Breaking Wind – Le Mistral

Provence was windy.  I’m not talking about a slight breeze.  I’m talking about a fierce, howling, incessant wind with giant gusts.  Provence is known for its ferocious, cold wind known locally as “Le Mistral” (or mistrau in Provençal).  It blows for days at a time, reaching speeds of 100 km/hr (62 miles/hr).  Some have described it as a hurricane with sunny weather.

WARNING! Please be careful during your visit, particularly if it is windy, especially near the edges of the cliffs, the Sarassine, the Paravelle towers and the Dunjon. Please keep an eye on your children! Culture Espaces accepts no responsibility. – Sign in Les Baux that translates into “if you get blown off the cliff it is your own fault.”

The result of an atmospheric phenomenon, it usually develops as a cold front moving down across France. Winter’s cold air piles up in the Alps before spilling over the mountaintops, down into the Rhône valley to the Mediterranean (towards Marseille).   It works to blows away clouds and moisture, providing towns like Aix-en-Provence with an average 300 sunny days a year. In our two trips to Provence, we experienced two rainy days.  Go figure.

Le Mistral is the single most important factor in shaping the Provence’s trees are  Provençal landscape.  Trees are permanently bent in the wind’s direction.  Vincent Van Gogh’s  swirling landscapes depict the the effects of the Mistral on the countryside.

Le Mistral flattens the grasses in the field, bends the top of the cypress trees and even in knocks over flower pots, tosses patio furniture around, tears the washing off the line, tosses garbage cans blocks away and pretty much sweeps away anything that isn’t tied down.    The howling wind even blows doors wide open and people off their feet!

When the Mistral blows, no one goes out unless they really have to.  People huddle indoors with their shutters battened; the streets are empty.  The wind becomes the topic of every conversation.   Legend has it that the Mistral will blow for one day, three, six, nine or even as many as twelve days.

Like the Föhn, people claim that Le Mistral can cause headaches, restlessness in children and even affect pets.  It makes everyone bad tempered and exasperated.  Some even claim that it causes mental instability, making people mad.  That was probably great for Van Gogh.

Le Mistral’s has positive effects on Provence and not just if you want to fly a kite, windsurf, or sail.  It blows stagnant waters dry and stopping disease from spreading.   Locals call it “mange fange” which translates into swamp eater. The Mistral’s winds drying effect on the area keeps the Rhône vines, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, free of mildew (great for wine lovers).  The humidity in the air is blown away, leaving things dry and the view crystal clear (great for artists).

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Visiting Ancient Rome In Orange, France

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete took a road trip to the south of France with us.  After stopping at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we headed to Orange, France.  It is a town in Provence that is famous for its Roman amphitheater and its triumphal arch (Arc de Triomphe) built by Augustus.   It was a cute, convenient place to stay on the way further south.

Signs of the town’s Roman heritage are everywhere.

Just in case you weren’t informed of the city’s Roman heyday, they have these bronze medallions the sidewalks to let you know.  The pigeons did not seem suitably impressed with their home.   In the photo below, they seem to have been using this alcove for their personal loo for centuries.  That is one giant mound of pigeon poo.

The amphitheater is really well-preserved.  It is a similar size as the one in Arles, but better preserved.  It has wonderful acoustics and is still used for concerts.

We took a nice walk around the amphitheater before having dinner inside it.  Sometimes restaurants in amazing locations are gimmicky, overpriced or have bad food.  In the amphitheater, we had a wonderful meal in this amazing venue.  Amazingly, most of the people there were locals.  We couldn’t believe that we were eating inside a Roman amphitheater…very surreal and way cool.

The Luger and Sneaky Pete at the dinner table

After dinner, we took a stroll through town to see the arch of triumph.   Having done the research, this is how I explained why it was built.    Orange was a major crossroads.   People were passing through this town that once ruled over Holland and England.  In 25 A.D., in honor of the Gallic Wars, Augustus built this arch in honor of Rome’s victory in the Gallic Wars.   Essentially, it was a giant billboard that said “look what we did to these guys, do you want a piece of this?”

