Thursday, 23 September 2010

The end of things...

My 52nd and last day dawned beautiful and sunny. I took a taxi to St. Charles railway station in Marseille to catch my very first TGV, which whisked me to Paris (Gare du Lyon) in just over 3 hours... and arriving exactly on time! France wished me a cheery good-bye all smiles and sunshine right the way up the whole length of the country - I saw vineyards, pretty villages, the autoroute, the odd château... it was almost as though France wanted to show me a whirlwind of everything she had offered me over the past seven and a half weeks and bathed it in sunshine to leave me with the glow of a dream realised.
A short taxi ride across Paris - 15 minutes in which I was so glad that I hadn't had to drive round this city! Attractive, interesting and alluring as it might be - the drivers are insane!
Gare du Nord for the Eurostar and the discovery that some of the French sensibility had rubbed off on me... I sniffed at a very loud group of English men guffawing and generally being obnoxious... and then realised that my reaction was a mirror of many of the French standing near me... And then worse, a very pushy French woman tried to push her way through the queue and as I was travelling with 2 heavy cases, a laptop and a little backpack, I was not hugely manoeuvrable. So when she stopped to have a little rant at my not moving out of her way (this was out of sheer inability, not out of obstinance), I shrugged... Yes, I did the french shrug, pursed up my lips and exhaled. It was a joy!
So, almost two and a half hours later, I arrived at St. Pancras. I took a deep breath, heaved my bags to the Victoria tube line and journeyed the 5 stops (and 15 minutes of hell) to Victoria, before catching the train to Lewes, my bed for the night... And the very end of my journey.

A note of thanks:

This journey has been one of the most wonderful experiences of my life; I had always wanted to take a 'road trip', I had always wanted to learn about wine and I think over the past few years I had lost sight of what the desires of Zoё's heart were.
And while I thank God for the blessing of being able to take this time out, to renew my mind, body and spirit and for His constant protection and grace, I must also acknowledge the kindness, generosity and open hearts of so many people...

So, in no particular order (and apologies if I have missed anyone - this is due to my forgetfulness, not a lack of appreciation for your help!)...

The Ladies Fellowship of St. Margaret Lothbury, who encouraged me, covered me in prayer and from a practical perspective provided me with the Michelin Vert Guide to the vineyard regions which supplied many of my stops for the night;
Vicky and Paul Richards, who trusted me with the 'little boat', aka the silver Barchetta, aka my partner in the adventure - the trip wouldn't have been the same without the sights and sounds provided by an open-top car in the sunshine of France; (they're also storing 18 souvenirs (bottles of wine to you and me), until I can get them back to the UK!;
Diane Wooldridge, for getting me to France (with all my luggage);
Ruth Long, for making sure all my luggage didn't exceed BA's quota and more importantly was stylish, co-ordinated and ultimately versatile (I only have one dress and cardigan unworn, which were there for a special occasion, which didn't arise!) and for providing me with a calm and serene environment to depart from;
Mags and Alistair Burton, for putting me up... and putting up with me when I was knocked off kilter from the car needing MOT'd and all that entailed. They and their friends smoothed what could have been a very difficult situation and made it easy... and they also introduced me to my favourite mountain, Ventoux;
Those of you who read my blog, sent me emails and generally kept me company while I travelled - it was wonderful to have your cheery greetings, your insights and your support;
And finally to the wonderful, friendly, helpful, passionate, enthusiastic wine-makers of France - Thank-you for a delicious, inspiring and educational journey through your stunningly beautiful country.


Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Days 49 to 51 - Marseille

Sunday dawned sunny, and as the weather on Monday and Tuesday was to be a little uncertain, I decided to take today as an opportunity to sunbathe and to carry out my activities on Monday and Tuesday.
So, I went to church at St. Victor Abbey. A little higher up from the port with a great view of the marina (packed with boats for the Juris Cup)

and Fort Saint Nicolas

After mass, I went straight back to the hotel, changed into the bikini, and up to the roof to sunbathe by the pool... And that was my day!

Monday turned out to be just as beautiful, but I wanted to visit the 3 Frioul islands, If, Ratonneau and Pomègues; If being the island where the Count of Monte Cristo was supposed to have been held... the other two are now joined by a man-made causeway, so while one lands on Ratonneau; both Pomègues and Ratonneau are accessible by foot.

Unfortunately, when I reached the pier from which the regular little ferry service to the islands departed, I discovered that some restorative work was being carried out on If, so it was unavailable for visits for the next 2 months, but I decided to go out to the others anyway. Just going out on the boat gave me a different perspective on the port, on Marseille itself; I wasn't sure what to expect from Marseille... too many books talking about robberies and murders at the port had given me a less than optimistic expectation, but these few days have totally revised my opinion.

Abbaye Saint-Victor behind only a few of the boats in the port!

