Savouring the Bordeaux Culture of Wine
by Jacqueline Swartz
In the tasting room of the Bordeaux winery, Chateau Lynch-Bages, I raised my glass, noted the dark brick colour of the wine and inhaled its aroma. There is nothing like sipping ten year old Bordeaux at its source.
But how to access the Bordeaux experience beyond an afternoon’s tasting? How to experience the deeply authentic wine culture, where the seasons lead to the harvest, and where centuries-old expertise is respected? The wine culture of Bordeaux is its own world, and to me it seemed like a magic kingdom with a locked door. The key? A stay at Cordeillan-Bages, a hotel housed in a restored l8th century monastery near some of the most prestigious vineyards in the world. At the hotel, in the Medoc area near Pauillac, the visitor is connected to the Chateau Lynch-Bages winery, surrounded by rolling green hills and mist-covered vineyards.
Wine lovers know Lynch-Bages as a fine Bordeaux, complex and elegant, and with a peculiar history. During the landmark wine rating of l855, which classified Bordeaux wines in various crus (or growths) it was put in the fifth cru. But the rating, devised by wine brokers, depended on the market value of the wine at the time. Today, more than 150 years later, experts believe Chateau Lynch-Bages belongs in the second cru, just behind (first cru) wines like Chateau Latour and Chateau Mouton Rothschild.
You can taste Chateau Lynch-Bages wines, sign up for wine and cooking classes, and visit nearby wineries in a chauffered Mercedes, all part of a program called Bordeaux-Saveurs.
During the harvest, the culmination of the wine cycle, I had the thrilling experience of being in the vineyards alongside the people who were hand- picking and sorting the grapes.
“Our aim is to find ways people can discover a kind of art of living in the context of wine”, remarked Sylvie Cazes-Regimbeau, who owns the winery with her older brother, Jean-Michel Cazes. Seated on the plush red chairs in the lounge, over a chilled glass of Moet & Chandon champagne, Sylvie explained that they began with the hotel, Cordeillan Bages, now a Relais & Chateau property with 24 rooms and four suites. Under the same l8th century roof is a restaurant that earned two-Michelin stars.
The restaurant’s minimalist decor and Asian-influenced food reflects the passions and travels of guiding light Thierry Marx, one of the most lauded chefs in France. The cuisine is classically French, but at the cutting edge of inventiveness and artful presentation.
I tried the tasting menu, and found it to be a peak culinary experience – for the palate, the eye and the imagination. Think of a risotto made not with rice but soy, accompanied by a briny oyster and an earthy truffle. Chef Marx is a master of contrasts, and one of the of the appetizers was a cauliflower foam garnished with caviar, the salty beads playing off the white airy cauliflower. The parade of appetizers continued with a “virtual” sausage of lentils, and then a glossy strip of pressed smoked eel. The portions were small, each exquisite morsel asking to be savoured, and it was up to me to restrain myself when the bread, in its many fresh-baked varieties, came around with three different kinds of butter.
The main course was a filet of Acquitane beef cooked in cellophane with vines from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, served in its package like a present to be unwrapped. Succulent and full of flavour, it came with potatoes crusted with the reduction of the sauce. The pairing with a 2001 Lynch Bages Puillac was enough to want to make me want to burst into tears: this, I thought, is the zenith of Bordeaux eating and drinking. The signature dessert, recommended by Sylvie that afternoon, was lightly cooked paper thin apples with a granite sorbet, served with a Muscat de Rivesaltes wine. Each dish, of course, is accompanied by a different wine – not a problem when your bedroom is a few steps away from the restaurant.
On Sundays, there is an experimental tasting menu; afterwards guests are asked for their feedback and a discussion follows – with this kind of involvement, you feel like you belong. Cooking, wine appreciation classes and history are also offered at a second location, at the Ecole du Bordeaux. Approximately a 55 km drive from the chateau, the l8th century port city of Bordeaux has, in the last decade, experienced a remarkable restoration of its buildings and waterfront. Designated as an UNESCO heritage site, it is well worth a visit.
The Ecole du Bordeaux, which covers many aspects of wine, food, and history, was the idea of Jean-Michel Cazes, Sylvie’s brother, and the senior presence at the winery. Long respected as an informal ambassador for Bordeaux wines, he is delightfully accessible and fluent in English. The school came about after years of being asked to arrange tours to legendary estates like Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Latour.
Seven years ago, Jean-Michel began another project: to restore Bages, the village at the doorstep of the winery, where his grandparents lived and where he recalls playing with the children of artisans and people working at the winery. Like so many villages in the area, Bages was deserted in the l950’s. When Jean-Michel’s architect suggested using it as storage space, he knew he had to do something. “I could not turn the village where my grandparents lived and where I grew up into a warehouse” he told me as we strolled the cobblestone street of the village. After considerable restoration of largely intact buildings, some of them two centuries old, the village of Bages now has a working central fountain and a bakery that supplies bread to the public and the restaurant. A thriving bistro, Café Lavinal, draws local winegrowers and visitors alike, while the boutique Bages Bazaar sells wine and table ware. Future plans include a small hotel, theatre, and art centre. “We want to reverse the trend of depopulated villages”, Monsieur Cazes explained.
His efforts are being recognized. In 2010, France’s leading wine publication, La Revue des vins de France, awarded Chateau Lynch-Bages the title of Best Visitor Experience.
During the summer, there are film festivals and art exhibits. On my next visit, I hope to join the Marathon Medoc, my kind of run. Billed as one of the slowest marathons anywhere, it welcomes happy participants as they pass through the village, offering them oysters, beef – and of course wine.