I just can’t leave the small appellation Cérons without paying a visit to Lillet’s birthplace. Just a few kilometers north of Château de Cérons, within the borders of the appellation, I find Podensac. A village with less than 3000 inhabitants. This is the place where Bordeaux’ native apéritif is made; Lillet.
Sweet little Lillet is known from the movies, including an appearance in “Casino Royale” where James Bond ordered a Kina Lillet Martini. Lillet’s first name Kina has been dropped, but refers to its content of quinine.
White wine from Bordeaux is the main ingredient, probably Sauvignon blanc and some Sémillon, but information varies. 85% wine is mixed with 15% fruit liqueurs made of different kind of oranges, from Spain, Maroc, Tunisia and Haiti. And then there is the quinine, extracted from bark from Cinchona, a tree found in Peru.
The beverage is then matured in barrells for 6-12 months. To keep the flavour constant, several vintages are blended. Well, that is about as much as we know. The details in the recipe are not surprisingly a secret. If you don’t want to add Lillet to your Dry Martini, or mix it in any other drink, you enjoy it as it is. Really cold, 6-8 degrees, preferably with a lot of ice and a slice of lemon.
Fresh, a little aromatic nose with citrus and elderflowers. Alluringly sweet with balanced acidity, nice body and a touch of oak. Fruitiness from oranges and lemon. Good length with lemon and some bitterness. My mind goes to barrique matured Sauvignon blanc, Cointreau and wormwood. A luscious apéritif, which makes me long for warm summer evenings. Lillet has become an old lady, but still as fresh as in her youth. The apéritif was created back in 1872 by the brothers Paul and Raymond Lillet. Very popular in the 1930ies, but sales dropped when other beverages came into fashion. In 1985 the company was bought by the owner to Château Ducru Beaucaillou, Bruno Borie, who with marketing and a slightly changed recipe once again boosted sales. Since 2008 Lillet is a part of the Pernod-Ricard portfolio.
James Bond, he called his Lillet Martini a Vesper and gave us the recipe: “Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”
Deep golden hue, rich and sweet. The characteristic scent, revealing work done by the little botrytis fungus. And when the years pass by and the wine ages, then it comes; the lovely flavour of saffron. Just marvellous!
I follow the road south from Pessac-Léognan, aiming for Sauternes-country, but stop when I realise I have arrived to the appellation Cérons. Cérons??? How often do we hear about Cérons?
“Cérons, the least important sweet white wine appellation in the Bordeaux region” says the Oxford Companion to Wine (1). Forgotten with soft sweet wines, so says the wine atlas. Thus, my interest is caught.
Cérons is really not a big spot. Only sweet wine from 38 hectare is allowed to carry the name Cérons. However, it is not only sweet white wine, but also dry white and red that are produced here. The latter two although not allowed to use the appellation of Cérons, instead obliged to put Graves on the label. If also these parts are counted for, you end up with about 120 to 200 hectares. Really small. I’m not surprised that this region hardly ever is mentioned.
Nonetheless, also Cérons can boast with a good heritage. The town is really old and is found on 100-century Roman maps, then by the name of Cirius or Cirione. But there is another story that raises my interest more.
We have learnt that it is thanks to the river Ciron that noble rot is thriving in Sauternes. Ciron has ice cold water. It flows into the Garonne, with its considerable warmer water, especially during the latter half of the summer. Cold + warm = mist. The mist drifts into the Ciron valley and the surrounding vineyards in the mornings. The sun beams warm the land during the days and the mist disappears. Voilà! The very best conditions for botrytis cinerea have been created.
The Ciron river stretches between Barsac and Preignac and flows into the Garonne in the village of Barsac. But it has not always been like that. 1750 was the inauguration year of the canal that gave Ciron its current route. Before that, the river turned north and reached Garonne in Cérons. Why was this canal built? The simple explanation is that the river too often was flooded over, which implied difficulties for travellers who wanted to pass the bridge in Barsac. And as that was the main road between Toulouse and Bordeaux, the complaints were frequent. Additionally, the many mills beside the river were also most often flooded, thus hampered to grind the flour so well needed in the city of Bordeaux.
This story makes me wonder if Cérons would have had even better conditions for noble rot if the river had been allowed to retain its original course.
Grapes in Cérons? Well, it is the traditional ones of the region. Sémillon dominates strongly with about 80%, complemented by Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle. Yields around 40 hl/ha. Does not sound much, but should be compared with only 25 hl/ha in Sauternes.
Chateau de Cérons is probably the most well-known estate making AOC/AOP Cérons. Of the 26 ha belonging to the estate, five is grown with grapes destined for the sweet wine. As usual when it comes to noble rot grapes, many turns are needed in the vineyard. Each time only to pick the perfectly infested grapes.