We also passed If and the Château d'If on the way out

We reached Ratonneau after only 30 minutes... What can I say about my visit? I spent 2 hours just exploring these islands protected for their natural beauty and that's what they were, stunningly beautiful, with wonderful views back to the French mainland... and as I climbed to the most westerly point of Pomègues, of the Atlantic.
The port at Ratonneau... where you can stay overnight


At that moment, all I wanted was to be captain of this boat!

Ratonneau from Pomègues


If and Marseille

The Atlantic... and beyond
It was stunning to be out on theses islands... and if I sailed, I could think of nothing better than to take the boat out onto the Atlantic and then coming back each night to Ratonneau port and staying over the wee bars and restaurants... All you could want!

Tuesday dawned grey, overcast... and while warm, was sticky. In the photos from the previous days you can see the Church of Notre-Dame de la Garde. It stands on the highest point looking down on Marseille and is famous for the gold statue of Mary and the baby Jesus sitting atop the Basilica. I climbed up to visit the church - not the easiest on the humid day, but when I passed the postman pushing up a trolley packed with letters and parcels, I stopped my inner complaining!!
The church is very beautiful, and the statue impressive...


But even more impressive were the views...

Frioul islands

Vieux port and the rest of Marseille

Most poignant was a statue of Mary with Jesus - he is wearing his crown of thorns, but is still alive, so I can only assume it is from before he is crucified, but he looks so excruciatingly vulnerable, emaciated and in such physical pain... I actually felt sick looking at it... And ashamed. I had put him there.

I made the trek back into town and spent the rest of the afternoon just pottering around Marseille.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Days 47 and 48 - Completing the circle

I left my hotel in Cordes-sur-Ciel on a slightly misty Friday morning, but one promising sunshine after a day and night of rain. I regret not having time to explore the village as it looked both beautiful and interesting. Instead, I hit the road for a big drive back towards Marseille.

A misty morning - Cordes-sur-Ciel
Albi is about 25km from Cordes; I topped up the petrol tank there and joined the D999, which I followed all the way to Nîmes - it was about a four hour drive, but wow! the scenery was spectacular, through the natural gorges, the odd viaduct... really if you have a car and are visiting Tarn, take a day to do this drive - stunning scenery. I had decided to spend Friday night near Grans in the same place where I spent my first 4 nights, so after 40 minutes negotiating Nîmes at rush hour (and on a festival weekend) I carried on a further hour to Grans.
It did feel a wee bit like coming home... And it also made me realsie how far I had come in myself... Not so shy... I greeted Mme. Richard with gusto. I realised how much more I spoke to her, how much more confident I was from the woman who had arrived.
After dinner in Grans, I completed a bit of a Krypton Factor to fit all my wine into my bags... It all fitted, but was so heavy... I knew I would never make it onto the train.

So, Saturday, after leaving Grans, I drove to Roussillon to drop off 18 bottles of wine (not bad for 7 weeks and all the main wine producing regions!) though there are 12 in my bags still! The owners of the Barchetta, have come through once again and have allowed me to store the wine there until the next time someone is driving back to the UK and can carry them.

It's a stunning spot, beautiful house... I'll make sure to put a link on the blog.

Once the wine was dropped off, I drove back to Marseille airport where I dropped off the car. I have to confess to shedding a few tears on the drive... Well, you all know I'm a bit of a weepy... cry at the drop of a hat, but it was sad, saying good-bye. She had served me well... We had seen France together... And not a bump; not even a clipped wing mirror (despite some of the very narrow lanes explored!)

I gathered my cases and made my way to catch the shuttle bus to Marseille, where I will be spending the next 4 nights before returning to the UK on Wednesday. While I won't be tasting wines, I will upload an entry for Marseille, as I hope to explore the city and take a boat out to the islands, and in particular to visit Château d'If, where the Count of Monte Cristo was supposed to be held.

I have just had a lovely dinner in the hotel, and with the dinner I chose a half bottle of red from Bandol to celebrate the end of the road-trip; it was delicious:
AOC Bandol - Les Adrets 2003 - Moulin de la Roque - 95% Mourvèdre/5% Carignan gave a nose of cherries, raspberries and blueberries and flavours on the palate of cherries and blackberries and excellent tannins... Very pleasing indeed.
I will write up my experience in Marseille before closing the blog. :-(

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Day 46 - Cahors

After such a scorcher yesterday, it came as quite the surprise to discover it had tipped it down last night... Annoying, as one of the few things I did yesterday was to take the car to the carwash... well a little covered area with a high pressure washer... great fun, especially on a hot day!

