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Black Tie International Travel  1
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Black Tie International Magazine Travel
Winter, Wine and Food on the Rhone

  Daniel Brunier

Daniel Brunier

 
Winter, Wine and Food on the Rhone

By Jesse Nash and Barney Lehrer


Welcome to winter in the southern Rhône Valley. Yes, it’s the south of France, but don’t count on warm weather. It can be cold: sometimes freezing or below. It can be windy: the infamous Mistral winds can gust up to 50 mph and last up to ten days. Yet despite—in fact because of--the mercurial weather, for wine lovers and foodies, winter can actually be the best time to visit.

The winemakers are not too busy and have time to chat, and the best restaurants are eager to welcome you, as they are not packed with tourists AND it’s truffle hunting season. In addition, if you’re lucky, you’ll enjoy at least a few brilliantly sunny days with 60-degree temperatures, days when you can eat outside as you savor a glass of Rhône wine.


Le Pré Grourmand

We arrive on a warm Tuesday afternoon in late January and spend a few nights in a comfortable vacation rental overlooking the Rhône river, in the ancient town of Beaucaire www.mybeaucaire.com . Our first stop after settling in is Le Pré Gourmand www.lepregourmand.net  (or “field for foodies,” in our rough translation), owned by the couple Christine Fare & Patrick Léonce. A lovely modern building in the midst of a field in the tiny village of Eyragues — originally the Fare family farm — the restaurant offers seasonal menus made from
 local products.

Patrick, the masterful chef, enthusiastically explains how he chooses different local olive oils for each dish. His eyes widen as together we taste an oil used for salads and then another for deserts. This is French country cooking as it should be. Homemade foie gras, touro filets (popular in this part of Provence where summer days are full of bullfights and other bull events) are lightly cooked and tender.


Gigondas

We start our wine adventure the next day, as we drive to the famous wine village of Gigondas, nestled half-way up one of the Dentelles, a chain of low mountains. To us they look like a set of jagged teeth and we assumed that this is the meaning of the name. But the French are more poetic than we; “dentelle” actually means lace. Perhaps they evoke a many-pointed lace collar?

American-born Anthony Taylor greets us in the tasting room of Gabriel Meffre www.gabrielmeffre.com , one of the oldest and largest wine producers in the region. Anthony was born in “Joisy,” as he likes to say, but he grew up in France and Monaco. He has been drinking wine since he was a small boy, and has spent his career in the wine business, including an eight-year stint as wine director at the historic 21 Club in New York. Now he’s in charge of marketing the Louis Bernard line of wines www.louis-bernard.com/en  an old line of wines bought by the Meffre company in 2009. And this man really knows his wine! Anthony tastes hundreds of wine very week and has an uncanny ability to both identify them and explain them in simple, vivid terms.
 
As we discovered, the Gabriel Meffre tasting room is the place to sample Louis Bernard, Gabriel Meffre and Le Long Toque wines from throughout the southern Rhône region. It’s a perfect starting point for an education in the full range of southern
Rhône wines.

Unlike Bordeaux and Burgundy, with their Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Second Growths, etc. the Rhône Valley wines are classified in five categories:

1. Vin de Pays: wines made using grapes not allowed to have a Rhône appellation.

2. Côtes du Rhône: wine that must be blended with grapes from many vineyards in the region as long as they use the main grapes of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignon and a few others.

3. Côtes du Rhône Villages: same criteria as
Cote-du Rhône but made with higher-quality grapes from identified villages

4. Côtes du Rhône Villages [followed by the name of a specific village]: wine made from grapes grown only in one village

5. Cru: specific appellations such as Châteauneuf or Gigondas which have quality levels generally recognized as among the best in France

The Louis Bernard company, like many of the larger wine companies in the area, functions both as a producer of wines from their own vineyards and a “négociant,” a broker who supervises and markets the wines from many winegrowers in the region. Meufrre’s philosophy, says Anthony, is to “use little oak and emphasize the Grenache in the blend.”
The top restaurant in Gigondas is the Perrin family’s L’Oustalet www.restaurantoustalet.com .

The Perrin family also owns Beaucastel, perhaps the most famous winery in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, La Vieille Ferme and many other famous wine brands, including a new rosé wine venture with Brangelino and a joint venture with Tablas Creek in California. They have created a small restaurant in an ancient house on the village’s main square.

 Laurent Deconinck is the master chef here. In France, according to Laurent, “Gastronomy exists to support the wine.” And in sommelier Gabriel Danis, he has the perfect supporter – a master of pairing Laurent’s fragrant dishes with wine from the region. Early February is truffle season in the Rhône Valley and Chef Laurent has prepared a special truffle menu and even introduced us to his exclusive truffle hunter, who was celebrate his wife’s birthday.

Each course (except dessert) was made with truffles: Butternut Squash with Truffle Butter (paired with a white Châteauneuf) , Leeks With Truffles and Quail Eggs (paired with a red 1998 Côtes du Rhône Villages Uchaux), Truffle Ravioli with Mushrooms and Foie Gras (paired with the same Côtes du Rhône Villages Uchaux), Veal with Potatoes and Celery Sautéed with Truffles (paired with a red 2007 Vacqueyras). And before dinner Laurent invited us into the kitchen and treated us to some truffles topped just with Camargue sea salt. What a treat!


L’Auberge du Vin

Intrigued by the website of a B&B called “L’Auberge du Vin” (“The Wine Inn”) www.aubergeduvin.com , we had to investigate. The inn is located in a former farmhouse in middle of a vineyard in the village of Mazan. It’s at the foot of Mont Ventoux, the majestic 6,000 foot mountain that dominates western Provence and is famous as a major test in the Tour de France. The inn’s owners, Linda Field and Chris Hunt, are a charming English couple who left the corporate world in London to follow their passions for wine and France.

The Inn is advertised as a “B&B and Wine School” and sure enough, the front door of the house opens into a classroom full of wine bottles and charts about grape varieties. Linda is a certified WSET instructor [Wine and Spirits Educational Trust] and she offers the WSET “intermediate” course to visitors from all over the world.

As wine is her passion, all guests can benefit by listening and learning from her informally, even if they are not taking a course. Upon our arrival, Linda wasted no time. “Let’s taste some wine!” As the evening progressed the wines improved—or were we just very mellow at that point? No, Linda assured us, she saved the best for last. The highlight was a “blind tasting” of two wines.

The first turned out to be a Beaucastel Côtes-du-Rhône, one of the top and largest winemakers in Châteauneuf, and the second was a lovely Syrah-based wine from a small winemaker down the road: Domaine de Fondreceh “Persia”. And this was just the beginning. Each evening chez L’Auberge du Vin became more of an extravaganza of extraordinary wines, a combination of bottles from the couple’s cellar and the wines we brought back from our own wine-tasting adventures of the day. Unforgettable—and probably only possible in the winter.


Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Châteauneuf-du-Pape www.chateauneuf.com/english  is the largest and most famous wine region in the southern Rhône Valley. The village itself is a town of about 2,000 inhabitants with more than 300 winemakers! As you walk through the streets, you pass one small winery and/or tasting room after another. Some are very famous and some not so. But they all have great passion about their products and “terroir.”

On our tour we had the opportunity to visit some of the most famous. Most of them can be visited, and often without an appointment--especially in
the winter.

Mont Redon

 www.wi055.lerelaisinternet.com/index%20an.html  is the largest producer in the village. Still a family operation run by the Abeille-Fabre clan, which has owned the property since 1923, Mont Redon makes wonderful full-bodied reds from grapes grown almost exclusively on the small rocks (“galets”) found on many wine properties in the region.

