Last bastion of peace in the South of France

‘Where are all the people? ‘ is the question I am asked almost every time I run a vineyard tour in the Languedoc-Roussillon. It’s so quiet and not at all touristy with no traffic jams and sleepy little villages. It’s like stepping back into the 1950’s with shops closing long hours for lunch and never open on a Sunday. Its takes some getting used to but this pace of life is so good for the soul. It gives you time to take stock, to listen to the birds, enjoy the sunshine, walk amongst the vines and just chill…

I spend 7 months of the year in the village of Caunes-Minervois located at the foot
of the Montagne Noir in the department of the Aude. It’s a lively village in comparison to some in the area and you will find almost everything you need here. A good meal at one of the eating places such Hotel d’Alibert with its renaissance courtyard or perhaps just a beer and a sandwich at the local bar. Many of the ancient buildings are related to the abbey which stands in the centre of the village and here in July classical concerts are performed every Friday.

Close by is the village of La Livinière with its beautiful domed church tower. The village is not only one of the prettiest in the area it also gives its name to the cru wine ‘Minervois La Livinière’ which is a rich, complex and elegant red wine grown on the limestone and clay of the region. I recently joined some friends on a walk in the hills to the west of the village where we discovered some very impressive dry stone walls built to stem erosion caused by strong winds and rain storms. We also saw a great many capitells which are stone huts built by wine growers in previous centuries to store implements and to take shelter during storms.

I can’t talk about the villages of the Languedoc without mentioning the village of Minerve which is in the Hérault département. The village’s antiquity is evident from its name for a temple to the goddess Minerva once occupied the site. In 1210 during the Cathar Crusades, Simon de Montfort held a 10 week siege at Minerve to capture a group of Cathars who had taken refuge there after the massacre of Béziers. The village was protected by a double curtain wall, and overhanging natural ledges; but this did not stop Simon de Montfort’s crusader army. They set up four catapults around the fortification; three to attack the village, and the largest, called Malevoisine (“Bad Neighbour”), to attack the town’s water supply. Lord Guilhem of Minerve and the 200 men of his garrison could not resist for long and Minerve was surrendered to the Crusaders on 22 July 1210. The defensive walls were breached by St Rustique’s well, and Guilhem was obliged to negotiate the town’s surrender. He saved the villagers but he could not save the Cathars and some 150 to 180 Cathars were burned alive when they refused to recant their faith. A sad history but still I love to visit the village and walk across the limestone causse that surrounds it. I also visit the neighbouring village of La Caunette which also dates to before the Cathar crusade and was once a fortified village as can be seen by the entry gate which dates back to the 13th century.
These days its main attraction is an annual fête to celebrate the orange and other fruits. It’s called the Fête de la Bigarade – Bigarade is another name for the Seville Orange.

There are so many beautiful villages here and I revel in the fact that they are so quiet and undisturbed by tourism at the moment. I hope I have tempted you to come and see this last bastion of solitude and peace in the South of France.

Fizz, Food and Fine Wine at Rives Blanque

I first visited Jan and Caryl Panman owners of Château Rives Blanques in 2009 the week I arrived in Languedoc-Roussillon to begin my vineyard tour enterprise. I have bumped into them a few times since but had not re-visited the château until yesterday when I popped along with Rachel and Anthony Pinwell of luxury B&B Maison Laurent who were keen to try the wines as they are always updating their wine list with local wines. The 3 of us regularly work together running food & wine pairing dinners at their delightful chambres d’hotes in Pieusse near Limoux. The snow covered Pyrenees where glinting majestically as I drove over to the area and then up the long twisting lane to be greeted by Caryl who had been working hard on the assemblage of the wines before bottling next week. Blending the wine is a crucial part of the process and although enjoyable it is quite tiring and a little stressful.  The Penmans produce top class Limoux wines focussing on the sparkling and the still whites of the appellation plus a little Vin du Pays and Caryl treated us to a superb tasting of everything that was available. The sparkling wines were elegant and interesting and I particularly enjoyed the rosé Cremant du Limoux stained a pretty pink using 5% of Pinot Noir and with a nose of strawberry ice-cream. The sparkling and still whites of this region are made from Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with Mauzac being the local grape which Caryl is a huge fan off. The still wines of the appellation must be handpicked and barrel fermented and many producers major on Chardonnay and Chenin blanc for this role however Caryl has been innovative and also produces a 100% Mauzac wine which she did for the first time some years ago.  At first it seemed to be a dismal failure as hardly any sold in the first year of production but Tom Stevenson picked it up, liked it and wrote about it and then one day the top French wine magazine of Le Revue du Vin de France featured it on the front page and the rest is history. The wine has since won the Great Gold Medal of Languedoc-Roussillon. The wine is fermented in old oak barrels so the oak is not dominant and the wine has flavours of apples, pears and a little honey and spice and has a restrained richness and a fabulous dry finish that I think will make it a good food wine. Anthony is planning to experiment with various dishes to find a perfect match for out next food & wine dinner at Maison Laurent. You can buy the wine from the Château at €11.25 a bottle or €10 for a case of 6 and it is available to buy in many countries around the world including the UK at Tanners amongst others.

