The Grapes of Sloth

Imagine you suddenly get the opportunity to visit the homes of five people you’ve long admired from afar. You’ve talked about them to your friends, you’ve seen them in photographs, perhaps you’ve even read all about them in books or the media. And now you get to visit.

It doesn’t really matter who those people are or what they do – they could be philosophers, artists, writers, photographers, athletes, fashion designers, musical legends, whatever. The thing is, now you have a chance to spend two hours with each of them, in their own home.

You can see where they grew up, find out where they played, what they like best to eat. You can speak with people who know them far better than you and talk about their personal traits, their foibles, the year something amazing happened in their life, and so on. Wouldn’t that be an incredible opportunity?

Well, that’s what I’ve just spent a week doing, visiting the ‘home turf’ of five such long admired friends … Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Chinon, and Sémillon. I went to where they live, to Vouvray, St. Emilion, Graves, and Haut Medoc, and saw them on their own terroir.

I won’t bore you with the details of all the tastings, with descriptions of the old Grand Cru winery that traces its first harvest back to 1256, with the bottles purchased only to be consumed because our suitcases had to be kept under the 20 kg. limit imposed by Ryan Air … but I will say that it was a pretty good way to spend a week!

Our friends Robert and Brigitte live in Poitiers. We got to know them through one of those unexpected life happenings – our daughter Kate applied for a high school exchange program to France, and their daughter Marie-Caroline was the assigned partner. So MC came and lived with us for half the year, and Kate went over there, then the parents visited us, and we them, and they us, and now it was our turn again. So off we went for a visit.

Initially the idea was for us to have a couple of days with them in Poitiers and then head off on our own to see the vineyards, but it turned out they have friends in Bordeaux who they hadn’t seen for a while, so it was decided that we would all go together. The friends had a big house, with room for us all, and so a plan emerged.

There is an ongoing but rolling national strike in France these days, affecting the trains two days out of seven. We were fortunate that our travel day down to Poitiers was not a strike day, and the TGV from Paris got us there in just over an hour. The next day we set off, first to visit to a couple of the great Chateaux of the Loire Valley and then down to St. Emilion. The Chateaux were as gob-smackingly big as you might imagine, with great formal gardens and hundreds of rooms. St. Emilion is picture-perfect, medieval spires and red-tiled roofs piled up along a crest, narrow alleys with tiny shops selling macaroons, lots of wine merchants, and the old tower where even now the meetings to taste and set the quality of each vintage take place.

I can understand why lots of people would like to live there, although I can’t even begin to think what it must look like at the height of the tourist season. We had trouble finding parking even though there were no crowds as such, just a steady stream of people along the old cobbled roads.

And that was about it. Each day we would get up and I’d work on an article I’m trying to finish, then we’d head out to visit a gallery or a museum, or just wander around. In the afternoon we’d go to a vineyard and spend a couple of hours wandering the fields talking about grapes and then trying some of the wine from that producer. Confusingly, most of the buildings where the wines are made and sold are also called chateaux, but they are not the same as those along the Loire! Even those which looked like old castles, either original or newly designed, do not deserve the capital C. Some days we would skip the gallery or museum, and simply add another chateaux to the itinerary.

Later we’d get back to the house in Bordeaux and have some local specialty prepared by our hosts Phillippe and Sylvie – on different days there was rabbit casserole, duck pie, and a roulade made from tripe and headcheese. Throw in a dinner at a restaurant inside a huge cave; some incredible art collections put together by various kings, queens, and other worthies; a lunch at a Michelin starred restaurant in the citadel town of Blàye; and a ferry ride across the Gironde, and you have a pretty good image of what a few days in Bordeaux looks like!

One glorious ‘lesson learned’ was confirmation that Prince Edward Island is not only at the same latitude, its soils are similar to those of the Medoc region. Lots of red clay and gravelly soil. I see grape vines coming to my garden in the near future! I don’t imagine I have the time, patience or capital to actually establish a proper vineyard, although we do have a couple on the Island already, but I feel a bit more confident about planting a couple of dozen vines for the aesthetic effect if nothing else.

Another lesson learned, or at least remembered from the dusty recesses of grammar school history classes, was that the region, known then and now as Aquitaine, was ruled under the flag of the Plantagenets – the English crown – for over 300 years. To put that in context, last year we ‘celebrated’ 150 years of Canada being in formal existence as a country. The south-east of France was part of England for twice that period.

The Plantagenets were the House of York, so it’s no wonder I felt at home there! It was quite humbling to walk on the stone floors of the old St. André cathedral in Bordeaux, the very place where Eleanor d’Aquitaine married her first husband, Louis VII, before divorcing him and marrying the Duke of Normandy, who subsequently became Henry II of England. Their son, Richard, was of course Richard I, also known as Richard Cœur de Lion or Richard the Lionheart, someone who featured often in the stories of my youth – the crusades, Robin Hood, etcetera. I saw both the white rose and the lion emblems in a number of places, and discovered many references to the Black Prince, whose statue stands in the square outside Leeds City Station.

Food, wine, art, friendship, and a bit of Yorkshire history – what more could you want?

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