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?


Advertisements

Too Much Can Get You Alsauced, Alsace’s Wine Route (Route du Vin)

When we traveled to Burgundy, we learned that hundreds of thousands of years ago it  was seaside.  The limestone deposited during that time (and complex soil from subsequent fracturing from land shifts) make their wines unique.

Like Burgundy, Alsace sits on a geological fault line and its soil varies extensively.  Also like Burgundy, it is one of the most prominent wine regions of France.  The best vineyards of Alsace are along a geological fault zone that stretches from south to north along the Voges granitic mountain range.  It is 120 km (74.5 miles) long but only a few kilometres wide.  This is the Alsace Wine Route/Route du Vin, a scenic journey to enjoy the French wines, countryside, architecture and food.

The vineyards are located in the foothills of Les Voges mountain range around villages from the middle ages.  Ruined hilltop castles from the middle ages overlook the towns.  Many of the towns have fortified ramparts and cobblestoned streets.  They are postcard pretty with flower-decked streets, historic churches, timbered buildings and gurgling fountains.  In addition to the usual assortment of delightful shops, cafes, restaurants, wine tasting rooms (winstubs) which serve wine from many local vineyards fill the towns.  Ooh la la.

Turckheim, RibeauvilleRiquewihr and Kayersberg are the most popular towns on the Alsace Wine Road and are regularly visited by tour busses and the crowds they bring. Other nice towns include: ObernaiBarrMittelbergheinAndlauDambach-la-VilleSelestatBergheinHunawihr and Eguisheim (which we visited).   Alsace is a popular destination for vacations/holidays.  While we saw other tourists, we were lucky (and surprised) we didn’t see any crowds.

Alsace wine tasting at Paul Schneider

Alsace is well-known for its crisp white wines.  Alsation wines use seven varieties of grapes: Sylvaner, Pinot BlancPinot Noir, Riesling, MuscatPinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.  It has Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation.  There are countless opportunities to taste these in roadside wine cellars (caves in French).  Everyone recommends advance appointments (particularly during busy times like harvest).  Not all wines are created equal and not all wineries are created equal.  The quality can vary drastically from winery to winery.  As a result, if you want to taste the best, research them in advance.

Eichberg and Pfersigberg are two of the other well-respected Grand Crus

One of the best surprises was the Cremant D’ Alsace, a lively and delicate sparkling wine made by the traditional method of fermentation in the bottle.  It’s kind of like Champagne.  What’s not to love?

Although you can drive the Alsace Wine Route, there are many well-marked hiking trails (sentiers viticoles) and bike routes if you get Alsauced.

A Grape Day, Geneva’s Wine Festival

Last weekend was Geneva‘s Caves Ouverts.  This translates to “Open Cellars.”  All of the area’s wineries were open for visits and to taste the latest wines.  Wines produced for consumption within a few years are usually bottled in March or April.  As a result, they are first released for sale in May.  Since it started in 1987, it has grown into a huge event.

Buy your tasting glass and we will gladly serve you. The glass is 5 CHF. Taste moderately. Love passionately.

We bought special wine glasses for five Swiss Francs ($6) each.  With these glasses, we could taste any wine at all the wineries.  The proprietors were great an were happy to talk about their wines.  I was glad that we’d done the wine tour of Burgundy and learned how to taste wine so that I knew how to tell them what I liked.

As a result of the tasting, we are now a bit more knowledgeable about Geneva’s wines and wineries.  We didn’t buy any since we didn’t have a backpack with us (rookie mistake), but will be heading back to buy our favorites.

I like that you can see my reflection in the bottle.

Most of the wineries provide tasty food at reasonable prices.   We opted for the sausage.  They had a choice of white or red and asked which I would like.  I asked for the red sausage please.

Others in our group had the Tomme, a wonderful goat cheese.  They served it grilled on bread.  We also saw: Tartiflette, hearty meat dishes, wonderful pastries and pies.  Many wineries also provide entertainment.   Accordion music anyone?

If you are thinking about visiting Geneva, Caves Ouvertes is the weekend to do it.  The countryside is beautiful.  So are the vineyards.  I love that you can always see the mountains in the distance around here. Even the towns are picturesque.  These old villages consist of stone farmhouses and massive wood barns in which people gather around barrels or picnic tables.

