Christian Dalbavie, a guy I've known since he worked at the French Music Office, who were among the first Europeans to send bands to SXSW, is now a wine-importer based in New York. A couple of months ago, he found me on Facebook and noted with pleasure that he'd soon be visiting Montpellier to attend Vinisud, the huge wine exposition held each February. It is, apparently, a huge deal in the world of wine, and although I missed last year's, I was determined to go this time. I'd pitched the story to several newspapers and magazines, most of whom just ignored me, the others of whom turned me down. Just as well; the latest round of drugs hasn't done a thing to bring back my sense of taste and smell, and I was afraid I'd be utterly useless.
Christian called when he got to town on Sunday, and suggested we meet up for a glass of wine. He also invited his friend Michel Abood, who also imports wine through his company Vinotas in New York. We found ourselves at a place I'd walked past a number of times, Mesdames Messieurs, an all-organic wine bar with a Sunday brunch. I was pessimistic; I'd already blown a breakfast I was looking forward to because I couldn't smell the cornbread I was baking and took it out too early; after some batter gushed from inside when I cut it (yes, I know: next time use a toothpick), I had to put it back in the oven. The two Frenchmen ordered glasses of champagne to sip while they looked at the list (and the menu: some cheese and charcuterie was called for). I passed because even at the best of times I'm not much of a champagne fan. Eventually, after a lengthy discussion with the waiter, a bottle of red was ordered, something the waiter was really excited about called Velvet from a winery with the odd name Zélige-Caravent, over in Pic St. Loup. (Being an utter pro, I forgot to note both the year and the composition, although as the website says, it's mostly Syrah).
It was frustrating. I was allergic to wine for many years, and one of the goals of my moving to France was to learn more about it, to catch up on my education. Now I had two experts, both highly articulate, sitting right across the table from me and I couldn't taste the wine we were discussing. I could, however, detect an undercurrent -- not the whole taste by any means, but enough to see where the name came from. I was particularly peeved when Christian called out "It's changing! There's a...what's that Chinese...5-spice! That's it...or..." Here's where I could have helped out, I was sure. But at least I could detect some of the change myself.
Still, listening to them was educational, especially when the talk turned to what Americans are buying -- the subject of some interest in France after the big Gallo scandal that broke last week. The picture I got was that after some years of stagnation, interest in French wine is starting up again, especially if it can be put on the shelves at an affordable price-point. Much of the price of a bottle of French wine has to do with punitive duties imposed during the Bush administration, and they still stand. But that's where this part of France comes in handy: if you're paying over €10 for a bottle of wine here, it had better be real, real good. And in fact €6 seems to be where the masterpieces start.
At any rate, we sat and ate and drank and talked until it got dark, and then walked down to the Esplanade and split up in different directions. I went home, heated up some minestrone I'd made earlier in the week, couldn't taste that, either, and made sure I had my badge for the show the next day.
To show the out-of-towners a good time, the skies got cold and rainy Monday morning. I hiked down to the Ibis hotel to catch the free shuttle out to the exposition center, which turns out to be in the suburb of Pérols, not Montpellier proper. It's actually fairly close to the airport. After getting my badge, my first stop was Domaine O' Vineyards, an operation outside of Carcasonne owned by the O'Connell family from Tampa Bay, Florida, whose son, Ryan, runs an entertaining video blog. Having read so much about it, and being intrigued by their slogan "New World wines from Old World vines," I was anxious to taste some. Ryan greeted me, pulled out a glass, poured something in it, and I told him I was still, I think, having tasting problems. "If you can taste anything, you can taste this," he said. "It's our pepper bomb." But...no luck. I sniffed and I sniffed, but to no avail. I wished Ryan luck, and walked on.
The expo center is huge. Not as big as, say, the Deutz Messe in Cologne, but easily the same size as Berlin's ICC and bigger than the Austin Convention Center where SXSW takes place. Nearly every inch of the place was in use, too. Something like 2500 exhibitors, most with very small stands crammed with bottles, were arranged by geographical area and type of wine. Languedoc and Roussillon predominated, of course, with Spain, Portugal, and Italy having small spaces, as well as Tunisia and Lebanon. Huge banners announced a group of producers from a region.
