Château living for Bordeaux wine buffs
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Aymeric de Gironde, chairman of Château Troplong Mondot in St-Émilion and one of the most respected winemakers in the Bordeaux region, is asking me what’s wrong with his blend. Under normal circumstances, a definite eek scenario. My palate’s not entirely uneducated, I can imbibe with the best of them, but the complexities of crafting a premier grand cru classé vintage that will end up in collectors’ cellars from Kensington to Kuala Lumpur? Way beyond my ken.
But this isn’t a conventional tasting. Sitting at a high table, surrounded by leggy crystal glasses, we are having a private blending session – just the two of us and guide Celine Robin. He pours out base cru samples from among Troplong Mondot’s 25 sub-terroirs: a few Merlots, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc. We work through them, de Gironde commenting on colour, tannins and fruit while I take notes. He siphons up several samples, swirls them together for a few seconds, and pours me an ounce. I sip; he waits. He asks me what’s not working. I venture a guess: could it be too much Cabernet Sauvignon, muscling in on the nice round aromatics of that third Merlot? Correct.
That I got it right – that the blend was conspicuously, deliberately off-balance – is entirely by design. The point of the exercise is to educate, not intimidate; to share world-class wine production in relatable terms (deeply remedial ones, in my case) in an easy and engaging way, in one of Bordeaux’s most sophisticated environments dedicated to the enterprise. I’m a guest for two nights at Troplong Mondot, staying in the estate’s newly renovated 18th-century Château; and this session, in its very sexy state-of-the-art winery, is one of numerous such tailored experiences on offer. De Gironde, who took over here as chairman in late 2017, had a vision for a new sort of wine hospitality in St-Émilion, one he has cultivated as assiduously as he does the vines on the slopes.
He had excellent raw material to work with. Troplong Mondot sits 110m above sea level, the highest point in the St-Émilion commune – a good thing not just for aeration, but also for pretty views. Low, undulating countryside unfurls in every direction, covered in quilts of alternating vineyard and woodland stitched together by meandering two-lane roads. It was founded in the 1600s and consecutive owners invested in the estate in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the 1990s, under the auspices of then-proprietor Christine Valette and winemaker Michel Rolland, it began producing wines of real character, eventually earning it the Classe B status it has today.
De Gironde joined Troplong Mondot after several years as managing director at Cos d’Estournel, the celebrated château in Saint-Estephe, in the Medoc. Alongside owner Michel Reybier, of La Réserve hotels renown, he helped to reinvent it as a destination (Cos adjoins La Chartreuse, a sumptuous eight-bedroom Jacques Garcia-designed villa, as well as La Maison d’Estournel, a boutique hotel). It was useful experience to bring with him across the Garonne to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, where Troplong Mondot was already a blue-chip proposition – not least for its Michelin-starred restaurant, Les Belles Perdrix, which has drawn international guests for years.
But Troplong Mondot is quite a different animal to Cos; a subtler showcase, and de Gironde’s considered reinvention reflects this. Steadily since his arrival (including doggedly throughout the pandemic), he’s crafted various accommodations and experiences, all very different from each other but all on an appropriate scale to the place itself. “There’s an emotional connection that we now need to have with our consumer,” he tells me. “We have to convey our message, our ethos, and to do this we tell them our story.” He thinks that story – wine, food, landscape, people – is best told in person, at home.
The long, two-storey building next to the Château, known as Les Clefs (“the keys”), now houses a three-suite maison d’hôtes. The design is contemporary French country, with wide plank or terracotta floors, sisal rugs, custom tile work and a few well-judged hits of toile de Jouy. Walls are painted carnelian or oatmeal or august grey-blue. Plenty of charm, but zero clutter, due more to the vast amounts of space than to restraint. The largest of them spans much of the first floor, with its own sitting room. Downstairs are multiple lounge areas, foozball and bridge tables, and a flagstone terrace where breakfast is served on sunny days.
The Vineyard House is a two-bedroom cottage with rustic beamed ceilings, and is a win for families or couples travelling together. It’s also essentially self-catering, though its guests can breakfast at Les Clefs, or de Gironde’s staff will deliver baskets each morning – and, on request, can stock the kitchen from local charcutiers, with produce from Troplong Mondot’s own estate.
Guests of both Les Clefs and The Vineyard House are free to roam the estate, walking down the western slope face to visit the 12 sturdy draft horses still used to turn the soil between vines, or to circumnavigate the property on paths and roads that trace a rough ring around it. The ruler-straight gravel lane that leads north-west between vineyards and through neighbouring Château Pavie Macquin will take them into St-Émilion – about a 20-minute walk – whose payoff is cobbled medieval streets, boutiques and canteens in equal abundance, and Europe’s largest intact monolithic church, carved out of the limestone plateau in the 12th century.
But the 1745 Château, only recently made available to guests, is the real Troplong Mondot showpiece – and its most exclusive stay: whether they number two or 10, they buy out the whole property (and access to the lion’s share of the private experiences de Gironde has curated, including the blending session). It has undergone a total interior renovation at the hands of Paris-based designer Bruno Moinard (also responsible for the glossy new decor at Les Belles Perdrix restaurant and the Gattaca-chic winery). A double-height entrance hall leads to two living rooms, flooded all day with light from multiple 3m-tall windows. Downstairs, there’s as much Saint-Honoré as St-Émilion to the ambience: bright hues, sumptuous velvets and silks, backlit shelves and low-slung everything. One dining room boasts a glass wall filled with Troplong Mondot vintages; the other holds a handmade table that seats 20. Upstairs, the five bedrooms feel a bit more place-specific, with inlaid limestone floors in the bathrooms, and beds laid with matelassé coverlets and hand-stitched linens.
In design terms it’s a very international take on château living; some might consider that a bit of authenticity has been lost in the upgrade. But the hospitality, and the interactions, are genuinely both refined and easy. De Gironde himself is often about, hosting lunch or evening drinks, his mellow English setter in tow. In contrast to the exquisite but undeniably rich menu at Les Belles Perdrix, the food prepared by the Château’s chefs is fresh, light and served family-style: devilled eggs, freshwater fish crudo, two or three garden-sourced salads at every sitting, sublime velvety chestnut or courgette soups.
Throughout, the Troplong Mondot team is there to tailor the Château guests’ days and evenings. St-Émilion and its famous church can be seen with private guides. Vertical tastings and blending sessions are organised in the winery, the restaurant or the Château, for one or 10. There’s even hands-on, hands-dirty work in the vineyards if that’s your thing. (And a really nice pool, if it’s not.) And de Gironde genuinely loves walking the land in company, going deep on details of organic viticulture, replanting, exposition and cultivation, and the area’s history, about which he’s deeply knowledgeable. Fine wine is easy to come by; but if the true story of terroir is what you’re after, you’ll find a very thoughtfully narrated version here.
Maria Shollenbarger stayed as a guest of Troplong Mondot, troplong-mondot.com, rooms from €250; The Vineyard House, from €280; exclusive use of Château for up to 10 guests from €7,500 per night, including breakfast and winery experiences