by Martin Walker
The Prix Ragueneau is known as the top cookery prize in south-west France, featuring the black truffles and foie gras, the lamb and fowl and walnuts that are the best-known specialities of this magnificently endowed region.
But is also important to winemakers since each of the two dishes prepared by the five chefs in the final must be accompanied by its own wine, which has to be explained and the choice justified before the jury by the sommelier who shares the prize with the chef.
That makes ten wines for those of us in the jury to taste, and a terrific selection it was, saddening me that we had to spit out most of them after tasting. The Bugle was well represented with me, your wine columnist and Julia Watson the food writer both on the jury of ten, including French wine and food writers, Danièle Mazet-Delpeuch (President Mitterrand’s personal chef) and Patrick Jeffroy of the Carantec hotel in Brittany, who has two Michelin rosettes.
It got better since the Sunday before the day of tasting, all ten jury members gathered for lunch at the vineyard of David Fourtout of Les Verdots, one of my own favourites. David did us proud, offering all of his red and whites for the last three years and his top-of-the-brand Le Vin from 2010 for us to taste. His wife hosted an excellent lunch of seafood salad, beef olives and a tarte vigneronne, apple tart with a red wine glaze.
Then we had a guided tour of the truffle plantation at Lentignac, outside Ste-Alvère, before a five-course dinner at the Vieux Logis with each course featuring black truffles, all cooked by the Michelin-starred chef Vincent Arnould, along with wines from more of my favourites, Moulin Caresse and l’Ancienne Cure.
The next morning began at the Ste-Alvère truffle market, followed by a casse-croûte of truffles in lightly scrambled eggs and cream, haricots aux couennes with aiguillettes of duck and tartines of truffled butter. Julien and Caline Monfort, of the famous Julien de Savignac cave in Le Bugue, were on hand with their own wines.
After all this, the tasting might have been an anti-climax. Not so. I was delighted to find many old friends among the bottles: Château de Tiregand, Château des Eyssards, Clos l’Envège and Château Monestier La Tour, on which I have written before in these pages. Château Le Payral of Saussignac is a wine I know well and will be writing about again, likewise for Château Poulvère on Monbazillac, where Benoît Borderie offers yet another example of what good wines retired fighter pilots can make.
New to me were two wines from the Duras, which is now linked with the Bergerac vineyards and what splendid additions they are. The first was a very seductive and luscious red from Clos des Figuiers, where Sylvie Fechtenbaum and her husband Eddy (another ex-fighter pilot) and their daughter Sarah (an astro-physicist) have been making two organic wines, a Merlot red and a Sauvignon Blanc white for the past four years on a tiny vineyard of just 2.5 hectares. The vines are only fifteen years old but have suffered neither pesticide nor chemical fertiliser for the past ten years. At 12.50 euros a bottle, the 2014 Merlot that we tasted was an excellent wine, well worth the money.
The other discovery from the Duras knocked my socks off, a bio-dynamic wine from Domaine Mouthes Le Bihan, a white wine called La Pie Colette, 2016. It was made of 45 per cent each of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon with ten per cent of Chenin. It was charming without being in any sense light, with a long finish and a tantalising mix of freshness and depth in the mouth. At 9.50 euros a bottle, I recommend it highly.
This Duras white wine stands out in my memory because it was not overwhelmed by its partner wine for the winning dish (from the Restaurant Vin’Quatre in Bergerac), the Petite Fugue dry white wine from Château Le Payral.
Isabelle and Thierry Daulhiac are terrific winemakers, committed to biological winemaking and bio-dynamic methods, like many of their Saussignac neighbours. Thierry is the sixth generation of winemakers in his family.
The remarkable feature of their wine is Thierry’s belief in and skill with Sauvignon Gris, a somewhat obscure grape which my wine encyclopaedia dismisses as producing ‘less aromatic’ wines. Not in Thierry’s hands! His Petite Fugue is sixty per cent Sauvignon Gris and forty per cent Sauvignon Blanc, and this wine is a little austere but then becomes inviting on the nose with just a hint of pear flavour. It is a delight in the mouth, a surprise in its almost playful richness with a final, delicate suggestion of vanilla.
Some of the best wines of Pessac-Léognan, including Haut-Brion and Pape Clément use small amounts of the Sauvignon Gris, but Thierry goes to town with this unusual grape, a pinkish-blue on the skin but quite white inside. He and Isabelle keep it in barrels of French oak for six months, and the wine is fertilised with natural, local yeasts. In short, it is a handmade wine, an excellent choice to go with the cooking of the winning chef, Charlie Ray and his partner (and sommelier) Mélanie Legrand. They well deserve the 3,000 euro prize.
As for me, after all that splendid food and wine (and coming so soon after Christmas), I think I’ll need to fast for a week.
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.