Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Visit to Leon Barral

If asked the reasons for visiting a domaine then enthusiastic consumers, wine merchants/importers and journalists would exhaust my list of the obvious. The day after picking late harvest grenache at his Domaine Ribiera, Régis Pichon invited me to join him on a visit to meet Jean-Luc Barral. Jean-Luc is one of the two brothers who founded Domaine Leon Barral in Faugères back in 1993, calling it Leon after their grandfather. The purpose of the visit was to see some equipment.

The equipment in question has origins in Brazil and is used as a means of controlling grasses and "weeds". The French seem to call it a rolofaca. At Leon Barral there is no ploughing. In winter cows, horses and even pigs roam the vineyards to keep the vegetation in check. When the vines are active the roloafaca is used to gently break up vegetation and enable it to mulch into the soil. Rather than a traditional tractor a caterpillar version is used to avoid over compacting the soil - the tracks have a considerably greater surface area than tires.

The vines, starting to take on autumn colours, are on Faugères schist of course. The trunks are all well below knee hight so picking and pruning must be excruciating. Look carefully to see bones lying in amongst the lumps of schist.

In the winery the large traditional wooden press was being cleaned after a morning of pressing - look for the figure standing at the back for a sense of scale.

In 2010 construction of an extraordinary new chai started and is still ongoing. A chronological gallery of pictures is on the Leon Barral website. How long has this car been there?

Finally we were shown the black pigs feeding on the vines by a stream and oak forest of 18 ha where they roam. The organic waste from households in the village also goes to them.

Jean-Luc bonds with the contented hog who services 18 sows.

A treasure trove of sustainable viticulture. No ordinary Domaine, no ordinary visit, and not a glass of wine in sight.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

All over? It is now

It can be measured in weeks since the main grape harvest was wrapped up. My 18th and final days picking took place 18 days after secateurs previously saw vineyard action. At Domaine Ribiera (Aspiran) two modest parcels of grenache were left patiently to let the grapes ripen further and shrivel a little. The objective was to produce a sweet Vin Doux Naturel - think modern vintage Banyuls or Maury in style. The old low yielding vines are sited on exposed windy slopes with thinning foliage as autumn beckons. This all combines to facilitate rapid drying after rain and those occasional humid days.

In 2014 all was lost to the deluges at the end of September that, more seriously, claimed several lives in the Hérault. This year the potential alcohol was around 16 degrees as mid-October approached. In order to make a Vin Doux Naturel with minimal winery intervention at least 20 degrees is needed for a good chance of a safe fermentation. For some reason (summer heat? too dry until mid-August?) ripening had been blocked for too long and 20 degrees wasn't going to happen. The Pichons decided to make Cartagene, a Languedoc speciality that involves adding alcohol to the must before fermentation gets going.

As usual the harvested grapes went through the de-stemmer and into a tank. To speed up the maceration they received 10 minutes of manual pigeage from Regis Pichon.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Independents - an upwards trend

Aspiran took the European Weekend of Heritage (patrimoine) seriously this year and included in the events and exhibitions was a display covering wine. Specifically highlighted were the Aspiran producers who now number 10, along with the cave cooperative (Clochers & Terroirs).

The longest established are Domaine de Fabrègues (1835) and Chateau Malautié (1900). Domaine des Montèzes arrived in 1995 having been displaced by the building of the A75 autoroute above Lodeve. The grapes around their Aspiran property apparently go to the cooperative with wine being made on site from grapes brought down from their Pégairolles de l’Escalette vineyards.

It was after 2000 that new arrivals took root, possibly fuelled by the decline of the cooperative before relatively recently joining the Clochers & Terroirs clan of cooperatives. Domaines Mon Mourel, Ribiera, Clos Mathelisse, Villa Symposia, des dimanches and most recently Gregory White and Mas Troqué complete the list.

