Bordeaux Trips

The Commanderie de Bordeaux á Manchester visited vineyards and chateaux in Bordeaux

The 2018 Trip (Photos to follow)

The week commencing May 12th 2018 was a memorable one indeed for the UK. Bookended by two of the great cultural occasions of our time – the Eurovision Song Contest and the Royal Wedding  (with afters of the FA Cup Final) – significant events were also taking place on the Continent. Yes the Manchester Commanderie were in Bordeaux for their biennial visit to the vineyards and chateaux of the region.

The party of 28 met to join the coach in Cheshire on Saturday the 12th and found a black space-age vehicle awaiting – very comfortable but also very tall (of which more later!). There was also the surprise (and concern) that the second driver had been taken ill overnight so we were left with just one. Fortunately Steve turned out to be somewhat of a superman and managed to cope with the demands of the party and the French road network admirably.

Our trip down to Portsmouth to catch the ferry was uneventful apart from the usual business hard work of opening and sampling champagne bottles and if at least in one case inadvertently spraying the coach! On board we enjoyed the pleasures of the Brittany Ferries restaurant (really good food and excellent value) before sleeping our way across the Channel to St Malo.  

The following morning we started off early and, it being Sunday, had a period of quiet contemplation and coffee before someone decided it was time to open a bottle and festivities started again. A diversion for a leisurely and very enjoyable lunch near the beautiful old harbour of La Rochelle (which has become a tradition on these trips) broke the day up and we finally arrived at our hotel in Bordeaux in late afternoon. In the evening we went our own ways – some for a walk, some for a meal, some for just a drink and some, apparently, for a tour of dubious student bars – I couldn’t comment!

It was an early start on Monday morning – well before 9 – so you can see we had to suffer for our pleasure (it’s hard but somebody has to do it!). We were headed for the most distant destination of our trip – the northern Medoc – where the Association of the Crus Bourgeios du Medoc had generously laid on a tasting of a range of wines from their members. The organiser was a dear friend, Brinda Bourhis of the Association, and the host chateau was the beautiful Ch Castera, well known in the UK in the past from its association with Alexis Lichine wines though sadly less seen now. We had a tour of the chateau including numerous sculptures and the beautifully restored tower containing a museum of artifacts relating to the very long history of this estate – one of several examples we saw of huge investment in properties with little obvious business benefit but showing the commitment to and the pride in their inheritance.

A tasting followed showing the 6 examples of the great 2015 vintage from very different estates across the region ranging from the Medoc in the north down to the borders of Margaux in the south – a very well chosen collection all presented by their proprietors and showing how well cabernet sauvignon, merlot and in one case, spectacularly, petit verdot, can shine in a good year.

After a very welcome glass of champagne (not every wine served in Bordeaux is home grown!) and excellent canapes we moved to lunch (centred round a beautifully cooked duck steak) and had the chance to taste more mature vintages and chat to the owners – in my case it was a pleasure sit next to Martial Mignet of Ch L’Argilus du Roi in St Estephe who is making serious wine with love in his second career (he was previously a successful pilot). One of our discoveries of the week was evident here – the often ignored 2012 vintage is showing very well currently and is likely to for some years to come. Not surprisingly many of us took advantage of the opportunity to buy here. (Since we returned we’ve heard of the heavy hail storms and floods in this region last week and we’re just hoping that our friends at Castera were not affected).

Time moved on and we ended up rather late at our second visit of the day – the renowned third growth Ch Kirwan in Margaux which meant we couldn’t take in all off the famous wine route alongside some of the greatest Chateaux names in the world. However we managed to see Palmer, Beychevelle, and Lagrange among others. At Kirwan we were met by the impressive and charming Sophie Schyler Thierry of the owning family. Another example of investment in the Chateau – a beautiful work of art in metal double doors at the entrance to the winery showing a tree and words associated with the wine making and the love of the subject. Another feature of the estate is the lovely garden – one of the finest in the Medoc. On to the wine itself – the family’s commitment was evident both in the investment in the fermenting vessels – concrete tulips in this case, and in the cask sample of the 2017 we sampled later. Unlike some chateaux we visited Kirwan did not suffer too badly with the frosts of 2017 and the wine showed great promise. Samples of older vintage of both the second wine(2014) and the grand vin(2012) of the estate showed this is a property to value and though the grand vin increases in price, as with its peers,  the second wine is more affordable and of high quality. Finally our hostess invited us back for a meal at the estate on a later visit – an offer we would be delighted to take up.

