Category Archives: General

Bangers & Smashed

The Bank Holiday weekend was the date for the fifth annual sausage and beer festival that is Bangers and Smashed. We thought of the idea probably on a stag do some 5 years ago as an excuse for us all to get together when we ran out of weddings. Whereas in our youth it was lager, loud music and gigs that brought us all together, these days things are much more sedate with quality food and beverages being the favourite subject of choice.

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The rules are simple (if often disputed!) and we have taken lots of inspiration from the Eurovision song contest!

1. Choose a region to represent. This can be where you live or where you’re from – where you work was suggested this year but viciously thwarted by one of the gang (and it came back to bite him on the bum severely!)

2. Choose a sausage from said region, or make your own (I’m learning that although the effort is appreciated, it doesn’t always lead to favourable voting – this is a very tough crowd).

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3. Choose a beer from said region. No-one has brewed their own so far, and generally a beer in a bottle is the best course of action.

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4. Vote. Each beer and sausage is given a mark out of 10 from each competitor –you cannot score your own entry.
5. The winner walks away with the highly prized “Pork Sword” and hosts the next event.

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This year’s runners & riders

Mikey – reigning Sausage King

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Made his debut in the event in 2012 and won. We weren’t happy obviously and feel his overconfidence will be his undoing this year. Would look more at home at a One Direction concert.

Region: South Yorkshire (he’s originally a Lanky lad, now living in Sheffield – a traitor)

Beer: “Riders on the Storm”, Kelham Island Brewery (ABV 4.5%)

Sausage: Pork, garlic, chilli & ginger

Quote: “Winning last year’s event opened a lot of avenues for me. I couldn’t cope with the fame originally but I’ve got used to being recognised.

Al – winner 2011

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Al has anger issues and is the first to argue with any proposed amendment to the rules. Al won in 2011 but, in his opinion, has been cheated out of the crown every other year.

Region: Gloucestershire (lived there for years and years, much to the annoyance of the county’s other residents)

Beer: Prescott Brewery “Grand Prix” (ABV 5.2%)

Sausage: Farmhouse Deli “Dragon-fire” (Pork, ginger, leek and Cajun spice)

Quote: “Winning meant absolutely everything – I just wanted to shove it everyone’s face… Especially Joel’s!”

Mike S (winner 2009 & 2010

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Mike won the first 2 events representing Berkshire; also only lost by half a point to Al in 2011. Moved to Trinidad last year so had to rely on mail order for this year’s entry. Mike also made and donated our wonderful trophy.

Region: in the past Mike has represented Berkshire 3 times, Scotland once (he’s a Sweaty) but this year has opted for his wife Becky’s county of origin, Cornwall (I can feel Al’s anger as I’m writing these words!)

Beer: Keltek Brewery, Lance Golden Ale (ABV 4.0%)

Sausage: Tamblyns Pork & Apple Juice

Quote: “They say it’s better to have won and lost than not won at all, but I’m not so sure. If I win this year there will be a public holiday in Trinidad.”

Joel (no wins)

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The biggest rivalry of the entries is between Joel and Al, both residents of Cheltenham. He really, really wants a win… and he loves Diners, Drive-ins & Dives… as do I!

Region: In the past Joel has represented Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, and was going to opt for Oxfordshire, his place of work, this year until Al suggested not. So he is also representing Gloucestershire this year

Beer: Corinium Ales “Ale Caesar” (ABV 5.0%)

Sausage: Gloucester Old Spot & Double Gloucester (so Triple Gloucester!)

Quote: “Winning would be better than the day my daughter was born… Or as good anyway.”

Mike E (no wins)

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The quiet sensible one – he runs a power station. Mike puts so much effort into his selections but hasn’t come close to winning yet. He also has a vary scary wife (sorry Charlotte!!)

Region: Born and bred Sussex man who would never think of representing anywhere else

Beer: Arundel Brewery “Old Knucker” (ABV 5.5%)

Sausage: Merry Meats, Yapton Pork & Herb

Quote: “I’ve never even considered winning” (sad face!)

Dave (no wins)

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One of the most passionate foodies known to man and a brilliant cook… It’s a shame he has such a poor taste in beer. Every year. Without fail.

Region: Lived most of his life in Cambridgeshire so that’s his calling… Although he did represent Lincolnshire one year… His beer was dreadful that year too!

Beer: Mile Tree Brewery “Adventurer” (ABV 4.0%)

Sausage: Bramblebee Porkers, Bramblebee Farm

Quote: “Winning would mean that Al could no longer tell me to shut up and listen so much.”

Taff – me (no wins… but 3 second places)

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I’m very eager to win and have come close a few times… As well as last. I entered a sausage a couple of years ago that will go down in history. Al’s wife Mad was a recovering vegetarian… until she tried my Merguez style sausage – she hasn’t eaten meat since!

Region: I went with Hertfordshire for the first 3 years and then switched to Wales… Well, Wales play in the Minor Counties cricket competition so that makes it OK to choose a country!

Beer: Brains SA Gold (ABV 4.7%) – I took a lot of grief as apparently you can buy it in Lidl!

Sausage: Homemade lamb shoulder, pork belly, mint & honey

Quote: “I love B&S so much and truly believe that one day I’ll win… But I should probably just give up and stick to wine and cheese!”
The competition was enjoyed by the entries and our families in decent weather and when the final scores were added up we had a new first time winner… Congratulations Mr Joel Fryer!

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All the scores are below and as you can see I came joint last (along with the mail order king Mike S) – the beer went down well but the homemade sausage had good flavour but not enough fat content. The festivities went on until the early hours and we can’t wait for next year’s event in Gloucestershire. And a massive thanks to Mikey and Jo for hosting a superb event this year!

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It’s a great event and I encourage you to give it a go!

Here are some of the memorable quotes from the tasting and scoring. Cheers!!!

Dave about Joel’s beer: “It would be great in a pie.”

Joel: “I wanted to divide opinion”
Mikey: “ Well it tastes like Marmite!”

Dave to Joel: “Yours might divide opinion but mine doesn’t”
Joel response: “True, we all think its shit!”

Taff on Dave’s beer: “It could be your best beer yet, so maybe a 4?”

Mike S about Al’s beer: “It certainly tastes like something that would come out of a grand prix car”

Al on Mike E’s beer: “For a dark beer this is remarkably inoffensive”

Mike S on Al’s sausage: “It tastes like a Pot Noodle in a skin.”

Sancerre – restoring my faith in Sauvignon Blanc (Henri Bourgeois tasting)

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I may have been a bit mean to Sauvignon Blanc over the past six months. I got very bored of cheap Kiwi Sauvignons and recommended anything but, preferring to suggest Chenin Blanc, Riesling or Chardonnay… almost anything except Sauvignon Blanc. My mind was beginning to change following a recent deep dive into Kiwi wine and this trip to the home of this noble grape has restored my faith and demonstrated how versatile Sauvignon can be, as well as its ageing potential.

Sancerre is a delightful little town, situated on top of a hill overlooking the magnificent vineyards of the most easterly section of the Loire region. Sancerre itself is on the left bank of the Loire, with the other famous Sauvignon town of Pouilly sur Loire, home of smoky Pouilly Fume, over the water. The region is often referred to as the “central vineyards” as it is situated halfway between the Atlantic coast and the German border. Most of the vineyards are planted out south-facing slopes on three different soil types. At the eastern section of the region around Menetou-Salon, we find “white soils” of clay and limestone, in Chavignol the soil also includes Kimmeridgian marl, leading to more body and power. Finally, around the town of Sancerre, we find the famous flint, known as silex that adds the distinctive mineral notes we have come to associate with the region. Sancerre now has 2,600 hectares under vine and has become a brand in itself – the downside of this is there are a number of winemakers making very average wine which sell for less than average prices. However, it’s definitely worth finding a few domains you like in order to enjoy the real thing.

