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French wine region advice

After a host of great advice for our miraculous Summer getaway last year, I’m holding out the begging bowl once again.

We’ve got a house booked in August very close to Irouleguy. We are there for a week and as well as cruising the Atlantic coast and pottering around the mountains, I am anticipating at least one opportunity to put the kids’ boredom aside and go digging around for interesting wine-related distractions. It is a region I know virtually nothing about (lots of Tannat and Cab Franc - that’s about it) and can’t recall having drunk any Irouleguy wine either. Any advice on what to see, where to go / buy or who to speak to would be gratefully received.

Additionally, I have been given the responsibility of plotting the journey back up to the Eurotunnel terminal. No idea how this has happened, but we seem to have booked a 4 night stop near Beaujolais (between Roanne & Villefranche) and another 3 nights in Champagne (down in Bar-sur Aube). I’ve never been to either, so advice for further vinous distractions also welcomed.

Me (aka wine) time, particularly in the latter locations will be limited at best, so don’t be offended if I can’t take your advice, it will be no less valued and could always be taken into account on future trips if I am ever granted navigational duties again.

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It’s my personal opinion that Irouleguy reds are largely much-of-a-muchness.

I would highly recommend Jean-Claude Berrouet’s (Herri Mina) whites - really worth seeking out.

It’s also worth remembering that distances in the SW always get underestimated, and I’m not convinced that a long trip into the mountains will be better than just spending more time exploring St Jean de Luz/Biarritz/Bayonne/St Jean Pied de Port etc etc (Edit: and of course, Hendaye), which are very well-heeled and and very well served with all your food/drink needs (ISTR the area around the market in Biarritz having an amazing cheese shop and a couple of excellent wine shops specialising in SW wines).

If, however, you were to take a detour inland to Pau and Jurancon, well that is a different matter, and is well worth a day out - actually, the appellation of Jurancon looks tiny on a map, but is an absolute ballache to traverse, particularly when going from the cluster of properties around Gan to the cluster of properties around Monein. But it’s best to pick one and pair it with half a day in Pau (Jurancon itself is effectively now just a suburb of the city).

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With route planning skills like that I’m surprised you don’t get the job more often!

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For what it’s worth… personal opinion disclaimer etc… I wouldn’t suggest TWS Irouleguy for drinking anytime soon. After opening one earlier this year, I’ve consigned the others to the deepest darkest corner of the wine rack for extended ageing.

However if you find any seriously old Tannat wines on your travels they might be very interesting. Ditto, I imagine there will be Vin Doux Naturel which are never seen outside the region.

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RE Champagne:

We’ve always stayed in Reims. The famous houses are based in Reims or Epernay - both a long drive north of where you are. I’m sure there are craft Champagne makers a plenty nearer you, but I regret that’s further south than I have been.

Have you read Bursting Bubbles?

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@peterm recommends one of the very best books on Champagne. For the visitor also perhaps bet to take Benjamin Lewin’s guide to Champagne which lists many growers/houses in the regions, contact details, whether they do tastings, accept visitors, and cellar door sales. maps in the book very rough and ready but is I think an excellent pocket size reference book for the region.

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Irouleguy village itself is just under 2 hours to Gan. Bit of a wind-ey road and can be held back by potterers. Irouleguy region is very pretty and a day can be usefully spent looking at 2 or 3 wineries. I would add Brana, Etxegaraya and Ilarria. I wouldn’t bother with the co-op cellar door in St Etienne, but I would recommend highly the restaurant attached to Hotel Arcé which imo is well into Michelin standard. In St Jean Brana has a shop / cellar door where they offer tastings if you can’t get up to their winery. But generally agree that Iroulegy is more of a collectors’ interest than the font of exceptional cuvées.

Whilst Gan is a bit of a trek for a round trip, there are plenty of really good wineries in Jurancon, I would check out the (obvious) Cauhapé, Lafitte, Lapeyre and Clos LaPlume who only grow petit manseng for all their range. All of these welcome walk-ins, or at least did last time I was there; ie pre-covid. Going to Cauhapé, the sat nav will take you on a wild goose chase so just check out the route there in advance.

You’ll be closer to Salies de Béarn than Gan, and this would be worth the trip for the salt company (this salt is used uniquely to cure Jambon de Bayonne) shop and guided tour, but also where Domain Guilhemas is located, again walk-ins are fine. I mention them as they are the few vinifiers of the (white) Raffiat de Moncade varietal. https://www.domaine-lapeyre-guilhemas.fr and their wines (AOC Béarn) are impressively good for a small operation. Just to the north out of town is the Béarn co-op cellar door which is commendable and liberal with tastings.

I’ve visited Champers and BJ regions each a few times but I don’t really know enough about the best places to try to visit - the former is a little tricky if you want to (and should imo) avoid the usual suspect big name houses - just to be fleeced. I would imagine calling or emailing ahead anywhere you’d identified would be required. BJ is very pretty, the village-cru area is very compact and there are lots of opportunities. Presumably your route north will take you through the Languedoc and Rhone regions ?

