written 5th December 2009
Planete Bordeaux is the tourist face of the syndicat of Appellations d'Origines Controlees of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieure and has a great promotional leaflet which promised a lot for not much money so we were really hoping that it would like up to the expectations set by the publicity and we were very much not disappointed!
Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieure has 7 different AOC's (types of wine; red, superieur red, white, superieur white, rose, clairet and sparkling) coming from about 5000 vineyards over 63,000 hectares of land - 54% of all the wine from the Gironde region comes under these appellations, 65% of which is "normal red".
The soil types, weather and wine makers' expertise (all of which combine to form the "terroire" of the wine. The concept of terroire is all explained extremely well by Oz Clarke and James May in the recent BBC series of road trip wine adventures in France and California - interesting viewing (if you like James May's bumbling style of congenial, gentlemanly idiocy which I happen to) if you didn't see it and ever get a chance to, you should) are particularly suited to 6 main grape varieties; Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc (red grapes) and Sauvignon, Semillion and Muscadelle (white grapes). So all Bordeaux wines are pretty much a mix of these in various proportions, mostly heavily Merlot-based (reds) or Sauvignon-based (whites).
The merlot grapes are the most planted in the Gironde and they are the base of so many wines as they give the wine "roundness" and red fruit flavours. Cabernet sauvignon grapes are used for their tannins which give the wine body and complexity of aromas, and cabernet franc grapes are used for wines which will be aged longer as they have yet more tannins and their flavours and stong alcohol really come out after a longer while.
Sauvignon grapes are used for their sugars and aroma, which prdoce a light, fresh acidity, especially in dry whites. Semillion grapes are added to give the white wines structure and flesh and muscadelle is used for its strong bouquet.
How long they are aged and what sort of barrel also adds to the flavours and smells.
Most Bordeaux wines, especially the whites are designed to be drunk young (2-5 years) although the superior reds will age well up to 10 apparently - wine doesn't last that long in our house normally so I can only tell you what I now have heard... :)
There are other appellations in the Gironde region; Medoc, Haute Medoc, St Emilion for example, and somewhat confusingly wines of more than one appellation can be produced in the same place and more specifically some wines can't be some appellations - so, you apparently can't have a white St Emilion but a vineyard in the St Emilion area can produce both red and white wine, and subject to acceptance by the appellations people, the red will be a St Emilion and the white will have to be a Bordeaux. Still with me??
The difference between Bordeaux and Bordeaux superieure basically comes down to quality and availability and therefore price. The amount of superior wine which can be produced is decided in advance (normal laws of supply and demand, if there is a lot of it, it will have to be cheaper so they don't make much!), vineyards wishing to produce superieure wine have to have fewer grapes planted per hectare of land and the wine has to be aged for longer, hence normal red can be sold from the 1st Jan after the september harvest, superior red can't be sold until the following september. It is all extremely complicated!
Arriving on Friday morning after a night in a nearby wine country layby, we were met by a very smiley and helpful girl who spoke excellent english (in really obviously touristy places, I have found it is easier to be a dumb foreigner than try and speak french as we tend to get better information or the same information more quickly!). And the interactive exhibitions were as promised very good and talked through "terroire" soil types, the wine making process and in detail about fermentation. There was then a room with lots of stoppered testtubes for you to try and identify the various smells which are found in Bordeaux wine (which apparently range from the obvious red and white fruits through to violets, vanilla, caramel, leather, toast, rubber somewhat disturbingly cat pee), illustrated information panels about the biology of what is happened in your mouth and nose when you smell and taste wine, and two videos and more illustrated panels about wine bottle, cork (did you know that cork trees don't produce actual bottlestopping cork until they are 40 years old and then only at intervals of 7-10 years thereafter? I didn't) and barrel making. At the end of the exhibition, you come out into the tasting/sales area, which boasts a cave of 1001 wines, and where we were met by Hubert for our tasting.
