France – Other

Bergerac: Underappreciated Wines & Controversial Cuisine #Winophiles

14 July 2017

This post is my first of hopefully many as part of the #Winophiles wine-writing group. Southwest France is the focus this month, and you can find links to articles about the region’s fascinating wines and memorable food at the end of this article.

I gripped the steering wheel more tightly, attempting to focus on the road, and not on the names of the Saint-Emilion vineyards I was driving past all too quickly. It was all I could do not to toss my itinerary out the window and stop at ever sign that said “Dégustation.” And therein lies the biggest problem of Bergerac. Neighboring Bordeaux, just down the Dordogne River, is a great black hole of wine, sucking up all the attention. Even I nearly succumbed to its temptations. But I had an appointment.

I turned south off the main road and descended into gorgeously unspoiled French countryside. The pavement narrowed, winding through an exquisite mosaic of vineyards, forests and walnut orchards in full bloom. Near the top of one of the highest hills stood my goal, perhaps the most important winery in Bergerac: Château Tour des Gendres.

Château Tour des Gendres

According to The World Atlas of Wine, “…there is now a critical mass of [Bergerac] producers who produce far more serious wines of all three hues, and in whites, all sweetness levels. Luc de Conti of Château Tour de Gendres, a biodynamic convert, deserves considerable, although not exclusive, credit.” My Oxford Companion to Wine agrees, noting that “…thanks to much more sophisticated use of oak, pioneering producers such as Luc de Conti of Château Tour des Gendres and David Fourtout of Vignobles des Verdots as well as a handful of sweet winemakers, some truly fine wine is being made.” The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia also recommends the winery.

I ascended the driveway of Château Tour de Gendres to discover an ensemble of low stone tile-roofed buildings, interspersed with Aleppo pines and cypresses. There was no grand palace, à la Bordeaux, though there certainly was a pretty tour (tower). I was the only visitor on that cool, sunny March afternoon, and Martine de Conti, Luc’s wife, walked out to meet me.

Amphorae and foudre (large casks) at Château Tour des Gendres

She dressed simply and sensibly, but she wore her pink scarf, green puffer jacket and blue pants with elegance. Her English was limited, and my French isn’t exactly parfait, which meant our conversation was halting at first. But as she poured me samples of the wines made by her and her husband, and my enthusiasm for them became clear, we started to connect.

This is a classic cliché of wine writing, the wine transcending the language barrier. It’s almost embarrassing to relate the experience. But I can’t deny that connecting with Martine and Luc over their wines left me feeling rather elated.

I tried 11 wines at Château Tour des Gendres, all of which I enjoyed, but for brevity’s sake, I’ll describe only the ones that really knocked my socks off. These give you an idea of the great potential of Bergerac:

2015 Conti-ne Périgourdine: What a joy. This Muscadelle had a round aroma of apple and stone fruit, and flavors of apricot, elegant spice and a subtle note of buttered popcorn. Luc later told me that this wine was his favorite, and I can understand why. At the end of the tasting, I tried to buy two bottles, but Martine insisted I take them as a gift. If any importers are reading this, I’ll happily pay for a couple of cases!

2014 Anthologia: The grapes for this Sauvignon Blanc come only from Monbazillac, and the wine is produced only in exceptional vintages. The 2014 had an aroma of honeydew and a bit of popcorn kernel — very enticing — and the flavor development was magnificent. I can think of few more elegant expressions of Sauvignon Blanc. Perfectly calibrated and focused acids balanced out the rich, ripe fruit, and the finish lasted long after I expected it to stop. The minerality of this wine positively rang.

2014 La Gloire de Mon Père: “The Glory of My Father” blends 53% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, with half the wine aged in barriques (small barrels) and half aged in foudre (large casks). This wine was deep and gorgeous, with an aroma of ripe cherry and vanilla, marked with a touch of something savory. On the palate, a pop of acids quickly overtook the fresh, plummy fruit, followed by refined white pepper spice and a deliciously salty/buttery note. La Gloire indeed.

2008 Parcelle Les Gendres: This wine comes from a single parcel of Merlot aged in large casks, and that must be one heck of a parcel. A transparent brick red, this wine had a big, wonderful aroma of raspberry jam. And the flavor! The clean, clear red fruit exploded in my mouth. Ample white pepper spice kicked in, followed by obvious but supple tannins, and a note of mocha on the finish. I defy anyone to declare that they don’t like Merlot after trying this beauty.

