France is closed on Sunday. Ferme. On Sunday in France there is no commercial activity. The stores are closed, the wineries are closed, pretty much everything is closed. Rather than hang around St Emilion all day, I decided to take the group to Sarlat and Domme since both of these ancient towns are centered around tourism and I knew everything would be open. We left the hotel around 9:00 in order to get to Sarlat by noon, but first we took an unscheduled detour to Monbazillac. As we got close I thought, “It would be a crime not to stop for just thirty minutes,” and so we did. The Chateau Monbazillac sits on the escarpment overlooking the town of Bergerac and the surrounding valley. It is a breathtaking view and a piece of history (a stronghold of French Huguenots) worth the detour. It is also where the best sweet, white wine to have with foie gras is made, so you see, the stop was tres necessaire.
We drove on through the windy roads of the Dordogne and I was reminded again – as if I needed to be – why this is my favorite part of France. The lushness of the hillsides covered with vines, the thatched roofed ancient villages that have occupied this land for centuries, the calm pace of life and of course the food! This is ground zero for foie gras and canard, so of course it is also my favorite place in all of France.
We arrived in Sarlat around 12:30 and made our way to the center of town, where I have a favorite restaurant for lunch. It is a simple place where you can get a decent omelet, or a croque monsieur, and a pitchet of Rose, and relax and soak it all in. Sarlat was founded in the Middle Ages and did not have major roads to it until the 1970’s. The old town is preserved and as you walk it’s narrow streets you can imagine yourself back in that time. I stayed mostly at the cafe and let the group discover the town on their own. Eventually I poked around a little even buying a hat that makes me look like Uncle Henry in “A Good Year;” well my wife likes it.
By 5:00 everyone was ready to leave so we made our way to the cliffside town of Domme where we would have dinner and spend the night at Hotel L’Esplande with our rooms high above the cliff, looking out over the enchanting Dordogne Valley. The next morning we watched the fog roll in across the valley and up to Domme and it was like something out of a movie. It is almost impossible to describe this magical place and the connection to an ancient civilization but here along the narrow cobbled streets filled with artisans and tourists, you can almost imagine yourself as a resident centuries ago with people who were doing pretty much the same thing you are doing now. It was a long detour from the wine tour, but worth every minute.
On Monday we were back to the serious business of picking wines for the club so we packed up the van and made the three hour drive to Graves to see my friend Patrick and Chateau Tour Bicheau. I remember meeting Patrick when he was just 28 years old and was still learning winemaking from his father and grand father. Today he is 34, married with a son of his own and his years as a student have paid off. His wine consistently scores as one of the top wines in our blind tasting and in fact it is always sold out every year. His is the only wine I have ever had to reserve before I taste it – with the agreement that if I don’t pick it in the blind tasting I can cancel my order – because he will not have any trouble selling it to someone else. I consider it a privilege to be able to import his wine because I know how in demand it is all over Europe and I know how special it is to have it in our club.
In addition to making a great wine, Patrick is also a great guy. He gave us the nickel tour of the winemaking facility – a little larger than the ones we saw in St Emilion, but still very much a family feel to it – and then joined us for lunch at a local restaurant he picked. We had a wonderful dejuner with him and enjoyed a couple vintages of his wine as we sat down for another long lunch. We invited him to join us for the blind tasting and he agreed so hopefully we would see him again on Thursday to taste the Left Bank wines.
I usually invite my Right Bank winemakers to the Left Bank blind tasting and vice versa. It is always great to get their perspective on wines that are not from their region; plus I don’t want them at the tasting that has their wine in it. I made that mistake once early on and was extremely embarrassed when I gave a bad review to a wine which, when we took the cover off it was from the winemaker sitting at the table with me. Lesson learned! Never again!
By 2:00 – the correct time for lunch to end in the civilized world – we made the long drive up to the northern Medoc and the area of Begadan. Begadan is a good thirty minutes north of Pauillac and is in some ways the last frontier of the Medoc. Before we reached our hotel however I had to find Chateau La Branne. We had selected this wine at last years’ blind tasting, but I had never visited the property so I wanted to stop in, meet the winemakers and see if they had any other vintages for us to taste. When we arrived late for our appointment the matron of the Chateau was surprised to see us. In not a word of English I explained who I was and that I had a rendez vous with the winemaker. She explained that her son was not available, and she called her daughter-in-law who drove over to meet us. We tasted a couple of vintages of the wine and while it wasn’t exactly what I remembered from last year, I did remember why we picked it. We got some extra samples for dinner and I was glad we had stopped there. This is another winery to keep an eye on. They have good terroir and are making good wine. I can’t wait to taste their 2015.
Our hotel for the next two nights was Hotel Roland de By and it is a wonderful place in Begadan – aka the middle of nowhere – surrounded by vineyards. Begadan is also where Chateau Greysac is, and more importantly for the club, both Chateau Le Reysse and Uni Medoc. It was a peaceful and quiet place to relax under the trees and enjoy a fabulous Medocian dinner with specialities from the region and a couple of wines we had picked up along the way as we lingered the night away. It had been a long day of driving and I was exhausted but we had covered a lot of ground and now, looking back, we had a great collection of wines for the Right Bank blind tasting.
It was now time to start working on finding wines from the Left Bank. Tomorrow.