A Longer Trip To France 2004
INCLUDING A VISIT TO BERGERAC
in January 2004
Yes, this instalment is part one.Â The second instalment, which deals with the CÃ´te d'Or in Burgundy will follow.
This year I stayed in France for two weeks and visited two new regions:Â the south-west and Champagne.Â I also discovered a new, cheaper way to cross the Channel:Â go with Norfolkline to Dunkirk.Â The port is in fact about halfway between Calais and Dunkirk, and seems to be entirely under the control of Norfolkline.
About as soon as I left Dunkirk it started to rain.Â It didn't stop (more or less) for a week.Â It rained and rained and rained.Â And it was heavy rain, unrelentingly.
Sunday evening I arrived at my hotel west of Ã‰pernay.Â I'd picked it out of the Guide Michelin.Â It seemed unpromising at first sight:Â a building reminiscent of a Swiss chalet, right on top of the main road.Â At the bottom of the hill, about 300 yards away, trains rattled by on what appeared to be a main line railway.
By the end of my stay overnight in this hotel I was determined I would stay here again.Â The room was nothing special, but it was perfectly acceptable, and quiet, with good soundproofing - no disturbance from the road or railway.Â But it was the cooking that made this place exceptional.Â As I entered the restaurant there was just one other table occupied - by two men, one of whom looked uncannily like Derek Cooper, late of the BBC's Food Programme.Â I barely restrained the urge to bounce up to him to ask.Â Every part of my meal was perfectly cooked, with careful thought put into the matching of flavours, and executed with supreme deftness, nothing oversauced or overdone - perfectly balanced.Â For example, for my main course I had guinea-fowl, which too often is dried up and flavourless (I only chose it because I'd forgotten what "pintade" was!) - this was succulent and tender, with wonderful flavour, on a bed of seasoned, soft, but perfectly cooked, cabbage.Â The whole ensemble was perfectly balanced, and light - great cooking.Â The wine list was not long, but intelligently and carefully chosen.Â Altogether a great meal.
MONDAY - I hadn't been sure how my schedule would go on this first working day of my trip, so I had the morning to myself - first tasting fixed for 2.30 pm. Â So I thought I'd go and look at Ã‰pernay.Â On the way I passed a spectacular-looking chÃ¢teau at the village of Boursault.Â It was perched commandingly above the main road, with a forest of turrets, and set amongst woods interspersed with vineyards.Â I turned off to go and have a look.Â The property is entirely encircled by its own twelve-foot-high stone wall.Â The chÃ¢teau is on the edge of and just below the village, approached by an avenue of plane trees.Â It was built by the widow Clicquot in the middle of the 19th century.Â Sadly, it was closed.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I continued on to Ã‰pernay, which has an impossibly complicated one-way system, and somehow I contrived to end up in a bus station.Â There were parking restrictions everywhere, as well; but eventually I found a car park just round the corner from the tourist office and the Avenue de Champagne, which is lined with a succession of famous Champagne houses, such as Moet & Chandon, Perrier-Jouet and Pol Roger.Â I went into the tourist office, bought some postcards and got some maps and leaflets, then thought I'd go for a promenade up the Avenue de Champagne.Â It was raining heavily.Â I got soaked.Â I hadn't brought proper waterproof clothes.Â I was only out in the rain for about 10 minutes.Â I gave up.Â My jacket took two days to dry.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â My first tasting was -
CHAMPAGNE PHILIZOT - This is based in the small village of Reuil in the Marne valley west of Ã‰pernay.Â It's just someone's house - M.Philizot's, in fact!Â It is a rather upright gothic sort of a building, reminiscent of the houses in north Oxford.Â You could imagine a Peter Sellers film taking place in it.Â I am received by Virginie, M.Philizot's wife.Â They are a young couple.Â M.Philizot has a day job, so I didn't meet him at this tasting.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Inside, the house is open plan, very modernistic, with a space-age-looking woodburning stove - all stainless steel.Â We sit down in the living room area, and Virginie asks me what sort of champagne I like.Â I say confidently I like champagne made from black grapes.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â This is a young champagne house.Â They only started trading two years ago.Â M.Philizot only has one hectare of vines himself, so he buys in grapes as well, and, it turns out, his father has quite extensive vineyard holdings.