France

WINE TRAVELS IN BEAUJOLAIS
[published in Decanter, July 2011]

gnarled Gamay vines in a winter landscapeHand on heart, when did you last stop off to explore the Beaujolais region, rather than just barrelling on down the Autoroute du Soleil headed for Provence, Italy or Spain? Come to that, when did you last taste some memorable – even enjoyable – Beaujolais? If the answer to both questions is “not for ages”, it’s time for corrective measures.

We go back a bit, the Beaujolais and me. In my teens I did the classic French exchange with a wine growing family in Romanèche-Thorins. They had four sons, a vineyard in Moulin-à-Vent and a privileged view of the eponymous landmark windmill from the house. It was the first region I’d ever visited in France and I fell for it all, hook, line and sinker.

Over the years we kept in touch. As newlyweds living on a shoestring in Switzerland (where you need long laces to live well) we escaped to Beaujolais at weekends, bypassing the austere vineyards of Burgundy (where all we could afford was Aligoté) in favour of the softly rolling, vine-clad hills south of Macon. There we gorged on the cheap and cheerful fruits of the Gamay vine, gleefully smuggling it back by the cubitainer over unmanned borders deep in the Jura. In due course our two children, together with joyous bands of uni friends, signed up for the vendanges and spent back-breaking days bent over the punishingly low Gamay vines – and head-breaking nights fuelled by rivers of Beaujolais.

Then came Beaujolais Nouveau and for a while people couldn’t get enough of this briefly macerated, cherry-red beverage whose production more than doubled between 1977 and 1985. But vast volumes and unseemly haste are seldom synonymous with quality, and while Nouveau proved to be a great cash cow for many hard-pressed vignerons, it did untold damage to the image.

Now, slowly, steadily, discerning wine drinkers are (re)discovering Beaujolais again. Most notably, top Burgundy growers are looking south and snapping up the best vineyards. Côte d’Or producer Vincent Girardin recently purchased 20 hectares of vines in the famous La Tour du Bief vineyard, left (Louis Jadot bought the other half) where he intends to make a quality red wine at an accessible price, aged in barriques from his Meursault domaine – “un Moulin-à-Vent à la façon bourguignonne”. The fabulous 2009 vintage was the final cherry on the cake, with the promising 2010 hot on its heels. There’s never been a better time to visit this compellingly beautiful, compact little stretch of country between Lyon and Mâcon.

You could do Beaujolais in a day – but don’t. Linger; take time to explore the area in all its variety, combining the newly created Route des Vins du Beaujolais with as many minor roads as you can muster (green-edged on any Michelin map, indicating scenic value). In the southernmost Pierres Dorées country close to Lyon (think Cotswolds but warmer and sunnier, with rolling vineyards thrown in) you’ll find radiant golden stone villages, Romanesque churches and Renaissance châteaux (one of which, Bagnols, is a luxury hotel). This is the heart of the basic Beaujolais appellation, responsible for oceans of light, bright, cheery Beaujolais (including Nouveau), with a handful of wine growers standing out from the crowd (see Best Vineyards to visit).

Further north, with a sidestep to take in the 10th-century Cluniac cloister at Salles-Arbuissonas, you hit the first of the crus (Beaujolais’ named vineyards), Brouilly and its Côte, set at a rakish angle like a big beret on top of the Brouilly hill. From here northwards Beaujolais-Villages country begins to balloon out. A distinguishing feature around here are the elegant 17th and 18th century châteaux (de la Chaize, de la Salle, du Basty), many of them still working vineyards in family ownership where you can visit, taste and/or stay overnight. These were followed in the 19th century by a slew of fine vineyard manor houses, set proudly amidst their rolling vines rather than tucked away in villages behind high walls. Once the property of the Lyon bourgeoisie, many are now in the hands of a new generation of wine grower-investors with a firm belief in the potential of Beaujolais.

The villages that share the world-famous names of the most northerly crus (Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Juliénas and St Amour) are surprisingly lacklustre, with none of the charm (or churches, or châteaux) of the Pierres Dorées. Plan on a tasting or two here, then buy a selection of regional goat’s cheeses, cured meats and a bottle of Beaujolais rosé (Belleville and Beaujeu have good shops and markets) and head up into the hills to the west for a picnic in the little known Monts du Beaujolais (green-fringed roads encore). With luck you’ll be rewarded with astonishing views, first of waves of vines unfurling at your feet, followed by the Saone valley and on exceptionally clear days distant glimpses of the Alps.

Six of the best vineyards to visit:

1)    Domaine des Terres Dorées, 69380 Charnay. Jean-Paul Brun is known for his highly prized, exciting, unusual, long-lived wines (Beaujolais-Villages and various crus). Visits by appointment only to his elusive domaine in the Pierres Dorées of southern Beaujolais (sign, left)
Tel. 04 78 47 93 45, contact@jeanpaulbrun.fr

2)    Château de Cercy, 69640 Denicé. Michel and Cyril Picard conjure up some fine Beaujolais (including a Chardonnay-based Blanc) from the limestone-clay soils of this less-favoured southern end of the region
http://chateaudecercy.pagesperso-orange.fr

3)    Château du Basty, 69430 Lantignié. Taste Pernette and Gilles Perroud’s Beaujolais Lantignié (one of the most ageworthy of the Villages appellations) and perfumed, lively Régnié at their dramatically sited château high above the vineyards, with views on clear days of distant Mont Blanc

4)    Château Thivin, 69460 Odenas. Pioneering 25-hectare estate in the heart of Brouilly, one of the first to experiment with different ways of pruning Gamay vines with consistently impressive results. The Geoffray family makes it a point of honour to receive visitors throughout the day (“even British visitors who arrive at lunch time”).

