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Vintage Bordeaux: Oz Clarke on the red route

Vintage Bordeaux: Oz Clarke on the red route
Inside BordeauxHe's travelled the world quaffing the finest vintages, yet his heart belongs in the Médoc. Wine writer and broadcaster Oz Clarke reveals his love affair with the vineyards that first gave him a taste for the grape
My heart is in the Médoc.What keeps drawing me back? What is it about Bordeaux I can't get out of my system? Why do the names of its wine villages and châteaux play like music in my ears?

Why is it the flavour of these wines, more than those of Burgundy, Barolo, Rioja, Barossa or Rhône, meander teasingly through my taste memory wherever I might be, whatever I might be drinking? Why has this place snuggled its way into my soul, and why can't I cast it out?

Bordeaux was my first love. We didn't drink wine at home, so I went up to university ignorant but willing, and joined the university wine society. My first tasting was of Bordeaux wines. And the final wine was Château Léoville-Barton 1962. I remember to this day every nuance of flavour. The penetrating blackcurrant flavour was so dry that I imagined a dragon must have sucked all the sugar from it. A perfume of cedar wood and Havana cigar tobacco that matched the austerity of the fruit but took it to another level of such scented beauty, you could begin to wonder whether there wasn't a little sweetness in the wine after all. At my first ever tasting, the gods of wine threw me a classic Bordeaux and said, beat that if you can. And I'd invited a lovely girl as my guest. I forgot to take her to dinner.

So Bordeaux was my first tasting. And my first great wine. And my next. And my next. Château Montrose '61, Beychevelle '61, Langoa-Barton '53, Haut-Bailly '55, Lynch-Bages '55, all begged or borrowed from richer and older wine lovers.

I was visiting Bordeaux even before I'd left university. Twice in the summer vacations, armed with a couple of letters of introduction, I jumped into my yellow Mini and headed south to Bordeaux. Once I even did the harvest - at Château d'Angludet and Palmer (lunch was better at d'Angludet), at Monbrison, and at Malescasse; and since then I've kept going back. I've visited Bordeaux more than any other wine region on earth. And never once have I not been seduced and enthralled by its greatest wines.

Indeed, I think of the Médoc peninsula north of Bordeaux as my playground. Show me a label of a Margaux, a St-Julien wine, and I can visualise the track leading through the vines to the château gates, the nervous anticipation as I pass through them, the welcome - or rebuff - I last received. Give me a sip of a deep Pauillac red and all the cask samples and barrel tastings I have done crowd into my thoughts. And I feel as though I could take the great Médoc wine road - the D2 - out of Bordeaux blindfolded, and I would smell the change in the air as sour industrial estates turn into suburbs, then woodland, then suddenly, beautifully, serenely, into vineyards - the subtle slope of Château La Lagune at Ludon, the fairytale glade of Château Cantemerle in Macau and, as the bizarre but lovely half-timbered Deauville casino of Château Giscours looms to my left, I'm into the appellation of Margaux and the start of a journey north where the road signs alone will thrill me with the mere suggestion of many of France's greatest wines. And as I drive north to St-Estèphe through Margaux, St-Julien and Pauillac I'll pass château after château whose wine is fabled and precious and rare.

The Médoc is the geographical term used for the whole of the wine region on the left bank of the Garonne and Gironde. Vines grow for a good 80km of this tongue of land, mostly close to the river and estuary, sometimes venturing towards the centre but never towards the west where the giant sand dunes - Europe's highest - and deep pine forests of the Landes struggle to keep the rough waters of the Atlantic at bay. In wine terms, the Médoc is divided in two. The northern part, much marshier, far less suitable for fine wine, has the appellation Médoc. The southern part, between the northern reaches of Bordeaux city and the hard-working La Maréchale drainage channel north of St-Seurin-de-Cadourne, is the Haut-Médoc and contains all the best vineyards. Six villages have their own appellation - Margaux, Moulis, Listrac, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe - and all the decent patches of vines which aren't included in the communal appellations can use the appellation Haut-Médoc.

