My Life in Wine – Part 18 – A man in a van in France

This is the cover of a Bordeaux Direct Catalogue from 1976. Just France? Yep. The Sunday Times Wine Club may have started me off globetrotting for wines, but France was what I stuck to doing for BD customers back then; pretty much just France. Which I have always loved. I travelled endlessly round the whole country, meeting, making friends, tasting and loading up boxes. The van and I covered many miles more than the map shows. I slept in the van, on the boxes, or in old-style Hotels de la Gare and suchlike...good food, damp beds, very cheap.

This is the cover of a Bordeaux Direct Catalogue from 1976. Just France? Yep. The Sunday Times Wine Club may have started me off globetrotting for wines, but France was what I stuck to doing for BD customers back then; pretty much just France. Which I have always loved. I travelled endlessly round the whole country, meeting, making friends, tasting and loading up boxes. The van and I covered many miles more than the map shows. I slept in the van, on the boxes, or in old-style Hotels de la Gare and suchlike…good food, damp beds, very cheap.

Having got me buying from his wine making friends in Bordeaux, Monsieur Cassin told me to go round the whole country and meet his friends in other parts. He and Henri Dubernet in the Midi had set up a sort of club of like-minded, small, wine producers who knew each other from meeting up at wine competitions in Paris, Macon, Bordeaux etc. They all competed hard to improve their reputations by winning loads of medals.

About half were independents, half were co-operatives. None were merchants. Together, they’d started marketing their wines under a banner ‘Race et Fidelité’ which means, I suppose, making wines ‘the right and proper way’. They all believed in maintaining classic standards of winemaking in their own individual regional styles and were firmly opposed to cutting corners to achieve some slight price advantage. They would judge each other’s wines in blind tastings and award stars … meagerly! They were hard on each other. They were also a bit more expensive than the market. But then, they had won all those medals. Monsieur Cassin said I could do worse than go and see these people, learn from them, buy from them, and that I could trust them absolutely.

So off I went in the Transit, the old rock n’ roll cassettes blasting away. Customers reckoned that for me it was just one long holiday. In one way it was. I loved seeing all the different landscapes as I bopped along; the arid, the green, and the frozen; the sunburnt villages of the south, the Christmas Card village snow scenes up north in Alsace. But it wasn’t leisurely. And still isn’t for me and my buyers today. Days are packed with visits from dawn to well after dark. That’s to keep down costs but also because something is always urging you on; the thought that in the next cellar you may make some Holy Grail of a discovery.

So, in all these years it’s honestly true that I have rarely lingered to admire the lovely views. I have rarely stopped for lovely, long French lunches with sieste to follow. I have always had to crack on. I don’t believe I would be doing my job right if I just bought wine by phone or email from the UK. Buying on the spot gives us an edge, but you don’t half have to get a wiggle on.

I soon met them all; Monsieur Cassin’s friends, and bought from most. Great people. Afterwards, I added new finds of my own … similar people with similar ideals, and I began adding the strap line ‘All wines bottled by the men who made them’. (They were all men, back then.) I had found that customers liked that reassurance, that what it said on the label was what it really was. Maybe I set a trend. UK bottling of wines began to die out … did eventually die out.

Until, that is, quite recently when it has roared back. Today, the majority of wines sold in the UK are once again bottled here in massive factories. It certainly makes them cheaper. And I have to admit that now, unlike in the old days, the bottling is done well. But … it worries me, some. I cling to the notion of wine farmers producing a finished product, a little work of art, signed, as it were, by them. At the same time I do realise that we have to stay competitive. So, we do some bottling, but we watch everything very closely. Mark Hoddy our winemaker will always go to watch the wine being loaded at the winery, then ride shotgun home and supervise the unloading. You cannot be too careful.

Dodgy things can happen … allegedly! Some quite legal. For example, if a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is shipped in bulk to the UK via Australia, it is perfectly legal for a percentage of Australian white wine (Ugni Blanc or something cheap, but rarely Sauvignon!) to be blended in en route. Which is why, sometimes, you get cheaper New Zealand Sauvignons that taste rather less Sauvignon than usual.

Anyway, back to the Seventies. In the days before ‘Wine Guides’, The Internet, Google and all that, how did you find good winemakers in regions where Monsieur did not have a mate? One way was to write off for the lists of medal winners at various French shows and concours and look out for regular winners. Anyone can get lucky in competition once; it’s a string of wins that denotes a great vineyard, real skill and quality.

There was another way. For ‘research’ purposes only – a claim sometimes questioned by Barbara, who controlled expenses – I would just have to eat a meal at the best restaurant in whichever area I was in … and pick the brains of the sommelier.

