Category Archives: Travel

Bordeaux Life in a winery

Guest Wines Tour de France

Now the harvest was over, our work moved into the chai at Chateau la Tour de Chollet.

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Our first job was to prepare the barrels for the transfer of last year’s red wine, which involved lots of cleaning!

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After this was done and the barrels were dried out we were able to attach a pump to the tank full of Merlot and gravity fill each barrel, making for a gentler transfer of the wine, only the last little bit of wine needed to be pumped through. It took some exact measuring to ensure the wine did not spurt out of the top of the barrel as it was being filled but unfortunately we got a bit cocky and on the second to last barrel Kel got showered in Merlot juice as we underestimated the flow.

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The tank that was now empty so needed to be cleaned and prepared for the 2013 harvest, which involved climbing inside to scrub down the walls and give it a good steam clean. Kel had a bit of a sauna going on in there and was by now truly soaked!

Our next jobs involved looking after the newly harvested juice with daily tasks of checking the baume (sugar) and temperature levels, pump overs, punch downs or ‘pigeage’ for the reds and temperature control.

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We introduced a South African technique to help us break the cap on one of the tanks of red, proving particularly difficult, that involved balancing a plank of wood across the tank (as demonstrated in the photo below) and sitting on it whilst spearing the ‘gateaux’ (cake), a description we were introduced to at Chateau Bertinerie in Blaye. This was always a two person job because of the escaping CO2 gases.

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On one of the day’s when Paul needed to bring some juice to the laboratory for sample anaylsis, we were able to tag along and were given a guided tour by the lab manager. It was interesting to see the amount of equipment used to do various tests to ensure the wine is of good quality. Some of the apparatus is the same as that used in hospitals for human specimen tests, however in this instance these test tubes were full of grape juice rather than blood!

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Back at the chai, Paul demonstrated the homemade cooling system that he had devised mainly for the whites and rose, this was an eduation for us as it enabled us to see exactly how this process works. Whereas the reds occasionally needed a little help with attaining a higher temperature, which involved taking a proportion of the wine into another vessel and placing what looks like a radiator into the juice, heating it up, then pumping it back into the tank, enabling the rest to increase in temperature.

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Florent would call in once or twice a week to see how everything was going and would give Paul advice and direction on the fermentation process.

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We were fortunate enough to still be around to see the Merlot complete its fermentation and then witness the leftover pomace or marc, leftover skins, be pressed by the traditional basket press. It was amazing to see how much juice could still be extracted but as this is highly concentrated it is always stored in a separate tank and can be used for blending in the final wine. Needless to say the clean up afterwards took alot longer than the pressing itself.

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Once the grape skins have been pressed and squeezed of all their juices, the basket press can be dismantled revealing an impressively compacted ‘gateaux’ or cake. The ‘gateaux’ is collected and taken away to be used for the production of surgical alcohol. It’s good to know a lot of waste produce is recycled.

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The fermentation was almost complete on the rose and so it was ready to be fined before being transferred into tank to be stored for winter prior to bottling.

The white had also finished its fermentation and was going to be left a bit longer on its lees, so we had a hand at ‘battonage’, which involves stirring the lees up into the wine, to help this process along.

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This was followed by more cleaning and then our time in this winery was at an end. What we have come to realise about this type of work is that there is no room for mind reading! Careful planning and effective communication are essential to ensure that everyone knows their role and understands exactly what they should be doing.

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It can be dangerous work!

Our final few days at Chollet saw us returning to the vineyard to remove old posts in need of replacement.

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Although our 2013 harvest at this chateau was complete, we shall stay in the Bordeaux region for our next few instalments where we feature Ruth going back to school as well as exploring some of the lesser known appellations before we move out and onto the Loire Valley.

Bordeaux Life on a vineyard

Guest Wines Tour de France

After a good night’s sleep, we met Kirstie for our ‘induction’ tour of the Chollet vineyards and winery. It was a very foggy morning, which leant a rather ethereal and eery air to the surroundings yet it was atmospheric.

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Kirstie walked us around the vines, which completely surround the house and winery. It was interesting to hear that the oldest vines are around 60 years old and new Sauvignon Blanc vines have recently been planted, so there are quite a range of ages. It was quite soggy walking around and we risked sinking into the sandy clay at times, wellies were definitely needed for the next day. The soil was quite different to vineyards we had worked in elsewhere but typical of this part of Bordeaux.

Paul then showed us around the ‘chai’ (winery) explaining how everything worked before taking us through a tasting of his wines.

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Our following few days were spent in the Semillon vines, average age of 57 years old with extremely gnarly trunks, cutting out any bunches that were unsuitable for harvest, such as where there were any signs of rot as it had been a particularly wet period. Unfortunately, more rain was forecast, which provides ideal conditions for grey rot, noble rot’s evil twin! Needless to say we didn’t escape the wet as we pruned the bunches …

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We finished our pruning with the Cabernet Franc on the day prior to the actual harvest.

Whilst pruning we met Florent Niautou, Consultant Oenologist, who has helped Chollet since the early days and provides great insight and advice on wine making techniques to suit each harvest. We soon came to understand that the 2013 harvest was being seen as something of a trickier one in Bordeaux, as well as across France, with producers seeing their yields reduced by as much as 50% or more and desired sugar levels difficult to attain. We also got to experience Bordeaux weather, one day hot and sunny, the next torrential rain and thunder storms, increasing the chance of rot. It will definitely be interesting to see how the wines from this vintage turn out.

