Jean Balluet – the alternative Cognac tour

Each week at our barbecues I bring out my now famous ‘chocolate chip cookie’ dessert and Chris brings down a frosty bottle of ‘Tempete de la mer’ (stormy sea) This delicious liqueur drips into your glass and then glides down your throat with the ease of melted chocolate and just as gorgeous. Its sweet and chilled with a slight ‘petillance’ and 30% alcohol,so its pretty lethal !

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The cries of ‘wow’ and ‘that’s delicious’ are heard every week and inevitably at least one family will make the 30 minute drive a day or so later to stock up on this ‘sparkling Cognac’ as we call it, to take home with them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Cognac houses have never heard of it. It can only be found exclusively from Jean Balluet, the producer in Neuvicq le chateau, east of Saint Jean d’Angely.

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You can visit the Chateau too

Since many of our guests at our family holiday cottages visit Balluets, we rarely make the journey ourselves these days, we just ask them to buy a few bottles for us when they go, however last week we were completely out and since we were on our way back from Angouleme we popped in. This time our eldest son was with us. He hears the stories every week about Jean Balluet and his ‘alternative Cognac tour’ but has never been himself . It’s been about 15 years since we ourselves have done his tour around the distillery – we usually just pop in buy what we need and leave; but today we had some spare time and decided it was time Benjamin had the pleasure.

You would need to know where it was to find it, blink and you’d miss it. No big sign (I don’t think there’s any sign) and not much to look at. A few stainless steel tanks at the back, but those can be found all over the area, as many farmers produce wine to sell to the large Cognac houses to distill since we are in the fin bois region of Cognac vineyards. 2016-06-21 11.20.10 2016-06-21 11.20.45

Jean wasn’t there that day, it was Arlette, a neighbour and friend of Jeans who took us on the tour. (probably a good thing as Jean is quite the comedian but his jokes are a bit on the rude side – our 13 yr old would die of embarrassment !)
She starts the tour by getting you to look in the mirrors which are straight from the fairground – making you fat or thin or very short (they don’t do that on the Hennessy tour !)

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Arlette then locks the front door and takes you passed rows of barrels in a dark passage to where you have the tasting session. We passed by the next part as Benjamin was with us and it was only 11am ! This tasting of the Balluet Cognac and Pineau is legendary. You get to taste everything and you get huge glasses of the amber liquids – make sure you have a dedicated driver !!!

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The Cognac barrel is next – you get to take a big sniff and as you do Arlette blows through another hole so you get blown away by the Cognac fumes up your nostrils – certainly clears the airways (I always remember Jean asking for the lady with the largest chest and lowest cut top to bend down to the barrel for this trick !)

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You get to see where the grapes come into the distillery and the grapes are separated from the stalks in the grappoir. You are shown the maceration and storage tanks, the swan neck copper still and finally row upon row of barrels filled with eau de vie, maturing and waiting to be blended into Cognac. You are shown the whole process from beginning to end . This isn’t the glossy, slick tour of the famous Cognac houses – it’s the ‘real’ tour of a real working distillery. The floors are sticky, cobwebs hang in every nook and cranny, you bend to walk under pipes and past stainless steel tanks.

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La ‘piece de resistance’ is the tower ! Four flights up a dark, wooden staircase to a magnificent view of the surrounding countryside. 15 years ago it was just the view, now there is a big orientation map and two telescopes.

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Our son felt very privileged to of done the Jean Balluet tour that he had heard so much about; we are privileged to have such an excellent local Cognac producer who thinks outside the box and has developed new products to attract new business. Unfortunately they had run out of sparkling Cognac until the 10th July, so we shall be going back very soon. We did however buy some of his sparkling Pineau which is just as delicious (and slightly less deadly) the problem is it was so delicious we went through two bottles before the barbecue even got going !

To make a day of it, you should also visit the Siecq winery just a few minutes away. No tour but you can have a tasting of all they produce. We have a chilled bottle of their Sauvignon for our guests when they first arrive and use their Pinot noir on our Taste du Terroir evenings. They also do a superb sparkling wine (champagne method) for just 6€ so well worth a visit.

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If you have travelled to us in the car rather than flying you can also fill up plastic bottles of your own with their vrac wine sold by weight .

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In fact trying and buying local wines, Pineau and Cognac and being able to take some home with you is one of the main reasons we recommend driving to us here in the Charente Maritime ! For more information about our family holiday cottages visit our web sites

www.grangedumoulin.com

www.lesvallaies.com

www.french-gites-and-villas.com

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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Ten reasons to love (and visit) the Charente Maritime

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We love the Charente Maritime ! After 20 years here, it is most definitely home to our family and we thought you should know why we love it and why you should love it too – or at least visit ! Stay in one of our family friendly holiday cottages located centrally within the region – ideal for visiting all the fabulous places the Charente Maritime has to offer.

Top ten reasons to love and visit the Charente Maritime

 

10, WEATHER

 

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The Charente Maritime has the most sunshine hours per year after the cote d’azur but it’s a lot closer ! It is recognised as having a superb micro climate with mild winters and gorgeous summers with much less rain generally than the Loire to the north and the Dordogne to the south but just enough to keep it lush and green most of the year rather than the dry south coast.

