As it starts to sink in, when I look at my surroundings, I realise this is more than a mere trip… for a food writer like me it’s a pilgrimage to a place which is, arguably, the origin of the best food and wine in the world.
We are in Le Gabriel, a Michelin star restaurant on the Place de la Bourse in Bordeaux. After delectable canapés and excellent French Champagne, we meet chef Francoise Adamski who is cooking our seven-course dégustation menu.
My hosts are Mari Dartnell and Cobus du Plessis (from The Orient Hotel at Hartbeespoort), chef Chantel Dartnell from the hotel’s Mosaic restaurant and Cape Wine Master Junel Vermeulen (the sommelier at Mosiac). Chantel and Francoise will later be cooking a joint South African and French dinner for a charity event at a chateau in St Emilion.
Tonight is a sparkling welcome to La Cuisine Francaise.
Le Gabriel’s sommelier has paired the dishes with wines mainly from local chateaux and some from as far as Naples. On the menu is a beetroot mousse with Granny Smith jelly; foie gras with rhubarb jelly; langoustines with yuzu juice on a bed of tapioca, almonds and coriander; a turbot (fish) with asparagus nori and caviar with asparagus cream; and a fillet of beef stuffed with foie gras. The two dessert courses of mango with pomegranate and granadilla, followed by a rum and orange soufflé with rosewater and almond ice cream, round off the meal perfectly. I am not a wine expert, but the connoisseurs at the table sing the praises of the various wines.
My brief sojourn in Bordeaux starts when we landed at Merignac airport. My suitcase has been damaged, but I can’t find a single person to report it to. Perhaps the lunch hour has something to do with it. I wonder if the French take their lunch hour so seriously that they vacate their posts.
The trip from the airport to my hotel, the Grand Regent, is peppered with interesting conversation by a friendly driver, Louis. He happily regales me with historical facts of Bordeaux. When I ask about the French animosity towards the English, he says Bordeaux was ruled by the English from 1154 to 1453. It was also the headquarters of the French government in 1914 and again in 1940.
Bordeaux is home to several spectacular gothic cathedrals. A large part of the city and surrounding winelands is also a Unesco world heritage sight.
Near the city centre, Louis points out some of the beautiful 18th-century buildings which form a majestic curve along the banks of the Garonne river. A new and modern addition to the waterfront is the Water Mirror. This was installed by French landscape architects Claire and Michel Corajoud and designer Jean-Max Llorca on the left bank of the Garonne along the Quais de la Douane.
This giant rectangle has a surface area of 5 850m2 and is covered with water only 2cm deep over the granite flagstones. When the water is still, you can see a mirror-image reflection of the city.
The next morning, while Chantel is preparing for the special event dinner, I join Cobus, Mari and Junel for a tour of the surrounding winelands. We head for the ancient town of Saint Emilion, the oldest viticulture area in Bordeaux and one of the principal red wine areas in the region.
At chateau Troplong Mondot, we are met by Margaux Pariente, the owner’s daughter. This family-run chateau is set on 33 hectares or prime property, making it one of the largest estates in the area.
The family live on the estate and run a small guest house. The setting is picturesque, with a landscape that is slightly elevated and a panoramic view of St-Émilion in the distance.
The vineyard soils consists of thick limestone under a layer of dense clay with an abundance of underground water, making it ideally suited for growing the merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc.
The average age of the vines is 35 years with some of the oldest on the estate being 90.
Over the years, the chateau has undergone many changes, the most significant being the return of biodynamic farming methods. Horses are used to work the fields in place of tractors, which compact the soil and adversely affect the growth of the vines.
After a tour of the grounds, we enter the tasting cellar, which is a sight to behold. Glass doors at the entrance reveal a magnificently lit cellar, housing hundreds of oak barrels.
