Category Archives: Food & Wine

Languedoc-Roussillon: 1+1 = 1

This rather lengthy backgrounder sets the stage for a study tour of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region hosted by Wine Scholar Guild. Renowned wine writer Andrew Jefford will lead this tour October 14-19. Stay tuned for trip highlights!

languedoc_map_thedrinksbusinessPhoto Credit: TheDrinksBusiness.com

I have fished endlessly in deep pools of information – online and in resource books – with no luck in uncovering an explanation (in English), of exactly why the Languedoc and Roussillon regions were combined administratively in 1972. Was wine trade the big driver?

Consider this timeline. In the early 1900s, the first French wine cooperative was formed near Montpellier. By the 1930s, cooperatives had become very popular throughout France, giving groups of small growers the scale of operations they needed to become producers. Unfortunately, quantity prevailed over quality. Thus was born a perhaps unfortunate era in Languedoc-Roussillon history: producing bulk table wine just as demand for quality was on the rise.

Then, in 1968, a new wine classification called Vins de Pays was created to allow for experimentation and innovation outside the strict boundaries of the AOC system. In a list of many firsts, Languedoc and Roussillon vigorously embraced the new concept right away. Was it a device to avoid the regional fragmentation that has thwarted Southwest France in its quest for a unified brand identity? Perhaps joining administratively was the only way to be able draw and blend grape material from both Languedoc and Roussillon? The fact that 56 different grape varieties are permitted today might be considered a piece of evidence supporting this conclusion. Now called IGP Pay d’Oc – one of 150 IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) designations in France – this Languedoc-Roussillon powerhouse generates 50% of total French wine exports.

It would seem that wine was indeed the big driver. Even so, every wine reference book (and wine writer) begins the story of Languedoc-Roussillon with a plan to discuss the regions separately. Much like the alliance among fractured appellations within Southwest France, the Languedoc-Roussillon is by all accounts really two distinct wine regions spanning five departments (since 2016). Joint administration notwithstanding, they are quite different in many ways.

LANGUEDOC is the “Language of Yes”

Languedoc is situated near the Spanish/French Pyrénées, partially within the Pyrénées-Orientales department. In the Occitan language, “oc” means “yes.” For nearly 500 years, the people of Languedoc have been turning “yes” into “opportunity” with an undaunted spirit of adventure. Just a few firsts from Languedoc include:

  • The monks of Saint-Hilaire “discovered” sparkling wine in 1531 while making Blanquette de Limoux (Mauzac grape) 150 years before Dom Perignon took credit for discovering the bubbles secret in Champagne.
  • Languedoc was the first French wine region to replant vines on American rootstock after the 1863 phylloxera scourge. By 1900, Languedoc had become France’s #1 supplier of wine — at the time nearly half the country’s total.
  • 1905 marked the birth of the first French cooperative in Maraussan near Montpelier.
  • Languedoc was first to adopt the Vin de Pays (IGP) classification of 1968. Today France has more than 150 IGP designations, but by far the most important is IGP Pays d’Oc spanning Languedoc and Roussillon. It is France’s largest wine export.

Historic market pivots have also demonstrated the determination and true grit of the Languedoc people. When the first half of the Canal du Midi opened for business in 1681, Languedoc (and basically all of southern France) was locked out of French and other European markets when merchants from Bordeaux controlled river access. Not easily knocked out of the game, Languedoc stepped up its trade partnership with the Dutch who were prime customers for affordable sweet wine. Score for Languedoc! A little over a century later, production pivoted to dry white wine used as the base to distill brandy for Napoleon’s armies.

Iron-rich (“rousse”) ROUSSILLON

Roussillon is topographically distinct from Languedoc (and many other wine regions). It is surrounded by mountains on three sides, creating the effect of an amphitheater as vines cascade down slopes toward the Mediterranean Sea. Mountains also serve as rain shadows and tunnels of wind from all directions. Roussillon enjoys on average 325 days of sunshine a year, and its mean temperature is the highest in all of France. Seasons are basically compressed from four to two. As the Wine Scholar Guild notes, it is “possible to ski and swim in the same season!” Tall peaks dotting the Pyrénées block Spanish Catalonia from view, but not from the legacy of Catalan language and culture, or from big earthy red wines and slightly oxidized white wines. In fact, Roussillon is still considered to be French Catalogne.

Most of Roussillon’s production (75%) is carried out by 60 cooperative wineries. Roussillon is well known for two things: (1) 80% of France’s total production of Vins Doux Naturels, and (2) more organic and biodynamic producers than any other French region.

