Friday, 30 April 2010

It was very early and I was already arguing in French with various people who only say “non c’est pas possible” over the exact size of the tanker

However after some diplomatic work it suddenly now became “tout c’est possible”!

This is expensive stuff and it must be perfectly loaded with no air, I haven't been this nervous since loading our Grace de Hermitage last year! But this is double pressure as next to load is one of the most sought after whites in the world – Condrieu made from the Viognier grape.

As soon as all was loaded and paperwork filled out it was time to head back to Bordeaux. Fingers crossed that the truck makes it safely, imagine if there was a crash! I think I should be able to drive the Chai car in front of the truck with the 'convoi exceptional’ rights!

Finally the wine is in the safe hands of Chai and I can relax. I am looking forward to trying a sample of the wines tonight with some good food!


Thursday, 29 April 2010

I finally left Castillon after the second day of the Grand Chai Bordeaux bottling was underway for the long but beautiful 6 hour drive across France

My destination: Tain l’Hermitage in the northern Rhone Valley.

Today I was on my way to the Rhone Valley to collect our new Chai Condrieu and Chai Côte Rôtie and bring them both safely to the Chai.

I started by firstly crossing diagonally through the Dordogne to join the A89 which takes you straight across the country and passing through the Limousin oak forests, Auvergne, Allier oak forests, skimming Clermont Ferrand and St. Etienne before turning south at Lyon and crossing the Rhone river before and down towards Valence, turning off at the village of Tain l'Hernitage and stopping in Tournon-Sur-Rhone. My accommodation for tonight is the old 'Le Chateau Hotel' opposite the infamous hill of Hermitage.

The weather was still a balmy 25 degrees at 8pm and during a walk down the Rhone riverside I suddenly stumbled across a sign pointing to the hidden 'Autrement' restaurant where a glass of cold white Crozes Hermitage and a beetroot and raspberry mise en bouche, aided by some classic Dire straits on in the background, was very welcome indeed!

Starter was a cocktail glass of frog’s thighs, carrot puree, topped with a garlic and parsley mousse and main was a superb onglet of veal (although chips were substandard and in dire need of a Castillon 'le Voyageur' lesson!) matched with one of my all time favourite wines made by Mathilde and Yves Gangloff's, their sublime, elegant and powerful 2006 'La Barbarine' Cote Rotie – nothing short of sheer brilliance in vine growing and winemaking. I just can't wait to get our Cote Rotie to the Chai (it’s too good to be true!). One of the best we've done, believe you me!

It is truly amazing how a glass of fine Rhone (or any good wine for that matter) can catapult you into such an incredible emotion and feeling, albeit more expensive but my advice is don't miss out on this experience, ever!


Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Mini Grand Chai Bordeaux 2008

The bottling of the new 2008 Grand Chai Bordeaux got underway early this morning and we started off with some cute little half bottles.

Once everything was running smoothly it was back to the Chai to meet the welders who are now finishing the catwalks that enables us to access and work safely high up on the vat tops. Franck is quite an artist and has made lovely curved railings that fit lovely in with the rounded vats.

We are also racking the 2009 La Voute Chardonnay from Limoux at the Chai today. This is the first time it has been moved from barrel since way back last September. It’s so satisfying to at last taste all the individual barrels finally blended together. The wine has been quietly waiting and as soon as there is some movement, the Chai fills with an incredible aroma of tropical fruits!

The weather has been quite extraordinary today with 30 degree heat here in Castillon! The vines are lapping it up and the shoots are motoring upwards.

Quite a journey ahead tomorrow as I have a long drive right across central France to the northern part of the Rhône Valley to load our Chai Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu and transport it to the Chai!


Monday, 26 April 2010

A great weekend!

On Friday we had a visit from our first non-human Chai Keyholder, Dino the Parrot! He met everybody and then had a full tour of the Chai and seemed very impressed with the new Chai building renovations; apparently his favourite tipple is Laithwaite Sauvignon!

