordeaux that’s evolved a bit in bottle, a wine that’s more elegant and refined, and a wine that’s not too big, fruity or juicy in style, with a stack of tannin. A bottle you want to polish off. In a word, digestible.
Tash is more of a white wine drinker, and Bauduc fitted the bill again. It costs a less than the Angelus, too.
Ange didn’t drink, so we dropped them back to the hotel in our faithful Toyota Previa. Not quite the Bentley but I don’t think it mattered. At least we’d scraped the Haribos off the seats.
This was important for him to understand as he’s building a cellar. Given his collection of classic cars, I imagine it won’t be too shabby.
Thursday: Pichon Longueville Baron
No wine tour of Bordeaux would be complete without a drive up the D2 in the Medoc, north of the city.
“There can’t be any other roads in the world with so many famous and beautiful houses on” Chris remarked as we cruised through Margaux in the Bentley. We’d come around the ring road, or rocade, and heading north beyond the ugly, sprawling outskirts of the city.
Few Chateaux are more synonymous with Bordeaux than Chateau Margaux, which is the one chateau that requires a ten-minute deviation from the main drag. We had to stop off there for the obligatory photo, and tweet.
The other seriously imposing property on the same stretch lies twenty minutes further north, Chateau Pichon Longueville Baron. And that’s where we stopped for a pre-arranged tour. (Pichon is, by the way, open to the public for tours and tastings, but you should book.)
I pointed out that while the houses are impressive, there can’t be many sweeping stretches of cabernet sauvignon that can match this (although Lafite and Mouton, a little further on, might contest this). As you swing by the vineyards of Leoville Las Cases, with the Gironde estuary just beyond on your right, you dip down out of the St-Julien appellation and up into the vineyards of Pauillac, with the Enclos – the best bit – of Chateau Latour on your right, and the plateau of Pichon Longueville on your left.
Corinne Michot, a former sommelier in London and now the brand ambassador for the AXA estates in Bordeaux, was there to greet us. We were joined by Christian Seely, the managing director, who had kindly offered to lay on a lunch in the chateau, as well as host the tasting.
It was a real treat. After a walk around the vineyard, the winery and the huge barrel cellars, we tasted the recent vintages of Pichon that revealed how different each year can be and, importantly, when you should drink them: the 2007 (approachable), 2008 (some years off), 2009 (huge and approachable in a few years) and 2010 (for me the best Pichon yet, a wonderfully pure wine that requires cellaring for 15 to 30 years). They are roughly two thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, one third Merlot.
What a setting for the lunch, and what amazing wines. In the salon, Christian served us Coates and Seely sparkling wine, from his English vineyard. A chorus of approval for that. Then, for the first course in the elegant dining room, a white 2007 from Domaine de l’Arlot, AXA’s estate in Burgundy.
Three vintages of Pichon followed, the 2000 (just beginning to lose its youthful shell), the 1990 (absolutely bloody delicious) and the 1988 (an underdog that Christian’s father had told him that would one day be a great wine). Both Chris and Christian gave the nod to the ’88. I slightly preferred the 1990 but who cares. They were all lovely wines.
With dessert, the excellent Chateau Suduiraut 2005 from Sauternes was served, followed by a great and rare port from another AXA estate, the Quinta de Noval Nacional 1994. So youthful for almost 20 years old, and utterly wonderful.
Christian mentioned that the American publication, the Wine Spectator, scored it 100 points, whereas their compatriot, the critic Robert Parker, only gave it a 99. ’How is it missing one point?’ I’m not sure we liked it more or less on knowing that – perhaps it helped to confirm what we thought – but with only a few hundred cases produced, it was indeed a rare treat.
Chris hailed Christian as a guru. Modest as he is, I think that made Christian feel that the lunch had been worth it.
We were already late for our 4 o’clock appointment at Cos d’Estournel, even though we had called to let them know. More than once.
Chateau Cos d’Estournel
This is another landmark on the D2, with the newly restored and hugely impressive edifice rising up from the road at the start of the St-Estephe appellation, moments after you drive past Chateau Lafite at the northern end of Pauillac.
The suitably named Aymeric de Gironde is the new Managing Director at Cos, and he was there to greet us and show us around. Geraldine Santier, who runs the PR side, was there to help Aymeric too. ‘In case I get lost.’
They’re still renovating new offices at Cos but the extraordinary investment in the new winery and cellars is complete. If you think Bordeaux is old-fashioned, do try and have a look around.
After the tour, Aymeric and Geraldine kindly opened a Cos d’Estournel 2008, a 1995 and a 1985 in their cavernous tasting area. Out of the three, we enjoyed the 1995 while the 2008 showed off the new direction for Cos. The 1985 was a blast from the past.
After that it was back to Les Sources de Caudalie, and the final dinner, this time in La Grande Vigne restaurant. The food and service were superb. We chose a Ch Léoville Poyferré 1989 from St-Julien that was so good, we ordered a second bottle from their cellar. (These bottles must have been better examples than the ones tasted by Mr Parker, by the way.)
The wine and the enormous cheese board were a fitting finale to a fabulous few days. We’d squeezed more than enough in.
Time to get back to work.
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