Marathon journey - October 2018

My son ran in the Bilbao Night Marathon and we thought, for no clear reason, that it would be a good idea to be there. Like most sensible people, we don’t mind flying but we can’t stand airports so we decided to drive. Naturally I sniffed a wine buying opportunity.

On the way down we stayed overnight at Angoulême, a pleasant walled town on a hill with an excellent central market (Les Halles d'Angoulême) selling all kinds of gastronomic treats. Bilbao was naturally packed (with 15,000 runners and hangers on) and there were no gastronomic treats available because every table in every restaurant was booked. We bought the heroic youth a celebratory slice of Spanish omelette the next morning and drove ourselves to Biarritz.

Biarritz was a favourite destination for the British aristocracy in Victorian and Edwardian times and many of the street names reflect that history. Though I didn’t think that Allée Winston Churchill really needed a plaque explaining who this person was. Biarritz is like a Rough Guide user’s Monte Carlo with surfers instead of superyacht owners.


The next morning, having eaten a sensible breakfast of Gâteau Basque, we headed for Carcassonne via Castelnaudry, nominated by Elizabeth David as the home of cassoulet. A brief walk around confirmed that the restaurant owners of Castelnaudry are fully in agreement with her but we pressed on in search of wine from the local Cabardes area.

Cabardès is a unique French appellation just to the north west of Cacassonne. Obviously all appellations are unique but this one is uniquely unique in a particularly French way.
If you draw a line from Calais in the north to Carcasonne in the south you will find that there are grapes that are pretty much only found on the west side (Atlantic grapes) and others only to the east of the line (Mediterranean grapes). The main red wine grapes of Bordeaux are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. You will find these all over the west of France including most of the Loire. On the other side of France (Burgundy and the Rhone) you will find Pinot Noir, Gamay and Syrah (aka Shiraz). In terms of white, the Med scores Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. The Atlantic largely makes do with Chenin Blanc.

Cabardès is the only French appellation that blends Atlantic and Mediterranean grapes. The producers are not just allowed but obliged to do this. The result, presumably, is that no two producers’ wines taste the same (I am making an assumption; I haven’t tasted them all). This is great for small time wine snobs like me who are thrilled with the idea of discovering something esoteric and wonderful but obviously not so appealing for those who don’t know much but know what they like.

As soon as we saw a sign to a producer we turned off the road and found ourselves at the Domaine des Sesquières an isolated property that appeared to be guarded by cats. These were unpromisingly soon joined by an elderly lady but then the proprietor himself appeared accompanied by an amiable but unsurprisingly scatty dog. I was not expecting a great tasting experience and so it proved but we were given some generous recommendations about where else to go and some warnings about closed roads following some disastrous flooding to the north of Carcassonne. Honour was satisfied by the purchase of a half case (at €9 a bottle) of 2015 “Prestige” which is 60% Atlantic (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot) and 40% Mediterranean (Syrah, Grenache).

Pennautier is 2 kilometres north of Carcassonne and here by a mixture of cursory research and luck we found Chateau Auzias. It grows twelve different grapes over 160 hectares and makes mostly reds but also some rosé and white. Once I had eliminated the oaked reds the choice was easy: 24 bottles of Petits Messieurs (25% Syrah - 25% Merlot - 25% Grenache - 25% Cabernet) at just under €7 a bottle. We were gifted a bottle of a new white blend of Chardonnay and Viognier which was also excellent.


The centre of Carcassonne is a fortified town that is so perfect that it seems almost unreal.


We satisfied our cassoulet craving here. We had a long way to go the next day and left at first light. So it came to pass that just before 09.30 I found myself unbreakfasted and tasting red wine.

Minervois is a relatively large appellation in the region known as Langeudoc-Roussillon. When I was a youth, Minervois was a cheap wine-lake product that you took to student parties. The wine is still competitively priced but informed consensus has it that the quality has soared.

We visited Chateau Grave, because I had drunk a bottle with the cassoulet the night before. Chateau Grave is a busy and welcoming operation a short distance off the D road from Carcassonne to Beziers.

Having sniffed and dismissed the oaked offerings I bought a case of Expression rouge (€6.90 a bottle). This is a classic Mediterranean Syrah blended with Grenache and Carignan. I was slightly worried that my taste buds might not have been at their most functional but I have tried a bottle in more congenial circumstances and it was delicious.

A final and somewhat alarming curiousity - due, perhaps, to the bounty of the 2018 harvest, the estate has bottled some en primeur wine (Minervois nouveau!). We were given a bottle of 2018 red (the date was 23 October). I wouldn’t buy it but it was truthfully not too bad and perhaps I shouldn’t have used half the bottle for a boeuf Bourguignon.


Appendix one - our hero


Appendix two - the French wine lovers' guide

BordeauxCabernet SauvignonSyrahRhone
Cabernet FrancMourvedre
Petit VerdotCinsault
Savuignon BlancPicpoul Noir
SemillonTerret Noir
Sauvignon GrisMarsanne
JuranconGros MansengViognier
Petit MansengBourboulenc
MadiranTannatGrenache Blanc
Cabernet FrancPicpoul Blance
Cabernet SauvignonPicardan
Petit MansengCarignanCorbieres
Gros MansengMourvedre
Savuignon BlancSyrah
Cabernet SauvignonMacebeu
Cabernet FrancMarsanne
Gros MansengRoussanne
Petit MansengVermentino
Petit CourbuGrenache Blanc
Cabernet SauvignonLiedoner Perut
Cabernet FrancViognier
Gros MansengBourboulenc
Petit MansengMacebeu
Raffiat de MoncadeMarsanne
BergeracCabernet SauvignonRoussanne
Cabernet FrancMuscat
MalbecClairette Blanche
Savuignon BlancGrenache
Ugni BlancSyrah
Chenin BlancLiedoner Perut
Cabernet FrancChenin Blanc
Cabernet SauvignonPinot NoirBurgundy
Gros MansengAligoté
Chenin BlancSauvignon Blanc
Petit MansengSauvignon BlancSancerre
Raffiat de MoncadePinot Noir
St MontTannatSauvignon BlancPouilly Fumé
Cabernet FrancChasselas
Cabernet SauvignonCarignanLanguedoc
Gros MansengSyrah
Petit MansengChardonnay
Petit CourbuSauvignon Blanc
Clairette BlanchePinot Noir
LavilledieuTannatPinot Meunier
Cabernet FrancSylvanerAlsace
NegrettePinot Blanc
Gamay Riesling
SyrahPinot Gris
Fer Muscat d'Alsace
FrontonNegrettePinot Noir
Cabernet FrancPinot NoirJura
Cabernet SauvignonTrousseau
Gamay MourvedreProvence
GaillacCabernet FrancTibouren
Cabernet SauvignonCarignan
SyrahCabernet Sauvignon
Gamay Folle
Sauvignon BlancMuscardin
MuscadelleTerret Noir
Len de l'EiRolle
MarcillacCabernet FrancClairette
Cabernet SauvignonUgni Blanc
SyrahGrenache Blanc
DurasSauvignon Blanc
Gamay Marsanne
Chenin BlancSpagnol
Gamay Muscat
Cabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Chenin Blanc
TouraineCabernet Franc
VouvrayCabernet Sauvignon
Malbec (Cot)
Pinot Noir
Chenin Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc
AnjouChenin Blanc
Cabernet Franc
SaumurCabernet Franc
Cabernet Sauvignon
Pineau d'Aunis
Chenin Blanc
Sauvignon Blanc
MuscadetMelon de Bourgogne
CabardèsCabernet FrancSyrahCabardès
Cabernet SauvignonGrenache