Posted on

How to get the best out of Bordeaux Wine – Finding Treasure: The Black Pearl of Le Lau

We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the fourth in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .

Chateau Le Lau

Without doubt the highlight of my Bordeaux trip was being able to get to Graves de Vayres at long last. This is a tiny appellation that most Bordeaux enthusiasts outside France simply haven’t heard of. So it wasn’t surprising that no one amongst the wine aficionados travelling with me had a clue about it but this AOC has been on Nick’s radar for some time. I must have seemed a bit over the top to them as this was the one place above all others that I wanted to explore. With good reason, I might add.

mascaret
The Mascaret

It’s an appellation that has always fascinated me, partly because it’s a bit mysterious and enigmatic and partly because of its past. It takes its name from Graves, meaning ‘gravel’ and Vayres – an ancient citadel. Vayres was founded in Roman times on a rocky outcrop overlooking the meeting point of the Rivers Gestas and Dordogne. The Dordogne here is deep and dark; it’s starting to widen and gather pace as it heads towards the sea. It reminds me very much of our River Severn – it even has a similar surge wave caused by the tides to our Severn Bore. The Dordogne’s is called the Mascaret.

River Dordogne at Le Lau

The Emperor Octavius established a garrison here under the command of Varius, who became Vayres’ namesake. Dominating the river, Vayres was of huge strategic importance. The 11th century fortifed chateau was a powerful status symbol and was once owned by the Borgias and by the Kings of France. It’s also Knights Templar country and there was a once great Commandery at Arveyres. Nowadays the beautiful chateau and medieval gardens are classified as an historic monument whereas the Templar Commandery and its ancient wine cellars lie in romantic ruins. It’s difficult to imagine how important this region was in the past as today it’s a peaceful, idyllic, backwater that time seems to have passed by.

Chateau Le Lau frontage on the river

In the mid-nineteenth century, the red and white wines of Graves de Vayres were highly thought of with Cocks and Feret (the classic reference work on Bordeaux wines in the 1800s) quoting ‘Without attempting to rival the Medoc or Saint Emilion, red wines of Graves Vayres are still full of delicacy. The first wines are highly sought after trade for their body and smoothness and can be classified among the best wines of the Right Bank, immediately after the second wines of Pomerol.’ This is very interesting as Merlot is the dominant grape here (as it is, famously, in Pomerol). That Merlot should do so well here is unusual as gravelly soils tend to suit Cabernet Sauvignon better. However Merlot thrives on Graves de Vayres’s sandy gravels and the end result of this is an array of graceful red wines that are delicate, subtle and fine-grained. I thought, over all, that the Graves de Vayres reds I tasted had a feminine elegance about them.

Entrance to Le Lau off the lane
Entrance to Le Lau off the lane

Sweet (Liquoroux) and semi sweet (Moelleux) whites used to be prevalent here but have given way to dry whites. Typically with a slightly higher percentage of Muscadelle in the blend than other appellations, Graves de Vayres dry whites are fresh and vibrant with touches of Muscadelle’s trademark muscat fragrance. They are hard to find though as there are only 30 odd wine makers left in Graves de Vayres and there are only 187 acres planted with white grapes.

Water features surround le Lau

Thanks to the Dordogne, which is very wide here, the appellation enjoys mild temperates and it is also protected by the Tertre de Fronsac on the opposite bank. Graves de Vayres lies directly opposite the Fronsac appellation over the water. On that bank, up stream lies Saint Emilion and downstream sit the Cotes de Bourg and Blaye. Graves de Vayres itself is surrounded by the Premier Cotes appellation with Sainte Foy Bordeaux sitting to the east.