Â They do all the vinifying themselves (they only buy in grapes, not wine).Â However, it is a lengthy process becoming a champagne house, so the project was started in 1995 - in other words it took 7 years to set up.Â One of the reasons for this is that it takes much longer to make champagne than still wine (two alcoholic fermentations and then minimum ageing requirements).Â So they can actually offer a 1995 vintage champagne - I bought a little of this.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We taste three of their wines - called NumÃ©ro 1, NumÃ©ro 2 and NumÃ©ro 3.Â These are the centrepiece of their range.Â Currently NumÃ©ro 1 is made entirely from black grapes (Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier), NumÃ©ro 2 is a Blanc de Blancs (100% Chardonnay) and NumÃ©ro 3 is a blend of all three grape varieties.Â We start with NumÃ©ro 2 (confusingly - in fact they've realised that it would be more logical to swap NumÃ©ro 1 and NumÃ©ro 2 round so that the Blanc de Blancs is NumÃ©ro 1 - and they plan to do this in the future).Â NumÃ©ro 2 is light straw yellow in colour, with quite a sweet yeasty (bready) smell and a mousse of very fine bubbles.Â This looks promising.Â Then we try NumÃ©ro 1 - a much deeper, more golden colour (the influence of the black grapes), a more muted smell, but a fuller, richer flavour.Â I like the champagne made from Chardonnay much more than the NumÃ©ro 1!Â How embarrassing, after stating with such confidence that I prefer champagne made from black grapes.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We taste NumÃ©ro 3.Â Again, a persistent mousse of very fine bubbles.Â It has a softer, more rounded flavour than NumÃ©ro 1, and an attractive finish.Â I like it more than NumÃ©ro 1, but not as much as NumÃ©ro 2.Â However, the range is impressive - they are all thoroughly well made, interesting wines.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â To digress a minute, I bought some of each of these three champagnes to sell in the shop.Â After letting them settle in Monmouth for a few days, I retasted them.Â On retasting in Wales, I like the NumÃ©ro 1 more than the NumÃ©ro 2!Â In other words, it seems that it is all a matter of geography:Â in France champagne made from Chardonnay tastes better, but in this country I prefer champagne made from black grapes.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â To return to France:Â Virginie asks me if I'd like to see the "cave" where they make the wine.Â I say sure.Â Actually, I'm a little bit worried, because my next appointment is some distance away on the Montagne de Reims, and time is already passing.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We motor off, crossing the river Marne, and along the main road for a few kilometres.Â The "cave" is in a run-down set of buildings, but inside everything is clean and neat and tidy, with a few large metal tanks ranged along an end wall.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Outside the weather is getting nastier.Â Not only is it still raining heavily, but the wind is starting to blow a gale.
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Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I say good-bye to Virginie and hurry off.Â At the next place nobody seems to be in.Â I can hear a dog barking somewhere in the yard away to the left of the house.Â I walk all the way round the house.Â No sign of human life.Â I go across to the yard.Â There is a big kennel by the gate out on to the road - like one of those kennels in the cartoons on TV.Â I start to make my way past it towards the road.Â As I draw level with it, the largest Dobermann Pinscher I have ever met shoots out of it straight for me, well, like a champagne cork, barking furiously.Â It's on a chain, but the chain easily reaches as far as me.Â I ran.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I did actually make contact with these people, but thankfully their champagne turned out not to be that wonderful, and I didn't buy from them.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â After another tasting that evening, I headed south to spend the night in the Aube - a separate area of Champagne an hour or two's drive from Rheims.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I stayed in a hotel near the autoroute exit.Â Its restaurant was very busy, and the food was depressingly mediocre.Â I had boeuf bourguignon.Â There were little cards on the tables explaining how wonderful their beef was - all French, mostly from their own herd of Charolais (with photo).Â I ordered a half bottle of local red - a Coteaux Champenois - which was dull.Â I didn't manage to finish either the wine or the food.