Interestingly several producers in nearby villages have vineyards in the commune, ones I know about being Mas Costefere (Adissan), Julien Peyras (Paulhan) and Domaine les Quatre Amours (Bélarga).

Are there trends here? Of the new arrivals at least two (David Caer of Clos Mathelisse and Christelle Duffours of Mas Tronqué) have strong local roots. The six most recent arrivals practice organic standards with minimal intervention in the cave. Five of them appear regularly at Vins Nature events.

Perhaps the main observation is that villages with relatively dynamic and successful cooperatives have content viticulteurs and precious little land for sale, so have few independents. Witness nearby Fontès and Cabrières that both have exciting terroirs but few independents. The nearest equivalent commune with a similarly diverse land (limestone Villafranchien and galets roulés, clay with silt and limestone, basalt et al) is Caux, where independents also thrive while the abandoned cave cooperative building decays into an eyesore.

Wine from almost all the producers can be purchased from the Aspiran Tabac which is by the village crossroads.

Friday, 25 September 2015

6th year of grape picking

My 6th season of grape picking is more or less over. Obviously the experience has become familiar with much of the mystique long gone - now more than replaced with catching up with friends. The magic remains as fresh as ever along with the collective energy and sense of common purpose of the team.

For anyone who fancies picking here are some observations.

Picking is hard on back. Well, certainly there is much bending over for hours and several muscles are in for a shock. Squatting is also necessary at times to give visibility and uses different muscles so gives gives the back some relief. Experienced pickers are generally able to avoid this and save energy. Plucking away a few obscuring leaves is the key to this.
In a well organised team porters will shift buckets and cagettes so pickers can avoid lifting. For many day 3 is the hardest before the body settles in and things ease (a little). Nevertheless, the reality is that individual backs react differently. Personally I find the whole experience helps strengthen those all important back supporting muscles.

Picking is hard work. As a sustained effort beyond a couple of hours a certain degree of stamina is required. The ability to concentrate when tired is critical. As ever, experience results in a less energetic technique.

The partying is hard. Draw your own conclusions.

Not all varieties are equal. Dealing with a waist high goblet of old Grenache with light foliage is on a par with shelling peas. Generously cropping Syrah on trellis wires that extend to above head hight is exhausting and frustrating with bunches hidden away at all levels.

Triage. Grapes grown to organic standards may produce superb fruit, but bio-diverse environments create a gamete of organisms to attack what is a monoculture crop. Selecting only perfect bunches is the main reason for hand picking and is the one area that demands experience, but the simple rule is don't pick anything you wouldn't eat.

There are dangers. Secateurs cut fingers and each season there are a couple of minor incidents and I have been a statistic - everyone does it once. Amazingly I've only witnessed one retirement. Concentration and always looking are critical.
Brambles and thistles also pose hazards. Fingers, and especially finger nails, become stained (a slice of lemon rubbed in helps clean them up). Those of a vain disposition wear gloves, but touch and feel are a crucial part of efficiently rejecting unhealthy bunches.

Allergies. Living vineyards are full of organic materials and picking some varieties entails literally burying one's head in a dry dusty vine occasionally. As the scorching summer sun retreats a second season of plant growth ensues - more pronounced with occasional rain to fuel it. Hay Fever suffers (like me) need to be aware and take precautions.

Clothing takes a battering. Yes. But at least, for some reason, grape stains wash out more easily than wine stains.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Journée oenotouristique with Les Beaux Nez Rouges

Groups of small independent growers banding together to do marketing is not new. The coopératives movement that started over 100 years ago was about collectively marketing wine before the construction of the cavés we see today. The Outsiders group and Vinifilles are two contemporary examples from the region with the themes of growers from outside the region and vigneronnes respectively. The theme for Les Beaux Nez Rouges is they share the same oenologue Hervé Chabert, albeit that for many he seems more a friend, sounding board and a man with a portable bottling line. The diverse styles of wines being made back this up - these are independently minded growers.