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One of the bottles that marked the change of wine from an interest to an obsession for me was the Henri Bourgeois Sancerre Cuvee Jadis 2008. It was unlike any Sauvignon Blanc I had ever experienced, so heading to Domaine Henri Bourgeois in Chavignol was a must for me on this trip. When I booked the tour and tasting I was informed that the minimum number for a private tour was 8 people at a cost of €80 – as we were joined in Sancerre by my Mum (who just adores Sancerre!) and Peter I decided that €20 a head didn’t sound too bad so I booked a tour for the 4 of us… and I’m so glad we did.

We were shown around by a cool young guy who moved here a few years ago from La Rochelle to learn about Sauvignon Blanc – he was interesting, funny and extremely passionate about the wines of Sancerre and particularly those of Henri Bourgeois. The tour started with an explanation of the three different soils of the region and the background to the 72 hectare estate of the domaine, as we looked up at the magnificent south facing vineyards of La Cote des Monts Damnes. We were then taken on a tour of the modern, gravity-fed 3 story wine making facility, which is a feat of engineering designed to keep as much freshness and purity in the delicate fruit of the region. Then it was off to the old cellars and finally onto the purpose built tasting room, where you can just pop in for a tasting without an appointment.

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Our tasting extended to a total of 16 wines, starting with the rose and reds, all made with Pinot Noir, before moving onto the main event; Sauvignon Blanc. The tasting demonstrated how the different soil types produce different flavours and aromas and also how these wines evolve beautifully over time.

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Les Baronnes Sancerre Rose 2010
100% Pinot Noir from chalky-clay soils, aged for 8 months in steel tanks and 4 months on its fine lees. The rosé has a fuller body than I’m used to and is mood a light red even though its only had 48 hours of maceration. Bright red fruit, slightly lacking in acid but a graceful, long finish. 87 points

Le Baronnes Sancerre Rouge 2010
100% Pinot Noir from chalky-clay soil, matured for 6 months in oak barrels, 30% new. Sweet red fruit, morello cherries. Very nice freshness and quite big but round tannins. Silky texture, just needs a couple more years. 88 points

La Bourgeois Sancerre Rouge 2010
100% Pinot Noir, flint terroir, aged for 12 months in barrel then left to age in bottle before release. More body and concentration than Le Baronnes. Plenty of ripe red fruit and lots of flinty minerality, with good tannic structure and just a hint of vanilla. Still young but will be lovely in 5 years time. 90 points

La Bourgeois Sancerre Rouge 2003 (magnum)
Our host opened this for us to show how the wine will develop and it was enough for Mum to purchase one for Xmas dinner! Beautifully evolved aromas of flinty smokiness and truffle and still ripe cherries. The freshness is delightful and there is a long, sweet finish. Like a Premier Cru from Beaune. 92 points

The Sauvignon Blancs…

Les Baronnes Sancerre Blanc 2012
100% Sauvignon Blanc, grown on clay and limestone chalk. Almost clear in appearance, you are hit with a big blast of tropical fruit. The mango fruit and delicious citrus acidity is delightful – a lovely entry level wine. 89 points

Le MD de Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc, grown on the Kimmeridgen marl (fossilised oysters) of Monts Damnes. Tropical fruity aromas and a flinty backbone but still very closed with that fruit hiding – the freshness is there you just have to wait… 90+ points

Le MD de Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc 2008
This is what happens when Le MD grows up! Lashing of mango and passion fruit, with a grassy freshness and a subtle smokey finish with gently, subtle acidity. This is a powerful and complex wine. I like it a lot. 92 points

La Demoiselle de Bourgeois Pouilly Fume 2007
100% Sauvignon Blanc, from the Kimmeridgen soils of Saint-Laurent l’Abbaye, where the first vines of the AOC were planted. This wine isn’t “showy” at all; It’s gentle and it’s classy. The tropical fruit is subtle and allows the smoky and floral nature of the terroir to shine through. We didn’t try a young version but this certainly demonstrated how 5 years can allow plenty of complex development in Sauvignon Blanc. 93 points

Clos Henri Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Marlborough NZ
I was waiting for this one and it was instantly recognisable. Henri Bourgeois has been making wines in New Zealand since 2003 and this is a decent example but lacks the subtlety of the Loire wines. Plenty of tropical fruit but the green pepper and asparagus, that plenty of people seem to like, are sticking out. It’s more of a bludgeon than the other wines we tried. 89 points

Cuvée Jancis Sancerre 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc, from 40 year old vines grown in Kimmeridgen soil. This is complex and concentrated with a touch of the tropics but lots of citrus and even a hint orange blossom. It’s delicious now but given time it will fill out and become hugely enjoyable. 91 points

La Chapelle des Augustins Sancerre Blanc 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc from vineyards of flint and soft chalk. This is all about the balance of the pure tropical fruit and the chalky gun flint minerality. It’s pure and drinkable now, but another one that will only improve with patience. 90 points

La Bourgeois Sancerre Blanc 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc made from vines growing on the flinty slopes first worked by the monks of Saint Satur. A bigger wine with lots of body and plenty of complexity from 8 months oak ageing. Subtle ICUs fruit comes first then some soft mango but its the smoky and floral back notes that really differentiate this one. 92+ points

Cuvée D’Antan Sancerre 2011
100% Sauvignon Blanc from a vineyard first planted in 1936, where the soil is pro innately flint. Needs more time but there lots of tropical fruit and a delicious spicy back note. Highly concentrated and fuller bodied – this is a serious wine. 92+ points

Cuvée D’Antan Sancerre 2007
Absolutely glorious balance of subtle citrus, mango and passion fruit, whispering acidity and slatey mineral. It’s delicate, charming and oh so complex. This is the kind of wine that puts Sauvignon Blanc in the same league as the best white Burgundies. 94 points

Cuvee Etienne Henri 2010
100% Sauvignon Blanc from the oldest vines on flinty slopes and matured for 12 months in 100% new oak barrels. The fruit just creeps up on you slowly and the wood is beautifully integrated and accentuates the citrus and tropics. This is a wine to savour, think about and discuss all evening. Wow. 94 points

Vendange De La St-Luc 2007
100% Sauvignin Blanc, grown on Kemmeridgen clay solid and picked several weeks after the main harvest to concentrate the grapes and produce this delicious sweet wine. The wine demonstrates the diversity of the Sauvignon Blanc grape and is absolutely delicious. It’s certainly not over sweet and its oh so fresh with a wonderful spine of acid. Golden in colour and highly concentrated tropical fruits – either enjoy as an aperitif, serve with foie gras or match with a fruity dessert. Mmmm! 93 points

Touring & tasting in France – tips & recommendations

This summer’s two week trip to France was magnificent in so many ways. Wonderful food, sumptuous wine, delightful accommodation and spectacular scenery. If it hadn’t been for a puncture and shredded tyre at the end of the first week, and an eventful drive home (for all the wrong reasons!) it would have been perfect.

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First lets get the bad stuff out of the way! If you need a new tyre in France head for Super Pneus – the service at the Chinon workshop was first class… My own tyre changing skills weren’t too shabby either! And if that wasn’t enough, a damaged air flow regulator certainly made for an interesting and often terrifying 7 hour drive from Sancerre to Calais. We managed to trickle onto Le Shuttle… The car appeared to give up on a bridge 2km short of the station but we talked to it nicely and just about made it. Less than a mile up the M20 on the other side, the car decided enough was enough and a call to the RAC was required. 90 minutes later, Jason had us all patched up well enough to get us home and breath a huge sigh of relief… And a big glass of wine!

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And now the good stuff. It takes a balance of things to make a holiday and in the sections below I’ve highlighted some great accommodation, wonderful places to eat as well as some recommended wineries to visit (I’ve also included links to more in depth articles from individual visits).

