Friday, September 28, 2007

Two Great Meals in the Languedoc

After finishing my last post, I realized that my description of our buying trip might have been a tad harsh. That was not at all my intention. I was just trying to convey what we experienced during our stay in the region as wine buyers. It was a lot of hard work, but I’d do it again in a heartbeat. And yes, mornings were rather, well, let’s just say, tough, but there were many high points at other times of the day. Good thing, as I am not a morning person…

We had a chance to meet people who are passionate about their wines and work diligently to make the best ones they can with what Nature has given them. We saw some breath-taking landscapes and historical sites (the Abbey remains a favorite of mine). Of course, we drank some lovely bottles (and some not-so lovely ones). And we had a chance to eat some very fine meals.

Two fantastic dinners come to mind.

The first was a dinner at a new restaurant in the town of Magalas, called (appropriately enough) Ô Bontemps. In French, this is a toast, meaning “To the Good Time”, and a good, no, great time was had by all during this dinner. It is located on a beautiful cobblestone square, across the street from the ancient church. We ate there one night and I have to say that, after 30 days of very good meals, this was absolutely outstanding. We were a large group of wine buyers who took over the place and so we had a set menu, but we also had one heck of a show.

The decor is modern rustic (ie exposed brick with small, pinpoint halogen lights) and colorful wall decorations. Service was good to very good, we rarely had to ask for water or anything else. I took the liberty of copying Chef Olivier Bontemps’ (his real name!) menu, including his beautiful cursive script, to my website. You can see it by clicking HERE.

But the food...!

We started with a round of small tapas, including a shot of Gazpacho, some cured-ham wrapped Melon, mussels with lard (OH MY GOD!), fresh olives, and small cherry tomatoes (so succulent that I ended up in a fork fencing match with Ives for the last one) with a house vinaigrette.

First course was a pork terrine and a mousse of game birds with mustard flower and a capuccino of mushrooms (this last was just fantastic). Second and main course was a delicious standing rib roast that was quickly smoked (to great fanfare and with great showmanship in front of us) with the local guarrigue herbs and a gratin of potatoes and mushrooms, all with a truffle-based sauce (I dare not call it a gravy). When he did this, Chef basically called us outside, where a table had been set up with a large metal pan, filled with dried guarrigues. He barely touched them with a lighter and they burst into flames, then grabbed some more guarrigues and smothered the fire with these, leaving everything smoldering. Lifting the rib roast, he placed it on the embers, smacking the lid down over it, effectively sealing the meat with the smoky herbs. We all applauded, of course, as it was a great show. A few minutes later, he removed the meat and began carving with a carving knife that looked like a giant’s scimitar.

Smoking the Meat

The meat was some of the best I've had in Europe, and if it was a mad cow, then frankly I don't mind going nuts. I am usually not a fan of European beef, but wow was this tasty, and cooked to perfection (bloody rare).

Next came a pungent cheese course, and dessert consisted of an apricot and peach jubilee dish and a chocolate cake that I just can't translate but was astonishingly good. Add to this the wines and we were one happy (and tipsy) crowd.

Lunch on Felines Jourdan's Rooftop Patio

The second memorable dinner was actually an entire day, our last day together as a professional group. Two wineries, the Domaine Félines Jourdan and the Domaine Condamine Bertrand, had invited us to spend the day with them, feasting on their wines, local foods, and visiting the ancient town of Pezenas.

First, we went to Félines Jourdan, where we were treated to a quiet afternoon lunch of fresh tomatoes (so good that they are proof that God exists, in my opinion) and other local delicacies. I don’t recall what else was offered as I was too busy stuffing myself with these gorgeous tomatoes. We relaxed on their roof patio, with their vineyards spread around us, drinking their delicious Picpoul under parasols while the Mistral blew around us in a never-ending breeze and under a warming sun.

The Paella

We proceeded to visit the town of Pezenas, but sitting in the main square in the sun with a glass of Pastis (or three) was more preferable to an organized tour. After a few hours, we went to Condamine Bertrand’s estate, where we visited the chai (winery) and tasted through the lineup of wines. Then we went around the back of the house, where a long table had been set up. As we sipped wines from both Félines Jourdan and Condamine Bertrand, out came a huge paella in an enormous dish, redolent of fresh seafood and saffron.

Sitting outside, under the trees and with the setting sun still warming us, with the children playing, and some damn fine paella and wines in front of us, those are the things to remember.

So yes, there was lots of hard work. And yes, there were some mornings where the first alcohol of the day would push out the previous evening’s alcohol, leaving us sweating wine and smelling probably God-awful, but it was an amazing experience. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Corbières Death March

You know, everyone thinks that this is a dream job. After all, you get to travel to some of the most beautiful parts of the world, meet people who are really passionate about what they do, eat good food and, let’s face it, drink lots of free wine. What could be bad?

Well, there was a reason for calling this trip the Corbières Death March.

Nighttime Tasting

Imagine: wake up at the crack of dawn every day with barely 4 hours of sleep, throw your clothes into the bags you just unpacked the night before with only one eye open, your head pounding and your mouth dry, have just enough time to sip an over-roasted cup of coffee, inhale a mini-croissant, then hop in a minivan with 15 other bewildered souls for a bumpy ride through a sun-baked landscape to a morning tasting of 20+ producers, each with at least 4 and sometimes more young, brutally tannic wines, usually in an un-air-conditioned room, jump on the bus for a dizzying ride to a lunch spot where 8+ winemakers are waiting for you with their 4+ wines, listen as they all pontificate about their wares, smile and nod your head as if you heard every single word, now hurry, get back on the bus, go to yet another tasting of 20+ wineries and their abusingly tannic wines, try not to spit into the water bucket and oops did you get some red wine on your white shirt oh damn who cares, and why the Hell are you wearing a white shirt when you thought you’d put on a black one, head to a new hotel, unpack the bags, go to dinner with, oh, look, surprise, another 6-8 producers and their bottles looking like multiple rocket launchers aimed at you, feign consciousness just long enough to stuff a few bites into your mouth as bottles are tossed back and forth, stagger to the minivan while your driver, Ives, extols everyone to keep up morale as he bears down on you with a box of leftover samples the winemakers have given him to take back to the hotel, oh yay, more wine, but of course you’re a professional alcoholic, so you sit outside the hotel until the wee hours of the night passing the bottles back and forth and discussing the day’s events, and when you smile no one can see it because your teeth are blacker than the night, then look at your watch and realize that in about 4 hours you’re repeating the whole thing. Then do it for a week straight.

Thus, the Corbières Death March.


That said, there were many high points. The places where many of the tastings were held were usually quite beautiful: a deconsecrated church in Narbonne, the Abbaye de Fontfroide (a stunning abbey which looked surprisingly like the Cloisters in NYC, hidden deep within a valley), a meal in a Medieval town’s main square, across from its ancient church, lunch at the base of the Pic St Loup mountain at l’Auberge du Cèdre outside Montpellier, dinner at the edge of a lagoon near the Mediterranean, the medieval town of Pézenas and its cobblestoned streets, lunch with delicious Picpoul on Domaine Félines Jourdan’s roof surrounded by a sea of vines while the Mistral blows through what’s left of my hair, and a paella dinner at Domaine Condamine Bertrand’s gorgeous estate with the winemaker and his family.

In addition, the wines were pretty good overall, reflecting both the passion of the winemakers and the spread of new winemaking methods. There were some happy discoveries as well, as I’d only vaguely heard of the Picpoul de Pinet grape and the lovely, light tart white wine it makes on the coastline near the border of Spain. Drinking this while eating a heaping platter of shellfish on the edge a lagoon near the Mediterranean Sea was one of the highlights of our trip. And of course, the people, both the winemakers and the other buyers, were great to meet.

Wines can be well-made and delicious, food can be well-executed, but it’s the people you interact with that seal the deal. And this is one of the main reasons I’m in the wine business. Sure, there are some sleazy characters (what industry doesn’t have any?), but overall most folks get into this for the love of the grape and the environment that surrounds it.

So did I find any wines to represent in the US?

Unlike my last trip to the Rhône, where several wineries impressed me so much that I offered to take them on right away, I was a bit more hesitant this time. Yes, the wines were quite good, but the prices were also rather high. Add to that the crushing exchange rate, and the list of possible candidates began to narrow rapidly. Many producers asked for my honest thoughts, and I had to tell several of them not to target the US market right now because they were too expensive. But I did ask a few wineries to send me some samples to my office in New York, so we will see. The Languedoc is known as the Rhône’s little brother and for inexpensive wines, and it will take some time to change that mindset.

But the efforts of these dedicated, passionate winemakers are the first steps in that direction.

Pictures can be found here, and as usual, no need to sign in, just click on the picture to start the slideshow.


Sunday, September 16, 2007

Limoux & the start of the Corbières Death March

Darkness descended on our first day so we headed into the Old Town of Carcassonne, inside the fairytale fortress, for dinner. We were meeting a group of producers of the local sparkling wines, known as Blanquette and Crémant de Limoux. The Appelation d’Origine Controlée (AOC) of Limoux extends just south of Carcassonne, with the town of Limoux at its center (well, duh). Here, the locals claim to have made the world’s oldest sparkling wines, figuring out the process at some of the Benedictine abbeys sometime in the early 1500s, even before Champagne. The famous Dom Perignon is said to have passed through and taken (stolen?) the knowledge with him to the north.

The Limoux AOC in relation to France

As in Champagne, three different types of grapes are authorized to be used in Blanquette, which is their prestige wine: Mauzac (which has to constitute 90% of Blanquette), Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. The resulting wine can have a light lemony or grapey taste, be slightly sweet, with a soft mouthfeel and end with a bit of nice crunchy acidity (from the Mauzac). Perfect for a summer’s day, but not overly complex.

Dinner was held at La Barbacane, one of the top restaurants in Carcassonne. Granted, there aren’t too many reliable places to eat as this is a very touristy town, but still, this place really stepped it up and impressed me. Our multi-course meal was matched to a variety of Crémants and Blanquettes, some of which weren’t that bad. I will admit, however, that I am more partial to real Champagne than to any facsimile from other parts of France (or the world for that matter). Yes, I am a bubbly snob. Sue me.

The next morning we visited a cooperative in the area, Sieur D’Arques, which makes some correcte (a typically lovely French term that sounds positive but that really means, at best, inoffensive or unexciting) wines. As the term implies, their products were technically OK, but there wasn’t much to get me too excited here.

The Disgorgement Line at Sieur D'Arques

We then hopped on our minibus and headed to the tiny town of Alet-les-Bains (known for its mineral springs), where we were greeted by the local trade group. They had organized a massive tasting of Limoux producers in a lovely hotel surrounded by manicured gardens, the centerpiece of which was a ruined cathedral whose arches were home to flowers and pigeons. After our tasting, we retired to a restaurant in the garden and had a wonderful lunch with the producers and their wares.

Aaaaah, a beautiful setting, a shining sun, friendly people, good food and lots of free alcohol: these are some of the things I live for.

We returned to Carcassonne with some free time on our hands, so I wandered around taking pictures of the medieval fortress and just enjoying our downtime. Later that afternoon we were driven to the town of Montredon for another tasting. No more sparkling wine, now we were heading deep into the land of red wine: it was time for Corbières!

The Corbières AOC is a large expanse stretching from Carcassonne south and east to the Roman city of Narbonne, on the Mediterranean Sea. Between Cathar castles and Romanesque abbeys, it’s quite a picturesque landscape, though we wouldn’t know this as we only saw hints of it between stops at massive tastings that left our palates abused, our feet aching and our teeth black.

The region’s production is mainly red wine (95%), which is generally rich, fruity, spicy, tannic and full-bodied. The Carignan grape is the principal varietal used, and it accounts for approximately 50% of the plantings. Soils around here are primarily limestone, marl and sandstone, and the weather tends to be dry and very warm. If this sounds like the Rhône, well, you’re right; there’s a reason most folks consider the Languedoc to be the little brother to that more famous region.

In any case, our little group of hapless wine buyers descended on the restaurant Chateau Saint Martin, where it was rumored we were to be fed a wonderful cassoulet, a hearty regional specialty and one of my favorite dishes (though moreso in winter than in the middle of a hot July). However, by the end of the tasting, I’d have settled for a Gray’s Papaya hot dog and a shot of Rumplemintz. My teeth were black, my tongue felt like I’d been scraping it through gravel, and my feet throbbed.

Now mind you, the wines did not suck. Indeed, many were quite good (except those where the owner proudly showed his bottle, saying he’d used 200% new oak – ugh), exactly what most Americans love when drinking inexpensive red wines. But therein lay the problem: these wines were not inexpensive, once the brutal exchange rate and other costs were added in. Most of these would end up on the shelves of your local retailer in the $16-25 range. Sure, it’s not that expensive, but when looking at two bottles, one from an area you’ve never heard of, another from the Cotes du Rhône, a name you’ve known and trusted for years, which would you choose?

