We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the fifth in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . .
I had no idea when visiting Bordeaux just how extraordinarily wealthy the great chateaux of the Medoc can be. This area is world famous and the revered wines of the Grand Cru Classe are normally well out of reach of most wine lovers pockets. They are collected, traded and coveted by a select band of wine conoisseurs and enthusiasts; often reaching several thousands per case if it is a rare and particularly good vintage. I’m used to seeing photos of the grandiose chateaux but a photo doesn’t really give you any idea of scale. Some of these chateaux are palatial – take premier cru Chateau Margaux for example. It’s magnificent . . . a vast, neo-classical edifice built from the palest of limestones; be-decked with a columned portico over a massive flight of steps at its entrance. It rises from a flat ocean of vines like a great white cruise liner. Incongruous and intimidating it may be but the wines made here are sublime.
And it’s not the only one. Carefully placed throughout the immaculate vines other mansions gleam; each the work of some ambitious 19th century architect. There is no uniform style of building; each chateau is a testament to its one-time owner’s status . . . the folly-like pagodas of Cos d’Estournel and the fairy tale towers of Pichon Baron and Pichon Lalande are typical flights of fancy. You don’t really get a sense of size or proximity from photos – the thing that struck me whilst there was how closely packed together some of these chateaux are. The two Pichon chateaux and premier cru Chateau Latour, with its iconic circular tower (once a pigeon house), are a stone’s throw away from each other. It reminded me of a luxurious gated community (minus the residents).
Beautiful, impressive and slightly other-worldly; these are the mausoleums of the Medoc. On this hallowed ground, they hold collections of bottles with vintages dating back down the years in dark cellars akin to bank vaults. You are ushered in and walk in the cool silence with bated breath as your eyes dart here and there spotting vintages from yester year. Some go back over a century. This is a shrine to wine.
The vineyards are remarkably quiet. There is no hustle and bustle. No organised chaos, no people amongst the vines. In fact, the only people I saw at work were a bunch of security guards hovering at the entrance to Chateau Margaux in case a tourist overstepped the mark. I did see a tractor going down the road in Saint Julien. The vineyard tractors here all have high cabs way above the wheels to avoid the vines, which makes them look like something from a Transformers film. Incidentally 94% of the chateaux in the Saint Julien appellation are either Grand Cru Classe (GCC) or GCC connected.
The Medoc is so very different to the other appellations and the busy petits chateaux I visited there. The villages were quiet too. Compared to the crowded streets of Saint Emilion, Pauillac was dead. With shutters closed against the glaring sun, bathed in dusty heat, it slumbered without a soul in sight. Of course, the Medoc’s villages are smaller than Saint Emilion but there is another huge difference between them. Saint Emilion is a town dedicated to wine; it’s everywhere you look. Shop fronts are full of it, streets are plastered with signs advertising it, restaurants spill out onto squares with people drinking it and vineyards creep into the town’s outskirts as if they are trying to get into it. The Medoc has nothing like this. Villages belonged to great estates in the old days and there are few independent petits chateaux. Those there are get muscled out by the big boys and their land is snapped up to add to the prestigious GCC acres. There is no trickledown effect; the wealth stays at the top and the villages sit subservient to their masters.
Every available inch of valuable land here is down to vines. Scattered at the end of vineyard rows sat twinkling patches of cosmos, sown to attract the bees. Any trees in sight were clustered around the chateaux gardens and were mostly the flat topped Landes pines, the odd giant wellingtonia (sequoia) and horse chestnuts with their leaves starting to brown and crinkle in the drought. Tonsured topiary, manicured lawns browning in the sun, banana trees and salmon pink oleanders sit in ordered chateaux gardens behind big walls and stone arched gates.
It’s flat here and it reminded me of our English Fens. The most sought after estates lie on mounds and rises in the ground. These are gravel ridges left behind by the great rivers as they move into the Gironde estuary, It was once a vast salt marsh here and was drained in the 17th century to plant vines. You can still see the vestiges of the marsh – ditches and dykes full of muddy water rich in silt thread through the landscape. Beyond the vineyards, you can see little white egrets bobbing in the fields and greylag geese nibbling the reeds on old flood plains.
There are treasures to be found here for the wine hunter. Undoubtedly there are plenty of venerated vintages of the GCC to be gazed at but in my eyes the real treasure lies in the undiscovered. The diamonds in the rough. Easily affordable wines hide behind the premier crus’ backdoors tucked out of sight in the quiet villages and in the nooks and crannies of the Medoc far away from the well-trodden track. It’s a big region with lots to explore. I’ll tell you about them next time I write.