Châteauneuf-du-Pape and environs

Enjoy these photos from a recent visit to the south of France: the southern Rhône, Avignon and some of the gorgeous hill towns of Provence.

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The Papal Palace in Avignon

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View from Les Baux-de-Provence

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The Vineyards and Scenery as seen from the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape

 

 

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The eponymous Châteauneuf… du-Pape.

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Châteuneuf-du-Pape vineyards, with the characteristic river stones, known as “galets”.

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The Ancient Theater of Orange, still used for shows today.

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Gordes

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Barolo Wine Museum

Last weekend, while I was at the Collisioni festival in Barolo, Piemonte, I visited Barolo’s Wine Museum, housed in the sumptuous Falletti Castle overlooking the vineyards of Barolo.  

Interestingly enough, for me at least, the museum prides itself on the way in which its designer and curator François Confino “has designed a stimulating voyage that combines scientific content and poetry.”

 

The curation of the museum was fascinating, as it uses very simple displays to portray its vision.  Unlike many wine museums, it is sparse in its use of language, rather relying on imagery and sensory experience to send a message to visitors.  This approach serves to educate the visitor, but in a subtle way, preferring to suggest than to inform.

My personal favorite exhibition was one dedicated to the hands that produce Barolo wine.  The walls were lined with gorgeous black and white photographs of hands working in all aspects of wine production, all in a room containing only a player piano, meant to elicit an appreciation for the hands that are integral but invisible.  I thought this was a beautiful and simple concept, and paired with the stunning photographs left a lasting impression.

There was also, to my pleasure, an entire floor of the museum dedicated to wine in culture – art, cinema, food, and literature, which, I think, encourages visitors to appreciate the impact that wine has had in all facets of culture, due to its importance and interrelatedness with history, to which the museum also devotes considerable space.

 

Chianti Classico

Back in Europe again, I spent a few days last week at Le Miccine, in Gaiole, the heart of the Chianti Classico region.  It was a great experience, I tasted a lot of Chianti wines, and learned to appreciate this high acid, robust yet elegant red wine, as well as some whites from the absolutely gorgeous region!

The black rooster, symbol of Chianti Classico.


The incredible Enoteca in Greve (Le Cantine de Greve), where you can taste over 140 wines from Chianti and beyond (I got through 15 for my personal Italian wine  crash course, in hopes of deciding where else to go on this little whirlwind tour).

(Appropriately science-y themed shirt.. )

Bubbly!

Epernay is the known as the showcase town of Champagne, a town highly concentrated with some of the biggest names in champagne.  Epernay is located in the heart of the Champagne region which grows exclusively Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay – the three grapes used to make champagne.  I visited three champagne houses, each giving a very different experience than the others.  I started at Champagne Achille Princier, where the tour is comprised of a video introducing the region (and very informative, if slightly dated) followed by a self-guided tour of the caves.  The cave tour also included a mini-museum of old winemaking apparati, including a hand-powered pump – would not want to have worked the harvest when these were used!  After the tour was, of course, the tasting, where I tried their regular Brut (the driest of the three types of champagne – with Sec and demi-sec being increasingly sweet – this sweetness is actually determined at the very end of the production process, by the amount of sugar – none in the case of a Brut – added to the bottle after the lees are removed* – this final dosage of sugar is known as the liqueur de dosage), rosé, and their Cuvée Grand Art, which is made only of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Next I went to Moët et Chandon, a huge contrast to the much smaller, family-run company of Achille Princier.  The lobby was like that of a 5-star hotel (and the price of the visit reflected this grandeur), and the video that they showed at the beginning of their tour was narrated by their “ambassador,” Scarlett Johansson.  I found the tour a bit comically contrived, but despite sounding a bit like a tape recorder when going through her script, the guide was actually quite knowledgable, informing me (upon questioning) that while they use only wild yeasts for the first fermentation, the Moët et Chandon laboratory produces its own strains of yeasts for the second fermentation, which I found amazing –I would absolutely love to visit this laboratory and have vowed to myself to search for contacts who can get me an in (if you know anyone, let me know!).

Their underground cave spans 28 km and 3 floors, and the older parts were hand-carved in the limestone earth, while the newer portions are a combination of limestone and brick.

Each section is identified with a secret code that tells the vintage, parcel it comes from, etc, that only the winemakers know.

Finally, I did a tasting at Didier Lefèvre.  I arrived for my scheduled appointment, and opened the door to see three men sitting around a table drinking champagne.  One of the men stood and introduced himself to me as Didier Lefèvre, which came as quite a shock after having just been at what felt like the corporate headquarters for liquid luxury.  I sat and chatted for a while with M. Lefèvre and the other two men, who turned out to be longterm friends as well as clients, and we tasted a few flutes of his traditional brut and his rosé.  I learned a lot at this visit as well, in a very different manner than I had via my formal tours at the previous two venues.  For instance, I learned that the region has gone through some huge transformations in the past 50 years, as it used to be quite a poor region (with the exception of the big producers, of course), as most of the big champagne houses bought their grapes from growers who did not have a lot of economic power.  Due to political changes in the wake of WWII, however, the laws were changed in order to give the growers more control, and even the ability to produce their own champagnes, which entirely changed the region.  Today it is said that someone with even 1 hectare of vineyard can become extremely wealthy with very little work, and someone with only ½ hectare of vineyard can be very well off if they are willing to put some work into it.  All of this has also changed the champagne itself, as it is starting to be produced more with grapes from a smaller number of plots (as opposed to being a blen of potentially hundreds of different plots when giant producers are buying grapes from all over the region), which has influenced the concept of terroir in champagne.