The sun shone all weekend and we certainly made the most of the weather and barbequed every day. On Sunday we had a picnic next to the old church of Pujols which looks out over the entire Entre-Deux-Mers wine region. The great new XV du President 2008 went beautifully with the top notch chipolatas from the butcher in Castillon.

The buds are now small shoots here in Bordeaux. To give everyone an idea of just how fast the vines grow, we have chosen a Merlot vine at our own Chateau La Clariere which I will be following throughout the growing period up until harvest – so watch this space for my ‘VINE WATCH’!


Friday, 23 April 2010

Back Home!

Well we are finally home after trains, boats and hire cars! The trip was rather an adventure starting with the overnight ferry journey where places were few and far between. Most people were sleeping on chairs but as we went down to level -6 deep into the boat, we found that good old Libby and done the impossible and booked not one but unbelievably two cabins!

So after a very comfortable crossing indeed we hit the mayhem of the St. Malo ferry terminal – no hire cars, no taxis, no information and huge queues. We suddenly began to think that the nightmare was about to start but luckily we immediately bumped straight into an AVIS hire car lady on her way back to the main depot (a couple of miles from the ferry terminal) to sort out more hire cars and she said ‘hop in I’ll take you directly there on my way’. We got straight in the car and 10 minutes later we had an upgraded hire car and were on our way back to Bordeaux, leaving the chaos behind – you see French service is not that bad!

On arriving back in Castillon the colour of the landscape had changed dramatically whilst we were away as the long awaited Budburst had at last taken place.

The bright lime green leaves of the fresh fragile buds always seems to be the perfect signal to the skies, asking them to warm up significantly, produce rain and create the ideal humid conditions for mildew to attack the defenceless buds! So it was very busy in the vineyards with all the growers frantically spraying light doses of sulphur to keep the mildew at bay.

The rush to get back was because this morning I had to be in the northern Bordeaux appellation of Côtes de Blaye for 7am to load the first third of our 2008 Grand Chai red Bordeaux at Chateau Rolland La Garde. The wines from here are elegant and structured with oak and a very important part of the final blend.

Once all was safely loaded, it was a race against the clock to get to Chateau Feret Lambert in the Entre-Deux-Mers to load the fruit driven and soft tannin second third of the blend – and then beat the first truck to the bottling plant in Rauzan for the unloading!

Certainly no French lunch today as I was straight on my way to the big powerful dark fruit of the final third at Chateau Roc Pellebouc.

The ever energetic owner and winemaker Ludovic was in fine form and full of jokes and tales whilst we slowly filled the tanker. Finally I made it back to the bottling plant to see the blend finished, quite a days work! The three wines have complemented each other superbly and this is a lovely little classic claret which I certainly will be investing in.


Saturday, 17 April 2010

A few tired faces this morning but everyone in fine form for another day of madness

No medals today but good old Bill Calabria came up trumps with his fantastic range of wines from his Westend Estate to win some medals to add to his tally!

Libby, JMS, Tony, Amye, Yves, Anne and I all headed straight for the excellent little Italian on Petty France Street for lunch where we had some superb fresh pasta and a glass of crisp Verdicchio before getting back for the evening session. Although very tired, Libby and I still had lots of energy as tonight we were off to Marco Pierre White’s restaurant in The Kings Road with my parents.

The restaurant was excellent and I started with roasted pork belly and honey matched very well with a Sicilian wine made from the local Fiano grape. For main, mum and I had the superb calves liver dish and Libby and dad the succulent chicken, all perfectly matched with a 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine Chante Cigale.

With satisfied stomachs we made our way back to the hotel for a good nights sleep as we were sure of a bit of an adventure tomorrow getting back to Bordeaux as our flights had been cancelled due to the ongoing volcanic ash!