Lunch beckons at Villa Symposia
Apparently the group have held an annual event for 10 years. This year over 100 enthusiasts headed to Villa Symposia in Aspiran - seemingly the epicentre of the groups vineyards with the majority visible from the commune. The format of the day is an outdoor tasting followed by lunch and optional promenades en calèche (horse carriage rides). The quality of the buffet lunch created by the vigneron's families is taken as seriously as the wine making. Sensational sour-dough baguettes were ordered from the wood burning ovens in nearby Canet, pélardons from Mas Rolland, chèvre tomme from the Larzac, organic vegetables from the commune, 25 Kg of fruits including strawberries picked in the Aude the day before.

Post lunch
Promenades en calèche

Eight vignerons were showing 23 wines between them so tasting everything wasn't onerous. The majority of bottles were under €10 making it the most modestly priced tasting line up I've attended for ages.

Here are some highlights

Domaine Bonetto Fabrol (Philippe Bonetto) are north of Orange in the Rhône and had the furthest to travel. The journey will have temporarily upset their wines but enough promise and interest came through Colombier 2014 (Grenache, Syrah) and Heritage 2013 (Syrah) that I purchased a couple of bottles. Nice perfume and softness, especially pronounced on the Heritage (sic) Syrah. The only openly biodynamic producer present.

This was my first encounter with Domaine Emile et Roses (Marcel Gisclar) at a tasting. The Carignan blanc 2014 was just starting to come to life with fresh garrigue herbs and lovely integrated acidity plus a bit of body. The reds weren't for me. For Léa 2011 (Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet) I noted "woody woodpecker". Unfortunately Marcel wasn't showing his Cinsault or Aramon and I was shocked to learn that his delicious inexpensive Mouvedre is no longer made. This makes our couple of bottles sort of irreplaceable.

Mas d'Agalis (Lionel Maurel) Le Grand Carré 2014 (Terret, Clairette, Vermentino and Chenin Blanc) was certainly the wildest white on show - spiky, apples and nuts, refreshing. Will divide opinion but not mine. Yo no puedo mas 2013 (Carignan with Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault) is a red that ping-pongs savoury fruits around the palate and has become one of our favourites.

Villa Symposia (Eric Prissette) were the home team. The prevailing gale was keeping everyone cool and would have passed through their vines just seconds before reaching us. Blanc 2014 (Grenache, Carignan, Terret) is their best so far and they've absolutely nailed the level of oak to my taste i.e. you barely notice it. Amphora 2013 (Cinsault with some Syrah) is proper red wine with some grippy tannins yet supple character. Equilibre 2012 (Syrah plus Carignan, Mourvèdre amd Grenache) is more savoury with more length and obvious but well integrated oak.

Winemaker Nenko Dunev with venue owner Éric Prissette
David Caer pours his crunchy Cinsault

Clos Mathelisse (David Caer) makes one red, Exorde 2013 (Cinsault) which is our house and party wine - crunchy with hints of bitter cherries, uncomplicated inexpensive drinking. The only pure Cinsault on show but a good one. I think the secret is the cool north facing aspect of the vineyard.

Domaine Grégory White took over the promising Mas d'Arlenques a couple of years ago when the previous owner was forced to retire with back trouble. White is Rosé 2014 (Grenache, Cinsault) is a relatively rare no added sulphur rosé. Soft peach nose with a palate that lets the light in. Terret 2013 has hints of the sea and iodine and an acidity that isn't contrived. Jamais pas Soif 2014 (Grenache) I'd tasted a couple of months before and found it a touch too much heady fruit gourmandise, now seemingly calmer and more interesting.

Domaine Ribiera (Régis Pichon) have no red wine until the 2014s are bottled in a few weeks time. Y'a un Terret 2013 has a mineral flint character and structure that's rare in the midi. Canilles R... 2013 (Rousanne) manages to be a Rousanne that avoids being heavy and aromatic, the secret being no added sulphur apparently so the result is more northern Rhone than midi. Canilles 2014 (Clairette) is more subtle and understated with flowers, citrus fruits and fennel.