*A quick breakdown of the champagne making process will help to clarify this:

1. Juice is fermented as usual in stainless steel or wood to produce a non-sparkling base wine (this wine also undergoes malo-lactic fermentation before step 2).

2.  These base wines are blended (each champagne can consist of wines from between 3 and 50 different batches, specially combined in order to produce a consistently high quality product) and put into bottles with a small amount of additional yeast and sugar.

3.  The yeast eat this additional sugar and convert it into alcohol and carbon dioxide, producing the characteristic bubbles that are trapped in the bottle because it is sealed with a metal cap (like a beer bottle cap).

4.  The wines are stored horizontally on their lees (in the bottle) for a minimum of 15 months (or a minimum of 3 years for “vintage” champagnes, which means that they are made only with wine from a single vintage, whereas non-vintage champagnes are a combination of about 3 years worth of wines – this is why you only occasionally find a year on champagne bottles).

5.  The technique known as “riddling” is used to slowly elevate the bottles from a horizontal to a vertical position, turning the bottles ¼ turn at a time (this used to be done by hand but now is usually done by machine) to get the lees (known as “sediment” in the champagne world) all into the neck of the bottle.

6.  The sediment is removed by freezing the neck of the bottle at -25°C, and then when the cap is removed the pressure in the bottle shoots out the frozen sediment pellet.

7.  The “liqueur de dosage,” which consists of champagne wine that never underwent the second fermentation (i.e. is not sparkling) and sugar, is added to replace the lost wine from step 6.  The amount of sugar in this mixture depends on the desired final sweetness of the champagne – Brut champagnes having no sugar added to them.

A La Mer!

After the end of harvest, I was invited to spend a few days in Brittany (Bretagne in French).  It was truly a vacation from what I’ve been doing, as no wine is made in Brittany (okay, not entirely true – very, very little wine is made there, and no wine that is made there can be sold, as there are no wine appellations in the region).  Instead, regional specialties include lots of seafood, cakes and biscuits (made with as much butter as possible – as Yves said, it wouldn’t be possible to put in more butter), crêpes and gallettes (crêpes made with buckwheat flour and usually have savory fillings, particularly eggs, cheese, and ham), and cider.  There is also a lot of history in the region, which was occupied by the Germans during WWII, and thus retains many souvenirs in the form of forts and other fortifications.  One such structure is the Keroman Submarine Base in Lorient, essentially the only structure to survive when the city was completely destroyed by the Americans in order to liberate France from Nazi control.

I stayed with Yves and Monique, Marine Dubard’s parents (I wasn’t quite ready to leave the family entirely when I left the vineyards last week…) in their home on le Cabellou, a “presque-ile” (“almost-island” or peninsula) just south of the town of Concarneau.  Le Cabellou is a gorgeous little area, and I will soon be posting a little blurb (in English) on the website that Yves has developed for le Cabellou.

One of the many, many things my wonderful hosts took me to was the annual Fête du Cidre, where they had demonstrations of how cider is made, cider tasting, a display of the variety of apples one can find in Brittany, crêpes, and roasted châtaignes (chestnuts).

St. Émillion

On Sunday I visited St. Émillion, famous for its wines and long and complex history (it is named for a monk who settled there in the 8th century).  It is an UNESCO World Heritage Site, so the all of the history (including old vineyards scattered through the town) is impeccably preserved.  The AOC St. Émillion is incredibly well regarded and is the home to such famous wineries as Château Cheval Blanc and Château Ausone.

All the green? Yeah, those are vineyards.

Vineyards situated amongst the Roman ruins of the town

My guess would be that around 80-90% of the shops in St. Emillion are wine shops (and really, I’m not exaggerating).

The Week in Photos

Lead mines of Bellmunt, Siurana, and the Falset wine cooperative:

The lead mines were a very important industry in the area but were closed in the 1970s due to decreased demand for lead.  After learning so much about the unique soil profile in the Priorat, it was interesting to get a new perspective by looking at the earth from the inside out!

Siurana is a gorgeous clifftop village famous for its rock climbing (as you might imagine from the photos).

The Falset wine cooperative is representative of the co-ops built around the region in the early 20th century.  This building was built by a student of Gaudi in typical art nouveau style.  Though the architecture is quite ornamental (known as one of the “cathedrals of wine” because the architecture shares many features common to cathedrals), it was designed as a fully functional space and is still used to produce wines from the Montsant DO today.