by Martin Walker
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.
We were strolling back from his chai at Clos du Breil, his family vineyard at Saint-Léon-d’Issigeac, the most south-eastern of all the vineyards in the Bergerac and close to the valley of the river Dropt. In the chai we had been inspecting the new oval-shaped cuves which Yann had bought, believing them better for the wine than the more usual round vats of stainless steel. At 7,500 euros for the big one, they had better be.
It has been a difficult period for Yann. Last year, he lost ninety per cent of his grapes in the great frost of late April. That was a body blow, but he perseveres.
“You can almost expect a frost like that every twenty or thirty years,” he says. “But the real danger to us in the Bergerac is drought because that’s going to be a challenge almost every year. We need new varieties of grape, new methods, we need to learn from winemakers who understand these conditions.”
He has planted two unusual new grapes, each known to be resistant to drought. The first is Saperavi from Georgia in the Caucasus, Joseph Stalin’s old homeland. As a former Moscow correspondent who visited Georgia frequently, I became a fan of their Napareuli and Mukuzani dry red wines, each made with Saperavi grapes, a hardy variety which also thrives at higher altitudes. The other is Marselan, a new hybrid variety that is the result of a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, a grape that copes well with heat and dry conditions and is best-known in France from the great Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines of the southern Rhone valley.
Yann is also innovating with drones, as a faster way to inspect his 15 hectares of vines than walking through them. Moreover, he can compare the results of today’s drone flight with those of previous days and weeks to monitor precisely the development of the grapes. To be sure of his terroir, he dug ditches every 25 metres across his vineyards to assess each wrinkle of difference in the land – one result of which is that he has planted more and more Cabernet Franc.
I tasted all his red and his white wines but not his rosé, of which he makes very little. In both red and white, Yann has three types. First is the standard Bergerac at 6.70 euros, which are good wines but not outstanding.
Then comes his more special Odyssée at 9.50 euros, made of 90 per cent Cabernet Franc and just ten per cent of Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a wine so good that I bought a case of the 2014 Odyssée reds on the spot and became a convert to the merits of the oval-shaped cuves of concrete in which it was made. Unlike the stainless steel cuves, there is no thermal shock as the metal cools and warms and the oval shape means that the wine moves constantly in gentle currents.
His third brand is called Expression, at 12.50 euros and his 2014 red won a gold medal, an excellent wine but one I’d want to keep for another three years at least. I’d have given the gold medal to his 2014 white, a sumptuous wine with the hint of fatness in the mouth that I remember from a good white Burgundy or one of the rare white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape that cost three and four times as much. It had a lovely, luxurious finish that continued long in the mouth. It is so good that you won’t want to drink it too chilled.
Yann, the fourth generation on this land, studied geography at university in Quebec and learned his winemaking from his family. And he never forgot that for centuries until the phylloxera epidemic hit in the 1870s, the wines of this region of the Issigeac plains were shipped down-river to be sold and bottled as St-Emilion. Those free and easy days of nomenclature are long gone, but you can be assured at Clos du Breil, you are drinking a better than many if not most St-Emilions at a significantly lower 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.