Hearty congratulations and a sincere toast to Christian Roche who has just been named Winemaker of the Year by the Hachette wine guide, the French bible of wines. It is a great honour, not just for him but for the recognition it signals for the wines of Bergerac, so long dismissed and patronised as the little brother of Bordeaux.
Along with a growing throng of other winemakers in the region, Christian is making seriously good and even great wines and selling them for a fraction of the swollen prices of Bordeaux. And now Hachette has recognised that the Bergerac offers the best quality for the price of any wines in France.
If you want a bit of history to go with your wine tastings, you can do no better than to visit the Château Bélingard in Pomport, ten minutes south of Bergerac on the D17. Just before the turn-off to the vineyard you will pass a small stone monument. This was the place where a disaffected and partly dispossessed local baron, Antoine de Rudel, started the Hundred Years War with a little local skirmish. The vineyard is less than an arrow flight away.
If you like your history even older, you will find on the château grounds a boulder into which the Celts carved a sacrificial stone chair. Indeed the name Bélingard comes from Celtic roots. Belinos was their god of the sun and of war. Gaard was their term for garden. So this is the garden of the sun god and maybe the war god, too. The stone chair is aligned precisely along the point of midday between sunrise and sunset on the day of the spring equinox.
The Prix Ragueneau is known as the top cookery prize in south-west France, featuring the black truffles and foie gras, the lamb and fowl and walnuts that are the best-known specialities of this magnificently endowed region.
But is also important to winemakers since each of the two dishes prepared by the five chefs in the final must be accompanied by its own wine, which has to be explained and the choice justified before the jury by the sommelier who shares the prize with the chef.
The more we learn about the 2018 vintage, the more extraordinary it appears. The wet spring and early summer, with constant threats of mildew, was a real challenge not just for the eventual harvest but above all for the growing trend towards organic wines.
Wet weather means mildew and there are two main ways to tackle it. The first and most common is to spray with copper sulphate, but use too much and the vineyard can lose its organic certification. The other solution is to trim the young leaves, which are most vulnerable to mildew. On a small vineyard, this is possible but very labour-intensive. On larger ones it is almost impossible.
This has been a strange year for the climate in the Bergerac wine region. The prolonged rains throughout the spring gave way to an unusually long summer marked by intense heat. At times, it felt almost as bad as the notorious canicule year of 2003, followed by the delightful Indian summer that stretched on well into October.
One of my neighbours, the son of a peasant, likes to quote the old adage – année de foin, année de rien. It means that a year that gives an abundant harvest of hay will produce little else and this was a very good year for hay. For most of my acquaintances, it was also a disappointing year for vegetables, particularly tomatoes.
The Bergerac wine region is currently being rocked and increasingly transformed by three separate revolutions. The first is the steady shift towards organic wines. The second is the quiet rebellion against the strictures of the appellation contrôlée system which regulate the varieties of grapes permitted. The third is climate change, which is accelerating the first two movements.
The experts at the Maison des Vins in Bergerac reckon that their region has now nosed ahead of Alsace as the most organic region in France, and the Saussignac district is poised to be the first all-organic appellation in the country. But there is a catch. Organic does not quite mean what it says. Under European Union rules, wines can be described as being made from organic grapes, which means grown without chemical fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides.
Donald Trump may no longer believe in climate change but after this long, hot summer, I suspect that most of us in this part of the world are now convinced that it’s really happening, even if we differ on the degree to which human activity is responsible. After all, anyone who visits Lascaux and the other painted caves knows that this region went through dramatic climate swings ten and twenty thousand years ago.
But more and more, I hear from winemakers in the Bergerac that they are worried what this means for them. Most of the concerns focus on the future viability of Merlot, an iconic grape in the Bergerac and in the Bordeaux region. All wines in these two appellations are required to include Merlot. Château Pétrus in the Pomerol, one of the great wines, is made entirely from this grape.
With spectacular views across the Dordogne valley, the vineyard of Moulin Caresse is worth a visit even without the very fine wine that the Deffarge family has been making there since 1749. And the wines are classic examples of Montravel which means they are about as close as you can get to drinking Saint-Émilion while remaining within the appellation of the Bergerac region. Although Saint-Émilion is 20 kilometres away, the terroir is identical.
The vineyard’s name, according to the châtelaine Sylvie Deffarge, comes from the local windmill and the way the west wind from the Bay of Biscay caresses the moulin as it blows across this plateau, perched some eighty metres above the valley below.
Yann Vergniaud’s blue eyes blaze fiercely as he pounds a fist into his other hand and declares: “I keep on saying that we have to stop whipping ourselves in the Bergerac and whining that we’re the poor cousins of Bordeaux. We can make great wines here and we need to believe in ourselves and our potential.”
It is striking to come across such spirit and self-confidence, above all in a young man who is one of the most adventurous and innovative winemakers in the Bergerac. He is also one of those most attuned to the impact of climate change and the need of the vineyards to adapt to what is becoming a dryer climate with grim implications for Merlot, traditionally one of the main grapes of the region.
These long summer evenings are just right for a drink you’ll find only in the Bergerac. It almost died out but it’s making a comeback. Welcome to the Rosette revolution.
Ask most people in the wine business about Rosette and they’ll assume you’re talking about one of the American-European hybrid grape varieties that Albert Seibel developed in the late 19th century to save the French wine industry from the scourge of phylloxera. Seibel, trained as a physician, grafted European grape varieties onto the stems of American grapes that had a natural resistance.