A Stopover in the Bordeaux Wine Country
Giving the rental car a once over, I was pleasantly shocked and somewhat proud that I had managed to evade any contact with the driving populace of South Western France. Heading almost due south from Cognac to the outskirts of Bordeaux that day, I’d narrowly avoided a flying lorry tyre on the motorway, had scraped past a tractor whose driver was insistent on me passing through an eye of a needle gap and had generally just feared for my life as the motorists of the Charente-Maritime seemed hell bent on tailgating me off of the road into any ditch going. The car, though, which I now held a close affinity for, stood there unharmed, proudly reflecting the afternoon sun off of its fire engine red bonnet.
Unloading our suitcases onto the gravel car park, a loud, “Ah, bonjour”, echoed out across the vineyards, bringing me to attention. On it went a few times more, the same phrase repeated briskly, nasal and resonant in its delivery. The gentleman approaching us in his blindingly pink polo shirt turned out to be Claude, our host and part time wine merchant. Though perhaps older than he looked, Claude oozed a certain vitality and enthusiasm I don’t think I had ever known or seen, and when he spoke, he looked at you hard in the eyes with his baby blues, every now and then flicking sprouts of silver hair out of the way of his face. Though my French vocabulary knowledge was extremely limited, I had perhaps the disadvantage of having a disproportionately good accent. Claude soon cottoned onto this, assuming that I was as good as fluent, and so as he helped us with our bags to our room, gave us a detailed history in his native tongue of the wonderful B&B former château that we had entered. I felt it inconsiderate to advise him of my GCSE standard grasp of the language so just nodded, every now and again letting out a muted laugh or an expression of agreement.
Given the fading light and our apparent rural remoteness, we’d plumped for a meal at the former château to include a brief wine talk by none other than the wine merchant come B&B owner come fashion extraordinaire, Claude. As we settled down to an aperitif and delightful homemade bread from Claude’s wife Cecile, Claude, in his broken English, began to explain to my partner, K, what was on the menu that evening. As no translator was available whilst I spoke with Cecile, Claude switched from hesitant mumblings of English to hand actions suitable for a game of charades. As I turned my attention back to them I saw Claude hold an imaginary shotgun whilst he made a sound effect and then pointed up to the sky, finishing it off with a proud laugh straight from the belly. It turned out he had been hunting with a few of his friends earlier that day and the catch, duck, was on today’s menu. And what a fine meal it was too, prepared by Cecile and hosted throughout by Claude. It felt a far more authentic French experience than any restaurant could have given us and we both sat there gleefully wiping our plates with bread and seeing off the end of a red that Claude had selected specially for the meal.
It was a wine that later that night Claude discussed in our wine tasting session. We had congregated in the drawing room and were joined by a couple from Belgium and a champagne house owning couple from Paris. I looked towards K, slightly nervously; after all, I had come here to learn more about wine and would be the first to admit that I really knew nothing about the subject. Those in our company, though, spoke in hyperboles about their knowledge of the local wine history and grape varieties whilst we sat there looking unambiguously out of our depth. Indeed, I was quite glad when the familiar face of Claude appeared, sunburnt and jolly, holding a case full of bottles under his left arm. The talk turned out to be very hard to follow, though; Claude, still assuming I had a full grasp of the language, spoke with a determined rapidity, pausing only to let me briefly translate important points to K. It was effectively a wine lesson in the context of the history, of the geology, of the politics and of the taste of wine itself. Many references to the English were made including the pillaging of vineyards in long ago wars and of the lack of English taste when it came to fine wine. Claude let out a loud cackle and gave an obvious wink to us everytime the topic came up, but under this buoyant joking exterior, it felt that Claude, deep down, did actually hold a lingering grudge against, “les Anglais.”
With eight varieties of local grape coating our stomach linings, we decided it was time for sleep before the long drive the following day, and so we politely declined the next glass and left the party to their smelling and swilling. The next morning, I arose early, taking the time to breathe in the sweet aroma from the trees in the grounds and to catch the sun as it rose over a few derelict barns scattered in the distance. It caught my face and, though only six in the morning, felt like it was burning my pale cheek. This was in fact our last day in France before begrudgingly returning north to the UK, and so I was keen to soak up every inch of the sunshine, fearing that we might not see each other for a long while. I let the rays embed my neck as we dived into a beautifully presented breakfast of homemade yoghurt and honey, along with a cafetiere each of coffee. We spoke and laughed with Claude and Cecile until only crumbs and dregs were left on the table, and, with a hint of sadness, said our goodbyes to this most hospitable of couples. Driving out of this vast expanse of lush vineyards and cherry trees, neither of us spoke, but just sat there in awe, creating photographs in our minds of these beautiful sights with which to look back on.