I Got A Kick From Champagne

“Burgundy makes you think off silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them. Think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French gastronome, (1755-1826)

After visits to BurgundyAlsaceCôtes du Rhône, and Bordeaux, how could we not visit this wine French wine region?  Champagne is located in in north-eastern France. Although it is doable as a (long) day trip from Paris (the region starts 120 kilometers/75 miles from the city) , I did it as part of a visit to the World War I battlefield of Verdun.   There were people on some of my tours that were out from Paris for the day.  Trust me when I tell you that with a driver taking them from one producer of Champagne to another, they were having a very, um, fun educational experience.

Champagne has 4 main cities: Reims, Troyes, Chalons en Champagne and Epernay.  Most of the guidebooks recommend either Reims or the smaller Epernay.  I wanted to visit the famous (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) cathedral at Reims, so I chose to go there.  If I’d had more time, I would have done the Champagne Tourist Route.  It covers more than 500 km between Reims, Epernay and the Côte des Bar, and has around 80 welcome centers.  Growers offer tours in personalized settings, but you need to be better organized than I was and arrange them in advance.  Squeezing it in at the last minute meant that I could only tour producers like Tattinger and Pomeroy.

Let me explain.  Like Burgundy, Champagne’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru.  However, in Champagne this does not give an indication of the vineyard’s quality or potential.  It functions more as a means to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest.   The producer or skill of the wine-maker in Champagne means that it is possible to have an outstanding performer in a second classed village and a moderate grower in a higher classed Grand Cru (just like Bordeaux, but different from Burgundy).  Confused yet?


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St. Emilion, Where They Make The Nectar Of The Gods

 

I don’t want to bore you with stories of another medieval hill town or tales of wine, but on our ladies road trip, we fell in love with Saint-Emilion and I can’t help but wax rhapsodic about it.  It is a gorgeous medieval hill town made of limestone quarried locally.

Around 5,400 hectares of vineyards and many small châteaux surround it.   Saint-Emilion has all the accoutrements you expect in a cute french hill town, inviting squares, cute shops, cobblestones, music wafting through the air, flowers, fountains, light blue shutters that look great against the limestone…you get the idea.  If I haven’t already convinced you to endure one more hill town post, that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably won’t sway you either.

Saint-Emilion  has been located on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela since the 11th century.  As a result, many churches, monasteries and hospices were built there.  We’d heard that the bell tower of the St. Emilion Monolithic Church had the best view of the city and it was worth making the climb up the ancient winding stairs to the top of the tower.  We paid a Euro or two each and grabbed the key from the Office of  Tourism across the way.

The bell tower was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.  Not long after that, people started carving their names and dates into it.  I’m a sucker for ancient graffiti.  I loved searching for it and reading it. The best part though was the view. Heaven.

Unfortunately our, ahem, transportation challenges (broken clutch) prevented us from having more time to tour Saint-Emilion.  I’d hoped to see the vast limestone catacombs located under the city that contain Europe’s largest underground church.  They are supposed to be amazing.

Fortunately, we still had time to check out the romanesque church and cloister, shop for antiques (you know I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to poke around this cute store), have a nice meal, listen to some street musicians, stroll the streets and catch one heck of a sunset.  Not too shabby.

 

More Than Just Champagne Wishes And Caviar Dreams Bordeaux’s Chateaux As Investments

More than just “champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” wineries today can be investments, part of a portfolio.  This is often the case in Bordeaux.

In Bordeaux, wineries are known as Chateau.  They may only use the grapes from their vineyards to produce wine.  As such, their size limits their production.  The volume produced is further limited by the rules related to the appellation or AOC.  This ceiling on Bordeaux’s production cannot be significantly raised, yet wine has become an increasingly popular beverage around the world.   This keeps prices, particularly for recognized and higher end labels, and making them a good investment.

Until then, enjoy these shots of Chateaux In Bordeaux.

A Most Excellent Day Touring Bordeaux Wineries

Although we could have driven from one Bordeaux winery to another, we did a tour.  We did this for several reasons.

