French Wine Tour 2014 - June 23

June 23 Monday

The pen-ultimate day of tour had come around frighteningly fast, evidence of how engrossing it had been. Aboard the coach we headed 55-minutes south to the town/appellation of Sauternes for two super visits; the first of those to undoubtedly the world's finest and most uncompromising producer of dessert style wines (the French usually enjoy them as an aperitif with foie gras, charcuterie and cheeses ) Château d'Yquem, the second to neighbour Château Giraud who had impressed us during our 2012 wine tour and we were keen to return.

Greeted at d'Yquem by our host Anne she quickly (and I mean rather quickly) marched us across the grounds to the high point of the vineyards to begin the presentation. Anne would encounter several groups per day and was typically efficient; our group were respectful, appreciative and enthusiastic KIWIS who had travelled 22,500km around the world to learn more about these revered estates and it did not take long for her to connect with us on a more personal level.

Overlooking the vineyards Anne explained the unique features of the Sauterne appellation that make it so perfect for the production of exceptional sweet wines. Located at the confluence of Garonne River and its Ciron tributary, the coming together of the cooler spring based waters of the Ciron and warmer flow of the Garonne produce a mist that descends upon the vineyards from evening to late morning. This encourages the growth of Noble Rot (Botrytis cinerea fungus) and by mid-day, the warm sun dissipates the mist and dries the grapes to keep them from developing less favourable rot. Noble rot develops unevenly across each bunch requiring pickers to selectively pick grapes (as opposed to full bunch). Accordingly they must pick over the vineyard in several waves and as in the case of 1992 vintage, conditions meant they had to handpick over the vineyard 11-times to achieve the optimum evenness of Noble rot. The vineyard is mapped into 40 plots and each plot is managed by a fulltime worker who oversees total management of his/her plot throughout vintage and harvest until completion of maturation.Fermentation is stopped at 140gms of residual sweetness per litre. From December through March the 40 ferments are regularly tasted blind with as much as 60% downgraded and sold off to other producers leaving the crème de la crème of vintage to age in 100% new French oak barriques for 18-months. The compelling story of d'Yquem is their unrelenting commitment to a standard of wine that simply cannot be compromised. Example 2012 vintage, where they went through the full gambit from picking to ferment and maturation before deciding it did not meet the standards and consequently sold off the entire vintage. The winery and cellars are state of the art and immaculately maintained/presented as you would imagine from an organization so focused on excellence. The tour complete it was time to taste and Anne opened a 2011 d'Yquem for our enjoyment. It was an extraordinary experience not lost on any of our group…

Château d'Yquem 2011 – it displayedsensational aromas of white flowers, peach, apricot, pear, cloves and marmalade. The palate had a truly luxurious feel, rife with a tangy array of fresh and dried fruit and mango with rich caramel and honey elements; each time you tasted it you could find a new flavour such was its depth of complexity. The final compelling moment was delivered by the scintillating balance of acid that left you with a sense of freshness even though the wine is so incredibly sweet.

It was over to Jenni Everett to express the appreciation of our group which she did so very eloquently and Anne was quite taken by surprise; something she is not generally used to and which she very much enjoyed. We said our goodbyes then stopped the coach at the gates to have a group photo taken at the entrance to the world's greatest sweet wine producer.

Just a few minutes down the road and our coach pulled into the gates of Château Guiraud for our luncheon visit where we were greeted by co-owner Xavier Planty (other owners being Oliver Bernau of Domaine de Chevalier, Stefan Van Neipperg of Chateau Canon-la-Gaffelièreand French carmaker Peugeot) and his winemaker Didier. Grapes were first planted on this 120-hectare property in the 6th century and major development occurred under the ownership of three generations of the Guiraud family from 1766 enabling it to achieve 1st Growth status in the 1855 classification. Xavier Planty and his partners purchased the estate in rather run down condition in 2006 and through investment in replanting, new buildings, equipment and barrels in conjunction with the pursuit of organic practices have turned it into a property worthy of sitting alongside its illustrious neighbour; Château d'Yquem.

The growing, harvesting and winemaking practices differ little from d'Yquem and it's probably their organic farming which is their significant point of difference. 100 hectares are planted with 85 dedicated to the making of Sauterne and 15 for the production of a dry white wine. Although the appellation rules allow for production of up to 25 hectolitres of juice per hectare of vines,Château Guiraud limit their production to circa half that at 12-13 hectolitres per hectare.

