Skip to content

Kick Off Any Event With Creamy Crémant Sparkling Wine

November 27, 2018

A lineup of modest yet endearing crémants

Consider crémant sparkling wine as a non-sophisticated entry point to any gathering—whether barbecue, picnic, dinner or party. It’s an opening act, the liquid equivalent to a bowl of pretzels before dinner. The juice is clean, zippy, low in alcohol and lively. It’s like fresh orange juice before breakfast or a rinse off shower before plunging into a swimming pool or a one-page prologue that begins a novel; it’s the vestibule entry way leading into a castle. Crémant is more passageway than place to linger.

The French word crémant (pronounced CRAY-mon) refers to sparkling wine that is made in the same way as champagne. A secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle rather than (as with Prosecco) in a steel vat controlled for pressure and temperature.

‘Secondary fermentation’ means an extra dose of yeast and sugar are added before a bottle is sealed, allowing the generation of carbon dioxide fizz.

Looks like Crémant O’ Clock

The word crémant was once used in the Champagne region to refer to sparkling wines made at lower pressures than champagne. These provided not a fizzy feel in the mouth as much as one that is creamy. Today that meaning has vanished; the word now refers to sparkling wines produced outside of Champagne.

Ten regions produce crémant, eight of which are in France, one in Luxembourg and one in Belgium. The newest French appellation for this drink—Crémant de Savoie—was established only in 2014, while that of Alsace was created in 1976 and that for Bordeaux in 1990. Crémant producing regions of France are: Bordeaux, Bourgogne (Burgundy), Loire, Savoie, Jura, Die, Limoux and Alsace. All appellations must use hand-picked grapes and juice must age at least nine months on the lees (which means keeping yeast in the barrel).

These sparkling wines are basically bargain bottles of effervescence; kick off cocktails for a delicious early event buzz.

Dusk means crémant hour

Advantages of crémant over champagne include lower cost and flexibility—it can be made from a geographically more diverse range of grapes. Many regions producing this beverage include—as a base for whites—the two classic Burgundian grapes of Chardonnay (providing acidity, freshness and elegance) and Pinot Noir (providing structure and fruity aromas). Crémant regions not including these two grapes are Bordeaux, Die (in the Rhone Valley) and Savoie (in which Pinot Noir is not used, though Chardonnay can be). Crémants also include locally popular grapes, and many—such as Mauzac, Chenin Blanc and Aligoté—include aromas of apples and lemons, as well as other fruit.

To gauge the ease of access and price, at a local supermarket (and at one nearby winery), I purchased crémants from four regions of France, then sampled them with a colorful array of characters at the local wine bar: two are winery owners and one individual is not involved with the trade, but is a fiction author from Canada.

Their collective comments are below.

Left to right: Ben, Les, David

Cremant Bourgogne (Burgundy).

Veuve Ambal. Grande Réserve. Demi-Sec. 12% alcohol.

Euros 7.95 ($9.00)

The four included grape varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Aligoté and Gamay. Whereas Aligoté is acidic and adds structure and taste (including lemon and green apples) Gamay is the Beaujolais grape that bursts with fresh fruit flavors.

I considered this demi-sec as a gorgeous and sweet opener for the evening.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Nutty and dry for a demi-sec. Includes tastes of ripe yellow peaches.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Tastes of strawberries. Good desert wine.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘Flavorsome, but a bit sweet.’

The cold winter season is ideal for cold, sharp crémant

Cremant Limoux (rosé).

Antech Alliance. Brut. 12% alcohol.

Euros 8.55 ($9.70)

This includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac. The last grape, also known as ‘blanquette,’ is used in another regional sparkling wine known as ‘blanquette de Limoux,’ which was supposedly the first sparkling wine ever made, predating even champagne.

I enjoyed the subtle tastes of lemon and nuts.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Stunning color, not pink or apricot but in between. Beautiful tiny bubbles. Dry off the tongue, but with a beautiful finish that lasts.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Flavorful but subtle, silky and refreshing.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘Very lemony and fresh.’

Bubble Up

Crémant de Loire.

Ackerman Grand Millesme 2016. 11.5 % alcohol.

Euros 7.99 ($9.05)

The grapes include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc. The Chenin Blanc is the locally prevalent white wine grape of the Loire Valley, and offers high acidity, which is good for sparkling wine. Rosé crémant from the Loire Valley can include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and also locally available pineau d’Aunis.

I enjoyed the citrus taste, and appreciated how the wine developed and improved in the glass after five minutes.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Elegant and smooth; best yet.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Wildflowers, blackberries and lemon.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘Beautiful and notable effervescence, reminder of pop rocks candy. Sharp, but balanced on the tongue.’

Beaune city in Burgundy

Crémant de Bordeaux.

Clos du Notaire L’héritage. 12% alcohol.

Euros 7.50 ($8.50)

Crémants from Bordeaux are made from the same grapes as are used for red and white blends. This particular crémant from Bourg is unusual because it includes only one white grape—Semillon. This grape is today a darling of Australia’s Hunter Valley, and also once covered 90 percent of white grape vineyards in South Africa in the early 1800’s (today it represents only one percent of grapes found in the cape region of South Africa).

For me this has heft, structure and power, as well as aromas and tastes of lime, nuts and pineapple. It is not as complex as that from the Loire.

Les – Etalon Rouge winery proprietor:

‘Ebullient sparkler that has oomph. Reminds you that it is in your mouth. Extremely dry finish; sort of melts away.’

David – Canadian author:

‘Pomegranate and vanilla, very spicy. A lot of character and punch.’

Ben – La Garagiste winery proprietor:

‘This stays in the mouth longer than any others.’

These observations highlighted the truth that a demi-sec is notably sweeter than a Brut, that lemon certainly is a characteristic of Mauzac grapes, that Semillon has commanding structure and body and that Chenin Blanc, combined with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, can produce distinctly complex wines.

The range of quality and style for crémants is wide and offers much to appreciate for little price: blasts of fruit, commanding power, rich complexity and also subtle shades of flavor—depending on which bottle you choose, and from which region. As corks pop during the holiday season, offer your friends something different with crémant.

^  ^  ^  ^  ^

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include one on the digital marketing of champagne and the physics of bubbles, on why Cru Beaujolais wines made this year are looking powerful, on hunting for a war ancestor in central France, and why the city of Beaune is a good base for exploring Burgundy.

Thanks, as always, for tuning in again!

A Military Ancestor Stationed Between Burgundy And Champagne

November 13, 2018

Un Ancêtre Militaire Stationné Entre Bourgogne et Champagne

Mayor of Beauchemin, and the ‘porteur de drapeau’ or flag bearer (Jean-Baptiste’s father)

The Armistice that ended World War One was signed at 11.00 a.m. on November 11th, 1918. Eleventh hour, eleventh day, eleventh month. A century ago.

Years ago my mother told me that when she grew up, Americans around Chicago used to dedicate a minute of silence to that moment (although they used Central U.S. time, not French time—because otherwise they would be sleeping). She remarked that few did the same any more.

Peace in a rural French village

However, they still do in Europe. Ten years ago I entered a supermarket near Durham in the U.K. with my American friend Barbara, and—ignorant of the hour or the day—was shocked to see all shoppers frozen in place. It was like a Zombie movie. I soon realized the truth, and respected their respect for history.

Earlier this year my sister prepared an album detailing family history. I saw an image of my grandfather on my mother’s side—Lester Peter Ray. And there was a scan of a letter he wrote, with a map.

Lester Peter Ray

 

Card showing travel route

 

In 1918, he had traveled by boxcar from Brest, on the west coast of France, to the city of Langres—north of Dijon in central-eastern France, and was then sent a few miles away to the village of Beauchemin (‘beautiful trail’).

I decided to visit this year, but kept putting it off. Last Thursday, on a whim, I bought a plane ticket on Easy Jet to Lyon, rented a car, and on Saturday morning drove to Beauchemin for a quick visit in the rain before a more lengthy visit the next day. The village has 103 residents. A local man I chatted with suggested my returning the next day, Sunday, in time for the memorial commemoration. I agreed, then drove to Langres, a wonderful walled city designed by the military architect Vauban. There, I slept the night.

On Sunday I returned to Beauchemin. No one showed up at the memorial at 11.00 a.m., but they trickled in about 11.05, because they considered the key commemorative moment to be at eleven minutes past eleven, or at 11.11 a.m., on 11/11.

Portion of letter that accompanied map from Lester Peter

 

The mayor stood before the village war memorial and read a proclamation telling about the war, while the flag bearer stood beside him. The group of some 30 villagers next moved to the cemetery, where the mayor read another proclamation. Apparently, the mayor does this every year, and the same is done in villages throughout France. This is done annually not only on the day that commemorates the end of the First World War, but also on the day that marks the end of the Second World War. These rituals remind the locals of the importance of these historical events, and trigger conversations about lessons learned.

Can you imagine how Americans’ respect for history in general could be improved by encouraging such events? Our state of education concerning history and geography in the U.S. needs improvement, and such voluntary family events could be excellent ways to wake children up to the importance of both subjects. Our future leaders, if clueless about the past, may otherwise be ill-trained to lead us in sensible directions forward.

We then all moved into the town hall (it used to be a cheese processing plant) to drink a few glasses of wine and eat snacks.

A woman named Alix Prodhon spoke with me and said she knew a local historian I may want to meet, then brought me to her home near the memorial where she and her husband Jean-Baptiste and two wonderful children Clemens and Rose cleared the table and prepared lunch. We ate a salad with bacon and onions, then a main course of chicken and also wild boar (hunted by husband Jean-Baptiste) as well as lentils. Jean Baptiste poured out glasses of Beaujolais wine. Then, a plate with four types of cheese—including Emmenthal, Morbier, Langres and Epoise. What luxury!