  • I firmly believe that if you are going to drink, for goodness sake don’t drive.  I didn’t mind driving across France, but would have hated driving around Bordeaux if it meant missing out on this once in a lifetime experience.
  • Bordeaux is massive with thousands of wineries.  It’s hard to know which ones to visit.  We were pleased with both the quality and variety of wineries chosen by our guide in the know.
  • We planned this road trip days in advance.  With such short notice, it would have been difficult to make all the arrangements ourselves.

Jurgen, our guide/ designated driver chose three vastly different wineries for us to visit in Bordeaux.   First, we visited Chateau Laniote in St. Emilion.  It is a family run winery run by a delightful couple.  She’s a oneologist (a wine scientist) and he’s the resident magician and jack of all trades.  Their wine was tasty and a good value.  I’m always interested in how family businesses operate and wish we could have stayed longer to talk with them.   Unfortunately for us, they were busy racking the wine (siphoning it from one container to the next in order to leave the sediment behind).  Fortunately for us, we had other lovely vineyards to visit.  After we left, our guide told us he was a Baron.   I don’t know that I’ve ever met a Baron or Baroness before.  I hope as nice and hard-working as these guys.

Our next visit was to Chateau Gruaud Larose (above).  We had a nice guide who explained some of the unique things about their winery.

  • It is located in the St Julian appellation, which is known for producing full-bodied and elegant wines.
  • They make both a first label (higher quality/more expensive) and second label (which uses grapes from younger vines and other cuvées).   The second label is Sarget du Château Gruaud-Larose.

  • They are state of the art and have embraced technology in their efforts to produce the best wine possible.  They have a weather station that is replete with a machine to break up hail, a hail gun…sort of.  It is in the distance, near the furthest building in the picture above.
  • They have a fancy-schmancy grape sorter.  It uses high-precision cameras to electronically select only perfect, ripe grapes.

We visited the highly praised Château Pontet-Canet.  While Château Gruaud-Larose embraced technology, Château Pontet-Canet returned to traditional methods in their efforts to produce a high quality wine.

  • Bordeaux is notorious for its adherence to rigid classifications laid out in the 1800’s.  Château Pontet-Canet is classified as a Cinquième Crus (fifth growth).  Our guide, Jurgen, echoed the main criticism of this rigidity when he explained to us that it meant that a fifth growth level could be better than a second-growth because of how they operate their vineyard.
  • Even though it is a lowly fifth growth, it is located in the Pauillac area of Bordeaux, across the road from first growth Château Mouton Rothschild Other illustrious neighbors include: Château Lafite and Château Mouton.  Some of the world’s most highly respected and expensive wines.  Even at several hundred dollars a bottle, people still argue that it is underrated and a terrific value.

  • Once-derided, this winery’s quality has steadily risen, particularly after its  conversion to biodynamics.  This 2007 vintage is controversial because it resorted to chemicals to treat oidium and mildew,  a decision they now regret.   That being said, I tasted it and it was pretty darn good.

  • They use horses in the vineyards. Horses compact the soils less, and do not damage the vine’s roots like tractors.

  • They sort grapes by hand, worried that an automated sorter would damage the grapes or crush them unnecessarily early.  After the manual sorting, their grapes drop directly into tanks in the floor below.

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Merci Beaucoup Freshly Pressed!

Thanks Freshly Pressed for selecting my post “What Is Claret? The Question That Sparked A Tasty Adventure In Bordeaux.”  I can’t believe this is the third time in (give or take) six months that you have chosen to feature one of my posts.  Thanks so much for the recognition and support.

In case you were wondering, the other “Freshly Pressed” posts are:

What Is Claret? The Question That Sparked A Tasty Adventure in Bordeaux

We’ve been watching British television and one of our favorite shows is “Grand Designs.”  The host, Kevin McCloud, kept referring to “claret.”  Being idiot Americans, we had no idea what sort of beverage it was (other than it was a deep purplish-red color).  Thanks to the magic of the internet, we learned it is “a red wine from Bordeaux, or wine of a similar character made elsewhere” (according to Merriam-Webster).  After that moment – and visiting France’s other wine regions (BurgundyCotes du RhoneAlsace, Champagne) – I wanted to go see what could make stoic Brits wax rhapsodic about this wine.  Luckily, it was pretty easy to convince Wildcat and Hokie to take an girl’s road trip.