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Beaujolais: Cave de Fleuri (1927) - in the village - is a sort of co-op shop with all the BJL you could ever wish for & plenty to taste. There are a couple of other similar set-ups in Fleuri & I have no idea which is best. Make sure you have plenty of spare space in the car for cases !

Several bistrots nearby, which are fairly authentic & not just tourist traps - this is very much a working village. Personally, I’d aim for a midweek lunchtime - ideally market day - and one of those ‘routier’ places with a rotating main dish frequented by local workers. They will have perfected each dish decades ago. La Bascule? - think we had Coq au vin.

Bit of a long shot - but on your return journey are you doing A64/Toulouse/A62/A20 or are you heading north via Bordeaux?

Not sure yet. Toulouse looks an hour longer with no traffic, but suspect there will be lots of traffic so will wait and see. Why do you ask?

Edit: Looking at the Bison Fute forecast, it seems the northerly route through Bordeaux might be more sensible.

To be honest they’re both a pain during busy times, but the Toulouse one is significantly cheaper with regard to tolls (and I think it’s slightly nicer, slightly more France Profond but that’s maybe just the old romantic in me).

But, and much more importantly, it’s because the best property in the whole of Fronton is just a few minutes off the motorway north of Toulouse in a little (I say little, 3 houses and a Marie?) village called Vacquiers, Chateau Plaisance (I believe now Penavayre-Plaisance).

Half an hour spent in the company of Louis Penavayre is worth a lifetime, such is his deep pride and knowledge of the wines made now by his son and grandson Marc and Thibaut (the Thibaut cuvée is/was probably my favourite of the appellation). They do a few 100% Negrette wines, which if not unique, is highly unusual in Fronton. And make a grand vin that will age for 20 years from 100% Negrette - which is unique.

They are definitely worth a detour and as a benefit, a visit will break up the journey and not significantly add time. Win-win? :smiley:

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Agreed.
Domaine Le Roc in Fronton Homepage - Domaine Le Roc - Vins de l'AOC Fronton is also an admirable family producer and also does a 100% Négrette, and it’s a wonderfully perfumed spicy, inky, iodiney, violety cepage.

Whilst you’re at it; close by is the tiny appellation of St Sardos, only two producers as far as I know, the Co-op and Domaine de la Tucayne. Aim for the latter; https://domainedelatucayne.blogspot.com are happy with walk-ins. St Sardos’ unique assemblage is a 50/50 tannat + syrah blend.

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Thanks for pointing that out Lapin. Will make a note and stash mine in the depths of the cellar.

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Can highly recommend St Jean de Luz. Beautiful bay and beach and tres chic. Kids would love the beach

We stayed at this place on the beach. Just look at that lovely sand!


And even big kids can enjoy an ice cream!

If you get to Hendaye, do take the navette to Hondaribia across the river in Spain. Might be called something like Fontarabie on the French side. The tapas bars on the main street are fabulous. We liked it better than Hendaye but then we stayed there and got to love it.

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Then heading north from Beaujolais to Champagne, west of Macon is

Mâcon-Solutré-Pouilly

You owe it to yourself to take a detour… Just look at all those grapevines. If running short of wine space in the car, consider offloading passengers at the nearby TGV station.

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If you are staying in Bar sur Aube, do plan for a visit to Troyes, the regional capital, with its unspoiled medieval centre and cathedral. To the west of Troyes is a very distinct small sub-region of champagne on the chalk hill of Montgueux, specialising in whites. Charles Heidsieck is reputed to rate these highly for their blends. There are around 20 or so growers there, though sadly the most famous (Lassaigne) won’t sell directly. I think most of the rest will though.

As for the main Cote des Bar, it’s worth factoring in a visit to Drappier at Urville which is not far from BsurA. They have a good range, are very welcoming (and speak English if that’s important), plus give a good discount for direct sales. Good wines too!

Of the other places, there are a lot of growers based in Celles sur Ource, just S. of the other Bar (sur Seine). If you are geeky enough, you could explore the minor local custom of using Pinot Blanc, plus occasionally Arbanne and Petit Meslier. A few growers offer champagnes made from these unusual varieties. There are plenty of options generally, but the wines from Jean Laurent are always ripe and ready to go when bought (though his Blanc de Blancs does appreciate a few years extra cellaring. I think his straight NV is his best wine.

It’s worth doing a bit of research and maybe booking ahead as these places are not really on much of a tourist route in the way the main northerly part of Champagne is. People have always been happy to receive a visit if they can fit you in. The southern part is much more relaxed and rural in a sort of “La France profonde” sort of way. A gentle drive through the main bits, perhaps taking in Renoir’s summer house at Essoyes, and also a visit to the puzzling triple village of Les Riceys, with its unique still Rosé des Riceys would be good way of getting a feel for the area.

The local tourist offices can help with maps and suggestions, also maybe with setting up visits if you are on the road and don’t have the time during the day. There are quite a few websites offering wine-related suggestions too.

Finally - if you already have photos of yourself posing by the signs of Bouzy and Dizy, don’t forget to grab one at Merrey-sur-Arce, which in my opinion outranks all the others for silliness.

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