Parents Alix and Jean-Baptiste, and son Celesten and daughter Rose

Both children—aged 10 and 8—spoke of how the love school, how they thrive on history and mathematics, and pulled out colored books that provided history lessons with attractive drawings and text. It was quite inspiring to see how much they had already learned about local and international history, and how much more they wanted to learn.

Cheeses after lunch

We soon drove five minutes to another village, Marac, where Franck Besch has collected U.S. military memorabilia for 30 years. He has opened a museum in Marac. He was delighted to meet, took details about my grandfather and within a day emailed me a copy of Lester Ray’s hand written registration card with the military, as well as details about his regiment, position, arrival and departure dates from France. Talk about a serendipitous encounter and situation…

At center is Franck Besch before his museum with a ‘History of ‘Doughboys” – and the most hospital local residents

Lester was apparently in the D company of the 5th anti-aircraft machine gun battalion and had arrived in Beauchemin in October of 1918, then departed for the U.S. on January 2, 1919. The city of Langres, a fifteen minute drive away, had hosted over ten thousand U.S. soldiers during this war, where they set up training schools in communications, medicine, and veterinary science (because of all the horses involved in the war).

Inside the museum

Lester Ray, after returning home, would eventually go on to become an executive at a Chicago company that managed a series of tunnels below the city for transporting and storing goods. Fortunately, he did not go to battle when in Europe.

What an incredible day!

In the village of Marac, drinks and stories before a roaring kitchen fire

We visited the house of more friends of Alix and Jean-Baptiste and sat before a roaring wood burning stove in the kitchen and drank more wine as I told them of what had become of Lester Ray’s children. The locals were rapt and joyous and spoke about the ‘magic’ of that moment, and assured me that Lester Peter Ray was above us, watching.

Indeed.

I was immensely fortunate to spend time with such generous, good-hearted, curious and bright people.

The coziness of a French country village home in autumn

Quite an amazing day.

Freshly painted memorial in Beauchemin

As for wine, that which Jean-Baptiste opened was a Cru Beaujolais, rather than a ‘nouveau.’ The cru are the top quality wines from the Beaujolais region (these wines are made from the Gamay grape), and unlike the less expensive ‘nouveau,’ these wines can be stored for years. Of the ten regions that produce Beaujolais Cru, the northernmost is Saint-Amour (which we drank for lunch) and is light and delicious. After lunch, Jean-Baptiste gave me a gift of a bottle of 2015 Claude Loup Saint-Véran, which is a white Burgundy Macônnais wine (made from Chardonnay grapes). The appellation for this wine is located in Burgundy, very slightly north of that of the Beaujolais we drank.

White Burgundy wine from Saint-Véran

The Saint-Véran appellation was established in 1971, at the far south of Burgundy, and is produced by six communes on chalk and clay soils up to 450 meters elevation. I cannot tell you how the wine tastes, because I’m saving this bottle for a very special occasion.

The nearby city of Langres straddles the Burgundy region to its south, and Champagne, to its north.

The walled city of Langres, north of Burgundy and south of Champagne

It turns out that the uncle of the flag bearer met in Beauchemin (on the right in the first picture above) used to bring in bottles of liquor for American soldiers stationed in Beauchemin during the war. (I wonder if they picked up a taste for less alcoholic wine.)

To those soldiers who served in the First World War, to my ancestor Lester Peter Ray, and to the exceedingly warm, hospitable residents of Beauchemin (and Marac)—here is a toast to our freedoms, our respect for history and our ability to enjoy wonderful food and wine together.

Sante!

Just What IS ‘Good Wine’?

October 23, 2018
IMG_4873

Trentodoc sparkling wine from Trentino, in northern Italy

What is a ‘Good Wine’?

Good question.

Not difficult to answer:

It’s whatever you like.

Simple.

IMG_5995

Vneyards at Château Angélus in Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux, France

Tasting different wines over time is like visiting different countries, or learning fresh phrases in another language or exploring country or city roads around where you live. It’s like getting to know a neighborhood or building a house or writing a book or riding a bicycle. The more you do, the more familiar you become with the process and the entire landscape of that activity. Over time drinking different wines, you experience different tastes and styles and strengths; you tune into more details and understand the bigger picture of that entire agricultural industry.

IMG_7185

Etalon Rouge vineyards in Fours, Bordeaux

In time you may find that the plonk you once adored now tastes a bit one dimensional and lame. That wine you slugged back as a teenager that gave you a cracking headache the next morning? You realize it never even tasted that good.

IMG_2028

Riesling wine from New York state in the U.S.

As with reading or traveling or cooking, after time sampling different wines you grow hungry for more variety and exploration. The greater range of wines you drink, the more you also appreciate different levels of quality.

If I drink wine and think about it (does not always happen) I look for three basic levels of quality.

First—is the wine balanced? Unbalanced means there’s a dominance of some characteristic that’s not very pleasant, or is only appreciable in small doses. Balanced means that the different components—including fruit and tannin and alcohol—meld together in your mouth in a way that is at least pleasant. You won’t wince.

That’s a good baseline for a decent wine: balance.

IMG_5411

Teroldego wine from northern Italy

Second—complexity and/or coherence. Complexity means that that taste of a wine has different layers, or levels. It’s like a movie that has a subplot, or at least a few unexpected surprises. Or, imagine you go to a party and meet not only friends you know, but intriguing or funny or memorable new characters who make you laugh or think differently or provide fresh information or viewpoints. Complexity is like having a dinner course with multiple flavors and even textures—creamy risotto as well as crunchy green beans and maybe even succulent sweet baby carrots. Think layers, surprise and exploration.

Coherence means that even if complexity is lacking, there’s strength of character in one aspect of that wine that pleases you and commands attention. It’s like going to a party and there’s a stage show and the comedian or singer or magician completely captivates your attention. It’s like reading a book where the plot may be thin, but the central character dazzles, or at least attracts and pleases you.

IMG_6514

Casual wine bar in Saint-Tropez, France

For example, it may be a simple New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wine with a dominant and intriguing grapefruit character. Or the peppery snap of a well made wine from Carmenere grapes. It could be the beautiful and fruity roundness of a specific, gorgeous Merlot. ‘Coherence’ is a word I’ve adopted regarding wine to mean one memorable, focused aspect that makes you concentrate and perhaps even mentally applaud.

Complexity and coherence together are also possible: imagine going to that party, meeting fresh faces and also enjoying the stage show. It’s like eating a dinner where you not only appreciate the delicacy of that lemon sole—which captivates your attention—but are also mesmerized by that mint chocolate chip ice cream dessert that follows.

If a wine is balanced, and also has complexity or coherence, you should be a happy individual—smiling and satisfied.

IMG_6035

Two cheerful Russian women enjoying excellent wine in Saint-Émilion, Bordeaux

The third level is emotion. You won’t get this very often, but when you do it’s memorable.

Let’s say a balanced and complex wine—even before any of the alcohol impacts you—makes you experience emotions you did not expect: joy or sadness or euphoria or whatever causes a flood of feelings to course inside. If wine tickles memory or jostles feelings which make you feel giddy or unusually high—that’s a bonus.

I recall sitting in the wine bar L’Univerre in Bordeaux City and sipping red Burgundy with a friend and being so blown away with the scent and taste that I wanted to get up and walk to other tables and clap strangers on the back and insist they sample the liquid nectar in my glass. Fortunately, my drinking companion convinced me that was not a wise idea. But the emotions caused by that wine? Outrageous.

IMG_7292

Plenty of wine to taste and books to read

Emotion is when you go to a party, perhaps unexpectedly, and fall in love. It’s like watching a movie that makes you cry or laugh or decide to alter the fundamental trajectory of your life. It’s having that unexpected meal—quite likely in a small tavern in a tiny town you never heard of before and only stopped in because you got a flat tire—and being blown away by the medley, the gastronomic chorus, of different flavors from that plate.

That’s what I look for in wine, if making a mental effort to ‘look for’ anything. Plenty of wine is unbalanced (including some expensive bottles made by supposedly ‘renowned’ producers). If I just find balance, that’s great. That’s enough. That’s contentment. Throw in complexity/coherence, and that’s a treat. That’s special. That’s bonus and pleasure, and probably even involves sharing good times with friends.

IMG_7117

A misty harvest morning in Etalon Rouge vineyard in Fours, Bordeaux

Emotion? That’s a jackpot. That is spotting, for the first time ever, that lovely woman seated inside the café working with pen and papers by her mug of tea and realizing she is intensely beautiful and attractive to you, although she is unaware that you even exist. It is meeting that individual introduced to you on a train platform on some rainy day when your mind was filled with complaints about not wanting to be there and hating the fact that you forgot your umbrella when suddenly the world—on encountering that friend of a friend when you least expected it—transforms to lightness and beauty, uplifted by this magical new individual who just blasted into your life.

IMG_5855

Spanish Ribera del Duero wine in Madrid

Finally, one of the beauties of wine is unpredictability. Whereas you want one brand of beer to taste the same year to year, bar to bar, throughout the world, you want the opposite in wine. Even a wine made from grapes from the same vines each year by one producer will change in taste from vintage to vintage, year to year and bottle to bottle. The taste will also change depending on your mood and the weather, as well as the company you keep.

Which means, and this is an odd thing to say and even odder to realize, that sometimes—not often, but sometimes—you may find a wine that is not necessarily balanced or even complex but that, because of the situation on that sunlit autumn afternoon on that grassy hillside beneath an oak tree with a picnic and a blanket and wonderful company—still provides powerful and memorable emotions you can never replicate. Sometimes, in other words, the highest levels of quality in wine may unexpectedly emerge from a wine that until then was unknown, not renowned and until that moment never before mentioned as remarkable. Perhaps it’s a special vintage, or the angle of sunlight, or …. well, who knows.

