Grape Hunting from Beaune to Bordeaux

Many Australians have a love affair with France and here grape hunter Wendy Brown, a longtime Francophile and author of : “A Lot to do about the Lot”, offers a wineologue of a recent tasting trip she and husband Damien made through French terroirs.

French wine from Bordeaux

Bordeaux wine – where the trip started  (Credit: Wikipedia)

(Republished with permission and thanks from her blog on the Grape Hunter.)

Bordeaux in July – the adventure begins

Plans are falling into place and we have some very special chateaux selected for tours. After spending the weekend at Bordeaux Wine Festival where we will be experiencing 1.5km long concourse of wine and food stalls, concerts and nightly fireworks, our group will be heading to Coutras for a week at a beautiful chateau on the River L’isle.

I have planned a very special day trip by ferry across the Gironde to theMedoc wine region for one of our days. Here we will visit Chateau Pichon-Longueville and Chateau Lynch-Bages in Paulliac, a region noted for its rich, dense and deep wines, over time developing bouquets and flavours of rich delicacy. After lunch at La Lavinal, we will head to Margaux where we will visit Chateau Prieure-Lichine where, as well as a tour, we will have a vertical tasting of several historically revealing vintages.


Day 1 Walking the Cote d’Or
We left Beaune early in the morning, eager for a hiking journey taking us through some of the most premium vineyards in the world. Lunch complete with pate campagne, cheese, fruit and a baguette were packed in the backpack, hiking boots were laced and sunscreen applied. Not a cloud in the sky and the promise of a hot day.

The first hill up out of Beaune was a killer and I was having second thoughts about this adventure within the first 15 minutes. But the view from the top was gorgeous and gave us a true idea of how vast the Coted’Or is. Apparently the name Coted’Or comes from the colour of the vines in autumn when you look across a sea of gold and it has been kept as an official department name.

We passed the morning walking through Savigny les Beaune, Pernand Vergelesses, Magny les Villers and Villers-la-Faye. Pretty little villages but surprisingly so quiet we couldn’t even find a café open. The vineyards are very busy at this time of year with lots of ploughing between the vines, trimming the vines and fertilizer spraying. People were dotted throughout the vines, some working by hand, some on machines. We even came across a lady ploughing with her draught horse pulling the hand plough.

At times the path took us away from the vineyards and into deep forest (bois) across the top of the mountains and onto another undulating slope of vineyards. Here it was wonderfully cool and we were happy to stop for lunch under a tree to share our baguette, cheese and pate. Unfortunately no wine though.

That afternoon we pushed onto to complete the 24kms to Nuits St George, our stop for the night. We were exhausted by the time we found our Gite and I had a slight moment of concern when our host told us there was “no room at the inn” so to speak. With some French on my part and very little English on his, he realized we hadn’t just wandered in off the street but was actually the booking from Australia. Thank goodness.

Entrecote, frites and a Bourgogne red finished a pretty rewarding day.

Day 2 – walking through the Biggies of Burgundy.
After an amazing sleep, we actually felt pretty good as we repeated the process and headed out for our second day of walking. Today was going to be easier – a simple 10km and we had 9 hours to get there. The chemin des grand crus winds through the vineyards for most of the way, past the legendary Romanee-Conti, a 1.8 hectare plot, producing only 5,000 bottles per year. Here don’t expect to see a sign announcing its presence. Just a simple granite carving tucked in the corner of the surrounding wall and an old stone cross marks this vineyard.

We wandered into Chateau of Clos de Vougeot, originally started by the Monks in the 12th century and past the Clos de Tart in Morey-Saint-Denis, a vineyard that has only changed hands 3 times since it was first planted in 1142.

Sign at the wall bordering Clos de Tart.

Sign at the wall bordering Clos de Tart. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Morey-Saint-Denis was our stop for lunch and we felt like a beer, so headed for the closest bar. Unknowingly we wandered into a routier well patronized by the local workers. As we arrived the hostess garbed in full length coat and pink Stetson was on the lookout for customers and waving cars into her carpark. She was easily in her 70’s, fully decked out in a striped bra over a revealing top and a miniskirt and high heels. We were shown to a table to share with luckily, an English couple who stop here whenever they are passing through and were happy to fill us in on the routine.

With still 4km to walk after lunch, we settled in for the 4 course lunch starting with an entrée buffet filled with terrines, pate, salads, smoked fish, lentils, marinated artichokes and eggs. Next came a gigot of lamb (read roast I think), jus and frites and a bottle of the local red wine – pulled from a tap at the bar. Then came the cheese course where we were offered a tray of about 10 cheeses for us to choose from. During this time, our hostess was running a raffle and giving away free t-shirts to the lucky winners, but unfortunately we didn’t get any tickets. Anyway we were too busy, eating our crème caramel and pear tart and polishing off the bottle of red wine. All for the princely sum of 12.90 euros each!