The rocks bring a depth and minerality that makes a great Châteauneuf wine distinctive. And their hi-tech winery is among the most modern in France. We were particularly impressed by an automated grape-sorting machine that can sort the quality of grapes as well or even better than human sorters!
Chateau La Nerthe www.chateaulanerthe.fr , the third-largest producer in Châteauneuf-du-Pape is housed in one of the few real châteaus in
the village.

Perched on top of a hill, the elegant 18th century La Nerthe prides itself on producing certified organic wines from some of the oldest vines in the region, some of them more than 120 years old.

Winemaker Christian Voeux kindly gave us a tour of their vineyards and cellar dating (so they believe) to the Romans. Indeed there is a very mysterious stone tank that may indeed have been built in Roman times. And then, Christian treated us to a tasting of his magnificent wines. Visitors are always welcome in their opulent and popular tasting room.
Try to book in advance!


Domaine Pégau www.pegau.com , famous for its “100+” ratings by wine critic Robert Parker, is owned by the Féraud family, who have been cultivating wine grapes in the region since the 17th century.

Originally they simply sold their grapes to wine merchants, but in 1964 Paul Féraud started making his own wines under the name Domaine Féraud. And in 1987, with degrees in oenology, viticulture and business, Paul’s daughter Laurence changed the name to Domaine du Pégau (named after an ancient wine jug discovered in the Pope’s Palace in Avignon) and so began the wine legend that this Domaine
has become.

Laurence showed us around her terroir, declaring that “nobody can be a good winemaker until they know the terroir at least 20 years.” She also took us to a new property she and her father just purchased in the neighboring village of Sorgues, which is destined to become yet another legendary source of Cotes-du-Rhone, as well as a resort and spa. “In years with great grape harvests making wine is easy. Just crush the grapes and put them in a barrel for a few years,” said Laurence. Her art is making great wines when the vintages are not so good! Pegau has a tasting cellar in the heart of the village, but try to arrange a visit to the winery itself, just a few blocks away.


Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe


www.vignoblesbrunier.fr  has been in the Brunier family since 1898, when the current owners’ great-grandfather purchased some land and started making his own wine.

Daniel and Frédéric Brunier are the current owners or, as Daniel would prefer to say, “caretakers” of the land in the “Crau” area of Châteauneuf. Daniel does most of the winemaking and Frédéric is in charge of the vines. They are a very close team. “If you know how to grow a vine you can make wine,” says Daniel. “90% of winemaking is in the vineyard.” Daniel does do a few things, however. “It is important to make your own wine and forget the wine world. Never pay attention to critics’ ratings. Don’t use pumps or machines.

If you interfere with the natural process it affects the taste. We are very fortunate that our terroir is the best in the area. And Fredéric is the caretaker of our terroir .” The Brunier brothers also make wines at Domaine La Roquète in Châteauneuf and Les Pallières in Gigondas (they co-own these with the famous California importer Kermit Lynch) and together with the Ghosn family of Lebanon and the Hébrard family of Bordeaux, they co-own Massaya of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.

You can taste all of these wines at Vieux Télégraphe’s welcoming tasting room, located just outside the village of Courthézon, next to Châteauneuf.

Châteauneuf Food

All of this wine tasting makes you hungry. Fortunately there are some stellar restaurants in the area. In Châteauneuf itself, the “soul” of the village is La Mère Germaine www.lameregermaine.fr , located in the center of the village.

First opened in 1922 by Madame Germaine Vion, the chef at the French presidential palace at the beginning of the 20th century, the restaurant is the central meeting place for the local wine industry as well as tourists from around the world.

Indeed famous actors and musicians are often sighted there and in the past it was renowned as Charles de Gaulle’s favorite restaurant in Provence. The cooking is high-level, delicious gastronomic Provence cuisine using only local ingredients. Says owner-manager-factotum André Mazy, who recently bought and renovated the restaurant and hotel,
“I am proud to welcome visitors and set up visits to my friends the famous winemakers of our village.” Indeed a visit to Châteauneuf would not be complete without lunch or dinner or even a night’s stay at La Mère Germaine.


