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Wednesday, May 16th – Day 12, Pugnac, Bordeaux, Saint Emilion

It was a stupidly early start for us (well, not for E and W) because we were off on an excursion into the vineyards of Bordeaux. Our restaurant owning friends at Rascills had recommended that we take a long look at Winerist for getting the most out of trips to wine growing areas, and finding ourselves in Bordeaux, I’d taken them at their word and had a look to see what trips were available. We settled on their full day trip to Pomerol and Saint Emilion, through Ophorus, at a cost of €130 per person. The trip would involve no more than 8 guests, in an air-conditioned minibus, with our own dedicated tour guide, and we would get to visit three vineyards, with tastings at each, and would also visit the medieval town of Saint Emilion, where we would have time for lunch. The pre-sales service was most impressive, with answers to my questions about the difficulty of getting into Bordeaux during the early morning rush provided rapidly and accurately (as it turned out).

The bad news was we needed to be at the Bordeaux Tourist Information office at 12 Cours du 30 Juillet by 09:30. We set the alarm for 06:00 and headed out onto the road by 07:30. This meant we were at the rendezvous in good time. It meant we had time to buy a new batch of Bordeux City Passes, and then use them to book a dinner cruise on the Garonne at a 25% discount. With time to spare, we nipped next door into Baillardran for a coffee and a canele, and then congregated outside to wait for our driver to come and collect us.

By 09:30 we were in the bus, and Hugo, our guide, was filling us in on the Bordeaux appelation and how it all works, including the information that Saint Emilion contains around 850 chateaux, a chateau basically being any building on a piece of land that has vines on it, no matter how tiny said building is; it could even be a garden shed and still be a chateau. Hugo was incredibly knowledgeable, spoke excellent English, and was more than happy to engage with us all. We were quickly out of town and heading towards Saint Emilion. Our first stop was one of the Pomerol vineyards, Chateau du Tailhas, where the charming Aurelie showed us round the vines, explaining the way in which grapes grow and develop, and how they are trained and pruned and harvested, and speaking entertainingly and amusingly about the wines as if they are particularly awkward children who need to be pushed to leave home.

She was happy to answer any questions any of us had, discussing the ways in which they try to protect the crop, and explaining that the massively empty field next to where we were standing was about to be replanted with new grapes, the old vines that were there previously having been grubbed out after frost damage to the vines in 2017 meant they really would not have had much to harvest. Their intention to replace the vines “some time in the future” became “might as well do it now”.

We were then guided into the chai (where we learned about the tanks that are used for the initial vinification, which at du Tailhas are a choice of stainless steel or concrete, both of which have their pros and cons when it comes to maintaining a steady temperature.

We would hear a lot about these tanks during the day, with opinion varying on which is best. The one thing all three of the vintners we visited agreed upon was that French oak barrels were the way to go. On how long they should be used for, it again varied, between one and two years, but again there was consensus on who they should come from, a ll three places using the same three coopers.

Finally we returned to the house where several wines were set out ready to be tasted. We’d been told that if your were after the best possible Bordeaux wines, you could do worse than to rely on the rule of 5/10, with 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2015 being particularly good.

We tasted several wines and Lynne and I agreed that we particularly liked the 2008 because we are not patient people, and do not want to wait for t he 2015 to be ready to drink. Laying down wines for a decade or more is fine when you’re in your 20s or 30s, but not when you’re pushing 60 in my opinion. I want wines that will be good to drink now. We also liked the 2008 because it had developed a splendidly jammy flavour, the fruit dense and lovely, and so we asked about returning to the chateau in two days time, with the car. We really didn’t want to have to drag a couple of cases back with us via public transport and a boat cruise. That would be fine, Aurelie said, though I’m not sure she expected to see us again.

From there we were back in the minibus, with Hugo explaining how the classifications for Saint Emilion wines work, with only four chat eau making it to the top level (but also how there are apparently certain things they need to have that have absolutely no bearing on the wine and its quality, such as private parking for the security of VIP guests!), and 14 in the second level. It’s clearly a process that is rife with controversy, which is understandable when you see the prices the top four get away with charging for their wines (€2000 a bottle in some instances, more as the wines mature). We were utterly stunned by this price list – and yes that does say €15,950 for a single bottle of 1945 Chateau Mouton-Rothschild.

Before there was more wine, however, we were treated to a brief but informative tour of Saint Emilion, which is a glorious place, another UNESCO W orld Heritage site, and as a result an obvious tourist trap. We started in the Collegiate church, formerly a monastery church, now the parish church for Saint Emilion. It has something of an identity crisis going on, one end of it being solidly Gothic in style, the other Romanesque, as if someone had bolted two different churches together.