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The next day, Tuesday, after a visit to a champagne producer in the Aube, my next appointment was outside Chablis, chez Pommier.Â I might just say parenthetically that tasting in Champagne is rather hard work because everywhere I went the tastings took place in the producer's sitting room and spittoons are not provided - if you asked for one they'd say don't worry, if you can't finish the drink, just leave it in the glass.Â And an observation on the champagne producers I visited: Â they all - impressively - had a very distinctive house style.Â That is not to say that the range from a particular house all tasted the same - far from it - it is just that in each case you could see that the individual wines were one of a family, as it were.
DOMAINE DENIS POMMIER - Denis and Isabelle Pommier are hospitable people, so I try to arrange to taste here just before lunch.Â We start tasting - around midday.Â We work through the 2002s.Â I vaguely wonder if we're going to try the 2003s.Â The 2002s are lovely - a wonderful vintage.Â There is a surprise here:Â normally, of the Pommiers' Premiers Crus (they produce three), I like the Beauroy the best.Â But in 2002 their CÃ´te de LÃ©chet is spectacular - it is fascinating, brilliant, floral, with fantastic length.Â Star wine.Â I have reserved a few cases of it.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Then it's time for lunch (what about the 2003s? - I'm too unassertive to say anything).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The main course is boeuf bourguignon.Â Isabelle apologises because it's burnt - actually, it's very nice.Â I finish my first helping and have more.Â A distinct improvement on yesterday's boeuf bourguignon.Â During lunch it suddenly occurs to Denis that we haven't tasted the 2003s.Â We all say oh dear.Â Never mind.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We say our good-byes, and I'm off to -
DOMAINE HEIMBOURGER - Although this is really a Chablis domaine, they are on the edge of the appellation, and so they also grow some Pinot Noir and Gamay - also, recently, they bought some land in the appellation of Irancy and planted it up with Pinot Noir. Â As I taste each succeeding vintage of the Irancy and the age of the vines increases, so the quality (particularly the concentration of flavour) noticeably improves.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We taste the 2002s, starting with the whites.Â They all display excellent, tingling acidity, but at the same time good ripe fruit - a characteristic of the whites in this vintage throughout Burgundy.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The younger son of the family, Olivier, makes the wine.Â The domaine is a working farm which also grows vegetables.Â The older son looks after the non-wine side.Â Olivier is at least as talented a red wine maker as white.Â His reds always exhibit a wonderfully animal, "sauvage" smell - most alluring.Â His 2002s have comparatively good colour, lots of fresh Pinot Noir flavour, and a touch of tannin at the end, giving the wines shape and definition.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â A lovely vintage here.
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Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The rain continues to pour.
