#TogetherStronger

Ooh La La
13th June 2016

The alarm woke us up bright and early. There was no lazy morning to be had today, we were booked on a wine tour and we needed to be outside the Bordeaux Tourist Office by 9:00am.

Breakfast was eaten in a state of semi-consciousness. Clare made us a strong coffee but it failed to wake us. I sort of recall an Austrian couple also in the breakfast room. They were here for tomorrow's football game against Hungary.

Fed and watered we left La Maison Cachee at 8:15 huddled beneath an umbrella kindly loaned to us by our generous host.

We were relieved to find the trams were running this morning, as the thought of having to walk all the way into the city in the rain wasn't worth thinking about.

At least the refreshing weather woke us up.

We got to the Bordeaux tourist office on the corner of Place des Quinconces in plenty of time. The office itself hadn't opened yet. Once it did open I checked where we were meant to be and standing outside on the pavement in the rain was the correct meeting point.

There was quite a crowd gathering as we all waited patiently. Thankfully the rain was beginning to lighten.

Not all were on the same tour, some were on a half day tour to some other wine region. They left before us in a mini bus. Eventually our guide arrived and despite a great deal of confusion and indecision on her part we eventually made it onto our bus.

We finally set off, leaving Bordeaux and heading out to into the countryside. Our guide introduced herself as Brigitte. She was busy giving us fact and figures and insider tips about all the various wines from the region. She was far from dull despite going into great detail about the best conditions to grow a good vine, how the "terroir" is the foundation to all great French wines.

It took us around 45 minutes to reach Saint-Émilion but it felt a lot quicker. We were sat in the front like proper teacher's pets. The on-board entertainment provided by Brigitte was keeping us amused, even when she wasn't trying. What made us smile the most was when she would slip in an "ooh la la" to stress how wonderful something was.

"Oh my God, they actually say 'ooh lah lah' " said a truly surprised Julie.

Just on the outskirts of the town we turned into our first winery, Château Beau-Séjour Bécot, a family run producer of a Premier Grand Cru Classe B wine, the second highest quality standard available for wine from this region.

We could see the bell tower of Saint-Émilion only a few fields of vines away. Despite being so near there were another two wineries, Château Le Châtelet and Clos Fourtet in between. It was surprising how small they all were.

The coach pulled up outside the "château" and we all followed Brigitte off the bus.

It wasn't exactly a château of Loire valley proportions that we were expecting but I suppose one man's château is another man's maisonette.

We were introduced to Caroline the granddaughter of Michel Bécot who acquired the vineyard in 1969 and gave it his family's name.

She began with a little bit about the history of the winery. Wine has been produced here since the Romans arrived or perhaps earlier than that. In the 16th century it's known that Franciscan monks from the nearby St. Martin's Abbey made wine on the estate.

The name Beau-Séjour which means a beautiful trip was introduced in 1787 by the de Carles family who owned it for a period.

Caroline talked about her memories growing up on the vineyard drawing our attention to a wonderful photograph on the wall of her family. She was the daughter of Dominque Bécot who along with his brother Gérard managed the business after Michel Bécot retired.

Much of the management has now been passed on to Juliette Bécot, another granddaughter. Caroline said they plant three grape varieties here at Beau-Sejour Becot, mostly Merlot (70%) with 24% Cabernet Franc and 6% Cabernet Sauvignon. The overall estate covers 16.5 hectares which in old money is about 41 acres.

The patch of land to the front of the chateau had nothing growing on it but weeds. Caroline explained that this had been lost to an outbreak of nematodes, tiny worms that destroy vines. To bring it under control the only solution was to dig it all up. That patch of land was now out of action for 5 years before they will plant there again, after which it will take the vines a further 5 years to reach a maturity and produce grapes of sufficient quality for wine.

We moved into the first room where I was expecting the front sitting room filled with Louis XIV furniture however it turned out to be where they make the wine.

The room was filled with large stainless steel tanks. They were empty at the moment as his year's harvest had not taken place yet. Traditionally it happens in September but if they've had a hot summer the grapes will ripen earlier. In the same token if we've had poor weather all summer it could be as late as October.

She described the whole maceration, fermentation and vinification process. It did feel a little bit like an educational school trip with all these facts and figures but we found it all quite interesting.

We didn't hang around for too long and moved on before anything became a bore.

