Planning to nip across the Channel for this month’s Rugby World Cup? NIGEL BUXTON points wine-loving rugby fans towards the host cities with the richest gastronomic and cultural fare.
England may be a long shot to retain the Rugby World Cup it won in Sydney’s Telstra stadium four years ago when Jonny Wilkinson’s drop kick finally saw off the dogged Australians, but this year’s Rugby tournament, held almost exclusively in France, offers every rugby fan an odds-on chance to experience some of the world’s finest wines in situ. Read on and take note of what to see and where to eat and drink between matches.
9 Sep Ireland v Namibia, Pool D
15 Sep Ireland v Georgia, Pool D
25 Sep Canada v Japan, Pool B
29 Sep Australia v Canada, Pool B
It is just as well that England has no rugby fixture in the capital of the old province of Guyenne, which the English occupied for 300 years from the middle of the 12th century. Imagine if we were to play the French there, and win… In keeping with the perception of the great wines of Bordeaux as constituting the upper class of the whole business, the predominantly 18th-century city architecture and layout confer an imposing, aristocratic air upon the proudly restored, fiercely protected centre of the city. But one soon learns that even in the illustrious Médoc, a ‘château’ is architecturally as likely to resemble a superior farm building as Château Margaux. The capital of this great region is today reflective of a wine industry which inspite of all its difficulties believes that it has never really lost the right or the ability to lead the world again. The Maison du Vin at the Conseil Interprofessionel du Vin de Bordeaux, opposite the tourist office, even has a wine bar (11am – 10pm). Wines from the whole of Bordeaux may be tasted here.
Beyond the stadium
Musée des Beaux Arts, Musée d’Aquitaine, Monument des Girondins and Quartier des Chartrons are all on the shortlist of city attractions. For wine lovers, the École du Vin in the Cours Juillet provides a morning of tasting at about £20 a head. Vinorama Museum in the Cours du Médoc tells the history of Bordeaux winemaking. On Rue Borie, the Musée des Chartrons – the Quartier des Chartons is the wine trade district – has great appeal. Surprisingly for what is widely considered to be the wine capital of the world, the Bordeaux restaurant scene is unspectacular: ‘Not surprising. We don’t go in for ostentatious display, ’says a native resident. Only the Pavillon des Boulevards on Rue Croix de Sequey is starred by Michelin, and only one star at that. Table du Calvet in the Cours du Médoc, as one might expect, has an especially impressive wine list, as do Le Jardin d’Ausone on Rue Ausone and La Tupina on Rue Porte de la Monnaie; all with agreeable ambiences and very good food.
8 Sep New Zealand v Italy, Pool C
12 Sep Italy v Romania, Pool C
22 Sep Argentina v Nambia, Pool D
30 Sep France v Georgia, Pool D
6 Oct Quarter Final 1
Winner Pool B v Runner-up Pool A
7 Oct Quarter Final 3
Winner Pool A v Runner-up Pool B
It must surely add a je ne sais quoi to the experience of 21st century Marseille to consider that France’s second city, founded by the Phocaeans from Asia Minor, became Massilia, for a while the greatest of all wine entrepôts of the Roman empire, as witness the wine amphorae still found in fisherman’s nets. Several centuries BC, the vineyards of Massilia were producing the colony’s own vintages. Today the most conspicuous immigrants are from North Africa, adding to the city’s cosmopolitan feel.
Beyond the stadium
Make sure you see The Old Harbour, La Canebière (the long avenue that is the city’s high street), the Musée du Vieux Marseille and the Musée des Docks Romains. Offshore, there’s the infamous Château d’If (Count of Monte Cristo, and all that). If the Rugby in the Velodrome stadium were to pall it could be comforting to know that Marseille is wonderfully situated for vin tourisme. The wine country of Provence is next door, with Ventoux and the Lubéron nearby. Bandol is just 30 miles to the east, along the coast. Under an hour’s drive away are Châteauneuf-du-Pape and newly dynamic Tavel. For breezes, and spectacular views of coast and sea, the Massif des Calanques stretch from Marseille to the highly picturesque tourist trap of Cassis. Luckily, autumn is the best season to discover the Dentelles du Midi, along with the famous wine villages of Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise. Only four restaurants in Marseille have Michelin stars and the most distinguished of them (two stars) is on the Corniche Kennedy and waywardly called Le Petit Nice. As well as the delicious bouillabaisse, it has hotel rooms, a notable wine list and lofty prices. L’Épuisette, at the Valon des Auffes, close to the Vieux Port, clings to the cliff above the harbour, has a single Michelin star and a view of the Château d’If. Just along the road, the Péron is commendable for both the food and view.
8 Sep Australia v Japan, Pool B
11 Sep Argentina v Georgia, Pool D
15 Sep New Zealand v Portugal, Pool C
Rugby enthusiasts who are also wine lovers are almost certain to be spoilt for choice here. The majority of the names on the speciality wine lists are to be found on the map less than an hour’s drive away. The vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé, Saint-Véran, Macon Villages, Moulin-à-Vent, Chiroubles and Beaujolais Blanc are just up the road. The narrow, steep-sided appellations of the Northern Rhône – St-Joseph; Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, St-Péray, Condrieu, – are all on the banks of the great river between Vienne and Valance, not 70 miles to the south.
