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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Prior to these being harvested we passed through the rows to remove any unsuitable specimens.
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!
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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: Chablis
Guest Wines Tour de France
Following our introduction to the Champagne region, we stopped the night at a budget hotel in Auxerre (‘oh-sair’), a small port town on the river Yonne just West of Chablis itself and capital of the Yonne département. Upon leaving for our next stop Chablis, we noticed that the landscape became increasingly hilly and rolling and very picturesque. The sun was shining and a temperature of 23.5 degrees gave for a happy mood and readied us to taste some Premier and Grand Cru Chablis.
Prior to embarking on our work for the day, we took in breakfast at the ‘Chablis bar’ bang in the centre of town, where the very friendly staff topped us up with the obligatory croissant and cup of strong French coffee.
Our first stop was at La Chablisienne, which started life as a cooperative winery but has now evolved to bring everything in-house. We were possibly the first customers of the day – well, better to get in early and avoid the crowds!
After being shown a short video on Chablis explaining the different wine appellations, Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru, we were introduced to a selection of wines from each, Ruth immediately picked out a slight cork taint in one of the Premier Cru wines, which was gladly exchanged for another in better shape. Well done – WSET in action!
We thoroughly enjoyed the wines from the range we had and would best describe them as being of good body and substance. There was quite a difference in the flavours and structure of each wine, marking out where it came from, with intensity and complexity growing as you moved through to Grand Cru level. They were all very good wines, however, the Grand Cru Les Preuses 2009 stood out for us, an elegant wine showing lovely apple, pear, fennel, almond aromas and flavours, a true ‘phwaar’ wine!
We also picked up a few recipe cards, suggesting dishes to go with their wines. The asparagus and avocado tart with Premier Cru Montmain sounded pretty tasty indeed!
Next, was William Fèvre, where we were taken through a range of wines selected from the available list by Sylvain (our Wine Advisor), who was very helpful with explaining the chosen wines to us.
The range here was lighter in style, with more subtle flavours, to what we had already tasted but the differences between the wines were still marked in terms of which appellation the grapes came from. The prices at William Fèvre were a step up from La Chablisienne but based on what we had tasted, we felt La Chablisienne was pretty good value for money.
However, we did like their Saint Bris Sauvignon Blanc, which had a lovely aroma of fresh green peas (and it happened to be their cheapest).
Just around the corner from William Fèvre, we found Domaine Pinson and were led into a tasting cave (literally!) by the proprietor’s daughter Charlene. We loved their wines with their fuller flavour that still maintained steely acidity. More oomph, in terms of flavour, for a great price. With each tasting we were beginning to understand which characteristics could be attributed to which appellation of Chablis.
We especially enjoyed their Premier Cru Montmains 2011, Fourchaume 2011 and Mont de Milieu 2011, all exhibiting a fuller bodied, richer style of Chablis with good acidity.
The tastings we experienced this morning brilliantly demonstrated terroir in action, although each individual producer had their own style there was no getting away from the fact that the terroir shone though, certain areas had quite distinct characteristics no matter who produced them, for example Premier Cru Fourchaume to the right side of Chablis always had a soft roundness to it, whereas Premier Cru Vaillons on the left side had a more mineral touch.
On our way to Préhy and Saint Bris, we took to the hills that offered wonderful views across the valley and stopped for a lovely picnic lunch just outside Courgis with stunning views of the vineyards stretching out around us!
The afternoon was spent at Domaine Jean Marc Brocard in Préhy, where we were given an excellent and informative tasting in lieu of a tour, which wasn’t taking place due to the busy activity of harvest.
It is an impressively large winery, nestled next to the small church Sainte Claire that stands proudly amongst the vines, a picturesque scene indeed.
Three generations produce the wines on sale here, with third generation Julien gradually taking over the reins from father Jean-Marc. Father-in-law, Emile Petit, also produces an Auxerrois range of wines at the Domaine. Julien is pursuing biodynamic practices and his range of wines all reflect this along with a modern slant to his bottle labelling. The main range of wines continues to be produced by father, Jean-Marc, which also now includes several biodynamic wines. In tasting both father and son’s biodynamic wines, we noted similar characteristics that carried over between them, which we found really interesting.
We enjoyed tasting a wide range of the wines from Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites and were especially impressed by Jean Marc’s Premier Cru Vaulorent 2011, honeydew melon, grapefruit, round and buttery and Grand Cru Les Preuses 2010, white flower blossom, honeyed melon, lovely richness, as well as Julien’s Premier Cru Les Vaudevay, fruity green fig character, flinty and fresh. All these wines were biodynamic.
This was followed by a trip to Saint Bris but unfortunately the cellar at Domaine Groisotwas closed to appointments. However, we were able to see that they were busy washing out the press after a busy morning harvesting. We therefore decided to wander around the town and soak up its grand buildings and an ancient past.
The day was pressing on but we felt that it would not be right of us to go away from Chablis without trying some of the reds available. So we went to Irancy on the hunt for their take on Pinot Noir. We found a good example of this at Benoît Cantin. Sonia, the winemaker’s wife, talked us through a few of their wines, including a rosé, before showing us around the winery, all excellent stuff! A gorgeous little place nestled between hills and well worth a visit.
Their Irancy “Palotte” 2010 combined Pinot Noir with 10% of the local grape Cesar and showed savoury, forest floor aromas alongside the red fruits.
Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to call in to Les Caves de Bailly, with their impressive cellar, as it was already quite late in the day and we had a long journey ahead of us in order to reach Burgundy before darkness in the hope that finding the budget hotel would be less difficult than the previous night!
The journey to Dijon was pleasant, with a noticeable change to the terrain – steep inclines and rocky outcrops suddenly jutted out from the earlier gently rolling landscape.
It was our first try with a ‘Fast Hotel’, cheap but with a welcomingly cheerful receptionist, who was happy to make us a pot of green tea late at night as there was nowhere to get a hot drink (coming back to the lack of kettles in French hotel rooms again!). And so ended another great day. We both came away from Chablis feeling that little bit more knowledgeable about the region and its wines.
So, would we feel the same upon entering Burgundy’s other half?