Downstairs in the "cellar" we were shown the stockpile of wine slowly ageing in oak barrels. There were hundreds of them in rows upon rows filling two large rooms. I tried to quickly estimate how much wine was down here but it was just too much.

The barrels were huge and held the equivalent of 300 bottles of wine or 225 litres.

Caroline explained that each barrel would be expertly made from French oak by a selection of coopers.

They weren't cheap to produce at a cost of €500 each and surprisingly they were only used once for the Premier Grand Cru Classe wine before being sold for just €50.

In the process of their manufacture the insides would be heated over a fire partly to bend the staves into shape but also to char the wood. They would do so to an exact specification from each winery ranging from a lightly toasted to a heavy roast.

This in turn would add to a lesser or greater extent to the complex flavours of the wine as it aged in the oak barrels for about 18 months.

From the storeroom we entered the caves that lay beneath the house.

In the first chamber a stone statue of what looked like a medieval saint welcomed us transporting us back to the 16th century and the Franciscan monks of Saint Martin's abbey.

The cave had natural light and air coming in which I guess was important for keeping the air fresh and circulated.

"The temperature is a constant 16C down here" said Caroline which made for the ideal conditions to store wine.

A little further inside they had installed a stunning stained glass window transforming the space into a small church.

I imagined the family down here praying for a good harvest or praying that the blight didn't spread to any more vines.

It was a beautiful space.

We followed Caroline deeper into the caves. Although it was more of a network of tunnels cut into the rock than a natural cave system like Wookey Hole.

There must have been thousands of bottles down here. We walked past some literally piled up on the floor, stacked top to tail on their sides.

They marked with the year of production. Some years they had a lot more than others kept back in reserve.

They had filled an entire wall with their 1975 vintage whereas they only had a few rows of their 1993 vintage.

At the end we came to where they kept their most prized vintages behind a padlocked cast iron gate.

They only had a few bottles from each year but the oldest I could see was 1928.

They say that a good Bordeaux red improves with age but surely there's a limit to this. An eighty eight year old wine would probably taste like vinegar.

I know that if I owned something like that the curiosity would get the better of me and I would eventually drink it, even if it was worth thousands.

In fact I do have a similar dilemma of my own with a few bottles of whiskey I bought 25 years ago. They're now quite valuable but I will drink them before I die.

We left the caves and followed Caroline back upstairs for bit we were all looking forward to the most; the wine tasting.

The winery produces two types of wine, their premier grand cru classé Château Beau-Séjour Bécot and a lesser quality grand cru Petit Becot (previously known as Tournelle de Beau Sejour Becot.)

Caroline opened a bottle of the good stuff, discreetly sniffed the cork and happy it hadn't spoilt poured a decent slug of the 2015 vintage into each glass.

We were all getting excited as we hovered around the table waiting our turn.

We took possession of our glass and took our time, swirling it around at first, trying to look as if we knew how to treat a Premier Grand Cru with respect rather than knocking it back with the lack of elegance reserved for a cheap plonk as some embarrassingly uncouth people from our group were doing.

We slowly sipped the wine, enjoying the rich intense taste as it lingered in our mouth after it had long gone.

I would say that "we found the nose full of spice, liquorice and juicy plums" but I lifted that from someone else's tasting notes.

You didn't need much to coat the palate in Bordeaux's finest and the pleasure could be savoured for quite some time. We're far from connoisseurs but it mattered not a jot. We really enjoyed the experience.

Back on the bus we travelled the short distance to the other side of Saint-Émilion to visit our second vineyard of the morning.

Château Haut Sarpe was certainly grander in terms of its persona with its long driveway, wrought iron gates and a large country manor worthy of the château tag.

However Haut Sarpe came across a little brash in contrast to Château Beau-Séjour Bécot understated classiness.

Brightly coloured modern sculptures didn't help. They were dotted along the driveway and in the gardens like some alien invasion.

We parked up in what felt like a small village there was so many old buildings. Some were once the homes of the workers. In fact Château Haut Sarpe also offers Bed & Breakfast accommodation or maison d'hotes as it's described.

We stepped off the bus and waited for someone from the vineyard to meet us. There was rain in the air but it held off long enough for us to be shown around the grounds.

Phillipe arrived and was a jovial host. He would have a future in stand-up comedy if he chose a career change.

 

We all followed Phillipe into the grounds of the main house where he stood us all in a row around a temporarily dry fountain.

"Where are you all from ?" he asked.