Friday, 16 April 2010

I started the morning off with my first English breakfast in 4 months

Sausages, eggs, bacon, fried bread, black pudding – the whole works. Can’t get that in France either! The full English breakfast was a good move because today is the first day of the manic annual Sunday Times Vintage Festival. Firstly though, Libby and I hopped into a black cab and went shopping for a few nibbles to accompany our wines.

First stop was the famous boulangerie ‘Poilane’ in Victoria and then to Neal’s Yard cheese shop for a small piece of 3 year old Parmesan (16.7kg to be exact!). After a bit of a delay due to three grown men (cheese chisels and hammers in hand) grappling with a huge round of Parmesan in order to quarter it up for me, we finally headed back and just in time for the opening of the show!

The festival was missing a few producers who were unable to make the show due to the volcanic ash. It was still a great day and I proudly even managed to pick up not one but two Wine of the Show Silver medals for my Chai Font del Bosc Maury with which I matched some superb dark chocolate from Ecuador made by the Rabot Estate! I accidentally found this great shop in Borough Market only yesterday and as soon as I tried some of the chocolate on offer all I could think of was how well this would go with my Maury, so I went back this morning to buy some!

The wine grower dinner afterwards was brilliant and kicked off with some lovely Oriol Cava rosé. We sat amongst the other winemakers where we could discuss and taste their wines in a relaxed environment, the Felton Road New Zealand Pinot Noir and the Giant Steps Chardonnay shone for me on the night.


Tuesday, 13 April 2010

A great weekend!

The weather was incredible all weekend and perfect for the large annual antiques fair in the lovely village of Rauzan, situated just across the Dordogne river in Laithwaite Sauvignon Blanc territory. After a good few hours walking around the stalls at the fair we headed back for a light lunch of Cap Ferret oysters.

A light lunch because tonight Libby and I were booked into the La Poudette restaurant in the nearby village of Pujols. It’s a great restaurant run by husband and wife team Sophie and Frederic; the restaurant itself is a beautiful old house set in stunning gardens. I had a spring pea soup followed by veal whilst Libby opted for the foie gras salad and monk fish for main.

The wine menu is littered with local wines just waiting to be discovered and the 2005 Chateau du Bloy red from Montravel (famed for its dry whites) was a real find! So if you are in the Castillon area I truly recommend booking a table here.

This morning however started as last week left off with yet another official from the tank calibration finding more modifications to be made! I had to make a few calls and Franck from the vat builders was soon back on site welding on new ladder supports (that you can’t use unless your actually thinner than the ladder itself?!) and other various bits and bobs.

Finally a van arrived with the obligatory grumpy Monday Frenchman and various complicated pumps and flow meter machines began to fill the cellar to start the actual physical process of the calibration.

Only another 3 days of this to go…


Monday, 12 April 2010

Well what a week that was!

I arrived to a pre-volcanic ash London last Wednesday in time for the world renowned International Wine Challenge where I have been invited to be a wine judge along with other wine professionals.

The tasting started at 9am. in the Barbican in central London, on arrival I was given the usual name badge, pen, clipboard and bumf before being introduced to the 5 person team that I would be working with for the day. The wines are all tasted blind but in loosely categorized flights of a varying number of bottles. Behind the scenes it is impressively organised and a team of people or runners effortlessly deliver the endless rows of numbered bottles in the hall to the tasting room!

Once in position, everybody in the team tastes the wines and makes notes awarding levels of acceptance and if the wine merits one, a medal. Any faulty bottles were immediately replaced on request for re-tasting and when we had all tasted, each bottle was discussed until a final conclusion was drawn with the help of an appointed experienced team leader.

Once one flight had finished we turned to the table behind and the next flight was laid out ready with bottles in order, clean glasses and new tasting sheets. During the next flight, our previous table was cleaned and set up for our next tasting.