Those drainage channels. You'll find them at right angles to the estuary all the way from the city of Bordeaux to the very tip of the peninsula. Without them, the Médoc would still be a swamp with periodic ridges of high ground - not very high, the peak of the Médoc at Listrac is only 43m - and until the 17th century that's what the Médoc was, a desolate, dangerous, flood-prone swamp. But a growing merchant and parliamentarian class wanted to show off its success, and having an estate with a grand house close to Bordeaux was a sure way to do it. The Graves region south and south-west of Bordeaux was already quite well developed. The Médoc, to the north and equally close, was not. So the Bordelais brought in Dutch engineers - past masters at all things involved with drainage - and they dug the great channels that still slant east across the Médoc to the Gironde, and created dry land where only bog existed before. They also liberated the great banks of gravel washed down from the Massif Central and Pyrénées during the Ice Age, and it was these gravel banks that were seized by the local dignitaries as ideal places to create large estates, to build imposing châteaux and develop vineyards to slake the thirst of an export market crazy for wine. Every single great Médoc wine is grown on gravel.

More than any other Médoc commune, Margaux and its wines are the stuff of dreams. To these beautiful red wines are attributed fantastical qualities of scent and silk and seduction, a magical ability to be fragile yet intense, immediate yet long-lasting, intellectual yet sybarite. It's a lot to live up to and this reputation has been based on very few wines out of the large crowd that makes up Margaux: famous vintages of Château Margaux and Palmer; historic and, hopefully, modern delights from d'Issan, Ferrière and Desmirail; Malescot on form; du Tertre and La Gurgue at their best and least muscular.

There's one more Margaux property I must mention - small, friendly, down a twisted lane through forest and field and finally past a silent lake into the courtyard of what seems barely more than a farmhouse: Château d'Angludet. My first ever château visit in Bordeaux. Well, I wasn't a house guest - I camped in the long grass down by the stream, right beneath a billowing wave of gravelly soil closely planted with vines whose grapes bulged thick and purple in the late summer sunshine. We downed young d'Angludet from jugs outside our tent. I'm not sure red wine ever tasted so good as when I took my unsteady first steps into the wine wonderland of Bordeaux by getting really quite drunk and very, very happy under the indulgent night sky of Margaux.

Leaving Margaux behind and driving along the D2, the only road for any wine lover to take through the Médoc, the region's most glorious stretch is just about to start. Your spirits are set to soar. At whatever speed you're driving, you'll have to slow north of Cussac-Fort-Médoc, as you cross one last swollen drainage ditch of thick brown water, because the road sweeps sharply up and left, the vineyards billow confidently into existence once more and you're back in the big time - in St-Julien. From now on you'll pass a succession of great properties, mostly with their vines sweeping away from their high gravel ridges down to the Gironde shore. Château Beychevelle on your right, Branaire and St-Pierre on your left, then it's Ducru-Beaucaillou, Léoville-Barton, Léoville-Poyferré, Léoville-Las-Cases - and, as the road dips across another drainage channel, St-Julien is finished as suddenly as it started. But the brilliance surges on without a pause as neighbouring Pauillac offers you Pichon-Longueville, Pichon-Lalande and Latour, on perhaps the proudest gravel bank of them all.

Usually the boundaries between the Haut-Médoc communes are fairly obvious, but not between St-Julien and Pauillac. There is a little stream, but since the vines crowd in on both sides you hardly notice it as you admire the glorious estates of Léoville-Las Cases and Léoville-Poyferré until the road bounces upwards again and you're in Pauillac outside two of Pauillac's greatest châteaux - Pichon-Longueville and Pichon-Lalande - both magnificent and staring slightly uneasily at each other

across the road. You've probably missed an even greater one - Latour - over to the right as the gravel bank tumbles steeply downwards to the Gironde. Gravel again? Drainage again? I'm afraid so, but without two such mundane matters we'd never know the full glory of Pauillac.

It's less than 500m from the château buildings of the great glitzy First Growth Lafite-Rothschild at the north end of Pauillac to the beginning of the vines of Cos d'Estournel in St-Estèphe. But as soon as we step off that Pauillac land we're stepping down a division. In fact, if you really want to walk from Lafite to Cos you'll be wading, because you step straight into the eddies of yet another of the Médoc's indispensable drainage channels.

