Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Bordeaux Day Four

The morning of day 4 started with our team of intrepid wineslingers decamping from the bijoux B&B in St. Emilion. When I say ‘bijoux’, what I really mean is that while some of the team sauntered out of stately rooms, this blogger was unpacking stiff limbs from a bolt-hole reminiscent of one of those torture chambers where there is neither room to stand up or lie down. Anyway, after a reviving breakfast, we jumped in the Zafira and Ben took up his position between the two girls in the backseat where he could effect the most trouble.

First stop was at Pavie where we chewed our way t
hrough our second breakfast. Chateau Pavie is sure to please many and some of the cheapies were pleasant surprises but those in the middle were “a holy fright” as my Mum would say. The booming classical music in the barrel room wasn’t much better. Poor grapes…the punishment they must go through…

Next was a quick visit to Cheval Blanc where the Grand Vin galloped away with all the plaudits. Things were still quite sensible as we zipped in and out of Clos l’Eglise where Haut-Bergey particularly impressed as a value possibility. Monsieur Vaulthier presented another masterclass at Chateau Ausone with all five wines looking stellar at their respective levels. Fonbel does it again! The giant toilet-roll holder was still there but without
John Derrick and Willie this time around, the team managed to control themselves. In fact it was all still fairly low-key through lunch at out favourite cave in St Emilion and then the Garagiste tasting chez Jean-Luc Thunevin. La Dauphine and Valandraud were both superb and by and large the extraction had not gone intergalactic.

Things started to get a bit weird when we headed off to the St Emilion tasting at Chateau Larmande. In a wonderfully useless kind of way all the entrances were closed off and manned by strong, silent types (”He looks very cold…do you think I should give him my jumper?” - Ben), forcing us into many U-turns and voluminous back-seat advice. Eventually we found a way into some completely unrelated chateau, from whence a comedy Disney train chugged us from one car park to another. Well it would have been comedy if it hadn’t turned quite so arctic by this stage. Lucky Ben still had his jumper. The tasting was pretty positive with great efforts from Angelus, Larcis-Ducasse, Pavie Macquin, Figeac and Canon-la-Gaffeliere amongst others. Lots of fleshy black fruit with well managed tannins. Then it was back on with the Mickey Mouse ears and on to the train. Into the car in one piece but this experience had done its damage and sent everything sliding closer to ‘Fear and Loathing in the vines’. The driving was starting to get loose and Ben was intent on quizzing
Alice to see if she was picking anything up. “What’s that Chateau?” “Cheval Blanc!” “Lucky Alice, I was on the phone to Easyjet to get your ticket changed”.

La Conseillante ruled the Pomerol tasting and set us up for our final and quite delicious visits to Eglise Clinet, Vieux Chateau Certan and Le Pin. ‘Ronnie the Radar’ finally started working again and navigation became much easier on our way back to base camp. After a relaxing beer it was to dinner at L’Envers du Décor (to our mind the best restaurant in St Emilion) where ‘jumper over jacket count’ climbed rapidly from one to four and Alex cracked his second and third jokes of the year. Oh how we laughed…

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Day Three in Bordeaux

The day started pretty sensationally at Pontet Canet where Monsieur Tesseron and his charming niece greeted us with genuine warmth. Amazingly it was a day and a half into the trip and we found our first “jumper around the neck, over the jacket” French specimen. We just can’t pull it off back home, can we? While we got stuck into the wine, Alex showed off his carpentry roots (not for the first or last time either) with a thorough inspection of the antique table. Curious behaviour. The wine is pretty special too, with a wonderfully pure expression of fresh fruit married to a creamy luxurious texture. Like last year, it will be another of the stars of the vintage.

This year we snuck up to Cos from a different direction and were able to subvert their hawk-like security system by sneaking the Zafira (think gazelle-like handling) in through the gates just as someone else was leaving. I vaguely remember a Mr. Bean sketch from years ago that didn’t end so well but we got in unscathed. Jean-Guillaume Prats had obviously enjoyed the recent tasting and dinner he had conducted chez Bibendum as he seemed very pleased to see us. He explained that the large excavation on site was for a new swimming pool. Perfect (in an unusual way), we thought, but when he explained that he will secretly be running a cable into the nearest nuclear power station to half-inch some free electricity, we got the hint that he might be pulling our legs. And the stories kept coming when we tasted the wines, as he explained that the famous elephant crest of Cos came about from a trip to Thailand years back where a customs official bundled him into a government jet in which they flew ‘to see a man’ in Laos about some elephant statues. Feeling slightly intimidated by the trouble that had been gone to, he felt he had to pull out the cheque book and stump up $10k for these Laotian delights. He was a little surprised and very pleased with himself in the end when two large stone beasts turned up in wooden crates 3 months later. It’s one way to do it…

