Saturday, December 13, 2008

Languedocumentary! Eat, Drink, Drive On

Food is an inevitable companion on trips to wine country -- wherever wine country happens to be this week -- and nowhere is it more enjoyable than it was earlier this winter in Languedoc. In the coming months, I will have articles appearing in several publications about the wines of Languedoc -- Beverage Media, Sommelier News, Signature Brandywine, and The NewsJournal in Wilmington, DE., among them -- but, for a moment, I will concentrate on the glorious food...

We descend into Toulouse, the early December rain and mist obscuring all but a few of the city's white-faced buildings with their ochre roofs. Our bags have made it through the Charles de Gaulle transfer, and we are soon met by Yves Retailleau, a jolly, middle-aged Frenchman who speaks enough English to answer our questions and to keep us amused. An hour later, we are cautiously negotiating the minivan through the slickened, narrow streets of ancient Carcassonne, the historical and cultural jewel of France's southwest. Just outside of town we had seen our first vines, denuded except for a few clinging leaves and wizened bunches too dessicated to drop.

It is Day One of our five-day march across Languedoc, France's Mediterranean culinary pork belly, in search of food and drink. That evening, we walk a couple of blocks in muted light from the Hotel Le Donjon across wet paving stones to the Hotel de la Cite, an impressive Orient Express property, where we meet Christine Molines, export director for the Languedoc wine authority (CIVL) which is sponsoring our small cadre of three journalists on the journey. Today, it is just Deborah Parker Wong and me, along with public relations exec Tia Butts, but tomorrow we will be joined by writer/restaurateur Pamela Busch.

We start off the evening with hors d'oeuvres in the lobby -- local Lucques olives, a pumpkin sorbet, and a duck mousse in a spoon that are all washed down with local blanquette de Limoux -- before descending into the hotel's cave for a fixed-menu dinner under the direction of Jerome Ryon. (As a matter of fact, we will never see a menu during our entire visit.) We are treated to a dinner of veloute de cepes et foie gras (mushroom and foie gras soup), scallops, and poitrine de veau (breast of veal). It is a lovely welcome to France! We drink more blanquette and red Minervois and discuss how far the wine of the region has come since the days when much of it was shipped elsewhere in France and northern Europe to be blended, perhaps, and bottled. Upstairs, an elegant party is just breaking up, Nigerians celebrating their signing of a contract with Airbus, which has major facilities in Toulouse.

Day Two. Has anyone had a truly memorable hotel breakfast in Europe? Perhaps, once in Geneva in the 1980s, but not at this moment, as I work my way through the limp cold cuts, unimaginative cereals, and little bottles of stamped-out yogurt. We start our adventure with a drive south to Limoux to take a tour of the giant caves of Sieur d'Arques, the region's largest producer of sparkling wine, where we taste both blanquette (from mainly Mauzac grapes) and cremant (often a blend that includes Chardonnay and Chenin) before moving on to lunch at Gayda, a jewel of a restaurant on a small hilltop near Brugairolles, where we meet Limoux producers from Antech, Delmas and J Laurens. The lunch of shrimp with julienned vegetables and duck breast with frites and chanterelles is delicious and matches well with the sparkling wines. Next, we head cross country for a tasting with Minervois-La Liviniere producers at the southern outpost of the Cazes wine empire, L'Ostal Cazes. (A new generation of local, family winemakers, many university-trained, as well as "outsiders" are behind the revival in the Sud de France.) We have as enjoyable, informative late afternoon tasting of reds from first-class winegrowers, including L'Ostal, Ch. Sainte Eulalie, Ch. Gourgazaud, Ch. Maris and Clos Centeilles. Then we rush across the countryside in the dusk -- the glow from sundown lights up the dormant vines in a halo of red -- on our way to the Hotel Domaine de l'Hospitalet near La Clape outside of Narbonne.

We have only a moment to deposit our bags, take a quick shower, and say hello to Pamela, fresh in from San Francisco, before we are again racing through the darkness (in the direction from which we have just come) for dinner at L'Auberge de Saint Martin in Beaufort to meet some producers of unhyphenated Minervois. Beaufort is a lovely little town -- the kind of place they look for as movie sets -- and the auberge next to the church has excellent country food. We meet the producers of Coupe-Rose, Hegarty Chamans, and Ch. la VillaTade, and immediately start a lively evening of tasting wines and arguing about terroir and winemaking, and almost don't notice that the appearance of an excellent foie gras with a chutney, which seems to be a continuation of our a poultry-based tasting pattern.

On the way back to La Clape, I ask when we will have a cassoulet, the signature dish of the South of France. But, like a child who asks a question about the existence of god or Santa Claus, I am not given a straight answer.

Day Three. It is a cold morning with a wind coming off the Mediterranean a few kilometers away, but I take a few minutes to walk in the garrigue -- the famous scrub growth that gives a scent to the region and some would say to its wines as well -- and pick a few sprigs of nice-smelling bushes, including some wild rosemary. And the coffee at breakfast is good.

Our first stop of the day is unplanned. Yves insists that we have to see the market at Narbonne, a photo op that is not to be missed and a great place to have fresh oysters for breakfast. Yves is right. I have walked through many European marketplaces, and this is one of the best -- tremendous amounts of meats, seafood, and produce in the heart of the city. It is very lively with people from restaurants making early selections, housewives and elderly couples looking for today's bargains, and all sorts of workers in heavy boots and high heels grabbing coffee and pastry on the way to the construction site or the office. I decline the oysters and settle on some sun-dried tomatoes that have all the concentrated essence of a fine old Corbieres.

