Trip to France - February 2000     HOME

(Pictures are now thumbnailed)

Day 1 - Saturday, January 29th: Arrived Paris-De Gaulle early a.m.  Rob Crittenden, our guide and driver from Roanoke Valley Wine Company leads the way.  He is accompanied by Elizabeth King of Emerson's (Richmond), Harry Tatiam (RVWC) and myself.  We will be joined later by Bob Talcott of Buckhead's Steakhouse (Richmond).

After interpreting the signs of the rental spaces in the garage, we were on our way.

With no appointments scheduled for Saturday, we somehow navigated our way to Normandy/Omaha Beach.  Weather was windy, warm and raining.  Parked the car and wondered among the cemetery border and down to THE beach.  Quite a daunting prospect from this perspective, looking UP at the top of the ridge.

Afterwards, we dried off and wetted our whistles at the "D-Day Cafe" (I am not making this up).  After a cold beer, plate or two of oysters (tasted like they literally just came out of the channel) and a bottle of Muscadet, we were on our way to Nantes for the evening.

Looking out on the Village of Beaumes de Venise from the Domaine la Ferme St. Martin.  The bushes lower left are lavender.

Elizabeth King takes a photo.


Day 2 - Sunday, January 30th: Arrived at Marc Olivier' Domaine de la Pépière, one of Joe Dressner's import selections of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie.  After touring several vineyards (Olivier has about 18ha under vine), we join Dressner and his entourage back at the winery, including infamous WLDGers Jeff Connell and Robert Callahan.  Inside, we tasted tank samples of the current vintage and bottles going back a decade.  Anyone who tells you that Muscadet needs to consumed early has not had high-quality product.  (I opened a bottle of 1995 Quilla Muscadet S&M after I returned and found forgotten - delicious).  Bracing acidity and lively, citrus fruit and minerals create a wine of surprising longevity.

While Rob and Harry take off to pick up Bob, our group endures seeming endless plates of more oysters (these were somewhat more plump than those at the D-Day), cheeses, pate, bread, meat, etc., sipping wine all the while, and absolute treat.  This is Day 2.

Because our ride is now in Angers, I am given a ride by Callahan and Dressner. This is turning out to be a very  interesting trip.  We head to Domaine du Closel, producers of several Savennières, a AOC for Chenin Blanc, and Anjou rouge, Cabernet Franc.  Once again, we taste more white wines going back a decade, more food and a wonderful reception presenting Closel's new website.

Back into the car with the original four plus Talcott and luggage (a Mercedes C-class) and off to Angers for a well-deserved rest (most of us were going on 24 hours plus).  Ahh....

Just outside the entrance to Marc Ollivier's, Elizabeth, Harry (mustache) and Rob.

Where's the tour bus?  This is not the Napa valley.

Day 3 - Monday, January 31st: Arrived at Salon des Vins de Loire before the doors even opened.  This event, a trade show for the wineries of the Loire Valley, has an exhibitor list that numbers in the hundreds, all with about ten wines each.  So, potentially, one could taste through thousands of wines at the show.  We attended for one and tasted through about 100, including a rerun through Olivier's for Bob's review.

Downtown Angers for dinner.  By now, I'm having a rough time of it gastronomically, and getting through the meal was a task.  A cold Heineken helped, but these multi-course spreads can grow tiresome.  One of the highlights, however, were the periwinkles included on Rob's seafood platter (appetizer - ha!).  These are dark-shelled freshwater snails, about the diameter of a dime.  The contents are plucked out using teeny, tiny forks.  Very entertaining

Inside the tasting room at Marc Oilivier's.  This is definitely not the Napa valley.

Day 4 - Tuesday, February 1st: (Happy Birthday, Laura Azar.)  Up and at 'em before dawn to drive to the train station, return the rental car and grab the TGV (train that goes fast).  The rental office had closed and moved up the rue a few blocks.  After boarding, we zipped to Avignon at about 200mph.  After loading up another rental, we headed up to Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe.  We stayed at a local inn, La Sommellerie, and had the place to ourselves as early February is exactly buzzing with tourists.  We checked in, dumped our bags and headed up to Domaine La Garrigue (Solomon) in Vacqueyras.  (This property is represented through Eric Solomon/European Cellars.)  The winery still had 1995(!) Vacqueyras in 750s, magnums and 3-litres.  Unfortunately, much to our disappointment to learn after our return, the 1995s are not available for the U.S. market.  If the 1998s turn out as well as the 95s, which they should, however, we are all in for a treat.  Interestingly, Domaine La Garrigue uses no wood for aging.  These are all predominately Syrah, balanced with Grenache.

