The Dorgogne region is one of the oldest inhabited areas of France, as testified by numerous caves filled with wall paintings and etchings that date back 30,000 and 40,000 years. It’s also one of the country’s wildest and most beautiful areas, marked by rugged and towering cliffs, many topped by ancient castles; deep river valleys; rolling hills and forests; and a network of villages and towns that retain much of their medieval appearance. Recently, we spent a week in France’s Dordogne region, with LL’s son and his children, Julien, 14, and Lucia, 10, eating local food — dominated by foie gras, magret and confit of duck — and drinking local wines. We rented a centuries-old stone cottage outside the village of Beynac et Cazenac — pop. 560 — an almost mythically quaint hamlet perched right on a bank of the Dordogne River and winding up the cliff dominated by an immense castle, Chateau de Beynac, seen in this image from sourcedordogne.free.fr.
Our locale was at the southeastern corner of the Dordogne department, not wine-country itself but not too far from the appellations of Bergerac, Côtes de Bergerac, Montravel and Pécharmant, all cultivating the Bordeaux grape varieties and producing country cousin versions of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot for red, sauvignon blanc and semillon for white. About a two-hour drive to the east in the Lot department is Cahors, a traditional region for hearty wines made from the malbec grape, known as cot in that area. Though I had been offered visits to chateaus and wineries by some of my contacts in importing and marketing in the US, my determination was that this sojourn would be strictly vacation and that any wine we drank would come either from grocery stores, open-air markets or restaurant wine lists.
Our first dinner, at a hotel restaurant in Beynac, was mediocre, but we enjoyed the wines. These were a 2011 rouge, in a 500-milliliter bottle, and a 2013 blanc, in a 375 ml bottle, from Chateau Court-Les-Mûts, Côtes de Bergerac. The rouge offered a bright, seductive floral and spicy bouquet but was fairly rude and rustic on the palate; the more palatable blanc was fresh, young and zesty, with yellow fruit and dried herbs. Each cost 14 euros, about $15.66 at today’s rate. Far more successful, in both food and wine, was our dinner the following night, a Sunday, at La Petite Tonnelle, just a few yards up the street from the restaurant of the previous night. Built right into the cliff that dominates this strategic site overlooking the Dordogne river, the restaurant was pleasing in every aspect. Our waiter, a young woman, was friendly and accommodating; the restaurant served the silkiest foie gras, smoked magret and confit of duck I have ever tasted; and the wine list emphasized regional products highlighting sustainable, organic and biodynamic methods. With the hearty fare, we drank a bottle of the Chateau Masburel 2010, Montravel, a predominantly merlot wine with dollops of cabernet sauvignon. The restaurant owner came over and nodded his approval, telling us that it was a powerful wine. Powerful indeed and robust, but sleek too, packed with dusty tannins, graphite-tinged minerality, black fruit flavors and vibrant acidity. It cost 42 euros, about $46 at today’s rate.
Both in cafes and at our rented house, we consumed a great deal of rosé wine, not just because we love rosé but because the weather was unseasonably hot, with temperatures going to 100 and higher every afternoon. Rosés in the Dordogne are made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and malbec and typically are more robust than their cousins in Provence. For example, in Les Eyzies-de-Tayac-Sireuil, generally just called Tayac, home to the National Museum of Prehistory and the center of a cluster of caves with prehistoric art, we ate lunch at Cafe de Mairie and downed a 500 cl bottle of the delightful Clos des Verdots 2014, Bergerac Rosé, at 14 euros. Other rosés we tried during our sojourn included La Fleur de Mondesir 2014, Domaine de Mayat 2014 and Domaine de Montlong 2013, all Bergerac, and the simple but tasty Mayaret 2014, Vin du Pays Perigord. Tayac is absolutely worth a visit. We were too late to get admittance to the cave called Font de Gaume, which features wall paintings, so we drove to the cave of Les Combarelles, a few minutes away, and saw the exquisite series of rock engravings executed 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. The town itself, with many of its houses and buildings carved directly into the cliffs, is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Other red wines we tried, back at the house with various dinners, included Chateau des Hautes Fargues 2010 and Domaine La Closerie 2011, both from Pécharmant, and, from Bergerac, the excellent Domaine Maye de Bouye 2010, and the best red wine of our time in the Dordogne, Clos de Gamot 2008, a superb, deeply characterful Cahors that cost all of 12.5 euros, about $13.70. Clos de Gamot is owned by the Jouffreau family and has been in operation since 1610. The grapes derive from two vineyards, one over 120 years old and the other with vines 40 to 70 years old. The wines age 18 months to two years in large old oak casts.
The way to explore this ancient region is to drive to as many of the towns and villages as possible, preferably one each day, park the car (hopefully in the shade) and then wander through the plazas and narrow streets, stopping to walk through churches, alleys and courtyards. If there’s a chance, for a few euros, to tour a castle or old mansion, do that; the rewards in history, esthetics and emotional satisfaction are immense. We particularly enjoyed Sarlot, Domme and the medieval section of Soulliac, and we visited two castles that were traditional enemies during the Hundred Years’ War, Chateau Beynac, “our” castle, and just up-river, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle.