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…

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hey, you're not too far away. Are you coming any closer?

Abra

billn said...

Hey MIchel, this seems a poor excuse for missing THE harvest...
;-)

Keep writing
Bill

Sharon said...

I can't believe you drank Muscadet in the Languedoc! How rebellious! ;)p

Anonymous said...

Curious that a self-proffesed "speed demon" such as yourself would rattle like an octogenarians false teeth when someone else is behind the wheel. Alas, glad to see you survived!!!

A bientot.

JDHF