Back to La Sommellerie, quick nap, and downstairs for another multi-course load.  Wine (local) was flowing freely, way too much food, etc., but finished it off with a Fernet Branca, accompanied by a few pages of Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champion's (Goodbye, Blue Monday).  Slept well. 

Outside Domaine de la Garrigue

Our car is that mean-looking Mercedes.  It seats five sort of comfortably.  Not as much with luggage.

Day 5 - Wednesday, February 2nd:  We began at Château Pesquié (Solomon).  Very old in appearance yet very modern wine-making equipment inside, total capacity about 35,000 cases.  Quite a change from the wineries so far.  Pesquié is joining many others in experimenting with growing Chardonnay and barrel-aging and fermenting with which to approach the U.S. market.  We taste wines and enjoy some cheese, bread, and other munchies.

The tasting room at Château Pesquié.

Bob (glasses) looks better than he feels.  Rob and Harry are obviously feeling just fine.

On to Domaine de la Ferme St. Martin (Dressner), on a hilltop outside the village of Beaumes de Venise.  The winery itself id housed in a 12th century convent.  Spaghetti tonight for dinner, with a salad first course.  Elizabeth joined Rob and I, as Harry and Bob were down for the count after doing laundry.

Day 6 - Thursday, February 3rd:  "LE MISTRAL" my notes read.  We enter Domaine de la Janasse (Solomon) in the midst of at least thirty mile-per-hour (sustained) winds, with frequent strong gusting.  We proceeded to the tank room.  "Quality starts in the vineyard," exclaims Mssr. Christophe Sabon.  This is what raises his 97s above many of his competitors, by walking the vineyards and hand harvesting.  The Chaupin vineyard is a north-facing slope of four hectares of dark clay and sand.

The Janasse winery was built in 1973 after selling the grapes to the Coöp.  They now own or control fifty hectares of property in CdP, CdR, Tavel and VdP.  Their methods are not strictly organic, but lean in that direction as much as possible.  

We taste through 26 wines here, beginning with some barrel CdR White not available in the US.  Tasting through the 98s, there is a common theme of big, ripe raspberry/cherry liqueur with spice and garrigue in the background.  The 1998s are showing much riper and opulent than the 1997s across the board.  The CdPs will be released some time this fall.

We ended the tasting with a 1981 CdP and a 1977 CdP (drinking very well after 20 years from an average vintage).  The coup de grace was a 1995 Old Vine Grenache late harvest called "The Lost Grapes."  Harvested at 17.5° and fermented to 16.5° and 1.3g/l residual.  Absolutely outrageous - I only wish this were available here.  Still with balanced acidity, showing smoke and super-ripe, roasted fruits (but not stewed), and an amazing 60+ second finish.  Unforgettable.  

Remainder of one of the castle walls of the summer place for the Popes down in Avignon.

The wind was blowing so strong I'm amazed any walls are standing at all.  The scale isn't so great, but you can barely make the outline of Rob to the left of the lower-right window.

We head to Domaine Senechaux (Dressner) in town.  A schedule crosswire has us arriving during the middle of their bottling.  Very interesting to witness for about ten minutes.  Total production is about 6500 cases, imported through Dressner.  We taste the '99 (tank) CdP Blanc blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Rousanne.  Open knit, fresh and light in style, with chalk and leesy honeyed fruit.  The 1997 CdP Rouge showed typical CdP character, while the 1998 (literally just in bottle) showed the strength of the vintage with more depth and complexity.  Still a bit disjointed, however.

At a traffic light, we drop Bob off in Avignon.  While he's exiting the car, he almost gets taken out by a bicyclist speeding down next to the curb.

Our digs for our evening after Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe.

Our previous lodging's hostess booked the house, instructing us to stop at a restaurant in Montpellier for directions to the house.  With a majority of men, we don't need directions and found the house on our own (eventually - it's a whole other story beyond the scope of this page).

Day 7 - Friday, February 4th:  Early rising.  Elizabeth is now afflicted with whatever it is we're dealing with and chooses not to join us for breakfast.  Our first stop is Domaine l'Hortus (Solomon) in the Pic St. Loup AOC.  The facilities here are a combination of antiquity and progress (old buildings and new equipment) with production about 20,000 cases.  The red '97s and '99s were showing better that the '98s, perhaps do to the freshness of the '99s (just being moved into barrel) and the '97s now with a little bottle age.  Mourvèdre grown here (east facing) with Syrah and Grenache on the other slope.  Whites are Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc.