All the wines were wonderful but always with an eye for the unusual I was drawn to the Sauvignon Blanc which has been dubbed Sauvageon which means ‘the wild one’ named by local people in the south west of France when this grape grew wild on the hillsides a few hundred years ago. I was curious as to why they had named it this and not plain Sauvignon Blanc which is so popular at the moment? The answer came…. the wine spends 7 months maturing in oak barrels which gives it an entirely different character to a typical Sav Blanc such as a Sancerre or a Marlborough. It is richer than a Loire wine but not as tropical and vivacious as a New Zealand Sauvignon. Most of the herbaceous character has gone but you still get the gooseberry flavours which are ripe and tangy. We had it tonight with our meal which my chef friend Kate described as a ‘picnic’ as we enjoyed spicey Asian foods combined with home cured salmon followed by local goats cheeses. With the salmon is was delectable, it worked well with the prawn dumplings but lacked a little something with the pickled ginger and the heat of the chilli. But what a fabulous find it is. Kate had plucked a long forgotten Loire Chenin from the wine rack last night and we decided to finish it and compare it with the Sauvignon which might have been a little unfair – but actually they proved to be an equal team. Each one was a star with different elements of the meal. Rejoice the white wine of France..!

Researching the Rousillon

I love my job – well actually as I live 7 months of the year in the Languedoc-Roussillon running vineyard tours what’s not to love! One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is the research; I love to find new vignerons to work with, new routes, new restaurants and of course new wines to taste. I arrived in Languedoc on April 1st and immediately headed to the Roussillon region to do some research as this year I am offering a new Roussillon Day  tour plus a Rousillon long weekend  concentrating on this up and coming wine region of southern France.

To help me with my research I had commandeered two fabulous and courageous wine makers Corin and Jayne Fairchild of Domaine Vella Fronterra in Maury. They have been welcoming my tours for the last 2 years and had happily agreed to help me get to grips with this region. First stop was the well-known Rivesaltes producers Cazes where we tasted 3 great examples of the VDN sweet wines produced here starting with the Ambres. This is made from Grenache Blanc plus a little Maccabeo – beautiful orange gold colour and fabulous orange peel flavours. Next we tasted the Grenat so named because it’s made with 100% Grenache Noir – smoky raspberries, delicious. Then it was on to the Tuilé which is also 100% Grenache Noir but is aged in big oak barrels called foudre for 15 years giving it more complexity and mature flavours of prune and raisin and an earthy character – the nose had hints of a smokey malt whiskey.  We had a good lunch in the restaurant there called La Table d’Aimé before heading to the village of Vingrau not far away. We were in search of Domaine du Clos des Fées which we found in the heart of the village. Hervé Bizeul is a former sommelier, caviste and wine journalist who makes some excellent Côtes du Roussillon Village wines from his unassuming converted garage. He has the vines planted on various terriors and many of them are over 100 years old.  Dominating the plantings are Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris however he also has some unexpected varietals including Tempranillo and Cabernet Franc. Claudine his wife greeted us and gave us a superb tasting of all the wines and so impressed was I that I have booked a visit next week on my first Roussillon tour of the season.

