Château Fombrauge St Emilion
This piece is a day by day breakdown of my maiden Bordeaux trip with eight guests in October of 2017. A great deal of planning was required. I therefore took the time and arrived at the Château two days in advance of my group which gave me sufficient time to check all arrangements were in place.The guest house I reserved is known as Château-le-Pape in Leognan, a little south of Bordeaux. I highly recommend taking the TGV (Bullet train, great experience) from Charles De Gaulle airport (main international airport in Paris) direct to Bordeaux’s main train station (just over 3 hours) thus cutting out a lot of anxiety from the long drive. I know Bordeaux quite well, and I wanted to immediately convey to my guests that I was very comfortable within my surroundings. My father taught me the importance of taking stock of your bearings in an unfamiliar environment. His method was simple, observe the city skyline identifying landmarks of distinction and correlate them with the position of the sun, you now have a compass which is that all important commodity known as self confidence. I immediately got down to the business at hand. The challenge of such a trip is realized as my guests started arriving on the front doorstep. The house belongs to Château Haut-Bailly and is set among the great vineyards of the Graves appellation. Some stupendous white Bordeaux wines hail from these salubrious lands not to mention the reds. This house is the second home of the Wilmers family of New York who did well in private banking and obviously had a passion for Bordeaux and its historic wines. As I mentioned I arrived early therefore I had the whole demeure to myself over two solid days, it was an amazing time. I felt like a king those two sunny October mornings. Waking to the smell of the best ground coffee beans, freshly squeezed orange juice, croissants and home made jams. Over the next few paragraphs I would like to convey the simplicity of this place to you the reader simultaneously describing its subtle sophistications of an inner peace.
Château Le-Pape, Léognan near Bordeaux
I walked the narrow hallway upstairs deciding on room designations. I had six amazing rooms to choose from all en suite. Each room is named after the Wilmers family children. All of the rooms have a view of the vineyards and the majestic swimming pool which sits out in the main garden. There is a patio surrounding the pool where one can picnic or perhaps read a book in tranquility. A bike shed sits opposite the gardens, and isn’t that a great way to pass an afternoon cycling around the famous vineyards of Leognan on a fall afternoon? Fantastic… I should also mention that the house has a beautiful limestone terrace overlooking the vines, the ideal breakfast setting. All folk had by now arrived at the Château. I had transfers arranged from the airport and train station in Central Bordeaux which simplified matters for my guests. We acclimatized with a little walk around the grounds and before long it was time for dinner which was organized by the house-staff on the terrace. The house red was served and we ate like royalty. The guests were relaxed, It was like they had been here before and were overjoyed to return. Cards were played in the library and lively conversation echoed all around the beautiful house. The wine was flowing... A great first night.
Château Le-pape, Léognan near Bordeaux
The next morning was the beginning of our estate visits. Our luxury sprinter minivan arrived which seats up to 16 guests. A good friend Alex Hall an expert on Bordeaux and its vineyards joined us as our guide. A treat, as Alex knows everything one could possibly ask on such an adventure. We jaunted off to Chateau Haut Brion, one of five premier grand cru classe wines of the 1855 classification under Napoleonic law. We attended a short movie on the estate and listened to our informative guide as we tasted several different wines from various vintages. We then crossed the road to Château La Mission Haut-Brion which if you didn't know is none too shabby itself. The Mission Haut-Brion is an old Abbey well known for its stained glass windows . I feel the estate visits empower the guests with knowledge which is key to understanding the greatest wine market in the world.
Château Haut-Brion, Bordeaux
We were blessed with the finest fall day, good spirits all round. Immediately after Haut-Brion we headed to Saint Julien, one of the most famed Bordeaux towns situated on the banks of the Gironde. The wines in St Julien have a reputation of silky tannins. The sky was Southern California blue, the estates that line the road make for formidable eye candy. We stopped at Château Margaux and took some photos at the front gate. Most of these properties are security conscious and entry is by appointment only. Even though we did not go in, the ambiance is akin to standing outside the White House or Buckingham Palace, pretty exciting. Shortly after we arrived at Chez Meme in St Julien to a typical Bordelais bistro lunch.
Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Bordeaux
As you know this was my first time entertaining guests, clients of my very own that I had courted and was honored that they would say yes knowing this was my first experience. My previous life as a financial markets broker enabled me to deal with each part of the trip as a unique task. Back in the day I entertained clients on a weekly basis. There are moments of a distinct quietness with unknown faces and personalities and those moments require balance & poise. The fact that I speak French fluently was a huge help. The little subtleties of French life that would go unnoticed to the average tourist was the difference. The ability to translate these cultural differences put a sheen to the color and the group appreciated it. I have to give credit to my parents for pointing these idiosyncrasies out to me and my siblings on many of our annual trips to the South of France and elsewhere in Europe. An intangible education which proved its worth on this trip, and for which I am eternally grateful.
Château Pichon-Baron, Pauillac
After lunch we scooted five minutes up the road toward Pauillac stopping to take a look at Chateau Pichon-Longueville and a photo opportunity. We didn't quite make it as far as Cos D’Estournel another Bordeaux heavyweight which sits across the road from Lafite Rothschild, perhaps on another day. Time is off the essence, we had to turn back for an afternoon visit with my good friend Damien Barton of Chateau Leoville Barton. Damien is an ambassador for Bordeaux who loves what he does and has a deep understanding of the vineyards and the wines. He took us out onto the parcels of grapes showing us the plots that produce the best fruit which has made the grade in his family’s estate wine since the 1800’s. We tasted, debated and discussed much to everyone's amusement. Visits are quite rare in October as this is wine making time, to that end I am deeply grateful to Damien for showing us around. Before we knew it, it was time to return to our guesthouse for a well earned rest before dinner. I chose this well known estate restaurant http://www.sources-caudalie.com which is next door.
The private dining room at Château Haut-Bailly
Not bad for a day out !! The next morning everyone convened at the breakfast table after an excellent nights sleep. We headed off to the St James hotel & restaurant in Bouliac for a one star Michelin cooking course which lasted all of six hours. We then sat down and ate our bounty accompanied by our instructor and some lovely wines. This was a great idea, the class was highly educational, moreover a great bonding experience. Bouliac is a pretty village and worth the visit. After lunch we headed back to Chateau Haut-Bailly, the parent estate to our guest-house, we arranged a visit of Château Haut-Bailly which Robert Parker bestowed one hundred points in 2009.
Relais Châteaux, Saint James restaurant, Bouliac Gironde
We tasted the wine and discovered the appellation. Within two days we had visited the Medoc and the Graves appellations. Dinner that evening was the highlight of the trip. The small dining room at the Château and its private kitchen is worthy of three Michelin stars. The atmosphere was exceptional. The food and wine, there are no words.
Place setting at Haut-Bailly
I arranged spa treatments at Les Sources de Caudalie for those who wanted a little rest and relaxation, the spa is located on the grounds of Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte. There is also a 5 star hotel on the property that is well worth the visit. Golf was laid on for those who wished at a fine golf course in Saint-Emilion.
The pool at Les Sources de Caudalie.
After the spa treatments and golf we were reunited to eat a delicious lunch at the, l’Hostellerie de Plaisance in Montaigne St Emilion, which was exceptional.
We visited Château Figeac in the afternoon, one of the most famous estates on the right bank and learned about the differences between the Medoc and the right bank. The difference is most of the wine on the Medoc is Cabernet based, whereas the wines on the right bank are Merlot based. After the estate visit we took a walk around the ancient village of St Emilion. One of the guests invited the whole group to experience a little cafe lifestyle and we shared a magnum of 2010. That evening we dined in style at the two star Michelin restaurant le Logis De la Cadene
Château Figeac, St Emilion
My brief observation regarding evening meals in Bordeaux is that if one can eat in house the experience is second to none. Most of the estate dining rooms are closed to the public, well not closed entirely, but making the booking involves a protocol, and numbers and seating arrangements have to be considered due to space. The tasting experience is intimate and unique in that one usually tastes three to four estate wines over intervals of five to ten years allowing you to observe both the trajectory and history. In the end it all starts to make sense and one develops a feeling for the wines. Its all rather quite a bit of fun...
I would like to thank all of my guests for taking the trip with me, it proved to be a memorable experience. I would also like to thank all of the staff at Château Le-Pape and also Château Haut-Bailly, without their cooperation this trip would not have worked as well as it did and for that I am deeply grateful. I look forward to another trip in October of 2019.
On the roof of Château La Dominique looking over at Château Cheval Blanc in St Emilion