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Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â On Wednesday I start tasting at 8 a.m.-
DOMAINE LEGER - M.Leger makes Ã‰pineuil - a wine I have heard described (by an expert on Burgundy for whom I genuinely have the greatest respect) as filthy.Â Well, Ã‰pineuil does make rather light reds (there is no white), but in the hands of a conscientious vigneron such as M.Leger the wine can be a thoroughly agreeable drink, and at a fair price.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â M.Leger is not tall, quite quiet and fairly rotund with a round head and a big moustache.Â His son is at least a foot taller than him and terrifically jolly and talkative.Â On arrival I am met by the son, who is brandishing two large lumps of cheese.Â They are a present for me.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Then M.Leger turns up.Â We taste a 2001, which is quite forward - well developed both on the nose and in the mouth, but a perfectly pleasant drink.Â We go on to the 2002:Â this is appreciably richer, with more colour; you can taste the ripeness here - the fruit seems sweeter than in 2001; and all rounded off with a touch of tannin at the end - very characteristic of this vintage.Â A lovely drink.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Their son says good-bye and disappears, and M.Leger suggests we go and taste the 2003.Â This involves a short drive, so we get into our respective vans and I follow M.Leger around the outskirts of Ã‰pineuil to a building where his 2003 is maturing in tall fibreglass tanks before being bottled.Â From the outside it looks like a perfectly ordinary farm building.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We go in.Â Each tank has a little tap on the side near the bottom, and he fills my glass.Â We taste from more than one tank.Â This is extraordinary wine.Â As we taste M.Leger is grimacing and clutching his stomach.Â He tells me that in 2003 he has made a ChÃ¢teauneuf du Pape.Â The wine has huge colour - almost black - and really delicious flavour, with an extra spicy dimension that I do not remember in his wine before.Â Yet, underpinning the wine there is excellent, refreshing acidity.Â Exciting prospect.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Poor M.Leger is clearly suffering.Â He is still grimacing and holding his stomach, and has started sort of grunting.Â He is too polite to throw me out, and starts talking in a rambling way about politics.Â It's time to leave.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I say good-bye.
VIGNOBLES DAMPT - This operation is based in Collan, a small village between Tonnerre (Ã‰pineuil is really a suburb of Tonnerre) and Chablis.Â Three brothers, Eric, HervÃ© and Emmanuel, who all appear to be around 30 years old, now run the domaine, which is quite large - they own about 40 hectares of vineyards (M.Leger, for example, has 7Â½ hectares).
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Emmanuel attends to me.Â He seems to be the most switched-on of the three.Â Their business is housed in an enormous corrugated iron shed, with lots of room inside.Â Various people float about and make appearances and then disappear again.Â Eric is not about today.Â HervÃ© is about.Â He is really quite camp.Â On my previous visit he was about as well.Â He never seems to be doing anything particularly useful, and at the same time has a knack of ensuring that you know, and especially that Emmanuel knows, he is about.Â He is big-boned, about 6 foot tall, casually dressed with a scarf thrown carelessly around his neck.Â Today he has with him a diminutive suited man who must be 18 inches shorter than him.Â They are having a debate, while Emmanuel is trying to give me a tasting.Â HervÃ© and the little man appear to be trying to work out whether a tube of mastic can be inserted into another hollow tube.Â It seems to be exercising them greatly.Â It is clearly disturbing Emmanuel, who goes over and has a few words with them, which have no effect.Â The debate goes on.Â It all rather reminds me of M.Hulot.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Any way, I taste all sorts of things with Emmanuel:Â reds, whites, cask samples, bottles.Â I am impressed with his 2002 white Bourgogne from Tonnerre:Â it has an astonishing nose, startlingly fresh and aromatic.Â The flavour is ripe and delicious, with the hallmark acidity persisting right through to the finish.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I say good-bye to Emmanuel, and forget to give him the present of a pot of Welsh honey that I had intended to.
