by Martin Walker
These are the months to be jumping in and out of the pool or the river and to enjoy eating in the open air and to welcome the long, slow ending of the day with a p’tit apéro. And here in the Périgord you can enjoy an evening drink that is wholly unique to this part of the world.
It is light, charming and delicious. It is still quite rare. And we can enjoy it thanks in large part to one extraordinary family, Gilles and Laetitia Gérault. It begins over twenty years ago when Gilles, who had graduated from wine school and had been working at a vineyard, suddenly had the opportunity to rent some vines at one of the oldest sites for wine in the Bergerac.
The vines were perched on the ridge directly to the north of the town of Bergerac with spectacular views of the river Dordogne and the conurbation below. This was where the monks in the tenth century began growing vines and making wine, required for the Eucharist, after the old Roman-era vineyards had been devastated by two centuries of invasions from Arabs in the 8th century and Vikings in the 9th. It was only two hundred years later that the monks moved across the river and began making the wine that has become famous as Monbazillac.
It was called the Château du Rooy, after some Dutch or Flemish connections from those 16th and 17th century times when the Huguenots of Bergerac had close ties with their fellow Protestants in Britain and the Low Countries. Many later fled there as refugees when King Louis XIV revoked the tolerations granted by King Henri IV and began persecuting Protestants.
Gilles was convinced it was good land for wine and at first as he began clearing the scrubland and coaxing the old vines into giving their best, he only made Bergerac Sec, the dry white wine. He had no clients, and depended entirely on selling unbottled wine in bulk to négociants, the middlemen and wholesalers who long dominated the wine trade in the Bergerac and the Bordeaux. (Until the 1920s, there was no difference between the two regions; Bergerac wine was routinely sold as Bordeaux.)
Gilles had two strokes of luck. The first was that for his first few years the price of wine in bulk was good and there were no great frosts or hailstorms nor other climate disasters that could have wiped him out. The second was that Laetitia believed in him and in his dream and until 2011 she went out to work in town and they lived on her salary. Every penny Gilles made from wine was ploughed back into the land, buying new vats and bottling equipment, building a new chai to make the wine and slowly planting new vines. Along the way, Laetitia produced three daughters.
Gilles had a further dream, to revive an almost lost appellation called Rosette, a slightly sweet white wine that I find perfect for a summer evening. It goes beautifully with goat’s cheese, foie gras and I enjoy some sloshed over my strawberries. I sometimes use it to poach white fish and it makes a terrific partner for Chinese and Japanese food, or with a very dark and bitter chocolate.
Rosette became an appellation in 1946 but there was little demand and less promotion and by the late 1990s when Gilles began there were only five vineyards still making small amounts. Even today, google ‘Rosette’ and you will find it described as a hybrid grape grown in Canada and New York state to make a light red wine or a rosé.
The Rosette of Bergerac deserves better than that. It is made from Sauvignon Blanc or Gris and Sémillon grapes and Muscadelle. It is a far more serious wine than the usual cheap vin moelleux offered in supermarkets. After two years in his new vineyard Gilles decided to try, mainly because he had a good harvest and some wine left over. He made 5,000 bottles of Rosette and managed to sell the lot.
“I seldom saw the children as the girls grew up,” he recalls. “I was working all the time, spending every weekend selling my wines at wine shows and markets, and after ten years I was selling 20,000 bottles of Rosette a year. I had begun to earn a living and Laetitia could give up her outside job and come back to work much, much harder with me, doing all the administration.”
His Rosette is 6.90 euros a bottle, cheap at the price for something as good as this that is also just about unique – although other local vineyards are now offering Rosettes. Gilles’ other wines are are also strongly recommended. His Bergerac Sec (which won a silver medal at the Paris Concours last year) and his Bergerac Red are a bargain at 5.40 euros a bottle.
His prestige wines, called Folly du Rooy, are stunning at 13.20 euros. I was not surprised that his Folly white won gold at the Paris Concours, which also this year gave him the Prix d’Excellence for his Pécharmants (he has won six golds in the last six years). And the Hachette Guide gives it two stars. In short, he is one of the Bergerac’s finest winemakers, despite his vineyard being devastated by the great frost of 2017.
“Wine is a good mother,” he told me, shrugging, before taking me off to admire his marvellous view and show me his new replanting plans. “If she fails you one year, she’ll do well by you the next.”
To reach Château du Rooy, take the Mussidan road north out of Bergerac and after about 3 miles take a turning on the right marked Rosette-Est.
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.