Everywhere I went, people pushed bottles at me, asking me if I wanted a taste, and I had to keep explaining that I wanted to taste, but I couldn't. I got many looks of pained sympathy.
Eventually, I realized that I had figured out the lay of the expo, and yet nothing would be worth my while if I couldn't taste anything. After 90 minutes, I went home.
Right after breakfast, I took a glass and put a half-inch of red wine into it and set it on my desk. From time to time, as I sat reading the news and so on, I'd pick it up, swirl it around and sniff. Nothing. I was ready to jump up and catch a shuttle at the first sign of reawakening taste-buds, since this often happens in the afternoon. Nothing. It got to be 4 o'clock, the hour when the taste-buds start closing up. Nothing. I stayed home all day. Crap.
I did, however, want to interview people for this blog, so I caught the 11:30 shuttle, which arrived just as it began to pour. I was its only occupant. With weather like this, no way my taste was going to work, but I had my camera and notebook, so I'd at least get the story.
Since they were right by the front door, I hit O'Vineyards first. Ryan was gone, but his mother Liz and his father Joe were there. Joe reflexively poured a glass and I sniffed. Nothing. He poured it out. I asked him what had gotten him into this weird business, and he said that there had just come a time when he realized he wasn't going to live forever and started thinking about what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. (According to an article in Tampa Life magazine, he'd been a successful builder of high-end homes). He'd always loved France, his wife was from Paris, and the food and climate in this part of the country really appealed to him. I asked him how he'd gotten into wine. "Drinking!" was the immediate answer. Well, yeah, but how'd he learn winemaking? "Books. The Internet. There's nothing you can't learn that way." So in 2004 the family relocated and started making wine. And as he was telling me this, I noticed something: I could smell the spit-jar! He pulled out the bottle of Reserve again, and I stuck my nose in the proffered glass. Eureka! This was the first wine I'd smelled since...oh, the end of last summer, at least. I was so overwhelmed, it was so much like the sensation of walking out of a dark room in to bright sunlight, that I can't even begin to describe it, except that it's excellent. Elated that I could taste again, I bid him farewell and wandered into the expo.
The exhibitors, though, were less forthcoming than previously, and I was determined to find one or two winemakers I was curious about while this window was open. Naturally, I got lost. I was trying to find Mas de la Seranne, one of my favorites, not to taste, but to take a picture of the couple who run it, and wound up in a hall I'd missed on Monday, where St. Georges d'Orques was occupying a small corner. It's a suburb of Montpellier, reachable on the bus, and has a couple of my favorites, Domaine de la Prose and Domaine Guizard. I'd even talked to Benoit Guizard, one of the five brothers who've been running their winery to keep it in the family, on the phone. What I didn't expect, though, was for him to see me and cry out "Ed!" as I wandered past his stand. "You have to try this," he said, grabbing a bottle. I told him I hoped I could taste it, and luck was with me. I closed my eyes and saw a gigantic red fruit of a sort which doesn't exist in nature, but one I'd really like to find. What was this? "It's our new wine," he said. "It's a Grès de Montpellier, from some specially selected locations." I could see why he was excited; it's a remarkable wine, huge and filled with fruit, with a very nice smooth finish. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised, since they've only been making wine since 1580.
We chatted for a while about this and that as I savored the pour. He told me he's headed to the U.S. in June because he's a Lafayette-o-phile, and there's a Lafayette society which meets in Virginia each year, so he's off to their meeting. And I asked him what the deal was with old vines making such good wine -- the Grès vines are some 70 years old -- and he said "It's like men! They get better at what they're doing as they get older." Gotta say, I like his attitude. At any rate, I'm eventually going to take the bus out to their sales point and grab some of this unless it shows up at one of their wine shops, one of which is in the mall down the street from me. Before I left, I snapped his picture. He doesn't really look much like this, in fact, since he does tend to smile, but it's him.
