Tag Archives: wine

On Our Way to Alsace

Our last morning in Beaune, we had to take time out for an essential: laundry. One of the wonderful things about travel is that is makes even mundane tasks into an adventure. Laundry is a perfect example. You have to be able to locate a good laundromat, make change in a foreign currency, decode cryptic directions and get what is most likely outdated equipment to work, all without ruining everything you have to wear. I suppose you could just drop it off at a full-service place, but where’s the fun in that?

While our clothes were spinning, I set off to check out the Beaune market. Calling a French marché a “farmers’ market” doesn’t really do it justice. Most American farmers’ markets are destination shopping; you go because it’s more fun than Safeway. Yes, you can find fresh, decently-priced produce, but mostly what you find are expensive organic offerings, overpriced hummus, and maybe a couple of local cheeses. A French market is an institution. Although more and more French people are starting to stock up at supermarkets American-style, it is still traditional to frequent the local market for the majority of one’s produce.

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Whole black truffles at the Beaune marché.

A French marché is a full-on sensory experience. Every imaginable item is available: the most beautiful fresh seasonal produce in every shape, color, and variety; artisanal meats and cheeses; rows upon rows of little pots of spices you’ve never seen before; hundreds of different kinds of olives; animal parts you didn’t know could look so delicious. But there is also clothing, hats, bags, households items, gifts…it can be overwhelming. You have to jostle with the crowd and speak to the vendors, since they don’t like you to fondle their produce. Ask for a couple peaches, and the vendor (most likely an adorably toothless older gentleman) will ask you when it’s for. Say you want it for today, and he will carefully select a peach that is so perfectly tree-ripened that it practically oozes its sunny aroma right through its little paper bag. It bursts with flavor and juice and is the most delicious thing you’ve ever tasted.

I need to go back to France now.

Once we dragged ourselves away from the stall with the melt-in-your-mouth Spanish ham, we loaded up our sparkling-clean laundry and hit the road for Alsace. We decided we might as well stop in Dijon for lunch, since it was (kind of) on the way. We settled into the terrace of a bustling bistro and decided to give some traditional Dijonaise cuisine a try. Let’s just say this: Dijonaise food is not light. This was the first meal to actually leave me in physical pain, and we hadn’t exactly been slacking in the food department. I blame our starter (which we shared, for the record!): a soup of escargots and croutons in a broth which was essentially a half-gallon of whole cream. And that was just the beginning.

We limped back to the car and decided it was for the best that we weren’t spending more time in Dijon.

Our “gîte” in Strasbourg was in fact a beautiful one-bedroom apartment recently renovated by its sweet owners who lived around the corner. The apartment was like an Ikea model home: everything new and sparkling clean and color-coordinated. I never wanted to leave. But there was a whole city to explore! We hopped on the tram and headed into town, not really knowing what to expect.

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Place Kléber, Strasbourg.

We landed in central Strasbourg right at the “golden hour,” that moment when the sun is just hitting everything at the perfect angle and everything is glowing. We wandered through narrow streets lined with half-timbered houses until we hit the canal that frames the city, and then we turned and wandered the other way.

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Bridges in Strasbourg.

Strasbourg, and Alsace in general, has a complicated history which involves being squabbled over by France and Germany for as long as anyone can remember. The result is a unique culture which is a blend of French and German influences. The architecture, food, and even the regional dialect are all distinctly different from the rest of France. Alongside the rich history and traditions of Alsace, Strasbourg is also a thoroughly modern city, with lots of Art Deco architecture as well as contemporary structures that somehow manage to flow neatly with the city’s medieval heart.

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Notre-Dame de Strasbourg (all the cathedrals are named Notre-Dame, in case you were wondering).

We walked around a corner and the cathedral popped out at us, seemingly out of nowhere. I will always have a soft spot for Notre-Dame de Paris, my first cathedral; but honestly, Strasbourg’s is truly amazing. Built out of pink stone from the Vosges mountain range, it looks like a stalagmite fell in love with spun sugar. The intricate details, as delicate as lacework, are especially impressive when you remember that its construction began in 1015 and was completed in 1439. Over four hundred years went into the creation of this masterpiece, a baroque organ concerto in stone.

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Half-timbered homes in Petite-France along the canal.