Grégory White enjoys his zero sulphite rosé
Cool as mid-summer's day - Christine and Régis Pichon

Friday, 1 May 2015

Montpeyroux Toutes caves ouvertes 2015

The annual Montpeyroux bash has suffered with rain over the past two editions. At least this year there were dry periods and mild temperatures with all the tasting taking place well under cover. At least the crowds were manageable and mild dull weather does not detract from the business of tasting.

There were 22 caves participating - 21 growers and the cooperative, so pretty much all the producers. An event like this requires a different perspective to a specialised wine fair where producers are selected from a wide area. Not everyone is producing wine that stands out, bears scrutiny or seeks international markets. Another challenge is there were a fair number (too many) 2014 wines on tasting that needed bottle time to integrate.

A very pleasant surprise was Le Petit Domaine, established barely 2 years ago by Julie Brosselin and Aurélien Petit. Between them they have practised oenology, being a caviste, tendering vineyards and making wine. Having restored a couple of abandoned old vine vineyards they have been able to become established in a village with some of the most expensive vine lands in the region. The Blanc with Terret and Clairette had delicious acidity and a lovely structure. The Cinsault dominated ne touche pas le grisbi 2013 (€13) was vibrant and evolving and I returned to make a purchase. Also interesting was a pure Syrah Myrmidon 2013 - crunchy, savoury, not too baked and drinking well.

Aupilhac put on a splendid show with over 16 wines on tasting including a table of mature wines going back to a somewhat peppery could be anything 2003. Showing particularly well was the "Lou Maset" 2013 a Grenache and Cinsault dominated blend. Essentially the domain's entry red (€7.80) there's a foundation of proper tannins with layers of red fruit. This is a cellar with some magical old vats. Delicious drinking that I preferred to the bigger, more leathery Montpeyroux 2012 (€14.70). The near legendary Le Carignan 2012 (€17.70) was still young and pretty tough, but extraordinarily complex in the mouth and a wine to chew on in the nicest sense.

Mas d’Amile have been making consistently excellent pure Carignan for nearly a decade. Like the Aupilhac, the Vieux Carignan 2013 (€10) was also complex en bouche. I'm surprised given the quality of the Carignan in the village more growers aren't inspired to attempt a pure cuvée.

Along with Aupilhac, Pascale Rivière's La Jasse Castel was showing a good selection. L'Égrisée (2014) blanc (Grenache with some Carignan blanc and Roussanne) was racy with intriguing floral and citrus grapefruit. The reds were all from 2013 and would have benefited from more bottle age, even the unoaked La Pimpanela was a little tight. Blue Velours (Carignan and Syrah) and Les Combariolles (Grenache) certainly showed some potential for keeping.

Disappointments? Domaine de l'Escarpolette was absent this year, unfortunate as there were some interesting wines on show two years ago. I also had hopes for Domaine du Joncas, but the reds especially were too crafted for my taste and not expressive enough to press any buttons.

The 8th (afternoon) and 9th May sees the Le Printemps Fête Ses Vignerons at nearby Saint Saturnin. This is essentially where all the domaines mainly to the east, north and west of Montpeyroux have their turn.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Wine Fair 3rd May

The 5th edition of the Festival des Vins Natures will be on 3rd May near Adissan, 10 Km north of Pezenas. The last edition was two years ago in Roquebrun - my comments are here. This years setting in a copse of trees with a commanding view and small chapel is equally attractive.

