Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bandol and the French Riviera- May 2 – 6, 2008

For our 23rd wedding anniversary, my husband flew to meet me in the South of France on his way to work in the Azerbaijan oil fields. We decided to stay in Bandol, on the French Riviera because they are known for the dark, earthy mourvèdre – one of my husband’s favorite wines. We left Montpellier on May 2nd and arrived in Bandol in about 2 hours. It was a lovely scenic drive and the weather was perfect.

Our condo was outside of the town about ten minutes and called Pierre & Vacances - Résidence Les Rivages de Coudouliere. It was on the sea, and had a nice kitchen, living room, small bedroom, and large balcony overlooking the pool. We went grocery shopping and then settled in to relax, wander along the water, took a nap, then had a lazy dinner at a restaurant on the beach.

The next morning we drove to Domaine Bunan and Ch. La Rouviere for a tour and tasting. They had wonderful red and roses, and a vineyard with multiple clones of mourvèdre. The hillsides were covered with wild flowers and red poppies, and it was delightful to be back in the sun and pure light of Provence.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, and then drove the next day to visit St. Tropez, Cannes and Antibes. It was a long, but very scenic drive along the coast, with steep hillsides in some places and lovely white beaches in others. We had dinner in Antibes on the beach as the sun was setting – a huge bowl of fresh mussels and white flaky fish all washed down with a bottle of dry Provence rose. Very dreamy and romantic.

The next day more relaxation at the pool, hikes, and naps – then a wonderful anniversary dinner at a very cozy restaurant in Bandol called Le Restaurant de l'Auberge des Pins. The meal started with a glass of Champagne, and then we ordered a bottle of mourvèdre to go with the exquisite meal.

Driving back to Montpellier the next day, we drove through the Camargue to see the white horses and then had dinner with Francois and Anne that evening at their apartment. The next morning, we parted ways and I flew to London to stay overnight and visit some of the wine shops and grocery stores such as Tesco, Sainsbury, Oddbins and Majestic with Vicky. I took her to dinner, and she dropped me off at my Heathrow hotel where I collapsed into bed, looking forward to being spoiled by Virgin Airlines in their Upper Class Lounge the next morning before my flight back home to San Francisco. Thank goodness for airline miles!

The Medieval City of Carcassonne – Thurs., May 1, 2008

Thursday morning, I packed and then did a quick tour of the city of Bordeaux. It is much bigger than I thought, with a beautiful drive along the river and lovely old stone buildings and leafy plazas. Then I started the four hour drive back to Montpellier so I could meet my husband at the airport at 8pm. On the way, I stopped to visit the amazing ancient city of Carcassonne. It was hard to miss it, because you could see it from the toll way.

I’m glad I stopped, because it was a beautiful warm spring day, and the city was filled with tourists, wandering musicians, cute shops, and charming restaurants. The city itself was built in the 13th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is surrounded by huge stone walls and towers. Inside are tiny winding cobble-stone streets, stone buildings, and a beautiful old church. It is considered to be the most intact medieval city left in the world – and definitely worth a visit.

I had lunch in a sunny outdoor restaurant and savored a glass of red wine as I watched the crowds wander down the narrow street. Then I visited the church, and did some shopping to purchase gifts for people back home. I found the prices quite reasonable. It was a wonderful respite, before getting back on the expressway to arrive in Montpellier for the evening.

Sauternes and Chateau d'Arche – Wed. 4/30/08

I fell in love with the little village of Sauternes. I don’t remember anyone mentioning how charming it is, with its tiny streets, lovely old church and stone buildings set in the middle of the Semillon and sauvignon blanc vineyards. My appointment at Chateau d'Arche was equally delightful, as I met with the winemaker and hospitality manager. Chateau d'Arche is a second growth, but has a solid reputation for producing good sweet white wines. They also have a bed & breakfast, and encouraged me to stay there next time I visit. I think I will – I was so charmed by this area.

