We aim for the deep south of France on a single tank of fuel… our mission, to find old cars and buy great wine.
Our car of choice for the adventure is a Volkswagen Passat 1.6TDI SE with Bluemotion technology – and it sure beats flying.
Words: Keith Adams Photography: Keith Adams and Michael Hayward
Hunting the perfect reds, with a touch of rust
It has to be said that the latest generation of super-economical family hold-alls are a real enabler for the roaming driving and travel enthusiast. Think about the Volkswagen Passat Bluemotion, for example – thanks to the large 70-litre fuel tank and parsimonious 1.6-litre turbodiesel under the bonnet, some fairly exotic locations are yours for the taking – and all for the price of a fill-up. And some time off work.
Since going on sale in January 2011, the seventh generation Passat has already become a familiar sight on UK roads. It’s a clever reskin of the previous car, and has been improved in a number of important areas – namely in the area of active and passive safety, fuel economy and emissions. And our 1.6TDI SE is a perfect reflection of the industry’s desire to standardize smaller, more efficient power units – 114g/km in a full-size family saloon is the result.
With that in mind – and the Passat’s recent record performance of 1527 miles on a single tank – we decided it would be good to fill-up, head south, and go searching for some of the world’s finest red wines. Bordeaux is the obvious place to head, but we’re looking for something a little more off the beaten track, and decide instead to head further south to the Beziers region and follow the Canal du Midi, seeing what vineyards we can stumble upon along the way.
Flight fans will be quick to tell you that an Easyjet to Toulouse is potentially going to cost rather less than the £90 or so you’ll need for a single tank in the Passat – and we’re going to need at least a full one each way. But where the car scores so heavily is that you’ll have freedom to roam once you make it south, you’ll be able to load up a large boot, and not worry about a luggage allowance on the return journey. The car is a no-brainer, then.
As we board P&O’s finest for Calais, we ruminate the journey ahead, and what it is about the Passat that makes it the ideal partner for the 800-mile drive to Beziers. They sell more than 20,000 per year in the UK, and reps love Passats for their mile-munching ability. We’ve learned the hard way, it’s best to ignore the government’s combined fuel figure (in the Passat’s case it’s 64.2mpg), and expect that the real world average is going to something around 55mpg. We know we can expect more, if we’re patient and follow the recommended gearchange points…
One thing we won’t be doing is wafting down the autoroute, racking up kilometre after boring kilometre, spending hundreds in tolls. France is too beautiful for that and deserves so much more. So before we’ve even set on foreign soil, we’ve brimmed the tank and dialled in the ‘avoid tolls’ on the excellent, albeit optional, touch screen satnav/infotainment system. It would prove to be a wise decision.
Once away from the boring Calais/Boulogne hinterland and heading south, a magical transformation happens – the villages you drive through become sleepier and increasingly charming. Also, the connecting A-roads become more interesting and challenging. The Passat might be bought by reps with little interest in driving feel, but they’d be rewarded by this one if they do push. It’s grippy, steers well and is poised through quick bends. But as the greenery sweeps by, we’re overtaken by a sense of relaxation, and roll along at the same modest pace as the locals (oh, how times have changed) – which is no bad thing, as the 105bhp 1.6-litre would struggle to provide thrilling pace, especially when combined with the ultra-long gearing of the new-to-the-Passat 1.6TDI six-speeder.
Despite that, the miles pass quickly, and after a quick overnight stop off in Orleans, we’re driving through France’s gorgeous green interior and heading for the fantastically-named Autoroute du Soleil. It’s here that we really begin to appreciate how Volkswagen remains at the top of repmobile tree with its Passat – because as we pass through Clermont-Ferrand and drive south through the Massif Central, the car’s motorway refinement really begins to shine through. But its quality runs deeper – the driving position is first rate and forward visibility is excellent – but more impressively, despite the distances, we remain fresh, unstressed and free of aches and pains.
The hills are getting steeper and the traffic more obstructive, though, and long-striding sixth gear (nearly 40mph/1000rpm) lacks any meaningful punch on gradients, and often we’re changing down to fifth, and even fourth, in order to maintain a decent speed. But this niggle pales into insignificance once the Millau Viaduct appears on the horizon – a glorious feat of engineering fusing French need with British architectural flair. The bridge spans the Gorge du Tarn, is 2460m-long, took four years and €400m – and is absolutely beautiful. Crossing it incurs a €6 toll – money well spent.
Crossing the bridge serves as a reminder about just how stunning a country France is –and as soon as we’ve crossed the cavernous gorge, the topography changes. We’re down to our last quarter of a tank and we’re in a rockier country where the hills are steeper, the colours more golden, and the hillsides are dotted with vineyards. We really do start to feel like we’re a long way from home. But this is the real reason for our single-tank drive to south west France – to search out our favourite red wines.
We’re starting to worry about the fuel situation as we reach the end of the A75 and trundle towards Beziers – the warning chime sounds, and our range is dipping quickly. So as we pull into a local supermarket and fill-up with refreshingly inexpensive diesel… and our average is 58.5mpg. We can live with that.
We spend far too long taking time out to search and photograph the old cars that the French are still driving, and an old-car aficionado goes nuts about. So the sight of plenty of Talbot Sambas. Renault 18s and rusty old Citroens seem to make the trip worth it… and that’s before we go wine-hunting!
The joy of the Languedoc region is that there are countless wineries in the region, and you’ll not travel far without seeing mile after mile of vineyards, promising a fair old selection of grapes to choose from. We base ourselves in Puisserguiser, a medieval village on the D612 half way between Beziers and Carcassonne. As stop-offs go, few could possibly be better, because its 14th century cloisters and surrounding driving roads make for a fascinating contrast. The Passat isn’t ideally sized for the village itself, but once we’re on the hunt for the best wines in the Canal du Midi region, it’s perfect for us, offering grip and poise as the roads turn mountainous in the way to Carcassonne, and a surprisingly supple ride on the worst village surfaces.
We stop regularly, checking out the wineries, and comparing grapes along the way. For a region that boasts 300 days of sunshine per year, it’s difficult to find a dud bottle – and that draws us to the smaller, family run businesses, rather than the more opulent air-conditioned shops that you know are selling for a premium. Because like the Passat, we prefer a wine of deep quality and lasting appeal, without the need for fancy packaging.
Oddly enough, our trek brings us back to Puisserguier, and the heart of the Corbieres region, and a family run business called Domain Pech de Saint Paul selling bottles from what looks like a small garage. There’s no frippery here, just a great sense of history, for a winery that’s been around for generations. If you’re so inclined, you can bring your own bottles for filling up, but we happy to buy a selection of red and whites to bring back to the UK as soon as we’re ready for a return journey.
We’ve gone for quality and quantity in the end – as the St Paul delivers a great selection of wines at very reasonable prices. And that gets us thinking about the Passat again – our fuel to get down here has been well under €100 and given that it offers more space and comfort – not to mention convenience – than the alternative public transport could ever dream of. We’ve enough wine in the boot to keep us happy for months to come, and we’ve enjoyed a great summer adventure in the process. The Passat has been a perfect companion on our wine hunting trip – and clearly shows just how far it’s possible to go with 1.6-litres and a whole lot of intelligent engineering.
We’re looking forward to the drive home…