Tag Archives: travel

On The Road to Beaune

On a blustery, grey morning, we loaded ourselves into the Schtroumpfette and headed for Beaune, capital of Burgundy. We couldn’t resist stopping for lunch in Lyon, since it was roughly half-way. We once again “took the scenic route” and ended up driving through all of the villages of Côtes-du-Rhone Villages. Once we figured out how to get to the autoroute and how to successfully pay for gas, we were on our way.

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Olives are a must with a crisp white wine at lunch.

We found our way to a little Bouchon Lyonnaise, a small restaurant that serves typical Lyonnaise dishes, and ordered the kidneys and sausage Lyonnaise. Our server brought us some delicious olives while we started in on a nice white Saint Véran, a taste of things to come.

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The Salade Lyonnaise tastes even better in Lyon.

Naturally, we both had the Salade Lyonnaise, with crispy lardon (like bacon, but so much better), buttery croutons, and a perfectly poached egg. Leave it to the French to make a salad sinful.

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This was the extent of our tourism in Lyon.

Our goal of eating Salade Lyonnaise in Lyon accomplished, we hit the road for Beaune. Out in the heartland of France, golden sunflower fields flashed by, alternating with herds of creamy-white Charolais cattle and rows of wheat and corn. A powerful thunderstorm roared through, the sky dark purple and rain beating down in sheets. We would later learn that this storm brought devastating hail to the vineyards in Southern Burgundy, the third year in a row that the crop has been all but ruined in some areas.

Sunflowers and storm clouds.

Sunflowers and storm clouds.

We were staying in Ruffey-les-Beaune, just outside of Beaune, in a gîte (essentially a bed-and-breakfast) operated by a very helpful couple. Our room was decked out in Soutwestern style, complete with sombreros, an actual western saddle, and fake cacti.

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We felt right at home.

Next, we headed into central Beaune to explore. The heart of town is centered around the Hospices de Beaune, a charitable hospital built in 1443 by a wealthy chancellor as a “Palace for the Poor.” The historic building is now a museum, with a modern hospital just outside Beaune funded by an annual wine auction.

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The Hospices of Beaune.

On our host’s recommendation, we stopped into the Café Bélèna for a “light” dinner of charcuterie and more white burgundy, followed by a marc de Bourgogne and sorbet floating in crème de cassis. We were not very good at the whole “light dinner” thing.

Beaune isn’t much of a nightlife town, so we headed back to the gîte to prepare ourselves for the packed day of wine tasting ahead. Beaune, part two to follow tomorrow!

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Beautiful Beaune.

 

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Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Modernity Meets Tradition

After two whirlwind days in Catalonia, we were off to Avignon, the heart of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, to taste some incredible wines.

We are both used to traveling in Europe on a tight budget and taking public transportation everywhere. This time, with our goal of getting out into the countryside and vineyards, we decided to rent a car.  Yes, it was a stick shift, as most European cars are, and no, that was not a problem for either of us (my current car is manual). We definitely had our share of adventures with driving in France for the first time, although no accidents occurred!

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We nicknamed the car Schtroumpfette (Smurfette in French).

After settling into our auberge in Rognonas, a little town just south of Avignon, we headed into central Avignon, a stunning medieval city with well-preserved 14th-century ramparts and the Palais des Papes as its focal point. This immense palace is built directly into a massive rock outcropping, with narrow city streets spiraling outward from its base. We wandered up through 700-year-old streets to take in the view from the palace steps.

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Sunset over the Palais des Papes.

Feeling adequately cultured, we settled into Cuisine Chic, a tiny bistro tucked into a corner beneath a 7th-century church. Our server presented us with the interactive menu on wireless tablets, providing links to information about each of the wines on the list. Cuisine Chic embodies what I love so much about France: in the shadow of a 1300-year-old church is a restaurant playing with modern technology, and not just in the menu format. The melange of tradition and novelty was equally apparent in the cuisine: our starter of foie gras cured in cognac accompanied with a salad of edible flowers and truffle whipped cream melded traditional flavors with novel presentation and techniques.

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Almost too beautiful to eat. Almost.

Yes, I said truffle whipped cream.

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Drew was very enthusiastic about the truffle whipped cream.

We decided we would make it our mission to eat foie gras as often as possible while in France. Mission accomplished for Day One!

The next day we got up relatively early for our tasting appointments in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The coffee at our auberge was an odd shade of grey, but the croissants and home-made jams made up for the unconvincing brew. Our first stop, Chateau de Vaudieu, was just outside of the tiny village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

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This was not actually the driveway.

We managed to find the place without using GPS, although we did at first turn down what we thought was the driveway but which turned out to be a tractor path. La Schtroumpfette was not amused. This minor detour did draw our attention to the incredible soil the vines were growing out of, or rather, the lack of soil — the vines were growing directly out of huge, jagged chunks of hard limestone rocks. The difference between French and Californian vineyards was immediately obvious — no pampered, fertilized and watered fields here.

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The vines were growing out of hard chunks of limestone.

When you talk about terroir in France, you are literally talking about rocks. We will discuss this in far greater detail when we get to Burgundy. In the meantime, we should also mention that Chateau de Vaudieu is actually a chateau — a real one built in the 18th century out of the same white limestone the vines were growing out of.

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The Chateau de Vaudieu is the real deal.

Laurent Bréchet, manager and proprietor, welcomed us and proudly showed us the facilities, once again a blend of tradition and modernity. The original underground cellar is still in use for barreling, but a newer addition houses cutting-edge cement Tulipe fermentation tanks, the first to be used in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

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The 18th-century barreling cellar provides humidity and reduces evaporation.

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The Tulipe tanks provide state-of-the-art fermentation conditions.

The name Vaudieu comes from the original name of the vineyard: Val de Dieu, or Valley of God. The harsh, rocky terrain hardly seems fit for one of the premier vineyards in the world, but these conditions are exactly what makes Vaudieu’s wines so unique and memorable. The large chunks of white limestone impart a creamy minerality and intense acidity to the white wines in particular. The reds are grown in sandier soil for an elegant marriage of varietals with strong tannins and spice. With austere growing conditions and extremely low production, the wines are focused and memorable, the essence of their origins.

Our next appointment was at Domaine la Barroche.  Pulling into the address we were given, we were sure we were lost — we found ourselves in the driveway of a typical village house, with a little garden and someone pulling up on a moto just behind us. No sign, no chateau, no vines to be seen. But the someone on the moto confirmed that this was indeed Barroche, and we followed him into the garage, where Julien Barrot, winemaker and son of the proprietor, ushered us into the facility.

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La Barroche’s facilities were simple, but the wines were complex.

We climbed down a ladder from the garage to the cave, a simple underground space with several enormous traditional oak fermentation barrels and a couple of newer stainless-steel tanks. While La Barroche’s facilities were basic, the wines were anything but simple. We had stumbled onto a special opportunity: Julien and a circle of CdP winemakers were gathering to taste through all of the Barroche vintages side-by-side, from 2003 to present. There were over twenty wines in all.

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Julien Barrot setting up the tasting.

The winemakers stood in a circle around the table, spit bucket casually placed on the floor, as they dissected and discussed each cuvée in hushed tones that gradually grew into a party atmosphere. These were wine professionals, but there was a lot of wine to taste, after all. The wines were fascinating. With such a wide range of vintages and cuvées came an equally wide array of experiences, from dark and rich to lean and focused. At one point, maman Barrot brought out a huge sack of sliced baguette to help soothe everyone’s palates. FInally it was time to adjourn for lunch; as we headed out, Julien handed us an unmarked bottle of house-blend white “just for fun.”

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Drew with the infamous ladder — turns out, we could have just gone through the garage door.

On Laurent Bréchet’s recommendation, we hopped over to Gigondas for lunch, where we found a shady restaurant terrace offering grillades and rustic local rosé, summer in a glass. Gigondas is a tiny mountain village nestled under Les Dentelles, jagged mini-mountains that give Gigondas a unique elevation and cooler climate that is worlds away from the sun-baked quality of Châteauneuf.

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View from the main square of Gigondas.

While we were in the neighborhood, we stopped into Domaine des Bosquets, the brother winery to Vaudieu, managed by Laurent Bréchet’s brother, Julien. Bosquets is a rule-breaker, offering a wonderfully crisp, almost saline white in spite of the fact that the Gigondas appelation does not permit white wines. A similar attention to quality was evident in the rosé, which provided further evidence that rosé is not “just for girls.” The reds were rugged, like the terrain they hailed from, but with elegant layers of fennel and dark fruit, the result of sandy soil with good drainage. Soil is everything in France — every serious winery will proudly exhibit columns excavated soil and rocks representing their unique terroir. Sun, wind, rain, all contribute, but it is all about the rocks at the end of the day.

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Domaine des Bosquets, or “the little forests”.

After a long day wine tasting, we were ready for dinner. A restaurant down the street from our auberge was offering an aioli, which in French culture refers not just to the mayonnaise-garlic spread, but to the vast platter of steamed seafood and vegetables which is served alongside it. We weren’t totally sure what all of the things were that we ate, but they were all amazing.

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I don’t even know what all these things are, but they were all amazing.

