The long & international journey of a wine barrel.

Wherever I am in the world Bordeaux seems to follow me around, usually as bottles.  There is usually a familiar wine on the list. Sometimes on the other side of the world I’ll discover something new from very close to home. But it’s not only bottles and the wine they contain that travel from Bordeaux. Barrels do too.

Barrels are an important part of wine making. Used judiciously, they can add complexity, longevity and power. Used less wisely, they can overpower a wine, masking elegance and subtlety. Barrels add aromas and tannins but also help the wine along its evolution, encouraging a slow and controlled oxygenation of the wine as air seeps in through porous oak. This allows the highly reactive tannins from the wine and the oak to combine, creating larger tannin molecules that seem less abrasive on the palate.

Barrel cellar montrose

Beautiful French oak barrels at Château Montrose

This influence of the barrel upon the wine depends on so many factors. I mention oak above, but it doesn’t have to be, I’ve seen other wood essences used. Acacia is one you will sometimes find in white wine cellars in Bordeaux.

For oak the source of the tree, how slowly it grew, where it grew, (terroir doesn’t only come into play with grapes) and the age of the tree all play a role. The slower the tree grows the tighter the grain will be and the better quality the oak.

An oak tree destined for barrels may be over 200 years old. This raises a few eyebrows at a time when sustainability is a wine buzzword, but be reassured. These French oak forests are owned and tightly managed by the French state, only released for sale by auction, plot by plot, when they are ready to be felled and systematically re-planted. Thanks to Colbert’s 17th century policy of planting oak forests for war ships to fight the English, the French forests are thriving. Ironic then that so much of barrel-aged Bordeaux wine now ends up on the UK market.

Despite increasing worldwide demand, supply remains controlled explaining why these French oak barrels don’t come cheap; anything from €600 to €900 a pop depending on the size and the aging of the oak.

Once felled, how the oak is prepared and aged also influences the flavours it imparts to the wine. French oak is split not sawn. This ensures the grain of the wood is respected so the barrels remain watertight.  It adds to the cost, in labour but also reduces the volume of the tree trunk that can be used for barrel staves. American oak has a less regular grain so planks are sawn meaning more volume can be used, this higher yield and ease of manipulation reduces cost. The flavour profile is different however. Several wine makers have described American oak to me as giving  more coconut than vanilla aromas that are associated with French oak. You will find both in many Bordeaux cellars.

After being split and prepared into staves the wood must be aged, for anything up to three years. Exposed to wind and rain in the unpolluted areas near the forest, inelegant tannins are washed away and transformed by microscopic fungus on the surface of the cut wood.

Barrel staves ageing

Barrel staves ageing at Nadalie in the Medoc

Splitting also means that staves size will differ, assembling the staves to form a barrel is like creating a unique 3D puzzle for each individual barrel. Once the oak is matured barrel making begins. It’s a fascinating process that remains very manual – there is only so much you can mechanise. The key skills of heating the staves, whilst keeping them damp allows for sufficient flexibility to bend them to the rotund shape of a barrel. Then gentle toasting will impart the flavours to the wine; a raw barrel will bring very little to the party. Both these processes rely on the traditional skill and judgement of the barrel maker. It’s impressive to watch, I  highly recommend a visit to a cooperage if you have never seen this. The finished barrels are each a work of art.

Barrel toasts 2

Different degrees of toasting give different flavour profiles.

With so many variables in the process, each having an influence on the final taste profile, most barrels are tailor made to suit a particular wine maker. It’s not unusual to see barrels from several different cooperages in a chateau cellar, each one bringing its own flavour profile.

Barrel toasting

Barrel making – still a manual skill here at Boutes in Bordeaux

In Bordeaux barrels will be used for one to three years on average, depending upon the barrel policy of the wine maker. Their flavour profile changes with age. The newer the barrel, the more pronounced the flavours and the tannins it will impart to the wine. Vineyards producing powerful, often Cabernet driven, wines may use 100% new oak for their first wines. A more traditional Bordeaux approach is one third new, one third one year old and one third two year old barrels, combining new barrels with some already used for previous vintages. A producer making lighter wines may prefer older barrels if they are looking for the gentle evolution resulting from ageing in an oak container rather than a cement or stainless vat.

Blending defines Bordeaux wines and the use of barrels is part of this. Some wine makers will blend their wines before barrel ageing, others after or even during the ageing process. Blending just before bottling allows wine makers to profile the different lots of wine, adapting the choice of barrel to each lot (age of vines, different varietals). Other wine makers prefer to blend before ageing and rack from one barrel to another so the wine benefits from the complexity a range of barrels bring.

Racking

Racking from barrel to barrel, here in the cellars of Chateau Phelan Segur,  increases complexity as well as removing sediment from aging wines.

What happens to the barrels once the wine makers have finally finished with them? I come back to my introduction – they travel. I have seen Bordeaux oak barrels in many places. New ones are exported directly to wine makers from California to South Africa, with French oak holding a premium for many wine makers.

Barrel shipments Boutes

New oak barrels reading for shipping around the world from Boutes in Bordeaux

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A new Boutes oak barrel at Glenelly in South Africa

But used barrels travel too. They may go to other wineries. Rioja, for example, buys a lot of used barrels as much of their wine is aged for many years in older barrels looking to round out the wines through slow oxygenation rather than add powerful tannins.

As wine ages in barrels it soaks into the wood, staining it dark red and leaving a shiny deposit of tartaric crystals. This makes the barrel less porous but it also make the wood very attractive and staves from these older barrels are often up-cycled for decorative items such as bottle holders, and furniture – the limit is your inspiration.

Barrel art 2

Wine and tartrate deposits make used barrel staves decorative.

