Martin Walker’s Wine Notes August 2021

Last month I had the honour of serving on one of the many juries that selected the wines of Bergerac and Duras to be awarded gold medals, and also on the super-jury of nine people who chose Bergerac’s winemaker of the year. 

   On the final round of tasting among the various gold medalists of white wines, reds and rosés, of Montravels and Pécharmants, Monbazillacs and Saussignacs, Duras and Côtes de Bergerac, one wine for me stood out.

    It was a rich, full-hearted red wine, not at all aggressive but rather comforting at first taste with some subtle depths that then developed in the mouth. There was something pleasantly rustic in the bouquet. The overall impression was of an instantly likeable wine that then with gentle but persistent generosity revealed its hidden depths. 

    So here’s to Jean-Marc and Thierry Piazzetta of Chateau Les Brandeaux, tucked away in the south-western corner of the Bergerac, so much on the border that six of the 31 hectares of wine are in the Duras appellation. 

   The rain on one part of the vineyard drains into the river Dordogne and on another part drains into the Garonne. The vineyard is equidistant from Duras and from Bergerac, 20 km from each town. I strolled around bits of it, kicking the ground, crumbling a sod or two in my hand to smell it, hoping to get a sense of what has to be a magnificent terroir.

     The real surprise of this wine was the price. I know this will be hard to believe but the 2018 wine that stunned us on the jury costs just four euros and fifty cents a bottle. (We tasted the 2020 vintage which is not yet on sale but the wines are very similar.) I have no hesitation in declaring this the best French wine I know that costs less than 5 euros. In fact, I am surprised that I’m not paying double figures for it. It would still be a bargain at three times the price.

     Naturally, after congratulating Jean-Marc at the presentation of his award at the Chateau de Bourdeilles where the Concours was held, I invited myself down to the vineyard, when more surprises were in store. The first was the sheer range of the wines being made, not only Bergerac white, red and rosé wine, but also white and rosé sparkling wines, and a Duras red, plus two prestige Bergerac red wines matured for nine months in oak barrels. 

   The 2016 Cuvée Excellence that I tasted was very good indeed, and stunning value at only 6.50 euros a bottle. It also had won a gold medal at the concours in Macon in 2017 and another gold at the Paris concours in 2016. So we in our jury were not crazy; other juries had seen the same quality.

     The next surprise was the varietals. The appellation contrôlée system has been rigid in defining which grapes can be used, but now that the more flexible IGP system allows a Vin de Périgord to use just one grape, I have expected France to start following the American example and market wines from a single cépage. Indeed, this is already starting here in the Bergerac with Chardonnay. 

    Jean-Marc and his brother, Thierry, have taken it to a new level, selling a bottle of their very good Chardonnay for 5.50 euros; a bottle of their excellent Malbec for 6.50 euros; and a bottle of their lovely Cabernet Franc (not an easy grape to work with) for 8.50 euros. 

   Jean-Marc and his brother are the fourth-generation of their family to make wines in the shadow of the medieval hilltop village of Puyguilhem. The family first came in 1924, after an agreement that Italian peasant families with a majority of boy children would be welcome to settle in depopulated rural France. They hoped to replace the 1.5 million Frenchmen who died in the trenches of the 1914-18 war.  

    The Piazzetta family came from the Veneto, near Venice, and in the tasting centre at the vineyard visitors are likely to meet the cheerful grandfather of the family. He is built in the same big and burly tradition of his sons. The three of them would make a formidable front row of any rugby team.

     ‘Things have certainly changed since my time,’ the grandpa told me, with one of the broadest smiles I have ever seen. ‘There were years when I had trouble getting the wine up to ten degrees alcohol, but now 14 and 15 degrees are common.’

     Part of the explanation is the changing climate and Jean-Marc says that even though Merlot has long been his dominant grape, he won’t be replacing it in the course of  his replanting programme.   

    When I told Jean-Marc of my surprise at his low prices, he explained that while he had started working in the vineyard, his brother had begun on the commercial side and had built up many contacts in supermarkets. The vineyard had prospered with Intermarché and Carréfour, where the pricing of a wine was crucial. I pointed out that I’d never seen his wines in my local supermarkets of the Périgord Noir. Apparently they sell mainly in the stores between Bergerac and Sainte Foy.

      ‘We also get a lot of English customers coming to the vineyard from Eymet,’ Jean-Marc added. 

      I’m not at all surprised. After winning Bergerac’s Vigneron of the year award, I suspect he’ll be getting lots more visitors from much farther afield. Chateau Les Brandeaux vaut le détour.

    They usually make around 60,000 bottles a year plus 40,000 litres of wine in 5 and 10 litre boxes. The 10 litre boxes are 24.50 euros for the Bergerac rosé and white, Duras red, and 26.50 for the Bergerac reds.

     Their wines are HVE, which stands for High Environmental Value, a definition set by the Agriculture Ministry, and often criticised by militant Greens as one of the less rigorous of the various and rather confusing environmental standards currently prevalent in France. The wines are not bio, but they certainly are low in sulfites and I came across a fair bit of bio-diversity in the vines. 

    The bottom line is that the wines of  Les Brandeaux, however, offer the finest value for the lowest price that I have ever encountered in France. 

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