Having visited Langeais, our next plan was to head over to Bourgueil, where Julia and I had been in the summer and she had bought some very nice St Nicolas de Bourgueuil as well as some just plain Bourgueuil.
One of Julia’s colleagues from the IB had recommended two particular producers on the same remote road outside Restigné, saying that one of them had a particularly interesting cellar. The first ones we tried – Catherine and Pierre Breton – were obviously out in the vignes and not answering, so we proceeded to La Chevalerie, where we parked and looked for someone to help us.
It’s always a bit worrying poking around someone else’s property, even if you do know that they probably want you to buy their wine, but if they don’t put up signs indicating where the Cave or the Chai or the whatever they want to call it is, you do in fact end up feeling a bit like a burglar casing the joint as you try to find something to taste. As we explored round a corner we saw an elderly man on all fours scraping a piece of metal with great intent. We boomed “Bonjour!” in that way one uses to mean “Hello”, “we’re here”, “can you help us” and “what a lovely property you have here and please may we taste then possibly buy some wine”, but he didn’t turn round. I boomed the “Bonjour!” a bit louder, then louder again in capital letters “BONJOUR!”, and had just worked out that he must be deaf when he turned round and looked surprised and said “I didn’t hear you coming.”
From then on I formed my words carefully so he could lip read, and when I asked if we could taste, he said “Yes of course, and I suppose you would like a tour of the Cave?”. I replied that we did, so he tottered off to the house saying something about how we had to have a glass in our hand, and emerged a few minutes later carrying 4 glasses, a coat and a bunch of keys. We took our glasses and followed him as he put his coat on to a low wall which turned out to conceal a series of steps down into the gloom. We ducked through a low door at the bottom and as our feet trod on sand we straightened up and looked around us in astonishment at cave-like chambers that seemed to go on forever into the gloom. As our guide switched on various ancient not-very-bright lights, we made out the outlines of racks and racks of bottles laid out around us, as well as tunnels heading off in all directions, and he explained that this had been a quarry a very long time ago, and the resulting caves turned out to be ideal for keeping wine. He revealed that his family had been making wine here for ten generations, and while he opened a bottle of wine for us we heard how his own son had recently died of cancer and that the grandchildren, now in their 40s, were going to be taking over.
As he was talking, I was translating the more complicated parts to Julia and Tim, and Monsieur made various comments to me like “They’re English, aren’t they?”, “Are you taking them to lots of places round here?”, and finally “So do you live in England too?”, so I think he assumed that I was their French guide – it was too difficult to communicate with him to explain the situation, and at the end of our visit I think I did quite well out of this misunderstanding…. But more of that later!
When we were talking about the age of the cellars, Monsieur said that in November the previous year they had found, opened and drunk a bottle of their wine from 1914, i.e. 100 years before. Tim, ever the historian, asked who had done the harvesting since presumably all able-bodied men had gone off to war by the autumn of 1914. Monsieur said that their vignoble had been lucky because they had been left with one labourer, who had not been taken away for the army because he was “trop faible” (too weak!), and he had, along with Monsieur’s mother, taken care of everything while the other men were away. Monsieur told us gleefully that this particular labourer, despite being considered too weak to go to war in 1914, had in fact died many years later at the age of 93!
He then went on to tell us that in the Second World War his father, who had been in the French army, had been captured in 1940 by the Germans and sent to work on a farm in Austria for the duration of the war before finally being freed by the Russians when he was able to make his way home. Likewise, Monsieur himself, a boy of 15 in 1940, had been a weekly boarder at a school in Tours when the Germans had marched in, and he told us how he had run away from school, found his way back home and worked on the family vignoble from that moment on.
While these stories were going on, we were tasting – we were given two different years, 2013 and 2011, and every time our glasses emptied he refilled them saying we couldn’t visit these cellars without a glass in our hand. Fortunately we had already decided that Julia was driving, so Tim and I helped Monsieur to all but finish the bottle (!), they decided that 2013 at €9 a bottle was nicer than 2011 at €15 euros a bottle, so said they would buy 12 bottles between them. There was an interesting detail in this cellar that paper and card couldn’t survive because of the high level of condensation, so bottles were stored down here but taken upstairs to a temperature-controlled chai when it was time to label them – it did occur to us that since we couldn’t see the label on what we were tasting it could have been anything at all, and if someone was determined to swindle someone there was scope for this to happen.
However we enjoyed our experience so much we decided that any extra money we might be charged was really by way of payment for this enjoyment! Monsieur topped up our glasses one more time and took us through into a further section of tunnels where there were barrels as well as bottles, always with sand underfoot and damp rock above us, then we headed back up to the surface to a tiny office which was so full of overwintering lemon and palm trees that there was barely room for the four of us. Little old Monsieur then dragged a box of labelled but un-topped-off bottles out from under a bench, turned on a machine and used it to top 13 bottles, 12 of which he put into boxes and the last one of which he handed to me with a knowing grin and a wink saying “This is for you, for bringing them here”.
We said our goodbyes, with firm handshakes and much smiling, and as we headed back to the car we saw two people carrying wine boxes and being hand-shaken by a woman outside a smart-looking door in the corner of the chateau. We decided we had experienced one of two possible scenarios. The woman was probably Monsieur’s granddaughter and EITHER would be furious, swearing something like “Bloody hell, Grandad’s got hold of some tourists again, that’s another whole bottle he’ll have swigged with them” OR she would give him an admiring slap on the back and laugh a comment along the lines of “Bloody hell, Grandad, you’ve managed to flog two whole boxes of that sub-standard stuff we were going to run the tractors on this year, what would we do without you.” And we won’t know until we get home and open our precious Saint Nicolas de Bourgueuil with the long story!