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It was still very dark on harvest day when we were up and ready to go at a pretty early hour, there was a distinct chill in the air. We were introduced to Joelle and Hugo who had brought their harvesting equipment while Paul’s neighbour was already out busy with the machine harvester. This was the first time we had experienced this up close and it was fascinating to see how fast the harvester moved up and down the rows shaking the grapes off the vines leaving their stalks attached. A job that would have taken a group of us the day to hand pick was completed within a few hours.

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Once the grapes were brought into the winery, our work could begin. The white wine grapes, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc, were brought in first, which we helped sort by removing unwanted pieces of debris before they were gently pumped into the press and finally into a stainless steel tank to allow the juice to settle before commencing fermentation.

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Next to come in were the Merlot grapes as these were also deemed ready to be picked. These grapes were pushed through a destemming machine, which also lightly crushes them. Initially, a portion of the juice was ‘bled’ (known as saignee) from the grapes whilst they rested in the press, this was done in stages so that the colour could be checked at regular intervals to make sure the right level of intensity was reached for the rose. This juice was run off into a stainless steel tank to settle while the remainder went into tank for the red wine. Fermentation was kicked off straight away for the red wine must.

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Then began the process of cleaning, so everything was ready to go again for the red wine grapes a few days later. Ah memories of our work in South Africa and Roussillon came flooding back, literally as the water flowed and flowed … you can’t have an aversion to cleaning in this line of work.

The Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon would still remain on the vine a few days more to allow sugar levels to continue to rise to a more suitable level for picking.

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Prior to these being harvested we passed through the rows to remove any unsuitable specimens.

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Ruth was off studying Bordeaux wine at L’Ecole du Vin in Bordeaux city when it was time to complete the harvest, so Kel represented Guest Wines with completion of the Chollet harvest. The Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes were also machine harvested, apart from a small parcel of younger Cabernet Sauvignon vines that were handpicked.

Once all the red grapes were brought back to the winery, Kel sorted through them for debris whilst Kirstie and Paul processed them through the destemmer into the tank. The harvest was now complete and all the juice was safely in tank beginning to fizz.

The vineyard work was more or less over apart from a few days near the end of our stay when we ventured back out to remove old posts in the Cabernet Franc vines that were to be replaced with new ones. It was pretty tough work but as always a good workout. We were even entrusted with the Chateau’s quad bike to shift the old posts from the vineyard to the storage area, great fun and particularly exciting for Kel as he had not driven a vehicle for some 14 years! Though Ruth was a little bit more nervous about being the passenger in this case. Trying to manoeuvre one of these in reverse with a trailer attached was quite a challenge but we are pleased to say we succeeded – Hoorah!

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It was a nice way to finish our stay at Chollet, as on these last few days we were blessed with lovely sunshine and warm temperatures. It was great to feel the sun on our faces in late October.

However, before we leave Chollet, we shall be returning to the winery to feature the process of converting grape into wine.

Grand Cru Drive Thru: Château la Tour de Chollet, Ste-Foy La Grande

Guest Wines Tour de France

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It was now time for us to stop and take root for a while amongst the vines at Château la Tour de Chollet in Bordeaux, where we would spend a month helping out with their harvest. We came across an advert in Decanter magazine, which invited interested readers to gain some experience of working on a vineyard in Bordeaux. We didn’t hesitate to contact them to enquire about what they could offer and only a few emails later, we had secured a month lending a hand at this family run chateau.

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Our very own Tower!

Paul and Kirstie Rowbotham decided to change careers in 2003 and bravely gave up their jobs in the IT industry to move into the winemaking industry. After spending a year working on a vineyard in Cahors they decided that France was the place for them and started searching for their ideal location. They found Château la Tour de Chollet in 2006 after agreeing to go into their exciting new venture with Kirstie’s parents, Laurie and Linda. We learnt that Chollet is the name of the area and a neighbouring property and the ‘Tour’ in the name turned out to be our accommodation for the period we were there.

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They were on a steep learning curve taking over a vineyard which previously sold its grapes to the local cooperative and deciding to convert all 20 acres to organic production but they have managed to do this successfully, building up a reputable business incorporating wine tourism as well as the production of a range of wines for which they have now received several awards, including commendments from IWC and Decanter. They sell their wines to various restaurants in England as well as to those who visit the vineyard for a tour or stay in the holiday accommodation.

It’s a lovely area to holiday in with plenty to see and do within driving distance and the Tower is well equipped with a lounge, kitchen, dining room and two bedrooms. Looking out your window everyday to row upon row of vines is quite spectacular and you can’t help but be seduced by the lifestyle there.

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The vines surround the house and winery, which is known as the chai in French, and they grow Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, some of the vines are as old as 60 years of age. Their range of wines consist of two reds, one oaked and one unoaked, a rose, a dry white and a sweet white, which is no mean feat for a small producer.

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The chateau itself is situated in the small commune of Les Leves et Thoumeyragues, only 10 minutes drive from Sainte-Foy-La-Grande. Ste-Foy sits neatly by the Dordogne river and is a characteristic fortified town, walking the streets you pass many very old looking timber buildings whose walls worryingly slope outwards above you almost arching across the street. The town has a welcoming feel and there was plenty of activity going on, in particular with sales of ‘cèpes’ on the roadside, wild mushrooms that were in some cases very large!