 

Wine Museum In Châteauneuf-du-Pape

When we visited the very rocky Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we stopped by the Brotte Wine Museum.  It was started in 1972 and updated in 2000.  It centers on the history of wine growing and AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée which guarantees the wines‘ origins).

The AOC designation is very important to them.  It makes their wines more recognizable and promotable (and more expensive) abroad.  For educated consumers, it makes it easier to understand what they are getting.  It also means that producers have tons of rules.  The museum had just about everything used it to work the vines or in wine making, except the AOC rule book.  I want to get my hands on a copy because I hear that they have some pretty stringent rules.  For example, the lengths of the vines are measured repeatedly during the year to ensure they don’t exceed particular lengths at different points in the year.  Some are easier to follow.  You aren’t allowed to land a flying saucer in your field…um, okay.  I think I could manage that one.

The museum displays of barrels from the Middle Ages, wine presses, old tools, baskets, equipment, old photos, plows, bottling apparatus and many other items.

People always note that they have a 4,000 litre chestnut wine barrel from the 14th century and a 16th century wine-press.  We liked some of the more us usual items, like a chain maille glove for removing insects.

We also snuck a peek through the window at their bottling operation.  It looks remarkably like a brewery’s bottling operation.

While the museum isn’t as much fun as a wine tour with Jean-Michel, it is free, informative (if you read the English pamphlets) and the old implements are pretty cool.  At the end, you are invited to taste Maison Brotte’s wines.  I think our visitors (Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete) had fun and came away a bit wiser.

 

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Rocked Us…Literally

Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a historic town in France’s Rhone Valley, near Avignon in the Provence region. It is known for its history and for its rich, full-bodied, spicy red wines.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape translates into ‘New Castle of the Pope‘.  When the French popes moved to Avignon during a turbulent period for Rome, they wanted to source their fine wines locally (they were already huge fans of the wines produced by monks in the Burugundy Region). Chateauneuf-du-Pape (near Avignon) was a perfect place for the Pope’s court in the early 14th century and vineyards.

After the popes left Avignon, winemaking continued despite the loss of an illustrious, monied local patron.  Believe it or not, around a hundred years ago the bulk of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was sold to Burgundy to add to their local wines to boost the strength and alcohol levels. In 1923, it got its own Appellation Contrôlée (AOC).  These regulations set the minimum alcohol level of the wines and set limits on yields as well as which types of grapes could be grown in which area.

We drive through Chateauneuf-du-Pape with a few farmers.  They were astonished to see the soil filled with rocks, pebbles and sand.  Locals explained poor farmland is usually good for something else, like growing grapes.

At a tasting, the leader explained that grapes like people, are not interesting if they are not challenged.  In Chateauneuf-du-Pape, like Burgundy, the grapes are challenged.  Not only is the soil lacking in organic matter, the climate is hot, dry and windy.  Irrigation is forbidden.  Viticulturalists must apply for special permission from the French government to water.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s local rocks (galets roulés), retain the sun’s heat and release it at night.  Locals believe that this permits the grapes t ripen more quickly and work as a mulch to prevent too much evaporation from the soil.  The strong winds (the mistral) carry away moisture, intensifying the grape’s flavor.

There are different ways of pruning plants.  Before leaving the US, I left very specific instructions on how I wanted my Crepe Myrtles pruned.  Winemakers are equally fussy about pruning.  Bushvines are common even though yields are limited.

We learned that in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they often use cement tanks instead of barrels.  Their main grape is Grenache, which is prone to oxidation.  Wood barrels allow more oxidation and so these grapes often sit in cement tanks while their Pinot friends from the next row over get to age in wood barrels.

Grenache is the most common variety; it produces a sweet juice. It is frequently mixed with Syrah or Mourvèdre. I had a picture of Grenache labels at the end of rows of vines, but this one came out better.  Although the town is known for its reds, this is one of the varieties of grape that is used in making whites.