Find and book great restaurantsFind a Restaurant
What better time to visit Bordeaux than for the annual en primeur tastings? Hamish Anderson climbs into the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class 350 CDI Saloon Sport and heads for the châteaux of St-Emilion and Pomerol
Late spring means one thing for wine lovers: the annual release of Bordeaux’s wines. The wines are released en primeur (before being bottled) and this is the opportunity to secure allocations of your favourite wines at, in theory, bargain prices. 2008 was an intriguing vintage. Early reports suggested it was a mediocre one and, with the poor exchange rate and economic crisis, it looked as if enthusiasm for the wines would be lukewarm. But the critics loved them, the châteaux cut prices drastically and sales seemed healthy. As the wines were not yet in bottle the only way to try them was in situ, so a visit to the region beckoned.
I have been visiting Bordeaux city for 15 years and the changes in that time have been dramatic. Serious amounts of effort and money have helped transform its fabric. This effort has been recognised, with UNESCO awarding the city World Heritage status in 2007. I stayed at the Regent Grand Hotel a couple of hundred yards from the Garonne River. Like all the buildings along the river promenade the hotel has recently been refurbished, both inside and out, and behind its sparkling 18th-century façade, the spaces feel suitably sumptuous.
You cannot escape wine in the city and it would be foolish not to spend time exploring some of the world’s most hallowed vineyards that are nearby. Bordeaux is a large region, so it’s best to focus on one area. I chose St-Emilion and Pomerol, the two most famous appellations on the Right Bank (ie the right bank of the river Dordogne and Garonne estuary as you look out to sea). The famous Bordeaux classification of 1855 rated the top châteaux of the day from one to five, based on the market price the wines were fetching at the time. All bar one estate was in the Médoc, on the Left Bank; St-Emilion and Pomerol were ignored. Today, however, the rarest and usually most expensive wines come from these two regions. St-Emilion and Pomerol are known for their cutting-edge approach and winemakers who are not afraid to challenge the norm.
St-Emilion and Pomerol are next door to each other and share a similar use of grape varieties: Merlot, generally supported by Cabernet Franc. But they are also very different. Pomerol tends to produce more structured, long-lived wines, and is tiny compared to its neighbour (around 740 hectares compared to St-Emilion’s 5,400ha). Pomerol has no classification system, relying on the market to give an indication of quality. St-Emilion reviews its classification system every 20 years, with estates promoted or demoted depending on their track record.
Both regions have a number of small, quality-conscious estates whose allocations are fought over; châteaux such as Pétrus and Cheval Blanc have a long history of excellence. But more intriguing is a new breed of winemaker fashioning tiny cuvées of rare, often controversial wines. They are known as ‘garagistes’, because initially many vinified tiny parcels in their garages. While production is slight in terms of volume, their influence has been felt throughout the region. The wines are made from very ripe grapes, with plenty of oak influence from new barrels. American critic Robert Parker raved about the initial results and the market clamoured for the wines, which started to fetch previously unheard-of prices. This caught the eye of some of the bigger estates, which then started to mimic the opulent style. Traditionalists argue that the region’s terroir is being betrayed, claiming the new styles of wine are bland, homogenous and could come from anywhere. Modernists counter that they are just trying to make the best possible wine. Either way, the debate has shaken up a previously traditional area.
All this makes for a fascinating wine tour. The journey to the vineyards couldn’t be simpler: head out over the Garonne on the N89, and 20 minutes later you will cross the Dordogne and enter St-Emilion. Guidebooks extol the virtues of this picturesque town, with its castle, subterranean church and pretty squares. However, it is overrun with tourists and by mid-morning it’s hard to avoid the coach parties touring the narrow, cobbled streets. Far better to arrive in time for an early morning coffee with the locals, take in the sombre, haunting surroundings of the Eglise Monolithe in peace, then head to the vineyards as the coaches arrive.