Anyway, the day began swathed in fog and continued with drizzle which became heavier and heavier. On the drive to Cahors, I decided to stop off at
Puy-l’Évêque, a small mediaeval town looking down on the River Lot.
I wandered down to the Office de Tourisme, and next door was a little Maison du Vin. This little exhibition had been put together by one of the winemakers, who as I spoke with him explained that he only started making wine in the last 10 years after retiring as an architect; he took over from his father. However, he was so passionate about the wines of Cahors... in fact he had records of the date of the harvest back into the 1600s from the records kept in his family.
He also explained about the regulations for the Cahors appellation, which are that at least 70% must be the Auxerrois grape (Malbec to you and me!), the rest can be Merlot or up to 10% Tannat (as the name suggests, a very tannic grape!). Anyway, after walking me through the little exhibition with such passion and enthusiasm for his local wines, he invited me to taste some of them - all AOC Cahors, all red, another rule for the appellation in the little Cave.

  1. Vin Noir à L’ancienne 2009 - Something a little different to start... This is a 100% Malbec wine created to mirror a type made for the English in the 13th century. The wine is allowed to heat to 60 degrees during fermentation. It produced a wine that had a nose of blackcurrant and blackberry and tasted of the same flavours; not quite Ribena with a kick, as it wasn't sweet, but there was definitely that baked flavour.

  2. Domaine du Peyret 2008 - a nose of blackberry and plums, with blackcurrant and blackberry flavours. A young, fruity wine with some tannin.

  3. Clos de l'Eglise - Cuvée Prestige 2006 - A nose of blackberries, violets and raspberries and to taste, violets, blackberries, blackcurrants. A slightly astringent tannin, which may indicate the presence of Tannat.

  4. Domaine des Sangliers 2007 - 6 months in oak barrels gives this 100% Malbec a vaniila aroma over the blackberry scents. The flavours are blackberry, violets and wood... and tannins.

  5. Clos de l'Eglise - Révélation 2007 - Rather herbaceous aromas, a bit of the old wet forest with blueberries and wild strawberries. The flavours were blackcurrant and redcurrant... Fruity, but for me there was a slight under-ripe quality.

  6. Château La Reyne - L'Excellence 2007 - Barrel ageing gives this wine a smokey, woody nose, along with blackberry and cinnamon. Totaste, blackcurrant and a wee bit of tobacco. Like many of the wines before it, a long finish, but that finish is of the astringent tannins

  7. Château Gautool 2004 - A nose of cherries, blueberries and blackberries. The flavours on the palate are blackberry and a little herbaceous, but again with the astringent tannins.

  8. Château Famaey - Cuvée X 2004 - 2 years in oak barrels brings vanilla to the blueberry and blackberry nose. The flavours on the palate are redcurrant, blackcurrant, a little leather and smokiness.

You can tell by my descriptions that these wines have characteristic flavours, but for me the astringent tannins they display is not to my taste.
Anyway, back in the car and the rain still hadn't abated... which was a shame because the views over the Lot were wonderful. But I made my way to Cahors, the city, in time to discover a wholly vegetarian café... I think the waiter thought I was mad because I was so excited to have a choice of what to eat!

Anyway, I passed a statue of Léon Gambetta in Cahors, erected as this was his birthplace... It is absolutely guaranteed, be it a city, town or village in France, that there will be a Rue Gambetta - they love this guy, who was a politician... I only just discovered... I haven't figured out why, but take my word for it... there's always a Rue Gambetta!

I then made my way to the fortified Pont Valentré, the symbol of Cahors which crosses the Lot. (I should mention that the Lot flows in a horseshoe around Cahors.)
I then did a short circuit to the Cathédrale St-Étienne, another beautiful building, and more beautiful stained glass. I was also very taken with the angels standing on guard around the altar... They weren't cherubic, they were not to be messed with... They were angels I would like protecting me!

As I made my way back to the car, the heavens opened... again! And really didn't stop until I reached the mediaeval town of Cordes-sur-Ciel and my bed for the night. Another real shame as this area is renowned for its gorges and I have to say that even through the rain, the views were breathtaking... but no, I didn't risk getting soaked through just so you could have a snap. Sorry!

Day 45 - Under the weather...

Nothing to be worried about, just felt a little washed out and under the weather today... And as I had accomplished so much yesterday, I just took the day off. It turned out to be a scorcher and this time, I literally just lay by the pool and slept... and feel all the better for it this evening.

Normal service will resume tomorrow as I make my way through Cahors!