As the day progressed the crowds grew, spilling out into the courtyards and the streets.  It was a wonderful atmosphere.  Everyone was very friendly.  Even the usually reserved Swiss were wonderfully chatty. We went with a group; it was great to share the day with people from all over the world.

As the crowds increased, the weather deteriorated.  Being the idiots that we are, we dressed for the morning’s weather (another rookie mistake).  In Switzerland, the weather is changeable and the temperature dropped drastically over the course of the day.  He wore shorts and flip-flops (not very Swiss).  I wore a skirt and wells (also not very Swiss).  At least he remembered to bring a jacket.

Yep, the wind was blowing so hard that it turned the umbrella below inside out.  We had umbrellas too.  Unfortunately, they didn’t do a lot of good when the wind was blowing sideways and we called it a day.

I have grumbled discontentedly about Geneva’s public transport (TPG) since they drastically changed their routes in December.  After they provided free shuttle buses that loop around the wine villages, I feel much more kindly disposed towards them.  Thanks TPG!

2011 By The Numbers

999      A conservative estimate on the number of times we have been lost (or at least taken wrong turns).

998      Pots of yummy, Swiss yogurt eaten.  I know that this number is a bit low.  We found the world’s best cottage cheese a couple of months in.  It definitely hurt our yogurt consumption.  We will try to do better next year.

45        The number of dollars paid in speeding tickets.  Astoundingly, we have gotten fewer tickets than anyone we know.  We were “lucky” enough to get ours in France so we paid it in Euros, much cheaper than tickets in CHF‘s.

40        Number (more or less) of cute pairs of heels in my closet here that have gone unworn due to large amounts of walking and heel eating cobblestones.   What has happened to me?

30        Roughly, the number of times I have been honked at while driving.  This works out to more or less one honk per drive.  Not too shabby.

17        Number of languages we can watch tv  in.  They are: French, German, Italian, English, Spanish, Catalan, Galician, Portuguese, Turkish, Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, Arabic, Dutch, Russian, Mandarin and Thai.  Unfortunately, we can only understand 1 or  2 of these.

15       The approximate number of emails he receives when I post pictures of him in      “fashionable” attire.  I get calls saying “what did you post about me because my email is blowing up”.

13       British TV Shows viewed (don’t judge): Top GearGrand DesignsWallace and GromitSnog Marry AvoidTake Me OutHow Clean Is Your House (it is extremely motivational to put on while cleaning), Horrible HistoriesGok’s Fashion Fix/Gok’s Clothes RoadshowSherlock (fantastic, a must see), Doctor WhoJamie’s Great BritianTime TeamHistory of Ancient Britain (History of Britain is better).  We did not watch the royal wedding even though there is still excessive coverage of it on British TV.

12        Countries Visited: DenmarkSwedenSpainFranceEngland, Scotland  (him), Germany (him), Belgium (me), Switzerland, South Africa, Egypt, and the United States.

11        The number of hours our jet lagged, germ filled bodies slept upon returning to Switzerland (this was followed by several lengthy naps and another long night’s sleep).

10        Tours (KarlsburgBurgundyCheese FactoryCailler Chocolate Factory,  Underground LakeTour of LondonToledo, Cullian Diamond Mine, Nelson Mandela’s Home, Soweto, unsure if safari’s count as an official tour.

9         “Exotic” foods we have eaten: bugs (South Africa), pigeon (England), crocodile (South Africa), horse (at home purchased from the local grocery store), gelatinized foie gras (France – definitely worse than the bugs), ostrich (South Africa), snails (France, bien sur), wild boar (Switzerland), quail (Spain) and duck (France).

8          The number of times he has taken the wrong train, tram or bus to and/or home from work.

7          The approximate number of times I grocery shop in a week (this includes visits to the Patisserie to buy bread).  Before our move, I prided myself on being able to get by for almost two weeks on one shopping trip.  Now that I carry everything home (and therefore buy less at a time), look for sales all over and try to buy the freshest, I have septupled my trips. Craziness.

