It is years since I’ve set foot in the Bordeaux Region, and what was once a weekly staple has become a rarer beast at table here. But there’s no reason why there should not be room for a little more Bordeaux in this brave new world of wine. There’s really nothing like a wine trip to revitalise one’s enthusiasm, and this was a great weekend. Especially as it involved staying at Pichon-Longueville, six guests, totally on our own except for the occasional member of staff.
I’ll talk about that in Part Two, including the wonderful cellar tour and tasting, followed by dinner in the Chateau, but first I want to talk about a very decent restaurant in Saint-Julien and a couple of interesting Chateau visits laid on with the help of Pichon’s staff.
There’s only one daily flight out of Gatwick to Bordeaux, but it’s just after 8am. So even with the usual delays EasyJet seem to treat us to with some frequency, we still managed to find ourselves in a bleak, cold and mostly closed Saint-Emilion by lunchtime, and even better, we found ourselves in one of those restaurants, just a step up from a café really, where you can get a decent steak-frites, crèpe and coffee for under twenty quid. Here we had the added pleasure of Saint-Emilion by the glass, “old vintage” for €1 extra. That turned out to be a 2000. Okay, the Chateau was not one we’d heard of, but a glass of 2000 for €5.90 was not bad at all.
The drive from Saint-Emilion to Pauillac is longer than I remembered, but we had time to find some further liquid refreshment before our expected arrival time at Pichon, so we made a stop at the hamlet of Bages, just touching the southern edge of Pauillac town. Bages didn’t exist in its present form last time I was here, but now, just around the back of Chateau Lynch-Bages, is a nicely renovated square on which you have the café-bistro Lavinal, a smart bakery, the “Bages Bazaar” and, over the road, a fine butcher.
Lavinal is a good place to grab a beer or coffee, after a hard day’s tasting, and the following day we had a very decent lunch there as well (though don’t look for cheap Lynch-Bages on the wine list despite their ownership of the hamlet and its attractions). Fish soups, rabbit, and one of us braved the Bages Burger, very tasty but big, so recommended on all counts for a stop between chateau visits.
After being installed in our rooms at Pichon and waiting for the arrival of the last two guests (actually our hosts) flying in from Brussels, we drove down to Saint-Julien for dinner at the aptly, if unimaginatively, named “Le Saint-Julien”. This place was recommended by both Tom Cannavan (of Winepages) and Nicolas Santier at Pichon-Longueville. It was pretty quiet for a Friday night, albeit in February (only one other table taken), but all six of us would recommend it. There’s plenty of bird and fowl on the menu. I had pigeon, others ate guinea fowl, and local lamb was enjoyed as well. Two of us actually claimed to have eaten the best pear dessert they’d ever had. I went for the assiette des fromages. It was actually only one cheese, a big spoonful of Mont D’Or. Luckily I like Mont D’Or.
The wine list isn’t extensive, and there aren’t many older vintages. Indeed, rather than drink 2009 or younger, or spend €290/bottle, we began with a Pol Roger, followed by a Gloria and a Fleur-Milon, both 2007. Both very decent, though obviously nothing special. I have a soft spot for Chateau Gloria, though others may have preferred Fleur-Milon.
The next day, Lynch-Bages was a nice half hour post breakfast stroll through the vineyards. There’s a tour anyone can go on, booking recommended, which costs €9 each. You get to see the vat room, cuverie etc with a very good explanation of processes and philosophy (our guide, Solène, was excellent, very friendly, relaxed, and happy to answer questions).
(The tanks above actually contain the rare Lynch-Bages Blanc, to be had for €35 in the Bages Bazaar shop. And I did!)
This is followed by a nose around the “museum section” where we saw the old vats and, upstairs above them, the old rail tracks and press, an ingenious way of moving the grapes around to make the wine. Then you get a tasting. We got Les Ormes de Pez 2007 (Saint-Estèphe, also owned by the Cazes family) and Lynch-Bages 2007. I think for being good we also had a glass of Bel-Air, their white from the Graves.
(Solène was a fun guide with a few nice stories up her sleeve)
There certainly is a lot of 2007 Bordeaux, on restaurant lists and on the tasting tables at the Chateaux. It’s easy to knock, easy to joke about how to get rid of this lesser vintage, yet I suppose you can say that at least it’s easier to taste than a much younger vintage. It also tasted better than I remember on all the occasions we drank it, but the location may have influenced us. I won’t be rushing to buy some, but I won’t be scared of ordering a well priced example in a restaurant either. From a good address.
After the tasting you are let out of the back door, which opens (lo and behold) onto the Bages Square, where one is (gently) directed to Bages Bazaar if you care to make a purchase. They even sell polystyrene wine cases for those wishing to book in some hold baggage, along with a vast array of tempting (if expensive) kitchenware.
After lunch at Lavinal we had our own trip up to Saint-Estèphe, for a tasting at Chateau Haut-Marbuzet, a drive which gives a view of some more of the finest properties in the Haut-Médoc. We already had a view of Pichon-Lalande and Latour from our bedroom window, but the curve in the D2 on which sits Lafite in her park on one side and the great wall of Cos D’Estournel on the other is one of the grand sights afforded by a drive through Pauillac to Saint-Estèphe.
Haut-Marbuzet may not have the cachet of Pichon or Lynch-Bages even, but it’s very much an insider wine, a typical Saint-Estèphe, a wine with structure that can age with finesse. It’s currently run by Henri Duboscq whose family have owned the property since the early 1950s, and it was one of the original nine Chateau classified as Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel in 1932 (a sub-classification no longer existing following the annulment of that Classification). Set between Cos and Montrose on a nice plateau, one can understand why many consider this estate as being of Cru Classé quality, just as Lynch-Bages is considered more at the level of a Second than a Fifth Growth.
(Haut-Marbuzet barrel hall)
The tour and tasting follow a similar, if more truncated, path as that at Lynch-Bages. Less professional perhaps though more personal, and in this case free. And we were generously treated to five wines, all newly opened for us: a Duboscq Médoc, Ch Chambert-Marbuzet 2011 (a Cru Bourgeois of 5 hectares), and Haut-Marbuzet from (in order) 2007, 2011 and 2010. As I said, very generous. And our first 2010 of the weekend showed the genuine class of this “vintage of the, cough, millennium”.
Part Two will follow – in which a group of very lucky people make you seethe with jealousy as they slug back vast quantities of Pichon-Longueville, some other equally lovely fine wines, and are forced to leave a bottle of Lidl Armagnac untouched (we did smell it, and a small, very small, amount passed the lips).