It is usually warm and sunny from Easter until the end of October but rarely gets unbearable. June is our favourite month – all the crops are fully grown, the sunflowers are in full glory and the temperatures are just perfect; hot and sunny during the day but cool enough overnight to be able to sleep comfortably.`

9, FOOD

P1110427-250x187I can’t really claim that the Charente Maritime is the only part of France that has great food; as all French people will tell you, France has the best food in the world ! I shan’t argue, we love our food and we love French food ! We particularly love the local Charente Maritime food of course. Gillardeau oysters are a particular favourite; goats cheese from Melanie Boursin in La Villedieu, Pineau from the Cartauds in Corpeteau and the local galette with angelica dipped in honey from l’abeille galante in Cherbonniers (all just a few km from us)

Every town, however small, has a market at least once a week where the locals buy all their fresh produce – meat, fish, fruit, veg and of course cheese. The Charente Maritime is no exception. There is a market somewhere every single day. France has literally hundreds of cheeses. President Charles de Gaulle was famously quoted as saying (in French of course) ”How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?” (others claim it’s actually more like 450 !) The Charente Maritime is famous for its goats cheeses and we have a number of local producers who sell from their farms or at the local Aulnay and Saint Jean d’Angely markets.

France is renowned for its patisseries, it’s pastries and of course its bread. Local bread deliveries are still made to the outlying villages that can no longer support a boulangerie. There’s no experience that makes you feel more like a local than the bread van stopping to give you your daily baguette, you can also catch up on the local gossip !

France is also home to the Michelin guide which awards ‘stars’ to top restaurants around the world. The Charente Maritime boasts 45 Michelin selected restaurants, two of which have star ratings but we know of dozens more restaurants that are absolutely superb. One of our favourites is Andrés in La Rochelle.

Our local town of Saint Jean d’Angely has a great selection of restaurants from family friendly creperies and pizzerias to superb bistros and top class dining worth a babysitter too. Whatever your taste and budget you’ll find something that suits you in the Charente Maritime.

8, LA ROCHELLE

2015-12-22 12.15.48Our county town, La Rochelle is known all over the world. It’s where the rich and famous pull into port in their yachts and gather to eat in Michelin starred restaurants and shop for jewellery. It’s also where you and I can watch the world go by whilst enjoying a coffee in one of the many cafés or eat moules frites in one of the hundreds of seafood restaurants.

Just an hours easy drive from our family holiday cottages, this beautiful city has something for everyone. Families will enjoy the great aquarium, a play on the beach and a walk through the park.

History buffs will enjoy the maritime museum, climbing the port towers and wandering the cobbled streets of the old town with its half-timbered medieval houses and Renaissance architecture and passageways covered by 17th-century arches.

Gourmets will enjoy the hundreds of restaurants, heavily dominated by seafood around the port but foods from around the world can be found down any street. The markets are overflowing with fresh fruit, vegetables and of course fish, oysters and mussels.

Find out more about La Rochelle here

7, WINE

2015-07-22 11.35.49This area is mainly known for it’s Cognac and most of the vines you see in every direction will be used for the production of Cognac. However we are just a boat ride away from the top end of the Medoc, the vineyards for Cognac soon merge into the vineyards of Bordeaux and the top names of Pauillac, Margaux and Saint Emilion . The world famous city of Bordeaux is just a 1hr30 drive from our door.

Small independent wine producers can be found all over the Charente Maritime. We have a number of local wine makers within 30 minutes of our holiday cottages that we highly recommend; Chris has worked in the wine industry all his life so he knows what he’s talking about too !

Whilst driving along the quiet country lanes you will often come across a sign to a local wine and Pineau producer (Pineau is the local tipple – an off shoot of the Cognac industry) Stop and taste their produce, meet the man (and/or woman ) who makes it and buy some as a souvenir of your holiday in the Charente Maritime.

6, COGNAC

IMG_0697A family holiday to the Charente Maritime would not be complete without a visit to the world famous town of Cognac – home to the celebrated brandy – All Cognac is brandy but not all brandy is Cognac – only the spirit produced in this area is allowed to given this prominent name.

Just cheating slightly Cognac is just a 30 minute drive from our family holiday cottages and centrally located within the Poitou Charente (it’s actually just on the Charente side rather than Charente Maritime but I’m claiming it as it’s so close !)

Cognac is home to renowned distillers such as Hennessy, Martell, Remy Martin and Otard.

All the houses offer tours to the public giving vistors an insight into the history, production and taste of their product. There may be other towns in the world called Cognac but this is the only one that can make it and it’s (nearly) in the Charente Maritime !

Find out more about Cognac here

5, BEACHES

280908 045The Charente Maritime has literally hundreds of miles of coastline and sandy beaches. With the four islands, Ile de Ré, Ile d’Oleron, Ile d’Aix and Ile Madam that are also included in this department plus the famous beach resorts of Royan, Chatelaillon plage and Fouras to name just a few, you won’t be short of beaches to relax on.

