Saturday, July 3, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Lac du Salagou

Yesterday was mostly occupied with a short trip to the Lac du Salagou, a fairly large man-made lake about 30 minutes north of Pouzolles. According to my friend the Internet, it was created in 1968 and it's the largest lake in the Languedoc area. I wish I better understood the geology, but, from what I could see, it sits in a very large basin of decomposing red shale-like rock or mudstone (probably this was once a much larger natural lake). This may not be shale, but I will call it that as I don't know what else to call it. The hills and soil are the color of brick. There appear to be harder seams at intervals that erode more slowly than the softer areas, which results in a terraced effect on the hillsides, and the whole of this is tilted about 30 degrees. Here and there there are large intrusions of columnar basalt, which must be the result of volcanic activity at some time long ago.

[Update: A little more checking on the Internet suggests that this entire area was once volcanically active. There is an extinct volcanic vent right at the edge of the lake, apparently. I will look for it if we go back. The red rocks are known locally as "les ruffes." Geologically speaking, they are sedimentary (as I suspected) pelites made red by the presence of iron oxide. "Pelite" appears to be a general term for any sedimentary or metamorphosed sedimentary rock such as slate or mudstone or shale made from deposits of very small grain size--clay essentially.]

There are vineyards virtually everywhere you go in this area, and the area around the lake was no exception. I saw large plantings right in the ruffe, especially in the area around the town of Salasc. I wonder what these wines taste like? I wonder if the red soil gives them a particular flavor? I wish my French were good enough to ask these things....

The lake itself offers fishing, sailing, windsurfing, swimming, and other recreation, but we went mostly for the scenery. Having gotten a rather bad sunburn on my feet at Sète the other day, I stayed in the shade and slept a little. Had a fair lunch at the one restaurant that was open. It at least had a good view of the lake.

On the way to the lake, we stopped at a village called Les Crozes. It was nothing more than a gathering of about ten or twelve stone houses. I think we met the entire population--they came out to look at us as we parked the car. But it has a central square, and a very old-looking stone church. The houses were mostly built of a flat, layered stone that appeared to be what was under our feet as well--schist perhaps. There was an attractive sundial on one of the buildings in the "square." Nearly all the houses had their own outdoor stone "barbecues." One man was feeding a fairly alarmingly vigorous fire of grape prunings in his, preparing to roast a rack of sausages over it (despite the heat). A child in the plaza appeared from nowhere and began squirting me with a squirt gun as big as he was. The tiny dirt road out of the far side of the village proved impassable, so we backtracked.

Stopped also at Mourèze, which has some striking dolomite formations, which seem to be the village's main attraction. They reminded me of the Meteora, in Greece again, but here there are no pillars big enough to build a church on. One web site I consulted called these formations limestone, but they were labeled dolomite in the French. (Another website called it "dolomitic limestone.") A short climb gave access to an observation area with a view of the rocks and the village.

On the way up I saw a new bird. It turned out to be a Black Redstart. It was carrying food and appeared to be feeding babies somewhere, but I couldn't see the nest. I did get a photograph of him, though, with what looks like a piece of grasshopper in his mouth. When he flies, most of his tail and undertail area is as red as the red soil.

Found Art: Heart of Leaves, Mourèze (July 2, 2010)

While walking on a trail around the dolomite formations on the outskirts of the village of Mourèze, I came upon this heart made of leaves and twigs and decorated with bits of pine cone. Who made it? Who was it made for? How long has it been there? How long will it remain? I do not know. Truly, found art.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: Two Languedoc Rosés

After tasting four ultra-cheap local Cinsault rosés earlier in the week, I decided to move upmarket a bit. Last night I tried a rosé from St. Chinian and another from a maker in the nearby town of Pezenas. Both were excellent but still inexpensive at under €8 (less than $10). Tasting notes follow. The review of the four Cinsault wines is here.

2009 Domaine Monplezy Plaisirs Languedoc Rosé
Made from a blend of Cinsault, Grenache, and Syrah down the road from where I'm staying--just outside of Pezenas on the road to Roujan. The label is decorated with a hoopoe.

The wine was very pale in color--delicate and barely pink, a flesh pink, but I could tell this wine had more character than the four very pale rosés I tasted earlier this week just by smelling it. It had the very fresh scent of new wine not long after fermentation has finished. There were distant strawberry scents, and something sappy and fresh as well, suggestive of raw zucchini. I was also put in mind of fine soap--although there was nothing soapy about the taste of the wine. It had considerably more presence on the palate than the pale color suggested it would. Delicate, but with a distinctive sappiness again suggestive of fresh vegetables--but in a good way. Fruitier and somewhat sweeter on the finish. Nicely balanced, with none of the sharp acidity of the less expensive wines mentioned above. Significantly more alcohol than any of those wines as well, which gave it a little fire on the finish as well. Very tasty.