DOMAINE NAULIN - The Naulins, like the Pommiers, are hospitable, so here as well I contrive if possible to visit them to taste immediately before lunch.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â It is still pouring with rain.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We taste the 2003s from tank.Â This domaine uses no wood, no barrels.Â Both the village Chablis and the Premier Cru (they only make two wines) show heaps of fruit, with the Premier Cru more impressive all round, with noticeably better acidity - and more of that green tinge so distinctive in Chablis.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The lunch.Â We taste the 2002s with the meal.Â We start with a delicious home made quiche.Â Mme.Naulin is an excellent cook.Â The main course is - boeuf bourguignon!Â But progress is being made:Â Mme.Naulin's boeuf bourguignon is the best of the three.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â The 2002 wines.Â The straight Chablis is extraordinarily (and atypically) fruity, with a flavour almost of tropical fruits.Â Nevertheless, it's still a lovely drink.Â The Premier Cru is considerably more backward, more austere, less atypical.Â It is also very obviously a superior wine:Â more concentrated, better length, and altogether finer.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â After lunch, during which we also drink some Irancy with the main course and cheese, and champagne with the pudding (so I'm a little bit sleepy), I have a long drive across country to the Loire.Â It seems to take for ever.Â It's still pouring with rain.Â I pass a gigantic nuclear power station near Sancerre.Â I get lost a few times, because, as in Britain, you follow the signposts for miles and miles, and then you get to the middle of a town, and suddenly there are either no signs at all, or they're directing you to other irrelevant places, so they're no help to you - in particular, to a town called Vierzon.Â It seemed as the journey stretched out, and it began to get dark, that all roads led to Vierzon.Â I didn't want to go to Vierzon.Â Have you ever heard of Vierzon?Â It isn't even marked prominently on any of my maps.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I trundled on through the rain.Â I came to a forest.Â There was no traffic.Â The road stretched dead straight ahead to the horizon.Â I passed a sign announcing:
RISQUE DE TRAVERSÃ‰ES DES GRANDS ANIMAUX
I half expected a mastodon or a brontosaurus to lumber across the road in front of me.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I finally reached Romorantin-Lanthenay, where I had booked to spend the night.Â This is near OrlÃ©ans.Â The hotel was quiet and not at all expensive, despite having one Michelin rosette.Â I drank a delicious bottle of Cour-Cheverny (made from the local Romorantin grape) and slept very soundly that night.
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Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I woke in the morning to brilliant sunshine and a thick frost.Â The rain had stopped!
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â First tasting -
DOMAINE PIBALEAU - Pascal Pibaleau lives on the edge of Azay-le-Rideau, which has a well-known chÃ¢teau, picturesquely surrounded by water.Â He is a tall, thin, dark-haired fellow, quietly spoken and rather shy and jumpy.Â I do think he is a talented, inquiring, conscientious winemaker.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We start on the wines - his basic dry white first, which I don't buy.Â It seems to me to lack ripeness.Â Then his Noblesse d'Aziaum 2001, the first two bottles of which are corked, embarrassingly.Â This is a dry white, aged in 3 - 5 year-old oak barrels, which impart some wood flavours to the wine.Â A lovely drink.Â Then on to his white demi-sec.Â We taste the 1999, which I have in the shop already.Â The grapes for this wine are picked when they are riper than those for the dry wine, and it shows - to my taste this is always a much more satisfying glassful.Â The 1999 has a good, rich, ripe texture in the mouth and gentle but persistent length.Â Then we taste the 2000.Â This is delicious, with excellent acidity, a touch of sweetness in the mouth (somewhat muted by the acidity) and brilliant length.Â This is outstanding.Â Next his 2002 moelleux:Â this is made from very ripe grapes.Â It has a yellow/green colour, and on first opening the nose seems quite closed.Â In the mouth it is sort of green tasting, as if still young and undeveloped.Â A few minutes later the nose begins to open up somewhat.Â It has an agreeable, aromatic, sweet (medium sweet) finish.Â This is clearly a wine that needs bottle age.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â On to his rosÃ©:Â I have been buying this wine for nearly ten years, and it is a reliably appetising, refreshing drink - and completely dry.Â It is made from the unfashionable and maligned Groslot grape.Â We taste both the 2002 and the 2003.Â The 2003 has a pleasingly fresh finish, and the 2002 is a little bit lighter, but with better length.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We taste the reds.Â He makes a Gamay and a Cabernet (which I don't buy) and a Cot, more usually known as Malbec, which I do buy.Â This is a deeply coloured, really interesting wine, with considerably more ripeness and concentration than his other reds.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I have been eating lunches and dinners now since Tuesday, and I'm beginning to feel weighed down.Â M.Pibaleau invites me to lunch.Â It is very kind of him.Â I can't refuse.Â His wife joins us.Â Happily, it is a light lunch, without too many wines.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â I say good-bye to M.Pibaleau, and head off towards Saumur.Â I take a wrong turning in Chinon and get lost.Â I take a road that follows a tributary of the Loire.Â Turnings towards the river disappear underwater.Â It is raining again.Â There are floods, with some vineyards under water.
