The Bordeaux vineyard and Surrey pubs putting wine on the menu for European relations
PUBLISHED: 16:14 18 October 2017 | UPDATED: 11:16 25 September 2018
When one Surrey pub group were looking for a new wine to set them apart from the crowd, their search led to the gates of the family-owned Château Carbonneau near Bordeaux. More than one year on, it's a relationship which continues to blossom
There is an understandable excitement in the air about the 500 or so vineyards blooming into ever more award-winning life in England, but this is rather put into perspective when flying over the Bordeaux region’s 7,000 or so châteaux.
Within minutes of leaving Begerac airport, you notice every crossroads is burgeoning with signs pointing out variations of oenophile heaven. The fields you weave through are largely hidden under a blanket of vines.
We arrive during the height of harvest season and everywhere you look pickers and their unwavering machinery are bustling away among row upon row of future vintages.
I’ve joined Mark Williams and Mark Robson, co-founders of the Surrey and Hampshire-based pub group Red Mist Leisure, for an insider’s guide into why they go direct to the producer for some of the stars of their wine lists.
It was on the strength of a tip off by Liphook’s General Wine Company that the pair originally decided to fly out to Château Carbonneau in Pessac-sur-Dordogne.
Almost immediately, they fell for the impressive property with its French and New Zealand flags flying proudly over the Napoleon III-style conservatory.
As soon as they tasted the exceptional range of affordable wines and chatted with the château’s passionate owners, Jacquie and Wilfrid Franc de Ferriere, they knew they’d found their match.
Deals were struck and their eight pubs have been serving Margot (white), Classique (soft red), Séquoia (medium red) and Lulu (rosé) for a year and a half now.
“Having gone straight to the source, it means we are able to put some really excellent wines on the menu at a fraction of the cost to our customers – and we’ve also got a great story to tell along with each bottle,” says Mark Williams.
“As well as selling more than 8,000 of their wines a year, it’s also a great opportunity for us to bring our managers over to discover more about the wine making process and instil some of Jacquie and Wilfrid’s passion into their own work. It’s proven really inspirational, and they’ve also visited us in Surrey and Hampshire to help educate the staff further.”
It really is a fascinating story too. While the chateau produces up to 120,000 bottles a year these days, it could have all been so different without an entrepreneurial whim and a lot of hard graft.
A grand vin tradition
While Château Carbonneau is 150 years old and the Grand Larousse encyclopaedia referred to its “great wines of Bordeaux” in the 19th century, the vines were pulled when economic crisis hit after World War One.
When Wilfrid inherited the family estate 25 years ago, it was a shadow of its former self. Despite living in New Zealand at the time, where the couple had married and started their own young family, they decided to move back to France to see if they could revive the estate’s fortunes.
With three children in tow, Jacquie and Wilfrid arrived in Gensac to find one-and-a-half working bathrooms, ancient plumbing and some dubious 1970s decorating efforts, as well as an old winery filled with 100 years of collected rubbish.
Not the most promising of starts then but, not to be disheartened, they set about replanting the vineyard and restoring the château so that it could welcome guests again.
The pair launched their first vintage in 1996 and have never looked back. As well as producing six wines these days, their beautiful home is now a successful B&B guesthouse with five-bedrooms, a wine bar and a rustic tea room.
“It hasn’t always been easy and we’ve had to work very hard to get here but we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved so far,” says Wilfrid. “We produce our own grapes, crush them and then make our own wine from them all on the estate. We don’t buy in any grapes or juice from elsewhere. It is so important to respect the château name and it really helps with the consistency of our wines too.
“My job is to use my palate to connect the vintages. As such, I think there’s definitely a signature to my wines. I guess I was excited by the challenge when we first moved back here. It’s such a wonderful location and I was desperate to prove that the estate had a great terroir. I’m very lucky Jacquie has backed me all the way.”
The current incarnation of Château Carbonneau recently celebrated their 20th anniversary of wine making with a vertical tasting of their Sequoia vintages (a full-bodied red that takes its name from the 40-metre high tree that welcomes you to the estate). It was a welcome surprise for all that the original 1996 wine proved to be the star of the show.
Bringing things up to the modern day, they’ve added a new crémant called Life of Carbonneau to their range. Made using Semillon grapes rather than the usual Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the result is more like a prosecco than Champagne but it’s eminently quaffable.
Perhaps due to the well travelled nature of the family, the Franc de Ferrieres aren’t afraid to stray from the traditions of Bordeaux wine-making and their youngest son, Pierre, is lined up to take over from Wilfrid when the time is right.
A charismatic, open-minded and infectiously inquisitive young winemaker, he’s already working on new projects that may bolster the Carbonneau range in the coming years.
“I like to learn from winemaking methods from around the world and so, while I have so much respect for the traditions of this part of France, I’m really intrigued by what we can achieve by experimenting with different grape varietals and production techniques,” he says. “Things are always changing and it’s such an exciting industry to be involved in. I feel privileged every day.”
Suffice to say, it’s easy to see why the Red Mist Leisure team chose to fly the Carbonneau flag. While they remain keen proponents of a love local philosophy and their drinks lists are packed full of Surrey and Hampshire creations, it’s refreshing to see the care, attention and friendship that goes into this overseas relationship.
With European politics strained, this is one French connection that promises to only get better with age…
• Rooms at Château Carbonneau start at €105 per night in low season (March, April, May and October, November). For more about their wines and rates, visit www.chateau-carbonneau.com