The ‘Bikers Tour’ July 2011
I have been running vineyard tours in France for 5 years and mainly work in the Languedoc-Roussillon which is my favourite region because it’s still evolving and each week I find something new and fabulous. However I have been a Francophile for over 25 years following my first visit to this incredible place and my love affair has been constant ever since. My other favourite wine regions are Rhône and Burgundy but I also have a soft spot for the Loire and an admiration for Bordeaux so when in January this year I was asked to organise a tour that would take my four clients to these last two areas I was absolutely delighted. However there was also a hidden twist in the tale – they wanted to travel on their luxury motor bikes! It had long been a dream of one of the couples who had lit the flame of desire in their friends and so it was that I met with 2 delightful couples in January 2011 to discuss an amazing trip and in mid-July we began the 10 day tour of The Loire Valley, Cognac and Bordeaux.
DAY ONE – ENGLAND TO FRANCE
On the morning of day one we rendezvoused in the south of England and took a high speed ferry to St Malo where we stayed the night. My clients are 2 down to earth Midlands couples who have built successful business lives are now enjoying the fruits of their labours. They were riding 2 fabulous Honda motorbikes and I was driving a Renault Traffic filled with the luggage and eventually the wines bought along the way.
DAY TWO & THREE – LOIRE & COGNAC
We headed to the city of Tours choosing B roads rather than motorways and A roads. The sun shone and my ‘Biker’ clients had a fabulous time tootling along the lanes of the Loire Valley and stopping for a typical French lunch on board a boat moored in the little town of Laval. I went ahead with their luggage and arrived at the hotel late afternoon and what a stunning place it was. They had chosen to stay at Château D’Artigny in the town of Montbazon which is just south of Tours. This beautiful chateau was built by the famous perfumer Coty in the 18th century and is set in 25 hectares of parkland overlooking the Indre Valley. I was staying in a little B&B in the town and that night I wandered through the town in search of dinner and was delighted to find an outdoor restaurant on the banks of the river where I chose my favourite salad of warm goats cheese washed down with a lovely Touraine rosé AOC Noble Joué which is a small appellation for rosé wine only made from Pinot Meunier, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. This little known wine has a reasonably long history going back to 1939 but during the occupation by German forces in the region it became neglected and was revived again in the 1970’s and received its AOC in 2001. I loved it. It was just what a rosé wine should be like, light in colour, refreshingly dry with subtle red fruit flavours and it was perfect with the chèvre chaud!
The next day we woke to find rain so it was decided that the girls would travel with me while the boys braved the elements so we headed to Cognac and this time chose motorways so as to get their quicker. Along the way the weather cheered up and we arrived at the third hotel of the trip in warm weather and in time for lunch. This time my clients were staying at Château de L’Yeuse, the only 4* hotel in Cognac which is surprising when you consider the amount of visitors who come from all over the world to visit the historic port of Cognac. First impressions of the hotel were mixed but it turned out to be comfortable if a little quirky but the staff were excellent. For my clients I had arranged to have a private tour of Rémy Martin and so the next day my clients were collected from their hotel and chauffeur driven to the Distillery at Touzac where the day began with a champagne breakfast. During the day they visited the cellars at Merpins and learnt all about the history and the production and also enjoyed a superb lunch. Later in the day they were returned to their hotel where they had chance to rest, refresh and dress for dinner in time for the limousine to return and take them to dine candle lit for an unforgettable dinner created by Philippe Saint Romas, the House’s new head chef. The finalé was a tasting on Louis X111, enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth 11 and Winston Churchill who toasted the end of war with this 100 year old Cognac. In the words of my clients ‘It was a superlative day!’
Day Four to Six – BORDEAUX
On the fourth day we left Cognac in sunshine and drove the very short distance to the village of Mirambeau which is just on the border of the Charente and Bordeaux and where my clients were to stay 3 nights in the stunning Renaissance-style castle hotel Château Mirambeau. What a sumptuous hotel – and the food was also superb. My clients adored their stay here and will be returning.
I had opted to stay a little further into the wine region of Bordeaux in the Bourg district and at a wine producing chateau called Chateau de a Grave where I took the opportunity to have a short rest before the first big wine tour of the trip to the Médoc the next day.
