We’re all going on a summer holiday… diary of a #frenchwinetrip

Saturday 1st June
Day 8, homeward bound.

After an enlightening, exhausting and thoroughly enjoyable 10 days on the road, the trip has come to an end. Here’s a two minute video I made to sum it up. Again, it’s all done in one take with no editing, so excuse the sketchy delivery!

Matt Walls – #Frenchwinetrip – Day 8 from Frenchwinetrip on Vimeo.


Friday 31st May
Day 7, Burgundy: Force of nature

It was raining in Burgundy. It had been raining for some time. That evening, we all huddled under an umbrella and shuffled, as one, to a nearby restaurant. Our Russian friend Alex thought we were joking that the Burgundians ate snails. The look on his face when he received his starter was priceless.

We were joined by Jean-Michel Chartron, owner of Domaine Jean Chartron in Puligny-Montrachet. I asked him how the growing season was progressing: he said that 2013 has been the wettest start to a vintage he’d witnessed in the past 10 years at least, and that older vignerons had been looking back to 1983 or even 1964 for a comparable start to the year.

The bottom of the slopes, Aloxe-Corton in Burgundy

Jean-Michel explained that the worst problems were at the bottom of the slopes; not only does water run down to the bottom, but the clay is deeper there, which makes for slower drainage. If temperatures rise above 15˚C, the spectre of diseases like mildew and oidium will soon appear. The necessary vineyard spraying to ward them off has been taking place by hand or by helicopter as tractors get stuck in the mud: “the biggest problem is getting into the vineyard” he said. At times like this he is glad his domaine concentrates on white wines; reds are more prone to rot flavours than whites, not to mention unripe tannins.

For all the heroic hard work and attention to detail of the winegrowers, there’s little that can be done in the face of adverse weather. However technologically advanced we become, it’s hard to imagine a time when the perfect wine will be made year in, year out. The best Burgundies always feel rooted in nature; they simultaneously display our awe-inspiring creativity, but remind us of our real stature in the face of far greater forces.

But it’s impossible to accurately predict that quality of the vintage at this stage. Jean-Pierre Renard at the Ecole des Vins de Bourgogne said “so far, no problem… the problem will be when we reach the flowering season”. The next two weeks will be critical, and everyone is praying for sun.


Thursday 30th May
Day 6, Languedoc: France’s Brave New World – then to the Rhône

In France, wine is traditionally drunk with food. But in the UK we don’t have that custom. We’re happy to drink socially, or alone for that matter, without it being part of a meal. That’s one reason why we’ve taken so happily to New World wines. Thanks to the combination of warmer climates and modern technology, many of these wines have bright, fully ripe fruit flavours that taste great by themselves. This is something that the south of France does well too.

Like some New World countries, this part of France is still discovering itself. It’s no secret that the reds from this region have been swiftly improving. They are also hugely varied: thick, powerful Corbières in the west through to lighter, spicier Rhône-like Grés de Montpellier in the east. The whites have been slower to catch up, but we tasted some excellent examples from St Chinian.

The final leg of our road trip was Burgundy. We made a quick pit stop in the Rhône Valley on the way – here’s a 3 minute intro to their wines. It’s one single take straight off without any editing, so the presentation is a bit, er, rustic!

Matt Walls – #Frenchwinetrip – Day 5 from Frenchwinetrip on Vimeo.


Wednesday 29th May
Day 5, Languedoc: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger

When it comes to sweet wines, France has more stylistic diversity than any other country. Sauternes relies on still damp fogs to work its magic. For the Languedoc it’s the opposite: sun and drying winds. Though they may not have the cachet of the sweet wines of Bordeaux, the trump card of the Languedoc is its extraordinary diversity.

The range of colours is the first clue to this breadth of styles: pale yellow to orange; bright red to purple; pale tawny to dark brown. Since they can’t rely on botrytis here, they opt for a different method of intensifying the wines – adding a splash of pure alcohol during the fermentation of overripe grapes which halts the process, leaving some natural sweetness and loads of intense flavour.

They are as varied in character as they are in appearance. Most of the orange blossom and peach-scented Muscats get their concentrated flavour from an extended ripening period throughout the autumn. The sweet reds of Maury and Banyuls near the Spanish border are made primarily from late-harvested Grenache. They marry the acidity of a ripe raspberry with flavours of dried red and black fruits.

Both Maury and Rivesaltes use the white Maccabeu grape for some wines. The best are left to gradually evaporate for years in closed oak barrels, slowly browning over time. Sometimes the winemakers leave them outside in the summer heat to gently caramelise. The real mavericks put them into glass jars and sit them in the scorching sun. This would permanently destroy most other red and white wines – but not these. It only serves to concentrate them further and bestow upon them even more complexity and longevity. They are the Jedis of the wine world.


