Friday, 20 January 2012

The Northern Médoc

It feels like I‘ve been travelling to another wine region. After today’s 350km drive, one may think I have been travelling to either the Midi or south to Spain, but in fact I never left Bordeaux! Yesterday I was in the eastern limit of Bordeaux at Sainte-Foy and today the extreme north-west, described beautifully by Hugh Jonson: “The Médoc is a great tongue of flat or barely undulating land isolated from the body of Aquitaine”.

The Médoc vine-growing area is more like a serpent’s tongue and today I was lingering on the tip of the left fork. The Médoc is actually one of the most recent wine-growing areas of Bordeaux – a mere 500 years, compared to St.Emilion’s 2000. So more modern it should be then? Mais non! Life seems to have stood still once you veer north-east from the famous areas of St.Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe.

This area used to be called the Bas-Médoc. Although the ‘bas’ has since been dropped, I am sure no one in the ‘Bas-Médoc’ has even noticed. This morning, however, wasn’t particularly pleasant: a -3°C air temperature (8°C colder than Castillon), dark, very foggy, humid and windy, but the weather can change rapidly. I kind of like this place where time stands still; it reminds me of island life. I was brought up on an island so maybe that’s why?!

The road up from Blanquefort is long, straight and uneventful (unless you like being surprised out of the fog by random glowing supermarkets). Eventually the sun came up and when I came to the first possible tiny turning in 60km’s the sat nav lost connection, nice.

I was here to pick up our Grand Chai Médoc, to transport safely to the bottling plant back in Rauzan, a village next to Castillon. The wine was at Frederique Cruchon’s place in Gaillan-Médoc. I never saw Gaillan and arrived suddenly in little Queyrac where the church glowed beautifully through the rising estuary mist.

I can never find his place so I asked for directions in the tiny café. I was told to go towards Coudessan (only one road there and 2kms away) where I would easily find Frederic. 35 minutes later I was found by a man called Frederic who was looking for a Laithwaites winemaker! After much discussion we at last agreed and went on to his little château.

Hidden is not really the word (I would never find it alone again) but a gem it is. Chickens, geese, cows and every piece of the last 130 year’s vineyard machinery history scattered in the doorways of old collapsing barns.

Frederic divides his winemaking with a successful logging and vineyard post business. After much inquisitive questioning he reluctantly told me he actually owned three châteaux, one being his grandfather’s Cru Bourgeois Château Chantemerle, at which point he asked if I had had breakfast. And so a plate of walnuts, a pile of salt and a glass of Médoc appeared and we dined, competitively cracking the shells (I with a stone and Frederic with is hand).

Frederic is an energetic and passionate fellow along with being a very good winemaker too … although his accent was what I can only describe as the Geordie equivalent accent of France and proved very difficult to understand. I can only imagine what its like after a Médoc lunch!

But he was ranting on interestingly about climate change. He has seen huge changes in the last 15 years and that lack of rain is the main cause. He explained (with the accent and a mouthful of walnuts) that you need rain in November and December. With no significant rainfall in either month or since, he predicts yields will be low this year. He is adamant that even if rain arrives late winter it will help, but will be too late. He also mentioned that in ‘97 he struggled to get 10% alcohol in his wines, but in 2011 the cabernet reached 15% easily: something never seen before and all due to the lack of water at the right time.

After the wine was safely loaded into the tanker I headed into the vineyards for a look at the pruning. This time of year is nice as the different soils can be easily spotted. Now, in broad daylight, with the Atlantic Sea and Gironde Estuary winds having blown clear the fog, it’s easy to see how the area got its name from the Latin "in medio aquæ", meaning "in the middle of the water". It is almost an island.

Here, the sandy soil vineyards separated by tiny streams are perfect for the Cabernet Sauvignon that thrives in good free draining soils. Sandy soils, like gravel, hold far less water than clay and so the smaller-berried Cabernet vines give a concentrated and dense fruit character.

So next time you are actually in the Médoc or eying the wine shelves in a shop try to go past Margaux, say au revoir to St.Julien, give a wave to Pauillac, ignore St.Estèphe and try some wines from the northern Médoc!


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