In Australia and New Zealand if you want to taste an estate’s wines you rock up to the cellar door and say, “Can I’ve a taste?” But it’s not like that in France. It seems – especially for the more prestigious chateaus – you need an invitation. So Uniworld organised invitations. Mind you, Scenic organises invitations, too, so I think the chateaus have seen the monetary value of cruise ships. We would separate into four groups, with each going to a different vineyard. I’m sure all of them were wonderful, but we got to go to Chateau Gruaud Larose.
It’s a truly spectacular estate in the Medoc area of Aquitaine. It’s organic, so insects are encouraged with beautiful formal gardens. We took a lift up to the top of a very 21st century tower for a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside. In fact, this estate has its share of state-of-the-art gadgetry, including a hail preventer. If radar detects the possibility of hail a cannon is fired into the clouds, creating shock waves which break the hail up into smaller pieces so it falls as snow or rain.
Then a very competent young woman took us to see the wine-making process. (they all seemed to be very competent young women) The chateau has concrete vats which it has used since the 1920’s. It also (of course) uses oak barrels made exclusively from French oak, which imparts the flavours the vigneron wants. The barrels last for three years, then they are replaced. That’s a lot of oak, because everybody does the same thing and the oak has to be several hundred years old to make the barrels. We were told that for many centuries two oak trees are planted whenever one is cut. The used barrels are not discarded, they are used at smaller wineries, or for making other wines or spirits. Eventually they may end up in Bunnings to be cut in half and used as planters. Maybe. ???? In a nice touch the centre of the barrels here are stained red. It’s not purely aesthetic, because when the wine is sampled some wine may spill. The red stain hides the wine stains.
Only the best wines are aged in oak, and only the best wines have the word “chateau” on the label. The second line is aged in concrete. There’s a lot of hands-on labour involved, with the grapes being picked, then picked over before crushing. It was interesting to learn that egg whites were originally used to remove impurities. All those left over egg yolks are used to make canelé cakes, a speciality of the region. These days the wineries use albumen to clarify their wines.
And, of course, we got to taste. Our guide told us that wine only lasts for 20 years or so before it starts to lose acidity, tannin etc. so if you have bottles older than that, unless you’re saving them for prestige – drink them now.
Today we actually did some sailing, from Bordeaux into the Gironde estuary. Frankly, it’s not the most picturesque sailing we’ve ever done. The banks are tidal under quite steep cliffs but above that the wineries and chateaus lend a bit of colour. Fishing towers line the banks – hundreds of them. The locals have the right to use them and some of them are quite elaborate.
Tomorrow we’ll take a detailed look at Blaye fortress. Fascinating stuff.