My visit took me to Arveyres, the home of the Templar Commandery. The river meanders in huge loops here and envelops the north of the territory so that it is surrounded on 3 sides by water. Turning off the lane we wound down a wooded drive to Chateau Le Lau. This is a chateau which has been owned by the Plomby family since 1988 and it has been run by Sylvie Plomby since 2013. To say Le Lau is jaw droppingly beautiful is an understatement. It was designed by none other than Victor Louis in 1762 (he designed the famous Opera House in Bordeaux). The beauty of the place inspired the cinema and Pierre Gaspard-Huit’s film ‘La Marié Est Trop Belle’ starring Brigitte Bardot was shot here in 1956.

Secluded and shady, Le Lau sits hidden in trees

Le Lau is a delightful country residence with a faded, gentle, charm. Cradled on one side by fern strewn woodland and on the other by the river the whole place seemed to be cut off from the world outside. The watery light of the evening and the green and blue shades beyond the warm limestone walls had a dream like quality and it reminded me of being in the Everglades in Florida. A little white painted chapel sat on a hillock in the gardens and I wished for a time I wasn’t here to taste wine but could explore the potager and the orchards instead . . .

Gravel soils in the vineyard

I did get the chance to walk with Sylvie to her favourite patch of the vineyard. What a stunning location. I’m so used to seeing swathes of vines that stretch out flat to the horizon that Le Lau’s vineyard came as a surprise. It’s on the steep slope of a plateau but it’s surrounded by woodland and – like the chateau – is quite tucked away. The gravels here were so big I asked to take a photo of the stones with her foot besides them to give you an idea of scale. The vineyards span 27 acres and are planted with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The vineyard is organic and Sylvie converted to bio dynamic growing in 2016. The wine is aged in new barrels of Sessile Oak which give it that fine grained texture. Sylvie’s great cuvee, Le Lau ‘Perle Noire’ (Black Pearl), is supple and smooth with flavours of black cherry, crushed strawberry, mint and vanilla. A really lovely wine made by an ambitious winemaker. Circa £15 a bottle.

Le Lau’s Black Pearl – ‘Le Perle Noire’

Originally Sylvie worked in the fashion industry in both Paris and London but Le Lau’s enchantment inspired her and she studied under the renowned oenologist Denis Dubourdieu to learn her craft. Naturally elegant, refined and self effacing; I think her wines reflect her panache. Her goal is to be in harmony with the nature that surrounds her and to work her vines with love.

We were to dine that evening at the chateau but events became delayed thanks to a power cut. Whilst we were waiting for emergency cables to be strung out to the kitchen from the out buildings we tasted an array of wines from the surrounding Cotes de Bordeaux on the terrace at the front of the chateau. We stood enjoying the wines only a few metres away from the river. The sun was going down and we watched the glassy surface of the water reflecting its rays as we tasted the wines. Having lived near the River Severn I picked up on a noise I recognised and asked Sylvie if the Mascaret was due. She didn’t think so. The Mascaret surges up the river twice a day pushed by the incoming tide. I knew it was coming from the tell tale soft rushing sound and true enough a powerful wave rolled up the river, breaking on each bank as it came. Behind it came a huge rippling effect as if a big cat had shrugged.

The river flows right past Le Lau

The wines that stood out for me were:

Chateau Les Artigaux (Graves de Vayres).
Chateau Puyanche (Cotes de Francs).
Domaine de Bavolier (Cotes de Cadillac).
Chateau des Tourtes (Cotes de Blaye)
Chateau Nardou (Cotes de Francs)
Chateau La Croix Davids (Cotes de Bourg)
Chateau Mont Perat (Premieres Cotes)
Chateau Les Bertrands (Cotes de Blaye)
Chateau Laussac (Cotes de Castillon – NB this is owned by the Robin family who also have Saint Emilion Grand Cru Chateau Rol Valentin and Clos Taillefer in Pomerol).
Chateau Roc des Cambes (Cotes de Bourg – NB this one is owned by the Mitjavile family who own Grand Cru Classe Chateau Tertre Roteboeuf in Saint Emilion).

