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Staying at the Château

by Patrick Hilyer, 2007

In part one of this feature, Patrick visits the châteaux of St Emilion that offer accommodation. part II looks at what's on offer in the surrounding areas.

Part 1 - Saint-Emilion

Many holidaymakers have passed a pleasant half hour at a roadside cave, before buying a couple of souvenir bottles. Visiting the winery of a favourite cru, to taste wine in the company of the person who made it, is a rewarding experience. But increasingly, winemakers are opening their homes to paying guests, with an opportunity to taste wines over dinner at the host's table.

Today around a hundred wine properties in the Bordeaux region offer B&B, table d'hôte or gîte services to a varied clientele of grape-pickers, buyers, journalists, and tourists. We spent a week chez les vignerons in the heart of Bordeaux's most popular tourist area, Saint-Emilion, and its neighbouring appellations.

A famous tourist destination, the village of Saint-Emilion and its vineyards are classed as a world heritage site under the protection of UNESCO. The town itself, like other French centres of tourist pilgrimage, is very busy in the summer months. However, in February we were able to take in its medieval streets and ancient monuments unmolested. And even in the dark winter months, there are one or two good restaurants open catering for a mainly local clientele. Also open all year round are the châteaux, both grand and not so grand, who welcome an eager public.

Château La Tour Figeac

Situated between Châteaux Cheval Blanc and Figeac, the vineyards of La Tour Figeac are blessed with a rich terroir. In 1994, realising this potential, German industrialist Otto M. Rettenmaier brought a completely new management philosophy to the estate and the renaissance began. In the vineyard, a biodynamic approach to viticulture has been adopted and organic products are used to treat the 14.5 hectares of vines which are planted to 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc. In the winery, new techniques including micro-oxygenation enhance traditional methods to produce a forward wine that also has the capacity to age well.

We are given a tour of the winery by cellar-master Caroline Gaullier (right). A lover of classical music, Rettenmaier has named each oak vat after a famous composer and so during the assemblage, the team talk of adding a bit more Schubert or Mozart to the cuvée.

The second wine, L'Esquisse de la Tour Figeac, reveals a minty freshness on the nose. Red fruits and a touch of oak supported by a supple tannin and fresh acidity make a very pleasant, pert wine. The grand vin is more concentrated, with floral aromas and a balance of black fruits and spices on the fine finish. Both will benefit from a few years ageing, but are drinking well now.

During the tasting we are joined by the proprietor who gives us a tour of the guest accommodation in the main house. 'Our guests have use of the whole house which, in spite of its classical architecture, was built fairly recently', he tells us as we pass beneath the pale stone pediment of the main door.

  

The four large guest suites, each with private bathroom facilities, have access to the formal reception rooms. Occasionally, Otto cooks for his guests at an impressive 'piano' range in the contemporary kitchen/dining room. The accommodation is very smart; you could imagine bumping into the likes of Robert Parker on the way to the dining room, a man who frequently gives excellent notices for Otto's wines.

If soil and climate influence a wine's character then the winemaker moulds its personality. Reflecting aspects of his own personality, Otto Rettenmaier has created a classic but thoroughly modern wine.

Château Pierre de Lune

Well acquainted with wine tourism, Veronique Ballu (below, with Patrick Hilyer) runs guided tours of the cellars at Clos Fourtet where her husband Tony is director. In 1999 the Ballus purchased a hectare of grand cru vines on very deep gravels west of Saint-Emilion. Originally from Champagne, Tony is passionate about viticulture and his exacting methods in the vineyard produce an outstanding wine, rightly celebrated by the pundits including the Revue du Vin de France and Parker.

Low production allows for very precise cultivation techniques. Tony explains his painstaking work in the vineyard, 'We prune the vines using the guyot simple method leaving only 6 or 7 buds on each stem. In July we green harvest quite rigorously and during ripening we prune the foliage in two stages, first to reveal the bunches to the morning sun then later, when the grapes are stronger, to reveal them to the evening sun.'

