Friday, August 6, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: 2009 Les Coteaux des Berlou Saint Chinian "Schisteil Blanc"

Tonight I tasted the 2009 Schisteil Blanc Saint Chinian from Les Coteaux des Berlou, a tiny cooperative in the tiny town of Berlou, about 35 minutes north of Pouzolles, where I've been living for the summer. Berlou is one of the villages in the Saint Chinian appellation. This cooperative also makes a wonderful rosé and (in my view) a less interesting red wine. Notes follow.

A pale straw color. Smells like a vegetable stew in a rich tomato sauce, laced with creme--perhaps with a squeeze of lime in it--which is perhaps an odd thing for a white wine to smell like, but it works. Perhaps it would be better to say "stewed tomatoes and lime," but this immediately reminded me of a wonderful rabbit stew recipe from Paul Bocuse that comes in a vegetable-rich tomato-based sauce and is meant to be served with a dollop of cream in it. Later it began to smell of honey with a hint of roasted meat.

At first, the wine seems delicate on the palate--mostly just clean and crisp--but the initial acidity falls away quickly to reveal  a solid core of fruit, tending toward pears and citrus, and there's even a hint of tannin. Good length. A white wine with grip. A wave of subtler acidity comes back on the extended finish, with little bursts of grapefruit-like flavors on the very end. This is a delicious blend of Grenache Blanc, Rousanne, and Marsanne. Delightful. A bargain at about €5 a bottle (less than $6 a bottle). Why can't California wineries produce delicious wines like this at prices like this? A wine of this caliber in California would typically sell in the $17-$24 range--three to four times as much.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): The River Orb and Berlou

Been exploring the area north and west of Pouzolles in the past couple of days, in between bouts of work. The valley of the Orb river is rather picturesque and offers such recreation as kayaking and rafting. Many people swim there and dive from the convoluted rock formations that line the shore. I was rather impressed by the children doing back flips from rocks 20-30 feet high. The water is deep and fast in places and somewhat murky. I haven't seen anyone fishing there, but there are quite a few fish in the water, too. Very pretty and an interesting change from swimming in the sea. I think the last time I went swimming in a river was probably around 1974, in the Little Miami, near Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Driving through the hills in the area, heading for the town of Berlou, hit a detour. A temporary route took us virtually to the doorstep of the Les Coteaux de Berlou. Coincidentally, this is the cooperative that made the very tasty Schisteil brand rosé I tasted a couple of weeks ago. The people in the tasting room were friendly and helpful. They seemed surprised that I had been looking for their wine--although I see that the 2009 vintage has won a gold medal in the 2010 Paris Concours Général. I tasted the 2007 (review here). Both are excellent. I picked up a few bottles to leave for the owner of the house here and a couple bottles of the white, which is a tasty blend of Grenache Blanc, Rousanne, and Marsanne.

Looking for birds, yesterday I spent a couple of hours walking in the hills around Pousselieres and La Fraise. This is beautiful country. Pousselieres is just two or three houses. The tiny road that leads to the hamlet off the D612 passes through La Fraise and La Treille on its way to Berlou. An unpaved road (marked AVA4, the meaning of which remains obscure to me) leading from the road to Pousselieres rises eventually to a summit that gives a panoramic view.

The rocky unpaved road is lined with dense mixed forest--mostly chestnuts, oaks, and pines--but here and there there are clearings carpeted in heather and bracken and spotted with small trees. These open areas seemed perfect habitat for birds (especially the sections marked AVA1 on the ridge at the top), but there were comparatively few, and the birds I did see were generally shy or distant or both. I saw a couple of uncertain warblers, what I believe to have been a yellow wagtail (although apparently not the local race of this highly variable bird; the one I saw had a mostly yellow head, typical of the flavissima subspecies), and three or four of what I believe to have been wrynecks. I've added only the wagtail to my list, though, as I like to be certain. Another frustrating day of birdwatching, but the hills were beautiful. From what I can tell from maps, this area is close to the divide between the Atlantic and Mediterranean watersheds. At the top of the dirt road, I came to markers erected by the Office National des Forêts indicating "Route Forestière: Des Crêtes" and one indicating I was in the Forêt Domaniale des Avant-Monts. Besides myself, not a soul in the place--just the wind.

