Ditching The Expense Of Bordeaux
Thanks to Ben and Mark at the award winning Hanging Ditch Wine Merchants for organising a very enjoyable and interesting Bordeaux tasting dinner earlier this month at the St. James’s Club. Given their ethos of quality being paramount I knew that the wines on offer would not disappoint, but the objective of keeping the wines affordable was going to be more of a challenge. As is true of many other great wine producing regions, it is not difficult to find superb bottles of Bordeaux if money is no object. Unlike many other regions, however, it can be tricky to find great bottles of Bordeaux that are within the reach of a mere mortal’s wallet.
The other issue that counts against Bordeaux’s popularity at most tastings is its affinity with food. It takes a little practice to appreciate the nuances of young Bordeaux tasted in isolation. When you taste it with a meal, however, it’s as if a lightbulb flashes on and suddenly everything becomes clear. That was the logic behind this tasting dinner, plus it was a great chance for Ben and Mark to show off their buying skills!
Accompanied by a plucky chanteuse and her really rather good renditions of French favourites from yesteryear, Ben and Mark kicked off proceedings in fine style. The first wine, Delamotte Brut (12% ABV) en magnum, was actually the one I most wanted to try and was, perversely, my wine of the evening. Trust me to fall for the supporting actress before the leading lady had even taken to the stage.
Delamotte is a name that will be unfamiliar to most, but, as you would expect from the sister wine of Salon, its quality is unquestionable. A long established label in its own right, Delamotte also uses fruit from Salon’s younger vines as well as wines that don’t quite reach the exacting standards of what is probably the finest of all Champagnes. Predominantly grand cru Chardonnay (50%), the balance being Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (30% and 20% respectively), this was bright, fresh and beautifully rounded, not at all aggressive. The rich flavours of white stone fruit and citrus, plus a gentle yeasty autolytic character, made it a beautiful apéritif. A very classy wine and a real bargain (£30/bottle, £60/magnum) when compared to a lot of the Grandes Marques’ non-vintage offerings.
As sad as I was to finish my Champagne, when we were asked to take our seats we had both dinner and a varied selection of Bordeaux to look forward to. First up were two dry whites made in completely different styles. Château des Antonins Blanc 2010 (12% ABV, 70% Sauvignon Blanc and 30% Sémillon, £10) had an initial nose of candied citrus zest and typically vegetal Sauvignon Blanc aromas which faded into gently nutty Sémillon fruit. The palate had a Sauvignon Blanc edge as you’d expect from the blend which was rounded by the Sémillon. Light, fresh and a little frivolous, this was a great apéritif wine although it was rather overwhelmed by the powerful flavours of salmon goujons.
The second white was an altogether different story. The second wine of esteemed Pessac-Léognan estate Domaine de Chevalier, L’Esprit de Chevalier Blanc 2008 (13% ABV, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, £25) spent nine months in oak unlike the stainless steel matured Antonins above. Through no fault of the wine, I struggled to adequately describe the nose of this one, it reminded me of apple juice and had a slightly nutty quality. The palate showed lemony fruit, a nutty/oaky weightiness and just a hint of an oxidative character that called to mind a traditional style white Rioja. With two years of bottle age and a soujourn in oak that the Antonins lacked, this was a more serious wine whose richness and complexity were a lovely paring with the breadcrumbed fish.
A trio of reds from a trio of vintages was poured alongside the main course of slow cooked rump of beef with root vegetables. From Baudouin Thienpont (brother of Jacques, owner of Le Pin) came the 2007 Château Roc de Pellebouc (12.5% ABV, 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon, £12.50), a modern, lightly oaked style of Bordeaux from Entre-Deux-Mers, just across the Dordogne from Saint-Émilion. Ruby coloured and showing a degree of maturity, the Merlot was immediately apparent on the nose, although the Cabernet Sauvignon did seem to exert an undue influence considering the disproportionate amount in the blend. It added blackcurrant, pencil shavings and earthy aromas to the plumminess of the Merlot. The palate showed bright fruit tempered by pepper, spice and earth, all tempered by fresh acidity and moderate tannins. Elegant and, to me, a very traditional style of Bordeaux that was lovely when tried on its own but didn’t quite manage to stand up to the beef.
Red wine number two was also from Entre-Deux-Mers, but from the tiny appellation of Graves de Vayres, so called because of the deep gravel parcels that distinguish it. Château Bel-Air Graves de Vayres 2006 Fût de Chêne (13% ABV, 55% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, £17.50) was produced by Philippe Serey-Eiffel, the great, great grandson of the engineer behind the eponymous tower. This was a younger looking, deeper coloured, more purple wine than the Pellebouc, even though it was a year older. The nose had dark fruit, barnyardy, oaky/vanilla/coffee aromas and a greener edge to it than the previous wine, but the palate was softer, oakier and somehow less typical. To my palate it was a modern, international style of wine that worked very well with the main course, but somehow it just didn’t shout of its origins.
The third red was Château Barrail du Blanc 2008 (13.5% ABV, 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc, £17.50), a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru exclusively distributed the Mouiex family that owns Châteaux Pétrus, La Fleur-Pétrus, Hosanna, Trotanoy, and Magdelaine to name just a few! Despite an annual production of only around 1,500 cases, there has been substantial recent investment in completely refurbishing the estate’s cellar enabling a traditional style winemaking to continue at the highest quality level. Sixty per cent of the wine is matured in oak, half of which is new, whilst the remainder goes into stainless steel.
It displayed soft red and black fruit with a dusting of pepper and capsicum spice from the Cabernet Franc. Less overtly fruity and oaky than the last wine, it had an astringent/medicinal touch to the finish that I really rather enjoyed. The most interesting of the three reds and my favourite, even though its lighter style couldn’t compete with the beef.
Cheese was served instead of dessert, the Stilton being a better match for the Sauternes than the Mrs. Kirkham Lancashire. I was unsure about the choice of Château de Rayne Vigneau 2003 (13.5% ABV, 80% Sémillon and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, £25) due to the abnormal heat of the vintage. Was there going to be sufficient acidity? Had the heat hampered the growth of botrytis? The amber hue of the wine didn’t do much to allay my worries, but the nose was certainly promising with its rich aromas of barley sugar, dried apricot, marmalade and ripe mango. Similar flavours carried through to the palate, balanced by an unexpectedly taut acidity that kept it vital. It was definitely as good as it will get so plan to drink up any bottles you might have, but it was an exceedingly pleasant drink and a very agreeable surprise.
The only thing I felt that was missing was a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated, left bank style of Bordeaux which would have been an interesting contrast to the Merlot based blends shown as well as a great pairing with the beef. That being said, it's always an adventure to tread the path less travelled and I'm not sure I would have tried the selection above if left to my own devices. A big thank you once again to Ben and to Mark, our ever charming and informative host, for a very enjoyable evening.