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Buying Trip To France 2006

(including a fur hat at breakfast)

            This year I spent about ten days in France, and my friend Broo came along with me.  We covered around 3,000 miles, going to the Loire, passing through Pouilly-Fuissé (twice), then on to Burgundy (the Côte d'Or and Chablis) and finally Champagne.  I made a number of really exciting discoveries.

            We set off at 6 a.m. on Wednesday from West London, caught the ferry to Dunkirk and drove down to Tours, past Paris in the afternoon rush-hour.  I had booked a room in a château on the outskirts of Tours, which was a very pretty eighteenth century building with a formal garden below and the river Cher beyond.  Irritatingly, if you enquire whether they have a room, French hoteliers have a habit of offering you the most expensive one they have, when there are plenty of other, cheaper rooms unoccupied.  I didn't realise till much later on that the hotel had done this (I had just driven over 400 miles - I wasn't concentrating!).  So we were given a magnificent room in which you could swing several cats, with a loo in a cupboard, and a fine bathroom with a sort of turbo-bath - you pushed a button and jets of water from both ends of the bath squirted very vigorously at your feet and back - thrilling!  We had a fine supper, with a bottle of Bourgueil 1996 from Lame-Delille-Boucard, which was in peak condition.

*   *   *

The next morning we started tasting at 9 a.m. -

DOMAINE PASCAL PIBALEAU, Azay-le-Rideau.  M. Pibaleau makes all sorts of wines:  dry whites, medium whites, sweet white, various reds, rosé, sparkling wines, special cuvées.  He is wiry and nervy, with jet-black hair, and appears to work his domaine of 16 hectares virtually single-handed.  He is thoughtful, hardworking and a talented winemaker.  He speaks in short, nervous bursts.

            We taste eighteen wines.  As usual, I like his demi-sec, a wine I have followed for a number of years now.  He also gives us a taste of his 2003 Moelleux, made from late-picked, super-ripe grapes.  This has a bright, green/yellow colour and a really typical, sort of prickly Chenin Blanc smell.  Despite its sweetness it still has excellent acidity - and a wonderfully persistent finish.

*   *   *

            We then have a half-hour drive to our next tasting at -

DOMAINE CLAUDE AUBERT, Cravant-les-Coteaux (Chinon).  This is a speculative tasting.  I've never visited this domaine or tasted these wines before.  I have arranged to see M. Aubert because a customer (I have no memory of which customer) gave me a little brochure and had written on it "Good Red".  I have been persisting with my search for a Chinon (or Bourgueil or St. Nicolas de Bourgueil) - I like Loire reds.  Two years ago I went and tasted at a number of properties in these appellations and found nothing that excited me sufficiently.  Last year I went to the huge annual trade fair for wine producers in the Loire at Angers, the Salon des Vins de Loire - and still failed to find anything to enthuse about.

            We arrive at the domaine - an unprepossessing set of metal farm buildings by the side of the road.  We are greeted by M. Aubert, who ushers us into one of the buildings - it is a spare, high-ceilinged room with a counter so that he can transact business and also give customers tastings.

            M. Aubert is a trim, mignon fellow in his fifties.  He asks us what we'd like to taste - did a rosé interest us?  Yes.  We taste the 2004 and then the 2005.  They are extremely pale.  The 2004 is quite rich and soft, but with an appealingly firm finish, while the 2005 is much crisper (better acidity).  Then on to the reds:  they are impressive, with good colour, and enough firmness to allow years of further ageing, yet with sufficient upfront fruit and smooth enough tannins to make the wines enjoyable to drink now.  They're also very reasonably priced.  I'm excited - after my long and extensive search, I think I've found a Chinon that will do for my business!

            The tasting done, M. Aubert takes us on a little tour, showing us first his large metal cuves for storing the wine, and then we go into a small passageway and find ourselves in his troglodyte cellars.  Very picturesque and extremely cave-like (!), with mould growing on the walls and oak barrels stacked on each side.  He tells us that his grandfather lived here.  We look around admiringly (it's not that big) - and he tells us that his grandfather lived into his nineties, so it can't have been that bad a place to live.

            We go for lunch in Cravant-les-Coteaux, and I mull it over.  By the end of lunch I've decided to buy a small quantity of M. Aubert's Chinon.  So I ring him and ask if I can collect the wine later that day - possibly around 5 o'clock?  M. Aubert agrees to this.

*   *   *

            Our next appointment is a 45-minute drive away, south of Saumur -

DOMAINE GUIBERTEAU, Mollay (Saumur).  The appointment is arranged for 2.30.  I'm rather pleased with myself, because we arrive so early that we stop a little distance from the domaine by a telephone box so that I can make one or two telephone calls.

            We arrive.  Nobody there.  We knock on doors, shout "HELLO".  No answer.  After a few minutes a woman turns up.  I introduce myself and say I have an appointment with Romain Guiberteau.  This domaine is built round a small yard.  The woman goes into a doorway.  It turns out to be the grandfather's house.  He is sitting at his table in a large downstairs room.  There is a conversation between the woman and the grandfather.  She rings Romain, and tells us that he says the appointment was for yesterday, but that he'll be along in a minute.  Uh-oh.  Yes, that sort of rings a bell with me - I seem to remember getting into a muddle with the dates.  So much for being early.

            Romain arrives, and he's not happy.  He's been trying to teach a new employee to prune vines, and it hasn't been going well.  Then I turn up a day late.  Wednesday would have been fine.  Friday would have been fine, but not Thursday.  I offer to go away and come back later - no, later he's got an appointment later.  He only has time to give us a very short tasting.

            We taste three wines: his straight Saumur red 2004, which has excellent, deep colour; his straight white Saumur 2004, which is thrillingly delicious - very crisp, and with a pleasing touch of oak; and the white Saumur "Les Clos" 2003 - this is softer, richer than the straight 2004.