I apologise that this has turned into a very long article as I have also given you some recommendations for the Rhone, Burgundy and Champagne from last’s year, just in case you’re planning a visit.

The Medoc

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For all of the fancy addresses on the left bank of the Gironde, there are very few places to stay! Margaux and St Julien are pretty enough but there’s not much going on, Pauillac is trying to turn itself into a tourist area but it’s all happening slowly. You could always stay in Bordeaux city and travel the hour up the D2 every day for your visits but that’s no good if you want some peace and quiet! Wherever you decide to stay you’ll need a car (or chauffeur!) to tour the Medoc.

Where to stay:

Oeno Lodge is situated north-west of St Estephe in Saint-Germain-d’Esteuil, and is run by the fantastic Isabelle. As well as an excellent location (10 min drive to St Estephe, 20 to Pauillac, 30 to St Julien, 45 to Margaux) you will receive a warm welcome in delightful surroundings. The accommodation is in a refurbished outbuilding and is bright and spacious, with an excellent selection at breakfast. Even better, when Isabelle asks if you’d like her to cook for you, make sure you say yes – her entrecôte and ribs are to die for, as is her chocolate and cherry cake! As well as the proximity of the famous chateau you are a 5 minute walk from Chateau Castera, a wonderful Cru Bourgeois property, and only half an hour from the beach at Soulac. www.oeno-lodge.com

Where to eat:

My recommendation is to head for the shacks at Saint Vivien de Medoc (La Cabane du Port)! Whether it’s the freshest prawns or a great selection of galettes and crepes, you will find something that fits the bill in the wonderfully rustic and relaxed surroundings. http://www.lacabaneduport.fr/uk/index.html

Where to visit:

If you phone or email in advance you won’t be disappointed. The standard of the tours we encountered were of the highest quality. If I were to pick a favourite it would have to be the juxtaposition of old and new at Chateau Pichon Longueville-Baron, but Langoa Barton, Cantenac Brown and Lynch Bages were all top notch.

https://confessionsofawinegeek.com/2013/07/30/pauillac-the-old-and-the-new/

https://confessionsofawinegeek.com/2013/07/31/st-julien-margaux-close-to-home/

Saint Emilion

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Quite honestly I just can’t wait to go back. A special place with a special atmosphere, and a must visit for any lover of wine. My favourite stat is that there is a wine shop for every 8 residents!

Where to stay:

Les Logis du Roy is a little paradise inside a bigger one! Located a couple of minutes walk from the central square in St Emilion, it consists of rooms above a wine shop and tapas-style bar, all owned by the same friendly guy (who also makes some excellent wine). Our room had the best shower I’ve come across in France and the decor is very chic. There is a fridge in the room containing quality cheese and ham for breakfast and the fresh baguette, croissants and coffee are left on your doorstop in a basket every morning. http://www.leslogisduroy.com/

Where to eat:

There are a whole host of great eateries in St Emilion – and don’t be put off by the guidebooks that warn against the “tourist traps” in the central square – we had fabulous meals at both of the big outlets in and the extra €5 or co was worth it for the people watching! But the number one choice would be L’Envers du Decor, right next to Tourist Information. A simple but delicious menu of excellent local ingredients and a fabulous wine list… Which even has plenty of choice from elsewhere! http://www.envers-dudecor.com/

Where to visit:

I thoroughly enjoyed our tour round the Premier Grand Cru Classe Chateau Figeac, but Chateau Fonplegade, only 5 minutes from the centre of town, is well worth a visit. The American owner knows how to treat visitors and the spin in the buggy around the vineyard is fantastic.

https://confessionsofawinegeek.com/2013/08/04/saint-emilion-magical-place-marvellous-wine/

Central Loire

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We spent four days in the delightful medieval city of Chinon. I found the pace extremely relaxing and the people extremely friendly. The city has a great mix of bars and restaurants as well as plenty of history to explore and discover. The region may be better known for its red wines made with Cabernet Franc, but I was very taken with the white Chenin Blancs.

Where to stay:

We stayed at Hotel Plantagenet, a stone’s throw from the Vienne river. The hotel is divided into three different sections and we stayed in the medieval themed Villa Bourgeois. Very comfortable and in a quiet location, the breakfast selection was impressive and the staff ever so friendly. Also excellent value for money. http://www.hotel-plantagenet.com/en/

Where to eat:

More by luck than judgement we saved the best for our last night. We ate very well during our stay in Chinon but make sure you get a table at Restaurant At’able, offering a choice of fixed price menus and a comprehensive wine list. The freshwater fish terrine was a masterpiece and how about duck a l’orange pie? OK, they called it a pithivier but it still tasted great! A special mention also to Bistrot de la Place, where we enjoyed a fabulous lunch in a day trip to Saumur. http://www.restaurantatable.com

Where to visit:

We struck lucky twice on our stop in the central Loire with 2 excellent tastings. The first was at Langlois Chateau just outside Saumur, which was a 2 hour lecture, tour and tasting of 10 wines. The second was at Chateau du Petit Thouars, 10 minutes from Chinon, where we met a fantastically passionate winemaker and tries possibly the best value fizz on France.

https://confessionsofawinegeek.com/2013/08/07/unsung-jewels-of-the-loire-chinon-saumur/

https://confessionsofawinegeek.com/2013/08/11/chateau-du-petit-thouars-tradition-respect-passion/

Sancerre

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The home of Sauvignon Blanc and a lovely little town perched on a hill. The views around here are fabulous, with panorama points laid out around the village. There’s not a whole lot going on but it’s a very relaxing place to spend a few days. As it was our last stop the furthest away we got was 2 miles down the road to Chavignol for a visit to Henri Bourgeois and we didn’t venture over to Pouilly.

Where to stay:

A 10 minute walk into the central square of Sancerre, the hotel certainly won’t be in trouble with the Trade Description department as the view from the bar and our room was absolutely stunning. The rooms are very clean, with a decent shower and very comfortable beds. Wines by the glass are very good, the Pouilly Fume was particularly good and the breakfast is excellent. All in all very comfortable with plenty of free parking opposite. http://www.panoramicotel.com/en/

Where to eat:

We got very lucky on our first night in Sancerre when we booked into Restaurant La Tour, situated in one corner of the main square. We bagged a table for 4 without a booking and the food, drink and service was incredible. It was only afterwards I learned it holds a Michelin star – well deserved too. There are a couple of fixed price menus (€35 and €45 I think) as well as a tasting menu. Two of us went for each on the fixed menus and we all left with huge smiles on our faces; the advertised food is terrific, the non-advertised extras were a real treat. A bit more expensive but if you’re planning a special meal this is the place to go. Le Bouchon, just down a side street off the main square, offers possible the best value menu we came across on the entire trip – balanced the meal at La Tour nicely! http://www.la-tour-sancerre.fr/accueil/

Where to visit:

I only went for a tour and tasting at Henri Bourgeois but I am very glad I did. The HB Sancerre Jadis 2008 was one of the wines that got me hooked on the good stuff a few years ago and the visit didn’t disappoint. They said that the minimum number for the tour was 8 people @ €80 so I agreed to pay the €80 for 4 of us and it was well worth the money. The guide was brilliant, the tour was thought-provoking and the tasting was almost endless… Well worth a visit even at €20 a head. http://www.henribourgeois.com/#/en

Beaune

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I’ve been here twice now and can safely say it is my favourite place in the world! For me it is the home of wine and I love everything about it. There is a dramatic atmosphere in Beaune and wine flows out of its every pore… I have to stop writing as it is making me want to return!