The mainland offers calm, shallow waters, ideal for families with younger children. For the older and more adventurous, just head over to the Atlantic side of the larger islands for body and wind surfing with big breakers.

Many beaches are protected through the Conservatoire du Littoral (the coastal protection agency) so remain unspoilt. The most popular beaches will have lifeguards on duty and the safer places to swim are marked .

Whatever your requirements for a day at the beach – be it sunbeds for hire, top restaurants, shade and toilets or natural beauty, peace and quiet you will find it on the beaches of the Charente Maritime.

Find out more about the beaches here

 

4, LOCATION

charente maritimeThe Charente Maritime is located about half way down France on the left ! South of the Loire, north of the Dordogne.

We are just a 4hr30 drive from the port of St Malo; 6hrs from Caen or 8hrs from Calais – far easier to reach the sunshine and beaches than having to drive all the way to the south coast.

The region is well supplied with a number of airports – La Rochelle is our closest at just 1hrs drive, then Poitiers at 1hr20 and Bordeaux at 1hr30; all the low cost airlines fly to these cities during the summer months.

Our local town of Saint Jean d’Angely is on junction 34 of the A10 motorway so links to all the major towns and cities easily.

Find out more about the location here

3, SIGHTSEEING

20150211_141139The Charente Maritime has endless places to visit and things to do. You may of already heard of La Rochelle, the Islands of Ile de Ré and Ile d’Oleron (certainly if you’ve been paying attention you will of !)

Maybe you’ve also heard of Royan and it’s beaches, Rochefort and the Corderie Royal (as well as the Hermione) Poitiers too but the Charente Maritime is also home to Saintes and it’s Roman ampitheatre, La Palmyre and its animal park, the citadelle de Brouage, la cite de l’huitre, grottes de regulus, and numerous chateaux, ports and museums to visit as well as parks, churches (above is our local Aulnay 12th century church) woods and forests and endless country lanes and cycle paths.

All the towns have an office of tourism where you can pick up local information on where you are staying and what there is to do close by.

Find out more about what to see and do in the Charente Maritime here

2, FAMILIES

Child-Friendly-BeachesThe Charente Maritime is the perfect location for families. The weather is just perfect – lots of sunshine but not unbearably hot. The location is perfect as it’s not too far to drive and is well supported for airports too.

The French are so welcoming here in rural France. They love children and they are welcome in restaurants – even the 2 star Michelin restaurant in La Rochelle has a high chair !

There’s something for all the family; beaches, animal parks and aquariums for the kids, history, culture and shopping for the adults  but you can also escape to the peace and tranquility of the rural French countryside.

Relax by the pool or sit under the shade of the vine reading a book whilst the children play with new found friends here at our family holiday cottages.

Find out more about a holiday with children here

1, US !

chris50BWe couldn’t write a top ten list of reasons to visit the Charente Maritime without including ourselves ! Our family holiday cottages, gites and villas are ideally located within the Charente Maritime to take advantage of all the above reasons to visit.

Our properties are all owned and managed by ourselves so you know you will receive excellent, personal service – just read some of our reviews on our web sites and on trip advisor to see why families return again and again to stay with us in the Charente Maritime .

They love the Charente Maritime and we are positive that you will love it too.

Visit our web site now for more information

For families – www.grangedumoulin.com and www.lesvallaies.com

For groups of adults or families with older children – www.french-gites-and-villas.com

Content by Wendy Blakeman

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Wine tastings at our family holiday cottages

When staying at our family holiday cottages here in the Charente Maritime region of France we can offer exclusive wine tastings and other wine related activities. Professional wine tastings, Family vineyard tours and Taste du terroir social evenings which all add to mum and dads holiday enjoyment.

Our wine tastings and other wine related activities are organised by Chris Blakeman – our very own professional wine expert. He has made his living in the wine industry teaching ‘wine’ to employees, wine tasting as a judge at the international wine challenge and working within the hospitality industry for over 20 years. It is also a passionate hobby and he enjoys sharing his knowledge to all who are interested and dispelling some of the mystery which surrounds wine.

Wine

We are ideally situated in France, here in the Charente Maritime, the family holiday cottages are in fact in the heart of the Fin Bois region of Cognac and vines can be found in any direction. Bordeaux and its world famous vineyards are only a 1.5hr drive.

 

 Professional wine tastings at La Grange du Moulin

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Six fine wines will be selected to give a well rounded and enjoyable tasting. The evening is intended to be an informal and friendly chat about wine where you feel at ease and able to ask any questions you wish about wine. Chris will go through in detail how to taste a wine including appearance, nose and taste. You will have the chance to make notes and discuss what you see, smell, think about each wine. No one will be put on the spot and you can say as much or as little as you wish. In all it lasts about 3 hours. Held in our front garden, baby monitors should reach from your cottage.

8 per group, no children. 30 euros per person.