There was of course quite a few Welsh people, one or two English, a Canadian family, a Hungarian couple, two Australian lads and a solitary Austrian.

With our nationalities established he knew he could begin his wine tour spiel through English and not have to repeat everything in French.

 

He explained a little bit about the history of Château Haut Sarpe.

There was first mention of Sarpe as far back as 1750. Then the next significant footnote was when it won its first Gold Medal in 1867 at the World Fair in Paris.

Suffice to say it had a long and illustrious history.

In 1930 the estate was bought by Joseph Jannoueix, a renowned wine producing family and they are still the owners today.

It was set on a hillside at the edge of the plateau where the view down over the vineyards was lovely.

Château Haut Sarpe was a reasonably large estate at 21 hectares on which they produced 70% merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc for their Grand Cru wine.

Whilst the classification of Grand Cru was the third tier of the Saint Emilion AOC it by no means suggested that it was an inferior wine.

Phillipe said the harvesting was still done by hand so that only the right grapes were selected.

We didn't go inside the main house. Instead we walked back towards the little hamlet-like cluster of houses. Along the way we passed a menagerie, of sorts, several large cages of various types of birds. It was a little bit eccentric if you ask me.

Anyway we came to the next phase of the wine production. The fermentation took place in large temperature controlled concrete vats. The room looked like we were in the engine room of a ship with tiny portholes offering a sneaky peak at the wine inside.

Along the wall on the other side of the room was a mural painted by artists associated with Haut Sarpe.

After the vats we visited the barrel hall. Firstly we walked through a smaller room en route. It had a lovely stained glass window at the end.

There wasn't any room for prayer in here just business as usual filled with the French oak barrels all neatly stacked.

In the next room more oak barrels were laid out in neat rows.

We didn't think these had any wine in them, it all looked too neat and tidy for a working winery but Phillipe ensured us that they were real and not just props.  I'm not too sure if I believed him though. He had this mischievous look in his eye.

Phillipe pointed out the large 'JJ' inside a red circle painted on the wall and explained it was the logo of the Joseph Jannoueix Company who now owns not just this vineyard but many more in the Libourne region.

It was now time for lunch. It couldn't have come soon enough as I was starving.

We returned to where the coach was parked, next to an old cart loaded with barrels. Now these we knew were just props. It was being pulled by an iron sculpture of a horse.

We all waited briefly whilst the buffet was laid out before we were invited inside the restaurant. Lunch was included in the tour but I wasn't holding out much hope of having much to eat other than some salad leaves.

I was more or less right.

My plate was filled with as much lettuce, tomato and cheese as I could get away with. My initial disappointment at the lack of choice soon gave way to enjoyment. The tomatoes tasted amazing, so full of flavour, and then brie "ooh lah lah" it was so incredibly creamy.

There was plenty of meaty choices on offer, such as duck breasts, liver pate and local sausages. Julie was left purring after tasting the duck.

We were sat on a large table of eight and were given two bottles of their 2005 vintage to share between us.

Everyone returned for another plateful and so did I. In fact I may have been the first to go for second helpings. I must have eaten half a kilo of cheese, an obscene amount in one sitting.

We got talking to the Australian guys. They had been touring Europe for the last month or so, partly together but sometimes on solo sojourns or with different travelling companions. Apparently they were all meeting up in Barcelona for one hell of a party before they all go home. Oh to be young again.

We left Château Haut Sarpe in high spirits and got back on the bus for the short drive into the town of Saint Emilion. The car park was just outside the old city walls.

In a small patch of land next to it someone was growing some vines. It was a plot no bigger than the average back garden but this being wine country it could only be used for one thing. I was a little surprised that they weren't growing wine on the grass verge. It was the only strip of land without.

Brigitte herded us all together and lead us to the ancient walls of the Saint-Émilion citadel where she imparted facts and figures about the UNESCO World Heritage listed town.

A little further up we came to another grand wall. It was what remained of a huge Dominican monastery destroyed in the 14th century at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. All that stood now was a fragment of wall with three arches and in its middle a large hole blown out by the English cannons.

It was a miracle that it was still standing.

The patch of greenery to the front was of course filled with vines which produced the wine Chateau Les Grandes Muralles.

We followed Brigitte along the outside of the city walls up to the gates of yet another winery called Clos Fourtet. Ironically it did not call itself a château despite having behind the iron gates a grand country manor worthy of the title chateau.

