by Martin Walker
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.
I have enjoyed Christian’s wines for years because my chums and I drink them every Monday evening in summer. We are faithful in our attendance at the night market in Beaumont, which offers a good range of food, a terrific location in a medieval bastide square and consistently the best musical entertainment in the region. We usually all end up dancing.
And one of Christian’s team is always there behind the stage, offering the fine chilled whites, the fresh rosés and the luscious reds of the Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure. That stall is always my first stop after grabbing a place at one of the long tables, far enough from the music so we can hear each other talk but close enough to reach the dance floor quickly. Usually our friends Keith and Brigitte Daffern, who live in Beaumont, are there to reserve a place.
Christian’s vineyard could not be easier to find. From Bergerac airport take the Route Nationale 21 south towards Castillonnès and after five miles you will see on the left a junction leading to Issigeac (and to David Fourtout’s celebrated Les Verdots vineyard) and on the right is a long low building which are the tasting rooms for l’Ancienne Cure. Up on the hill behind is Colombier and the vineyards of Château de la Jaubertie, so you know you are in good company and excellent terroir for wine.
Christian represents the fifth generation of winemakers in his family. He inherited the land 35 years ago and soon became convinced that the then-standard methods of fertilisers, fungicides and pesticides were doing far more harm than good and became one of the region’s pioneers of bio wines.
Almost all of his wines come in three levels of price and quality. The standard wines, named Jour de Fruit, are around 7 euros, very good value for a wine that is a big cut above most Bergerac secs. The higher quality wines, named l’Abbaye, are around 13 euros and regularly win gold medals. The top of the range wines are called l’Extase, and are close to 20 euros, depending where one buys. He also offers a terrific Monbazillac at 21 euros (and his grandfather was one of the founders of the Monbazillac co-operative) and a very good pécharmant at 17 euros.
He has 47 hectares of vines, almost two thirds of them for white wines: Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Muscadelle, Chenin and Ondenc. The rather acid Chenin (usually found in the wines of the Loire and in sparkling wines) is slightly unusual in the Bergerac although it does well in our warmer climate, but the 10 per cent of Chenin grapes in his Extase white wine adds a high note of finesse. This is a splendid wine, which one can safely lay down for five to ten years.
His 15 hectares for red wines grow the usual Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec. The Abbaye red is terrific and reminds me of Montaigne’s charming epigram, that ‘One does not drink good wine – one kisses it and receives in return a caress’. The Extase red is one of the best of our whole region, rich and deep, the tannins distinct but tamed, with a depth that comes from the ten per cent of Malbec he adds to the traditional blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The vineyard has four main types of terroir. On the plateau, a thin and chalky soil is excellent for reds, when they are sufficiently mature to have sunk their roots down to five feet and more. On the slopes, the chalk-clay soil is rich in minerals and very good for dessert wines and is also for the Chenin grapes. The mainly clay soil at the bottom of the slopes is moist and organically rich, excellent for dry white wines which mature a little later than usual. He also has some sandy soil which he uses for white wines.
Christian, a big and burly man, is a gentle giant with the face of a very friendly boxer. He likes to call himself a peasant-winemaker, and he is a great supporter of the traditional grapes and wines of the south-west. Along with friends from Gaillac, Duras, Madiran, Jurançon, Cahors, Fronton and the Basque country he is part of a group called A Bisto de Nas, patois for ‘seen from the end of our noses,’ which celebrates the rich variety of the region in poetic terms. (Forgive my crude translation of their lyrical claims.)
“The Tannat grape rounds out fully with the sweet late season of the Madiran; the Malbec of Cahors is ennobled by the dry heat of the Lot valley; in Gaillac, the winds of Autran fade the Ondenc while in Jurançon the winds from Spain concentrate the flavour of the Manseng grape. The temperate climate matures the Merlots and Cabernets in Duras and Bergerac, and finally the Negrette grape of Fronton finds the warmth that favours its aromas on the terraces of the river Garonne.”
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.