DOMAINE DE LA FUYE - This is run by Philippe Elliau, a fit-looking, moustache-wearing man in his forties, who farms his vines organically.Â He is based outside Montreuil-Bellay in the appellation of Saumur.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â We taste his 2003 reds from tank:Â terrific colours, wonderful perfume, and assertive but unaggressive tannins.Â They look promising.Â We also taste his 2003 Coteaux de Saumur from barrel.Â This goes into 100% new oak, and it is a remarkable wine:Â rich, luscious, but with balancing acidity, so not at all cloying, and an endlessly fascinating flavour.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Then we taste his 2002s from bottle.Â Good colour here as well (though not as deep as the 2003s) - in fact, M. Elliau does seem to have a knack of getting excellent colour into his reds - yet they are not at all overextracted - they have lovely balance.Â I am not offered a taste of 2002 Coteaux de Saumur, so I ask about it.Â It turns out that he didn't make any because the birds got to the grapes before he did.Â A great shame - but at least there will be some 2003 - and in the meantime I have been allowed another ten dozen bottles of the 2001.
DOMAINE GUIBERTEAU-EGGERTON - Stephen Eggerton is an Englishman who joined up with Romain Guiberteau to form this domaine, which looks set to do some exciting things.Â I have arranged to stay the night with Stephen and his family.Â We go tasting.Â We start with the 2002 white.Â Wine sometimes sulks.Â This wine is sulking.Â It tastes utterly uninteresting.Â It has recently been racked, which probably accounts for it.Â I have tasted it more recently here in Wales, and it is a wine with outstanding potential.Â With the reds there is a surprise in store for me.Â Both Stephen and Romain are extremely excited about the 2003 vintage.Â We taste from barrel, and the wines are very impressive.Â The surprise is that they have harvested separately a parcel of vines called "Les Arboises".Â This is unbelievable:Â it's a super-wine; it's so ripe, so concentrated, yet so harmonious, with a flavour that is to die for.Â I have to say that something about the texture and the beauty of this wine reminds me of the one occasion I have tasted Sassicaia.Â I've reserved a few dozen bottles of it.Â But we'll have to be patient:Â it won't be ready for release until 2005.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Stephen seems in good form, but tells me that his position in the partnership is problematic (and now, writing this a few weeks later, Stephen has, sadly, moved on).Â We spend a very jolly evening together, tasting all sorts of wines, and Stephen generously gives me bottles and bottles of wine.
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CHÃ‚TEAU BOIS DE LAMOTHE - This property is in the CÃ´tes de Duras, just on the edge of (but outside) the limit of the Bordeaux appellation.Â Laurent Banier runs it - or did.
Driving down from the Loire, I cut across country from the autoroute, and had to pass through the outskirts of Libourne, home of the Moueix business that owns ChÃ¢teau PÃ©trus.Â So I'd imagined it was a rather romantic place.Â Well, I don't know about the centre of the town, but the bits I saw were seriously unattractive:Â industrial, criss-crossed with roads, vines jammed in between the builders yards, heaps of gravel, and general commercial wasteland.Â On arrival at M.Banier's, the place seemed deserted.Â A lame rottweiler bounded awkwardly out to greet me, didn't bark or growl and was the sweetest most sociable big dog I have ever met.Â I wandered about, calling out.Â M.Banier appeared in a pair of what looked like bedroom slippers.Â He invited me in.Â I'd spoken to him on the telephone and he'd asked me out of the blue if I wanted to buy 10,000 bottles of wine.Â I'd only ever bought from him once (he is extremely difficult to get hold of) and on that occasion I'd bought around 1,000 bottles, so the proposed deal was rather larger.Â M.Banier definitely makes good wine.Â He manages to get lots of character into his wines, as well as plenty of colour and fruit.Â On meeting him, he reminds me of Delboy on the television. - he's quite short and stocky, fast talking, interested in doing deals ....
