Thursday, October 30, 2008

One Day in Avignon

I found myself in the ancient walled city of Avignon, in the Rhône Valley, where I was to meet up with one of my winemakers, Jean-Marie Popelin of Château Haut-Musiel, for lunch. I love this city, it’s beautiful, full of energy and history and winding, medieval streets. You really expect a knight on horseback to come clip-clopping by at any moment.

From 1309 to 1423 the Catholic Popes set up shop here due to infighting in Rome, building a massive Gothic fortification with huge, imposing walls that overlooks the whole city. Today it’s a tourist destination, but for nearly a century and a quarter it was the seat of a powerful regional state. This period in history is known as the Avignon Papacy, and more information can be found here:

The Popes' Palace

Anyway, I had no dealings with the Church, instead heading for a small wine bar for some sinful consumption. Jean-Marie met me at a lovely, tiny and modern place called Vinoe & Co, near Avignon’s main market, Les Halles. I loved their Seven Delicious Sins list, which you can see on their website in French but which I took the liberty of translating:

Pride of Cabernet
We have the pride of only drinking the greatest Cabs

The Gluttony of Riesling
Tart candy which hides a honeyed heart

The Envy of Chardonnay
We only want to wallow in its purest expressions

The Greed of Mourvèdre
For all the decanters in the world

The Wrath of Gamay
Gamay isn’t for the kids anymore

The Lust for Syrah
Like that for a black diamond

The Sloth of Grenache
Ever really feel like working after a great Grenache?

I perused the menu and was shocked: there were some seriously ambitious dishes here. And when I saw the wine list, I nearly fell over. There were many highly-regarded wines at ridiculous prices (and I am taking into account the exchange rate).

Now, I like Jean-Marie. He’s young, ambitious, really proud that his wines are making an entrance into NYC and New Jersey, and best of all, like me, a bon vivant. He took the wine list from my hands without asking (a cardinal sin if ever there was one) and flipped through a few pages, finally stopping, looking up with a wicked little smile, and asking “Do you like Châteauneuf?” Do I? Hell yeah! “I love the classical ones like Clos des Papes,” I responded, to which he laughed. “I was going to suggest that!” What can I say, great minds think alike.

The 1998 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf des Papes was poured right from the cellar, still cool. Quite nice at first, this really came out of its shell with some air, putting on weight and gaining confidence in itself, big and fruity and meaty yet balanced, growing before our very palates and becoming slightly darker in color. It went amazingly well with my excellent main dish, braised pork cheeks on a bed of pasta. Clearly, this business is not for those faint of palate or vegetarian by nature…

We had a nice time discussing business, after which I was off to a few more meetings. But once Jean-Marie found I would be alone for dinner, he insisted on joining me at a local wine bar with a nice, eclectic list and some great food.

We met up at AOC (no website that I could find, sorry) that night at 8:30pm, and ended up chatting and talking with the owners and other folks until the wee hours of the morning. We tasted some great wines but I don’t recall the names, and we ate some great, light food (like paté, rillettes, saucisson, lots and lots more saucissons of different types, and of course tons of cheese). I can seriously recommend this place, off a small pedestrian street in the heart of Avignon. The welcome was warm, the décor unpretentious, and I am ready to go back. Right now.

Vinoe & Co
Tel. 04 90 86 31 29

AOC Wine Bar
5, Rue Tremoulet,
84000 Avignon
Tel : 04 90 25 21 04 - Fax : 04 90 25 21 04

Next: One night in Macon.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Two Days in the Languedoc

Only happy Picpoul grapes here!

I next found myself in the far South of France, only an hour’s drive from the Spanish border, where the sky is bright blue and the sun’s dappled light inspires artists, philosophers, and writers. Except that when I got there it was cool, grey and rainy. Just my luck…

I was picked up at the Béziers train station by my Picpoul de Pinet producer, Claude Jourdan. Her wine, Félines Jourdan Picpoul de Pinet, is doing great in NYC and so I was looking forward to seeing her, meeting her new assistant winemaker Sandy, and of course tasting through some wines! There were some other meetings planned, and I was hoping to find 1-2 more wines to add to the portfolio. Claude had graciously gathered a few samples of local wines she thought might be suitable for us to taste the following day.

After a nice and relatively quiet dinner in Mèze (where we were serenaded by the town drunk who wobbled over on his scooter), a tiny fishing town on the shores of the Étang de Thau (Bay of Thau, which empties into the Mediterranean), I woke up well-rested and ready to start the day. Claude picked me up and we wandered to the water’s edge. Chardonnay vines are planted within 3 meters (whoops, 10 feet, sorry, I am feeling very Euro right now so am counting in meters and grams) of the shore, leading to some vine deaths from the salty air. However, the cool and humid air that comes rolling in off the Bay balances out the brutal summer heat in the region, which explains why her Chards are crisp and lighter on their feet than most Chards from the region.

