by Martin Walker
Like most Brits who live in this part of France, I enjoy the wine and believe that the wines of Bergerac represent what the French call un bon rapport qualité-prix, or excellent value for money. The effect of speculation, wine investors and the surging demand from China have combined to price the most celebrated wines of Bordeaux out of the reach of most of us. In this and future columns, I plan to suggest some of the Bergerac wines that I find most appealing and which will not break the bank.
Bergerac wines have a very long pedigree. Laurent de Bosredon, who built up Château Bélingard, reckons his is the oldest vineyard in Western Europe, and proudly displays a Celtic chair chiseled from stone to prove it. The name itself comes from the Celtic: ‘gaard’ meant garden and ‘Belinos’ was the god of the sun and of war. And wine was being made when this region was part of the Roman Empire. The competition so alarmed the Italian winegrowers that in 96AD they appealed to the Emperor Domitian to ban the sale of wines from Gaul and destroy the vines.
In 1254, King Henry III of England granted the first charter to the Consuls de la Vinée de Bergerac. Their brand of a griffon’s claw had to be burned into every barrel judged worthy of the name, which also proved a handy way of collecting the wine tax. As the fortunes of the Hundred Years War swayed back and forth, the charter to the Consuls was ratified by the French King Charles IV in 1322.
But Bergerac always suffered from being up-river from Bordeaux, where the wealthy négotiants naturally favoured their own wines, and the famous classification of 1855 ranked the wines of Bordeaux but ignored those of Bergerac. This classification, demanded by Emperor Napoleon III for the Great Exhibition of Paris, is still cited to demonstrate the special status of Bordeaux. But in 1816, there was another classification by the French government which Bordeaux likes to forget, the Topographie de tous les vignobles connus, which ranked the sweet and golden wines of Monbazillac alongside the Sauternes, and which placed the red wines of the Pécharmant alongside the famous Margaux, Pauillac and St Julien vintages of the Médoc.
That 1816 classification was no fluke. My own favourite of the Monbazillacs, Château Tirecul La Gravière, was awarded a sensational 100 points – the maximum – by the influential American wine critic Robert Parker.
The Pécharmant, the ridge north-east of the town of Bergerac, produces outstanding wines to this day. Château Tiregand, owned by the St Exupéry family, is the largest and the best known and their vintages for special years, known as Grand Millésime, are superb. Those for the years 2011 and 2012 each won a gold medal at the latest Concours Général Agricole in Paris, and at the vineyard they sell for 19.80 euros a bottle. The Clos Montalbanie, made from much younger vines, barely ten years old, is a snip at 7 euros the bottle.
Tiregand’s near neighbor in the Pécharmant, Château Terre Vieille also won a gold medal, and I was able to buy some in the Sunday morning market at St-Cyprien for a remarkably cheap 12 euros a bottle. They were making wine on this spot in the 11th century and some 700 years later it was the home of the philosopher and essayist Maine de Biran, one of the Lifeguards of King Louis XIV in the revolutionary year of 1789, and also one of the domestic organisers of Napoleon’s overthrow.
The small Pécharmant vineyard founded by two veterans of Médecins Sans Frontières in Afghanistan, Les Chemins de l’Orient, is also worth seeking out. And having been served it at a recent French diplomatic luncheon, I have become a fan of the Pécharmant from Domaine du Grand Jaure. Like most reds from the Bergerac, they blend Cabernet Sauvignon grapes for body and bouquet, with Merlot for subtlety and depth. But they add some Cabernet Franc for a softer flavor, and a little Malbec for its little touch of velvet. Their 2013 is 7.50 euros a bottle, but their special Mémoire vintage of 2012 at 14 euros is well worth the price.
The Malbec grape, which produces the black wines of Cahors, can in the right hands deliver a voluptuous wine, and it is rooted in the history of this region. We know from the archives that under its local name of Côt this was the wine served at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152. You are drinking history here. Cheers!
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.