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A Week in Bordeaux - Day Three - 3rd September 2008

Day Three saw us still on the Left Bank but heading south of Bordeaux for our first look at the Graves region.  At first appointment was at the aristocratic and wonderfully presented Chateau Pape Clement.  It would be fair to say that expense is not spared at this property, which is a delight to visit with its numerous Catholic icons and relics.  The wine-making process is also state of the art.  The fermentation vats were changed back to oak (from steel) in 2001, and the grapes are de-stemmed entirely by hand before fermentation.  The fermentation process itself is interesting at Pape Clement.  The wine has the reputation of being an extracted and (shall we say) US critic-friendly product, and in the fermentation room I began to understand why.  Many top Bordeaux houses now employ ‘cold maceration’ techniques where the wine juice (must) is cooled immediately upon entering the vats.  This delays the start of fermentation until more of the grape’s tannins, colour and flavours have been extracted from the juice.  At Pape Clement this process can last for a full 15 days (at 8â—‹).  This technique and others such as using dry ice to break open the skins of the berries in the vats (rather than more traditional crushers) helps to extract the maximum amount of concentration from the grapes, and usually results in a bigger denser final product.

So what does it all mean for the wines of Pape Clement?  As usual, we had to wade through a couple of the other ‘family’ wines before we got to the estate wine.  Pape Clement is now joint-owned by Bernard Magrez, and he has an eclectic collection of properties around the world.  Chateau Fombrauge 2003 is a St. Emilion.  73% Merlot, its nose was quite closed but it had a good mouth feel with nice grip.  Acidity was dominant at this stage in its young life but subtle oak and some nice black fruits and spices came through as well.  I noticed a slight metallic note at the finish, which is not usually a good sign, but generally it was a decent effort.  89 points.  Les Grand Chenes 2001 is from the Medoc to the north of St Estephe, where it seems many chateau families are investing in new vineyards.  The wine possessed a dullish nose of sweet currents.  It was a bit thin and uninspiring with not a lot to write about.  I am sure Monsieur Magrez will do better with this property in the future.  83-84 points.  Then we got back to the estate proper with ‘Clementine’, the second wine of Pape Clement.  Clementine 2005 gave out a dense and oak-filled nose which was complex, perhaps a little musty, with a hint of peppermint.  The palate was as dense as the nose suggested, but also a little dull.  I noted some cedar, vanilla pod and dark chocolate but otherwise not much.  88 points.  Then it was the much hyped Chateau Pape Clement 2005.  In the glass the wine was deepish purple.  The nose was savoury and quite understated.  But I persuaded some hickory, spice and damp earth notes from the glass.  In the mouth the wine was not what I expected.  It did not seem excessively extracted, although it was certainly concentrated.  It was quite sulky and backward.  It was tannic, but the structure was strong and the balance was excellent.  It was more savoury than I had anticipated, but it didn’t wow me as I thought it might.  I just didn’t find the complexity that I would have expected for such a highly scored wine.  It may be just going through a closed phase and will emerge again later – but 92 points only today.

We made the short hop across Graves to Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte for lunch, at the wonderful Les Sources de Caudalie hotel.  With lunch we sampled some of the wines produced from the vines which surround the hotel.  The Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte 2006 Blanc is an absolute delight.  This property produces such fabulous whites from their Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc vines.  The colour was pale straw and the nose was restrained yet elegant, with summer flowers and mineral notes.  The wine had a wonderful mouth-filling oak-infused, buttery palate.  A creamy wine which is long and harmonious, it has lovely poise and balance.  I could have sat all afternoon sipping that and looking out at the vines.  93 points.  We also tried the second wine of the red production:  les Hauts de Smith 2004.  This for me was one of the revelations of the trip.  A beautifully inky nose with graphite notes preceded a really impressive mouth feel, with lovely precision and lead pencil, graphite and some ground espresso coffee notes.  A real delight for a second wine in a far from exceptional vintage.  This wine is tough to get hold of in the UK, but I will be making every effort to secure some.  91 points.  If there is currently a better producer of consistently excellent red and white wines in Bordeaux, for the money you pay, than Chateau Smith-Haut-Lafitte I have not found it.  Owners Daniel and Florence Cathiard are a credit to the region.

