A steaming bowl of Cassoulet is brought to our table by Bridget who made it in her bijou restaurant that was once the school in this tiny Languedoc village. We are sitting in the old school room that still has the blackboard but instead of the lesson it displays todays menu. But we take no heed of that for as usual I have ordered Bridget’s delicious Cassoulet for my clients who have signed up for the Saint-Chinian & Minerve vineyard tour. The comforting white bean stew cooked in a garlicky sauce comes in a terracotta Cassoulet and hidden inside is the preserved duck, duck confit as it’s called here. Dotted around are succulent sausages and sprinkled on top are the breadcrumbs baked to a delicious crunch. Its rich and hearty peasant food and its like has fed the people of the Languedoc for centuries and today my customers are tucking in with gusto.
It was back in April this year that Frederick of Hotel d’Alibert in Caunes-Minervois asked me if I would like to go to Jurançon in November which seemed a long way off. I would normally have said I’d let him know nearer the time but in his lovely French accent he said ‘I will ask you only once’ and so I was persuaded and would join a group of people helping Frederick and his friends to serve a feast.
Our group was made up of Frederick affectionately dubbed Fredo, myself, Canadian friends Susan and Jay, chef Jean-Pierre and Tony and his two sons Michael and David who kept us all laughing with their antics and exaggerated pronunciation of the Pau accent which rolls the R’s a great deal. The eight of us set off in early December heading for the beautiful town of Pau in southwest France majestically located at the foot of the Pyrenees.
We were heading for the restaurant Au Fin Gourmet owned by the Thurriague family who are great friends of Fredericks. This wonderful restaurant has 2 sides to it, the fine dining where sumptuous meals are served and a typically French bistro recently added to serve less leisurely diners. It is run by the 3 brothers supported by other members and it was originally started in 1958 by their parents. We were very warmly welcomed and housed by the family and treated to some wonderful diners and lunches to repay us for our hard work serving the feast that they were to cook on Sunday.
Dinner that night began with a creamy courgette soup which sounds simple but the flavours were wonderful. The main course was Boudin which is called black pudding in the UK but our version is nothing like the Au Fin Gourmet offering. It was a filo pastry wrapped parcel of deeply rich and tasty Boudin surrounded by baked apple slices and there was a hushed silence at the table as everyone tucked in. Dinner was accompanied by some exceptional wines of the region including an Irouleguy made by Domaine Abotia which and is made from 65% of the local Tannat grape blended with Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. It was a rustic wine with black fruit flavours with hints of coffee and leather and went perfectly with the meal.
On Sunday the vignerons of Jurançon would be opening their doors to the public and our mission which we chose to accept was to prepare the tables for 150 people to feast at Domaine Bordenave. Saturday dawned cold and wet but cheered with coffee and croissants we headed for the Jurançon region which is south of Pau and encompasses the little town of Jurançon and many villages surrounding it. It’s a small appellation made up of 63 wine makers so when you compare that to Languedocs 3,500 it’s quite tiny. As we drove south we got closer to the mountains which reared up above us with breathtaking snowcapped peaks.
Once there we set to and organized the dining room and once the work was done we were free to indulge our senses with some wine tasting and I was intrigued to see where we might go. My French is still not very good but as I listened to Frederick chatting about the region I picked up a name in the conversation that I knew very well. Didier Dagueneau, that wild man of Pouilly Fumé who tragically died in 2008 aged just 52. I turned to Fredrick and asked had he mentioned the name Didier Dagueneau and if so why? Just before his death along with wine maker Guy Pautrat he had purchased a tiny vineyard here in Jurançon called Les Jardins de Babylone and its now ran by Guy and Didier’s son. It is not open for tastings and was not taking part in the Porte Ouverte weekend but with the help of Giselle Bordenave we secured a visit and a tasting.
We were welcomed by Guy Pautrat himself who gave us a tour of the immaculate winery and talked about the winemaking as we gazed out at the steeply sloping terraces of vines that give the reason the domaine is named after the Hanging Gardens of Babylone.
