On the hunt for great wines

It’s not long after breakfast, your car is packed, you’ve sort of made a pledge to lay off alcohol for a while after sampling dozens of Bordeaux wines in three short days.

Then you happen to wander into yet another shop for a browse, get chatting to the owner and find yourself sampling four more.
Your sense of smell springs alive, taste buds become alert and you make a judgment about whether you like the wine.
More importantly on this trip, though, was the judgment about whether the wine-drinking pubic of Birmingham would buy the wines at the price they would cost.
No sympathetic violins, please, but this trip was about serious research as well as pleasure.
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As part of the work I’m doing with the team behind the soon-to-open Cheval Blanc wine bar in Moseley, a bunch of us headed to the St Emilion area of Bordeaux to learn more about its wines.
For Keith Marsden, his wine consultant Keith Price and the manager of the new wine bar, sommelier Abigail Connolly, are determined to have a range that excites and to be able to tell the stories behind the bottles they stock.
It’s fair to say we were committed to the task and enthusiastic about our research.
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The wines that we drank were many and various – ranging from profound reds that cost hundreds of pounds a bottle to a humble (and unusual) Bordeaux rosé that cost €7.
They were savoured in shops, workaday cafes, unfussy bistros, posh restaurants and chateau.
The first was the legendary Chateau Cheval Blanc, with which the new wine bar will share a name.
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This was an astonishingly modern place which, nevertheless, respects its heritage and tradition.
Here we tasted the Cheval Blanc 2011 – still young and raw but a wine that already shows plenty of fruit, balance and elegance behind the tannins.
Lunch was, literally, next door at Chateau La Dominique, where the terraced restaurant overlooks Cheval Blanc’s sweeping, modern winery.
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This, too, is a contemporary winery. The wines cost less but are complex and thoroughly enjoyable.
The venerable Chateau Cardinal Villemaurine, on the edge of St Emilion town itself, was a different experience.
Production is smaller and more traditional, but the owners have the same commitment to quality and terroir – that’s the word the French use to describe the way a wine reflects the land on which it’s grown.
Bottles are stored in an amazing complex of ancient tunnels created when limestone was quarried from beneath the town for building.
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Here you will find row after row of dust-caked bottles, some dating from as long ago as 1929.
Then on to Chateau Fonplégade, a gorgeous estate now owned by a Californian couple who’ve launched an ambitious project to raise quality and status.
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It’s already showing in the wines – graceful but amiable.
I suspect that it’s an estate whose reputation will increase dramatically in the years ahead.
Chateau Figeac 2008 in a tiny bar and Chateau Pavie Decesse 2002 in the Michelin-starred Hostellerie De Plaisance Restaurant will linger long in the memory.
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At the same restaurant, a little known St Emilion white was a real discovery and a bottle of sweet white from Sauternes utterly wonderful.
But now, of course, comes the real challenge for Keith Marsden and his team to decide what earns place in the cellar and on the shelves of his new venture.
Maybe more research is needed…

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