by Martin Walker
One of the great pleasures of being in this part of France is the chance to potter around the wine country, calling in at vineyards to taste the wines and buy directly from the producer. Winemakers enjoy these visits, and not only because they get the full price for their wine rather than sharing it with various middlemen.
The best place to start is at the Maison des Vins de Bergerac on Quai Salvette on the riverbank in the heart of old Bergerac. They offer tastings and sell wine but the real prize is their Carte touristique du vignoble, the map that shows (almost) all the vineyards and gives phone numbers and addresses. To be listed in the guide, vineyards have to be open to the public and offer tastings (dégustations), but it’s best to check opening hours, and more and more of them have modern tasting rooms and even English-speaking staff.
So armed with this wine-lover’s bible, I set off regularly with my friend and neighbour, Raymond, a retired gendarme officer. Usually we have at least one destination in mind; to try a wine we came across on a restaurant’s wine list or to visit a vineyard recommended by a friend. But we usually manage to call in at one or two more places, attracted by the name or the look of the place or simply to admire the view.
We happened upon one wine that is now a firm favourite at the Monday night market in Beaumont, the Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure near Colombier, just off the N21 road from Bergerac to Agen. The place is owned and run by Christian Roche, who proudly calls himself ‘a peasant winemaker’. Like more and more of the Bergerac vineyards, his property is run on strictly bio and organic lines and he is positively missionary in his fervour for making wines that express the terroir of his land.
He offers wines at three price levels. The Jour de Fruit is the cheapest at around 7 euros, the Abbaye is mid-priced at around 10-12 euros depending on the year and the top-of-the-line Extase was well worth the 20 euros we paid. If you can find an example of his 2005 Monbazillac, snap it up.
Another wine we really enjoyed came from a visit to Chai Monique, the charming wine bar in Le Bugue (with good food turned out from a tiny kitchen by the friendly Monique). She was offering Château Montdoyen white wine by the glass, and it was a real discovery. It tasted fresh and clean, with at first a touch of flowers and just a hint of sweetness before the characteristic dry flavour emerged and lingered in the mouth. Then Monique asked if we had ever tried the same vineyard’s Divine Miséricorde, a wine only made in years when the conditions are just right. It retails for 22 euros but it is a rare and noble wine that we reserve for special occasions.
The vineyard is in the Monbazillac region, and it also offers very good rosé wines for 4 euros a bottle, and the Bergerac sec dry white wine I first tasted sells for 6 euros. But try their mid-priced white wine at 10 euros called Ainsi soit-il (which can be translated as ‘this is how it should be’). Their reds range from 6 euros to the spectacular l’imparfait at 40 euros.
Raymond and I have a routine. Each week with another friend we each put in ten euros to play the national lottery and while we have yet to have a big win, we usually get back about half of our money in small prizes. This goes into a pot which we use to buy wines on our explorations of the region. We usually buy at least one or two bottles wherever we go, but if we really like the wine we buy a small case of six.
But when we call in at our friend Sean and Caro Feely in Saussignac, at Terroir Feely (formerly Château Haut-Garrigue) we usually end up buying more. We first met Caro in the Bio tent at the Vinexpo wine fair in Bordeaux a few years ago, liked what we tasted and arranged to visit.
Originally from South Africa, they moved to Ireland and by selling their house and amassing their savings thought they had enough money to finance their dream of owning a French vineyard. They didn’t. In tears because she did not have enough money to buy shoes for her children, at the last minute an order arrived from America that saved their bacon.
Now with their wine tours and wine lunches and the really excellent wines they produce (and Caro’s highly readable books on their adventures) they are making a living and doing what they love. So one of the extra pleasures of our wine tours is that we meet some interesting people and make some delightful new friends.
Martin Walker, author of the best-selling ‘Bruno, chief of police’ novels, is a Grand Consul de la Vinée de Bergerac. Formerly a journalist, he spent 25 years as foreign correspondent for The Guardian and then became editor-in-chief of United Press International. He and his wife Julia have had a home in the Périgord since 1999 and one of his great hobbies is visiting the vineyards of Bergerac.