Where to stay

Hotel Alesia is a 15 minute walk into the centre of Beaune; this works well to drum up a thirst and equally well on the way back to walk off the coq-au-vin! This a lovely, warm family run hotel with Mum, Dad and Daughter on hand for your every need. The bedrooms are beautifully individual and homely – perfect for a few days of sightseeing. Breakfast was great (€9 each) with plenty of choice and endless drinks. Car parking is excellent. http://hotel.alesia.pagesperso-orange.fr/index_en.html

We also stayed a few nights at the Hotel de Vougeot if you fancy staying in the Cote de Nuits – a beautifully run hotel by a lovely, caring family. The real treat here however is the terrace at the rear of the hotel overlooking the Clos De Vougeot. Order a bottle and sit amongst the vines one afternoon. http://www.hotel-vougeot.com/gb/index.htm

Where to eat

Lots of choice in Beaune but Caves Madeleine will forever be my number one choice. A big communal table down the middle, a daily changing menu and a living wine list is the order of the day. We sat next to an Italian and a Danish couple and laughed all night, the food was some of the best I have ever eaten, and you pick a bottle your from the wall display… then another one! http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Restaurant_Review-g187109-d1854364-Reviews-Caves_Madeleine-Beaune_Cote_d_Or_Burgundy.html

Where to visit:

On our 2 week tour of the Rhone, Burgundy and Champagne, the visit to Drouhin was without a doubt the highlight. Don’t think anything of the €35 cost;
it will be the best money you spend all holiday. The cellars underneath Beaune are absolutely amazing and the commentary is truly informative and interesting. We ended with a tasting of 9 mind-blowing wines, the highlight being a 2006 Clos du Beze. http://www.drouhin.com/en/#/Exception

Southern Rhone – Vacqueyras

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We were initially going to stay in Avignon but I’m so glad we decided on sleepy Vacqueyras. A couple of hotels, a couple of restaurants, a few shops and loads of winemakers… What’s not to like?

Where to stay:

Le Pradet is a brilliant family-run hotel full of charm. Bedrooms are spacious and comfortable, there are two wonderful outside areas to sit and relax, as well as a very clean pool area. Breakfast is delicious and reasonable priced and the owners are very helpful and friendly. Also a good selection of wines from local winemakers at very good prices. http://www.hotellepradet.fr/En/index.html

Where to eat:

There are only 2 restaurants in the village and they’re both excellent!

Where to visit

Domaine le Couroulu’s tasting room is situated smack-bang in the middle of the village and offers a delightful tasting of rose, white and red Vacqueyras (it is the only appellation in the Rhone with AOC for all 3 colours). Their Cotes-du Rhone rocks but their Villies Vignes is sublime.

Northern Rhone – Tain Hermitage

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When you park in a public car park to get your bearings and realise you are at the foot of the great hill of Hermitage, you know this is going to be a good stay. Tain is very bustly but don’t leave it too late to discover Tournon on the other side of the footbridge over the Rhone.

Where to stay:

We stayed at the Hotel Les 2 Coteaux for only 2 nights but were made to feel ever so welcome by the great husband and wife team. We were lucky enough to get a Rhone facing room which was absolutely magnificent, but don’t worry if your room is at the back as you’ll still have a magnificent view of the mighty hill of Hermitage. http://www.hotel-les-2-coteaux-26.com/

Where to eat:

We discovered Tournon on our last day in the area which was a shame as this is where all of the best restaurants are. For something a bit different, head for Carafes-en-Folie (translated as the crazy carafe!). Really passionate owners, great food and a fabulous selection of wines by the glass. http://www.carafes-en-folie.com/

Where to visit:

He has his detractors, but the visit to M Chapoutier was the highlight for me. The tasting started off a little slowly but as soon as the server realised our enthusiasm the good stuff came out! http://www.chapoutier.com/buy-wine-chapoutier.cfm

Champaigne – Reims

We stayed here for a couple of nights – it’s a great city. We stayed in a chain hotel and ate in some very good places but whatever you do, you have to visit Ruinart:

It’s the best and most personal visit available at any of the Champagne houses in the city. You are made to feel like welcome visitors and the lady who showed us around was warm, knowledgable and very funny – she certainly had the measure of her audience straight away! This is a fully working operation and the deep cruyers are phenomenal. The tasting the end was excellent where we had the chance to taste both vintage and NV Blanc de Blancs and vintage and NV rose. Some of the big brand houses are certainly enjoyable to visit but Ruinart is the real deal. http://www.ruinart.com/

Happy holidays!

Chateau du Petit Thouars – tradition, respect & passion

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Sometimes things just work out right. I was sitting at a cafe in the centre of Chinon on Sunday afternoon and decided to let the world know about it through the medium of Twitter. The next thing I knew, I received a response from Chateau du Petit Thouars (@chateaudptwines) and had arranged a visit for the following Tuesday… And what a great appointment that proved to be!

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We were welcomed at the beautiful chateau by winemaker Michel Pinard and the gorgeous chateau dog, Forlan (named after the Uruguayan footballer). Michel was the perfect host and his company was an absolute pleasure. Michel is originally from the north west of France and moved south to learn about wines, including stints at Chateau Ausone in St Emilion as well as leading Chinon domaine Charles Joguet; he has been the winemaker at Chateau du Petit Thouars since 2007. I hadn’t realised that the wines of the chateau were classified as AOC Touraine, as the vineyard sits outside the original Chinon borders, even though it only a 15 minute drive from the centre of the town. I have since read that the borders have recently been amended and Chateau du Petit Thouars will be able to use AOC Chinon on its label from the 2014 vintage.

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The estate only has 15 hectares under vine and until 2012 only produced wines using Cabernet Franc. The 2012 release will see the debut of the estate’s Chenin Blanc output, which will be an ambitious oaked white, which I am very much looking forward to trying. The real beauty of the domaine however comes in the winemaking cave. After spending a week in the shiny, polished cellars of Bordeaux, this was quite an experience. There is no temperature control system except that of nature. The caves keep a constant cool temperature and the mould growing on the cellar walls and ceiling provides the perfect natural conditions for making wines. Michel scaled some mould off the walls to show us where the natural wine tannin has stained the walls – he believes in letting the terroir do the talking. Michel is also making age worthy wines and won’t release them until they are ready. We tried the 2011 Reserve selection which is still ageing in one of the steel tanks; I asked when it will be ready and Michel’s reply was simple: “I will only know if I keep on tasting it”.

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It was a humbling experience to talk to such a talented and passionate winemaker about his craft and his wines, which were patented to us by his daughter. And the wines? Well they certainly spoke of the tenderness and patience that has gone into the cation of these very old world wines. Merci Michel.

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Chateau du Petit Thouars Rosé NV, Touraine (€5.00)
100% Cabernet Franc. Made from a blend of 2009 and 2010 fruit, this pleasant rosé showed nice red fruit and had a very soft, gentle texture with a pleasant dry finish. And it costs €5. 85 points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Selection Rouge 2010, Touraine (€5.00)
100% Cabernet Franc. Very ripe and concentrated fruit. There’s cherry and a fruit I was struggling to name and ended up with pomegranate. There’s lots of minerality, a touch if smoke and a warm hint of leather. Ridiculously good value 87 points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Selection Rouge 2009, Touraine (€5.00)
100% Cabernet Franc. The 2009 actually tastes younger and fresher than the 2010 – its certainly more rounded. Tart red fruit, that same smoke and mineral and a decent finish. This could (and will) make a great summer house wine. 88 points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Reserve Rouge 2010, Touraine (€8.00)
The Reserve is toasty and bursting with bright red fruit. There is lots if structured tannin here and needs a couple more years – its not often you say that about a wine that costs €8. 88+ points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Reserve Rouge 2009, Touraine (€8.00)
More rounded and elegant than the 2010 but still with a crunch if tannin. The crunch is in the firm of raspberry and pomegranate and it has such a burst if refreshing acidity. I love this wine. 92 points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Reserve Rouge 2008, Touraine (€8.00)
A bit less bite than the 2009 – smoother but slightly less structure, but still loads of red fruit and that mineral finish. 88 points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Cuvee Admiral Rouge 2009, Touraine (€15.00)
The owners of Chateau du Petit Thouars come from a naval history, hence the name of the flagship (sorry) wine. This wine us made to last – 24 months in oak barrels. Bags of bright fruit again, like a summer compote of raspberries, cherries, strawberries and crunchy pomegranate. At the moment the tannins are fierce but there is so much acidity here that I have little hesitation in suggesting it will round out nicely. I’ve bought a few if these as I really want to see how it develops over the next few years. 92+ points

Chateau du Petit Thouars Cremant de Loire Blanc NV (€8.00)
A Blanc de Noirs made from 100% Cabernet Franc and without a doubt the best value wine of the whole trip, if not the best value wine of all time. There’s soft red fruit but a refreshing bite of Granny Smith apple. A delightful fuzz if tiny bubbles and a honeyed, slightly toasty finish. If your planning a summer party then order a dozen! 92 points
Note: I opened a bottle as soon as I got home to check it was really that good… It was!