Another fabulous restaurant in the area is the newly-opened La Table de Sorgues www.latabledesorgues.com , in the center of Sorgues, a village next to Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

In a beautiful building that was formerly the mansion of the Châteauneuf Avril family and then the local police headquarters, Sandrine and Jean-Paul Lecroq have created a food paradise!

For 15 years the couple owned and managed the four star wine estate/hotel/restaurant Château de la Caze in les Gorges du Tarn in their native Lozère. Sandrine explains, “In 2012 we decided to establish a new professional and family life in a more popular tourist region.”

Jean-Paul learned to cook in his native region and worked in many famous restaurants throughout France. He only cooks what is absolutely fresh, so the menus changes every day based on what is freshest in the morning markets.

Our lunch in February, the height of truffle-hunting season, was rich with the tastes of truffles and local herbs, together with the freshest meats supplied by Florent, a butcher in Jean-Paul’s native Lozère. Among the foods we ate were late winter asparagus picked that morning and cooked with foie gras, fresh scallops marinated in local herbs and veal from Aveyron in a garlic emulsion with anchovies and black olives.

Sandrine, who speaks perfect English, is also the sommelier. She picked perfect pairings with each course, including superb Châteauneuf, Côtes du Rhône and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise dessert wines. Don’t miss this place!


All in all, winter in the Rhône Valley is a wonderful destination for foodies and wine lovers: great places to visit, great food and wine and warm hospitality from people with time to pamper you. Get there if you can!


Where to Stay:

My Beaucaire http://mybeaucaire.com in Beaucaire. A large cmoforatley vacation rental on the Rhône. Contact: info@mybeaucaire.com
Phone: +1-718-871-0369L’Auberge duVin www.aubergeduvin.com  in Mazan. A “Wine B&B” at the foot of Mont Ventoux Contact: info@aubergeduvin.com  Phone +33 (0)4 90 61 62 84La Mère Germaine (http://lameregermaine.fr) in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The “Soul of Châteauneuf-du-Pape” Contact: andre.mazy@laposte.fr  Phone: +33 (0)4 90 22 78 34

Where to Eat:

Le Pré Gourmand www.lepregourmand.net  in Eyragues. Great Provençal cooking in a small Proven village. Contact: contact@restaurant-www.lepregourmand.com  Phone: +33 (0)9 81 87 94 98L’Oustalet www.restaurantoustalet.com  in Gigondas. Luxuious gourmet cooking in a famous wine village. Contact: restaurant.oustalet@gmail.com 
Phone: +33 (0)4 90 65 85 30La Mère Germaine lameregermaine.fr  in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The “Soul of Châteauneuf-du-Pape” Contact: andre.mazy@laposte.fr  Phone +33 (0)4 90 61 62 84La Table de Sorgues www.latabledesorgues.com , in Sorgues. Subperb gourment cooking by a master chef. Contact: latabledesorgues@gmail.com
 Phone: +33 (0)4 90 39 11 02

Where to Taste:

Caveau Gabriel Meffre and Louis Bernard at the Domaine de Longue Toque www.gabrielmeffre.com  and www.louis-bernard.com/en  , Gigondas. Contact: caveaugabrielmeffre@meffre.com
 Phone: +33 (0)4.90.12.30.21Mont Redon www.wi055.lerelaisinternet.com , Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Contact: contact@chateaumontredon.fr  Phone +33 (0)4 90 83 72 75Chateau La Nerthe www.chateaulanerthe.f , Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Contact: contact@chateaulanerthe.fr
 Phone: +33 (0)4 90 83 70 11Domaine Pégau www.pegau.com , Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Contact: pegau@pegau.com , Phone” +33 (0)4 90 83 72 70Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe www.vignoblesbrunier.fr  Courthézon. Contact: vignobles@brunier.fr , Phone: +33 (0)4 90 33 00 31
 
 

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