Raise a Glass

Vine-spotting in the heart of Bordeaux is a wine-lover’s dream. This is where the world’s most expensive ‘celebrity’ bottles are born. Kathryn Armstrong grabs a glass

This is hallowed land. We’ve stopped at revered names like Petrus. Pomerol and St Emilion where the streams of vines in front of us are priceless.

Journey further to Margaux, Latour and Mouton-Rothschild and you build up quite a thirst. Not to mention the urge to stock the wine cellar of your dreams.

This is the landscape of the world’s finest wines, the ‘terroir’ of Bordeaux that creates the flavour and nuance of the celebrities of the wine world. The best-known of the wine chateaux used to be ‘hands off’ for the visitor unless you were a serious buyer willing to make an appointment with intent to fill that cellar.

Chateau La Dominique in St Emilion is among those changing all that. You might almost call it a ‘visitor centre’, quelle horreur! Albeit a very stylish one.

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For a start, it is one flamboyant building. There must have been howls of controversy when French architect Jean Nouvel revealed his design.

In an endless landscape of flat soil and vines broken up only by church spires, small towns and chateaux gates, the daring design is ‘look at me’ bold.

Red and shiny, the cellar building is covered in coloured tiles that reflect the hues of red wine in a glass. With this unique covering in its natural landscape you are almost in the glass as it plays with perception of the colour of the wine: the reflection, intensity, shades and deepness.

Looking at it, you also see the age-old vines, which are reflected on the modern building itself from their soil.

At the cellar you can see the process of wine-making then take a seat in a stunning (and packed to the rafters when we visited) restaurant to taste the wine and eat dishes reflecting the region. The roof is a panoramic terrace covered with red glass pebbles, representing symbolic grapes which the visitor can tread (and take home).

Château La Dominique is a Grand Cru Classé of Saint-Emilion and close to the UNESCO World Heritage town of St Emilion which is a charming place to visit with steep cobbled streets, underground catacombs to explore and a wine museum to test your knowledge of the grape.

Our base for the gourmet tour was Le St James Hotel in the heart of the village of Bouliac, 10km from Bordeaux in South-West France, The hotel’s link with Chateau La Domaine is the architect. The stunning contemporary hotel is designed by Jean Nouvel and its façade inspired by the tobacco drying barns in the region.

It is striking and stylish inside from an unassuming entrance. Stylish, peppered with artworks and modern interior detail such as concrete walkways, oh and bright orange loo paper if you need such detail.

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The hotel is home to a cook school and impressive restaurant, headed up by Michelin-starred Chef Nicolas Magie. His imaginative, delicious menus are inspired by daily market offerings and are continuously changing with the seasons.

The food is stunning. Stand-out dishes like wild turbot roasted on the bone with garden peas, broad beans and stuffed morels and lamb ‘Iberian’ roasted with honey coriander.

An impressive cheeseboard you might expect but a textbook lime soufflé with a waiter-delivered spoonful of hazelnut ice-cream cracking its crust was swooningly good to look at and taste.

The restaurant has panoramic views of the Garonne, Bordeaux and the surrounding rows of Merlot vines that produce the “Vin du Jardin,” which is available at the hotel.

One of the stars of the place is the unassuming sommelier Richard Bernard. His wine list has been described as the best in France by Michelin. Richard’s cellar has around 2000 wines chosen by him. If you want to know what we drank with the afroementioned dishes, they included a Chateau Phelan-Segur 2008 St Estephe and a stunningly good Chateau Beychevelle 2010 St Julien. Real blow-your-mind wines made perfect by drinking them so close to their home.

The unique hotel has 15 bedrooms and 3 suites, one with a terrace Jacuzzi with a fine view of the town’s church tower, a heated outdoor swimming pool and terrace with vast vineyard and river views.

All of the hotel’s bedrooms have preserved the spirit of Jean Nouvel’s original design and have been finished with contemporary furniture created by famous designers such as Mies Van Der Rohe and Jean Prouvé. One even has a Harley Davidson motorbike as a ‘roomtime’ plaything.

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Art is a real feature of the hotel with new works by different artists every three months including contemporary paintings,  sculptures and photos with guests invited to private viewings.

The hotel overlooks the city of Bordeaux which has literally been scrubbed up in the past few years to go from an unlovely industrial working city to become a very calm, understated and stylish place with striking buildings, riverside walks and boulevards housing chic must-gaze stores with everything from Hermes to gorgeously colourful macarons.

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We did what you have to do when you go to any city in France, headed to the market, and it’s a good one. Marche des Capucins is gourmet heaven with counter-top cafes at the different producer stalls, from oyster bars to charcuterie. Plan a lunchtime visit and do some stall-hopping.

The coast in these parts takes you to miles of white sandy beaches at Arcachon or you can take a visit up the Gironde estuary to the famous Bordeaux wine châteaux Latour, Margaux, Mouton-Rothschild which rise amid the flatlands.

For real wine buffs, one of the most rewarding to visit is the Château Pichon- Longueville-Comtesse-de-Lalande at Pauillac, an eleven-hectare estate with extensive vineyards.

The village of Bouliac itself is pretty with a panoramic stroll from the hotel, to a traditional bistro, Le Café de l’Espérance, the place for a simple menu of grilled meat and fish and buffet of starters and desserts. It’s a truly French atmosphere with charm and atmosphere and live music on certain evenings. Funnily enough, the house wine rates pretty well too.

Stuff a Grape >>

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Yes, this was among the challenges at the “Côté Cours” cookery school, based in a contemporary conservatory overlooking the vibrant citrus gardens at St James.

The amateur gourmet will be in heaven. This is a taste of the Masterchef kitchen with the chance to try and emulate the skills of the hotel’s Michelin kitchen.

Our teacher was a hard task-master. Dicing chives, minutely chopping capers and making our shallots chopped to the level of a professional kitchen.

On our menu was a salad of new-season white asparagus with morels and a parmesan cheese and hazelnut crumble.

The bit we probably won’t be trying at home, and where the super-kitchen came into play, was in the boiling of eggs in a vapour oven at 68C for 20 minutes (then trying to peel them). The ‘at home’ suggestion being a three-minute poached egg.

The dish was delicious and enjoyed with a glass of the hotel’s own crisp white sauvignon.

We also made a pasta dish called Aneelli Siciliani with a Mediterranean vegetable sauce garnished with our own peeled and stuffed grapes and drizzled with a parmesan emulsion.

Clever stuff, made to look simple by our fast-paced teacher.

The cook school has space for up to 12 people in each class, guests can choose to take part in a themed lesson or even visit the local market to buy the produce before getting started.

Courses are available for all levels and can be demonstrations or hands-on classes including for children.

Factbox >>

Le St James >>

3, place Camille Hostein, 33270 Bouliac – Gironde, France

www.saintjames-bouliac.com

Dinner set menus >>

135, 100, 70 and 55

Kathryn flew from Gatwick to Bordeaux but there are also flights direct from Liverpool and Edinburgh.

She travelled with Grand Central Trains from the North East to Kings Cross.

Book train tickets up to 12 weeks in advance with no booking fee when booking direct

www. grandcentralrail.com

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