Naturally as leaves to a vine

April 24, 2008

New Vine Leaf 

The vine buds are open and the broad, palmate leaves are starting to gather energy. If wine is (as Thomas Love Peacock described it) ‘the liquid quintessence of concentrated sunbeams’, then it is the leaves that do the concentrating. The plant is still delicate but, like the swallows hurtling over the vineyard and the cuckoo in the top of the tall, bare trees, it heralds the spring: winter is over and we look forward to summer’s warmth and the fruits of the industrious vine…


Moon-stone Magic

April 19, 2008
You wouldn’t find it by accident although this year they’ve put up a sign at the crossroads. Tucked away from the traffic and bustle of Saint Emilion is the tiny winery of Pierre de Lune. You arrive at the back of this quaintly peculiar property owned by Tony and Véronique Balu.  Tony, originally from Champagne, works as Technical Director at the famous Château Clos Fourtet. His real passion though is to escape back to this little vineyard that reminds us of Mr. Wemmick’s house in Great Expectations (the last time I visited there was even an ‘Aged Parent’). There’s no drawbridge and the Aged P has now moved to an old folks’ home but Tony still comes home to his little ‘castle’ – a dinky Girondine farm house and a hectare of grand cru vines. Vines whose grapes are transformed through Tony’s painstaking work into an internationally acclaimed wine. Tony has always paid rigorous attention to ripening and selecting perfect fruit for his wines and has recently begun to employ biodynamic techniques too. Véronique, a charming Parisienne, has turned the upstairs of the property into bed & breakfast accommodation. The rooms are right above the fermenting vats in the winery below – this is one place where you’re definitely sleeping over the wines. Dinner is served in a wonderful high-ceilinged dining room that originally housed a sleeping army of barrels. Véronique cooks a delicious meal with estate wines to match each course. Magret de canard, grilled over a fire of vine cuttings, makes a fitting match with the top wine Pierre de Lune. Tony will give you a tour of the winery and a sneak preview of the latest vintage gently developing in new oak. This mysterious, eclectic property and its outstanding wine – only a couple of thousand bottles of which are made each year – are well worth seeking out.
Château Pierre de Lune, 3 Magnan 33330 Saint Emilion.  +33 (0)5 57 74 49 72

Modern methods and ancient traditions

April 19, 2008
The Ouzoulias family has been in the Bordeaux wine trade since the 19th century. Their charming petit châteaux on the outskirts of Saint Emilion exudes a sense of timeless elegance; surely the property must be hide bound in old-fashioned winemaking and the age-old traditions of viticuture? Not so, because Château Franc Pourret is a leading Saint Emilion producer of organic wines. Since 1989 the vineyard has been certified as ‘Agriculture Biologique’ and in the winery the fermentation and bottling of their grand cru wine is carried out organically. Catherine Ouzoulias, who is the hostess of the chambres d’hôtes business, also grows her own organic salad crops at the ends of the vine rows. Breakfast is also totally organic and utterly delicious. Catherine has created two large bedrooms on the first floor of the house and furnished them in a formal Borderlais style with antique armoires and big comfy beds on stripped pine floorboards. The rooms are well designed and there’s plenty of space and good lighting. This is a great place to stay for exploring the UNESCO world heritage village of Saint Emilon, is just a mile away through the vines. True to their ecological principles, Catherine encourages walkers to visit by train – Parisians can catch the TGV all the way to Libourne where someone will pick them up from the station. I hope this catches on with Londerners who can catch the lunchtime train from Saint Pancras and be sipping Catherine’s excellent Darjeeling in the chateau’s grand drawing room by tea-time. The vineyard is sandwiched between some rather famous and very expensive cru classé properties but Ouzoulias wines aren’t easy to find in the UK. They are however really very, very good and the most expensive is only about £12 a bottle. What are you waiting for? Let the train take the strain and get down there for the weekend!
Château Franc Pourret 33330 Saint Emilion +33 (0)5 57 24 72 29
franc pourret

No such thing as a free lunch?

April 19, 2008

The word generous is often applied to people who produce delicious things to eat or drink; they have to be, I suppose, in order to promote their product. Winemakers are no exception: keen marketeers who can’t wait to give those of us from the cold North a taste of their liquid treasures. Once in a while however, you come across a level of generosity that is simply overwhelming. If you get the chance to visit Château La Roche-Pressac and taste Crystelle and Jean-Marc’s excellent côtes-de-castillon wine, be prepared for hospitality and kindness that go off the scale. When I phoned Crystelle to say that I was coming to buy a few bottles, I had planned to dine at a posh Saint Emilion eatery afterwards. “No point,” she told me, “what’s the use of paying a fortune to eat at a restaurant when you can eat chez-nous”. I accepted gratefully. This was my second time at Château La Roche-Pressac but even first-time visitors are treated like old friends. The Lirands came here relatively recently (2004 was their first vintage) after leaving their original careers in retailing. The wine is superb and, not benefiting from any grand cru classification, is excellent value (though the vines are only pip-spitting distance from their grand cru neighbours). We were treated to a wonderful dinner accompanied by a tasting of their wines: a white semillon and a fruity rosé (both marketed as ‘vins de table’ but in a different league to those screw-top bottom-shelf plonks at the supermarché), a light and tasty Merlot called La Rochecotte and two oaked castillon reds – La Roche-Pressac and its second wine Le Cadet. We went away very happy after buying a couple of cases of the 2005 vintage and made an easy vow to return soon. No charge for an unforgettable dinner, no surcharge for a full wine tasting, and we weren’t even allowed to help wash the dishes – wow.

Château La Roche-Pressac +33 (0)5 57 40 48 24


roches pressac




The darling buds of April

April 12, 2008
Vine in bud
The English word ‘burgeon’ comes from the French bourgeonner ‘to bud’. April is the burgeoning time in the wine calendar as all over the vineyards of France the tightly overlapped immature leaves of the vines are unravelling in the spring sunshine. My own little vine, planted to inaugurate this new project, has begun to shake itself back to life again after its long winter sleep. What project? A book: currently just a collection of bonnes adresses, wine notes and this blog that should burgeon into a guide to the French wine-makers who offer tourist accommodation – their gîtes and chambres d’hôtes and of course their award-winning wines.
From the most grand châteaux to the family houses of artisan viticulteurs – French Vineyards will be a ticket of discovery for those who want to experience a stay on a wine estate. Over the following months I’ll be visiting the best and most interesting places to stay in the French vignoble and publishing the highlights in words and pictures on this blog.  Next week I’ll be in Saint-Emilion to visit a couple of Bordeaux châteaux and taste their juicy merlot-based grand crus and then, later in the month, I’ll be traipsing the length of the Loire to uncover full bodied reds in troglodyte caves, nectar-sweet pudding wines and bone-dry sauvignon blancs.

And so back to England, where the new buds are opening too. We hear from UK vine growers that, due to global warming, the budding season is starting earlier and earlier each year. When once the hawthorn bloomed in May the burst of white flowers now occurs several weeks earlier. This might be a boon for the UK wine industry but “rough winds do shake the darling buds of April” doesn’t sound quite right.

Patrick Hilyer, Normandy, France 2008.