Winewyse Press Articles

Chateau de Mercues - A Haven of Peace in the Cahors Wine Region

Richard Esling - Monday, July 20, 2020
Chateau de Mercues - A Haven of Peace in the Cahors Wine Region

As France opens up again after lockdown, so do the hotels, restaurants and wineries. The four-star Chateau de Mercuès in the Quercy region of south-west France, has all three and is thus a wine-loving gourmet’s delight. Set atop a hill, with stunning views over the majestic river Lot and surrounding vineyards, the chateau is a stone’s throw from the ancient city of Cahors. This is a wine region with 2000 years of history, where the Malbec grape reigns supreme.

Once one of the prime red grape varieties in Bordeaux, Malbec has found its true home in the Cahors region, producing some outstanding red wines which are now more accessible than twenty or thirty years ago. Named by the British in the Middle Ages as ‘black wine’, they were generally strong, tannic horrors which needed at least 15 years ageing to be drinkable. Modern Cahors wines are somewhat lighter and fruitier, yet still with underlying power and grip. It is also, of course one of the foremost red grape varieties of Argentina, where the hot, dry climate suits the variety to perfection.

The Vigouroux family have made wine in the Cahors region for four generations since 1887 and after acquiring the Chateau de Mercuès with a view to wine tourism, have now expanded their horizons to Mendoza in Argentina. Part of the Relais and Chateaux group of Hotels since the 1950’s, this is a Winery Hotel par excellence. With its fairy tale pointy turrets, stunning location, fabulous pool and gardens, together with a Michelin starred restaurant, this is undoubtedly a destination worth seeking out.

Alongside the more formal restaurant is a bistrot set in the old stone courtyard, serving a lighter lunch menu, together with an abbreviated wine list. Adhering to strict Covid-19 safety protocols, all staff wear masks and/or visors and the wine list is obtained on your mobile by reading a QR code printed on the disposable menus. Many wines on the list are those produced by the owners, and pale, dry rosé made from 100% Malbec accompanied my lunch admirably.

A wine producer as well as a high-class hotel and restaurant, Chateau de Mercuès boasts a superb vinification and ageing winery, carved into the rock beneath the castle gardens. Row upon row of oak barrels filled with rich Cahors wine slumber peacefully in the vaulted cellars prior to bottling. A range of wines from the family vineyards is available to taste, prior to filling your boot with a case or two, ready for a scenic journey back to Sussex.

The chateau, set in its tranquil hill-top surroundings reached by a narrow country lane, is an ideal centre from which you can take trips into the surrounding vineyards, discovering the beautiful towns and villages of the Quercy, together with the fabulous historic black wines of Cahors.

La Chartreuse du Bignac - one of the Hidden Gems of the Dordogne

Richard Esling - Monday, July 13, 2020
La Chartreuse du Bignac - one of the Hidden Gems of the Dordogne

La Chartreuse du Bignac - one of the hidden gems of the Dordogne. 

At last! Here I am in south-west France. Something a couple of months ago I thought would never happen again. But although the pandemic is far from over, control measures are now well in place and, for the time being at least, seem to be working. So restaurants have reopened, and France has reopened, so that we Brits now have the opportunity once again to visit the top gastronomic country of the world. What’s more, for those still anxious about dealing with airports and aircraft, France is easily accessible by car, safely travelling in your own little bubble. 

With perhaps an overnight stay on the way, head for the Dordogne in the south- west of the country, a beautiful, peaceful region which I often compare to Sussex, only warmer. Land of a thousand and one chateaux, it is also a land full of fabulous restaurants, all with strict COVID-19 protocols in place and many serving on outside terraces or gardens. It is also a great wine region, with wines from around Bergerac now vying for attention on the world stage. 

La Chartreuse du Bignac, tucked away in the countryside surrounded by vineyards and fields of sunflowers, is one of those magical places which on discovery, gives you an immense feeling of self-satisfaction. “How could I have found such a fantastic place?”, as you pat yourself on the back. Characterful old seventeenth century stone buildings sit atop a gentle hill, with the summer restaurant in a flower-filled garden, with a 180-degree panorama of the surroundings. 

