In front of me tonight sits a bottle of wine. It is two-thirds full, and a silky line of iridescent purple dribbles down one side. Inside it is a red ‘Bordeaux blend’ from South Africa – one on which I was able to add my own name and label. I called it ‘The Nancy’ after my late Grandmother, a one-time traveller extraordinaire and someone to whom I attribute my ability to imagine, to wander, and to lust.
In wine, perhaps more than in many other industries, a winery’s legacy and heritage are just as important as to where its future lies. This is something I am keenly reminded of on a recent visit to Pauillac, one of Bordeaux’s prestigious left-bank appellations. The Bordelais have been making wine and influencing others (including South Africa) for centuries, and the region continues to retain a stamp of quality that is internationally acknowledged. This is evident, if not altogether obvious, from its grandiose châteaux that jut out of neatly woven, plush, green rows of vines – their turrets and stone-masonry often as captivating as the rich and famous to whom they once, and still, belong.
Today we draw into the village of Bages – home to the eponymous Château Lynch-Bages and arguably one of this area’s most well-known. Though its front façade is temporarily shrouded in dustsheets, looming cranes and sounds of drilling – these also suggest that the region’s oft-described ‘fusty’ reputation is looking forwards in a more innovative, design-led way. The architect responsible for Lynch-Bages’ new winery is Chein Chung Pei – son of Leoh Ming Pei – the man who created Paris’ Le Louvre’s iconic glass pyramid, so the anticipation for its re-opening is certainly nothing short of sweet.
The rest of this Bordeaux village’s centre has also had a face-lift – with a brand-new looking bicycle shop, from where you can hire electric and more traditional bikes to cycle around the neighbouring vineyards; a charcuterie, and Café Lavinal – the estate-owned bistro, offering classic French cuisine in a modern-mellow setting. The ambience here, as we order something to quench our thirst, garners an almost Hollywood feeling. And we only-half expect to find Audrey Tautou or Gérard Depardieu sitting casually to either of our table’s side.
With senses being firmly awakened at the café over lunch, we head out to nearby Ch. Ormes de Pez, for a winery tour and tasting. This is in the next-door appellation of St. Estèphe – the highest point in the Médoc, where vines grow on very poor soil – to facilitate winemaking of superior quality. Here in particular, the wines are famed for their freshness, with blends majoring (just) in cooler grown Cabernet Sauvignon. In the tasting room, we talk weather, given last year’s terrible frosts that affected a great deal of Bordeaux and its surrounds (fortunately, not here, we are assured). We taste the current releases of the wines, as well as the Lynch-Bages’ “second” label – Echo.
The Echo wines are made from younger vines, and the range includes a white blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle and Bordeaux’s other well-known white grape variety, Semillon – a highly quaffable wine against the more serious red blends for which the area is famous. Over our guided tasting, available to visitors (as well as the opportunity to stay at their own small but pretty five-bedroom guest-house), we also learn that a half bottle of 1975 Lynches-Bages was sent into space on the STS-51-G Discovery Shuttle on the 17th June, 1985. Boundary-breaking in all senses.
That evening we do what could be termed as our own space travel – this time of a gastronomic enquiry. We are staying at nearby Château Cordeillan-Bages, another property owned by the J.M Cazes group. Set amidst the vines, with elegant 17th Century turrets that frame the main doorway, this charming French Relais & Châteaux hotel, once a monastery, boasts 28 recently refurbished chic bedrooms and suites, bright pieces of 1950s and 60’s modern art throughout, a heli-pad for the super VIPS, and a perfectly sized swimming pool in which to relax after a warm day’s ‘tasting’. The grounds proffer lemon verbena-scented luxury – with home-grown aromas drifting up into the overlooking bedrooms, while fig and apple trees also wrap their leaves and bounty around the hotel’s pretty surrounding gardens.
The Cordeillan-Bages restaurant is now fronted by chef Julien Lefebvre, a thirty-something year-old, trained alongside Mathieu Pacaud at the Parisian restaurants Hexagone, Histoires and Le Divellec. It remains the only Michelin star property in the area (albeit now one instead of two, under the previous direction), but all the signs for this young star-in-the-making look very promising. Tonight, we are privy to an array of season-fresh dishes, rooted in Ayurvedic practice after chef having spent some time in India when his cousin was living there, and being introduced to such philosophy and a wider thinking on wellbeing.
This is something that he has taken into the kitchen and, he says, his own outlook on life. “Less meat and more vegetables” he says plays a big part in what he likes to cook – as well as looking at different facets of the overall dining experience such as the music that provides synesthetic accompaniment. The result over three different acts tonight is stunning. “Cooking is when things taste what they are” he says – reflected in every mouthful we enjoy. Here the overall dining experience is also clearly themed to reflect our vinous surroundings – crockery incorporates a visual sentiment of ripening grapes, or veraison, while amuse-bouches arrive on an old section of vine – delicately balanced.
It is not surprising to note that the Cordeillan-Bages restaurant was awarded one of France’s Top Ten Wine list’s in 2017, in the notable ‘Terres de Vins’ competition. The list extends to some 16-18,000 bottles, all under the curation of Head Sommelier Arnaud Le Saux. The veritable tome that they are recorded in can require some reading, particularly for those with a keen wine eye – I for one took it to bed with me to peruse further (wine geek that I am, for my own version of after-dark entertainment). You’ll find a steering towards the Loire where Arnaud comes from – as well as a handsome Champagne list and impressive back vintage catalogue of DRC.
For real wine aficionados – the J.M Cazes group offers a service where you too can make your own wine – under the guidance of winemaker Eric Boissenot – oft dubbed, ‘Bordeaux’s secret ingredient’. Those who register with the Viniv programme will have the unrivalled opportunity (for an appropriately princely sum) to make their own wines from this prestigious terroir. From blend to label, customers are involved in each part of the process. Resulting in memories that linger for you, and your near ones, long after you have checked out of the hotel.
For more information about Chateau Cordeillan-Bages, including details of their wines and ‘art of living’, visit www.jmcazes.com. For details of other Relais & Chateaux properties, visit www.relaischateaux.com.