Andrew's European Travels
The French railway system is one of the best in the world. When the workers are not on strike, which unfortunately happens every now and again, the trains run like clockwork, rarely delayed and almost always on time.
I have always travelled from Paris using the TGV, Train Grande Vitesse, a modern marvel that moves like the clappers through the French country side. This time it was like ploughing through an endless carwash for three and a half hours. The weather has been dismal to say the least. Pregnant clouds seemed to have reached their full term over Bordeaux, dumping swimming pools of rain and flooding the streets. It has been hugely welcomed as drought conditions have prevailed over the summer and early autumn. Both the swollen Dordogne and the Garonne are sloshed to their river banks. Meanwhile the Rocade, the ring road around Bordeaux, does not slow down. The truck drivers are maniacs and pay little heed to traffic laws as they make their high-speed way along the key corridor from Portugal and Spain to Northern Europe. Prangs are a daily occurrence. It is not uncommon for cars to bounce off these load-heavy bullies, like billiard balls, into the steel crash barriers on either side of the road. I narrowly missed being sideswiped by a car-carrier, as its approaching tail flipped on my survival instincts.
I am in Bordeaux to catch up with key suppliers for Grand Cru Classé wines. Securing allocations of sought-after claret has become a cat and mouse game extraordinaire. This fine wine business is hugely buoyed up by the emerging dragon to the east. The demand is growing fast and everyone wants a part of the action. The First Growth Chateaux and rising stars, such as Chateau Cos d'Estournel and Chateau Pontet Canet, are greatly focussed on optimising their wine businesses. Primeur allocations have fallen by around 50% over the last ten years, both in part to reduced yields and production and market leveraging. Many of these estates are now owned by corporations seeking maximum returns; selling direct at top price is more attractive and profitable.
I have been staying at Chateau de Sours at St Quentin de Baron in the Entre Deux Mers. Martin Krajewski, was initially an investor and then landed up taking over the whole property around 2002. I have known Martin and his wife Nicoletta for over six years. They are frequent visitors to Australia. Indeed for a while he has been making wine with John Duval with the Songlines label. His property specialises in rosé and supplies all of the UK Supermarkets. However he is also making some seriously good claret and white wine which are greatly followed in the UK. Oz Clarke is a great supporter. Not surprising really as the story behind the wines and just as engaging. Martin Krajewski is in every respects a visionary with a huge spirit of optimism and interest in others. The winery is going through a massive renovation. It should be ready in time for vinexpo. Martin is also a big art collector of modern British paintings by Sir Terry Frost and John Hoyland etc. I have never been mad about this style of art until I saw them all hanging together at Chateau de Sours. The riot of colour against the white birch walls is just magnificent.
We spent the day up in the medoc with Frederic Casteja of Borie Manoux. This meant an early start in order to meet him at the carpark at Chateau Palmer at 8.45am. Thankfully the awful weather had blown out to sea. For the first time the sun appeared above the horizon as it cracked the early dawn light. More carnage on the road as we travelled up to Bordeaux and around the rocade to Margaux. We drove up past Pauillac to Chateau Cos d'Estournel. I was keen to see the new cellar and to have a chat with Jean Guillaume Pratts who is coming to Melbourne in March for the Wine and Food festival. (He will be showing several top vintages of Cos d'Estournel wines at a masterclass dinner on the 11th March at Jacques Reymond Phone (03) 9525 2178 Fax (03) 9521 1552).
After Cos d'Estournel we visited Chateau Batailley, which is one of the great value wines of Pauillac. I tasted a sample of the 2010 vintage. This is clearly another astonishingly good year; the Chateau-owners must be feeling quite gleeful. All over Bordeaux primary fermentation is generally completed; mostly in stainless steel these days. The wines are now in the process of being pressed off and racked into barrel for completion of malo-lactic fermentation. At Chateau Margaux, the coopers are working frenetically to supply the last new barrels to supplement the barriques purchased from other cooperages. We were taken around again by the vivacious Marie Guillard who last introduced Chateau Margaux's wine museum as the "wine cemetery". No sign of Paul Pontallier; busy having lunch with Asian customers. We finished off at Chateau Palmer to principally take film footage. Unfortunately Bernard de Laage de Meux was in New York presiding over a Chateau Palmer auction with Christie's. However we will see him early next year. I think the Bordeaux negociants are pretty unhappy with many of the top Chateaux. In the old days the wine businesses were all run by families. Nowadays there is a ruthless streak that permeates the trade. Chateau Latour epitomises this culture. There is a feeling among wine merchants that for Bordeaux to enjoy sustained success it needs to be collaborative; "alone you are nothing." I must admit I find the politics fascinating. Certainly this region is on the cusp of change. Already over 10,000 hectares have been grubbed up. While the grand Cru Classé estates prosper the petit chateau and sundry suffer greatly.
Early morning on Armistice day, a national holiday to celebrate the cessation of hostilities in World War 1, the guns were blazing around Chateau de Sours and the general countryside. Ironic I thought. The French love hunting, shooting and foraging. The stomach is the never far from their minds! Almost everyone I spoke to was spending the weekend looking for "cepes" (mushroom) or butchering wild life. In Paris the local hospitals open special units over Christmas to cope with eye injuries from champagne corks and hands mangled by oyster shuckers! The 35 hour week further entrenches the French appetite and the two-hour lunch break. On the 16th November, UNESCO heritage listed "le repas gastronomique des Francais" (French gastronomic meals) for its intangible cultural world importance. The whole country closes down for lunch time. If anyone is thinking of invading France - the best time is between 12 and 2pm.
We left after breakfast for Spain and Marques de Riscal, an easy five hour drive, to meet up with Jose Luis Muguiro . We had lunch in the beautiful Frank Gehry designed hotel and spa. We also went to Remirez de Ganuza to catch up with the diminutive but beautiful Christina Remirez de Ganuza. Her father Fernando was in Mexico. I have always called this winery the Domaine de la Romanee Conti of Spain. The attention to detail is extraordinary from vineyard management to vinification and maturation. The level of cleanliness and order transcends the Spanish tendency of chaos. The wines are utterly remarkable. Indeed the whole winemaking philosophy and modus operandi are completely visionary. (At the Victorian Pinot Noir Winemakers Workshop, in late November, I showed a bottle of the superb 2001 Riserva, which was warmly received as a "great Rioja."
Andrew Caillard MW