Bordeaux has joined the craft whisky trend, reports Jane Anson after meeting the founders of a new distillery and talking a tour of the premises.Bordeaux has seen a revival for bars and restaurants in recent years.
That’s how long it took to hew 20 six-tonne blocks of concrete out of the side of the bunker, simply to make one door that is something like two metres wide by three metres high and to prepare the space inside that had seen zero activity for 70 years.
If you were ever wondering, the difficulty of that task pretty much sums up the reason why the Nazi submarine pens are still standing in the Bassins à Flots sector of downtown Bordeaux.
Every study commissioned by the local government in how to take them down has resulted in the opinion that it is simply unfeasible to do so.
They comprise 42,000 square metres of reinforced concrete, measuring 245 metres long, 12 metres wide, 19 metres high, with a roof that is almost 10 metres thick. All built by over 6,000 Spanish and Portuguese prisoners of war.
I am standing in front of one of the bunkers that lies just a few hundred metres behind the main sub-pen, built by the Kriegsmarine during the Occupation to store the fuel needed to power the submarines. The walls here are a mere six metres thick, but they still proved an almost impossible challenge for the team that has converted this former fuel store – built with a capacity for four million litres of diesel – into a barrel-ageing space for Bordeaux’s newest drinks company, Moon Harbour whisky distillery.
It also explains why the distillery is split into two main parts – the newly-built space of 600m2, where they have 200m2 given over to a tasting area and boutique, and 400m2 to the production. This part took 11 months to build, has floor to ceiling glass for the entrance and shop, and several different rooms at the back for the toasting, washing, fermenting and distilling. Separate to this is the barrel ageing facility in the World War II bunker, the first time the space has been used since 1946. A restaurant and bar is planned on the roof that once held anti-aircraft guns.
Founded by whisky enthusiasts and old friends Jean-Philippe Ballanger and Yves Medina, Moon Harbour could be seen as something of a risk, even with a €600,000 grant from the city to get it going. Bordeaux, for a start, has never made whisky. It is surrounded by regions with far more experience and reputation in making grape-based alcohols, in the form on Armagnac and Cognac, but it isn’t even known for making them, let alone grain-based whisky.
They are starting with some advantages; not least that France is the country with the highest annual whisky consumption per capita worldwide (2.15 litres per head at last count). There is also an esteemed local company, Stupfler, that has been making stills and alembics in Bordeaux since 1925. Then ther’s the benefit of the local oceanic climate, which their consultant and master distiller/blender John McDougall tells me ‘is pretty perfect for the ageing process of whisky’.
And to add to all that, they have the benefit of the name of Bordeaux, which they are sensibly capitalising on by forming partnerships with the local wine industry. The Lurton family has provided barrels from Château La Louvière for ageing the whisky, as has Richard Mestreguilhem from Chateau Pipeau in Saint Emilion. Other barrels come from ‘high-profile’ Sauternes estates that (for now at least) have asked to remain nameless. Local merchants are also helping, most notably Philippe Castéja through his recently-acquired Mahler Besse négociant, that is helping with distribution.
‘We knew that links with the local industry were essential’, Medina tells a group of us on the tour – I’m with a dozen office workers from a local finance firm, who are here on a day out. ‘Not only did we know we had to find a location in the city itself, we knew that the great advantage Bordeaux has is the access it offers to wine barrels from its main industry.
‘Whisky depends on great quality barrels for smooth tannins, and giving colour, structure and flavour to the distillate. We are lucky here to have the best barrels in the world that have been ageing incredible wines before we get them. The flavours imparted by them are unequalled.’
I tend to think of purity of water as essential for whisky (Moon Harbour uses distilled, filtered water from the local Bordeaux reservoir) but when I caught up with McDougall afterwards – a legend in the whisky industry who has worked in every distilling region of Scotland over his 57 years in the business – he told me that casks contribute between 65-80% of the character of the product, especially a single malt or single grain.
‘There’s no doubt this gives them an opportunity to stand out,’ is how he puts it, before adding,‘if you produce poor spirit, no matter how good the casks are you are going to get poor whisky. If you produce the best spirit and put it into the best casks, then you have a 99% chance of success.’
To further give a sense of place, they have planted barley on the Ile de Patiras in the Garonne river (there are vineyards here also) as well as in the local village of St Jean d’Illac. For launch, the base distillate is coming in from Scotland and being aged here (McDougall did the same thing with the now hugely successful Box distillery up in Sweden for its first few years) but the grain will soon be entirely locally-sourced.
The whiskyies I tasted so far – Pier One blended and aged in Sauternes casks, plus Pier Two blended malt in the red wine casks – are extremely young and need further softening. The whole thing just opened in September 2017, and their own homegrown single malts will not be available for another two and a half years, in September 2020.
‘For now,’ McDougall says, ‘the whisky is just giving an indication of the potential. It’s an ambitious project in a location that has its own extremely distinct history by pretty much any measure’.
Conviviality Plc has said that it intends to place itself into administration and has added that it faces the possibility of being broken up via a sale of different business arms, after emergency funding failed to materialise.
Conviviality said this morning (29 March) that it intended to appoint administrators for the business, which is one of the UK’s biggest wine suppliers, encompassing Bibendum and Matthew Clark, and which also includes the Bargain Booze and Wine Rack retailers.
Efforts to raise £125 million of emergency funding to keep the business going have failed, Conviviality said in a trading update last night (28 March).
It said today that it would appoint administrators within 10 working days ‘unless circumstances change’, but added that secured creditors could bring this action forward it they chose to.
It said that it remained in discussion with lenders and has received ‘a number of inbound enquiries regarding a potential sale of all or parts the business’.