*   *   *

            The tasting is over in short order, and we are on the road again by three o'clock.  Our next tasting is in the appellation of Jasnières at 4 o'clock.  I'm quite glad in a way that the tasting chez Guiberteau was over quickly, because it is quite a long drive to the next domaine.  We drive and drive.  We pass through a village, Le Lude, where the gendarmes have set up a contrôle, and there is a surprisingly complicated one-way system, which eventually brings us to the banks of the Loir, with a really magnificent-looking château by the road, overlooking the river.  Jasnières is on the Loir as well, and so a sigh of some relief went up - at least we must be getting close because we're on the right river!  Actually we were still about half an hour away, and now running late (it was around 4 o'clock already), and all the time I'm thinking about M. Aubert, who we've arranged to collect from at 5 o'clock.  I hadn't realised quite how far it was.

*   *   *

DOMAINE BÉNÉDICTE DE RYCKE, Marçon (Jasnières).  Mme. de Rycke is charming and very talkative - in fact, she hardly draws breath.  She is a handsome, birdlike woman in her late forties.  I managed to get a word in edgeways to explain how I had discovered her domaine:  last year at the Salon des Vins de Loire at Angers I had discovered a grower from Jasnières, a certain Thierry Leloup; I had bought a small quantity of wine from him;  the wine had arrived in boxes printed, curiously, with Mme. de Rycke's name and address all over them; shortly after I shipped M. Leloup's wine he packed it in, didn't answer his telephone, or reply to messages (I found out from M. Pibaleau that he'd gone out of business);  and since I had Mme. de Rycke's name and address, I investigated further, and discovered a website which contained a write-up by a wine enthusiast all about Mme. de Rycke's domaine.  It looked interesting.  She explained that she had made M. Leloup's wine for him - a group of small growers had pooled their grapes together and arranged for Mme. de Rycke to make a single wine from their grapes.

            We start tasting.  The first bottle she opens is her Tradition 2001 - an extraordinary deep yellow/gold colour.  This is a wine for which you really have to adjust your senses.  It has a startlingly Chenin Blanc nose - as I remarked in my notes, "brilliant" - an astonishing array of smells:  wet wool, citrus, hawthorn blossom, earth, prickliness, gooseberries, nettles.  Amazing.  The taste:  well-developed, but balanced by really crisp, fresh acidity; lots of citrussy fruit, but also the minerality so typical of Loire Chenin Blanc.  A truly thrilling wine.  Then we tasted her Tradition 2004:  very pale, with a touch of green; it smelt like a Sauvignon, as she remarked; she told us that with time this tempers and changes and with age the Chenin Blanc aromas will emerge.  Next, her Louise 2004, a demi-sec, named after one of her daughters:  this is delicious, with a wonderful, fresh, though still fairly undeveloped nose; again, a lovely acidity, which makes the wine taste quite dry.  Finally, for the whites, we taste her Prestige 2004, which I like less than the Louise, even though it is a higher price.  We are tasting in among Mme. de Rycke's charming, interesting, but unceasing conversation.  Time is going by.  It's nearly 5 o'clock, and we're supposed to be not here but at M. Aubert's collecting the Chinon, and he's an hour's drive away.  We ask if we can use Mme. de Rycke's telephone to ring M. Aubert.  She lets us do so.  I ask M. Aubert if we can collect his wine at half past six, because we're running late.  Well, not really, he says, because he's going out for the evening.  So there's a bit of toing and froing, and Mme. de Rycke speaks to him as well, and finally he very kindly agrees to wait in for us.

            But we haven't finished the tasting with Mme. de Rycke yet.  She's got a rosé and two reds, and then an older bottle of red (not for sale, just pour le plaisir).  These wines are all made from a grape variety called Pineau d'Aunis.  I have in my time tasted a number of wines made from this variety.  How can I put this diplomatically?  If I lived in the Loire I wouldn't grow Pineau d'Aunis.  I'd stick to Chenin Blanc.

            Finally, Mme. de Rycke gives us a bottle of red, sparkling, demi-sec sparkling wine(!) , and a bottle of her Jasnières 1989.  Most generous of her.

*   *   *

            We hurry off to M. Aubert.  We get there about eight o'clock.  We meet Mme. Aubert, who is also trim and mignon.  They are very happy to be selling me wine, and M. Aubert hopes that we are content with the price, he could adjust it .....  I say it's fine.  He gives me a small discount anyway.

            Our hotel that night is at least two hours' drive away, and so we ring the hotel to say that we'll be late, but that we are actually coming.  They tell us that the kitchen closes at 9; so we will miss supper.  We persist, asking whether they couldn't provide us with some supper when we arrive.  They say no, it's impossible, the staff leave at 9, the 35-hour week .....

            The drive to the hotel, which is in Contres, a town some way east of Tours, is across country, and, as with distances earlier in the day, further than we thought.

            We are running low on fuel.  Garages are all closed.  Oncoming traffic keeps flashing us, when I know I've dipped the headlights (I discover later that I've set the headlights at the wrong angle).  This is causing me some stress.  Then we reach a junction with a main road, and I get confused and stop with the front of the van sticking out into the main road.  An approaching angry four-wheel-drive SUV puts its hand on the horn, stops across the front of my van, continues to keep its hand on the horn button.  Such aggression.  And all the time it's getting late, and we look as if we might run out of fuel, and we've got a tasting first thing the next morning which is an hour and a half's drive from Contres ...  We press on, and reach a town called Montrichard.  It is now about ten o'clock.  Across the river there is an all-night petrol station, unmanned.  It says it takes credit cards.  I put my card into the machine.  Nothing.  We try other cards.  Nothing.  We then see a notice saying the machine only accepts cards issued in France.  We're almost out of fuel - almost certainly not enough to reach Contres.  Another car rolls into the forecourt.  The driver gets out of his car.  We explain our difficulty and ask him if he knows of a manned garage that is open now.  No, he's from Lyon.  He doesn't know anything.  He puts his card into the machine and starts filling up.  Perhaps he could help us then, by putting his card into the machine for us and we'll pay him the cash?  No.  He's busy filling up with petrol, give him a moment.  Are we English, he says, and so we reply happily yes.  It is the worst answer we could have given.  He gives  a little snort, finishes filling up his car, and motors off.  We drive into town.  There is a nice-looking hotel there.  We decide perhaps we'll stop here for the night and get fuel in the morning.  The hotel is fully booked.  They tell us there is a petrol station still open just round the corner.  We go there.  It is unmanned - only accepts French credit cards.  An Algerian drives in and stops beside a pump.  We ask him for help - could he use his credit card and we'll pay him for the fuel?  No problem.  Huge relief.  I give him a pot of Welsh mustard to thank him.

