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It's not wIthout reason that Bordeaux has gaIned Its reputatIon as the world's greatest fIne wIne regIon, as Nick Tarayan dIscovered on hIs latest tour BehInd the wheel of a mercedes-Benz CLK 280
There is a singular excitement that one feels when setting off on a long car journey - it's that kid-onChristmas-Eve feeling. My Mercedes-Benz wine tour always gets me going like that: there's so much anticipation in planning the trip, getting the luggage sorted and so on. Even organising the travel sweets, putting the sunglasses in their case and placing both in that useful little box under the central armrest adds to the thrill, as does getting the loose-change euros left over from the last trip ready for the first péage.
This trip was no exception. The new CLK 280 had been delivered a couple of days earlier and the excitement of taking it on the long run down into south-west France had been mounting. It was 6am as we swept through the quiet London streets heading for Folkestone, where the Eurotunnel train would whisk us to Calais for the start of our tour.
We were heading for one of the most fabled, most expensive areas of land in the world, one which boasts some of the most famous, majestic and desirable homes anywhere. It's Beverly Hills with grapes. It's Monte Carlo with space and beauty. It's the most celebrated wine region in the world: Bordeaux.
We were making a beeline for a commune boasting some of the most famous châteaux of all: Pauillac, home of three of Bordeaux's first growths: Château Latour and the two Rothschilds (Lafite and Mouton-Rothschild), not to mention several gorgeous second growths, including Pichon Comtesse de Lalande and Pichon Baron (pictured bottom right).
After a full day's driving, we arrived at the pretty town of Pons, just under 100km north of Bordeaux. The town is also only 20km from Cognac and, therefore, provides a perfect stopping-off point for anyone who is also interested in spirits.
Dining in the garden of the Hotel de Bordeaux in Pons was the ideal end to our long day and was made even more pleasurable by the delightful hostess Madame Muller, who helpfully suggested an alternative route to Pauillac.
Instead of driving down to Bordeaux, as we planned, and then back up through the Médoc to Pauillac - altogether about 150km - we should drive the 40km to Royan, take the 30-minute ferry across the mouth of the River Gironde and drive down the Médoc instead, Madame Muller advised us. Apart from avoiding the often-dreadful traffic problems of the Bordeaux périphérique, this would give us the chance to sit on the sun deck, enjoy the Atlantic breeze and take the morning very gently. We took this advice and didn't regret it for one moment.
From the little port of Le Verdon we then took the road south through marshland and soon entered the lush, undulating countryside of St Estèphe, the northernmost of the classified wine villages. Suddenly, the rough beauty of the marsh gave way to a land of magnificent gates, long driveways and extraordinary turrets rising from the grandest of châteaux.
And soon afterwards, St Estèphe turned into Pauillac, and Château Lafite could be glimpsed through weeping willow trees, which border its western perimeter. There it stood, tall, proud and white, overlooking an immaculate vegetable garden and fast-flowing stream.
As we turned off the main road and drove up towards the château - the highest point in Pauillac - we enjoyed a breathtaking view of the wine outbuildings set amid 100 hectares (250 acres) of rolling vineyards. As we got out of the car and crunched over to the cellars, we thought how small they looked for such a landmark château. But, just as with everything here, this is the deliberate result of clever thinking; the cellars were created by Ricardo Bofill between 1986 and 1988 and were built into the hillside, so are partially hidden from view.
We were there to meet with Charles Chevalier (pictured top left), Château Lafite's winemaker, manager and a director of the Domaines de Barons de Rothschild, which include various other Bordeaux châteaux: Rieussec in Sauternes, Duhart-Milon in Pauillac and Evangile in Pomerol.
Since transferring from Château Rieussec in 1994, Chevalier has overseen the production of two vintages of Lafite given a rare 100-point score by the wine guru Robert Parker: the 1996 and 2000 vintages. (In fact, Lafite has enjoyed more 100-point scores than any other first growth château, earning five in total: the 1953, 1982 and 1986 being the other three.)
Chevalier is, therefore, a powerful man and a daunting person to meet for anyone who loves wine. But instead of the serious, rather grand character we had been expecting, Chevalier proved to be a charming, witty and elegant gentleman. Before even taking us inside the cellars, he was excited about seeing our car, giving it a big nod of approval (perhaps partly as the boot was clearly big enough for transporting a few bottles away with us).
As we then descended into the cellar through silent stone corridors, the heat of the afternoon sun behind us, Chevalier told us about the history of the château. Vineyards have apparently been planted here for around 1,000 years and, as far back as the 16th century, wines produced here won huge acclaim.
It was at the beginning of the 18th century, however, that things really took off. The Marquis de Ségur, who already owned Château Latour, bought Lafite in 1716 and his son, known as 'The Prince of Vines', added châteaux Calon-Ségur and Phelan-Ségur to his inheritance soon after.
In 1868, Lafite was bought by the Rothschild family, who have owned, extended and improved the property ever since. It is now in the hands of the fifth generation of Rothschilds, headed by Baron Eric de Rothschild.
As our conversation dwelt on history, it seemed to be unfolding right in front of us. The cool cloisters led us down to the original cellars, which house the library collection of wines dating back as far as 1797, and then we moved onward into the extraordinary, new Bofill cellar: 50 metres across, octagonal, with a circular storage area and an open 'work' area in the centre. Punctuated by octagonal columns, and lit in the centre by a shaft of light, this is where second-year barrels of the estate's wines finish their ageing, layered in huge concentric circles.
Charles Chevalier headed straight for some glasses, which were stood on a barrel, and invited us to taste a recent bottling, the 2001. Even after 30 years of slurping, sipping and being fascinated about wine, I still get a huge thrill from tasting it in the place in which it was made and in the company of the people responsible for fashioning the raw grapes into an extraordinary liquid.
