by Martin Walker
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.
Laurent de Bosredon, the latest in eight generations of owners, claims that the Celts made a special potion for religious occasions from the small and sweet berry-like fruit of a climbing plant that was an ancestor of our modern vines. They allowed the liquid to ferment and hey presto, they had discovered wine. True or not, it makes a better story than the magic potion of Astérix the Gaul.
On a summer’s evening, standing on the terrace of the château for one of their regular aperitif tastings, you will enjoy one of the finest views in the region. Far off on the horizon ahead is St Emilion. Off to the left begin the vineyards of Duras. And directly ahead is a charming bowl of landscape where the vineyards produce some of the best wines of the Bergerac.
They are also among the most inventive. One of the drinks that Laurent produces is called Lyvress, which is a pun on l’ivresse, the French word for being drunk. It tastes like a very dry sherry, although the bouquet in the nose would lead you to expect a sweet wine. The Sauvignon Blanc grapes are picked some time after they are ripe but before the noble rot can set in. It is an interesting curiosity.
Laurent has also decided to bottle his special dry white wine, known as the reserve, in a sloping-shouldered bottle of the kind usually associated with Burgundy. At 9.50 euros a bottle, it is an extremely good wine at the price, made from seventy per cent Sauvignon and thirty per cent Sémillon. It is aged for twelve months in barrels, which is not common in these parts for white wine but it really works and it won a gold medal at the Paris concours two years ago. And you can keep it in the cellar for five years, which indicates how good this wine is.
The vineyard produces excellent Monbazillacs (more gold medals at Paris), Bergerac Sec white wine, Bergerac and Côtes de Bergerac reds, Bergerac Rosé and the slightly sweet (but not liquoreux) Bergerac Moelleux.
The standard wines, which Laurent calls his Essentials Collection, are very reasonably priced at 6.10 euros each. The medium-price range, which he calls the Vintners Collection, is priced at 9.50 euros when bought at the vineyard, but may soon see a modest price rise. I think it would be a good buy at twice the price. I bought a case of twelve of his Reserve reds, made of half Cabernet Sauvignon, half Merlot.
His special wines, called Laurent’s Grandes Signatures, are usually marketed under the name of Ortus, the Latin word for sunrise, but Laurent says in old French it meant the garden where you were born. At 19.50 euros, the Ortus red is simply sensational, made of sixty-five per cent Merlot, fifteen per cent Cabernet Sauvignon and twenty per cent Malbec. They only make it in special years, which until recently meant only 2011 and 2015 but Laurent hopes that the 2018 is developing well enough to make some. It is delicate but quietly, calmly seductive on the nose and like velvet in the mouth, with a wonderful long finish. And naturally I treated myself to some bottles of that, too, for special occasions.
I asked Laurent about the Merlot, because of the concerns I hear in many vineyards about the impact of climate change upon this grape. He maintains that the challenge can be handled with proper management of the leaf cover to ensure the right balance of shade and air, so the sun does not bake the grapes and the breeze can keep them dry. How he manages that in one of the largest vineyards in the Bergerac, with over two hundred acres, is another question.
Laurent, a plump and genial man with thick, curly hair, admits that his wines are not easy to define or pin down and he likes to let them speak for themselves. He once wrote that he has “an unconscious preference for subtlety over power, for elegance over exuberance, modesty over vanity”.
He is also deeply rooted in the estate, which he claims (citing those Celts) as the oldest in Western Europe. And certainly monks were making wines here in the tenth century. As a boy, he’d spend summers here with his grandmother, Blanche, who ran the vineyard until her death at the age of 102. She is commemorated in his best Monbazillac, called Blanche de Bosredon, 19.50 euros for a half-litre bottle, which is breathtakingly good value for the price.
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.