Chateau Preuillac, Bordeaux, France

My visit began in rather glamorous fashion. Having spent the weekend wineing and dining at the Hotel Georges V in Paris, covering a story for Harper’s Wine and Spirits magazine, I settled back in my first-class seat on the TGV, for the two and a half hour sprint through the French countryside to Bordeaux. Ah, if only every weekend was like this.

I had been invited to spend a few days at Château Preuillac. Preuillac was acquired by the Yvon Mau company only in 1998, although the Mau family have been in the Bordeaux wine business for over a hundred years. Yvon Mau is the sixth largest exporter of wine in France, producing over five million bottles under a variety of labels. However, in 2001, they sold the négociant arm of their business to the Freixenet group of Spain. Whilst the family is still closely involved in running that business for now, their intention is to invest much more of their time, effort and money in estate wines.

xChâteau Preuillac, a Cru Bourgeois in the Médoc, is managed by Jean-Christophe Mau, my host for the visit, and the fifth generation of this Bordeaux dynasty to join the wine trade. Jean-Christophe is charged with overseeing a major investment that includes total renovation of the winery, including a switch to stainless-steel fermentation tanks. He wanted me to see what was happening at the estate, and as a bonus, attend a vine-pruning masterclass on the estate.

xI alighted from the train at Langon, about 50 kilometres east of Bordeaux. Jean-Christophe and Richard Bampfield MW, consultant to Yvon Mau, waited for me, casually dressed on an unseasonably warm evening. We drove straight to the wonderful restaurant Claude Darroze. Monsieur Darroze is a renowned Michelin-starred chef, and I was to attend a dinner to celebrate the conclusion of Le Grand Bi D’Or wine competition. The exquisite food of Claude Darroze, together with fine wine and the restaurant’s unbelievable collection of vintage Armagnacs – a few of which were sampled – meant the sensation of living a very glamorous lifestyle lasted just a little longer…

xNext day we set off bright and early for Château Preuillac, which sits near the town of Lesparre, about 60 kilometres north of Bordeaux, directly alongside the vineyards of Château Potensac. The drive through the lush countryside of the left bank is always guaranteed to make the wine-lover’s heart beat a little faster. All those communes, villages and estates with famous names, passing through Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe, finally arriving at the Château, in the heart of the Médoc.

xPreuillac is a very pretty estate, the house itself not some ageing monument, but a thriving and vital part of the operation. It is the base for the Preuillac School, offering short courses in Bordeaux wines (for information call +33 556 090020 or email a restorative lunch, we headed off for a walking tour of the estate buildings and vineyards, as Jean-Christophe explained his plan of action for improving both the viticulture and winemaking, and for introducing new technology like those stainless steel fermentation tanks to replace the old wooden vats.

xThen Bernard Couthures, Preuillac’s master of the pruning shears, turned up and we headed off into the midst of the Cabernet Sauvignon vines for a few hours study of pruning techniques, and a chance for some hands-on experience. To watch Bernard’s masterclass was quite breathtaking; snipping with deadly accuracy at unwanted buds, and bending and training each growing spur in a blur of confident precision. I guess this comes with a lifetime of experience, but my indecision and lack of confidence didn’t seem to improve much over several attempts. March is key winter pruning time at Preuillac, and today the chilly wind meant my fingers were numb within minutes. The pruner’s lot is clearly not an easy one.Dinner that night was a wonderful affair, with a local chef coming to the Château to prepare a stunning meal, the highlight of which was a dish of sautéed foie gras with a sweet pear compote. We washed down the meal with a couple of vintages of Preuillac, as well as some Pomerol and St-Emilion from Jean-Christophe’s cellar.

Climbing the grand staircase to my room in the wee small hours, I took a few minutes on the balcony, looking out over a chilly spring landscape. An owl was hooting somewhere close by, and the naked vineyards, washed in moonlight blue, shivered for miles into the distance.

xNext morning we visited Château-Hanteillan, a Cru Bourgeois property in the commune of Cissac. The formidable but utterly charming Catherine Blasco led a vertical tasting of her wines. My favourite was probably the 1998, though the fine 2000 and 2001 need re-tasting in a few years.

Château-Hanteillan, Haut-Médoc 1998
Dense, bold, meaty nose with dark, slightly charry qualities and plenty of thick black fruit. The palate has juicy acidity and a fine quality of blackcurrant and damson fruit, blueberry and a little hint of savoury olive depth. Good balance, length and concentration. Very good indeed.After a brief visit to Château Lynch-Moussas in Pauillac, we headed back home to settle in for a more formal tasting of Château Preuillac’s wines before dinner. We tasted both Preuillac itself, and the second wine, Le Preuil.