2015 Le Saussignac: Like Sauternes or Monbazillac, Saussignac is a sweet wine appellation, but as the World Atlas says, the “distinctive” and “glamorous” wines there are “made in dispiritingly small quantities.” The de Contis don’t make Le Saussignac every year — it depends on whether botrytis (noble rot) affects the grapes. If you can find a bottle, snap it up. This wine completely seduced me. Honeysuckle, exotic spice, bright orangey acids, and a finish that felt quite dry, almost tannic. Magnificent.

Tasting that last wine made me wish I had some foie gras to pair with it. Foie gras is a classic match with Sauternes and Sauternes-like wines, but few foods cause as much controversy as foie gras, the fattened liver of a goose or duck. Residents of California, where the product is currently banned, may find it something of a shock to visit the Dordogne, where foie gras appears on almost every menu, often in multiple dishes. At its best, it’s sensationally rich but also somehow light and airy. I adore foie gras, but I decided that if I were to continue eating it, and recommend pairing it with wine on this blog, I should see for myself what its production was like.

Ducks at Domaine de Barbe

My hotel in the Dordogne arranged for a tour of Domaine de Barbe, a foie gras farm nearby. Its 100 acres support about 1,300 geese and 5,500 ducks, as my tour guide, Noemie, explained. The animals spend four or five months “free range” in grassland pastures, grazing and growing, before moving into group cages for the gavage (force-feeding). Individual cages are now illegal.

Force-feeding enhances a natural fattening of the liver in fall, when the birds gorge in order to have enough reserves for migration. Ducks and geese experience the gavage quite differently than a mammal would. The birds have esophagi prepared to accept large whole fish, and they can breathe when the feeding tube is inserted. Feeders do their best to avoid stressing the animals, because stress, according to Noemie, reduces the quality of the liver. After 15 days of force-feeding ducks or three weeks for geese, the animals are anesthetized and slaughtered.

Geese awaiting feeding

The pastures looked tranquil and spacious, and the cages, while not paradise, didn’t look to be causing the geese I observed any obvious distress. I can’t say with any certainty what the animals feel about force-feeding, whether it’s uncomfortable or just another meal. But the Domaine de Barbe clearly treats its animals better than an industrial farm in the United States. If you’re comfortable eating meat in an average American restaurant, you need feel no qualms about eating foie gras in the Dordogne.

The only question is, do you pair it with Saussignac, Monbazillac or Sauternes?

For more about the wines of Southwest France, check out these other articles by my fellow #Winophiles:

–Jill at L’occasion shares “Périgord Wines: Bergerac and Duras

–Wendy at A Day in the Life on the Farm shares “Southern France at a Midwest BBQ

–Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Cam shares “Pistachio-Armagnac Sabayon with Strawberries and Meringues

–Michelle from Rockin Red Blog shares “#Winophiles Showdown: Madiran vs Applegate Valley

–Martin from Enofylz shares “Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng and Arrufiac? Oh My!

–Olivier from In Taste Buds We Trust shares If it makes you happy…

–Nicole from Somm’s Table shares “Cooking to the Wine: Paul Bertrand Crocus Malbec de Cahors with Lavender-Herb Ribeye and Grilled Veggies

–Lynn from Savor the Harvest shares “Basque-ing in the Sud-Ouest: Wines of Irouléguy

–Lauren from The Swirling Dervish shares “Toast #TDF2017 with Wines from the Côtes de Gascogne

–Gwen from Wine Predator shares “Finding and Pairing Southwest France Wine Cheese & Spirits for French #Winophiles

–Mardi from Eat.Live.Travel.Write. shares two posts (!) “Clafoutis, Southwest France style” and “Armagnac: A Primer

–Jeff from Food Wine Click! shares “Exploring Madiran with Vignobles Brumont

Join our chat on Saturday, July 15, at 10-11 a.m. CDT (11 a.m. EDT, 8 a.m. PDT, and 17.00 in France)! See what we think of Southwest France, and tell us about your experiences with the wine, food, or travel in the region. To join, log into Twitter, search for the #winophiles tag, and you’re in!

The Wonderful Whites Of Cahors

14 May 2017

If you think of Cahors at all, you likely think of big, tannic reds. Stretched along the Lot River in southwestern France, this region is the original Malbec country. Argentina can claim responsibility for Malbec’s renaissance — even Cahors winemakers admit this fact — but the grape variety was born in France. All AOC Cahors wines must be at least 70% Malbec, with the remainder a blend of Merlot and/or Tannat. Cahors white wines do not exist.

