It was back in April this year that Frederick of Hotel d’Alibert in Caunes-Minervois asked me if I would like to go to Jurançon in November which seemed a long way off. I would normally have said I’d let him know nearer the time but in his lovely French accent he said ‘I will ask you only once’ and so I was persuaded and would join a group of people helping Frederick and his friends to serve a feast.
Our group was made up of Frederick affectionately dubbed Fredo, myself, Canadian friends Susan and Jay, chef Jean-Pierre and Tony and his two sons Michael and David who kept us all laughing with their antics and exaggerated pronunciation of the Pau accent which rolls the R’s a great deal. The eight of us set off in early December heading for the beautiful town of Pau in southwest France majestically located at the foot of the Pyrenees.
We were heading for the restaurant Au Fin Gourmet owned by the Thurriague family who are great friends of Fredericks. This wonderful restaurant has 2 sides to it, the fine dining where sumptuous meals are served and a typically French bistro recently added to serve less leisurely diners. It is run by the 3 brothers supported by other members and it was originally started in 1958 by their parents. We were very warmly welcomed and housed by the family and treated to some wonderful diners and lunches to repay us for our hard work serving the feast that they were to cook on Sunday.
Dinner that night began with a creamy courgette soup which sounds simple but the flavours were wonderful. The main course was Boudin which is called black pudding in the UK but our version is nothing like the Au Fin Gourmet offering. It was a filo pastry wrapped parcel of deeply rich and tasty Boudin surrounded by baked apple slices and there was a hushed silence at the table as everyone tucked in. Dinner was accompanied by some exceptional wines of the region including an Irouleguy made by Domaine Abotia which and is made from 65% of the local Tannat grape blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It was a rustic wine with black fruit flavours with hints of coffee and leather and went perfectly with the meal.
On Sunday the vignerons of Jurançon would be opening their doors to the public and our mission which we chose to accept was to prepare the tables for 150 people to feast at Domaine Bordenave. Saturday dawned cold and wet but cheered with coffee and croissants we headed for the Jurançon region which is south of Pau and encompasses the little town of Jurançon and many villages surrounding it. It’s a small appellation made up of 63 wine makers so when you compare that to Languedocs 3,500 it’s quite tiny. As we drove south we got closer to the mountains which reared up above us with breathtaking snowcapped peaks.
Once there we set to and organized the dining room and once the work was done we were free to indulge our senses with some wine tasting and I was intrigued to see where we might go. My French is still not very good but as I listened to Frederick chatting about the region I picked up a name in the conversation that I knew very well. Didier Dagueneau, that wild man of Pouilly Fumé who tragically died in 2008 aged just 52. I turned to Fredrick and asked had he mentioned the name Didier Dagueneau and if so why? Just before his death along with wine maker Guy Pautrat he had purchased a tiny vineyard here in Jurançon called Les Jardins de Babylone and its now ran by Guy and Didier’s son. It is not open for tastings and was not taking part in the Porte Ouverte weekend but with the help of Giselle Bordenave we secured a visit and a tasting.
We were welcomed by Guy Pautrat himself who gave us a tour of the immaculate winery and talked about the winemaking as we gazed out at the steeply sloping terraces of vines that give the reason the domaine is named after the Hanging Gardens of Babylone.
We tasted both the dry and the sweet wines from the tank and from the barrel before moving to the matured and bottled wines of this biodynamic producer. All fulfilled my expectation and in fact exceeded it in many cases. The dry was interesting and although I am not a fan of the dry wines from this region this one was good but the one that stole my heart was the 2003 vintage of the sweet Jurançon. It was a great honour to taste this wine which was the first they made and this hot vintage had probably created a Jurançon ‘not as we know it!’ Honey, apricots, grapefruit, clementine’s, crème brûlée – the list of fabulous flavours go on and on just as they lingered in my mouth. Fantastic wine, ten out of 10 for me as was the experience of visiting a legendary wine maker whose presence was still felt here.
The day of the Porte Ouverte dawned and with it came clear blue skies and people turned out in their hundreds. There are 63 domaines in the Jurançon appellation and over 40 were taking part today and people arrived in cars and buses from every corner of the region. We reported for duty and whilst we waited for our work to begin I wandered around the stalls that had been set up to sell local produce of cheeses, ham, foie gras and other delicious delicacies. I had not expected the music in fact I don’t think I had ever heard of Basque music which evoked nostalgic sentiment but also the sort of gaiety you feel when singing around a camp fire. It was rousing and beautiful.
The hustle and bustle of the day continued and we were all rather tired after serving the many courses to the hungry hoards but we still had enough energy to join the crowds and go wine tasting at some of the other domaines that had flung open their doors that day. The standard of wine making was high which is very fitting for a wine that legend says was used to anoint the future King Henry IV in 1553. It is also an area that lays claim to have created the concept of ‘cru’, the official French term used to indicate superior vineyards.
Jurançon wines are famed for their sweetness although a dry version is also made which I find very sour and acidic in most cases. The grapes used to make these wines are Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu and small amounts of Camaralet and Lauzet – possibly grapes you have never heard of..! The sweet wines are produced in two styles; moelleux which is sweet but with high acidity and are drank here as an aperitif and Vendange Tardive which is made from late harvested grapes and is sweeter and can be enjoyed with deserts.
After the tastings we returned to Domaine Bordenave to enjoy Cassoulet de Jean-Pierre which he had prepared the day before. So a little reminder of Languedoc sent us on our way with wonderful memories of the weekend, the wines of Jurançon and the wonderful hospitality of our friends at Au Fin Gourmet