            We get to the hotel at eleven o'clock.  The patronne has waited up for us.  Are we hungry?  Would we like "une assiette anglaise"?  Of course we would.  It was delicious: a plate filled with salad, cornichons, ham, a coarse country terrine.  And bread and cheese and fruit.  We wash it down with a bottle of Chinon.  An excellent supper.  Our room is clean and comfortable, and the shower got top marks.  I have a problem with showers:  how do you wash your feet without coming to grief?  I have to stand on one leg to wash the other foot, and it is dangerously precarious - I know one of these days I'll slip, fall over and do myself a serious injury.  Well, this shower came with a built-in seat!

*   *   *

            Next day, Friday, our first tasting is at 9.30, near the city of Bourges -

DOMAINE DES CROIX, Quincy.  This is an alternative name for the domaine owned by Jacques Rouzé and his wife.  Quincy is, if you will, a cheaper alternative to Sancerre.  A thoroughly alternative domaine, then.  The grape variety here, as in Sancerre, is the Sauvignon Blanc.  In my opinion it is a difficult grape to vinify interestingly.  It is mainly a question of balance.  I will enumerate some of the difficulties facing the winemaker:

(1)  Sauvignon without acidity is as dull, and about as pleasant to drink, as ditchwater; and the grape can lose its acidity very quickly if not harvested at the right time;

(2) many examples so lack balance that they taste like homemade wine; herbaceousness is a good feature, but in moderation, and it needs to be balanced by some fruit and character (a tasting of cheaper New Zealand Sauvignons these days is a deadening exercise in herbaceousness, herbaceousness and more herbaceousness);

(3) and a certain stony minerality contributes an extra dimension, but there are too many too stony (and nothing much else) Sauvignons for my taste.

So there you have it - I'm a stern critic of the variety.  But M. Rouzé is a master of the variety, making wines of exceptional balance, with a brilliant zip of acidity, balanced by fresh, vivid fruit, with a touch of stoniness in the background.  His wines have a balance that is not passive but dynamic:  there is a tension between the various components that makes you want to keep drinking ....

            We come upon M. Rouzé as he is doing something in the doorway of a barn by the road leading to his domaine.  I thought I recognised him, but I wasn't sure.  The last time I'd seen him was a year earlier at the Salon des Vins de Loire.  At that event, like many other growers clearly unaccustomed to such outfits, he'd squeezed himself into a suit and tie to look respectable for the hordes of international buyers, journalists, etc. who descend on the venue.  At the Salon I'd tasted his wines, and been very impressed, but somehow had not got round to taking the matter any further.  So I thought this year I'd go to visit him and do some more investigating.

            Since I wasn't sure, I stopped the van and said I was looking for M. Rouzé. He said he was M. Rouzé.  He is a big-boned, tall fellow in his forties.  He looked much more at ease this morning in his working clothes.

            He is rather taciturn, leading us into his farm buildings to taste from his stainless steel tanks of the 2005 vintage.  The first sample is from a cuve that has been assembled ready for bottling in the next few days.  It's a good start - it's delicious.  M. Rouzé vinifies the grapes from his various vineyards separately.  He takes us through the different parcels.  A fascinating tour.

            We then repair to his house across from the farm buildings, and sit down to taste.  He starts to open up a little.  We taste his 2004s out of bottle.  Lovely, but the 2005s tasted even better.

            I give him a pot of Welsh mustard to say thank you for the tasting.  He is delighted by this and digs out a drying-up cloth with the name of his domaine emblazoned on it to give to us.

*   *   *

            We set off towards Lyon (200 miles away), where we have arranged to spend a night with friends.  However, we stop for lunch at Moulins, and we are making good time.  We have to pass quite close to Pouilly-Fuissé on our way to Lyon, and there is a grower there that I would like to see.  So I telephone him and ask if we can see him for a tasting that afternoon.  Yes, we can -

DOMAINE ROMANIN, Fuissé.  I didn't know if I was going to have time to drop in on this domaine, and so I hadn't made an appointment in advance.  I have never sold a single bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé.  I have in the past thought the wine from this appellation was rather overpriced and traded on its catchy name.  This domaine, owned by the Vervier family, and run by the younger son Denis, is based in the village of Fuissé.  I discovered Denis at a tasting put on by Burgundy producers in London earlier this year.  I was impressed.

            We taste five of his wines.  I like his "Terroir de Fuissé" and his "Lamure".  The "Terroir de Fuissé" comes from 40-year-old vines vines planted in his village of Fuissé.  Perhaps I should explain that the appellation of Pouilly-Fuissé is a collection of villages, namely:  Pouilly, Fuissé, Vergisson, Solutré and Chaintré.  The wine is matured 50% in tank and 50% in old oak.  It is perfumed, supple, with a pleasingly broad flavour and nice persistence.  His "Lamure" comes from a single vineyard planted with 80-year-old vines in Solutré.  The wine is matured entirely in oak barrels of various ages, and shows an attractively restrained influence from this.  It is quite a serious wine, with elegance, weight and concentration.

            I decide to buy a few cases of each of these two wines.  Could Denis organise the wines, and then we'll pick them up on Sunday when we pass by on our way back up north?  Yes, that would be fine.

*   *   *

            Early afternoon on Sunday I begin to feel queasy.  We're motoring along the autoroute, and after a while I suddenly feel so sick that I have to pull in to a services.  We pull up and I'm sick immediately.

            We carry on and collect the Pouilly-Fuissé.

            Later we reach our hotel, chosen for its cooking.  We can't eat - Broo now has the bug as well.  We order mint tea to be brought up to our extremely comfortable room.  We're sick all night.  Each time I go into the bathroom I smell the expensive soap provided by the hotel:  it is scented with essence of green tea - a truly sickmaking smell.  It is the unpleasantest soap I have ever encountered - memorably horrible.

*   *   *

            Next morning our first tasting is at nine o'clock -

DOMAINE MICHEL SERVEAU, La Rochepot.  M. Serveau is in good form.  I'm feeling really ropy.  Mme. Serveau appears with a plate of freshly made gougères, little balls of choux pastry made with cheese.  We politely refuse them.  We start tasting with an Aligoté, which is light and bright, followed by his white Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune Blanc 2004, which has a deeper yellow colour.  It is quite soft, with a faint touch of vanilla from some very limited oak ageing.

            A couple arrive, French customers of M. Serveau.  We say our hellos and all sit down to taste.  They eat the gougères.

            We go on to the reds.  First, Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune 2003:  it has a typical 2003 smell, namely more Côtes du Rhône than Burgundy.  It is spicy and rich in the mouth, with a bite of tannin.  Next, the 2004 Hautes Côtes de Beaune:  I like this much more; it is lighter, fresher, less tannic - also more elegant.  We go on to taste his Saint Aubin and Chassagne-Montrachet.

            We get through the tasting and go on to -

DOMAINE DIDIER MONTCHOVET, Nantoux.  M. Montchovet doesn't seem particularly cheerful.  He takes us into his cellar among the barrels of maturing wines.  He is a tall, rangy fellow, and has grown his hair long, which gives him a mediaeval look - like somebody out of Blackadder.  We taste six wines here, including a delicious white 2003, not yet bottled.  Despite the heat of the vintage, this wine has very good freshness, with a fine creamy vanilla flavour.

            We say our good-byes and go on to -

DOMAINE PASCAL PRUNIER, Meursault.  Pascal Prunier had kindly invited us to lunch, but I'd telephoned in the morning to say we had tummy trouble, and please could we pass on lunch.

            Nevertheless, we are treated to an extensive tasting - 18 wines.  His Saint Romain Blanc 2004 is delicious:  star bright colour; rich, ripe smell, with a touch of oak; in the mouth it is rich, showing some oak influence, with excellent persistence.  Of the reds, his Saint Romain and Monthélie, both 2004, particularly impress.

            This is a long tasting.  The weather is cold (it was minus three overnight), and I haven't dressed up sufficiently today (too tired and unwell to pay attention).  We are in Pascal's cellar.  I'm flagging, and getting colder.

            Eventually the tasting is over.  We motor off and drive around to warm up from the van's heater.  No lunch - we don't feel up to it.

*   *   *

            Our next tasting -

DOMAINE BRUNO FÈVRE, Meursault.  We're a little bit late for this tasting because Bruno has moved, thus making him more difficult to find and the road down to his new house is closed for roadworks.  Also the alternative route from the centre of the village is blocked by a funeral.  We park in the main square, probably illegally, and walk down.

            We say hello, mention where we've parked the van - yes, it's illegal.  So I go off and get the van - the funeral has now dispersed.

            Bruno Fèvre is a really hardworking, conscientious and talented vigneron.  His best friend is in charge of the cellars at the recently revitalised Domaine Jacques Prieur - it owns vines in some of the choicest vineyards in the whole of Burgundy, including Le Montrachet, Le Chambertin, Le Musigny, Echezeaux and Corton-Charlemagne.  Bruno spends a lot of time with his friend in Jacques Prieur's cellars, tasting, learning, discussing.  And it shows in his winemaking.

            We taste ten wines with Bruno and his wife Christine.

            Here is a little rant:  I have read smart-alec articles in the press about how the growers in Burgundy drive around in big fat Mercedes, don't do any work, produce substandard, overpriced wine and live off the famous names that their wines bear.  Well, all the growers I deal with are conscientious and hardworking, and, to illustrate the point with an anecdote,  last year I was taken to taste in the cellars at Jacques Prieur.  We didn't start till after eight in the evening because Bruno's friend was busy with his work.  After about an hour there was a bit of a commotion, and Martin Prieur, the current owner of the estate came into the building with his chief oenologist and two Americans, dressed in anoraks and training shoes - so clearly very serious and big buyers (which in fact, it turned out, they were).  They stayed for about three-quarters of an hour, tasting.  These people work hard - they do not rest on their laurels.

            We conclude the tasting with Bruno and go on to -

DOMAINE CHRISTOPHE MARY, Corcelles-les-Arts.  M. Mary makes spectacular whites, interesting, unusual reds that I personally like, though they do display a marked individuality.  We taste through his 2004 whites, starting with the Meursault, at which Broo lets out a loud exclamation as to its unbelievable deliciousness.  2004 was certainly a wonderful vintage for whites at this domaine, with a thrilling tension between the fruit and the acdidity.  M. Mary makes a fat, full, old-fashioned style of white burgundy, but at the same time there is always a brilliant thread of acidity to bring balance and harmony.