Last year I had tasted a very unusual wine made from Carignan Gris at a winery called Riberach and one of my aims this day was to find the producer. Corin and Jayne were not aware of this so I was amazed that the next place they took me was this very winery tucked away in the little village of Bélesta. Not only is it a winery but also a very impressive hotel and restaurant going by the name of Riberach. The owners have made a superb job of converting a huge old cave co-operative building to offer 18 contemporarily designed bedrooms from the old concrete tanks plus a restaurant where Chef Laurent Lemal produces fresh, seasonal produce and presents you with dishes of a contemporary style. In the winery we met the wine maker Patrick Rodrigues and tasted some interesting wines but the one that blew me away was the rosé made by direct pressing Carignan grapes to produce a pale pink wine with intense cherry and mineral flavours. We had it last night with some goose rillettes and it was a perfect match. I will definitely be booking my place at this table in the near future and the winery is also now on my list of wineries to visit next week on the first of my Roussillon tours.

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Why Languedoc-Roussillon?

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Why did you choose this part of France to run vineyard tours? This is a question I am often asked by the people who come on one of the many vineyard tours I run near to Carcassonne. Why didn’t I choose Burgundy for it is true I adore those complex wines or the Alsace where my favourite Riesling comes from? Or The Loire Valley as my first love was Sancerre especially matched with the Chavignol goats cheese from the same region. Why not Bordeaux and its grand châteaux for surely visitors would love to tour them? It’s also true that I have spent a lot of time in the Rhône not only because of the delicious wines but for the incredible landscape and history. So why did I choose Languedoc-Roussillon? Well the answer is a very simple one – Languedoc-Roussillon is possibly the most exciting wine region in France right now!

The wines are still evolving and almost daily something new and exciting quietly emerges out of a very unassuming winery made with passion that can be tasted in every glorious mouthful. Languedoc is actually a treasure trove of undiscovered wines many of which are made from little known varietals such as Terret, Grenache Gris and Blanc, Maccabeo and Carignan. The vast majority of pleasure drinkers have never heard of these grapes and because the world is currently obsessed with drinking the famous 7 (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah/Shiraz, Pinot Noir) people are missing out on a whole raft of fabulous wines.

It is a huge region stretching from Nimes in the east to Perpignan in the south and smothered width to breadth with vines punctuated with wine villages which nearly all contain an ugly 1930’s wine co-operative. These can be the downfall to quality unless in the right hands and many of them churn out what I describe as vin du quaff! Yes it’s OK, made in quantity with little thought of quality. Unsorted fruit meaning the rotten ones get fermented with the good ones along with the odd gecko and lots of snails! Its wine production on an industrial scale and this is what has given the region its bad reputation. So why am I so enamoured? Well I’m not enamoured with those places. The wines I love are made by the independent wine maker toiling to produce the best he can and working with the local grapes and the terroir to produce a wine with a true sense of place.

Passionate wine makers have created an artisan culture in this industrial wine producing zone. They have toiled to resurrect old vines left to die in some of the hardest landscape to farm. Why? Because they strongly believe that these vines will produce the finest wines if only you are prepared to work the land in these forgotten places. Languedoc-Roussillon is the one place in France where the rule book is still being written. It is known as the place that blends old world tradition with new world innovation.

Take wine producer Olivier Pithon who hails from the Loire but has transplanted himself in the Roussillon where he is producing some fine wines such his Cuvée Lais blanc named after his Jersey cow. The wine is a blend of 50% Maccabeo and 50% Grenache blanc and gris from vines 75 to 80 years old. It has a savoury, creamy. mineral flavour and is rich and satisfying. Not at all aromatic and as far from a  Veneto pinot grigio as you can get and an ideal accompaniment to the sun ripened food of the Midi.

Another producer I greatly admire is Clos du Gravillas located in the limestone hills of the Minervois in the village of St Jean du Minervois. John and Nicole have been making wine here for 13 years and have almost singlehandedly revolutionised the Carignan grape into something everyone wants to make a 100% versions of.

And then there’s Domaine Jones owned by Katie Jones who is really making a stir in the wine world. Parker loves her wines especially the Grenache Gris and the Fitou which she is producing from her tiny vineyard of less than 5 hectares.

These 3 producers epitomise what is happening here in Languedoc-Roussillon and they are  just 3 of many. The world is waking up to the quality wine made here but it’s a slow awakening. I am pleased to see that a lot more restaurants and wine merchants around the world are stocking wines from this region so they are not as obscure as they were.  In my opinion the best way to experience and learn about them is to come to this glorious place.  Come and see how the vines are grown, what it takes to keep them healthy and not allowed to over-yield to avoid watery or unripe wine.  Come and see what happens in the winery, the alchemy that is actually science and technique. Taste the different grape varieties individually and then assembled into the finished wine. Understand why the grapes varietals are blended and realise the myth that single varietal wines are the best. Once you’ve done that you will know that wine doesn’t come out of a bottle – it comes out of the ground!

