The Dordogne region of south-western France holds a treasure trove of things to see and do. As our wine correspondent Jim Walker notes, it is also home to some superb but, sadly, little known wineries. And, that’s exactly how its downriver neighbour Bordeaux likes it.
We had heard many wonderful stories about the Dordogne, the old Périgord region of France. But the closest we had ever come to appreciating it first hand was a remarkable week-long visit we had enjoyed in Bordeaux several years prior. Hélène also wanted to find a new destination for her French tours. So, in the fall of 2012 after spending yet another splendid fortnight or so in Provence, we motored up and over to Sarlat-la-Canéda to experience the fruits of the Dordogne firsthand. The first two-thirds of the trip was on the excellent ‘A’ toll highways, but once we passed Toulouse we encountered somewhat primitive roads that wended their way through dense, dark forests. We had definitely entered a different, enchanted world.
In 1962 under a new law called the loi Malraux money was provided to restore Sarlat’s fine buildings and it now has the highest density of Historic Monuments and Classified Monuments of any town in France. There are numerous specialty food shops, terrific restaurants, a whimsical bronze statue of three geese and a local market that is located in an ancient converted cathedral. A glass elevator located immediately behind the market takes one up behind the church for a panoramic view of the town.
Sarlat is a wonderful base for exploring the Dordogne. I chronicled our first day’s follies of extreme gluttony in my Gentleman’s Portion post Real Farmers Don’t Do Tasting Menus. We spent the next couple of days gleefully exploring neighbouring villages including Domme and Beynac-et-Cazenac, all the while trying to avoid any more fois gras (even green salads came with a thick slab of the stuff on top). Our introductory visit to the Dordogne was all too short but it was indeed sweet. We vowed to return for a longer stay as soon as we could.
And, return we did, with three other couples the following year. We began our adventures in the port city of Bordeaux. We had been there 30 years before and, quite frankly, at that time it was a bit of a dump. But such is not the case today. After five years or so of complete chaos, the city reincarnated itself and is now one of Europe’s finest destinations. We then moved on to the very hilly wine village of Saint-Émilion just a half hour away. Fine restaurants and wine shops abound in this medieval town that was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1999. In addition to the legendary Chateaux Angélus, Ausone, Cheval Blanc and Pavie (Premier Grand Cru Classé ‘A’ all), one can also find the most marvellous macarons in this wondrous place.
After a couple of days in Saint-Émilion we drove a few kilometres to Château Valade (then one of our wineries) where we had a grand tasting and lunch with the Valade family. Their 2009 Château Valade Saint-Émilion Grand Cru was particularly yummy. Here are my tasting notes – ‘This is a really wonderful wine. It is comprised of 95 per cent Merlot and 5 per cent Cabernet Franc rigorously selected from the estate’s best plots of vines averaging well over 25 years of age. The wine is neither filtered nor fined and is aged in oak barrels (80 per cent new and 20 per cent one year-old) for 12 months. It is deep brooding purple, almost inky in colour with a huge, almost hyper-concentrated nose of stewed plums and black currents, cocoa, exotic spices, tobacco, minerals, cedar, mint and vanilla. It all carries through in the mouth with lovely, silky tannins–big, round and very long. This very well-made wine clearly illustrates the wine maker’s mastery of oak. It will be a perfect match for confit de canard and game. In addition to the gold medal in Paris, the marvellous 2008 Château Valade earned the coveted Coup de Coeur from Le Guide Hachette. Only 8,000 bottles were made.’
We then travelled eastward up the Dordogne River past the bustling city of Bergerac to our destination, a large country house, Les Hauts de Caffour perched on a cliff near Castelnaud-la-Chapelle. There we met up with our friends, the Larones, Moorcrofts (David is Gentleman’s Portion’s cruise correspondent) and Smiths, settled in and plotted the week’s activities. Now then, this plotting was very serious business that required much deliberation over extended lunches such as the one at La Belle Étoile in La Roque-Gageac overlooking the Dordogne River. Incidentally, the Moorcrofts returned to the Dordogne a few years later and stayed at the adjoining hotel. They raved about the experience.
We settled on visits to the nearby walnut farm (their walnut oil was delicious), Josephine Baker’s gorgeous castle, Château des Milandes (there is a decent restaurant on the spacious grounds and superb raptor shows occur regularly), the cave art of Lascaux (spell-binding; worth the price of admission to all of the Dordogne), the Château de Beynac (majestically situated above the Dordogne River), La Roque Saint Christophe (an intact, large troglodyte town that first served as shelter for Neanderthal man dating to 5,0000 BC), Rocamadour ( a beautiful and dramatic village that is a stop on the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Campostela) and a boat ride on the Dordogne in a classic gabarre (the more adventurous might prefer a canoe or kayak).
But above all we wanted to visit top Bergerac wineries and to determine our favourites. But, what were these stellar wineries, how would we gain entrance to them and taste their treasures? Hélène found the answer on the Internet – Dewey Markham, Jr. Dewey, who was born and raised in New York City, developed an early passion for cuisine and then shifted his focus to wine. Over the years he developed an impressive resume in the wine trade, including having two books published, Wine Basics and 1855: A History of the Bordeaux Classification. Dewey, who has lived in Bordeaux since 1993, has a very special entrée to the hallowed estates of Bordeaux … his wife holds a senior position at Château Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande. Hélène got in touch with Dewey, who confirmed that he was well versed in the estates and wines of Bergerac. He was happily available to take our thirsty octet on a day-long reconnoiter of the finest wineries in the region.
Before recounting our vinous adventures with Dewey, permit me to tell you a bit about the
Bergerac wine region. Likely doomed to be forever regarded as the poor cousin of Bordeaux, an image the Bordelais have worked hard to perpetuate over the centuries, Bergerac lies directly to the east of its much more famous and prosperous neighbour. While their wines might not be as famous, the Bergerac countryside is much more appealing than that of Bordeaux.
The Bergerac area contains 13 Appellations d’Origine Contrôlées (AOCs) for red, white and rosé wines. However, most Bergeracois count just six appellations – Monbazillac, Péchermant, Saussignac, Montravel, Bergerac and Côtes de Bergerac. Approximately 1,200 growers cultivate about 30,000 acres of vines in soils not all that dissimilar to those found in Bordeaux. The Dordogne River has for centuries provided transportation to Atlantic seaports on the workhorse gabarres and provides the region with excellent drainage.
The red wines are a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, sometimes supplemented by Côt or, less commonly, Fer Servadou or Mérille. They are often dark in color, with full-bodied flavours. The white wines are mainly a blend of Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris and Muscadelle, to which Ugni Blanc, Ondenc and Chenin Blanc are sometimes
added. These combinations lead to the creation of fruity, dry white wines that can be powerful, and of medium-sweet or sweet wines that are aromatic and concentrated.
Well, I see that I have run out of my allotted space. In my next post I will tell you all about the wineries that Dewey Markham, Jr. took us to, the wines we tasted and the ones we enjoyed the most. Till then …
Happy Thanksgiving! Jim