The final visit of the day was Ch Cantemerle in the Haut Medoc – a personal favourite of several of the party. We were met by Philippe Dambrine who is the long-time wine maker at a chateau which has been making increasingly good wines in recent years, and at a relatively modest price for a classified growth. The estate dates back nearly a thousand years and one of the features of the grounds and a source of much pride are the 300 year old plane trees in the grounds. Philippe’s friendliness and quiet commitment to his calling impressed us all.  We then had the second 2017 cask sample of the day - it was sweet and luscious even now and should become a lovely wine. With a very enjoyable dinner (smoked salmon followed by filet mignon) we drank the second wine (Les Allees 2010) – good fruit and balance and still young, and Cantemerle itself from 2011 – showing what can be achieved even in a lesser year.

And then back to the hotel just before the driver’s hours ran out – a close run thing!

We had a later start on Tuesday but the traffic was so bad in central Bordeaux that we had to pick up the coach a couple of streets away to avoid the worst of the congestion. On our way out of town we had an interesting encounter with an underpass which was too low for our very tall coach (remember?) – the piece de resistance was a satellite dome on the top of the coach which proved too much for several bridges. Reversing back up the sliproad to the underpass was one of the more memorable incidents but thanks to our excellent driver and our Vinothecaire’s efforts in directing the traffic relatively painless. However it did mean we had to allow more time to get in and out of the city each day.

Our first stop of the day was another old friend of the Commanderie  - Bruno Gonzague de Lambert at the splendid Ch de Sales – an historic estate and the largest in Pomerol. He showed us the beautiful grounds and explained the long and illustrious history of the place including the ‘censoring’ of certain pictures and the accidental discovery of ancient tapestries in one of the old store rooms, and on a more serious note gave us an insight into the problems faced by family-owned properties from the French inheritance laws. A very engaging and charming host Bruno also introduced us for the first time in the week to the concept of ‘sexual confusion’ to control pests in the vineyards – a technique his estate pioneered.

After champagne and canapes on the terrace overlooking the lovely lake we escaped the rain by moving inside for a spectacular lunch accompanied by 3 flights of 3 wines dating back to 2008 from de Sales and his neighbours’ properties dating back to 2008 (another discovery for some of the party – 2008 is a seriously under-rated vintage) and finishing with a real treat – de Sales 1990 – definitely mature but soft and lovely. I was lucky enough to sit at the same table as Dominique Vayron of the excellent Ch Bourgneuf who enchanted us with her account of 8 generations of her family to run the chateau (her daughter Frederique is now the winemaker there).

Our second and final visit of the day was to nearby Saint Emilion – Ch La Dominique is a Grand Cru Classe owned by Clement Fayat, with a growing investment and reputation in recent years. It is also famous for its association with the renowned and notorious American artist Jeff Koons. Here in subdued mood for him he has created a striking cladding for the winery representing the different colours of red wine and a flat roof with red glass pebbles again representing the wine’s colour. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it worked for me and the view from the roof was a wonderful panorama on Pomerol – not the worst vista in the world!

Here the fermenting vessels were steel. The changes in approach (or should I say fashion) are intriguing but if they work then I’m not the person to question them. They are also experimenting with aging in plastic eggs. Certainly the wines are good though in my opinion the 2013 vintage of the second wine was drinking better than the 2011 vintage of La Dominique itself which has some way to go. I should mention that here we had a slight hiccup in that the chateau didn’t seem to expect us despite a confirmed booking. However all credit to the very friendly staff who gave us a very enjoyable visit.

After this we had a short stop in the town of Saint Emilion itself - for many of us a first chance to experience this beautiful town and for others a welcome opportunity to revisit old haunts. Next back to town and a chance to sample the many local restaurants within easy reach of the hotel.