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The local E.Leclerc supermarket proved to be a great place to shop not just for our daily staples but impressively for wine too! It was the ‘Foire aux Vins’ whilst we were there, which is one of the times of year supermarkets in France discount a large amount of wine and you can access many famous Chateaux second wines at very reasonable prices, a taste of what the top guns produce! We found a second wine by Chateau Talbot, Connetable, 2009 and 2010 for less than 20 euros but without the help of Bruno, the wine advisor on duty, we might not have found the other delights that we did. He was so passionate about wine and pointed out a number of good value finds and he also spoke brilliant English, which was even more helpful although we were getting by not too badly with Ruth’s French.

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Bruno, our helpful wine advisor!

You can read about quite a different ‘Foire aux Vins’ experience that Ruth had recently in Roussillon here.

On our days off we explored the region as much as we could, eager to learn more about what makes Bordeaux so special. The differences in landscape and soils were quite noticeable between areas, such as the sandy clay found here.

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On one such day, after a nice Sunday dinner, we ventured out for a walk around the vines bathed in the early evening sun, which gently settled on the horizon as if performing a grand finale for us. A hot air balloon floated by in the distance, horse riders passed by whilst out for their evening trot, we even disturbed a wild deer that ran across our path, which all made for what was almost an idyllic moment apart from the occasional gunfire that could be heard as it was now the hunting season. This commences directly after harvest has finished, where local boar, deer, hare and a particular speciality the palambra (a type of wood pigeon that migrates at this time of year) are the targets, various lookouts and traps are erected in the local woods in order to catch these birds on their migration, it seems to be quite an event on the annual hunting calendar but we could think of other ways to pass our time.

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Our month quickly passed and on our final night we were treated to a curry with the Rowbotham family, needless to say one or two good Bordeaux wines were a fine accompaniment that helped wash it all down. This rounded off our Bordeaux experience as the following day we would be moving on to the Loire Valley.

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However, before moving on, we have more tales to share of our Bordeaux experience and our next blogs will feature in a little more detail our time in the vineyard and  winery as well as exploring some of those lesser known Bordeaux appellations.

Grand Cru Drive Thru Bordeaux: St-Émilion & Pomerol

Guest Wines Tour de France

We set out on our drive to Saint Émilion on what was to be a rather grey and rainy day but this didn’t dampen our sense of excitement on seeing this infamous town impressively reveal itself as we journeyed along the D670.

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We chose to drive straight through the town to begin with as we wanted to seek out Clos Trimoulet, which lies just outside the town walls on a flatter bit of the plateau. Having enjoyed their Grand Cru wines purchased at the Salon des Vignerons Indépendants in Paris a couple of years ago, it seemed fitting to be heading to this particular producer to get our day underway.

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The Appollot family has been making wine here for six generations and is currently managed by Joel and Alain Appollot. We were greeted by one of the wife one of the owners, who was pleased to hear our connection with the estate and glad that we were here to taste and take away a few more of their lovely wines, which are excellent value. This we did, not leaving empty handed we filled our car boot with a case of their 2008 and 2010 vintages.

We now headed back into town and upon arrival we discovered that we were parked beside the Wine Information Centre, which is situated around the corner from the main Tourist Office, so this seemed like a good place to start. Here, we were presented with a history of the region’s wine making as well as an opportunity to engage with the “identify the aroma”  interactive learning tool, which picked out those commonly found in the local wines.

Afterwards, we decided to take a stroll around the town with its many charms and we were glad to have worn our hiking boots to help us up and down the very steep cobbled streets. The local speciality, a tasty ‘canelé’ cake, gave us the energy to keep going.

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It seemed that we had chosen a good time in which to visit as the place was almost deserted, giving us the opportunity to take in the views unobstructed by the hoards of tourists that descend during the summer months.

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Standing proudly on the south facing limestone ridged hill is Château Ausone, one of the four Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) Chateaux, so it only seemed right to climb the steep narrow lane that leads to its main entrance where we took in fine views of the vineyard slopes that surround the town and stretch out into the adjoining countryside. And this is as close as we got to this ‘Class A’ Château, as unfortunately, we did not have an invite to hand… maybe next time?!?

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We then took to driving around the small and winding roads in and around St-Émilion and Pomerol to gaze in delight as one famous chateau after another appeared before our eyes. The chateaux on this side of the river are definitely not as flamboyant as their neighbours on the other side, apart from one or two, but this does not distract away from their grandeur simply by name alone. For instance,  Château Petrus could have easily been passed by if it wasn’t for our GPS informing us that we were actually in the right place!

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We also called in for a photo stop at Château La Fleur-Pétrus and were met by a member of staff who asked what the purpose of our visit was. He allowed us to take a photo as long as we left swiftly … no appointments today!

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However, there was no mistaking Cheval Blanc with its grand winery designed by architect Christian de Portzamparc, which has been created to give the appearance of blending in with the surrounding countryside. Nobody seemed to mind us taking a stroll around the grounds or enjoying the panoramic views from the top of the winery… we just needed a glass of Cheval Blanc in our hands and our day would have been even more perfect than it was already turning out to be.

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Whilst on our St-Émilion journey of discovery, we got a tip off from a friend who suggested that we should try to call into Château Laniote, a teeny five acre Grand Cru Classé that has been in the same family for seven generations. We turned up at the door with a hint of trepidation not knowing if anyone would answer or if we might be turned away because we didn’t have an appointment.

