I remember my last trip to Bordeaux, just a few weeks back, where the hot topic of conversation centred around the effects of global warming, the monster marketing of natural and organic wines, or how the introduction of bats on the vineyard can take the vineyard to the next step in becoming fully sustainable. Top winemakers the world over are passionate people, not just in Bordeaux. I enjoy listening to them speak about their passion for ‘terroir’. Their love for wine and anything wine-related is almost palpable, and that also means their love for food and gourmet.
Our host, James, who forms part of the 6th generation of one of the longest standing ‘négociants’ in Margaux, was no different. His charisma was magnetic. He spoke about wine and food with great zeal and holding true to what the Julia Child once said, ‘People who love to eat are always the best people’.
Being hosted to lunch by a négociant is unique. Unlike invitations from producers outside Bordeaux, who typically only serve wines from their estate during a meal, négociants will invariably serve a variety of their favourite wines. Reason being, that different to all other wine-producing areas in the world, the best Châteaux in Bordeaux exclusively sell their wines to a few of their preferred négociants, supposedly allowing the Chateaux to remain solely focused on producing the best wine they can, thus leaving the sales, marketing and distribution to the négociant. I was excited to see what wines James had prepared.
He ushered us into main dining room of Château Angludet where the sweet smell of burning wood from the grand-looking fireplace instantly sent me down memory lane to my childhood days. Living with a pyromaniac, it was often that I would wake to the smell of burning wood coming from downstairs. My dad would fire up the fireplace on most cold January mornings, whilst my mum would invariably rush to remove the nearby woollen carpets, before the excited shrapnel would shoot out of the fireplace and fly all over the place.
The huge fireplace at Angludet was the main attraction of the dining-room where only a round, expertly-laid table and sideboard were placed in front of it. James, or Jimmy as he preferred being called, brought the wine over to the table. An unconventional, yet mouth-watering, 2015 ‘Le G de Guiraud’ blanc by Château Guiraud, who are better known for their sweet wines from Sauternes. This dry, white wine surprisingly punched way above its weight in terms of complexity, structure and finesse. The wine, partly matured in oak barrels, was rich in flavour, yet fresh enough to whet our appetite. It wasn’t too long before the soft-spoken waiter served us a huge slab of foie gras gently sprinkled with Maldon sea salt, alongside thin slices of cured meat accompanied by a simple side salad. The foie gras was rich and pure in flavour whilst the cured meat perfectly elevated the dish due to the saltiness cutting through the fattiness of the liver. The first bottle of 2001 Château Angludet was unfortunately corked but was quickly replaced by a 2011 Alter Ego, by Château Palmer. This was a classy wine that was ready to drink. It didn’t require more aging. The tannins were grippy at first, but quickly softened to reveal the pure and focused fruit supported by flavours of cedar, slight pencil-shavings and supple earthy flavours. The wine was drinking so perfectly well that an interesting conversation about the underrated 2011 vintage ensued. Before we could disagree on anything, two of the most enormous steaks I have ever-seen were brought out and left on the sideboard. James carefully laid them on a rack and placed them on top of the smouldering wood in the fireplace.
As we waited, the next wine was served to us blind. Already poured into a decanter, we were asked to guess the wine and the correct vintage. Such a fun, yet daunting experience. Sometimes even the best sommeliers get it wrong. Well at least I had a head start, knowing that it I was in Bordeaux, this must be from the area. Or was it? Could Jimmy be pulling a fast one?
From the first sip it was undoubtedly Bordeaux, I was sure of that! More importantly, it was spectacular. The wine was complex and elegant with incredible depth and surprisingly fresh, despite the orange rim in the glass which gave away its maturity. The finest scents of cigar box; the cool smell of a wet forest floor after the rains; freshly picked mushroom and soft Italian leather followed by a beautiful backbone of sweet blackberry, toast and a hint of mint. The length was fabulously long with a variety of flavours taking turns for minutes on end. Every sip of the wine was a different but equally spectacular experience. My initial guess was 1985 Château Margaux. I was wrong!
