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Gunpowder, sauerkraut and mouse pee? Plunging deep into French wine-tasting
A vineyard sign in Madiran
Feeling thoroughly soaked in wine-tasting lore now, I swirl the glass of Madiran before taking a confident, horse-like sniff and imbibing a mouthful of the ruby-red stuff. I sluice the liquid about the taste centres of my tongue, those fleshy zones like geographical entities, my lips parted to suck in a thin stream of air that will help to coax the full flavours from the wine.
"Hm," I say.
The wine is telling me a story but it's as if it's speaking in a dialect with only a few words I can understand. I try to recall some of the several hundred, often bizarre-sounding, taste and odour "nuances" set down by the French wine master Emile Peynaud in 1980 to clarify the tasting process and included as a handout in one of the wine-tasting lessons I've had. Does the Madiran suggest the mature, masculine scent of a cigar box? Does the sharp note of "grilled almonds" arise from its depths? Is there, perhaps, a lingering scent of gunpowder? Or even of toast, Chinese anise, sauerkraut or - what? - mouse pee?
I turn to Joel Manaud, the stocky, goateed, shaven-headed local vine-grower who seems about as far from the stereotype of the effete French wine connoisseur as it is possible to get in this or probably any other universe.
What, I ask Joel - one colleague to another now - does the Madiran smell like to him? Clove? Barrel stave? Tree moss, even?
"Wine!" he instantly replies.
Joel Manaud, Madiran vigneron
How did the enjoyment of wine get the elitist image that still clings to it in Britain? As if Joel's stout refutation of the pretentious cliches weren't enough, we are tasting his and neighbouring Madiran and Pacherenc wines in a decidedly humble farmhouse hunkered in the shade of a neighbouring castle, the Chateau d'Arricau-Bordes, owned, ironically enough, by an Englishman who is said to have earned his squillions in Ukrainian gas. Recently moved into the house is another local vigneron, Paul Dabadie, with his wife and young daughters: the family who will be hosting us later for lunch.
I suppose I should spit out more wines at the tasting but I don't and, on a trip to the bathroom, I notice it could do with a renovation; the rest of the house, too, is very old and characterful but there are fittings from a good assortment of the past century's decades. The surroundings are nothing, in other words, to feel inferior about, yet Paul and his down-to-earth colleagues can talk wine with all the assurance of a Telegraph columnist and I suspect a lot more.
We finish the tasting with a 10-year-old Pacherenc, the sweet wine that manages to convince me that such a variety can actually be enjoyable and more. This time those flavour nuances suggest themselves more readily. The thick, golden, almost oily liquid gives off a scent of wild honey, as well as of something slightly, but attractively, burnt; as for the taste, it calls to mind nothing more than one of those soft, rich, wicked custard tarts you find, to perfection, in Lisbon. "You don't spit this one out!" says Paul with a grin and leads us into lunch.
It's not as if we need it, but there are already several bottles of wine on the table - at least one, I am guessing, for each course. Good, I tell myself, not entirely dishonestly: yet more opportunity to test my new-found wine knowledge. For, if it's not obvious, I have been enjoying a crash-course in vinous appreciation here in Bordeaux and surrounds. Let me rephrase that: I always knew I appreciated wine; now I am learning why I do and how I could appreciate it even more.
We have picked up the basics at the wine merchants Millésima, beginning with a tour of the firm's prison-like 19th-century warehouses wherein you find the bottled ocean of premium vintages it sells to its international clientele of wine fanatics (a sample of its treasures: a magnum of premier cru supérieur Chateau d'Yquem going for €22,000).
Then Julie Paolucci (daughter of a vigneron, of course; wine - I'm going to say it - is in her blood) teaches us how, using as many of your senses as possible, to get to know a wine.
Learn the three-step method of wine appreciation
First, look at it, she says. Hold the vessel against a white cloth and inspect the "circle", the transparent rim where the liquid meets the glass. Here the age of the wine, human-midriff-like, betrays itself: if thin, the wine is young.
Next, sniff the wine - without swirling, at first, merely to tell whether it is drinkable. (That, by the way, is all you need do in a restaurant.) Then feel free to swirl the glass as merrily as you like to release that genie of a bouquet - before you smell it again. And here the hard part begins, for now you must learn to put words to the odours you find.
The third step - taste - is even more demanding. You must treat the tongue like an alcoholic, bathing it in the wine so that each of its flavour centres - sweetness on the tip, acidity at the sides and tannin at the back - gets a chance to respond. Then it's time for your judgment, but everyone I meet in this premier French wine-growing region agrees that describing a wine in language is a subjective and difficult - even painful - thing to do. It's a constant education.
Back at Paul's place, we are on to the second course: juicy veal steaks that marry very well with another, teenage (in wine years) bottle of Madiran. Speaking of education, there's a very popular English professor in these parts, Roger Corder, who helped to popularise the idea of the French paradox: that the gallons of wine and cream the French consume actually make them live longer. In his book Boire Mieux pour Vivre Vieux, Prof Madiran proclaims himself particularly enamoured of Madrian, claiming that the high anti-oxidant levels of this distinctly deep-red variety make it especially good for the heart. His book is selling well in China, a wine market that could come to eclipse all others.
Madiran grapes on the vine
Pondering these matters of the grape, I am distracted by a bite to my thumb. It is the tiny, adorable, mongrel kitten who has settled into my lap. Behind me, by the enormous hearth, a terrier stretches out, slumbering. At one end of the table, Paul's daughters are gabbling away, while at the other, another farmer, in Basque beret, is discoursing on grape varieties. The bottles of wine are sailing from guest to guest apparently of their own volition, and I suddenly realise that I am experiencing a real-life cliche of French joie de vivre - surely another essential component, along with hearty wine, of the country's famed health paradox.
Read more articles by Simon Busch on MSN Travel.
For more on Bordeaux, visit the Bordeaux Tourism site.
Chais Millésima: 87, quai de Paludate - 33050 Bordeaux Cedex (+33 (0)557 808 808)
Chai du Château d'Arricau-Bordes: +33 (0)5 59 68 13 97
For general information about visiting the French regions, see FranceGuide, the official government tourism site.
The night before his early morning departure for France, Simon stayed at the Yotel Gatwick.