Take the car, and you'll be impressed by the steep wall of vines that rears up the moment you cross the ditch. This is Cos d'Estournel, arguably St-Estèphe's top property, and in the flat lands of the Médoc, where a gradual 5m or 10m rise is given a big thumbs up for quality, this is steep. So get out of the car. The soil is also very gravelly, as gravelly as anything you'll find in Pauillac. If this is St-Estèphe, why is everyone so down on it?

Well, this isn't typical St-Estèphe. This is one of a handful of great sites, a last gasp of Pauillac with its deep gravel beds on a base of sandstone, and though Cos d'Estournel has the best soils, there are two more good Classed Growths - Cos Labory and Lafon-Rochet - on what is, in effect, an impressive scarp running westwards for 2km staring out defiantly at Lafite-Rothschild just 500m to the south. But this can't last. And it doesn't. Just past Lafon-Rochet, the plateau sinks away to the west and to meadowland. There are more vines out here, but they're Haut-Médoc, not St-Estèphe, and they'd just love to have the gravel of this mini-Pauillac leavening their clay, but they don't.

From now on, we will find gravel mounds, and the best of them will have top vineyards planted on them, but the soil is much heavier here and where the gravel disappears you're going to have pretty claggy earth. If you drive north from Cos d'Estournel you'll see the low hilltop of Château Montrose - often considered the equal of Cos d'Estournel - and then one more gravel and limestone mound - the vineyards of Château Calon-Ségur, and, really, the end of the glitz and glamour of the Médoc. Stand on the steps of Calon-Ségur and look north and you're gazing out on drainage channels and marsh. There is one more gravel outcrop a couple of kilometres north at St-Seurin-de-Cadourne - where Château Sociando-Mallet makes stupendous wines off its warm soils - but that's the end of Haut-Médoc by then. St-Estèphe and the big time finish where the marsh sinks deepest, metres short of Sociando-Mallet.

My best fistful of soil

Pétrus, the most famous wine château in the world, the one producing the most sumptuous red wine, frequently the most sought after and expensive on the planet, is quite absurdly self-deprecating when it comes to bricks and mortar. There's no grand château, no tree-lined gravel drive, no fairytale towers.Pomerol and its neighbour St-Émilion are probably the centres of Bordeaux's razzle-dazzle world, but Pétrus is a modest little farmhouse on the corner of a nondescript street in a nondescript hamlet and it's easy to drive past without realising it. I've done so many times. And where other Bordeaux superstars have employed architects to create jaw-dropping cellars, Pétrus's cellar is positively artisan in its simplicity. But the wine is not. Anything but.

The vineyard doesn't look too special either, except that it's one of the muddiest, most clay-clogged pieces of land my shoes have ever had the ill luck to slither through. And that's the secret. They call it the "button", an oval of imperceptibly higher land which is virtually solid clay shot through with nuggets of iron. It's only 20 hectares in all, and Pétrus occupies 11.5 of them, while various other great properties scrabble for a hectare or so each of this remarkable soil that allows the Merlot grapes to produce wine that is profound yet seductive, exotically perfumed and flirtatiously plump, yet tautened with a seam of minerality that is positively metallic.

My top château

Some of Bordeaux's châteaux have a fairytale quality that's difficult to beat. Château Pichon-Longueville-Comtesse de Lalande not only makes one of the most sublime reds in Bordeaux - positively sumptuous, almost creamy, spicy rich, yet bursting with a great wave of sweet fruit - but also has a glorious château to match, complete with turrets and a fine park. And a chatelaine. Ah, what a grande dame. Madame May-Eliane de Lencquesaing, above. Proud, charming, 82 years of pure class.

My favourite bar

If you want to feel the buzz in the wine world in Bordeaux, head to the town of St-Émilion and hang out in its bustling restaurants and wine bars. L'Essentiel wine and cheese bar, at 6 rue Guadet, is owned by Jean-Luc Thunevin of Château Valandraud, ex-DJ and bank clerk who created this tiny property superstardom. In his bar the bottles are exhibited in a wave of lime green and cherry pink. But they're serious bottles. All the top growths of Bordeaux are here and in the high season quite a few are available by the glass.

Oz Clark;15 October 2006
Posted on Tuesday, November 21 @ 19:06:29 MST by pierre
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Colmar. Capital of alsacian vineyards.
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Colmar. Nice city.
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