Le Lau’s beautiful vineyard

With the electricity fixed we moved into a dimly lit dining room with a fire blazing away in the hearth. Relaxed and cosy; we were treated to a fabulous meal. The main course was Sturgeon. A fish I had read about but never eaten. A King’s Fish in the UK (declared to be for royal consumption only by King Edward II), we rarely see them. I knew they were a delicacy and I wasn’t disappointed. Washed down with more than a few glasses of Le Lau the Sturgeon was absolutely delicious. It was a meal, and a wine, I will never forget.

Posted on

How to get the best out of Bordeaux Wine – Above and beyond Saint Emilion – Chateau Tour de Grenet

We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the third in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .

Lussac St Emilion

Above the medieval town of Saint Emilion, about 5 miles away as the crow flies lies Lussac. This little village is the centre of the small wine making region of Lussac Saint Emilion, one of the famous town’s satellite appellations. Wine lovers will have noticed more wines coming into the UK from Lussac Saint Emilion and spotted that they are a good buy when it comes to getting more for your money.

Saint Emilion

Chateaux from this area often pull good vintages out of the bag that don’t cost as anywhere near as much as the Saint Emilion’s down the road.

What’s more a truly good Lussac can upstage your basic Saint Emilion given half a chance. Years ago, it was only the French who knew about the good quality wines available in Lussac but things are changing. Nick was one of the first to bring in Lussacs to our customers and visiting this region was one of the top priorities on my list.

To get a picture of where Lussac sits in relation to Saint Emilion was important to me. I knew it was the most northerly of the satellite appellations but had no idea what the area was like. The town of Saint Emilion is a popular holiday destination; it’s a UNESCO World

A town dedicated to wine

Heritage site and it’s idyllic. It is reminiscent of our Cotswold villages as all the buildings in Saint Emilion are built in a honey coloured limestone. It’s more ochre in colour to that of the Cotswolds but its remarkably similar. Its cobbled streets are terribly steep in places (I have the blisters to prove it); it’s riddled with underground catacombs and heaving with tourists.

This is a town that seems to be totally dedicated to wine – there are little shop windows bristling with bottles everywhere. Stand at the top of the town and you can see a patchwork of green as tiny vineyards crowd into every available space between the buildings. Further beyond they ripple out like a green blanket into the distance. Step outside this area and you start moving into the sticks: the outlying, sparsely populated, hilly slopes that sit far from the madding crowd. This was what I wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed.

Lussac’s limestone lanes

Lussac is home to about 1300 inhabitants and it’s quite rural. The region rolls up and down on undulating hills and is steeped in antiquity. Lussac’s name comes from deep in the past. It could have derived from the Roman Luccius who established his villa and estate there. The village’s boundaries still mirror the extent of Luccius’ estate. Alternatively, Lussac’s name could even pre-date the Romans. Above the village lies a huge old stone amongst the woodland on the mound of Picampeau. The stone has a mysterious basin carved into it on top it and it’s said that the Gauls held sacrifices here. Lussac could have come from the Gallic term for ‘sacred wood’ which is ‘Lukus.’ Either way, this is ancient turf.

Chateau Tour de Grenet

Radiating out from the village the terrain is dotted with farms and pockets of vines clinging to hillsides. It was hot, scorched and dusty as we pulled off the small, winding road into a gravel strewn yard. Surrounding it were a cluster of what looked to be ancient chais and barns. The glare off the limestone gravel and the blazing sun made me wish I’d brought sunglasses with me and the heat hit you like a brick. I had come to visit Chateau Tour de Grenet, named for the 19th century tower soaring 18 metres high over the vineyards. The tower is actually located on the site of an ancient Roman villa about 1000 metres north of the village.

There are two stories about the tower; one is that it was raised by Pierre Favereau, the owner of the estate (and mayor of Lussac), in 1850 so that he could contemplate his property and observe the work in the vineyards. He was buried at the tower in 1870 and, thanks to local gossip which said he had been interred with his gold snuffbox and his gold-headed cane, the tower was broken into in 1950 by tomb raiders. The other story is that the tower could have played a role as a Chappe Tower – a precursor to the telegraph system. Invented by Claude Chappe in 1794 this system transmitted via 535 towers and it took 9 minutes to send a message from Paris to Lille.

