The FINE+RARE annual Bordeaux First Growths Tour is always an exciting addition to the calendar. This year saw Sales Director, Jamie Graham and Private Client Sales Manager, Craig Norton, leave a cold, grey London behind to enjoy a whirlwind tour in sunny Bordeaux: the perfect backdrop for what is always a truly memorable, highly decadent trip visiting Bordeaux's finest properties.
First up: the Right Bank.
Chateau Cheval Blanc
A glass or two of Dom Ruinart 2002 got the trip off to a good start at Chateau Cheval Blanc. After this, we toured the ‘space-age’ new winery with state of the art concrete vats and brand new technology. The key thought process behind the investment is control and freedom: the new vats (all different sizes, corresponding to specific plots for the different varieties) allow for maximum control in the winemaking process, enabling the full potential of the vines to shine through.
We were treated to a quite brilliant lunch, hosted by the charming CFO Arnaud de Laforcade, where the star really had to be the 1998 Cheval Blanc - fresh, charming, generous, it had it all. Easily capable of another two decades of evolution, the problem lies in actually finding stock as there are only a handful of bottles left in the Chateau’s cellars and little on the market. This is certainly one to pick up and stock up, if you don't own a case or two already.
Vieux Chateau Certan
After a short drive, we pulled into the drive of the 17th century building of Vieux Chateau Certan. Here we were met by Guillaume Thienpoint, before touring the vineyards and the cellars. Tasting across several vintages made evident their clear philosophy: to produce real wines that are reflective of the terroir as well as the vintage. These are beautiful, complete wines, never over-extracted. Over the last 5+ years, VCC has been up there with the very finest of the vintage and were arguably the best in 2010, 2011, 2012. Some may debate this, but we at F+R are huge fans of this property and their work.
Time for another glass of Champagne, this time at our hotel - the esteemed 5* Hostellerie de Plaisance right in the heart of St Emilion. Then to dinner at the reputed Pomerol property, La Conseillante. Situated on the plateau between Cheval Blanc and the mighty Petrus, Lafleur and Le Pin, this small Pomerol property has been producing consistently characterful, rich, charming, terroir-driven wines for decades. The winery has seen a lot of investment over recent years (owned by the Nicolas family since 1871). Like Cheval Blanc, the motivation and focus here is increased control, driving overall quality and improving consistency.
As our Sales Director Jamie aptly put it: "that is a man in charge of his brief". From the pruning methods, to the assemblage, to the marketing, to the fridge magnets carefully positioned for guests to take home, Jean-Michel Laporte controls it all, and frankly, he's doing a sensational job. Star of the show? The humble 2006, except, there was nothing humble about it. Supple, rich, balanced, fresh, fragrant - it easily stood up to the 2005, which is twice the price and Jean-Michel suggested over the next decade, it should even surpass it. Buy this wine in bulk whilst you still can, however they only made 1,000 cases. This was a special end to a memorable first day.
Day Two: “First Growths Day”
After a well-earned rest and an early breakfast, we embarked on what was billed, 'First Growth Day'.
We headed North from St Emilion up to the gates of the stunning and iconic property of Chateau Margaux. We were promptly greeted and welcomed by the lovely Marie Descotis, who showed us round the cellars and vineyards, before heading across to the oldest building of this large, historic 300ha estate (1/3 woodland, 1/3 land, 1/3 vineyards): the Orangerie - a favoured past time of the aristocrats of the day. The wines were magnificent. The 2006 Margaux showed particularly well: soft, delicate and well put together, very Margaux. A fine start to another warm, sunny day in Bordeaux.
From the elegant and refined to the powerful, rich and arguably the finest: Chateau Latour.
Immediately noticeable were the unique gravelly soils and terroir, which are clearly critical in producing such tremendous wines. Latour's withdrawal from the annual EP process has been well documented and whilst they have a long term plan here, it still does divide opinion. There is still clear evidence that significant renovation has taken place recently, the large underground cellar that has been constructed is quite staggering in size, and built with storing many a future vintage in mind.
Latour’s strategy is to release their three cuvees onto the market when they're 'nearing drinkability'. In line with this, we tasted each of the latest scheduled releases: the 2004 Grand Vin was complex, sturdy, rich and polished, the 2006 Les Forts De Latour was charming, medium bodied with a definite pencil lead character and the 2009 Le Pauillac de Chateau Latour, which ticked all the boxes and performed way beyond a third wine.