We tasted both the dry and the sweet wines from the tank and from the barrel before moving to the matured and bottled wines of this biodynamic producer. All fulfilled my expectation and in fact exceeded it in many cases. The dry was interesting and although I am not a fan of the dry wines from this region this one was good but the one that stole my heart was the 2003 vintage of the sweet Jurançon. It was a great honour to taste this wine which was the first they made and this hot vintage had probably created a Jurançon ‘not as we know it!’ Honey, apricots, grapefruit, clementine’s, crème brûlée – the list of fabulous flavours go on and on just as they lingered in my mouth. Fantastic wine, ten out of 10 for me as was the experience of visiting a legendary wine maker whose presence was still felt here.
The day of the Porte Ouverte dawned and with it came clear blue skies and people turned out in their hundreds. There are 63 domaines in the Jurançon appellation and over 40 were taking part today and people arrived in cars and buses from every corner of the region. We reported for duty and whilst we waited for our work to begin I wandered around the stalls that had been set up to sell local produce of cheeses, ham, foie gras and other delicious delicacies. I had not expected the music in fact I don’t think I had ever heard of Basque music which evoked nostalgic sentiment but also the sort of gaiety you feel when singing around a camp fire. It was rousing and beautiful.
The hustle and bustle of the day continued and we were all rather tired after serving the many courses to the hungry hoards but we still had enough energy to join the crowds and go wine tasting at some of the other domaines that had flung open their doors that day. The standard of wine making was high which is very fitting for a wine that legend says was used to anoint the future King Henry IV in 1553. It is also an area that lays claim to have created the concept of ‘cru’, the official French term used to indicate superior vineyards.
Jurançon wines are famed for their sweetness although a dry version is also made which I find very sour and acidic in most cases. The grapes used to make these wines are Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng and Petit Courbu and small amounts of Camaralet and Lauzet – possibly grapes you have never heard of..! The sweet wines are produced in two styles; moelleux which is sweet but with high acidity and are drank here as an aperitif and Vendange Tardive which is made from late harvested grapes and is sweeter and can be enjoyed with deserts.
After the tastings we returned to Domaine Bordenave to enjoy Cassoulet de Jean-Pierre which he had prepared the day before. So a little reminder of Languedoc sent us on our way with wonderful memories of the weekend, the wines of Jurançon and the wonderful hospitality of our friends at Au Fin Gourmet
Changeable, unsettled weather protracted this year’s harvest in Languedoc and some wineries had been reluctant to host even small tours let alone a group of 25 Danes! However, we are ever resourceful and in September we hosted Vin Club Grand Cru for a two day tour taking in Malepère, Limoux, and the Corbières.
Our convoy of 4 vehicles driven by myself, Kate, Didier and Roy wound its way to our first stop which was at Domaine Gayda. With the help of several members of the Danish party who spoke great English and Veronica who runs the tasting room at Gayda the entire party enjoyed a guided tour through the vines, the winery and the cellar room. Having worked up a thirst we assembled the group for a tasting of 6 of Gayda’s wines. The tasting was led by Tim Ford, Gayda’s MD and included two of my favorites. Chemin du Moscou is the top red of the domaine and named after their address. It is a deep, brooding Syrah accompanied by some Grenache and a tiny bit of Cinsault and I think the 2010 is the best vintage yet. It has tremendous freshness which helps belie the body of this wine. My second favorite is the sweet Chenin Blanc made from botrytis affected grapes. Its balance is excellent and the flavours of honey, caramelized pears and apricots make it a perfect match for blue cheese. I need to stock up as they have not been able to make it this year due to no botrytis in the vineyard.
Lunch followed the tasting naturally taken in Domaine Gayda’s restaurant – a foie gras entree for many of the group!
After lunch, we moved on to Limoux, home of Blanquette and to the fabulously equipped tasting room of Sieur d’Arques. There aren’t many venues capable of hosting a group of 25 and remaining open to the public but Sieur d’Arques managed it seamlessly. Having travelled by air, and therefore were unable to transport wine home, our clients purchased what they felt they could consume that evening and we delivered them back to their hotel.
Day two and the Corbières. Our first appointment was in the Boutenac terroir at Château Ollieux Romanis. Aside from the historical charm of the property, Château Ollieux Romanis has a number of donkeys including a baby which was barely two weeks old and they all seemed to want to join our party much to the amusement of our Danish friends!