We could have wandered the streets of Strasbourg all night, but eventually we were ready to sit and attempt a “light” dinner, for reals this time. We found a winstub, a traditional Alsatian wine-centric restaurant, and decided to “just” order an onion tart and a salad.

To be fair, we had been warned about la Salade Alsacienne.

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La Salade Alsacienne, in all its glory.

We had, in fact, been told emphatically *not* to order what is essentially a huge ball of grated Gruyère and sausages on a minimal bed of greens. But we figured, pourquoi pas?

It was surprisingly delicious, and somehow not as heavy as it looks. The tarte à l’oignon was heavenly and also on the lighter side, caramelized onions and a flaky crust accompanied with some spicy greens.

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Tarte à l’oignon (onion tart).

And of course, it all played perfectly with a bottle of Alsatian Riesling.

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Alsatian wines don’t have to be sweet.

We closed out the winstub and rounded the evening off at L’Academie de la Bière, before hopping back on the tram for “home.” Strasbourg had already exceeded our expectations, and we had only just arrived!

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If we look a little puffy, well, that’s because we were. I blame Dijon.

Stay tuned for the continuation of our explorations in Alsace!

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Marsannay and One Last Day in Beaune

At breakfast, we chatted with the gîte owners and the French family whose Weimaraner had, depending on whose side you were on, either attacked / or was attacked by the house cat. Apparently, there was no physical damage to the cat, but the emotional trauma was serious. The Weimaraner, who caught the worst of it, was recovering.

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Marsannay-la-Côte.

We were headed up to the very northern tip of the Côte d’Or to Marsannay-la-Côte, where we had just one tasting appointment at Domaine Sylvain Pataille. First, we stopped to pick up Danielle Hammon of Le Serbet (Becky Wasserman Selections), the legendary import company who was our connection to most of the wineries we were able to visit. Danielle had been there at each of our tastings in Burgundy except for Bernard Moreau, acting as a liaison and occasional translator, although all of the winemakers spoke excellent English. For me, Danielle was also an excellent role model for how to taste professionally — swishing, savoring, and spitting with gusto, asking intelligent questions, and yet never letting anything go to her head. Also a Bay Area native but living in Beaune for the past three years, we enjoyed her company and her insider perspective on life and wine in Bourgogne.

Sylvain’s brother Laurent met us in the simple underground cave and began drawing off barrel samples of Chardonnay and Pinot from vineyards with names as intriguing as the flavors they produced: La Charme aux Prêtres (The Priest’s Charm), Clos du Roy (The King’s Enclosure), Les Grasses Têtes (The Fat Heads). We also sampled four Bourgogne Aligotés from four separate parcels, fermented and bottled separately, an unusual project that showcased the versatility of this little-known varietal.

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The cave at Sylvain Pataille, featuring barrel art by the winemaker’s little daughter.

Pataille is doing quite a few things that could be considered unusual; for one, he is experimenting with not sulfuring his wines to allow for the most natural expression of terroir possible. He also produces a rosé that is aged in oak barrels for two years, which is very rare for rosé wine. The “Fleur de Pinot” offered the fruit and floral qualities one expects from a rosé, but with beguiling vanilla and spice flavors that would make it excellent to pair with food.

Our next appointment was back in Beaune for lunch at Ma Cuisine with Paul Wasserman of Le Serbet. Ma Cuisine is probably the worst-kept secret in Burgundy; practically every person we spoke to did not just recommend but rather insisted that we go to this restaurant. Visiting Ma Cuisine with Paul made the experience even more fabulous, not only because he himself is fabulous company, but also because he knows the owners, knows the menu by heart, and speaks French as if he’s lived there his whole life (which he basically has).

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A “nerdy” bottle.

We ordered everything.

Foie gras with crispy sea salt; roast chicken with flash-fried white truffle; roast pigeon with plums (it was my first time trying pigeon, and it was incredible — somewhere between quail and duck). Naturally, we needed a bottle of red as well as a white, and with two wine geeks at the table, we ordered two “nerdy” bottles: a 2003 Meursault Les Tessons from Domaine Roulot, and Moreau’s Chassagne La Cardeuse 2011. I didn’t think I really “got” the red in particular until I had it with the food and then…I did.

And then, two hours later, there was dessert. Paul insisted that we go over to the dessert area, where the proprietress introduced us to an array of tartes and cakes that were just crying out, “pick me!” A tart-sweet apricot tarte and an almond-cream-pastry confection were the show-stoppers in an epic meal.

