We sent Sarah, who deals with our research and development, to Bordeaux to check out new areas of interest. This is the second in this series of blogs about her voyage of discoveries . . .
You might think that the famous chateaux of the Medoc have cornered the market as the trailblazers of Bordeaux wines but you’d be wrong. Beneath the parade of grand chateaux and their much fanfared labels lies a power-house of energetic smaller producers steadfastly working to create their own masterpieces. These producers don’t often get their wines trumpeted about in the British press; nor do they get flashy write ups about their splendid chateaux.
More often than not you’ll find the smaller producers’ wineries are part of an old farmhouse. You may not feel as if you are walking on hallowed ground when you visit one (there are no splendidly furnished rooms or imposing architecture to goggle at) but instead you are very much aware that you’re entering into the beating heart of a workplace. A place buzzing with purpose and vigour. There’s a strange timeless feeling pervading the atmosphere as you realise that these people are following the same path as their grandparents before them. This is a place of wine. And if you have got it right; it’s a place of very good wine indeed.
Chateau Anniche is such a place. My visit there turned out to be quite a revelation and it’s made a lasting mark on me. We visited Anniche on Day 1 of my trip to Bordeaux and were still acclimatising to the intense heat. Stepping out from the blazing sunshine into the cool sanctuary of the little tasting room we were greeted by Lyndsey and Jean Luc Pion, and their son Pascal, the Maitre de Chai.
Chateau Anniche is such a place. The Pion family have been making wines at Anniche since Napoleonic times and made their own wine barrels up until 1914. You can see that beyond the neat, whitewashed winery and ultra modern chai much older buildings sit clustered about. The land here stretches away under blue skies over ranks of vines growing on clay and limestone soil containing siliceous rock (quartz, chalcedony and flint).
Anniche is located in Haux right at the north end of the Cadillac appellation which sits along the right bank of the River Garonne. The Pessac Leognan appellation is directly opposite Haux on the other side of the river. Haux is known for its 12th century romanesque church and was on the ancient route of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. The wonderful Abbey of La Sauve Majeure, just over a mile up the road from Anniche, was an important monastery and major halt for pilgrims up until the French Revolution.
Haux is a quiet place today though – few vehicles travel the road – and at Anniche the silence was only broken by the drone of bees and grass hoppers in the vineyard.Lyndsey keeps bees and the hives lie on the edge of the acacia wood and along the flowery meadows. Their honey is sold locally either direct from the cellar or via the Tourism Office and markets of Cadillac and Creon. Bees aren’t the only creatures in the vineyards, there are chickens and pigs – as well as visitors such as cattle egrets and roe deer. In 2014 tawny owls took up temporary residence in the chai.
Lyndsey tells me that the family think that the place name ‘Anniche’ is derived from a parcel of vines belonging to the property called ‘la niche’. ‘La niche’ in old French refers to a place where animals were sheltered. On looking up the origins of the word ‘niche’ I had to smile as in the 14th century it meant ‘dog kennel or recess (for a dog)’ and this is rather fitting . . . as Pascal’s loyal companion is Olaf, the wine dog. Olaf is a giant, he is huge! I think he must be a Leonberger – a massive, lion-like, breed of working dog. Lion-like he may be, with his shaggy mane and sandy coat, but he is gentle and pines when Pascal has to leave him. When we trooped into the Pion’s tasting room he stretched his vast body out and bowed a greeting, had a friendly sniff and pat on the head from everyone, and then accompanied us on our tour of the chai and vineyard.
The Pion’s vines cover an area of 72 hectares (177 acres) and are planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc for their red wines. Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle are grown for their dry and sweet whites. Some of their Semillon vines are 122 years old. Pascal says that in the old days the whole village only ever produced sweet whites. Semi Sweet whites (moelleux) are Pascal’s passion but, as he says, you have to be a little nuts to make them. They are a labour of love; not only is Semillon the last grape to be harvested but it takes an inordinate amount of time to harvest it. Grapes have to be picked in order of ripeness and it can take an awful lot of grapes to make just one golden glass of sweet wine. To give you an idea, it’s said in Sauternes that Chateau d’Yquem produces only one glass of wine per vine.
The Pion’s pure nectar:
Having tasted Pascal’s sweet white, Chateau Haut Roquefort (made from 100% Semillon), I can well understand his passion. It’s beautiful . . . a dark honied colour, tasting of nectar with a twist of bitter orange. Full of zesty acidity in the mouth, this style of wine is far from sticky or cloying . . . as my companions from the wine trade found out. Moelleux turned out to be one of their highlights and proved to be a real eye opener for some.
Sweet white Bordeaux has hit the foodie radar recently with all sorts of delicious pairings being suggested, however I can’t wait to try Chateau Haut Roquefort with its namesake – the blue cheese Roquefort. It’s the classic partner for this style of wine. It could be a marriage made in heaven.
The dry white, Chateau Anniche, is also predominantly Semillon but is blended with Sauvignon Blanc which brings a certain freshness and Muscadelle which adds potent floral aromas. I found it to be very smooth; quite a deep wine with flavours of lychee laced with lemon. I asked Lyndsey if she would send samples so that Nick could taste their range and he was most impressed. The dry white Chateau Anniche’s quality was so good Nick placed it on a par with the dry whites being produced from the Sauternes Grands Crus Classes. Needless to say these fashionable whites carry an expensive price tag; whereas Anniche’s dry white does not.
The Pion’s also produce a brilliant Rose: Chateau Lalande Meric. On such a brutally hot day this was certainly the most refreshing wine from their range – a pale salmon pink, delicately tasting of strawberry with melony undertones. As a taster you have to swirl, sip and spit . . . this was one of those wines that made me regret having to do so. We didn’t drink it chilled but it was so balanced and smooth it made me wish I could sit there in the shade and sup the lot.
Pascal talked of how Bordeaux Rose has changed over the past few years. Of course the Bordelaise have been making it for centuries but these days the demand is for paler and paler Rose. This is something Nick commented on in January (see What wines to watch out for in 2016 – Are our tastes changing?) and Pascal said that whereas they used to let the Rose soak on the must for 2 – 4 days (to soak up colour and flavour from the grapes) now they only allow 2 – 4 hours. The trick here is to achieve a wine with all the flavour and aroma that make it so attractive whilst keeping it on the must as short a time as possible to achieve the paler colour.
The Reds are Premier Cotes de Bordeaux and were wines I was looking forward to tasting. Nick has already highlighted the fact that you can find good clarets around the Cadillac appellation and Anniche’s Reds have a lovely tannic backbone; tasting of blackberry and prune with mint overtones.
It just goes to show that there is so much more to Bordeaux if you scratch beneath the surface. The wines we see here on supermarket shelves aren’t representative of the Bordeaux the French know and love. We miss out on so many little treasures. I was over the moon that Chateau Anniche was the first winery visit on our trip as it is exactly the place that Nick looks out for: A small producer who tries to associate modernity with tradition, judiciously applying new scientific methods where they can to help mediate with Nature and the elements in order to produce delicious wines in complete harmony with the environment. It was wonderful to experience it for myself first hand and my only regret is that I forgot to buy a jar of their honey!