(Pictured, my host for the mind-bending wine-blending at Château Pape Clément — modelling the Château Ninja Grand Cru Classé)
Students of wine can have a dualistic relationship with Bordeaux. Because while they admire its wines, its large number of appellations and the complexity of its classification system make the region a right-old pain to get your head around.
Yep, Bordeaux’s wine map is, at first glance, a bamboozling mélange of colours and shapes. Making sense of it can be like trying to memorise the exact positions of candy sprinkles on a cake. But on closer inspection… it gets even more confusing.
So, if you’re planning a trip to France’s largest wine-growing area, you might need some help. On my last trip to Bordeaux, I used the Wine Paths website to narrow the field.
Wine Paths is a portal through which to book wine experiences. To use a viticultural analogy, they sort through the options by hand, picking out the juiciest ones, labelling them and putting them in their shop for you to browse through.
Once you’ve been inspired, Wine Paths put you in touch with the winery/chateau/tour operator, or whoever it is, for full details and booking. By the way, they operate in all the world’s major wine regions, not just France.
B-Winemaker At Pape Clément
I chose to do wine blending at Château Pape Clément in Pessac, about 40 minutes by tram (Line B), bus (number 24) or car south-west of the centre of Bordeaux. It’s also about six minutes on the train, although the services aren’t as frequent.
After a somewhat stressful walk from the tram stop (damn you, Google Maps), I meet up with guide Jeremy (pictured top) in the château’s shop and we commence with an amble around the vineyard and gardens, which feature an 1,800 year old olive tree and a “glass house” designed by Gustave Eiffel.
In the vineyard, Jeremy tells me that each row of vines has a rose bush at the end of it to lure pests away from the vines. Sacrificial roses! It reminds me of the old practice of using canaries to detect poison gasses down mines.
Then it’s on to the vat house and the sweet-smelling barrel cellar (below), where the religious iconography brings to mind a chapel. A shrine to Bacchus, perhaps.
The charts and measuring jugs in the blending room give it the air of a laboratory. But despite being traumatised by all forms of science as a teenager, even I find the blending process straightforward.
First we sample a 100% Merlot and a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Then we try a 50/50 blend, before experimenting with our own percentages. In theory, the Cab provides structure, tannin and ageing potential, while emphasising the fruit-forward character of the softer Merlot.
Jeremy tells us that most Europeans prefer a Merlot-dominant blend (widely associated with Bordeaux’s right bank), while Americans tend to go Cab-heavy (like the typical left-bank blend).
While the two varietals have clearly different characters, I find it difficult to settle on my preferred percentages, partly because the nose keeps developing as the wine oxygenates. I also try to take into account how the finished blend will pair with food and how it might soften with age (although, let’s face it, it’s not gonna last long with me around).
Eventually I go for an ambitiously specific 68% Merlot/32% Cab blend, although god knows what I actually ended up with after managing to spill some of it while filling the bottle.
Next, it’s corked and labelled. Inevitably, I name it… Château Ninja. Dark and intoxicating with a kick on the finish: I reckon the name suits it well.
If you fancy creating your own bespoke Bordeaux Grand Cru Classé, you can book the two-hour B- Winemaker workshop through www.winepaths.com with prices starting at 79 Euros (this includes your own unique bottle to take away).
Château Pape Clément can be found at 216 avenue Dr Nancel Pénard, 33600 PESSAC
Wine Paths arrange anything from back-vintage tastings to private dinners with winery owners, gastronomy tours and private helicopter rides. After visiting the website, customers liaise with a selected local travel expert, who will organise a bespoke wine trip/experience (which can extend from a few hours to several days).
EasyJet flies from London Gatwick to Bordeaux from £51 return.
For more about Bordeaux, see my article on Cool Things To Do In Bordeaux City Centre