The group directly employs around 2,600 people, according to its 2017 annual report.
Some in the trade had come to fear the worst following a difficult few weeks for the company, which has seen its shares suspended on the London Stock Exchange since it discovered a £30 million unplanned tax bill due on 29 March.
It has lowered its full-year profits guidance twice in the last three weeks and has also seen the departure of its chief executive, Diana Hunter, in that time.
Management has consistently thanked trade customers and creditors for their patience and support and pointed to positive initial discussions with lenders and HM Revenue & Customs.
But, last week the group said that it needed to raise £125 million in order to re-capitalise the business.
That funding has not materialised and Conviviality said that it was possible the company could now be broken up.
It said today, ‘The directors intend to allow the business to continue to trade and the company continues to work alongside advisers in order to preserve as much value as possible for all stakeholders as it explores a number of inbound enquiries regarding a potential sale of all or parts of the business.’
It said last night, ‘Despite a significant number of meetings with potential investors resulting in good levels of demand, and constructive discussions with a number of key customers and suppliers regarding the provision of support, there was ultimately insufficient demand to raise the full £125.0 million.
‘The board wish to thank its customers, suppliers and employees for their continued support during this difficult period for the company.’
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If you're planning to cook the traditional lamb for this Easter Sunday, then here's a selection of wines reviewed by Decanter experts to drink with the meal.Wine with Easter lamb
As at Christmas with turkey, Easter has long been associated with lamb. It is a traditional favourite in the US and the UK with origins in religious symbolism that most likely pre-dates Christianity. Lamb’s religious connections may have come from the early Jewish custom of Passover, when Jews painted their doors with sacrificed lamb’s blood to tell God to “pass over” their homes when bringing his/her wrath to the world. Early Christian converts adopted this lamb tradition.Spring lamb
Modern myths suggest that ‘spring lamb’ has always been eaten at Easter. But, this doesn’t work so well in Europe and the US. The majority of lamb is sold between four months to a year old. If a lamb is born in spring in the northern hemisphere, then May and June will be the time for spring lamb, not Easter. These young lambs are when the meat’s at its most tender and as the season progresses, lamb will develop in flavour. Now, we can get lamb all year round thanks for global imports, but there’s something special about buying locally for a family gathering.Wine and lamb: It’s depends how you cut it
Red wines from the classic varieties are a wonderful, natural match with lamb. But to get the finest wine matching combination, you’ll have to pay close attention to the cut of meat you’ve acquired, how you are going to cook it and with what.
Below, we’ve looked at the three most popular ways to cook lamb.
Young lamb – served pink
Lighter, tender lamb meat demands a wine that will not swamp and overpower the delicate flavours and sublime texture. If you do reach for a full bodied red, you run the risk of ruining your meat.
Look to seek out cooler climate styles of Pinot Noir from Burgundy, Germany, Victoria in Australia, Leyda Valley in Chile, New Zealand, Oregon, California and South Africa. Domaine Bertrand Bachelet, Pinot Noir, Maranges 2015 is a great under £20 option, or try Coal Pit, Tiwha Pinot Noir, Gibbston, Central Otago 2015 or Kelley Fox, Momtazi Vineyard, Willamette Valley 2014 if you’re looking to spend a bit more.
If you don’t fancy a delicate red, this is your chance to reach for a weighty rosé such as Tavel or Bandol from the South of France.Great rosé wines for food
For the extravagant, use this chance to trade up to vintage rosé Champagne with a touch of age. Pink, tender lamb and a great vintage rosé Champagne is something everyone must try once, such as the Bollinger, Rosé Champagne 2006 or Charles Heidsieck, Brut Reserve Rosé NV.Roast lamb – medium to well done
This is the most popular cooking style for lamb for Easter. The meat will be fuller in flavour but not quite as tender therefore it can handle a fuller red wine. Bordeaux blends are made for roast lamb. The young Cabernet Sauvignon dominant wines of the left bank are fruit forward with a splattering of spiciness and oak. These combine to add an extra dimension to the meat whilst the tannin will make the lamb meat feel more tender.
It doesn’t all have to be Bordeaux, good Cabernet Sauvignon / Merlot blends can be found across the globe. The regions to look out for are Hawkes Bay – New Zealand, California, Coonawarra and Margaret River – Australia, Stellenbosch – South Africa, Argentina and Chile. If you’re splashing out, try Ridge Vineyards, Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains 2000. For a vqalue option, try Teusner, The Gentleman Cabernet Sauvignon, Eden Valley 2015 or the Te Awa, Left Field Merlot, Hawke’s Bay 2013.
If you’re not keen on Cab, a good Rioja Reserva or Northern Rhône Syrah will also enhance your roast lamb.Mature Rioja wines: Panel tasting results Shoulder or slow roast with fattier cuts of meat
If you’ve gone for a shoulder from an older lamb, you’ll be cooking with a lot more fat content on the meat, which holds and seals in the flavour fantastically. You’ll gain a pronounced, gamey flavour to your roast. Tannin, acidity and a little bottle age to draw out secondary flavours in wine are what we are looking for.
A southern Rhône with bottle age would fit the bill, along with muscular Gevrey-Chambertin, Ribera del Duero or a younger Brunello di Montalicino from Tuscany. Try Domaine de la Vieille Julienne, Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2001 or Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro, Ribera del Duero, Gran Reserva 2004.
Brunello needs at least two years in oak and a minimum of four months in bottle, giving the wine the age it needs to compliment the older lamb, the tannin to soften meat and the acidity to cut through the extra layers of fat on show. Sumptuous.
Happy Easter.Search all Decanter wine reviews here.
Originally published on Decanter.com in March 2016 and updated on 26th March 2018 by Ellie Douglas.