After sufficiently stuffing ourselves with seafood, we decided to see what Rognonas had to offer in the way of nightlife. The answer was: one glorious dive bar.

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Rognonas is a small town.

Rognonas obviously doesn’t get many American tourists. We were definitely a subject of curiosity sitting on the terrace, drinking pastis and trying unsuccessfully to blend in. Evidence of improved Franco-American relations: over ten years ago, when I first came to France, nearly every French person I spoke to wanted to know: What do you think of Bush? What do Americans think of French people? Now, in 2014, we were asked: What do you think of pastis? Do you know George Clooney? You know, “waters?” (Apparently Clooney is omnipresent in French ads for Nespresso coffee machines asking, “What else?”). No, we didn’t know George personally, yes, we (or rather I) liked pastis, our bar tab was shockingly low for the number of demis and Mauresques consumed, and we found our way home happy and exhausted.

This post has gotten extremely long, so Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Part Deux will have to wait for tomorrow! If you are still with me, dear reader, I appreciate you. Here is one last photo for today:

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If you understand why this is funny, comment on why. If your sense of humor is as dark as ours, you win!

 

Catalonia

Drew and I recently took our first real vacation together in too long. It was part belated honeymoon, part road trip, part food-and-wine tour, and completely incredible. Our first stop was Catalonia in the north of Spain, where we stayed with our brother-in-law Jordi’s family who live about thirty minutes from Barcelona.

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Jaume, Drew, and Sagra in the family vineyards.

We landed groggy after a 14-hour flight. Jaume, Jordi’s dad, met us at the airport, and we began navigating communication in a mash-up between his basic English and our basically non-existent Spanish (ahem, Castellano). It was a bit tricky at first, especially with jet-lag tying our tongues, but we managed.

We drove south along the windy sea-side cliffs to El Vendrell, where Jordi’s mom Sagra instantly prepared a mid-morning snack of pan tomate (bread with fresh tomato juice and olive oil), delicate Spanish ham, and Manchego cheese. Then we were off to see the sights with Jaume as our enthusiastic tour guide.

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Cava vines that have been in Jaume’s family for generations.

First we visited vineyards that have been in the family for generations. The grapes are still sold to the local collective, where they are made into wonderful local Cava. A powerful thunderstorm broke out while we were touring the vineyard, with lashing rains chasing us back to the village. Back at home, Sagra made a wonderful paella for lunch, accompanied by a variety of pickled shellfish.

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Very, very old vines.

Days in Spain seem longer somehow.  Lunch is served late, in our case around 3pm, and dinner is normally served at nine or ten pm.  This leaves a lot of afternoon for exploring. We visited beautiful villages along the coast, each with a different style. Decorative walls and windows dripping with flowers invited one to linger, but we kept moving.

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Sightseeing with Jaume.

In one village, we witnessed a castell competition, a Catalan tradition in which teams stand stacked on each others’ shoulders, up to eight people high (or more). The sound of drums and flutes signaled the beginning of each castell. A pool of team members dressed in brightly colored tunics and sashes formed a wide base, out of which the tower seemed to grow effortlessly. At last, the tiny angellito, a little child of about 5 years, scrambled up to the very top, thirty or more feet in the air. When the angellito gave the signal, the supporting sides of the castell slid down in layers, leaving a single column of people standing stacked and perfectly straight. The effect was breath-taking and beautiful, if more than a little crazy.

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A castell six levels high, with the angellito almost to the top.

After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to taste Catalonia. We drove out through the countryside to Cordoniu, the oldest Cava producer. The wines were light and lovely, but the facility itself was just as interesting, built in the Art Deco style with intricate brick and glass details.

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In the Cordoniu cellars.

For lunch, we stopped at a little spot lost among the vines, with an extensive garden that provided most of the produce and even the poultry served in the restaurant. A rich duck breast with plum sauce and a delicate wild trout both worked nicely with a light local red wine. Sagra and Jaume also insisted that we try the crème catalan, similar to a crème brulée but with an intriguing cinnamon flavor.

Next stop was to visit family in Vilanova. We walked down La Rambla to the sea, then back for a drink and some people-watching. Sagra pointed out several local companies that have closed, evidence of the economic crisis that hit Spain especially hard.  It seems that times are improving, but slowly.

Our final visit was to Sitges, a town perched over the Mediterranean and barely contained by its limestone seawall. Waves crashed over the steps of a church overlooking the sea.

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The church at Sitges.

The next morning, we were off to France. There was so much to see and do in Catalonia, and we only got a tiny taste of it. Thanks to our amazing hosts, however, we made the most of the time we did have!

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One final view of Catalonia.