The introduction of a second wine is another of the innovations of Jean-Christophe’s time in charge. Second wines – in Preuillac’s case a selection based on tasting, not vineyard origins – allow estates more consistency and a higher quality with their Grands Vins. By offering the choice of selecting the best, whilst having an outlet for surplus wine or barrels which do not meet the standard, the first wine need not suffer dilution of quality in less than stellar years – if selection is rigorous enough.

Jean-Christophe is undoubtedly doing all the right things at Preuillac in terms of current “best practice”. Green harvesting to thin out growing bunches, hand-picking, and minimal use of sprays are practised in the vineyards. They have also taken rudimentary steps like changing pruning regimes and raising the vines onto higher training wires to encourage more even photosynthesis.

In the winery, new temperature control and ventilation systems will be joined this year by the steel tanks. The Chais, or barrel cellar, has had air-conditioning added. But Jean-Christophe stops very firmly short of what he calls “torture devices”: the high-tech machinery that is increasingly common in Bordeaux, used to manipulate poor vintages, like reverse-osmosis or other must-concentrating systems, and micro-oxygenation devices.

The wines

And so to the tasting, conducted in the airy schoolroom, with views out to the lush Gironde countryside.

Château Preuillac, Le Preuil 1999
This is made after selection of the various cuves, and is not necessarily from younger vines or inferior sites (Preuillac’s vines have an average age of around 25 years). It has a fine nose, with some cedar and spice and some sweet cherry and berry fruit. There is good weight in the mouth, and a nice, rounded mouthful of fruit. Good balance, and a very attractive early-drinking claret. Very good.

Château Preuillac, Le Preuil 2000
This is a little more animal on the nose, with a meaty edge to dark berry fruit. On the palate there is good concentration and drying tannins, but nice fruit quality emerges. Very good.

Château Preuillac, Médoc 1998
xThere is a classic cedary note on the nose at first, with a little bloody, animal edge to earthy, autumnal berry fruit. The palate is nicely layered with sweet fruit, a little spice and a freshening lick of acidity. Tannins are ripe and give good structure. Drinking well and very good, if a touch rustic. This wine – 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 44% Merlot and 2% Cabernet Franc – is from the year the Mau family bought the estate, but before their quality investments.

Château Preuillac, Médoc 1999
A 50/50 split of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the blend here gives a vibrant, deep purple colour. There is creamy, berry fruit and a hint of chocolate. Fine quality on the palate, with a viscous weight and nice texture, and lots of spice. Soft red fruit character is balanced with good acidity and fine tannins. Very good/very good indeed. Drinking now.

Château Preuillac, Médoc 2000
Creamy, even slightly fudge-like quality on the nose with a little more oak influence, but plenty of good, ripe, concentrated blackcurrant and red fruit. Perhaps a little floral hint, and good ripeness. In the mouth it is rich and has a good quality of red plum fruit against a background of spicy oak filling out the finish. Balance is good, and tannins are fine. Very good indeed. Drinking now, or cellar through 2008.

Château Preuillac, Médoc 2001
Out of interest we tasted two separate samples of the Merlot component of the 2001 vintage. First up was a sample fermented and aged in stainless steel, which had a rather reductive nose of gunflint, but this blew off to reveal smoky red plum aromas. On the palate it was very rich and deep, with concentrated plummy fruit and a nice savoury edge. The second sample was from barrique, and it displayed a mint-humbuggy, toffeed richness. On the palate a chewy concentration of fruit; plum and bittersweet cherry. Very nice, with a heady richness. Finally, next day I tasted an early sample of the final blend: bright, pure, attractive fruit quality. Good fruit – very rich and substantial, with a red plum weight and crisp blackcurrant tartness and tannic edge. Good acidity and balance.

The Mau family are still ambitious, and are extremely big players in Bordeaux. As well as a range of branded wines under the Yvon Mau négociant arm, the wines of Château Ducla are in Booths, Makro and some independent stores. I also enjoyed the inexpensive, tasty and crisp Yvecourt Sauvignon Blanc 2001, at £4.79 from Tesco.

xPart of Jean-Christophe’s brief is to accompany his father or brothers on exploratory trips whenever an interesting property comes up for sale. The sale of their négoce business left the family cash-rich, and there is a hunger to add a classed-growth property to their portfolio. Jean-Christophe also teasingly mentioned Ribera del Duero in northern Spain, where the family has close ties with Vega Sicilia.The Mau family has built its business in the Bordeaux wine trade over a century. Clearly, they are not prepared to rest on their laurels just yet.