France Magazine: Racing a toast

Adam Hay-Nicholls borrows a fast car and joins The Beaujolais Run – the longest-running pan-European rally – to grab the titular wine’s latest release and bring it back to Blighty in style.

The Beaujolais Run was, like most excellent ideas, midwifed over a long lunch. It was the winter of 1970, and sitting at a dining table at the Hôtel Les Maritonnes, just south of Mâcon, mangling a Coq au Vin were the UK’s self-acknowledged crème de la crème of professional imbibers; The Good Wine Guide’s Joseph Berkmann, and Clement Freud – journalist, broadcaster, politician, a director of Mayfair’s Playboy Club, and scion of psychoanalysis. The boots of both gents’ cars were filled with the latest release of pinky-red Beaujolais Nouveau, and a midnight race back to Britain was proposed.

The bibulous Berkmann won, and when Sunday Times wine critic Allan Hall (who famously once expensed an £11,000 lunch) got wind of it he threw down the gauntlet to the public. A new rally was born. Like America’s Cannonball Run, but much more bacchanal.

Mandated by the French government, the release of Beaujolais Nouveau takes place at 12:01am on the third Thursday of November every year. Ground Zero is the pretty medieval town of Beaujeu, from which the region north of Lyon takes its name. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, the challenge of the ‘Run was to be the first to bring a bottle back to London’s thirsty newspapermen on Fleet Street.

Le Figaro proclaimed the race to get this little-appreciated tipple to the table “the greatest marketing stroke since the end of World War II”. As for Mr Hall, it was to his regret that “there is no trying to hide the disagreeable fact that I couldn’t possibly have chosen a worse vintage than the 1972 to inaugurate the run.”

Automobiles were the most popular delivery mechanism, of course, but some took other means such as elephants and a motorized bathtub. When a couple of resourceful bon vivants collected their cases with the aid of a Harrier jump jet, it was agreed this record time would never be beaten. The official ‘Run (which is rigorously trademarked to dissuade highway counterfeiters) changed from being a race against the clock to a navigational competition and fundraiser on behalf of the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund, which has supported the airmen and airwomen of the RAF, and their families, for a century.

The aim of the assembled runners is now to raise the highest amount for charity that they can, and to win the map-reading and mileage challenges. There are no rules on what they can drive as the organisers like to see variety; classic cars, kit cars, performance cars and 4x4s. Some are expensive, some are imaginative, and others are everyday. And there’s always a theme; last year it was The Great Escape.

Taking inspiration from those Harrier chaps, I and my co-pilot Harry Mead (a restaurateur and members club impresario) had negotiated the loan of a McLaren GT; a low-slung, state-of-the-art supercar that looks stealthy and weaponised. Capable of 203mph, it’s also considered the most practical McLaren due to its 570 litres of luggage space – unheard of in a mid-engined machine – which can accommodate a decent supply of bargain booze. For tearing across the continent, there is no sharper grand tourer.

Transport selected, it was time to study the road book. The route changes each year, starting at a location in the UK which remains secret until the night before, and stretches over six days as it visits other areas of interest, including Champagne and Burgundy. Pitstops occur at châteaux, and tastings are encouraged. It should go without saying that a spittoon is proffered until each day’s driving is complete. Once the car keys have been confiscated, however, the refreshment is generous.

Our mission started at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, a main operating base for Chinook and Puma helicopters. During the Second World War, it was home to the No.1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit which, among other things, managed to pinpoint the German battleship Bismarck. Benson’s 1,825m runway provided the launch of the Beaujolais Run, in literal terms. The button marked ‘launch control’ on the McLaren’s centre console enables software that limits wheel-spin while maximising power delivery from a standing start. That was the plan, anyway. We pulled away in a heartbeat, 60mph arriving in just 3.2 seconds, but as the automatic transmission flicked to second gear, its 612 horsepower scurried for grip. The GT’s rear end stepped out, causing what motorcyclists call ‘a tank slapper’, and it was with more luck than skill that we reached the end of the runway pointing in the right direction. Single-digit temperatures and the slippery surface were something of a baptism. I made a mental note to take the trip more sedately from here onwards.