Wednesday was another full day and a real treat. After fighting the city traffic our first stop was in Entre Deux Mers at Ch Montlau – possibly the oldest estate we visited being on the site of a Roman settlement. The estate itself dates back to 830 and the oldest tower to 1130. Once again we were entranced by a magnificent tree – a Lebanon Cedar c.450 year old. The owner – Armand Schuster de Ballwil – is one of the regions great characters – warm, welcoming and knowledgeable – and he and his family run one of the most beautiful estates I’ve ever seen. It may not be located in the most fashionable part of to the region but I think any of us would have chosen it as a place to spend our lives. We enjoyed a tasting on a terrace overlooking the Dordogne with Pomerol and Saint Emilion in the distance. There were 6 different Enre Deux Mers whites from 2017 – good, light and refreshing after the heavier reds of recent days and surprisingly different in style from each other. They were also a minor miracle given the frosts of that year.

For lunch we moved inside and tasted the full range of Montlau white, rose and reds with a cold buffet which was for many one of the highlights of the trip. A huge dressed salmon (caught in the Dordogne) perhaps took pride of place but the beef Wellington, duck and salads had to be seen to be believed. We finished with a rare treat - these are not usually long-lived wines but the 2009 red was lovely and fresh despite its age. The hospitality of Armand and his family remains in the mind and unsurprisingly many of us bought some of the very reasonably priced wines.

We next wandered through the pretty, narrow lanes of Sauternes and Barsac  (another challenge for our intrepid driver)to reach Ch Doisy-Vedrines. Although a second growth this very attractive chateau was somehow understated compared with many we saw and the low key but dedicated approach was reinforced by the quietly spoken owner Olivier Casteja. This is an estate where superlative wines are made but the pendulum has not yet started to swing back towards sweet wines so they remain underappreciated and for Bordeaux very underpriced. They also have the challenge of dealing with low yields and many passes of the vineyard at harvest which means the flexibility to ferment and mature many small quantities of wine and their solution, though not unique, is very different from what we saw at other sites. No long rows of steel or concrete fermenting vessels but instead grape juice is racked off to barrels for fermenting then reassembled into a few vats for blending before maturing again in barrel. We tasted the second wine, Petit Vedrines, of 2010 – a light but very pleasing wine – almost an aperitif style, and the much richer Doisy-Vedrines 2015 – not ready yet but will last for years.

The weather was kind to us and we arrived at one of the superstars of Pessac-Leognan – Ch Haut-Bailly – at 6 o’clock in mellow sunshine. We were greeted by Daina Paulin, once of Arizona but now a head of communications at the chateau and a most eloquent convert to France and French wine (so committed is she that later this year she’s marrying a Frenchman!). She led us through the history of the chateau – how its name comes from being at the highest point in Graves (all of 48m!) and it is based round a plot of 30ha which has been planted since 1630 with 6 different varieties which are replanted like with like when required. After long ownership by the Belgian Sanders family there was a painless transfer to an American, Robert Wilmers, in 1998, while Veronique Sanders remains as general manager. Sadly Mr Wilmers died late last year but his family are continuing his interest in the estate. The approach to the fermenting was new to me – concrete vessels are coated with tartaric acid which maintains cleanliness while, I suspect, helping precipitate out excess tartrates.

Although the highest part of the vineyard escaped much of the 2017 frost  sadly there was an overall 30% loss but on a more positive note the three 2017 cask samples we tasted were very promising. We also tried the 2015 Grand and second wines – great wines in the making with the Le Parde de Haut-Bailly also looking good value. We then moved to the terrace for once of the best moments of the week – drinking Pol Roger while watching the sunset over vineyards. Dinner was also delightful – lobster and veal accompanied by the Le Parde and Grand vins of the 2012 vintage – both reinforcing our growing liking for this vintage – followed by what was for the writer was possibly the wine of the week – Haut-Bailly from 2008. I read afterwards that it was regarded by some as the wine of the vintage – certainly it had wonderful depth and balance and the structure to last for years. The evening finished with various members of the party visiting the chateau shop where a range of vintages and high quality mementos were available. And so back to Bordeaux.