            We taste his 2004 Auxey-Duresses red, which is very pale indeed, though with an extraordinary, vivid redcurrant smell.  We then taste two vintages of his Pommard:  2003 and 2004; they show a less pale, redder colour than the Auxey-Duresses; the 2004 smells quite different from its flavour - smell:  indeterminately fruity, with a faint hint of some kind of spice (nutmeg?) - flavour:  redcurrants, black fruits, with excellent persistence, and smooth, ripe tannin.  The 2003 is lovely - softer than the 2004.

*   *   *

            We stay the night in one of my favourite hotels, Hotel Petit in Corcelles-les-Monts, which is nowhere near Corcelles-les-Arts (they are about three quarters of an hour's drive apart).  Hotel Petit is small.  It has only two rooms to let.  It is also the village bar.  It is called Petit because it is run by Mme. Petit (I have never seen a M. Petit) - single-handedly.  Mme. Petit is small, less than five foot tall.  She is in her seventies, I would guess.  I have never seen such a worker.  She is both bowed and lopsided by the prodigious, relentless work - she starts before breakfast (she gets breakfast for me) and she is still at work after supper (she also gets supper for me).  I have the greatest admiration for her.  And her hotel is ridiculously cheap:  £20 a night per person, including supper and breakfast.  The village of Corcelles-les-Arts is up in the hills to the west of Dijon.  I drive to it via Marsannay.  It is not a wine village, and after the intensity of tasting wine all day, it's so peaceful and relaxing.  There is, however, one more task to do before supper:  unload the van, because there's going to be a frost tonight, and the hotel doesn't have a garage.

Tuesday morning, 9 o'clock  (after reloading the van) -

DOMAINE ALAIN VOEGELI, Gevrey-Chambertin.  M. Voegeli is a nervous, nervy fellow.  His domaine consists of two parcels of vines either side of the village, and he blends the two together to make a single wine.  So tastings here are always brief.

            We go down into his cellar to taste the 2005, which is looking very promising, and then we go back upstairs to taste a bottle of his 2004, which is quite light in both colour and flavour, but pleasingly aromatic.

DOMAINE PHILIPPE GAVIGNET, Nuits Saint Georges.  This is a very consistent domaine, producing appetising, ageable red burgundy every vintage.

            We taste his 2005s in barrel - very exciting, with really ripe, fine-textured fruit.

            And then his 2004s, recently bottled:  His Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Nuits "Clos des Dames Huguettes" (what a mouthful! - but always a delicious one); despite its lowly appellation, this is textbook red burgundy, and capable of ageing, taking on those typical farmyardy notes after a few years' cellaring.  Also, particularly impressive are his village Nuits Saint Georges, and two of his Premiers Crus, "Les Bousselots" and "Les Pruliers", the former being quite burly and chewy in style (my tasting note:  "Oaky nose, brilliant fruit in mouth - THUMBS UP"), the latter being finer, silkier (my tasting note:  "Very fine, very sleek, lovely texture, terrific persistence - TIP TOP").

DOMAINE GACHOT-MONOT, Corgoloin.  My favourite grower.  He makes honest, delicious, well-priced red burgundy.  His main vineyard holdings are in the unfashionable appellation of Côte de Nuits Villages, of which he makes two cuvées - a straight bottling, and a slightly more expensive one from a patch of vines that always produces superior fruit, by the name of "Les Chaillots".  We arrive and go down into his lovely new cellar, completed a couple of years ago, and taste through his 2004s from barrel.  The word that jumps out at me from my tasting notes is "vivid" - Damien Gachot has coaxed really fresh, vivid flavours out of the grapes this vintage.  As an aside, as time has passed and I have got to know the 2004 vintage in Burgundy better, the more impressed I am by it - the wines in general seem to exhibit a brilliant freshness that should bode well for the future.

            Then lunch.  We had a meat fondue, interrupted by one of their black labradors escaping, which caused a bit of a panic, because it was on heat.

DOMAINE JEAN RAPHET, Morey Saint Denis.  We arrive here at 3.30.   M. Raphet makes wonderful burgundy every year.  He tends to drop his prices for the vintages which get low scores on the vintage charts, which suits me, because the wines are just as delicious.  He always opens a dazzling array of bottles when I go and taste here.  This time he opens eight bottles, including four Grands Crus (which he sells at his cellar door for over £25 a bottle).

            Another useful feature of this domaine is that M. Raphet is prepared to sell me slightly older vintages, and so on this visit I arrange to buy some more Clos de la Roche 2000, which I have bought before - here is my tasting note:  "Wonderful nose of violets and cherries, followed by sensational sweet fruit + length + length + length."

DOMAINE THEVENOT-LE BRUN, Marey-les-Fussey.  A comprehensive tasting here, starting at 4.30:  we start with some 2005 reds and whites from both tank and barrel - very promising.  Then a tasting from bottle: 19 wines, red, white and rosé; vintages from 1999 to 2004.  M. Thevenot entertains us with great charm and patience.  He talks us through everything.  Our next appointment is at six, half an hour away.  At quarter to six, I ask if I would be allowed to make a telephone call, because we're clearly not going to be out of here by six, and I've never been to the next domaine (Alain Guyard in Marsannay), or met the people.  Embarrassing.  They're a teeny bit testy when I speak to them - no, I can't visit them later - the husband's been at the hospital for an appointment; yes, we can see them tomorrow at eleven o'clock, but punctually.

             The tasting chez Thevenot continues - a delightful, reasonably priced range of wines with real individuality and character.  We eventually finish after seven.

            We now have about an hour's drive down to Nolay, beyond Santenay, to stay the night at another hotel that I like to stay in:  Les Halles; it has particularly good breakfasts, with exceptionally good home made jam.

            Again, we have to unload the van, into a rather awkward cellar.