Again the sun shone when I arrived at 9 a.m. to collect my clients and take them to Blaye where we caught the ferry across the Gironde Estuary. This was an interesting and relaxing half an hour trip which saved a great deal of driving time and allowed us to arrive at Lynch-Bages in Pauillac in good time to enjoy the tour of the cellar and the tasting. The tour is very professionally conducted and included both the current winery and the old one which they stopped using in the 1990’s. It was fascinating to see the old equipment and realise the hours of labour it must have taken to produce the wines in years gone by. Lynch-Bages is a 5th growth which punches well above its weight, owned by Jean-Charles Cazes who purchased the estate on the eve of the Second World War. It interests me because the Cazes family also own a vineyard in La Livinière in the Minervois region of Languedoc and I often visit it on my tours. In the Médoc they produce 3 wines; the first wine is Lynch-Bages, their second wine Echo de Lynch Bages and also Blanc de Lynch Bages. We tasted the reds at the chateau but I have always adored good white Bordeaux so was disappointed not to taste it here. After the tasting we took a look around the village of Bages which the Cazes familly revived as it was derelict and abandoned and now is a delightful place where you can lunch at the bistro and buy wines and other gifts from the shop.
Lunch was very special and enjoyed at Château Cordeillan-Bages just 2 minutes away. The chef here is Jean-Luc Rocha who produces dishes that are imaginative and tasty. We particularly enjoyed the butters – seaweed, spice and smoked salt! But what made it for me were the wines. We started with the Lynch-Bages blanc 2008 which is a medium bodied, refreshing white with flavours of melon, grapefruit and zesty lemon and was ideal as an aperitif and then we moved onto a Smith Haut Lafite blanc (Pessac Leognan) which was unimaginably wonderful! Apparently the secret here is it is mainly Sauvignon Blanc with 5% of that little heard of grape Sauvignon Gris. It gave us citrus and stone fruit along with spice and fabulous minerality. Gorgeous!
After lunch we headed to Château Beychevelle in the appellation of Saint-Julien where we had a tour of the cellar with a very likable chap. The wines were good but for us we preferred the Lynch-Bages and the superb wines we had drank over lunch.
Saint-Emilion was our destination the next day. It’s about 1.15 hours from Mirambeau and is a very pretty place to spend the day. At the request of my clients I had not organised any specific tastings so we spent the day meandering the tiny streets, tasting wine at merchants and having a superb lunch at Le Logis de la Cadène. Its easy to buy wine here, the merchants all want you to taste and they send it anywhere in the world. My clients took great advantage of this and will be receiving some delicious wines any day now!
Day Seven and Eight – SAUMUR, LOIRE VALLEY.
Day seven was spent driving to Saumur where my clients were staying at Le Prieuré a 4 star hotel just outside the town. The plan was to visit a sparkling wine producer in the town the next afternoon and for my clients to relax until then. However the weather was not very good so a quick change of plan meant I needed to find a winery and a restaurant for the next morning but it was Sunday and everywhere was closed. I love designing new tours so I swung into action and armed with a map of the wine regions I headed out of the town and began my exploration. I located a lovely village surrounded by vineyards and with what looked like a good auberge in the centre so decided that the next day we would take pot luck and turn up at some of the many vigneron located nearby. My plan worked beautifully and it was one of the best days we had. We tasted some excellent Chenin including a sweet one labelled AOC Coteaux du Saumur which is very similar to a Coteaux du Layon with honey and apricot flavours and biting acidity that sweeps the sugar from your mouth leaving you wondering if the wine was actually dry! The afternoon tasting was at Langlois-Chateau in the heart of Saumur where they produce their excellent sparkling wines and mature them in their cellars carved out of the soft chalk called tuffeau which is also responsible for the some of the flavours and style of this lovely fizz.
Day Nine & Ten – St Malo and Home…
Our last two days were spent travelling through the lovely French countryside to reach that historical town of St Malo and the next day back to the UK.
It had been an incredible journey and one I have enjoyed immensely. More importantly my clients had a wonderful time and have memories to treasure for ever. I would love to do anothet tour like this, maybe not with motor bikes. Where would you like to go??