The cloisters are beautiful and contained some fascinating art works.

The main piece seemed to be a depiction of the apocalypse in a serious of panels, some monochrome, some colou r, which wasn’t exactly cheerful, but was rather wonderful. I particularly liked the almost medieval style of the work, though I had no idea who the artist was or why it was currently sitting in the cloisters. I have since found this so I have a better idea. I would say that if you’re in the area, it’s definitely worth a look, though you’ll need to get a move on as it’s only there until July 2018.

We then walked to the upper part of the town, and the bell tower of the monolithic church where the original Saint Emilion had his hermitage. The were super views of the whole town from up there, though the weight of the tower is apparently now causing problems for the church which is basically a cave carved out of the rock be low it, which means that visitor numbers have to be limited.

We did also briefly look at the Hostellerie de Plaisance, which looks like our sort of place, though the prices made our eyes water a bit! It has a 2 Michelin starred restaurant, but we decided not to go there for lunch… Instead, we asked Hugo where he would recommend for good, regional cooking, and he made two suggestions, the one we took being the very pleasant Lard et Bouchon, described by the Tourist Information website as a “restaurant and wine bar is located in Chateau Larmande‘s former cellars” where it “enjoys the perfect air conditions of a 14th century cellar”. It was a hot day outside so the cool cellar was very welcoming, as were the fr ont of house staff.

We ordered aperitifs (of course we did) and had a study of the menu du jour, deciding that once more we would not have starters because we’d just end up falling asleep in the afternoon. Armed with our new found knowledge, we also tackled the wine list from a much more informed position, ordering a half bottle of 1999 Chateau Cadet-Bon, which we thoroughly enjoyed.

It went well with the veal sweetbreads, which were well cooked and served with mashed and croquette potatoes, and a small handful of seasonal vegetables.

Lynne had a confit duck leg, with the same accompaniments.

It wasn’t a stunning lunch, but it was solidly well cooked, well presented and we were happy at the end of it. We didn’t have dessert, we didn’t even have cheese, we just walked back through the winding steep streets to rejoin the party. What the others did, we have no idea – they were pretty uncommunicative, the Japanese couple because only the wife s poke any English, the American couple I have no idea why, though they did open up a bit later in the day after a few more wine tastings.

We went next to Chateau Guadet, which is actually in the town itself (with its vineyards a stone’s throw from the front door). Here we were again shown the chai, with those same oak barrels, but here only the concrete tanks, not stainless steel. The owner’s son, Vincent-Petrus Lignac, showed us round, and then took us to see the underground tunnels they use to store the wine. Apparently they put aside 1000 bottles of every vintage for the family’s own use and as a sort of wine archive, and have done since 1901. It’s naturally cool down there, but to keep it that way visits can only last for four minutes. It’s also down a very steep stairway which you need to negotiate sideways or backwards, rather like being on a ship. As a result, the Japanese couple opted to stay in the garden and wait for us, as he was not especially young or mobile.

No photos were allowed so I can’t show you the cellars, but the garden is very peaceful and lovely, and the Japanese couple were most amused when we popped up at the other end to where we’d vanished underground before.

Guy also talked about the fact that they, like m any other wine makers in the appellation, have moved first to organic production, and then to bio-dynamic planting and growing. There is a suggestion that in the next decade or so that will be the case with all the growers in the region. I find it hard to be convinced by the who bio-dynamic thing, but the people we spoke to all seemed utterly certain that there were benefits to it, and I suppose it’s just a way of taking working with the seasons a step further. Anyway, after that we walked to one of the many, many wine shops in the town, with Guy then taking us through a tasting of several of his and other people’s wines.

We settled on a case of 2015 Chateau Martet Réserve de la Famille AOC Sainte-Foy Bordeaux, unusually made from 100% Merlot grapes. In addition we picked up a case of dessert wines, and were able to arrange to have it all shipped back via UPS. That was a far better option than having to carry it back to the bus up the steep, slippery paths from the town square. It was hard enough hauling ourselves up there.

