Tag Archives: Château Lagrange

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 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

boutes vbarrels glenelly

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.


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.















The Auld Alliance, a Bordeaux – whisky link at Auchentoshan

 I found it fascinating to compare the similarities and contrasts in wine and whisky making during a visit to Auchentoshan on the outskirts of Glasgow. It was a surprise to see a familiar name in the maturing cellars. I spotted a few casks (they don’t call them barrels here) from Château Lagrange hidden amongst the 20000 bourbon and sherry barrels. This is one of three distilleries and four brands (Bowmore, Auchentoshan, Glen Garioch and McClelland’s) owned by Morrison Bowmore Distillers part of the Suntory group.  Suntory of course are no strangers to Bordeaux being owners of Chateau Lagrange and shareholders of neighbouring Château Beychevelle in Saint Julien.

Where am I? Saint Julien or Scotland?

Auchentoshan is however unique in being the only Scotch whisky distillery to distill their spirit 3 times, an expensive and time consuming process but worth the wait given the exceptionally smooth whisky produced.

The 3 stills at Auchentoshan

But there is more to Auchentoshan than just one whisky – the range starts with their classic single malt to a 12,18 or 21 year old malt but also including a 3 wood and special editions up to 50 years old that I would be tempted to call vintage as the date of distillation is clearly marked on the label. Then there is the 1999 Bordeaux cask matured that caught my eye – and palate – released especially for Bastille day!

 The influence of the origin of the oak, but also what as gone before becomes very clear during the tasting. We wax lyrical about the origin of oak for barrels in wine aging but here it is not just where the original oak was grown but also what has gone before. The oak here has been used either for Bourbon, sherry or wine. Each alcohol adding some of its flavour to that of the original oak and this is clearly identifiable in the Auchentoshan Travel Retail range. First by the colour and then by the smell and taste the influence of oak ageing is remarkable.

The range of colours reflects the influence of the oak 

 Spring Wood is uniquely aged in small Bourbon oak casks, the fresh citrus and vanilla notes being at the forefront. The Heartwood, Coopers and Sliver oak malts use a mix of Oloroso sherry and Bourbon casks each gaining in nutty, and toasted complexity. The Solera is finished in Pedro Ximenez casks which gives it a spectacularly rich and sweet finish – we pared it with chocolate raisins – delicious as an after dinner drink.

12 year old Auchentoshan with Ginger nut biscuits – better than afternoon tea!

Food and whisky matching is also an art just as for food and wine and not as limited as you might first imagine. The range of aromas and flavours was very surprising until the influence of the oak was demonstrated.

From citrus to vanilla, from tea to honey it was a fascinating discovery and then the question to add or not to add water and the difference this made to the mouth feel and flavours on the palate was equally fascinating. Auchentoshan clearly believe this too as they organise whisky tasting dinners at the distillery- on my list of things to do if anyone wants to join me?

As you already know women in wine is a favourite topic of mine but I will now have to enlarge it to women in whisky. The lovely Rachel Barrie is the ‘Creator of Malts’ at Auchentoshan. Creator rather than Master blender being the preferred term as, although Rachel is indeed a Master blender – this may create some confusion. The notion of blending here is very different to how we define it in Bordeaux. A blend for Scotch whisky means selecting whiskies from various distilleries and hence making a blended whisky. Auchentoshan no longer supplies whiskies to blenders preferring to create all their own single malts in house. However there is a element of what we in Bordeaux would call blending – all those 20 00 casks must be ‘nosed’ and Rachel must select which casks will go into which of the products in the range – which will age for 12, 18, 21 years or more – quite a challenge.
If you fancy something a little different they also are associated with Drambuie, some of their whisky being included in this liqueur that they bottle for them and they also produce delicious cream Liqueur only available a the distillery – that alone is worth a visit.

2011 With tender loving care

The last days of the red 2011 harvest are finally here with the Cabernets coming into the cellars, this fabulous Indian summer we are experiencing with afternoon temperatures up to an unseasonal 30° has allowed winemakers to wait and wait for perfect ripeness on the cabs. A welcome respite after a rather chaotic year – as far as the climate is concerned.

The hot and dry spring resulted in an early flowering with right from the get go producers predicting a 2 or 3 week advance on the average and fears for a drought. However July was cooler and wetter, not great for tourists – but a lifesaver for the grapes as it slowed things down. The cooler nights in August helped with maintaining acidity and complexity.