They pick over the bunches many times, slow press the grapes then cold settle the juice prior to ferment in barrel with up to 65 separate batches produced. Precise balance between sugar and alcohol is achieved across all batches with a maximum of 70% of ferments making the final blend, which ages in barrel for 18-months prior to bottling. Prior to sitting for lunch we tasted…

2013 Le G de Château Guiraud – a dry white wine produced from 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Semillon grapes aged on lees in 2-year old barrels for 6-months to develop structure and texture. It has a delicious palate with ripe tangy tropical/citrus fruits, sweet herbs and smoky notes in absolute harmony, projected to age 10+ years.

2013 Petit Guiraud Sauternes – the 2nd wine of the estate it is fermented partly in barrel and partly in tank to create a sweet wine with a beautifully fresh lift. Not the same level of concentration of the Grand Cru it is never the less a very flavoursome and nicely balanced sweet wine.

2013 Guiraud Grand Cru Sauternes – the 1st wine of the estate it's made from 65% Semillon and 35% Sauvignon Blanc. A gorgeous array of floral, fresh and dried fruit aromas lead to a dense, creamy palate with a luxurious array of fruits. A classic cold peach tea thread evolves in the exotic finish which is permeated by dried fruits, marmalade, honey and saffron spice with delicious freshness.

Post the tasting we adjourned to a seated lunch hosted by Xavier and Didier set up in the wineries reception room. The menu…

1st course – Foie Gras served in the shape of apple pie with an apple topping and set on a honey crispy biscuit.

Paired with… Petit Guiraud 2012 – flavours of dried fruits and honey are tempered by black tea and fresh pink grapefruit making it an ideal match for the richness/creaminess of the Foie Gras.

2nd course – Fattened chicken caramelised with coriander in cream sauce and crispy eggplant with cinnamon.

Paired with… Château Guiraud 2002 – darker developed colour it tasted of honey, cold peach tea, caramel, croissant, dried fruits and coffee complexity with a classic freshness on the finish.

3rd course – Raspberry “Millefeuille” with rhubarb marmalade served on a barrel stave.

Paired with… Château Guiraud 2008 – I haven't followed Sauterne vintages very closely in recent years but this 2008 was an outstanding wine. Still youthful by Sauterne standards the aromas were slightly muted but not so when it came onto the palate. Luxurious flavours of white honey, cinnamon, toffee, dried citrus fruits, lemon rind and marmalade were buoyed by cold peach tea with a salty freshness on the superbly long finish.

As an additional treat Xavier placed a1998 Château Guiraud on the table which he described as a classic year in Sauterne. The colour was deep gold with developed aromas of flowers, spices, caramel, honey and mandarin. It was a little liqueur like on the palate with seriously rich flavours of dried fruits, Grand Marnier, honey and toffee; hints of pepper and salty mineral notes gave freshness to the finish… a treat to taste.

Jill King delivered a superb thank you speech to Xavier and Didier leaving them in no doubt as to how much we had all treasured and appreciated their warm and generous hospitality. We adjourned to the winery garden for a group photo to capture the memory of this fabulous visit for eternity then boarded our coach for the short drive back to Bordeaux.

A group dinner was scheduled for the evening at the brilliant Brasserie Bordelaise located in the heart of the city centre approximately 20-minutes' walk from our hotel.We had dined there during our 2012 visit and were so impressed with its quality/hearty local cuisine and extraordinary selection of wines that we wanted to take our group of 2014 there too. If you ever visit Bordeaux you should place a visit to Brasserie Bordelaise at the top of your to do list. The food is absolutely fresh with high quality ingredients cooked to perfection. Don't eat too much at lunch as the servings are generous. It covers two floors and the walls are covered with endless shelves stacked with wines a la a large wine store, plus you're seated amongst cases of wine. The wine list is extensive and although you will find a selection of Bordeaux's most expensive offerings it is largely populated with an excellent and judiciously selected range of wines from all major French wine regions; all accessibly priced. It's seriously popular with the locals so a booking is recommended. We ate and drank well and were probably appreciative of the 20-minute walk back to our hotel to settle our full stomachs