That only happens sometimes.

Which is part of the magic of wine.

IMG_5698

A casual afternoon glass of red wine inside the citadelle of Blaye, France

&   &   &

Now, visitors.

Remember weeks ago I wrote a three part series about driving a loop through south west France? There was Part l, Part II and Part III.

I did it as a way of saying goodbye to travel writing. I had always wanted to write books like those from travel writer Paul Theroux or Laurens Van Der Post or William Least Heat Moon. But I wrote a few travel books (self-published, and listed here) which never generated too much interest. So, I decided to do that little trip and write that little piece as a way of saying goodbye to travel writing.

Which I did.

IMG_7479

Susie and Davide enjoying their visit to southwest France

And then, weeks later, out of the blue, a woman named Susie from New Jersey got in touch. She’d read these pieces. She said she wanted to visit France with her boyfriend Davide and do the same journey. Sure, I thought. Whatever. I never expected to hear anything more.

But they did! They showed up in the town Blaye, then drove that route up to Soulac-sur-Mer and spent a few evenings with me drinking red and white wines in our cellar and in a local restaurant and telling stories of travel and exploration. They said, keep writing, keep the ‘dry wit’ and to make my email address more conspicuous on this blog. That was a most unexpected surprise! They also ended up sharing novelties they learned about our own neighborhood, as well as that of nearby Saint-Émilion.

Sometimes only after you say goodbye to things does their very essence return. This may even encourage you to modify your direction a bit, then continue forward. There are no rules in life, and until we embrace that truth, our vision and opportunities will be limited.

&   &   &

My latest Forbes pieces are here and include more articles about sailing than wine in recent weeks, after a recent visit to Saint-Tropez.

[In the above video – Clarissa and Monica work hard at the harvest]

Our hand harvest of all Etalon Rouge Cabernet Sauvignon grapes was completed after 2.5 days of grueling effort (thanks to all who helped out, including Kim and Julie Hopkins, Monica, Pierre, Sonya and Thomas Marchand and many others). The new winery that Les and Clarissa undertook to prepare on Rue Saint Simon in Blaye is completed, spectacular, and now includes grapes merrily fermenting in oak.

IMG_7047

New Etalon Rouge winery on Rue Saint Simon in Blaye, Bordeaux, France

Thanks again for tuning in!

Contact me anytime at: tjlmullen@gmail.com

You can also find me on Instagram or at my Roundwood Press site and blog.

 

 

Foire Aux Vins Makes For A Colorful Outing

October 2, 2018

LeClerc grocery store having its wine sale bonanza

In 1973 the French supermarket chain LeClerc held a wine sale called ‘Foire aux Vins,’ or the ‘fair of wines.’ Wines from all over the country were discounted, put on sale and were soon snapped up by bargain hunters.

The practice has blossomed, and now most supermarket chains in France do alike. Some do so both in fall and spring, although the fall season has most sales.

I was invited last night and showed up at LeClerc at 7.50 p.m., took a grocery cart, and was held at bay outside the doors until the main grocery store closed. At 8.10 p.m., the doors opened and a parade of shoppers bust forward clinging onto their carts.

Sampling of inexpensive, decent wines

I had expected a wine tasting only. Not so. A platoon of ladies greeted entrants by handing out plastic glasses filled with bubbly, and winemakers gave tastings along the aisles. I soon stuffed bottles of wine from Languedoc, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Loire Valley, Provence and Bordeaux into the cart, as well as bottles from Italy and Austria. Most ranged in price from about five to fifteen Euros, although there were bottles from Saint-Émilion and elsewhere for up to 80 or 90 Euros.

In minutes, the cordoned segment of the supermarket turned into a sort of polite French carnival. The empty cartons I had put into my cart kept getting pilfered by others when I looked away, and wine sellers and makers not seen in months shouted their hellos across aisles. I watched two men who found a shelf of Languedoc wine selling for 2.50 Euros a bottle rapidly clean off the entire shelf into their basket with hungry gusto. A female doctor we know, who somehow managed to get into the store early, rapidly loaded up her cart, which was almost twice her size.

This can lay away for another decade and will still taste wonderful

After loading a few boxes with bargains from all over France, we pushed the cart to the check out and paid, happy to have scored bargain wines and to have participated in a slice of French consumer culture.

Comparing local prices to those on the Vivino app (which is somewhat of an average for the U.S.), retail prices in the U.S. range from being similar to those in France to about 75 percent more.

As an example, a few bottles are listed below with their equivalent Euro prices converted to U.S. dollars, as well as their U.S. price.

My kind of shopping cart

Savigny-Lés-Beaune Sous Lavières. 2017. $22.50 ($39.00 in U.S.). [Burgundy]

Cht de la Gardine Châteauneuf-du-Pape. 2016. $35.65 ($44.55 in U.S.) [Rhone]

Jean Chanussot Mercurey. $18.50 ($24.25 in U.S.) [Burgundy]

Cht de Cazeneuve Cynarah Pic Saint Loup. 2016. $10.30 ($14.99 in U.S. [Languedoc]

Cht Larrivet Haut-Brion. 2013. $29.40 ($27.20 in U.S.) [Bordeaux]

Cht La Tour de Mons, Margaux. 2015. $20.20 ($33.99 in U.S.) [Bordeaux]

Cht Haut Bourcier Cuvée Remy. 2012. $9.25 ($15.99 in U.S.) [Blaye, Bordeaux]

Cht Roland La Garde Tradition. 2015. $6.90 ($15.10 in U.S.) [Blaye, Bordeaux]

Campo Ai Sassi Rosso di Montalcino. 2016. $17.26 ($18.00 in U.S.) [Tuscany, Italy]

Weingut Autrieth Grüner Veltliner Eiswein. $14.75 ($14.86 in U.S.) [Austria]

Etalon Rouge hand harvest of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes

I checked the purchased wines with U.S. prices when I got home, and mistakenly thought that my Esprit de Valandrau from Saint-Émilion cost 19 Euros locally and $178 in the U.S.

Whoaa! I hustled back to LeClerc this afternoon to buy more bottles. But, no. Truth is, the Esprit is the second label, which costs comparatively the same in the U.S. as in France. The $178 price is for Valandrau’s top tier wine.

False alarm.

Thanks for tuning in again.

My latest Forbes pieces are here and include interviews with two who have hiked the El Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage trail in Spain, sparkling wine from near Italy’s Dolomite Mountains, why I grapple with grappa, the virtues of Hungarian oak and biodynamic wine making in Oregon.

Harvest lunch – before the main course of chicken

Finally, as I mentioned on social media—we recently harvested the first half of our one hectare (2.5 acre) Etalon Rouge (‘Red Stallion’) vineyard of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. This year looks like it might just produce a Stellar Vintage!

Vineyard harvest lunch break in the commune of Fours in Bordeaux

 

 

 

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France – Part lll

September 18, 2018

[This is the last of a three part series about a recent journey. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

This post is a few weeks overdue…

General location in France

The overall, brief but colorful, route

The final route segment

PART THREE: FOREST, SHORES, CITY

Soulac-sur-Mers

I pulled off a sweater, rolled up sleeves and began the 3.5 mile drive to Soulac-sur-Mer.

The roadside included pine and palm trees, sandy road shoulders and villas behind trimmed hedges, white wood fences or chains linked by squat brick columns. This made the locale appear to be a similar but slightly shaggier version of famed Cap Ferret further south. One bonus here: ample parking.

A scaled down statue of liberty as tribute to Marquis Lafayette

Near the Atlantic Ocean I found a museum run by the Memorial of Fortresses in North Medoc. Part of France was occupied by German forces during the Second World War, including the country’s coastal western strip. Resistance was organized and coordinated (including by the British) both in England and surreptitiously in France.

Inside I looked at old uniforms and guns and photos and maps in glass cases. There were hand grenades and medals and rusted pistols and drab olive green gas masks as well as buttons and belt buckles. Everything was aged and oxidized and most had been dug out of local salty sand. The curator at this little outpost sat me down before a small television screen that showed a black and white video of war footage in France. It was all people prancing with victory music and aerial shots of bombarded ships and capped French officers hoisting flags as American tanks squeezed along dirt roads. The black and white footage included medals pinned on soldiers, salutes, handshakes, marching in formation and roadside crowds cheering on French troops. If only victory had been that clean. The museum is a reminder of how heavily fortified and defended this peninsula was by Germans, as well as of bloody battles required to recapture this terrain.

Looking toward the distant Phare de Cordouan lighthouse from Soulac

One war story is that of Operation Frankton, where a group of 10 soldiers, led by the initiator of the plan—Herbert ‘Blondie’  Hasler—paddled five canvas canoes (each with two-persons) from the mouth of the Gironde Estuary to Bordeaux city, placed mines under German ships and then retreated to a northeastern estuary bank near Blaye before escaping on foot.

The operation was akin to the Doolittle Raid of Tokyo in 1942, when 16 U.S. aircraft bombed that city. The real damage was not physical but psychological—alerting enemies to unrealized vulnerabilities in the heart of their best defended positions.

Only four of these soldiers made it to Bordeaux to inflict minimal damage and only two—Hassler and canoe partner Bill Sparks—escaped. Two canoes, swamped by ocean waves, immediately vanished at the mouth of the estuary, and another six men were apprehended and executed. After the war Hasler organized, and participated in, a single-handed transatlantic ocean race between New York and Plymouth.

Fresh fish for sale

Outside I spied a blazing trio of flags—American, French and European. I pulled over to where dunes rose and waves roared. Here was a bronze miniature Statue of Liberty. Rescued from abandoned disuse in Paris in 1980, the statue now celebrates the Marquis Lafayette, who at 19 years of age departed France in 1777 to fight for liberty in America, then returned to France to participate in the Revolution. The statue was made from original molds used to model the actual Statue of Liberty.

