French Wine Tour 2014 - June 18

June 18 Wednesday

Two exciting visits were scheduled for our first day in Bordeaux, the first of those being Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. In our two previous trips to Bordeaux we had not visited this revered 2nd Growth producer/estate but given my personal affection for their wines (we have several vintages in our cellar) I was keen we should go there. The estate began in 1720 and the impressive Château, which was constructed circa 1860-1880, is unique in the region for its Victorian era architectural influence and presides over a superb view to the Gironde River. Third generation family member Bruno Borie spends much of his time living on the estate and his mother is also in residence; this is often not the case with many Château owners who live in major business centres and visit their estates infrequently, so is pleasing to see someone lives in and appreciates this magnificent place.

Our charming host Elizabeth greeted our group and showed us around the gardens and Château before we were joined by long time Château Ducru-Beaucaillou cellar master René who proved to be an exceptionally jovial host; always cracking jokes and testing the translational skills of Elizabeth to the max. He explained the estate is 35ha in area and is planted 75% in Cabernet Sauvignon and 25% Merlot. The clay soils are filled with round stones that retain heat and generate warmth onto the vines in the cool evenings; Beaucaillou translated means ‘beautiful stones'.

René then guided us through the cellars, which from grape reception and crushing in state of the art basket presses is gravity fed through to the tanks and later barrels. We were showed a special 5,300 litre Fuder oak barrel made from wood taken from the very last tree planted during Louis XIV's reign. Candles were the traditional source of light in the cellar and some are still retained; their original purpose was to provide a warning to workers when Co2 gas levels were too high in the cellars as the candles would be naturally extinguished; they also provide an ideal light to view wine levels in the barrels. These days in the main cellar the lighting is electronic but strongly replicates the look and effectiveness of candles.

We transitioned to the impressive main barrel cellar, which was engineered back into the slope alongside the Château and the roof is covered by grass disguising its presence. Oak for use in Ducru-Beaucaillou is 100% French and is air seasoned for 3-years prior to the making of the barrels to get rid of any resin and harsh wood tannin. Post fermentation the barrels are sealed with a Teflon bung that has a screw mechanism to expand/lock it into the barrel to avoid further oxygenation through the bung hole. The barrels are laid on metal rails and stacked two high using wooden wedges to ensure an even temperature and airflow around the barrels.

Finally we adjourned to the tasting room to review three 2013 barrel samples of the following wines…

Croix de Beaucaillou … 60% Cabernet Sauvignon – 37% Merlot – 3% Petit Verdot
scheduled for 18-months in oak it is only in its seventh month and it is quite challenging to make an assessment at this stage of its development. It displayed sweetish fruit with strong tannin and prominent savoury notes. I found it slightly drying with muted flavours and would wait to see it in bottle to make a proper assessment.

Château Lalande Borie … 60% Merlot - 35% Cabernet Sauvignon – 5% Cabernet Franc
although displaying varietal typicity with leafy, dried herb Cabernet tastes and spicy/meaty notes of Merlot. The tannin is grippy and the palate has heavy savoury elements… It's too closed presently to properly evaluate.

Château Ducru-Beaucaillou … 90% Cabernet Sauvignon – 10% Merlot
Being the finest wine of the Château you would expect it to be superior and it most certainly was. The fruit was concentrated, ripe and sweet with autumn leaf, cassis, dried herbs and graphite flavours prominent. The tannin was compact, mouth coating and fine, contrasted by juicy acidity. This is a red of depth, complexity and subtle power with a definitive elegance and shows poise in its youth.

After the tasting was completed Graham MacKinlay delivered a thoughtful and appreciative speech on behalf of our group; which was quite a challenge given the propensity of René to regularly interject with his humorous quips.Elizabeth walked with us to the coach where we again thanked her for a wonderful visit and said our goodbyes.

Lunch was at the legendary Café Le Lion d'Or in Margaux where we were looking forward to catching up with Mr. Barbier, the 2nd generation owner whom we had engaged with in our visits of 2005 & 2012. We were disappointed to find he had sold out since our last visit as his larger than life presence made a visit to Le Lion d'Or that much more special. The food was still of a high standard though and the wine list good so we had a most enjoyable lunch. A pity Mr. Barbier was no longer there; such characters are rare and important to the hospitality industry.

Back on our coach for a 5-minute ride to 1st Growth producer Château Margaux, which is of course an impressive property so the group were quickly off the bus and snapping pictures. There are significant renovations taking place currently, which involve the re-insulation of the underground 2nd year cellar, the addition of a white wine cellar and a library cellar plus the linking up of these facilities. Accordingly our visit excluded a trip through their fabulous 2nd year cellar we had marvelled at in 2012. Our hostess Marie, although quite young had already been working for the Château for over 6-years so we were in good hands when it came to receiving expert knowledge of this 262 hectare estate, of which just 82-hectares are planted in vines. The remaining land considered unsuitable for the growing of grapes given its low water table being so close to the Gironde River. Typically Cabernet dominant, as are all Margaux properties the plantings were… 68% Cabernet Sauvignon - 26% Merlot and the remaining 6% split between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. The estate produces circa 130,000 bottles of Château Margaux, 115,000 bottles of their 2nd red Pavillion Rouge, 40,000 bottles of their 3rd wine Margaux du Château Margaux and 12,000 bottles of their estate white wine Pavillon Blanc du Château Margaux.

Marie first guided us to the front of the owners Château residence constructed between 1810-1815, which is a mix of European and middle eastern architecture… needless to say the cameras were clicking madly. From there to the production facilities and the 1st year barrel hall. Around 800-900 new barrels are required each year to maintain an oak maturation program of 100% new for Margaux and 50% new & 50% 2nd & 3rd year use for the Pavillon Rouge. The vines are densely planted and low to the ground to maximise warmth from the soils so the estate is 100% handpicked and all of the sorting of grapes is done during the picking process. The wine is made with a mix of traditional and modern winemaking/processing influences as expected; with 24 separate cuvees produced before fermenting in large oak vats followed by 15-21 days post ferment maceration on skins. The final blend is made before long-term maturation in barrels.

Marie led us to the L'Orangerie building which variously has been used for growing the estates trees, the original barrel storage facility and these days is a temporary office while the renovations are being completed. There was a model of the development, which enabled us to gain perspective on the extent and nature of the renovations.It was there Marie treated our group to a tasting of the following wines…

Pavillon Rouge 2008 – A warm, rich, savouryCabernet dominant palate with typical graphite and briar characters underpinning ripe dark fruits and cassis; drinking very nicely and should do so for at least 8-10 years yet.

Château Margaux 2008 – Plenty of concentration and richness with mellowing grainy tannin playing host to a very complex palate of primary/secondary fruits; a complimentary array of graphite, dried herbs and rich savoury tastes drive through to the cool, fresh finish. This 2008 is in great heart and likely to last 15-20 years yet.

After the tasting Phil Norman delivered a very considered and eloquent vote of thanks to Marie on our behalf then we bade farewell to her and headed back to our Hotel Relais de Margaux where we were due to dine. It was not a late night as everyone was feeling a bit tired and we were tucked up in bed at a very reasonable hour ahead of a full and exciting program tomorrow.