Miscellaneous: Senate Approves Kagan

I see that the Senate has just voted to approve Elena Kagan as the newest justice on the Supreme Court. Politics aside, I'm pleased to see three women serving on the court simultaneously. Considering that at least about half the country is female, there ought to be more women serving, but this seems a step forward to me. Congratulations, Elena.

I wish it were easier to find the appropriate credits for photos like these....

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: Four Saint Chinian Rosés

Last night I tasted four Saint Chinian rosés. I enjoyed all four. Having now tasted about 15 rosés from the area where I'm staying for the summer (Pouzolles, France), I've come to the conclusion that the best rosés in the area come from this appellation. These dry wines are generally marked by a good balance between raspberry-like fruitiness and crisp acidity, often with toasted, brandy-like undertones and scents and flavors suggestive of pastry or crème brulée. Focusing on rosé has been the natural result of the extremely hot weather here, although that has moderated in the past week or so. I tasted the four wines blind. Notes follow.

2009 Château St. Martin des Champs Saint Chinian Rosé
A pale to medium-deep, orange-tinged pink. Attractive nose suggestive of hawthorne blossoms, crème brulée, and (distantly) plums. Having said that, none of the scents jump out at you. Still, the overall impression is fresh and inviting. Initially seems rather tart on the palate, but has presence. Good, plummy fruit sweetness offsets the acidity. Good length, and the lingering fruit ultimately makes the wine seem harmonious. Very tasty. Clean, fresh, delicious wine. Priced at €5.30 a bottle.

2008 Cave de Roquebrun Saint Chinian Rosé "Col de Lairole"
Comparatively deep in color--the second-deepest of these four wines. A medium-deep orange-pink. Very pretty to look at in a chilled glass. Complex nose. Something floral, but something that reminded me of vegetables as well--in a good way. Fresh, raw beans. Pie crust scents as well. Somewhat softer than the first wine (that is, less acidic), but with a nice "bite" suggestive of a little tannin. Refreshing strawberry fruitiness and a tasty hint of bitterness on the finish. Seems a bit rustic compared with the wine above, but another delicious summer wine, and attractively priced at only €4.16 a bottle.  

2009 Domaine La Maurine Rouge Saint Chinian Rosé
The palest in color of these four wines, tending more toward pink than orange. Interesting petroleum-like scent, reminiscent of certain Riesling wines. Rose water. A hint of gooseberries and passion fruit. Rather interesting nose. Quite rich with intense, fruity sweetness on the palate (although the wine is quite dry). Suggests red raspberries and roses. Passion fruit again on the palate as well. A hint of tannin. Moderately long, prickly, fruity finish. Enough acidity to balance the fruit, but softer than many of the rosés I've been tasting. Overall, very refreshing and enjoyable, if not profound. €5.30 a bottle.      

2008 Cave de Roquebrun Saint Chinian Rosé "Terrasses de Cabrio"
Deepest in color of the four wines--looking almost like brandy--but with pink undertones. A very pretty wine to look at. Surprisingly distant on the nose. Something doughy at first. Later developed toasted, roasted scents. Pastry. Sweet potato pie. Drier, less fruity, and softer than some of the other wines, and shorter as well, despite the deep color, but with a little time, this opens up to seem richer and fuller--and these are all relative terms. Another tasty Saint Chinian rosé. Priced at €6.04 a bottle, perhaps not the best value of the bunch, but even that is cheap by US standards. You'd be hard-pressed to find a California rosé as good at this price point (about $7.00).

On the road (Europe 2010): Roquebrun

Yesterday, after a morning of work, took a short drive north, to the town of Roquebrun. Perched on a hillside overlooking the River Orb and the vineyards of the Saint Chinian appellation, it's a pretty town topped by the ruins of a 10th century tower. An attractive old bridge takes the road over the river and into the town, which has some interesting stone buildings surviving in the back streets. Many of these use the local schist and slate as building materials.