A father walked his two young daughters, each three feet tall and wearing a turquoise bicycle helmets as well as mirrored sunglasses with colored frames. He carried their bicycles across the street into town. If not for victory, I wondered, what freedom would those children have now?

Beach art

I kicked off sandals and climbed dunes, toes squishing through delicious layers of warm and cool sand, and looked westward across waves, ever attractive and always inspiring. Soon I visited another beachside memorial that included four French flags and names, hundreds, inscribed on a black marble wall commemorating the 1944-1945 liberation of Point de Graves, this northernmost tip of the Médoc.

Soulac-sur-Mer is a regular beachside holiday town, stuffed with roadside parked cars and a waterfront with dozens of international flags. Along walkways and the main road moved morning joggers, a stylish young brunette in a polished black Mini, a stroller carrying a scared terrier in his arms and ample men with ugly, unkempt and unwashed Rastafarian braided dreadlock hairstyles—each moving arm in arm with a female mate, each resembling a runway model. Did I recently miss the onset of this bizarre latest trend?

At noon, I ordered an orange juice at Les Chiens Fous. From an outer table I watched a healthy parade of multicolored generations reveling in the wind bitten and sun soaked day, evincing joy and health and movement and some sensible disregard for social media for at least a few hours.

Soulac’s summer highlights include ample bicycling, family friendly everything, juicy fresh fruits and historical reminders of a darkly jagged history where liberty eventually prevailed over an industry of genocide. Times have changed, people have moved on, nations and identities have—thankfully—merged.

On the southern edge of the city I found a shack of a wine store. A glazed eyed man in a cap with a remote and faraway look melted into his lawn chair out front. I walked in.

Fresh from the market

A rotund and chummy woman appeared. We spoke. They sold two types of wine. One from Perpignan, on the other side of France; one from Castillon on the other side of Bordeaux city—itself far away.

I inspected the Castillon. Five euros for a bottle of red. And the Perpignan. Three euros a bottle for rosé. That included the cost of shipping it across the country. I decided to buy both to try. If the rosé was a go, perhaps California’s Two Buck Chuck may have met its match. I pulled bottles from the counter. Later I tried the rosé. Not Bad. Not good. Not really a surprise.

Montalivet

The beach of Montalivet, further south along the Atlantic coast, parallels thick pine forests and dunes demarcated by a long and shaggy wood picket fence. Here again there was bicycling for all ages, surfing, kite surfing, beach volleyball and beach soccer. The town’s abbreviation in ‘Monta,’ hence signs for Monta Surf School and Monta Pizza.

Pedestrian Avenue de L’Ocean was as jammed and sweaty as a summer outdoor concert. There were bikers in black bandannas, a skirted boy wearing a pearl necklace and a swarthy, bearded chap in a pirate’s hat. I counted 24 people in line outside the ATM. This crowded summer family scene with too many bodies hungering for fast food made me return to the car and get out…fast.

Montalivet – too crowded

The southern outskirts of Montalivet skirts several forests: Dunaire, Vendays and Junda. There are adjacent miles of bicycle trails, as well as a separate asphalt bicycle path paralleling the road through deep, dense, lovely woods—all a glorious escape after the pedestrian human zoo of Montalivet. Long distance bikers (many with children) moved with loaded panniers, while shirtless boys skateboarded. One couple picked roadside blackberries. The towering, expansive woods of the Médoc are a cathedral, a living and breathing respite from nearby sea tides of humans clustered on narrow streets. Although this road is a patchwork of asphalt repairs—a buckled, neglected semi-artery through the woods—it magnificently lacks bleating crowds.

Hourtin-Plage

I liked Hourtin-Plage immediately: a square grassy park, uncluttered side streets, dispersed groups of people with nothing to prove. I sat at a shaded table at Le Grillon Restaurant and ordered fresh tuna with herbal vinaigrette sauce and Château Pouyannne white wine from Graves—poured into a less than pretentious big bulb of a glass with the words Gallo Family Vineyards printed on the side. Then, aha! Once again: seated dead ahead—another lame knot of ugly and unwashed dreadlocks on an enervated youth eating lunch together with a ten star babe. What is going on, World?

Rated restaurants hope to neutralize unpredictability by providing consistently good food. Sometimes this works; not always. There’s strange, unpredictable magic in dining out. Michelin Star restaurants offer food that is visual artwork, although not always delicious, and staff can be as stilted as furniture in a doll’s house. Better to have good people, soul filling and reasonably priced fare that is delicious as well as decent wine (even table wine) with friendly staff who treat diners alike whether they are celebrities or off duty dishwashers. You can’t predict when you’ll find this confluence. This restaurant ticked those boxes, and was a pleasure to visit. The atmosphere was quiet and happy, and the staff unrushed but efficient.

For dessert I ordered a café gourmand (you don’t know what this is? It can change your life) before motoring south to Bordeaux city.

Bordeaux City

This has been a cracked and brutal summer with tree leaves, burnt and withering, turning yellow and brown mid August. August is an odd and mobile month in France, a time when train stations may close on Friday mornings (for whatever reason), when libraries often close for the month and school-free students with weird haircuts loiter and slouch and share lame jokes at train stations or on street corners. This is traveling season when commuters haul luggage more often than shopping bags and vines look trim and grapes full and dangling.

The Garonne River looked gloriously muddy, its shores a pastel of muck and weeds while beyond rose beautiful Bordeaux city spires and stately architecture, all as deliciously proportioned as a well decorated Christmas tree.

Spires in this city welcome you, a reminder that this was home of Eleanor of Aquitaine and centuries of medieval knights and troubadours, sword and ax fights and wandering bards. The spires piercing skylines are part of lithic architecture that curls parallel to, and along, the city’s winding waterfront.

I parked near the main railway station, Gare Saint-Jean, which is as much destination as thoroughfare. Here classical piano music rang out and the overall vibe was less raucous than stations at, say, Paris Montparnasse or Milano Centrale.

Out front were trams and a bendy bus departing for Place de la Bourse (5 stops). I boarded and paid. Away it whooshed and rattled along past road construction near Pont de Pierre, the stone bridge crossing the Garonne with 17 arches, one for each letter of Napoléon Bonaparte’s name.

Place de la Bourse

Near the water of River Garonne is Bourse, a wall of beautiful stone apartments and offices. Across the street is a sizable horizontal fountain with multiple jets that spray mist or flood the surface with water a half inch deep. Kids lay down and did snow angels and belly rolls and everything that makes parents cringe at seeing their children wallow on stone earth before a battery of strangers. Still, kids here are generally not bratty or loud or obstinate but whisper and sing and cuddle their parents with overt affection.

A tour guide who looked pre-teen carried a red flag on a stick and marched a group of visitors across Place de la Bourse, She was followed by a sizable woman and several youths attired with the latest style of backpack—basically pear shaped leather pouches on strings slung so low that they bounce off wearers’ rear ends.

Others drove rental bicycles over square cobbles, jouncing butts and boobs and halting to take toothy selfies. They’re all very stylish these French: couples with matching sailor shirts and a woman in debonair silver lace sandals pulling a chique but heavy chunk of luggage across cobblestones. This contrasted sharply to the attire I saw weeks earlier in the aisles of Walmart in rural New Mexico.

I moved by foot into the sunny heart of this magnificent city, compact and clique, global yet quintessentially French. Here is a smattering of public squares—places—that makes the city infectiously attractive: I begin at Place de Parlement with woofing dogs, two lost cyclists, a three year old holding her mother’s bouquet of flowers and roadside stone bollards linked by thick and weathered chains. I passed a parked pink Vespa near to where diners scarfed down plates of salad nicoise and drank golden ales and light yellow wines.

Then, up Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges with its abundant little eateries—terraced and table clothed—such as Le Saint Georges and Osteria Da Luigi. Next—past Place Camille-Jullian with an ancient Roman column and performing tightrope walker and trimly dressed ambling Asians who smelt of lavender.

For a light dinner I ate at an Asian restaurant across from Bradley’s Bookshop (‘Coffee & Tea Taste Better with a Good Book!’). This is the confluence of Rue Saint-Siméon, Rue de La Merci and Rue Arnaud Miqueu.

Earlier in the bookstore I had purchased a Jared Diamond book The World Until Yesterday as well as Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and three short stories by Nabokov and then walked outside and relished the gorgeous temperature. There on Rue Saint Siméon clunky dented bicycles were chained in twos, like drunken sentries, on metal rails and I noticed several American visitors dressed alike: sneakers, beige cargo shorts, gray t-shirts.

There I dined outside—à l’extérieur—and ordered Saké Teriyaki and a half bottle of Château Boyrein white wine from Graves and wallowed in the acoustic beauty of young French ladies chatting at the adjacent table. The dress and comportment of families and couples here was sleek and trim and bereft of loudness or bulk.

Eating with chopsticks, I noticed the constants of summertime: mirrored sunglasses, tanned legs, older wrinkled French wives sucking on vapes, short sleeves showing off intricate tattoos. Most families, even when herded on crowded streets, stayed harmonious and polite.

Even in the most hectored and aggravated cobbled intersections, stuffed with ambling bodies and toddling toddlers I was amazed to see driving school vehicles shunting along these rues (one came close to taking out the entire table of gabbing teens beside me).

If not full on savoir-faire on the part of visitors who obviously just arrived, they displayed a quiescent hush, as though in a cathedral during service. This toning down of loud voices showed respect for a location different from their home.

It is easy to love this city, including its understated power (three times it functioned as the alternative capital of France) and its yawning confidence—much like a Grand Cru Classe wine that commands a committed audience and generates a fat bank balance. A thousand years ago the Aquitaine was the veritable living Elysian Fields of Europe.

