The Wines of Bergerac – What’s in a grape?

by Martin Walker

A reader of this column recently sent a message to the website for my novels, brunochiefofpolice.com, to ask if I could offer a simple guide to the different kinds of grape that are used in the Bergerac. So here goes.

Almost all Bordeaux and Bergerac red wines are based on a blend of two grapes, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Sometimes different winemakers will add some Cabernet Franc or some Malbec, which is known locally as côt. This is a very old grape, served at the wedding of Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, and it is the basis of the dark red wines of Cahors.

Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are two of the world’s most-grown grapes (along with Chardonnay) and they were destined to be blended together, since they each flourish on different soils and the Cabernet ripens after the Merlot is ready, which makes it easier to organise the harvesting. The Cabernet is a robust grape which is thick-skinned and resistant to disease. It is high in tannins (which extend the life of the wine) and it thrives on gravel soil.

Ripe Merlot grapes are a lovely deep and dark blue in colour, and the name is said to come from the French for blackbird. It gives a fleshy, velvety grape which likes clay and softens the slightly harsher Cabernet Sauvignon. It is a generous vine, the average bunch weighing significantly more than Pinot Noir, the great grape of Burgundy which typically weighs about two-thirds as much.

Traditionally in the Bordeaux and Bergerac the Merlot is harvested slightly early to keep some acidity and reduce the alcohol content. In California, by contrast, they like to harvest it at the last minute when it is almost bursting with alcohol and produces an inky, purple wine.

Château de la Jaubertie’s splendid cuvée Mirabelle red (16 euros) is a good compromise. It is 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc, and its richness and depth comes from a slightly later harvesting of the Merlot.
Cabernet Franc is an older grape, and DNA evidence tells us that Cabernet Sauvignon developed in the 17th century from the interbreeding of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. We know that Cardinal Richelieu took cuttings of Cabernet Franc from Saint-Émilion to transplant them in the Loire Valley, where the grapes now produce the charming if rather light wines of Bourgeuil. Added to the usual Cabernet-Merlot mix, the Cabernet Franc gives a freshness and a slight taste of pepper and blackcurrant.

DNA analysis is teaching us some fascinating lessons about the history of wine. You may have heard of the Southern Italian grape called Primitivo, a robust and powerful wine. We now know that the grape is over 2,000 years old and it originally came from Croatia in the Balkans and was the standard plonk of ancient Rome. More recently it went on its travels and reached California where it is known as Zinfandel.

The dry white wines of Bergerac come mainly from Sauvignon Blanc grapes and Sémillon, sometimes with a little Muscadelle which adds sweetness. Sauvignon Blanc is a wonderfully adaptable green-skinned grape which can be grown almost anywhere. In cooler climes it can be crisp and even astringent, but in tropic zones it can be too rich, almost luscious. The climate of the South-West of France is a happy medium with a range of terroirs, gravel and sand, clay and flint, which bring out the best of the grape.

Sémillon is a lovely golden-skinned grape, with a sweetish juice and a tendency to get the ‘noble rot’ of botrytis which produces the great dessert wines of Sauternes, Barsac and Monbazillac. It marries beautifully with Sauvignon Blanc.

The Muscadelle, sometimes known as Cadillac, is a pale-skinned grape which produces strong, sweet wines. Only small amounts are blended into most white wines, except in Monbazillac, where the legendary vineyard of Tirecul La Gravière uses as much as 50 per cent Muscadelle, 45 per cent Sémillon and only 5 per cent Sauvignon Blanc.

From these various grapes, there is something almost magical about the vast range that can emerge of taste and bouquet, of quality and of price. Take along your 5-litre glass jar or your 10-litre plastic cubitainer and in the cooperatives and caves you can draw your own everyday drinking wine for around two euros a litre. At every market you can buy 3 and 5-litre containers of Bergerac white or red almost as cheaply. But you can also pay nearly 50 euros for a bottle of the rare Anthologia from the vineyard of Tour des Gendres or over a hundred euros for a small half-litre bottle of Monbazillac from the majestic Cuvée Madame du Château Tirecul La Gravière.

A great deal of Bergerac is made by cooperatives and often sold as everyday drinking wine, retailing in supermarkets for around 3 to 5 euros a bottle. But the wines I most like to explore and enjoy are in the mid-price range from around 5 euros a bottle up to 15 euros, since I have been persuaded by thoughtful vignerons that life is too short to drink anything but good wine.

I also enjoy seeking out cheaper wines and for just under 5 euros at my local wine store (Julien de Savignac in Le Bugue) I drank and served a lot of Château des Eyssards Bergerac Sec this summer. It is light, flowery and wonderfully refreshing and deservedly won a gold medal at a recent concours for wines of the South-West.

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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