Chateau Tour de Grenet

The property belonged to the Cistercian Abbey of Faize in the 16th century and was purchased by the Brunot family in 1970. The Brunots have been involved with wine for several generations. Originally from the Corrèze, Jean-Baptiste Brunot first became interested in wine at the end of the 19th century. He was one of the pioneers of direct sales to the private customers in the North of France, Belgium and Switzerland. In 1900 he took over producing fine wines at Chateau Hermitage de Mazerat in Saint Emilion. Jump forward a generation or two and one line of the family runs Chateau Cantenac whilst the other, headed by Vincent Brunot, is based at Chateau Tour de Grenet.

Tunnels at the chateau

Tour de Grenet’s vineyards cover 26 hectares (64 acres) and lie on one of the highest slopes in the region. Under the ground sit ancient tunnels that were dug to mine the limestone blocks used for building in the villages. The entrance to the tunnels is embedded in a bank of limestone rock that juts out near to the chateau. Remnants of a more glorious past mark it’s mouth with carved finials poking through the over growth above the locked iron gates. Vincent told me that years ago, the tunnels were used to store the wine barrels and bottles; he is currently working on restoring them so that they can once again be used for this purpose.

Dripping spring in the tunnels

Whilst he went to hunt for the key I waited by the gates and a wonderfully icy cool draught poured through them from the darkness – a welcome relief from the heat! Once inside you could see the relics of wine making dotted about in the dimly lit passageways. Above our heads water from an old spring dripped through the rock, carving a hole as it did so and splashed down onto the floor. Any object placed under the spring slowly turns to stone thanks to the high mineral content of the water. It reminded me of Mother Shipton’s Cave in Yorkshire and the Petrifying Well there that does the same thing.

Liquorice laden Lussac

Vincent Brunot

Chateau Tour de Grenet’s wines are circa £13 a bottle and tend to be quite powerful. Dark, deep and intense; they have spicy undertones of oak and, particularly, liquorice. Energetic, keen and perceptive, Vincent has raised the profile of the chateau and it has gathered quite a few awards. I’d expect to see more of Vincent’s wines making their way over the waters to the UK not before long.

Tour de Grenet is not the only chateau Vincent owns – the family purchased another fascinating property in 1978: Chateau Piganeau. This chateau was once owned by the painter, poet and historian Emilien Piganeau (1833 -1911). He was a big personality in the region, being Director of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Bordeaux and he produced numerous paintings and histories of Saint Emilion. This chateau is located near the old port of Saint Emilion near Saint Sulpice de Faleyrens and the Menhir of Pierrefitte.

Menhir of Pierrefitte

This standing stone is the largest in the Gironde and unlike other menhirs, it is carved. Its huge sides are also worn down from centuries of rubbing as Pilgrims touched the stone with their wrists, marking them with chalky dust from the stone, for luck and protection. Locals still gather at the stone for the summer solstice. Saint Sulpice de Faleyrens takes its name from the saint and from the old French Occitan ‘faleyres’ meaning fern. This area was once shady woodland and the ferns that grew here were used to make Medieval wine glasses – fern ash was an important ingredient in the process, along with sand from the river banks.

Chateau Piganeau

Chateau Piganeau sits on very different terroir to Tour de Grenet. Closer to the River Dordogne the microclimate here is warmer and the harvests are very early (similar to Pomerol). The light soils are bands of gravel and sands and they make quite a distinct wine to that of Lussac. Elegant and aromatic; Piganeau reminded me of the flavours of roasted coffee and red currants. It was lighter in style than Tour de Grenet but very polished on the palate. Piganeau is a good example of the difference in price between the well-known Saint Emilion AOC and the prices commanded by its satellites. Piganeau’s wines are circa £17 a bottle – the price tag reflects the fact that these are Saint Emilion AOC rather than Lussac Saint Emilion AOC. However, both wines were equally as good in their own right!