We enjoyed a tour of the winery and a walk in the vines before joining Carlos who had arranged a wonderful setting for our tasting and our lunch. The gardens at the Domaine have beautiful, uninterrupted views of the Corbières and despite a slightly chilly day the al fresco tasting and sit down picnic were a huge success. The food was delicious and was accompanied by a range of the Château’s Corbières wines including my favorite Atal Sia. The name in Occitan means ‘let it be’ and isn’t a nod to The Beatles but refers to the wine being grown and made with little intervention. The purity of the fruit and the minerality of the Boutenac terroir shines through unhindered by oak or clever assemblage. In fact the grapes are all fermented together in the same vat. The wines and food were delicious and at the end of the lunch the entire party burst into song, appropriately enough a folk tale about donkeys and grapes and how they really ought to drink water instead… you couldn’t make it up!
Our last stop on this tour was to a great friend, the completely inspirational Veronique Robin Cuculiere of Domaine Mingraut. Having finished harvesting Grenache a scant 20 minutes before our arrival, Veronique had set up a table and chairs outside for our group. Before embarking on a tasting of her finished wines in bottle she took the entire party into the winery where she had them all tasting from barrel! It was very interesting to taste the partly fermented wines and see and hear the juice transforming into wine in her cellar. We emerged from the depths of the winery, blinking into the sunshine, which had finally arrived, our clients sat around the table and sampled Veronique’s wonderful wines. Relaxed, happy, and chatting amongst themselves our Danish friends gave us a toast… Skol!
Last year I was asked by a dear friend and long standing student of wine if I would arrange a weekend tour to the Roussillon to celebrate his very special birthday. The distances involved from my base in the Minervois meant that this would have to take the form of a residential tour based closer to the wineries we wanted to visit. The tour was advertised on my web site and I was thrilled when the numbers were sufficient for the tour to go ahead.
So it was with great anticipation that six like-minded clients, myself and Kate my right hand woman and expert cook spent an amazing 4 days based in the village of Alenya close to Perpignan. I had rented a spacious Catalonian Mas (farmhouse) and with Kate’s expert work in the kitchen I had been able to offer the tour on a fully inclusive basis. Lunch was taken either at a winery or in a local restaurant and in the evening Kate created some excellent dining based on local and seasonal produce.
The 4 day tour started with an afternoon in the entertaining and hospitable company of winemakers Corin and Jayne Fairchild of Domaine Vella Fronterra in the village of Maury who hosted lunch and gave a tour around their winery and tasting of their wines. After lunch, but still in Maury, we paid a visit to Thunevin-Calvert’s state of the art eco winery, where we discovered a truly charming Grenache Gris they’ve dubbed L’Amourette. We were in the thick of it as grapes had just been harvested and we saw the production taking place including the sorting table exhibiting their commitment to quality.
Back at the Mas and after settling into our rooms and taking a quick dip in the pool we took an apéro on the terrace surrounded by olive groves and with the Pyrénées silhouetted in the distance. Supper of duck confit with crispy roast potatoes and crunchy green beans afforded us the chance to pair our meal with Vella Frontera’s sumptuous syrah and the chocolate fondant pudding called for us to try the Maury, the sweet Grenache based wine that we had purchased that day. It was all delicious.
The next day after a leisurely French breakfast of fresh bread and croissants we headed south, today’s agenda was AOC Banyuls and Collioure. We had made our appointment to visit La Rectorie in Banyuls, some months earlier; with charming wife of Pierre Parcé and truthfully, this was one of the best, most enchanting and most generous tastings we have ever experienced. Pierre greeted us at the door and swept us through the Maison de Maitre which is not only their home but a gallery displaying his photography as well as serving as a tasting room and settled our group around an immense old oak table. Then he simply started to talk. He regaled us with the history not only of the region but of his family’s connection to it. His fierce love of the business, their wines and their patrimony that is woven into everything the family creates. You hardly needed to taste the wines to know that they were going to be personal, intricate and steeped in generational pride as well as being delicious. We all learnt a lot and the complexity and confusion surrounding the AOC within Banyuls and Collioure melted away.
Full tasting notes were taken, but suffice it to say that the opening wine of the extensive flight was simply stunning – L’argile, a white produced by tri seléctif of Grenache Blanc and Gris and the rest of the flight hardly disappointed !