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However, all our fears quickly dissolved when Monsieur Arnaud de la Filolie appeared with his extremely friendly and welcoming manner. He was more than happy to receive us despite it being the “official” French lunchtime, which he quickly dismissed with a ‘paf’ as he shoved bottles in our hands so we could help him finish his labelling.

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During the next hour we had the most wonderfully entertaining tour of the winery finished off with a tasting. We were very impressed by his wines, which he makes with his oenologist wife Florence.

Arnaud was a real gentleman who loved showing off his magic tricks and kept us laughing throughout. However, his wines were no joke, excellently crafted and to be enjoyed.

Follow us next where we shall be getting our hands dirty for the harvest at a Bordeaux chateau.

Grand Cru Drive Thru Bordeaux: Medoc & Graves

Guest Wines Tour de France

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Returning to our Tour de France wine journey, we now find ourselves in Bordeaux. Our journey to the infamous Médoc region began with a stroll around Bordeaux city itself on a sunny Sunday afternoon. It was surprisingly easy to navigate our way into the centre and find parking because it was the first Sunday of the month, when apparently cars are banned from the citys’ central streets and cycling is very actively encouraged. It’s actually great once you ditch your car as you can happily walk around without much concern for traffic sneaking up behind you the minute you stop to admire a view. As a result the city was surprisingly buzzing, being a Sunday we knew most things would be shut but in fact a number of places were open.

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The grand buildings lining the Esplanade des Quinconces appeared ahead of us as we crossed the Pont de Pierre, over the Garonne River, alongside shiny trams that quietly floated by. It is understandable to see why it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Lots of people were enjoying the sun on the Esplanade, an assorted mix of walkers, cyclists, skate boarders, roller skaters and even someone on a pair of running blades who bounced past.

We happened upon the very lively market at the Quai des Chartrons, where there was plenty of fresh local produce to buy as well as to eat there and then at the pop up restaurant stalls. The market had a distinct Latin air about it with sounds of salsa drifting over the airwaves.

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Venturing into the narrow streets that snake off from the Esplanade we strolled around the Chartrons District, famous for its wine merchant history, and found our way to the centre of the city, where pedestrianized streets that house shop after shop spread out around us.

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We were pleasantly impressed by Bordeaux city and it gets even more interesting when you start Chateaux spotting. A mere 5 minute drive South and you soon find yourself surrounded by vines on either side of the road, that are themselves surrounded by urban sprawl. Welcome to Château Haut-Brion and La Mission Haut-Brion, part of the Pessac-Léognan appellation.

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As you leave the urban sprawl behind heading deeper into Graves, you start passing through small towns and villages, where pretty vineyard views stretch ahead of you. We called in at the picturesque Château Haut Bailly, for a walk amongst the vines, which seem to be always in the shadow of the chateau that stands proudly looking on.

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Whilst, on the other hand, the journey North to Medoc takes you through a wine wilderness. Upon leaving the city of Bordeaux, we found ourselves in a large faceless industrial estate and if it wasn’t for Oz Clarke’s fantastic Bordeaux book, in which he describes the drive up the D2, we would have believed we had taken a wrong turn. However, perseverance pays off and one by one the famous Chateaux and vineyards began to appear.

It’s difficult driving as we looked on in awe at so many world renowned names on every corner of nearly every lane on our drive through the region. However, this contrasted somewhat with finding ourselves in the Grand Cru village of Margaux at lunchtime, with nowhere open, it was fitting that we should be sat in a car park in the rain eating our packed lunch.

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Do you know your Chateaux? Chateau Palmer, Chateau Beychevelle, Chateau Margaux, Cos D’Estournel, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Lynch-Bages, Chateau Latour, Chateau Pichon Longueville.

We stopped off at La Winery in Haut Médoc, established by Chateau D’Arsac in 2007 who aim to lead the way into a more new world type of wine tourist experience. Amongst its selection of wines, they even had a few bottles from “other countries”, well fancy that!

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It was fascinating to see the variations in soils from one vineyard parcel to the next literally side by side. The meaning of ‘terroir’ was growing increasingly evident to us as we travelled around.

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As we headed further North to St Estephe the rain clouds cleared away and the sun started to shine, giving us great views of the Gironde Estuary and vines sloping all the way down to the river banks.

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We returned via Moulis in the sunset, which brought down the curtains on a fine day as we headed once again into the grand city of Bordeaux.

Our next adventure will see us moving from the Left Bank to the Right Bank.

Grand Cru Drive Thru: South West France – Cahors

Guest Wines Tour de France

A couple of hours drive North of Toulouse, is the attractive medieval city of Cahors with its distinctive Mediterranean feel. Easy to navigate, we parked just off the main street before taking a stroll around the city and along the River Lot. A walk around the old part of the city transported us back in time, soaking up the atmosphere amidst the medieval architecture and narrow winding streets.

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Cahors has a great feel to it, quite bohemian with real heart and soul, bustling with life and shops that stay open over lunchtime! There were even a couple of vegetarian restaurants, Le Petit Salon being one.  This is in contrast to it being one of the main regions for producing foie gras, so was very welcome and seemed quite progressive based on our experience so far!

Adding to the positive vibes of Cahors charms, we even managed to find a sim card for our ipad, unlike in other parts of France where we were rebuffed and told we couldn’t buy one unless we had a French bank card, eh? And again, isn’t this supposed to be Europe?! Thankfully, Rodolphe at the Orange shop on the main street, made our lives very easy getting us hooked up to the net in minutes, ahhhhh civilisation!