Took a walk up the steep hill toward the tower to the Jardin Méditerranéen, a small botanical garden on the terraced slopes below (and above) the tower that features plants from the Mediterranean region and places with similar climates around the world. The €5 entrance fee seemed a bit steep, but was probably worth it--more for the view than for the plants, most of which will be quite familiar to anyone who has ever visited a good nursery on the US West Coast. There's an excellent view of the old tower (which is actually in the gardens) and the whole surrounding valley of the Orb.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Wines I'm Drinking: Four More Languedoc Rosés

Continuing my quest to taste as many of the local rosé wines as I can while staying in Pouzolles, last night I compared four from producers within a stone's throw of the house (within about 15 minutes driving). I've tasted a wide range already in the past weeks. The best have been very good indeed--generally a deep orange-pink, rich and toasty but fruity and crisp. The worst have been pale and watery and exceedingly acidic. Unfortunately, these four wines were mostly of the latter type, but I report on the disappointments as well as the pleasant surprises. I tasted the four wines blind because one was a gold medal winner at the 2010 Paris Concours Géneral Agricole. I didn't want to be influenced by that knowledge. Notes follow.

2009 Domaine Moulin de Lène, Alphonse de Lène Rosé
A very pale pink blend of Cinsault and Grenache, this is a Vin de Pays d'Oc. Very pale, indeed. At certain angles and in the right light, it would be hard to tell it from water. Rather neutral on the nose but with some earthy scents. Something metallic about the nose as well. Not very forthcoming, but not unpleasant. Medium body on the palate. Fairly good length. Tart, fresh, and drinkable, but ultimately thin and not very distinctive. Inexpensive at only €3.6 a bottle. This was not especially interesting, but it turned out to be one of the better wines of the bunch.

2008 Domaine de la Reynardière Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Murviel Rosé
A pretty, medium orange-pink. The color was this wine's most attractive attribute. I don't know what went wrong here, but it took courage to taste this after smelling it. It had a strange, fishy nose. It reminded me of slime at the bottom of a pond. I can think of nothing else to describe it. The smell persisted. It didn't seem to be the fleeting, temporary stink some bottles have. The wine tasted better than it smelled. It had fairly good body and length, but was rather sharp and there was something of the smell of the wine in the taste. I didn't, however, get the impression this was spoiled. €2.89 a bottle. No indication of what grapes it was made from. I kept the wine. Remarkably, tasting it the following day (today), the stink was completely gone. The wine had very attractive strawberry scents and it was delicious, also tasting like ripe strawberries. It accompanied pasta with lunch. In the end, I liked this wine best of the four. What's going on here? Hmmm.....

2009 Domaine Saint Martin des Champs Vin de Pays d'Oc Cabernet Rosé
Another reason I wanted to taste the wines blind was that one of the four, this one, was a Cabernet rosé. I was curious to know whether it would stand out. Another pale orange-pink wine, but deeper in color than many. Fairly neutral on the nose, but with hints of something grassy--like a Sauvignon Blanc--, which gave this away as the Cabernet wine. Watermelon, and something metallic on the nose, too. On the palate, it came across as simply light, tart, and refreshing but without any particularly defining characteristics. Not at all unpleasant, but not distinctive. €3.60 a bottle.

2009 Cave de Roquebrun Vin de Pays de la Haute Vallée de l'Orb "Terres d'Orb" Rosé
Another wine from the Cave de Roquebrun, which has made some of the best wines from the immediate area that I've tasted so far. This is the gold medal winner. Medium to pale orange pink. Attractive caramel and straw scents, later it began to smell like fresh cucumber. Fuller and with more body than the other wines. Also softer--with less of the sharp acidity that seems to characterize the most ordinary rosés of the region (especially those made from Cinsault, it seems). This wine is 35% Carignan, 25% Cinsault, 25% Grenache, and 15% Syrah. All that sounds promising, but the wine had little flavor to speak of. It came across as fairly alcoholic and tart. €3.10 a bottle.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Millau, Roquefort, Lacaune, Gabian

Yesterday spent the day driving in the very beautiful hilly area just north of where we are staying (Pouzolles). First stop was the famous bridge at Millau, about an hour north on the freeway. The bridge, opened in late 2004, is the highest in the world. It has the highest towers and the highest road deck. The tallest tower is higher than the Eiffel Tower (as everything you read is fond of pointing out) and nearly as tall as the Empire State Building. The bridge was designed by Michel Virlogeux and Norman Foster. It is also the longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. It spans the valley of the River Tarn.