2007 Schisteil Saint-Chinian Rosé
The label on this one is a bit confusing--due more to my relative ignorance of the wines of this area than to any fault of the label probably. The appellation is clearly Saint-Chinian, but the wine is also labeled Coteaux de Berlou (which makes some sense, as Berlou is one of the villages of the Saint Chinian appellation). However, I can't find the name of a producer on the bottle. "Schisteil" is a brand name the producer uses, referring to the local schist soils and the sun (soleil in French). The wine is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.

Whoever the maker is, I loved the wine. This is the most distinctive rosé I've had in a very long time. It was deeply colored, in sharp contrast with the majority of the rosé wines I've seen in the local stores. I'd say this spends at least a day on the skins, whereas the paler wines look like they are pressed immediately. It was a beautiful deep pink tending toward orange. It reminded me of some of the darkest varieties of salmon. It had wonderful roasted, toasted scents but also jammy fruit scents--fig jam just cooked down and still hot. Hints of butterscotch or caramel. Crème brûéee may be closer. On the palate, there was again something about it that put me in mind of caramel and toast, and it was comparatively alcoholic, suggesting Calvados, but the wine was not at all sweet or as strong as brandy (naturally). It had a sappy freshness and decent acid. It could perhaps have used a trifle more acid, but, all in all, this was a very interesting, unusual, delicious wine. I drank too much of it, but it was very hard to put down.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Birds I'm Watching: Two Turtle Doves and a Partridge in the Grape Vines

No, it's not Christmas--but I didn't get the song quite right anyway. Yesterday, on the way back from a short shopping trip to the town of Pezenas (photo above; ice cream!) I spotted a pair of partridge-like birds among the grape vines at the side of the road. By the time I was able to stop the car, get out my binoculars and have a look, they had run a fair distance away, but I got a good look at them and their eight babies, fluffy little chicks scurrying around from the cover of one row of vines to the next. These turned out to be red-legged partridges, the common partridge in this area but a new bird for me.

While I was parking the car, a pair of pigeon-like birds landed not far away on a dirt road winding through the vineyards. When I got a good look at them, they turned out to be doves, but not the usual collared doves, which are a fairly uniform putty color with a dark half ring at the back of the neck (the collar). These had no collar, a distinctive black and white striped patch on either side of the neck, and a black-edged brown pattern on the folded wings suggestive of a turtle shell--turtle doves (another first sighting for me, bringing my European new bird total to 17). Two turtle doves naturally got me thinking about the song, having just seen a partridge or two. No pear trees, but two turtle doves and a partridge in the grape vines. Close enough. This being France, no doubt there were at least three French hens in the neighborhood and four calling birds, too. No sign of golden rings, geese, swans, maids, ladies, pipers, lords, or drummers, I'm afraid, but I'm keeping my eyes peeled. I will report any such sightings.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Art I'm Looking At: Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Yesterday visited the Musée Fabre, in Montpellier, to catch the last day of a special exhibition there of sculptures by Houdon and others. I had heard about the show months ago, having read a review of it in The New York Review of Books. It took a while to find the place--French road markings are not the most rational--but it was worth it.

There were about 40 busts by Houdon and others, along with Houdon's allegories of Summer and Winter (Summer is pictured here; photo from The Web Gallery). A few were bronzes, but they were mostly marble, plaster, or terra cotta. The highlights were the Houdon busts of Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon in terra cotta, a marble head of Voltaire, and a bust of Christoph-Willibald Gluck (the composer) in plaster treated to look like bronze (both by Houdon). Houdon had a way of putting a piece of his sitter's soul into his work. You get the feeling that the heads are about to speak. The Franklin and the Gluck busts were particularly good, I thought. There was also a Houdon plaster bust of Molière that I recognized from several reproductions of it I saw the other day in the town of Pezenas, where Molière worked for a spell.

I enjoyed the Houdon sculptures, but the museum's regular collection is of some interest, too. The museum was originally established in the 1820s by Montpellier painter François-Xavier Fabre. It houses paintings of his own that he donated, his collection of paintings by other artists, and several other substantial collections that have been given to the museum over the years, including most recently a large group of paintings by Pierre Soulages donated by Soulages himself (above is his Painting, April 30th, 1972).