Next to the tourist office we made a beeline for the La Villa Cahors Malbec, which upon entering appeared to be a bar so when we tentatively asked if it was possible to taste the wines, Armand, the Promotions Manager, explained that it was in fact a tasting facility aimed at promoting the wines of Cahors and for 5 euros we could taste three styles of Malbec, which he would talk us through. It was just what we needed for our short stay in the area.

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Armand was extremely helpful, explaining in excellent English about the different styles available as well as giving us a brief history of the region. He also suggested several wine merchants worth visiting based on our feedback of the wines he offered us. We came away with a much better appreciation of Cahors wines as well as a handy booklet ‘Cahors Capitale du Malbec’ that enabled us to explore the region and its producers in finer detail.

It sounded like there is quite a drive to reinvent the wines of Cahors and shrug off an out dated image, for example Armand highlighted to us that the regions’ wines were being celebrated as part of Le festival Cinédélices taking place on 3 October this year, an evening of Malbec Eroticus … oo la la!

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The three wines we tasted were excellent examples and were split into the following categories:

‘Round & Structured’ – min 70% Malbec plus Merlot & Tannat but can have Cabernet Sauvignon & Gamay, no age in barrel, made to drink young, retail between 5-7 euros. We tasted Domaine de Chantelle 2009, app 5 euros, fruity nose – fresh red fruits, currants, soft tannins, light bodied, easy drinking and great for a BBQ.

‘Full & Tasty’ – 85-100% Malbec, use of oak app 12 months, 5-7 years ageing in bottle. Classed as food wines, matching with meats, duck and lamb, retail between 7-10 euros. Accounts for 40% production. We tasted Domaine la Borie 2009, app 7.50 euros, lovely dark concentrated fruit nose, spice, more brooding, chocolate, silky tannins, good length, balanced. Needs a couple of hours in a decanter.

‘Intense & Complex’ –  100% Malbec, matured for 24 months in oak, can last 10-15 years in bottle, matches well with beef, pate or chocolate, retail above 15 euros, may need 5-6 hours in decanter. Accounts for 10% production. We tasted Domaine la Borie Exception 2008, app 16 euros, deeper and darker fruits again from previous wine, prune overtones, stronger tannin, more structured, a lovely wine.

We were so impressed by these that we headed out to see if we could find them. Armand also recommended searching out Château du Cèdre, which is deemed one of the top producers and an excellent example of great Cahors Malbec.

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Our first stop was at L’Atrium Georges Vigouroux, which is a wine warehouse on the outskirts of the town. We visited here first to see what range they had, as they are a large retail unit who sources their wines from selected producers and wineries, acting as a négociant for many, it was also the furthest away and it opened the soonest after lunch, many other shops didn’t open until at least 2.30pm or even 3pm!

We picked up a bottle of Pigmentum Gros Manseng 2012, at 7 euros, which won a Bronze medal at both IWC and Decanter Competitions, as well as Marcillac Cuvée Réservée 2010, combining Tannat and Malbec, at 8 euros. The Pigmentum was a demi-sec style with a honeyed, viscous mouthfeel, apricots, peaches and tropical fruits, soft acidity and a herbal undercurrent, a nice aperitif. Watch this space for our thoughts on the Marcillac.

Safe in the knowledge that the shops back in town would now be open, we drove back into Cahors and popped into Sudreau for a bottle of Château du Cèdre, Le Cèdre 2008, after which we walked down a side street and discovered Lafon-Frères, which was a bit of a treasure trove of older Cahors vintages. We picked up a bottle of Chateau D’Aydie 2004, Madiran, made of Tannat with a small amount of another red grape, possibly Cabernet Sauvignon, having quickly read a rather promising review by Hugo Read about its potential, so we look forward to trying it.

Pleased with our visit to Cahors but reluctant to leave as we were enjoying it so much, we took to the road for the last leg of our journey to Bordeaux. Winding along narrow roads and across rolling hills we passed impressively large houses and quaint sandstone villages, one such village that inspired us to stop and look around was called Goujounac, each building was made of orange stone and steeply tiled roofs seemed particular to this area. As we strolled the small, cobbled streets, we came across a pretty white cat on a bench, then noticed a teeny grey kitten run off round a corner, on following we were delighted to discover a whole kitty family hanging out in the street. A very sweet sight indeed.

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As we moved across and up the country, the scenery was changing and the vineyards disappeared, the landscape became more green and felt somehow more Northern European. We also started seeing more evidence of an English speaking population, the type of shops we were passing in towns, signs in English and drivers not constantly tailgating us (not that this is unknown in the UK but the French seem intent on perfecting this!).

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Passing through Bergerac, in the Dordogne Department, vineyards once again opened out before us. This is an area that we intended to return to on another day as time was quickly passing and we did not want to arrive too late at Le Chateau La Tour de Chollet, in Sainte-Foy-la-Grande, which would be our home for the next month.

Arriving at the Chateau in the early evening, we were welcomed by Paul and Kirstie Rowbotham and family.

Check out our tales of life on a Bordelais vineyard in our next instalment.

Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants

383220_10150385154236931_1377581205_n This week sees the opening of the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Independants in Paris – an event that we have in the past enjoyed attending, combining this with a bit of a pre-Christmas Parisian break.

This year, we shall not be there as we are involved in the International Wine Challenge Southern Hemisphere 2014 Tranche 1 Competition in London (more on that soon).