 

Barrel cellar door Evangile

Barrel staves make a stunning cellar door at Château l’Evangile in Pomerol

If you replace the wine with a more powerful alcohol it acts as a solvent leaching some of the wine colour and flavours as well as the oak flavours and tannins into the alcohol. Whisky is always aged in used barrels, although once you get to Scotland they are referred to as casks. These casks come from all over the world. The thousands of barrels in the ageing warehouses (not cellars) are all shapes, sizes and colours reflecting their origins, be it Spain, Portugal, USA or France, making for a very different impression to the neat and tidy lines of barrels we see in Bordeaux cellars.

Whisky casks 2

Used casks waiting to be prepared and filled with whisky at Glenfiddich.

Those dark, rich aromas and mouth-feel we associate with whisky for example, owe a lot to the previous tenants of the barrel. Whisky needs long cask ageing; straight from the still spirit is white, taking its colour from the barrel. Sherry or bourbon casks are traditionally used, the decline in sherry’s popularity, reducing production has resulted in whisky distillers often financing sherry companies barrel consumption to ensure their supply.

Whisky casks

Whisky casks of different origins in the Edradour warehouse

Spirit producers are getting more adventurous, offering a diverse and growing range of finishes. A finish is when a spirit spends the last few months of its life in a different cask, often a wine barrel. It makes a difference. Compare different finishes and you’ll see a different hue depending upon the barrels used. Unsurprisingly whiskies finished with a Bordeaux or other red wine barrel will have a more ruddy colour than others.

Barrels are expensive new but after three years of wine ageing they are worth less than €100. Even so it helps if you can ensure the supply chain. Handy then that some wineries and whisky distillers belong to the same groups. At the Auchentoshen distillery near Glasgow I saw many Chateau Lagrange barrels used for their Bordeaux finish – unsurprising as drinks group Suntory owns both the winery and the distillery.

There is synergy in other groups too. Glemorangie is owned by LVMH and was one of the first whisky distilleries to introduce a complete range of different finishes including a premium Sauternes finish. No coincidence perhaps that LVMH are also the owners of Château d’Yquem. The residual sweetness of the Sauternes barrels – reminiscent perhaps of those sweet sherry barrels – imparts unique aromas and mouth feel to the whisky. On my last trip to Scotland last year I saw Sauternes barrels from Château Suduiraut used for the Sauternes finish at Tullibardine.

Glenfiddich cerons

The Chateau du Seuil Cerons finish limited edition Glenfiddich

It was a sweet Bordeaux finish that first took me to Glenfiddich. I was there to sample a Cerons cask-finished 20-year-old Glenfiddich in barrels of Chateau du Seuil. Glenfiddich continues to innovate; the latest addition to their experimental series is Winter Storm a whisky finished in Canadian ice wine casks. Again that residual sweetness.

winters-bottle-box

Winter Storm from Glenfidich: the love story between whisky and sweet wine barrels crosses the Atlantic.

Why not import the whisky to Bordeaux rather than export the barrels? Upon returning to Bordeaux, I found that this is exactly what Moon Harbour is doing, finishing whisky from Scotland in barrels from Château La Louviere while they wait for the first whisky from their new Bordeaux based still.

Moonharbour range

Moon Harbour – Scotch Whisky aged in Bordeaux – whilst they wait for the first drops from the Bordeaux stills to age.

Whisky is not the only spirit that uses old barrels; Rum enjoys the influences of used barrels too. I have already talked about the joint venture between London wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd and Medine in Mauritius. This week, at a rum tasting in Mauritius, I tasted the delicious new Sauternes finish rum at the Chamarel Rhumerie. See what I mean when I say Bordeaux barrels travel?

Chamarel Sauternes

A Sauternes finish for the Chamarel Rhum from Mauritius

And what goes around comes around. The Balvenie Caribbean cask whisky is finished in – you guessed it – rum casks.

Balvenie line up small

The Blavenie line up including the Caribbean Cask

Even after all this there may still be life left in an old cask or barrel; furniture, planters or barbeque fuel perhaps? From fire to fire. The life of a barrel can be a long and winding road.

barrel art glenfiddich small

Old casks have a second life in artwork by a Glenfiddich artist in residence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s New in Bordeaux Wine Retail?

Bordeaux is enjoying its success as a city break destination with visitor numbers skyrocketing. Its reputation as a gastronomic centre is also well established as witnessed by more Michelin stars this year. The sleeping beauty that was Bordeaux no longer slumbers but is wide awake and partying, joined by Parisian visitors now only two hours away on the high speed LGV train.

Wine makers are not slow to make the most of the vibrant city scene as a showcase for their wines. Not everyone who visits Bordeaux makes it out to the vineyards – although they really should, as it is now so easy.

Affordable Bordeaux are invited to the party. Chateau Lestrille, a family vineyard in the Entre Deux Mers region, now has it’s own wine bar in the heart of old Bordeaux. The dynamic owner, Estelle Roumage, opened the chateau to tourism years ago and now she has opened the wine bar ‘Un Château en Ville’ to serve and sell her wines to the city dwellers and visitors. She produces a complete range from white and red to rose and also bag in box – there’s plenty to choose from.

chateau en vile

Un Château en Ville

There is no shortage of great wine shops in Bordeaux and with so much competition and the fact that most of them are owned by wine merchants – prices are usually pretty competitive. If you have left your wine buying until the last minute – don’t despair. Wine Merchant Briau can help. They opened the ‘Pavilion des Vins du Bordeaux’ last year in the newly renovated train station built for the arrival of the new high speed LGV train from Paris. This is the second shop of the Wine Merchant under the management of Pierre-Antoine Borie. Son of owners Chateau Grand Puy Lacoste in Pauillac, Borie knows his way around Bordeaux wine and this large modern shop offers a range from €3 to €800, and there is always white, rose and champagne on ice for that last minute purchase. They are open from 10 ’til 8pm including Sundays and bank holidays to welcome the estimated 20 million passengers a year that are expected through the new  station.