Now, I really like drinking wine but I have never actually learnt much about the art of tasting it - it's wine, therefore I drink it is the extent of my usual deliberations! - and we have only tried this tasting lark twice before in Napa Valley in California. The first place was basically free "try before you by" where we drank what we were offered and it was all very nice if lacking in any instruction. The second place was recommended by our hotel for people who like reds (well that would be us) as somewhere that only produced cabernets but which stored them in lots of different types of barrels for different amounts of time and where the expensive tasting sessions allowed you to experience and appreciate the subtle nuances of these different conditions in the original brick arched cellars. It definately had the atmosphere you expect of a romantic wine cellar (which, less romantically, was built by chinese slave labour once the railways were finished after the gold rush), with long rows of wooden barrels lit by tealights in cool, slightly damp, darkness (unlike the cave of Will's mum's pet champagne supplier near Reims whose cellar we visited to buy our wedding champagne and which was of very unromantic breeze block contstruction - gorgeous champagne though and by 11am and a bottle down my french was coming along nicely... ;) ) but we were surrounded by very knowledgeable people (or people who could sound very erudite at least), with a guide on his last tour of the day (so who was being more generous with his wine thief to both us and himself) who expected very knowledgeable people and who kept talking about "cab sav" and "cab franc" as if they were friends of his and semi-toasted, half fluted heads (different barrel top constructions!) and the $1,000 wine he was taking to go with his $500 lobster for the starter course of the New Year's meal he and his friends were having in a few days time... Needless to state, we were soon both very tipsy and very much out of our depth so we kept at the back and kept drinking until we got to the end when we could slip out unnoticed while he did his hard sell on those with money...
All in all then, we didn't know quite what to expect from this experience and as it turned out, we were very well looked after by Hubert who explained a bit about how to taste wine, what we were tasting and where it came from without making us feel ignorant and as all the wine sold at Planete Bordeaux is the same price as you would find it at the vineyard itself, and for the privialege of having their wine in the cellars, the vineyards give Planete Bordeaux wine to use for tastings, there is no hard sell. Even better, he said that there were proper tasting session the following day - a learn how to taste wine in the morning followed by wine and cheese in the early afternoon and wine and chocolate in the late afternoon which we would be welcome to come back for and which, better still, were free!
Now, despite our hitherto aimless wanderings, we are currently on a strict time schedule as we have to meet my parents in Porto (northern portugal) for New Year (budget flights booked and everything!) so we have to actually leave france and get through northern spain in the next 3.5 weeks but never being ones to turn down life's chance good fortunes, we decided this seemed like too good an opportunity to miss out on by pressing on south so on Hubert's advice, we headed east to St Emilion instead (which also happens to be another destination in our 1000 places book).
On a deserted wet friday afternoon in December there is not much to do or see (the tours of the town and cellars happen earlier in the day and its too cold to sit and drink wine in a pavement cafe) but it is very pleasant and I imagine certainly nicer now than in the scorching heat of summer when packed with other tourists. There is also an interesting exhibition in the church cloisters about the history of the town. It was favoured by Alienor of Aquitaine, (wife of both Louis and Henry) and as such was accorded special privileges to rule itself outside the jurisdiction of the local Abbey, by Henry and then his son John (brother of Richard the Lion Heart, he of Robin Hood crusade fame) which were later revoked and then reinstrated in the subsequent wars. At that time, the equivalent of a local council and mayor were set up and in addition to running the town, these Jurats also had tight control over the grape harvest, wine production, and sales. The Jurats were long since disbanded when, after the second world war, the local winegrowers decided to reinstate the traditions (one of which includes the ritual burning of any barrels of wine which don't meet the Jurats high standards!) and thus they set about promoting their own quality mark, some 25 years before the AOC's of today came about. The pomp and ceremony of the Jurats still continues today (although winegrowers can now chose their own grape varieties and when to harvest) and they are the ambassadors of St Emilion wine to the world - seems to have worked for them!
And despite being all in french (so I had to concentrate to translate but there were at least powerpoint slides which helped) today has been great! We now know how to taste wine, what sort of wine to drink with some cheeses and why, and why it is really difficult to match wine with chocolate - not that I usually have much problem... :) - but how it can be done.
There are four phases to tasting wine:
1) The look.
Apparently you should hold your wineglass up at eye level (by the stem not the bowl so you don't either warm or hide the colours of your wine), in good light, against a white background and tilt it to a slight angle so that the surface of the wine (the disc) becomes an oval. You can thus appreciate the colour, transparency and integrity of your wine. Basically, and we had a colour chart, the lighter the wine, the younger it is with white wines going from very pale yellow to dark golden and red wines going from bright red to brownish or blueish red over time. If your pink wine is tinged with orange, it is already too old to drink!