After another episode of Challenge Anneka in the Vines, we raced down more than a few back roads to find the Pauillac/St. Julien UGC at Chateau Talbot. A pretty mixed tasting altogether with some real highlights like Lafon Rochet, Lynch Bages, Grand Puy Ducasse, Gruaud Larose, Beychevelle and Branaire Ducru, amongst some others that seemed a bit tough and awkward at that moment. And then to really get the juices flowing before lunch we made it to the Medoc UGC as well. Beaumont was quite approachable; Cantermerle shone through with some real class; and Chasse-Spleen was a revelation as well.

At lunch, we returned to La Salamandre, an old favourite down near the waters edge in Pauillac. “I’m going to have to take my badge off or else people are going to ask me for my autograph”. Yes Ben was really warming to the task now and there was a genuine fear that he may be mobbed by screaming wine groupies (wipies?). “Do you think those Japanese people want my autograph?” They did look awfully keen but unfortunately they seemed to be having a bit too much trouble ordering their food to concentrate on Ben. On any other day…

Dessert took the form of Petit Village, Pibran, Suduiraut, Tourelles and Pichon Baron with the always charming Edouard Andre at Chateau Pibran (Pichon is in the middle of having another underground cellar built). What a great little line-up! Pichon was charming and Tourelles will be fantastic value. We even got to taste the 05 Tourelles as well for the first time and it was superb. Look out for a market-first offer of this later in the year. Then to Lafite where the Duhart Milon and the Grand Vin were very popular. Thumping amounts of fruit, body and tannins – they are really built for the long haul.

At this point, things started to go a bit like they do at this point in the day with some delirium invading the direction-giving on the way to Calon Segur. “It’s left. No, it’s right. No, left. Oh I don’t know…Sorry everyone, I think I’ve lost my marbles…it’s been coming!” Meanwhile up front, Alex was trying to explain the effect the shortened working week was having on sales of Winnebagos in France. You can just imagine the reception this got from the back seat. In the end it was well worth the trip as Calon Segur was wonderful with the heady and exotic savouriness alongside terrific fruit that marked out the 2005 as well. Madame was also very happy to see the front cover of the 2005 Offer with her Chateau featuring proudly. We then raced back down to Giscours for the Margaux UGC and then to Cantemerle for the Sauternes. Too many wines to mention at this point but Giscours, Ferriere, Dauzac, Kirwan, Rieussec and Lafaurie-Peyraugay seem to have stuck in the memory. Dinner in the evening at Barde-Haut with Neal Martin, amongst others, who told us all what it was really like to work with Big Bob Parker. Look out for his multi-parted Tolkein-esque Burgundy Report coming out soon. Highlight was when one of the team (who didn’t realize who he was) happened to let slip to our host that no one really read Neal Martin anyway. Priceless…don’t tell anybody though.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bibendum in Bordeaux - Day One

It just wouldn’t be a Bibendum trip without some sort of kerfuffle on the way to the airport. You may remember that last year the team set off on a hare-brained chase across Europe that was more reminiscent of ‘The Day of the Jackal’ than ‘Would you like some Champagne upon take-off sir?” The marketing trip to Italy later that year also threatened never to leave London, when the team found themselves stranded in a stricken minicab in Mile End in the pouring rain at 4.30 am. Only the exchange of large quantities of cash with a black cab ensured a successful departure.

Well this wasn’t quite the same, but there was that slight sinking feeling when a glance at the Kings Cross board yielded the disappointing news that all trains had decided to set off from Hampstead instead that day. Suffice to say, we made it to Luton just in time for the flight and took up our positions in a departure lounge that was stuffed with more wine trade folk than the free lunch at a generic tasting. I had a glorious vision of the boarding process calling for all MWs to jump on first, followed by esteemed members of the press, followed by Directors, with the rabble left to fight for those few seats at the back. As it turns out, the whole wine trade are equally disorganized and all checked in late, meaning we were all in Boarding class ‘D’.