Briau 1

The Pavillons des Vins de Bordeaux at the Gare Saint Jean

As it’s all about getting closer to the consumer, three innovative wine enthusiasts have a plan to get even closer this summer. They met at a wine tasting club in 2015 and pondered how to help consumers navigate the wide range of wines that can leave the uninitiated stumped. Their solution was to create the first crowd-funded wine shop in Bordeaux, Les Trois Pinardiers, offering a tight selection of just 50 wines that changes every three months.

The small ships that transported the wine from port to port along the Garonne and Dordogne rivers inspired their name. Fitting, as transport is another of their innovations: punters can order wine from their phone with the promise of a delivery in the city in under 30 minutes, with local food specialities and fresh bread too.

This year they will be getting even closer to their customers, launching the first Bordeaux wine truck. Food trucks are nothing new to Bordeaux, but Les Trois Pinardiers have adapted a Citroen H from the 70s into a mobile wine bar. It will hit the road in June.

Wine Truck

The Trois pinardiers’ Wine Truck

It’s never been easier to enjoy great wine, in Bordeaux at affordable, even without any forward planning.

 

 

 

 

Berry Brothers & Rudd – back to the future

I often write about the old and the new. It’s an appropriate theme in Bordeaux where wine makers try to honour tradition whilst embracing the latest technology – a fine line that many chateaux successfully tread.

Vineyards, Bordeaux or elsewhere, are not the only members of the wine trade to straddle different centuries: Berry Brothers and Rudd is a venerable London wine and spirits merchant. It is my go-to address for UK clients and others passing through, looking to improve their wine knowledge, stock their cellars or just have a really good tasting (and often food) experience and there has never been a better time to do so.

Founded in 1698 by ‘The Widow Bourne’, it seems fitting that there is once again a woman at the helm. Lizzy Rudd was named chairman at the end of 2017. Having a woman in the driving seat is not the only sign that they are moving with the times. Berry Brothers (or BBR, as their friends know them) is now a star of the silver screen, playing a major role in the latest Kingsman film, which has certainly engaged a younger generation if the numbers of people taking ‘selfies’ outside the entrance to the shop is anything to go by.

The whole of this historic building, on the corner of Saint James and Pall Mall, is dedicated to sharing the company’s passion for wine: a rabbit warren of interconnecting rooms, offices and private dinning rooms. It is a fitting location; this little corner of London is dedicated to hedonistic pleasures. Just across the road from the new retail store is the new 67 Pall Mall London, first members only wine club. James Fox Cigar shop is just up the road, boots and shoes can be custom made at neighbouring John Lobb or hats at Lock & Co. A little further afield is another of my favourite shops – Ormonde Jane whose perfumed candles are wonderful and good training for sensory perception. If you are gasping for a drink after all this wonderful shopping, the discreet Cocktail bar at Dukes Hotel makes the best Martinis – using BBR gin of course.

BBR has a history of innovation; in 1954 they created No 3, the first wine magazine – back on the shelves as of 2016 and were the first wine retailer to go on line as early as 1994. The Wine Knowledge pages of their site and their blog remain an excellent source of wine and spirits expertise: as is their new downloadable e book.

BBRLondon Shop - Simon Peel 04.11.14 (3)

Berry Brothers and Rudd – the old

 

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and the new

2017 saw the opening of the new modern retail shop. You can still enter No 3 St James, where the historic scales and Dickensian theme makes it feel as if you are stepping back in time, but it’s the new shop on Pall Mall where you should call in for the latest wine recommendations and advice the company is known for. Here you can choose from over 5,000 wines stored in an underground cellar the size of two football fields. Then there’s their spirits collection, as diverse as Whisky, Mauritian Rum, Kings Ginger and even a new Texas Bourbon – all iconic brands in their own right. Oh, and of course Gin. This month sees the re-launch of the original Berry Bros. & Rudd London Dry Gin.

BBRLondon Dry Gin - Susie Davis 2018

The new BBR London dry Gin Photo Credit Susie Davis

BBR is not just about selling. Through their exceptional wine school, they are also there to help you learn and discover the wine and spirits world. School here does not mean just sitting behind desks – even if they do have wine glasses rather than inkpots. Learning is interactive and hands-on with events, food and wine lunches, dinners and even Champagne teas.

The opening of the magnificent new Sussex cellars in 2015 has brought these experiences to a greater audience. I finally visited last week and found it incredible that this is sitting underneath such a cornerstone of London tradition. The design, somewhere between a Spanish Bodega and an ancient cellar, allows you to enjoy your pre dinner tasting whilst peering down to the room below where dinner awaits, prepared in their very own, and very busy kitchens, under head Chef Stewart Turner. These new rooms have become such a success that over 1,000 events were held there last year.

BBR Sussex cellars

The Sussex Cellar

BBR has six Masters of Wine on their staff, so plenty of wine brains there for the picking; fitting then that they champion the WSET (Wine and Spirits Education Trust), are silver Corporate Patrons of the educational organisation and were nominated for WSET Wine Educator of the year thanks to the tireless work of Rebecca Lamont.

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Back to school in the Pickering Cellar

Wine classes take place in the Pickering cellar, named after the smallest square in London, in turn named after the Widow Bourne’s son in law. It was the last place to see a duel in London and was also site of The Texas Legation from 1842-45, although they skipped town without paying the rent. No connection to the duel. The debt was paid in 1986, by a delegation in full Texan regalia, which might explain the inspiration behind one of their latest products, a Texan bourbon called Texas Legation! Another astute link to their rich history.

BBR Smaller Texas Legation Bourbon Whiskey

There’s still a little bit of Texas in the heart of Pall Mall

We heart Bordeaux.

I’ve already praised Bordeaux as the perfect romantic venue: the scenery, the chateaux, the wine, the food, and the waterways, all grounded in history, leave you spoilt for choice.

As the boom in wine tourism sees more properties opening their doors to visitors, these special spots are now accessible, whether for a tête à tête dinner, a romantic weekend or the perfect spot to pop the question.

As you explore the winding roads through the vines you will come across chateaux, views and villages that will inspire. Here are a few suggestions to make your next Bordeaux wine tour the height of romance.