Back in the bus, we had one more chateau to visit, and one more tasting to look forward to. This time we went to Chateau Grangey, which has as long a history as the other chateaux, but not in its current form. Franck and Elodie Mio are the young couple now running the place, his parents and grandparents having had other jobs rather than being full time winemakers. The result was that the grapes were sent to the cooperative cellar of the Union des Producers o f Saint-Emilion. That all changed in 2009, when Franck took over, and starting in 2012, carried out a complete restructuring of the winery and all the buildings. He and Elodie made their first wine on site in October 2013, and we tasted that, plus some of the other wines that have been produced since. First, however, we needed to see the winery itself, and again there was agreement on the French oak barrels, and not on the tanks (stainless steel, computer-monitored and controlled here).

I found the flatness of the vineyards especially fascinating after our Mosel trip last year. It always seems odd to me that such different terrain can be used to grow what is essentially the same t hing.

The tasting was good, and again we made a note to come back on the Friday, having checked that they would be open to sell us some wine then. Visit over, Hugo rounded us up and took us back to Bordeaux, dropping us off tired but happy at the Tourist Information office with one last nugget of information to keep us entertained. Apparently there is a good market for any wine that doesn’t make the grade, with much of it being added to the 2% that goes to the government for the use of the French armed forces. The extra is sold for cosmetic use, most of it to Caudalie!

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006CHATEAU DE TAILHAS 008LARD & BOUCHON 009LARD & BOUCHON 007CHATEAU GUADET 009SAINT EMILION 030SAINT EMILION 080SAINT EMILION 069SAINT EMILION 008CHATEAU GUADET 011SAINT EMILION 015 Travel/Food 2018 – French Road Trip, Day 12, Pugnac, Bordeaux, Saint Emilion Wednesday, May 16th – Day 12, Pugnac, Bordeaux, Saint Emilion It was a stupidly early start for us (well, not for E and W) because we were off on an excursion into the vineyards of Bordeaux.

Tuesday, May 15th – Day 11, Pugnac, Blaye

And so, up and about to find the sun shining, so I took a short-ish run into and through Pugnac (it’s not very big), establishing that it has a very attractive main street, is surrounded by vines, and there’s a small brasserie just beyond the mairie. Also, the place appears to be served by hundreds of school buses, many of them empty!

I was back before the rest of the house was stirring, so had the opportunity to shower and the sit in the sunshine while I waited for signs of life from around me.

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Breakfast out of the way, we decided that we would head off to Blaye, taking R with us. W and E had work to get through, and once they’d done that, they wanted to simply vegetate by the pool, especia lly if the weather forecast turned out to be true. We’d figure out a dinner plan later in the day. And so, having unpacked the car and reconstructed the interior, we first drove into Bordeaux to figure out where the park and ride car park at our end of the A tramline, because we knew we’d be wanting to use it the following day.

After circling round Carbon Blanc and finding a different park and ride to the one we wanted, but that would do perfectly well, we headed off up the road to the town of Blaye. It’s a town with quite some history, including a claim, possibly apocryphal, that the hero Roland was buried in its basilica. As an enthusiast for Carolingian history, I’d like to think it’s true.

We parked up at the Citadelle and started nosing around. It’s vast, mightily impressive, and the river stretches as far as the eye can see in both directions. There seem to have been fortifications on the site for some considerable time, the Vauban defences being simply the latest iteration.

As with so many places we visited, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it thoroughly deserves to be. You’d have expected it to be heaving with tourists, but it was actually pretty quiet, apart from a coach tour, and they were having lunch when we arrived, and were then scooped up and shepherded back to their bus, thus meaning we had very little contact wi th them.

It’s one of three forts that were built to defend Bordeaux, the other two being Fort Paté – yes, really – and Fort Médoc. It has an interesting history, and is rather lovely, with its views along the river, the swifts nesting just below the ramparts that swoop and shriek around the river bank, snatching up insects, the wildflowers on the embankments. It even has the ruins of the triangular medieval castle still standing in the grounds.

Af ter we’d roamed along to the riverside, and admired the vast vistas from the walls, we decided all that history and scenery was making us hungry and thirsty, as it is wont to do.

The small square near the ramparts, the Place d’Armes, contains two restaurants, and we made for the Hotel-Restaurant la Citadelle on the grounds that it had the views. Oh boy, did it have the views. The service was a bit over-stretched though that was because the coach party had just sat down to their pre-ordered lunch, and that pretty much absorbed all of the attention available for a while.

It gave us time to think though, and to enjoy the tapenade that they had brought us along with our aperitifs. As we knew we’d be out in the evening, we again went for a main course each, with R on the stone bass again.

There was an asparagus dish for Lynne, though it’s fair to say she found it rather woody. The crab that accompanied it was goo t hough, especially the croquette.