An Efficient Bridge…Cooperatives

Cooperatives have traditionally been market leaders in Languedoc-Roussillon, whether it was the boom that came from creating France’s first post-phylloxera cooperative in 1905, or the bust starting in the 1930s that led to a tradition of bulk vin de table production. Innovations in winemaking began to blossom in 1968-79 as new classification rules were developed and eventually formalized to permit broader experimentation outside the appellation system. Wine styles may have changed, but the perception of Languedoc-Roussillon as a provider of plonk hung on for more than 50 years. As the region’s flight to quality took hold in the 1980’s, cooperatives benefited from the competition and technology improvements.

For more than a century, cooperatives have lowered barriers to entry for growers even as the appellation structure was being developed. In Languedoc, the number of AOCs grew from 10 to 50 over the past 35+ years, yet 150 sturdy cooperatives are responsible for 65% of the region’s production. In Roussillon, the story is a bit different. Three of the current 13 AOCs were approved in 1936, initially all for the sweet Vins Doux Naturels. Appellations producing dry white, rosé, and red wines were not established until 1971. But then these two regional stories converge: 75% of Roussillon’s total production comes from 60 cooperative wineries.

According to the French Confederacy of Wine Cooperatives, today there are more than 600 co-ops that collectively produce about half of the wine in France. As nearly all wine cooperatives are members of this federation, it is safe to say that about one-third of them are located in Languedoc-Roussillon.

The future of cooperatives looks bright, once again putting Languedoc-Roussillon into a leadership position. Peter Weltman, the founder of “Borderless Wines,” argues in SevenFiftyDaily (9/3/18) that ”the age of the grower-producer finds many buyers overlooking co-op wines—and missing out…While cooperatives were once startups for survival, the organizations today provide ongoing support for small family farms in grape-growing regions around the world. For Buyers, the wines are valuable for their typicity and breadth.” In an interview with a Greek agricultural official, Weltman heard that “(t)here is no country in the world with an advanced agri-food system where agricultural cooperatives do not play a major role in the main food supply chains.”

In the Wine Economist (7/17/18), Mike Veseth points out that cooperatives account for more than half of all the wine produced in Italy and Spain as well as France. He calls them “invisible wineries,” noting that they are one of the most under-appreciated elements of the global wine trade despite the commercial success of some of the wines. “Cooperatives seem to be under attack to a certain extent…(but) more than anything I think it has been competition that has stirred French cooperatives to raise their game — competition in the retail market and also competition between and among the cooperatives for the declining group of potential grower-members. Competition is disruptive but has obviously been a good thing.”

A Sweet Bridge…Vins Doux Naturels

I have always found the term Vins Doux Naturels (VdN) to be misleading because the wines are actually fortified with neutral grape spirits. (Hardly natural, right?) The fortification process called mutage was discovered in 1285 by Arnau de Vilanova at the University of Montpellier in Languedoc.

Roussillon is the largest producer (80%) of VdNs in France. Other fortified wines are produced only in Languedoc and Rhône. The first three of five total sweet appellations in Roussillon were all founded in 1936: Rivesaltes, Banyuls, and Maury. Dry wine appellations were not established until 1971. The five regions, and their respective styles, are:

Banyuls Grand Cru – red only, primarily Grenache
Muscat de Rivesaltes – white only (Muscat à Petits Grains Blanc and Muscat d’Alexandrie)
Maury – red and white
Rivesaltes – red, white and rosé
Banyuls – red, white and rosé

In Languedoc, there are four appellations for white VdNs only, all made solely from Muscat à Petits Grains Blanc. The four highly regarded Muscat AOCs are Frontignan, Lunel, Mireval, and Saint Jean de Minervois.

VdN fortified wines have a second layer of style differentiation. They are made in two styles: reductive (minimal oxygen, primarily through the use of glass jars called bonbonnes) and oxidative (oxygen encouraged via aging vessels). In Languedoc, all of the VdNs are made in reductive style; there is greater style diversity in Roussillon.

As always when discussing French wines, it is important to know the names of styles and labeling requirements. Rosé VdNs do not have any special or additional style descriptors.

Reductive for red VdNs:

  • Grenat (12 months aging including 3 in bottle)
  • Rimage (2-6 months aging)

Oxidative for red and white VdNs:

  • Ambré – white only – (minimum 20 months aging)
  • Tuilé – red only – (minimum 30 months aging)
  • Hors d’Age – red or white – (“with age” minimum 5 years)
  • Rancio – red or white – (extremely oxidized or maderized, aged more than 5 years)

 

Book Review: Passion for Wine

Passion-for-Wine-Book-Front-Credit-Megan-Steffen

Winemaker Jean-Charles Boisset and Sommelier Marnie Old have written a fascinating book that is part coffee-table gorgeous, part serious wine education with sophisticated infographics, and part brand promotion for the JCB Collection of wineries.