Chateau Lynch Bages
Time for lunch at Chateau Lynch Bages. Here we had a fine example of their Blanc, the 2011, which, if served blind, would challenge the most experienced taster not to bill it as something three to four times the price: fresh, grassy, tropical, guava fruit and honeyed - a strong effort for a good Bordeaux Blanc vintage. Lunch was as decadent as one would expect - the dauphinoise warranted a siesta, but alas, time was against us, our next stop was Chateau Lafite!
A brilliant tour concluded with a stunning tasting of the 2001, in one if the most amazing cellars imaginable. Half the time used for cellaring First Growths, the other an amphitheatre for classical music. Even with the somewhat inflated prices of Lafite in recent times, there is no doubting the quality of the wine: it is of the very, very highest standards.
What an exciting property. Fine wine, individuality, creativity and art all work together here in harmony; it is a style all on its own. The winery again has recently undergone extensive renovation. A tasting of the 2012, which had just gone through the final fining, was showing really very well for such a young wine. A fine effort for the vintage and still well priced. Certainly a Mouton worth adding to the cellar.
Chateau Pichon Lalande
For many, the dinner that evening was one of the real highlights of the trip. Simply put, we arrived at 18.30 and left at 1.00.
The new man in charge is Nicolas Glumineau (ex Montrose, Haut Brion, Margaux) who joined at the end of 2012 and has overseen the challenging 2013 crop (where the brave decision was taken to completely write off the Merlot crop due to poor quality.) As such, 2013 Pichon Lalande is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon for first time in its history.
Again, major renovation had literally just finished on the winery (very similar to Mouton), indeed, this was something of a theme running throughout the majority of the properties we'd visited so far. Both Glumineau and the new winery were impressive. We were treated to a sensational dinner and a flight of '8s' - 1978, 1988 and 1998 to accompany a superb meal. The 1988 was the star at its absolute peak of drinkability:
"Dark core, bricking towards rim, still bright and fresh. Wild raspberries, strawberry leaf, cherries, cloves, tobacco, sweet spice, smoked meat, earthy, elegant, pencil lead, very classical. This has arrived at optimum drinkability, perfectly balanced. Drink now or over next 3-5 years."
Pichon Lalande is a Chateau to watch as it is clearly reaching its former glory.
Day 3: Pessac Leognan
Chateau Haut Brion
The final leg of our extravagant tour took us to the gates of the world-renowned and historic property of Chateau Haut Brion. Dating back to the 16th century, it’s fair to say that they understand their terroir pretty well. Trying both Haut Brion and La Mission Haut Brion side by side for a stylistic comparison was intellectually fascinating: the Haut Brion a touch more reserved, while La Mission was exuberant. Both were full of character and stand as a style all on their own.
The same comparison on the Blanc however, was something very special. Expressive, intellectually challenging, concentrated but restrained and flawlessly made - both were incredible wines, a real highlight of the trip. In fact, these wines silenced the room they were that good. They’re not easy to find though, with only 400-500 cases produced each year, but a wine necessary in any wine-lovers cellar.
Seeing us out in style: Domaine de Chevalier
Here, we were greeted and shown round by the charismatic and entertaining, Remi Edange. We learned of the terroir-driven philosophy and tried a selection of great white Graves before a brilliantly indulgent lunch. Lobster, fois gras and other treats - accompanied by a blind tasting - well, semi blind: ‘guess the vintage’ was the game.
...And the vintages were: Blanc: 2006 vs 1989 (both exceptional, the 1989 was absolutely stunning, still fresh, lively and staggeringly youthful); Rouge: 2005 vs 2000 (two shining examples of first class Pessac, from top years, both superb but individual in their own right). A brilliant property, a firm F+R favourite and a fine conclusion to our journey around Bordeaux.
The 2014 Tour was another fantastic trip hosted in collaboration with Arblaster & Clarke. Every visit, lunch, tasting and dinner was exceptionally well hosted and an absolute treat for us all. I’d like to extend special thanks to both our hosts and our guests for making this whirlwind tour the brilliantly memorable, fascinating and fun tour that it was. Here’s to next year!
If you are interested in future tours, please email us to register your interest.