 

 Family Vineyard walks at La Grange du Moulin

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Our family vineyard walks are held each week. We start with a cold glass of Pineau – the local tipple, for the adults and a short chat about this locally made drink. We then take a gentle stroll along the country lanes and tracks towards the vineyards. Stopping regularly along the way, Chris talks about the countryside, its history and uses today, how vines grow and why wine tastes like it does, plus anything else you would like to know. Lasts about 2hrs. Not strenuous, can take prams although a bit bumpy through the vines.

min 4 adults, 8 euros per adult, free for children

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Taste du Terroir evenings at our family holiday cottages

If you can’t make on of our wine tastings we have Taste du Terroir evenings as an alternative (or as well as !) or as an extra social evening. Here we have a selection of local produce, wines and food all sourced from within 20km of our gites and produced by small family owned enterprises. Held early evening and in the garden so the children can play whilst mum and dad enjoy the local delicacies – not a meal, more of an aperitif, very relaxed and informal. You can chat to Chris about the wines and Wendy about the food or just chat to the other guests about anything at all.

min 6 adults, 15 euros per adult

2015-06-17 18.04.43For full details of our family holiday cottages here in the Charente Maritime, France visit our web site www.grangedumoulin.com We have a range of cottages to choose from for all the family or if you prefer we also have several stand alone private villas which would be ideal for a group of adults wanting to enjoy a relaxing wine themed holiday. Find out more at  www.french-gites-and-villas.com

content by Wendy Blakeman

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Rémy Martin Cognac house

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It was my Birthday on Wednesday and we had cleared our schedule for the day so we could have a ‘day out’. After 20 years of living in the Fin Bois region of Cognac we have visited many of the large names – Otard, Martell and our favourite – Hennessey but since Hennessey is closed for the summer this year we thought we’d try one we had never been to before and a little harder to get to – Rémy Martin.

It is located just a few km from the center of Cognac, on an industrial estate. The web site recommends booking a tour in advance and indeed if you just turn up there didn’t seem anyway of accessing the reception as the gates appeared to be kept locked, security also was quite tight with hand bags being checked on entering – very different to Hennesseys relaxed ‘open door’ shop and tour reception area. Still we had booked so were let in by the security guard. We were on the 11am English tour and there was another at 1.30pm. The 1.30pm tour seems to be a regular event but the 11am one is ‘on demand’ depending on numbers of anticipated or booked visitors.

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The tour lasts 1hr30 which is split into a 1hr tour and then 30 mins in the tasting room and shop. We had heard there you tour on a ‘train’ which goes into the vines – we thought this might be a great Cognac tour for our guests at our La Grange du Moulin and Les Vallaies family friendly holiday cottages since most have young children so a tour about Cognac needs to be fast moving and visually stimulating enough to keep the children happy whilst Mum and Dad learn about this delicious drink ! The Hennessey tour starts with a boat ride across the river and the Remy train ride sounded just as good !

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Our guide Max was excellent, he spoke perfect English with a wonderful accent. He regularly asked if we had understood and made a point of saying we must tell him if we don’t – I suspect they receive numerous complaints from foreign tourists moaning that the tour guides don’t speak perfect English – likely a reflection of the ignorant tourist rather than the tour guides. The tour started with a description of the Cognac region, terroir and the history of the Rémy Martin company, a company founded in 1724 by a young wine grower in the region and is now in its 5th generation. We took our ‘train’ which actually turned out to be a row of electric carts which we hopped on and off throughout the tour as it took us to the different ‘chai’ on the large estate. We did pass some vines located on the estate, but just a few – we have far more within a short walk of our family holiday cottages.

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 We were told about the barrel making process, visited one of their many chai and told about the ageing process and also visited their oldest chai filled with barrels containing eau de vies over 100 years old and from which they make their most prestigious Louis 13th Cognac at 2600€ a bottle – we didn’t get to taste this one ! They do however do a Louis 13th tour which is by appointment only and includes a full day including a gourmet lunch and of course a tasting of this very special Cognac – I suspect it costs a little more than our 18€ ticket.

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Our tour ended with a tasting of their VSOP and XO cognacs which were each paired with an ‘amuse bouche’ – A parmesan galette with roquefort cream for the VSOP and a divine passion fruit macaroon with chocolate filling with the XO – they really worked well together with the Cognacs. The children were given a fresh orange juice with some biscuits and a few sweets.

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All in all we had a lovely day. It was a professional tour including everything you needed to know about Rémy Martin and Cognacs in general however although our children aged 12 and 9 were welcome (and free) and the tour held their interest, for much younger children it wasn’t as visually stimulating (for little ones) or as fast moving as the Hennesey tour and the ‘train’ wouldn’t hold muster with even the youngest of kids !

content by Wendy Blakeman

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The future of wine

Wine has been an integral part of our lives for a least 7000 years according to archaeologists.  Wine making residue has been found as far back as the neolithic period in Iran, the region from which vines originated. Due to the forensic nature of the evidence being difficult to find,  wine was probably made much further into the past than we have evidence for .

amphoraOne problem for wine makers that has always existed is how to keep the wine fresh and tasty and free from oxidation and unwanted bacteria. Methods have included reeds and leaves covered in clay by the Egyptians to oiled soaked rags, leather, straw and wax by the Greeks and Romans and finally the cork. They all had their problems of course but cork has reigned supreme for more than a thousand of years as the best method, until that is, recently.