Back on the Chemin des Grand Crus, we didn’t get far before we needed a little rest and lying under the shade of tree in the corner of vineyard, I thought it doesn’t get much better than this.

As we marched onto Gevrey-Chambertin and our Hotel des Grand Crus, I was weary and sore but very glad to have achieved our goal. Tomorrow is another day and I think I have seen enough villages, vines and workers to have a true appreciation of the Coted’Or.

Damian doesn’t realize it yet, but tomorrow we are catching the train.


Wine tasting in beautiful Beaune
After a week in the French and Swiss Alps we have headed to Beaune in the heart of Burgundy. Beaune is a pretty town with the old town nestled inside ancient ramparts. We walked the winding cobble-stoned streets to get our bearings, noticing the wine tasting signs along the way. In comparison to the Medoc, in theCoted’Or wine tasting is encouraged by the Domaine owners and no reservations are needed.

We chose Marcheaux Vins where for the sum of 9 euros, we were each given a souvenir tasting cup and let loose in the cellars. The wines we were to taste were arranged on barrels spread through the caves, lit by candles and open for our tasting. Aussies let loose in a cellar with 12 wines on offer – we did have to hold ourselves back!  Signs along the way reminded us that we were entitled to only one glass of each, but hey, we couldn’t locate any concealed cameras in the ancient caveau. After 4 chardonnays, the only white grape grown in the Cote de Beaune, we moved onto the reds. Pinot Noir is the only red grape variety grown in the Coted’Or.

We were impressed by the Aloxe-Corton 2009 Chardonnay, the 2008  Puligny-Montrachet and the 2006 Hospices de Beaune Pinot Noir. We paid particular attention to the vineyards we were to be walking through over the next few days. Interestingly the grape varieties are not noted on the labels. I suppose because one is meant to know that they are the only varieties grown in the area.

We followed the self-guided tour back to the tasting room where we had all our questions answered by a man who just loved to share his knowledge of Bourgogne wines.

It was a lot of fun but ‘tres difficile’ to do more than one in the afternoon.


The Medoc Chateaux and the Bordeaux Reds
Cool morning for our drive to the ferry at Blaye, which was to take us across the Gironde to the Medoc region. We had a little time to spare before our first tasting so headed to Paulliac for a coffee and pastry. Chateau Pichon-Longueville, grand cru class, was our first stop and Thomas was to be our guide for the tour. The chateau was stunning but unfortunately no entry for visitors – having been in the Pichon-Longueville family for generations, it is now owned by AXA Assurance and the chateau is reserved for them.

The tour was very informative and we learned a lot about the modern processes of making the Medoc Cabernet Sauvignon generally blended with Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. We found the wines to be full bodied, drinking long, and being described as muscular. We thought it but were conscious of not saying it too loud – “now this tastes more like an Australian wine!”

From there we visited Chateau Lynch-Bages and here we learnt more about the historical processes of winemaking. After lunch at Le Lavinal in thevillage of Bages, we drove to Margaux for our final tasting at Chateau Priere-Lichine. Originally the Priory of Cantenac dating from the 11th century where the monks were renowned for their high quality wine. In 1951 it was bought by Alexis Lichine who invested a lot into bringing the chateau back to its original glory. We finished with a vertical tasting of Chateau Priere-Lichine 2009 and 1999.

The 1855 Classification System was explained to us and except for one reclassification in the 1970’s, the chateaux have remained in the same classifications and will never change. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson, who used the price and popularity of the wines in the Bordeaux restaurants as his guide, was commissioned to do the classification. Nowadays, some 2nd and 3rd growth chateaux are producing wines just as magnificent but they can never become 1st growth grand cru. Go figure! Editorial note: a spokesman for Château Prieure-Lichine adds (see comments)  that it was not Jefferson who was commissioned but rather the brokers … (hence this correction)

The Noble Rot of Chateau d’ Yquem
After spending an enjoyable morning, cycling through the St Emilion vineyards, out of the town past Chateau Ausone, onto the country roads cruising past Chateau Cheval Blanc, Chateau Petrus and Chateau Angelus, we gathered together in the village to load into the cars for the drive to Sauternes. It was an hour south of St Emilion and the home of Chateau d’ Yquem, where we were luckily enough to have a tour and possibly a tasting. Unfortunately for us, Chateau d Y’quem is so famous and so prestigious that we could not find one signpost or direction sign to lead us to this magical Sauterne.