We alternated between these two tables from 9am to 6pm, stopping only for a quick lunch. We tasted hundreds of wines and it was a very interesting experience indeed – meeting and making contacts with all walks of life from the wine trade. My personal highlights were the dry reds from Portugal and the beautiful fruit on the 2009 Côtes du Rhône reds.

After we finished I couldn’t resist hopping on the tube to have my first look at our new wine store in Vinopolis. The shop is just incredible and the lighting, huge tasting table and of course the fantastic range of wines on offer easily allowed me to muster the energy to taste a few more wines!

In the evening I met up with my friends Ben and Karen who have been living in South America for the past few years for some lovely refreshing real ales in the Brew Wharf micro brewery in Borough Market – can’t get those in France!


Friday, 9 April 2010

End of a Busy Week

A beautiful scene this morning lifted everyone’s spirits after a rather chaotic week and simply seeing the sunrise on the Dordogne in front of the Chai certainly makes all the hard work worth while!

Today the second half of the 2008 Grand Chai Medoc was finally bottled. 2008 in the Medoc was a lovely vintage and resulted in very fruit driven wines with soft tannins and although a majority of Cabernet Sauvignon and usually a wine to give some time in bottle I believe this wine is drinking superbly now and certainly one to enjoy whilst still young.

Like a chefs kitchen the winery has been cleaned down spotlessly and all the equipment put back into their rightful places at the end of today ready to start again first thing on Monday. The weather is sure to be lovely this weekend so we can all enjoy a good rest, ‘bon weekend tout le monde’!

A Little Bit of Vat Juggling!

With the Chai now empty and only remaining so for a very short period of time we have to work fast! The first and most important thing to do is the vat calibration. The calibration is required by law so as to determine the exact (to the millilitre) volume of the vats, this is very helpful when blending but is actually designed to stop wineries hiding extra taxable wine in the cellar. The vats, once calibrated and certificated with a special stainless steel engraved plate welded to its side are then also welded to floor and each foot bound with an official unbreakable seal. Sounds simple? Well...

Over the last couple of months I have been orchestrating all the necessary tradesman and officials required to do the job to arrive at the same time. This morning was a good turn out by French standards with only one person absent! Franck from the stainless steel vat manufacturer was in his usual fine jolly form and quickly organising his 3 man team to move the huge vat into its final resting place before being fixed permanently to the floor. Not quite as easy as it sounds, as there is also the small matter of a large catwalk and safety rails welded on top of all vats and at the same time I was busy moving wine around so the tanks were empty!

The electrician was on hand to move the delicate thermometers, temperature control computers and lighting, the cooling system expert was on hand to drain the cooling belts, re-align, cut and weld the cooling circuit, the legal official wearing a suit and constantly flicking through a very large document from the calibration authority with his endless knit-picking and bellowing out of ridiculous rules and regulations was just annoying everyone!

After a long day of modifying, moving, welding and levelling the vats are in the right place and the man in the suit is happy that the calibration of the vats can go ahead next Monday. Lets hope they don’t create any more regulations between now and next Monday!

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Easter Weekend

It was a very busy Easter weekend indeed, Libby’s parents Jane and Dave arrived on Good Friday for their first visit to the Bordeaux region, and of course Libby and I introduced them not only to the area but the local cuisine too!

We began the gastronomic weekend by barbequing duck hearts on the Friday evening, a visit to St.Emilion on the Saturday and as Henry and Kaye were also in town we fired up the bread oven to roast the Easter Lamb in the evening!

The Sunday we decided to eat at the Comptoir wine bar in St.Genes where we had a lovely meal and shared a stunning bottle of Chateau d’Aghuilhe 2004.

The Fair was in town on Monday and the sunny warm weather made a great morning wandering through the weekly food market in the heart of the Castillon-La-Bataille. Libby’s selected a perfect wild rabbit for lunch and some extraordinary (but not cheap!) cheeses.

I would like to say a big thanks to Jane and David for making it a great weekend and a ‘bon continuation’ for the rest of their holiday and travel back towards the UK!