 

The arrival of the screw cap promised guaranteed fresh wine, however having now had a number of years to test out the promises, not everything is as good as the hype suggested. One claim was screw caps would end the problem of tainted cork syndrome or TCS. This syndrome is caused by a bacteria that infects the wine and leads to damp earth and mouldy odours and taste. It is usually caused by the cork being infected with this bacteria which in turn infects the wine. However any wine infected by other means in the course of its production will still be tainted or ‘corked’ even without ever being near a cork. The poor old cork still gets the blame. It is true that the advent of screw caps have greatly reduced the incidence of TCS but has not given 100% protection from it.

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There are other problems with screw caps too. Many perceive them as a sign of a ‘cheap wine’ and would not serve them at a dinner party. You should not be so quick to judge; many great wines are now sealed with screw caps.

The real problem with screw caps is not allowing a wine to mature as it seals just a tiny amount of air in the bottle whereas a cork allows the wine to continually, albeit slowly to interact with the atmosphere which in turn allows the wine to  develop complexity through a ‘controlled’ oxidisation. Wines under screw cap develop in a very different way leading to a difference in how they taste and smell, ask any chemist about this .

Many wine makers have now changed their ‘closure’ method (cork or screw cap) to reflect their wine making technique.  Wines which are made to be drunk young are often given a screw cap . Some wine makers have even gone as far as changing their wine making technique to create a wine not requiring maturation at all to reflect the increasing ‘instant 24/7 society’ where consumers demand ‘ready to drink’ wines. A great shame in my opinion as much is lost in flavour and complexity but then I’ve overheard people say (and even seen tv ads) that they don’t care what the wine is just as long as they like it and its got good alcohol content (please save us !!) .

So it seems we are left with two choices – ‘unreliable’ cork or ‘drink now’ screw cap…

…. or are we ?

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Well there is a new way –  the latest Stelvin screw cap. Stelvin have been making screw caps for years but it has come up with a new one.  It uses different grades of  liner in their screw caps that allow progressive levels of oxygen transfer into the wine bottle allowing the wine maker to tailor the closure to the wine.  To me it looks like the answer to both the wine buff and the casual wine drinker.  It remains to be seen if the industry takes them up but sounds to me like a great idea. It still won’t stop the traditionalists (and snobs) from turning their noses up at the fact it has no cork, but then a few thousand years of ‘tradition’ may take a little while to change.

 

Content by Chris Blakeman

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Reveillon, Christmas, old friends and new

Last Christmas we had a big gathering of the family, lots of children making lots of noise, oldies snoozing by the fire, ourselves working very hard to bring one of the most difficult meals of the year to the table, piping hot for 15 people. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy all the preparation and cooking but its just not exactly ‘relaxing’ . So, this year (all Wendy’s idea but mainly because of the disposition of the family this year) we had a Christmas with just the four of us and took on the French ‘Reveillon’ tradition but with an English twist ….

….So the traditional Reveillon is a luxurious meal consumed late on Christmas eve – the twist is we had our Reveillon at lunch time ! We spent an enjoyable morning prepping a lovely lunch and had the whole afternoon to relax and enjoy some port and Christmas cake followed by a relatively early night ready for our 5am wake up call that Santa had been and the boys jumping on our bed to open their stockings. This left Christmas day itself free to enjoy presents and to spend the day in a very relaxed way with only ourselves to cater for (turkey sandwiches and lots of chocolates !) and no huge meal to cook and serve. For the first time in a long time we had a lovely relaxed festive period that lasted well into the new year . My wine bill was a lot less too not only because it was just us, but we drank much less too , no big meal to open wine for, between the two of us we opened just one bottle all day !  Over the whole Christmas holiday however, we did get through a few bottles but it was all about quality rather than quantity.

Here’s what we did drink over Christmas

2015-01-11 12.33.58Warres port 1983 (a very welcome birthday present from Wendy, the year we met) still youthful fruit packed, mellow and rich to my taste, could mature for another 15 to 20 years but it went very well with our homemade Christmas cake .

D’Oliveiras boal Madeira 1993 (a Christmas present also from Wendy, the year we married) I was advised to let this breath for 8 hours . A great combination of sweetness and acidity . This coated the tongue at first with golden flavour’s of rich nutty almonds and spice then racy acidity cleans the palate . For me the acidity is a sign the wine needs quite a few more years to mature I felt it was a shame to have opened it .

These were enjoyed with a slice or three of Christmas cake or a few mince pies – delicious.

One afternoon over the holidays a very old French friend – Joel popped in. We hadn’t seen him for a few years, he lives in Bordeaux but has a holiday home near by us here in The Charente Maritime. We often talk about the time he invited us for an aperitif and a few oysters he had picked up at low tide on the beaches near where he lives. We arrived at 6pm and 150 oysters, 8 hrs and I forget how many bottles of wine later we eventually cycled home on the dirt track between our villages. That’s 150 oysters each by the way, served in a bucket at your feet ! Anyway Joel has the joy of being able to scour the Bordeaux brocantes for hidden wine treasures and turned up over Christmas with a bottle of La Rose Maucaillou 1982 Margaux

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Yes that’s right an ’82 one of the greatest vintages of the 20th century in Bordeaux. The bottle was very cold and cloudy so we both agreed not to open it there and then. All wines that have been transported, rolling around in the back of the car or even carefully held in your hands should still be rested for at least 24hrs. After 5 days of rest it had really cleared up so I carefully decanted it and took a few tentative sips – wow. We were not disappointed. This poor orphan of a wine lost over the years ending up at a brocante in the back streets of Bordeaux finally found a loving home where it was greatly appreciated. It was elegant, full and smooth with integrated forest fruit flavours, almost sweet on the palate, thank you Joel.