Sadly there was not time to hang around, and it was back in the people carrier for the trek south to Sauternes, where our destination was Chateau Guiraud (for the phonetically challenged - like me - pronounced “gear-roo”).  This was an interesting visit because from 1981 to 2003 the property was owned by the family of our guide Wendy Narby, who lived on the estate for much of that time.  My knowledge of the production of the nectar that is sweet white Sauternes wine was limited (to say the least) and so I was fascinated by the details of how it works.  As we drove Wendy explained the basics:  Sauternes wine is generally made from a blend of Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc (as at Guiraud), and they are both crucial to the balance of the wine.  The Semillon grapes are more tightly bunched, and hence spread the botrytis fungus more rapidly than their Sauvignon Blanc neighbours.  They therefore offer more sweetness (measured in ‘potential alcohol’).  But the Sauvignon grapes – often with less botrytis on them – offer more acidity, which is also crucial to the balance of the wine.  At Guiraud the berries are only picked when the potential alcohol has risen to around 20°.   The difference between this number and the 14° or so per cent alcohol in the wine is the ‘residual sugar’, which gives the wine its sweetness. 

The vinification of Sauternes (and other sweet wines) is also very different.  Grapes are vinified (i.e. fermented) in batches according to the day they are picked, not (as in most red and white production) according to the parcel of vines from which the grapes came.  The grapes are not sorted or de-stemmed but are gently pressed on the day of picking to extract the juice.  This must then sits in underground vats for ‘cold sedimentation’ overnight.  After that the wine goes straight into barrels (yeast is added from the outside) and the wine ferments inside the barrels.  There is no artificial temperature control.  After 2/3 weeks the wine is deposited into large stainless steel vats and cooled to stop fermentation.  It then goes back into barrels for two years of aging.  Typically four rackings are done in the first year and fining (the removal of impurities at the end of ageing) is done not with egg whites but with a Bentonite compound – for the simple reason that the wine is too viscous for egg whites to fall through it!

After my crash course on Sauternes production, I was relieved to get into the tasting room.  We were served Chateau Guiraud 2002.  The wine was a lightish golden colour and had a beautiful floral nose with apricot notes.  On the palate the wine was excellent, if not perfect.  The acidic backbone was groaning a little under the weight of the fruit.  But the finish was delightful and long.  Not perhaps as complex as a rally top notch Sauternes, but a glorious drink anyway!  89 points.  I bought two bottles as a momento.

Dinner that evening was an incredible degustation of at least 15 courses (I am not kidding) in the two Michelin starred restaurant at Cordeillan-Bages.  Chef Thierry Marx is one of France’s leading lights, and his efforts were as creative as they were delicious.  But of course I only wrote notes on the wine:  Chateau Lynch Bages 2006 Blanc had a lightish nose with minerals and gasoline.  It was an interesting, if slightly oily, wine.  I wondered whether could have done with a little more oak - 87 points.  Chateau Ormes de Pez 2001 is a Cru Bourgeois from St Estephe.  Deep ruby red in colour with a slightly tawny rim.  The nose is fragrant with blackberries, liquorice and hints of peppermint. A medium-bodied wine in an accessible style.  The palate was pleasing but monolithic.  It was a nicely poised wine just lacking a little at the finish.  88 points.  Chateau Petit Village 1989 is a Pomerol.  The nose was characterised dark chocolate covered cherries with a hint of saddle leather.  The wine was voluptuously silky and smooth, but also complex and long, with a 30+ finish.  Gorgeously opulent wine which I didn’t think was breaking down, despite its longevity.  90 points.

I was pretty glad that my journey ‘home’ consisted of just a (slightly unsteady) progress down the corridor to my room.  Already my thoughts were turning to Day Four and our move to the ‘other side’.