The flight was going great until all of 240 seconds in when Alice cheerily asked “Do you know why the ‘brace’ positioned is designed as it is? No takers? It’s so that your neck breaks instantly on impact if you crash…” Brilliant Alice. Fab news. Any other tips while you’re at it? Chances of dying from a 6 day old airline cheese sandwich anyone? Probability a stray guinea fowl is going to fly into one of the engines? Amazingly, the whole team made it there with all limbs and arteries intact, though one member was short of socks, toothpaste and all the maps that might help us find our hotel. Oh well…

Dinner was at the Phillip Stark-esque ‘Chez Greg’ which boasted an enormous pile of meat sat on a dish next to a very tempting looking grill. Where was Willie when you needed him? Most heart-attack-inducing dish had to have been boneless pigeon legs, stuffed with foie gras and wrapped in parma ham, served with chunky chips proudly fried in duck fat. Pretty good at the time, not so good later that night when the greedy little pig who’d eaten it all was having cholesterol-induced nightmares that contained violence, chasing and the entire early cast of Neighbours. The less said, probably the better…

Our post dinner stroll took in the new hotel development opposite the Opera in the centre of town. “That Radisson’s gonna be bloody smart when it opens. Maybe I’ll stay there next year. It’ll be a hell of a lot better than the Four Sisters [our current residence]. Having said that, at least our hotel this year is a lot, lot better than that rotten place that Jonny Derrick booked last year. I don’t do lino…” Need you ask who it is that doesn’t do lino? Of course not. We may not have Willie with us, but style guru Ben Collins is here in full effect. Shame…that lino was really quite striking…

Bibendum in Bordeaux - Day Two

After a couple of tours of Bordeaux’s more colourfully graffiti’d neighbourhoods and several industrial parks, the trusty Zafira managed to guess its way onto the road to the Medoc. Spirits were high as vineyards started to flash by on either side and it was nearly time to leave the hype behind and taste our first 2006 wines.

The first two stops came in close succession, at Leoville Las Cases and Barton. Tough start with Chappelle de Potensac and Potensac stripping the bejaysus out of our mouths. Clos de Marquis was a big improvement and Leoville Las Cases was immensely popular with half the group and just ‘very good’ for the others. After the traditionally cold reception from Las Cases, rolling into Barton was like returning home to see old friends and family. Anthony and Lilian are always the most genial of hosts and the seemed genuinely pleased to see Messrs Collins and gang. Langoa and Leoville were good though when we tasted them the following day at a UGC, they were positively charming (was it a fruit day?). In the rest of their imported line-up, Haut Marbuzet and Feytit Clinet also impressed. When pushed, Anthony declared that 2006 was “…definitely much better than ’04. I’ll see what the market’s doing and say to hell with everyone else,” meaning that he wasn’t about to follow others in their price-hiking strategies.

Despite being tasted in a new and utterly characterless tasting room, Palmer looked very promising; and from there to Chateau Margaux. Majestic in its setting, the welcome was as polished and gilt-edged as ever. And the wine? Again it split the group, Pavillon Rouge and Margaux elicited mixed hot and lukewarm comments. Pavillon Blanc got everyone back on the same page though – a sensational wine, sadly only half the normal production thanks to frost.

Then up north to one of our perennial favourites, Sociando Mallet, where we caught up with negociant Pierre-Michel for the first time. He quickly tested out the group on their French-speaking skills, a topic close to Ben’s heart. “Il est un Kiwi! He doesn’t speak anything, not even English!” The formalities out of the way, we were marched up to the swanky new tasting room where the wines were as smart as their new surroundings. Lots of spice, fruit and salt from the air of the Haut-Medoc. We were also treated to a carcass feast there which consisted of pate, terrine, jambon persille, blood sausage, roast beef and pork, and daube de boeuf. In short, not a vegetable in sight, unless you count pickles…which you kinda have to here.
All you needed in the background was the M&S music. There’s lunch…and then there’s a Bordelais lunch.

Off to Pichon Lalande where the wines were pretty tough to taste, but the Louis XVI chairs and modern art foibles were quite exquisite. Haut-Batailley looked pretty good, and we tasted it with someone who looked remarkably like Rumpole of the Bailey. They’ve upgraded the tasting experience at Montrose with a very posh seating arrangement but the wines were quite awkward to taste at the moment. Our second 1st growth of the day saw us get ferried completely unnecessarily around Mouton by Valkyrie warriors in wonderful golf buggies. D’Armailhac and Clerc Milon were looking great and Mouton is a monster. Impressive but very brooding and backward. Top stop of the day was at Latour where all 3 wines were quite sensational. At Ducru, rich Bruno explained his fascination with bizarre cat art everywhere. It actually made sense in kind of kooky way…still a bit ‘Eerie Indiana’ though.