Chateau du Petit Thouars Cremant de Loire Rosé NV (€8.00)
Sweeter than the Blanc but still a lovely balance with lots of soft red fruit and the same attractive mousse. Another belter, if not quite at same level as the Blanc. 89 points

Unsung jewels of The Loire – Chinon & Saumur

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Before coming away to France this summer I drank and recommended plenty of wines from the Loire. I found them to be perfect summer wines, and having so far spent four days in the Chinon area I am an even bigger convert, if that was at all possible. If one word can define the wines of Chinon and Saumur it has to be FRESH. The Chenin Blanc has such a lively streak of citrus-sherbet acidity, and the reds made from Cabernet Franc conjure up thoughts and tastes of summer pudding.

I love the Chenins of Vouvray and it saddens me beyond belief to read about the hailstorms in June that wreaked havoc with the 2013 and most likely 2014 vintages. I wanted to visit the region on this trip but the winemakers are so busy supporting one another that there isn’t the time to spend with wine tourists. It’s incredibly sad that we won’t be able to drink the bounty of Vouvray over the next couple of years. Given the geographical proximity, fans of Chenin Blanc should count themselves lucky that Chinon and Saumur are producing such good examples of this splendid variety.

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Chinon is delightful town on the banks of the Vienne river, steeped in centuries of history. A visit to the marvellously restored fortress is a must for anyone visiting the area and tells the various stories of kings, heroines and dragons. We arrived on the day of the annual “Marche Medieval”, where the whole town dresses in garb from centuries ago and eats food as it was in times gone by – this town lives and breathes its history. But they are making new history every year with their fantastic wines. I visited one of the most passionate winemakers I have ever met at Chateau Petit Thouars, on the edges of the appellation and loved what he is doing with Cabernet Franc – the next post will all be about Michel and his wines. With every meal in the town I have loved these fruit-driven, easy drinking wines and hope that we soon start to see them appearing with greater frequency on the lists of wine merchants and restaurants in the UK.

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We also spent a day in Saumur and as well as enjoying one of the best meals of the trip at Bistro de la Place in the Place St-Pierre, we visited the Loire outpost of Champagne Bollinger at Langlois-Chateau (the Chateau being the maiden name of one of the founders). This sparkling wine house was founded in 1912 and bought by Bolly in 1973. Today the estate produces sparkling and still wines and is a great introduction to the ones of the region (they also own property in Muscadet and Sancerre to give you a real flavour of the Loire from West to East). The visit includes an introduction to winemaking, a tour of the vat room and a visit to their 4km of chalk cellars beneath the primes. This is topped off with a tasting of ten wines… And all of this for €5… Which is refunded if you make a purchase!

Below are my notes from the tasting – these wines may not set your world alight but they will provide plenty of joy… Especially at these prices (all prices per bottle direct from the estate).

I would just encourage you to search out the red, white, rose and sparkling (Cremant de Loire) wines of Chinon and Saumur – I promise you will not be disappointed and you’ll be back for more pretty swiftly.

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Saumur Blanc 2012 (€7.70)
100% Chenin Blanc. So pale in the glass but inviting aromas of apple, citrus and peach. Huge streak of acidity and flavour of apple, ripe pear and a hint if honey. A perfect afternoon quaffer. 87 points

Chateau de Fontaine-Audon Sancerre Blanc 2011 (€14.00)
100% Sauvignon Blanc. This estate in Sancerre is owned by the same group but doesn’t live up to the wines from Langlois-Chateau. White blossom, citrus just a touch of green pepper on the nose but the flavours fall off before you even get a chance to distinguish them! An example of paying over the odds for the Sancerre name. 82 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Vieilles Vignes Saumur Blanc 2005 (€15.95)
100% Chenin Blanc, aged in oak for 12 months. Rich, toast and buttery on the nose but so fresh on the palate, which delivers apple skin and ripe nectarine. The oak is pleasant at the end and the wine us beautifully balanced. Reminds me of an oaked premier Cru Chablis. 92 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Cabernet du Saumur Rosé 2012 (€7.55)
100% Cabernet Franc. Very pale and heaps of strawberry sherbet on the nose – smells fun. Nice early hit if soft red fruit but drops off pretty quickly. 85 points

Chateau de Fontaine-Audon Sancerre Rouge 2011 (€14.00)
100% Pinot Noir. I’ve heard that Sancerre reds are picking up in quality but this certainly isn’t one of them. Looks like a rosé that has had a couple of days of skin contact. Smells of damp earth with the merest hint of red fruit. Mouth puckeringly dry and flavours of underripe red fruit. One I forget. 77 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Saumur Rouge 2010 (€7.45)
100% Cab Franc. Raspberry and red currants jump out if the glass and the aromas scream if summer pudding. Bags if fruit and not much else… But that’s the point! Fun quaffer – drink chilled in the garden. 87 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Saumur-Champigny 2011 (€8.80)
100% Cab Franc. Deeper and more concentrated than the Saumur rouge and also has a delicious hint of black pepper. Very ripe red fruits fill the mouth and the pepper is there at the end if a generous finish. Nice stuff, especially at this price. 89 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Brut Medaille d’Or Cremant de Loire NV (€10.45)
60% Chenin Blanc, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Cabernet Franc, spends 24 months on lees. Honey, apples and pastry aromas which are very pleasant indeed. Very dry but there’s a delightful hint of honey right at the end, after the apples and peaches have dissolved. Lovely light mousse of bubbles. This would make a superb wedding sparkler instead if a cheap, naff Champagne! 89 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Rose Brut Cremant de Loire NV (€10.65)
100% Cab Franc. Soft red fruits first, but the astringent finish is quite flat and unpleasant. 82 points

Domaine Langlois-Chateau Reserve Millesime Brut Cremant de Loire 2005 (€12.95)
60% Chenin Blanc, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Cabernet Franc, spends 48 months on lees. The aromas are a supercharged of the non-vintage and the initial attack us the same but really drops off very quickly. I’m not convinced the bottle was in the best condition so lets leave it there. N/A

Saint Emilion – magical place, marvellous wine

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Its hard to believe that St Emilion and the Medoc can fall under the same generic banner of Bordeaux. For all its majestic chateaux and swanky addresses, there is very little else to the Medoc… St Emilion on the other hand is absolutely stunning! Set amid the most attractive landscape of rolling hillside, St Emilion and it’s surrounding vineyards was the first wine region to be designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. While the average size if a vineyard in the Medoc is around 40 hectares, in St Emilion this figure shrinks down to 5 hectares.

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There is actually more to St Emilion than wine, even though it is said there is a wine shop for every eight residents of the town! St Emilion is steeped in history and is named after an 8th century monk – if you ever have the fortune to visit this amazing place then be sure to sign up for a guided tour of the biggest monolithic church in Europe, catacombs and hermitage crypt – signing up is the only way to see these spectacular sites due to ownership rules after the French Revolution. The cobbled streets are also a wonderful place to gently stroll through, with enough wine shops, bars and restaurants to last a lifetime!