UNESCO Heritage site, Saint Emilion, has to be one of the most romantic settings in the region; the perfectly preserved medieval village with its tiny lanes and many restaurants is perfect for hand-in-hand strolls. Famed for its red wines, you might not know they also make a sparkling wine here – Cremant de Bordeaux. Every romantic evening needs a little sparkle. Tucked away down a back street discover a hidden gem: the old cloisters of the Cordeliers. The wines are aged in the underground caves here and you can taste the results at a table for two under the tumbled-down old arches in the secluded gardens.

View from the steeple of Saint Emilion

A stone’s throw from Saint Emilion is the small, prestigious appellation of Pomerol. The 18th century Château Beauregard here has a classified garden full of mature trees that can be viewed from the terrace over looking a small lily filled moat. The private salons and dining room are at once elegant and intimate as are the newly renovated bedrooms

The Château Beauregard lilies

Should you wish to whisk your true love away in style why not in the Rolls Royce from Château Prieuré Marquet? They can pick you up and tour you around the vineyards before returning to this elegant chateau to the North of Bordeaux. Once there you can relax in the heated pool and enjoy the spa.

Spring at Château Soutard – Photo TOM FLECHT

Or wow with the ‘French Chateau’ factor, grander properties with gorgeous guest rooms include Chateau Soutard or further afield, the more intimate Chateau la Pape offers 5 beautiful rooms, also in the Graves. One of the rooms under the eves would be the perfect choice for a romantic stay.

Chateau Le Pape,

Setting the scene is important for a successful romantic venue, views over vineyards are usually pretty cool, even more so when there is a backdrop of a great river. The terrace of the magnificent 16th century Château La Rivière in Fronsac over looks the Dordogne. The romantic renaissance architecture offers more than a view, with secluded areas in the garden including a fountain as well as guest rooms for the night.

Château La Riviere

Across the Entre Deux Mers, Château Biac enjoys vertiginous views over the Gironde heading south towards Toulouse. You can even stay in one of their guest cottages to complete your romantic evening.

The view across the Garonne from Château Biac

Dine on the water by joining a Bordeaux River Cruise along the Gironde, Dordogne or Garonne, watching the vines slide by as you enjoy cocktails, a wine tasting or dinner. You could even venture as far as the coast. Less than hour from Bordeaux, at Pyla is Europe’s largest sand dune. The hotel and restaurant La Corniche is perched right at the top with views over the Arcachon Basin. Taste the oysters, fresh from the ocean, with a dry white Bordeaux – we all know the reputation of oysters.

Cruise Bordeaux

Driving back inland stop in the Medoc. Le Château du Tertre in Margaux has beautiful guest rooms. The Orangerie by the pool there has to be one of the most romantic dinning venues in the Medoc.

The orangerie at Château du Tertre

What wine to serve on Saint Valentine’s? Château Calon Segur has the perfect label for the occasion. The Marquis de Segur created the label for this wine in the 18th century. it remains the same to this day. Despite owning the more prestigious Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafite at the time, he said his heart lay with Calon Segur and drew a heart around the name just to prove it.

I hope your Bordeaux romance lasts just as long. Happy Saint Valentine’s day.

A version of this post previously appeared on the Great Wine Capitals blog 

 

Medoc Classifications – Revolution or evolution?

If you follow this blog you’ll know that, despite its long history, nothing in Bordeaux stands still for very long. This includes the classifications.

Sometimes it takes a look back over your shoulder to move forward. You could say this is the case for the current changes in the Medoc Classifications. I’m not talking 1855 – there is life in the Medoc outside of these famous 60 chateaux!

The Cru Bourgeois classification dates back to the 1930s. By this time, the 1855 classification was established as a benchmark for Bordeaux quality. At its creation, it was a ‘snapshot’ of the wine hierarchy, fixed in time on the request from Napoleon III for the Paris Universal Exhibition held that year in Paris. Up to this time, the hierarchy was constantly evolving with Cru Bourgeois jostling for position amongst the top vineyards.

Once this (almost) unchanging system was locked down, the 400 odd properties waiting to see if it would evolve further and include them were left frustrated. By the 1930s they decided to create their own Cru Bourgeois Classification.

It would be unfair to reduce the Cru Bourgeois classification to one for also-rans. The term Cru Bourgeois was used way before the 1855 Classification, honouring the origin of many Medoc vineyards established thanks to people of the ‘bourg’ or town of Bordeaux – many of them acting as wine merchants.

Flash code stickers on the neck of the Cru Bourgeois bottles

At its creation there were three levels of quality: Cru Bourgeois, Cru Bourgeois Superieur and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionnel. Over the years the Cru Bourgeois notion became diluted: being used by other appellations outside of the Medoc, with chateaux changing hands and also being used as a second wine of a classified growth in some cases. By the 1990s, the French authorities asked the classification to get its house in order with a tighter set of rules and regulations. When the Classification was modernised, first in 2003 (over ruled by the courts on concerns about the impartiality of the jury) and finally in 2007, judging criteria included quality, of course, but also vineyard and cellar inspections.

The three tier hierarchy was abolished and properties were either in or out: Cru Bourgeois or not. This continues to be the case. For the moment. Currently, every vineyard has to reapply for the classification with each vintage. With no Saint Juliens currently in the last, September 2017, classification, it included 271 properties from across seven of the eight Medoc appellations. You can see the classification here.

 

The signature for the 2015 vintage Cru Bourgeois Classification

This annual reassessment was one of the reasons the hierarchy was not reintroduced. It was complicated enough to establish the current system.

There is no denying that in a group of almost 300 properties, there will be a variation in quality. Some vineyards have elected not to be part of the classification due to this variation – how can they differentiate themselves in such a large group?

The French public authorities have just approved the process that will allow a return to the historical three-tier hierarchy, which should appear on wine labels as of the 2018 vintage, which will be on the market in 2020.

