Vine and dine
There's an intimacy to any dinner party where people are invited into somebody's home to sit around the table together. The effect is hardly different when that home happens to be a Bordeaux chateau set amid manicured gardens.
'Bordeaux can seem intimidating to visitors, particularly the more illustrious chateaux,' says Caroline Matthews, who runs Bordeaux Uncorked, a travel service that offers 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 Bordeaux. There are more than 8,000 wine properties, fanning out along the curves of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers from the city centre of Bordeaux itself. More than 30,000 people work directly in the wine industry - one in every five adults - so pretty much every conversation will turn at some point to wine.
Until a few years ago, getting into the properties was slightly more difficult. Many Bordeaux chateaux were open on weekdays, only by appointments planned long in advance, and often restricted to professional visitors.
But there has been a quiet revolution over the past few years - not only in vineyards and tasting rooms, but also in kitchens. Private chefs, intimate dining rooms, picnics among the vines, cookery courses and food-and-wine matching banquets now offer a new way of experiencing Bordeaux.
Aline Bayly convinces you of this in just five minutes. The young French-American owner of Chateau Coutet, a classified vineyard in the sweet-wine area of Sauternes, has been helping to redefine the private dining experience since she arrived in the region two years ago. By thinking outside the box about the type of dishes Sauternes can accompany, she is expanding the sweet wine's role in cuisine.
'Sauternes is a wine that is too often brought out for duck and foie gras, or at a push, blue cheese,' she says. 'I just wanted to show that there's a lot more to it than that. We use a local chef with tonnes 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.'
Restaurateur Wilson Kwok of W's Entrecote in Causeway Bay 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,' he says.
'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 around 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 learning something out of a book.'
'Private dining at our estate is a natural extension of our winemaking,' says Veronique Sanders, director of Chateau Haut-Bailly in Pessac Leognan. '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 is renovating the kitchen area within the chateau itself, and has installed a professional chef. Personal touches abound - the entire place is given over to the guests, and you can take drinks on the terrace, watch as the chef prepares dinner, or attend cookery lessons. All guests are given specially created Haut-Bailly chocolates, with delicate flavours of caramel, toasted pine nuts and fleur de 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 away from the French capital with the possibility of experimenting with his own style and developing the concept of food-and-wine matching with some of the world's best wines.
'We never offer a menu in advance,' he says. '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 Chateau Phelan Segur in Saint Estephe, as owner Thierry Gardinier is also proprietor of luxury hotel Domaine les Crayeres 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, dinner in the private dining room, then coffee in the salon.
'You really do feel like welcome 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 warm chocolate moelleux. All with vintage champagne, followed by Chateau Phelan Segur 1996 and Chateau Phelan Segur 1993.'
There are also plenty of chances to downscale in Bordeaux, even with some of the biggest names. Outside eating is increasingly an option: Chateau Lynch-Bages in Pauillac organised a buffet lunch among the vines for a group of Dutch wine lovers last summer, and Chateau Kirwan in Margaux regularly offers picnic experiences, with a wicker basket, a selection of cheeses and pates, a soft wool rug to sit on, and a few bottles of its ros?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 Chateau 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, there are more chateaux offering food-and-wine matching specifically 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 my clients to try 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 favourite combinations anywhere.'
Experiencing local foods - which include cepe mushrooms, entrecote 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 Musee des Arts Decoratifs in downtown Bordeaux where dining tables of typical 19th century bourgeois families are displayed,' Kwok says.
'That really demonstrates how civilised people were at that time and how sophisticated we are 100 years on. Wine appreciation does not only apply to the taste - it is part of a wider cultural experience, and food is integral to that.'
Munch with the bunch
Prices according to requirements and budget, but expect to start from approximately Euro30 (HK$320) per person, depending on wines.
Chateau Haut-Bailly, Pessac-Leognan
Between eight and 15 people, cocktails then seasonal menu, one vintage of La Parde de Haut-Bailly (the chateau's second wine), and two of Haut-Bailly.
Chateau La Lagune, Haut Medoc
Private butler service, eating in formal dining room, or the chateau's kitchen with vaulted ceilings, copper pots and Lacanche range. Minimum two people.
Chateau Rauzan-Gassies, Margaux
Buffet-style food and wine matching, with sweet and savoury dishes and range of vintages. From two people upwards.
Chateau Phelan Segur, Saint Estephe
From two to 20 guests, private dining room and chateau available for hire
Chateau Beau-Sejour Becot, Saint Emilion
Lovely dining room overlooking the vines. Guests greeted by a family member.
Chateau Pichon Longueville, Pauillac
Small groups possible, from six guests. One of the most architecturally stunning properties in the Medoc.
Chateau Branaire-Ducru, Saint Julien
Groups of 15 or less, although each request is considered individually.
Chateau Bonalgue, Pomerol
Maximum 30 guests, currently refurbishing the kitchen and creating new reception rooms.
Chateau Coutet, Sauternes
Lunch/dinner with three to five courses with wines.
Restaurants in chateaux
Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Pessac Leognan, www.sources-caudalie.com
Chateau Lynch Bages, Pauillac, www.villagedebages.com
Wilson Kwok wilsonkwok.net
Bespoke Bordeaux www.bespokebordeaux.com
Bordeaux Uncorked www.bordeauxuncorked.fr