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

President XV 2008

I travelled down to Narbonne from Bordeaux late last night in order to be up and ready for today’s early bottling of 2008 President XV in the small village of Sallèles d’Aude, just north of Narbonne.

The aromas of the ‘garrigue’ which is a word used to describe the wild scrubland of the Pyrenees foothills, have been perfectly preserved in the 2008 XV. The aromas of rosemary, thyme, lavender and fennel that make up the ‘garrigue’ transports you straight to the wild Roussillon!

Once the bottling is under way I am back in the car and hurtling back towards Toulouse to pick up JMS from the airport. For once JMS is on time and ready and waiting on the roundabout of the airport entrance, he hopped straight in almost if I had never stopped! And we were off to Bordeaux to check the bottling of the 2009 Laithwaite Sauvignon. The afternoon was a tour around the Cotes du Castillon appellation revisiting, tasting checking our wines which are almost ready to bring to the Chai.

After another busy day and feeling like I should have written the Johnny Cash song ‘All I do is drive, drive, drive’ we finally sat down to dinner and what better than a little food and wine matching to finish a great day! Tonight I prepared spicy whole red mullet to go with the bold and fragrant 2008 XV - an interesting match that worked very well indeed!


Thursday, 1 April 2010

As many of you will have heard, this week is the much talked about 2009 en Primeur here in Bordeaux

This yearly event when 6000 wine professionals descend on the wine region of Bordeaux (also my home!) to have the first glimpse of the new vintage. The object is for the experts and buyers to taste the raw wines and, if they are confident enough with their tasting skills, to put their money where their palate is and buy now at a special ‘primeur’ price before the wines are actually in bottle.

This is a very difficult skill to master as the taster must be able to see into the future and predict if the wines will hold up, improve or decline in quality thus affecting the value and selling potential of the wine. For us winemakers, this is a skill that we learn very early on but is extremely difficult if you have never tasted unfinished wines before.

The weather was atrocious this morning. It’s the English who normally get the blame, as they always make up the vast majority of the buyers, but this year I think the Chinese will have to take the blame!

My first stop today was at the fabulous hotel, spa and winemaking St Emilion Grand Cru Classé Château Grand Barrail, situated opposite the infamous Chateau Figeac. The huge posh white marquees spread across the chateau grounds were visible as soon as we passed through the village of St Emilion and after some very dubious JMS parking we found ourselves in the security controlled entrance tent.

In order to be allowed through we had to show a business card, answer a stream questions, fill out forms, input data into a computer, print badges and then the impossible task of attaching it to your rain coat before finally being given the option of taking one of the varied sized Riedel crystal glasses and ushered into the tasting area; this is definitely not the Midi as all I wanted to do was to get on and taste the wine!

Once inside there were big round white tables spread around the gigantic marquee. Every table had 4-6 wines available to taste and each with a representative of the Château to explain the wine. We moved slowly round the 150 or so wines, being stalled by knowing most of the people so well that we spoke mainly about how they were rather than the wine!

Once we had said hello to what felt like the entire winemaking population of St Emilion, Pomerol and Entre-Deux-Mers, we finally managed to head into the heart of St Emilion for my favourite kind of tasting in the old church theatre.

It is here where the wines are laid out in long lines in a professional and quiet environment so you can serve yourself and taste in your own time…or so I thought! After the very first wine I looked up and my friend Jose from Remond barrel makers was there. Then it was a slap on the back from Carl from Chateau Mangot! Anyway we tasted through a hundred wines together and I can safely say 2009 really is an incredible vintage.

A quick lunch and we then headed for the tasting at the prestigious Château Beausejour Becot where we tasted through the crème de la crème of the St Emillon chateau wines. With black stained teeth we eventually left for home to get changed, ready for a dinner invitation in the centre of Bordeaux with some visiting English and French buyers.