Check out my web site if you’re tempted to join me on a vineyard tour of the Languedoc-Roussillon www.vinenvacances.com

Languedoc’s Signature Wine

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Vin en Vacances

Vin en Vacances

When you think of Bordeaux you think of the fine wines of the Médoc or Saint-Émilion, those glamorous and often expensive tryst of Cabernet and Merlot. With Burgundy it’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that instantly spring to mind along with its renowned terroir often crawling with geologists trying to figure out what makes these mono cepage wines taste so different to each other. The Loire and the Alsace bring thoughts of top notch white wines and the Côtes du Rhône always summons up thoughts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. What happens when you think of Languedoc-Roussillon?  For many people the thought that enters their head is good value, quantity rather than quality but no particular wine comes to the surface. For me that’s the reason why this area struggles to be recognised and understood by the consumer. There is no single wine that stands out. It’s an area of diversity and so are the wines. You can buy just about every style of wine from here – from sparkling fizz  to full bodied reds to lusciously sweet to light and refreshing whites, rosé of all styles and full bodied whites of immense complexity. The wines are made from grape varieties just as diverse and many of which the average person will not have heard of such as Maccabeo, Boubelenc and Terret.  There are 3 grape varieties that I think Languedoc-Roussillon excels at – Carignan and Grenache. These originally Spanish grape varieties are very at home here and produce some of the most exciting wines in France. They both offer 3 colours of grape – Noir, blanc and gris which can produce stunning single varietal wines and are equally superb in a blend. Over the coming months I hope to introduce you to wines made from these grapes starting with my absolute favourite producer Clos du Gravillas.

Clos du Gravillas

John and Nicole Bajonowski have been making wine for around 14 years from their ‘petit domaine’ of less than 8 hectares in the village of Saint-Jean-du-Minervois. I first met them 5 years ago when I began running vineyard tours in the region and was looking for interesting places to include. They farm organically and Nicole uses some bio-dynamic principles too. They truly believe that good wine is made in the vineyard so a great deal of their time is spent tending the vines to ensure they bring in healthy ripe grapes when the time comes. It was at this vineyard that I had my first encounter with Carignan, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris.

L'Inattendu

L'Inattendu

The first wine they made was a white made from Grenache blanc, gris and Maccabeo.John and Nicole named it L’Inattendu which means the unexpected and it lives up to its name superbly well. It has a rich, complex earthy minerality with deeply satisfying flavours of fennel, nectarines and apples and a hint of creaminess. It has fabulous structure and its freshness belies the hot Languedoc region it comes from. This is achieved by growing the vines at altitude (300 m) on limestone soils.  It’s the perfect accompaniment for the strong flavours of the Languedoc foods where a delicate aromatic wine could possibly be knocked sideways.

Lo Viehl

Lo Viehl

When they bought their vineyard it had included some old Carignan vines which celebrated their 100thbirthday this year.  John and Nicole were the first people to make wine from these grapes alone as the previous owner had sent them to the co-operative. They were taken aback when they tasted their first 100% Carignan which they dubbed Lo Vièlh which means the old one in Occitan. In those days it was commonly agreed that Carignan was a good blending grape but used on its own it would produce a wine that was rustic and acidic. Lo Vièlh surprised everyone with its wonderful elegance and flavours of black cherries with spices and herbs and a note of tobacco with a touch of minerality and a smooth silky texture. The flavours linger long and are a fabulous match for lamb or duck.

So it can be done. Making 100% Carignan is a success and since they achieved this result many more people have followed suit and now there are dozens of 100% Carignan wines being made by people just as passionate about good wine as John and Nicole. Could Carignan be the signature wine that will identify Languedoc-Roussillon to the world?

L’Inattendu and Lo Vièlh cost £19.50 per bottle and are available from Underwoods Wine Merchants in Warwick who will despatch them to you anywhere in the UK. Follow this link for stockists in other parts of the world.

You can visit this vineyard with me next year by booking the Minervois Tour.