Without being reputed so, this city is also a pillar of style and fashion and architectural glory (dusted off by Mayor Alain Juppé, who led the cleaning of stone buildings since his election in 2006).

Next, up the main shopping street—pedestrian Rue Sainte-Catherine—which, near its northern (theater) end, is slightly inclined and heaved with swarms of pulsating humans, sweeping their own divergent paths, clutching plastic bags and bicycle helmets and with clicking heels navigating baby strollers and parading tattooed thighs or signal-red lipstick as they cooed and froed and peddled scooters or paraded along this artery, this aorta, of an ancient yet revitalized city. Tanned sisters bantered about lingerie before Yves Rochet while necklaced divas darted into H&M, and a snoozing, horizontal indigent—his cap and framed family photo propped up on the walkway before him—actually made money while he slept.

I diverted westward off Saint-Catherine along Rue de la Porte Dijeaux. At first the stone road was inclined in a steep V for drainage and had a whiff of urine but I sallied forth past the stores: Galeries Lafayette and L’Atelier du Chocolat (try a feuilleté blanc or Rocher Suisse Noir—sinfully delicious) and passed young ladies gandering at summer dresses in the window of Bimba y Lola.

This street / rue then intersected with Rue Vital-Carles, which offered an inclined gape at the rosary window and graceful spire of Cathédrale Saint-André. Here, a tram car passed—not the blocky stocky style like those from Lisbon but sleek and blue and whispering efficiently along rails tastefully embedded in stone pavement.

Here at the corner is Librairie Mollat—a book selling institution in the city with its blue tinged wooden window frames showing abundant titles (Varuna by Charles Frazier, The Burning Chambers by Kate Mosse and A Column of Fire by Ken Follet).

Then, on foot through the ancient stone gate—Porte Dijeux, built in the 1700’s to commemorate the ancient western, Roman entrance to the city. Outside Le Bistro de la Porte drinkers at round marble tables languished with books and parfaits and eerie green cocktails while loud jazz throbbed through a cheery humid Friday afternoon.

I spotted second hand books for sale, including one on how to be a perfect gentleman—Le Guide du Parfait Gentleman—with a chapter titled comment être sexuelle (how to be sexual).

Place Jean Moulin gave a flurry of brazen impressions—gesticulating visitors wearing Hawaiian shirts and girls rolling cigarettes and every person in this open space belittled by the ancient, shiny, imposing spire of Saint-André cathedral.

Next, down Cours Pasteur—eerily empty at 4.51 on a Friday afternoon, past a bicycle store selling bangers and a vapid ‘international bar’ that can’t even attract locals. I sauntered through Place de la Victoire with its live Peruvian flute music, an Egyptian obelisk and a magnificent old stone Román door beside a sinuous street. I hiked along at a rare clip in order to drive northward to catch the ferry back to Blaye.

Then along Cours de la Marne past Marché des Capucins where strange spices, bizarre fish and esoteric vegetables flourish in cool interior stalls during weekends. From Bordeaux city I drove northward, through the famed wine country of Médoc (which I’ll omit, having covered it in so many other stories and articles).

The Ferry Home 

The road northward to Lamarque ran along groomed and clean roads passing well snipped hedges and grassy but mowed road shoulders. The church spire of Lamarque resembles a long bullet, or the capsule cover to a syringe.

Finally, homeward on the Lamarque to Blaye car ferry. The 3.45 p.m. boat left on time, pirouetted in sun dappled but muddy water and the day, with fresh breezes on that Friday afternoon in August was uplifting and, considering it marked the completion of this local driving loop—perfect.

During the 25 minute ride to Blaye I sat upstairs in sunshine where the sight of the nearing cliffside Citadelle looked beautiful. Perfect. Like home anywhere.

^  ^  ^

Thanks for tuning in again.

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include sparkling wine from Trentino in Italy, why it’s worth visiting the beaches of Bordeaux, and a slice of Bali in Bordeaux.

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France – Part II

August 28, 2018

[This is the second of a three part series about a recent short journey. Part I is here, and Part III will come out next week. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

PART TWO: NORTH AND WEST.

The Big Picture – Location in France

It’s preferable to travel by train or bus or on foot if you are writing about travel. A car, obviously, needs to be driven. You can’t write while driving. You need to pull over. So, I often endlessly search for rest areas or alleys to pull into to capture notes and thoughts. All of this searching can suck away part of the joy of freewheeling and being on the road. Or else you can remember what you want to write about by constructing mental images—mnemonics (think of the book Moonwalking with Einstein). Years ago I once met and shared beers with a canoeist in Atchison, Kansas along the Missouri River. I had no recorder or notebook so configured his story mentally using a pyramid of interconnected images, then later transcribed our conversation, virtually verbatim, into a chapter.

Grapes from our Etalon Rouge vineyard in Four, near Blaye

The bizarre part was that he had worked overseas in Guam with land titles for 20 years, left his job, returned to the U.S., bought a canoe and launched into the upper Missouri River to paddle south before learning that the river had dams. Several. Each of them massive. Much of his expected river adventure turned into a series of lake water paddles.

The relatively short overall route along the Gironde estuary and in the Médoc

Back to France:

Regardless of the challenges of driving and writing, I continued on from the town of Blaye in southwest France, moving north.

I exited Blaye on an Ektachrome blue morning past the handsome slate spire of Château Lagrange and country roads with full, flourishing greenery and thick hedgerows. Around a country corner I passed Château Segonzac (near the final landing point for Operation Frankton canoeists during World War Two; more about that next week) across the street from a field of sunflowers.

The sunflowers of Charente-Maritime province

Here were reeds, plains, spires, fields filled with stubble and dirt clods, and cyclists moving along thin roads bordered by wild earthen canals. Along the Route du Marais and Route de Montalpin beside Canal de Ceinture, I saw—miles ahead—four white cylinders, like salt shakers from a cheap diner, marking the local nuclear power plant—the Centrale Nucléaire du Blayais. Located on a plain east of the estuary, this assemblage of four pressurized reactors comprises the local cathedral of energy.

Part II – Blaye to Le Verdon-sur-Mer

It’s been humming along since 1981, churning out thousands of megawatts and employing three hundred locals full-time. It produces a scant five percent of French energy needs and is poised across the estuary from Bordeaux’s Médoc, bastion of some of the world’s most renowned and expensive wines. One nuclear catastrophe there and, well, your precious bottle of Lafite might quintuple in value in the space of an earthquake. Is that possible? Who knows? Flooding in 1999 breached the walls and soaked the plant with 3.2 million gallons of floodwaters, while seismic shudders in 2002 threatened the integrity of its pipelines.

Countryside near Braud-et-Saint-Louis

Next, through the town of Braud-et-Saint-Louis, gateway to the nuclear compound, and except for a roundabout and an eerily placed set of emergency warning klaxons on the roof of the mayor’s office, I saw little else. Visiting the power plant is off-limits except during special visitor days, so I moved past this thunderclap of power en route to Mortagne-sur-Gironde.

‘The locks,’ ‘The port,’ ‘Everywhere’

Miles up the road I stopped at Saint-Ciers-sur-Gironde, a bustling hive and cluster of Tuesday morning errand runners. At the Super U I bought a two chausson aux pommes and a mango passion fruit smoothie for breakfast. In the check out before me stood a woman with two girls—likely 5 to 7 years old—with their new school notebooks and markers and, bizarrely, a paperback copy of The Disappearance of Josef Mengele by Olivier Guez. Light reading, not.

Five star Château Mirambeau accommodation

I next drove through a happy slab of slanted vineyards and open views and entered the province of Charente-Maritime and within yards saw the first field of corn. There were doves and cooing pigeons and semi trucks hauling hay bales in this twisted, hilly, little known patch of geography that sizzles with quiet landscape beauty. I then navigated through thin roads in towns such as Petit Niort and lively Mirambeau, with its purple window shutters and rows of thick eucalyptus trees.

Chalky cliffs outside Mortagne-sur-Gironde

Mortagne-sur-Gironde

There is an upper and lower portion to the town of Mortagne-sur-Gironde, the upper being a long row of sand colored stone buildings, the lower being a port, perpendicular to the massive Gironde Estuary, with dozens of boats and a few waterside restaurants. During the same December flood of 1999 that gnashed at the nuclear power plant near Blaye, the tempest ruined a polder at Mortagne, a 470 acre (190 hectare) crop of diked and reclaimed land. It was never fully reclaimed.

Harbor at Mortagne-sur-Gironde

The port is lively on a summer afternoon. I parked and walked past grassy spaces next to wooden gated locks, campers with fold out canopies and garishly colored lawn chairs, children dancing under trees, zones of poor internet service and a bikinied bicyclist taking selfies along a stone harbor wall. The Gironde is about a mile, or a kilometer and a half away, but the beauty of limestone bluffs meeting a silty delta next to prim and tended grassy parks with shaded benches makes this port attractive. A menu outside a linen table clothed restaurant gastronomique showed it was selling buffalo mozzarella gazpacho as well as duck cannelloni with herbs, but I decided to wait until the next town before lunch.

Little used side canal in Mortagne-sur-Mer

Talmont-sur-Gironde

Miles to the north, the view from the town of Chenac-Saint-Seurin-d’Uzet toward the town of Talmont-sur-Gironde shows a visually alluring angled slab of bright white sea cliff (likely limestone). This land includes cylindrical hay bales and mixed agriculture—dirty small sheep north of Mortagne, sunflowers, vines and muscular and cream-colored cattle chomping grass with fury.

Limestone cliffs just south of Talmont-sur-Gironde

In Talmont-sur-Gironde I sat in shade on a restaurant porch and ordered merlu (hake) fish and a Leffe beer, followed by an apple tart—tarte aux pommes—slathered with caramel covered ice cream.