However the weird climate did take its toll. Some vines were affected by the early spring drought, which held back development and created problems with ‘vascular connections’ that may not have reformed, preventing some the berries developing fully when the weather turned cooler and damper in July.

To add insult to injury there was periodic hail storms throughout the year, April hail hit Sauternes, Margaux was hit in June, especially on the Rauzan plateau and the hail hot again, dramatically, on the 1st September the around us here in the Entre deux Mers and violently in Saint Estephe causing considerable damage on the plateau around Cos d’Estournel

Consequently 2011 is turning out to be quite a challenging year for both vine growers the wine makers, especially after 08/09/10 trilogy where some (modest?) winemakers claimed the wine made itself!

Canopy management to control lack of water and then to allow air to circulate preventing botrytis as the more humid weather arrived was extremely important.

In recent years many properties have been introducing sophisticated machines to help the selection process and with a year like this where ripe, under ripe, dry and even hail bruised grapes can be seen on the same bunch they will really get their money’s worth.
Chateau Lagrange, the largest classified growth of Saint Julien has installed an Optical Scanner that can select grapes from the conveyor at a record speed of 72 kms per hour 2.5m/second! Which results in 9 tonnes per hour being sorted instead of 3 by hand – and a lot less fatigue. Mattieu Bordes, the technical director, has another new toy for this vintage too, an oscillating vertical destemmer to ensure only the grapes make it into the selector.

Selected grapes fall from the optical selector at Château Gruaud Larose

Mattieu Bordes admires the new vertical destemmer

Château Figeac, first growth in Saint Emilion, was also using an optical selector this year, after a test in 2010, but at a purchase price as around 150 000 euros new decided to test it out by renting first, director Eric d’Aramon concluded that it is still early days for these machines and renting ensures it comes with a technician in case there are teething problems. These machines are also highly electronic and storing them unused for eleven–and-a-half months of the year in a damp cellar is not a risk he is prepared to take.

The berries are photographed by the stemmer at Château Phelan Segur to allow selection

It’s not only the top classified growths that have invested, Château Phelan Segur, who welcomed guests at their harvest table during the picking, also use the same technology as do many others. Some however have chosen the ‘trie baie’ system (The Vignobles André Lurton properties for example) using must with different densities to select quality grapes, and yet others such as Château Grand Corbin Despagne an airflow system whereas others rely on a dedicated team in the field and in the cellars to separate the wheat from the chaff – rendezvous in April to taste the results of these different methods ‘en primeur’.

All that time saved allows for a longer lunch break – harvest lunch in front of the magnificent
Château Phelan Segur

A glass with your wine?

There are rumours that the legislation for taking liquids on board planes will be lifted soon which will be a relief to the châteaux receiving visitors and their guests alike.
The legislation has made a big difference to cellar-door purchases by foreigner visitors not wanting a risk a breakage in their suitcase on the way home. However for many of the top growths in Bordeaux there is often no wine to purchase at the cellar after visits anyway, as everything is pre sold on primeur. Some properties keeps a little back for visitors but it’s a challenge during the bun fight at primeur time for them to hold on to bottles.
All is not lost however as if you can’t take back a bottle you can also take another little memento. Move over corkscrews and sommelier aprons Bordeaux has a better class of souvenir – crystal decanters and glasses.
Chateau Troplong Mondot has just created tasting glasses and the Chanel properties,Château Rauzan Segla and Château Canon, who know a thing or two about luxury, have crystal glasses and decanters with a discreet logo on the base and stopper. Château Latour also has a beautiful decanter and glasses but as they only welcome trade at the Château you’ll be lucky to get your hands on one.

Château Lagrange has a more modern decanter and glass set with the signature château visual from their label, and Château Kirwan, one of the pioneers of wine tourism, also sells signature classes with a bold K. Château Giscours even offers a free glass as a gift with the visit and tasting.

Recognise the château?

You can buy the wines when you get home but the decanters and glasses are the exclusive proof that you were there. The question remains; can you serve your Pichon in a La Tour decanter or your Cheval Blanc in a Canon glass? It might lead astray your guests at a blind tasting though!

Discover Bordeaux this summer

It is no longer a secret that Bordeaux is now become a top weekend break destination thanks to the renovating of the city under the impetus of Major Alain Juppé. What is less well known is that the surrounding area has also profited from this wind of change.

