WEEKEND: FOOD: Raise a Glass to Best of Bordeaux; WINE PRODUCERS LAY OUT THEIR LATEST VINTAGE AT A TASTER SESSION WHERE IT IS CONSIDERED IMPOLITE NOT TO SPIT

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Byline: ANN EVANS

WITH no signs of our nation's new-found love affair with wine being on the wane, ANN EVANS takes a trip to Bordeaux for a look behind the scenes, as the vineyards responsible for stacking so many of our supermarket and off-licence shelves, prepare for another season.

FACED with 30 bottles of France's best wines, just where do you start? That was my dilemma on a visit to the vineyards of Bordeaux.

It was an opportunity of a lifetime to see the vineyards and chateaux where some of the world's most famous wines are produced.

One stop was at the beautiful Chateau Fontesteau, one of the oldest in the Medoc region, dating back to the 13th century.

There, I was faced with a tableful of different wines from the region - along with their makers, who in turn described each wine, before pouring, tilting, holding up to the light, sniffing, swirling and finally tasting.

Buckets were placed around the room for us to spit into. As that went against the grain, I simply took tiny sips of each and swallowed.

"Why spit it out?" I asked, to which one experienced wine producer replied: "It depends if you want to be flat on your back by the end of the day, or not."

Thirty-odd bottles before lunch, another half dozen with lunch and more tastings in the afternoon, followed by evening dinner - and yes even more choice wines. Suddently I could see the value of not swallowing everything poured out for you.

Bordeaux has 1,000 years of wine-making history and is the birthplace of noble grape varieties which are used all over the world today.

Situated in the Aquitaine region of south-west France, its 120,000 hectares of vines produce white, red, ros and sparkling wines, as well as Fine Bordeaux, a brandy made from distilled wine.

As Vincent Fabre, president of the Medoc and Haut Medoc Syndicate, commented: "It is very exciting for the customers who are drinking Bordeaux wine. Here you can find so many different wines with different styles and different tastes all within a few hundred kilometres."

At Chateau Quinault, in the heart of the town of Libourne, owner Alaine Raymond, said: "We don't want to lose the style of wines in Bordeaux and we don't want to go in the direction of other countries. Each country must have a style. It would be a pity if we had unity of style."

Even in February the vineyards of Bordeaux make a stunning sight. Row upon countless row of vine trunks, still dormant over winter, with a soft covering of early-morning frost and a cloudless blue sky about them.

In a few months time, these vines will burst into life, filling the fields with lush grape varieties with such familiar names as Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

Most of the picking is still done by hand, with chateau owners bringing in friends, family and townsfolk on the day of harvesting.

Alaine grows the grape varieties Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. He said: "It is easy to get local people at harvest time - they know they will get a good breakfast and a good lunch!"

Advances in technology mean producers are able to pick when the grape is perfectly ripe.

Vincent explained: "Up to 10 years ago you could not know exactly when to pick. You had to keep tasting the grape, and after a few days your mouth was destroyed. Now we have better technology for testing exactly when the grape is ripe so we know exactly when the grape is ready to harvest."

Sixty per cent of Bordeaux producers make their wine on their properties, with the remainder entrusting the task to 53 cooperative wineries. …