Out in Bordeaux last Friday with my mate Chris, we noticed a sign for Lillet, the aperitif made from a blend of wine fruit liqueurs somewhere south of Bordeaux. Lillet has come to prominence of late due to being featured in the last James Bond film, Casino Royale (and, of course, Ian Fleming’s original book). Bond adds it as an ingredient when explaining how he’d like his vodka martini…half a part Lillet, three parts gin, one part vodka, five ice cubes and a twist of lemon. At least that’s how it’s described on the rather sweet Lillet website (though turn the music off).
I read somewhere soon after the Bond film was released that Lillet had experienced a - probably predictably – huge increase in interest and demand. On the one hand I was delighted. Lillet was featured in the film purely because it had also been mentioned in Fleming’s original book, not because, like so many other brands, it had paid millions of dollars to the producers. On the other hand, I wondered if it would be able to cope with the increase in demand. Reading the website, Lillet takes between 6 and 12 months to mature…it’s not like they could simply turn on a tap and get some more. I’m sure they weren’t grumbling, though.
Neither Chris nor I had ever tried any so, when we saw it on the wine list of the bistro in which we landed, thought we’d give it a go. There are two types – red and white – so we had one of each. Nice, we thought, but not particularly special. The white was very similar to a Bordeaux dessert wine and the red, as Chris pointed out, had a definite sense of mulled wine. We both concluded that it was probably best used – as by Bond – to add a touch of flavour and perhaps sweetness to a cocktail.
Leaving Bordeaux on the way to Pau the following morning, we decided to steer clear of the autoroutes and stick to minor roads. Glancing at a map in a newsagent’s (which, on reflection, probably should have been purchased) we saw that there was a direct and very straight route south from Langon to Pau – some 180km. Navigating by memory alone, we found the road and headed through the enormous vineyards of the the Graves. We became slightly uncertain that we were on the right road just as we entered a small town called Podensac; coincidentally the home of Lillet. We didn’t stop, but did pass the very small but very sweet Lillet distillery. Actually that’s a lie. We did stop – to look for a map! When I couldn’t find one we changed direction, nipped back to the autoroute and then a few kilometres further down rediscovered the right road.
Staying on the correct road on the return journey was much simpler, and it turned out that those kilometres we missed on the way down were quite important, featuring, as they did, the villages of Barsac and the much better-known Sauternes. The reason for Lillet having similarities to a dessert wine were becoming clear…
It was a real bonus for me to pass through these two little villages, the epicentre of the sweet wine world. Sauternes, as I say, is the more famous. It’s home to one of the best-known wines (sweet or otherwise) in the world: Chateau d’Yquem. The Oz Clarke Bordeaux book tells me that, whereas most vineyards work on an average of one bottle of wine from each vine, Chateau d’Yquem is so rigorous about quality that it works on one glass of wine per vine…and has been known not to produce any in lesser vintages (the last time in 1992).
The greater fame of Sauternes is reflected in the village – it’s a lovely little place, very clean with some beautiful houses. Once you pass over the Ciron river – critical to creating the conditions that allow for the production of such sweet wines – and into Barsac, you’re conscious that it doesn’t attract the same attention (and prices) as its illustrious neighbour. It’s a little scruffier…
It’s a shame that it loses out to Sauternes, however, as some of its wines are supposed to be on a par. Ever the fan of the underdog, I shall be searching out some Barsac to try in the next few weeks.