Our final day of visits started with the now expected battle with the traffic and as a result we were over half an hour late at our first stop Ch Chantegrive in Graves – known to many of us for their excellent wines, both white and red. Our delightful host, Elodie Sodes, was not phased by this and gave us an excellent if slightly rushed tour of the estate, but one with a very poignant aspect. Chantegrive was one of those properties very badly hit by the frosts of 2017 and suffered losses of 80% - totally wiping out production of red wine. The sight of their main cellar devoid of barrels except for a few empty ones there as window-dressing was shocking. However we has a tasting of the white of 2014 (fresh with good fruit) and their success story the white Cuvee Caroline 2016 (earlier vintages were sold out) which was rich with a gentle use of oak and to my mind a more harmonious wine than when I first tasted the cuvee 20 years ago. The reds of 2014 and the prestige cuvee of 2011 also showed well. By now we had run out of time to buy but by careful negotiation we agreed to come back late in the day and in the end bought some 200 bottles between us, which I’m sure pleased the chateau.

Our final visit of the trip was a special one.  Ch Smith-Haut -Lafitte is a large historic estate in Pessac –Leognan which was underperforming until the early 90’s when it was bought by two human dynamos Daniel and Florence Cathiard. They had met on the French national ski team and were introduced to Bordeaux by fellow team member the Olympic legend Jean-Claude Killy. After having great success in their careers in retail and advertising they dedicated themselves to making the estate the best they possibly could – restoring the chateau, establishing an on-site cooperage (rare in Bordeaux, and building a new chai and pioneering environmentally friendly processes. If this wasn’t enough in the late 90’s they established a spa hotel on the site which has developed into a worldwide brand and is one of the leading sites for luxury tourism in the entire region. The chateau buildings are on a huge scale for the area and manage to be both luxurious and rustic at the same time – the cellar itself is one of the largest and most impressive I’ve seen. (It does however have some narrow access roads which presented a challenge to driver Steve – at one point to let other vehicles pass he had to manoeuvre to within about six inches of a ditch but as usual he managed it perfectly).

This sounds almost too good to be true but the enthusiasm  and warmth of the owners would have won anyone over – tireless ambassadors for their beloved wine and brimming over with self-deprecating anecdotes about how they managed to achieve so much. It is perhaps unnecessary to run through the wines we tried but you won’t forgive me if I don’t so here goes. Before lunch we tasted the lovely 2015 white (Smith-Haut-Lafitte are almost equally renowned for their whites as reds) and with the superb lunch (crab charlotte followed by veal fillet) the white of 2010 (some bottle variation at my table but the second bottle was excellent) and 3 reds in magnum – the second wine (Les Hauts de Smith) 2014 and the Grand vin from 2012 and 2005. A wonderful experience – we were impressed by all three and if the sheer class and depth of the 05 was unbeatable the Les Hauts was loved by many for its twin virtues of displaying wonderful fruit and being (relatively) affordable. A great end to the formal part of the trip.

There’s not much to add – we spent the evening in Bordeaux and in the morning had an early start to avoid the heavy traffic which miraculously didn’t materialise – so a smooth journey to our lunch stop at Clisson in a beautiful riverside restaurant. Then on to Caen and then back to Portsmouth- the route had another couple of challenges with low bridges but with care (and a lowered suspension) we crept through. Then back up to Cheshire watching the Royal Wedding on the coach (the first time we’d made use of the dreaded satellite dome).

So overall a really memorable week – in fact according to some veterans of these trips the best we’d ever had – many highlights and no disappointments. And what had we learnt about the wines? – perhaps 3 main lessons – that the dry whites from Bordeaux get better and better, that in these days of ever increasing prices cru bourgeios and second wines of classed estates can be very good value, and that certain less acclaimed vintages, notably 2012 and 2008 are showing really well.

We must give our thanks to all our hosts during the week for making it so special and to Steve our driver who coped superbly with us with great good humour (in fact I think I heard him say he looked forward to driving us again but that may have been an unguarded moment!). Finally although a number of people were involved in the organisation the lion’s share fell on two – David and Jane Chapman who did a superb job in planning and making the whole trip run so seamlessly – very many thanks to you both.

