Ed Ward's Blog Leaves Europe After 20 Years and Returns To The U.S., Another Foreign Country. Currently, This Blog Is In Transition.
Monday, April 13, 2009
And Often, There Must Be A Beverage...
It's kind of ironic that I've wound up in the largest wine-producing region of France. For decades, most notably those decades during which I learned about food, taught myself to cook, explored the varied cuisines available to me in California, and began seriously thinking about them, I was utterly allergic to the stuff. I had friends, one couple in particular, who would often pinch pennies to acquire a certain bottle of French wine of great repute, and they'd invite me over for dinner when they served it. Smart move: one small glass and I'd have to stop, leaving the rest of the bottle for them to enjoy. I would get dry, my eyes in particular, which would lead to photophobia, increased sensitivity to light. My mouth would be dry, no matter how much water I drank, and in the morning I would have one hell of a hangover -- on a few ounces of alcohol.
Thanks to this, I became something of an expert on beer, and the kind of cooking it pairs well with, which, given the microbrew revolution in the States, actually put me way ahead of the curve. I flew to Belgium twice to do stories on Belgian beers, of which there are over 400 in that country the size of Connecticut, and of course Germany seemed like heaven until I realized that nearly all the beers have a very narrow compass of taste.
Then, sometime in the early '90s, I went on a driving vacation in Italy with a friend from Berlin: I flew into Berlin, we rented a car there, and drove the rest of the way, The first night, we had a meal that went well with Moretti, that lovely, crisp Italian beer. The next morning, we awoke and drove south. It seemed that every square foot not planted with olives was planted with vines. We checked into a hotel in Alba, and I decided to look it up in a book called The Pocket Guide to Italian Food and Wine, which I was using as a bible. It said that this was the center for "Italy's best-kept wine secret," arneis, a local white which just happened to be on the menu where we ate dinner -- and affordable. I figured, hey, if I get sick, I won't do it again, but I just had to try it.
Nothing happened. Nor did it for the rest of the trip, where I tried all manner of Tuscan and Piemontese wines along with the food they were designed to accompany. As with many allergies, mine had, somewhere along the way, simply gone away. It happens, often in 7-year cycles. And so, after my return to the States, I began a belated investigation into this lovely stuff.
I was at something of a disadvantage. First, and most importantly, I was over 40 by this point, and my taste buds just weren't what they had been in my 20s, which would have been the natural time to begin to learn all of this. Second, my tasting was restricted to what I could afford and what I could buy in Texas, where I was living. Although the boom has changed this, Austin, at the time, wasn't much of a wine town, but I did have some help from a guy at Whole Foods (at that time, there was only one in the world, just down the hill from me). A particularly nice Burgundy they had was a favorite. Some years later, I'd be in Burgundy and watch some winos in a park passing a bottle of it around. Hey, it was six bucks in the States; probably a lot less there, price isn't everything, and frankly, is it surprising that winos in Burgundy would have good taste?
So my haphazard tasting experience and random access resulted in an incomplete but interesting set of values. Once I moved to Montpellier, though, I was in an enviable position. One thing you can always count on in France is regional chauvinism. And although the region I live in, Languedoc-Roussillon, has been saddled with a reputation as an area that overproduces and makes some of the worst wine in France, that very reputation has been seized on as a challenge by local winemakers in recent years, and there have been some remarkable exceptions to that perception. A younger generation has taken over in a lot of wineries, and there's also been a heavy emphasis on organic farming. The upshot is that not only are there some amazing wines being made around here (and I do mean around here: I can take a bus to one local winery in about 10 minutes) but the prices remain pretty low. A friend sent me a list of wines that had gotten high grades from a French rating organization, and I wrote back "Oh, sure, like I'm going to find any of these at Monoprix." That very afternoon, I found one of them at Monoprix.
Now, in order to use the term "Coteaux de Languedoc" on the label, the wine has to be made of a mixture of three to four kinds of grapes -- and those only: Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, and sometimes Carignan or Cinsaut. (These are for the reds, incidentally). Thus, if I stick to these wines, I'm able to explore some of the deeper implications of what terroir, the specificities of weather systems, temperature, and most particularly soil conditions, can do to the taste of a wine.
So I'm learning. And, having learned some, I'm anxious to get out and see what's out there where the stuff is made. There are two very nearby areas, St. Georges d'Orques and St. Drézéry, I'm particularly interested in, since I really like the combinations their wines seem to revolve around. (No, sorry, don't expect me, yet, to do the standard wine-tasting routine of naming flavors. I may never get there, actually.) The former area has a winery called Domaine de la Prose, which claims that not only has the area been producing wine since Godefrois, Bishop of Maguelone, had vines planted there in 1095, but that Thomas Jefferson was a customer. (The oldest continuously producing winery in the area --and maybe in France -- is the Abbaye de Valmagne). The latter region features a very confusing area called Puech Haut, which I can't even pronounce correctly, but which has a chateau producing some of the region's best wines.
And it should be noted that so far I've just started learning the reds. Fair enough, but there's another discovery waiting: the big secret of this area of France is the rosés. I can sympathize if you don't seem all that enthusiastic; I, too, have had enough Mateus to last a lifetime. But when the weather warms up, and chilled wine is refreshing with salads and seafood, I'm going to see what's up with them. I've already had a head-start: that wine I found at Monoprix, Domaine Ollier-Taillefer, makes a rosé I decided to have one day when I made some mussels. It practically assaulted me with a kaleidoscope of tastes -- fruits, flowers, I don't know what all -- and made me realize that there's a whole other world out there that you never hear about, wines as robust and complex as the reds that just don't get the publicity.
There's a movement at the moment to market the Languedoc-Roussillon to English-speaking wine tourists, and I'm quite interested in whether they'll approach Americans, or just the Brits who've known about this place for some time. Heaven knows, this part of France is virtually unknown in America, which makes it a considerable bargain. And the wine is just one part of that, but, this being France, an imporant one. I still have lots to learn, but I hope to report some of that knowledge in real time here. Stay tuned.