Owned and run by Brigitte and Jean-Louis Vilargue, the four star La Chartreuse boasts 12 guest rooms as well as the gastronomic restaurant, run with enthusiasm and passion for the highest standards of comfort and quality. The highly experienced executive chef Thibault Foulogne joined in February this year, in retrospect perhaps not the best time to start a new position in the hospitality sector. However, without a shadow of a doubt he has risen to the challenge and creates a delicate and inventive cuisine which, in my opinion, would put many a Michelin starred restaurant to shame. ‘Stardom’ being one of Thibault’s objectives, he is already well on track. 

Marinated lobster, cannelloni stuffed with claw-meat, crab and diced mango, served with a spiced bisque. A gastronomic dream and that was just the starter. Main course was fillets of red mullet, fennel, diced summer vegetables and a bouillabaisse sauce, followed by the most delicious dessert of cherries, chocolate mousse and cherry sorbet. 

Located near the village of Saint Nexans, only 10 miles from Bergerac, the surrounding sea of vines provides many of the wines on the comprehensive wine list. In fact, the establishment proudly promotes the fact that it sources ingredients and wine from many local producers. A pale Bergerac Rosé from a vineyard less than 5 minutes from the doorstep was the perfect accompaniment to my culinary delights.

The clientele of La Chartreuse du Bignac in normal times is very international, with up to 80% coming from the US, UK, Switzerland and other European countries. But these are not normal times and current clients are predominantly French. In the last couple of weeks some Swiss, Germans and even Brits have started to arrive to discover this haven of tranquillity, with a first-class restaurant to boot. A road trip this Summer which you’ll never forget.

Top Vouvray is the Legacy of a World War II Hero.

Richard Esling - Monday, July 06, 2020
Top Vouvray is the Legacy of a World War II Hero.

“It was late morning when a bent, elderly looking man, a handmade knapsack on his back, came trudging through the mud and slush of a warm February. Gaston Huet was on his way home.” Words taken from a fascinating book called ‘Wine and War’ by Don and Petie Kladstrup. Huet was one of the top winemakers in Vouvray, a small village in the Loire Valley. A lieutenant in the French army, he was taken prisoner near Calais in 1940 and spent five years in a POW camp in Germany until being liberated by Cossacks in 1945. 

Now, in the 75th Anniversary year of VE Day, Domaine Huet  is a thriving vineyard with a worldwide reputation for high quality Vouvray. Quite remarkable when you learn the history behind the winemaker Gaston Huet, who became one of France’s greatest winemakers and mayor of Vouvray for 46 years. On returning to his vineyard after 5 years, the task of restoration was formidable. No ploughing had been done as the Germans had requisitioned all the horses, no pruning as there were no labourers, no fertiliser or copper sulphate, essential for disease control and no bottles available for wine which had lain in wooden casks for five long years.

Huet was not the only one desperately trying to get home to his wife, family and vines. Thousands of other sick and frail young men were on the same journey, survivors of a hardship which makes our current worries pale into insignificance. Happily, with a mixture of foresight and determination that part of France’s treasure should not fall into the hands of the Nazis, much of Huet’s stock of wine had been hidden in a limestone cave when France was invaded. This proved a valuable source of income for the task of restoring the vineyards to their former glory. 

Resourceful, tenacious and a passionate winemaker, Gaston Huet kept the hopes and morale of 4,000 prisoners of Oflag IV D alive during the dark days of the early 1940s. He formed a committee of other French winemaker prisoners and together through ingenuity and courage, managed to organize a wine festival which lasted two weeks. A great number of the prisoners were involved with wine and the elaborate planning of the event relieved the boredom over many months, lifting the spirits of those longing to return to their former lives and loved ones.

Founded in 1928 by Gaston and his father, the 75 acres of Chenin Blanc vineyards of Domaine Huet are cultivated entirely according to biodynamic principles, with ultimate respect for the environment. The range of wines from different areas of the vineyard express the character of the terroir, but the philosophy of their production owes much to the legacy of a remarkable hero from the Second World War, with a passion not just for survival, but to reach the heights of his profession.

Domaine Huet is the undisputed leader of the Vouvray appellation. The exemplary house style is one of purity of expression and the wines are legendary for their tautness and minerality. Huet is certainly the greatest Domaine in all of Vouvray, if not all of the Loire. The Wine Society, which seeks out such fabulous wines, has a range on offer, of both sweet (moelleux) and dry. Prices range from the sweet Le Mont 2017 at £37, to the rare and exceptional Le Haut Lieu 1948 at £245 per bottle.