You can check out Vincent’s website at http://www.vignobles-brunot.fr if you’d like to learn more about his wines. He also has two more chateaux which are worth discovering in Lalande de Pomerol and the Entre Deux Mers: Chateaux Le Gravillot and Maledan.

Posted on

Our award goes to brilliant team at David Dennis Racing

Nick with David Dennis and his team

Bordeaux Undiscovered together with Stratford Racecourse wanted to recognise the hard work of the unseen stable staff behind the winners at Stratford at the end of each racing season. As long term sponsors of the racecourse (and as ardent horse racing fans!) we know only too well the enormous amount of work and dedication that goes on backstage to make a winner. Points were awarded to horses that finished 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th as well as points for ‘Best Turned Out’. Bordeaux Undiscovered often give prizes during the race season as well as sponsoring a whole race card at Stratford but as Nick says:

‘It’s always the owners and the trainer that get the recognition on the day when the yard has a winner, so we wanted to highlight the efforts of the team behind the scenes by creating this award’.

The talented trainer David Dennis was first past the post this year, earning him the position of leading trainer at Stratford. He topped the trainers list by accumulating the most winning points at all the meetings in 2016 and we travelled to his stables at David Dennis Racing just outside the village of Hanley Swan to present our award to his team.

Pool at the yard

Backed by his hard-working staff, David’s yard (which trains both flat and jump horses) is a relatively new venture that that has firmly placed itself on the racing map since it was established. David began his racing career as a professional jockey, riding over 240 winners to victory during his 10 years in the saddle. After retiring from race riding in 2011, David set up his own pre-training yard before gaining a dual license to train in September 2013. He achieved his first winner within a month – Princess Caetani at Chepstow on the flat.

Horses training at the stables

We would like to congratulate David’s team for their sterling hard work throughout last season and we are looking forward to seeing his team have further success in 2017. At least now the unsung heroes of David Dennis’ yard have received the recognition they deserve! Best of luck guys for this coming season. Bordeaux-Undiscovered will be rooting for you!

 

Stratford Leading Trainer – 2016 Season

Posted on

How to get the best out of Bordeaux Wine – Why Clay could be Saint Emilion’s cornerstone – Chateau Laroze

We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the third in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .

Sands over Chalky Clay at Laroze

We are always told that Chalky Limestone is the soil to look out for as it produces the best wines. However, I had my eyes opened when visiting Chateau Laroze. At this Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe it is ‘all about Clay’. As a farmer’s daughter, I’m well aware that Clay is rich in nutrients; you can grow crops beautifully on it provided you manage drainage properly. What I didn’t know is that Clay is produced from degraded Limestone that has been smashed into fine deposits over the millenia. In soil science Clay has a property that is much sought after. It has a very high CEC (Citation Exchange Capacity) which allows the soil to bring more nutrients into the vines.

The vineyard at Laroze lies across the foot of a gentle slope on the famous Saint Emilion Limestone plateau. The ground is made up of a sandy surface (Silica) over Chalky Clay sub soil (named ‘Marne de Castillon’). A 2-metre-deep layer of Clayey soil extends all over the vineyard. At Laroze a clever, deep drainage system runs metres underground; radically transforming the soil’s ability to drain and putting a stop to Clay’s tendency to water-logging and compacting.

Laroze’s owner, Guy Meslin, says the terroir here is interesting for wine: ‘Silica brings elegance, and Clay brings structure’. Beautifully spoken, educated, and supremely at ease amongst his vines, Guy Meslin is a charming and erudite man. He’s what I’d call a ‘hand’s on’ owner – the chateau is his life. Guy says, smiling, that ‘he belongs to the chateau’, not the other way around.

Clay may be the keystone of Laroze but Guy Meslin is its rock.

