How to Shop for Wine in the South of France
An underrated region finally getting its due.
July 19, 2012 - 7:00 am
See Part 1 of Clarice’s travel series: How I Learned to Bake French Bread in the South of France
One of the most fun things to do on a trip to Southern France is shop for wine. This visit my husband Howard, my friend Richard Perle, and I were lucky to be accompanied on this joyous task by Sheral Schowe, a wine educator from Park City, Utah, who is a certified French wine scholar and teacher at Wasatch Academy of Wine.
In my opinion, the lovely wines of the southern Rhone were long undervalued, though now more people are acquainted with some of the fine offerings of the region: Beaumes de Venise, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rasteau, Cairanne, and Seguret.
But even if you’ve grown to appreciate these wines, you may not be as familiar with the wines actually consumed here in the summer. You won’t want to miss out should you visit or if you care to experience these at home in warm weather — so please, let me take a minute to tell you about them.
It gets quite hot here and people tend to eat lighter food in summer than they do elsewhere in France — lots of fruits and vegetables, cold soups, the famous salad nicoise, and goat cheeses. Wine, which complements these foods, is rosé. It’s not the rosé of my youth — a sweet, unpleasant plonk. Rather, it is a light wine, served chilled. There are basically two kinds of it produced here. Vat pressed is a light wine produced much as champagne is in that the grapes are lightly pressed and then the skin and seeds are separated out before fermentation. Gigondas produces this kind using cinsault and grenache grapes. The second type is saignee, which is treated more like a traditional red wine in that the stems and skins are also crushed before fermentation, but the resulting juice is bled off before the skins turn the wine red. Domaine du Gour de Chaulé makes this type.
There is a certain bottle with a very tapered neck called a “skittle” in which much, but not all, of this wine is sold.
Summer in Provence is awash in delicious local fruits. On this visit our favorites were the outstanding variety of cherry called “belge” which tasted like solid wine. But the favorite for hundreds of years is a small cantaloupe known as the cavaillon melon. Traditionally the melons are cut in half, de-seeded, and filled with cold sweet wine — Muscat de Beaumes de Venise or Rasteau vin doux naturel — before serving:
Rasteau’s sweet wines, which have held this appellation since 1944, come in all three colors – red, white and rose – and also a golden-brown oxidized style referred to as Rasteau Rancio. Rancio is a term used in several languages to describe wines which have been deliberately exposed to oxygen or heat (Madeira is produced in this way). All are made in the style of vin doux naturel (naturally sweet wine), which is produced by using pure grape spirit to stop fermentation while there is still a significant quantity of sugar remaining. This process results in a sweet wine with a higher alcohol level (around 16% in this case).
All Rasteau sweet wines are made from 90% Grenache (this can be Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris or Grenache Noir) and 10% of any other grape sanctioned by the Cotes du Rhone appellation laws. In the case of the sweet reds, the fermentation takes place with extended skin contact, whereas for white and rose sweet wines the juice is separated from its skin and pips prior to fermentation. The Rancio wines are aged for a minimum of 12 months, during which time they are deliberately allowed to oxidize as the wine naturally evaporates from the barrel.
Should you be lucky enough to find some foie gras to eat, these two sweet wines are the preferred complement to them in this area.
Where to Go
Wine is sold everywhere in the area.
In Coustellet, at a large Auchan supermarket, Sheral spotted some great bargains. At the weekly village fairs, sellers set up stands to hawk their wares and wine sellers stock bottles from many vineyards. If you have time and transport, traveling to the various wineries is a great way to get to know the area, to sample and buy wines, to learn about the grapes and the various means of processing them.
On the day we went a cold and rainy day descended. So we stopped first at the bakery in Robion for fortification and then to the Coustellet market for a Madame Dromer tart which we planned to have for a roadside lunch, anticipating the rain — which was unusual — would not last. The tart selection took a lot of time — there was a gorgeous crawfish and salmon tart or a lovely onion tart with a brown top of melted gruyere cheese. Fearing the first would spoil in the heat of the day, we opted for the onion tart, though it was a win-win proposition in any event.