5)    Château de la Grange Cochard, 69910 Villié Morgon.
James and Sarah Wilding have attracted loads of attention (and armfuls of prizes) with their meaty Morgon, aided and abetted by their ex-Château de Jacques winemaker, some of the best granitic soils of Les Charmes and Côte du Py, and venerable Gamay vines. Tasting by appointment.

6)    Domaine Chignard, 69820 Fleurie. Classic Beaujolais domaine making serious, structured Fleurie, one from lieu-dit Les Moriers, the other a Cuvée Speciale from low-yielding, densely planted vines over 30 years old, aged in small oak barrels.
Tel. 04 74 04 11 87, domaine-chignard@wanadoo.fr

HOTELS & RESTAURANTS

Château de Bagnols
Five-star moated château-hotel, member of Relais & Châteaux, in the heart of Pierres Dorées country in southern Beaujolais

L’Auberge du Château, Bully
Combine Yannick Bourgeois-Faucon’s Retour du Marché lunch menu at his auberge beneath the turreted Renaissance chateau with a wander through the Pierres Dorés villages

Auberge de Corcelles, Corcelles-en-Beaujolais
Simple village inn in the heart of cru country, packed at midday with locals drawn by Japanese chef’s great value 3-course lunch menu with a pot of Beaujolais thrown in
Tel. 04 74 60 65 87

Domaine du Clos des Garands, Fleurie
Family-owned B&B in a classic Beaujolais manor house just outside Fleurie with four spacious, south-facing rooms decorated with simple French chic

La Poularde, La Chapelle-de-Guinchay
Snappy, stylish four-course menu by Olivier Muguet in his minimalist-chic, 1-star neo-bistro (left) plus concise, carefully chosen wine list

Domaine de la Chapelle de Vâtre, Jullié
3 rooms and a self-catering apartment at this beautiful stone property in the foothills of the Monts de Beaujolais with breathtaking views out over the vineyards (including the domaine’s own) and beyond

Auberge du Paradis
Auberge du Paradis, Saint-Amour
Inventive, playful, no-choice tasting menu from husband-and-wife team Cyril and Valérie Lignier at their 1-star Michelin auberge, plus six delicious rooms, a tiny terrace for breakfast and a small pool for hot Beaujolais days

SHOPPING

Huilerie Beaujolaise, Beaujeu
Jean-Marc Montegottero’s boutique sells a range of his freshly pressed oils (walnut, hazelnut, pistachio, pine nut, grilled almond, peanut, rapeseed and sesame), favoured by top French chefs

La Croisée des Vins, Belleville
Friendly welcome and sound advice from this pillar-box red shop belonging to négociant Louis Tête, with a range of their Beaujolais bottlings plus regional French wines from leading producers
Tel. 04 74 66 17 18

Le Hameau du Vin, Romanéche-Thorins
Scorn Duboeuf at your peril. Amid the brightly coloured bottles of bog-standard Beaujolais (including Nouveau) there are selected cuvées (especially from the top crus) worth attention. For a complete education in Beaujolais wines, let the audioguide take you on a ‘journey’ through a series of didactic displays, the winery and the botanical garden, finishing up in the café-bistro.

Vinea Bourgogne-Beaujolais, Belleville
If your dream is to own your own vineyard (or château or manor house surrounded by vines), Vinea Bourgogne-Beaujolais has the pick of the crop
Tel. 04 74 66 47 81

TOURIST TRAIL

Beaujolais iPad and iPhone app
Free download (tourist trails, Beaujolais Wine Route, interviews with wine makers etc.) here

Fête des Crus
Street party-celebration of the Beaujolais crus held annually late April/early May, which rotates between the different villages of the ten crus (Fleurie in 2011)

Hôtel-Dieu, Belleville
Once the town’s hospital for the poor (built in 1733), now a small museum complete with wood-panelled wards with alcove beds, apothecary with ceramic collection and wooden cabinets full of crisply starched linen.

La Voie Verte
The old railway line from Belleville to Beaujeu reborn as a stunning route at the foot of the vineyards for walkers, cyclists, roller-bladers and buggy-pushers

Cadoles et Sens
Association to preserve the characteristic, cone-shaped, dry-stone vineyard huts (cadoles), some dating back to the 18th century. Themed/guided walks linking the best, with picnic basket or lunch and wine tasting built in

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WALKING ALSACE’S VINEYARD TRAILS

The accessibility of Alsace’s vineyards is one of their big selling points – instead of padlocked gates, scowling landowners or notices warning that entrée is interdite, you’re met by a comprehensive network of beautifully laid out, clearly signposted vineyard tracks just waiting to be walked. Here’s how …
[published in Decanter September 2010]

“We’re delighted people want to walk through our vineyards” beams Monsieur Xavier Muller (left), winegrower and former mayor of Marlenheim at the northern end of Alsace’s Route des Vins. “It’s good for us – and it’s great for them!” The idea that anyone might want to discourage vineyard visitors is clearly puzzling to this sprightly septuagenarian, who takes time out from his busy retirement schedule to escort people through the beautiful, south-facing Steinklotz Grand Cru vineyard that rises steeply behind the village, giving distant, misty glimpses of Strasbourg cathedral.
The accessibility of Alsace’s vineyards is one of their big selling points. Here, instead of padlocked gates, scowling landowners or notices warning that entrée is interdite, you’re met by a comprehensive network of beautifully laid out, clearly signposted vineyard tracks just waiting to be walked.