It was a 1983 Château Palmer which James admitted having decanted for three hours beforehand to make sure it was at it’s peak when served. Renowned wine critic Jancis Robinson accurately describes this wine as ‘gentle and gorgeous’.
Maybe it was the ambience, my mood, or the most ethereal 1983 Château Palmer it was paired it, but the simply prepared barbeque beef was flawless – flavourful and smoky yet astonishingly tender. Jimmy’s daughter, Daisy, explained that the beef is known as ‘Bazas’ beef and is a local-grass and grain-fed breed that is sold by only 13 approved butchers across Bordeaux, and one happened to be just a few kilometres up the road from Château Angludet. This was just my kind of meal with no excessive fuss but a few great bottles of wine, simple wholesome food and a group of passionate food and a wine afficionados.
Jean and Paul who recently joined one of the newer négociants invited us over for dinner to one of the local eateries where they would often meet friends. ‘Brasserie Bordelaise’ is a pretty, casual diner with no nonsense good food, friendly staff and hundreds of bottles of wine on display on their shelves. On arrival, both were already sitting at the table with three bottles of wine strategically placed, backwards-facing at the end of the table, just with the labels out of sight.
Jean knows me quite well. He took the initiative of ordering a huge tray of plump oysters freshly brought in from Atlantic-facing Arcachon Bay. The Arcachon Bay oysters were propelled to the forefront of gourmet way back around 56 A.D. when the oyster-obsessed Romans had discovered that the Meduli tribe collected the best oysters from around the Médoc area. A simple squeeze of lemon, a few drops of the typical Bordelais mignonette sauce on every few oysters and I was happily slurping away on some of the juiciest oysters I have ever tasted - the depth of flavour was unique. I usually find that the piquant mignonette sauce made of finely chopped shallots and vinegar overpowers the beautiful fresh and salty taste of the sea, but this mignonette sauce was a perfect balance of sweetness, spice and acidity that cut right through the fattiness of the oysters. The white wine Jean had chosen was a 2007 Château Malartic-Lagravière from Pessac-Leognan. The 13-year old blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon was delightful. The wine was lively with great depth of citrus, cream and honey, with a flinty touch which paired nicely with the oysters. It’s such a pity that Bordeaux blanc is so underrated. At easily over 50 euros a bottle, the price of these wines is not on the cheaper end of the scale, but serious enough to compete with the finest whites in the world - a classy balancing act between the freshness and intensity of the Sauvignon Blanc and the creamy smokiness of the Sémillon that shines through without taking centre stage. Not only are these wines of tremendous quality, but they can also age extremely well. This 2007 was shining bright despite its age and I’d even say it has a few more years of life to offer.
For main course, Jean suggested the typical local Entrecôte à la Bordelaise. Meat is a staple dish in Bordeaux Paul explained “We are meat-lovers through and through”, and considering the food I’ve sampled in Bordeaux, I don’t blame them. The Entrecôte was served in a red wine and butter sauce with the bone-marrow sitting proudly at the top of the dish. This was pure comfort food screaming for a full-bodied Bordeaux wine to stand up to the flavours. No other wine would do. Jean expertly chose a formidable 1990 Les Forts de Latour. This wine, often referred to as the second wine of the famous first growth Château Latour from the south-eastern tip of Pauillac, has improved so much over the years that it is not considered ‘second’ anymore but as a separate formidable wine with its own character. Interestingly, Château Latour wines, though still sold through the négociant, have recently stopped selling their wines en-primeur (a method of purchasing wines early while the wine is still in the barrel and only receiving it 12 - 24 months later once bottled). Since 2012, the highly acclaimed first growth and second wine ‘Les forts de Latour’ were only sold and released once they believe the wine is ready to drink. The aim is to avoid people drinking their wine before it comes of age. Coincidentally, the first vintage to be released in this way is the 2012, which is set to be released this year.