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Day 44 - Bergerac

Another day, another wine region and another theme tune... (though not sung by Denis Waterman).
I am a big fan of John Nettles... loved him in Bergerac, love him still in Midsomer Murders, even love him in France dubbed in what they call 'Barnaby', which I watched the rainy afternoon in Villefranche sur Saône.
Anyhow, I digress. The journey from Bordeaux to Bergerac was much shorter than I had anticipated, so by late morning I had arrived at the Château de Monbazillac, a beautfully charming castle/manor house

But its top attraction was the absolutely stunning panoramic view down the valley and right across to Bergerac city.
I toured the house which had its own little wine museum in the basement; the ground floor dedicated to past residents and the second floor dedicated to famous sons of the Bergerac region, including a caricaturist called 'Sen'... I hadn't heard of him, but I recognised his work, particularly the drawings and artwork he did for the famous 'Maxim's' of Paris
After leaving the house proper, I made my way to the little visitor centre for a tasting of the sweet wines which make this appellation famous.
  1. AOC Monbazillac - Grains d'Or 2006 - This was described to me as falling within the 'least sweet' category. It was a 10/80/10 blend of Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon/Muscadel which gave a raisin, sweet lemon and apricot nose and light confit lemon and raisin flavours in the mouth.
  2. AOC Monbazillac - Château La Sabatière 2005 - This 'medium sweet' category wine was an 85/15 blend of Sémillon/Muscadel which had aromas of raisn, bossom and slightly paraffin. To taste, apricots, honey and the heat of the alcohol.
  3. AOC Monbazillac - Château de Monbazillac 2005 - This 'sweet' category wine was an 10/75/15 blend of Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon/Muscadel from the vines I had just walked through had aromas of raisn, orange and blossom on the nose. To taste, orange, lemon, apricots, raisins and a little honey... Yes, it was sweet, but in such a fruity way, not sweet like sugar.
For my tuppence worth, I preferred these fruity-sweet wines to the Sauternes... I know, sacrilege, but that's just my taste.

I headed down the hill the few kms to Bergerac the city/big town. It's a quaint town with a very lovely oldy-worldy charming 'old town'
And is also situated on either side of the Dordogne river, linked by an old bridge and a newer one.

The quays were very important in days gone by, especially the use of barges to transport wine and cereals, but now they are more of a tourist point, but with an excellent Maison du Vin just opposite!
I should just mention here, that I ate lunch in Bergerac and for my dessert, I asked for 1 scoop of lemon sorbet. When it arrived, it was actually lime (actually my preference, but not all places have it!) and with a wink, the waiter told me it was a gift from him... Very flattering one might think... except, in all honesty, and no false humility, I actually have now reached an age where this 'boy', for that is all he was, could very well have been my son. It struck me that I was wearing the same dress as when I encountered the overly friendly fellows at the Wine Museum in Chinon, so thought.... 'Hmmm, I must really suit this dress', until I reached tonight's hotel and saw my reflection in the mirror with the sun behind me... Bit of a Princess Di moment...

Anyway, I still managed to taste some Bergerac wines before I made my way to the hotel for the night - 2 dry whites and 3 reds - although I managed to get the grape varieties, the information for the proportions was unavailable except for the last one:
  1. AOC Bergerac Sec - Château Belingard 2009 - A Sauvignon Blanc/Sémillon/Muscadel blend - so interestin that the same blends can make both sweet and dry wines... and remember in France, the artificial addition of sugar is prohibited, so the difference is all down to nature! So, ont the nose, a subtle nectarine, sweet apple and blossom nose leading to a fresh, subtly citrus, floral, apple flavoured wine.
  2. AOC Bergerac Sec - Château K 2008 - A Sauvignon Gris/Sémillon/Muscadel blend of organic wine aged in oak for 6 months with an interesting nose of wood, raisin, blossom and pear. Similarly, the flavours on the palate were very fresh and bright - fruity - apples, pears, white peach, with vanilla and even a little tannin was detectable, but as a positive addition.
  3. AOC Bergerac - Château Jeanbrun 2008 - A Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc blend giving a nose, well giving a right hook across the face of CHERRIES!!! with a little strawberry and raspberry for good measure! The taste was light, elegant -  a fruity wine with cherry and raspberry flavours - this is a wine to drink young... At most could be kept through next year, but why do that when it's ready right now?
  4. AOC Pécharmant (just to the north-east of Bergerac city) - Domaine du Grand Jarre 2007 - This 12 month barrel aged blend of Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon/Cabernet Franc was fruity to the nose with a hint of vanilla. On the palate, again, light and fruity with oak notes, but for me, the tannins were a little astringent, so this one is for keeping... even up to 10 years.
  5. AOC Montravel (west of Bergerac, where Bordeaux ends and Bergerac begins, on the banks of the Dordogne) - Château Moulin Caresse 2004 - Grand Cuvée - This appellation must be aged in barrel 18 months AND then kept in bottle for 1 year before being released for sale. This 50/35/15 Merlot/Cabernet (not specified which or both)/Malbec blend had rich, dark cherry aromas on the nose; even blackberry and blackcurrant jam and cinnamon as well. To taste, damsons, again, dark cherries, but a little astringent on the tannins. Another one to keep for up to 12 years.
Today was fairly action packed, so I was glad to reach the lodging for the night and even better, the chef was not only veggie friendly, he was keen to cook veggie, so 2 nights of bliss coming up!