Which is not to say that white wine is not made in Cahors. Indeed, Cahors winemakers produce gorgeous white wines, made mostly from Chardonnay, Viognier and/or Chenin Blanc. But they are not Cahors. After tasting delicious white after delicious white, it struck me that the powers that be in the Cahors AOC have made quite the oversight.

And they’re not the only ones. I can find no reference to the white wines of the region in any of my usual resources, The Oxford Companion to WineThe World Atlas of Wine or The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia. My pre-trip research gave me no reason to expect that I would encounter a single white in Cahors during my stay.

So you will, I trust, forgive my surprise when the sommelier in the restaurant of the Château de la Treyne hotel first confronted me with a Viognier/Chardonnay blend by Clos Triguedina, one of the most important wineries in Cahors. When I tasted it, I was positively shocked: ripe and rich, with stone fruit and pineapple notes, sharpening into orangey, gingery spice and a dry finish. Well balanced and classy.

Countryside south of the Lot River

I tasted this wine again at Clos Triguedina itself, hidden in the countryside just south of Puy L’Évêque, a medieval town rising steeply from the Lot. Olga and I had a tasting in the cozy old tasting room, lit by stained-glass windows (a new minimalist tasting room is under construction). We tasted the soon-to-be-bottled 2016 rosé of Malbec together. “This is like a bon-bon,” she exclaimed. And indeed, it had plenty of watermelon and strawberry fruit, but it tasted dry and spicy nevertheless. As with the Chardonnay/Vioginier blend, this rosé cannot be labeled as Cahors.

Owner and winemaker Jean-Luc Baldès worked for a time in Barsac, which, like neighboring Sauternes, produces sweet botryrized white wines. And, somehow, he has found a way to produce a botrytized wine in Cahors as well: a Chenin Blanc. The 2014 tasted lush and sweet, with ample dark honey, stone-fruit flavors like apricot, and orangey acids that slowly grow, ensuring that the wine remains balanced.

Sabine Baldès

His wife, Sabine, led me to the vineyards behind the tasting room and estate house, where her mother-in-law lives. The vines occupy a gentle but distinct rise in the land, affording panoramic views in almost every direction. This pebbly hump counts among Cahors’ finest vineyard locations, and in the coming classification, I would be surprised if it weren’t awarded Grand Cru status.

But the slope of the Pigeonnier vineyard spilling down from the 15th-century Château Lagrézette gives Clos Triguedina some serious competition. Led by Sales Administrator Yannick Druon, I toured the winery, built right into the hillside. He explained that when workers dug out the space for the winery in 1992, they preserved each layer of soil individually, so that the terroir might be restored to its former condition once construction was complete.

I won’t soon forget the 2015 “White Vision” Le Pigeonnier Viognier. It was wonderfully fragrant, with aromas of jasmine and white peach. It tasted full and fat, but not blowsy — oodles of focused spice and orangey acids gave the big, bold wine some firm boundaries. Nor was the less-expensive 2010 “Dame de Grézette” Chardonnay any slouch. It smelled fresh and fruity, not oaky, and though its fruit was deliciously creamy, this wine had no buttery or woodsy notes. Zesty spice built and built, and the wine ended dry. Very refined.

In fact, I didn’t have to travel any farther than my hotel to find a winery producing a notable Cahors white. Under the front garden of the Château de Mercuès is a well-designed contemporary winery which seems to play second fiddle to the owner’s more famous winery, Château de Haute-Serre. Nevertheless, the 2014 Château de Mercuès Chenin Blanc was a delight. It had a clear, pure, fruity aroma, and it tasted of ripe pear and lemon peel. Refined spice tightened into quite a long finish. I also had the chance to try the 2014 Château de Haute-Serre “Albesco” Chardonnay, which blew me away.  I loved its dewy aroma with notes of buttered popcorn, and its rich, buttery flavor that maintained balance with focused orangey acids and gentle spice. It might have been Burgundian.

Château Lagrézette

So far, I have found just one book that talks about the whites of Cahors more than in passing. But even in Michael S. Sanders’ Families of the Vine: Seasons Among the Winemakers of Southwest France, the whites aren’t taken very seriously:

“…Many winemakers then complete their lines with the fruit of their playtime — rosés and whites made in small quantities because, quite simply, it amuses them to turn their hand to something different.”

