Off the Beaten Track

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There was a time, not so long ago, when most of the roads in France – except the motorways – were grandly known as Routes Nationales (National Highways) and most road numbers were preceded by the letters R.N. The system actually dated back to the days of Napoleon, although he preferred the name Routes Impériales. About ten years ago, the road numbering system was changed with the result that the superbly Gallic concept of Routes Nationales has largely disappeared.

The trunk roads were prosaically renamed “N” roads and apart from the motorways, most of the others were renamed “D” roads, meaning that they are the responsibility of the local authority or département. Some of them are busy highways with thundering traffic, while others are narrow, bucolic country lanes. Bordeaux is crisscrossed with dozens of “D” roads and the D669 for example, goes through the brownish-grey town of Bourg which lies on the Right Bank of the Dordogne. The Romans planted the first vineyards and by the Middle Ages, Bourg had become a major river-port for wine.

Near the riverbank at Bourg (Photo: Tmouchentois)Near the riverbank at Bourg (Photo: Tmouchentois)

And it’s the rivers, rather than the roads which have enabled the vast swathes of Bordeaux vineyards to flourish – and not only for transportation. The Dordogne and the Garonne with their many tributaries are the most important rivers of the region and have watered the fertile valleys of Bordeaux for thousands of years, providing a vital contribution to the climate. The Dordogne rises in the mountains of Auvergne about three hundred miles away, while the Garonne rises even further away in the highlands of the Pyrenees. These two rivers meet a little way downstream of Bourg and flow into the massive Gironde Estuary which itself is fifty miles long. At one point, it’s nearly eight miles wide.

Château Vieux Lansac, Côtes de Bourg 2010 (red), France (Bt. 699 @ Wine Connection)

Bourg-sur-Gironde (as it’s also known) is about twelve miles north-east of Bordeaux and the appellation Côtes de Bourg refers to the hilly vineyards that thrive around the town. This area is especially interesting for wine drinkers, because if you want decent claret without first having to sell the cat, the hinterlands of Bordeaux offer some excellent cheaper reds. Incidentally, the wines made to the right of the Gironde Estuary usually contain a high proportion of Merlot grapes, whereas Cabernet Sauvignon tends to dominate wines from châteaux (or “wineries”) to the left.

It’s not surprising then, that in this purple-red wine from the Côtes de Bourg, Merlot is the main grape, with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc playing supporting roles. The Cabernet Sauvignon brings a bit of firmness to the blend while the Cabernet Franc brings finesse and improves the aroma. Talking of which, this wine has an appealing and very soft smell, plenty of fruit with cherry, dry herbs, hints of pepper and background reminders of woodland and oaky vanilla. It’s quite light-bodied with a gentle and satisfying mouth-feel; more cherry and herbs on the palate and a pleasing dash of acidity. Surprisingly the wine seems very low in tannin, but it’s there alright – delicate and clearly defined. The wine is very dry but the fruit gives the impression of half a degree away from total dryness. There’s a lovely crisp, dry finish and I’d say that this wine is fairly typical light, elegant claret with good balance and structure.

It’s very approachable too and at 13.5% it would make a good partner for light meals, roasts, quiches and cheese dishes. The 2010 vintage won a Gold Medal at the Concours de Bordeaux, one of the key events in the Bordeaux wine industry for over fifty years.

Château Lacoste Garzac, Bordeaux 2011 (red), France (Bt. 649 @ Wine Connection)

If you were to leave Bourg on the D669 and then join the D670, about forty minutes later you’d find yourself in the old city of Libourne, founded in 1270 and now the wine-making capital of Northern Gironde. Another fifteen miles south-east and you’d be near the home of Ch. Lacoste Garzac, a winery near the Dordogne River and close to the sleepy commune of Mouliets et Villemartin on the D15, a one-horse town if ever there was one. It’s a good way inland too – about thirty-five miles east of Bordeaux. Not surprisingly, Merlot is the dominant grape, eighty percent of it to be precise. The remainder of the blend is made up of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc which is a fairly typical combination for this region, indeed for most of Bordeaux.

And just in case you’re wondering, both this week’s Merlot-dominated wines are totally different from Chilean Merlots. The Chilean ones are not usually blended with other varietals but they benefit from the warmer, gentler climate and different terroir, giving them sweeter and richer aromas, more forward fruit and softer tannins. Château Lacoste Garzac is a very different animal. If you have ever tasted one of those robust reds from St. Emilion, this is rather similar in style. Actually, this is not too surprising because that town is only about ten miles up the road on the D243. Château Lacoste Garzac has modern stainless steel tanks with temperature controls and a cellar of more than 300 barrels. A photo of the gleaming stainless steel tanks appears on the front page of their website, so it would seem that the owners are very proud of them.

The wine is brilliant ruby-red and as dry as they come, but there’s an attractive soft texture with a firm framework of tannin. The back label solemnly states, “His nose is pretty fruit flavours.” I wouldn’t put it quite like that. To my nose, the wine has powerful Merlot aromas of red berries, earthy herbs, black cherries and a hint of vanilla. The wine is quite reserved and rather a more serious affair that the light and approachable Château Vieux Lansac. Perhaps some people might find it a bit austere, a bit like an old-fashioned country schoolmaster. But even so, this is very much my kind of wine.

The wine comes at 13% alcohol content and almost begs for food. The locals in the Côtes de Castillon recommend that you drink this wine with game, mushroom dishes, spare ribs or roasted lamb. For suitable cheeses, you could choose (they suggest) between Cantal, Comté, Reblochon or the little-known sheep’s-milk cheese Ossau-Iraty. Now I have to admit that this information is slightly irrelevant, because the chances of finding any of these cheeses around here are not very high, especially the Ossau-Iraty. But you never know your luck. An earlier vintage of this wine won a Bronze medal at the prestigious General Agricultural Competition of Paris, held regularly at the Porte de Versailles. It’s quite close to the D989, since you asked.