And the wine is sumptuous. My only real experience of top quality right bank Bordeaux was at a 1995 horizontal tasting earlier this year; out of the 10 wines tasted, two of them came from the right bank of the Gironde, and they were my top 2 wines of the evening. The Cheval Balanc from St Emilion and the Trotonoy from Pomerol shone brightly above their right bank cousins, which included Mouton Rosthchild. So it was no real surprise to me that I have fallen head over heels for these (mostly) Merlot dominated wines.

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The wines of St Emilion were first classified in 1955 and are updated every 10 years (with a few exceptions). The latest classification was announced in Autumn 2012. At the bottom of the pyramid is the generic St Emilion appellation, then comes Grand Cru, Grand Cru Classes (64 estates), and finally Premier Grand Crus Classes (18 estates)…. which are divided in to Premier Grand Crus Classes “A” for the very best (Cheval Blanc, Ausone, Angelus, Pavie) and Premier Grand Crus Classes “B”.

I visited three producers while I was in St Emilion – Chateau Figeac (Premier Grand Crus Classes “B”), Chateau Fonplegade and Chateau Fombrauge (both Grand Crus Classes). Below are short write ups for each visit along with tasting notes for the wines offered at the end of the tour.

Chateau Figeac

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Figeac is a 54 hectare estate (40ha under vine) situated on the edge of the St Emilion appellation, right in-between the right bank superstar estates of Cheval Blanc and Petrus (in Pomerol) – at one time many years ago, the Cheval Blanc vineyard was home to the stables at Chateau Figeac… Hence the name! Many commentators believe that Figeac under performed in the 1980’s and 1990’s but are getting back to their best in the past ten years.

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The soil at Figeac is dominated by gravel and lends itself to a rather unusual variety ratio for a St Emilion estate with 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Cabernet Franc and 30% Merlot. Vinification is carried out in a 50/50 mixture of open oak- and stainless steel-vats, which takes place after a careful manual selection process. 100% new oak is used to age the first label for 18 months, which us sourced from 7 different coopers to attain the greatest levels of complexity in the final wine. The estate also produces a second label, La Grange Neuve de Figeac, some of which is bottled especially for passengers of Emirates Airlines.

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The tasting started with a wine from another chateau owned by the same family and made by the same winemaker, followed by a glass of the 2007 Chateau Figeac (cost of tour and tasting was €15 per person):

Chateau La Fleur Pourret 2003, St Emilion Grand Cru
55% Merlot, 35% Cab Franc, 10% Cab Sav
From the super-hot vintage of 2003 where temperatures reached a startling 46.5C during the harvest, La Fleur Pourret is a more conventional blend for a St Emilion wine. The wine has lots of elegance but a deep, almost dark and jammy fruit concentration – you can definitely taste the heat of the vintage. It still tastes surprisingly young but has nice smooth tannins and a good length finish. Good for another few years yet. 90 points

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Chateau Figeac 2007, St Emilion
40% Merlot, 35% Cab Franc, 25% Cab Sav
First of all, hands up here – I think this wine is great, but looking through some other reviews I seem to be in the minority! 2007 is developing into a very attractive vintage with some good value available – the Figeac has lots of fruit concentration with plums, blackcurrants and raspberry acidity. There is also some very attractive leathery evolution. The fruit is sweet and delicious and the structure is beautiful with delightfully silky tannins. The finish is long and intense and I would quite happily drink this now. My favourite wine of the tour so far. 95 points

Chateau Fonplegade

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This Grand Cru Classe property has been owned by its American owner, Steven Adams, since 2004. Adams has spared no expense in either the vineyard or the winery in his effort to get the estate a Premiere Grand Cru Classes rating in ten years time. The estate is in its fourth year of organic conversion and hopes to gain its organic certification later this year. It is only one of two estates at this stage in the entire St Emilion appellation. Yields have been cut by half in less than a decade and they are undertaking an annual replanting scheme to ensure the long term of the estate’s production. And best of all for the visitor, you get to see all of this courtesy of a lift in the estates military looking golf buggy, which takes you on a marvellous cruise around some of the property’s 18 hectares.

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In the cellar the money has also been spent on new wooden and steel tanks as well as the magnificent looking cement eggs, which as they have no corners or edges, give a better uniformity to the liquid, especially in terms of temperature. New barrels are also a big investment for every new vintage – Adams is leaving nothing here to chance. He also allows the winemaker Franck Jugelmann to experiment, and along the tour you are shown the latest new techniques from egg-shaped oak vats to a revival of an all in one fermentation and ageing system.

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Fonplegade must be one of the best setups for wine tourists in the whole of Bordeaux. From intelligent and knowledgable guides, the trip to the vineyard, the tour of the facilities and the marvellous tasting room and boutique, the estate has put customers at the heart of a fantastic experience. The visit is topped off with a tasting of four wines, and all of this for €15 a person (free if you purchase any wine on your visit).

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Chateau L’Enclos 2009, Pomerol
79% Merlot, 19% Cab Franc, 2% Malbec
Made by the same winemaker from fruit in an estate owned in Pomerol. Intense nose of red cherry fruit with an earthy, mushroom undertone. In the mouth its full bodied but soft and has a beautiful balance. Tannins are still prominent but the freshness is there to bring this together beautifully over the next few years. The finish is big and a bit warm at present (kirsch) but give it time. 91++

Fleur de Fonplegade 2007, St Emilion Grand Cru
85% Merlot, 10% Cab Sav, 5% Cab Franc
Second wine of Chateau Fonplegade. Huge aromas of stewed strawberry and fresh, ripe raspberry with a lovely backup of young leather and hint of vanilla. Really soft texture and really easy drinking. It’s not complex but its very tasty. 89 points

Chateau Fonplegade 2004, St Emilion Grand Cru Classe
91% Merlot, 7% Cab Franc, 2% Cab Sav
Bright cherry and raspberry aromas with a hint of blackcurrant. Then come the animal and leather notes and a delightful waft of truffle. On the palate its smooth and silky, beautifully fresh and enormously concentrated. An excellent wine, the real deal. 92 points

Fleur de Fonplegade Rosé 2012, St Emilion
100% Cab Sav
There’s not much rose in St Emilion but maybe there should be more! It probably helped that it was 36 degrees but this was so fresh, bright and refreshing. Bright notes of strawberry and hint if citrus. The acidity and freshness are delightful – I’m becoming a big rosé fan! 88 points

Chateau Fombrauge

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One of 18 chateaux in the Bordeaux owned by Bernard Magrez, Fombrauge is one of the biggest and grandest of them all! The chateau itself is an impressive single storey building but the newly furnished rooms are gaudy (or if you were being pleasant, traditional!) in the extreme. As well as the usual visit around the winery, there is an impressive display of Roman remains that were found during excavation work at the property, and the views from the back of the chateau from a Pomerol to Castillon are truly breathtaking.

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The winery as you would expect is state of the art but with plenty of nods to tradition with well laid out wooden vats along with the huge concrete tanks and modern stainless steel. The trip into the chateau’s bottle cellar is also impressive with bottles dating as far back as 1871. Our guide was excellent and knowledgable but I didn’t warm to the chateau or its wine – there is too much Magrez about it all. Whether its framed photos of Margrez with this president, actor or famous chef, or his cross-keys “crest” that adorns every bottle, glass and paper napkin… I’m here for the wine Bernard!

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Chateau Fombrauge 2006, Grand Cru Classe St Emilion
77% Merlot, 14% Cab Franc, 9% Cab Sav
Very toasty oak on the nose with very brooding heavy, overripe red fruit. There’s the flavour of stewed plums, cherries and some red berries but its overdone. The texture s soft but this is a big fruit bomb of a wine – definitely needs food and maybe a warm fire. 86 points (the first time The Fish left anything in a tasting glass!)

