Friday, 4 October 2013

Drinking Bordeaux: Learning to Appreciate the “Vineyard in Our Backyard"

At 10:30 pm it was quite peculiar listening to the person on the bus speaker describe the wine region we were driving through yet only being able to see as far as the break lights from the cars overtaking us. Having explained that this was his 50th summer returning to Bordeaux the speaker hoped that from this trip we too would feel the allure and romance that this established wine region possessed. Our tour of the wineries would hopefully give us a pin on which we could hook whatever we read in our textbooks thereafter.  Veering down the lamp-lit roads, we were told ultimately that the mission of this trip was to gain an appreciation for what the person over the loudspeaker referred to as the “vineyard in our backyard.”

We woke up the next day amongst the vineyards and properties that sit on the right hand side of the Bordeaux Rivers that scissor into the French coastline from the Atlantic. The region is a series of undulating hills and slopes of soft limestone soil. Our bus weaved from property to property along these narrows strips of pavement throughout the day, acquainting ourselves with winemakers and their wines. The day concluded at what is called a “Chai”, a warehouse-like facility along the rivers that has allowed barrels of a properties’ wine to be rolled onto awaiting boats for centuries.

For those who have an image of snooty French winemakers cooped in their properties, indifferent to the thoughts of Joe Consumer, the picture in Bordeaux could not be more different. Everything here revolves around the wooden palates of wine that are sent to the UK and elsewhere by the millions; winemakers are desperate to know what you think of their bottles while simultaneously gushing to tell you what their ultimate vision for the wine was.

Our visit to the properties on the left hand side of the Bordeaux Rivers was starkly different. Rolling limestone hills were replaced by impeccably sewn columns of vines that fanned out from marble Châteaux. The principle fruit that hung off most of these vines was none other than Cabernet Sauvignon; the King of Red Grapes whose thick skin and powerful flavors matched the reputation of the winemakers. This is the region where the names of Lafite and Margaux have sat perched for decades waiting for wine merchants all around the globe to come and secure parcels of their wine at whatever price. After crossing the bridge you sensed that this side of the river had an added element of glitz and glamour to it…

The reputation and confidence of these Châteaux is not misplaced; the wines that we sampled displayed characteristics to be admired. These grand Châteaux have soared in popularity and price over the years through their skill in manipulating Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot; artfully picking, fermenting, blending, and ageing to create their masterpiece – the very best examples being drunk after the stiff tannins have subsided to give a wine that leaves the mouth tingling with flavours of warm cherries long after it has been swallowed. They are the product of expert winemaking, considerable investment and years of trial-and-error.

These signature left-bank qualities were certainly on display when sampling the wines from the team that produces Château Bel Air. The flight of wines laid out for a bus-load of eager tasters demonstrated how left-bank Bordeaux has long been the home of blending two or three grapes to produce a delicious harmony. The Bel Air winemakers accomplish this excellently; summoning the Cabernet Sauvignon / Cabernet Franc grapes to provide its wines with the trademark  grip, finish and bursting red fruit and dashing in the Merlot grape to provide the wine with the smokiness, body and fragrant nose.

This trip has strengthened my professional appreciation of wine. These producers are not competing toothpaste manufacturers trying to separate you from your money – they are enthusiastic winemakers who want nothing more than to produce new and interesting batches of wine. And for those who doubt that the more you spend on wine really translates to greater quality, a 5 minute conversation with a wine producer will add new meaning to the cliché of “quality comes at a price.”

The most sobering statistic I was told was that if a winemaker elects to make a red wine with oak, the cost of a wooden barrel (£700) divided by the 300 bottles made from the one  barrel already places a £2 pound price tag on the wine before the wine team have even paid the grape pickers, duty tax, transport, insurance, labeling, storage or manufacturing. Consider then, for a second, all these costs stacked up and what a winemaker would have to forfeit in quality in order to sell their wine at £4.99?

On a personal level I have yanked the handbrake on my palate and decided to begin drinking from square one. I have been studying wine close to 2 years now and will be restarting my wine journey from the birthplace of wine as we know it today, from the region that has accommodated the taste of English consumers longer than anywhere else. So I encourage everyone this month to start drinking from the “vineyard in our backyard.”

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