Chardonnay rows

We drove from parcel to parcel, passing through vineyards of various ages (I’d never seen very old Picpoul vines), and taking note of the different soil structures (see the picture for a real clear example of this). At one point our path was intersected by the 2,100-year old Via Domitia, a Roman highway that was old when the Empire paved it (supposedly, it was the route that Hannibal took to invade Europe). How cool is that? And somewhat humbling too: I seriously doubt that our modern blacktop highways will last that long…

Old vine Picpoul

Different soils (rocky clay at bottom, ferrous at top)

Chariot races this way

Looking north on the Via Domitia

Looking South on the Via Domitia

Cross-section of the Via

Panel explaining the construction of the Via

We found ourselves at the winery, where Sandy, Claude’s new assistant winemaker, had organized a little tasting of the just-fermented 2008s. They were good but tough to analyze, some hadn’t quite finished the fermentation and had some residual sugar. Still, the quality was evident, 2008 should be another great year for Claude, despite a rather reduced crop. Then we wandered over to the fermentation tanks, tasting various plots of Picpoul to see the differences. All were searingly acidic, as can be expected, but they’ll sit on their lees for at least 3 months before being bottled. Some were rounder than others, and some more aromatic than others, quite a fascinating thing to see first-hand. Or rather first-palate.

The 2008s await

Freshly fermented Picpoul anyone?

At dinner we were joined by Claude’s friend Christine, who brought her own wines to the table. She makes wines in the Saint Chinian appellation, in the Minervois, concentrating on hearty reds that reminded me of the Rhône without that area’s prices. I liked her wines a lot, and I might try to represent them. Something to consider, I’ll be sure to keep you posted…

The next day was spent in meetings all over the Languedoc, which would be great if the sun had been out and the air warm and I could brag to my friends and family who were left shivering in the cold NYC autumn. Except that it was drearily cool and humid there too. Such are the risks of this business, I suppose. I did have a fantastic lunch in a small town, a confit de canard (duck confit) so meltingly good (literally) I was left swooning in pleasure, if not waddling like a duck after.

Dinner that night was in Montpellier with two of my winemakers, and I insisted on revisiting an old friend: l’Atypique, where I’d spent 4 fun-filled and wine-soaked evenings during ViniSud. Amazingly, Marco recognized me almost from the get-go, and away we went!

Marco in action

He started us with a fresh gazpacho that puts to shame much of what is served in most New York Mexican restaurants. Next came some perfectly cooked lamb chops in an herbal mustard sauce, accompanied by a plate of deliriously fresh pommes frites. Claude and I ended up fighting over the crunchy bits, chasing them around the platter with our forks. We shared a bottle of Cab Franc from the Languedoc that was nice if a bit modern in style, then he offered us some prune liqueur to digest things… Delicious but WOW. My head’s still spinning.

I was happy with my stay here, as I may have found a few new wineries making great juice to add to the portfolio. Better yet I saw some old friends and made some new ones, and of course had a great time doing business.

Next: A day in Avignon.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Monday in the Minervois

Talk about "garagiste": David and Jo in front of their winery's door

I found myself in the ancient walled city of Carcassonne after a lovely weekend in the Cahors visiting my family and one of my wineries, Château Gaudou. I was met at the train station by Château La Bouscade’s winemaker, David Cowderoy. With a bright warm sun and blue sky, this was a nice change from the cold dampness of the Muscadet region or the foggy mornings in the hills of the Cahors. Now, I was in the South of France.


After a quick drive to the tiny village of Puicheric, we got down to business: breaking into David’s house as he’d forgotten his keys… He grabbed a ladder from the open winery and made his way to the roof, finally finding an open window. Aaaah, the vagaries of the wine business…

The racking system in the tiny winery

We quickly began tasting the 2007 Syrahs from a plot of land called the Stone Shed for the dilapidated building in the vineyard. David had put the wines in different oak barrels to see how they’d react. It was fascinating, even though every Syrah had a certain common streak (gorgeous dark fruit and minerality) they were all marked more or less by the wood, as would be expected. The French oaks imparted more smooth tannins and lighter tastes, the American oak was what you’d expect, big and brawny with rough tannins, and the Russian oak added a perfumy aspect to the wine that I hadn’t been expecting. In any case, 2007 looks to be a good vintage for David.

