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.

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