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Audrey Hepburn, Ducks' Butts and a Giant Bill



Above a panning shot taken from the ruined castle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the shaking of the camera not the result of Grenache withdrawal, rather the instability caused to anything larger than a medium-small invertebrate by the mistral, that muscular wind that is funnelled through the narrow gap of the nothern Rhône. It's good for the health of the vineyard, but rubbish for taking even a short bit of film. Or, on occasion, simply standing up for that matter.

I am back in Wiltshire after what feels like something of a whirlwind tour around the Rhône Valley. On Wednesday morning we enjoyed a minor lie-in before breakfasting, checking out of the hotel (why do so many French hotels smell of sewers?!?) and cruising off to Pegau.

Laurence Ferraud was in chatty mood, as was her father, who speaks in one of the most pronounced local accents I have yet heard, words ending in the letter n always attracting an appended g sound, vin sounding as vang etc. Their 2008 is a stunner, the 2009 outrageously funky and animal. This is the door one knocks on to get a mouthful of the most traditional wine of the appellation.

It's a brief drive up the hill to the Domaine Pierre Usseglio where Pierre's sons Thierry and Jean-Pierre are making increasingly profound liquids. Whilst a visit to the Pegau cellar is akin to walking into a (very welcoming) barn, the Usseglio cellar is so clean as to give off the ambience of a museum. They have had visitors asking them, whilst touring the winery, where they make the wines, the visitors unable to believe that the spotless barrels and untarnished floors and walls could be a place of work at all.

Serpents vivants, these are quite spectacular. The wines lie somewhere between traditional and modern. The "basic" cuvée deep and, well, Châteauneuf-like, albeit a very complex and brilliant example of its type. The cuvée Mon Aieul, 100% Grenache aged without any influence of wood old or young is an Audrey Hepburn of a wine and, as such, extraordinarily beautiful, glowing with the loveliness perhaps normally associated with wine to be found further north in the Côte d'Or. Then, lastly, the Cuvée Deux Frères, also all Grenache, wood aged and wilder, blacker, complex, demanding the utmost attention. Stuff like this is somehow belittling. Perhaps all great art is.

We departed and headed north to Mauves. It is the week of the Découvertes, a bi-annual (and enormous) wine tasting or, rather, series of wine tastings, organised to show off recent vintages of the Rhônes vinous secretions. A venue in Mauves was the home of the Cornas, St Joseph and St Péray tasting and it was a fine opportunity to see a few producers of distinction. We tasted reasonably hard for an hour or so, found some superb wine from all appellations shown and left with tongues stained black from young Syrah.

And on we went again, back to Beaune for dinner and a sleep. It was a toss up between two venues for dinner and the Cave de la Madeleine won. We drank a bottle of 2004 Beaucastel Blanc, then asked the proprietor for recommendations in our price range. A 2007 Gevrey-Chambertin 1er Cru Lavaux St Jacques of Lucien Lemoine was duly opened. It was, as the Aussies so succinctly put it, tighter than a duck's butt. I again hailed the owner and asked about another wine, this time a 2006 Nuits St Georges 1er cru Clos de la Maréchale. Ominously, as he opened it he related the information that, in Burgundy, the 2006 vintage was thought to be entering a period of dormancy and whaddayaknow? South-side duck was back on the menu.

One last try and monsieur at last produced something drinkable: a mature Rhône wine. Bear in mind that food in this establishment is pretty unexciting; that one visits for the wine list and relaxed ambience. Now consider the end result: a bill for 359 euros, with a couple of largely full bottles of undrinkable wine to take away. To say that we were mildy put out would be undercooking it. Further, to say that we won't be returning would be pretty much 100% spot on.

Morning time, and early kick off. 7.5 hours got me home. I am happy to say that satisfaction does hold sway. The good - sometimes wildly exceptional - meals outweighed the unexceptional - sometimes downright shameful - ones. And the wines. Ah. That was why we were there. And the wines were very good and often very exceptional indeed. I will pen an offer soon. And then I will work out the non-negotiable addenda to the Bowes personal portfolio. I have a feeling they will be many.

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