The Wines of Bergerac – Blending tradition with innovation

by Martin Walker

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.

I first came across their wines at a Salon du Livre Gourmand, the splendid international cookbook fair that Périgueux holds every second year. I was serving on the jury chaired by the great chef Michel Troisgros, whose restaurant has held three Michelin rosettes for five decades in a row. I can still recall his look of mingled surprise and appreciation as we were served a red wine from Moulin Caresse. I’m not sure what he had expected from a Bergerac but he evidently enjoyed it.

So he should. The same wine won a gold medal at Paris last year. It was their Magie d’automne brand, a standard Bergerac red, mainly Merlot and Cabernet Franc with about ten per cent Malbec. It is currently available via the vineyard’s website at €6 a bottle, which has to be one of the best bargains around. They have an upmarket brand called CENT pour 100 and the red at €14.50 is very fine but needs some ageing. The 2013 is already five years old and I’d give it two or three years more in the cellar, or at least two to three hours in the decanter before drinking. It won a gold medal at the Paris Concours in 2015.

In exceptional years, they make no more than a thousand bottles of a wine they call Coeur de Roche. The grapes are all hand-picked from selected corners of the vineyard, hand-rolled and fermented in oak and racked before the wine spends 24 months in new oak barrels. They still have some of the 2010 at €40 a bottle, very strong in alcohol for my taste at 15.5 degrees, but a magnificent wine.

The wine that impressed me most was their CENT pour 100 Montravel white at €14, and at first I thought I was drinking a top class white Burgundy. The nose starts as fresh as springtime but then comes a heavier, more exotic note and the wine feels rich and generous in the mouth with a very long and agreeable aftertaste. It stood up to foie gras at the start of a meal, to a main course of grilled sea bream, a goat cheese salad and was not even daunted by a syllabub. A wine that can handle and enrich all that deserves respect.

What took me to the vineyard more recently was that word had reached me that Sylvie’s grown-up sons, Quentin and Benjamin, are making their own mark with a new bargain brand called Les Frangins (the brothers).

“Benjamin is the guy with the real gift in the vineyard, great instincts about each little corner of the terroir and what it can do,” Quentin told me. “I enjoy the marketing and business administration as well as spending time among the vines. We enjoy working together and we both worked on developing Les Frangins brand.”

It comes in red, white and rosé at an extremely reasonable €4.30 a bottle and we have been drinking a lot of the whites and rosés this summer. They are friendly, approachable wines for immediate drinking but with a real sense of character and that sense of generosity in the mouth that usually costs much more. They ferment the wines at cold temperatures to keep the fruit flavour.

Like more and more winemakers who feel constrained by the rigidity of the appellation contrôlée system, the two brothers are using in their Frangins whites an unusual grape, an Ugni Blanc from Gascony, which means they have to call it an IGP Périgord wine (Indication géographique protegée). The red is the usual Merlot and Cabernet blends, but this is a way to get some benefit from recently-planted vines before they are sufficiently mature for the finer wines. They are also making varietals, wines from just one grape like Merlot, Cabernet and Sauvignon, a system which worked well for American winemakers.

“We have to be ready to adapt to climate change with new varieties, new methods, since the grapes now are taking up to a month less to reach maturity than they did twenty years ago,” Quentin adds. “Like a lot of winemakers we are thinking very hard about the future of Merlot but for the moment we don’t want to give it up.”

Moulin Caresse is a relatively large vineyard of 55 hectares, so they have room to experiment, over a quarter of their annual production going to export, mainly Belgium, Germany, Quebec and Japan. It is striking that one of the Bergerac vineyards with the longest family tradition should be so ready to innovate. Their wines are all certified Terra Vitis, which means sustainable farming.

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.

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