Dordogne Discoveries


Now I’ve always had a soft spot for the red wines of Bergerac. In case you’ve forgotten (or perhaps never knew) it lies in the lovely Dordogne area, which is in the hinterland of Bordeaux. The modest and charming old town of Bergerac is about sixty miles from the city of Bordeaux, yet its wines have a distinctive Bordeaux-style quality, largely because much the same grapes are used; the familiar trio of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. But what I enjoy about the Bergerac reds is their lightness of touch. They often have a kind of friendly homeliness and perhaps this is what sets them apart from their vinous relatives in Bordeaux. The red wines of Bergerac are almost country cousins. Almost, but not quite.  If we think of red Bordeaux as Mozart, red Bergerac seems to me more like Haydn.

These two lovely wines are made from grapes grown on a hillside overlooking the Dordogne in Saint Michel de Montaigne, a small commune situated on the border between the Gironde and the Dordogne. And I do mean small. There are less than 400 people living there. Les Illarets is one of the four hamlets that make up the community. Château Des Illarets (sha-TOH dayz –ILL-a-ray) was founded in 1936 and has ten acres of vineyards for the production of red Bergerac and an additional two acres for white wines.

Château Des Illarets, Bergerac 2009 (white), France (Friendship Bt. 395)

Of course, in wine-speak the word “château” doesn’t translate as a castle; it’s just the name of the building where the wine is made.  True, some of the châteaux in Bordeaux are imposing palatial mansions but others, especially those in Bergerac look more like homely farm-houses. They can be utterly charming.

Ch. Des Illarets. Ch. Des Illarets.

This is a lovely bright gold, but do give the aroma time to open up, especially if you’ve just hauled the bottle out of the fridge. You’ll probably pick up a fresh, grassy floral aroma with pineapple, tropical fruit and a faint tang of citrus.  It has a lovely smooth mouth-feel, a refreshing taste of fruit and herbs and a good balance of acidity. I’d guess that this wine is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon which brings an acidy freshness to the wine. Incidentally, don’t be put off by mention of acid, because it occurs in most foods, including cornflakes and strawberry jam. It’s occurs naturally in wine grapes and perks up the flavour to give the wine a refreshing tang.

After the wine has been exposed to the air for about twenty minutes and the oxygen has done its work, you’ll get plenty of lively fruit on the taste, with an attractive long citrusy finish too. Drink it as an apéritif if you want but I think it will show its best with food.

Château Des Illarets, Bergerac 2010 (red), France (Friendship Bt. 395)

To my mind, this is a really typical Bergerac and very charming it is too. It’s a rich, warm, dark ruby-red and has an inviting brambly sort of aroma with a touch of red fruits. There are also hints of strawberries, raspberries and dried herbs. But somehow the aroma takes my mind to forested hills, winding country roads and wood fires on a cool autumn evening; the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, as John Keats so famously wrote.

It has a lovely soft and silky mouth-feel and just a delicate layer of satin tannin. I think there’s just the right amount of fruit in this smooth, rounded wine and as you might expect, it’s completely dry. It’s a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon which accounts for the plump softness of the texture. There’s a long and satisfying dry finish that contains another gentle reminder of the soft tannins. It is a light and delicate wine of considerable charm and you’d never guess that it has 13.5% alcohol content.

At this price, it’s excellent value and a lovely wine too if you want to try a charming variation on familiar red Bordeaux. “Same-same, but different,” as people tend to say in this neck of the woods.