Cadillac, the historic French town where wine is king

Photo of Niall McIlroy

A rogue who gave his name to a classic car is also intimately connected to a fine wine region with a distinctive character.

Despite its name, I haven’t arrived in Cadillac on four wheels on purpose but because low water levels on the tidal Garonne means the cruise ship I’m on can’t make it up the river. 

This 11th century bastide, or French merchant town, still proudly wears its fortifications, half of its gates and towers, and 1km of wall still stands.

But because it’s a merchant town, the venerable old Church of St Blaise and St Martin has been somewhat shoved into the corner and at the crux of Cadillac’s narrow cobblestone streets is its high-arched town hall and marketplace. Wine commerce has always been king here, 40km south of Bordeaux.

Of course, one of the most famous luxury cars ever manufactured bears the town’s name but this happened in a rather roundabout way. One Antoine de la Mothe, a 17th century explorer, came from these parts — he made quite a name for himself — literally, by inventing the title Sire of Cadillac and then in New France, a colony that stretched from eastern Canada to Louisiana, by founding a fur-trading fort that became Detroit. Although history has judged him a scoundrel, mostly for his treatment of the indigenous of North America, it was his name the founders of the Cadillac Motor Company took upon its foundation in Detroit in 1902. The car’s crest is even based on his coat of arms.

Nowadays Cadillac is home to 2300 people making it, by law, only just bigger than a village, and it has a small castle with an unnecessarily deep moat.

Once a year, during the town’s motor festival, one can drive in an antique Cadillac on a tour of the region’s vineyards. Vintages in a vintage, anyone?

There are six distinct appellations or wine designations on this part of the Garonne which is particularly known for the quality of its sweet white wines. We may call them dessert wines but the locals are equally likely to drink them as an aperitif with foie grois, with a main of curry, or drizzled on roast chicken.

The most famous of these appellations is also one of the smallest. Sauternes lies across the Garonne from Cadillac and covers just 2000ha, less than two per cent of Bordeaux’s wine growing region.

Sauternes wine, said to be favoured by presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, relies on a curious phenomenon called “noble rot”.

During the warm, dry autumns, where the colder spring-fed waters of the little River Ciron enter the much bigger Garonne, a dawn mist forms. This combines with the warmer afternoons to cause a fungus to grow on the grapes and a process called botrytis or “noble rot” takes place making the grape skin permeable, causing the fruit to lose water and sugars to concentrate.

Just as with vineyards throughout France, the term “chateau” can be somewhat misleading to the outsider who may arrive at an estate so-named expecting a castle or mansion.

However, the French use the word simply to mean “wine estate” so at the centre of the vines one may find a rundown farmhouse. But Chateau de Myrat (pictured at top), which has been in the same family since 1937 is a little more pleasing on the eye. A horseshoe staircase sweeps up to a long, low house. A tunnel through the centre leads from one lawn to another, an empty cellar part way. Peacocks and a huge turkey strut near the wine works and there’s an ethereal air on this misty autumn day. One senses noble rot at work.

Wine has been in the de Pontac family since their ancestor Jean de Pontac founded an estate in 1533. It must’ve kept him healthy and happy for he is said to have lived to the very ripe old age of 101. 

The 22ha under vines is still hand picked, albeit by a much younger generation. For the grapes, which are mostly semillon with smaller amounts of sauvignon blanc and muscatel, must be picked at just the right stage of desiccation and as many as five sweeps of the vineyard will have to be made by about 30 pickers. 

The fruit of this labour is a highly regarded wine that is kept in oak barrels for 22 months. Resembling liquid gold, I find it remarkably complex rather than overly sugary. Of course, it all depends on the rot. 

It came early in 2013, a good year where the Ciron and the Garonne meet, and resulted in a very acidic, fresh wine that tastes of apricot and peach and has been deemed typical of a fine young Sauternes. 

Fact File


Niall McIlroy visited France as a guest of Viking Cruises.


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