Saffron, saffron! The 1998 vintage is absolutely lovely and perfect to drink right now: Beautiful golden colour. Intensive and spicy bouquet with lots of saffron complemented with honey and ripe oranges. The taste is pleasantly sweet with balanced acidity. Once again saffron, honey and citrus. A short moment of thinness uncovers a simpler birthplace compared to the wines from the neighbouring more exclusive parts of Graves. But that is quickly forgotten when the wonderfully spicy taste takes over the scene and holds it there for a long time. The enjoyment is complete.
The Château de Cérons 1998 is in fact available in Sweden right now; to a very affordable price. A bargain I would say, for a bottle already matured for 15 years.
Cérons, well worth a little more attention.
(1) Robinson (2006) “The Oxford Companion to Wine”.
I am not going to travel far from the Intendant in the Bordeaux city centre. I thought I should go looking for the home of my January favourite, Château La Garde, in Pessac-Léognan.
Pessac-Léognan is the commune appellation we should remember for three things: heritage, class and red. The heritage is of the very best rank. The classification comprises the best estates, but is often forgotten when talking classifications of Bordeaux. And red? Yes, Pessac-Léognan is in fact dominated by red wines, although I often think of the region south of Bordeaux as white wine country.
It is just a quarter of an hour from the city centre and there, squeezed in among the southern suburbs, the first vineyards are found. An airborne arrival to Bordeaux, that is to the Mérignac airport, implies a landing right in Pessac-Léognan, the most northern part of Graves. The spot where grapes were grown already 2000 years ago. A spot proud of its rich heritage.
Claret, the light red Bordeaux wine, which won the heart of the Englishmen already in the Middle Ages, came from this neighbourhood. The vineyards in Graves were already well established when the Dutch came to Médoc to fulfil their ditching assignment in the 1700s. During the 300 years when Aquitaine was under English rule, from 1152 to 1453, the claret literally flowed into London from Graves.
Château Haut-Brion, the only estate in Graves classified for red wine in 1855, excelled early. 2013 marks an anniversary! It is 350 years since “Ho Bryan” was established as a luxury brand in London. The owner Arnaud de Pontac had persued a successful strategy and differentiated his wine from the competitors’. Darker, more power – simply one class better. And three times the price. The good Arnaud was a real businessman.
Pessac-Léognan also holds the oldest estate in Bordeaux. Château Pape-Clémant counts 1299 as its birth year. That was the year when the coming Pope Clemant V got the estate as a gift from his older brothers. Today it is considered as one of the best estates of the appellation.
Red, red, red. Delicious wines are made from both blue and green grapes raised on the light gravelly and sandy soils. I often think white when thinking Graves, but the fact is that about 80% of the production in Pessac-Léognan is red wine! The traditional Bordeaux grapes are grown on the appr. 1700 hectares. Cabernet sauvignon is the signature grape for the red wines, with Merlot as runner up. Sauvignon blanc and Sémillon dominate the white.
Pessac-Léognan is an appellation of recent date, born on September 9, 1987. And we should note the for Bordeaux unusual scope; this commune appellation includes both red and white wines.
You could think that the appellation comprises only the two communes that have given the area its name. But that is not the case. Ten communes, or rather villages, are included; Mérignac, Pessac, Talence, Gradignan, Villenave d’Ornon, Canéjan, Léognan, Cadaujac, Martillac, Saint-Médard-d’Eyrans. Remember them if you can! But no, that is not necessary, Pessac-Léognan will do fine.
Then it is time for the classification. Graves has one of its own, a fact easily forgotten in our eagerness to learn the most distinguished estates in the classification of 1855. All the 16 estates awarded “cru classé” in Graves are located in Pessac-Léognan. The classification, without any internal ranking, was established as late as 1953, with an extension 1959 to the one of today. Six estates are classified for red and white wine, seven for red only and three for white. Château Haut-Brion is of course among the classified estates in Pessac-Léognan too and is thus, as the only estate in Bordeaux,”double classified”.
What about Château La Garde then, do I find my way there? Yes, but it is a trip that will end as far south as I can come in Pessac-Léognan, in the commune Martillac. On the way south I pass several famous names and the palate starts longing for the delicious liquid. Why not a few drops from one the classified estates such as Domaine de Chevalier, Château Olivier, Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Château Haut-Bailly…
I can also conclude that Pessac-Léognan is André Lurton-land. The renowned winemaker’s properties are not located far from each other. There are the names so well known from the labels of the white wines we often find in Sweden: Château de Cruzeau, Château la Louvière, Château Couhins Lurton, Château de Rochemorin och Château Coucheroy. The latter two reliable, affordable, pure Sauvignon blanc wines, often poured on our tastings as typical examples of a Bordeaux white. But again – red wines are made on all the estates.
So, why not choose a red Pessac-Léognan the next time?
Note. All the 16 classified estates in Pessac-Léognan (Crus Classés de Graves):
White wines: Château Couhins, Château Couhins-Lurton, Château Laville Haut-Brion.
Red wines: Château Haut-Brion, Château de Fieuzal, Château Haut-Bailly, Château La Mission Haut-Brion, Château La Tour Haut-Brion, Château Pape-Clément, Château Smith Haut Lafitte.