The wines of Bordeaux have never been so accessible either by price, style or through the cellar door. Just check out the 100 Everyday Bordeaux wines on the site www.bordeaux.com

What was previous considered as a closed door policy by the properties of Bordeaux is no longer the case : yes most places would prefer if you called to book a visit but it is a small price to pay to open the doors to some of these estates – both great and small.

Bordeaux is by far the largest French wine region, 5 five the size of Burgundy and Beaujolais and as such offers a range of styles of wine, properties and landscapes to suit everyone’s tastes and wallet. There are over almost 10 000 producers to get to know.

Discover the diversity
Bordeaux divides itself into 6 styles of wine each one reflecting the geographical characteristics of the regions.

The Medoc (North of Bordeaux)
The most famous area of Bordeaux is probably the Medoc this stretch of land, a peninsular between the Atlantic coast and the Gironde estuary owes its fame to a classification of the wines dating back to 1855.

It takes about 90 minutes on a straight line to reach the top but the places to explore on the way will definitely slow you down. Driving up the D2 ‘La Route des Châteaux’ is like driving through a restaurant wine list the famous names and beautiful buildings dotted amongst lesser known producers.

‘Villages de Bages’ near Pauillac
Pauillac is a sleepy water front town on the estuary and one of the famous classic wine ‘appellations’ in the north-west of the region. Just before the town stop off at the Village of Bages (www.villagedebages.com) to see what the Cazes family (Chateau Lynch-Bages) are doing here. They have established a Hotel and Michelin star restaurant, Cordeillan-Bages, in this pretty village, as well as Café Lavinal and the Bazaar Bages boutique full of wine paraphernalia. Chateau Lynch Bages is open to visitors to see the old and the new approach to wine making and taste their powerful wines. The Cazes family owns their own travel company running fabulous wine tours and themed holidays which make use of all their products and properties including Château Les Ormes de Pez (www.ormesdepez.com) which is a very up market B&B or can be rented as a whole home. Contact Mary Dardenne for enquiries and bookings: mary.dardenne@bordeauxsaveurs.com

Even further North at Saint Yzans de Medoc right on the Estuary is the picturesque ‘Pink Château’ Château Loudenne, whose lovely guest rooms overlook the water. Loudenne offers a romantic weekend for 2 including a cellar visit, lunch or dinner and bed and breakfast for €280 http://www.lafragette.com contact c.berullier@lafragette.com

Many of the Château in the Medoc are delighted to welcome the public to see how the vines are grown, wines are made and aged and of course to taste the result of all the hard work.
There are three new tasting rooms open to the public:

Château Lagrange , www.chateau-lagrange.com
Contact: charlotte.denjean@chateau-lagrange.com

Château Kirwan , www.chateau-kirwan.com
Contact : nathalie.schyler@chateau-kirwan.com

• Château Rauzan Gassies, www.domaines-quie.com
Contact : rauzangassies@domaines-quie.com

More ideas tomorrow………….

New Tasting Room at Château Lagrange

Members of Bordeaux wine tourism industry were recently invited to the inauguration of Château Lagrange’s new tasting room.
This classified growth of Saint Julien in the heart of the Medoc was purchased by Suntory in 1983. It is one of the increasing number of top classified growths in Bordeaux opening their doors to the public by appointment. Château Lagrange is a perfect example of how the closed door policy of top Bordeaux properties is changing. The advent of a tasting room now allows the PR Director Charlotte Denjean to organize visits and tastings including older vintages.
Suntory have increased plantings from 57 to 115 ha becoming one of the largest properties in the Medoc in a single vineyard. Lagrange is also innovative in its wine making techniques; investing in new smaller (220hl) stainless steel tanks, 56 vats allow plot by plot fermentation. Fermentation which is also innovative using the co inoculation techniques allowing alcoholic and malolactic fermentation simultaneously – saving on energy needed to heat the tanks – very conscious of their carbon footprint !
The new tasting room was christened with one of the rare white wines to be produced in the Medoc – Les Arums de Lagrange 07. Lunch in the larger reception room was served with lined tasting during lunch with two vintages of the second wine Les Fiefs de Lagrange 2000 and 2003 and the ‘Grand Vin’ Château Lagrange 1995 and 1988.
Need to know more about Château Lagrange: www.chateau-lagrange.com

The photo shows from left to right Valérie Cholet Hostess and guide at the property, Charlotte Denjean Public Relations Manager and Catherine Di Costanzo PR consultant for the Château.