Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Diary Entry: A soupçon of Bordeaux

In today’s marketplace Bordeaux feels the pinch of the world wine glut. Despite upstart competitors from Australia, South Africa, Chile and even cool California nipping at her heels, the fact will never change that Bordeaux’s wines remain the gold standard of claret. Their heritage and legacy will not be supplanted. Given the choice between a Chateau Mouton Rothschild and a top-grade Adelaide Hills Shiraz which would you pick? Though the newcomers aggressively promote their regions for tourism, a visit to the classic attractions of Bordeaux delivers preferable pleasures. Pass a few days in the area, especially out of season, and you easily discover what everyone else is trying to copy, albeit unsuccessfully. Except for some isolated zones in Italy, there is only one place on earth with this particular concentration of richness and refinement. The rest are simply second-rate.

Why not install yourself in Relais & Chateaux Chateau de Mirambeau for your own investigation? This remarkable world-class property of only 17 suites is set in a castle constructed on foundations dating to the 11th century, and offers a luxury experience of stellar comfort and exclusivity. The service proposition is high, the restaurant extreme and the location is optimal. All rooms are unique and decorated with classic furnishings and motifs of exceptional elegance. The lofty public spaces radiate the true opulence of the leisure class. Indoor and outdoor pools, private tennis courts and spacious gardens provide opportunities for moments of distraction. A variety of promotions customize visits to any whim: degustation, oenophilia, sport, culture, romance or any combinations of the above, and might include hot air ballooning, golf, live classical music, cognac tastings or medieval ruins.

Chef Frédéric Milan’s adventurous cuisine makes for another unforgettable aspect of your stay. The chateau’s central location means that guests are conveniently close to the finest wineries, including the legendary St. Emilion. When the time comes to drive your rental Renault Megane into the sunset you can count on Mirambeau’s meticulous staff to think of the smallest detail: they bring the car from the parking up to the hotel’s stone courtyard, picnic lunch packed, windshield washed, then stand at the front steps waving a personable goodbye, proof positive that hospitality knows no bounds at this wonderful property.

Less than an hour northeast from Mirambeau lies the Cognac region, ideal for a half day of research and recreation. Remy Martin offers daily tours of their immense headquarters, where you can walk among vast boilers, vats and casks in dim vaulted caves, your footsteps echoing in the chilly spaces.

Bring a jacket, then fortify yourself after your tour with a dram of the distillery’s finest. In the surrounding neighborhood you will find a splendor of cognac producers, whose offerings as well are required to be distilled five times. Armagnac, cognac’s cousin, a bit rougher on the palate and only thrice-distilled, is available throughout the area too.

The medieval city of St. Emilion, an hour south of Mirambeau, has much to tantalize the inquisitive tourist behind its venerable walls, beyond its magnificent vintages. The legendary cathedral is a must-see with its impressive stonework, and catacombs carved out of limestone bedrock dating to Roman times. Over the past thirty years the city has transformed into a well-preserved monument of cobbled streets in good repair, which meander up the hillside- sturdy walking shoes suggested. Local wines of both stratospheric quality and price can be found on every lane in trendy little shops, not to mention accessories for the enthusiast, and fresh-baked signature gallettes of the region. The city is over-the-top touristy these days, but closing ones eyes allows a chance at fantasizing the village’s sleepy past, when it was only a dusty one-industry town. A number of excellent restaurants operate inside the city limits, though L’Envers du Décor gives a decidedly-less-than-gracious welcome, despite its reputation for decent food; unless truly desperate, the savvy traveler is advised to opt for any other establishment.

Only four chateaux in the region have the designation 1er Grand Cru Classé, and Chateau Belair is perhaps the most impressive to visit.

Situated on a promontory overlooking the lush valley of the Gironde, the chateau’s caves go seven levels below the hill, where limestone was quarried 250 years ago to build the city of Bordeaux. The intrepid tourist can follow a clearly marked path through the shadowy depths, down spiral staircases, past gated caverns where some of the greatest wines of the past two centuries silently reside. There is also the opportunity to buy select years and second growths -which cannot be found elsewhere- in the tiny store near the Belair visitor reception.

The great winemaker J.J. Nouvel, who ran renowned Chateau Gaillard for a half century, has retired, but his nephew Claude Nouvel carries on the tradition of this respected St. Emilion family with exceptional low production from Chateau Petit Gravet.

The winery and its vines nestle at the base of the hill, just across the road from the southern vineyards of Belair. Nouvel’s wines of superb value are truly outstanding Grand Crus, blended with a passion and understanding that only generations of winemaking can yield. Stock up on as many of the 2002 Marie Louise bottling as you can (€24/bottle until 15 January 2008); these wines cellar well, and will only get better as the years pass. Petit Gravet operates a small retail store at the edge of town, but tours of the modest winery can also be arranged, with barrel tastings by special arrangement.

Authentic treasures like these abound in all of Bordeaux, an area of history, incredible sensory pleasure and natural beauty. The rest of the world exerts its magnetic influence, drawing the wine lover to newer vineyards and younger countries. Ultimately you must return to these fields to appreciate what two millennia of true craft has meant, which is simply the inspiration for the next generation of winemaking, and the lofty standards to which all who follow can only aspire.

Château de Mirambeau (a Relais & Chateaux property)

F-17150 Mirambeau, France

Tel 33 05 46 04 91 20

Remy Martin

Chateau Belair


33330 Saint-Emilion


Tél 33 05

Chateau Petit Gravet

2, rue de la Madeleine

33330 Saint-Emilion

Tel 05 57 24 76 45