We more or less waddled out into the daylight and wandered around Beaune in a lovely daze. We got some culture at the Hospices de Beaune, which is even more beautiful inside than out:

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Inside the Hospices.

Then we strolled through the shops and took in the local color:

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The sign said Don’t Touch.

But deep down, we both knew we were just biding the time until we could drink again with relatively clear consciences. Honestly, there isn’t that much to do in Beaune besides wine: it’s why everyone is there.

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Drew getting serious about wine, finally.

We found what we were looking for at La Maison du Colombier, a “gastro bar” recommended by Paul Wasserman for its wine list as well as its tapas.

We focused on the wine.

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Bottle #1.

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Bottle #2

Once we drank up an appetite, we went with “simple” dishes: a marinated octopus that melted in your mouth; a Spanish ham as sweet and creamy as marzipan.

Sitting on the terrace on a warm summer evening, as the sun went down, I could have gone home right that moment, and gone home happy.

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Beaune by night.

But there was so much more to come…

And that means more for you, to come (probably) tomorrow!

Beaune, Part Deux: A Master Class in Burgundy

After a hearty breakfast of ham, cheese, and croissants at the gîte, we set off for Vosne-Romnée, a tiny commune about 30 minutes north of Beaune that is home to some of the most famous vineyards in Burgundy, if not in the world.

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Clock tower in Vosne-Romanée.

Our first stop was at Domaine Gérard Mugneret, which just so happens to be the next-door-neighbor to a little establishment known as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. More on that later.

Pascal Mugneret led us down a short flight of stairs to the simple underground cave and began to expound on the importance of terroir in his winemaking. His goal as a winemaker, he said, is to stay out of the way of the terroir, and to let it speak for itself. He explained in detail the differences between the various soil and rock strata in the area and their role in creating the complex yet elegant Pinot Noirs that make the region’s wines world-famous.

Wine-tasting in Châteauneuf-du-Pape had been a fairly laid-back affair, even at the world-class Château de Vaudieu; in Burgundy, I was learning, wine-tasting is treated reverently, almost like a sacred ritual. The winemaker spoke in hushed yet passionate tones about the depth of soil, clay, sand, and limestone in each parcel we tasted from. We were largely tasting barrel samples of the still-aging 2013 vintage, each with its own distinct personality, bright red fruit playing against gripping tannins.

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Drew posing for the obligatory tourist shot in front of the Montrachet vineyard.

After a morning spent on Pinot, we headed south to Chassagne-Montrachet for some Chardonnay at Domaine Bernard Moreau et Fils. One of the “fils” (sons), Alex, led us through an incredible side-by-side comparison of a dozen wines from Premier Cru vineyards, each with a unique nuance of minerality and acidity. Once again, the importance of terroir was stressed, and its effect was clearly noticeable with each wine showing its own distinct flavor profile character thanks purely to the expression of the soil, rocks, clay or sand it grew out of. Each wine rang its own pure note, clear as a bell: Meyer lemon, pink grapefruit, crisp pear or creamy vanilla, often with differences of just a few feet between rows or parcels to create a profoundly different experience.

We were on a tight schedule that day, so we went for a “quick” lunch (only two courses, sigh) at Auprès du Clocher in Pommard on the recommendation of Alex Moreau. The grey, chilly morning had given way to a stormy afternoon, but the rain just made our coq au vin that much more satisfying. The wine-soaked chicken fell off the bone into a rich broth of bacon, mushrooms, and vin rouge that paired naturally with an excellent bottle of Bourgogne. The chef greeted us warmly as we were leaving, wishing we could have stayed longer.

Our next appointment was at Domaine Comte Armand just across the way, where we met the newly-fledged winemaker, Paul Zinetti. Paul had just taken over from Benjamin Le Roux, who had recently departed to focus on his own projects. The new winemaker was clearly crestfallen over the recent hailstorm which hit that region of Burgundy especially hard, ruining as much as eighty percent of the crop in some areas. Paul was stoic in the face of (potential) adversity, however, and cheered up especially when discussing his Aligoté wines, a traditional yet lessern-known white varietal grown from old vines in tiny quantities. The Pinots we tasted, barrel samples from 2013, showed intense tannic structure and elegant minerality that will surely make a great name for the next generation of winemaking at Comte Armand.

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The barrel room at Benjamin Le Roux.