Chateau Laroze, Saint Emilion Grand Cru Classe

Guy inherited Laroze from his father and is a direct descendant of the chateau’s founder Nelly Gurchy. The Gurchys are an old Saint Emilion family who can trace their roots all the way back to 1610 when they were making wine at Mazerat, half a mile away from what was to become Laroze. Nelly’s husband, Georges, was a wine merchant and part-owner of Chateau Yon Figeac at one point in time. Widowed at the age of 46 in 1880, Nelly purchased three litle vineyards in 1882-1883: Camus La Gommerie (from the large estate of Chateau La Gommerie that was broken up after the French Revolution), the neighbouring vineyard of Lafontaine and also that of Chateau Camus. The vineyards were amalgamated and still sit in a complete block today (this is unusual in Saint Emilion where vineyards tend to be fragmented and scattered). The chateau, vat rooms and cellars were built in 1885 and Nelly named it Laroze (thanks to her love of roses).

Nelly certainly had a plucky spirit, she was quite an entrepreneur for the time especially as most businesses back then were run by men. She had a good eye for terroir – Laroze’s 65 acres are surrounded by those of Chateaux Yon Figeac, Clos des Jacobins and Premier Crus Beausejour Becot, Beausejour Duffau Lagarrosse and Angelus.

Lady Laroze, the Third Wine of the chateau

Jump forward in time to the 1920s and the property was once again under a woman’s influence. Guy’s grandmother, Andrée, took over along with her husband Dr. René Meslin. Guy has great respect for Andrée as she worked tirelessly to ensure Laroze would survive so that she could hand it down to her children. Without her, Laroze would not have existed today. In 2011 Guy created a Third Wine, named Lady Laroze, in honour of both Nelly and Andrée.

After the Second World War, the estate was passed to Georges Meslin, Guy’s father, and in 1955 Laroze gained the status of Grand Cru Classe. Guy took over in 1980 and Laroze has continued to grow in quality. He instigated a biodynamic system 1991 – 1998 but switched to organic thereafter. Work on putting in the deep drainage network under the vines began in 1997 and was completed in 2002. Guy checks the collection point fed by the water from the vineyard drains to help calculate the hydric stress on the vines.

Chai at Laroze

Guy has also upped the density of the vines to 10,000 vines per hectare. This is very high and the reasoning behind this is that it stresses the vines. You might think that a stressed vine is a bad thing but in fact it’s the reverse. Vines grown tighter together in high densities have to compete with each other. They create stronger, deeper roots; develop smaller grapes and make less foliage. All the vine’s vigour goes into surviving. Deep roots ensure the vine sucks up every piece of nutrient it can locate. Less foliage means that the vine can focus on producing its grapes rather than leaves and tendrils. The grapes these vines produce may be small but they are concentrated; packed with goodness . . . perfect for making great wine. The only downside I can see is that you get lower yields but it’s a sacrifice winemakers make in order to achieve a top-quality product.

Guy Meslin with the barrels

The other change at Laroze that Guy has instigated is to increase his Cabernet Franc. The vineyard is planted with 68% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. Whilst standing in the sunshine in the vineyard Guys tells me that in the past Laroze grew more Cabernet Franc but these were pulled out and replaced with Merlot in the 70s. Now the reverse is happening and Guy is replacing his Merlot with Cabernet Franc, hoping to increase the percentage from 26% to 40%. He believes Cabernet Franc has been long neglected and deserves to be developed. Like Merlot, Cabernet Franc favours Laroze’s deep, cool Clay. It’s a grape that has an ancient foothold in Saint Emilion; it’s been grown here since the 1700s.

I had to smile at Guy scrutinising a grape plucked from the ripening Cabernet Franc vines. This close to harvest he tastes his grapes daily for ripeness. Giving his vines a wistful glance he turns and we head towards his chai. Steam is emitting from oak barrels being cleaned within and the heady perfume of fermenting wine is delicious. There are various sizes of barrels here and I asked why some were so large. Guy tells me that larger barrels have less surface contact with the wine inside and the different sizes give different nuances of oakiness to the maturing wine. The rows of barrels in the chai all sit on strips of earth in between the flooring so that they have contact with the humidity of the soil.