The 1990 Les Forts de Latour was lusciously ripe, powerful and fully mature. It still had the power, concentration and grip to counter the full-on flavours from the rich and buttery Entrecôte and accompanying fries cooked in beef fat. The wine, considered the best since 1982, went down fast. Too fast. In fact, we resorted to opening the 1983 Château Rauzan-Ségla a bit before we had hoped. The Rauzan- Ségla which was unfortunately past its best years, had developed a bit of a nuttiness to it and had lost alot of fruit flavours. No matter how much it tried, the wine simply couldn’t pack the punch it used to. It reminded me of Bob Dylan singing ‘Tambourine Man’ a few years ago on the beach in San Sebastien. I continued to watch him because it’s him, but sadly, he was a just shadow if his former self. A stark reminder that sometimes even great wines such as Château Rauzan-Ségla shouldn’t be kept in your wine-cave ‘ad eternum’. Though I must clarify, that the Château was not in the best of states back In 1983, and it was in that year that Professor Emile Peynaud became their primary consulting oenologist tasked with bringing the winery to the modern, state of the art winery it is now. The winery was further refurbished in 1986 and again in 1996, after being purchased by the owners of Chanel in April 1994. The wines have improved considerably over the years, such that 2015 and 2016 are considered their best vintages to date. I was lucky enough to try the 2015 which has incredible depth and finesse and I can’t wait to revisit this wine in a couple of years.
No dinner is complete without the final course. Be it a dessert, chocolate block or a little canalé, it is no fault of mine that I’ve become accustomed to needing that sweet ending that signifies the end. I blame it on my wife, but nothing provides closure to a meal better than something sweet and comforting followed by an espresso. The canalé is a typical dome-shaped sweet native of Bordeaux, with a soft and chewy centre and a caramelised crunchy exterior. Said to have been made from all the left-over egg yolks which were left unused from fining (an agent to reduce aggressive tannins and clarify wine) the wines in Bordeaux, this mouthful of goodness is the perfect ending to a rich meal. The bottle of 1989 Château D’Yquem Jean proudly placed in front of me was just the cherry on the cake. Château D’Yquem is not just a Sauternes, it is the Rolls Royce of Sauternes. It is the only Sauternes classified as a ‘superior first growth’ in the 1855 classification and it’s only once you taste that you’ll understand. I adore Sauternes, Tokaji, ‘Sélection de Grains Nobles’ and most noble rot wines, but Château D’Yquem is an ‘aha’ wine. A wine that gives you an epiphany. A wine that explains the joy and beauty of sweet wines in one sip. The riveting acidity and the complex symphony of flavours orchestrated on each of your taste buds including of peach, honey, apricot, vanilla, beeswax, quince, spice and floral marmalade is fascinating, but it is the length of joy it provides that is beyond stunning. I was still tasting the depth and breadth of the intense flavours for more than ten minutes after each sip. This freshness, elegance, clarity of flavour and structure can only be found in a bottle of D’Yquem. The wine has the potential to age and can fetch some of the most ridiculous prices, even for Bordeaux. Setting a record price tag of over 100,000 euros for a bottle dating back to 1811, this bottle of golden goodness should be on every wine-drinkers bucket-list.
We ooh’d and aah’d over this fine bottle for the next half an hour, but I kept tasting the honeyed goodness during the beautiful walk through the city of Bordeaux. Passing the tens of wine merchant shops, the beautiful gothic churches, the glorious park and the artisan cheese shops dotted along the avenue all the way back to the hotel, I was grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Back at my desk in Malta, the morning sun creeps up on me warming my hands on the keyboard and gradually my arms, till I get the same warm fuzzy feeling I got that night walking through Bordeaux. Bordeaux wines are unquestionably good, but the charismatic people, diverse culture and passion for food and wine is what makes me want to go back to such a magical place.