Sunday, August 19, 2012

Little Town, Big Wines

It's always nice to get visitors in mid-summer, and when my old friends from Berlin, Ben and Yuhang, said they were on the way, I was glad to hear it. They'd been at my going-away dinner at Wok Show, the Chinese restaurant Yuhang had discovered and encouraged to serve real Chinese food instead of "Asia cuisine," and they're both wacky and full of fun. Yuhang is pregnant, so no wine tasting for her, but Ben's brother Micah was visiting from Chicago, and was along on this trip, and they had a rented car, so I was hoping they could stay another day and I could give them my Languedoc's Greatest Hits tour.

And I admit it: I also had an ulterior motive. The rosé wine I'd had at the Estivales a couple of weeks ago, Domaine d'Archimbaud's Les IV Pierre, had made a real impression on me and after haunting all the usual places looking for it, I realized I'd have to go to where it was made to find some more, and if I did this trip just right, we could hit St. Saturnin, where it's made.

So the first day I did a credible job doing the walking tour and showing them the history of Montpellier, and finding an okay place to have dinner. They were staying over behind the train station, literally with the tracks across the street, in one of the funkiest apartaments I've ever seen here, with a friend of Micah's who promotes hip-hop shows at the Rock Store, a friendly young guy named Clément who likes Americans to call him Clem. We hooked up with him and his friends after dinner at the Beehive, the wonderful English pub over near St. Roch church, which was a reminder of the only disappointment of the day: missing the annual St. Roch celebration, which happened sometime on Thursday afternoon. Good old St. Roch: a saint's day on August 16, which is always in the running for the very hottest day of the year.

At the end of the evening, the contingent decided that a tour the next day was in order (ending up at the Estivales in the evening), so we met and took off about 11:30. It was later than I usually like to leave for this tour, but once we got to Sommières, I saw it had the great advantage of our getting lunch there rather than at the pizzeria I usually use at the second stop, St. Martin de Londres. The Moroccan joint we went to, chosen as much for the amount of shade it offered as anything, was perfectly wonderful, although they were out of a lot of menu items. It was burning hot, so we did a quick turn around Sommières, jumped in the car, and found the road to Pic St. Loup and l'Hortus -- and thence to St. Martin -- in no time.

That drive remains one of my favorites, and this time I paid attention to looking for a hallucination I had last November: I thought, just as l'Hortus becomes impossible to see, that I'd seen a multi-story building attached to it. I did: it's there. It comes and goes so quickly that I couldn't even approximate how old it was or what it could have been. So there's another project: there's a new visitor center at Pic St. Loup, which I'd like to see, and then I'd like to find out something about this odd building.

St. Martin de Londres was its usual quiet self, no tourists at all, and the 11th century church just as cool in the midday sun as always. After a visit and a ramble through the village as we headed back down the hill (Micah is on a mission to scratch every cat in the Languedoc, apparently, and the village cats had absolutely no objection to this), we headed off to the Pont de Diable visitor center to determine if it made sense to take the shuttle bus to St. Guilhelm le Désert. Given that the parking lot was almost totally full, the answer was a resounding no, even if the majority seemed to be people swimming in the Hérault River at the beach there. After a look at the explanatory exhibits in the visitors' center (pointing out the need for the bridge as a connection between St. Benedict's church in Aniane and St. Guilhelm's up the hill), and a quick trip to the bridge, we jumped back in the air-conditioned car and headed to St. Saturnin. A guy who overheard us while the troops were cooling down with ice cream in the visitor's center assured us it was ten minutes away by car. I'm real glad we didn't encounter him driving on the way over.

Photo by Ben Perry

St. Saturnin is remote. Looking at the road map, you'll see that, if you're heading north, after a while, both of the roads out of town just stop. The reason it's there is wine: lots of St. Saturnin wine in the supermarkets, all from the caves cooperatives, most of it pretty good (and definitely cheap) but no better. This article gets it about right: nothing special. It's the end of the road, except it's not, exactly.