For those wishing to enjoy the late lunch the menu Roman Henry Niess is proposing (no vegetarian option - we asked) is :-

Tartine grillée à l'ail, oeufs mollets froid confits à l'huile d'olive au piment d'Espelette, ventrèche seche et jeunes pousses [essentially egg and bacon on toast]

Poitrine de cochon "Ibaiona" d'Eric Ospital, pommes de terre , condiments Savora/Moutarde [belly of pork with potatoes]

Ganache au chocolat et chantilly citron vert [chocolate with lime infused whipped cream]

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Salon des Vins Nature Bédarieux

This was a first visit to what has become a regular spring event in Bédarieux organised by Christine Cannac. Held in the small sheltered Place outside her wine bar Chai Christine Cannac, the organisation was exceptional. Having commented on the somewhat limited publicity, any more attendees would have made it overcrowded. To sustain everyone there was an efficient buffet serving inexpensive tasty plates. Live music boosted the atmosphere. All of the 64+ wines on tasting were for sale, but could only be purchased from the chai - a neat idea freeing the vignerons to devote all their attention to showing their wines. It also made buying much easier - I would have needed to return and interrupt four growers.

The overall standard of wines was high and nothing I tasted (just over half the wines) were overly volatile or funky. By and large the grapes were allowed to show some varietal characteristics. While it no doubt helped that all the bottles were brought by the producers, it can also be seen as a sign of vins naturels coming of age - at least for the growers invited and what they presented. Vintages were mainly 2013.

Mas D'Agalis is a wine I've enjoyed on several occasions but is rarely seen and overdue a mention on this blog. Made in Nébian between the "official" appellations of Terrasses du Larzac and Pezenas, the reality is that there are bits of terroir here with equivalent potential.Yo no puedo mas is a blend of the mainstream Languedoc red varieties and exudes balanced fruit with elegance and crunch. The white Grande Carré is half Terret with Vermentino plus several other varieties and showed a lovely structure with a citrus finish. With both at just under €10 a bottle these were some of the best value wines on show.

La Fontude also joins the category of rarely seen. Entremonde has Carignan and Aramon as the main grapes and I like the polished hardness and hint of nostalgic mouth feel on the palate.

The new to me Domaine Riverton was showing a particularly attractive Carignan Tombée du Ciel that oozed freshness with a fruit perfume the Roussillon can so well. The Blanc Bec was intriguing as I found it quite reductive - match head and flint - that would no doubt subside with a good decant and shake.

Mas Coutelou was showing an interesting rosé and two elegant and lively reds 5 SO (a pun on Cinsault) and Classe (Carignan). All were excellent value.

Yannck Pelletier's is an established name and his wines are seen on many of the regions best wine lists. L'Oiselet (Cinsault) has always been reliable over the years and this 2013 had nice mouth grip with cool and (but not over the top) gourmandise fruits.

Julien Peyras is another Hérault valley grower with vineyards above Paulhan north of Pézenas. My favourite was Lo Tarral (Grenach, Syrah, Carignan) with some nice supple fruit but at €14 not great value.

Léon Barral's wines stood out in more ways than one - style and price. There was more concentration and extraction than anything else tasted on the day. Potential was there for layers of complexity, but on the day integrated structure was lacking. Bottles to keep and revisit. One attendee I was chatting to was very enthusiastic over the €40 Valinières, no doubt seduced by the (well judged) oak ageing.

I deliberately tasted Domaine Ribiera and Clos Methélisse wines last as a point of reference. While I certainly had palate fatigue by then it did confirm that the the €11 and under wines were the stars on the day.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Wine Fair 4th April

A couple of Hérault wine fairs are coming up, both very much below the radar publicity wise.

Christine Cabac runs a (the) wine bar in Bédarieux and is the mastermind behind this Easter Saturday event. She emailed us the above fiche on request - better late than never. It should expand if you click on it.