6(ish)   Fantastic, Unforgettable, Once in A Lifetime Hikes in Switzerland: Gruyeres Cheesemaker’s Path, La Salevethe MatterhornJungfrauLavaux, many around Geneva.

5         Meals eaten out at Geneva restaurants since we moved (due to their high cost and our unwillingness to bankrupt ourselves).

4          The number of snow tires that are currently on our car (also the number of regular tires currently in storage).  Anyone ever heard of all season tires?

3          Family members who have visited; also the number of times the washing machine repairman has visited our miniscule washer.

2          Dogs given away (and are very happy with their new families)

1          Bridge jumpaerobed destroyed, and container shipped to Switzerland.




 

What The Heck Is A Tastevin?

Until we met Jean-Michel on our wine tour of Burgundy, we had never seen or even heard of a tastevin.*  It’s a small, shallow silver cup traditionally used by wine makers, sommeliers and wine merchants to judge the maturity, quality and taste of a wine.  Jean-Michel showed us a wall of them at the Chateau du Clos de Vougeot on the wine tour.
The wine is poured in the tastevin over the shiny silver, allowing them to accurately judge the color in the faint light in a wine cellar.  They are made of silver because it doesn’t taint wine’s taste or character.
 
A tastevin’s surfaces aren’t flat, they are convex and concave to allow the maximum possible light to be reflected. The stripes and circles reflect the light differently.  As a result, wine sellers traditionally had stripes/flutings on theirs because it made the wine seem to have a deeper hue, indicating a higher quality wine.  Wine buyers had concave circles which made the wine appear more ruby in color.  This indicated a less mature, and therefore less expensive, wine.  Some cups have both.
  
Now (with the advent of electric lighting in wine cellars), they are novelties, nods to tradition or just plain old good souvenirs.  They make a great souvenir and our visitor, The Sweetest Girl in the World, bought some for her family.  If you can’t make it over here to buy one, you can order one from the J. Peterman catalog!
If you are enough of a wine enthusiast, you can join the Burgundian Wine Society, La Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  They wear these bad boys around their necks, have big dinners with amazing food and drink a bottle or two.

Beaune-ified

Detroit is a car town.  Houston is an oil town.  Beaune is a wine town.  Although I think it has some tourist attractions.  We didn’t see any of them.  After a long day of wine-tasting with Jean-Michel, we strolled its charming streets.  If you need a movie location that screams cute French town, look no further than Beaune.
They filmed the movie Chocolat in a town not far from Beaune.

We stumbled (not literally) into a student organization holding a wine and cheese soiree to raise money.  It was 12 Euros ($16) for all you can eat and drink.  His favorite part was the local honey.  We all loved the Dijon (a nearby town) mustard.  I liked the stinky cheeses.
This town is adorable.  It’s Beaune-ified.

Burgundy Part Deux – How To Read A Label

We were overwhelmed with Burgandy’s complexity.  The soil, the climate, the changes in altitudes… It was overwhelming.  vineyards separated by a stone wall or a path can possess very different flavors and levels of quality.  I felt like we would never learn it all.  On our tour, Jean-Michel (from Authentica Tours) explained how the wines are classified and it really helped make sense of them. The vineyards of Burgundy have four levels:

The reason the labeling system is so specific is the terroir is so diverse.  Different soils and geology produce different tastes.  Two of the wines below were produced just feet from each other.  We were astonished by how different they tasted.  Incredible.

Regional wines are produced over the entire region (Bourgogne = Burgundy).  If you want to try one, the label will say “Bourgogne”.  They may sometimes combine different types of grapes in these wines.

Village/commune wines are produced from vineyard sites (that aren’t Grand or Premier Cru) within the boundaries of one village.  Each village’s wines have their own specific qualities and characteristics  The village’s name will appear on the label.

Premier Cru (1ere Cru) wines are produced from very high quality vineyards (smaller, more specific areas than the village designation). The label will have:

  • the name of the village,
  • the Premier Cru status (how else can they get you to pay more for it), and
  • the vineyard name (usually).