Photo by Ben Perry
There's one main street, and in the building down there where the road turns, you'll find one of the two winemakers in town who don't use the caves cooperatives. (The other is the famed Virgile Joly, who was on his way to Montpellier to set up at the Estivales). Marie-Pierre and Jean-Pierre Cabanes bought the Domaine d'Archimbaud some time back, and in 2009 separated from the CC to make a transition to organic wines. The estate itself has supposedly been used for wine off and on since 1313, and today its 12 hectares grow syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, old-vine carignan, vigonier, and muscat. They're best known for their great big red, La Robe de Pourpre, aged 12 months, 50% syrah, 30% grenache, 10% mourvèdre and 10% carignan, deep, complex, the kind of thing, as I mentioned as we tasted it, that you want to get in the winter, when you've got a nice leg of venison roasting in the oven. "Or," Mme Cabanes suggested, "mousse au chocolat!" It costs a whopping €12.50, and I know a couple of places I can get it here in town. They also make a wine called L'Enfant Terrible, which is sold out for this year, so we didn't get any of that, and then there's Le Tradition, which is the same composition as the Robe de Pourpre, but just a bit less showy. There's a leathery nose to these two reds which seems to be a house trademark, and when the evenings cool down here, I'm going to investigate both of these at my leisure.

We started the testing with the other Les IV Pierre, a white, of all things (one thing Languedoc is not noted for is white wine), which had been awarded a gold medal in this year's Concours des Vins de la Vallée de l'Hérault. Who knows how those things are judged, but this vin de pays (80% vigonier, 10% white grenache, 10% muscat) has an eccentric composition but a wonderful smoothness, with the same mineral opening I noted in the rosé followed by stone-fruit, but mellowed by a floweriness that would make it go, as Mme Cabanes suggested, with fish or white-fleshed meat (poultry, rabbit). After all the time I've spent investigating the local wines, I'm surprised to say that I might well find myself spending €9.50 for a bottle of this some time down the line. And, of course, there was the rosé, the reason I'd come. Mme Cabanes informed me that there were two wine-shops near my house (ones I, of course, never think to go to) which stock all of their wines including this one, so that's good news. And €6.50 was a much easier price than the ten smackers they'd been obligated to charge at the Estivales.

After sticking our purchases in the car, we wandered through what remained to see of the village.

Photo by me
Just to the left of this shot is a small street which leads up an incline, ending at what appears to be a very old church, but one which is so oddly placed that it's almost impossible to figure out what it looks like, socked in on all sides by other buildings, except at its rear which is rounded like Romanesque churches are. There was a pile of wood by the church (which was closed) and a sturdy-looking Weber grill nearby, so I decided that whoever St. Saturnin was, he was into barbeque -- my kind of saint.

Also on this street is what appears to be a very lovely and affordable hotel, L'Hotel du Mimosa, and across the street a very nice-looking restaurant, Le Pressoir, which apparently has a 130-bottle wine list. I can't think of a better place to be based for a couple of days' driving around some of the region's most beautiful countryside.

It's straight ahead! Photo by me

I put those fantasies on ice, though, as we returned to the car, drove back to Montpellier, and inserted ourselves in the chaos of the Estivales, which, I'm afraid, really is too crowded after a given point. I love the opportunity to taste small wineries' products (we nabbed a couple, an amazing Terrasses de Larzac red called La Tête dans les Étoiles and a very nice rosé from a Pic St. Loup producer called Château de Lascours, both of which are currently being researched) but the fight to get to where you can buy some food -- or, later, to get within pouring distance of a tasting-glass of wine -- and the incessant terrible music (anyone who wants to flatten the tires of Las Vegas Wedding's van is okay with me) takes away the fun. The best procedure would seem to be to arrive early -- the event opens at 6:30 -- get your tastings (and, if you want to eat early, a few things for dinner) and then go somewhere else for your evening meal. In fact, if I hadn't been so exhausted by the whole day, I would have recorded the ambient noise from my apartment and posted it here so you could see what I sometimes have to put up with.

Ben, Yuhang and Micah and I said good-bye, and I trundled home. The next morning, I got up to go to the market rather late, and arrived closer to noon than my usual 11am. Imagine my surprise to be greeted by Yuhang. Their 8am departure hadn't quite worked out, so I helped them shop for road food (peaches, small heirloom tomatoes, melons, some of Mimi's good saucisson sec) and we said good-bye a second time. Thanks to the Perry Three for the wonderful ride. I really did need to get out of the house, and what a way to do it!

Now...who's next?

Photo by Ben Perry


  1. Sounds like a good time was had by all...! And you certainly have more luck on your travels than I do (I'm clearly cursed).
    I can say, however, that the hotel in Milan made the best mojitos I've ever had (and damn good margaritas too). So there was that at least.

  2. Good times were definitely had! Thanks again for the showing-around, Ed. Our Languedoc time wouldn't have meant nearly as much otherwise. Still jealously guarding our bottles of that beguiling St. Saturnin rosé. They miraculously made it back to Berlin unopened.


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