Private dining in chateaux
First published in the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), March 2011
Just as with any guest at a dinner party, an intimacy is created when you are invited into somebody’s home, and sit around a table together. The effect is hardly different when that home happens to be a Bordeaux chateau, with a gravel-filled driveway, manicured gardens and solid mahogany dining tables.
‘Bordeaux can seem intimidating to visitors, particularly the more illustrious chateaux,’ says Caroline Matthews, who runs Bordeaux Uncorked, a travel service that offers guests access to Bordeaux’s most exclusive properties. ‘But staying a little longer, relaxing with either a property’s owner or winemaker over lunch or dinner, and understanding their wines in the context of food, deepens the whole experience. And it gets you behind the scenes of estates that you normally only see as part of a large tour group, filing past wine vats and bottling lines.’
It’s hard to overstate just how wine soaks into every part of life in the region of Bordeaux. There are over 8,000 wine properties, fanning out along the curves of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers from the 18th-century city centre of Bordeaux itself. More than 30,000 people work directly in the wine industry, from cellar-hands in the classified growths of the Médoc to family-run barrel makers in small villages of Entre-deux-Mers. That makes one in every five adults, meaning that pretty much every conversation will come at some point round to wine. Your taxi driver, your waiter, your doctor, your hotel porter will all have a cousin or a sister who is working in the industry, and will be only too happy to share a few secrets.
Until a few years ago, however, getting into the properties themselves was slightly more difficult. Bordeaux chateaux have long suffered from a (not entirely undeserved) reputation of being open only on weekdays, only by appointments planned long in advance, and often only to professional visitors. But there has been a quiet revolution over the past few years – not only in their vineyards and tasting rooms, but also in their kitchens. Private chefs, intimate dining rooms, picnics among the vines, cookery courses and food-and-wine matching banquets now offer an entirely new way of experiencing Bordeaux.
Aline Bayly has you convinced of this within five minutes of meeting. The young French-American owner of Château Coutet, a classified vineyard in the sweet-wine area of Sauternes, has been single-handedly redefining the private dining experience since she arrived in the region via several years in Boston and Chicago. ‘Sauternes is a wine that is too often brought out for duck and foie gras, or at a push blue cheese’ says Bayly. ‘I just wanted to show that there’s a whole lot more to it than that.’
‘We use a local chef with tons of experience in pairing Coutet with savoury courses, shellfish, poultry and dishes with an international twist. Our philosophy is simple: complement, contrast, and texture.’ And her reasoning for opening her dining room to guests is equally simple: ‘We love to host, and wouldn't do this if we didn't love having a full house – but it also provides us the perfect opportunity to showcase our wine. Bordeaux sweet wines are super flexible! They are just begging for enthusiasts to break boundaries and try with all different sorts of dishes.’
Wilson Kwok, with a Master’s degree in Oenology at the University of Bordeaux and a knighthood from the French Government for his outstanding contribution to French cuisine and wine, has been leading tours to the region from Hong Kong for the past six years. ‘Bordeaux is so mature when it comes to wine-tourism today. It is flexible, and most of the chateaux available for dining are experienced and serious. But the really memorable thing for visitors once they get round a table is that this is not just a tasting experience, but a way to actually drink the wines with the appropriate food in the place where they were created. The experience is far removed from simply learning something out of a book.’
‘Private dining at our estate,’ says Veronique Sanders, director of Château Haut-Bailly in Pessac Léognan, ‘is a natural extension of our winemaking. We want to be able to welcome our clients and friends in a personal way – many of whom we have met while travelling abroad – and want them to understand our wines more fully.’ With this in mind, Haut Bailly has this year renovated the kitchen area within the chateau itself, and installed a professional chef. Personal touches abound – the entire place is given over to the guests, and you can take drinks on the terrace, or watch as the chef prepares dinner, or attend cookery lessons. All guests get specially created Haut-Bailly chocolates, with delicate flavours of caramel, toasted pine-nuts and fleur du sel (‘to reflect the subtly toasted barrels, and the minerality that you find in Haut Bailly,’ says chef Tanguy Laviale).
Laviale is representative of the new type of chef you can expect to meet in Bordeaux estate kitchens these days. Having previously worked at the Michelin-starred Lasserre in Paris, he was tempted out of the French capital by the possibility of experimenting with his own style, and developing the concept of food-and-wine matching with some of the best wines of the world. ‘We never offer a menu in advance,’ he says with an earnest smile, standing among the dust of what will be his professional-level kitchen within a few weeks. ‘When you go to a friend’s for dinner, you’re not told in advance what you will eat, and we hope to create that sense of intimacy and magic when you dine at Haut-Bailly. Instead, I choose the food according to what is available in the market that morning, or according to the vintages of wine that are going to be served.’