Outside of Orange we passed a closed Palais du Vin, an establishment that advertised it sold 600 wines from 150 domaines. It might be hard to continue on after sampling all those wines, in any event.
Chateauneuf du Pape
In Chateauneuf du Pape, we stopped briefly at Domaine Roger Perrin. We were unable to sample or purchase anything there but we observed the care taken of the 60-year-old vines and the size of the vineyards in this area. In Burgundy, according to Napoleonic law, the vineyards must stay in the families the government granted them when they seized the land from the nobles and clergy. Since French inheritance laws require estates to be evenly divided among the descendents’ heirs, some holdings consist of a single row of vines. Here, however, there are no such restrictions on the disposition of land and many of the vineyards grow quite extensive.
The soil is called “galet,” a term which describes its rocky nature. It would seem hard to grow anything in it, but the vines thrive because the rocks hold the daytime heat and release it when the weather turns cold. In between the vines, wild herbs grow — lavender, thyme, sage, rosemary, and oregano.
We drove on to the town of Chateauneuf du Pape to see if we could find luck with sampling wines.
Our first stop was a shop run by a vineyard of very small size — 4 to 5 hectares — where we sample Reserve Cardinalys. Twenty-six varieties of grapes are grown in the area; typically up to 13 varieties are used in a single wine. This one uses seven.
The most common grapes in this area are Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre.
Our next stop was a few steps away, a mildewed cave lined with bottles and comfortable tables and chairs where we sit to sample the selections of Trintignant et Fils. We tasted a few different bottles and I snagged a lovely Chateauneuf du Pape red for our hosts.
We headed to Vacqueras, a lovely place lined with old plane trees and Howard’s favorite, Domaine La Garrigue. To enter the domaine you knock on a large, very old wooden door. No one answered. We went around to the side and rang the bell; sadly no answer there either. So we headed off to Gigondas, where there are a number of establishments selling wines from the area. We headed for Caveau du Gigondas, which carries 100 wines and boasts it sells for the same price you can purchase them at the vineyards. The wines range in price from the extremely affordable to the very expensive Chateau du Trignon and the Vieux Marc de Gigondas. We sample a number of wines, including Domaine Santa Duc, a favorite of food writer Patricia Wells, and Le Péage, a favorite of Richard’s. We ask the saleslady what’s her favorite and she nods her head to indicate she won’t say. When asked what’s the most popular of their offerings she signs zipping her lips. We buy some wine. It’s still raining and the notion of a picnic is scratched.
We headed back home, driving through the picturesque town of Sablet and towards Seguret. Christian Soehlke — who ran a hotel and restaurant in the lovely town of Venasque and now teaches cooking school there — has co-authored a book in German on the regional cooking here, Sehr Gut Mediterran Kochen. It should soon be available at Amazon.
He recommended we stop at Domaine du Mourchon in Seguret and we followed the suggestion. The domaine is owned by a Scotsman, William McKinley, who recounts his roundabout journey from working on gas exploration in Aberdeen, Scotland, to owning a winery in the South of France. The winery is spotless and beautifully designed, including a lovely, immaculate bathroom, much appreciated after the day’s wine tastings. His wife has utilized what the winery cannot of the grapes, making for sale a “worcesterish” using the local vinegar, orange jam, and a lovely body cream which includes among its ingredients grape skins and seeds.
Some Belgian scientists and their wives are there and we talk food and drink before they leave with a lot of Mourchon wine. Among the wines made here is one called Loubie,. It’s a combination of grenache and syrah grapes and comes from a combination of both traditional means of making rosé wines (that is some of the mixture is direct pressing) and bleeding of the vat. It is a middle ground wine and tastes quite lovely. Should you care to try some, here’s where you can purchase it.
It was almost time for dinner when we arrived back home, but the tart was in great shape. We mixed up a nice salad, opened a bottle of wine, and greedily polished off Madam Dromer’s onion tart.
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