|Many years ago, when I was a very new wine drinker, my wife and in-laws dined at a stuffy old country house hotel. The wine list came in a thick cover but listed only about twenty wines, all European.|
I saw a name that I thought I recognised, Chateau La Tour, it wasn’t too expensive and we ordered that. When the bottle was opened I noticed the label said Chateau La Tour St Bonnet. I later learned Chateau Latour was one of the world’s most famous and expensive wines. But the wine we had was enjoyable and over the following decades it has become one of my favourite clarets and I always have Chateau La Tour St Bonnet in my cellar.
So when I went to Bordeaux I wanted to visit the winery at the northern tip of the Medoc region (see location map below right). We drove past a roll-call of world famous wineries until we drove up a farm road and into the grounds of Chateau Tour St Bonnet -- they dropped the ‘La’ after legal action by the famous Ch Latour.
The winery has been owned by the Merlet family since 1903. Madame Merlet was dealing with a visitor from Germany and she called her son Frederick to show us around. Frederick (pictured top right). is the fourth generation at the Chateau, he is winemaker and viticulturist. His brother and sister and parents all work there with the aid of six farm hands. Frederick doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak French, so tour organiser Hamish translated.
We walked a few yards to a Merlot vineyard. In the distance was the tower that features on their label. In olden times it was fortified against attacks from the estuary, after it became a ruin it was rebuilt as a dovecote.
Chateau Tour St Bonnet owns 40ha of land. The soil is river gravel over clay, “richer than Pauillac” says Frederick. 35ha is planted to vines, roughly 60% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petite Verdot with an average age of 45 years and a density of 8,300 vines per hectare. There is an insignificant amount of Cabernet Franc and Malbec. Frederick is intending planting more Petite Verdot, which offers rich flavours and is being more successful as the climate warms, and new plantings will increase density to 10,000 vines per hectare.
Grapes have been machine picked since 1982, the Merlets own their own harvester. They produce around 180,000 bottles (15,000 cases) each year. 2010 has been a wonderful year in Bordeaux generally, but hail storms in June caused damage in the vineyards, Tour St Bonnet lost 4% of their grapes.
We moved into the winery, on the way Frederick pointed out the manor house which dated back to the 1500s and originally had an arched drive through entrance so that passengers could disembark from carriages under cover.
A double row of concrete tanks are used for fermenting and storage, the winery ages some, but not all, wine in barrel.
Only one wine is made, though they are considering bottling wine from young vines under a second label.
Frederick took a sample of the 2010 vintage from a tank. This was beautiful rich and silky with a good length. It was not a finished wine, the final blending has to be done after maturation is complete. But when I got home I placed an en premieur (futures) order for a couple of cases of 2010.
I am really glad I asked to venture north away from the famous names to visit this honest family run artisan winery. It is good to put faces behind the wine that I put on my table.
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Disclosure: Peter F May visited Bordeaux at his own expense. All accommodation, meals, food, wine and transport and visits were paid for.
Peter engaged Hamish Wakes-Miller of Bella Wine Tours www.bellawinetours.com to organise his visit to Bordeaux
Frederick Merlet, winemaker, viticulturist, owner
Ch Tour St Bonnet packaging featuring the 'Tour'
Oldest part of the chateau
Frederick takes a tasting sample from the tank
Ch Tour St Bonnet's cellar
Location of Ch Tour St Bonnet