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Blaye
Chateau La Bretonnière's wine maker Stéphane Heurlier draws a barrel sample for Alex Rychlewski (left) and his son Jerome (right). A wall of the winery's ancient barn-like structure is seen behind them; the steel tank containing Chateau Tour de Guiet 1999 Cotes de Bourg is situated in the open air, outside the tiny building.
A tiny winery located entirely in an ancient barn, too small to allow room for oak barriques so its wines are made entirely in stainless steel, Chateau La Bretonnière's wines are rarely seen outside France, only a relative handful of cases having been exported to Switzerland in a short-lived venture.

But the same rising tide of investment that has the Médoc seemingly awash in capital is also making ripples here in Blaye, a region on the right bank of the Gironde that is traditionally seen as the source of good but cheap wine, where regional products fill the shelves of local retail shops at prices typically in the range of 25 to 35 francs - $5 to $7 or thereabouts.

But wine maker Stéphane Heurlier gleams with pride as he watches workers busily erecting a new chai, a modern building that will dwarf the old barn and that will allow him room not only for a more efficient, larger operation but for rows of fine oak barriques that he hopes will elevate his wines to a more international style.

I'm hoping he won't do anything to change the regional character of the fine Blaye wines he's already making here (and in another property he owns, Chateau Tour de Guiet in nearby Bourg); they're delicious and fine and deserve a wider audience.

Chateau La Bretonnière 1999 Bordeaux Clairet - the original "claret," this is not a rosé but a true red wine made in a light, refreshing style by leaving the pressed wine on its skins for five days, half the 10 days "maceration" used for Blaye's standard reds. A beautiful dark rose color, it's darker than a rosé; its fresh strawberry aroma and flavor is crisp and fresh.

Chateau La Bretonnière 1996 Prémieres Cotes de Blaye - Dark garnet, full grapey scent and flavor. Easy quaff, good with food.

Chateau Tour de Guiet 1996 Cotes de Bourg - Dark garnet. Earthy, leathery black fruit aromas and flavors, acidic and fresh. A taste of anise in the finish.

Chateau La Bretonnière 1996 Prémieres Cotes de Blaye Blanc - This unusual blend is made from 60 percent Sauvignon Gris, a rare variety, plus 30 percent Semillon and 10 percent Sauvignon Blanc. Aromatic, ripe and full, it's a delight.

Barrel samples:
Chateau La Bretonnière 1998 Prémieres Cotes de Blaye and Chateau Tour de Guiet 1998 Cotes de Bourg are both rich and ripe, worth watching for when they reach the market. Chateau Tour de Guiet 1999 Cotes de Bourg is inky dark, minty, somewhat herbaceous, tannic and full.

Winery info: Chateau La Bretonnière, RN 137, 33390 Mazion, +33 05 57 64 59 23.

Blaye
The hilltop Citadelle in Blaye, an ancient fortification that still contains a bustling village, shops, restaurants and a hotel, also boasts within its walls a very small, producing vineyard. Blaye's main street is seen behind the vines, with the Gironde estuary lost in the mist at upper right.
Lunch at La Renaissance
With Alex Rychlewski as our host, we spent a drizzly morning visiting the Saturday outdoor market in the streets of the village of Blaye, toured the city's hilltop citadel, and, after the winery visit, stopped off for a leisurely lunch after our winery visit, Alex chose La Renaissance in the village of Saint-Seurin-de-Cursac, near Blaye, where I had a classic Bordelaise entrecote. The lunch wine was:

Chateau Roland la Garde 1995 Prestige Cotes de Blaye - Very dark garnet. Smoky, jammy and spicy, big and ripe. Full and tannic, long and balanced, a very fine wine.

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All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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