Alsace is worth exploring any time of the year – Lonely Planet singled out the region as one of its top ten must-visit destinations for 2010 – but autumn is my favourite. The vineyards, alive with the buzz of vendangeurs, tractors and trailers, burst into glorious shades of red, yellow and orange. Down in the villages, promising smells of newly fermenting must are busy fighting it out with insistent aromas of tarte à l’oignon, the new season’s choucroute and plump sweet plum tarts in yeasty pastry.

The difficulty lies in deciding which villages and vineyards to focus on. The Route des Vins stretches 170 kilometres from Thann in the south to Marlenheim in the north, and there are 47 sentiers viticoles to choose from. Clear a space on the kitchen table, spread out the panoramic map published by CIVA and fix on a couple of strategic points along the route, one in the Haut-Rhin and another in the Bas-Rhin with a sidestep to Strasbourg at the end. You’ll need a car to get there and to move around (and to stow your purchases), but once installed you can hang up your keys, take off on foot and enjoy getting up-close-and-personal with some world-famous vineyards.
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HAUT-RHIN

Riquewihr has plenty going for it despite the fact that in high summer it can feel a bit like Disneyland, with crowds thronging its narrow cobbled streets. It has great winegrowers, good places to stay and eat, and a magnificent 15-kilometre Sentier Viticole des Grands Crus which links up with five neighbouring villages and takes you through some of the Haut-Rhin’s most celebrated vineyards.

Take refuge in one of the suites that local chef and entrepreneur Jean-Luc Brendel has conjured out of the shell of a classic, beamy, 16th-century house on the main street – strategically placed opposite Hugel’s famous, wood-panelled tasting parlour. Or for a longer stay, consider renting Le Cottage, a love nest/luxury gîte tucked away on the edge of the village with its own garden and tiny pool.

From here you can pick up the wine trail, which goes right past the gate of Le Cottage. Keep your eyes peeled as you wander the back road from Riquewihr to Hunawihr. In one of the vineyards to your left you may spot some shaggy sheep grazing at the foot of the vines; closer inspection reveals small sandstone markers engraved with the name Clos Windsbuhl and the Zind-Humbrecht name and coat of arms. This is where the famous domaine’s Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris are born. A little further on in the village of Hunawihr, spread out at the foot of the beautiful old church (above) like a sort of apron is the Clos Sainte Hune vineyard, wholly owned by Trimbach and responsible for what is widely regarded not just as Alsace’s finest Riesling but one of the world’s great white wines.

Set your sights now on Zellenberg, perched on its hill and a landmark for miles around. If the timing is right and tummies are beginning to rumble, the cosy, low-ceilinged Auberge du Froehn (see below) does an excellent-value lunch menu. Or if picnicking is more your thing and the weather is on your side, follow the trail out of Zellenberg into the radiantly sunny Sonnenglanz Grand Cru vineyard,  settle down with your provisions and savour the commanding views of the Rhine plain and the Black Forest range etched on the eastern skyline.

Down in Beblenheim – which has almost as many superb, pastel-coloured, timber-framed houses as Riquewihr and far fewer people – the trail takes you past the gate of Bott-Geyl, a spirited organic/biodynamic domaine that’s worth a visit. If you missed their vines in Sonnenglanz you can catch up with them the other side of the village in tiny Mandelberg, named after the almond trees (Mandeln) that flourish alongside the vines. From here you’re on the home stretch to Riquewihr, passing through the famous Sporen vineyard, birthplace of some of Hugel’s finest wines.

Pause at the entrance to Riquewihr at newcomer Domaine Agapé for a well-earned taste of Vincent Sipp’s expressive Pinot Blanc-Auxerrois blend or his sunny, fruit-laden Helios Gewurztraminer before subsiding into your hotel. There’s plenty of choice for dinner but standouts are the trendy Brendelstub brasserie/grill (left) for meat and fish from the grill or wood-fired oven, and the cosy Sarment d’Or up the road for reliably good, genuine Alsatian cooking.
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BAS-RHIN AND STRASBOURG

Heading north into the Bas-Rhin, Andlau makes a good perch, with some fine Renaissance houses, an imposing Romanesque abbey and three Grand Cru vineyards – Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg – that have long been celebrated for their racy Rieslings. In between deepening your acquaintance with this great, undervalued, misunderstood grape, you can take off on the Circuit Piémont Viticole to nearby Barr or Mittelbergheim as the mood and weather dictate.

Stay a couple of nights at the Domaine des Marronniers in Guy and Marta Wach’s B&B, or at the Hotel Zinck next door. Either way you’ll have time for two leisurely tastings chez Wach: one entirely Riesling-focused, so you can compare the terroir effect of the different Grand Cru vineyards and another devoted to their remaining grape varieties.

In the morning, set your sights on Barr, starting with a steepish climb to the ‘kiosque’ on the Kastelberg, a vantage point high above Andlau. It’s worth it for the bird’s-eye views of the rooftops, out over the surrounding vineyards to the plain of Alsace and – on clear days – across to the Black Forest. You get quite a different perspective walking through the orderly rows of vines of the Kastelberg and Wiebelsberg when the taste of the terroir is still with you from the night before. Once you’ve gained height from the village, the trail heads north towards the ruined Château du Haut-Andlau and eastwards in a leisurely loop to Barr at the foot of Grand Cru Kirchberg.