We started the tour in the vineyards and I learned how they pruned the vines and selected the botrytised grapes in multiple passes through the vineyard – resulting in a yield of only 17 hectoliters per hectare. The winemaker mentioned that L’Yquem picked to only 9 hectoliters per hectare! Next we toured the winery and I learned how complicated it is to produce Sauternes, with volatile acidity being a big problem because it take so long for fermentation to finish. They also had 2 basket presses to handle different grape quality. We tasted through a 04, 03, 02, and they were all great, but I was easily able to detect the higher concentration and longer finish in the higher quality wines. They were kind enough to give me a small bottle to take home.

Afterwards, I drove around Sauternes and took photos, stopping at Chateau L’Yquem and wishing I would have had time to schedule a visit. Next time…

Chat. Smith-Haut Lafitte – Wed. 4/30/08

My original plan was to visit Chateau Smith-Haut Lafitte and Sauternes on Thursday, but I discovered when I arrived in Bordeaux that most wineries would be closed because May 1 was a national holiday. Therefore, I had to scramble and telephone to make appointments at both wineries for Wednesday afternoon.

I gave myself enough time to have an elegant lunch at the famous Les Sources de Caudalie Hotel and Spa – which is next door to Chat. Smith-Haut Lafitte, and managed by one of the owner’s daughters. First I visited the Spa and picked up a brochure. It was surprisingly affordable, and I wished I would have had more time to spend the afternoon taking some treatments – but wine education is the first priority. The lunch was expensive and upscale, but it was nice to sit near a crackling fire in the dining room and look out over the vineyards.

When I arrived at Chat. Smith-Haut Lafitte, I was impressed by the lovely old building. The estate is in the middle of the 55 hectares of vineyards and specializes in both red and white Bordeaux, but I was visiting to primarily taste and focus on the white winemaking technique. I was surprised to learn that they made their Sauvignon/Semillon blend in a very similar fashion as a white burgundy with whole cluster press, debourbage, battonage, ferment in barrel, and aging in 50% new oak for one year. The result was excellent, and I was able to understand why the wines receive such high praise from wine critics around the world.

Chateau Margaux – Wed., 4/30/08

It took me three emails and several phone calls to get an appointment at Ch. Margaux, and I actually started the process a month in advance. Eventually they agreed that I could visit and I was very excited, though a little tired as I started out that morning in the rain. However, I had only driven one mile when disaster struck. As I slowed down to approach a roundabout, the car behind me rear-ended mine, and the person behind her, smashed her car – resulting in a 3 car collision. I think the rainy pavement caused the accident. Shaking, I pulled over and the other two cars followed me. Unfortunately neither of them spoke English and my French wasn’t good enough to communicate effectively. Both of their small cars were pretty messed up, but amazingly my larger Peugeot only had a small scratch on the back bumper and the license plate was crooked. Finally we decided to exchange phone numbers and insurance information. I told them I had an important appointment, and would call later. I didn’t want to miss Margaux!

Shaking, I got back in the car and drove slowly towards the Medoc. Fortunately I had given myself some extra time and still managed to arrive at the Chateau thirty minutes before my 10am appointment. I was met by the Hospitality/PR Manager who provided a wonderful private tour and tasting through the cellars. The property is so beautiful, and I was very impressed to see their private cooperage. After the tour, I met for thirty minutes with the charming and very eloquent Paul Pontallier, General Manager, who described the traceability process beginning with bar-coding baskets of grapes in the vineyard. Truly amazing.

On the way back from Margaux, I called the girl who rear-ended me and she had a friend who spoke English talk to me. He said she didn’t want to report it to her insurance and would meet me later that evening to fill out paper work, but she never showed up.

The Left Bank – Tuesday, 4/29/08

Another absolutely amazing day! I am so blessed to have such wonderful friends that they introduce me to people like Christian who is the international winemaker for Lafite. As arranged, he picked me up at my hotel at 8:30am and we headed north to the Medoc and our early appointment with Charles Chevallier at Chateau Lafite. What a tour! The place is amazing with splendid old cellars – both a first and second year cellar; huge impressive fermentation vats; and state of the art equipment. The vineyards are filled with gravel and are close to the river – as are all great vineyards on the Left Bank.

The tasting here was one of the best, with vertical comparisons of Lafite, Carrudes (the 2nd label) and Duhart-Milon (one of their many other estates) for 2007, 2004 and 1999. Of course, the 1999 Lafite stole the show with layers of dark fruit, black licourise, spice, a perfect balance and layers of complexity. Wow!

