You simply have to love a place where a top local chef advises wine with breakfast. Thierry Marx, a Relais & Châteaux Grand Chef, reported to the Aquitaine tourism magazine that one of his personal favorite restaurants in the region was Lion d’Or, in Arcins, where “the owner knows the estuary well and all the best fishing spots. You can bring your own bottle, and order the hearty breakfast.”
Bordeaux is, of course, renowned for its wine around the world; one in six residents here make their living, in some way, from the wine industry. The name evokes both the wine and the city, which is part of the Aquitaine region and France’s premier winegrowing terroir, with fifteen different wine territories and ninety-seven appellations. Châteaux Margaux, Lafite-Rothschild and Latour are some of the most mythical names in wine, and a visit to them, for dedicated oenophiles or collectors, is truly their pilgrimage to Mecca.
The region is ancient; the city of Bordeaux is over 2,700 years old, and the first mention of Aquitaine is in Caesar’s “Commentaries on the Gallic War.” It was the Romans, in fact, who introduced the vine to Bordeaux around the first century, beginning more than two thousand years of a love affair with wine, food, and the “bon vivant” lifestyle that still predominates today.
Turn travel dreams into reality. Get free online price quotes, expert travel advice and planning from the world’s best network of travel professionals.
Despite this rich history and the traditions imbedded deep in its culture, Aquitaine is also a place where contemporary methods and philosophies create exciting change. As with most places in the world, a focus on the environment, organic farm-to-table eating, and a return to natural methods have taken a toehold here.
About 100 kilometers due east of Bordeaux lies the town of Bergerac, situated along the Dordogne River and filled with statues and references about Cyrano de Bergerac, in spite of the fact that the Musketeer the character was based on never set foot here. Nearby is the smaller town of Saussignac, famed for Château de Saussignac, a romantic fifteenth century castle. It overlooks Château Haut Garrigue, an organic wine farm run by Caroline and Sean Feely. The château has been a wine estate since the middle ages; the Feelys hail from Ireland and South Africa, and knew from the time they met twenty years ago that they wanted to be winemakers.
“We both had a passion for wine,” Caroline told me. The couple nearly bought a vineyard in Cape Town, where Sean’s grandfather also owned a vineyard; but Caroline’s job took them back to Dublin where they lived for the next eight years, making wine trips to France whenever possible. “We love France because there’s an incredibly deep and passionate history with wine,” she said. “There are also the beautiful landscapes of vines, valleys and castles. Sometimes when I look out at our view and at Saussignac village I have to pinch myself to believe that we really do live and work in this place. It is magical.”
The Saussignac region as a whole shares the Feely’s commitment to organic farming. The area vineyards are 50 percent organic, compared to an overall average of 3 percent in France. “When we bought here, we didn’t know that,” Caroline added. “Landing this place was a really big plus for us, because it means a great deal when the vines and soil right next to yours are also organic.” She explained the benefits of organic wines for consumers: The higher natural acidity means that less sulfites are added for preservatives, as much as two-thirds less than conventional wines. Chemical use and over-pruning are traumas that inhibit the natural tendencies of the vines, causing them to defend themselves in a way that affects their flavor and production. “When you farm with chemicals, you encourage the roots to stay very shallow. With organic farming, the roots go much deeper, actually down into the bedrock. This greatly affects the flavor and quality.”
One criticism of organic winemaking is that too much copper must be added in order to eliminate mildew. “That’s a correct concern, and we must reduce our dependency on copper because it can be toxic,” Caroline said. This is one of the reasons that she and Sean embrace biodynamic methods, which greatly balance such dilemmas.
“The vines are really remarkable plants,” she remarked as she sat my group down at a picturesque spot for an outdoor luncheon, accompanied by four Château Haut Garrigue wines. From a sweet 2006 Saussignac dessert wine to a 2008 La Source barrel-aged white, I moved to the 2007 La Source Merlot/Cabernet and 2006 Merlot—delectable with a slice of organic dark chocolate.
The Feelys offer wine and food pairing lunches at their vineyard, as well as vineyard walks and picnics, wine courses, and overnight stays in one of their guest rooms. Last year the pair also a Vine Share program, which allows direct participation from vine to wine. For 99 Euros per year, you get your own set of vines designated with your name, and a case of wine from your own grapes each year.
“It has been a voyage of discovery,” Caroline said of the winemaking experience. “You don’t just do organic overnight; it takes time to understand and implement the processes. But we have learned that if you stick to your values and philosophies, it pays off.”
Shelley Seale for TripAtlas.com