A top tip in Barr is Au Potin (left) where Hervé Duhamel mixes classic brasserie dishes and bright new creations, with an intriguing selection of wines by the glass from winegrowing friends and neighbours (André Ostertag, Lucas Rieffel, Patrick Meyer et al). While in Barr, if you can squeeze past the tractors and trailers into the impossibly narrow, higgledy-piggledy courtyard of Domaine Hering (“during the vendanges it’s a bit ‘rock ‘n roll here!” smiles Fabienne Hering apologetically) you’ll be rewarded with a taste of their flowery Rosenegert. It’s made from four different varieties, co-planted and vinified together – Riesling for freshness, Gewurz for the floral notes, Pinot Gris to give weight and Muscat for what Fabienne calls ‘le croquant’ (crunchiness).

Next day you can strike out the other way, through the Moenchberg (‘monk’s hill’) vineyard to Mittelbergheim, whose rue Principale is lined with superb pink sandstone winegrower houses. You’re assured of a warm welcome at Domaine André Rieffel – and a taste of their low-yielding, old-vine Pinot Blanc (imported by Berry Bros) will sharpen the appetite for a feuilleté chaud du vigneron, a warm, flaky-crusted pork pie from Winstub Gilg (right). It brings tears of delight to the eyes of visiting wine importers (David Berry included). From here ask anyone to point you in the direction of the Zotzenberg vineyard, famous for fine Sylvaner, from where you can wend your way back to Andlau.

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After viticulture and vineyard trails, the urban culture of Strasbourg beckons. Forget the motorway, take the country road through the Couronne d’Or, a golden crown of vineyards west of the city, pausing for a final visit to Domaine Pfister in Dahlenheim where daughter Melanie makes DWWA-winning Rieslings and a fragrant, glass-stoppered blend of four noble varieties called Cuvée 8 – she’s the eighth generation to make wine at the domaine.

This approach from the west would deliver you almost to the door of the delicious Hotel-Restaurant Chut in Strasbourg’s Petite France quarter – except that driving anywhere in the medieval centre is a lost cause. Abandon the car in the Petite France car park (close to the glass/granite Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain) and take instructions from the cheerful hotel staff who are well used to directing bewildered visitors to their door.

At this southwestern corner of the city, the river Ill opens up two arms which encircle and embrace the old town. This is the Grande-Ile, the medieval heart of the city, inscribed in its entirety on the UNESCO World Heritage list as a unique example of domestic Rhenish architecture. You can glide around the island sealed inside a bateau-mouche with headphones clamped over your ears but it’s a lot more fun to walk the quais that encircle the city at your own pace. That way you can marvel at the town houses that line the river bank, visit the tiny Musée Alsacien on the Quai St Nicolas and stock up on take-home goodies at the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market on the Place du Marché aux Poissons.

After the press of people milling in and around the magnificent, single-spired, pink sandstone Gothic cathedral, it’s good to catch your breath and still your soul in the tiny medieval garden of the Musée de l’Oeuvre next door. And if you’ve time for one more church, it should be St Pierre-le-Jeune at the top end of the island, for its fading frescoes and Romanesque cloister.

When you’ve pounded cobbled streets and overdosed on great museums, exuberant cathedral sculptures and intricately carved timber-framed houses, settle down at L’Atelier du Goût on the rue des Tonneliers. Here, Esther Morabito’s dazzling smile and pertinent wine advice together with her husband’s sunny cuisine will soon set the world to rights. Sign off with dinner back at Chut, where the chef’s great little menu breaks resolutely with the über-touristy Petite France’s customary choucroute/tarte flambée model and sets off in its own deliciously quirky Mediterranean/Asian/Latin American direction.

SLEEP, EAT, TASTE

Le B.Espace Suites and Le Cottage, Riquewihr
Tel. 03 89 86 54 55, http://www.jlbrendel.com

Hugel & Fils, Riquewihr
Tel. 03 89 47 92 15, http://www.hugel.com

Auberge du Froehn, Zellenberg
Tel. 03 89 47 81 57

Domaine Bott-Geyl, Beblenheim
Tel. 03 89 47 90 04, http://www.bott-geyl.com

Domaine Agapé, Riquewihr
Tel. 03 89 47 94 23, http://www.alsace-agape.fr

Hotel Sarment d’Or, Riquewihr
Tel. 03 88 96 02 86, http://riquewihr-sarment-dor.fr/index/fr/

Winstub Gilg, Mittelbergheim
Tel. 03 88 08 91 37, http://www.hotel-gilg.com

Domaine André Rieffel, Mittelbergheim
03 88 08 95 48, http://www.andrerieffel.com

Domaine Hering, Barr
Tel. 03 88 08 90 07, http://www.vins-hering.com

Restaurant-Café-Brasserie Au Potin, Barr
Tel. 03 88 08 88 84, http://www.aupotin.com
Domaine des Marronniers, Andlau
Tel. 03 88 08 95 48, http://www.guy-wach.fr

Le Zinck Hotel, Andlau
Tel. 03 88 08 27 30, http://www.zinckhotel.com

Domaine Pfister, Dahlenheim
Tel. 03 88 50 66 32, http://www.domaine-pfister.com

Hotel-Restaurant Chut, 4 rue du Bain aux Plantes, Strasbourg
Tel. 03 88 32 05 06, http://www.hote-strasbourg.fr

L’Atelier du Goût, 17 rue des Tonneliers, Strasbourg
Tel. 03 88 21 01 01, http://www.atelier-du-gout.fr

For more ideas on where to stay, eat and taste in Alsace, check out Wine Travel Guides and click on the Alsace microregions

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OENOALSACE TASTING DINNERS

Every four months or so, Thierry Meyer of the Alsace wine website www.oenoalsace.com and formerly Alsace specialist for Bettane and Dessauve’s Grand Guide des Vins de France, organises a tasting-dinner at the Taverne Alsacienne in Ingersheim near Colmar.