The excellent list of 19 growers on the fiche is :-

François Aubry (Hérault) La Fontude, Brenas
David Auclair (Ardèche) La ferme du bout du ch’min, Étables
J. Audard, L. Boussu (Hérault) Domaine Monts et Merveilles, La Livinière
Gilles Azam (Aude) Domaine Les Hautes Terres, Roquetaillade
Didier Barral (Hérault) Domaine Léon Barral, Lenthéric
Vincent Bonnal (Hérault) Domaine de Pélissols, Bédarieux
David Caer (Hérault) Clos Mathelisse, Aspiran
Alain Castex (Pyrénées-O.) Casot des Mailloles, Banyuls-sur-Mer
Laurence Manya Krief (Pyrénées-O.) Le petit domaine de Yoyo, Albères/Banyuls
Lionel Maurel (Hérault) Mas d'Agalis, Nébian
Jean-François Nicq (Pyrénées-O.) Les foulards rouges, Montesquieu-des-Albères
Yannick Pelletier (Hérault) Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez
Julien Peyras (Hérault) Domaine Julien Peyras, Paulhan
Régis Pichon (Hérault) Domaine Ribiera, Aspiran
Axel Prüfer (Hérault) Le Temps des Cerises, Le Mas Blanc
Philippe Richy (Hérault) Domaine Stella Nova, Caux
Frédéric Rivaton (Pyrénées-O.) Latour-de-France
Jean-Louis Tribouley (Pyrénées-O.) Latour-de-France
Wim Wagemans (Hérault) Le bouc à trois pattes, Mons-la-Trivale

I have also been tipped off about a similar event on Sunday 3rd May near Adissan, between Pézenas and Clermont l'Hérault. Details will follow when I track them down.

Friday, 13 March 2015

Personal Wine Laws and Principles

A dozen personal Wine Laws and Principles. Some new, some artefacts from the archives.
  1. Taste wines blind and focus on whether you like them. Only then move on to provenance, style, age, value for money and the like. Not particularly practical at home if you know your cellar, but try with friends from time to time.
  2. Don’t confuse expression of terroir with typicity of a region. Just because a white from a classic Loire region isn’t recognisable as Sauvignon blanc the wine can still (but not always) express it's origins.
  3. If a wine isn’t to your taste don’t dismiss the grower. Commercial necessities often result in the production of various styles for various tastes and markets.
  4. The same applies to grape varieties such as Cabernets, Merlot and Chardonnay grown in the Languedoc. This is a bias I struggle to overcome.
  5. From good growers the so called lesser (inexpensive) wines can often drink better than the “top” cuvées. This can especially hold true in restaurants when a prestige wine may need more age and more expensive often means lots of flashy oak, generous extraction and bottles with more than 11 units of alcohol.
  6. One difference often found between professionals and amateurs is that professions will assess a wine in absolute quality terms while an amateur will focus more on whether they actually like a wine. Some professionals will subtly elude to both in their writings, politics permitting.
  7. If you don’t like a wine because it’s left field and you struggle for reference points then make a note to revisit it in the future – more often that not it will grow on you and even become a favourite.
  8. Don’t be put off drinking red wine in the heat of summer. Cool them right down; they warm up quickly once poured if necessary. Conversely try rosés, or at least full bodied ones, all year round.
  9. There are no such wines as natural wines, only growers who like to call themselves natural winemakers.
  10. Being a natural wine maker means minimal intervention in the winery, but requires just as much work and demands more skill and experience to get right.
  11. “on the limit” zero-sulphite wines are susceptible to warm temperatures, especially if the change is sudden such as a couple of days and nights in the boot of a car.
  12. Don’t take matching food and wine too seriously. If a wine doesn’t match a dish or even a meal just take a pause. That said, there are wines that really work magic with the right food and these should be supported or they will disappear. Local food with local wine is the rule here.
19th Century cépage illustration

Friday, 6 February 2015

Driving to the UK Part 2 - Where to Stop

There are constraints with stopovers. This being a wine blog then staying somewhere that avoids driving to eat is important. A consideration for larger towns is parking and security as lugging everything to a hotel room is essential with street parking almost anywhere. Reasonably priced/budget hotels with some form of secure parking tend to be on the outskirts but at least these days the larger towns (Rouen, Orleans, Clermont-Ferrand) have tramways that make the journey into the centre easy and predictable.