Saturn God of Agriculture

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Saturn is the god of agriculture and I think I have found at least 2 domains that are clearly in the hands of the Gods…

The Languedoc is a huge place but I normally spend all my time at the Carcassonne end but this year I found time to venture further afield and in June I managed to meet a winemaker I have been longing to meet.  Virgil Joly makes wine in the appellation of St Saturnin close to Montpellier. As I left the motorway and headed towards Pezanas I was beginning to think this area held little interest for me as the landscape did not thrill me as much as the Minervois where I live does. But I was soon to be surprised as I arrived in the area known as the Terrace du Larzac framed by spectacular mountains and filled with beautiful gorges.

There has been a lot written about Virgil Joly including a sadly out of print book called Virgil’s Vineyard by author Patrick Moon. I managed to get a copy from Amazon and it’s a thoroughly good read. He originally hailed from the Rhône but came to the Languedoc lured by the good climate, the terroir and excellent grape varieties. He invited me to visit his winery which is very logically laid out, quite modern and contains those fabulous egg shaped cuves which Virgil says help give a roundness to the wine. It’s set on a hill with lovely views across the appellation and his bio dynamically farmed vines. Back at the tasting room Virgil invited me to sample his wines  which were all very good but the star for me was his Saturne Blanc made from 100% Grenache Blanc. As he handed it to me he invited me to guess the vintage – how lovely to be put on the spot!! Well, it clearly had some development on the nose but it was still fresh and on the palate had beautifully ripe fruit but the colour was deep indicating more age than the nose suggested so I made a guess at 2007.  I was amazed when he told me it was in fact the very hot 2003 vintage. It’s aged for 18 months in 500 litre barrels giving it a fabulous texture and complexity. If you’re in the UK his wines are available in London from Dudley & Fleury.com

For my next exploration I decided to head in the totally opposite direction and made my way to the Roussillon and the spectacular scenery in the foothills of the Pyrenees. I headed to the little village of Calce which seems to be the epicentre for quality wine in this region for in this one tiny village there are at least 3 wonderful wine makers – Gérard Gauby, Tom Lubbet  of Domaine Matassa and Olivier Pithon and it was at this domaine that I was greeted by Marianna who sports the grand title of Sales & Marketing Manager.  She told me the story of Loire born Olivier Pithon who had always known he wanted to work in agriculture and how he came to be a wine maker in St Emilion and then found the desire to ‘fly with his own wings and to look after his own vines’. In 2001 he took possession of a field of Carignan that had been planted in 1940 by someone called Saturne. He farms bio dynamically and finds it unthinkable to work the vines and the land without love and respect.

The wines are superb. Mon P’tit Pithon Blanc 2010 is a Grenache/Maccabeo/Vermentino blend grown on Limestone and Calcaire at 300m. It has a briney, mineral character with greengage and gooseberries on the palate. Easy drinking and fabulous value at €7.80 from the cave. I also loved his Cuvée Laïs Blanc (named after his Jersey cow!) which is a wonderfully complex blend of 50/50 Maccabeo and Grenache Gris & Blanc from vines 75 to 80 years old. It spends 8 to 10 months in foundre and has a mineral but also savoury and creamy richness. The Cuvée Laïs Rouge 2009 is a blend of the usual suspects in this part of the world – Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvèdre grown on various soil types including Limestone, schist and marl. It’s earthy and gamey with hints of cocoa and coffee and fabulous black fruits. I could not resist either of these and they are now resting in my cellar awaiting the right moment to draw the corks. I also treated myself to a couple of bottles of his top Cuvée Le Pilou made from 100% Carignan from vines that exceed 100 years. I tasted the 2008 and the 2009 and have bought both but my money is on the 2009 which needs at least 3 years and probably more. It smells much riper than the 2008 and is spicy and herbal with dusty cocoa powder tannins and dark brooding back fruit. Will I be able to keep my hands off it long enough for it to reach its peak in 10 years – I doubt it.

Summer Vineyard Touring in Languedoc

You meet some wonderful people doing this job!

I think wine, food and France attracts the best in human nature and over the last 6 weeks I have been accompanied on many tours by some very special people. Together we have visited some of the finest wineries in the Languedoc region where I have arranged a special back-stage tour and included my own personal style tutored tasting. Learning to taste wine really opens up the world of flavours and expands our enjoyment hugely but I know when I was asked 10 years ago if I wanted to learn to taste wine I looked very sceptical. I had been drinking wine for years, what could someone possibly teach me? But I was wrong and now that I have these fabulous skills my enjoyment of wine has increased enormously.As well as visiting wineries on my tours we also visit beautiful places such as the villages of Minerve or Lagrasse and the so called ‘Cathar Castles’ of Queribus and Peyreperteuse.  We also taste other produce such as olive oil and chèvre and sometimes honey. The Languedoc has such a wealth of flavours! During August and September the weather has been so superb that we have been lucky enough to enjoy some picnics amongst the vines and with the help of local knowledge I have found some lovely off the beaten track places for us to enjoy them and as many of my clients have said ‘we would never have found this on our own!’