David pointing out how he makes his wines

The TINY pneumatic press

Stealing some wine with the wine thief (pipette)

Pouring barrel samples

We also tasted some whites like a late-harvest Vermentino/Macabeo which was lovely but still undergoing fermentation and almost painfully sweet. Tasting still-fermenting wines, either red or white, was an interesting experience but it was tough to judge the quality of something that hasn’t really grown into itself. By the end, my hands and teeth were stained black and my mouth was super dry from all the tannins.

Caught red-handed!

Bacchus the guard dog

After a quick scrub-down, I sat down for a lovely and long and copious dinner of BBQ’d duck breast (amazingly tasty and succulent), scalloped potatoes, and assorted fresh veggies, with a lovely Syrah and herb reduction. We began with David’s 2007 Chardonnay, a lovely rendition with just a hint of oak and refreshing acidity. We then moved onto his 2005 QED, a 100% Mourvèdre. The QED program is made up of whichever grape does best in each vintage, and in 2005 the Mourvèdre was stunning, offering a wine of incredible intensity but beautiful balance. Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous.

Then, with some stinky cheeses, he poured the 2006 Septs Vents, the next vintage of the wine I’ve placed in New Jersey and New York. Not as big as the QED, this was still a beautiful 100% Syrah. Best yet, it’s under screw-cap, so no worries about TCA!

Finally, David offered a small half-bottle of the late-harvest Macabéo/Vermentino, a nice sweet ending to a lovely dinner where we ate, drank and laughed in equal amounts (ie a LOT). It was a perfect example of why I’m just so happy in this business: you are surrounded by folks who are passionate about what they are doing, and who love sharing that passion with others.

Gobelet-trained vine

Walking through the vineyards

The next morning we set out for David and Jo’s plots, walking through the beautiful vineyards until lunchtime. David showed me the work they were doing in their parcels, working the land as naturally as possible so as to make the best wines possible. In a few years, a new winery will be built, all of it planned to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. David is extremely ambitious and proud of his parcels and I don’t blame him, the potential for greatness is definitely there.

The rocky soil

Vines in the stony soil

Gnarly old vines

More old vines

Next: Two Days in the Languedoc.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Weekend in the Cahors

After an agonizingly long train ride (6 hours) with my Franco-American butt in a seat designed for a French derrière, I was picked up in Agen by my Cahors winemaker, Fabrice. His hands and teeth were stained black from tasting and working on the fermenting wines, and that heady aroma of wine clung to him. God that smell rocks!

The next morning dawned foggy and very cool if not downright cold, and after some meetings and work I was looking forward to lunch with my aunt and uncle. They own a small mas (farmhouse) in the area, which my uncle, ever the bricoleur (handyman), has been rebuilding by hand. When he tires of a particular project or needs a break, he tends to focus on some smaller pieces of artwork that can distract him for a bit. Such was the case with his most recent creation, named “A Panic of Flowers”: it was painted as he listened to the news concerning the financial meltdown on Wall Street. Scattered in and out of the house are many of his works, including a huge sculpture sitting against an external wall that is, to me, someone who can barely change a light bulb, an evolving work of pure genius.

My aunt preparing lunch

My uncle showing off his "Panic of Flowers"

Painted Portals

The Sculpture

Artwork in the house

Lunch was a languid affair over the course of several hours, with locally-made rillettes de porc (shredded pork paté, absolutely heavenly), locally-made merguez, boudin blanc sausages and a fresh and aromatic ratatouille. I had forgotten how good that could smell, and it brought back many memories of my youthful summers in France with the family. Remember that scene from Disney’s movie? That’s what it was like. This was followed by an array of cheeses and finally some succulent pastries.

The table awaits

We drank a 2006 Château de Gaudou Grande Lignée, a Malbec/Merlot blend that had been aged in oak barrels to give it heft and add some complexity. Very young and tight, this needed to be coaxed out of the glass before offering rich, dark fruits and an elegant mouthfeel. Lovely with the food.

Tapping the 1733

Returning to the domaine, we found Fabrice pumping over the 2008 Tradition, Grande Lignée and Renaissance. He took a moment to pull us over to the tank with the 1733, his entry wine, a 100% Malbec focusing mainly on freshness rather than power or weight. The April 2008 frost had hit the Cahors region hard too, and he had lost about 30% of his crop. Still, the summer saw periodic sprinkles of rain, which the remaining grapes thirstily slurped up, ensuring their continuing health.

