The chateau that wasn’t & the wine that was

The vistas in St. Emilion are truly picture-postcard worthy. Narrow, cobbled streets run uphill and down and vineyards surround the town.

Did you hear the one about the independent travelers in France who made an unfortunate hotel choice, changed their itinerary, and discovered Bordeaux gold?

Before leaving for France this fall, my husband read somewhere that Paddy O’Flynn’s in Saint-Émilion is a must-see stop in Bordeaux for wine tasting and a cave tour, but with all the planning for our “great French road tip”, he forgot about it long before we left home. Then the fates intervened.

Wine tasting was always a part of our itinerary, so Steve made reservations for us to stay at a country chateau about 20 minutes from Saint-Émilion, and reserved tastings at two recommended wineries that were less than a stone’s throw from some Grand Cru Classé producers. We left our lovely hillside chateau in the Loire, stopped to learn about Cognac, and late in the day arrived at the country chateau. It was a spectacular flop, a one star disappointment rather than the three star country estate we had been expecting. So we kissed our euros goodbye (it was too late to cancel that reservation) and drove on.

(This was a first for us as independent travelers, and in retrospect, it had to happen sooner or later. Not every website review/picture/description lives up to its hype.)

This is a typical street view in Saint-Emilion.

Now, however, it was Friday night, getting dark, and we had no place to stay. Trustworthy hotels in Libourne and Saint-Émilion were full. It took a couple of hours, but we ended up with a room at a clean, comfortable, chain-style hotel about 40 km away in Bordeaux. We had some dinner and started over on Saturday morning. And we tweaked our itinerary over breakfast.

As a bit of background, Saint-Émilion is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with Romanesque churches and ruins along its steep and narrow streets. Vineyards were first planted there by the Romans in the second century. Eventually, monks who settled in the 8th century launched commercial wine production. Today it is one of the principal red wine areas of Bordeaux, producing primarily merlot and cabernet franc grapes.

Isn’t this charming? Saint-Emilion oozes charm at every turn of its narrow, cobbled streets.

Because our hotel was farther afield than planned and we were now traveling a slightly different route, we cancelled our tasting reservations. We would get to town too late for the first one, and would be moving on to Sarlat-en-Canada (where we had new hotel reservations)  mid-afternoon and miss the second one. But we would get to do some tasting in Saint-Emillion.

On our initial picture-taking walk through town and purely by accident, Steve saw a small building with some signage in English and walked up to read it. A man on the inside greeted him through the open window and invited Steve in to talk wine. And that was how we met Paddy O’Flynn. If you read about him, Paddy came to Bordeaux from Ireland many years ago to source wines to sell back home. His first store opened in 2000 in Limerick (Now he has several stores in Ireland. They’re on our list when we finally make it to Ireland), and in 2014 opened his store/tasting room in Saint-Émilion.

Paddy is friendly, funny and a wonderful story-teller. He also knows wine. Much more than a salesman with a storefront,  Paddy knows the vineyards and producers, does blending for some of them and himself, and reputedly has some of the best wine caves in Saint-Emilion.

Steve and I with Paddy O’Flynn and Pilar.

Given that Steve was just another guy who walked past the store, Paddy spent significant time with us talking about his love for wine, offering tastings on excellent wines from both Burgundy and Bordeaux. We also met Pilar, his partner/fiance. (Interestingly, they were leaving in a few weeks to get married in Pilar’s hometown in Spain. Timing is everything. If our trip had been a few weeks later, we would have missed a great wine experience.)

The wines were, as a reviewer put it, extraordinary at ordinary prices. After a couple of hours of visiting and tasting (and buying) we decided we’d taken up more than enough of Paddy and Pilar’s time. We went off to find lunch. (Where we ran into a delightful couple from Wales who also have a home in France.)

We still haven’t toured any of the caves in Saint-Émilion. Guess we’ll just have to go back again.

Thanks for stopping by. See you again next time?

 

 

 

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Stopping in Cognac for cognac

Like vineyards everywhere, these were really gorgeous, especially in the fall. We visited in mid-September and workers were picking and pressing grapes during our visit.

My husband, Steve, wrote this post. He discovered we’d be close to the town of Cognac and the opportunity for cognac tasting. It was a delightful detour, spent with a charming couple and offering insight into French culture. I hope you enjoy it!

Every once in a while, you get to do try unexpected and it’s totally fun. Okay, this wasn’t exactly unexpected since we had to plan cognac tasting several weeks in advance, but the decision to do it was not on our original “bucket list” for France.
Cognac grapes still on the vine. They taste really sweet!