The dinners are publicised in advance on the website and open to all comers, though there are preferential rates for subscribers. Chef Jean-Philippe Guggenbuhl’ s menu is always closely attuned to the season and Thierry Meyer selects some of Alsace’s best and most interesting bottles to match. It’s a fun, instructive, delicious and fairly priced event, and if we’re around and there’s space (participation is limited to 12 people), we sign up. Fellow diners/tasters include wine growers, off-duty sommeliers, visiting wine importers – and interested punters like us.

Themes vary but to give you an idea, in the winter months the focus was game (gibier) with an impressive range of Alsace Pinots Noirs. In early spring, the title was Accords Printaniers (‘Spring Matches’) and Jean-Philippe’s seasonal menu was twinned with four flights of sprightly wines from Alsace, both white and red.

To wet (or is it ‘whet’?) the whistle there was a freshly bottled 2010 Pinot Blanc Mise de Printemps from Josmeyer, a 26ha biodynamic estate in Wintzenheim. Jean Meyer pioneered a primeur bottling of Pinot Blanc and over the years it’s become a sort of harbinger of spring in Alsace. It’s designed to be drunk young, but nevertheless has real substance (Auxerrois dominates in most vintages), gorgeously fruity and zesty.

With pan-fried duck foie gras with local strawberries and a sternly reduced meat jus came two Pinot Gris: an ‘05 Altenbourg Cuvée Laurence from Domaine Weinbach in Kaysersberg and a ‘91 Grand Cru Furstentum from Paul Blanck. Of the two, the ample, smoky, citrussy character of the Altenbourg won out over the Furstentum, still lively 20 years on but struggling to cope with the challenge posed by caramelised foie, sweet-sour strawberries and a meaty reduction.

A flight of three wines was proposed with Jean-Philippe’s fricassee of white and green asparagus and fresh morels bathed in a lightly creamy morel-infused juice: an ‘07 Muscat from Frédéric Mochel in Traenheim; a 2000 Riesling Grand Cru Steingrubler from Barmès Buecher in Wettolsheim and a Rolly-Gassmann 2000 Riesling Rorschwihr Cuvée Yves. Of the three wines, Mochel’s Muscat – pure orange-blossom delight from this great grower in the Couronne d’Or vineyards near Strasbourg – demonstrated the beauty and logic of the Muscat-asparagus partnering so beloved in Alsace, and won the most-fit-for-purpose vote. A ripple of expectation ran around the table that the slightly oxidised notes of the deep golden Steingrubler Riesling might work well with the morels (on the poulet au vin jaune/morilles principle) but effectively they overpowered the dish. As for the characteristically voluptuous Rolly-Gassmann Riesling, it was a blooming delight, its residual sugars settling down beautifully after 11 years in bottle but, like the Steingrubler, just a little over the top for the delicately creamed asparagus/morel combo.

The tiny Pyrenean lambs sacrificed for our main course (three were needed for our table of 12) brought forth three Pinots Noirs: Laurent Barth’s ‘09 ‘M’ (i.e. grown in Grand Cru Marckrain, but not entitled to say so because Pinot Noir is not one of the four permitted GC varieties), Paul Blanck’s ’96 ‘F’ (i.e. grown in Grand Cru Furstentum, same story) and Armand Hurst’s ’02 Vieilles Vignes. At this stage of proceedings things (including my photography) became a bit hazy – blame it on the excellence of the dinner, the company and the wide-ranging and stimulating conversations, which are by no means exclusively wine-geeky. I do remember being impressed – again – with Laurent Barth’s Pinot Noir, the baby of the bunch (’09), which shone with the crusty baby lamb and infant spring veggies.

To go with Jean-Philippe’s dessert of lightly poached spears of rhubarb lined up with a vanilla-flavoured mousse and topped with strawberry sorbet, Thierry finally offered three late harvested wines: a Riesling Grand Cru Zinnkoepflé ’09 from Agathe Bursin, a Gewurz ’05 from Paul Spannagel and a Gewurz ’02, also Zinnkoepflé, from Eric Rominger. The standout of the three was Agathe Bursin’s late-harvest Riesling, whose delicate, floral notes echoed those of the dessert. The two Gewurzes, luscious and yet understated, were simply too assertive (“better with blue cheese or Munster – and no caraway seeds!” was one verdict.)

The business of food and wine matching is highly subjective and by nature inconclusive, but one thing shone out: the wines that worked best with the delicate, classically French spring menu were without exception the younger ones: PG Altenbourg ’05 from the formidable Fallers, Guillaume Mochel’s gorgeous ’07 Muscat, Laurent Barth’s infant ’09 Pinot Noir and Agathe Bursin’s delectable ’09 VT Riesling from Zinnkoepflé.

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ANNUAL OPEN DAY AT THE MURE WINERY

One of the firm fixtures in our Advent calendar in Alsace is the Muré winery’s journée découverte, held every year in early December at their estate just outside the beautiful town of Rouffach. The whole Muré team, including René Muré (left), daughter Véronique, son Thomas, winemaker Anne and a host of smiling employees, are on hand to welcome guests, explain the workings of the vineyard and the cellar and proffer samplings of the current vintage. There’s a joyful buzz of tasters – young families enjoying a Sunday out, Christmas party planners sizing up the fine bubbles of Muré’s creditable crémant, wine buffs busy stocking up the cellar and Christmas cooks in search of a spectacular late harvest offering to accompany the festive foie gras.