            But we have a bit of luck this year:  previously it was impossible to eat in the evening in Nolay in January and February, but now the bar in the centre of town has been taken over by new management, and it is possible to have a perfectly edible snack-type meal.  We also ordered a bottle of Bourgogne Hautes Côtes de Beaune red, which was the most expensive wine on the very short list, and it really wasn't nice - beer next time, methinks.

Wednesday morning, 9 o'clock (after reloading the van yet again) -

DOMAINE CLAUDE NOUVEAU, Marchezeuil.  Marchezeuil is an extremely small village just outside Nolay - I would guess its population at around twenty-five.  It is a beautiful, very crisp morning; the temperature had got down to minus 7 overnight.

            Unfortunately, we have a rather short tasting with M. Nouveau, because I've promised to be punctual for the next tasting with M. Guyard in Marsannay.  M. Nouveau is rather disappointed.  His wines, however, are as good as ever, with his white Santenay 2003 being particularly scrumptious - he had cleverly decided to stop the malolactic fermentation, thus preserving a bit more acidity in the wine - important since it had been such a hot summer, and many whites lack sufficient acidity, or, worse still, exhibit the harsh flavours of clumsy acidification.

DOMAINE ALAIN GUYARD, Marsannay.  Yet another new discovery!  We arrive punctually, and pull up in the courtyard of the domaine.  We step up to the front door and ring the bell.  After a short interval M. Guyard, who must be pushing eighty, opens the door, stick in hand, and shuffles out to greet us.  I now see why he was at the hospital yesterday.

            We make a slow progress across the courtyard into the cellars opposite, M. Guyard leading the way.  Once in the cellars, we wind our way deeper and deeper past racks and racks of bottles, as M. Guyard struggles to find the light switches for the next section of cellar, till we end up around an upturned barrel placed there for the purpose of tasting - and off we go!

            We start with a rosé - Marsannay is famous for its rosé.  It is the palest rosé ever.  Then a white, Marsannay "Les Étales" 2003:  yellow green in colour, light to medium weight, nice and crisp, with mineral finish.  M. Guyard says this can be kept for 15 to 20 years.  There is no oak influence detectable in the flavour, but apparently M. Guyard uses up to 20% new oak.  Fine winemaking.

            Next, the reds.  We taste seven reds, from Marsannay, Fixin, Gevrey-Chambertin and Vosne-Romanée.  I have always had good experiences with Marsannay - excellent, honest red burgundy at reasonable prices.  Conversely, I've never been impressed by the wines from Fixin that I have tasted.  The tasting here here followed that pattern.  In particular, I liked the Marsannay "Les Genelières" 2002 - it had a nose of vivid grapy aromas; in the mouth it displayed lovely fruit, with subdued tannins and excellent acidity, and a fine expressive finish.  I also liked the Gevrey-Chambertin 2003, with the following flavours noted at the time:  "Floral, violets, earth."

            We tasted two vintages of the Vosne-Romanée, which was thrillingly good, but unfortunately M. Guyard had none to sell me - maybe next year .....

*   *   *

            After M. Guyard we went round to M. Raphet to collect the Clos de la Roche, and then headed off to to see Mme. Villiers near Vézelay, an hour or so's drive from M. Raphet -

DOMAINE ÉLISE VILLIERS, Précy-le-Moult.  Our appointment here is for three o'clock.  Précy-le-Moult is a small, straggling hamlet within sight of the hill of Vézelay.  Mme. Villiers' husband is a farmer, and, as he told us with a little play on words, he concerns himself "du Charolais", while his wife concerns herself "du Chardonnay".

            Mme. Villiers greets us and shows us indoors, where we sit at a long wooden table, and quietly taste.  The vintage we are tasting is the 2004.  Every vintage she makes exemplary Chardonnay similar in style to Chablis (which is only just over an hour's drive away), though with its own individual nuances - less mineral and gunflint, but with a little more weight, and possibly prettier with more floral notes.

*   *   *

We press on to our next appointment, with a Chablis grower -

DOMAINE HEIMBOURGER, St. Cyr-les-Colons.  This grower is based just outside the south-eastern edge of the delimited area for the Chablis appellation.  I am particularly fond of their straight Bourgogne Chardonnay, which is always crisp, Chardonnay-like and very good value.  They also make an Irancy (red), from a vineyard they planted in 1994 - as the vines gain more age, the wine noticeably gains in flavour, character and interest.

            We taste eight wines here, before going on to our hotel in Chablis, the Hôtellerie des Clos, one of my favourite hotels of all time.  Happily, this hotel now has a garage, and so we didn't have to unload the van - a relaxing end to the day.

*   *   *

Thursday, 8.30 a.m. -

DOMAINE LEGER, Épineuil.  M. Leger, who looks to be in his late fifties, receives us with his bouncy, boisterous son of about thirty.  They generously ply us with gougères, cheese and bread, and we taste.  They make a rosé, which I do not buy, and a red, which I do.  They're chatty and friendly, and then we're off to -

DOMAINE JEAN-MARIE NAULIN, Beines.  The village of Beines is about three quarters of an hour's drive from Épineuil.  It is a short distance outside Chablis on the road to Auxerre.  I always think of this as the domaine of Mme. Naulin, because she does all the talking.  They're a charming, friendly, helpful couple, making a style of Chablis that, while retaining all the characteristics of Chablis, shows an appetising degree of fruitiness which appeals to me.

            This domaine didn't do very well in 2003, but we are tasting the 2004 vintage, and it is right back on form.  They make two wines: a straight village Chablis, and a Premier Cru Beauroy.  The village wine has good acidity, and excellent persistence, while the Beauroy is restrained on the nose, but is more expressive in the mouth, with more oomph than the village wine, and an impressively strong finish.