Chateau Fombrauge Blanc 2008, St Emilion
40% Semillon, 30% Sauv Blanc, 30% Sauv Gris
The fruit for this wine is grown on the Fombrauge estate but is vinified elsewhere due to the strict controls and regulation on the red classification. There is more evidence of the big oak here with a very smokey initial nose… But there’s a good amount of citrus behind it and a hefty dose of pink grapefruit. Lots of body and fruit on the front palate and a delicious toasty, warm finish. Very nice indeed. 90 points

Chateau Cheval Blanc

Look, I tried! When we came out of Figeac I thought we’d see how close we could get… When I pulled into the driveway, the metal chain rose from the ground and denied access to this adventurous Wine Geek!

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St Julien & Margaux – close to home?

After Pauillac, our tastings took us south to the appellations of Saint Julien and Margaux (unfortunately our visit to Cos d’Estornel in St Estephe was cancelled due to nomelectricitybaftervtgevbig tornado). Cabernet is still king here but there is less emphasis on power, more on finesse and elegance. The estates I chose were Langoa & Leoville Barton in Saint Julien and Cantenac Brown in Margaux. They are wines I have enjoyed immensely over the past year and, coincidently, both have their roots in Britain & Ireland

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Château Langoa-Barton was purchased by Irishman Hugh Barton in 1821 and has remained in the Barton family ever since. In 1826, the Barton family also bought a piece of the Leoville estate (split now between Barton, Las Cases and Poyferre). In the 1855 classification, Leoville was designated as a Deuxiemes Cru (second growth), along with the other Leoville estates; Langoa was classified as Troisiemes Cru (third growth). Anthony Barton took over ownership and administration of the estate in 1983 and runs it today, along with his daughter Lillian. What many people don’t realise is there is only one chateau for both properties and it belongs to Langoa… Even though an image of the chateau only appears on the label of Leoville (the Barton family crest adorns the label of Langoa). Both wines are vinified in the same cellar at Chateau Langoa Barton. Leoville a barton has 50 hectares under vine, with only 18 for Langoa.

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What I loved about the visit to the Barton estate(s) was the adherence to and respect for tradition. There is no stainless steel in the vat room; all wines are vinified in old oak vats. The visit to the barrel room is tinged with sadness; it was completed in 1990, the same year as Anthony’s son was killed in a car accident. The cellar has been dedicated to Thomas and there is a permanent plaque dedicated to him at the entrance. It is currently home to the maturing 2012 vintage but the new barrels for 2013 have already begun to arrive and have already been painted with wine to avoid any blemishes to the picture perfect setting.

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The tasting, which took place in the room that the Barton team decide on the final blend for each vintage, was of the wines from the 2011 vintage:

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Chateau Langoa Barton 2011, Saint Julien, Bordeaux
Cab Sav 63%, Merlot 34%, Cab Franc 3%
Lots of blackcurrant jam and mineral notes on the nose with just a slight hint of vanilla. Medium bodied, very fruity even now, with plenty of pure blackcurrant. Lots of young tannin but delightfully elegant. Not over complex but very charming. 92 points

Chateau Leoville Barton 2011, Saint Julien, Bordeaux
Cab Sav 80%, Merlot 15%, Cab Franc 5%
Huge concentration of blackcurrant and cassis, earthy minerality and just the faintest whiff of mint freshness. There are also some exotic spice notes of vanilla and musk. All in all very enticing aromas. Huge attack of concentrated blackcurrant and liqueur cassis but with a delightful freshness and harmonious, almost smooth tannin. This will be fab in 10 years time! 94 points

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Chateau Cantenac Brown is a Troisiemes Cru estate in the beautiful appellation of Margaux. The chateau itself is stunning, reminiscent of a very posh English boarding school (nothing like my scabby comprehensive in North Wales!). John Lewis Brown, a Frenchman with Scottish roots, bought the vineyard in 1806 and built the chateau in the Tudor style. There are many grand chateaux in Bordeaux but Cantenac Brown really does stand out. AXA bought the estate (along with a few others!) in the 1980’s and as well as improving the winemaking, spent a lot of money converting the estate into the perfect location for company seminars and entertaining. In 2006 the property was bought by Simon Halibi, who was ranked the 14th richest person in Britain in The Times’ 2007 rich list.

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The grapes are hand-picked and screened on the vibrating table before being put through the optic scanner for a final check – the team still have more confidence in manual sorting! Individual plots are vinified separately according to grape variety and vine age, which allow for great precision in selection when Cantenac Brown is finally blended. They also produce a second wine, BriO de Cantenac Brown, from specific plots.

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Cantenac Brown really is a delightful estate to visit, even if its one of the worst signposted chateau in the Medoc! The parkland behind the chateau are stunning and the folly is great fun – only the Brits understand the absurd concept! The wines we tasted were the first and second labels from the 2007 vintage:

BriO de Cantenac Brown 2004, Margaux, Bordeaux
Never had this second wine before but I will certainly be having it again! A real fruit bomb on the nose with a mixture of concentrated blackcurrant and and underlying hint of raspberry freshness. Very soft tannins and very elegant texture. Really good wine. 92 points

Chateau Cantenac Brown 2007, Margaux, Bordeaux
We seem to have tasted plenty of 2007s on this trip and they really are turning out to be rather delicious, fun wines. This has lashings of black fruit with plenty of oaky tannin. Still the tannins are overwhelming but there is plenty of freshness to suggest this has a good life ahead of it. 93+ points

Here’s a few snaps of some famous properties I captured as we drove up and down the D2… I was like a kid in a sweet shop!

Chateau Cos d’Estornel, St Estephe

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Chateau Latour, Pauillac

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Chateau Pichon-Longueville Comtesse Lalande, Pauillac (not as pretty as Pichon Baron!)

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Chateau Beychevelle, St Julien

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Chateau Branaire Ducru, St Julien

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Chateau Margaux, Margaux (we had to go through a couple of no entry signs for this one!)

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Chateau Palmer, Margaux

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Pauillac – the old and the new

In two chateau visits in Pauillac, the heart of Bordeaux, what was especially interesting (along with the marvellous wines of course) was the juxtaposition of old and new. At both Chateau Lynch Bages and Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron, I witnessed a celebration of the latest technological advances but with a respectful nod to tradition and the way things have been done for centuries.

20130730-235815.jpgStarting in the airy reception area at Lynch Bages with its minimalist furnishings and soft lighting, you immediately know that money has been spent to ensure you will be well looked after (for your €9 outlay!). Our wonderfully chic guide took us straight into the ultra modern vat room, with its state of the art press and gleaming stainless steel tanks, each built to the perfect size to receive the fruit from its specified plot. The estate is obviously very proud of its technology but its the old vat room that really inspired me. The smell of the old wooden vats was delightful and knowing they had been in situ for almost 100 years sent a tingle down my spine. The idea of fires and their embers being used to control the temperatures during fermentation is a lot to take in in this day and age.

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The next stop on the tour was even more impressive. The space above the old vat room has also been preserved as a homage to the past. The sorting tables, pulleys and iron tracks used to transport the grapes have all been meticulously preserved, along with the fabulous old screw-press – just think of the work that went into any of your seriously old bottles! We ten passed through the expensive smell of the barrel cellars, brand new bottling line and into the delightful tasting room.