About half an hour to the southwest is the town of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, the famous cheese town. Funny what you can learn about things when you visit the place they come from. After two cave tours (with tastings) I came away knowing that the Roquefort appellation is one of the smallest in France. Only cheese matured in caves near the town (mostly under the town, it seems) in an area 1.2 kilometers long, 300 meters wide, and 300 meters deep can be called Roquefort. The Penicillium roqueforti mold (yes, related to the penicillin mold) is introduced into the milk to insure uniform distribution. I had thought it was introduced later, but it turns out the holes you see in the cheese (not the naturally formed ones between the chunks of curd, but the skinny man-made ones) are to introduce air, not the mold, which is grown on rye bread (80% rye, 20% wheat) from which spores are collected.

The caves were downright cold--bring warm clothing. It was interesting to see the fleurines, the underground air passages that move cool air through the network of caves that formed here about 200 million years ago, when an entire mountain (the Combalou) collapsed, leaving a huge pile of rock riddled with holes. Air moving underground through the tunnels and caves is used to maintain the temperatures required to mature the cheese. The tours were a bit disappointing actually, as you can't see any of the activities that lead up to the formation of the "loaves" of cheese (just the maturation caves), but it was interesting nevertheless. The best advertised tour is at Société. It costs €3.5 a person, but the free tour at Papillon was as informative and shorter, without the various multi-media sections of the Société tour--which was a good thing. Having said that, I preferred the cheese at Société for its exceptionally creamy texture, and one fancy section of the tour does show clearly how the caves formed using a large animated model. Both tours were in French only, but detailed explanations are provided in print in English and a number of other languages.

Drove home by way of narrow mountain roads, passing through such towns as Lacaune, Olargues, and Gabian. The roads here are beautiful--mostly the D33, D607, D907, D14, D908, D909, and D13, with many vista points overlooking deep, wooded valleys, and (as you head east and south into the lower elevations) vineyards. In the town of Lacaune (officially Lacaune-les-Bains), many of the houses have old-fashioned slate tile roofs, most made from obviously hand-cut slate. But not only are many of the roofs covered with slate, many buildings had whole walls black with slate siding--which I've never seen before. Some of the wines of the area are known for the schist-rich soils the grapes grow in. I imagine slate is easily mined in the area too. The tiles are held on with little iron hooks. Do the black tiles keep the houses cool?

Lacaune had an amusing fountain, with four men pissing. There was a plaque mounted below calling it one of the fountains on the "pissing fountain circuit," so there must be more pissing fountains in other towns nearby, but the plaque neglected to say where. According to the plaque, the fountain dates to the 16th century. Next to the fountain was a large granite basin divided into sections that appears to have been used by the people of the village to wash their clothes when this was probably their main source of water. The water is potable. All this was in an attractive little square with a row of purple-leaved plum trees.

Further south and east, where the D14 crosses a summit called Col de Fontfroide, there is a somewhat puzzling memorial--puzzling mostly because my French was not good enough to understand everything it said. It's dedicated to the WWII resistance fighters of the area. That much was clear (perhaps they hid out in these hills?), but it included an urn of ashes from Auschwitz and a piece of barbed wire from Treblinka, and there were references to deportations during the war, but it wasn't really clear to me what the connection between the hilltop and the concentration camps was.

It was pretty countryside. The hills were covered mostly in conifers, heather (purple and pink in bloom), and a broom-like plant with vivid yellow-green, needle-like leaves. There was a dirt road leading along a stand of pine trees from the memorial up and over a hillock at the summit (marked 972 meters, or 3,189 feet). Walking along this road I heard many birds, but they mostly kept themselves hidden in the vegetation. The exception was a rather vocal fellow that called incessantly while flitting among the tops of the trees. He turned out to be a European Tree Pipit (Anthus trivialis), another new bird for me.

The drive back on the D908 and D909 through Faugères (a well-known wine town) and Gabian was just at sunset. The vineyards in the valleys surrounded by stark rock outcroppings were beautiful. The photo here was taken just outside of Gabian. A reader has pointed me to an excellent little Web site about Gabian (look for the British flag for English text).
Related Posts with Thumbnails