2) The smell
i) For first nose you smell the wine without swirling it round which gives you the obvious smells (most often fruit in young Bordeaux wines)
ii) For second nose, you swirl it around and smell it again, and it does, actually, honestly make a difference!
There are 11 families of smells you might find (animal, balsamic, woody, chemical (petrol, sulphur, metal, plastic), spicy, ethereal (green apple, green banana, acid sweets), floral, fruity, mineral, vegetable and empyreumatic (smoke, toast, carbon, gunpowder) and really you can tell (well some of them)
3) The taste
Only at this point can you actually drink the stuff and then you are supposed to take a small amount into your mouth, swirl it round and then try and breathe in through it with your throat closed and then exhale through your nose so all your toungue and nose, taste and smell receptors get a go - not easy or dignified in company! All in all the wine should be in your mouth for 10 seconds to allow you to fully experience it
Wine makers try to get a balance between sweet, savoury (not often), acid and bitter tastes. The sugar and acidity in whites give them their freshness and the bitter tannins in the reds give them their structure and body.
4) The texture
There are apparently three taste sensations; the attack gives you an first impression of the flavour of the wine and its suppleness, the middle mouth allows you to discover its freshness and volume, the end of mouth is where you discover the tannins and bitterness of the wine which give it it's structure (in reds) or the "fat" the semillion gives the sauvignon in white. The wine's length on your palate and the lasting qualities of all its flavours are the last things to note once you have finally been allowed to swallow it.
There - you are now as educated as we are! although all that being said, apparently the best thing about all Bordeaux wines it that they are "unpretentious, easy-going wines with no need for protocol and their reasonable price and exceptional variety means that they are a never ending delight to discover, accessible to all in all occasions" - apparently ;)
After a delicious van lunch of bread and pate, we went back to find four cheeses (two goats cheeses one fresh and one semi mature) which we had with white and rose (although most people think it should be red with cheese apparently the light fruity acidity of the white perfectly compliments cheese with cramy flavours), a red with a salere (not sure that is spelt right, it had the texture of cheddar) and a really really lovely sweet Bordeaux Superieure white with a strong rocquefort which just slipped down the throat like honey! Of course we did try different wines with different cheeses and it did make a difference - the red really did not go with the goats cheese and the rocquefort was far to strong on its own without the wine...
Apparently the problem with mixing wine and chocolate it you need to find something which will be able to balance both the sweetness and bitterness of chocolate without either overpowering or being overpowered by it. I am pleased to report that they managed it though with a 55% cocoa cholocate filled with mousse which went with a sparkling cremant, a 68% cocoa chocolate which went with a nice strong red and a 78% chocolate with a Fin de Bordeaux, a cognac like drink which is not strictly an AOC but was very nice nonetheless.
I don't know that I will actually be able to put this new found knowledge to any specific or practical use in the future with regard to matching food with wine (although they have a suggestions thing on their website which might help) and I fear it may spoil my enjoyment of the remaining bottle of €0.85 Carrefour "wine from many countries of the european union" which we have in the van (we didn't admit to having it, it has a plastic bottle top! although I do refuse to stoop as cheap as plastic bottles of wine and we have decided that cartons would be dangerous - at least when a bottle runs out, we know we have had enough!) by trying to be too pretentious about it...
It was good fun though :)
We also ended up sat next to a Tahitian friend of the friendly girl who came to Bordeaux to study and then spent a year (with the friendly girl) at uni in england. At first, with us coming from Cambridge, they said they were to embarassed to say which university and then first said birmingham and then finally admitted to wolverhampton - not sure why this was deemed to be such a problem for them although they did admint to struggling somewhat with the accent! She also said that he boyfriend wanted a to have VW camper and travel round europe and asked if you needed to be a mechanic to drive one - we said no, not really, but that it helped to be a bit handy... ;)
We have now set off south again and have found ourseleves in the pine scented forest car park of the Dune de Pilat (the largest sand dune in Europe) and are just settling down to a light meal of emergency pasta - it is not an emergency, we have 3 days worth of steak and sausages in the van but are too full to eat them and in fact we have had so few emergencies recently that the pasta goes out of date on wednesday :) It is free and quiet and there are toilets so all is well with the world