From the air base, we pushed on to coffee and cake chez Raymond Blanc. The RAF catering corps had us deliver a 70th birthday gateau to the twin Michelin-starred chef’s Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Great Milton and, having polished up our française ahead of our invasion, off to Folkestone we dashed, wolfing a picnic lunch upon the cars’ spoilers as we travelled under the Channel (despite the ‘Run’s theme, we were not required to do the tunnelling ourselves). From there, we took the Autoroute down to Reims where we would spend the evening gorging on regional specialties – lubricated by fizz, obviously – at the 13th century Hôtel des Comtes de Champagne, which hosted coronation ceremonies for the kings of France and is never normally open to the public.

The following morning saw the start of our navigational challenges. Autoroutes would be left in the rear-view mirror in favour of quiet Route Nationales and D roads. First, though, there was the dress code to think of. As I mentioned, our motif was The Great Escape and at this stage we were encouraged to don outfits related to ‘escape’. Some ‘Runners came dressed as Steve McQueen, wearing brown bomber jackets and clutching baseball gloves like they’d just emerged from the cooler, others went as characters from ‘Allo ‘Allo! There were also some British paratroopers trying to pass themselves off as French peasants; their RAF uniforms turned inside out, strings of garlic around their necks, and berets in place of the moustachioed officers’ caps. I got the wrong end of the stick slightly and arrived at Day 2’s start line, at the Taittinger champagne house, dressed in a straitjacket and face mask a la Hannibal Lecter.

Here, our mileage was noted and we were given a clue as to our next destination: ‘One of these is helpful when escaping from a plane – nine letters’. Parachute, we deduced. Noting a number next to each letter we were able to decode 3ILLY L2 MON82GN9: Rilly-la-Montagne. The challenge was to reach it in the shortest distance. These sorts of tasks would continue throughout the event.

In Rilly-la-Montagne, we descended deep under the Montagne de Reims to discover the caves of Armand de Brignac, known for its flashy gold Ace of Spades bottles. To my mind, even with dim lighting and musty air, it glitters like a medieval nightclub. The fact hip hop heavyweight Jay-Z bought the brand in 2014 may have had some bearing on my outlook, however. A savvy purchase, it turns out, as the marque has since topped the critics’ awards for the best champagnes in the world.

Up until this point, no one had had a scrape, but (and I have nothing but the utmost sympathy) our compatriots Paul and Paula Brazier – both dressed as fence-jumping Hollywood stars – soon fell foul of someone who needed their eyes tested. You’d have thought a bright red Ferrari 488 would stick out, but a young man in a Renault Twingo nevertheless managed to back into the side of it, causing £30,000-worth of damage. At which point, how much is a grovelling apology worth?

We moved on to the Fromagerie Marcel Petite, a veritable cathedral of cheese just past Raymond Blanc’s birthplace of Besançon, beside the Swiss border. Our cross-country approach, over a couple of inches of snow, played havoc with the McLaren’s traction once again, but we made it without slipping into an icy ditch despite a few scares. Our bravery was rewarded with plentiful Comté. Inside this defunct military fort-turned-cheesemaker’s, built into the side of the Jura mountains, we found 100,000 massive wheels of the stuff, ripening for between ten and 20 months each. I suggest if you visit you bring a nose peg.

You might think the route to Beaujolais would be vaguely straight, but that wouldn’t be sufficiently adventurous. Our second evening would be spent across the Swiss border in Europe’s jazz capital, Montreux. A late night at Funky Claude’s Bar, named after Claude Nobs who founded the Montreux Jazz Festival, was interrupted by an 8am start as we continued clockwise around the twinkling Lake Geneva, passing back into France through Évian, Annecy, and on to Beaujolais country.

Les Rendez-Vous de Bobosse, outside Belleville, is famed for its charcuterie and layered the stomach at lunchtime ahead of the evening’s Beaujolais Nouveau festivities. In addition, we swung round vigneron Henry Fessy’s domaine and placed an order for cases of midnight’s release.

