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.

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