Both red and white: Château Bouscaut, Château Carbonnieux, Domaine de Chevalier, Château Latour-Martillac , Château Malartic-Lagravière, Château Olivier.
All the thin blue lines catch my eye when I take a first look at the maps of Médoc. The solid ones are drawn from west to east, towards the water in the Gironde bay. The dashed ones connect, often at a right angle, to the solid ones; sometimes at longer intervals, sometimes in a tight grid. Only the solid ones have names, such as Jalle du Cartillon, Chenal du Milieu and Jalle du Breuil.
The wine geography journey around the world is about to start. A bit traditionally perhaps, but Bordeaux has a certain shimmer. The history with a successful export strategy and early brand building has put a solid foundation for the fame. And, it is the largest AOP region of France. Bordeaux it is, and take off will be from the left bank.
When you are found of Médoc wine, you have a lot to thank those deep ditches for. Before the Dutch drained the district in the 1500-century, it was not much more than marshes and forests. The ditches liberated large areas from water and the well known meagre gravel soil came to light. Perfect for growing high class grapes.
North of Bordeaux. There they are, the famous villages. First Margaux, then a small jump, and next on line are St Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe. The classified estates and châteaus are located side by side, trying to outshine each other. Fancy buildings, manicured vineyards, careful vinification. Perfection. And that is valid for the price of the highly demanded bottles too.
Of course I like the austerity of the Bordeaux wines, but not to any price. Hysterical levels push the wines to a status as collectibles rather than objects for culinary pleasure. At least for us with limited wallet. From time to time, related to the moments of cellar replenishment, I consider ignoring the region. Why Bordeaux, when an abundance of lovely wines from all around the world is available? But then I stumble upon a remarkable beautiful wine and realise that it is impossible to withstand the temptation. However, there is an alternative to the top of the price list. A better strategy; to search for the gems outside the gilded gates.
In Médoc the strategy is called BLM.
B is of course crus Bourgeois. This Médoc specific classification, created in 1932, when more than 400 estates were awarded a cru bourgeois. Their wines had good quality, but not enough high prices to be included in the classification of 1855. Since 2008, the crus bourgeois is however not a classification of the estate. Instead it is a quality mark of the wine. After application the wine is judged blindly by a group of professionals. If the wine passes the eye of the needle, the label will state cru bourgeois. Next vintage, new test.
The 2009 vintages of Château Le Boscq, from Saint-Estèphe, and Château Cambon la Pelouse, a Haut-Médoc estate located just south of Margaux, found their way into our cellar based on the B in the BLM strategy.
The other two letters in the BLM strategy refer to geographical areas. Listrac and Moulis. So, grab the atlas again. Just north of Margaux I turn to the right. The villages are found on the central Médoc spread in Johnson & Robinson’s excellent wine atlas.
“You really don’t need to know things by heart, it’s so unnecessary!” my friend said. “Fortunately, school is focused on other things today. To analyse, to see the bigger context, to argue. That’s far more important.”
“Yes, I remember all that unnecessary stuff we had to learn when we were in school,” another one agreed. “Things like the rivers in Halland [Swedish landscape, my comment]. Why should we know them by heart? So ridiculous. When you can find it all on the web, so easy.”
The rivers in Halland. Of course I know them. We all had to learn that rhyme; “We shall eat, you shall cook.” So I know that the rivers are Viskan, Ätran, Nissan and Lagan. Is that unnecessary knowledge? And learning things by heart, is that totally outdated?
I didn’t agree and argued against my friends. Geography, for example. How would we be able to grasp the context, analyse and argue about an incident if we don’t know where in the world it has taken place?
Of course, my thoughts were at the same time in the world of wine. Wine without geography, that should for me be a much poorer pleasure. Wine, without origin, that would only be an industrial product. An alcoholic beverage made by fermented grapes. Wine, together with geography, on the other hand, give so much nuances to the experience. To be able to place the wine on the map, for me, that is just as important as the knowledge of the included grape varieties.
Do we then have to know our wine geography by heart? Yes, I think so. At least in broad terms. To know that Barossa is in Australia, Stellenbosch in South Africa and Puglia is in the southern Italy, that should be a minimum. It would be very inconvenient and take too much time to be forced to consult the computer or the smart phone every time you want to know.
Can you think of a sommelier who has to take a look at the Ipad before she/he can tell you where in the world the grapes for the chosen wine were grown? No, of course not. But the new generation of wine lovers, both professional and amateurs, will have a more difficult time when school don’t teach and ask for basic knowledge. Well, I hope my friends around the dinner table exaggerated. That the situation in school is not that bad.
However, when I reflected on our dinner conversation, I got an insight. Geography is incredibly important for my wine experiences. So essential that it influenced my choice of New Year’s resolution: 2013 is hereby appointed to the year of wine geography.
It will be a pleasure to take a tight grip of the wine atlas and start repeating the old well-known wine regions. And just as fun to start exploring and put new regions to the bank of “by heart knowledge”.