Tuesday 28th May
Day 4, Bordeaux to Languedoc: White gold


Golden grapes at Château Pape Clément in the Graves

There are many components that make up a wine. From grape juice and yeast it derives acids, sugars, alcohol, tannins, pigments, various types of flavour compound and more. But the main ingredient is water. Reduce the water content and the rest becomes concentrated into an intensely flavoured, sticky nectar.

Over here, we call them dessert wines or sweet wines. But the fact that they are sweet isn’t really the point; it’s this intense concentration of elements that makes them so compelling. They remind me of those irresistibly sticky, crunchy, intensely meaty morsels stuck to the roasting pan when you lift out the meat. They are wines for greedy hedonists.

Leaving the city of Bordeaux, we followed the Garonne river 30km south until we crossed a chilly tributary known as the Ciron. They grow three white grape varieties here: rich Sémillon, fresh Sauvignon Blanc and musky Muscadelle. The difference in temperature between the two rivers causes damp fogs in the warm autumn mornings. It’s the perfect breeding ground for moulds like botrytis.

Once it takes hold, the grapes turn bruise-purple and the skins thin to a crinkled film. The plant creates antibodies in an attempt to fight the fungus; these compounds add unique flavours of their own like mushroom, marmalade and spice. Eventually it causes tiny pores to open. The water in the grapes gradually evaporates and leaves the rest of the juice components behind in the shrivelled grapes. These are then picked, pressed, and the golden-coloured gloop that results is fermented.

The best sweet wines of Bordeaux come from Sauternes. Local winemaker Olivier Fargues briefly returned to making reds after his first experiments with sweet wine. But he couldn’t keep away and now he co-owns a Sauternes estate. The fungus gets into you too, he says, and once it takes hold, there’s no going back. He describes it as alchemy: using the magical mould to transform these white wines into gold. A marked contrast to the organised religion of the top Bordeaux reds.

This is just one bizarre practice in the world of sweet wine. Not to be outdone, the Languedoc has developed some of its own…

Monday 27th May
Day 3, Bordeaux:  Entre-Deux-Mondes

The aviary at Château de Camarsac

Our day in Bordeaux was one of contrasts. Entre-Deux-Mers was our first stop, a relatively lowly appellation in Bordeaux but increasingly a source of good value everyday wines – especially the whites that blend zesty grapefruit flavours with toast and smoke. Château de Camarsac is well removed from the razzmatazz of the Médoc to the north. This 700-year-old château looks like schoolboy’s drawing of a castle; blocky battlements and cylindrical towers with conical turrets. If my friends inherited a castle, I’d imagine it would look a bit like this; a bit run-down and overgrown, but clearly well-loved and a lively family home.

The wine are of the same character; they tend to lack the French polish of the wines to the north but are still Bordeaux in flavour. And their prices usually stop where the wines of the Médoc start.

Our evening back in the centre of Bordeaux had a very different ambiance. It was spent in the manicured offices of Bordeaux négociant (business-to-business wine merchant) Cordier-Mestrezat. Historically, the top Bordeaux châteaux didn’t want to get their hands dirty with the unsavoury process of selling wine, so each year they would divide up their production between various négociants who would do this job for them. They have done such a good job of marketing the wines of Bordeaux that the prices of the best estates are now well out of reach of mere mortals.

It’s good to see that Cordier are trying to innovate and stay relevant, but it must be difficult working with top châteaux. The wines made by the Grands Crus Classés remind me of exotic pet birds. Exquisite creatures for sure, but trapped in glass cages by their high price tags. Nonetheless, their offices of Cordier-Mestrezat were impressively opulent, and a reminder of the glamour, glitz and wealth at the heart of Bordeaux.

Tomorrow we’ll be heading down to the Languedoc after visiting a producer of the most underrated of styles: sweet wines.


Sunday 26th May
Day 2, Loire Valley to Bordeaux: Somersaults

Beware of signs in cycle path


After a broken night’s sleep listening to drunk people trying to dismantle Tours city centre (nothing to do with Vitiloire I’m sure), we had breakfast and jumped into the van to go cycling.  Our soundtrack was vintage French pop and the quiet clacking of laptop keys. After an hour, we arrived in the picture-postcard village of Montsereau, a little village near Saumur.

At the foot of the first hill the chain of my bike snapped. After some emergency cycle surgery, I caught up with the others for a leisurely tour around the windmills, wild flowers and pretty vineyards of Saumur-Champigny. Half an hour in, we stopped for a glass of wine. I stopped a bit too soon in fact and landed on my face. The characterful local red is made from Cabernet Franc, an underrated grape variety. It’s perfect for those looking for wines with more interesting flavours than simply black and red fruits – the ideal herbal remedy.

After a bit more cycling in the sun, we headed back downhill for lunch, Sebastian blowing his tyre and Faye snapping her breaks on the way. We sheepishly handed our bikes back to the hire company, and we scuttled off for lunch.

Most of the chateaux in this region are built from tuffeau, a soft, pale limestone. Digging it out of the hillsides has left 10km of naturally damp cellars, and a large cave that now houses a permanent shrine to the mushroom – formerly a booming local industry. It consists of a mushroom restaurant, a mushroom farm and a mushroom museum. Galipettes (somersaults) were on the menu – mushrooms baked with a rillettes, andouillette or cheese topping. We had all three, washed down with rosé, red and white Saumur.

Afterwards, we got back in the van and made the 4 hour drive down to Bordeaux – quite a different vibe to the relaxed charm of the Loire…

Matt Walls – #Frenchwinetrip – Day 2 from Frenchwinetrip on Vimeo.


Saturday 25th May
Day 1, London to the Loire Valley: Vouvrays and gay parades

Irene, Linn, Jens, Sebastian...

It was a bright, sunny morning as I left London on the train to Paris. Arriving at the Gare du Nord, I jumped in a taxi to the Gare d’Austerlitz to pick up my connecting train to Tours in the Loire Valley. Narrowly dodging an impressively drunk man freewheeling on a bicycle in the middle of the road with a pair of crutches under his arm, we arrived at the station with 10 minutes to spare.

I hastily grabbed lunch on the way. Harbouring a suspicion that most of the fruit I would encounter from here on in would be poached in booze then wrapped in pastry, I invested in an apple for a continental 1€40. As the train approached my destination, dark clouds gathered overhead. Was it some kind of omen?

... and Alex

Of course it was – an uncomplicated omen that it was pissing it down in Tours.  But the lively Vitiloire wine festival was taking place directly outside the hotel, and a spot of rain wasn’t stopping anyone. The crew assembled and we piled into a small exhibition space for an introductory tasting.

We pulled up some chairs, grabbed a glass each and the first cork was pulled. However it quickly became clear just how close we were to the music stage when a band started playing with the bug-eyed enthusiasm only an overconfident trombonist can muster. In France, you are never more than 500m from a brass band; but this was a little too close for comfort. Nevertheless, our guide Jean-Michel Durivault, a neurobiologist and Loire expert, succeeded in showing us the amazing diversity of the white wines of the Loire.

We started with a fine Muscadet, Jean-Michel pointing out with uncanny accuracy that it tastes like unripe strawberries. Muscadet is made from the impressively yet confusingly named ‘Burgundy Melon’ grape (Melon de Bourgogne). It’s hardly the fruitiest variety, so these light-bodied wines often take more flavour from the yeasts used than the grapes themselves.

Next we opened a Sancerre, surely the most famous of all Sauvignon Blancs. This a naturally aromatic variety, so when winemakers accentuate these fruity flavours the wines can become almost caricatured. In the Loire, producers tend to take the fruitiness for granted and look to pick out other elements of the grape, like florality or green vegetable notes that give the wines a bit more interest and complexity.

As we moved on to the Chenin Blancs things got even noisier. Now it was the Tours gay community’s turn to get rowdy, leading their annual parade right around our building. Jean-Michel sighed, shrugged, and did his best to contend with the whooping, whistles and passing trucks clattering out hard house.

Vouvray, however, has a diversity that pushes even the Tours gay scene into the background. It runs the scale of sweetness all the way from bone dry to fully sweet; it does saffron-scented botrytised sweet wines; it even does sparkling. And all using just the gifted Chenin Blanc grape.

Sparkling Vouvray is particularly worth sniffing out if you don’t know it. Made in the same method as Champagne but considerably cheaper, it has a toastiness from the yeast ageing in bottle that really works with Chenin’s natural honey aromas. It can be anything from dry to semi-sweet, but the Chenin Blanc grape is packed with tons of natural acidity that helps keep it fresh, balanced and delicious. All in all, a highly festive start to the trip.

Tomorrow: a cycling trip through the vines with a large glass of rouge. What could possibly go wrong?

24th May 2013

An Englishman, a Belgian, a Russian, a German, a Dutch girl and a Danish girl all get into a van… no, this isn’t the start of a rude joke, it’s a road trip around France taking place from 25th May to 2nd June. And yes, I am that Englishman! I’ve no idea what I’ve signed myself up for, but we’ll be starting off in Paris, driving down to the Loire, then down to the Languedoc via Bordeaux, and back up again through Burgundy to Paris. We’ll be tweeting along the way; the hashtag is #frenchwinetrip.

Just as tasting wines side by side can help you spot their differences and similarities more clearly, I’m hoping that having a little sample of all of these regions one after the other will help me see each one in a new light. I’m going to be adding an update to this post every day to let you know how we get on. Wish me luck! And pray that the other five don’t discover a mutual love of West End showtunes…


Many thanks for Sopexa and FranceAgriMer for organising the trip and covering the costs of our attendance.