By now it was just after noon, and the Mas de la Seranne folks were deep in negotiation with some buyers, so I noted that the sun was beaming down and maybe it was time to taste some lunch. There were a bunch of little booths outside selling various sandwiches, and I rightly figured that at a fair like this they'd be pretty good. When I found one that was not selling just baguettes, I got a ham and cheese sandwich. I like baguettes as much as the next guy, but I keep seeing other kinds of bread around, and I'm curious about them. This was a square sandwich, with three crusts and one open side. The crust was really thick, and the whole thing was amazingly chewy. The cheese was sharp, the ham as bland as French ham usually is (I do not get this French approach to ham, although I'm trying), and the whole thing was immensely satisfying. The memory of the wine I'd just had, too, was still with me. And the sun felt really good.
Back inside, the Mas de la Seranne booth wasn't busy, so I asked if I could take a picture. I'd talked with Isabelle and Jean-Pierre Venture on Monday, telling them that theirs was (as it is) my favorite wine from this part of the world. During the week I'd been able to taste this past summer, I'd tried their rosé, which just confirmed their reputation. It's amazing stuff. Isabelle wasn't up for a photo, though, so I just snapped Jean-Pierre.
I'm happy to report that he really does look like this. And I'm also happy to discover that the piece of the world where this winery exists is called, as you can see Terrasses du Larzac, which gives me yet another clue of what to look for in a wine shop.
I had one more place to hit. Domaine Treloar is way south of me, not far from Perpignan, which is one of my must-see destinations in the near future as soon as the finances are available. Until then, though, the idea that I would visit Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar, the British-Kiwi couple who run the place, isn't going to become reality, but now I had a chance to taste their wines, which, I'm told, are different from what's grown around here. I'll have to take their word for it; Rachel was at the stand, concluding a deal with a big Canadian importer, and by the time she was free, the window had closed. Once again, their story is one of mid-life change: Jonathan was a banker, working for Merrill-Lynch, and they were living a block away from the World Trade Center in New York when it was destroyed. This wound up shaking up their world more than they'd anticipated, and eventually Jonathan was, in that lovely British phrase, "made redundant." One thing led to another and he found himself in New Zealand, studying winemaking at Lincoln University, as well as teaching chemistry there. He might have wound up staying to make wine down there, but for family pleas to move a bit closer, so they found their current acreage, and at the start of 2006, moved in and started growing. Another inspiring part of their story is that, like me, Jonathan had sinus polyps, and has been cured of them by surgery. I hope it doesn't go that far with me, but I no longer feel like I've been singled out for this curse.
I spent the next couple of hours wandering the Côtes du Rhône area near the Rousillon area, then over to the Chateauneuf du Papes exhibit, here and there checking out wine gear (pourers are made from paper-thin circles of mylar, which you roll up and stick in the neck of an open bottle, and the advertising potential of that was on full display, as well as some really lovely corkscrews and knives), a small exhibit of Languedoc food (for export, obviously), and the astonishing Salle Mediterranean, where the pros were tasting, tasting, tasting.
This scene was so huge, I only managed to get a little bit into the frame, but if you click to enlarge it you'll begin to understand the dimensions of this, which was only the largest of the tasting halls. When I say there was literally enough wine at this event to float a battleship, I'm not exaggerating.
My feet were beginning to hurt, there was little I hadn't seen, and I wasn't going to be tasting again, apparently, so it was time to go home. I wanted to take a picture of the O'Connell family, but they were busy, and I doubt I'd do better than the picture on their website, so I went outside to catch the shuttle. Somehow I'd gotten the time wrong, or they'd decided not to adhere to the schedule or something, so I hung out in the sun, watching some flying ants appear out of nowhere and hang out at the base of a plant, and eventually fell into conversation with an American guy named Terence Shiple, who has another import business in Virginia and gave me a great hotel tip for visitors coming here.
All in all, I think I learned a bit, and am beginning to get a bit clearer on the wines produced here. I have a doctor's appointment Monday to deal with the taste problem again, and maybe now there'll be some progress. The weather's clearing up, and with any luck at all, the education will continue and I can report on it here. I'll be looking for signs of spring at the market on Saturday, at any rate.