Expect the food to be equally exciting at Château Phelan Ségur in Saint Estèphe, as owner Thierry Gardinier is also proprietor of luxury hotel Domaine les Crayères in Champagne, and of L’Angle du Faubourg restaurant in Paris. Again, the feeling is one of taking over your own Bordeaux hideaway – the entire chateau is at your disposal, and you are served champagne in a walled garden on summer evenings, then dinner in the private dining room, then coffee in the salon. ‘You really do feel like welcomed guests, not paying clients,’ says Alexander Hall of Bespoke Bordeaux travel service. ‘The last time I ate there, we were served roasted seabass in a red wine sauce, wood pigeon stuffed with chestnuts and girolle mushrooms, and a warmed chocolate moelleux. All with vintage Champagne, followed by Château Phélan Ségur 1996 and Château Phélan Ségur 1993.’
But part of the mix that makes Bordeaux an exciting culinary destination right now is that there are also plenty of chances to down-scale, even with some of the biggest names. Outside eating is increasingly an option; Château Lynch Bages in Pauillac organised a buffet lunch on tables among the vines for a group of Dutch wine lovers last summer, and Château Kirwan in Margaux offers regular picnic experiences, this time with a wicker basket, a selection of cheeses and patés, a soft wool rug to sit on, and a few bottles of their rosé and red wines. For rainy days, Kirwan has the newly constructed L’Orangerie, a beautiful glass-walled space overlooking the vineyard. Another less formal option is offered at Château Rauzan-Gassies, a neighbouring classified growth in Margaux, where food-and-wine matching is offered in a beautiful upstairs room with large glass windows that afford view of endless neat rows of vines, and the river Garonne in the distance.
As Asian visitors have increased in recent years, there are more châteaux offering food-and-wine matching specificially aimed at Chinese cuisines, and most properties will be happy to put together tailored menus. Kwok, however, is a firm believer in staying local. ‘There are many food and wine pairings that work in all sorts of cuisine and I’m sure everyone will find the right solution according to personal taste and preference. In that respect, I am totally Cantonese on one side and French on the other because of my upbringing as Hong Kong Chinese and training in French cooking and oenology. But I prefer that my clients take advantage of the trip by having everything ‘local’ and experience the matching of local food with local wine. So, when they know this combination, they’ll be able to find their own favorite combinations anywhere.’
Experiencing the local foods – which include cèpe mushrooms, entrecôte of beef, oysters from the nearby Arcachon Bay, milk-reared lamb or Gironde caviar – not only deepens enjoyment, but also opens the door to wider cultural experiences. ‘I believe that wine drinking is a cultural subject and if time allows, I like the group to visit the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in downtown Bordeaux where dining tables of typical 19th century bourgeois families are displayed,’ says Kwok. ‘That really demonstrates how civilised people were at that time and how sophisticated we are 100 years later. Wine appreciation does not only apply to the taste – it is part of a wider cultural experience, and food is integral to that.’
Options for Private Dining
For all, price according to requirements and budget, but expect to start from approx €30 per person, rising upwards depending on wines.
Château Haut Bailly, Pessac Leognan
Between 8 and 15 people, cocktail then seasonal menu, one vintage of La Parde de Haut Bailly (2nd wine), and two of Haut Bailly.
Château La Lagune, Haut Medoc
Private butler service, eating possible either in formal dining room or semi-informal in the chateau kitchen with vaulted ceilings, copper pots and Lacanche range cooker. From two people upwards. www.chateau-lalagune.com
Château Rauzan Gassies, Margaux
Buffet-style food and wine matching, with variety of sweet and savoury dishes, and range of vintages. From two people upwards.
Château Phelan Segur, Saint Estephe
From 2-20 guests, private dining room and entire chateau available for hire
Chateau Beausejour Becot, Saint Emilion
Lovely dining room overlooking the vines, always received here by a family member.
Château Pichon Longueville, Pauillac
Small groups possible, from 6 guests. One of the most architecturally stunning properties in the Medoc.
Château Branaire Ducru, Saint Julien
Most typically groups of 15 or less, although each request is considered individually.
Château Bonalgue, Pomerol
30 guests maximum, currently refurbishing new kitchen and creating new reception rooms. Chef here specialises in French traditional style.
Château Coutet, Sauternes
Most usually a lunch/dinner with 3 to 5 courses and wines to accompany each.
Restaurants in chateaux
Château Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac Leognan www.sources-caudalie.com
Château Lynch Bages, Pauillac www.villagedebages.com
Great contrast is offered here between the 12th century tower and the sleek, futuristic and very beautiful winery and cellar.
2036 Chalet, 33480 Moulis-en-Médoc, www.vignobles-marielaurelurton.com