Over these next five years, this classification will be assessed on the quality of wines judged by a blind tasting of several vintages by a supervised independent jury but will also include respect for the environment by the vineyards, inspections carried out at the properties throughout the classification period, traceability and the authentication of each bottle.

Chateau Lilian Ladouys, Cru Bourgeois de Saint Estèphe and winner of La Coupe des Crus Bourgeois could be up for a promotion?

This three tier classification should be published in 2020 and good for the five years until 2025.

The other historic classification in the Medoc that is on the move is Les Crus Artisans. You may be even less familiar with classification; there are fewer properties involved and they tend to be smaller (between 1 and 5 ha) so not always easy to find on export markets. Artisan means craftsman, and despite this being a historical term used as early as 1868 in the Cocks and Féret, “Bordeaux and Its Wines” the first official Cru Artisan classification dates from 2006.

Unlike the 1855 and the Cru Bourgeois classification, The Cru Artisans, were created with the objective of a regular over haul. 44 properties were classified in 2006 with a planned reclassification every 10 years. They are not exactly on schedule; the new classification will be announced this year.

An artisan winemaker is defined as a producer who is responsible for the entire production process: vineyard work, vinification, aging of the wine, bottling, packaging, and sales. Behind every Cru Artisan there is an owner who is fully involved in the vineyard, in the cellars, and in the salesroom. Currently the classification includes 32 vineyards as since 2006 some owners have retired and others been bought up by larger neighbours.

The announcement of these updates has been met with some cynicism and derision by some commentators in export markets, saying that consumers neither understand nor care about these classifications.

But what about is if this is not only about the consumer? Perhaps the relevance of these classifications needs to be seen through the eyes of the producers. An annual, five-year or even ten-year assessment is an extra incentive for producers to keep their eye on the quality ball. Of course, a producer should always be trying to make the best wine they can, given the vintage conditions, but having an extra motivation of being able to measure themselves against their neighbours in an impartial classification is an impetus to go the extra mile. Never underestimate peer pressure.

Bordeaux bashers assume that all Bordeaux properties are big, financially sound institutions. Well not at this level. These wines are in a very competitive market segment. The classification on the label may mean little or nothing to many consumers, but belonging to a group that runs tastings, invites journalists and other influencers to taste and discover the wines allows these smaller family properties a shop window and that they could not obtain if they were doing it alone. You can’t be in the vineyard, the wine cellar and the market place all at once. Belonging to an association that is flying your flag alongside your peers is a cost effective way for small vineyards to make a name for themselves in a busy market place. All the more so if there is an entry barrier of quality rather than just a membership fee.

The disappearance of many of the Cru Artisans since 2006 underlines the problems that these small, family-run properties are facing, even in some of Bordeaux’s more prestigious appellations. These classifications can have a role to play in helping to keep these small producers in business, raising awareness of their very existence to the trade and consumers alike.

Keep a look out for them.

How to survive a Wine Tour.

It’s that time of the year again, when the words detox and dry January are popping up more than champagne corks. It’s also when people plan travel for the year ahead and, judging by my inbox, wine tours are on a lot of to-do lists for 2018.

I have already offered advice on how to organise your wine visit to Bordeaux but, given the current concern for our health, it seems appropriate to include a few tips on how our livers and waistlines can survive a week of wine tastings and wine dinners.

The ideas below are taken from my book, The Drinking Woman’s Diet – A liver- friendly lifestyle guide, to be published next month. It is based on my bitter-sweet experience of living and working in the wine and food industry in France for over 20 years.

– Eat breakfast. You might not feel like it after a big wine dinner the night before but a full stomach will slow down the absorption of alcohol into the blood stream: take the eggs and have some yoghurt for those probiotics.

Breakfast – an important start to the wine tour day

– Drink a glass of water before each tasting and before eating. I always keep a stock of bottles with me when touring. Match a glass of wine with a glass of water.

Keep the water to hand

– If your hotel is amongst the vines start the day with a walk through the vines. If you’re staying in Bordeaux, walk along the banks of the Garonne, enjoy some fresh air and work up an appetite for breakfast – see above.

– Take your supplements. Alcohol can be as challenging for your gut flora as for your liver so take some probiotics alongside your milk thistle this may help. Another supplement is Glutathione, known by wine makers for preserving the freshness of white wines – it appears to help preserve the liver too. The science is out as to whether the body can process Glutathione directly; the theory is the body can break down Milk Thistle into Glutathione. I take both if it’s a busy week – better safe than sorry.

– Don’t wear white, you’ll be spitting and red wine stains. Even experienced wine tasters don’t always have great aim. Don’t be shy about it. It’s not considered rude to the wine maker if you don’t drain each glass. They’ll be spitting.

Barrel samples can stain

– And on the subject of stains, teeth can take a pounding, especially when tasting barrel samples. Many people swear by bicarbonate of soda mixed in with toothpaste. Oil pulling with coconut oil or sesame oil is an ancient Ayurveda practise to keep the mouth and gums healthy – takes a bit of getting used to but I find it helps with tannin build-up on my teeth. A glass of champagne at the end of the day is also very effective and much more delicious.

I find a glass of champagne at the end of the day works wonders

– Don’t eat the bread. Trickier than it sounds when you sit down to lunch, starving after a morning of tasting, It may seems impossible to resist the basket of delicious fresh French bread the waiter has just put on the table – but resist you must, if not you’ll never make it through lunch or be too full for the delicious dessert.

I don’t always follow my own advice!

– Clients often comment on the lack of vegetables on offer in French restaurants. The French do eat lots of vegetables. At home a French family meal will start with either salad (crudités) in the summer or soup in the winter. Vegetables will be served with the main course and salad offered with cheese, served before dessert.

Of course the French eat vegetables

Touring the farmers markets will show you the fresh and seasonal variety on offer. So why don’t we see them on more menus? Restaurants showcase ‘noble’ products such as foie-gras, dismissing veggies as homely, sometimes offering only one vegetable as an accompaniment; and it’s often potatoes (there’s a reason they’re known as French fries).