P.S. a footnote to our trip – in the July 18 Bordeaux Decanter supplement there are features on Chateaux  Bourgneuf and Smith-Haut-Lafitte and favourable mention of the wines of Doisy-Vedrines.


The 2016 Visit


It was midday on May 7th when an intrepid party of 26 comprising Commandeurs and partners set out on the 2016 Manchester Commanderie visit to the city of Bordeaux and, more importantly, its surrounding vineyards. As a newcomer to these trips I’m going to try to give a feel of our experience of the week.

The journey down to Portsmouth went smoothly and was aided by a number of bottles which seemed to have found their way on to the coach. Overnight sustenance was provided by the useful excellent catering on board Brittany Ferries (a very pleasant surprise for those of the party who hadn’t travelled with them before and an appropriate introduction to the week of fine dining before us).

The trip down to Bordeaux was also smooth (apart from mislaying a couple of Commandeurs after a very enjoyable lunch stop in La Rochelle!) and we arrived at the Hotel Majestic in late afternoon. The hotel was comfortable and very conveniently situated although with the busy schedule ahead we weren’t to see much of it.

Bordeaux Wine

Our chateau visits started on Monday in Castillion at Ch Bourron where Diane Sulzer gave us a warm welcome and tour of her estate (and splendid kitchen garden) before a very interesting tasting of her wines and those of some of her neighbours. What was clear was that many of these wines punch well above their weight, especially in ripe vintages. The highlight of the morning was the intronisation of Maître Peter Russell and Commandeurs Margaret Joscelyne and David Chapman into the Chevaliers des Côtes de Castillon– a spectacular display of velvet costumes and swords.

Lunch at Ch Tifayne followed where owner Renaud Limbosch showed that the range of wines in Castillion goes well beyond merlot dominated reds with a sparkling rose and a dry white. He also explained how the hippopotamus became both the symbol of the estate and, judging from the number on display, a charming obsession.

The final visit of the day was to Ch Puygueraud in Francs, one of the smallest appellations of the region. On an afternoon where the rain just about held off Cyrille Thienpoint held everyone’s attention with an expert description of the characteristics of the appellation and the suitability of different plots for different grape varieties. The tasting that followed included cask samples of the 2015 vintage and showed the high quality this estate is producing. (For anyone interested the 2015 red and white are now available in the UK en primeur at quite modest prices -I found them listed at Tanners but no doubt there are other stockists).
Tuesday started spectacularly with bright sunshine and a visit to high-flying Ch Canon la Gaffeliere in St Emilion where we were shown round by the charming and enthusiastic Magali Malet-Serres. As with many estates we saw attention to detail is the key to producing outstanding wine and judging by the examples we tasted at lunch (excellent btw) from the von Neipperg estates (including Clos de l’Oratoire and La Mondotte as well as Canon la G)) they are succeeding in using the relatively high proportion of cabernet franc to produce a more balanced wine than some of the overly fruit driven wines from other St Emilion properties (albeit at a price!).

In the afternoon we stayed in St Emilion and were introduced to two sister properties, both owned by the De Schepper family – side by side but using very different  wine making approaches. Ch Tour Baladoz was very traditional while Ch La Croizille has an eye-catching modern cellar equipped with very up-to-date technical equipment. Helene de Schepper and Anthony Crameri gave us a warm welcome - clearly good wines are being produced here and enormous investments have been made – time will tell if this expenditure pays off.

Bordeaux Wine

Finally in the evening one of the highlights of the trip – dinner at Ch Angelus, one of just 4 Premiers Grand Cru Classé A estates in St Emilion. On a sunny evening we were greeted by Jean Bernard Grenie, cousin of the proprietor Hubert de Boüard de Laforest who was away. Jean Bernard was a charming host with a great sense of humour and a sparkling eye and he started by treating us to a performance of the (British) National Anthem on the Chateau’s famous carillon. After a tour of the cellars and the usual display of immaculate and very expensive new oak we had champagne on the terrace followed by a delicious dinner accompanied by a run of 3 vintages of Angelus itself and 1 of Ch Bellevue – a small holding next door owned by the family. On a personal note I thought the 2005 was the finest wine I tasted all trip, although still very young – in fact the excellent 2006 was more enjoyable on the night. Sadly having looked at the prices I won’t be buying these wines any time soon. Overall a magical evening.