We then sat down with the producers and their wines in the medieval restaurant, at which point I had the distinct pleasure of tasting a wonderful wine that I’d somehow missed during the tasting. Next to me, a thin, prim and proper woman who reminded me somewhat of an older Audrey Hepburn offered her wines to me, one with the unfortunate name of Agape, the other called La Mariole. They were from Domaine Adenis, and it was Madame Nadine Adenis who was my neighbor. A refugee from the television world, she’d settled in the area in 2000 with a degree in oenology and begun making wine a year later.

Both wines made me sit up, even after that marathon of Corbières, which says something about their quality. Mme. Adenis holds her yields way down (15 hectoliters/hectare for La Mariole, only a Vin de Pays!) and doesn’t abuse the oak, letting the wines shine on their own. They were full of deep red and black fruits that were balanced by minerals and acidity. To say they matched the cassoulet well would be a criminal understatement. I also couldn’t help but notice the modern labels, which wouldn’t hurt things. Lastly, I liked the price, so we chatted a bit and she agreed to send me some samples.

The cassoulet? Well, it was’t great, in fact, I wasn’t thrilled after all the hype. So be it. I make a better one in my little kitchen in New York.

Thus began what we ended up affectionately referring to as the Corbière Death March (thanks Chris!).

Pictures from these days can be found here, no need to sign in, just click the picture, though not all are mine. I'd like to especially thank Don Smith and Fred McElveen for allowing me to use some of their pictures.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Languedoc Day 1: Near Death Experience

The Cross of the Languedoc

I arrived in the Languedoc to see if I could find the few gems of quality that are starting to poke out of this crescent-shaped slice of France. Though it was known more for swill than quality wines, the region is changing, if ever so slowly. And if the French are fearful of change in general, the Languedociens are particularly stubborn and hard-headed. Where else in the world would you find a winemaker terrorist (yes, you read that correctly) organization?

Called the Comité Regional d’Action Viticole (Regional Viticultural Action Committee), these radical wine producers have gone about attacking various installations they see as a threat to their livelihood (stores, large-scale wineries, importers’ and government offices, etc…). They are frustrated at the low prices their wines get and at the steady influx of extremely cheap foreign wines into France. Somehow, they don’t understand that if they raised the quality of their product, more folks might actually want to pay more for their goods. So instead, they lash out.

Welcome to the Languedoc, then.

I joined up a motley assortment of wine buyers in Carcassonne, finding some old friends and meeting new ones. Tim Shannon, of First Crush Wines in Seattle, was a friend from previous buying trips and invited me to tag along to visit a few producers in the area. So I grabbed my notebook and jumped into a dirty old van that awaited us, a winemaker in ratty jeans behind the wheel.

The winemaker quickly drove us out of town and into the winding back roads of the Languedoc, zig-zagging his way at breakneck speeds on what looked more like dirt paths than anything paved. We careened through picturesque small towns and fields of grapes and wheat, ending up on a road that paralleled a watery canal on our right. I quickly noticed that our driver and host had the unfortunate tendency to look at us when he spoke, even while driving. Luckily, the seat belt is mandatory in France…

As we roared down this road, with lovely fields of lavender and wheat to our left and a multi-colored flower-lined canal to our right, the warm sun shining above and our host chatting amicably with us, an adorable black Labrador puppy appeared. In front of us. He shot across the road, ignorant of the dusty speeding van and its occupants bearing down on him. We saw him at the last possible moment and shouted “Chien!” (“Dog!”). Our driver swerved hard right, at which point everything began to move in slow motion. My side of the vehicle tipped precariously over the edge of the canal, and as I saw that murky water approaching I remembered that I was a good swimmer and would probably be able to hold my breath long enough to unbuckle my belt and get out. Assuming, of course, that Tim wasn’t stepping on my head in his zeal to escape…

Then we were swerving left and getting ourselves centered back on the road. Ouf!

When asked how we were, I remember muttering something about needing to buy a new pair of underwear… In any case, we arrived in time to meet the owner of the winery, who then gave us a detailed tour of his facility (which looked more like a factory). They were making lots of bulk wines, some of which were OK, but nothing that I wanted to import. So after a very nice lunch in a local restaurant’s back yard, we thanked them and our driver took off for Carcassonne (literally), again speeding wildly through fields and quaint towns. I was, not too surprisingly, quite relieved to return to the hotel.