Chateau Laroze

In 2009 Guy invited Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Chateau Angelus to join his technical team at Laroze to help build a higher profile with journalists, wine importers and distributors worldwide. Since then Laroze has become better known and its popularity is growing. Deservedly so. Nick has made frequent mention of Laroze on his blogs during his En Primeur tastings in Bordeaux as a wine to look out for.

Wine critics often mention the underlying minerality of Laroze in their tasting notes, Robert Parker in particular. Medium bodied but rich, layered and fresh, the vintages of Laroze I tasted were classic Saint Emilion in style; laced with ripe black Morello cherry, dried herbs and roasted coffee beans. Laroze is also an extremely good price for a Grand Cru Classe (circa £19 – £23 a bottle depending on the year). They say wines often reflect the qualities of their makers and in Laroze’s case it’s true. Still waters run deep – beneath Guy’s gentle conversation runs a fountain of knowledge. And beneath the serene surface of Laroze there is a great deal to discover.

NB Whilst at Laroze we also tasted wines from the surrounding area over a lovely lunch. Details and tasting notes will follow in the next blog in the series.

Posted on

How to get the best out of Bordeaux Wine – Talent spotting for the future – Chateau des Fougeres Clos Montesquieu.

We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the third in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .

Chateau Fougeres Clos Montesquieu

There are some amazing places tucked away in Bordeaux that turn out to be quite a revelation. If you’re a follower of this blog you’ll have often heard Nick refer to ‘Cinderella’ chateaux that have risen from the shadows of obscurity to bask in new found glory. Chateau des Fougeres Clos Montequieu is no Cinderella; if anything it is a ‘Sleeping Beauty’.

Newly awoken by Dominique Coutière, owner of Biolandes, this chateau has an aristocratic past and a bright future.

I was keen to visit the chateau for three reasons: the first being its wine (which is fairly new on the market – the first vintage under new ownership was in 2012), the second being its connection to Biolandes (a company which produces and supplies essential oils and extracts for perfumes and aromatherapy) and the third being its connection to Montesquieu (the French philosopher).

Side view of the chateau

The drive up to the chateau swings through a small park spaced with well-placed specimen trees. The grounds had a peaceful atmosphere and I had to resist the urge to explore – there was a feeling that made you think discoveries lay behind each new view. I shouldn’t have been surprised at such graceful settings for the gardens were developed by the Bordelaise nurseryman Jean Alphonse Escarpit (1829 – 1899) who helped to design the Jardin Public park in Bordeaux. The gardens had a note of familiarity, probably because Escarpit followed the ‘English-style’. He liked sweeping curves, bousquets (little groves) and the different tones of green and blue you can find in the foliage of trees and water. You get all of these at Chateau des Fougeres – the land gently undulates down from the chateau with trees standing like islands in the close-cropped turf. There are signs of old water features in the grounds and I wished I could have wandered about outside more. It’s very beautiful.

However the task in hand was a tasting of Graves and Pessac Leognan whites and reds held inside the chateau. Rather fitting as it happens, as Montesquieu was an ambassador for the local Graves wines – he did much to build their reputation throughout France and in Britain. Born into an aristocratic family Montesquieu was a lawyer, philosopher and satirist and became the first great French man associated with the Enlightenment. His theories later became an important part of the American Constitution.

Front view of the chateau

Inside, the chateau houses the Montesquieu’s family heritage and its decor hasn’t been altered in any way. When Dominique Coutière bought the chateau from Baron Montesquieu in 2010 he promised not to change anything. He did have to modernise the plumbing, electrics and heating systems. The pavillion tower roof held a huge water tank which fed down to household but this had to be removed because it leaked and flooded the house out. The central heating system was quite innovative for the time and was an oven in the cellars that piped hot air up to the floorboards above! The house is full of Second Empire furnishings and we were given a little tour round the rooms. Although steeped in history it still felt very much a family home.