After planning our itinerary, and rearranging, and re-planning, and re-rearranging some more, I noticed that the drive from the Loire (chateau country) to Saint-Émilion (for wine tasting) passes right by the town of Cognac, home of cognac, the drink. I have never thought much about cognac. I was vaguely aware that it is a type of brandy and we have recipe or two that call for flambé-ing a small amount of brandy. Since I am kind of a pyromaniac and enjoy flambé recipes (or torching creme brûlée, but that’s another story) we always have some brandy on hand. But we really just use it for cooking. That’s about all I knew about it.

We were planning on wine tasting in the Bordeaux region and I started thinking: Cognac is a spirit, Scotch is a spirit. If we were going to Scotland I would no doubt stop at a distillery for a single malt, so why not find out what cognac is all about. 

So I did a little more research. I thought we would prefer to visit a smaller producer instead of one of the cognac big boys (Courvisier, Hennessey, Martel and Remy-Martin). We enjoy doing the same in Napa for wine tasting. I found a half dozen small producers who had excellent reviews (both for visits and for product). I settled on Cognac Bertrand mostly for the product reviews.

Bertrand is out in the country about a half hour south of Cognac, surrounded by fields of grapevines. It was one of the few places that Google maps got us to on the first try. We were greeted by Thérèse Bertrand whose family has been running the distillery since at least 1731 (per the earliest records). She turned us over to her American husband, Seph, for the tour and then she took over again for the tasting. 

Since we had never really tried cognac as a standalone drink, we had no idea what to expect from the tasting. Janet and I agreed if we didn’t like it at all (and it would probably be bad form not to buy anything), the worst case scenario was that we would buy an inexpensive bottle for cooking. 

My worry was for naught. The distillery setting was very picturesque, Thérèse and Seph were friendly and gracious hosts, the tour was interesting and informative, and the Bertrand Cognacs were excellent, no make that spectacular. My only regret was that I couldn’t be sure the suitcase would hold more than one bottle.
This is the Charentais copper alembic still required by law to distill cognac. The French government is very protective of the traditional cognac process.

A little cognac background: Cognac is only made from a specific list of grape varieties. In order for it to be considered a true cru, the wine must be at least 90% Ugni blanc (known in Italy as Trebbiano), Folle blanche and Colombard. The remaining 10% of the grapes used come from a longer, specific list. Unlike wine grapes, Cognac grapes are harvested by machine, pressed and allowed to ferment for two or three weeks before being distilled to extract the water. Distillation takes place in traditionally shaped Charentais copper alembic stills, the design and dimensions of which are also legally controlled. Two distillations must be carried out; the resulting eau-de-vie is a colourless spirit of about 70% alcohol. It’s important to note that this entire process is shaped by french law, which therefore protects french culture.

These are some of the barrels in the early stages of aging,

After distillation comes aging. By French law VS is aged a minimum of 2 years on Limousin oak (I have no idea what Limousin oak is or what makes it the wood of choice for the barrels, but they were very specific about it) and VSOP for 4 years. Napoleon and XO used to have the same requirement of 6 years but that changed just this year and XO is now aged for at least 10 years. Those are minimum aging periods. Bertrand’s product is aged 5,10, and 20 years for the VS, VSOP, and Napoleon Cognacs, and 30 to 35 years for the XO. Interestingly, Bertrand sells roughly 90-percent of its product to one of the big cognac producers after the initial aging, keeping the remainder for its own label. Thérèse and Seph told us that most vineyards/distillers do the same thing.

Decades of barrels are stored in this building, one of the oldest on the property.

We tasted the VS, VSOP, XO, and a Pineau. We had never heard of Pineau before. It is a blend of grape juice and eau de vie (eau de vie is what the they call the result of the distillation, which means water of life). Pineau is served as an aperitif and was too sweet for our tastebuds. The VS, VSOP, and XO are a different story.  No two are the same, the aging definitely changes the taste. Each one in the progression was better, richer and more refined than the one before, the XO being my favorite. Thérèse explained their view of the best use for each cognac: VS for cooking, VSOP for cocktails, Napoleon and XO for more serious sipping (like in old movies, by the fire, in a balloon glass).

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, the distillery, the cognacs, Thérèse and Seph, all of it. I can’t recommend this side trip enough. It’s one of those places you might never consider and drive right past, but it gave us a wonderful look at french life and culture. I guess the road less traveled comes to mind. It happened for us several times on this trip.

Happy travels!