Only 15 minutes late and feeling seriously underdressed compared to the rest of the tour group, the next hour and an half proved to be a highlight. We were given the history of Chateau d’ Yquem – how Comtesse d’ Yquem took over the running of the chateau at the age of 20 in 1785, how she escaped the guillotine in the French Revolution and continued to oversee the running of Chateau d’ Yquem well into her 80’s. Now owned by Louis Vuitton Hennessy, Chateau d’ Yquem continues to be the premiere sauterne today.

We learned the science of noble rot and how the Semillon grape is most suited. We were told of the intense work needed in picking the fruit at the correct stage. Sometimes taking up to 2 months to complete the vendageas the pickers select the noble rot from the grey and acid rot, their pick then checked by the wine technicians and pressing begins.

Château d'Yquem 1996

Château d’Yquem 1996 (Credit: mYquem)

After our tour we were led to the tasting room and were very happy to see a bottle of the golden nectar on the counter along with 20 glasses waiting to be filled. We may have only got a taste but it was truly memorable and at a price of $200 for a half bottle, something we will treasure for a long time. Interestingly they do not think 2012 is going to be a good year because so much depends on the climate – foggy mornings off the river with warm afternoons are what is needed – which France is not experiencing at the moment. In that case, they will not bottle a vintage, but plough the grapes back into the soil. Only perfection at Chateau d’ Yquem.

Tasting with the Bad Boy
Started the morning at Ets Thunevin, an interesting place and a more interesting story of the owner Jean-Luc. It is a beautiful morning and we started our tour with a walk through St Emilion village, guided by David as he let us in on the story of the “Bad Boy” Jean-Luc. Not from St Emilion, not from a winemaking family, not from a winemaking background, Jean-Luc actually came to St Emilion to open a gift shop.

Over time and the sharing of many excellent wines, he became good friends with the owner of Chateau Ausone, a premier grand cru chateau, who told Jean-Luc he had a very good nose and taste for wines. In 1989, he bought a parcel of .6 hectares in St Emilion and by 1992 he was ready to bottle his first vintage. Not having a vineyard winery, he set up the vats and barrels in his garage in town. The winemakers of St Emilion scoffed as they passed his garage, which made Jean-Luc think he needed to make an exclusive wine sold at high price.

The acceptance of Chateau Valandraud on the wine scene was a glowing review by Robert Parker who called him the bad boy of wine. Now producing 200,000 bottles of wine each year, Chateau Valandraud is a world wide success and 15,000 bottles are still produced annually from his garage.

BordeauxWine Fete
Just spent the weekend in Bordeaux at the wine fete. Stretched along the Garonne River front, the wine fete is a myriad of wine taste tents and food stalls celebrating the wine and food of the region. Medoc and Graves reds, St Emillion roses and reds and sauternes from south east of Bordeaux. With our booklet of vouchers, a personal tasting glass in its own special carrying case, we wandered from one end to the other tasting a selection of wines and tasting the local cuisine. Nothing beat the Archachon oysters freshly shucked while we waited with the taste of the sea strong on the palette.

When we needed a little respite, we could wander up into the city to a complete avenue of restaurants set up in the main square. With temporary restaurants set over an 800m stretch, every type of cuisine was available. The first night we settled into Le Haut Alpin specialising in beef. I had to try the Tartare de boeuf and was assured it was bio (organic). It was fantastic.

With concerts, digital light shows and fireworks, the weekend in Bordeaux was definitely a memorable occasion.

Hunting at the long French lunch
Spent the afternoon hunting for great food and wine at the long French lunch. It’s not often that I venture to Gympie for lunch, but on the Grapehunter’s recommendation we headed to Capelli on Duke for the Sunday French lunch.

French food matched to some exceptional French wines. Let’s see we started with a Bordeaux Blanc, a blend of Semillon and S-B matched with smoked chicken and tapenade on croutons and fresh salmon, followed by twice baked goat’s cheese soufflé with a mushroom ragout.

Accompanying the Chateau de Saurs pinot noir style red from outsideToulouse, was a rich yet subtle rabbit pie. And tempting the taste buds further, we were presented with a braised beef cheek in brik pastry with duck rillettes served with a Lagrezette malbec.

Then when we thought lunch must surely be finished, out came a delicate seafood crepe plump with fresh seafood. The dessert wine, a Bellegarde Cuvee Traditional was perfect with the rich chocolate tart and citron tart. And last but a perfect end to the lunch were 3 exceptional French cheeses.

Well done Capelli on Duke for a great lunch today.

Damien and Wendy Brown
Sunshine Coast, Queensland

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2 Responses to Grape Hunting from Beaune to Bordeaux

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