The domaine comprises 23 hectares of vines, of which 15 are enclosed within the Clos St Landelin, a vineyard of great antiquity that’s rises up (right) behind the property, solely owned by the Muré family since the 1930s. René is increasingly sharing responsibilities with daughter Véronique and son Thomas – they’re the 12th generation of the family to be active at the domaine. The estate converted to organic in 1999. “With the move to organics we began to see more minerality, more terroir, less obvious influence from the grape variety” comments winemaker Anne.

There’s a generous range of wines on offer at the journée découverte (there’s no charge, but it’s understood that you will take this opportunity to buy wine). First comes the entry-level Signature range (grapes bought in by Muré), followed by four different crémants (Cuvée Prestige, a blend of all the Alsace Pinots + Riesling, is a favourite of ours). Then there are the so-called ‘vins de terroir’, from grapes grown in Muré vineyards including the Côte de Rouffach range and wines from Grand Cru Vorbourg and Clos St-Landelin. All the white varieties are represented, though look out especially for Muré’s Sylvaner Cuvée Oscar. René Muré was one of the earliest to see the potential of this formerly unloved, overworked grape.

Red wine is also – unusually for Alsace – well represented here. René Muré, an unconditional fan of Burgundy, is one of a handful of Alsace growers to make a serious stab at Pinot Noir. (He points out that during the 17th and 18th centuries, red wines from selected vineyards close to Rouffach, and most notably those from the stony, well-drained, south-facing Clos St Landelin, always commanded higher prices than white wines.) Muré makes three levels of Pinot Noir, starting with the sympathique, uncomplicated, fruity Côte de Rouffach, then the more extracted, lightly oaked Pinot Noir ‘V’ (grown in Grand Cru Vorbourg) and finally the fragrant, fully ripe, elegantly structured Clos St Landelin.

Not content with offering a generous range of wines for tasting, René Muré also invites jovial cheesemonger Jacky Quesnot (right) to bring along some of his cheeses to match four or five of the house wines. Quesnot is not alone in considering that in at least 80% of cases, white wines accord better with cheese than red. Accordingly, to go with a creamy, finely acidic Chaource he proposed Muré’s 07 vintage Crémant (“to cut through the richness”), while a crisp, minerally Côte de Rouffach Riesling worked beautifully with an unctuous, bloomy-rinded goat’s cheese from les Deux-Sèvres named Mothais sur feuille (new to me). There was a classic pairing of Gewurz (also from the Clos) with Quesnot’s well alveolated, not too stinky Munster (made by Didier Humbert) while a honeyed, botrytised Pinot Gris Sélection de Grains Nobles was just the thing with a delicately salted, moist and mildly crumbly Roquefort Vernières. There was one red, of course: Pinot Noir Clos St Landelin, whose ripe tannins had more than enough gumption to cope with a rich, complex sheep’s milk Ossau Iraty from the Pyrenees.

René Muré
Clos St Landelin
68250 Rouffach
03 89 78 58 00
rene@mure.com
www.mure.com

Jacky Quesnot
32 rue de la Fabrique
68530 Buhl
03 89 24 90 45
www.fromagerie-st-nicolas.com
(Also present in Colmar at Fromagerie St Nicolas, 18 rue St Nicolas; in covered market rue de la Poissonerie and Marché St Joseph (Saturday); Thursday evening market in Buhl; Friday market in Guebwiller; Thursday and Saturday in covered market Mulhouse)

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ANNUAL ALSACE GRAND CRU PRESENTATION, CHATEAU DE KIENTZHEIM

Every year at the beginning of November, CIVA (Alsace’s professional wine association) invites the region’s winegrowers to present their Grand Cru wines at the Château de Kientzheim near Colmar. It’s a two-day event: Sunday is for the general public, Monday is for professionals and the media. It’s an excellent opportunity not only to taste Grand Cru wines from the length and breadth of the Route des Vins, but also to meet their makers.

A bit of background: right from the start, when the Alsace AOC designation first came into being in 1962, there was talk of a Grand Cru system to single out the best terroirs. The Comité de Délimitation des Grands Crus was duly set up, presided over initially by Johnny Hugel. Its work led in 1983 to a list of 25 Grand Cru vineyards. Twenty-five more followed in 1992, plus a twenty-sixth (Kaefferkopf) in 2008, making a total of 51 today. Today Grands Crus represent about 10% of the total AOC Alsace production – about 1,500ha out of the 15,300ha under vine.

The Grand Cru designation (basically reserved for Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer) came in for plenty of flak right from the start. For many (including Hugel, who later resigned, dismayed at the direction things were taking), the rules on yields, minimum alcohol levels and must weights were hopelessly over-indulgent. However, even the system’s critics acknowledge that good work has since been done to tighten these up.
The most serious criticism was (and remains) of the Grand Cru vineyard boundaries, deemed to have been drawn too widely. And then there was the ‘me-too’ phenomenon: every village along the Route des Vins wanted (and generally got) its Grand Cru, regardless of real merit. To paraphrase George Orwell, all Grands Crus are equal, but some are more equal than others.

All this controversy and chitchat going on in the background makes the annual CIVA tasting an interesting and worthwhile event. Producers are scattered among three rooms in the Château, grouped geographically by GC vineyard, so side by side you’ll find wine makers with vines growing in the same GC vineyard – fun if you want to try and get a handle on the different terroirs and what they may contribute to the characteristics of a wine. I marked my card in advance (the catalogue is beautifully laid out, with the name of each producer/Grand Cru, its geology, the wines to be presented and lots of space for notes), then spent a fruitful couple of hours working my way around the three rooms meeting old friends/wines, discovering new ones and making a mental note of the ones I was sorry to have missed.