Gaston de Montesquieu extended the chateau during the Second Empire

Chateau des Fougeres belonged to Montesquieu’s brother. Montesquieu himself lived a stone’s throw away at neighbouring Chateau La Brede and its said that two brothers used to wave at each other from the balconies on their chateaux. The estate is an old one, dating back to the 1500s, and is on the site of a medieval castle known as Milheras in the local dialect. The current chateau was once a Carthusian monastery and Gaston de Montesquieu used it as a hunting lodge. He was responsible for converting the rectangular charterhouse into the building we see today. He also gave it the name of Chateau des Fougeres – a French translation of Milheras, meaning ‘Chateau of the Ferns’. It’s always been a wine producing property and in 1756 it was owned by a Bordeaux wine merchant until it was brought back into the Montesquieu family fold in 1867. Gaston increased the size of the vineyard to nearly 200 acres and planted it with Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Today the vineyard covers 35 acres and is planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Chateau des Fougeres Clos Montesquieu, Graves

Dominique has the reputation of a man not used to doing things by half and is very ambitious for Chateau des Fougeres, in which he has invested heavily. The winemaking installations are constantly being improved in order to yield a product that is faithful to its soil and to its history.

The consultant oenologist who works with them on their reds is world renowned Stephane Derenoncourt and their whites are made by Olivier Bernard’s top flight team at Domaine de Chevalier nearby.

Dominique’s jump from essential oils to wine isn’t an odd leap to make. Perfume and wine have a lot in common: both rely on the ‘nose’ of their creator, be it the perfumier or the wine maker, and both use a process of transformation – from grape to wine and from flower petal to essence. There are plenty of precedents in Bordeaux; the most notable being Chateau Rauzan Segla which is held by the owners of the perfume ‘Chanel‘ and Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte’s ‘Caudalie’, which has a range of perfumes inspired by the fragrance of the grape flowers and vines.

Grand Vin label

Chateau des Fougeres produces two reds: Chateau des Fougeres Clos Montesquieu, AOC Graves and their Second Wine Rouge Fougeres (which translates as Red Fern). Being recently born (the final improvement plans for the vineyard come into effect this year, 2017) neither of these wines are much known in Europe and are only available at a few outlets. However, the world’s critics have already taken note and the 2012 vintage of the Grand Vin received a score of 92/100 from James Suckling and won a Silver Medal at the Concours de Vins d’Aquitaine.

Sleeping Beauty has awoken and although its price is reasonable at the moment (circa £15 – £20) I’d expect it to rise as word gets out.

Chateau Couhins Lurton Blanc, Pessac Leognan

Whites to note:
We tasted a range of wines in the airy dining room watched over by portraits hanging on old, red, faded silk wall-papered walls. I couldn’t help wondering if the resplendent gentlemen crowned with powdered wigs depicted in the pictures above us had quaffed the same wines long ago. They would have probably been astounded at the seriousness involved in tastings nowadays.

Chateau Le Sartre Blanc, Graves

The stand out white wine for me was Chateau Couhins Lurton – a pure Sauvignon Blanc from Graves. It was exquisite. My tasting notes on this white were circled with stars; it was by far the best white I tasted on the tour. The price is circa £20 – £25 a bottle. This chateau is part of a portfolio owned by the negociant Andre Lurton and their charming export director Laurent Belisaire had also brought Chateau La Louviere along for us to taste – another lovely white at around £18 – £20 a bottle. A branch of the large Lurton wine making dynasty, Andre Lurton’s portfolio is well worth looking at and you can find a list of their chateaux here.

I also enjoyed the white from Chateau Le Sartre. It was very modern in style and so fresh it reminded me of a white Burgundy; minerally and full of zesty green apple. Le Sartre was a well-known chateau in the 19th century and was rediscovered in the late seventies by the Perrin family, owners of Chateau Carbonnieux. It sits on good terroir between Chateau des Fougeres and Domaine de Chevalier in the Pessac Leognan AOC. Both red and white vary from £12 – £20 a bottle depending on the vintage and supplier.