Every other August my wife and I take off for a two- or three-week drive around France, most of the time staying with friends.
The circuit is always eggshaped, arriving in Cherbourg, spending a night in Normandy before heading to the Gironde, across into Les Landes, then to Toulouse, crossing the Tarn and the Gard rivers into the southern Rhône, northern Rhône, Beaujolais, Burgundy, and back to Cherbourg. Except on restaurant visits, I never get to look at a menu, let alone choose the wine, which results in a holiday full of surprises.
Our friends in Normandy, a contemporary from school and his French wife, live in deepest countryside overlooking a small moated manor house built on the remains of one belonging to William the Conqueror’s grandparents. Roast veal was accompanied by Château Lagrange 2000, the seasonal apple tart by the Medeville family’s splendidly Sauternes-like Cadillac, Château Fayau 1996, before ending with Calvados made by a local farmer.
So far, so good, and we hurtled south, just stopping for a sandwich and Saumur Champigny, to arrive at St-Christoly in the far north of the Médoc, where an old friend, after long stints with Nicolas in Paris and Seagram in New York, runs a small wine business. Professing that he was exhausted by the 2009 Bordeaux campaign, we had Rhône (Les Pallières, Gigondas 2001 and Jean-Luc Colombo, Cornas 2004) and Burgundy (William Fèvre, Fourchaume, Chablis 2007 and Bouchard Père & Fils, Clos de la Mousse, Beaune 2006). I did manage to taste some Bordeaux, a delicious 2009 rosé de saignée from Clos Manou in the same village. Manou is one of the best young Médoc producers, slowly buying more land from neighbours who can’t make ends meet, and replanting it to 10,000 vines per hectare – an encouraging contrast to the ripping out of many vineyards, even by Bernard Magrez, the largest local owner.
Next, over to stay with my niece, who is slowly renovating a vast farmhouse lost in the Armagnac region, built around a central courtyard. I had brought a case of wine, but we drank the neighbouring Domaine de Pellehaut white and red Vins de Pays des Côtes de Gascogne – actually one of our house wines in Dorset – and, because my niece’s husband is from the Cape, May-Eliane de Lenquesaing’s Glenelly Hill from Stellenbosch.
The next three nights were spent near St-Félix-Lauragais in the Haute-Garonne, where the marvellous foie gras, terrines and confits from host Caroline de Roquette-Buisson were washed down with lots of local Gaillac. We also went to Le Poids Public, one of Tony Blair’s favourite restaurants, to become serious with Alain Brumont’s Château Montus Madiran 2005.
Two days on our own in a country hotel outside Rodez allowed me to drink two wines that I had mentioned in a small book called French Country Wines, but had never actually tasted: Estaing (named for the village former French President Giscard hails from) and Entraygues et Fel, both VDQS wines from local grapes, such as Mauzan, Fer and Negrette, fresh and delicious in all three colours.
Judging by the tables in the restaurants, I doubt a single bottle leaves the region. North of Montelimar, it became more classic. Our host, a regular client at my shop in Paris, decided to open some vintages of Cornas from Auguste Clape that he knew I hadn’t tasted for years: a fine 1979 and an astounding 1978, which made the 1990 and 1994 that I own look positively nouveau. The next stop was Fleurie, where Canadian Denise Diesen’s house overlooks the vineyards with a view to Mont Blanc. French wine guru Michel Bettane is her neighbour, and a regular dinner guest who brings his own bottles. They were magnums: Champagne Palmer Blanc de Blancs 1996; Genot Boulanger, Corton-Charlemagne 1996; Confuron- Cotetidot, Nuits-St-Georges premier cru 1986; Louis Remy, Latricières- Chambertin 1993 and Domaine Janin, Moulin-à-Vent 1985 – by far the preferred wine of the evening.
The great quality of the 2009 vintage was further confirmed during our last days in Burgundy. Jean-Marc Roulot, whose wines Bettane rates as, perhaps, the purest expression of Meursault, reckons modestly that the year is une grande classique. For reds, négociant Alex Gambal quoted Volnay veteran Michel Lafarge as saying he had never seen such beautiful grapes, and that the wines would be good young and last forever, like the 1959s. [See next month’s issue for a preview of Burgundy’s 2009 vintage.] Finally, an evening tasting the entire range from Nicolas Potel at his stillunfinished Domaine de Bellene winery on the Savigny side of Beaune, re-affirmed for me that his is a name rarely surpassed by even the most established stars.
Written by Steven Spurrier