We reluctantly took our leave and headed for the restaurant Al Fanal at the far end of the port in Banyuls where we enjoyed a superb lunch accompanied with local wines then we set off for Collioure. This seaside village about 20 minutes along the coast from Banyuls is famed by artists for its wonderful light, and famed by food enthusiasts as a mecca for anchovies!
Keen to enjoy the delights of our Mas, we returned home where those who fancied a dip in the pool or a quick nap before supper had the chance to enjoy a little down time before we returned to the table. This time we ate al fresco on the terrace. The beef bourguignon that Kate had set to slow cook whilst we were out was comforting and tasty and the wine and conversation flowed in equal measure.
Our third day in The Roussillon took us to the wonderful Domaine des Chénes in the village of Vingrau where the charismatic owner, winemaker and wine teacher, Alain Razungles hosted a tour and tasting which we were still talking about the next day – for all the right reasons ! His appellation Côtes du Roussillon Tautavel wines are superb and his commentary was priceless.
Lunch was at Chateau de Jau, a restaurant famed for once hosting French Premier Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. It’s always a great sign to find locals enjoying the food and ambience of a restaurant and this didn’t disappoint. Lunch was leisurely, the food very much ‘home style’ and paired with wines from the Estate and it would be hard to criticize the charm and authenticity of the venue.
And so we had reached our last night in Alenya, our home from home for the past few days. Kate had rustled up a superb dish of garlic and tarragon roasted chicken accompanied by my favorite roasted potatoes, golden and crispy from duck fat plus an immense ratatouille and Vichy carrots. We had been saving the groups favorite wine of the tour for this final dinner – the magnum of L’Argile from La Rectorie, a surprise gift from the wonderful Pierre Parcé. Thank you Pierre.
The next day, hard as it was to believe that we were reaching the end of the tour we breakfasted, packed our belongings and prepared to head off for our final vineyard visit at Chateau Corneilla, home of the owners of our Mas! The Jonquieres d’Oriola family home is a feudal castle built to emulate a miniature Le Palais des Rois de Majorques in Perpignan and constructed in the 13th Century. We all felt immensely privileged to
be hosted in such an awe inspiring setting. Guilhem, the winemaker and son of M and Mme Jonquieres d’Oriola offered us an astonishing tasting finished off with a visit to his own private cellar. Long ago in the history of the château a well had been built to capture and hold the rainwater from the roof and elsewhere. Today it is home to Guilhem’s private wine collection and we each took turns to climb down the ladder and admire the contents.
In early September, Vin en Vacances was asked to arrange a 60th birthday celebration of some magnitude. The birthday girl had assembled 22 members of family and friends in Carcassonne and wanted to share her special day with wine tasting, sightseeing and enjoying a very special French lunch.
Now 22 people is a significant size group to transport, so we arranged three vehicles to collect our clients from the Hotel Montmorency, close to medieval La Cité in Carcassonne. Once ready, we set off for the hills surrounding the village of Félines-Minervois for a walk through the vines where Wendy gave short talk about the region and the wines to set the scene for the day.
From Félines-Minervois we travelled just a few kilometers to Rieux-Minervois and the winery of Emmanuel de Soos at Château de Rieux. Wendy gave everyone a tour of Emmanuel’s beautiful and traditional winery followed by a tasting of his lovely wines. Then it was time for the picnic arranged by the superb caterers based in the village of Caunes-Minervois called A Taste of Caunes. (http://www.atasteofcaunes.com/)
Wendy had bought some lovely goats cheeses the day before whilst touring the Corbières and also some honey from that region and Linda Wearn and Alison Mugford, of A Taste of Caunes had created a delicious birthday cake to make the lunch extra special.
Replete and happy, we took the group up to the gorgeous village of Minerve where a short stroll through one of the prettiest villages in the Minervois sharpened up everyone’s appetite for some more delicious wine!
Heading down from Minerve back towards the Aude plain, we arrived in the Cru of La Livinière, where we sampled the wines of L’Ostal Cazes. The winery, owned by the renowned Bordeaux house of Lynch Bages laid on a splendid tasting, supplemented with charcuterie, bread and the domaine’ s own olive oil.
Sated, and in fine spirits, we drove back to Carcassonne through the beautiful Minervois countryside.
Birthday memories that we hope will last a long, long time.