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(2012 - Spring Issue)


Winning a trip to southwestern France is a dream come true for anyone who loves wine and food.

Just ask Shawna and Martin Gibb of Kelowna, B.C., winners of the 2011 Discover France by its Wines contest organized by the French tourist office.

If you happen to catch the official videos of the trip, now online at FranceGuide.com, I’m the one scratching in a notebook in an attempt to capture every moment of those 10 action-packed days in June. From the lively city of Toulouse, we drove north into the Midi-Pyrénées region, home of Gaillac and Cahors wines, then headed to the wildly beautiful island of Corsica, where we were given five minutes one morning to prepare for a Mediterranean plonge weighed down by scuba gear, a handsome Frenchman at our side.

Medieval Surroundings

But first, a little magic among the vines. Edinburgh-born Alan Geddes and his wife Laurence have spent 30 years restoring the medieval fortress Château de Mayragues, which looms out of the forest 10 kilometres north of Gaillac. Their vineyards, visible from the top-floor balcony, slope gently down to the Tarn River. Two spacious bed-and-breakfast rooms await visitors seeking relaxation and great wine. 

Gaillac has produced wine for 2,000 years, and Geddes aims to keep the soil alive using biodynamics, developed in the 1920s. Some of its techniques sound completely mad, for example burying a cow horn filled with silica powder for six months, unearthing it, mixing the powder with water and stirring it rhythmically for an hour before spraying each hectare of vineyard at dawn with a few drops of the liquid. Yet when Geddes describes how he works with nature by drawing energy from the sun and the moon, and when you taste his delectable wines, you wonder if he’s onto something.

Reds rule in Gaillac, and Geddes crafts his using a palette of local grapes, from duras, with its hint of pepper, to fer servadou, a rustic cousin of cabernet sauvignon. We end our tour with a sparkling brut made from the mauzac grape, ripe with green apple and pear notes, and a message to Canadians that Gaillac wines deliver excellent quality and value.

As we stroll through the outdoor market in nearby Cordes-sur-Ciel the next morning, a charming duck producer urges us to taste his foie gras, a regional specialty, and take home a few souvenir cans. Tour guide Christian Rivière arrives moments later and gives me a lesson in cooking lentils—soak overnight and simmer 30 minutes with an onion and a little pork rind—before launching into the history of the fortified town, recently designated a Great Tourist Site of Midi-Pyrénées.

Up the steep hill we walk, passing under a series of stone arches designed to foil invaders. The homes grow more stately as we climb, built by wealthy merchants who had no interest in living at the base of the hill with the plebes, plagues and other perils of medieval life. The town square on top is surrounded by shops selling more duck and local liqueurs. A welcoming hotel and restaurant, Hostellerie du Vieux Cordes, promises 21st-century comfort in a 13th-century building.

Cahors’ Finest

On to Cahors, where we tour the city’s vast Saint-Etienne Cathedral, ancient alleyways and secret gardens. Our hotel overlooks the Lot River, which surrounds the city like a moat. As we walk back across the Valentré Bridge that night, its three massive towers standing guard for eight centuries, I truly feel the weight of the city’s history.

The next day we drink history in a glass, the black wine of Cahors. For centuries, this celebrated wine has been pressed from 100 per cent malbec grapes, the same grape that’s made Argentina a New World star. Wine lovers once joked that Cahors wines needed 20 years of aging to be drinkable. Not anymore.

We taste our first rich Cahors red in the salon of Le Gindreau, a Michelin-starred restaurant surrounded by wooded hills, which, I’m sure, can be reached only by GPS. Every detail is exquisite, from the fresh flowers and polished silverware to the attentive service from youngsters in formal black suits. Mustachioed chef and owner Alexis Pelissou plays artfully with local flavours . . . a tiny bowl of watermelon gazpacho, caviar-like beads of porcini mushroom essence, skewers of ris de veau in tempura batter, a breast of squab paired with a hint of black truffle.

To accompany the cheese trolley wheeled to our table before dessert, cut by Madame Pelissou herself, the waiter pours a smooth 2005 Expression from one of Cahors’ finest producers, Château Lamartine. After dining in splendour for hours we are reluctant to leave, but lovely Sabine Baldès is waiting for us at Clos Triguedina.

Sabine’s husband, Jean-Luc, the eighth-generation steward of his family’s vineyards near the village of Puy L’Evêque, is in Bordeaux showing his award-winning wines at Vinexpo. As the ninth generation plays with his toys, she invites us into the cool tasting cellar, lined with dusty bottles, to taste the family’s eclectic wines, from the prestigious Probus, grapes harvested from gnarled vines more than 50 years old, to a sparkling malbec rosé called Bul’s or bulles in French.   

Corsican Delights

From Cahors, we travel by bus, train and overnight ferry to meet another giant in the French wine industry. More than 30 years ago, Paris-born Christian Imbert, still handsome at age 82, urged Corsican winemakers to choose quality grapes over quantity. Of course everyone said he was crazy, but those who joined him have elevated Corsica’s wines to new heights, a bonus for visitors since most of it is still consumed on the rugged island.

After studying finance in Washington and working in California wineries, Imbert’s son Marc is now in charge of Le Domaine de Torraccia in the island’s southeast corner, near Porto-Vecchio. Here you can sample the family’s wines and wander through vineyards bathed in sunlight, which sparkles on the turquoise sea below. The scent of the maquis—the island’s wild herbs and flowers—fills the air and flavours the wine.

For a crash course in local red grape varieties such as niellucciu and sciaccarellu, and white vermentino, visit Le Chemin des Vignobles wine shop in Ajaccio, so glamorous it could be in Paris. An abundance of local produce, cheese, charcuterie, olives, honey and liqueur fills the busy market, steps from the ferry terminal in Ajaccio.

Dining al fresco among million-dollar yachts beckons in Bonifacio, a walled city clinging to limestone cliffs on Corsica’s southern tip. Just don’t drink too much—your scuba baptism awaits in the morning. We’ve got the video to prove it!

Travel Planner

Air France (airfrance.com) flies to Toulouse via Paris. For more information, visit:

Toulouse: Toulouse-tourisme.com

Midi-Pyrénées: tourisme-midi-pyrenees.com

Le Gindreau restaurant: legindreau.com

Lot River valley and Cahors: tourisme-lot.com

Tarn and Cordes-sur-Ciel: tourisme-tarn.com

Corsica: visit-corsica.com

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