‘At Cheval Blanc, Cabernet Franc is elevated from support act to star of the show’
Driving around in the comfortable E-Class was a real pleasure and the best way to see the area. The first thing I noticed is how modest many of the buildings are. Pétrus is the most famous estate in Pomerol, so I made a beeline for it, but blink and you could easily drive straight past. I was also keen to track down the pioneer of the ‘garagistes’, a small estate in Pomerol called Le Pin. Parker’s review of the 1982 vintage catapulted it to superstardom. A bottle today will set you back a minimum of £500, three times that for a great vintage, and only around 600 cases are made each year. After a few wrong turns I smoothly eased the E-Class down a dirt track towards a small, derelict-looking house; I had arrived at one of the world’s most revered estates.
But the day’s real highlight was a tasting at Cheval Blanc, for many years one of the foremost properties in St-Emilion. The vineyards border Pomerol, indeed there is no discernable boundary between the estate’s vines and those of Pomerol’s Château L’Evangile. Cabernet Franc is elevated here from support act to star of the show, usually making up over 50% of the final blend. The wines are the epitome of fine St-Emilion, perfumed, mineral and complex. They make only two commercially available wines, Cheval Blanc and Le Petit Cheval, and I tasted both from 2008. The aroma of blackberries, mocha and spices lingered with me on the 30-minute journey back to the hotel. A fitting way to round off my tour of an area that is an enticing blend of tradition and progress.
‘A bottle of Le Pin today will set you back a minimum of £500, three times that for a great vintage’
Place du Clocher,
Doubles from 350
Owned by the St-Emilion winemaker Gérard Perse, the hotel is in a dramatic location in the centre of the village. Its two-Michelin-star restaurant
is an added bonus.
2-5 Place de la Comédie, 33000 Bordeaux;
Doubles from 400
Offers a slice of old-school, 18th-century grandeur right
in the heart of the city.
54 Quai de Bacalan,
Doubles from 189
An ambitious building in the recently developed quay area. As impressive inside as out, it boasts funky rooms and designer touches.
2-5 Place de la Comédie, 33000 Bordeaux
Run by the The Regent Grand Hotel, this place was buzzing with locals the night I dined. Sit outside to enjoy the beautiful square and indulge in impeccably prepared classics, such as sole meunière.
11 Rue du Clocher, St-Emilion
Popular with winemakers, this restaurant-cum-wine bar is a great place for a reviving glass or a plate of thoughtfully cooked local produce.
6 Rue Porte de la Monnaie, 33800 Bordeaux;
A Bordeaux institution, serving classic food from the south-west. Expect lots of meat (try beef from the local Bazas cows), few vegetables and don’t miss the frites cooked in a cauldron of duck fat over the open fire.
The wine had not been released when I was in Bordeaux so the price has yet to be set. It was gorgeous: silky tannins, waves of ripe fruit and spices, and the oak was seamlessly integrated on the long finish.
£290 approx; www.bibendum-wine.co.uk
The first thing I did after leaving the estate was to ring a wine merchant and buy a case of this perfumed, elegant beauty. Very different in style, but on a par with, the 2005 yet at under half its price.
£50 approx; www.winesearcher.com
‘From the moment you get into the new E-Class you realise no detail has been overlooked. It is superbly finished, with leather seats and steering wheel, while the new design gives a substantial, sporty feel to the car. The optional AirMATIC suspension provides one of the smoothest rides I have experienced.’
‘Everything Mercedes-Benz knows about cars has been poured into this all-new E-Class to make it as efficient, comfortable, safe and cosseting as it can be. It is a superb car – the most aerodynamically slippery saloon in the world, supremely quiet and smooth, and the six-cylinder common rail diesel is the best engine in the range. It’s torquey and powerful enough to blast from 0 to 60mph in 6.9 seconds, yet will still return 40.9mpg on the combined cycle. Amazing.’
BHP: 231 @ 3800 rpm
0-62mph: 6.9 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
On-the-road price: from £35,970