Our next appointment is at 11.30 a.m. -

DOMAINE DENIS POMMIER, Poinchy.  This domaine gets better and better.  Denis and Isabelle Pommier are still young, in their thirties, and cultivate an eight hectare estate, with land in the following appellations:  Petit Chablis, Chablis, and three Premier Crus - Beauroy, Côte de Léchet and Fourchaume.  A fair amount of oak is used here, for the Beauroy and Côte de Léchet, and for one of their village Chablis.  Their other village Chablis and Petit Chablis are done entirely in tank.

            We taste through their 2004s (I will only reproduce my notes on the wines that I buy from the domaine) -

Petit Chablis - this actually has a bit of weight.  Nice minerality with some floral notes.

Chablis - really good Chablis nose here.  A degree of richness (earlier vintages from this domaine lacked the richness, which seems to have appeared more recently).  Really good aromatic finish.

Premier Cru Beauroy - toffee and caramel nose (lovely) - similar flavour in mouth.  Nice sweet finish.

Premier Cru Côte de Léchet - more muted oak here.  Floral side to nose, follows through on flavour - nice acidity, continuing right through the finish.  Floral, pretty.

            After the tasting, Denis and Isabelle took us to a restaurant in the centre of Chablis where the growers like to go and eat.  Our lunch was punctuated with friends of the Pommiers (other growers) coming over to chat.

*   *   *

            We then set off for the Champagne region, to the village of Les Riceys.  The route is across country, over hills.  It began to snow.  By the time we reached Les Riceys, it was snowing heavily.  If we'd set off an hour later, we probably would not have made it over the hills that day.  We visited a domaine in Les Riceys speculatively whose wines I have not bought.

            That evening was one of the high points of the trip:  Château de Courban.  This is an old manor house in the village of Courban, just up the road from Châtillon-sur-Seine at the north-east tip of Burgundy where it adjoins Champagne.  You drive in through an arch in a high stone wall surrounding the property.  You find yourself in a spacious, leafy courtyard with the house facing you, with a large ornamental pool in front, and on the right some magnificent farm buildings that have been converted into further accommodation, dining room, kitchen, etc.

            We went up the steps and in through the front door.  Inside, the house is heavily decorated, with lots of objets, pictures on the walls, large pots with dried vegetation in them.  A young man, very fair-haired, immaculately dressed in a tweed jacket, silk tie, and with his Teutonically fair hair neatly brushed with a parting, greets us.  He has a soft voice.  The place feels very camp.

            We are shown our room.  It's enormous, with the bath in the room as well, in an alcove.  Again, it's heavily decorated in a camp style.  The bed is spread with lots of sumptuous, not to say fluffy, eiderdowns and pillow-cases.  It's all incredibly comfortable, and, after thinking that it was a little bit de trop at first, we're beginning to like this place - except that we notice the price for the room on the back of the door, and it's significantly higher than the price I'd been quoted over the telephone when I booked.

After the experience in Tours this made me jumpy.  I went downstairs to ask about the price.  There was an older man downstairs, immaculately dressed in a tweed jacket and cravat, clearly the father of the youth.  On my asking, he waved away my question as follows:  I could have the room at the quoted price; the hotel was full - they couldn't put us in any other room; there was some kind of corporate event booked in that had taken all the other rooms.  We'd actually got a bargain!  My, how that cheered me up.

            The owners had a Dutch-sounding surname (it was run by the father and son), and they had come from the far north-east of France - with their surname and their very looks, they had clearly originally come from Flanders.  The father had had an interior design business in the north-east, and had sold up and bought the château.  He thought he would retire, but then he started doing bed and breakfast; that went well, and so he'd turned it into a hotel, and now he'd started a restaurant in the magnificent farm buildings.

            The dining room was sumptuous, with a huge log fire and sofas at one end - more like a sitting room - and the chairs for our table were sumptuous drawing-room armchairs.  The meal was delicious, sumptuous, comfortable.

            The next morning, breakfast was in the main house, and one of the best breakfasts I've had in France.  Then we were off to a tasting of champagne about half an hour's drive from the hotel.

*   *   *

            Then a fairly long drive of a couple of hours to -

CHAMPAGNE JACKIE SIMONET, Villers-Marmery.  Our appointment here is at 2 p.m.  This is another speculative visit - I've never been to this producer before, or tasted their champagne.  We find the address without any trouble, but we're a little bit early, and so we motor off to take a look round the vineyards surrounding the village.

            On our return we ring the doorbell.  A dog the other side of the door yaps noisily.  Eventually, a youngish man, around thirty answers the door.  He's thin, dressed in jeans and sneakers, and speaks rather hesitantly.  We explain who we are, and he lets us in.  We are shown into the sitting-room, which has a wooden floor and is sparsely furnished.  On the walls are hunting trophies (stuffed animals and heads of animals).  The youngish man is M. Simonet.  His wife makes an entrance.  She is full of bustle and efficiency - a little bit plump,  not skinny like her husband.  She explains that she runs the office, while her husband can tell us all about the winemaking.

We didn't realise that she meant it:  M. Simonet led us off into the cellars, and began a monologue that went on almost uninterrupted for over an hour, all delivered in a breathless, breakneck monotone, with an occasional exaggerated gulp as he paused momentarily for breath.  If you asked a question, you would get a full-length answer before he put himself back on the rails of his clearly prepared monologue.  So we didn't really ask questions.

            We wound our way through all parts of the cellars and winery, monologue in full flow throughout, working our way gradually upwards, till we found ourselves in his tractor shed.

And here was the coup de grâce:  he opened the wide barn doors of the tractor shed to reveal ..... his vineyards (!), which he indicated with a grand sweep of his hand.  The vines came right up to within 20 feet of the tractor shed.  It was a fine finale.

I should say that we had a tasting before we were given the guided tour.  Their basic Brut Traditionnel is excellent.  I reproduce my tasting note:  "rich, chocolatey, very delicious - nice mousse.  Floral, biscuity finish.  THUMBS UP."