Estuary view from Talmont-sur-Gironde

Whereas Mortagne is shaggy, Talmont is prim. Parking at Mortagne is free, but costs in Talmont. Campers and bikers and locals flock to Mortagne, while urban families and couples with convertibles trundle into Talmont. On busy summer days, Mortagne is a fiesta, while Talmont is a zoo. In Mortagne, lunch lasts an unrushed two to three hours, while in Talmont, four separate servers on a crowded patio cater to every need, as though in the U.S.,and whoosh out dessert before you even switch from drinking an entry beer to a glass of dry white wine. In Mortagne, the restaurant staff speak French; in Talmont they practice English, whether or not you like it. Mortagne is France; Talmont is California. And if both were in California, one would be Ventura, the other Newport Beach.

Typically bright colored shutters in Talmont-sur-Gironde

‘Now, coffee and bill,’ a server said loudly in English as he plopped both on the table before I’d begun downing the glass of wine. His action was polished, though slightly rude and harried.

Still, walking after lunch was golden. Views within and from little Talmont are splendid—mud flats and fluttering birds and tidal waters all somewhat reminiscent, on a minuscule scale, of Mont Saint Michel in northern France. Here there is wind, a balustrade of climatic temperance that mitigated an otherwise harshly hot week. This wind becomes a song in the ears—rustling reeds, licking tree branches, scudding cumulus and vibrating its bounty of peace. Clean air and clear vistas from the shores of Talmont: magnificent.

The church of Saint Radegonde in Talmont-sur-Gironde sits above the estuary

Estuary waters look muddy from here, though the sight of snow white egrets and the laugh of cycling couples is, in the wake of wine and beer and a seafood at lunch, sumptuous. Truth is, I love Talmont.

It’s a wee promontory around Saint Radegonde church, originally constructed in 1094, a time when Saint Marks Basilica was consecrated in Venice and just before work began on the Cathedral of Durham in northern England. The church and village jut into tidal waters and are riddled with cobbled alleys and little stores. I love its stony white paths, elevated trail above water and sight of seabirds on seaweed coated isles; the brazen blocky église, the photogenetically trim vistas and the myriad of colors on rock and soil and cobbles. There is a Venetian profusion of little alleys here (again, on a minuscule scale) leading to who knows where.

View from Saint Radegonde church of the Gironde estuary, in Talmont-sur-Gironde

Bicyclists of all ilk gather here, whether healthy and not, compelled by a shoreline visit that blends brutal history with skittish and deft scenes of nature. So, more power to both venues—Mortagne and Talmont, although I’d hate to see the ritual of a lazy two wine bottle lunch supplanted by Anglo Saxon infatuation with speed, table turnover, efficiency, profit and time.

This is also home to Les Hauts de Talmont wine, which produces biodynamic wines, including a 100% Colombard white, as well as a red and a rosé made from Merlot. Co-owner Jean-Jacques Vallée told me the story about these wines when we met.

Jean-Jacques Vallée is now co-owner of Les Hauts de Talmont wines

I left town but soon pulled over and parked in a park within the nearby villages of Arces-sur-Gironde because the church is a beauty, and I marched through a ghostly silent village, relishing birdsong interspersed with silence.

Church in Arces-sur-Gironde

Back in the car I listened to Gregorian music while passing slanted fields of sunflowers—tournesols—their heads pointed downward to avoid August sun in this land of escargot and pineau fortified wine and estuary sturgeon caviar and the summer clank and rumble of rubber tractor wheels and grinding motors.

Royan 

The next morning I woke to rain and soon dialed the car radio to a channel named musique (which was classique) and by 5.20 a.m. heat pushed into the car, forcing me to crack open windows. The scent and whoosh of nature zipped in and, combined with the beauty of outer fog sheets, felt uplifting.

Waterview from near the ferry port in Royan

I passed the lovely small beaches of Meschers and the long open sands of Saint-Georges-de-Didonne and moved into the cloying whiff of highway diesel outside the city of Royan. Many buildings in this city of 18,000 residents are concrete and rectangular and painted white with navy blue porch rails. Streets curl along with seaside topography and are generally wide and lined generously with trees. It’s a cross between some 1960’s Floridian beach architecture and that of a modern coastal California suburb. Strategically located at the northwest entry point to the Gironde estuary (largest in Europe), the city was 80 percent leveled by bombs during the Second World War, so the absence of medieval charm is understood. Parts of the city have a positive and prosperous vibe, with BMW sports cars sweeping out from occasional gated communities to secure family morning lattes.

A wooden walkway and a parallel stone bicycle path curl around the beach periphery lined with profusions of planted flowers. The waterfront here is a maintained and orderly, with an air of respect for health and fitness. At 7.00 a.m. both a gardener and a leaf blower were humming with industriousness.

Waterfront flowers in the city of Royan

I stepped into dawn light and the salty, invigorating scent of ocean air, then shivered in a cold 60 degree breeze while wearing shorts, sandals and a thin shirt. I sat on a park bench at an ocean point on Boulevard de la Côte d’Argent—reminded by its ocean freshness of California’s Laguna Beach or Ireland’s Salthill. (Another reminder of Laguna Beach: a conspicuous sign notifying that from April 1 to September 30th, no dogs are allowed on the beach.) A tractor was grooming the cove’s sand beside Casino Barrière and red-roofed waterside stone homes across this little bay—Plage de Pontaillac—appeared attractive and cozy. The memory of having packed a warm sweater in the car was welcome.

Pontaillac Beach in Royan

At 7.08 a.m., men in their 60’s were going swimming (freezing!) or bicycling and a 30 some year old woman, all togged out in sports wear and strapped with some electronic health monitor, went for a very slow stroll. The breakfast porch of four-story and three Star Hotel Miramar looked inviting, but I whiffed the scent of fresh croissants from down the street and hunted the source on foot, still shivering.

At pâtisserie-boulangerie Chocolat’in, on Rue de la Plage, I bought a roll filled with chocolate chips, then sat on another bench near seagulls and strollers. I eyed the northwest elevated edge of the cove with its two dozen painted white wooden fishing shacks. Here be palm trees, joggers and slow rolling waves during the easy morning transition to dawn.

Bakery delights in the city of Royan

I soon meandered along a park profuse with geraniums and roses. This square—Mado Maurin—includes a curling bike path near a pizzeria. Standing youths wearing suede jackets finished their breakfast pastries and then, in bare feet, push started a friend’s Fiat near the Surf Club Royan. I was underdressed but excited about the up coming ferry ride across the yawning mouth of Europe’s largest estuary. The car ferry, known as le bac in France, next departed next at 9.00. I paid at the entry booth, parked next to vehicles with snoozing vacationers, then went for a walk.

Anchored close to the Captainerie building bobbed tugs and massive catamarans, sleek yachts, rubber dinghies with heavy engines and sailed fishing boats.

View of Gironde estuary from south of Royan

I wondered why this northern ferry cost 50 percent more than the ferry between Blaye and Lamarque further south. After departure, I realized that it is, in comparison, an asphalt highway compared to a dirt track, a Marriott versus some Motel 6. You pay at a booth from your car window before even entering the dock space, are assigned a waiting line, and eventually drive straight on to park. Simple. No ejecting passengers who have to walk aboard on foot, no maneuvering 180 degrees before being barked at to reverse into a narrow back slot and then having to stand in a line to pay. The indoor waiting room of this northern ferry includes not just a coffee machine, as in Blaye, but a cafe staffed by two selling an ample range of drinks and snacks.

Northern Médoc

The ferry departed at 9.00 to a massive horn blast, then aimed at the far shore with its sloping green grassy sand dunes, a point of natural beauty. Westward and within the ocean stands the towering white Phare de Cordouan lighthouse, oldest in operation in France. It was first built by the Black Prince Edward of Wales in the 1360’s, about the time the bubonic plague ended, the Chinese Ming dynasty began, the 100 Years War raged, Pope Urban V tried moving the Papacy back to Rome from Avignon, Muscovites built a Kremlin Wall around their city to oppose Lithuanian invasions and the Thai Kingdom conquered (once again) Cambodia.

Pointe-de-Grave on the ‘left bank’ of the Gironde Estuary

Waves on this crossing are oceanic, not estuarine: whopping great swells that lurch stomachs and shift stances only minutes after departure. The bac pivots up down and sideways—like a traveling fairground ride—impacting platoons of passengers: capped grandpas, cuddling lovers and families munching baguettes. After twenty minutes it threaded a needle between concrete pillars and entered the modern harbor at Pointe de Grave. Vehicles and dozens of bicycles disembarked, including families and a lean bronze muscled couple paddling tandem with backpacks.

Point-de-Grave harbor

I soon stopped across from LeClerc supermarket Le Verdon-sur-Mer and walked across the street to Epicerie Chez Cathy—small and stocked with fruit and veg. There I bought a peach from a prim and polite young lady and outside saw a beautiful roadside counter of fish on ice garnished with greens. Two energetic women at this mobile poissonnerie—Bateau Cassy—sell maigres, bars, dorades, and soles, all festooned with slices of lemon. Both businesses—Cathy and Cassy add a local market dimension to the looming adjacent chain store.

Next, south to Soulac-sur-Mer, and then onto Bordeaux City.

 

Driving A Counterclockwise Spiral Through Southwest France

August 21, 2018

[This is the first of a three part series about a recent journey. Parts two and three will come out next week and the week after. French words are italicized; some, not all, are translated.]

PART I.  HOME GROUND.

The Shape Of A Short Trip.

The Big Picture – location in France

Inspiration to explore my neighborhood came from writer Paul Theroux. I first heard of this author when I took a train from El Paso in Texas to Mexico City with a backpack, decades ago. I paid 36 dollars for a 36-hour train ride in an old 1940’s American train caboose with my own cabin, including toilet and bed. A conductor walked along the hallway swinging a silver pail and selling iced beers. The train sometimes stopped in the middle of nowhere and we’d step outside and buy homemade tamales from kids.

