Nick travels to the heart of wine country for a stay at a boutique hotel with a starred chef and its very own vineyard
The road from Bordeaux up the’left bank’ of the Gironde is hard work; barely have you managed to get into fourth gear than you arrive in another small town with more vicious speed humps. As you bounce heavily over them it’s hard not to think dark thoughts about French town planners.
Then you start to see the signs for places that until now have only been names on labels, or in your dreams, such as St-EstÃƒÂ¨phe, Pauillac, St.-Julien and Margaux. Vineyards, with their unmistakable geometric lines, begin to sneak up to the road, the ripening and now almost dark grapes cluster heavily under every leaf.
One of the biggest names in this area of big name-dropping is Lynch- Bages, a combination of the name of the village it’s based in and the founder of the vineyard an Irishman called Thomas Lynch whose first wines in the latter half of the 18th Century he named’Cru de Lynch’. My dad called his 1970s Sainsbury’s kit wine’Cru de Harman’, so that makes me chuckle.
Lynch-Bages wines are of course no joke and in fact are regarded as epitomes of Grand Cru. They come from 100 hectares of vineyards that enjoy a mild climate on well-drained soil. The grapes are 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot. There is also a small plot planted with white varieties – 40% Semillon, 40% Sauvignon blanc and 20% Muscadelle.
A grape throw away from the Lynch Bages winery in Bages is the ChÃƒÂ¢teau Cordeillan-Bages, part of the Relais de ChÃƒÂ¢teaux organisation and our home for the night. Actually not a ChÃƒÂ¢teau but a charterhouse from around 1850, it was once the actual winery but now is a very pretty boutique hotel with charming turrets and surrounded by a 2-hectare vineyard.
Manicured lawn gives way to a cool and elegant reception area in the oldest part of the house and the unprompted offer of glasses of chilled water. Little details like this matter to tired travellers. Staff are welcoming, efficient, friendly and polished. The hotel is on two floors and surrounds a courtyard of cool green under blue skies. The ground floor bedrooms give gracefully onto the courtyard, but we are in the by no means less impressive newly created’Premium’ rooms upstairs.
These feature tailor-made carpentry in Ecocert oak with leather handles, Italian fabrics from Dedar for headboard and a switchable privacy glass wall separating the bedroom from the bathroom. There’s a walk-in shower with a marble bench and heated floor all built in Moleanos stone and I rather liked the round leather mirror by Jacques Adnet from around 1950 and light fixtures from Danish Frandsen. All in all, it’s very much the quality of design and finish you expect at this level and makes us wish we were staying a week.
The links with the vineyard, Jean Charles Cazes owns both hotel and vineyard, mean touring the nearby working winery is easily arranged. We stroll over to enjoy a leisurely guided visit of the modern side as well see a museum that has preserved the old methods.
We end with an enjoyably relaxed tutored wine tasting that should involve spitting, but that would be a waste. And then it’s back to get ready for dinner, something I’ve been particularly looking forward to.
Wonderful canapÃƒÂ©s on the terrace sat next to rows of vines, served with a chilled glass of Lynch-Bage’s less well-known but superb white wine, precede sitting down in a dining room that is modest, unpretentious yet clearly upmarket. When a waiter brings four kinds of butter for your bread selection you know you’re deep in Michelin land.
There is a tasting menu from two-starred Chef Jean Luc Rocha, bien sur, but you can also choose from a simpler menu of two courses and dessert, or three courses and dessert. The waiter says that what with amuse bouches, in between treats and a pre-dessert dish we’ll probably have enough with three courses.
It’s too much of a good thing to detail fully but every dish is outstanding, each demonstrating Chef’s passion for using not just textures but also temperatures to remarkable effect. For example a first course of’Tuna two ways’ featured barely warm Japanese style tuna slices, seared on the outside, having been first marinated in ginger, sat on a bed of chopped sashimi grade tuna dotted with explosive pops of salmon roe, as well as beetroot and tomato ice cream, a beetroot sorbet with guacamole and a small breadstick.
A selection of cheese from a well-stocked cheeseboard gave way to a corn dish that was an ethereal explosion of white. And we had 2004 Lynch-Bages red to accompany our last main, a wine that even I, a non-wine expert, can tell stands high in Grands Crus canon. A real oenophile experience
Breakfast the next day was what breakfast should ideally always be, unhurried, al fresco and relaxed. Perfect breads, gorgeous conserves and the sun just beginning to toast the earth and light up the vines sneaking up to the table.
We toured the pretty little village of Bages for a few hours, enjoying the Cotswolds in the Sun feel and the smart and expensive shops before getting back in the car to go see some more vineyards and buy some more wine.
As a base for wine touring, ChÃƒÂ¢teau Cordeillan-Bages is hard to beat. But even if you don’t stay then a meal is a must to savour how things are done at the highest end of the culinary scale.
ChÃƒÂ¢teau Cordeillan-Bages, Route des ChÃƒÂ¢teaux, 33250 Pauillac, France
2.6 km from Gare de Pauillac