The whites I tasted were more than playtime. They were often quite refined and elegant, and they were always delicious. Perhaps its time for Cahors wine laws to recognize what is already happening in the AOC. It’s silly that such well-crafted wines must be labeled as Vin de Pays.

A Taste Of Cognac History

24 November 2013

Chateau Beaulon 7-Year CognacIf I had to choose just one spirit to consume for the rest of my life, I would be crushed, but after I got over the initial shock of being forced to make such a difficult decision, I would choose cognac. I’ve had the fortune to taste quite a few cognacs, including the most famous brands, delicious small-production gems and even a couple of cognacs which literally brought me to tears. If you think cognac is just for aging aristocrats or rap stars, you’re missing out on an exquisite beverage that need not be burdensomely expensive to be thoroughly satisfying.

I’m pleased to drink just about any cognac, really, but I get especially excited when I have the opportunity to taste an unusual cognac. The Château de Beaulon 7-Year Cognac doesn’t look especially unusual at first glance, nor is it even especially old. But two words on the label make it immediately clear that this is not your everyday cognac: Folle Blanche.

Cognac, like all brandies, is distilled from grapes (you can read more about cognac production and age designations in my post here). In cognac’s earliest incarnation, these grapes tended to be Folle Blanche as much as anything. More recently, particularly after phylloxera ravaged the Cognac’s vineyards in the late 19th century, Folle Blanche was replaced with Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano).

There were a number of reasons farmers turned from Folle Blanche to Ugni Blanc. According to Cognac by Kyle Jarrad, Folle Blanche “tend[s] to suffer from rot when grafted onto American roots,” and grafting was the solution to the phylloxera epidemic. Just as important, Cognac producers “don’t want to start the process with a wine that is highly aromatic… Better to start the aging with the more acidic wine that Ugni Blanc gives,” to leave more room for the oak barrels to flavor the spirit.

Almost all cognacs you drink nowadays are distilled mostly or entirely from Ugni Blanc. Distilling a cognac from Folle Blanche instead is a reactionary move; it’s a throwback to the cognacs of the 19th century and earlier. In fact, according to the Château de Beaulon website, “Beaulon has remained faithful to the region’s traditional 16th-century vine stocks: Folle Blanche, Colombard and Montils for Cognac.”

Though it is possible to purchase cognacs with at least part of the blend dating back a century or more, such as the extravagantly beautiful Hennessy Paradis Impérial, those seeking a taste of cognac’s past will find the Château de Beaulon much easier on the pocketbook. And you certainly won’t feel like you’re making a sacrifice when you drink it.

The light caramel-colored cognac had a bright aroma with strong vanilla cake notes and a hint of ripe banana. When I took a sip, I felt a top plane with dark vanilla and wood flavors overlaying a lower plane bright with green peppercorn spice. It seemed a little lighter and fruitier than many cognacs I’ve tried, and very well-balanced, cheerful and smooth.

Cognac may have long since moved on from its Folle Blanche roots, but Château de Beaulon resolutely clings to tradition with exceedingly pleasurable results. If the cognacs of centuries past tasted like Château de Beaulon’s, it’s not hard to see why it has remained such a highly regarded spirit today.

If you’re planning on serving a digestif after your Thanksgiving dinner, and I strongly recommend it, a cognac like Château de Beaulon’s would be just the thing.

A Surprisingly Odd Malbec

16 March 2013

Georges Duboeuf MalbecWhile browsing the wine section at Whole Foods, I noticed something surprising: a Georges Duboeuf Malbec. Georges Duboeuf is one of France’s most famous vintners, infamously producing an ocean of (usually overpriced) Beaujolais Nouveau each year, as well as a range of perfectly tasty standard wines. But I had never seen a Duboeuf Malbec, and I had never seen a wine of any kind from Comté Tolosan, the Indication Géographique Protégée listed on the back label. This Georges Duboeuf wine had become very oddly irresistable, and I snapped it up.

Almost every wine drinker these days has heard of Malbec, thanks to its Argentinean success. I used to think Malbec originated in Argentina, but it’s actually a French variety, though ever fewer French vineyards grow it. According to The Oxford Companion to Wine, Malbec is “still the backbone of Cahors,” a red made in France’s southwest, and it is from this wine that Georges Duboeuf must have drawn his inspiration for the Malbec varietal.

And that’s where the real story is. Comté Tolosan is classified as a Vin de Pays, a very loosely regulated wine region which in this case encompasses almost the whole of southwestern France. Often in France, or in any terroir-driven wine country, the more specific the geographic designation, the higher the quality of the wine. The regulations on these geographic designations, or AOCs, can be very restrictive, however, preventing innovative winemakers from experimenting with different techniques or varieties.