As I write the harvest is well underway in the Minervois and other parts of the region however they are still to start in some places. It’s great fun taking people to vineyards at this time of year as they are able to taste the grapes on the vine and decide for themselves if it’s ready to be picked. The wine maker is looking for a balance of sugar and acid and if its reds he is also looking for skin and pip ripeness which will ensure the tannins are tasty and not stalky.

On my tours I regularly visit Domaine Gayda as it was at this vineyard that I first helped out making wine. In 2007 Tim and Barbara Ford invited me to stay with them for a short while so that I could get some experience working in a winery during the harvest. Most days I accompanied Vincent the wine maker when he visited his vines which are located in various parts of the region. It was during this time that I observed just how important the decision of when to pick is. Once it’s picked there is no going back and it’s possibly the biggest decision a wine maker will make all year.

During my winery tour at Domaine Gayda I like to regale people with stories of my experience during the time I worked in the winery. Such as when I learnt how to take the temperatures and density readings of the tanks which had to be recorded daily so that Vincent could see how slowly or quickly the ferments were progressing. I always liken it to doctors and nurses – we the nurses record the patients obs and the doctor  (Vincent) decides on the treatment!

But the best part of my Gayda experience was relaxing at the end of the day with a glass of my favourite Gayda wine – the Freestyle Blanc, a wonderful blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Macabeo and Rousanne. Absolutely delicious.

The ‘Bikers’ Vineyard Tour

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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??

New Corbières Vineyard Tour

I’m often asked how I create my vineyard tours – how do I choose which vineyards to visit, which routes to take and where to eat? Well I follow my instincts! Once I have chosen a region or district I set about discovering it and usually spend a number of days creating a one day tour.  I start by studying a map of the area – I try to get a feel for the place and then I set off to see what I can unearth. Yesterday was just such a day. I headed for the Corbières region of the Languedoc-Roussillon which I know fairly well as I have been running tours there for over 5 years but it is a massive area divided into 11 terroirs (love that French word meaning ‘sense of place’).  I wanted to create a new tour as I often have returning clients and they and I enjoy variety. Creating new tours is possibly one of the most enjoyable parts of my job. My tours have a kind of formula – 2 fabulous vineyards each one very different to the other, stunning scenery with ‘off the beaten track’ roads, a beautiful place to visit such as a pretty village, an abbey, castle or vineyard walk, local produce such as honey, chèvre, olive oil and of course that all important lunch. Timing is crucial so once I have found the places I then check how long it takes to drive from one to the other – which order works best and how long does it all take?

Yesterday I found a wonderful new winery to add to my collection – Domaine Serres Mazard located in the very pretty village of Talairan. I had been driving along one of the roads that leads out of Lagrasse (yet another village not to miss) when I came across a sign displaying ‘Le Sentier des Orchidées’. I stopped and to see what it was all about and discovered that it is a walk across the garrigue and amongst the vines where you will find various orchids and other interesting plant life. It has been created by the school children of local villages and is set on the land of the family Mazard who are the owners of Domaine Serres Mazard. This then lead me to find the domaine and taste the wines. I entered the tasting room and was given a very friendly welcomed by Monsieur Mazard who was entertaining about 6 people who were tasting his wines and having a wonderful time. His wines are excellent, very expressive and full of fruit and range from simple to complex. He is an enthusiastic and passionate wine maker and his wines have a similar personality and I am looking forward to my first visit with clients this coming Saturday.

So my new Corbières tour is ready to go and includes Domaine Serres Mazard and the Sentier des Orchidées walk where afterwards we shall enjoy a lavish picnic made from local and seasonal produce. We will then head for the village of Lagrasse to stroll around the tiny streets, see the ancient market place and the abbey before heading to our second vineyard close by. We will finish off the day by visiting a goat farm to see the goats being milked and to taste the chèvre before heading home. Fancy joining us?