An oenophile in need of a wine break? Astonishing, but true. Our Cabernet kid, Jim Walker and his troop of tipplers had planned a day off near the end of their 1988 Bordeaux excursion in order to rejuvenate their exhausted taste buds (not to mention livers). So, off they went for a bit of rest and relaxation after their arduous first few days of tasting some of the world’s finest wines.
Dawn broke on Thursday much like it had on the previous five days of our Bordeaux wine tour … overcast and a tad on the chilly side. We definitely needed coats or sweaters. Christian, our coach driver, collected us bright and early at Château Beaumont, our lodging for most of our stay and took us on a south-west bearing towards the Atlantic coast. Our destination was the le Bassin d’Arcachon (Arcachon Bay) with its seaside resorts of Arcachon and Cap Ferret. We had decreed that this would be a no-wine day, one in which nary a drop of the luscious liquid would pass our lips. Those of you who know me are probably rolling your eyes in skeptical disbelief; very understandably.
We arrived in the bustling town of Arcachon mid-morning. It wasn’t always that way. Back in the mid-1800s the population was fewer than 400, mostly fishermen. There was little more than a forest of pine, oak and arbutus trees, but a railway line from Bordeaux completed in 1857 changed all that. With its fine beaches and mild climate, Arcachon soon began attracting the Bordeaux bourgeoisie and other wealthy folk seeking the restorative benefits of the fresh sea air. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries these sun-seekers built their summer homes there in a funky Victorian architectural style called Arcachonaise. The United States Navy created a seaplane base there during the first World War that was closed soon after the First Armistice at Compiègne. A colossal bout of development occurred during the 1950s through 1970s bringing with it high-rises and urban sprawl. This somewhat spoiled the fairy tale setting, but certainly not to the extent of the Côte d’Azur. Arcachon today remains an attractive seaside resort sustained by tourism (nearby Dune du Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, is a major draw), oyster farms and a large contingent of retirees.
After a quick stroll around town we ambled down to the quays where we caught a ferry across the bay to Cap Ferret perched at the end of a long sandy spit. Not to be confused with the hoity-toity Cap Ferrat on the French Riviera, Cap Ferret is much more laid back, but still very nice. A number of French celebrities and other famous folks, like chef Daniel Boulud and designer Phillipe Starck own villas there, but they tend to lay low, eschewing the public attention their counterparts on the Côte d’Azur so ardently crave.
There are no museums or other tourist attractions in Cap Ferret, save perhaps the le Phare du Cap Ferret, a classic lighthouse located inland, not on the coast as one might expect. It was destroyed by the Germans during the Second World War and rebuilt shortly thereafter. But, there are marvellous restaurants, delightful shops and quaint hotels not to mention the sandy beach that seems to stretch on forever. No wonder some call it the Cape Cod of France.
And, it was to that vast expansive strand the five of us sashayed. Briny aromas of the sea welcomed us as did the squawking gulls soaring above. Now then, if you look closely at the photo of François, Hélène and Arnaud to the left, way in the background, you might be able to make out a solitary male figure doffing all his duds. He proceeded to come prancing by in all his glory and absolutely nothing else. Hélène vociferously claims she didn’t notice a thing. Why then, I ask, did her dark glasses steam up?
We continued on and in time came upon a large concrete pillbox that the occupying German forces had constructed during World War II. It was a rude intrusion on the otherwise idyllic setting. By then it was getting on in the morning and we were beginning to feel just a tad peckish after all that shuffling in the sand and the bracing sea air. We were perhaps just a bit thirsty as well. So we headed apace back to the docks of Cap Ferret in search of an authentic seafood restaurant. On the way we watched the fishing boats bringing in their catches and marvelled at all the seaside oyster farms with their multitude of poles reaching skyward. Oysters are a big deal throughout the Arcachon Basin, as they have been for centuries. In total there are about 350 oyster farmers there who cultivate the tasty little devils in the 2,500 acres of seaside licensed for the purpose. They produce around 22,000 pounds of oysters annually, almost two-thirds of all of the little bivalve molluscs sold in France.
Presently we came across a waterfront restaurant that appeared ideally suited to our ravenous requirements. Called l’Escale, it was a long, low affair that stretched some distance along the shore. It was too cool for the front patio, so we selected a choice table inside. This wasn’t difficult in that we were the only patrons on this dreary pre-summer season day. Of course we ordered oysters, accompanied by bread, butter and lemon. Then some fried calamari and lightly grilled cabaillaud (cod). We had a splendid lunch as you can tell from the photo on the left.
What’s that you say? Aren’t those wine glasses on the table and an inverted wine bottle in the ice bucket? It is amazing how one’s imagination runs away on one when reading Gentleman’s Portion. However, if we were to have enjoyed a wee spot of the nectar of the vine it would have been a white 1983 Château Carbonnieux and my tasting notes would have read – straw coloured with a glorious nose of grapefruit, lemons, figs and honeysuckle; medium-bodied with nice acidity and a wonderful long aftertaste.
Our visit to le Bassin d’Arcachon concluded far too quickly. But, what a grand and refreshing day it had been. I couldn’t recommend it more highly to anyone looking for a sublime, seaside spot for a relaxing, oyster-filled summer vacation.
Now then, by any chance might you be looking for simply marvellous red Côtes du Rhône to warm the cockles of your heart in the chilly months to come? If so, our Ontario readers can find a dandy at LCBO.com for only $19.35 the bottle. It is our 2017 Cuvée Ezparza Côtes du Rhône from Domaine Palon: This is an excellent red Côtes-du-Rhone from a terrific year. It is comprised of 69% Grenache, 16% Syrah and 15% Cinsault, all hand-picked and hand-sorted from the Palon’s five acres of vineyards in Vacqueyras. The yield was only 15 hl/ha! It is a dark and lustrous ruby red with hints of violet. The nose is of pronounced aromas of ripe cherries, plums, black currants, garrigue (the fragrant underbrush of Southern France), smoke, new leather, cassis and a hint of pepper. In the mouth it is very big, round and satisfying with delicate tannins and good length. Served slightly chilled (16°-17°C), it will go splendidly with roasts, grilled meats and medium cheeses. It will keep nicely for three to five years.
Cheerio for the nonce, Jim.
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This is Jim’s 43rd wine blog on Gentleman’s Portion. The search function works really well if you want to look back and see some of our previous articles.