We start with a 2000 vintage. As a wine novice, I’m guided by Junel, who says: “It is just starting to open up, showing its greatness. With a garnet rim and showing some development it needs a few more years to mature…”
After swirling the wine in the wine glass, sucking in air and letting the wine roll around my mouth before spitting it out, I try to pick up the notes. Others detect fragrances of violets, blackberries and liquorice, but sadly it tastes quite ordinary to me. I am far more interested in the restaurant kitchen, where the chef is preparing lunch and the smell of freshly baked bread wafts through the door. Margaux says their estate is the only one with a restaurant in the region. With the most magnificent views of the surrounding countryside from the terrace I cannot think of a more perfect place to enjoy a meal.
Junel explains that “almost all Bordeaux wines are blends of several grape varieties”. She adds that “the grapes are harvested and vinified (made into wine) separately, then blended to create the required taste and style of wine”.
That evening we attend the charity dinner at Chateau Bellefont Belcier. The seating area is on an elevated level, so guests can look down on the area where the chefs are cooking.
The evening is centered on these two exceptional chefs presenting dishes which represent their country’s cuisine. Chantel’s menu includes typical South African flavours like buchu, rooibos tea and Von Geusau chocolate. Francoise’s dishes are classic French. The wines on offer have all been donated by local chateaux and it is wonderful to see three South African wines on the list: Constantia Glen Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Constantia Glen Five 2008 and a Groot Constantia Grand Constance 2009.
The evening is a great success with Chantel charming and cooking her way into the guests’ hearts.
The next day we visit three chateaux where I am introduced to Sauternes. This delicious drink is known as “liquid gold” and after learning how it is produced I begin to understand why.
Junel says there are strict laws which dictate the grape varieties that may be used: semillon, sauvignon blanc, muscadelle and sauvignon gris. Semillon is the predominant variety because it is the most susceptible to the “noble rot”.
Junel explains: “The whole process is a delicate balance between ideal weather conditions of early morning dew, midday sunshine and warm winds, which can cause a fungus (Botrytis cinerea) to attack the skin of the grape. This fungus sucks up all the moisture in the grape, triggering a concentration of sugar. The grapes are picked at just the right moment known as the Roti stage. Every berry is picked by hand and grapes are harvested in stages to make sure they are all perfectly ‘rotten’.”
From one grape vine, a wine maker can expect to produce a bottle of wine. But in the production of Sauternes, one vine will produce one glass of liquid gold wine. It also takes two years from the harvest to bottling. No wonder it costs so much.
With turrets and a lake tocomplete the picture, Chateau Suduiraut looks like something out of a fairy tale. The chateau overlooks a magnificent garden, created by the great landscape gardener Le Notre who also created the gardens at Versailles.
Our next stop is an unexpected gem, Chateau Doisy Deane. We arrive to see people busy loading crates and doing tasks. We are greeted by a very handsome young man, Bastian, who, in gumboots, is literally up to his elbows in red wine. Denis Dubourdieu, an agro-scientist and a professor ofOenology at the University of Bordeaux, owns the chateau. He is considered one of the top specialists in the winemaking process and the ageing of white wines. His family has owned this farm since 1924. Bastian says the average age of the vines here is 40 years and that one of the semillon vineyards is 65, and still bearing fruit. Here, they produce both dry and sweet white wines and the farm has also changed to a biodynamic farming method.
The last stop on our tour is certainly the most imposing. Chateau Pape Clement is really striking and has turrets and an imposing presence. Once in the grounds you are transported to another era. I am told it is the oldest wine estate in Bordeaux. The chateau takes its name from the first French Pope, Clement V, who received the estate in the 1300s from his brother. The estate now displays progressive farming methods, harvesting and wine storing.
It has such high standards here that when it picks grapes, each berry is plucked from its stalk by hand. The fruit is gently pressed then transferred to vats by gravity feed rather than pumping. Entering the wine cellar is like stepping into a church. The walls are lined with stained glass windows. At the entrance to the cellar there is a display of papal vestments dating back to the 1300s. In the gardens are olive trees that are more than 1 000 years old. Amazingly, they still have a few green leaves shooting from the gnarled and twisted stems and branches.
I leave Bordeaux with a much greater appreciation for wine, a longing to return to see more of the city and explore the ancient buildings, and perhaps to enjoy a glass or two of my new favourite drink, French Champagne. - Saturday Star