picture-2-citadelle-vines-from-the-ramparts.jpgThe title of this post highlights a common mispronunciation of which I was guilty myself until yesterday; the temptation being to rhyme “Blaye” with “grey” and “day”, whereas in actual fact it should be pronounced “Bligh.”  You learn something every day.  Yesterday, I learnt a lot.

To my shame, having lived an hour north of
Bordeaux for exactly three years, until yesterday I’d never visited the centre of an official appellation.  The closest I’ve been to the famous appellations of the Left Bank, such as Pauillac, Margaux and St-Julien, is Bordeaux’s airport at Merignac and the only sight I’ve enjoyed of St-Emilion was a distant one through a rain splattered windscreen on a drive past from Bergerac.  It seemed like a good idea, therefore, to start as close to home as possible which meant – aside from a few standard Bordeaux Appellation Contrôlée (AC) vineyards – that I’d be heading to the town of Blaye, sitting on the eastern bank of the Gironde estuary, directly across the water from the world-famous villages on the Left Bank.

I set off in disappointingly grey conditions as the past few days have been glorious.  I decided to take the quick route there and the slow route back, which involved a blast down the A10 autoroute.  There are vines either side of the road and, unless you knew better, it would be easy to imagine you were well in Bordeaux wine country as soon as you joined the A10 at Pons.  However, while you’re still in the Charente-Maritime region the grapes from almost all the surrounding vines will be used for cognac or the local brew Pineau, a syrupy mix of cognac and grape juice that induces a warm wooziness that has enveloped many an unwary visitor.  It’s not until you enter the Gironde, some 60km north of Bordeaux, that you suddenly see a brown sign stating “Vignobles du Bordelais” quickly followed by another displaying a stylised bunch of grapes (for those who’s French is lacking).  Now you’re in wine country.  The junction for Blaye follows almost immediately, and then it’s a 16km trek across country to the town itself.

Approaching the town – in fact, from a fair way out – you’re aware of signposts for châteaux, most designated Premières Côtes de Blaye.  Again, for the uninitiated, the Blaye classification can be a little confusing.  There are two main classifications: Premières Côtes de Blaye and just plain old simple Blaye.  It’d be easy to assume that the “Premières” points to the better wine, but in fact it’s the simple Blaye that is generally of higher quality.  As the Oz Clarke Bordeaux book tells me (and which handily accompanied me on the trip), “Blaye is the better, and newer, appellation – the wine comes from vineyards planted with a greater density of vines and with a lower yield (both factors that increase ripeness and improve quality), followed by a reasonably severe tasting panel that can and does reject inferior wines.”

My first sight of Blaye itself was the ubiquitous out of town supermarket, quickly followed by a cemetery rather disconcertingly situated right next door to the hospital!  It’s not a big place (the town, that is, not the hospital) and I was pulling into a parking space in the centre a few minutes later, a stone’s throw from the bank of the Gironde estuary.  Blaye is dominated by the impressive 17th century citadelle, which is definitely worth a look around.  There’s a lovely little patch of vines on the ramparts, the walk along the top of which is, frankly, quite terrifying!  There isn’t even the smallest of walls or barriers to stop you toppling off the edge.  Given the citadelle itself hosts a huge wine tasting event every year in March, I’m convinced more than a few enthusiastic tasters have taken the quick way back down to sea level over the years…

I had a quick walk round the town centre, which is pretty in a typically French way, grabbed a coffee and was just about to jump in the car to explore the surrounding area when I spotted the Maison du Vin.  Armed with the Oz book I ventured inside and discovered an extremely nicely designed and well-stocked shop entirely devoted – as you might expect – to wines from the Blaye region, with more than 250 châteaux represented. 

I’d highlighted half a dozen châteaux recommended by Oz and was delighted to find that all were in stock.  They included (all are reds, by the way):

Château Bel-Air La Royère, 2004, Blaye AC (19,00 euros)

Château Haut Bertinerie, 2000, Premières Côtes de Blaye (11,40 euros)

Château Les Jonqueyres, 2003, Blaye AC (14,50 euros)

Château Mondesir-Gazin, 2003, Blaye AC (11,00 euros)

Château Roland La Garde “Prestige”, 2001, Premières Côtes de Blaye (9,00 euros)

Château des Tourtes, L’Attribut des Tourtes”, 2001, Blaye AC (10,50 euros)

I can only give credit to Oz as the shop assistant greeted my choices very enthusiastically!

I had no great plan for where I was going to drive but, while in the Maison du Vin, I’d picked up a leaflet which included a small map of the Blaye appellation with a number of châteaux detailed.  It’s a surprisingly large AC, though the area is farm from a vineyard region, with only 15% of the available land given over the vines (though this still represents some 17,000-odd acres, which gives you an idea of the size of the whole area).  This, to me, is a very good thing.  Over-production is a bane of Bordeaux, and it would be easy for far more land to be taken producing almost certainly lacklustre Blaye wine.  I picked out a small loop on the map which took me south along the estuary towards Plassac, sharp left to Cars and then back towards Blaye. 

Turning away from the estuary at Plessac and you’re immediately heading upwards into the hills, with some splendid views back across to the Médoc.  Using my natural sense of direction and the odd road sign instead of the map, I suddenly found myself right outside Château Bel-Air La Royère, the wine highly recommended by Oz and of which I’d just bough a bottle. 

You can’t judge a château by the house, of course.  People often have images of huge turreted buildings surrounded by manicured gardens and, while there are certainly some about, any property with its own vines and producing wine can call itself a château.  What’s most important, of course, is the terroir and skill of the producer.  Château Bel-Air La Royère is a modest but extremely well-kept property and seeing it certainly added confidence to my purchase.  Funnily enough, only a short while after moving on I came across a château fitting the common perception.  Sitting on a small hill inland from Blaye (and no doubt enjoying fine views of the estuary) Château Pardaillan – a Premières Côtes de Blaye – looked beautiful, even on this greyest of days. 

I dropped back down into Blaye and left the town on the much flatter road north, heading home.  Not without another small and very worthwhile detour, however.  A few kilometres out of the town, I passed a sign for Château Roland La Garde, another of the wines I had bought a little while before.  I turned into a small hamlet, negotiated my way down a tricky little lane tucked between old barns and found myself in the courtyard of the (again, modest) château.  Having had a quick look, I was about to turn the car around when a friendly middle-aged man wandered out of the house, clearly keen to say hello (despite my almost certainly having interrupted his lunch!)

He turned out to be Bruno Martin the man, according to Oz Clarke, who “has given a new lease of life” to the property.  I explained that I’d just bought a bottle of his wine in Blaye, that I’d spotted the sign on the road and thought I’d pop in for a look.  He was charm personified; seemingly delighted that I’d picked up a bottle of his wine, hoped that I enjoyed it and would visit again and was even more pleased when I showed him the little write-up of the château on Oz Clarke’s book!  A lovely way to end my trip.

I really liked Blaye – and can’t wait to taste the wines (we started last night with the Château Roland La Garde – delicious, not overly complex or dense but astounding value at 9,00 euros).  I wasn’t sure what to expect of the area.  I thought it might have the aura of a region a class below the better-known and revered AC’s in sight across the estuary and east towards St-Émilion, but far from it.  Rather than being resentful of their successes (and perhaps prices) there’s an ambition about Blaye to compete on quality and a desire to charm wine-lovers with their friendliness and, let’s face it, great value.  I’ll definitely be visiting again for the wine-tasting in the citadelle next month and, I think, will probably become a regular visitor in the years to come.