With some more good friends popping by I persuaded myself to open up my Chateau Pieure Lichine 2006 Margaux magnum. A silky smooth demure and very sexy claret, one glass leads to another and … I was surprised at how ready to drink this was, it was just lovely .

2015-01-11 12.32.15Also on our reds list was a thoughtful present from our good friend Matt; Campo Viejo Gran Reserva 2007 Rioja.  Its been some time since I’ve had this wine and its always been a favorite . My first taste was a 1978 on a very hot day in Spain in 1985, I loved it then and still do but I bet it cost more than the 300 pesetas I paid though. Refined oak and damson elements, drinking well now but would benefit from another couple of years ageing.  As a rule of thumb Rioja of this quality needs around 10 years to develop .

And so from old friends to a couple of new…..

 

2015-01-11 12.33.232014-12-24 13.58.35We drank very little white over Christmas and this wine may be the reason why Brancott Estate ‘terroir series’ sauvignon blanc 2013 – we only had one bottle !

When Montana changed its name to Brancott a few things changed ; their Montana sauvignon soon disappeared leaving us without our standard everyday house white but this incarnation is fantastic, this is Sauvignon with class it has all the the flavour of Sauvignon you would expect but its been taken to a new level and just shows what can be achieved with this Loire grape in New Zealand . We also enjoyed a bottle of Clos Henri 2012 Malborough for our reveillon meal a wine with good weight, herbacious and elegant a top class sauvignon on a par with the Brancott.

2015-01-11 12.33.34Our Champagne for the Christmas period was Veuve Clicquot vintage 2004 I have a soft spot for this famous orange labeled wine ever since I spent a week as an intern in their chalky cellars and even had my breakfast down there. Its my ‘go to’ Champagne, not just because of the personal connection but because its a great bench mark fizz.  We drank two bottles of this over Xmas, both gifts so thank you to my brother Steve and my sister in law, Liz for the other. Unfortunately they were both disappointing, lacking any depth of flavour and were just bland, considering they cost £20 more than the non vintage .

I was reminded of a quote I was told when working in Champagne   ” when we make non vintage champagne, we use both hands, when we make vintage champagne, we have one hand tied behind our backs” – Henri Krug. Meaning when they make vintage champagne, a blended product of different cuvées, they are restricted in using only cuvées from that year, whereas for a non vintage there are no such restrictions and they can use the best cuvées to make the best champagne.  Both hands were tied in 2004 I think.

Well that’s pretty much everything we drank over the festive period. A big thank you to all our friends and family, old and new who have made our Christmas very enjoyable. It’s the New Year now and we’re on the wagon for a while. Happy New Year and may you enjoy some really good wines throughout 2015 .

by Chris Blakeman

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Botrytis

When I first started my wine career in the early 80’s, we learnt about ‘botrytis’ which is basically a rot that can develop on grapes in certain micro climates. It dehydrates the grapes, sucking out the water but leaving the sugars behind which results in luscious and balanced dessert wine. The process is sometimes referred to as noble rot.

On our visit to the UK just before Christmas 2013, I visited all the local Dorset wine merchants and found the few independent, traditional wine merchants to be doing well serving their local community with fine wine. However, to my alarm  I found the supermarkets (the big names) to have gone down the ‘generic’ route – where profit is more
important than quality or variety. I was faced with row after row of  every  ‘Blossom Hill’ (or equivalent) available in the world.   Don’t get me wrong, Blossom Hill, Hardys and Lindemans have their place, but do we really want 15 different types of them with no other choice ? I certainly do not.

There are still some good national chains around such as Majestic wines and many towns are also lucky enough to have a traditional family owned wine merchant to supply their needs; however it seems to me that since the national off licence chains such as Threshers, Unwins, Wine rack etc  closed over 2500 shops in the last 3 years,
the supermarket chains have realised their is no national competition and have gone totally down the profit only route. Now we see adverts for wine saying ”I don’t care what it is but I like it”  I really hope that this is not a true reflection of what the British consumer thinks about wine.
The national chains have no one to blame but themselves for their demise as they tried to play the supermarkets at their own game. They alienated their true market of loyal wine loving customers by stacking high and selling profit led wines like Blossom Hill, rather than keeping the quirky, interesting stock that their clients wanted. Rather than competing by offering what the supermarkets couldn’t, they tried to compete which just was not possible.

The present situation was all predicted over 20 years ago by the government think tank on future alcohol sales. When I worked for Grand Metropolitan (owners of Peter Dominic group) I was shown a report which predicted a £12 billion increase in the sale of alcoholic products in the next 15 to 20 years and supermarket chains gaining
98% of this increase  – not far off the mark at all !

