For those of you who know it, the Île de Ré is one of those holiday destinations that remains engraved in the memory banks forever. For those who don’t, you’re seriously missing out on a small island paradise on the Atlantic coast near the fishing port of La Rochelle, midway between Nantes and Bordeaux. Technically an island, it is linked to the mainland by a spectacular curved toll bridge which opened in 1988.
Although there are roads for vehicles on the island linking the small towns and villages, the bicycle reigns supreme with over 100km of dedicated cycle paths covering every part of the island. Once you arrive, park your car and go everywhere by bike – relaxing, low-stress and healthy travel. How often do you get that these days? There are several companies on the island renting bikes, both traditional and electric for those who opt for a little help with pedalling. The island is mostly flat, but for those unused to cycling, an electric option allows greater distances to be covered on this island which is 30km long.
Cycle from the main town and fishing harbour of Saint-Martin-de-Ré along the coast towards La Couarde-sur-Mer or across the island to Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré on the other side – only 5 km – and you cannot help but be impressed by the extensive vineyards covering the island. An integral part of the identity of this magical place, vines were brought here by Cistercian monks in the 12th century. Together with salt production in the coastal salt pans in the north of the island, market gardening in the centre and oyster farming all around the coast, these activities are part of the fabric which constitutes the Île de Ré.
Alongside a small number of independent wine producers making characterful, high-quality wines such as Domaine Pelletier near La Couarde-sur-Mer, the Cave Cooperative UNIRE groups together 40 vine growers, with some 500 hectares of vines. This, however, is a far cry from the 5,000 hectares of vines covering the island in the 19th century, before the ravages of the vine-root disease phylloxera. Only partially replanted, the burgeoning wine trade has largely been replaced by a bustling tourist trade.
Happily, wine is still produced in some quantity, virtually all of which is consumed locally, with zero export. Not so, as it happens, with regard to cognac production, a little-known island industry, even by regular visitors. The cognac appellation extends across the Charentes and encompasses the Île de Ré, with a large proportion of the vines dedicated to cognac production. Mainly in the hands of the Cave Cooperative, a range of island spirits is produced, some in collaboration with the mainland cognac house of Camus, the only exporter of Île de Ré Fine Island Cognac.
Taking advantage of the surge in tourism, a number of wine tourism activities are run by UNIRE, under the expert direction of Stéphane Thomas. Apart from tastings in the super-modern winery building at Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré and visits to the distillery, bike rides or even horse-riding through the vines can be organised. For total immersion in the spirit world of the Île de Ré, experience cognac tasting with oysters in one of the coastal oyster shacks – your tastebuds will be transported to a different world.
The cognacs of the Île de Ré are unmistakably different, with a lightness and salinity imparted by ageing by the sea in this island setting. The six-year-old VSOP and the ten-year-old XO produced by UNIRE are worthy and characterful cognacs for sipping after dinner or matched with fresh seafood for an unusual gourmet experience.
There is no shortage of places to stay on the Île de Ré (except perhaps in July and August!) with an abundance of campsites and houses to rent. But for the ultimate luxury stay, there is no other place than the five-star Hôtel de Toiras in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the main town of the island. The hotel is on the waterfront overlooking the fishing port with its plethora of multicoloured boats, festooned with the odd herring gull. The front rooms have spectacular views, as does the restaurant Georges and terrace, with its supremely comfortable cream-coloured sofas, just made for sipping a glass of champagne or rosé from Provence. Rooms to the rear of the hotel still benefit from the central position in the town and overlook a charming, fragrant and almost tropical-looking courtyard garden.
The modern, light and airy restaurant takes great advantage of its harbour position, serving wonderfully fresh fish and seafood dishes. A lobster salad lunch washed down with a chilled bottle of white wine from Provence, sitting on a comfy sofa in the shade of a canvas awning, watching the bustling life of the harbour, is my idea of heaven.
One of the most striking attributes of the five-star Hôtel de Toiras is the calm, relaxed atmosphere, with impeccable, unobtrusive and friendly service. A warm, cosy, sophisticated, modern décor is the unquestionable success of the owner Olivia Le Calvez, seamlessly blending antique furniture with beautiful wall-coverings and fabrics from Pierre Frey and Ralph Lauren, amongst other top designers. It’s a thoroughly chic and contemporary transformation of this historic 17th-century building.
An added bonus for guests of the hotel is the use of the pool at nearby Villa Clarisse and its spa, located in the centre of town in a converted 18th-century monastery. Under the same ownership as Hôtel de Toiras, Villa Clarisse has nine rooms and suites, together with a garden and pool in a true haven of peace and tranquillity.
One of life’s ultimate pleasures surely must be savouring a glass of Fine Island Cognac on the terrace of Hôtel de Toiras, contemplating the historic harbour of Saint Martin de Ré with its UNESCO-classified fortifications and the true spirit of the island.
About the author
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine journalist, writer, educator and consultant. With experience in the wines and spirits industry spanning several decades, he is a member of the prestigious Circle of Wine Writers and an International Wine Judge.
www.winewyse.com Twitter @richardwje