Our last stop was, ironically, at Benjamin Le Roux’s own eponymous winery in Beaune. Benjamin discussed the vagaries of the wine industry, not just in the fluctuations, of nature, but also in human variables such as changing global demand and palates. He also expressed the importance of balance in a winemaker’s personal life, saying that while his wines might be like his children, his actual (human) children will always come first. Zen lessons to round out a day that was the equivalent of a master class in Burgundy.

After a day full of wine, Drew just wanted a beer; we lounged on a café terrace while France won a match in the Coupe du Monde, moving into the semi-finals. All of Beaune erupted into a makeshift parade, fans of all ages with painted-blue faces, French flags, and streamers marching in the streets and honking car horns in celebration.

Still half-full from lunch, we ended the day with another “light” dinner of escargots and steak tartare, both Burgundian specialties. Escargots are not something I would want to eat every day, but raised on fine herbs and drenched in butter, they are not unlike mussels but earthier, as is to be expected.

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Evening in Beaune.

Finally, we headed back to the gîte to drink a bottle of Gigondas and watch a terrible movie dubbed in French. The usually sleepy placed had become a veritable war zone, with much screeching over the owners’ cat who had apparently gotten into a scuffle with a new tenant’s Weimaraner. Once the wailing subsided, we enjoyed a quiet evening, with an awful movie made palatable by an awfully good bottle of wine.

 

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Part Deux

After a day packed with incredible wine tastings, we decided to get some culture at the Pont du Gard. This incredible Roman aqueduct should have been a 25-minute drive from Avignon, but we took the scenic route (aka, were just a little lost).

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The “pont” or bridge is actually a Roman aqueduct.

It is hard to convey the immensity of this structure without actually seeing it in person. Its three levels of perfectly-symmetrical arches reach 160 feet high, and it is part of a 31-mile structure that was used to carry water through the villages of the Roman Empire in what is now the South of France. It is an impressive feat of ingenuity, especially considering it was built without modern technology. Seen up close, it is beautiful and mysterious.

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The pictures really can’t do it justice.

On our meanderings in search of the Pont du Gard, we had passed Tavel, a village that is famous for its rosés, so we decided to have lunch there. The Auberge de Tavel was one of the only places open for a late lunch in the postage-stamp of a village; everything else was shuttered tight against the hot afternoon sun.

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Tavel is a tiny, picture-perfect Provençal village.

The Auberge de Tavel did not disappoint. The dishes were all exquisite, and just kept coming, starting with an amuse-bouche of crème de courgette with chèvre whipped cream:

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Yes, chèvre whipped cream.

Our main courses of guinea fowl stuffed with olives and a crispy duck breast were followed by a pre-dessert of crème brulée presented in a perfect eggshell:

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The pre-dessert-dessert.

Having dessert and wine at lunch means you must also have coffee. And with the coffee came yet more mini-desserts, tiny jellies and chocolates:

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Things were starting to get a little extreme.

Sitting on the sunny patio surrounded by flowers and trees blowing in a gentle breeze, savoring a local rosé, it was a truly perfect meal.

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Vineyards in Tavel.

After lunch, we decided we needed to walk it off with a stroll through the vineyards. Some of the best rosés in the world come from Tavel, including the incredible Domaine de la Mordorée, which is apt to convert even the staunchest anti-rosé wine drinkers. We love it and wait eagerly for it to become available in the U.S. every year.

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We had to at least visit Mordorée, even if we didn’t go in.

Since Drew had already tasted this year’s release, we decided to try something different. We stopped into a tasting room and sampled three wildly different Tavel rosés, from light and airy to rich and robust. Tavel is known for producing rosé wines that are meant to be paired with food and that can even be aged like other French wines, although in our experience they rarely (never) make it to the “cellar” (our closet) simply because they are just too good to resist!

Back in Rognonas, we went for a dip in the hotel pool and shared the lovely, lean “mystery bottle” from Julien at Domaine la Barroche. As the sun started to go down, we were still stuffed from lunch, so we went to watch the Coupe du Monde at our new favorite bar.

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Café de la Bourse, we will be back one day.

After closing out the bar and the one pizza place open in town at 11pm on a Saturday night, we decided we had gotten the most out of Rognonas and were ready to be off to our next adventure in Burgundy!

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Rognonas had a lot to offer for a tiny town.

 

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.