by Martin Walker
This is going to be a memorable year for the wines of Bergerac. Despite the wet spring and the hot, dry summer, we had just enough rain at the end of the season to refresh the grapes and dilute the sugars and thus the alcohol.
I was able to get a real sense of how good it could be on the first day of November at Château de Tiregand when François-Xavier de St-Exupéry showed me round his full vats and the first fermentation was well under way. Then came the treat. He opened a tiny tap in one big vat and let an inch or so pour out into my glass. That was the Merlot, full of fruit, light and easy but already round in the mouth.
Then he did the same for the vat of Cabernet Sauvignon and again for the Malbec. For the first time I really understood why the winemakers say Merlot for the fruit, Cabernet Sauvignon for the structure and Malbec for the spice. The hints of white pepper and cherries and blackberries were already apparent on the Malbec.
The Cabernet was harder to assess as I tried to comprehend what exactly was meant by structure. Partly it was the tartness that comes from the light acids and the tannins which allow wine to mature and age well. Partly it was the sense of depth, of potential waiting to reach its full.
I was struck by the warmth of this liquid, in its halfway house between grape juice and becoming wine, when the yeasts are doing their work of converting sugar into alcohol. Red wines usually work best at this time at about 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit. Much hotter than that and the yeasts go on strike. White wines are normally kept at a lower temperature, around 65-68 degrees.
These were early times in the making of the wine. The Cabernet had only been in the big stainless steel vat for three days. And this was only the first part of the fermentation process. The next process, which often takes place in the oak barrels, is called the malolactic fermentation. It is not strictly speaking a fermentation at all, since it is not the yeasts doing the work but a bacteria called Oenococcus which takes in the tart malic acid and turns it into the milder, creamier lactic acid. (Yes, the same that we find in milk). That is why some wines are called fat, from the creaminess that rests in the mouth.
Making the wine is a natural but complex and fascinating process. Fermentation makes the carbon-rich sugar molecules split, releasing carbon dioxide and becoming acetaldehyde which, in the absence of oxygen, becomes ethanol.
With 450 oak barrels in his cellars, François-Xavier has something close to half a million euros worth of wood. And it is not just the quality of the oak that matters but the interior toasting. When I saw the word noisette (hazelnut) on the side of his new barrels I asked in my ignorance if he was using a different wood. He smiled forgivingly and said no, it referred to the colour of the toasting inside the barrel.
Noisette was a light toasting which would give a hint of caramel and cinnamon. A medium toasting would give a touch of honey and coffee and a dark toasting would convey smoke and butterscotch, even a suggestion of molasses.
If you are allowed to roam around a chai, the place where the wine is made, you will see incomprehensible chalked letters and numbers. These identify not just the grape but also the specific area of the vineyard along with the age of the vines. Château de Tiregand uses its younger vines to make their second wine, Montalbanie. The mature vines are used to make its classic Pécharmant and in very good years the wine from the best parts of the vineyard will become a Grand Millésime, a great vintage.
François-Xavier is quietly confident that 2019 will be a Grand Millésime year, but don’t even think about being allowed to taste some until late 2021, maybe 2022. And having recently been awed by a magnum of the Grand Millésime 2009, I wouldn’t think of opening the 2019 until at the earliest 2025. And I’m hoping to still be around then to do so.
So for my annual Twelve Days of Christmas drinking recommendations:
1) Château de Tiregand Grand Millésime 2015. €21.00
2) Château de la Jaubertie, cuvée Mirabelle. €16.90
3) Clos de Breil, cuvée l’Odyssée 2016. €12.10
4) Château Puy Servain, cuvée Songe. The 2011 is drinking perfectly now. €25.50
5) Château Bélingard, Réserve. €10.70
6) Château Feely, cuvée Grace 2015. €20.00
7) Château Le Payral, Petite Fugue 2017. €8.00
8) Julien de Savignac, cuvée Lisa 2018. €8.50
9) Château La Vieille Bergerie, cuvée Quercus 2018. €11.00
10) Les Tours des Verdots 2018. €10.00
11) Château Lestevenie Brut (the best fizzy wine in the Bergerac). €9.00
12) Château Le Fagé Monbazillac, 2015. €22.00
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.