High concentration and very low yields (28 hl/ha) have led Pierre de Lune to be descried as a vin de garage and although Tony is indifferent to this label it's easy to see why. A single stainless-steel vat is housed in the winery next to which is the tiny cellar, just big enough to accommodate the twenty or so barriques that contain the two most recent vintages. A narrow flight of steps leading from the vat-room takes you to the guest accommodation - this is one property where you are literally sleeping above the wines.


   We begin our evening with a visit to the cellar for a tasting of the 2005 and 2006 vintages. The 2005, assembled and cleared but still in the barrel, has an alluring complexity, a delicious acidity and a solid structure. The nascent 2006 is firm and full of fruit but in spite of their extreme youth, both wines speak more of their terroir than the French oak in which they lie. For a taste of the bottle-aged wine we would have to wait for dinner.

'Which year would you prefer with the magret?' asks Veronique. We plump for the 2001 which, after a very tasty salad of Aveyron sheep's cheese with prunes and walnuts, is just right with the magret de canard, grilled by Tony on a fire of vines.


The wine has a beautiful carmine robe and unveils aromas of ripe blackcurrants and spicy oak in perfect harmony. Whether or not good winemakers make equally good cooks and hosts, it is certainly true of Tony and Veronique Ballu.

Château Franc Mayne

A fabulous wine property on the high limestone slopes to the west of Saint-Emilion, Franc Mayne is a true Château. The 18th century Girondine stone house is surrounded by seven hectares of grand cru classé vines under which a labyrinth of subterranean cellars house the wines maturing in new French oak.

In the impressive winery, the new owners are investing in oak fermenting vats and a new reception hall and tasting room.

Franc Mayne was one of the first Bordeaux wineries to offer guest accommodation, and in 2003 was awarded the World Wine Tourism award. Karine Hue welcomes visitors to the Château and runs guided tours and tasting. She gives us a tour of the guest accommodation - the sumptuous, well-equipped suites, the elegant dining rooms, the masculine billiards room; the level of comfort is definitely five-star with perhaps just a touch of the Hefner mansion.

Like the surroundings, the wine too is opulent. The 2002, often a lighter vintage, is full and structured. Tertiary aromas of cedar and vanilla are followed by rich, red fruit. On the palate the wine is firm, complex and long. This is a great example of how good winemaking can extract the best from an average year.

Those looking for a fine wine experience at a true Saint-Emilion Château will not be disappointed here.

  

Château Franc Pourret

Just a few hundred metres from Franc Mayne is Château Franc Pourret, owned and run since 1889 by the Ouzoulias family. Benefiting from the same limestone plateau as his neighbour, young winemaker Francois Ouzoulias (below) produces excellent grand cru wines from 5 hectares of organic vines.


   I asked him about his approach to organic production. 'My family has been making wine here for over a hundred years,' Francois explains. 'We feel part of the land and that's why we don't use chemical herbicides or pesticides'. He points at the wild lamb's lettuce growing in between the recently pruned vines, 'there, my mother is growing salad even in winter!'

An enviable terroir, restrained yields (45 hl/ha), careful organic cultivation and manual harvest and triage, all contribute to the final product. The three 2001s tasted deserve their grand cru classification. The first wine however, Château Franc Pourret, best demonstrates the fruit of Francois' labour. The robe is carmine and the wine releases heady aromas of cassis, apple, sweet vanilla and liquorice. The palate is ripe but lively with a structured Saint-Emilion dryness balanced by the fruit.

Francois' mother Catherine has created two chambre-d'hôte rooms on the first floor of the main house. The rooms are beautifully furnished and very well equipped; each has its own en-suite bathroom. 'Saint-Emilion is only a kilometre away,' remarks Madame as we return to the car. 'See, there is the church spire.' I look at the slate-grey winter sky and imagine a summer's evening and a walk through the vines to Saint-Emilion.

Château Monlot Capet

A manufacturer of industrial valves, Bernard Rivals' life changed for ever in 1990 when he bought Château Monlot and married Beatrice, whose family ran Château Belair. 'If I'd fallen in love with a butcher's daughter,' he says, 'I'd probably be making sausages today!'

He also fell in love with this 18th century Girondine house around which he cultivates seven hectares of Merlot and Cabernet vines with an average age of 45 years on clay-limestone and sandy soils. One of the few notable crus between the Libourne-Bergerac railway and the Dordogne, Bernard produces a full, generous wine.