In contrast, the Vin de Pays regions typically have very loose rules. In fact, according to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, red wine grapes in Comté Tolosan “are not specified beyond ‘what is growing’!” (Exclamation point in the original.) It took the regulation-happy French a while to get to this point — it was only in 2000 that varietal wines were legalized, but even then, they had to be 100% that variety (most of the rest of the world allows winemakers to blend up to 15% of other varieties in varietal wines). Finally, in 2004, producers were authorized to adjust their varietal wines with a bit of blending, making them more palatable.

And with that, the French finally had a shot at capturing consumers who look for “Chardonnay” or “Malbec” instead of “Chinon” or “Mâcon-Villages.” Now, according to the Encyclopedia, the Vin de Pays category of wine “includes some of the most innovative and exciting wines being produced in the world today.”

I’m not sure the 2009 Georges Duboeuf Malbec Grain Noir qualifies as one of the most exciting wines in the world, but I certainly enjoyed drinking it. It had a pleasant aroma of brandied cherries, and some rustic fruit on the palate. That moved to black pepper spice and a softly tannic, more velvety finish. It kept an even keel, avoiding any surprises, making it sure to satisfy a wide range of red-wine drinkers. And after all, at about $10 a bottle, what more could you ask?

SUMMARY

2009 Georges Duboeuf Malbec Grain Noir: Moves from a rough, rustic start to a velvety finish. A fine value for the price, and sure to be tasty with pizza or pasta with red sauce. Chill in the refreigerator for 20 minutes before serving.

Grade: B

Find It: I bought this wine at the Whole Foods on Halsted and Waveland for $10, but a rather harried employee told me they don’t have it in stock at the moment. You might see it in the wine departments of other Whole Foods branches, however.

Port’s Unhearalded Brother

13 March 2013

Bin 152Even if they’ve never sampled it, most everyone has heard of Port. This fortified wine from Porto, Portugal, deserves its fame — a glass of fine caramelly tawny Port or deeply flavored vintage Port always makes a deliciously relaxing end to a meal. But the Portuguese don’t have a monopoly on these sorts of wines. The farthest southern corner of France can give northern Portugal some serious competition.

I once had the fortune to visit the spectacular vineyards here, around the town of Banyuls. I was about 24 years old, and really beginning to appreciate the joys of wine tasting. Around every bend it seemed, a shop or house or even just a roadside stand offered “Degustation,” and to my parents’ eventual annoyance, I wanted to stop at every one. But what could I do? After tasting some Banyuls paired with a Banyuls-poached pear covered in melted chocolate and cinnamon, I was hooked.

Clinging to the Roussillon coast, the narrow roads winding through the vertiginous vineyards of Banyuls make for hair-raising driving, and tending to the vines requires hard labor. Because the terrain makes machinery all but impossible to use, the very ripe grapes — often picked when halfway to raisinhood – must be harvested by hand. Yields are very low. Hell for winemakers perhaps, but ideal for drinkers.

Red Banyuls must contain at least 50% Grenache, and because the wine is fortified with alcohol, the result tastes remarkably like Port. Or perhaps more accurately, in the inimitable words of The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, “[Banyuls] lacks the fire of a great Port, but it has its own immense charm.”

I happened to have an immensely charming Banyuls about a week ago in Charleston. Bin 152, a stylish wine bar run by an engaging French couple, had one on its by-the-glass menu, and goodness knows after my tireless explorations of Lowcountry cuisine, I was in need of a serious digestif.

Fanny, who hails originally from Nice, poured me a glass of 2008 Domaine la Tour Vieille Banyuls, before refilling Brooke Shields’ glass of white Burgundy (she looked great). The wine proved to be even more exciting than the celebrity sighting, however. It had the big, round, raisiny fruit I was expecting, but what surprised me was its steady, driving force. It had power, this wine, but its development from fruity to spicy to tannic was so slow and so rhythmic, I could only but marvel at its self-control.

This Banyuls demanded attention, and it made me forget all about my distended stomach. Not all of them rise to these heights, but every Banyuls I’ve sampled has been at the very least quite good. It pairs wonderfully with chocolate, berries and celebrities, and it tends to cost less than Port of similar quality, because Banyuls lacks Port’s famous name. If you see one in a wine shop or on a wine list, don’t hesitate to give it a try.

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