Suggestions for dining and sleeping are influenced by personal preferences – economical, simple, clean, quiet accommodation; not put off by walking a Km or more from the hotel and splashing out on an occasional up to date gourmet restaurant with good wine that can set one back over €150 for two.

Near the channel ports - La Cour de Remi

A strong recommendation wherever it was sited, La Coer de Rémi is only 1h15m from the channel ports just east of Hesdin. Sited in the grounds of an estate a courtyard conversion has yielded spacious rooms and an atmospheric contemporary dining room. For good measure add a Bistro menu that would shine in Paris plus a highly personalised wine list full of value.
This is also a good base for the Somme WW1 museums and memorials.

Interesting Towns ordered north to south

Large busy town on the Seine a couple of hours or so from the channel ports. The Ibis/Mercure is conveniently next to where the A28 meets the Seine and has a secure underground car park. Origine delivered one of our best 2014 creative dining experiences, but otherwise the dining scene is mixed to say the least - beat the streets to find somewhere busy with locals.

Dominated by the famous cathedral the old town and banks of the Eure are pleasant for wandering around. Chartres is also well positioned if only stopping one night when doing the west of Paris route. Downsides are the budget hotels are a fair way from the centre and this is not a city for a gourmet meal. The easy to find Bistrot de la Cathédrale at least has a good atmosphere and some hearty dishes.

On the splendour of the Loire where for some real France begins when heading south. Several budget hotel options with secure parking on the outskirts and the tramway makes an evening in town simple. Not the most exciting town for dining out but natural wine lovers can console themselves in Les Becs à Vin (Place du Châtelet by Les Halles).

Interesting buildings and museums plus a gastronomic heritage are the plus points. The Logis Hôtel Des Allées is friendly and pleasant with courtyard parking and an easy walk into town.

Delightful medieval town of manageable size on the Yonne. The central Ibis has a great location with parking along the river (empty your vehicle). Sadly eating out is a bit of a mixed bag.

Attractive hilltop wine town. Not overtly tourist but enough to ensure a fair selection of accommodation and restaurants. Sited on the central place La Tour just about lived up to its Michelin star but wasn't memorable.

Large but not daunting town in the centre of France with and some well preserved medieval streets and buildings. The impressive cathedral tower is worth climbing for the view and exercise. For a delightful change of pace take a walk past the gardens and waterways of the Marais.
The old town proffers a selection of restaurant but for something special Le Cercle gets it right.
Although not particularly central, give the Logis Les Tilleuls a try (convenient for Le Cerle), otherwise friends recommend the Hôtel D'Angleterre where garage parking can be pre-booked.

Clermont Ferrand
Beyond the imposing dark basalt Cathedral Clermont Ferrand is more a functional than attractive town. However, several edge of town hotels by the tramway and near the autoroute smooth the logistics. The cooking plus stunning wine list at the inexpensive Le Saint Eutrope won’t disappoint. Run by the hands-on couple who previously operated Chassignolles (see below) Harry Lester also sources regional wines for the Gergovie Wines in London. Otherwise the town punches above its weight with Michelin macarons.
Being at the gateway to the A75 Clermont-Ferrand is little more than 3h from the Hérault so there will be time to spend a good couple of hours in the interesting Michelin Museum (free secure visitor parking and near a tramway).

There are too few country retreats in this list. To redress the balance a bit: -

The Auberge de Chassignolles (open May to October) is perhaps a bit close to the region to be an ideal stopover. On the other hand, at little more than 3 hours from the heart of the Languedoc and 45m from the A75 J20 south of Issoir, is also suited for an overnight excursion. Chassignolles is more a hamlet than village high up in the meadows and forests of the Auvergne. Come here for gimmick free tasty simple dining, carefully chosen wines (Domaine Ribiera is listed) and inexpensive accommodation. Run by Bristol chef legend Peter Tayor the result is something the French struggle so hard to deliver in the modern era.

