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Anson on Thursday: The most surprising cellar in Bordeaux

The road up to Chateau de Lisennes takes you through the heart of Entre deux Mers, and on this slightly overcast but muggy May morning, it is looking at its sprightly, most glorious best, with sprays of elderflower dotting the hedgerows and tiny wood violets growing between the oak trees.

Image credit: Jane Anson

These would have once been just the prelude to a wide variety of fruit trees, vegetable patches and fields of corn and hay growing around here but these days, as with pretty much every square inch of available farming land in the region, the dominant sight in these fields is vines.

I turn into the long driveway and up to the gravel forecourt where Jean-Luc Soubie is waiting to greet me, fourth generation of his family to make wine here and a champion of a style that is resolutely, stubbornly, wilfully determined to cling to tradition; Bordeaux clairet.

The Soubie family has long been a champion of this dark rosé/light red wine that takes us back to the origins of Bordeaux. It has been described rather beautifully as a winter rosé. When the English first arrived here in the 12th century, and right through until the invention of New French Claret in the 17th century, all the red wine of the region would have been this colour – ‘because the grapes would have been a mix of red and white in the fields, and because there was no understanding of long maceration with the skins, or of ageing in barrel’ Soubie explains. It is almost certainly the first kind of wine to have been put into a glass bottle.

Today clairet is the rarest of things; a wine made only in Bordeaux, unusual for a region that sees its cabernet and merlot red blends imitated world over. The Soubie family is the biggest independent producer, making around 100,000 bottles per year (they did, finally, decide to get into the rosé game a few years ago, but made the smart decision to bottle a particularly pale version to be certain there is no cannibalisation).

I have just come from a tasting of 35 clairets from the 2014 vintage laid on at Planète Bordeaux, the regional marketing body for the 4,000 winemakers who bottle under the appellations of Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur. Fewer than 40 of these winemakers make a clairet, producing just under 15% of the wine that rosé producers bottle each year – 26,000 hectolitres compared to over 188,000 hectolitres. Clairet provides an interesting counterpoint to the more fashionable and easier-to-sell rosé, but the market lies increasingly within France itself.

By and large, I’ve been impressed by the tasting. The best are savoury, lightly structured, less about the floral aromatics of a rosé and more about the summery fruits of a light red. If you enjoy chilled Beaujolais or Loire cabernet franc, there is plenty of appeal in clairet. And Château de Lisennes is joined by some excellent producers – among them Patrick Carteyron at Chateau Pennin, Régis Chaigne at Château Ballan-Larquette and Hervé Grandeau at Chateau Lauduc – who also believe that Bordeaux shouldn’t abandon its traditions.

‘This is a wine that was championed by the father of modern oenology himself,’ says Soubie, ‘Emile Peynaud, who effectively reintroduced clairet in 1949 into Bordeaux, believing that there had to be a place for a wine that genuinely stood between red and white.’

I’m nodding along to this, thinking that I am standing in the epicentre of all that is traditional, a window into the heart of old school Bordeaux, when Soubie leads me out of the 15th century building where we have been tasting and eating our – could not be more traditionally Bordélais – lunch of steak cooked over an open fire. We head out to two large outbuildings that were formerly stables and grain stores, and are now warehouses for cellaring wine.

Only this is no ordinary Bordeaux cellar, and still less one that you would expect from a champion of the most traditional wine style that Bordeaux produces. As we walk through, we are looking at boxes, wooden cases, larger palettes bearing the names of Angelo Gaja, Alvara Palacios, Peter Sisseck. Estates on show here include Vergelen, La Cetto, the Stump Jump, Sine Qua Non, Felton Road, Shafer. Off to one side are cases of Peruvian Pisco, luscious old vintages of PX from Xeres, row after row of serious names from Uruguay, Chile, Argentina…

‘We have over 600 wine references from over 25 countries,’ Soubie tells me, clearly enjoying my astonishment that this château is also the headquarters of Valade & Transandine, France’s biggest importer of international wines. The wines stored in these cellars supply large parts of the lists at the George V, Taillevent and the Mandarin Oriental in Paris, Flocons de Sel in Megève… ‘we send wine out to most of the Michelin-starred restaurants in France. Often they want just a few mixed cases at a time, so deliveries are leaving most days’.

For a country whose consumption figures show that approximately 97% of wine drunk here is home-grown, this is an pretty extraordinary find. Head to a French supermarket and you’re lucky at best to find a couple of shelves offering the big international brands, but nothing to represent the huge diversity of the international offering, and almost no top-end international names.

Valade & Transandine, in contrast, is the only importer of Mexican wine into France, by far the largest importer of all South American wines, and with exclusivities on some of the biggest names in the business. It began with Soubie buying two importing companies based out of Bordeaux – one created back in 1858 for importing casks of port onto the Chartrons riverfront – and was expanded in 2012 when he began working with sommelier Olivier Poussier in Paris, tasting through and selecting hundreds of wines to make the range wider, deeper, more convincing.

It would have been fascinating to discover these cellars anywhere in France, but to find them here, presided over by the guardian of an idiosyncratic, endangered wine style, is surprisingly cheering. Quality international wine in France is a tiny niche, for connoisseurs and adventurers. It has more in common with clairet than you might first imagine, and I can’t help but feel that Bordeaux’s winter rosé couldn’t be in any better hands.

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