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A Week in the World of Luxury Wine

Chateau Pichon Baron Visit
Photo credit: Château Pichon Baron, AXA Millésimes

It was on a particularly cold and dreary day in January that I sat down to write an essay that would bring me here, today, staring out at the majestic terraced vineyards of the Douro Valley. The Institute of Masters of Wine had issued a challenge to its students; a chance to win a scholarship trip to Bordeaux and Porto courtesy of the illustrious AXA Millésimes group.

The tour would include visits to the second growth Château Pichon Longueville Baron in Pauillac, the first growth Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, Château Petit-Village in Pomerol, and the Quinta do Noval in the Douro Valley. Only five winning essays would be selected, giving the authors a truly intimate experience at each winery.

Such an exciting opportunity seemed worth penning a couple of pages on a topic of AXA Millésime’s choosing. And against all odds, I won!

The trip dates were set for late April, just six weeks before the Masters of Wine tasting exam. Preparing for this fateful event has consumed me over the past six months. Getting out from behind my spitoon and back in the vineyard was exactly what I needed to shake off the cobwebs. It was high time I reminded myself what all the struggle and sacrifice is for.

I arrived in Bordeaux to cool, blustery weather and felt a little disheartened. Months of daydreaming about brilliant sunshine will do that to you. The drive out of town furthered my sense of anti-climax. It had been some time since my last visit, and I had forgotten all about the ugly, commercial outskirts. The juxtaposition is startling. One minute you are staring out at super-markets, strip malls and squat, stucco housing, the next you are surrounded by swathes of vineyards and stunning châteaux.

We pulled up to Château Pichon Longueville Baron just before lunch. This was to be our home for the next two days. All traces of jetlag were washed away as I gazed up at the graceful turrets. A glass of chilled Agrapart Champagne also helped set the tone, for what has been one of the most unforgettable chapters of my wine journey so far.

From an impressive vertical tasting of recent vintages at Pichon Baron, to blending 2017 vintage Petit Village Pomerol, to a botrytis master class at Château Suduiraut in Sauternes, our Bordeaux experience was second-to-none.

Now, in the lazy heat of the Cima Corgo (Upper Douro), we are basking in the complexities and hedonistic pleasure of top-class Port at Quinta do Noval.

Over the next few articles, I will endeavour to share my adventures with you, so stay tuned!


I’m dreaming of a white Christmas…and a couple of red too.

So here we are on the eve of the most wonderful day of the year. Important decisions need to be made. The critical moment is upon us…what to drink with the bird? In my family, this meant trips down to the cellar with my father for lengthy (and chilly) deliberations. Would we go the traditional route and serve red Burgundies…a lightbodied red for a subtle meat? Or perhaps a more original choice; something fruity and round to off-set the dryness of turkey. Barossa Shiraz became the go to wine for a number of years.

Of course, choosing the turkey wine was just the tip of the iceberg. There was also the post main course tipple, the after dinner digestif and, for certain members of the family, a wee dram to finish off the night. With a heaping plate of turkey and stuffing consumed, and sometimes (often) a second helping too, we often ran a serious risk of not finding enough room for Christmas pudding. This is where our French traditions save the day, in the name of the trou normand, jokingly referred to as “the norman hole” in my family. This consists of a shot of chilled Calvados with a small scoop of apple sorbet. The sorbet cleanses the palate while the alcohol burrows a perfect pudding sized hole in the stomach.

With the feast at its end, my father, with a wicked gleam in his eye, would push back his chair and say something that infuriated my mother like “that was edible”. The lovely little crystal glasses would be brought out and the heavy decanter. To celebrate the births of each of his three children, my father bought from the best port houses that declared the vintage. He dreamed of opening the bottles with us to celebrate the key moments of our lives: important birthdays, our weddings, the births of our children and so on. It has been almost 8 years since his passing, and the number of dusty, old bottles are sadly dwindling. The trips to the cellar are still an integral part of Christmas, though they hold a bittersweet note now.

So, in loving memory, this year we hold up our port glasses with Offley Boa Vista Vintage Port 1982. It is glorious; incredibly fresh & vibrant with roasted hazelnut, dark chocolate, blackberry & figs. On the palate it is velvetty and smooth, with a layered texture and a long, nutty finish.

Merry Christmas one and all!