At this point we turned into the town where the Collegiate Church stood.

Brigitte lead us inside for a very quick look of the interior then back out into the cloisters. The original church was built 1110 but much of its gothic features were added between the 13th and 15th century.

Its main purpose was as a college for canons, as in religious clergy not the medieval weapon of mass destruction.

She didn't offer much in the way of a guided tour. It was more of a quick march through the cloisters and out the other side into the square of Place du Marché, using it as a scenic shortcut.

The bell tower stood at the far end of the square. It seemed too detached from the Collegiate Church to have been connected but all would be revealed a little later on.

At the end of the square, at the base of the bell tower there was an excellent view over the rooftops of Saint-Emilion where we stood admiring this beautiful town. 

 

After almost 30 years of marriage it was clear that Julie knew me inside out when she said, before I had even thought of it "No, I'm not going up there" when she spotted the castle keep known as La Tour du Roy.

Roy wasn't the King of the castle, or rather he was but his name wasn't Roy. In this context Roy meant a king or royalty. The history of the tower is a bit sketchy to say the least and historians are divided over the royal figure whose keep it was.

We didn't loiter long before we were on the move again. Brigitte was in full-on follow-me tour guide mode as she lead our group through the narrow streets of the old town.

When we came to a steep side street she looked at some of the older people in our group (which didn't include us) and thought better of leading us all down the cobbled path.

Instead we took a more gradual if a little longer alternative route down the hill.

We ended up in a square beneath the bell tower where it became clear that there was a church underneath.

It wasn't that obvious at first. There was the facade of a small church to the left but then there was these tall walls built on top rising up to the Place du Marché and the bell tower above.

There were "men at work" with cement mixers and shovels with "do not cross" tape all over the place but it didn't take away from the fascinating sight of this church built into the hill.

But first Brigitte led us to another church. One that was only accessible behind a locked gate for which she had the key.

It was called the Chappelle de la Trinite. Originally built in the 13th century and dedicated to the patron saint of the town, Emilion.

Much of what stands there today is an 18th century extension but at its heart the 700 year old frescoes were worth a visit. They were only discovered in 1997 when restoration work began.

Apparently after the French Revolution the church was decommissioned and sold to a cooper. The soot from the barrel making process blackened the walls and ceilings, which unexpectedly acted to protect the frescoes beneath from fading.

We then followed Brigitte down some steps into a dark cellar beneath the church. It was the cave in which the 8th century hermit Emilion called home.

The Grotte l'Ermitage was occupied by Saint Emilion between 750AD and 767AD. Originally from Brittany he was a bit of a Robin Hood character stealing bread from the kitchens of an Earl to feed the local poor. When he was caught red handed a miracle happened and the bread turned into a piece of wood.

He didn't enjoy his new found celebrity status and left Brittany to become a Benedict monk. I don't quite know how but he eventually ended up here in a cave.

Brigitte drew our attention to the source of a natural spring and a few recesses carved into the rock which are believed to be a place to sit and meditate and a place to lie down and sleep. As caves went it offered quite comfortable accommodation.

Saint Emilion's miracles continued after his death with the spring water curing the blind and his chair brought the gift of chilfren to those who couldn't previously conceive. This raised Emilion's profile to sainthood and this small town became an important stopover on the long pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

We left the hermitage, locking the gate behind us moving on to the next subterranean attraction. Once again Brigitte had the key to let us in. We felt privileged as Joe Public were looking enviously at us as we entered what's known as L'Eglise Monolithe or the Monolithic Church.

 

What we found inside was truly incredible. Cut out of the limestone in the 12th century was a full sized cathedral. Our jaws dropped at the sheer scale of its dimensions. Pillars rose 12m high into an arched ceiling.

Their bases were wrapped with large steel girders, aesthetically unappealing but essential to hold the entire structure in place. Over the years the limestone has softened with water damage.

The walls would at one point have been decorated with frescoes but they were now bare. Brigitte pointed out some very faint remnants of a painting and said "Imagine what it would have looked like"

At 38m x 20m x 12m it was apparently the largest subterranean church in Europe. I did wonder about that fact because the church in the salt mines of Wieliczka in Poland was massive but perhaps invalid in the record books as it wasn't a consecrated place of worship or some other technicality. Anyway, regardless of records the L'Eglise Monolithe was impressive.

