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Bordeaux from London black cab, by Tristan Rutherford

The Times, March 2017

 

Antoine’s London taxi looks like your typical black cab. But its true purpose is revealed when you ride inside. His assistant Virginie flips down a passenger seat to reveal a bevy of 100ml wine-filled vials. These tasters can be degusted now or slipped into your carry-on luggage for the plane home. Antoine’s ‘banter’ doesn’t concern London politics. Oh no. As the taxi bowls through morning mist and blackening grapes, he keeps up a wine-buff patter that lights up the fairytale chateaux we rumble past.

Wine Cab started business in 2015 with three former London taxis. Ours is a 1996 Carbodies Fairway. “London guys get nostalgic when they see it,” voices Antoine from the cabbie’s chair. The firm’s USP is to offer insider access to Bordeaux’s dizzying array of 7,000 chateau domaines, from little-known Grand Crus up to Chateau Margaux. My request is to visit three top-drawer vineyards then spend the night in a chateau. Virginie turns over maps of Médoc and Sauternes until she reaches Saint-Émilion. With its heavy concentration of domaines, it ticks all the boxes for our trip today.

Chateau Cheval Blanc is a Premier Grand Cru Classé (A) vineyard that I wouldn’t stand a hope of visiting solo. Vintages sell for a minimum of €500 per bottle. James Bond drinks it in Never Say Never Again. Our taxi putters past the Petrus estate to park alongside a veritable showroom of Audis and BMWs. Heads turn. We’re riding the coolest vehicle in the lot.

Under the guidance of vineyard owner Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH and France's richest man, the new cellar building looks like a spaceship styled by Louis Vuitton. A concrete top floor contains a roof garden that regulates the temperature in the cellar below. Here six curvy lines of stone grey vats contain up to several million Euros of wine apiece. Blofeld would be itching to drown 007 in one as a priceless parting shot. French oak barrels are filled right here then rolled into the cooler ageing room below. Endless waves of vintages rise in value by the minute.

Antoine, Virginie and I are offered sample glasses of 2011. Each tiny sip is €20 tongue explosion that zings with pleasure. If I could afford it I’d drink nothing else. Antoine, who’s driving, spits out most of his. Virginie, who wishes to stay sober, leaves half of hers. Come on guys. I could have taken that home for my dad.

After Polaroid selfies outside Cheval Blanc (Antoine gives these to guests as a memento) we zip next door to Château La Dominique. Here French architect Jean Nouvel has shaken up stuffy Saint-Émilion by installing a giant red cuboid cellar in the middle of the estate. Its sides are clad with stainless steel blades. These reflect the surrounding vineyards in hues of Bordeaux ruby, scarlet and crimson. After a cellar visit we lunch atop the red cube on platters of charcuteries régionales (£14) and carpaccio de boeuf (£16). The 360° panorama distils the essence of Bordeaux: Disney-like mansions, valleys of vines and Mercedes minivans packed with Chinese tasting parties.

“OK we go,” says Antoine revving the taxi. The joy of chauffeured transport is that you can stop where you please for patisserie, vineyard strolls or wine shops. “Or for a sleep under a tree,” says Virginie. Some British like to purchase wine cases directly from the chateaux, she explains, a process often cheaper than buying from a cave in town. For an extra fee, an oenologist can accompany your tour. Wine Cab have few French clients but this should change when the two-hour TGV arrives from Paris next July. More alluringly, London will then be a four-hour or so train ride from Bordeaux. 

We zip pass the estate of Pomerol and park up in the medieval confines of Saint-Émilion village. It’s a town built completely on booze. Countless wine shops chalk up prices for the best vintages outside the store: Cheval Blanc 2010 €1,033 per bottle, Mouton Rothschild 2010 €648, Petrus 2010 €3,999. Heaven help you if you want to buy a bag of crisps or an adaptor plug. Vines creep up to the very edge of the stone ramparts. Who wouldn’t cash in when fertile local land can fetch €1m a hectare?

Antoine guides us into a 15th-century cloister for a cheeky surprise. He pulls out three detachable plastic goblets and screws them together, then cracks a bottle of 2014 Cuvée Hortense Prestige “to keep us fuelled”. He produces a set of guess-the-smell jars. Each whiffs of rubber, blackcurrant or chocolate. I guess leather, strawberry and orange. Virginie gets them all correct. Antoine sighs and ushers us back to the cab.

It’s a longer drive to our final port of call. London weather haunts the Bordeaux manor houses and fogs the autoroute lined with pines. Chateau Prieuré Marquet appears like a mirage through the autumn mist as we taxi up its gravel drive. The perfectly symmetrical mansion was renovated by its new owner, who purchased the estate in 2014. Antoine and Virginie bid me goodbye next to the house Rolls-Royce and a Willys jeep, both chartered by the vineyard for shorter local tours.

In 2016 the chateau opened five super-cool guest rooms. Each one is adorned with accoutrements from the owner’s favourite designers: Gio Ponti, Christian Lacroix, Philippe Stark. To get to breakfast you must walk past a 16th-century staircase, a 1920s billiard table and 1968 Fiat 500 that the owner keeps as objets d’art. Teenagers can sleep in a decommissioned double decker London bus, complete with games room, in the grounds.

Domaine managers Sergio and Palmira offer me one last tasting in the renovated cellar. Under painstakingly cleaned wooden beams, this year’s harvest bubbles and ferments in shiny new vats. I’m the first Brit to try not-in-the-shops vintages from here and other surrounding vineyards. Who knew a black cab could transport you to Elysium and back? Sure beats Kings Cross.

Travel journalist Tristan Rutherford writes about Bordeaux for The Times and Iberia Magazine.