Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Revival and revolution in Bordeaux … Hugh Johnson visits Le Chai au Quai

A scatter of skiffs, drifting disconsolate in slanting rain is the only shipping on the broad Dordogne. This was where barrel-barges tied up three-deep on the wharf, where wines from twenty villages started their voyage to the sea. There has been nothing in the warehouses of Castillon for decades, but there is action now. The broad pedimented front of Le Chai au Quai is once again open for business, with oak and wine, busy with courtiers and oenologists, reviving the era of the traditional quayside négociant.

I went over last week to taste the wines in their warehouse, half from different parts of Bordeaux, half from up-country, the rocky hills of Roussillon or even from Spain. The new concept is to have a central collecting, maturing and bottling warehouse for wines created by our wine makers. This was the first group assessment, to see what was working best, and what was missing, in a range of wines we will all be seeing in the months to come.

I was specially pleased to taste a line-up of what in the past was a négociant’s main standby: wines selected as typical of Bordeaux’s best-known communes. We worked down a line of the historic names: Pauillac, Margaux, Pessac-Léognan, St Emilion, Pomerol.

In the old days these were blends of small lots surplus to châteaux’s requirements. Le Chai au Quai has taken a different approach, working with hand-picked estates and bottling their wines unblended, with all their character intact, under the name of the appellation they represent. Selling us half their crop in barrel benefits their cash flow and gives us the chance to mature, finish and bottle the wine precisely as we like it.

Certainly I have rarely seen a set of generic wines so convincingly encapsulate the tastes and smells, the mouthfeel and liveliness, that makes Pauillac and Pomerol, Margaux and Pessac-Léognan legendary names.

Will we ever get back to using barges?

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