I always try to include ‘greens’ in pre organised menus but if there is no veg proposed with your chosen dish at a restaurant, ask for the potatoes to changed to the vegetable of the day, or some salad, they are usually happy to oblige.

I’ll have salad with that please

– Take a nap on the bus on the way home, I make it a rule not talk over the speaker system after the last tasting of the afternoon. I’ll wake you when we get there.

– Choose a healthy wine tour – yes really. In May I’m teaming up with yoga teacher Martine Bounet for a wine and yoga weekend. I’m always happy for guests to join me for a few morning sun salutations before the day’s tour starts.

Wine and Yoga atf Château Lamothe Bergeron

If all else fails and you haven’t been able to resist the bread and the fries, allow a couple of extra days at the end of your tour and book yourself into detox at the Source de Caudalie Wine spa. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year

Goodbye 2017, you’ve been great company and certainly kept me busy. My strapline states I’m Bordeaux based but open to persuasion. Well I was persuaded this year. I started the tour season with wine in the Rhone and ended with whisky in Scotland – quite a contrast!

It’s not only Bordeaux that blends –  whisky blending at Glenfiddich

The Rhone tour was mostly familiar territory, with a few new discoveries. The wines from the northern Rhone never fail to thrill and the scenery is so breathtaking.

The view over the Northern Rhone

The tour ended with a few days in Provence staying at the spectacular Villa Lacoste. For me, Château Lacoste is emblematic of the changes we are seeing in wine tourism. The wineries visited, the wines tasted and meeting wine makers remains of course at the heart of the experience, but there is now so much more to wine tourism than simply wine. Château Lacoste, with its spectacular art park and hospitality, is the perfect example of this trend towards a complete and high-end experience.

Breakfast at Villa Lacoste

The marriage of art and culture has inspired me for 2018. In the Spring, I’ll be joining forces with interior designer Abigail Hall on a Bordeaux Wine and Design tour exploring how wine has influenced the history of architecture and design in the city of Bordeaux and its chateaux.

It is now easier than ever to participate in a broader approach to wine tourism thanks to a new initiative known as Wine Paths. I’ve been working with their new web site recommending some of my favourite wine tour experiences. Their objective is to make it easier than ever to plan a complete international wine experience. They have partnered with leaders in wineries, hotels, restaurants and other wine led experiences from most major wine regions. France of course, but also across Europe and the world as far afield as South Africa, South America, Australia and New Zealand. You can book with them directly though the site or hand your experience over to selected local specialists.

Filming with Bordeaux Tutors from the Wine School at the Cité du Vin.

Teaching is at the heart of what I do, at the Bordeaux wine school and around the world. As well my annual coast-to-coast tour of the US, sharing the wines of the Medoc with the American distribution trade, I taught in Hong King again this year and in Switzerland. In Hong Kong and Switzerland, the emphasis was on hotel schools. I love these classes, here is the future of wine service and it looks very promising indeed.

With students from the Culinary Institute in Hong Kong

Next year I’ll be involved in more virtual teaching. Around February my book, Bordeaux Bootcamp, will grow into an online experience thanks to The Napa Valley Wine Academy. They are creating an all-online, interactive course, perfect for anyone who wants to become more Bordeaux confident; I’m excited about reaching a broader audience than I can when I’m on the road. The course will be the perfect preparation for Bordeaux drinking but perhaps for a visit to Bordeaux too.

Bordeaux Bootcamp.

When I was in the USA I managed to finally visit the Fingers Lakes. Yet another region where the landscape is a beautiful as the wines – a theme in many wine regions. I had the pleasure of meeting up again with Karen McNeil. As the keynote speaker at the Women for Wine Sense conference her take on cool climate wines was right on trend. Again and again this year the notion of elegance and freshness seems to be on the lips of wine makers – and drinkers.

The Finger Lakes

Of course I spent some time in Bordeaux too, with many familiar faces coming back to Bordeaux for more. In my suggestions on how to tour, three days is an absolute minimum. This will only want to make you come back for more and include a visit to a lesserknown part of Bordeaux or to another winery. This year I’m looking forward to welcoming some guests back for their third visit – you just can’t get too much of a good thing.

Every year I say I’ll do a bit less but 2018 doesn’t look like it’ll be that year. Touring will start in Champagne this year and I’ll be heading to India – more for yoga than wine, although I have it on good authority that Indian wines are worth seeking out, so watch this blog for my impressions.

Wine and wellness is also a theme I’ll be exploring more throughout the year. After the success of wine and wellness events in 2017, where I met some amazing people, I’m keen to take this further. Winefulness is now officially a thing; meditation skills can increase your tasting skills. Don’t believe me? You can try it with me this spring when I’ll be working with yoga teacher Martine Bounet for a Wine and Yoga weekend where we’ll be visiting top wineries in our yoga kit. On a yoga workshop this year in Mauritius, I meet the inspirational Karine Kleb – who initiated me into the pleasures of a chocolate meditation that’s definitely going to be on the programme.

Yoga in the grounds of Château Lamothe Bergeron

Wine, chocolate, culture and yoga – what is there not to love? Health and Hedonism is going to be a much used hashtag in 2018, at least by me. My latest book, A Drinking Woman’s’ Diet, a liver-friendly lifestyle guide, is now with the publishers and should be available early next year – hopefully in time to give a helping hand to any flagging New Years’ resolutions.

Happy New Year

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas gift ideas for the wine geeks in your world.

Now it’s December, I feel it’s safe to offer some Christmas gift ideas. It is perfect timing for the release of Château Margaux’s 2015 vintage. With its exceptional golden silk-screen print on the bottle instead of the classic label, it’s the perfect festive presentation. A bottle of Château Margaux will always be a superb present for a wine lover but this is the gift that keeps on giving. Even when the wine is drunk – probably not for another 10 years or so – you will want to keep this special bottle. It’s the first (and probably only) time that the chateau will produce such a bottle. This vintage is exceptional not only for the quality but also as it celebrates two hundred years of architecture with the inauguration of the new Norman Foster designed cellars. Perhaps most importantly, it was the last vintage of director Paul Pontallier. A well deserved homage.