However, we thought it fitting to highlight the fair in Paris as you can find many fabulous wines there (ensure that you have enough space for the many cases that you will, no doubt, purchase – as we always do!). This is a great way to stock up for Christmas and the New Year ahead of course!

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It is also a great time to be in Paris (as if there is a time when not to be) as the festive celebrations are getting underway and to get in the mood, there’s no better way than to stroll down the Champs- Élysées, where a huge Christmas fair takes place ever year – you even get to see Santa!

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Below are a selection of wines that we purchased from the fair which have put a certain spirit into our Christmas festivities:

Baur Charles, Cremant d Alsace Brut NV: Riesling – Good mousse and body, floral, citrus with a creamy edge – a nice alternative to Champagne

Baur Charles, Alsace Grand Cru, Pfersigberg 2008, 13.5%: Gewurtztraminer – Absolutely scrumptious! Gorgeous mouthfeel that included orange peel, blossom and roses entwining around your tongue!

Domaine de Fussiacus, Saint Veran 2010, 13% – Hints of Pineapple and crushed almond, good acidity

Gilles Bouton et fils, Saint Aubin Premier Cru, Les Champlots 2010, 13.5% – Lovely buttery mouthfeel with citrus tang

Chateau de L’ou, Cotes du Roussillon 2009, 14.2% – fresh summer fruits including strawberry and raspberry – an easy drinker!

Domaine de la Milliere, Chateauneuf du Pape 2006, 14.5%  – Fruity, chocolate box fondant with balance and structure

Clos Trimoulet, Saint Emilion Grand Cru 2006, 13%: Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon – Dark fruits, Blackcurrant, touch of Tabacco – We felt that this still had some way to go, even though we enjoyed drinking it

Grand Cru Drive Thru: South West France – Fronton

Guest Wines Tour de France

The next leg of our road trip saw us leaving the medieval town of Avignon to head South West to Toulouse for our next overnight stop. This journey took us from the Southern Rhône, passing by the city of Nîmes, towards the sprawling vineyards of the Languedoc surrounding Montpellier and Beziers.

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As this was to be pretty much a car bound day of rather epic driving, we decided to take a detour to the coast for the chance to dip our toes in the Mediterranean sea. We ended up in the buzzing town of Sète, France’s largest Mediterranean fishing port, where we had a bite to eat alongside the Canal du Midi, watching the boats floating past.

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Although we were only here a short time, we got the feeling this might be a bit of a hidden gem on the Mediterranean coastline and we weren’t to be disappointed as we drove towards Agde along the spit of land that separates the lagoon from the Gulf of Lion, where carefully planted grasses line the sides of the road, hiding the miles of white sandy beach just from view. Ruth couldn’t resist a paddle but it was a tad fresher than she expected although very refreshing in the heat of the day. It was a peaceful moment in our long journey today, sitting on the beach, watching people relax and swim in the shimmering clear blue sea.

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Sadly, we couldn’t stay any longer as we needed to press on to Narbonne, passing through the Corbières appellation to then reach the historical city of Carcassonne. We had intended to have a brief stopover in Corbières as we thoroughly enjoy the wines from this region, always proving great value for money, however, we found ourselves ‘imprisoned’ on the péage (motorway with tolls if you’re not familiar with this), unable to exit, and forced to continue on. A future visit will most certainly see us spending more time to visit these great cities and wine regions.

Our destination of the day was to be Fronton, just North of Toulouse, where we had an appointment for a wine tasting with Jean Luc Ribes at Domaine le Roc. We pulled into the driveway of this more traditional looking winery, that had the feel of a farm about it, where geese and chickens were sauntering around. It was charming to find sculptures and pieces of art hidden amongst the garden’s greenery and the painted concrete tanks in the winery were a cheery sight. This artistic eccentricity is also encapsulated on the label of ‘La Folle Noire d’Ambat’, which is made from 100% Negrette and seems fitting for this particular variety.

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Everyone, including Jean Luc, was busy cleaning out tanks and moving equipment ready for harvest but Jean Luc kindly took some time out to go through his wines with us. Also, Pierre, who has worked at the farm for over 20 years, welcomed us with his unique sense of humour and amazingly Dick van Dyke-esque English accent that brought a red wine stained grin to our faces!

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Le Roc’s rosé and red wines are predominantly made from the Négrette grape, complimented by Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, and the white is a blend of Semillon, Chardonnay, Muscadelle and Viognier, what an interesting wine indeed, falling outside the local Appellation gives more freedom for such blending! These wines taste fabulous and are great value for money, at under 10 euros, considering the farm uses sustainable farming methods and organic practices, for example in winter sheep help to manage the foliage around the vines rather than herbicides being sprayed.

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It’s a true family business, run by brother’s Jean Luc and Frederic, whose wife Cathy took care of payment for our wines, and it was a real pleasure to visit.

Leaving Le Roc and Fronton, the rain caught up with us again and it was time to head back to Toulouse to find our accommodation for the night. Unfortunately, the ring road around the city took us on a magical mystery tour, with signs that seemed to be more cryptic than informative always leading us away from our destination rather than to it. Luckily, after much muttering and swearing and several unaccounted for trips on the (now dreaded) péage, we made it to our Appart’city, a compact but welcome apartment that gave us the opportunity to cook the first hot meal of our journey so far. However, we soon realised why it was such a bargain as it was in direct line of the airport runway, tempting Kel to consider taking up plane spotting! Nevertheless, after a few glasses of La Folle Noire d’Ambat and a hot pasta meal, we contentedly settled in  for the night.

