Languedoc Lunch with Andrew Jefford

 Andrew Jefford arrives on a bicycle. I via TGV from Paris. He is far younger-looking than the photograph accompanying his “Jefford on Monday” column on the Decanter website, possibly the result of regular 40 minute-bouts of cycling between his home in Prades le Lez and the city of Montpellier where we meet for lunch.

It was, initially, purely business. But as the wine business and its people tend to do, the meeting left me with snippets of insight and reflection.

Andrew will be the keynote speaker at next year’s bi-annual De Wetshof Celebration of Chardonnay. Being the thorough and respected professional he is – aspects he shares with De Wetshof patron Danie de Wet – I was tasked to brief Monsieur J on arrangements for and the format of the forthcoming event. Failing to plan is planning to fail, see, and Jefford does not “wing it”.

He had chosen a restaurant named MIA, a modern, well-lighted place housed in a fashionable design centre in a modern residential development. Meeting an English wine writer who had relocated to the French countryside, I had somehow expected a pastis-scented brasserie with sawdust on the floor, a sweaty chef cooking duck hearts and cow’s brains while pawing the waitress. Not so, but MIA is still typically French in a suave, urbane chic sort of way.

After asking him to introduce me to regional juice, Andrew ordered a wine made from Clairette Blanche, a grape variety South Africans would not exactly deem modish. Clairette de Bellegarde: Cap au Nord from Clos des Boutes. Biodynamic and made in a slightly oxidative style, the wine is fresh and lovely, the stone fruit and minerality underscored by a touch of oxidative savouriness. “But in Australia this kind of wine would be deemed to be faulty at a competition,” he states.

As an esteemed international wine judge, Andrew knows the value and weaknesses of wine competitions. “Australia’s judges are extremely technically focused, so a wine such as the one we are drinking now would be disqualified for not being 100% pure and so-called fault-free.”

Wine competitions are, however, a necessary aspect of the wine business. For producers and consumers, he emphasises.

The food at MIA, it must be said, is itself worth the 800km trip from Paris. We both start off with the most gorgeously luxurious slab of foie gras terrine, made by chef Pascal Sanchez himself. The liver is not too pumped up and fatty, thus able to maintain a silky texture and slightly meaty flavour. Andrew eats with gusto, which is good news for the De Wet family who will be hosting him. Good appetite is deemed a proof of character at Casa De Wet in Robertson.

We move onto a Bergerie de l’Hortus, a red wine also from the area which Andrew happily orders to accompany his main course of fish. He does not appear to be a man of convention. I receive two thick slices of pork cut from the famed Iberico black pig. The sauce is savoury-sweet, the potato puree creamy and lush.

“I actually like young wines,” says Andrew. “I like tasting wines with life and energy in them.” Those who read his masterly Decanter columns will relate to this. For to him, wine is an extension of nature – a living natural world – therefore best enjoyed before the breathing becomes stressed and the bones creaky.

Pascal Sanchez in his kitchen at MIA Restaurant, Montpellier.
Pascal Sanchez in his kitchen at MIA Restaurant, Montpellier.

Terroir is everything. Whenever I mention a wine a like, he states the merits of the relevant site and soil.

Over the course of lunch we spoke about the Jefford family’s relocation to France from the UK three-and-a-half years ago, the French lifestyle and the opportunity the family has of learning a second language, although Andrew converses flawlessly.

How did the son of an Anglican clergyman get into learning about wine. “We were a family of modest means,” he says, “and as a child I made wine for consumption from elderflowers, berries and such things. The whole process just intrigued me. When I began to drink wine – real wine – later on, well, the fascination and wonder just grew.”

As is often the case with great writers, Andrew is a keen listener with a focused stare that makes you watch and count every word and in retrospect I was thus rather happy not to have ordered another bottle.

The wine business sees Andrew travelling for three months of the year, although he has not been in South Africa for close on a decade. And is very interested to see what developments have taken place, as well as to rekindle old friendships with South African wine people he has known for some time.

I mention the recent charade where South African wines were presented at Dijon in the heart of Burgundy, the resultant negative response from the French causing more harm to French-South African relationships than Romain Poite’s ludicrous actions during this year’s Springbok-All Black rugby test.

“Regionality is very visceral in France,” states Andrew. “And with this comes loyalty to your region’s wine. It goes back to times when this vast country’s regions were so far apart you grew up drinking that area’s wine. It was all you knew, and all you wanted.”

Andrew has to get on his bike. Time to collect the kids from school. Domestic life does not stop in rural France. And as the great writer rode off, I couldn’t help thinking that he would not want it to stop.

These are his roots.

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