Two questions worth asking: does the GC label guarantee a better wine, qualitatively speaking? And is there a consistent vineyard style specific to each Grand Cru that can be correlated to the specific terroir? On the quality question, these wines certainly come from the best parcels of the best vineyards, but – to state the obvious – that’s not per se a guarantee of quality; the skill of the wine maker and the choices she/he makes at every stage of the process are just as important. As for terroir and whether one can identify a consistent vineyard style, the jury is out. I’m no expert, but (pace the region’s arch-terroiristes, who would vehemently disagree) my hunch is that the wine maker’s mark is generally more clearly visible than the terroir.

I had happy re-encounters with…

Riesling Altenberg de Bergbieten, Cuvée Henriette (i.e. Vieilles Vignes) from Frédéric Mochel (Traenheim)
Riesling Altenberg de Bergbieten from Roland Schmitt (Bergbieten)
Riesling Engelberg from Mélanie Pfister (Dahlenheim)
Riesling and Muscat Bruderthal from Gérard Neumeyer (Molsheim)
Riesling, Gewurz and Pinot Gris Froehn from Martine Becker (Zellenberg)
Gewurz Mambourg from Jean-Marc Bernhard (Katzenthal)
Riesling (various cuvees) Wineck-Schlossberg from Félix Meyer-Fonné
Pinot Gris Hengst from Josmeyer (Wintzenheim)
Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurz from René Muré (Rouffach)
Rieslings from Saering, Spiegel and Kitterlé from Dirler-Cadé (Bergholtz) – plus enlightenment on characteristics of each from the lovely Ludivine

I was delighted to discover (or re-discover)…

Gewurztraminer Altenberg de Wolxheim from Clément Lissner (Wolxheim)
Pinot Gris Engelberg from Domaine Etienne Loew
Rieslings Osterberg and Kirchberg from Louis Sipp (Ribeauvillé)
Riesling Rosacker from Cave Vinicole Hunawihr
Muscat Pfersigberg Vendanges Tardives (VTs still faithfully named Cuvée Caroline) from Kuentz-Bas (Husseren-les-Châteaux)
Pinot Gris and Gewurz Zinnkoepfle from Domaine Paul Kubler (Soultzmatt)

And I’m sorry to have missed…

Domaine Bechtold (Dahlenheim)
Ernest Burn, Clos St Imer (Gueberschwihr)

For details of many of the above producers and their wines, go to the Alsace sections of Wine Travel Guides, written and regularly updated by me.

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FOOD AND WINE MATCHING WITH MADAME FALLER ET SES FILLES

[first published in Decanter]

Trying to find a date when Madame Faller – et ses filles – can pause to prepare and enjoy a meal matched with wines from the Domaine Weinbach turns out to be a tall order.  While Colette Faller is most often to be found holding the fort at their beautiful walled property just outside Kaysersberg in Alsace, both her daughters notch up countless frequent-traveller miles each year promoting the Domaine’s wines. But sandwiched somewhere between Catherine’s return from Japan and Laurence’s imminent departure for Sweden, we manage to assemble the Faller team.

After lively discussion with input from all the family, we’ve settled on a menu of Alsace classics: a brilliant green parsley soup loaded with garlicky snails followed by coq au Riesling with ribbon noodles, both dishes designed to complement the fine white wines of the Domaine. ‘When you get a good match between the wines and the food’, observes Laurence, ‘each is enhanced.’ For pudding there’ll be a proper Alsatian tarte aux pommes, the kind customarily dusted with icing sugar and displayed on the kitchen dresser beneath rows of Kugelhopf moulds and Soufflenheim pottery dishes, ready for bidden (or unexpected) guests.

The Domaine Weinbach kitchen, wood-panelled and festooned with highly polished copper pots hanging from great old oak beams, is reminiscent of the one in the Musée Alsacien in Strasbourg – except that a real family lives, works, cooks and eats here. A venerably wonky white enamelled wood-fired stove crackles and roars away merrily in anticipation of today’s feast.

First we get the chicken underway. ‘It’s a great dish for showing off your best Riesling. For the sauce we’ll finish off a couple of the bottles we had out for a tasting yesterday. And to drink with it…’ – here Laurence pauses for a discussion with her mother as to which to fetch from the cave: a Grand Cru Schlossberg 2004, from the uppermost slopes of this famous, steeply banked vineyard, just visible from the kitchen window? Or a 2003 Cuvée Sainte Catherine from 60 year-old vines, this time from the middle slopes? Cathy is inclined to favour the 2004, a vintage that’s showing even more promise than the tropical 2003, when the classic aromas, elegant balance and good acidity that normally characterise the grape came under threat from the shimmering heat. In the end we decide to put both wines through their paces with the finished dish and see which works best.

‘Ideally, they say you should put your best Riesling in the pot as well as on the table,’ continues Laurence. ‘We’re a bit spoiled with our leftovers – they’ll be perfect for the sauce. But even if you can’t run to a Grand Cru Schlossberg’, she adds with a smile, ‘it should be a drinkable wine – you can’t make a fine coq au Riesling with vinegar!’

We season the chicken pieces, brown them in sizzling oil and butter in a capacious black cast-iron casserole and set them aside.  Next the shallots are gently softened and the chicken pieces returned to the pan, followed by a good glug of Schlossberg and the finely sliced mushrooms. On goes the lid and we leave the pan to bubble away gently on a corner of the stove.