The family doesn't live in the house but the B&B has a homely feel. The five bedrooms, named after classic Borderlais varietals, are decorated in a lived-in, bourgeois style. Bernard's loves of photography and foreign travel combine in the pictures of the Far East that share the walls with old family portraits and memorabilia from his manufacturing career.

Bernard always gives his guests a tour of the winery and a private tasting of his wines. We are given a taste of three vintages of his grand cru wine - Cuvée Préstige. Matured for up to 18 months in 30% new French oak, this cuvée develops a marked empyreumatic bouquet and ages well.

  

The 2002 has a fresh, spicy nose and a soft but lively palate. Darker and more concentrated, the 2003 reveals ripe fruit and toasty aromas but is less lively. The 2004 has a pretty, ruby robe with young, purple tints. The oak is complemented by rich, black fruit aromas and the palate is both fresh and firm; definitely one to lay down.

The B&B business is a logical extension of Bernard's enthusiastic evangelism, and the property has been cited in guidebooks all over the world. The visitor's book is full of praise for the generous hospitality of Bernard and his team.

After breakfast we say au revoir, shake hands and Bernard hurries back into the house where another couple of eager buyers are waiting for him.

conclusion

Saint-Emilion is the perfect destination for lovers of fine, red wine. The village itself is a historic gem as well as being the epicentre for some of the world's most famous wines - many of which offer tours of the cellars and vineyards. Châteaux like Angelus, Belair, Beausejour and Figeac are all open to the public as well as scores of more modest crus. For UK buyers, the savings that can be made by purchasing a dozen bottles of Saint-Emilion at source should pay for a night's stay in the winemaker's B&B. And the next time your dinner guests compliment you on your excellent Saint-Emilion you can say, 'Yes, we bought a case whilst staying at the Château.'

Addresses and tariffs

Château Pierre de Lune
1, Chatelet-Sud, Saint-Emilion 33330
Tel: +33 (0)5 57 74 49 72
veronique.ballu@wanadoo.fr
GPS Ref: 0722-4976
B&B 60 euros - 80 euros per room per night. Table d'Hote 22 euros per person

Château La Tour Figeac
Tel: +33 (0)5.57.51.77.62
latourfigeac@aol.com
GPS Ref: 0720-4977
B&B price on application.

Château Franc Mayne
14, la Gomerie, Saint-Emilion 33330
Tel: +33 (0)5.57.24.62.61
info@chateaufrancmayne.com
GPS Ref: 0723-4976
B&B price on application

Château Franc Pourret
Tel: +33 (0)5 57 24 72 29
ouzoulias.vins@wanadoo.fr
GPS Ref: 0723-4976
B&B 65 euros - 79 euros per room per night

Château Monlot Capet
Saint-Hippolyte, 33330
Tel: +33 (0)5.57.74.49.47
mussetrivals@chateaumonlot.com
GPS Ref: 0726-4972
B&B from 80 euros per room per night

Restaurants:

L'Envers du Décor
Rue du clocher, Saint-Emilion
Tel: +33 (0)5 57 74 48 31
Popular Bar à Vins serving accomplished cuisine with an impressive wine list.

Lard et Bouchon
22 rue Guadet, Saint-Emilion
Tel: +33 (0)5 57 24 28 53
Subterranean wine-bar/bistro serving tasty, interesting dishes and fine wines.

Restaurant Le Chai
20 place Decazes, Libourne
Tel: +33 (0)5 57 25 05 16
Lively, aspirational, wine-focused resto in student sector.

Wine Tourism Information:

Maison du Vin de Saint-Emilion
Place Pierre Meyrat

go to part II - areas around St Emilion



  Patrick Hilyer is an English restaurateur running a busy bistro in Normandy. he is a passionate wine enthusiast and, as well as his professional wine interests, organises tastings and events and chairs a regional wine association. Patrick regularly visit his favourite vignerons to buy wine for the restaurant and for his personal 'cave'. Here, along with his his father Chris, Patrick discover the Châteaux of Bordeaux offering B&B, table d'hôte and self-catering accommodation.


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