Tag Archives: wine

Wine tasting French style (you don’t just rock up)

The chateau grounds from the tower

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.

The tower

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.

Vineyards, and one field waiting its several years before being replanted

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.

The chateau grounds from the tower

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.

We also passed several wrecks. These date back to WW2, when the Allies tried to block access to the rivers. The Nazis built submarine pens in Bordeaux – they’re still there.

Tomorrow we’ll take a detailed look at Blaye fortress. Fascinating stuff.

Appellations, Terroir and sauterne

Grape vines and Chateau Guiraud

Monday dawned hot and still. The temperature was forecast to reach 38+ (100F) and we were warned to take water with us on our journey to a chateau that made sauterne. Making wine is a delicate art and it has its own terminology. I tend to work on the basis that “I likes what I likes”, so don’t expect a detailed essay on how they make the stuff. Suffice to say they use different types of grapes which are aged in concrete and then in oak for a certain amount of time. Wines will also mature in the bottle but while it’s true that a very old bottle of grange hermitage or the like might be lovely, most wines are created to be consumed within a few years of being bottled – especially whites. Blending the various types of grapes together is the art of the vigneron. Me, I just like to drink the stuff.

The wine industry in Bordeaux is strictly controlled to ensure quality. Each vineyard (or chateau) is allowed to sell only so much wine, based on the size of the property. The vines cannot be irrigated and many vineyards have reverted to organic practices (ie no insecticides). The number of bottles of wine is also controlled. Wineries are issued with labels with individual numbers. We visited Chateau Guiraud, which is organic.

Flower gardens invited pollinators and they’ve even created insect hotels with nooks and crannies to encourage the discerning tenant.

Flowers and an insect hotel

The insect hotel – accommodation for a multitude of guests

The vineyard had a whole garden devoted to various varieties of tomatoes. I don’t recall how many – let’s call it ‘lots’.

Lots of tomatoes

To get an idea of how long this area has been settled and cultivated, this is a heritage listed Roman road.

In Australia if you want a wine in a restaurant you’d ask for the name of the grape or blend. Eg semillon sauvignon blanc, or shiraz cabernet sauvignon. In Bordeaux they’d look at you funny. You ask for a wine from an appellation. Rather than me paraphrasing what it’s all about, have a look at this page. From there, we heard about ‘terroir’ which is a combination of weather, soil, microclimate and the like as it pertains to an appellation. Get the real description of Terroir here.

Today we were going to be shown the process of making sauterne. I’d always thought of sauterne as a sticky, a dessert wine. But as we would discover with our tasting, it’s really not. Sauterne is made from Sémillon, Sauvignon blanc, and Muscadelle grapes that have been affected by Botrytis cinerea, also known as noble rot. Our guide explained that while most vineyards fear fungal outbreaks, it is essential to make sauterne. The fungus sucks moisture from the grapes, increasing the intensity of the flavour. It’s a bit like making wine from raisins.

This area combines conditions that increase the likelihood of botrytis occurrence. The vineyards are in a triangle of land bordered by the Garonne River, its waters warmed by the sun, and the Ciron River, with cold waters shaded by overhanging trees. When the Ciron flows into the Garonne the mingling of the cold and warm water causes mists which are ideal for the fungus to form – which is a perfect example of ‘terroir’. Our guide explained that harvesting the grapes is labour-intensive. The pickers only take grapes which have been sufficiently affected by the botrytis. The vines will be picked over several times, so the pickers need to be knowledgeable and available. As a result, pickers usually come from surrounding villages. Each new picker is supervised for the first season to make sure they know what they’re doing.

Our heads full of information, we tasted two of the chateau’s wines – a young sauterne, and an older one so we could taste the difference age makes.

Wines for tasting


Chateau Cazeneuve

From here, we went on to Chateau Royal de Cazeneuve – what we would automatically think of as a chateau – a castle. Owned by the Dukes d’Albret since the 12th century, the chateau is still owned by the same family. During the 16th century it was the home of King Henri IV and his wife, Margot. Queen Margot was another high-born lady who enjoyed herself. Henri had many mistresses and Margot used to meet her lovers in a cave in the forest. What’s good for the gander and all that. Louis XIII and Louis XIV both stayed at the castle, as did Edward I of England. France’s death duties are crippling and having renovated the castle, the baron elected to use it to make a living by encouraging tour groups, and conducting events and lunches such as the one we enjoyed there.

The lunch menu – absolutely delicious

Lunch remnants with the remains of the sauterne

After lunch we were invited to tour the castle and grounds before setting off to rejoin our boat for the trip back to Bordeaux. We actually did some sailing, arriving just on sunset.

Gardens and vineyards

After a leisurely breakfast at the same cafe as yesterday we went to the Christchurch Botanic Gardens, a large park with the Avon River running through it. It’s Autumn in Christchurch and in this cooler climate the deciduous trees are a riot of colour.

We also went into an exhibition of whimsical dance costumes, all based on floral themes. Created by Jenny Gilllies, each costume takes three months to make. I don’t doubt it. The inspiration to create the design is amazing, and then each component piece must be sewn individually before it’s all put together. A screen at the back of the exhibition showed the costumes being worn in dance. That really brought the whole thing to life.

I loved the water garden with its strategically placed trees reflecting their Autumn splendour in the water.

We enjoyed a glass of wine in the gardens, and a simple wine and cheese meal at the apartment.

The following afternoon in brilliant Autumn weather we went on what turned out to be a private wine-tasting tour in the Waipara valley, just north of Christchurch. Our driver, Graham, picked us up in a Volvo SUV since we were the only people who’d booked. Touring in comfort – I’ll take that any day. He was much the same age as us, and he told us stories about the quake, as well as about the countryside we passed through.

We had lunch on the veranda

A simple platter full of variety

First stop was at Waipara Springs, where we enjoyed a wonderful, very welcome, lunch including fruit and salad. We sampled their wines, mainly whites with a final pinot noir. That was pretty much the pattern – whites, then maybe a light red and or a dessert wine. Our server here was an American.

Then we crossed the road to Greystoke/Muddy Waters. As the name suggests, two wineries were combined, one on limestone soil, the other on clay. Because of the soil differences, the wines from the two areas were quite different. The vintner here was Fergus, who is as Irish as his name suggests.

From there we went to Waipara Hills, dominated by a truly magnificent building. Graham explained it had been built by an American, using stone imported from the US. Unfortunately, the man’s wife became homesick, so they sold up and went back home. This winery also had vines in the Marlborough area, so one of their offerings was a Marlborough Sav Blanc, We tasted a couple of sub-varieties of Chardonnay, then we were offered a late picking riesling. I don’t normally like sweet wine, but I reluctantly gave it a whirl. It was absolutely delicious, a treat with cheese.

The last winery was Pegasus Bay. This property has a beautiful garden and would be lovely for picnics and concerts on the grassy slopes above the little waterway. Back in the main building our server was a lovely German lady. This property had its wines on tap, which apparently reduced waste and spoilage since the air didn’t get into the wine. After the usual sav blanc, chardonnay, and pinot, we were offered a drop of muscat. It was very, very nice.

After a slow drive back to town caught up in traffic after an accident somewhere, we rolled back to the apartment. Dinner was a delivery of pasta, followed by an early night.

Tomorrow we’re off to the mountains.