Les Sarmentelles is Beaujeu’s night of celebration, and it was at the invitation of the mayor that we attended this sort of Eurovision of local wine, in a large marquee complete with sparkly pop acts, Miss France, 1,000 suprême de volailles, and lashings of the pre-eminent plonk. Then it was through the town that we marched with candles aloft to the Hôtel de Ville for a spectacular son et lumière and firework display and the hallowed opening of the first bottle. It all felt a bit like The Wicker Man, except instead of a wicker man it featured a 30m-tall bunch of grapes.

Sadly, at this point my co-driver Harry was called back to London and had to fly out of Lyon in the wee small hours, missing the crescendo of our trip – a formal dinner at the Taittinger family’s château – but his early return to business did help pave the way for a homecoming bun fight at The Court, the private club he operates in Soho.

Plus, being tasked with all the driving duties in the £163,000 McLaren was no hardship. The following day the rally cruised through the Côte d’Or, settling in Beaune and loading up on my favourite chardonnay – Puligny Montrachet – at the colourfully-roofed Château de Santenay. A sublime dinner was held for us that evening at Louis Latour’s Château Corton Grancey, which has bottles its cellar that have been buried in a thick foam of soot-black cobwebs for 150 years.

The finale came in Épernay ahead of our last day north, with a black tie soiree at the Louis XV-style Château de la Marquetterie, Claude Taittinger’s homestead, and here prizes were presented for the winners of the navigational challenges (not me, guttingly), charity fundraising (well done the Braziers) and the ‘spirit’ award, which went to two RAF widows, Land Rover pilots Beth Wright and Eirlys Greenough, who were the life and soul of the party throughout.

The sixth and final day saw us start at the old Reims-Gueux circuit, which hosted Formula One racing from 1950 till 1966 – ’66 being McLaren’s debut year in the world championship. The track is now a public road, but the pit buildings remain and are regularly repainted with the original sponsors logos, providing a mecca for grand prix fans. We staged a Le Mans-style start by running from the far side of the road to jump in our vehicles and screech away from the pits.

It is perhaps the closest we got to a race against the clock, no doubt just as Britain’s foremost food and drink journalists did 50 years ago before storming up the Autoroute in search of their Calais crossing. What better way to celebrate a print deadline than the liquid bounty that was stuffed behind their seats, and mine too?

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WHAT IS THIS I’M DRINKING?

Beaujolais Nouveau is a newly-harvested primeur which, following a 1951 decree, is sold a month earlier than standard bottles. Fermented for just a few weeks each Autumn, it’s made from hand-picked Gamay grapes. Beaujolais is the historical name given to the region just north of Lyon, which stretches from the north of the Rhône-Alpes to the south of the Saône-et-Loire region of Burgundy. Its wine is light on tannins, has notes of banana, strawberry and pear drop, and is served slightly chilled, typically as an aperitif or with salads and poultry. It has been described as the only white wine that’s red.

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THE BIG RELEASE:

Beaujolais Nouveau celebrations are held in bars all over France following its annual release, but the epicentre is the Les Sarmentelles festival in Beaujeu, to be held this year on 18-22 November. The mayor will host a Dionysian dinner on the 18th with colourful entertainment, before leading the throngs to the Hotel de Ville where, at one minute past midnight, the 2020 Beaujolais Nouveau is uncorked. At which point, everyone will cram in to the nearest café – social distancing allowing. For more information, visit www.sarmentelles.com.

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HOW TO JOIN THE BEAUJOLAIS RUN 2020:

This year’s Beaujolais Run leaves the UK on 16th November and returns on the 21st. The theme is The Battle of Britain and the route remains a secret until the last minute. To enter, visit www.beaujolaisrun.com. Participants are required to raise a minimum of £1,250 per car for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund in addition to the £1,995 entry fee. This includes the Eurotunnel, accommodation, and organised dinners and drinks events en route.

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