During this trip I met a house painter from the highlands of Colorado. He suggested reading The Old Patagonian Express—By Train Through the Americas by Theroux. I did. Years later, the author’s writing inspired me to join the Peace Corps. I ended up in the same African country where he served—Malawi—and on the same month that we volunteers arrived an article appeared in National Geographic, written by Theroux, about his revisit to that nation. This curiously timely coincidence encouraged me to continue wandering. I savored his book Riding the Iron Rooster—By Train Through China while malaria ridden in a village without electricity or running water south of Chitipa in rural Malawi, and years later while working in the desert outback of Namibia, Africa, relished The Happy Isles of Oceania.

Theroux’s latest travel collection is Figures In A Landscape—People & Places. I read it weeks ago. In one essay he mentioned a desire to explore his neighborhood and I was seized with the sudden certainty to do alike.

The relatively short route along the Gironde estuary and in the Médoc

How to explore my neighborhood here in southwest France? First, my vintage, bulletproof Mercedes that once belonged to the Nigerian ambassador in London now lacks air conditioning and the motor is prone to overheating. This means I can’t travel too far during any brutal August day because the heat—la chaleur—will be sweltering and may cause engine problems. Yet I had to get beyond known terrain. Before plotting a route on Google maps I did so mentally. Locations to visit unfurled like a counterclockwise semi-spiral across the provinces of Charente-Maritime and Gironde. The trail resembled a snail’s curl, or the cross section of a squashed croissant. When I looked at a map this little route was not a spiral so much as a reverse P, or a capital Q. Finally, I plotted this tour on Google and the shape of the journey resembled a tilted slipper, or an amoeba with a flagella tail. Perhaps a partially peeled banana. In some regards, then—yes—a spiral.

But, seriously, who cares?

I stuffed a sweater and corkscrew and extra iPhone batteries into a cotton shoulder bag and throttled off at dawn, beginning the wonky semi-spiral path leading, of course, back home in time for weekend parties. The route began at Saint-André-de-Cubzac, headed north through hometown of Blaye, upward to coastal Royan, across water by ferry to the Médoc, southward past beaches and then on to Bordeaux city.

On y va. Let’s go!

Part l – Saint-André-de-Cubzac to Blaye

Saint André-de-Cubzac, Bourg, Corniche de La Gironde

I entered Saint-André-de-Cubzac at a traffic roundabout with a statue of a leaping dolphin wearing an angled red cap, because this is the birthplace of ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. I then slipped into a parking space outside the gare—train station—and wandered off to hunt for the morning market.

Linked to a major motorway as well as a railway line, and located on the Dordogne River, Saint-André is a gateway to greater Bordeaux city. This town has long been a center of commerce. Twelfth century rulers built north-south and east-west roads (known as the ‘cardo’ and ‘decumanus’–terms invented by clever Tuscan Etruscans) with a church at the intersection. It was pivotal for trading wine with those living in that angle of land between the Dordogne and Garonne rivers known as ‘Between the Rivers’ or ‘Entre-deux-Mers.’

IMG_4283

Birthplace of Cousteau

Streets here hum and moan and screech with traffic—chortling semi trucks and belching SUV’s. These pass handsome buildings assembled from tan sandstone. Many rues include clusters of hairdressers, banks and real estate agents.

I passed a jogging girl and a man painting the iron rails around his garden. An ambulance driver honked at his friends. But where was the market? Better still, where could I get a mug of coffee? I walked past the stone Justice de Paix building where a woman dressed in orange pulled her matching brick colored shopping trolley, obviously heading to (or from?) some market. I followed.

IMG_4268

Quiet street in Saint-André-de-Cubzac

Streams of strollers coalesced near Place Raoul Larche, where I entered Bar Brasserie of Cafe de l’Hotel de Ville across from a charcuterie. There I ordered a grand cafe crème from a stout, affable tanned man who, when I asked est-ce que c’est un marché aujourd-hui? nodded and replied simply, oui, then pointed in the direction from where I just came.

Merde. Which means, shite. Had I somehow missed the market?

Market fresh

I sat and sipped the bitter morning brew on an unkempt terrace littered with ciggie butts. Knolls of grass poked through cracked masonry where roots, long ago, heaved through bricks.

Yet, aha! There was another road leading slightly uphill and to the left. I finished the coffee and moved that way past Le Rolling Snack, the Boucherie Fortin (‘entrecôte bordelaise Euros 1.90/kg’) and found a sign: Marché Réglementé (regulated market) outside a parking lot where stalls covered in white canopies stood.

Although not as picturesque as a market in, say Sarlat-la-Canéda or Périgueux in the Dordogne, the wares were fresh and the sellers flashed friendly smiles. There were covered stalls and portable refrigerated counters and food for sale included massive green grapes, fig jam, sweating watermelons and Madagascar crevettes (shrimp). There were sesame loaves, firm ‘haricot’ beans and skinned rabbits – heads and bulging black eyeballs still attached. A uniformed pair of Police Rurale officers patrolled, and the sun began baking shoppers by 10 a.m. I heard the scoop of ice and vendors whistling and the eternal trio of farewells, spoken together: ‘merci, bon journée, au revoir.’ I bought a loaf of pan muesli from a smiling dark haired beauty with turquoise painted fingernails.

IMG_4285

Monument to those who died in World War l

This market square—a parking lot that sometimes transforms to a social quadrangle—is bordered on three sides by flourishing trees and on a fourth by a community center. It provides a lively gathering point for neighbors and shoppers inspecting colors and shapes and textures of unpackaged wares. Here, twice weekly, locals bond with market vendors under the lash or scorch of outdoor weather. These open-air markets excel not just as shopping venues but as places to share news with neighbors and even, for a stranger such as myself, making me feel suddenly welcome.

I returned to the car via back alleys, then drove north through Saint Gervais past the twin stone round towers outside Château de la Brunette. This road passing vineyards, la route du vin de Blaye et Bourg, wends over speed bumps through the town of Prignac-et-Marcamps, where a side road leads to Grotte de Pair-non-Pair. I had visited that site before: a 65-foot long cave where generations of Neanderthals and (later) Cro-Magnon humans lived. Protected from weather, wolves and bears, generations lived here until some 20,000 years ago and carved images of mammoths, rhinos and giant deer on walls.

Vineyard on the Gironde estuary

Bourg

Then into Bourg, a special place not only because of wines (think Châteaux Gros Moulin, Mercier and De La Graves) but also because the curling blacktop road down Rue des Douves leads to an ancient port on the Dordogne River, once a keystone for Roman and medieval commerce. The city is also called Bourg-sur-Gironde, although this is technically incorrect because it sits along the Dordogne River, and not the Gironde estuary. Hundreds of years ago, before the estuary silted up and moved the confluence of the Dordogne and Garonne rivers four miles (6.5 kilometers) upstream and north, Bourg was on the Gironde. That’s why it was built as a fortification, in order to view and defend the entire estuary. No longer. You can call it Bourg-de-Gironde (‘de’ instead of ‘sur’) because it belongs within the administrative department that also happens to be named Gironde, but locals might not warm to that. Save yourself a hassle if you visit and just say Bourg.

Bourg seen from the port – foreground building used to be for doing laundry

This city was once, centuries ago, a stopover on the timber route, when inland and upriver trees from the forests of Cantal—between Bordeaux and Lyon—were shipped downriver for making leather or barrels or the supports for coal mines in boats called gabares. After delivering their wares, these boats were axed up as firewood or fencing and the pilots jogged back upstream to their homes to repeat the process. The Dordogne River was only navigable for a few weeks each year, and during then hundreds of boats floated downstream to deliver their sellable goods.

Today Bourg is quiet and peaceful and soaked with history, whether of medieval carpenters building catapults for castle invasions or of passing boats with quarried sandstone moving from Saint-Émilion to Bordeaux to provide construction materials for that city’s cathedrals and châteaux.

The town includes a covered structure that was was 18th century water pool, a communal laundry point. There is also a beautiful arch, made both from natural limestone and masonry that covers a sloping pedestrian walkway. From the upper ramparts (below tree cover and the shadow of a church spire) is a strategic view of the great, glissading, often log-bloated waters of the Dordogne River miles south of where it merges with the Garonne.

Inside the cool, peaceful and ancient public laundry house in Bourg

You stop in Bourg. You don’t stay in Bourg. Beside the attractive port and lovely ivy and flower coated walls there’s little to do except visit the glass walled wine bar—Maison du Vin—when it’s open on Fridays and Saturdays in summer, or the annual Nuit de Terroir food, drink and music festival organized each August by the region’s young winemakers on lovely castle grounds.

Still, the frequently blazing blue sky and curious tinny tinkle of church chimes, combined with the swearing of a harsh fisherwoman by the waterfront, and the chance to circumnavigate this pleasant petit ville on foot past water vistas make visiting Bourg well worthwhile.

The inclined and one-way main street, with tea shops, wine stores, a boucherie and several closed boulangeries (bakeries) is both attractive and somehow sad, a reminder of an era when there were more prosperous locals, and fewer indigents on the dole (au chômage) littering local cafes. During the past two centuries the population of Bourg plummeted by one third. Somehow, this town makes me lonely. Yet, friends who moved here from Australia or Bordeaux city tell of gregarious locals making them feel welcome, and of their appreciating quietness and calming vistas.

Flowers in Bourg

Several pedestrian and driving conduits link Bourg’s upper town and its lower port—stone channels, chutes and staircases. This town is a historical gem. But it is the hinterland of Bourg more than the city, the swelling hills and steeples and lost roads and sprawling vineyards and wine producers across miles of this ancient locale that give not only grace but economic agricultural abundance to this region.

