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