“People say Bergerac is just Bordeaux but worse in every sense,” our host told me. “It’s untrue” he added.
We are all familiar with the paradox of an area described as up and coming, but seemingly never actually arriving. Bergerac is less beautiful and less popular than Bordeaux next door. It produces fewer wines, almost all deemed to be of a lower quality than those made by its neighbour. As one friend quipped to me – the area is frustrating because you know that just 50 miles or more west everything, in Bordeaux, is a lot better. The region sometimes seems trapped in an endless game of catch up with its older, flashier and more accomplished cousin.
But Bergerac is charming precisely because it is not Bordeaux. It has none of the snobbiness, less of the cultural capital, but a certain rough and readiness that appeals.
Perhaps religion helps explain the place. The Bergerac region in South West France was once a hub for French Protestantism. By the late 1600s, after the Wars of Religion, the Protestant Hugenot population emigrated en masse, largely to Holland. And thanks to the Dutch’s predisposition to sweet wine, this became the focus of the region’s production, and Holland the focus of its exports.
Since then its winemakers have focussed their efforts on sweet wine – Monbazillac being the most famous – while oscillating between concerted pushes on red and dry whites.
Bergerac might just be what Bordeaux (or the less smart parts of the Bordeaux wine region) was like several years ago. Okay, it lacks the “saline” earth that Bordeaux boasts and that the great wine writers like to sing about. But Bergerac uses largely the same grapes (Bergerac Sec is often almost identical in makeup to the great Bordeaux whites) and has skilled winemakers.
Like all good regions, the wine is there for the food. And in the case of the Bergerac, it’s duck that’s on the menu. Foie-gras – production and consumption – might as well be the regional past time. If anywhere is deserving of a prize for world-leading innovation, then Silicon Valley can step aside – who knew there were so many ways to serve a duck. Duck breast, duck confit, maigrets, pats, rillete, the list trundles on. The supermarkets are something to behold – there’s acres of the stuff. But if you’re like me and don’t really like duck, you’re in for a rough ride. Goose is also an option.
Out of the towns the scenery is largely unremarkable. Parts of it could be mistaken for rural Hertfordshire – with green rolling, gentle hills, farm land, lots of ducks, and beef and corn. None of it particularly eye-catching. But you’re not in a region primped and preened for the enjoyment of the few tourists who come here over the summer. On drives along the pleasantly deserted roads you realise that none of it is for show – it looks like this because this is how the people live here.
“It’s not huge for tourists, it’s not a cool place to be, but there are a lot of immigrants from Britain, or ex-pats they prefer to be called,” our host told me through partially gritted teeth. He is right that it feels eerily empty.
Like a lot of rural France, Bergerac, in the Dordogne département, and just south in the neighbouring département of Lot-et-Garonne, has seen multiple skirmishes involving the gilet jaunes. Their presence was largest – based on an unscientific estimate from our host – in those slightly southern towns. Agen and Marmande got a specific mention. But the gilet jaunes protests have died down – for now.
The rural parts of the region do get tourism, “but it’s hardly the main industry here” our host noted. In recent decades, some wealthy foreigners have come in to buy up and renovate previously dilapidated chateaus. We’re directed to something more akin to a castle on top of a hill, which had just been bought by some Russian multimillionaire. The influx of these types – if it can be described as an influx – could actually benefit the region we’re told. It’s not that anything about Bergerac is less good than Bordeaux, “we just don’t have the name” the host argues. And while flashy renovations might compromise some authenticity it might work to put the Bergerac countryside more on the map.
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It lacks the cachet of Bordeaux. My host is right. And he’s probably right that the reputation is unfair too.
Thanks to the Hundred Years War the region is dotted with castles with fascinating histories of being fought over and swapped between British and French ownership. Chateau de Beynac in Beynac-et-Cazenac is worth a trip. The empty roads are often flanked by huge fields of sunflowers. Right now, in July, I’m told, is the best time to see it. And despite the general perception of the wine being disappointing, there is much to enjoy.