I stopped at the winemakers’ crêperie restaurant near the water, avoiding the larger chain restaurant slightly uphill (a garish concoction of electronic menus and TV screens, food that appears to have been defrosted via microwave and staff who, at best, are disinterested). It was 11.43 a.m. The crêperie owners, a couple biding time on their porch, told me, after inquiry, that they would open at noon—‘midi’—and obviously cared not a fig about possibly seating me earlier to offer a pre-lunch aperitif.

Across the street I peeked inside a refurbished restaurant with a menu that included roasted goat cheese salad, moules (mussels) and dessert. I sat, ordered a glass of white wine from Château Mercier and food. Splendid.

Roasted goat cheese salad, moules and Sauvignon Blanc wine

After lunch I moved toward Blaye along the lower shoreline routes, Pain de Sucre (sugarloaf) followed by the Corniche de la Gironde. Here cute stone homes are separated from waterside gardens, transected by an old and thin rolling road. A woman in a rainbow red dress set glasses and cutlery on a garden table for lunch in proximity to where summer apartments—gîtes—are rented. Further ahead and behind the vines of Château Tayac, a stone roadside porch overlooks the estuary waters toward Bec d’Ambès, the point where the Garonne and Dordogne rivers merge and mate to form their mightier offspring, the Gironde Estuary, which flows north to the Atlantic Ocean. On this tongue of land, unfortunately, rest an ugly set of refinery tanks that should to be relocated.

This is close to where I live in the city of Blaye. I used to drive here and go running because the energy of open space and waterside vineyards and the confluence of rivers always churns out optimism and upwelling, a countryside certainty that just as seasons follow each other and plants bud once again after winter, life will continue regardless of financial or emotional worries, and irrespective of whether we hunt for certainty in a universe where that is elusive and slippery at best, and likely nonexistent.

Next, I passed the glinting church of Bayon—a gorgeous cluster of sandstone shapes: block, cylinder, column. Originally built in the 12th century and again a few centuries ago, the structure is a visual beacon of form and finesse, conspicuously seen from across vineyards.

The sweet little church of Bayon

Again, a thought arrived: what is a confluence but birth? A reminder that parents die and then only offspring exist. Just as rivers merge and parents mate, both produce downstream, or future, manifestations, whether estuary or child. And an estuary eventually flows into the ocean—itself a broad and almost boundless recipient of every confluence on earth, a possible metaphor for afterlife where the outpourings of every terrestrial river on this planet coalesce and mingle and one day evaporate to precipitate and transform, again, to some new and gurgling stream.

Along the corniche run gleaming sandstone houses with painted pastel shutters on a band, a belt, a strip of human habitation between estuary waters and nearby cliffs. This is a breezy land where residents tend to tend gardens, take walks in local hills and sometimes ride small skiffs in the flowing estuary.

My heavy (remember: bulletproof) silver Mercedes passed through villages and locations with gendered names: (masculine) Le Rigalet, (feminine) La Mayanne and sexless Marmisson. Here water splashed over reed covered rocks and a few marine engines throttled and I passed the still masted, though rusted withering shipwreck of the Frisco—scuttled in August of 1944 two days before Bordeaux was liberated from German occupation. During the war, these waters were riddled with mines to prevent invasion of of occupied Bordeaux city.

The ‘Frisco’ – scuttled in August, 1944

This journey takes place through both the ‘left bank’ and ‘right bank’ of the Gironde Estuary. Basically, left means west, and right means east, while the Gironde Estuary originates from two tributary upstream rivers mentioned earlier—Dordogne to the east and Garonne to the south (and, eventually, also east).

But what is an ‘estuary?’

It’s basically where a river meets the ocean, a combination of freshwater—from rivers—and saltwater—pushed upstream by oceanic tides. The constant smashing of river and tide churns up the water bed, spewing out nutrients on which marine life thrives.

The Gironde is the largest estuary in Europe, and the impact of salty tides is felt 100 miles (160 kilometers) upriver from the Atlantic Ocean. The estuary, by definition, runs from the mouth of the river at the Atlantic southward to the Bec d’Ambes (remember? Dotted with petrochemical storage tanks), the point where the Garonne and Dordogne meet.

This estuary is 47 miles (75 kilometers) long and 7.5 miles (12.5 kilometers) at its widest point. When you consider its total area, the waters of the Gironde at any moment form a region larger in area than Malta or Barbados, Guam or Andorra, or the Isle of Man and pour a quarter million gallons (one million liters) of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean every second.

Vines and landscape of rural Bourg

Twenty thousand years ago, when much of Europe was coated in ice, the ocean was hundreds of feet lower and this river valley held a mere trickle. But the climate warmed (gosh, without even fossil fuels or highways), waters rose and because Bordeaux city needed defending, forts such as Bourg and Blaye were crafted by stonemasons on limestone cliffs.

The Gironde has been a navigation and trade route since the Bronze Age, when copper flowed in from Spain, tin from Cornwall, and—later—wheat and flour were exported to Rome. From Spain came ham and olives and from northern Europe leather, wool, meat and dried fish, all gleefully traded for hogsheads of wine. But the wedding in 1152 of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henri Plantagenet, future King of England, drove a boom in trade as wine began flowing to England with accelerated gusto. True, it stopped flowing for awhile after the 1453 Battle of Castillon (which ended the 100 Years War), after which the French booted the English out.

The lands around these waters buzz with life. Today the estuary’s marshy environment is a place of cattle herons, white storks, black kites and coots. Here are threatened pond turtles, as well as deer and wild boar. These waters run below a migratory axis for 130 birds species who alight to feed and mate and rest.

Blaye

Blaye, a city of some 4,000 residents is where I live. It has gained recent popularity, although was historically always strategic, being an estuary crossing as well as located along the route of commerce flowing from the interior of France and Bordeaux City (via the Garonne River) to the Atlantic seaboard as well as the world. It’s also a wine haven (both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, while visiting Bordeaux, visited Blaye by boat) and a strategic military point (every king of France, except one, has visited).

Blaye at high tide

Between 1685 and 1689, Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban—engineer, architect and author—oversaw the construction of the Citadelle of Blaye, a defense fortification that incorporates earlier forts and castles from as far back as the eight-century into its design. Built on 94 acres (38 hectares) that incorporated a village, this handsome lithic defense perches on a cliff above the estuary. It was a garrison for soldiers as well as a strategic canon perch (along with Fort Médoc on the opposite bank, and Fort Pate, on an island in the estuary) to thwart potential invasions of Bordeaux city to the south. The entire complex is now a UNESCO heritage site. Today it includes stores and restaurants, and holds fairs related to gardening, antiques, classic cars and wine.

Blaye (pronounced blYE), a town exposed to tides, is itself tidal with rhythms of change—whether quiet dark months of winter interspersed with bright summery crowds flooding to the international horse jumping days in July, or restaurants closing and being replaced, or the September grape harvest, a pinnacle moment, being matched by the equally buoyant wine tastings of April. There are tides of population movements: visitors, moving residents, cruise ship tourists gaping in shock at seeing lampreys and eels and horse meat for sale at the market.

View from the Citadelle to the city of Blaye

There are free concerts on Sundays in August within the Citadelle, before magnificent views of the estuary—packed with faces both never seen and familiar. French is the rooted language in Blaye and to live here, you need some facility with that tongue, which means you actually need to grow roots to be a part of the fabric, the cultural warp and weft, of this locale.

What was once a significant medieval garrison (Blaye comes from Blavia, meaning the ‘Road to War’) as well as a hub of commerce now relies economically on wine production, jobs at the up-estuary electricity power station and tourism.

It’s easy to be at ease here. Within minutes from the front door I can stroll to the post office, bank, dry cleaners, boulangerie, fromagerie (cheese store), fruit shop, newsagents, bookstore, barber, coffee store, wine store and a half dozen restaurants. The vast inner open space and parkland of the Citadelle are a seven minute walk away and within three minutes I can step onto a ferry to the Médoc or wheel a bicycle onto a path leading eight miles (14 kilometers) northward through vines.

From the Citadelle, the view of the mile long Estuary and its islands Paté and Patiras is uncluttered and inspirational. This estuary, according to a local artist, is ‘the Mississippi Of France,’ and the right bank (here) includes amazing wine values. Which is why I’m publishing this little travel story on my blog instead of on Forbes: I don’t want anonymous hoards to show up and start unpacking.

2016 Château Puynard at La Cave wine store in Blaye

There are ample festivals throughout the year for food and music and wine. Youth adore the annual Black Bass Festival, though fortunately it’s not held in Blaye, but somewhere out in the bush. If you play one song on stage there, you’ll acquire serious cred and likely be guaranteed a bevvy of groupies for life. I’ve never gone, never will. Not my scene. This year the listed bands include Hangman’s Chair, Psychotic Monks, Swedish Death Candy, Cannibale and I am Stramgram. Not exactly my playlist. But, hey, enjoy.

Here are moonrises and views of the estuary, inexpensive delicious wines, local seafood that sells for a fraction of most city prices, ample festivals and sound and resonant country roads to travel on by bicycle or vehicle or motorbike and enjoy peace, quietude, cafes with shots of espresso along fecund, burgeoning, lively and blossoming acres of fertile countryside. Here you live, love, spare a moment to reflect on life, starlight, long meals and ample camaraderie over a bottle of Etalon Rouge or Peybonhomme Les Tours wines to keep your soul ticking, satiated, insulated from mainstream politics and juiced up with the sight of phases of the moon.

If I could bottle and sell this experience, I’d make enough to retire here.

Thanks for checking in. Recent Forbes articles include pieces about Ruchè grapes in Piedmont, Italy, social entrepreneurs gathering at Windsor Castle and a lively new book about cocktails.

 

%d bloggers like this: