Abounding in fragrant truffles, sun-soaked wines, and the richest of foie gras, the Dordogne Valley is packed with authentic flavors. Throw in picture-book châteaux and some of humankind’s most ancient artwork, and you’ve got a slice of rural France like no other.
Words and photographs by Matt Dutile.
“Wednesday. On Wednesday they will be mature,” François-Xavier de Saint-Exupéry Says as he pops another waxy cabernet franc grape into his mouth.
Joining him, I pluck a bluish-purple berry from the vine and bite down. The skin bursts with a satisfying spurt of grapey sweetness. And as I’m in the Bergerac wine region of France’s Dordogne Valley—during harvest season, no less—I fancy I can also detect an early expression of what wine aficionados refer to as goût de terroir, the unique flavor imparted to a wine by the soils, climate, and geology of the vineyard where the grapes were grown. Is this what sunlight tastes like?
Saint-Exupéry, a distant cousin of Le Petit Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, has no doubts about the distinctive terroir of the sloping vineyards at Château de Tiregand, a historic estate that his family acquired almost two centuries ago. “We had a terrible frost and lost all the vines in 1956,” he says. “My father replanted new ones closer together that produce smaller grapes. The roots dig deeper into the mineral veins because they are competing for the soil. The yield is less, but the grapes are much richer.”
We follow him to the estate’s tasting room for sips of his earthy, ruby-red Pécharmant wines, an appellation that encompasses just 400 hectares of gravelly vineyards within the greater Bergerac region. Made from the same grapes as Bordeaux—merlot, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and malbec—they’re bright and fruity and a steal at around 8 to 13 euros a bottle, though you’ll pay more for the complex minerality of Tiregand’s flagship Cuvée Grand Millésimé, the grapes for which are harvested by hand.
Across the Dordogne River in Monbazillac, fifth-generation vintner Christian Roche is doing something equally spectacular with the organic vignobles at Domaine de l’Ancienne Cure. The area’s namesake vin is a golden, late-harvest dessert wine whose richness pairs well with foie gras and strong cheeses. L’Ancienne Cure also produces a collection of whites, reds, and a single rosé under other appellations, but it’s the estate’s Monbazillacs that stand out. As we amble past carefully plotted rows of sémillon and muscadelle, Roche stops to point out an ashy mold on the grapes’ puckered skin. This is Botrytis cinerea, known to vintners as “noble rot,” a fungus that thrives in the damp misty mornings of the local microclimate. As it spreads, the rot sucks out moisture from grapes, shriveling them while concentrating their sugars. The resulting wine is sweet, complex, and certainly on par with any Sauternes, the renowned dessert wines of Bordeaux.
The vineyards of the Dordogne, a bucolic département of southwestern France, are concentrated in an area called Périgord Pourpre, a moniker that refers both to the historical county of Périgord and the purple (pourpre) color of the grapes grown here. (Neighboring Périgord Noir, similarly, is so-called for its dark oak forests). But while the promise of good local wine was one reason my wife Laura and I chose the Dordogne Valley for our autumn break from New York, it wasn’t the only lure. Dordogne and the adjacent département of Lot are a land of plenty, producing cheeses, foie gras, walnut oil, and other delicacies that make their way into the kitchens of an impressive roster of Michelin-star restaurants.
Together with bucolic countryside and a smattering of atmospheric chateaux, this oft-overlooked part of France seemed to have all the ingredients for an idyllic rural road trip. Our visits to the vineyards of Périgord Pourpre bear this out. Following Roche up a hill to his house in the tiny commune of Colombier, we spend the next hour or so discussing the mixed blessings of being a winemaker in the shadow of nearby Bordeaux.
“There is no room for forgiveness,” he says, uncorking a bottle of his robust L’abbaye Monbazillac as we admire the vineyard views from his terrace. “To stand out in the market, everything must be exceptional.”
“Exceptional” is a word I could apply to much in the Dordogne Valley, including our stay that night at the grand Château des Vigiers outside Monestier. The 16th-century castle turned hotel is surrounded by a 150-hectare estate, which includes a 27-hole golf course, plum orchards, stands of oak, and its own vineyard. The 25 rooms in the main building are suitably lavish, done up in a French country house style with period furnishings and toile de Jouy wallpapers. Laura and I opt to spend the rest of the afternoon curled up with a pair of books.
When the sun has dipped well below the horizon, we make our way to the château’s ivy-coated east wing, where chef Didier Casaguana oversees the Michelin-starred restaurant Les Fresques. Our dinner here kicks off an unending parade of foie gras. Fattened duck or goose liver is something of a religion in the Dordogne, which produces 80 percent of France’s foie gras; indeed, every third road sign on our journey seems to point the way to another waterfowl farm. On Casaguana’s menu, a wafer-like slice of pan-fried duck liver is topped with a shaving of truffle over an open cut soft-boiled egg. It’s creamy and earthy at the same time.
“I want you to be surprised,” the chef explains of his cooking as he delivers the next course to our table. “To look at a dish and think it’s simple, but then to taste it and find it’s not what you expected.”
The oysters that follow certainly fit the bill. Topped with a lush Péchalou yogurt, pearls of caviar, and a single blue borage flower, they’re blended with a faux ice of frozen slices of tart green apple that keep the briny bivalves cool while adding a puckering balance. A yin-yang of John Dory fish and seared foie gras in tarragon-infused chicken broth precedes the final course of sweet breads and herb-crusted lamb in truffle jus. Then a waiter rolls out not one, but two carts of cheese. We tuck into the walnut-crusted folds of a semi-soft Trappe d’Échourgnac with liberal abandon.
From Monestier, we follow the river east for a few unhurried hours, pausing with unplanned irregularity to wander through quaint villages and the occasional château. At the market in Issigeac, we pick up saucisson, walnut bread, herb-slathered escargot, and other comestibles for a picnic lunch above the confluence of the Vézère and Dordogne rivers at Limeuil. Tourism in this part of France isn’t a frantic checklist of museums and monuments. It’s a promenade through the Périgord way of life.
Our destination for the night is Marquay, in the middle of Périgord Noir. Close your eyes and picture the perfect French village, and it will probably look a lot like this. Sitting on a hilltop amid a sea of farmland, Marquay’s old houses are charming as can be, with mint-green wooden shutters and ivy-draped limestone walls. The one we’re aiming for is Maison de Marquay, a 17th-century building that has been lovingly converted into a bed-and-breakfast by Marie-Laure and Gérard Lerchundi, who welcome us into their sitting room with the sort of easy geniality you’d expect from people who have been in the hospitality business for more than 40 years. Everything about the place is charming. Taxi-brousse toys and cloth dolls (from the Lerchundis’ stint as hoteliers in Madagascar in the early aughties) rest near well-worn leather chairs. Ornamental golden geese hold the keys to each of the 10 stylishly cozy rooms, which come with artisan-made goose-down comforters and pastoral watercolors. Out back is an enchanting garden of wild shrubs and manicured topiary.
“We looked for six months before we found this place,” Marie-Laure explains of the property, which they opened a decade ago. “We wanted a big house in a little village, a place that would be all we wanted in a hotel, but also feel like a home to our guests.” Mission accomplished.
For the next few days, Marquay is our base for exploring the myriad châteaux, gardens, and limestone caves of Périgord Noir. At Beynac-et-Cazenac, we scale the highest turret of the village’s 12th-century castle as much for the views as to work off all the cheese and foie gras we’ve been eating. We sip midday tea under emerald sun umbrellas at the Gardens of Marqueyssac, where a maze of 150,000 hand-pruned boxwood hedges wraps around a 17th-century chateau. One evening, we curl up together on a park bench below the bluffs of Domme to watch the sun set.
Few sites are as memorable as the Grotte de Rouffignac. A miniature electric train, like something pulled from Disney’s It’s a Small World storage house, plunges us and three dozen other passengers one kilometer into the depths of the cave complex, where Paleolithic people etched and painted mammoths, bison, woolly rhinoceroses, and other prehistoric creatures onto the walls 13 millennia ago. It’s humbling to witness one of humanity’s earliest artistic statements—our species’ first declaration of existence to the universe.
Back at Maison de Marquay, Laura and I settle into a fireside table for one of the true pleasures of a stay with the Lerchundis: a gourmet dinner prepared by Gérard. Marie-Laure, bedecked in pearls, plays the genial hostess as the evening unfolds. There’s a mise en bouche of eggs and wood mushrooms topped with cream and served in a lovely egg-shaped glass. Confit de canard comes next, presented in wafer-thin phyllo pastry with potatoes sautéed in garlic and goose fat; followed by sturgeon (the fish was raised at a nearby caviar farm) in a red-wine sauce and a final velvety lobe of foie gras marinated in caramel, vinegar, and a stock reduction that I know on first bite will haunt my taste buds for years to come.
“I am not a chef, I am a cook,” Gérard modestly insists when he brings out dessert: a saffron-laced crème brûlée. I’m equally insistent that it’s the best crème brûlée I’ve ever tasted. And I mean it. Besides, few things in life are more satisfying than that first sugar-cracking whack of the spoon.
Beyond the bijou medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, we rejoin the Dordogne River and enter the département of Lot. The undulating landscapes of the Dordogne have all but vanished in this part of the valley, replaced by low rocky hills and patches of thick woodland. The change is particularly distinct as we drive through Rocamadour, a cliff-side village that overlooks a forested river gorge. The collection of religious buildings here (which include the Chapel of Notre-Dame with its famous Black Madonna statue) has attracted pilgrims since the 12th century, though these days, visitors are more likely to be stopping by for a taste of Rocamadour’s eponymous goat cheese.
To the north is Martel, where each storefront, adorned with crawling grapevines or hand-painted signs, looks like it was created by a Hollywood set designer for a pastoral French romance. In the countryside beyond lies another quintessential Dordogne Valley experience—a visit to a walnut farm. We wind our way down a muddy dirt road through acres of straight-lined trees to Moulin à Huile Castagné, an old stone mill set in the heart of a sixth-generation family walnut grove. Here, brothers Romain and Adrien Castagné are busy dumping boxes of cracked and peeled walnut kernels under a huge stone wheel. Mashed and smashed, the pulp is then hauled to a metal drum over a wood-fired brick oven.
“The less you cook it the more fruity the flavor; the more you cook, the stronger the roast,” Romain tells us before grabbing a metal scoop and loading a batch into a fire-engine-red hydraulic press. We watch as the machine bears down on the pulp, releasing a steady stream of walnut oil into a bucket below. At Romain’s urging, we each dip a finger into the amber liquid for a taste. It’s sweet and (unsurprisingly) nutty, and I don’t waste any time figuring out how many bottles of the stuff I can squeeze into my suitcase.
Stocking up on oil and several jars of chocolate-coated walnuts at the Castagnés’ farm shop, we follow the river back to Château de la Treyne, an opulent hotel set above the Dordogne near the village of Lacave. (Dating to the 1600s, the castle served as a hiding place for many of the Louvre’s priceless Egyptian antiquities during the Nazi occupation of Europe.) Next to a screaming yellow Lamborghini and a row of black Audis in the parking lot, our humble little Hyundai Fastback is a comical sight. But making our way to the château’s stone terrace to watch the sun set, we’re soon feeling like lords of the manor as we sip walnut liqueur from filigreed crystal glasses.
Our suite, with its gothic woodwork ceiling, Louis XIV furniture, and gold-painted bathtub, is downright regal, and certainly larger than our apartment back in New York. We can peer out the lead-paned windows at splendid views of the river and the fields and oak woods beyond.
As if we weren’t feeling posh enough, our dinner that night is in the grand Louis XIII dining room, where chef Stéphane Andrieux has held a Michelin star for 18 years—and with good reason.
“I was born and grew up in the Dordogne,” he remarks as we settle into a table by a window overlooking the darkening river. “The truffles and foie gras are in my blood.”
The next three hours play out like a highlight reel of the region’s culinary treasures: an escalope of foie gras coated in sesame seeds paired with a sorbet of Granny Smith apples; an intricately plated dish of trout and salmon gravlax with caviar and Brussels sprout leaves in a hearty mushroom broth à la grecque; a risotto of black and white truffles.
Somewhere between the next bottle of wine and a course of thyme-dusted lamb loin, we lose all sense of time. Such is the blissfully meandering world of the Dordogne Valley, where you move between millennia of history, charming hosts, and splurge-worthy meals at the languid pace of the winding river at your doorstep.
From Paris, it takes over five hours to drive to the town of Périgueux, the capital of and gateway to the Dordogne region. Alternatively, take a train to Bordeaux and rent a car there.
Where to Stay
Lacave; 33-5/6527-6060; doubles from US$320.
Le Vigier, Monestier; 33-5/5361-5000; doubles from US$175.
Le Bourg, Marquay; 33-5/5359-5359; doubles from US$100.
What to See
Grotte de Rouffignac
This article originally appeared in the February/March 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Close to the Land”).