The weather that evening was lovely, so we sat outside and chatted with the other buyers, until we realized we were thirsty. I ran to my room to get some samples I had been lugging since my days in the Loire. A Muscadet producer from the far western edge of the Loire Valley had sent me some bottles so I could get an idea of his product, and I figured what better audience to share this with?

It turned out I was more than right! The wines were delicious, to say the least. We were all surprised at the quality as we swirled, sniffed and slurped. Sadly, they were already represented by another importer, so the search continues... Sniff...

More to come…

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Driving to the Languedoc and a Speeding Ticket

That Sunday dawned sunny and clear, perfect for a long 3-4 hour drive to the ancient walled city of Carcassonne. This destination stirred up many memories and emotions, as my grandfather used to take me there as a child. He used to live in Toulouse, which is an hour away, and he knew that I’d love it. I mean, let's face it, I was a young boy fascinated by knights, fairytale castles and medieval history. And wow, was he right! This fortified city was like a Lego castle on a grand scale. I spent many summers playing on the parapets, defending the fortress from imagined barbarians and the occasional alien (I had an active imagination). So after picking up some dry-cured ham and more of the fabulous chorizo from Patrice’s winebar, I headed out of town to catch the autoroute leading to Carcassonne.

My next appointments would be in the Languedoc region of France, to the northeast of Saint Jean Pied de Port. This area used to be known more for producing vast amounts of plonk than for doing anything interesting. However, between recent advances in winemaking and the passionate devotion of a few select producers, there were some islands of quality poking their way up through the ocean of crap. Granted, it would be difficult to find the good ones, as this is a huge expanse after all.

The Languedoc in relation to France
The Languedoc is France’s (and one of the world’s) largest wine-growing region with over 700,000 acres under vine (yes, you read that right), stretching eastward from just outside the city of Toulouse to the Mediterranean Coast, and from the border with Spain to the mouth of the Rhône in the north. The climate is very warm and somewhat dry (unsurprisingly and uninspiringly referred to as a Mediterranean climate), and the landscape is varied. The soils are composed of limestone, chalk, gravel, and in the better sites the vines push up between riverbed stones, just like in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

There are so many different types of grapes being grown here that it can be mind-boggling (as well as teeth-staining and palate-deadening). One can find all the usual suspects (Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne) as well as some weirdly-named strangers (Bourbolenc, Cinsault, Carignan, Vermentino, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Macabéo, Rolle to name a few – well, most, actually).

Between all those grapes and the various appellations, keeping things straight was going to be tough.

About midway between Saint Jean Pied de Port and Carcassonne I discovered how the French highway patrol pulls people over. And no, for all you cynical readers, I wasn’t the one being stopped. Surprised, eh? Well, so was I!

As I rounded an uphill bend, the abused little chipmunk in my engine began to get tired, slowing me down to the legal 130 kph, just as some German nut in a minivan blew by me in the left lane doing around 170 kph at least. We rounded the bend and lo and behold, a police car sat there, one officer holding a radar gun and the other sitting in the driver’s seat. I’d been going pretty fast (shocking, I know), so despite having slowed somewhat I got a bit nervous. The policeman holding the radar gun shook his head and got in the car, its lights flashing blue and white as it roared onto the autoroute.

They zoomed up behind me and I thought I was done. How would I explain things if I got stopped? It’s not as if I could claim that I thought the speed limit was in miles per hour… Or could I…? The little Devil sitting on my left shoulder began hatching plans, the Macchiavelian part of my reptilian brain shooting out quickfire ideas. Just as they got right behind me, they swerved into the left lane and flew by me, pulling alongside the German minivan several hundred meters up the road. One officer made a sign, and then the car pulled in front of the minivan, lights still flashing.

And so we all rode this way for a while, the cop leading the way, the minivan, then me, and behind me a veritable flotilla of petrified drivers keeping true to the posted speed limits. You could smell the frustration wafting upwind from the other vehicles. But we were all saved the moment the next exit appeared, and this is where I learned how they pull people over in France: the emergency lanes are very narrow (like the cars), so they make you follow them to the next exit, at which point you get a speeding ticket and (presumably) have to pay the toll. Double punch!
Carcassonne, fairytale castle incarnate
Before I knew it, I was in Carcassonne, home to some fond memories, and checked in at my hotel at the foot of the fortress. My first meetings would take place the next day, after I’d returned my little abused car.

Next, the first tastes of the Languedoc…