There are several good little Corot landscapes, a good Courbet seascape (and several other paintings by Courbet that didn't seem up to his usual standard), a good portrait by Gabriel Metsu--a painter I don't know well, but I noticed several by him in the Louvre last week that I liked very much--, a good Zurburán, and an interesting portrait by Kees Van Dongen in the modern section. The modern paintings were of special interest to me because there are several very early academic works in the collection by painters that became impressionists or modernists. I didn't like these paintings much as paintings, but it is unusual to see, for example, Monet painting an old-fashioned still life of the "fruits of the hunt," or Vlaminck in his pre-Fauves period, or Robert and Sonia Delaunay or Francis Picabia painting traditional subjects rather than the abstractions (the Delaunays) and Dadaist/surrealist work (Picabia) they are best known for. And then there is the large room devoted to Soulages. Definitely worth a visit if you're in the area and you have an interest in this sort of thing.

Afterwards went to Sète and saw canal jousting (by chance) and then spent a couple of hours at the beach between Sète and Agde. I didn't know that jousting from big rowboats was a thing in Sète, but apparently it is. We went to find the beach, but had a hard time of it and ended up at the end of the town's main canal, which seems to empty into the port. There doesn't appear to be any beach in the town proper. We ended up several miles down the road on a stretch of pebbly, shell-strewn (mostly cockles) sand somewhere between Sète and Agde, which was just fine. The water was warm enough to swim in, but cool. I can't remember if I've been swimming in the Mediterranean before....

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Found Art: Parking Garage Markings, Montpellier (June 27, 2010)

The floor of a parking garage I used in Montpellier yesterday had a strange, thick, dirty yellow coating on it. It had cracked and chipped. These signs of wear and the arrows and lines marking the parking spaces made interesting compositions. Found art.

Wines I'm Drinking: Four Cinsault Rosés

I tasted four local rosés tonight, all made from the Cinsault grape and procured from the closest supermarket--none for more than €3.52, or about $4. The cheapest wine was less than $2. Having no prejudices, I didn’t taste them blind. I just lined them up in order of their color. The first wine was the deepest in color, the last was the palest.

2009 Brise de France Cinsault Rosé
A nice, medium orange-pink. Honey scents. Something suggestive of pears. Light, but decent body. Not a lot of fruit flavor, but tart and refreshing. Shortish and not terribly complex. Put me in mind of a sour watermelon—although I can’t say I’ve ever tasted such a thing…. Despite that remark, this wine seemed much more interesting with food—as did all four wines. After a full meal the level in this bottle was the lowest of the four, which suggests it was ultimately the most interesting.

La Francette Cinsault Rosé Vin de Pays d'Oc
Apparently a non-vintage wine. A pale orange-pink. Fairly closed on the nose, but there was a hint of cantaloupe, perhaps. Momentarily seemed somewhat fuller than the first wine, but again, not a lot of flavor. Quite tart, but this one seems to linger on the palate. Having said that, the flavors that linger are not in any way distinctive. Fairly bland. This was probably the least interesting of the group.

2009 Roche Mazet Cinsault Rosé Vin de Pays d’Oc
Quite a bit paler than even the second wine, but with the same orange-pink hue. I wonder how long these wines spend on the skins? I’ve noticed that most of the rosés made around here are quite pale. The deepest in color of the four wines (the first wine) is about as deeply colored as our homemade rosé, which spends 18-24 hours on the skins. Sweet scents. Faint caramel scent. Considerably more flavor than in either of the first two wines. More body and better length. A trifle sweeter, and less sharply acidic. Still, not terribly distinctive in any way. Sweetness lingers (but this is still a dry wine). Quite drinkable. With four bottles open on the kitchen table, this wine very quickly had two fruit fly bathers. None of the other wines had fruit flies. Clearly this is the wine of choice of the fruit flies.

2009 Montagnac Cinsault Rosé Vin de Pays d’Oc
Just a hint of color. Very pale orange pink. Watermelon scent—but distant. Again, something faintly suggestive of caramel. Perhaps the most interesting of the four wines? Seems better balanced. Quite dry. Good acidity, but not excessive or sharp. Has a bit of attractive bitterness that lingers on a crisp finish that is still fairly bland, nevertheless. Having said that, I kept going back to this one.

None of these was especially interesting. Frankly, the rosé I make in my own back yard from Sangiovesé grapes is much better. Still, the point is to explore and to learn. I will file these impressions away for future reference when tasting more rosés from the area. None of these was markedly impressive relative to the inexpensive (€6 for five liters) rose sold in this town (Pouzolles) straight from the barrel. I suspect I’ll be tasting many more rosés in the coming weeks….
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