The perfect Bordeaux blend

By Seth Sinclair, July 25, 2008

We raise a glass to the charms of France's Bordeaux region


Having introduced viniculture to the Bordeaux region, the Romans regarded the fruit of the vine as so sacred that the theft of a grape was punishable by the slicing off of an ear. I kept this in mind as I held a bunch of ripening Merlot grapes. I chose a plump one to taste, but glanced down the row of vines first, just in case. Standing guard at the head of each row was not a centurion, but a single rose bush.

The roses do not merely fulfill the aesthetic requirements of the Château owners, but serve a much more vital purpose: any encroaching disease that might threaten the precious harvest will first be evident in the petals of the guardian roses.

If you had passed the vineyards of Château Sénilhac in the Médoc appellation of Vignoble de Bordeaux not so long ago, you would have seen many wilting roses. The disease that took hold of the crop was sufficient for drastic measures to be taken. A ball of glue, about 2ft up each stem, marks the spot at which the imported Californian Zinfandel vine was grafted on in order to save what the roses predicted to be a failing grape harvest.

But, as may be expected, French pride did not take kindly to the Americans flying in to save the day. A rogue shoot from the hybrid vine grew back into the soil, causing an even more serious disease. At this point the owner of Château Sénilhac decided it was time to call for Boomka, the wine saver.

As I plucked one of the healthy Merlot grapes, Moroccan-born Boomka explained that the mending of these two, estranged cultures was accomplished by performing the graft just a few centimetres higher up the vine. A simple compromise, the result of which is tart, but delicious.

Three varieties of grape make up the typical Bordeaux blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc) but the wines here are classified by region since the identity of the fruit of these vines does not come from genetic inheritance, but from the ground on which they were raised.

At the neighbouring Château Bardis vineyard, for example, the slope and richness of the soil are such that the grapes produce one of the finest wines in the region.

I got started on a relatively young 2003. The tannins, which give it a strong and robust flavour, will mellow with time to form a more complex and full-bodied finish. Taste buds primed, we headed back to Château Senilhac for a tour by owners Loïs and Jean-Luc Grassin. Passing between metal vats, we were led through a small wooden door and immediately transported back a century or more. Row upon row of oak barrels were stacked in this darkened stone dungeon, sweet with the smell of their ageing contents. In a niche cut into the stone is St Seurin, patron saint of the village, who protects the wine as it develops.
In the evening we took the ferry across the wide Garonne from Pauillac to the small port town of Blaye for some local grub in a small family-run restaurant. The following morning, my view of Bordeaux from the balcony of the Hotel de Sèze was second only to that of Liberté herself, standing 165 feet high, atop her marble column. Below her, rising from the churning water of the Monument aux Girondes, bronze beasts which are half stallion, half leviathan, gallop forth into the huge Esplanade de Quinconces.

Although these wild beasts appear sufficient to safeguard Liberté from any foe, history has proven otherwise. Bordeaux won the title of "The Tragic Capital" as it played host to the fleeing French government in the 19th century during the siege of Paris, and twice more in the century that followed during its two world wars.

Liberté did rear her defiant head at least once during those dark times. In 1940 the Portuguese Consul-General Aristides de Souza Mendez saved the lives of over 10,000 Jews who had fled to Bordeaux from the Nazis. But both Mendez and Liberté were powerless to save the remaining Jews of the city when, on January 10 1944, they were deported. They remain only as names engraved on the grey stone wall of the Great Synagogue of Bordeaux.

The synagogue, the biggest in France with seating capacity for 1,500, suffered threefold desecration during the Holocaust: first the Nazis ended its religious function; then they used it as a prison from where many Jews were sent to their deaths in the camps; finally it was looted and vandalized by homegrown Fascists in 1944.

By 1960, the 3,000-strong Bordeaux Jewish community had restored the 1882 synagogue to its original splendour. By the end of the '70s the community, whose roots can be traced to the fourth century, had more than doubled. But its history has not been forgotten. Beside the names of the dead are engraved these words from Malachai: "And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the Lord with tears, with weeping and with crying out." As the sun sets, a young family walk through its doors for Friday-night services.

Tracing the path of the 13th-century wall that enclosed mediaeval Bordeaux, we passed a trio of imposing black turrets atop the Porte de la Grosse-Cloche and headed to the Porte Dijeux (Jew's gate) and cafés that surround it. A trio of lanky French musicians has gathered in the street, and with the help of a clarinet, accordion and snare-drum, provided pre-dinner entertainment.

Dinner on the terrace of L'Entrecote was illuminated by the golden glow of the Victorian carousel that turns in the centre of the Place de Tourny. Within view of the Grand Theatre, we ate a sublime dinner, accompanied by a bottle of Les Vieux Colombiers, a kosher Médoc, which I had picked up earlier from Mazel Tov, a kosher shop on the Cours Victor Hugo.

By the time the fondant au chocolat arrived it was not only the carousel that was spinning.

The following morning we breakfasted at the weekend market at the Port de la Lune - a plate of fresh white fish from the Garonne, accompanied by a glass of chilled Sauternes.

Heading north away from the city, I made a final salute to the floral centurions still guarding their crops, as my companion expertly navigated the undulating roads of Vignoble de Bordeaux behind the wheel of a 1968 Alfa-Romeo Spider. Rouge? Bien sur.

Travel Facts

Eurostar ( 08705 186 186) offers returns to Bordeaux from £89. Hotel de Sèze, 7 Rue de Sèze (0033 5 56 52 65 54) from 68¤ (£54) per night. L'Entrecôte, 4 Cours du 30 Juillet (0033 5 56 81 76 10). Château Sénilhac, 33180 Saint-Seurin de Cadourne, 0033 05 56 59 31 41.

Jewish Bordeaux

The first Jews settled in Bordeaux just after the destruction of the Second Temple.

In WW2, some 1,600 Jews from the Bordeaux area were deported to Nazi death camps.

The current Jewish population is around 7,000. The Jewish district is around the Porte Dijeux

The Great Synagogue of Bordeaux- 8 Rue du Grand Rabbin Joseph Cohen (0033 5 56 91 79 3)- is the largest in France

The region has several kosher wineries, including Roberto Cohen

Mazel Tov Boucherie ( 137 Cours Victor Hugo, 0033 5 56 52 37 03)


Last updated: 3:09pm, September 10 2008