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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.

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.

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