There is hopefully light at the end of the tunnel. Waitrose and Marks and Spencers have won accolades for their wine range. It seems they have realised there is a gap in the market to fill, after all the likes of me still want to be able to buy a Coteaux du Layon (a botrytis affected wine) from a small producer in the Loire, because for me wine
is a passion and an interest and I do ‘care what it is’ and where it came from.

The whole market seems to be in a state of flux and I can only hope that the supermarkets will see the error of their ways and that this ‘rot’ that has infiltrated the industry turns into something good in the end.

content by Chris Blakeman

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Beauvais wine (un) fair

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Last weekend was the annual wine fair in Beauvais sur Matha, a small town in the Charente Maritime region of France about a 20min drive from our family holiday properties. For the first time in a couple of years the weather was just right, sunny but not too hot. We have been going for around fifteen years although the fair itself has been going for 22.  

We always head off fairly early, aiming to arrive for 10ish – the idea being that it is quieter and the producers are keen to chat and discuss the depth of their wines. By the afternoon and after having sold plenty and consumed their lunch of wine and cheese, they are tired and more occupied by the hundreds of people tasting their wines to be keen to talk. We tour around the town square tasting more than 50 + wines but also receiving tastings of Cognac, Champagne, cheese, bread, paté and snails, to name just a few of the hearty free portions of French produce there is on offer- you can understand why we are regular visitors.

So, is it a hard sell or a tourist trap ? Far from either – all the producers are there because P1100913-353x269they are small business’ who cannot 
dream of filling a vast ‘warehouse bin’, consequently they are ignored by the supermarkets. So are they just small producers from 
unknown areas ? Again, far from it – Margaux, Sauternes, Pomerol, Pouilly Fumé are all there, to name but a few. Not only are the 
wines of great quality, when you taste, the people pouring are the people who made it; that’s the joy of it for me. I can ask the more in 
depth questions that only the producer would know and can get a real understanding of each wine and the people who made it.

P1100912-534x398The ambiance is very jolly indeed. A band plays,  children run around while the adults taste and buy and teenagers move around with trolleys delivering cases of wine to peoples cars. This is the way most French buy their wine around here and we arn’t talking just a couple of bottles, this is serious stuff; dozens of bottles to lay down,  its the French way – talk to the guy who made your wine, keep it in the “cave ” and drink at its optimum maturity – not a bad way to always have the perfect bottle to serve up to guests, not to mention the story of how you know the family and how they made it.

Over the years the same quality wine makers return year after year. I get personal letters from the ones I know allowing me to pre order and to remind me about the fair, I know its business, but its still nice. The last couple of years there have been several new 
producers. I was very impressed with one in particular and have purchased a few from Chateau Montana Cotes Du Roussillion Les Aspres 2011 . It was full, rich and complex, it had new world fruit with old world class, fantastic stuff, a bit pricey at €11 for a Roussillion wine but more than worth it in taste. Another wine I very much liked was Chateau Charmant Margaux 2009, €16 and surprisingly drinking well now, it will go 3 to 5 more years but is classic Margaux, opulent, silky and refined. Some of the other producers 
I buy from are Domaine Sargent Madiran and Turpin Menetou Salon Sauvignon . For those who love Sancerre and Pouilly Fume this is a name worth remembering as its almost the same wine for about 20% less.P1100906-250x187

So that was my morning on Sunday. In the afternoon we have a bit of a tradition where we hold our own wine competition. Every one brings a bottle that in their opinion was the ‘best in show’ at the Beauvais wine fair. We hide all the wine labels and everyone marks 
them out of ten. The wine with the highest points wins the ‘best wine’ award. This year there were 12 wines entered,  the prize was a splendid trophy the best €5 could buy (mostly plastic but a base of real marble). Sadly my entered wine did not win,  there’s certainly no accounting for taste. Excuses, I have a plenty the main one being that the winning wine was unfairly covered in a rather fetching scarf rather than the standard tinfoil which in my opinion was cheating. No one likes a bad sport but suffice to say the best wine at the Beauvais wine fair was unfairly robbed of it’s due recognition and that’s all I have to say !

Content by Chris Blakeman

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The joy of yeast infections ….. and Pinot Noir

If you have read my recent blog on my love affair with Bordeaux and Burgundy I left you with the choice of what to put in your cellar. It was either the difficult to find, expensive and fickle Burgundy’s or the much more reliable and easier on the pocket Bordeaux’s. My considered opinion was that with Burgundy, despite its huge variation in quality and inflated prices its principal red grape – Pinot Noir can deliver much more rewarding drinking in the short term; I have found most of my classed Bordeaux’s are nowhere near ready to drink and may, if I’m lucky, just be ready to share with my now 11 year old when hes old enough to imbibe.