 

Grand Cru Drive Thru: Rhône Valley

Guest Wines Tour de France

The weather had certainly changed as we started our journey through the Northern Rhône. No longer were we greeted with beautiful sunshine, instead, lots of rain! La Côte-Rôtie? More like La Côte-Rainy indeed! Still, those hillsides looked imposing and impressive!

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Driving along the valley famous names started to appear on large billboards on the hillsides amongst the vines, as we had seen in books but nothing really prepares you for seeing it with your own eyes! Firstly, Guigal, then Condrieu, then Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Chapoutier to name just a few. The slopes were extremely steep and in the pouring rain, with mist hanging low on the hills, it made for dramatic scenery. It reminded me of many a place in Asia, such as Southern China or Vietnam.

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Much the same as we first experienced in Burgundy’s Côte-d’Or, the vines were trained straight up stakes rather than on trellis systems, which are not so practical on the steep slopes. Geek alert: we found this fascinating to see as so far we had mainly seen the Guyot system, most widely used nowadays.

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Our first stop was by appointment with a producer in Mercurol, Domaine des Remizières, but despite us endeavouring to get there on time in the rain we arrived about 14 minutes later than our estimated arrival and were refused the appointment. We were extremely grateful that the Domaine had agreed to see us on a Sunday as they would not usually be open on this day but we were so disappointed to be turned away despite our long drive in torrential rain on roads that we had not travelled on before but sadly the proprietor was unwavering in their decision. We felt that their reaction was a tad extreme but hey, there were plenty more Rhône wines to be had so onwards we drove.

So our first tasting of the day was at the cooperative winery Cave de Tain, in Tain l’Hermitage, thankfully one of the few places open on a Sunday! We were given a taste of their range to get an overview of what they produce and were pleasantly impressed, for the price of 10 euros, the Saint Joseph Classique 2012 was smooth and fruity. Unfortunately, the Hermitage Classique 2009, at 25 euros, was corked and although a little apprehensive to point this out to the advisor since there were several French people also tasting this wine who had not raised any issue, we were very pleased when he agreed and threw the wine down the drain, but not before getting other staff members to smell and taste it as part of their education on an example of a corked wine. Another WSET success there – Hoorah!

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The Cornas and Hermitage reds were particularly tasty, especially the Cornas ‘Les Arenes Sauvages’ 2007 and Hermitage ‘Gambert de Loche’ 2007. As a bit of experimentation we also picked up a bottle of the Vin de Pays Syrah 2010 for all of 3.60 euros, and it wasn’t half bad whiling away an evening in our Premiere Classe Hotel on the outskirts of Avignon.

Next to visit was M. Chapoutier wine shop, also in the town of Tain. Whilst waiting for the shop to re-open after lunch, we took the opportunity to have ours sat on the railway station platform, with the impressive backdrop of world famous vineyards to gaze upon (you wouldn’t expect anything less of us, would you?).

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The wine advisor at Chapoutier talked us through a wide selection of wines and treated us to taste their single vineyard Ermitage ‘Le Meal’ 2001, which had the most amazing fruitcake aromas held up by a very good structure, the 2010 vintage listed would set you back at least 230 euros! We were particularly impressed by the Hermitage Chante-Alouette 2011 from Marsanne grapes, beautifully soft with creamy cooked apricots and hints of orange, lovely mouthfeel, as well as the Côte-Rôtie Les Bécasses 2010, showing classic gamey/rubber with dark, spicy fruit.

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Before leaving the shop, we thanked our wine advisor for the tasting to which he thanked us, i.e. the English, for helping Hermitage wines to exist, he then went on to explain the history further, how Merlot and Cabernet were brought from Bordeaux in 18th century to be blended with Syrah – hermitagé became the term used for blended Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet, hence hermitage came into existence, although now without wines from Bordeaux of course!

We made the most of having a day in one place and in between showers were able to walk around Tain, enjoying the views of the Rhône River as we crossed over to Tournon on the other side, a glimpse of sun even shone through for us!

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On leaving Tain, we headed South, driving through Cornas and Saint-Péray, interested to see where the wines we had just tasted that morning had come from. Stunning castle ruins balance almost precariously on rocky outcrops all the way down the Rhône, which was an amazingly emerald green colour with wide and high waters. The small town of Rochemaure, had a particularly impressive castle overlooking the streets below!

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The landscape strangely changes between the Côte-Rôtie and Southern Rhône where the expanse of vines disappear to be replaced by heavy industry. In contrast to our experience so far, many of the famous names of Southern Rhône, such as Gigondas and Vacqueyras, were further off the beaten track and the next vineyards we hit were at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Luckily, we were in for a treat as the skies cleared, a rainbow stretched out above us and the sun shone across the goblet shaped vines shimmering against the large pudding stones all around. It looks so stony, it’s a wonder anything grows but it shows the resilience of the vines that reflects that special ‘terroir’.

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Whilst here we sought out another of the producer’s we have bought wine from at the Paris Vignerons Indépendants Fair, Domaine de la Millière, more out of interest to see where they are based rather than expecting any kind of tasting, as it was Sunday so not general opening hours. It certainly is a beautiful area, which rather impressed us.

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Extremely happy with this lovely end to our journey through Rhône, we headed towards Avignon and even managed to find our hotel by 8pm, just before it turned dark!