Looking down a row of vines at Domaine l'Hortus.  In the background is Pic St. Loup.

On to Domaine Lavabre (Solomon).  About 30hA under vine in a red clay/limestone soil - Grenache, Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault.  Experimenting with Sangiovese.  The lesser wine sees no wood (tank only) and is bottled under the Domaine name and Côteaux Languedoc in order to keep the Pic St. Loup AOC under higher regard (bottled under the Chateau Lavabre label - Grenache/Syrah in new and one-year wood).  There is another label Les Demoiselles from two and three year barrels.  The 1998s were not tasting as well as I would have expected, seeming rather hard with compressed fruit.

We stay the night on a hilltop near a lake whose name I did not write down.  The lodging was called simply the "Swiss Inn."  Great sunset.  Morning breakfast included coffee with milk I believe was squeezed from a goat that was looking at us through the window.   

Day 8 - Saturday, February 5th:  We taste at Mas de Chimères (Dressner) the next morning.  5000 cases of Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot vinified separately and then bottled.  This place seems about a tenth of the size of L'Hortus.  We barrel taste the '99 reds, all showing very well;  deeply extracted and fully ripe.  (Tank sample of Carignan was in reduction;  Cinsault tank much better).  

Tank taste '98 Coteaux du Languedoc;  highly extracted, still tight but will develop.   Did not record blend percentages.  Also tasted the '98 "Heretic," a blend of 75% Cabernet Sauvignon/25% Merlot.  Both showing well (also the '97 CdL) and the pricing is advantageous.  The '98s will be in bottle at the end of summer.

Into the Mercedes and off to Minervois and a visit to André Iché's Chateau d'Oupia (Dressner).  We taste through Rosé, Cuvée Tradition, and then learn about two more bottlings - a barrel-aged rouge called "Les Barons" and an old-vine Grenache bottling called "AR-26" after the number of the plot of acreage from which the grapes come.  The latter two are clear favorites of the group.  We are also treated to some tank testing of Grenache from 50 and 100-year old vines.  This is ink - no question.

Old vines outside Domaine de la  Charbonnière in Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe.

We head to Chateau la Baronne (Dressner) in Corbières.  Our hosts here have planned a special party for Rob's 40th birthday.  A beef tenderloin set afire with bacon grease and more(!) Foie Gras.  It's almost more than we can take.  A wonderful time is had by everyone, especially the little girl who wanted some birthday action as well.  We limp to Carcassone and check in and L'Hotel de la Cité.

Day 9 - Sunday, February 6th:  A much needed day off.  We do some shopping, regular tourist stuff.  Jean-Yves Laporte (a dead ringer for Raul Julia), marketing manager for the parent company that owns Blanquette de Limoux takes us into the  town of Limoux.  Every Sunday evening in the Spring, Limoux stages something of a mini Mardi Gras.  The history goes back to the when the peasants were given an evening of anonymity to snub the mill owners.  Dressed in masks and clown suits and accompanied by a small band, the parade makes its way very slowly around the town square, stopping only to refresh their thirst at each bistro along the square's edge.  After they finish, they take a break and do it all over again.

Remains of a chessboard carved out of the wall lining the courtyard at the original Abbaye de Saint-Hilaire.  Benedictine monks had been making sparkling wine here over 100 years before Dom Pérignon was credited with "discovering" Champagne.


Day 10 - Monday, February 7th:  A much needed day off.  We do some shopping, regular tourist stuff.  We tour the Blanquette de Limoux facility the next day.  This operation oversees 30,000 sectors covering 5000 hectares of vineyards, and unbelievably hand-harvests each.  After the countryside wineries, this highly mechanized company was something to behold.  They press 25 tons at a shot.   (Château La Baronne had about 90 hA under vine, and I thought that was enough.)  They also are an outsource for bottling.  Some of the now defunct Cadet's wines were bottled here.

TGV to Paris.  We're spent.  Almost too tired to enjoy a cold beer in the hotel bar.

Day 11 - Monday, February 8th:  Score a 1979 Distiller's Reserve Lagavulin Malt Whiskey for US$50.  Cubans?  Maybe next time around.  Return home.

From trip to France in February.  The gentleman in the photo was our "guide" and driver, Rob Crittenden, of Roanoke Valley Wine Company.

At Domaine L'Hortus in the Pic St. Loup region of the Midi.  Mont(?) L'Hortus is in the backround.