I ordered the lamprey, on the grounds that it’s apparently a local speciality, and I’d never had it before. I expected it to be somewhat eel-like in texture and taste, but it was much milder, and quite a bit looser-fleshed. The mashed potato with it was a good vessel for soaking up the sauce Bordelaise, which was very good. I do not, however, think I’ll be succumbing to a surfeit of lampreys any time soon! It was perfectly OK, but nothing more.

What was very good was the bottle of wine we drank, a Chateau Montfollet cuvee Pegase, an AOC Blaye Cotes de Bordeaux, and that rare thing, a Bordeaux wine made entirely out of Malbec grapes. It’s clearly a labour of love for the wine maker, and my god it’s a strong wine, at 14.5%. I’d be more than happy to lay hands on some of this, but the chateau was hard to locate online, so we didn’t manage to find anything about them until it was too late.

To mop up the wine afterwards, we shared a single portion of cheese between the three of us.

By then it was time to move on if we wanted to see anything else of the town, and we almost certainly did. We started with the cloisters round the back of the church, where there was a slightly eccentric art exhibition by Catherine Libmann in full swing.

From there we headed across to the tiny Tourist Information office, which is in the old barracks.

The citadel museum was open, though the lady in charge had to unlock everything for us. We seemed to be the only visitors, so we were allowed to wander round at will in return for our €4 entry fee. For a very small museum, it pretty much covered the full history of the citadel, and the surrounding area, starting with the Romans and working on from there.

Of particular interest to me was the officers’ house, which had been turned into a bakery and during WWII was run by the Germans.

Anyway, after that we moved the car down to the modern town, where I was pleased to find a nice cool tree to park under. A wander around the side streets was interesting, especially when we realised there is art everywhere, some of it quite strange.

A lot of the streets are similar to those in Bordeaux.

There are also some fabulous views of the citadel.

It was getting late, so we found a wine shop, and although the proprietor didn’t seem very interested in selling to us, we rounded up a couple more cases of wine, and then loaded up the car and headed for the house.

Once back at the ranch we found the others had spent the day by the pool. I foolishly got into my swimming kit and got into the pool, to the amusement of all concerned as the cold water hit me. Actually it was very refreshing, so I swam a dozen lengths, then floated for a while, before heading indoors to get showered.

After that I sorted out our plans for the morning, and then we had a conference about what we should do with the evening. We decided we’d head towards Pugnac in search of dinner, as W and E had had a very nice and very cheap lunch in a small bistro there earlier. If nothing else was open, they were quite happy to go back there for dinner. The walk in was very pleasant.

And I was right about the attractive build ings.

When we got there, la Plancha Gourmande was busy, but they were happy to seat us, and supply kirs so we could relax and think about what we wanted to eat.

Some super little cheesy tartlets appeared on the table as we considered our options. They were a mix of various fillings, including salmon, and broccoli and they were very moreish. It was very hard to stop eating them once you started.

Lynne ordered foie gras, and I ordered the melon soup with bacon, which we shared. They were good, solid examples of the sort of mid-range cooking we just don’t get in the UK, and thoroughly enjoyable (and yes, everything is better with bacon).

OK, the melon wasn’t spectacularly pretty, but it was tasty.

For mains, there was the now almost inevitable stone bass, this time with asparagus, and polenta.

I had the piece of beef, cooked rare, with seared asparagus, and more of the polenta, which seemed to have been pan-fried. There was a small amount of nicely dressed salad leaves, and that was it. Simplicity itself.

Lynne went for the burger, something neither of us would ever dream of doing in the UK, for fear of what sort of appalling hockey puck of poor quality meat that might end up on your plate. This was good. The accompaniments were the same for all the mains, probably on the grounds that the place was being staffed by two people, with the chef Vincent in the kitchen, and a solitary waitress out the front. They were doing a great job, especially as they’d been open just over one week.

Keeping it simple meant there were not many choices, and we probably didn’t need a dessert, but the idea of a popcorn creme brulee was too hard to resist.

And yes, it really did taste of popcorn! Afterwards, I asked him how he’d done it. The answer was a very simple one; he’d used Monin popcorn syrup. Not impressed? You should be. After all, we didn’t think of it, and he did. And the bill after a meal for five people, with wine and aperitifs? Just shy of €200. That’s what I call a bargain.

We walked back to the house, stuffed with food and happy.