Grand Cru is the highest level and produced from the very best plots.  They are very, very expensive.   How do people know they’ll be good?  They’ve grown wine on them for thousands of years; they’ve seen their consistent quality and distinctive character over the years.  In these wines, everything is been done to ensure the maximum expression of the grape and the terroir.  The label will contain:

 

  • the words Grand Cru (probably in larger print than the price)
  • the name of the exact part of the Grand Cru area the wine is from

According to Jean-Michel, “wine tasting is an intellectual experience.”  It’s pretty fun too.

 

 

 

 

Burgundy Part Un – A Geology Lesson?

See this guy.  His name is Jean-Michel.  He has ruined wine for us. Before we took the best wine tour ever with him, we were happy drinking almost anything.*  The other night after a long day of work, he passed on a (free) red because he didn’t like the smell. I rest my case.

Jean-Michel (a tour guide par excellence) said that to understand Burgundy, we must understand its geology.  Burgundy doesn’t produce tons of wine, but it produces very good wines and some outstanding (ridiculously expensive) ones.  Why? Geology.

Millions of years ago, Burgundy was the seaside.  Over time, as pressure from the African and European plates, caused the layers of soil to bend and fracture.  Glaciers further shattered them.  The vineyards still follow this fault line.  There is a narrow strip with great soil (for growing wine) whose diversity is due to the breakup of these layers.

The shakeup of the seaside yielded the  perfect mix for growing wine in certain really specific areas (the dispersed bits and pieces combined with microclimates are the main reasons for Burgandy’s notorious complexity).

Burgundy is in France.  As a result, it didn’t take long for people to realize and exploit its wine growing potential.  Jean-Michel explained that the monastic orders became the first major vineyard owners.  With land, time to study and a dedication to physical labor, they quickly learned how different vineyard plots consistently gave different wines.  When popes took a liking to their wines, the monks had a powerful bargaining chip that they used and keenly protected (keeping the quality high).

Making a valuable commodity like good wine made the monks rich and powerful.  This is just one of their several wine presses.  they meant business.  The monk’s summer residence.  Clearly, they weren’t hurting.

After Burgundy became part of the France, the power of the church decreased and many vineyards were sold.  During the French Revolution, the church’s remaining vineyards were seized and sold.  Napoleonic inheritance laws caused the continual subdivision of the most precious vineyard land.  As a result, many modern day growers only hold a row or two of vines!  The different colors, stakes and markers at the end of the rows below differentiate the rows of different owners!

*Except for maybe Boone’s Farm.

 
 

 

Once Upon A Time There Was A Cute Little Town Called Murten

Once upon a time (1100’s), there was a town founded by Duke Berchtold that fell under the protection of the Count of Savoy, that was burned, rebuilt (in stone) and proclaimed its loyalty to the towns of Berne and Fribourg.  This town was called Murten (Morat in French).  It was so cute that in 1476, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy wanted it.  In complete honesty, I think he wanted it for reasons other than its cuteness.  Nevertheless, it is pretty cute.
Once upon a time (1100’s), there was a town founded by Duke Berchtold that fell under the protection of the Count of Savoy, that was burned, rebuilt (in stone) and proclaimed its loyalty to the towns of Berne and Fribourg.  This town was called Murten.  It was so cute that in 1476, Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy wanted it.  In complete honesty, I think he wanted it for reasons other than its cuteness.  Nevertheless, it is pretty cute.
Charles the Bold (he was called bold for a reason) besieged the town, but was defeated by the Swiss in 1484.  Swiss towns had previously made pacts to protect each other.  When Charles the Bold came, it was time for them to put their money where their mouth was.  Being Swiss, they (a) took money rather seriously and (b) kept their promise.*  The other towns came to Murten’s aid and they kicked Charles the Bold’s heiney.**   Et voila, modern Switzerland was born.
From 1484 on, and for 300 years, Murten is ruled by the two states, Berne and Fribourg.
Cute litte Murten was not left to its happy ending quite yet, the French invaded the town in 1798.  Napoleon gave the town to Fribourg (sorry Berne).  Ultimately, our hero lived happily and cutely ever after (more or less).  It doesn’t hurt that it is on a gorgeous lake and has preserved its history (castle, ring wall and streets).
*At least that’s how the story goes.
**The Swiss became sought-after mercenaries and were the guns you wanted to hire for centuries.  In fact, the Swiss Guard, modern-day Swiss mercenaries, protect the pope.