May 17, Road Trip

Today was an utterly delightful day. It was the first time I’d gotten out into the countryside since I left Eugene, and it was beautiful and peaceful. Now, details:

Breakfast: see above.

We started with a lecture by Bertrand Lafon on the history of Bordeaux wines. Mr. Lafon is a wine merchant/broker, and extremely knowledgeable about all aspects of the wine industry. Every two years, Bordeaux hosts a huge wine exposition to encourage buyers from all over the world. For a while in the 90s, they held similar expositions at US cities on alternate years, but the buyers complained they weren’t nearly as spoiled and feted in the US as in Bordeaux, and they would rather meet in France. Now, instead, every other year the expo is held in Hong Kong to tap into the huge Asian market. I hadn’t realized that French vineyards cannot be irrigated. That is seen as messing unnecessarily with the terroir, the combination of soil, climate, and know-how that is the essence of French wines. Mr. Lafon spoke very good English, with a delightful accent. The fact that his shoes did not match his suit only made him look more fashionable, and also that he kept his sunglasses perched atop his head througout the 1.5 hour lecture, made him even more somehow French.

Lecture done, we piled aboard an appropriately Burgundy-colored bus, and headed out into the gorgeous countryside. The first stop was Chateau Roquefort. The chateau is owned by a lingerie business owner who only spends about a week a year there. How blatantly unfair. I was ready to move in toute de suite.

The vintner, Samuel, was extraordinarily helpful and interesting. He started out by showing us some neolithic stone arrangements created on the estate by the first inhabitatants. There hasn’t been much, if any, archeological work done with it, but it fit perfectly with the feeling of ancient, gracious plenty and beauty that surrounds the winery. We then visited the dove cote, built in 1751. It was no longer used to raise pigeons, but still had some of the baskets on the wall that the pigeons used to make their nests. A large, intricate rotating latter could be climbed to retrieve eggs, or squabs, the large, delicious young pigeons not yet able to fly, for cooking. The outer ring at the top of the structure prevented rats from reaching the entryways at the top of the cote. It was considerably cooler inside the cote than outside, which also was a feature of the dove cote at Manoir Pelloniere in Normandy.

Then there was part of a defense tower that the English king ordered built in 1294. I found this very thrilling, as that means the order would have come from King Edward I, one of the most impressive English kings. Teddy and I sneaked away later for a closer look and some photos of the ruin. It looked like the cover illustration of a Gothic novel. How appropriate.

The buildings on the estate had been constructed over many centuries, but they all were beautifully maintained and the overall appearance was very harmonious. Hence ALL the photos. I even spotted a Zepherine Drouhin rose climbing on an ancient wall. It made me miss mine, which must be blooming at home by now.

They served us lunch there. Of course they would. And gave us wines to drink, with delicate goblets and china dishes. The photo is just of the lunch dishes, still covered. There was what my old romances would call a “cold collation,” an assortment of make-ahead salads. There was a green pesto-looking thing, topped with almost-raw bacon, that caused the most interest, and speculation about its contents. Turned out it was a risotto, with spinach and eggs, but had the consistency of a custard. It was also delicious. There were some greens, slices of pork loin, a delicious aoili for the pork, a fish salad, and, of course, baguettes. We ate every bite, including the sweet rice loaf and creme custards for dessert. Samuel led us through the various processes involved in making wine. I found the barrels most impressive. Made of fine-grained French oak, they cost 600 Euros each, and are only used for three years, before being sold for much less, perhaps as flower pots.

After lunch, we headed off to the amazing little town of St. Emilion, truly in the heart of great French wine country. The town is a medieval marvel, and the guidebook said its archetectual heritage is without equal. D’accord. Antoine, the bus driver dropped us off at the top of the town, and drove around the town to pick us up an hour later at the bottom. The streets are way too narrow and steep, sometimes just steps, for cars to drive through the town. That meant it was just pedestrians, which was very nice. I loved St. Emilion! I climbed to the top of the king’s tower, a harrowing journey for the acrophobic. I tried to take a photo from the top, but it was difficult with both eyes closed and both hands clutching the railing. There was a fabulous ancient church with a beautiful, peaceful cloister. There was another church, troglodyte, carved right into the rock. One had to see it with a guide, and we just didn’t have time. Darn it. Lots of wine shops. It’s very much a tourist town, in the best possible way, and I suspect they’re hurting until the summer tourist show up again. One tour member bought a lovely linen jacket and scarf. Tres chic.

The second winery we stopped at for tasting was Chateau Pressac, which was just as beautiful, in a slightly different way, than Chateau Roquefort. The Chateau was built in the 13th Century, and remodeled in the 19th. I especially loved the bright paint colors used. Mattieu, the vintner, told us that, following the defeat of the English in the Battle of Castillon in 1453, the treaty ending the Hundred Years’ War was signed at Pressac. Fabulous. There were also three resident dogs at Pressac, who seemed to have no concept of guardianship, but greeted us all very happily.

Matthieu also walked us through the wine making process. I got the feeling Pressac is just a little step or two away from being recognized as having extremely important wines, and that they’re trying hard to close the gap. They gave us wine for tastings at both wineries, and some tour members had strong opinions about the wines and eagerly discussed their preferences. I thought they all were marvelous.

A ride home, dehydrated and longing for one’s private bathroom.  Dinner was regrettable. I refuse to talk about it. But it was a lovely day overall, and I had a wonderful time. Leaving Bordeaux tomorrow, and I would be sorry except that I expect even more pleasures and adventures on the route.


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