From early on I had discovered and loved the strong, dark-red wines of Gascony, the wines from South Western regions, from what they called the Haut Pays. These were the wines which had helped create the original reputation of Bordeaux, but which, over the centuries, the unscrupulous Bordelais had managed to embargo, for just long enough every year, to favour their own poorer wines. In the Middle Ages, you read that the English market much preferred the inland wines from the Haut Pays which were rich, stronger and darker than the paler wines of Bordeaux itself, which, back then, went by the name of ‘Clairet’ (pale wine) … only in later centuries becoming the darker ‘Claret’.

The little region of Madiran near Pau, to the south of Bordeaux, had shrunk to but a handful of growers of which the wine of Laplace family was the only one you saw in the good eating places. On a very early and unique ‘family’ trip, we all turned up; Monsieur, Madame, Barbara and I, at their place one bright autumn morning to find three generations of the Laplace family out in the yard having a bottling day. They are big people in this region (where rugby first took hold in France) and Grandfather in his huge ‘beret basque’ and clogs, with his big moustache, was clearly still the respected patriarch. But his son now ran the place with his wife and their teenage children. Everyone had their role that day, and all the men wore those big Basque berets. We got shown their huge old 100-year-old vines, then invited in to eat round their enormous kitchen table. And they gave us for aperitif, the local white wine which they had just brought back from virtual extinction; Pacherenc du Vic- Bilh. We loved everything about this family.

Cahors, west of Bordeaux, was less exciting. Older customers were always keen I should get some Cahors. So I did. The only source appeared to be the co-op at Parnac. Nice red wine.But older customers would swirl the pale-ish red wine around their glass and declaim “Ah! The black wine of Cahors”. Such is the power of suggestion! In people’s minds, Cahors seemed always black, when it clearly wasn’t anymore. On subsequent visits I learnt that the Bordeaux blockade and phylloxera had wiped out all the ancient vineyards on the near-vertical, bare, ‘scree’ slopes north of the river. These had produced tiny quantities of small, very ripe, black grapes which made the true black wine. In recent times the area had fought its way back into existence, but had replanted its traditional Cot or Malbec vines on the flat, fertile ‘easy’ land south of the river. Made a nice wine, but no way was it black.

In more recent times young, maybe braver growers have returned to cultivate the steep slopes and barren causses. And once again produce black Cahors worthy of the name.

From Cahors, my regular route would then take me on up to Gaillac, a ‘lost’ region where a couple of giant co-operatives made what were the cheapest ‘honest’ wines in France. To explain the need for the qualifying word ‘honest’ I mean the wine was what it claimed it was; from the vineyards of the co-op members. It was always possible to buy still cheaper wine from places more like factories than wineries, down in the Mediterranean ports. But what they sold was a mix of stuff that came in on boats from anywhere at all where wine was cheap! Merchants! I may be one myself, but Monsieur taught me always to be wary of Merchants.

Gaillac White became my House Wine for some years. The red, which I got from the village of Cunac, proved not to be reliably ripe every vintage. Again, however, in recent years a whole generation of young, independent, wine growers – perhaps aided by global warming, certainly aided by improved viticultural skills – now produce a very impressive range of exciting wines, often made from grape varieties only found in this region like the Len de L’El – in the old Langue d’Oc language of the south. In modern French that means Loin de l’Oeil or ‘far from the eye’ … which I have always thought a delightful way of conveying that this variety produces very small grapes!

I came to learn that in Gaillac a great injustice had been visited upon the gentle, kind and remarkably intelligent man who was already a hero of mine … and many others. I introduced you to Jean Dubernet earlier; the oenologist who revolutionised winemaking in Languedoc and Roussillon and set up the ‘club’ of quality-obsessed winemakers I was now discovering around France.

Apparently, when he left his early life as a wine consultant in Bordeaux, seeking more of a challenge, he first of all took the job of running the biggest wine co-op in France at Labastide de Levis in Gaillac. The place – indeed the whole region – was really struggling. Unlike the hot Midi, the high Gaillac district is a cool-climate region, which meant than in some cold years the grapes did not, back then, ripen quite enough to make decent wine. Cold years also happened in Bordeaux and Burgundy.

But they had – and still have – a remedy: sugar. Appellation Controllée regions have the right to ‘chaptalise‘ their wines … they can add sugar to their grape juice. Sugar ferments into alcohol very well, so if you add it to watery grapes you get a stronger wine … admittedly with the teensy problem that fermented sugar has no flavour. Nonetheless chaptalisation (named after clever Monsieur Chaptal who long ago wrote the book and explained that, fundamentally, it was sugar, natural or added, which distinguished good wine from basic ‘piquette; the old term for what we would call ‘plonk’) was widely practised in the period we are discussing. It is much less done these days. Thankfully.