Beyond the Rugby stadium
At little risk of hyperbole, it can be said that with the exception of Paris, no city in France is as rich in things for the visitor to see and do as is France’s much-maligned but truly noble third city. Whether it is a pottery or interior decoration fair, a film festival or a celebration of modern art, there’s always something special going on. The permanent attractions alone – the long list embraces at least half a dozen world-class museums – manifestly justify arriving early or staying on. Lyon was Caesar’s Lugdunum and Agrippa’s base for his conquest of Gaul, and the Museum of Gallo-Roman Civilisation on the hill of Fourvière is eminently worth the funicular trip. On a clear day the views are a joy. River cruises on the Rhône and the Saône reveal one of he most impressive waterfronts in the world. The Vieux Quartier features in every tourist brochure. Justly so: it is widely recognised as one of the world’s finest examples of urban rehabilitation. For a triumph of architectural restoration and adaptation, glance inside the exquisite Hotel Cour des Loges. La Croix Rousse district, where the silk industry had its beginning, including the famous Traboules (‘secret’, covered passageways), is a World Heritage site. Loftier interests apart, Lyon’s wining and dining scene is supremely enticing. Save up for the legendary Paul Bocuse if you must, but there are a dozen other Michelin-starred restaurants to choose from, plus the bouchons (traditional, mostly unpretentious restaurants), among which the Café des Fédérations is likely to be a more than satisfactory choice.
12 Sep USA v Tonga, Pool A
16 Sep Samoa v Tonga, Pool A
23 Sep Australia v Fiji, Pool B
30 Sep South Africa v USA, Pool A
Capital of the department of Languedoc-Rousillon – and within easy reach of Corbières, Minervois, Faugères and St Chinian – Montpellier (a renowned centre of wine learning)represents unsurpassable opportunities for wine explorations. With the price of good land in more illustrious viticultural regions far beyond their reach, a host of talented newcomers are among those who have ensured that nowhere in France have improvement and innovation been more marked and more successful. Not merely very good but potentially great wines are being made in what is the world’s largest vineyard.
Beyond the stadium
At the heart of the city, the spacious, pedestrianised Place de la Comédie is the best starting point for a leisurely exploration, including the Promenade du Peyrou, the magnificent Musée Fabre and Old Montpellier. Markets are frequent in the adjoining Esplanade Charles de Gaulle. In the suburb of Lattes, the Maison des Vins du Languedoc, housed in the Mas de Saporta, showcases wines from the whole region, many at producers’ prices. In the same complex the Restaurant des Cuisiniers Vignerons offers agreeable food at moderate cost with a long wine list. Back in town, L’Olivier has a Michelin star. The elegant hotel-restaurant Jardin des Sens has superb food and dizzy prices. September in Montpellier sees (and hears) the International Guitar Festival and the Quartiers Libres Festival, rich in innovative concerts, dance and theatre. Out-of-town excursions could include Nîmes (55 km), Pézenas (55km), Béziers (71km) and Narbonne (96km). Wine interests apart, much of the wine country between the Mediterranean and the foothills of the Massif Central is delightful and worth a detour in its own right. If beaches beckon in early autumn sunshine, the coast between Valréas and Gruissan should yield pleasant enough picnic spots remote from the madding rugby crowds.
9 Sep Wales v Canada, Pool B
22 Sep England v Samoa, Pool A
29 Sep Wales v Fiji, Pool B
For the visitor from abroad, Nantes is perhaps the least known of all France’s Rugby World Cup venues, but one well worth knowing – rather like the dominant wine of the Pays Nantais: Muscadet. Described by Decanter columnist Hugh Johnson as a ‘seaside wine’, a generation or two ago Muscadet was one of the first wines anyone thought of when they ate seafood. Quality waned and Muscadet experienced a drop in popularity. Now, like Nantes, it is enjoying something of a renaissance.
Beyond the stadium
The magnificent Castle of the Dukes of Brittany in the heart of the city has first call on the time of any visitor. Among other treasures, it houses the Nantes History Museum, one of France’s best. September offers no special events in the city, but the Fine Arts, Archaeology, Jules Verne (he was born in Nantes) and Dobrée museums are recommended attractions. There are boat trips on the Erdre and the Loire. Wine enthusiasts should head out of town to discover the well organised Vineyard Trail, which includes stops at the Maison du Muscadet in Vallet and the Musée du Vignoble Nantais at Le Pallet. Throughout the trail, producers are keen to demonstrate that their wines – made from Melon de Bourgogne – are no poor relations to fashionable Sauvignons. For an outstanding wine list, delectable seafood – the incomparable coast of Brittany begins just up the road – and a seductive ambience, the L’Océanide restaurant in town is hard to beat. Add a memorable view and a Michelin star and L’Atlantide takes the biscuit.