A Winelover’s Tour de France ( 5 )

I met a lot of people in France. I even encountered myself. (James
Bede took his leave of Nantes by train on an overcast Saturday
morning, bound for Bordeaux in the southwest. It was a journey that
was to take some four hours through a countryside that is rather
barren and unappealing. Once underway he found himself in the
company of a young Frenchman, Henri, who was travelling to
Bordeaux for a few days to be with his girlfriend. He was a clean-cut,
strongly built man in his early thirties, who worked in the electronics
industry and enjoyed windsurfing and cycling in his spare time. Henri
was a charming travelling companion, and Bede very much enjoyed
talking with him and sharing a beer and a light snack in the dining car.
Before leaving Nantes he had gone to the particular trouble of
checking in his bicycle as accompanying baggage at the gare so that it
would be with him on the same train when he arrived in Bordeaux.
Bede paid an extra charge for this service in the knowledge, and with
the assurance given, that his bicycle would be on the train in a
separate goods wagon. On arrival in Bordeaux mid-afternoon he was
in a buoyant mood and in high expectation for the next stage of his
wine lover’s journey. He made for the luggage office to collect his
wheels, to be met with the news that his bicycle had not been loaded
onto the train and that it would not be in Bordeaux for another 48
hours. This was the first sour note of his journey.

Before taking the road to the Médoc, Bede visited the maison du vin.
As the focus of distribution of some of the best wines in the world,
Bordeaux is indeed a sacred city, dedicated to the worship of Bacchus
in the most discreet form. Given this importance, it is entirely
appropriate that there should be a centre of information in the form of
the maison du vin devoted solely to the wine industry in the region. It
is an impressive facility, and its information services by way of
printed material served Bede well for what lay ahead.
Once out of Bordeaux and its environs, he found himself on a long,
straight road stretching into infinity. The fields of the Médoc are not
featureless: they are all one feature. They have no middle distance,
only the very far and the very close. By early afternoon there was a
shimmering heat haze over the fields, dazzling the eye. Hot weather
and hard cycling are not compatible. This was one of those enervating
days of summer that quickly drains one’s strength and energy. Bede
was pleased to reach the sanctuary of the well-known and highly
respected vineyard and winery of Château Prieuré-Lichine and the
cool chais ( barrel hall ) within. The sign over the entrance announced
“Vente directe – ouvert tours les jours” ( Sales direct – open every
day ) . He was taken on a personal tour of the chais by an
Englishwoman, Sarah, who explained to him the workings of the
winery, showed him the bottling line in operation and allowed Bede to
deguste some of the wines from earlier vintages. He was told that
Prieuré- Lichine produced some 30,000 cases annually of blended red
wine from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot grape
Bede returned to that awful road again and by day’s end he had
reached the town of Pauillac, situated beside the Gironde estuary.
Pauillac has the atmosphere of a seaside town, with its wide, treelined
promenade and busy harbour. For all that he found it to be a
rather tired, jaded sort of place. Bede stayed in a small hotel fronting
the promenade, which was run by two middle-aged, rather plainlooking
sisters. It was not one of his more memorable stays.
His room was at the end of a long hallway and up a small flight of
stairs at the rear of the building. It was simply furnished, with a
double bed, and a cabinet and hand basin in one corner of the room.
Adjacent to the hand basin was a window, from which he was able to
see a yard and storage area behind the hotel. The floorboards were
bare and somewhat uneven. The room was, nevertheless, clean and
Bede dined that night in the restaurant attached to the hotel and
enjoyed the company of a fellow traveller, Henri, a salesman from
Bordeaux. Bede’s arrival in Pauillac had coincided with the visit of a
travelling carnival and side-show, offering entertainment for the local
populace. Two of the casual diners in the restaurant that night at a
table close by turned out to be labourers employed by the travelling
carnival. They were both unshaven, swarthy-looking young men with
a rough demeanour. During the meal it became apparent to Henri –
though not to Bede – that these two men were showing unwelcome
interest in Bede as a foreigner and the fact that he was travelling solo
around France. Henri saw this as potentially dangerous for Bede and
quietly suggested as they left the restaurant, with the other two still
seated at their table, that he would be best advised not to wander
around the streets of Pauillac after dark that night. In deference to
Henri’s concern for him Bede did follow his advice and stayed off the
streets, but not without first walking along the waterfront across the
road from the hotel while it was still light, before turning in for the
Bede was on the road early the next morning headed for St Estèphe,
north of Pauillac, to view the ostentatious Château Cos d’Estournel,
which is right beside the road and has ornate oriental-style turrets and
façade. He then returned to Pauillac and viewed a number of
prestigious vineyards within the commune of Pauillac: Château
Lafite-Rothschild, Château Mouton-Rothschild, Château Latour and
Château Pontet-Canet. These vineyards have a picture-book quality
about them and are immaculately cultivated and maintained. On both
sides of the road the vines stretched like rows of orderly soldiers
marching off into the distance. All around him the tranquil landscape
was bathed in sunshine, which beamed down benevolently from a
cloudless blue sky.
The vineyards of the Médoc run for almost the entire length of the
low-lying peninsula of land extending north of the city of Bordeaux to
the Pointe de Grave, bordered by the Gironde estuary on one side and
the vast pine forest of the Landes on the other. The grapes planted on
the predominantly light, gravelly soils are the classic Bordeaux
varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon (usually dominant), Cabernet Franc,
Merlot and small amounts of Petit Verdot. The finest wines of
Bordeaux, without exception, come from individual estates in the
most prestigious appellations. One of the superior communal
appellations is Margaux. The vineyards surrounding the château have
a well-groomed stylish appearance, in keeping with the Premier Cru
Classe wine classification from which the appellation takes its name.
By late afternoon Bede was back in Bordeaux. He had found the
Médoc to be a generally unspectacular landscape – even somewhat
triste ( sad ). Many of the villages were very small and rather
dilapidated. Yet all around them the land is given over to cultivation
of the grape, and the fields are superbly presented and maintained.
One suspects that much of the wealth derived from the vineyards of
the Médoc is diverted away from the villages and communes that go
to make up the region. He spent a comfortable night at the Hôtel
Majestic, in marked contrast to his stay at Pauillac. A hot shower, a
well-cooked meal and half a bottle of Bordeaux wine did wonders for
his state of being.
Thursday turned out to be another fine, warm day. Bede had a family
introduction and contact telephone number for a young woman,
Marie-Thérèse, who lived in the centre of Bordeaux. Marie-Thérèse
was to be his guide for the morning as he explored this attractive and
imposing city. She was a warm, generous young woman with a broad
smile complementing her dark brown eyes and straight, dark brown
hair. For him, her dark good looks and slim figure typified the young
women of the south of France.
It was a beautiful morning as they walked along in the warm May
sunshine. They strolled through the Botanic Gardens, through the
Place de la Comédie in the centre of the city; viewed the Palais de
Justice; experienced the tranquility of the 11th century, mainly Gothic
cathedral of St Andre; and stood in awe of the imposing late 18th
century Hôtel de Ville. A further walk from the esplanade des
Quinconces to the Place de la Bourse, past classical façades and wine
merchants’ warehouses and town houses revealed one of the most
elegant waterfronts Bede had ever seen. They then took lunch
together, consisting of un sandwich and une bière at a crowded street


BARRY JOHNS ( aka Le Vigneron )

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