Gaillac had the problem that it was not an Appelation Controllée region but fell into the second division of ‘VDQS’ wines. (It has since become AOC). So it was not allowed to add sugar. Meaning, some years, its wines were unsaleable; a ruinous problem for an already poverty-stricken region.

Dubernet – as he was always called – found a solution … or so he thought. By putting a proportion of the winery’s juice through a sort of pressure cooker thing, he was able to concentrate it. This rich concentrate he could then add to the normal juice … instead of sugar. Which you would think a better solution; more authentic, more flavourful. But the Appellation Controllée regions did not see it that way. They saw it as a threat to their exclusive right to be able to boost the strength of their wines and persuaded the authorities that Dubernet was about to unleash a torrent of rather good wine from regions which were, officially – therefore unquestionably – inferior piquette producers. The great and good of Bordeaux, Burgundy etc had, of course, excellent connections in Paris. Gaillac – “where?” – did not.

Dubernet was arrested, tried and imprisoned … for trying to make a better wine … and help impoverished wine growers. Monsieur Cassin and directors of wine cooperatives throughout France were incensed at this and mounted a ‘Free Dubernet’ campaign. Which worked. But Dubernet had to leave Gaillac. He left behind his legacy; the lightly-sparkling Gaillac Perlé – his invention – which to this day is the best known wine of Gaillac, and moved down to Narbonne where he set up his oenological practice and started his next campaign: to get the winegrowers of the much vaster Midi out of the parlous situation they too were in. But I’ve already told you about that in an earlier blog.

My journey would take me also from Gaillac through Castres and over the Montagne Noir down into the real hot, dry, Midi, and Narbonne.

I am writing this stranded for hours in Bordeaux airport by a yet-again delayed flight. The only consolation is one solitary bottle of Midi Chardonnay in the lounge fridge made by a guy called Gerard Bertrand who used to play in the back row for France. Which is weird. Because I was just coming to another story to add to the ones I’ve already told about my wine hunting in the Midi … and the next name on my 1976 list of suppliers: Georges Bertrand; father of the above Gerard. So I shall quietly enjoy that bottle, type the story and hope a plane turns up sometime.

GeorgesGeorges Bertrand was a courtier, which is the rather splendid title the French give to their wine brokers. These are the very active guys who spend their days visiting wine growers tasting and collecting samples of their wine. They take these to the merchants and attempt to sell a tank or two. They will, if they can, take a commission from the producer, and from the merchant. If they are sharp they can do well. Georges was sharp, and had an office in Gasparets near Lezignan. Super fit, he had been a good rugby player and was now an international referee. Sharp, he was. He quickly cottoned on that I liked the softer, fruitier, maceration carbonique style of red, and instead of supplying me from one of his producers realised he could do better himself. His maceration carbonique, (I preferred to call this ‘uncrushed-bunch fermented’ because it’s less scary-sounding) Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan from his vineyard was lovely. But had no name. Few Midi wines did back then. They just had tank numbers. Anyway, our off-top-of-head idea ‘Cuvée Georges Bertrand’ seemed OK to him. So, with a quickly sketched-out label, away it went … to wide acclaim. When we launched the Sunday Times Wine Club, ‘Le Georges‘ was the most popular wine. We sold a ton, and established a style which continues very popular to this day.

With Dubernet we three then came up with a follow-up idea; a lightly sparkling rosé, to be called ‘Rosé Perlant’. When a wine has a lot of bubbles the French call it Mousseux … as it foams, or mousses. With fewer bubbles it gets called a Crémant – creamy. Even fewer bubbles make it a pétillant – it prickles. With only a few bubbles or ‘pearls’ it is perlant or a perlé.

Georges was, as I said, sharp, but I haggled a great price out of him and felt good about that. However … when a thousand dozen turned up in Slough, for our next Sunday Times Offer, they had labels … but no capsules! “You didn’t ask for capsules” said big Georges, all innocent. Me; “Bbbb but, but, BUT … bottles always have capsules!” … it was futile.

We was stuffed. We had just one day to pack and despatch six thousand mixed dozens containing two bottles of a wine looking really cheap because it had no capsule. Our desperate solution was to send someone out round every Boots in the Home Counties and clean them out of the capsules they sold to amateur winemakers. It was an all-night job with those bloody capsules and the end of quite such a cosy relationship with Georges.

But his wine continued to sell well. And he was a good bloke, really. Some years later I got the dreadful news that Georges had aquaplaned off the autoroute at Narbonne, fatally … one of an alarming number of wine suppliers I have lost – and continue to lose – in road accidents in France. Great, great tragedy. Great guy, if a touch sharp. But also great to see his boy now doing so well. That was not a bad Chardonnay … the bottle had a capsule … and the plane came.

About Tony Laithwaite

Tony Laithwaite, founder of Laithwaite's, whose passion for wine is still going strong!

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