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Anson: Bordeaux’s secret treasure island

Jane Anson explores one of the last few secrets of Bordeaux wine, and tells you how to find it...

I’ve never seen a live phylloxera bug before, still less a tiny group of them sat like a angry set of blisters on the leaf of the vine.

Instinctively the small group of us recoil. All, that is, except Fabien Teitgen, technical director of Château Smith Haut Lafitte, who is well used to this sight in Bordeaux.

‘These bugs are everywhere,’ he says cheerfully. ‘It’s not that we have eradicated the phylloxera louse in Europe, simply that we have worked out how to control them. They don’t like the leaves of our European vines so they head down to the roots, where they do all the damage.

‘But on these American vines, they leave the rootstocks alone, but live happily on the leaves. It’s why the combination of the two makes for phylloxera-free vines.’

We are standing on the site of one of the last few secrets of Bordeaux viticulture – a tiny island paradise where Smith Haut Lafitte is trying to square the circle.

‘We have spent years developing an organic, environmentally-sensitive approach to winemaking at our main estate,’ says Teitgen. ‘And yet we were having to buy commercially-grown rootstocks that we had no control over. The most sensible thing seemed to grow our own’.

As luck would have it, they had just the place.

Ile de la Lande

This is Ile de la Lande, a 51-hectare private island dotted with lakes and woodland in the Garonne river that was bought by the Cathiards in 1995, just a few years after they arrived in Bordeaux to buy their Pessac Léognan estate.

There had been extensive viticulture on the island until the 19th century. Ruins of former cellars greet you when you step foot off the jetty and make your way past the thickets that guard the entire place from view, constructed to vinify the 20 hectares of vines that were grown here.

This gave way to gravel quarries in the 20th century, and for at least 50 years there have been of no vines here at all, meaning the soils are free of nematodes and other viruses. Combine this with its total isolation, and the sandy-clay soils that dominate now that the gravel has gone – and you have the perfect spot for a rootstock nursery.

‘We buy 30cm pieces of base shoots of American vines from a specialist supplier,’ explains Teitgen, ‘and use these to grow three different types that respond to our specific soil types. After one year here we select the most suitable ones, cut the rootstocks and take them to a nursery on the mainland to do the grafting onto our healthy vitis vinifera vines’.

Today up to 50% of the Smith Haut Lafitte vines benefit from this vertical integration, where every step is genuinely overseen by the Cathiard family. I don’t know of another Bordeaux wine estate that can make a similar claim.

It’s a fascinating place to visit, but the Ile de la Lande is just one part of a rich and hidden history of island wines in Bordeaux, dotted within the often swollen, sulky river.

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Garonne river

The Garonne river starts out life somewhere 1,800 metres up a mountain in the Spanish Pyrenees, from where it runs through southwest France to the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean.

It is the river that is at least partly responsible for the dominance of Bordeaux wine for much the past millennia, because Bordeaux is lucky enough to be the last major port before it heads out to the open sea, giving it the advantage of being the clear trading post, top of the queue in deciding which goods were loaded onto boats when no other transport options were available.

During the final stretch of its journey, there are parts where it reaches several miles across, resembling more an inland sea than a simple transport artery – and like any sea, it has its fair share of islands.

Bordeaux wine islands – and one to visit

There were once 11 islands, but some have been enlarged and joined together.

In the 1700s and 1800s, they – including Ile de Paté and the Ile de Margaux – were the source of the sought-after ‘vins de palus’ that in old trading ledgers reached among the highest prices of the time. Not many have vineyards today, but there are a few clinging on to tradition.

The most open to visitors is the Ile de Patiras, accessible via a 10 minute boat trip from a jetty on the Pauillac quayside.

As recently as 30 years ago there were 150 people living here, and the island had its own school and 20 hectares of vines along the south side. When harvesting up to 1,000 people would swell the population. All islands used to have access to the appellations of their closest mainland neighbors (Patiras could choose from Blaye or Pauillac), but today they are all Bordeaux or Bordeaux Supérieur.

Patiras is now uninhabited, although a restaurant, Le Refuge, welcomes guests who have booked in advance and for much of the summer you’ll find groups of visitors clambering up the lighthouse that stands alongside the restaurant.

Just three hectares of vines remain on the south side of the island after winemaker André Lurton bought up the rest to use the planting rights elsewhere on ‘mainland Bordeaux’.

The vines make just one commercial wine called Le Mouton Noir Girond’1. The first vintage of this came in 2014, after winemaker Dominique-Léande Chevalier – known for his high-density planting season and traditional methods of viticulture, set out to save the island’s historical production.

Not an easy wine to find (try the Maison des Vins in Pauillac) but truly you can say you are drinking a forgotten piece of Bordeaux history.

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