Château Margaux 2015 unique bottle.

Château Mouton Rothschild edits a special label for every vintage, and has done since 1945, choosing a new artist for each vintage. This year’s release of the 2015 is no exception – the difference being that this is the first label to be signed by the new generation following the death of Baroness Philippine de Rothschild in 2014. The artist Gerhard Richter has created the piece of art for this year’s release, the original of which will now join the fascinating exhibition of all the original art behind the labels in the museum at the Chateau. The artwork is inspired around the notion of blend – a key of course to making fine Bordeaux.

Château Mouton Rothschild 2015 label.

Something to drink that from? Most regular imbibers have their favourite stemware but you might want to take a look at the new range Baccarat has created with Bruno Quenioux. Called Château Baccarat, the four glasses, sold as a ‘kit’, include a champagne flute, 2 wine glasses and a spirit glass. With the beautifully Baccarat presentation they make a great gift, although you’ll have to buy one for each member of the family or party if you all want to drink together. I do have a wine tour client that always brings his own selection of wine glasses with him when he tours – so that could work too!

The four glass set from Baccarat.

Baccarat also launched a new perfume this year to celebrate the 250 years of the Crystal house. Called Rouge 540 Baccarat and created by perfumier Francis Kurkdjian, it is unsurprisingly presented in a beautiful crystal bottle created by Georges Chevalier. It takes its name not from wine but as a reference to the emblematic packaging and the temperature needed to create the red colour in the crystal – very seasonal.

If classified Bordeaux for a top vintage or the crystal to sip it from aren’t quite in your Christmas gift budget, books about wine make excellent, and easier to ship, gifts for your favourite wine geek. Knowledge increases pleasure is my strapline after all.

No one wants to read a diet book during the festive season so I’ll come back to you in the New Year with details of my next book ‘The Drinking Woman’s Diet’, but I do have a reading recommendation for you: Jane Anson, Contributing Editor and Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter Magazine, is the author of several books I have previously recommended including Bordeaux Legends and The Club of Nine. Her latest book, Wine Revolution, is a brave move away from her usual ‘terroir’ of the top classified growths of Bordeaux into the world of organic, biodynamic and other ‘natural’ wines. You would be mistaken for thinking that it is simply a manifesto for small is beautiful; it is a well-researched look at the natural wine movement from both big and small producers. There are some Bordeaux wines in there but it is an around the world wine trip (including a Welsh sparkling), illustrated by stunning vineyard photography. Some of these wines themselves would make excellent Christmas presents alongside the book.

Wine Revolution

Wine is not normally on children’s Christmas wish list but humour me for a shameless plug for my husband’s book, The Golden Dolphin. Written for our granddaughter, who plays a key role in the story of course, it harks back to a tale he made up about the Dolphin that graced the label of Château Guiraud when we owned it.

The hero of the Golden Dolphin

Instead of offering stuff why not offer a wine experience? Berry Brothers and Rudd is my go-to recommendation for wine events be they gourmet or education but of course I’m going to recommend offering a wine tour for 2018.

I’m involved with two wine tours in early 2018 organised by Decanter Tours that promise to be a little different to a classic tour. The ‘Wine and Design Tour‘ will see me with London interior Abigail Hall interior designer and author of Cushions and Crime, leading a small group around Bordeaux and it’s Chateaux. Abigail will be expounding upon the architectural and design styles of Bordeaux and I’ll be sharing the wines from the properties whose design and architecture both in the chateaux and the cellars we’ll be admiring.

The beautiful Bordeaux architecture explained

If by May your new year’s resolutions are still holding, join yoga teacher Martine Bounet and me for a wine and yoga weekend. Not as incompatible as it sounds – yoga classes held in beautiful chateaux will be followed by a tastings of the wines and you will learn how a little meditation could improve your tastings skills. If you fancy these themes – you can plan a tailor made trip along these lines for a group of friends. Any hen parties in your plans for 2018?

Wine and Yoga – on your wish list for 2018?

Can’t wait until next year? It’s still not too late to squeeze in a pre Christmas trip to Bordeaux. If you do, you can call in at Château Phelan Segur for their Christmas box – a Christmas themed cooking glass in the chateau followed by a tasting and lunch. Perfect to get you into the Bordeaux Christmas spirit.

Merry Christmas!

 

 

Clearly part of the family.

You’ll know if you follow this blog that I’m a fan of the Barton family: their wines, their philosophy and their history. Château Leoville Barton is usually the answer to the almost impossible to answer question of what my favourite Bordeaux wine is.

The wine heritage of the Barton family is now being handed over to the 8th generation. They have big boots to fill. I previously profiled the latest chapter in the family history where Melanie Barton is now running the show at the recently acquired Château Mauvesin Barton. Her brother Damien is also involved: as well as promoting the Barton family wines across the globe he has created his own range of wines: Initio, with his friend Benjamin Joyeux.

It’s a bold change in the family tradition. Not only are the wines not produced solely by the Bartons, they are not even all Bordeaux, but they are all made by independent wine makers that share a similar family tradition.

Initio Muscat

The range currently includes a Muscat from the Piquemal family in Roussillon, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Entre Deux Mers made by the Dubourg family (another family that have been in wine for 7 generations) and a rose from the Barton vineyards. A Gewürztraminer from Alsace is in the pipeline for early 2018.

Initio Sauvignon

Their motivation in creating this brand was to make wines that were transparently easy for consumers to understand – moving away from traditional wine labels. The grape varieties take centre stage and the whole package is about clarity from the white glass bottles with their glass stoppers to the fun stripy labels giving a nod toward the classic French ‘marnière’ T-shirt.

The Rose from the range

The range has the feel of a group of friends getting together, having fun making and then drinking their wines. And that is exactly what they want you to do.

