Thursday, June 21, 2012

Charming Collioure France: Banyuls Wines & La Balette Restaurant

June 2012 - We have rented an apartment for a week in the seaside town of Collioure in the far southwestern region of France only 20 kilometers from the Spanish border. I visited here once before 15 years ago and fell in love with the charming little village with its calm bay surrounded by church, tower, chateau and stone seawalls. It has narrow streets with houses and stores painted in pastel colors and flowers are everywhere. It is the place where many famous painters came to paint including Matisse, Picasso, and Derain.

In addition to sunbathing on the pebbly beaches and eating in wonderful restaurants, we are taking short day trips to the surrounding areas, including the villages of Ceret in the Pyrenees mountains, Banyuls on the sea, and driving over the border into Spain.

Domaine Manya Puig in Collioure

This area is part of Languedoc-Roussillon and is home to the Collioure and Banyuls AOCs. I visited three wineries in the area. The first was the small Domaine Manya Puig located in downtown Collioure (there are many tasting rooms in Collioure). We were greeted in French by Simone who told us she was the winemaker, and that the estate was founded in the 19th century and owned 35 hectares of Banyuls and Collioure vineyards.

We started with the dry wines of AOC Collioure beginning with a 2010 blanc which was made of Grenache blanc, vermentino, marsanne and roussanne. It was very dry with high acid and would pair well with seafood. Next was a rose and then a rouge, both made of Grenache noir, syrah and mouvedre. I ended up buying the rose for my mother, because I knew she would like it (8 euros).

Next we moved onto the AOC Banyuls, which are sweet dessert wines made in the Vins Doux Naturel (VDN) style. The grapes are picked late harvest when they are starting to raisin, fermented in old wooden tanks, and then the ferment is stopped by the addition of alcohol (15.5%) so the wine is still sweet. She told me she tries to keep them around 200 gpl sugar – quite sweet! They are then aged in old foudres or barrels for 3 years before bottling.

We started with the white Banyuls which was made of Grenache blanc and macabeu. It was my first time to try a white Banyuls and it reminded me more of a subtle Sauternes without the botrytis and a higher alcohol level. Next was the traditional red Banyuls made of 100% red Grenache and aged in foudre for 3 years. It was fruity, 15.5% alcohol and similar to a light port. My favorite (which I also purchased – 14 euros) was a Banyuls Tuile, a 2008 vintage which was aged in the sun and deliberately oxidized. It tasted like carmel, toast and cinnamon spices – lovely. We ended with a Muscat de Riversaltes – a sweet, heady floral VDN made of grapes from the Riversaltes region – about 20 kilometers north of Collioure.

Ceret & Chateau Valmy

The next day on our way back from Ceret (where we visited the art museum and had an incredible 3 course lunch for 16 euros at Restaurant Bisbee), we stopped at the impressive Chateau Valmy to taste wines, and found they are a large commercial producer focused on AOC Cotes du Roussillon wines. Though it had a bit too much oak for my taste, my favorite was the 2010 Les Roses Blanches de Valmy made of viognier, roussane and white grenache.

Cellier of the Templiers in Banyuls Sur Mer

Our first stop on our day trip to small town of Banyuls sur Mer and the Spanish border was the Cellier des Templiers– a famous old winery that has an excellent free tour and tastings all day long. Unfortunately the English tours don’t begin until 2:30 in the afternoon, so we attended the French one. Since most of it was wine speak, I was able to follow fairly well. It started with a very artistic and beautiful film of how Banyuls wines are made Then we had a walking tour of the vineyards, cellars, and an explanation of the local AOCs, including Collioure and a review of a diagram explaining how all of the wines are made. The one new piece of information for me is that the Gran Cru Banyuls wines ferment for 12 to 21 days, and they must be 100% Grenache. I was also very impressed with the steep terraced vineyards of very old vines on a schiste soil. Not only very beautiful, but unique.

The tasting proceeded similar to the one I experienced in Collioure. We began with a Collioure AOC white, rose, and red. The prices were higher at 11, 12, and 13 euros respectively. I must say that the 2009 Rouge Schiste was the best red I had on the trip – with full body, ripe fruit, big tannins and a long finish. The rose was huge –most likely because they added carignan to the GSM blend. Mom – the rose fan – did not like it.

We then moved onto the Banyuls wines. The first was a traditional rouge, whereas the second was the tuile (older vintage and oxidized) which was my favorite. The prices were higher – beginning at 20 euros and going up over 40 for some of the older and rarer wines. We ended the tasting with a very unusual 2011 Rose of Banyuls Impertinence. It was extremely sweet, but beautiful to look at with it’s shimmering pink color

La Balette Restaurant in Collioure

In terms of restaurants in Collioure, we ate at several – usually the lunch menus which were excellent and ranged from 14 to 17 euros for 2 or 3 courses. Fresh seafood is the specialty, with anchovies being predominant. Our last night we splurged and booked a reservation at the very elegant La Balette Restaurant with an incredible view across the bay. We had asked for a window table when making our reservations and since we were dining at 7:30 – far too early for any self-respecting French person – we got a great table next to the window with an incredible view of Collioure harbor.