A few hours into our trip, they might have started to regret it.  To get to Bordeaux from Geneva, you have to drive across all of France to the Atlantic.  We broke down in the middle of nowhere on our way (for more, check out their accounts here and here).  We arrived in Bordeaux just in time to get a good night’s sleep so that we could begin our “education” bright and early the next day.

Bordeaux is larger and more complex than France’s other wine regions.  It has  an astounding variety of different appellations (recognized types that correspond to demarcated zones that were established in 1855 by Napolean III) in part because the region is large.  It is also topographically and climatically diverse.  It’s soils are geologically complex and vary significantly from one appellation to the next.  Its location on the Atlantic coast and on rivers further inland (the Gironde River and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne) creates dramatically different weather conditions across the region.

Bordeaux wines are all about blending.  Part science, part art, the results are pure magic.  The grapes in the blends should complement each other and make a complex, interesting, balanced and harmonious blend.  The goal is to make the blended wine better than the individual grapes that contribute to it.  In other words, the whole (the blended wine) should be more than the sum of its parts (the individual grapes).

The grapes most commonly used in blending Bordeaux wines are: MerlotCabernet Sauvignon and  Cabernet Franc.  The Merlot grapes give the wine color, roundness and suppleness.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes provide the tannins, the wine’s backbone and structure.  In young wines, it is very aromatic and provides increasing complexity as it ages.  The Cabernet Franc grapes add a gentleness, a counterpoint to the Sauvignon.

If you haven’t already guessed from the definition of “claret,” most of Bordeaux’s wines are red (around 85%).  Bordeaux is the world’s number one producer of both Cabernet and Merlot grape varieties.  Sante!

Frankly My Dear Sarlat…

I went with Hokie and Wildcat on a road trip to Bordeaux.  I’d always dreamed of going to the Dordogne region of France so we made a couple of stops there too.  We heard that Sarlat-la-Canéda (commonly referred to as Sarlat) is considered one of the five prettiest towns in France.  While we have, perhaps, overdosed on cute French towns (Saint-Rémy de Provence, EguisheimSt. Paul-de-Vence, Vence, Les Baux-de-ProvenceEze, Avignon, Kayersburg, Colmar, how could we not give this one a go?

It has a traffic-free old town with cobblestone lanes and renaissance buildings with elaborate stonework.  Sarlat lives in its streets.  Cafes abounded. With wonderful weather and backdrops why wouldn’t you want to sit outside?  Walking Sarlat’s streets we saw mimes “warming up,”  artists working “en plein air,” and countless street vendors.  This mime’s warmup looked surprisingly like the warmups we did in my belly dancing class.   I wish I’d gotten it on video for you.

Foodies will be happy to learn that Sarlat is located in the Perigord area of Dordogne, an area almost 50% of the French believe has the best food in France.  Sarlat is known for its foie gras, while not my thing, they clearly do a big business it.  There are shops everywhere, a statute of geese next to the church and souvenir shops that sell goose themed paraphernalia.  Foie Gras (goose liver pate) is controversial.  We saw a flock of geese while in Dordogne on a farm.   In this area it is an age-old tradition called la garage.  The only thing we ate there was gelato.

Sarlat has such nice buildings because it was loyal.  Huh?   What does loyalty have to do with pretty stone buildings?

During the Hundred Years’ War, Sarlat remained loyal to the French.  The French king rewarded its loyalty with money to rebuild the damaged town in luxurious stone.  Beautiful, long-lasting and fire-resistant…  Oh la la.  

We enjoyed strolling its streets and people watching.  It might be a bit touristy, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a really interesting place to spend an afternoon.   I’m sure it’s even more beautiful in the evening when tourists like me have left for the day.