Tasting the just-fermented (and still warm) 1733

The 1733 hadn’t started malolactic fermentation yet but he let us taste it anyway and I was blown away: rich black fruits, fresh dark flowers and a zippy, almost searing acidity were followed by some puckering tannins. This was still wild and crazy, delicious yet never really coming into its own. The malo would soften it a bit and calm it down.

Pumping over the future 2008 Tradition

After I said my goodbyes to my family, he pulled me over to a section of the winery where the three tanks were undergoing remontage (pumping over). “Want to taste? It’s unfermented Malbec,” he offered, and how could I say no? He was offering me tastes of the Tradition, the Grande Lignée and the Renaissance, before these had even become wine. These Malbecs are from plots grown respectively at the bottom of the slope, midway up the hill, and at the top of the hill. Only the Lignée had started fermentation. The Tradition tasted grapey, powerful yet aromatic, there was more finesse to the Lignée with a streak of minerality and that gritty yeastiness one gets from fermenting wine, and the Renaissance was a powerhouse of the best of both. Too cool for words.

Dinner that night was a quiet but warm affair, as both Fabrice and his parents were exhausted from the harvest and all the work that goes into making wine. Still, it was nice sharing their table, discussing winemaking techniques, talking about the business (they were thrilled to have been well-reviewed by Gary Vaynerchuck on Wine Library TV – granted, he is selling the wine, though he does try to remain objective, the review’s the last one of the three Malbecs tasted), and generally chatting about things.

I left that Sunday, heading for parts South, specifically Carcassonne, where I’d be staying with my Minervois producer, Château La Bouscade.

Next: Monday in the Minervois.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Day in Muscadet

Aaaaah, the glamours of the wine business… After 8 hours in the air in a cramped tin can and a mad dash to the Montparnasse train station in Paris for my TGV, I finally made it to Nantes, near France’s Atlantic Coast. Luckily, I had taken into account the probabilities that we’d be delayed leaving NYC considering the current sorry state of flying in the US (high), and the chances of a strike occurring anywhere, anytime in France (ridiculously high). As it was, I barely missed the train, and having found my seat, I also discovered that I would remain caffeine- and food-free: the bar-car workers were on strike. Of course they were.

In any case, I was met at Nantes’ train station by Jean-Pascal Aubron, who’s Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur Lie I represent. The moment I sat in his car, I smiled: it smelled like wine, and that aroma lingered around Jean-Pascal as well. He gave me a quick tour of the city (quite pretty), then we headed out to Vallet (the ‘t’, usually silent, is pronounced in the regional dialect, apparently), a small town which houses about 10% of France’s Muscadet producers.

The winery

As in many other parts of the Loire Valley, the vineyards are very flat, with outcroppings of trees or villages to punctuate the landscape. It looked like a mottled yellow carpet, the Melon de Bourgogne vines’ leaves were all turning yellow with the cooler temperatures. Harvest had just ended, and the air had that unmistakable “winey” smell that all wine regions get when fermentation starts. I love that scent.

That night, I sat down for a tasting and dinner with Jean-Pascal and his wife. I was pleasantly surprised when Jean-Pascal generously brought out some older bottles of his Grand Fief de l’Audigère, as I had very little experience with older Muscadets. While it’s not enclosed or otherwise visibly demarcated, this vineyard has been recognized for the quality of its wines since the 1600s. The Aubrons tend 11 hectares (about 27.19 acres), and their family has been making wine in the area since the mid-19th century. While we tasted we munched on some lovely rillettes de thon maison (shredded tuna paté, recipe to follow), and for dinner we enjoyed a pot-au-feu (basically a slow-cooked stew of beef cheek and shank, with locally-grown carrots so sweet I swooned and melt-in-your mouth deliciously buttery potatoes) and an unassuming but delicious Bourgueuil (a local red made from Cab Franc).

The tasting started with a deliciously fresh and aromatic 2007, something I had been showing to my clients and which was the reason for my presence here. We moved on to a 2005 Grand Fief de L’Audigère Vieilles Vignes (an old-vine selection, something he only does in good vintages, from 40 year-old vines). This took a while to open up but when it did it was stunning, with a huge perfume and a beautifully lemony and briney taste on a fat but vibrant frame, with plenty of acidity to balance out the fruit. He then poured me a 2003, a vintage I am usually not fond of in Europe due to the brutal heat and drought which burned (literally in some cases) the grapes and usually resulted in wines that lack finesse and grace. This Muscadet showed well, to my surprise, though not as well as the previous ones: fat and up-front with honeyed almonds and lemons, some cinnamon and a hint of brine, it quickly tailed off with a short finish and low acidity. Nice, but definitely not one for the ages. Yeah, it’s one my wines, but I’ll call it as I see it, and while it was good considering the climatic conditions, Jean-Pascal’s other vintages are much more to my liking and more balanced.