20130731-000021.jpgThe two wines we got to taste were both from 2006, firstly Chateau Ormes de Pez (also owned by the Cazes family) followed by the Chateau Lynch Bages:

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Chateau Les Ormes de Pez Cru 2006, St Estephe, Bordeaux (Lea & Sandeman £22.50)
58% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc
I tried the 2001 towards the end if last year and was left frustrated by the lack of balance after a very promising attack – the 2006 is much more together. This wine is powerful and earthy, lots of concentrated cassis fruit but also just a hint of jammy raspberry. There is excellent structure and the tannins are still a bit firm but there is plenty of fruit and acidity to bring it all together over the next couple of years. 91+ points

Chateau Lynch Bages 2006, Pauillac, Bordeaux (Berry Bros £65.00)
79% Cab Sav, 10% Merlot, 10% Cab Franc, 1% Petit Verdot
Each time I try Lynch I always think it just smells expensive! On the nose there is lots of concentrated cassis fruit but then followed by smoke, cedar and spice. The wine is still very young and listed but there is real purity to the wine, with lots on blackcurrant and blackberry goodness. Real backbone with lots if young tannin but there’s plenty of freshness and some deliciously exotic spice in the background. Don’t think about touching for another 5 years. 94 points

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But at Lynch that us not the end… For the Cazes family have created their very own Bordeaux Disneyland, complete with Boulangerie, Epiciere, fashion store, wine shop and bistro! They are actually to be applauded for this as Pauillac itself isn’t the most picturesque place – its just a shame everything was running at a minimum level due to the tornado of two nights previous

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And onto Chateau Pichon-Longueville Baron… I don’t mind telling you I was like a giddy toddler when the Cinderella towers came into view as we approached along the D2! This really is the most beautiful chateaux in the Medoc and it did take my breath away. This was one if the first appointments I booked when we decided to tour Bordeaux after I attended a magnificent vertical tasting back in March.

20130731-000407.jpgOur guide was wonderful… I just wish I could remember her name! On this tour it was just me and The Fish and we laughed all the way round. The chateau looks so traditional and elegant from the outside, but don’t be be deceived, for within, or even below, AXA’s investment appears to have been put towards building a spaceship! In Chateuneuf aliens may have been outlawed, in Pichon they may actually have landed! But it is very impressive – from the ultra-modern optic sorting machine, to the command centre that is the temperature control booth in the vat room, nothing here is left to chance. From there its on to one of the barrel cellars, which lies directly underneath the magnificent ornamental lake. When we were there they were moving some barrels in preparation for a classical music concert… How things have changed!

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Finally we entered the luxurious tasting room, with elegance to match the Chateau’s facade, and a tasting of 3 wines, all from the 2008 vintage:

Chateau Pibran Cru Bourgeois 2008, Pauillac, Birdeaux (N/A UK)
51% Cab Sav, 49% Merlot
Owned by the Cazes family but vinified at Pichon-Baron, this is a very fruity wine with good acidity and a lovely freshness. There’s some good tannic structure but its really quite simple with a short finish. Very un-Pauillac. Hmm… Maybe not so bad its not available in the UK! 86 points

Tourelles De Longueville 2008, Pauillac, Bordeaux 2008 (Farr Vintners £17.92)
65% Merlot, 20% Cab Sav, 15% Cab Franc
The second wine of Pichon Baron… But made to be itself, hence the high proportion of Merlot in the blend. It’s obviously not noticeably Pauillac but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own charm. Brightly coloured and with concentrated, ripe red fruits. The wine is big in body and very fresh upfront and there are notes on mineral and some animal too. I actually quite like this – quite Pomerol in style actually. 91 points

Chateau Pichon Longueville-Baron 2008, Pauillac, Bordeaux (Fine & Rare £61.00)
71% Cab Sav, 29% Merlot
After enjoying the wines at the tasting earlier this year I was particularly looking forward to this one. Lots of big, bold blackcurrant with a whiff of cassis concentration, with delicious smokey cedar and lovely mineral notes. The texture of the 08 is like a cloak of velvet overnight your mouth, before the tannins kick in and close it up a little. The fruit is deep and concentrated, with a hint if minty freshness, balanced beautifully by a streak if lively acidity and supported with an earthy, mineral finish. Years to go until it reaches its peak but well worth the wait. 94 points

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Oh and here’s a photo of Chateau Latour, across the road from Pichon… They wouldn’t let me in!

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Tour(s) de France – Prologue

As happens in the great bike race, our holiday in France started with a taste of things to come in the city of Tours in The Loire Valley. Last year I drove straight down to the Southern Rhone in one go, then proceeded northwards for 2 weeks up through the northern Rhone, Burgundy and Champagne. This year’s trip is Bordeaux and The Loire but I didn’t fancy driving down in one go so we decided to stop off in Tours as it was about half way. And what a wonderful first evening it was…

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It also happened to be our 7th wedding anniversary so a good meal and a fine bottle of wine was (as usual!) top of the agenda. We wondered though the delightful streets of Tours and came across the magnificently named “Au Lapin Qui Fume”. It was perfect. €26 for three courses, 4 choices per course, and a very simple but enticing wine list. I went for Carpaccio, Bream (best ever!) and Chocolate Tart; The Fish went with Chèvre Chaud, the eponymous Lapin tagine, and roasted peach. It was top notch cooking with fantastic ingredients – the French are kings and queens of the set menu. Vouvray was the wine choice of the evening, starting with a couple of glasses of delicious sparkling nectar from Domaine Fourquat. Ripe apples and a tropical twist, with a delicious hint of sweetness, all brought together with tiny, perfectly formed bubbles. We then had a bottle of dry Vouvray, which was simple but went down a treat:

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Domaine Champalou Sec Vouvray 2011 (€16.00)
Lovely mixture of apple skin and citrus with the faintest hint of the tropics. Lovely acidity and a decent, if not over-generous finish. Ideal start to the holiday and perfect for 30 degree heat! 87 points

It’s funny, as the week before travelling to Tours I drank another bottle from Domaine Champalou – this one was off-dry and had layers of complexity:

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Domaine Champalou Cuvée des Fondraux Vouvray 2011 (Wine & The Vine £14.95)
Lovely honey, nuts and apples, then plenty if citrus zing as well a delicious note of very ripe melon. The acidity is searing and delicious, perfectly balanced with the residual sugar to give a truly refreshing edge. I would happily drink a bottle of this every night this summer and believe it counted as at least two of my five a day! 92 points

I really can’t wait to get back to The Loire… But unfortunately there’s a week in Bordeaux to do first!

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The best New World Riesling?

I don’t often write articles based on a single bottle but I just felt that I had to this evening. The Fish has been away all week and she requested steak on the BBQ on her return; so off I went to Athens Ginger Pig, off Marylebone High Street, to pick up the finest cote de boeuf.

The obvious choice to go with the beef was a red so I chose a red wine that would be delicious served chilled in this hot weather… And as we’re off to the Loire in a couple of weeks, a Saumur-Champigny was an ideal choice. But what to drink while we waited for the coals to ready themselves? I love Riesling and I especially love Clare Valley Riesling. The best I have tasted to date was the Grosset Polish Hill 2009… Until tonight… When I tried the 2012. Many would argue its too early to get the full benefit of this great wine… But I disagree!

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Grosset Polish Hill Riesling 2012, Clare Valley, South Australia (The Wine Society £25.00)
I think this could be the best new world Riesling available. It’s certainly the best I’ve tried. I was worried that it may be too early to drink but that was a load of tripe! There is so much fruit on the nose and palate its almost endless. So much lemon and lime and then comes the passion fruit and slight hint of mango. Add in the delightfully flint-like minerality, beautiful acidity and an almost endless finish and you’ve got the perfect New World Riesling (that will improve as those wonderful petrol flavours develop). Wow, just wow. I need a case to try a bottle every year… But I think I might struggle to keep the appointments! 95 points

And lets not forget about the delicious Loire red:

Clos des Cordeliers Saumur-Chamigny Prestige 2009, Loire (The Wine Society £14.95)
Very purple colour and an aroma reminiscent of a bowl if ripe cherries with maybe a hint of leather and liquorice. Served chilled it has a crunchy, fruity texture and the aromas come through in the flavour along with some precise raspberry; Like chomping through a bowl of sweet cherries with a few stray raspberries thrown in, a lovely grip on tannin and a herby thyme and bay finish. Great stuff – a super summer red. 91 points

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