Exploring the Dordogne

Hello there and welcome back to Hugo’s Reserve following a somewhat long Summer break.   I went to the Dordogne in South-West France for a couple of weeks, which was a real treat to explore, both vinously and gastronomically.  You need to bring your best appetite with you to do it justice mind, as the food is very fat.  Liking to consume large quantities of duck and goose is fairly mandatory, as that’s pretty much all you’re going to eat.  Fortunately I love both.  Either a Salade de Gésiers (gizzard salad) or fresh and preserved patés were consumed almost daily as were sliced potatoes with garlic and parsley cooked in duck fat (Pommes de Terre Salardaises) to accompany confit of duck legs or duck fresh breasts.  Salad was always on the side as a necessary foil to the lard, but then the fat comes back with avengance in the cheese.  Fortunately the wine to go with all this fare was terrific and gave it all balance.  I’ll give an overview of the wines of the region in a minute, but first some history…

The region was traditionally called Périgord, but after the French Revolution, when the Country was split into départements with each one being given a geographical name (mainly after rivers), it was renamed the Dordogne, after its principal artery.  The locals still refer to the area as Périgord and as you can see from my charming hand-drawn map, the whole area is split into four sub- regions, known as Les Quatre Périgord, which are Vert, Blanc, Noir and Pourpre.

Périgord Vert is being sold as a place to get back to nature,  with lots of greenery, farms  and a newly established a national park.  It’s a lot less populated and touristy than the other quarters and a lovely place to do not much.  Périgord Blanc runs through the Isle valley, getting  its name from the chalky-white local stone. Right in the middle is the capital of the region, Périgueux, which boasts not one but two historic centres, one roman and one medieval.  It’s got a good market, decent places to eat and is easy to get about.  It’s a nice spot.  Perigord Noir is the main tourist quarter, full of picturesque medieval towns, prehistoric painted caves, chateaux along the prettiest stretch of the Dordogne and lots of river activity.  Some say it’s named after the dark walnut and chestnut groves whilst others insist it’s after the famous black truffles that are (or were) found there and feature heavily in the cuisine.  We’re going to shun the beauty and the hoards of tourists however, as we finally come to what we’re really interested in, Périgord Pourpre, which is so named as it’s where all the wine comes from.  That’s more like it.  Let’s leave the other quarters alone and zoom into another rather fetching hand-drawn map (it took a while to clean out my old Rotring Isograph technical drawing pens) to see what vinous delights we can find…

The wines are basically made from the same varietal blends as in Bordeaux, its more famous neighbour.  There are red (and some pink) wines made from Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec and there are white wines (dry, medium and sweet) blended from Sauvignon, Semillon and Muscadelle. The main town of the region is Bergerac, which made its money from wine hundreds of years ago and used to be an important metropolis.  It was also a Huguenot stronghold, which turned out to be its downfall.  When Louis XIV started his policy of forced conversions in the mid 17C the protestant population packed up and left for England, Holland and Prussia, leaving the town an empty provincial back-water for a few centuries.   The turnaround started with the arrival of our dear friends from Ryan Air at the newly expanded airport in the mid 1990s, which started a massive revival in the town’s fortunes based on tourism.  It’s now been and continues to be restored to it’s former glory, with renovated historical buildings sitting alongside restaurants, bars and fancy shopping spots.

The Maison des Vins in Bergerac has been excellently done, with a wine museum, information centre and shop set in restored 16C cloisters. You can learn about all the appellations of the region, buy wines from all the major producers and pick up wine maps and all sorts of other wine stuff there.  It’s a good place to go before heading out to visit some producers.

The basic catch-all appellation for the region is named simply Bergerac, after the principal town.  The label is applied for red, white or pink wines alike.  The red Bergeracs we normally get in the UK tend to be a bit uninspiring, basically a cheap and quaffable alternative to Bordeaux.  However, when in situ, as is nearly always the case, you realise how many interesting wines there are around.  Within the generic Bergerac appellation there is a superior sub-zone purely for red wines called Pécharmant, which generally gives fuller and potentially more complex wines that merit a good five years ageing.  There are also a couple of appellations specifically for naturally sweet white wines, the most famous being Monbazillac.  These wines are a really good alternative to Sauternes, being the same blend of varieties and made in the same way.  You get pudding wines that are probably around 90% as good as a really decent Sauternes for about a quarter of the price.  That’s got to be good. So all in all, when you’re there, make sure you get the spend a few euros more (around €8 a bottle say) and you’ll get really good wines in all a whole range of styles (pretty much all non-fortified wine styles except for fizzy) that will be far better value than the neighbouring wines of Bordeaux.  What was really good to find though, was a small unpretentious cave in the town of Ribérac, which had loads of older vintages of a variety of great wines, some well over 10 years old, that seemed to be still priced as they would have been 10 years ago!  It’s finding those spots that really make a trip and needless to say I cleaned them out.

All in all there was lots of great wine to be found and some first rate producers to visit.  In subsequent posts I’ll be profiling a couple of the best producers of the region, Grand Maison and Vignobles des Verdots, to give you some more details on the delights on offer from those two houses.

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One Response to Exploring the Dordogne

  1. Pingback: Grand Vin Les Verdots 2000 | Hugo's Reserve

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