Interestingly, the village of Villers-Marmery is on the Montagne de Reims, a stronghold of the Pinot Noir vine.  Villers-Marmery is a white grape village, growing Chardonnay almost exclusively - the exception to the rule.  I noticed vines belonging to Taittinger (Chardonnay specialists), for example, around the village.  M. Simonet's Brut Traditionnel is a blanc de blancs, exclusively Chardonnay.  This gives it an elegance that is most appetising.

We bought a few bottles there and then, to retaste back in Wales, and Mme. Simonet gave us a bottle of their ratafia.

We now had a drive of about an hour and a half to -

CHAMPAGNE PHILIZOT, Reuil.  Stéphane Philizot runs this business with his partner, Virginie.  They entertain us in their house.  We are given a glass of their vintage champagne.  We talk for a while - they're thrilled to bits because they've arranged a deal to supply the Moulin Rouge in Paris, and Stéphane is about to go off to Japan to sell their champagne.

            I'm picking up a small order of champagne from them as well.  So I do the payment before we motor off to their cellars where they make and store the champagne (about 5 minutes' drive away).

            We load up and head off towards the Channel.

*   *   *

            We have booked to stay the night at Vervins.  We arrive at the hotel, which was clearly a fortified building constructed as part of the town wall.  We drive into the courtyard, and go and find reception.  A man in a trim outfit reminiscent of a uniform, with epaulettes, greets us.  He speaks in a staccato, jerky way, and has bulging eyes.  We introduce ourselves, and ask if there is a garage, because the van is full of wine, and it's going to be a cold night.  The man says peremptorily that it's not going to be a cold night, and anyway even if it is a cold night the wine won't suffer.  He's so military and heel-clicking in his behaviour that I can't face arguing with him.  We go up to our room.  The decor of this hotel is extraordinary:  instead of cornices, a sort of continuous pelmet with tassels has been fixed to the walls; in our room the walls are covered with some kind of satiny material, with padding underneath - so if you leant against a wall it was like leaning on a cushion; brocade was everywhere.

            We go back down to reception, and find the man with bulging eyes, who turns out to be the patron.  Happily he decides to be slightly less unhelpful about my wine, and says that although he doesn't have a garage he does have a cellar where we can put the wine overnight (in the event the temperature drops to minus eight overnight).  So we unload the wine into his cellar (it is by now a whole vanload of wine - it takes a while - and we still have the prospect of reloading the van in the morning).

            We make our way to the dining room for supper.  The food is surprisingly good.  Only one other table is occupied - by an English couple, who are feuding in a muted sort of way.  The older of the pair looks as if he's in his sixties (and we discover later is an accountant).  His partner is a younger man, possibly in his late thirties, and flamboyantly camp in the mould of Kenneth Williams, whom he vaguely resembles.  Sporadically, as we sit there quietly eating our supper, the younger man gets up out of his chair and sweeps out of the dining room.

            In one of these interludes we get into a conversation with the accountant, who is a delightful fellow.

            The next morning we come down to breakfast.  The accountant is already there.  No sign of his partner.  We have breakfast in a different room:  it has an extraordinary ceiling with a sort of tent arrangement done in linen-like material, gathered up into an untidy central boss.  There is a large fish tank one end of the room.

            We say hello to the accountant.

            We start eating our breakfast.  The younger man makes an entrance.  He is wearing one of those fur hats that Russian presidents wear.  He has the flaps down.  And he is barefoot.  We wish him good morning, and he says, "Bonjour."  He insists on speaking French to us, even though he can't really speak French.  He keeps his hat on, and eats his breakfast through his hat.

            The accountant has told us that Guise is just up the road, and that it's worth a visit.  We decide to go and have a look on our way to the ferry.

            Guise is an unremarkable little town situated on the River Oise.  Mary Queen of Scots' grandfather was the first Duc de Guise.  Nowadays this is not a prosperous part of France.  The accountant had said there was a castle there.  We park below the castle and walk up.  You can barely see the castle from the town.  You make your way into the first courtyard through the massive gatehouse, as if you are going through a tunnel.  We are met by a woman with a weather-beaten face.  We buy our tickets.  And then she asks (in French) whether we prefer her to speak in French or English - she is going to give us a guided tour of the castle.  We say English - she asks us where we're from, and I say Wales, and she tells us she's from Wales as well!

            The entrance to the castle itself from the first courtyard is a massive structure, at a guess stretching up to eighty feet high.  Huge icicles hang down from above (it was a cold night).  She takes us up to the keep.  The walls are nearly 20 feet thick at the base - this is a solid structure!

It may seem curious to say this, but there isn't very much to see on the surface - no battlements or crenellated walls, even though the area of the castle extends over forty acres.   It is what we are about to see that makes this ruin so impressive:  first, the Grand Cellier, and then, after that, hundreds of yards of underground passageways, opening out now and again into subterranean chambers.  The Grand Cellier, which barely shows above ground now, was the bottom floor of a vast six-storey building, built in two parallel halves.  It could house 3,000 troops.  The cellars were filled up with rubble after the First World War.  It took 5 years to excavate them.

The castle was virtually intact up to 1914, but then suffered serious damage in the War, after which it was sold to a quarry company, and then, in 1929, to a sewage contractor.  Finally, in the 1950s, works to rescue this splendid ruin were put in hand.

Our Welsh guide took us around the site, and at one point some more sightseers turned up, but they were too late - they would have to come back after lunch.  We headed off  purposefully down one of the subterranean tunnels, while the other sightseers hung about at the entrance, tentatively taking a few steps along our tunnel.  We reached a turning to the right, at which our guide turned on the next set of lights for us, and turned off the lights for the other sightseers - an effective way of making them give up and go away!

This is a marvellous, utterly unexpected ruin - I strongly recommend a visit.

*   *   *

We caught the ferry, and arrived home safely.

Tom Innes
Irma Fingal-Rock,