Wednesday took us to the Medoc and a tasting of 12 Cru Bourgeois at the splendid Ch Paveil de Luze followed by another very enjoyable lunch. This was hosted by Brinda Bourhis of the chateau and Francois Nony, Vice-President of the Crus Bourgeois du Medoc. Of all the tastings on the trip this gave us the best opportunity to compare in detail the differences between different appellations. There were two each from the Medoc, Haut-Medoc, Listrac, Moulis, Margaux and Saint-Estephe, and if it was unsurprising that for many people the Margaux wines stood out it reminded us that there are a range of good Bordeaux wines at less than stratospheric prices if you know where to find them.

In the afternoon we made a brief visit to St Julien  to Ch Gloria and tasted wines from there and Ch St Pierre, also owned by the Martin family. Orphée Amougou showed us wines which were young but full of promise and from my experience will be drinking really well in 5-10 years.

Bordeaux Food

Our final stop for the day was in Margaux at a chateau I knew by name but had little experience of. Ch Brane Cantenac was classified as a 2nd growth in the classification of 1855 and in recent years has been increasingly feted for its wines. This is in no small measure down to the owner Henri Lurton who greeted us and came across as a serious but warm man with a talent for getting the best out of both his estate and his team running it. It was a pleasure to meet him and for me exciting to talk to a member of one of the most famous families in Bordeaux. The contrast in terroir between the vineyards here – all stone covered bare ground and the grass covered areas we’d seen in St Emilion was particularly noticeable. Again we tasted cask samples of the 2015 vintage of the first wine and the second (Baron de Brane), which both seemed very promising and worth looking out for, and lovely mature examples of the wines with yet another beautiful meal.

The evening was slightly extended as the French police had in their wisdom decided to close most of the roads back into Bordeaux to allow a football crowd to disperse (and we thought we’d left England to avoid this!) but with skill from our excellent driver we finally made it.

Our fourth and final day of visits was to Pessac-Leognan and to two contrasting but both in their own ways very impressive chateaux. First up was the unassuming Ch Brown where we were met by Agatha Delanghe and her team who clearly demonstrated their enthusiasm and determination to produce the best wine they could. At the tasting the red wine showed well but for many it was the high quality white (for which the chateau is famous) and, perhaps most surprisingly, the ethereal but serious cabernet sauvignon/merlot based rose produced in very small quantities, which really stood out – certainly one of the best pink wines I’ve tasted. I think the ladies at the chateau were rather overwhelmed (and hopefully gratified) by the large quantities of wine the party purchased after the tasting.

Bordeaux Food

So to our final call at Domaine de Chevalier which I must admit is a long term favourite of mine, even if I don’t drink it as often as I’d like to! It always seems to me to have an austere elegance missing in many so-called more “modern” styles. However as was demonstrated by our host – long time General Manager Remi Edange – there is nothing old-fashioned about the chateau’s approach to wine making. Indeed we probably saw more innovation here than in any other site we visited from the high tech concrete vessels (I didn’t know high tech concrete existed) to the experimental 10ft high wooden egg which I think they are still trying to find the best use for. Remi’s ebullience and humour made him a very entertaining host and again we were shown us how good the 2015 vintage with cask samples of both red and the justifiably renowned white. The excellent lunch that followed also showcased a wonderful range of mature wines finishing with a special sauterne Ch Guiraud 1996, co-owned by the Bernard family, owners of Dom de C. (Coincidentally we had also been served Ch Guiraud earlier in the trip at Ch Canon la Gaffeliere, as the von Neipperg family are the other co-owners).

Bordeaux trip
Bordeaux Cheese

That was the conclusion of the formal part of a really splendid trip and I must thank all our hosts and everyone involved in the organisation, but especially David Chapman whose efforts in arranging the itinerary and rounding us up when we went walkabouts were immense. I’ve found it interesting since returning to read the reviews of the 2015 wines available en primeur and the ones we visited are up with the very best – a further tribute to David’s skill in selection.

Finally many thanks to all who went on the trip for the pleasure of your company.