One of France’s best-kept secrets is the fact that on its second-largest offshore island, some great wines are to be found, many of which are sold out before they ever get off the island
When you first find yourself on the Île d’Oléron, it doesn’t feel too much like an island. Situated just off the Charente-Maritime department on the Atlantic coast about 50km south of La Rochelle and near the popular camp sites of La Palmyre, the 3km-long bridge takes you over the narrow sound separating it from the mainland. Below and around you are signs of the main industries here – fish-farming and tourism. The flat island resembles the mainland coast, with its expansive marshland, flat featureless landscape and enticing sandy beaches. Oléron is a busy island. It has a number of large-ish market towns and an attractive citadel town (Château d’Oléron).
But it’s when you get into the middle of the island that you get some semblance of the peace and change of pace of life that you associate with island life. Narrow bumpy roads take you across fields dominated by crops of corn and vines. Just outside the hamlet of La Fromagerie, Pascal Favre’s vineyard and shop is one of the number of wine-producing centres that have evolved here over the last century or so, forging a strong reputation for drinkable affordable wines with a great balance of flavour and sophistication.
Amongst the vineyards that dominate the countryside of the northern half of Oléron, you won’t find any of the grand châteaux of the Bordeaux region. It’s essentially hard-working farmers whose wine-making activities have developed and come to dominate any other business they might have been dabbling in to make ends meet. The growth in popularity of such operations means that it’s often the market that comes to them rather than they having to go to the market.
Such an operation is that of Pascal Favre. At 10am on a working day in the early part of July, we arrive at his vineyard. I wonder if we’re in the right place. I had visualised rolling hills with south-facing terraces and a long dusty drive towards a modest château partially hidden by mature trees.
The immediate impression is less like a vineyard and more like a co-operative store and farm by the side of the public road. There is a historical reason for all this: even though wine has been made on this island as far back as the 3rd century, it entered a new era in the late 19th century when all the vineyards were transferred into the hands of co-operatives. This looks like a place where you can get bargains.
The owner Pascal arrives, dressed in shorts and tee-shirt and ready for another busy day. The Favres have been making wine and Pineau des Charentes for a number of generations. The Pineau is this region’s flagship drink – a sweet liqueur made from a mature blend of brandy and grape juice, it is used principally as an aperitif.
Inside the vineyard’s main facility, Pascal shows us the various elements that make up the modern-day production of wine and sweet spirits. His is the only organic operation on the island, he says. It’s something that developed as a result of his own personal convictions rather than trying to aim for a particular market niche that could be worthwhile. It is, he smiles, a bit like marketing without knowing you’re doing it.
Rows of oak barrels with the slightest of leaks coming from them is a heartening sight and Pascal explains how the Pineau des Charentes is made by using the juice of a crop of specially-grown grapes, mixing it with brandy and allowing it to mature over a minimum of 2-3 years. For a different product again, you can let the mixture cook for another 3 or 4 years longer.
Back in the shop, there is a queue of customers. It’s a simple and short range of produce Pascal sells here – some red, some white and some Pineau des Charentes. He lets us sample some of the goods: one red had a well-rounded and slightly fruity texture while the other punches a bit higher on the sophistication chart – “More like a Bordeaux wine,” as he says himself. The white also has that distinctive light fruitiness. It tastes like it comes from somewhere between the Loire Valley and the Bourgogne. The flavours are subtle but smooth as you like.
“It’s very drinkable,” he says, “especially in the summer.” I couldn’t have put it better myself. The Pineau is something I’ve tried before. If you fall into local company with the folks in the Charente-Maritime or the Vendée, you will be plied with this stuff before dinner. Pascal offered us tastes of two varieties – one mature and one of the normal 3-year-old variety. The latter was delicious and the former was fairly irresistible.
As we were leaving and loading some of Pascal’s produce into the car, I asked him to remind me of his website address. He told me that it was still “under construction”. Why would one need to have a website when your market comes to you? Some of the best-kept secrets these days are off the web.
Get Yourself There:
There’s really no point in visiting a place like this without being able to bring home a few litres at least. Stena Line is one of the very few ferry companies running a year-round service between Ireland and France, sailing three times a week from Rosslare to Cherbourg.
Click below to hear editor Conor Power in a half-hour Tootlafrance special on Talk Travel, Dublin City FM from September 2014