Next we skim the Mediterranean sea through Languedoc to arrive in South West France.

Grand Cru Drive Thru: Burgundy & Beaujolais

Guest Wines Tour de France

We had now reached what seemed like miles and miles upon miles of vines, it was truly beautiful! Every available space was lent to viticulture – welcome to Burgundy!

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The weather was still being kind to us, with temperatures in the twenties, enabling the skies to clear later in the day opening up a wide vista of vines as far as our eyes could see. What better place to begin our day than at Gevrey Chambertin.

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We had an early morning appointment at Domaine Heresztyn and did not want to be late as we knew that we were in for a treat. We were met and greeted by Ewa, who is mother to winemaker Florence Heresztyn, third generation of the family, whose husband Simon Mazzini also makes Champagne.

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Ewa spent a little time explaining her family history and how the Domaine has developed over the years. You would be right in thinking this isn’t a very French Domaine name because it’s actually Polish. Jan Heresztyn emigrated from Poland in 1932, eventually arriving in Gevrey-Chambertin where he started acquiring parcels of vines, building up the business to what it is today with his two sons and now grand-daughter. It was a lovely start to the day and helped create a nice ambience in which to taste some truly excellent wines.

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Kelvyn particularly liked the more gamey aromas of the Gevrey-Chambertin Premier Cru 2007, whose grapes came from the parcel of vines right next to the house. Ruth preferred the softer, fruitiness of the Morey-Saint-Denis 2007. It was fascinating to taste the differences between each vineyard site.

Soon we were on our way again, travelling south. So much is in close proximity to the road that name after famous name simply pass by as you drive. It was with awe that we tried to take all this in.

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In order to gather our thoughts, we felt that it would be a good idea to stop off and stretch our legs at Vosne-Romanée to walk around its many famous high sloping vineyards. What an ideal place for a picnic whilst bathed in beautiful sunshine, leading to an immense feeling of satisfaction, eating local produce (though the tomatoes were from an allotment in North Shields!) and drinking a glass or two of the red stuff. A lasting memory indeed!

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We then drove through the famous Côte d’Or villages of Nuits-St-Georges and Beaune. Stopping off at Nuits-St-Georges as well as making a detour to Meursault, Saint Aubin and Puligny-Montrachet for brief strolls to soak in the atmosphere. It was also great to see the many pickers at work in the vineyards – something that we would be doing in a few days time.

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Near to Saint Aubin we passed the sign for the quaint village Gamay (though none of the grape variety of the same name is found here) and recalled a producer from there whose wines we have previously bought at the Paris Vignerons Indépendants Fair, Domaine Gilles Bouton et Fils, and are excellent. Sadly, all was quiet due to harvest so we weren’t able to visit on this occasion but we hope to return again.

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On our way from North to South Burgundy, the terrain turned quite flat and agricultural concerns other than vine took precedence before regaining their status as we approached Mâcon. Here, the valley that we were driving through grew more hilly.

After a little bit of driving up and down small winding country lanes, we eventually arrived at Château de Lavernette where we were greeted by another mother of one the wine makers, Anke Boissieu. She made us feel very welcome and gave us a bit of a history lesson whilst we were waiting for her son Xavier and wife Kerrie, who share the wine making between them, to arrive.

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We discovered that the Château has been in the hands of the family for some 400 years, having taken over from The Lordship of Lavernette and prior to this, the place had been owned by monks. It also lies on the border of Mâcon & Beaujolais, in fact the driveway of the Château is located in both AOC’s. Therefore, allowing the property to create both these regions’ wines.

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Ta-da on the border of Burgundy and Beaujolais

We were met by Kerrie, who took us on a tour of the vineyards, first the Gamay grapes grown in the Beaujolais section and then onto the vines of Mâcon. Quite a novel experience!

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Kerrie explained that the Estate is managed biodynamically, of which both her and husband Xavier are keen advocates. However, Kerrie also likes to inject a bit of a scientific approach into this as much as possible as her background was originally in medicine when she was a native of the States. It is here that she met Xavier when both were studying oenology at Saintsbury in the Napa Valley California.

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We later came across Xavier in the winery where he was undertaking final checks and preparations for the forthcoming harvest, which was expected to start after the weekend of our visit.

Both he and Kerrie make the wines, though both have different approaches. For example, Kerrie has purchased some stainless steel tanks and is producing a range of wines from these, whereas Xavier prefers to use the traditional concrete tanks.

However, despite the family being steeped in tradition and Xavier’s endeavour to maintain this, he is not afraid to try out new things, for example by developing a sparkling style Blanc de Noirs ‘Granit’, with 100% Gamay, alongside a more traditional Crémant de Bourgogne and we must say that we thoroughly enjoyed both.

Kerrie showed us around the winery and cellar, where there were some interesting looking ‘saucissons’ hanging from the ceiling, of which one was enjoyed with a glass of vino later on around the table. She also showed us the equipment used for making up the biodynamic mixtures as well as examining the fertiliser that is produced from manure that had been placed in a cow’s horn, the earth was alive with worms and wee beasties.

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It was great to while away a few hours tasting the wines from both winemakers and being made to feel very welcome by other family members and their friends on what was becoming quite late on a Saturday evening. We came away knowing that we would return to this delightful Château and its wonderful hosts hopefully sometime in the not so distant future.

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Would things heat up as we headed South to the  Rhône? ….