Other towns on the list to explore are Gien, Troyes, Blois.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Driving to the UK (to transport that wine) Part 1

The subject of driving to the UK from the Midi comes up quite frequently with friends and acquaintances in both physical and social media environments. Sometimes the context is driving vs. flying. Assuming flying implies the need for a hire car then, all things being equal, fly for a trip of less than three weeks as costs should be less and travelling time is reduced. Of course there are many determining nuances to consider – number of travellers, luggage needs and pets, convenience and cost of a UK air route, age and size of car, the number of willing drivers and any plans to visit elsewhere en route. Perhaps, and this is a wine blog, the ability to bring back wine will be the most critical of all.

What surprises is how many who drive always treat the journey as a rally, only stopping for fuel, loos, leg stretches and to rotate drivers. Avoiding overnight accommodation and even meal costs makes this tactic economical and does maximise the time spent in the beloved south.

This post covers the express driving routes to the main channel ports. Part 2 proposes detours and wine friendly stopovers for those wishing, even if only occasionally, to take two or more days crossing France.

To/from the central France – A75, A20 or A7?

Without contemplating a major detour around the hexagon or a seriously sedate crossing the Massif Central there are realistically three routes between the Languedoc-Roussillon and central France. Between the centre and the main Channel ports more variations are available, but again broadly three routes.

Taking the A75 is the obvious route when based in the centre of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Packed with stunning mountain scenery for over 250Km and featuring two passes over 1000m it is, bar the wonder of crossing the Millau bridge, toll free as far as Clermont-Ferrand.

To the west picking up the A20 north of Toulouse also carves through hilly terrain and is toll free for much of the route after Toulouse.

Finally to the east is the A7 up the Rhone valley to Lyon and beyond. The downsides of this route are many. The Rhone valley is an industrial and transport artery making for plenty of indifferent scenery. The A7 is also perennially busy, Lyon has to be negotiated and there is no relief from tolls. Nevertheless, this can be the last route to suffer winter weather and is the quickest way for wine lovers taking in the Burgundy, Jura and Champagne regions.

Location in the Languedoc makes a difference when time is of the essence. Anywhere where Carcassonne is nearer than Narbonne makes the A20 the main contender. East of Montpellier and the A9 starts to look more attractive to avoid back-tracking. In between the A75 is the obvious choice.

Paris or not

Traversing Paris well out of rush hour makes it the quickest route. A popular option avoiding the notorious Périphérique and the boring lorry bulging A1 uses the relatively new A86 tunnel on the west side of Paris. Heading south take the A16 from Boulogne to Paris. At the end the A16 turn right onto the N184 and soon after left onto the A115 that joins the A15 just before the A86 turnoff. At the end of the long A86 tunnel section take the N12 west and then the N10 south west. At Ablis pick up the N191 to the A10 and on to Orleans. It’s complicated, but friends always go this way.

West and East around Paris

Avoiding Paris the most popular route is to the West via (direction south) Rouen and Chartres before joining the A10 autoroute north of Orleans. After Orleans the A71 leads to Bourges and the A75 at Clermont-Ferrand. For the A20 turn off the the A71at Vierzon. This route does have slower bits – Rouen, around Dreux and Chartres where heading though town is as quick as the long bypass. In between is mostly quiet toll free dual carriageway, but use the A16 péage between Boulogne and Abbeville.

The route to the east involves the A26 from the channel ports via Reims and Troyes and if avoiding Paris is an option for Lyon and Montpellier. A scenic and toll relieving alternative with some attractive open country is to go from Troyes to Auxerre and on to the Loire valley at Cosne-Cours and the heart of Sancerre country. Head down to Nevers and Moulins (mostly dual carriageway) then cut across to Saint-Pourçain and pick up the autoroute just north of Gant to join the A71.