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ITADELLE 025BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 007BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 069BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 004BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 029LA PLANCHA, PUGNAC, ASPARGUS AND PIECE OF BEEF 007BLAYE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM 042PUGNAC 003BLAYE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM 012BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 045PUGNAC 007LA PLANCHA, PUGNAC, POPCORN CREME BRULEE 008BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 048BLAYE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM 019BLAYE 016PUGNAC 001BLAYE 011BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 002BLAYE ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM 006BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 015BLAYE ARCH

AEOLOGICAL MUSEUM 005BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 074BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 086BLAYE 015BLAYE 031BLAYE, THE CITADELLE 040BLAYE ARCH

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Monday, May 14th – Day 10, Pau, Gan, Aydie, Pugnac

A serious repack of the car was needed, so I spent some time in the underground car park moving stuff about and reconfiguring the seats. This was essential if we wanted to get any wine into the boot, as well as if we wanted to fit R into the car (his luggage was going with E and W as we couldn’t get both into either car). Lynne and I then headed into Monoprix to buy supplies for the week as we would still be self catering.

Finally, round about 11am we were ready for the off. The plan, if plan there was, was to go to les Caves de Gan over in Gan, a small town around 8km from Pau, to buy some wine and, if we got there early enough, to go on their cellar tour. We didn’t get there early enough, so we tasted some wines, made a note of the ones we were interested in, and bought a bottle of each to drink during the week and check our opinions were valid. We also checked that they would be open the following Monday so we could swing by on our way home and stock up.

From there we walked into the town centre and found a couple of places open that could offer lunch. We opted for the one that looked nicer from the outside, the Bistrot de l’Ossau. It was quite busy and seemed to be popular with locals. We were soon sure we’d made the right choice, and glad we’d not ordered more than one course. I finally went for the meal I most associate with these parts, a confit de Canard, with fried potatoes. I’ve been known to eat this almost daily, but on this trip somehow it hadn’t happened.

It was as I’d hope, sticky duck fat, crispy skin and tender fibres of meat. Good stuff! Lynne ordered one of the “salads”, the Landaise, which seemed to contain as much meat and cheese as could be pack ed in by anyone determined to overdo the protein.

None of the other “plates” were any smaller, and so it was slightly surprising when we all ordered dessert or cheese afterwards. I seemed to be on some sort of roll with the local cheese and so had a portion for the third day in a row.

At least I didn’t foolhardily take on one of the biggest creme brulees I’ve ever seen. That act of insanity fell to Lynne.

And R went for an apple tart… I think it was rather larger than he’d expected.

Lunch over with, we planned to drive up to Bordeaux by way of the Madiran wine region, in particular calling in at one of the chateaux provided it was open, with Chateau Aydie being the one I had in mind. Aydie is tiny, with less than 140 inhabitants, and it’s down some interestingly convoluted lanes, in some beautiful countryside, and it took us a while to actually get there. Their visitor centre is on the other side of the road to the chateau and when we arrived there was no one around apart fro m a woman obliviously vacuuming, and a tick-infested but very friendly cat!

Eventually we managed to alert the lady with the vacuum without startling her, and she went to find someone to help us. She also d e-ticked the cat while she was there. It didn’t seem too bothered either way.

Wines were opened, and tried, and tested, and discussed and eventually we settled on three cases. The first six reds, the Château Aydie is, as Madiran always is, made from the Tannat grape, harvested by hand and aged in oak for 12-15 months, before being bottled after 20 months. The technical sheet says it “can very easily be kept for 7 to 10 years” and that it will go well with “game (pigeon stew, boar stew), duck breast, red meats (grilled rib goat cheeses of beef) or Pyreneen goat cheeses.” We&r squo;ll see about the 10 years…

Second up were six bottles of Odé Aydie, again a Madiran and thus made from hand harvested Tannat grapes. These also get 12 to 15 months in oak, and then ar e bottled at 20 months. It is best “served not only with traditional French dishes, but also variations in contemporary cuisine: leg of lamb, beef Burgundy.”

The white was a dessert wine, six bottles of Château Aydie Moelleux, a Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, made from Petit Manseng grapes, which are late-harvested (last sorting) around 1st November. A small amount of Gros Manseng is added to give a touch of complexity, and is vinified and aged in oak and in thorntree barrels for 10 months, after which it is bottled. They recommend it be drunk cold at 8° to 10°C, as an aperitif, with foie gras, cheese, and the traditional spit-baked cake of the Pyrenees, the gâteau à la broche.

And just as we’d decided on 18 bottles to take away, the man we were dealing with pulled out a liquer they produc e which they call Maydie. This is made exclusively with hand-harvested