Monday, August 13, 2007

South-Central France

I left Pouilly-sur-Loire early in the morning to take advantage of the cool, crisp air and the (hopefully) empty highways. But that plan was quickly thwarted the moment I got to the autoroute: I hadn’t counted on being accompanied by caravans of mobile homes (there’s an RV culture in Europe????) and towed trailers, most bearing the NL or B stickers for the Netherlands or Belgium. It seemed that those entire nations had emptied and headed south for the summer (isn’t it usually the other way around?). Still, I managed to zip my way through the Nordic hordes in my little hamster-powered car, the motor screaming as I downshifted at 140 kph on an upward incline.

Luckily, the miserably cool summer of 2007 kept its temperatures on low, so I never had to turn on the AC. And anyway, I don’t think the engine could have taken that added stress. With the windows down, the IPod volume up, I roared south from the Loire, heading deep into the heart of France.

My family has a mas, a renovated farmhouse, just north of the small fortified city of Montflanquin. You can find a virtual visit of the Old Town in French here. For decades, it managed to fend off the British invasions of the Hundred Years Wars, but now it finds itself surrounded and besieged by the Anglo-Saxons again. You see, the English have bought up most of the houses and farms in the area. As my friend François says, “Zey could not win La France in ze Hundred Years War, so now zey are buying her.”


Anyway, as I was saying, the French side of my family has a renovated farmhouse just north of the city of Montflanquin. My uncle is quite the handyman and basically rebuilt a decrepit old barn into a lovely, warm, inviting house. After the long drive (including a wrong turn that cost me an hour) from the Loire Valley, this was quite a relief. But I wasn’t here just to see them. I had come to visit a domaine which had impressed me with its quality and pricing, Chateau Gaudou. In addition, I had leads on several other wineries making interesting wines in the area.
Chateau Gaudou
Located a few hundred kilometers east of Bordeaux, the Cahors region of south-central France was previously known more for “black wine” - tough, tannic reds that took forever to come around and stained the teeth - than for elegant, balanced wines. Advances in winemaking and adaptations to the market had forced the local winemakers to tame their workhorse grapes, Malbec (also called Côt) and Tannat. These could be robust, unruly beasts unless well-treated, as some of the examples I tasted proved. But a new generation of winemakers is making lovely wines out of these monsters, soothing their fierce tannins and softening their harsher characteristics.

My visit at Chateau Gaudou proved this point. Here, centuries of winemaking tradition were being updated by the talented vigneron Fabrice Durou. His wines were clean, lovely, not too extracted and nicely balanced, a sharp change from others’ wines, which had stained my teeth and left me gasping for water. The beautiful chateau overlooks the region, a stunning vista of rolling hills shimmering in the summer heat. His vines are planted on hillsides to take advantage of the wind and the exposure, and grass is allowed to grow between the rows to ensure maximum stress. The chai (winery) is spotless, a clean environment where he has control over as much of the winemaking process as possible. Yet despite all the modern equipment, the wines are not technical, they are soulful expressions of both the vineyard and the winemaker.

After several hours of walking the fields, visiting the chai and tasting the wines, my uncle and I left Fabrice, driving down the hills and back into the valley. My uncle had told me about a winery he’d been to where the wines were fabulous and cheap. When I asked where it was, he replied that it had been a while since he’d been there.

“Oh? How long?” I asked.

“Twenty five years ago,” he replied. I rolled my eyes. But we started asking questions and looking around, and in the process found ourselves lost in the hills in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by deep, dark forests, ruined farmhouses, and the occasional Dutch RV, on narrow roads. After several stops to ask for directions, we finally found the winery, the Clos de l’Auvergne. It was a small house set atop a steep hill, where an older gentleman and two beautiful, excited dogs came out to greet us.

Clos de l'Auvergne's vineyard

This was Mr. Lavouroux, the father, a barrel-maker extraordinaire, who extended a calloused and scarred hand to us. I immediately noticed there were a few fingertips missing. Seeing this, he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Every once in a while, I wasn’t paying attention…”, trailing off and leaving me to imagine what would happen to someone working with a circular saw. Yikes!

Without telling him what I was doing there, we started tasting the wines. To my surprise (I will admit I’d never thought of my uncle has having a good palate), the wines were fantastic, lovely balanced wines that softened the monster Malbec with some Merlot. In addition, he tasted us on his 1995, a beautiful, dark, truffly wine that seemed almost like an older Bordeaux. Yum!

His son was making the wines, and we finally got to meet Jean-Luc. He was a strapping fellow wearing overalls and looking like the down-to-earth winemaker that everyone thinks of when they imagine winemakers. We followed him into the field atop the hill, where row after row of Malbec sat in the sun, the vineyard buzzing with life. Grass grew between the vines, as he was treating them as organically as possible. But what really got my attention, aside from the quality of the wines, was the fact that he didn’t use any oak barrels. Yet his father is a barrel-maker!

Calling Dr. Freud…

In any case, the wines were fantastic and well-priced, so after some discussions we struck a deal and I went back to the family mas rather satisfied with my day in the Cahors region. That night we celebrated my aunt and uncle’s wedding anniversary with a wonderful meal sitting outside under the stars, drinking a truffly bottle of the 1995 Clos de l’Auvergne and a bottle of NV Nicolas Feuillate Champagne.

Sitting there, the sun slowly setting, stars starting to twinkle, with great wine, hearty food, and a loving family, made me thankful that I’d decided to follow my passion and my heart into the wine business. These are the moments we live for.

I went to sleep around midnight, knowing that I needed to rest up as the next day I’d be driving to the Basque Country.

Here are some pictures of the South-Central area of France, again just click on the picture, no need to sign in.


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