Next stop was Pichon Longueville (see photo) – one of the most beautiful chateau in Pauillac. One of the winemakers was our tour guide and I was extremely impressed with the circular tank room and two underground barrel rooms, as well as the new bottling line. We tasted 07’s and 06’s, and after begging, I was allowed to buy a bottle of the 2005.

Next stop was lunch at Lynch Bages new villages behind the winery with hotel, restaurant and shops. A nice new tourist destination. Christian ordered a bottle of his Argentina Malbec with lunch, and I tried not to drink too much because I knew we were touring the winery afterwards. First stop was the Lynch Bages museum which was fascinating with all of the old equipment. After the tour, we tasted 07’s, 06’s, and a 2004 Lynch Bages with 84% cab, which was my favorite. We ended with the 2007 Blanc de Lynch Bages which was incredibly refreshing with grapefruit and honey – 45% sauvignon blanc. I was surprised to end the tasting with a dry white, but they said it was the custom and helped to clear the red tannins. It turned out to be true!

On the way back to Bordeaux, Christian took a quick detour so I could see Château Cos d'Estournel in St. Estephe – just a few minutes up the road. We then drove by Latour and Mouton Rothchild, which I had visited on my previous trip. After a brief rest at my hotel, I drove the short 15 minutes to Christian’s house and met his lovely wife and daughter. They treated me to a memorable dinner including Krug sparkling and a bottle of Latour with the main course. Talk about a day in heaven!

Dreams Come True in St. Emilion – Monday, 4/28/08

Today was truly amazing. Even though it rained on and off, it was filled with so many great experiences that it didn’t matter. As arranged, I met Thierry (a friend of my co-author Tim Matz) in St. Emilion at 10am where I parked my car and jumped into his. As a native of the Right Bank, Thierry knew everyone in town and he was a fabulous tour guide. He was also good friends with the owners of L’Ausone – our first stop at 11am.

The tour and tasting of L’Ausone was perfect. Mr. Vauthier and his daughter explained the vineyard system and winemaking process, then allowed us to taste out of barrel the 2007 from En Primeur as well as 2006 in the second year barrel room. All of the wines were brimming with blackberry fruit, mocha, minerals, and velvety tannins with a very long finish. Extremely powerful, yet elegant wines of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

The vineyards of Bordeaux are quite different from Burgundy with a Guyot Double pruning and wider spacing with around 6000 vines per hectare. The soil is gravel with clay, but the Right Bank also has more limestone – attested to by the many limestone caves beneath St. Emilion. Rootstock, yeasts, and winemaking are also quite different.

After the tour at L’Ausone, Mr. Vauthier treated us to a wonderful lunch at Le Tertre on a steep cobblestone street in town. We started with a bottle of aromatic 2006 Sancerre to go with two amuse bouches and a dream lobster salad that included the whole lobster artistically arranged in a circle around the lettuce. The main course was fish which we had with a big (slightly overpowering) 2005 La Fleur Cardinal St. Emilion Grand Cru. Dessert was a wonderful apple tart with ice cream followed by chocolate truffles and coffee. A truly scrumptious lunch!

Next stop was Cheval Blanc – a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting because of my love for Cabernet Franc. We were greeted by the technical manager who showed us the vineyards and winery; then we were allowed to taste the 2007 en Primeur blend of Cheval Blanc and Cheval Petite. Both had ripe fruit, plush tannins, and some violet aromas, but the Cheval Blanc obviously had more complexity, a longer finish, clearer acidity and some interesting spice. Both, however, needed much more aging time.

Afterwards we drove through the surrounding vineyards to view Petrus, Pavie, Le Pin, and other famous wineries before heading back into town to visit the Cloisters and engage in a walking tour of the city. This concluded at the doorway of Gracia – a famous and engaging garagist of the Right Bank. Michel Gracia , the owner and winemaker, was a delight with a charming sense of humor and a huge passion for winemaking and architecture. He has received numerous very high ratings from top wine critics around the world, and I called him the “King of Triage” because of his obsession of sorting grape by grape so that only the ripest and most perfect of berries make it into his final blend. This explains the perfection, exquisite fruit, and excellent balance of his wines.