Now he brought out a crystal decanter with a lovely yellow-gold liquid inside. “The 1991” he murmured as he slowly poured me a glass. 1991? I didn’t know Muscadet could age that long. While 1991 was a tough year with some rot and some frost damage, he thought he had nailed it. After tasting this wine, I had to agree with him. The color was remarkably youthful, and the nose was gorgeous, with a hint of oxidation (in a good way), ripe lemons, nuts, herbs, minerals and that lovely salt-of-the-sea aspect that Muscadet gets, with a beautiful mouth-puckering acidity and a long finish. The wine happily reminded me of a half-fermented Savagnin I had tasted in the Jura, with vibrant fruit leading to slightly oxidized secondary characteristics. This was perfect with the after-dinner cheeses.

The stainless steel fermentation tanks

The next morning we visited the vineyards and the winery. Jean-Pascal showed me how his vines are planted to a very high density (7,000 vines/hectare) and how there are several subsoils in the Grand Fief de l’Audigère. The one under his plot is composed primarily of gabbro (volcanic), resulting in a highly-perfumed, flowery wine that has a vibrant energy on a generous frame and beautiful natural acidity year-in and year-out, as I had discovered the previous evening. Talk about terroir!

Fermentation temperatures

Retracing the grapes’ steps, we made our way to the winery, where he showed me the stainless steel fermentation tanks as well as some glass-lined underground concrete tanks. That was new to me, as the only other concrete tanks I’d seen had been either naked (in the Rhône) or lined with epoxy (everywhere else). Two of the tanks had finished fermenting and the temperature gauges showed the differences: 13° and 14.5°C as opposed to the two which were still undergoing fermentation at 20.5° and 24°C. Usually, Jean-Pascal prefers to ferment at an average temperature of 20°C, which he feels maintains the crispness of the wine while also extracting the right amount of aromatics and flavors. The wine is left unfiltered to maintain the flavors.

Underground tank

Glass tiles on the interior wall of a tank

Then he brought out some glasses and we began tasting the 2008 Audigère that had ended fermentation. There’s nothing like tasting just-fermented Muscadet at 9am to slap you awake. Who need espresso? The wine was wild and still settling into itself, like a beautiful butterfly that is shaking the last vestiges of its cocoon off its new body. The acidity practically stripped the enamel off my teeth and left my mouth puckering. When this calms down, it will be lovely, despite the year. 2008 was a tough year, with a brutal frost in April that resulted in much lower yields (Jean-Pascal’s production is down 70% from previous years!). Still, with wise selection and careful winemaking, he feels he can make a very good wine this year. I agree, but as some of my friends happily point out, I am terribly biased.

Tapping the just-fermented Muscadet

Testing the density of the wine

Madame likes what she smells

Jean-Pascal looking happy with his 2008s

Scooping the regular Muscadet

We moved on to his regular Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur Lie, which was quite different, with less of the aromatic oomph or zip of the Audigère. Very good but not great. He then reached into one of the underground tanks with a metal rod and scooped up some of his small-production Chardonnay (2.5 hectares). Nice, and very typical of Loire Chards, this won’t see any malolactic fermentation to maintain its sense of place. Crisp is the keyword here.

Fishing for Chardonnay

Finally we visited his Sauvignon Blanc, an experimental and small parcel (2.34 ha). I put my nose in the glass and had to take a step back: super aromatic, with huge notes of grass and herbal gooseberry (aka cat’s pee) on a strikingly fruity lemon frame, ending with mouth-puckering, almost painful acidity. Gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous, with an amazing presence on the palate, this wouldn’t let go even after I’d tasted. I told him if he bottled it, I’d take it all. This is some seriously delicious stuff.

Old vine Melon de Bourgogne

Afterwards, we had a lovely lunch in Nantes with some good and some bad wines (a sadly oxidized 2002 Luneau Papin Muscadet de Sèvre et Maine sur Lie Grand Fief de l’Audigère Sur Schist - he wanted to show me how the different terroirs affect the same wine). Damn. Oh well. Then it was off to Cahors for a 6-hour train ride through the countryside.

I leave you with a little video of Muscadet fermenting, taken from the top of a fermentation tank after a vertiginious climb up a rickety ladder from which I nearly flopped off of. Enjoy. Oh, and that grunt? That's me sounding surprised at how much noise and movement are involved in fermentation.

Next: a weekend in the Cahors and visiting family.