Next it’s the turn of the apple tart. Burnished Boskoop apples from the nearby La Pommeraie orchard are peeled, cored, finely sliced and fanned out decoratively in the pastry. Always start off the baking in a very hot oven, recommends Madame Faller, so the pastry gets thoroughly cooked through. Once this step is taken care of, the heat will be reduced and the creamy egg custard (which might separate into leathery-watery layers at too high a temperature) added for the final 15 minutes’ baking. Presently, sweet smells of spicy, buttery apples and pastry start sneaking out of the oven door.

Occasionally one of the Faller ladies disappears into the oak-panelled front room next door. The Domaine is open for tastings by appointment and there’s a steady trickle of visitors throughout the day. Today a member of the Confrérie de Saint Etienne, Alsace’s oldest wine brotherhood, arrives to collect some special bottles for the Confrérie’s celebrated cellar.

Our final task is to get busy on the soup. Cathy has commandeered armfuls of flat-leaf parsley and chervil from Kaysersberg’s Monday morning farmers’ market. Laurence has ordered snails from the Huss family’s ferme hélicole (snail farm) just up above Orbey in the foothills of the Vosges.

Snails are not only a speciality of Alsace, they also have a long and illustrious history at the Domaine. In pre-Revolutionary days, any self-respecting monastery or château had its own escargotière – a damp repository where the snails were fattened up. The escargotières at the Domaine Weinbach were especially celebrated, and provided a welcome source of income for the Capuchin friars whose monastery occupied the site in former times.

There follows a lively discussion about which wine will best accompany the soup. ‘A Muscat?’ muses Cathy, evoking its nervy fruitiness and slightly bitter finish, which should work well with the garlicky gasteropods. On the other hand, the Domaine’s delightfully aromatic yet dry Sylvaner – a world away from the sharp, thin wines that this workhorse grape generally produces – is sounded out as an alternative. Again we opt to try both, and focus on the soup.

A big pan of stock reaches a bubbling boil and huge handfuls of herbs are plunged in for several minutes – long enough to tenderise them but not so long that they lose their brilliant verdant colour. The pan is drawn aside and the contents blended smooth with a hand-held blender. In a separate pan the snails are tossed in butter with a promiscuous quantity of finely chopped garlic.  The last step will be to smooth and enrich the soup with a shot of cream.

We gather hungrily around the huge oak refectory table. The soup is ladled into bowls and topped with a handful of snails, Muscat is poured into one Riedel glass, Sylvaner into another. There’s a reflective silence, punctuated by gentle slurpings and contented sighs. The verdict on the first two wines? There’s general agreement that the Muscat picks up ‘le petit côté végétal’ of the snails in their herby broth – ‘that’s one of the reasons why it works so well with asparagus too’, observes Cathy.  On the other hand, the Sylvaner proves to be a surprisingly successful alternative, its ripe fruitiness quite a match for the green and garlicky soup. We offer token protest at the idea of second helpings, then capitulate gracefully – especially when Laurence recommends an alternative finishing touch: a splash of Muscat directly into the soup.

As the coq au Riesling comes to table we bend low over the fragrant golden pieces of chicken topped with piles of mushrooms and inhale the classic aromas of Alsace. As anticipated, of the two Rieslings tasted, the extraordinarily aromatic, multi-faceted 2004 Schlossberg has it over the smoother, more one-dimensional 2003.

Before we graduate to apple tart, a ripe Munster from Monsieur Dodin in Lapoutroie is slipped in, partnered with a spicy Altenbourg Gewurztraminer – here the fabulously rich 2003 rises to the occasion with this feisty local cheese. The final riposte is a Pinot Gris, a Selection de Grains Nobles 2002 from the Altenbourg vineyard again. Received wisdom about SGNs being inappropriate with any kind of food comes under attack as we sip gratefully at this precious nectar, interspersed with mouthfuls of golden apples in crisp buttery pastry.

In the space of one memorable meal with its richly assorted palette of flavours – herbs, garlic, snails, white meat in a creamy wine sauce, a powerful cheese, sweet-sharp apples – we’ve sampled a Muscat, a Sylvaner, two Rieslings, a Gewurztraminer and a Pinot Gris from various vintages and different degrees of ripeness. ‘The thing about our wines – and all the wines of Alsace’, concludes Laurence with understandable satisfaction, ‘is they’re so food-friendly – there’s one for every dish and every kind of cuisine.’

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6 thoughts on “France

  1. hello, i have recently moved house and have lost madam faller’s recipe for an alsace tart which is a personal tragedy as it is so delicious. i tried to make it from memory and it was a disaster! please can you help? anticipated thanks….

  2. I just read about your new cheese book (it’s now on my Christmas wish list), and coincidentally started looking into wine producers to visit on part of next year’s trip to France. I saw your stories about Alsace and Beaujolais, but I was wondering if you have any info about the Bugey region. We’re planning to pick up a car in Lyon and drive to a gite near Chablis, and thought we’d stop in Bugey and/or the Macon area on the way (or slightly out of the way). Since Bugey is not that far from Switzerland, I thought you might have some tips. Thanks.

    • Hi Bob – delighted to know my cheese book is on your Christmas wish list, hope Santa does his stuff :-) I can give you some pointers on the Maconnais/Cote Chalonnaise but don’t know beans about the Bugey – for this you need Wink Lorch, who writes extensively on both Savoie and the Jura. You can reach her via http://www.winetravelguides.com – if not, come back to me and I’ll put you in touch directly. Send me a mail and we can communicate on the Maconnais at least. Sue

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