So, what should we put away in the very short term to enjoy ? Well I have recently fallen madly in love with a Pinot Noir from down under – no, not Oz, keep going and you will find another deep south outpost mostly known for its Sauvignon. The home of Sauvignon,  the Loire is only now just waking up to the world wide taste for fresh zingy well crafted wines of this ilk; they are not quite there yet but watch this space for modern Sauvignons from France. ( hopefully a few more of which I will discover at the 22nd Beauvais sur Matha wine festival on the 1st June )

The wine that has so charmed me is Coney Pizzicato Pinot Noir from the North Island New Zealand – not somewhere in the Otago but in Martinborough. This wine is one of the best Pinot noirs I have ever tasted and I’ve had more than my fair share as a wine judge for the IWC . How they get this young wine to express such maturity is a marvel of wine making; while retaining its classic Pinot perfume with  natural sweetness, it also has cherry/ violet notes, good weight with delightful umami; so much so, I think it has benefited from Brettanomyces  Once you have tried a wine with this so called ‘yeast infection’ you will be forever seeking it, out I know I do (something I had to explain carefully to my wife !). Sadly such epicurean delights don’t come cheap as it sells for around £20 a bottle (Majestic) but I would rather have one bottle of this Pinot delight than a dozen insipid run of the mill Bourgogne reds in my wine rack .

Sadly I missed this vineyard when we visited Martinbrough Last spring, surprising, as 
Martinbrough is such a small place; the kind of charming rural town that shuts down on a 
Sunday night. Instead I spent my time drinking the famous Pinot noir from Ata Rangi – fantastic stuff but 3 times the price. Great ageing potential but I want to drink my Pinot now so its Coney for me thanks mate.

Now a quick update of the state of  UK Supermarket wine after my recent visit over Easter. Well wine lovers its more bad news. Since my last visit to the UK (October),  there are even more generic bland industrial wines on the shelves to fit the sub £10 bracket.  I don’t think the supermarkets think we want interesting crafted wines anymore as they appear to of completely dropped these in favour of the bland factory wines that they can easily buy and sell at huge mark ups as long as its palatable and has the required alcohol content;  did you see the tv ad where a ‘typical shopper’ says ” I don’t care what it is I just like it ” this should send a shiver down any wine lovers spine and just shows how a supermarket will lower its self to the lowest common denominator if we allow them to. So – demand more ! more taste, more diversity and better value for money .  Don’t get me wrong I love British supermarkets, they are the best in the world, we just need to demand more from them when it comes to wine, don’t let them leave it to the accountants who wouldn’t know a good yeast infection if it hit them where it really hurts (and I don’t mean their pockets !) 

By Chris Blakeman

 

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A road to nowhere

(originally published Feb. 2014)
The family and I have just returned from our skiing trip to Les Angles in the southern Pyrenees.
There was lots of snow and sunshine. It was our first ski trip to this particular resort and we found the slopes to be just right for us two long term scardey cat novice skiers and our ‘to the max 8 and a 11yr olds’. Fun was had by all, more for them than me as I managed to injure my foot, I don’t know how, maybe because of the new radical way I do parallel turns.  My other disappointment was the total lack of Spanish wines in the village shops and restaurants, despite Spain being less than a short Swallow flight away ( sorry just watched lots of Monty Python while resting the injured foot ) I was really looking forward to exploring some obscure Catalan wines, but no, all wines available were distinctly French even though half the skiers were  from over the border.
This got me thinking over every ‘too cool’ glass of red wine I was served in Les Angles, not to mention the biblical amounts of meat the restaurants dish out  (don’t get me wrong – I’m no veggie but even lions would think twice about that much meat),  that I had forgotten just how diverse French country wines can be. In one restaurant, much to my blushes, I did not know a single one of the wines on the list; I was aware of the AOC  regions but not the individual wines themselves. There were lots of Rousillion grenache based wines along with Mourvedre Mauzac  and the better known Cabernets etc.Now its been a long time since I studied this regions country wines, in fact more than 30, so my opinion was rather tarnished by the unpolished rustic wines that were being produced back
then in the 80’s and the fact that I have been having a love affair with my two mistresses of Burgundy and Bordeaux. (The latter mistress and I are not getting on at the moment – more on that next time).  So I have mostly overlooked trying out these obscure gems but much to my pleasure, I found all the wines I tried to be well crafted, polished yet still showing their rustic roots. A little expensive at restaurant prices (we paid just over 30 euros for most of them) I considered them to be about right if compared on taste to the more well known wines, but they need to bring the price down about 20% so more people from outside the region will give them a go.

 As usual, on the last night of the ski trip there was a blizzard,  leaving us with 40 cm of fresh snow, now a Ford S Max in the snow is not a good place to be –  its big, heavy and has big summer tyres so it was a good thing we remembered to bring the snow chains.   Due to the weather we took the southern route home A9, A61 , A62, so sadly no Andorra shopping and according to the kids a 7hr road to nowhere going the wrong way.Along the route I was treated to a whos who of the south wests great wine names – you could spend a month discovering many of these vineyards on this route but here are just a few in the order I remember – Rivesaltes, Corbieres, Faugeres, Minervois, Limoux, Fronton, Gers, Cabardes, St Chinian then on to Armagnac and then, the pinnacle of red wine, Bordeaux; so a 7 hour road trip can be very interesting indeed, it just depends whose eyes you see it through,not sure the kids were as enthralled as I was.
content by Chris Blakeman
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