Along the lower Dordogne valley gnarled vines trained on wires stretch out as far as the eye can see like so many fields of hedges. In recent years I’ve lost touch with French wine, my taste buds bludgeoned by supermarket new world offers. Here I’m overwhelmed here by the choice of wines available and the scale of production.
Out walking near the village of Lamothe-Montravel where we are staying, I meet Monsieur Jean-René Ley a passionate winemaker, with a dry wit and sprightliness that belies his 89 years. He was born at his vineyard, Domaine des Templiers, which has been in the family for generations. Perched on a plateau above the Bordeaux to Bergerac road on land once owned by the Knights Templar, it’s next to a late thirteenth century Templar chapel, lovingly restored by the inhabitants of the hamlet of Bonnefare.
The stone and flint peppered chalk soil is not fertile enough for anything other than vine growing. The English occupation of Aquitaine in the Middle Ages stimulated wine production and, when they withdrew, it took until after the Second World War for wine production to reach the same levels as in the early 1300s. We’re 10 kilometres here from St Emilion and its grands crus , but the Bonnefare soil produces wines of a similar quality. Singlehanded, M Ley looks after 60 hectares of vineyard and works 12 hours a day seven days a week, only taking on another three people at harvest time.
“To make good wine, you need three things: a good grape, a good wine maker and you need to have luck.” Winemaking is a risky business: “We have what we call ‘capital risks’. Everything is outside and anything can happen right up to the harvest.” Vineyard owners are expert weather watchers, fearing the hailstorms that can devastate their delicate crops.
“This year the grapes are looking good, but we’ll have to wait and see,” he says, “The harvest won’t start until 5 October, three weeks later than normal because of the cold spring.” The white wine juice ferments at 160 C for about 2 weeks and red at 25-280 for 25 days. The red wine needs a higher temperature and longer initial fermentation period to give the wine its tannin content and richness. It’s only at this stage that M Ley can get a sense of the quality of wine that he has, and even then he can’t be sure of what the finished wine will taste like. The wines then matures in tall metal vats (each holding 45,000 bottles) or, if it’s very good quality, in oak barrels.
He pours a 2010 red, one of his better recent vintages, a mix of Merlot and Cabinet Sauvignon grapes. Swirling the wine in his glass, he holds it up to the light: “Can you see the tears? It’s a sign of a good wine rich in glycerol.”
The quality of his wine made me fall in love with French wine all over again.