Which is our next official stop. After miles of narrow roads through coastal hills -- desolate and lovely -- we arrive at the Cave d'Embres et Castelmaure, where we taste their Corbieres, quite well know in America, and those of Domaine du Grand Cres, which deserve to be known much better than they are. Perched on the side of the hill, the winery looks like a mining outpost in the Colorado foothills. Back into the van. Drive on across more countryside to Canilhac where we taste the wines of Ch. Ollieux Romanis in the Corbieres-Boutenac appellation at the Auberge Cote Jardin. If you happen to be on walkabout anywhere between Montpelier and Carcassone, you must rest your feet under a table here and have a meal. It is a delightful setting in a one-street town, and the food by Chef David Prevel is sublime -- imaginative but not over-engineered. Subtle but still assertive. We start with a polenta with beetroot and a mousse of rocket, followed by a melt-on-your-tongue pumpkin flan with a chesnut cream and trumpet mushrooms and sprouts. The main course is a -- is there any better adjective? -- succulent black pig with Corbieres legumes and winter vegetables and a reduction sauce. Dessert is a cheese and chutney. Now, tell me again, does the wine taste so good because of the food, or the other way around?

That evening, after an afternoon tasting at Chateau Cazal Vieil in St. Chinian, we are back at the l'Hospitalet -- and more food. Here, we are treated to wines of a large producer, Gerard Bertrand who owns the hotel and who makes both large volumes of everyday wine and small volumes of prestige wine with grapes harvested from across the Languedoc, and a small producer of very high quality wines from La Clape, Mas du Solleila. The food is excellent -- if a tad familiar: foie gras in a capuccino emulsion and duck breast with a potato gratin! Cassoulet, anyone?

Day Four. I'm beginning to fill a little bit of wine-and-food lag this morning, but I brighten as we have a great vineyard tour and lunch at Domaine de Nizas in the village appellation of Pezenas. Nizas is part of the same wine group that includes Clos de Val in Napa Valley and Taltarni and Clover Hill in Australian. There is a fancy catered lunch ar the domaine, where we are joined by a representative of nearby JC Mas. Our hosts do the re-heating and serving -- it feels much like showing up at a friend's house for a dinner party -- and we taste many wines with the food. The menu -- foie gras, roasted duck breast with a gateau provencal, assorted cheeses, and a pear tart with ice cream -- is enough to tide us over through a visit to the marvelous, misty, mountain countryside of Pic St. Loup, where we visit the chalet-like winery of Domaine de l'Hortus, set in a narrow valley beneath high rock clifts.

Tonight, there is another schedule change, and it becomes one of those up-close-and-personal moments that make wine writing so enjoyable. Instead of going as planned to a fine restaurant in our terminus city, we are instead invited to have dinner with Count Pierre de Colbert and his family at Ch. de Flaugergues. The property has become encapsulated by the city as it has grown around the vineyards, and the estate is now open to public tours. But we are this evening in the estate's rather modest kitchen, sitting around a wooden table with a huge fireplace keeping the night warm, chatting with the count's parents, who had run the property before him, his wife and their two young daughters. Dinner is soon served next door in the dining room, and it is a complex, warming, very satisfying smoked salmon casserole with pasta, spinach and cream cheese. Cheeses follow. It is a very special evening. Now, if I can just stay awake until we get to the hotel...

Day Five is mostly consumed with blind tasting more than 100 wines at the Maison de Vin from all the appellations across the Languedoc. We are choosing about one-quarter of them as a cross-section to serve as the region's "ambassadors" on a 2009 tour of the U.S. After a couple of hours, we smile though purpled teeth as the paper bags are removed, and we see the 27 wines that we have selected. It is quite satisfying to see that we have a good representation from many of the wineries we have visited during the week as well as many others than we don't know but look forward to discovering. We go next door to the Mas de Saporta restaurant for lunch. It is a lively place with excellent food -- all chosen in advance, as in the days before. But, please forgive me if I remember only one dish. My plea has been answered with an individual, appetizer-size cassoulet, small but rich in beans and fall-apart meats. I am a happy wine camper.

The final meal is, well, a bit of a let-down. We have good conversations with three Picpoul de Pinet producers -- Domaine Felines Jourdan, Domaine la Condamine l'Eveque, and Mas Saint Laurent -- at the Cote Bleue in a seaside lagoon. It is always a bit disappointing to have average seafood in a seaside restaurant. Maybe we should have ordered foie gras and duck breast.
All in all, it has been a fabulous wine and food tour, and one that makes me better appreciate this lovely stretch of land that arcs between the Spanish coast and the Rhone Valley.
Until next time....
Roger Morris

Publication Notes: I have been enjoying working recently with two CondeNet sites, and For the former I contributed Top 5 Wines for Under $12, and for the latter I updated best Champagnes and wrote on 15 Top Wines for Under $15....for Drinks, I did a fun piece on Champagne All Day or "how to drink bubbly from breakfast mimosas to bedtime night caps"...sticking with the Champagne theme, I wrote about Champagne alternatives for Beverage Media, as well as telling how to throw a French-themed holiday party BevMedia's retail customer booklet, Good Hosting...Chablis was my topic for Tasting Panel, and I contributed a piece to Robb Report on the newly famous White Bowmore... Finally, the online Sommelier News allows me the space to write longer pieces, including recent ones on varieties of Champagne (is there a theme here?) and a profile of the Drouhins of Burgundy. Let me know if you can't lay your hands or browser on any of these and would like to read them --