The wines are currently available in the US, UK and French markets.

 

 

 

 

 

The Finger Lakes – at last.

On my social media strapline I say I’m “Bordeaux-based but open to persuasion”. So far this year I have been to the Rhone, Scotland, Hong Kong, Switzerland, England and across the US. So I’m easy to persuade. Wine regions aren’t always the destination. I’m often teaching rather than exploring but happily sometimes the two collide.

When I was in the US this summer I finally made it to the Finger Lakes and I fell for the charm and beauty of the region. I have been tantalisingly close before; teaching Bordeaux Master classes at the nearby Hospitality Faculty at Cornell, which left me frustrated by a lack of time to discover the vineyards, especially after tasting some of the wines with faculty members.

When you think of New York, wine making might not spring to mind. Wine drinking perhaps, but grape growing? There’s more to New York than New York City. Manhattan may have been the first place in New York State where Dutch immigrants planted grapes for wine in the 1600s, but they didn’t survive and New York wine country is now well established further north.

New York wine country prides itself as having a ‘new world attitude with an old world latitude’. It’s on more or less, the same latitude as Rioja and is the third largest wine-growing region in the US with over 400 wineries.

The history of wine-making here goes back 400 years but it has recently boomed. 35 years ago there were just 31 wineries but 133 have opened since 2011, wine production has increased by 50% since 1985 and tourist visits are up 85% since 2000 with over 5 million visitors each year.

There are five major wine regions: Lake Erie (AVA – American Viticultural area), The Niagara escarpment, (AVA), The Finger Lakes (AVA), Hudson River (AVA) and Long Island (AVA), and a total of 9 AVAs altogether.

It was the Women for Wine Sense organisation (WWS) who brought me here for their Grand Event in July. WWS is an association that brings together women in the wine trade (and quite a few men) with the original aim of encouraging reasonable alcohol consumption. They now offer educational programs, mentoring and networking opportunities to wine enthusiasts and industry professionals across the US.

I have presented Bordeaux wines to the California chapter of WWS over the last few years so it was great to finally meet members from all over the US. We were very generously hosted at wineries across the Finger Lakes, and judging by their hospitality I’m not surprised that visitor numbers are up.

Karen MacNeil explains the theory of cool at Ravine Winery

For those of you who haven’t had the chance to visit yet – here’s a bit of background. This is cool climate wine region, as Karen McNeil so clearly explained to us in her opening address. She sang the praises of the elegance of cool climate wines (including Bordeaux I might add) explaining how great wines often exist on ‘the edge’ and how their ‘slow dance towards ripeness’ bestows elegance. This was the perfect region to express this elegant and easy drinking approach to wine making.

A range of wines from Dr Konstantin Frank – one of the pioneers of the Finger Lakes.

The area is well known for its Rieslings and now its Sparkling wines, I also tasted some excellent Cabernet Francs, Pinot Noirs and other regional varieties such as Catawba, Niagara and the Cornell developed Cayuga (white) and Tramine.

A vertical if the Saperati variety rom the Standing Stone Winery

The region takes it’s name from 11 thin parallel lakes, the four main lakes: Canandaigua, Keuka, Seneca, and Cayuga and other smaller lakes: Conesus and Hemlock Owasco and Skaneateles formed as glaciers retreated leaving the impression of the fingers of a hand – thought by native Indians to be the hand of god.

The region counts for half of New York’s wineries producing about 175 Million bottles from over 9000 acres of vines. There is a concentration of wineries around the Southern half of lake Seneca, which has it’s own AVA.

The limestone escarpment falling down into lake seneca at the Standing Stone Vineyard

Steep hillsides run down to the water’s edge, and these large bodies of water have a temperate effect on the climate protecting the gravel, shale, schist, limestone and clay soils from the extremes of temperature up here. These diverse landscapes, soils and a large choice of varieties give a very wide range of wine styles: white, rosé, red, sweet and dry, still and sparkling.

I mentioned earlier grape varieties developed by Cornell and just as Bordeaux has the faculty of oenology as a centre of excellence in research into vine growing and wine making so the Finger Lakes has Cornell. This and the fact that the 126 wineries of the Finger Lakes work closely together in not only welcoming visitors to the region, but also technically, and in raising the profile of the region and its wines on the international wine scene.

The View across the lake from the Geneva on the Lake Hotel

Sadly I only skimmed the surface, but I recommend a visit. I would suggest staying in or near Geneva on the Lake – it’s a great base. The Geneva on the Lake Hotel has a gorgeous old world feeling with beautiful gardens, pool and view over the lake. If you want something more low-key the tiny New Vines winery has a guesthouse with B & B rooms.

The sculptural gates of Fox Run Winery

As to which wineries to visit, I only managed a few; Ravines with their Ravinous kitchen in a gorgeous old barn should be on your list. They promote farm to table eating sourcing local products and their relaxed down to earth hospitality and collaboration with other local producers is very much a signature of the region. The café and market at Fox Run vineyards has a similar atmosphere as well as an amazing sculpture at the entrance gate.

Vineyard with a view – Standing stone Vineyard

On the other side of the lake the views across the water at Standing Stones Vineyards as well as the range of wines are also worth a trip down the eastern side of the lake. If you have time, drive all around Lake Seneca and call in at the many tempting wineries on the lakeside route.

Tierce, an example of vineyards working together recommendation from the Microclimate wine bar.

Then call in at the Microclimate wine bar for an over view of the wines of the region. At this tiny bar on Linden Street, in the centre of Geneva on the Lake, the owner sommelier Stephanie will serve you Finger Lake wines alongside the same varieties from across the globe giving you a fascinating benchmark. The wines are served with more local cheeses and charcuterie or if you are fed up with wine (?) after a long day tasting – a refreshing local beer.

The sparkling wine from Konstantin Frank – possibly my favourite tipple of the weekend.

I’m planning a trip back so when you do go, please report back with your suggestions to add to my ‘must visit’ list.