With our guided tour over Brigitte released the group for a bit of free time to wander around the streets of Saint Emilion. We took her advice and first visited the ruined cloisters of Les Cordeliers. She mentioned that the nearby vineyard of the same name produced one of the few sparkling wines in the region Cremant de Bordeaux.

So back up the hill we marched to Les Cordeliers where we enjoyed a glass of their finest fizz.

The cloisters were a lovely peaceful place to sit down and enjoy the wine. It may not have been champagne but Les Cordeliers was made using the traditional method just like its world famous cousin, it's just that wine can only be named by the region in which the vines grow.

Once we finished our glass of "I Can't Believe It's not Champagne" we moved on.

I wanted to scale the heights of La Tour du Roy to get the best view of Saint Emilion from its ramparts.

Julie didn't fancy the physical exertion so she stayed around the Place du Marché whilst I popped over to the tower.

Standing on a prominent position overlooking the town it looked a little odd out there on its own without more fortifications for company.

Historians are unclear as to which King ordered its construction in the 13th century. It could either have been Louis VII or Henry III King of England. Control of Saint Emilion changed hands a few times during the Hundred Year War.

I paid my €1.50 for the pleasure of walking up to the top of the 15m tall tower. It was accessed by a very narrow staircase where only one person could climb or come down. There was no room for passing.

I met people on their way down a few times and had to turn around each time to return down to the last level and allow them to pass.

Despite what felt like one step up two steps down I did eventually reach the top and was rewarded with a spectacular view over Saint Emilion.

I had no time to waste however as we were on a tight schedule. Brigitte had given us a strict deadline of 16:00 to return to the coach and that was only half an hour away.

I bounded back down the steps and then across to Place du Marché like a seasoned fell runner hurtling down a steep hill then back up the other side.

Huffing and a puffing I met up with Julie and started to make our way back to the car park.

On the way we passed Comptoir des Vignobles a wine shop with a difference. In its cellars it stocked vintage wines from d'Yquem, Mouton, Lafite and Petrus. Outside a board displayed the price list. There was some serious price tags on some. The Petrus 1945 was the most expensive at €12,200.

However one could have picked up a Mouton 1981 a snip at only for €384.

The 1967 vintages, the year I was born, were in the thousands so I left my wallet in my pocket and moved on.

 

We reached the city walls and what remained of the Cardinals Palace before crossing the road to the car park. We weren't the first back to the coach but thankfully neither were we the last. That accolade went to the two Australian boys.

We set off back to Bordeaux passing through the lush countryside. One place in particular stood out, the stunning Château Hôtel Grand Barrail just a short distance away from Saint Emilion. It was the real French château deal complete with turrets and everything.

We made notes for when we decide to come back to this corner of France.

There was no running commentary from Brigitte on the way back. She had done her job and was now enjoying the ride back as we were. It wasn't long before we had crossed the Dordogne and were speeding down the motorway.

What felt like just moments later we reached Bordeaux pulling up up just around the corner to the Tourist Information office.

We thanked Brigitte for being a charming guide. Neither of us are the biggest fans of organised group tours but we had thoroughly enjoyed today. We then set off into the alleys of the Saint-Pierre district on the search for a Lebanese restaurant for tonight's supper.

We were disappointed when we found it because it was closed and it wouldn't open for a couple of hours. Too tired to hang around we began to make our way to our hotel.

Just off Place du Palais we called into a small supermarket for some supplies for the room.

Then just as we left the square Julie spotted a chalkboard sign outside this little wine bar called Le Palais de Truffe. It said "Omelette a la truffe" and had my name written all over it.

Inside the Palace of the Truffle we browsed their fungus based menu. There was nothing on there that Julie fancied yet she still encouraged me to order.

Perched high on a stool she watched me devour the most incredible omelette.

I loved the fact that it was on the verge of being undercooked. The inside was still moist, all runny and buttery and full of the intense mushroom flavour of the black truffle. It tasted divine. I also loved the fact that Julie enjoyed watching me having a trufflegasm as much as I enjoyed it.

With food done we caught the tram back up the hill and walked to our hotel where we retired to our room. Julie was happy to make some cream cheese sandwiches for her supper.

She re-enacted my moaning and groaning from my culinary pleasure earlier but was less convincing.

It was still early but with us leaving tomorrow another late evening of drunkenness was not a good idea so we pulled down the shutters and settled in for a night in front of the telly nibbling on all the leftover food and snacks we had horded.

 

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