The restaurant is famous for its gourmet food, and the service was definitely 1-star Michelen. We ordered the 45 euro menu (the least expensive) which consisted of two amuse bouches; the first a gazpacho with potato dip and the second a spicy fish with fava beans. The entre (appetizer) was an intriguing plate of sardines and anchovies organized in small squares – very artistic. The main plate was monk fish with violet artichokes, a spicy clove/saffron sauce and pureed fava beans. This was followed by a very tiny cheese course – literally a half a teaspoon of chevre cheese sorbet. Highly unusual. I missed the traditional French cheese course, however, they made it up with the dessert, which was rather large for French standards. It included Collioure cherries in a Banyuls syrup over what seemed like a piece of French toast. This was accompanied by a small glass of cherry pudding – which they called cappuccino. The meal ended with a plate of 9 small cookies and candies. Very delightful and beautifully presented. The only issue was we couldn’t get them to refill our water pitcher.

Since we had already had sparkling wine before we left the apartment, we each ordered one glass of local wine. Mom, of course, had rose, but the sommelier brought me a complex macebeo (also known as viura in Spain). The wine was yellow, medium-bodied, with a touch of oak and a flavor of hay, citrus and a hint of apple. It had a medium + acid, good complexity, and a moderate length finish. It paired well with the monkfish, though I would not go out of my way to order it again.

When we left the restaurant, the sun had already set and the town of Collioure was bathed in beautiful lights that highlighted the church, ancient chateau, and sea walls. A truly magical and breath-taking place.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Loire Valley: Chateau Cheverny & Romorantin Wine

We are spending a week in a French gite an hour south of Paris in the tiny village of Thourey-Ferroutes near Fountainbleu. The gite is quite spacious with 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, full kitchen and living room. It is within the grounds of a large chateau, and the owner Sylvie, is very gracious and speaks perfect English.

We are relaxing in the area and also taking day trips. So far we have visited Chartres, Monet’s garden in Giverny (stayed there the first night at a B&B), and took the train to Paris (leaves every 30 minutes from the delightful town of Moret Sur Loing. Today we drove to the Loire Valley (1.56 hours).

Our first stop in the Loire Valley was the beautiful town of Blois along the river. We wandered through the pedestrian-only downtown, gazing in the shops and finally settling down for lunch at Le Marignan restaurant recommended by Rick Steves. We had the 14 euro menu with included a choice of crepes, chicken, or beef, as well as terrine and salad to start. Quite nice. The restaurant is located on the main square in from the Chateau Royal where Louis XII lived. You can tour the chateau, but we just took pictures and looked inside the gates. I was fascinated with the porcupine symbol that was emblazoned on the castle walls – the emblem and favorite animal of the king. Probably most amazing about Blois was the House of Magic on the square created by Houdin which had 5 large mechanical dragons which came out the windows and roared every half hour. Very unusual! (See photo)

After lunch we spent an hour shopping and then headed to Chateau Chambord about a 20 minutes drive from Blois (see top photo). It was already late in the afternoon, so we did not do the tour, but we walked around the huge spired-studded castle and took many photos. It is so large and unusual looking that it seems surreal.

Next we drove another 15 minutes to Chateau Cheverny which is the most well-preserved castle in the Loire with all its original furniture from the 1600’s. The reason it is so well kept is the same family has been living there the whole time – spared during the French revolution. We paid the fee to tour and enjoyed the exquisite d├ęcor and many paintings throughout the chateau, and also appreciated the expansive vegetable garden, grounds, and seeing the hounds fed. (See photo of gardens below)

We stopped to taste wine at the small wine shop on the way to the parking lot. They allow you to taste 3 AOC Cheverny and one AOC Cour-Cheverny wines for free. The first 3 were a sauvignon blanc/chardonnay combination (2011) which had the wonderful grassy smell and high acid I enjoy. The second was a pinot noir/gamay rose – very fruity and delightful, while the third was a 2010 pinot noir/gamay/cot blend – very earthy, subdued fruit, high acid, scratchy tannins and similar to an average quality Burgundy. The most unusual had to be the white medium-bodied wine made from the rare romorantin grape. It is only found in the tiny AOC Cour Cheverny, and was an unusual, dry, straw tasting wine with a touch of lemon and very high acid. It reminded me vaguely of a Vin Juane from the Jura region.

The long drive back was not enjoyable, but we managed to make it to our gite around 9pm. The summer evenings stay light until after ten, so it wasn’t a problem. We immediately got out the many cheeses and salami we keep in the fridge and I opened a new bottle of Loire white – a delightfully fruity sauvignon blanc blend. I also had a taste of an open bottle of a 2009 St. Nicolas de Bourgueil from Les Domaniales. This is a wonderful red Loire 100% cabernet franc wine which I picked up for 5.50 euros at L.Eclerc – an amazing value with good intensity, dark fruit and violet notes, and firm tannins.

The rest of our week we are taking day trips to Fountainbleu (quite close), another train trip to Paris again, and a visit to Versailles before we head back to CDG to fly to Montpellier for a week in the south of France.