Anyway, indoors, he explains to me that he's sold ChÃ¢teau Bois de Lamothe to an American who owns about 400 acres of the Napa Valley.Â He says this man has bought everything except 30 barrels of the 2002 vintage.Â So that's why he's offering to sell me 10,000 bottles of wine.Â He takes me to the building where the 30 barrels are stored and shows them to me.Â I didn't count them, but it looked like 30 barrels.Â We taste the wine from several barrels.Â It's delicious.Â He starts talking to me about price.Â He names a price.Â I say I can't decide now, but I'll get back to him.
It emerges that he's bought another property, after selling Bois de Lamothe.Â The new property is only about 3 kilometres away, and in the Bordeaux appellation.Â There are also 7 hectares more vines, including white grapes.Â Would I like to see it?
Of course I would.Â We motor off.Â After the decidedly rustic buildings at Bois de Lamothe, the new place is something of a surprise:Â it is a wonderful set of buildings, the main house being of beautiful proportions, with an actual tower at one corner.Â The winery is fully equipped, very clean and well maintained.Â It turns out that the couple who have sold to him are friends of his father's and they wish to retire, so he's bought the place.Â He says it's a lot of money, so he's going to have to work very hard.
We say good-bye, and I say I'm keen to stay in touch, which is true.Â So much claret under Â£10 is unexciting, stringy stuff, whereas, if M.Banier produces wine as good as he did at Bois de Lamothe, the prospects are really exciting.
CHÃ‚TEAU DE LA COLLINE - This is in the appellation of Bergerac.Â It is owned by an Englishman, Charles Martin, whose father came from Monmouthshire (Abergavenny, in fact).Â Charles went out to Australia after studying at agricultural college in Sussex.Â He learnt to make wine in Australia.Â He then fetched up as winemaker at ChÃ¢teau de la Jaubertie, Nick Ryman's estate, also in the appellation of Bergerac.Â Then about 10 years ago he left the Rymans and bought this property.Â At the time it was only a vineyard, but after a while the owner of a more or less ruined house next to the vineyard sold it to him.Â The house is situated on the edge of a sheer drop with views to the west that are spectacular - I could sit and look at that view for the rest of my life.Â Charles is a man who appears to have his life extremely well organised.Â The house is now completely restored - brilliantly so.Â It is spacious and comfortable.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â In the vineyard, which Charles took me round, he has planted Sauvignon, SÃ©millon, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.Â Again, here is a winemaker who is constantly inquiring, experimenting, interested in producing wines of real character.Â He has tried different ways of fermenting (and still is - he has a rotary fermenter which he uses for experimenting with).Â He is very aware of the different parcels of vines in the vineyard: he showed me a patch of vines - old vines as well - that looked indistinguishable from a neighbouring patch, but the exposure is to the north and consequently the grapes never ripen properly, resulting in, as he put it, "crap wine".
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Charles is a phlegmatic sort of character, with a laugh that cranks itself up, like a piece of agricultural machinery.Â He has been to see me in Monmouth, when he was politely kitted out in a tweed jacket, etc.Â At home in France he goes native and wears a beret - if you bumped into him in the market in Bergerac, for example, you'd think he was a Frenchman.
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â His red has been a great success in the shop, and at Christmas his sticky wine (similar to a Sauternes) went down very well - in fact, I drank it with my Christmas pudding.Â Charles' winemaking seems to me to incorporate his Australian training, but he manages to retain in his wines plenty of local character - so they are very definitely French, but with an Australian influence.Â A winning combination.