It is difficult to explain what makes a first growth so special: it is a unique depth of flavour, not just weight of fruit, but layer upon layer of fruit, tannins and acidity. And, though it may sound clichéd, first-growth wine resounds with a sense of the place from which it has come - what the French term 'terroir'. Richness and opulence are there in spades and there is the sweet, cigar-box character, which is given off by the finest new oak barrels in which Lafite spends somewhere between 18 and 24 months, depending on the vintage.
The 2001 we tasted was, admittedly, still very young. It was quite closed to begin with, but we could sense it unfolding in the glass. The magical mix of luxuriously soft fruit and cashmere tannins combined with a mineral backbone giving a great fillip to the long, generous finish. It was real quality and tasting it in the cool of the Lafite cellars was a truly thrilling experience.
For wine lovers, this is a truly beautiful part of the world, as our trip confirmed. Moreover, as our Pauillac tasting proved, it's not without good reason that Bordeaux has earned the reputation of the most important fine wine region on the planet.
Cabernet Sauvignon (70 per cent of the grapes) has distinctive blackcurrant, tobacco and mint aromas and flavours. it tends to be high in tannins and, therefore, can give off a certain austerity - especially in its youth and in leaner years. The best cabernet Sauvignon gives structure and longevity to a wine.
Merlot (25 per cent of the grapes) is cabernet's sweetheart. Generally it is soft, round and supple. When ripe it can be quite mouthfilling and, when blended together, Merlot and cabernet complement each other adding softness and structure, respectively.
Cabernet Franc (3 per cent of the grapes) is the red grape of the western Loire (chinon, Saumur etc) but also plays a major blending role in Bordeaux. The grape adds acidity and aroma - and normally accounts for less than 15 per cent of the blend.
Petit Verdot (2 per cent of the grapes) has huge colour and tannins.
Imagine that you are standing in the middle of Bordeaux city centre.
Go north: you'll head up through the Haut-Médoc and Médoc passing towns, such as Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe on the way.
Go east: you'll cross the rivers Garonne and Dordogne and end up in St Emilion and Pomerol, the Merlot-rich areas of the right Bank.
Go south: along the Garonne and you'll pass Graves, Barsac and Sauternes on the atlantic side of the river and Premières côtes de Bordeaux on the opposite side.
Go west: you'll end up very damp in the atlantic and heading for America.
on the D2 1km south of Pauillac
Tel: 00 33 556 59 24 24
A relais & châteaux hotel and two-Michelin-starred restaurant owned by Jean-Michel cazes of château Lynch Bages. a wonderful place to stay while discovering Pauillac and the upper reaches of Bordeaux. From £120 per night. Menus from £40 at lunch and £64 at dinner.
Relais de Margaux,
chemin de l'ile Vincent
Tel: 00 33 557 88 38 30
In a 55-hectare park and surrounded by the famous vineyards of this village, only a short hop from Pauillac, is this gorgeous country house hotel, which boasts an orangerie-style restaurant and - needless to say - a pretty good wine list. rooms £118-£195. Menus £23-£50.
Pavillon de Margaux,
3 rue Georges Mandel
Tel: 00 33 557 88 77 54
A town house hotel with rooms decorated in vinous themes of the surrounding area. a good little restaurant looks out over vineyards and serves traditional dishes with a modern twist. rooms £54-£74. Menus £10 at lunch, £15-£28 dinner.
115 rue Georges Bonnac
Tel: 00 33 556 90 16 16
Probably the best place to stay if you want to be in central Bordeaux. comfortable and about as chic as Bordeaux city hotels get. £114-£175.
(also see where to stay above for restaurants in hotels)
15 Quai Leon Perrier
Tel: 00 33 556 59 24 87 Perfect for a quick, tasty, simple lunchtime bite. Two courses, coffee, a pitcher of wine came to £15 for two.
arcins, 6km north of Margaux on the D2
Tel: 00 33 556 58 96 79
A great little bistro that's always full of local winemakers and serves hearty, country food. Great value too. Bargain menu, including wine, £7.80, plus others from £16 to £27.
Bordeaux Le Chapon Fin,
5 rue Montesquieu
Tel: 00 33 556 79 10 10
A Bordeaux institution and now owned by the cazes family of Lynch Bages. Ornate turn-of-the-last-century dining room with food to match. £18 at lunch, £32-£51 at dinner.
Café de l'Esperance,
Tel: 00 33 556 20 52 16 a great little café-brasserie with a garden in the south-eastern suburbs on the way to the Premières côtes. Simple and cheap food and wine for a sunny day.
The Bordeaux Wine Bureau: 00 33 556 00 22 66
Bordeaux Tourist Office: 00 33 556 00 66 00
Eurotunnel: 0870 535 3535, www.eurotunnel.com
Engine: 2996cc, V6
0-62.5mph: 7.4 secs
Top speed: 155mph (electronically limited)
Nick Tarayan's verdict: This is a pure, luxury sports tourer. i tried out the back seats on one stretch of the journey and would have been quite happy travelling here throughout. it was a great motorway car but, amazingly, drove like a pram in town: effortless. Everything is solidly built and, with the sunroof open and all four windows down, it might as well be a convertible with a bit of shade!
Top Gear's Andy Wilman's verdict: See those pictures of cindy crawford on holiday in the riviera? Still looks a billion dollars even though she's now 278 in model years. and that, frankly, is the case with the cLk. it's a subtle and understated car that ages superbly, and now it's had a mid-life heart transplant with a new engine. Even though the car is called, bizarrely, a 280, the engine is a 3.0 litre V6 with 231bhp. What does that mean? That it's good enough to hit 60mph in seven seconds. impressive stuff.