It was difficult to end such a perfect day, but I was rather tired from all of the excitement. Thierry lead the way back to Bordeaux in his car, and I eventually settled -- exhausted but happy -- back into my hotel room around 7:30pm.

Driving from Beaune to Bordeaux – Sunday, 4/27/08

Since most businesses are closed in France on Sunday – with the exception of some restaurants and the gas stations on the tollways – it is a good day to travel. I left Beaune around 11am and made it to Bordeaux exactly in the 6.5 hours that Google Map said it would take. Tolls ended up costing around $30 Euros, but it was worth the fast smooth drive.

On the way out of town, I did have to take some of the smaller roads winding along the Saone River and through many little towns. It was charming, but quite slow as huge packs of bicyclers would hog the road. Once on the toll way, driving was fast – 130km per hour – and the French gas stations are huge, clean, and welcoming with lots of food, coffee, restrooms, and expensive gas. My little diesel car saved me some money on the trip, but it is still about double the price of our gas in the US.

Once in Bordeaux I found my apartment hotel, Cap Affairs, in an ugly industrial setting near the airport. It was not nearly as nice as my other apartment hotel and consisted only of a small studio with kitchen, rather than the 1 bedroom I thought I had reserved. However, there was no opportunity to change as there was no reception – even though I arrive around 5:30pm – and I had to call a number in Paris to get a code to open a lockbox and find my room key. Then when I headed to the grocery store to get milk and eggs for breakfast, I suddenly remembered they weren’t open. Therefore, I was forced to buy dinner at Quick – France’s version of McDonald’s. I got a cheese salad and chicken tenders, which I washed down with some of the excellent Chablis from the previous day, before settling in for the night for my big week in Bordeaux.

Sunny Chablis – Saturday, 4/26/08

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and was the warmest day of the year so far – or so I was told. This was pleasing to me, because it was also my birthday and I was happy to drive on a bright Spring day the 1 hour north to the small village of Chablis were I had two appointments.

First stop was Domaine Grossot where I was able to see the unique pruning of Chablis called “Taille Chablis” (see photo). The vineyards are not as tightly spaced as Cote d’Or, and they have two canes instead of one. However, some of the new vineyards are now starting to adopt the style of their southern neighbors. The cellars were filled with stainless steel tanks with just a few oak barrels – to create the more steely style of Chablis. The wines were lovely – nice crisp acidity, tart apple, and lots of wet stone and cheesy-leesy character. I purchased a bottle here and also at La Chablisienne – the large cooperative which is considered to be the best in France. Very polished and professional tasting room, where I was able to try some of the Grand Crus as well.

Lunch was at a cute pub in the middle of town where everyone was sitting outside to soak up the sun. Wish I would have had more time in Chablis, but I am very glad I was able to visit. That afternoon I headed back to spend more time in the Cote d’Nuits and then meet Eric and Mao for my birthday dinner in Beaune (see previous post).

Driving Through the Famous Villages of the Cote d’Nuits - 4/25-26/08

I grabbed a few extra hours on both Friday and Saturday to drive around the Cote d’Nuits. Since it is only 18 miles long, it didn’t take long. I took the faster road up to Marsannay, and then slowly weaved my way through each of the little famous villages – taking pictures as I went: Fixin, Musigny, Gevry-Chambertin, St. Denis, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanee, a quick detour to Echezeaux, and Nuits St. George.

In Gevry-Chambertin, I stopped to buy a bottle of wine for Mike – since this is his favorite village. Driving around I saw a sign for Domaine Heresztyn saying “Ouvert.” Thinking it looked like a charming little winery in the middle of the village, I drove in and asked to taste. The owner only spoke French, so she called an American friend to help translate. Turns out she is the new VP of Marketing for Benzinger. Small world! We had a nice chat and plan to reconnect back home in Sonoma. I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to buy 3 bottles of the 2005 Premier Cru.

Another great stop was Clos de Vougeot – the famous home of the monks who laid out the grand vineyards of Burgundy in the 1100’s. I was amazed at the four huge wine presses and large wooden tanks that took up a huge portion of the Clos. I also spent some time in the vineyards outside soaking up the sun and meditating on what it would be like to be a monk working those fields.