“All that glitters is not gold” (thank you Shakespeare) in this sparkling tour of French and American wine. It is a waltz across sensory experience amplified by some super-serious sections on growing grapes and making wine. Though characterized by Boisset and Old as a book meant to quash the intimidation factor for novices, as well as inspire exploration by all levels of wine afficionados, in less than 200 pages they have achieved a fairly comprehensive — yet entertaining — coverage of the topic of wine.

There is something in this book for everyone, regardless of how much you already know about wine. Marnie Old says it best when describing the personality of “Passion for Wine”: she’s a little bit Sesame Street, he’s a little bit Sex and the City.

I have three personal favorite chapters, starting with #1 covering the history of wine in France and the United States.

This chapter is a short story of origin about quality wine. Sure, there is evidence that wine was made before the first recorded history in France around 6000 BC. Greeks and Romans vie for first-place honors here. But almost everything about wine today can trace its origins to France.

The links and parallels between France and the U.S. are interesting and important, explaining much of what consumers experience in the global wine industry today. Jean-Charles Boisset embodies this connection, describing himself as “rooted in Burgundy with the spark of California.” The maps of France (and the rest of Europe) and the U.S. (plus the rest of the New World, mostly in the Southern Hemisphere) are easy to digest. If you avoid delving into history because it’s usually too tedious to pore over all the gory details of politics, war, religion, nobility, economic crises, crippling vine diseases, industry pioneers, and more — well then, this book’s for you in a deft 17 pages (including the beautiful intro photo).  

Chapter 5 is a wonderfully clear rendering of the vitis vinifera grape varieties that are well known to wine lovers on an international scale:  “France’s royal family.” Perhaps with the greatest of ironic twists, these grape varieties are grown almost everywhere in the world. Everyone knows Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, right? Their familiar names appear on labels. But not in France. What?!? You just have to know that Chablis is really Chardonnay, or that red Burgundy is Pinot Noir, and that red Bordeaux is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot (plus partners). Eight of the major varieties, three blending partners, and American Zinfandel, are profiled in this chapter. One of the coolest charts in the entire book, called “The Best of the Rest,” is on page 123.

And finally, the chapter on pairing wine with food with hints for home entertaining is most helpful. Marnie Old provides a straightforward somm’s introduction to glassware, decanters, serving temperature, and cellaring tips. Although a portion of the chapter is described as advanced, I found all of matching principles to be clear and simple, including recommendations for serving wine with vegetables, “wine killer” salad dressing, seafood, and meat/poultry. Bottom line: pair wine to the cooking flavors, not the protein. You could make a fun and successful wine pairing dinner or party if you only read this chapter!

I’m skipping lightly over Chapters 2, 3, and 4, and feeling a bit guilty about it. They are well done, lots of cool graphics, but perhaps try to accomplish too much for this book in conveying technical knowledge in the vast arenas of growing grapes, making wine, tasting wine, assessing wine, understanding styles of wine, and more. All that said, I have to make a special mention of Chapter 4. If you love looking at old photos of cinema’s leading ladies like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn, then this chapter alone is a compelling reason to buy the book.

Jean-Charles Boisset and his family own 26 wineries: 16 in France, 8 in California, and one each in Canada and England. A dozen of the wineries are profiled in the book, complete with gorgeous photos, including the artful modernization of Buena Vista and Raymond in California, and the traditional preservation of the winery founded by JCB’s father in Burgundy.

“Passion for Wine” is available for purchase online (and shipping to most states) from JCB Collection by clicking here.

 

Tuscan Food and Wine Pairings

 

Pici Pasta

‘Tis the season to be eating (and drinking) well! The traditional food and great wines of Tuscany will add depth and warmth to your holiday entertaining!

Enjoy this piece written for French Wine Explorers, and check out the new tour of Tuscany and Piedmont in September 2018.

http://www.wine-tours-france.com/tuscan-wine-and-food-pairings/

Photo credit Pinterest

Introducing “Ask Kathy”

ask-kathy

The world of wine can be intimidating. Where should I shop? Which wine goes best with a certain meal or cuisine, or favorite cheese? What is Carménère? Where is Irouleguy? What’s the best itinerary to enjoy the wines of Tuscany? Why is Pinot Noir so difficult to grow? Where can I take wine classes, and which type of education is best for me? Is Soave and place or a grape? Can you help me “translate” a German wine label? And so it goes…

This is an experiment to gauge interest among readers in addition to my immediate friendship network (and to try using WordPress as the vehicle)! If you have a question, just fill out the “leave a reply” comment box on the “Ask Kathy” page of my website (or use this post), and I will get back to you as quickly as I can.

Photo credit: http://www.geomarketing.com

Traditional Southwest France: Malbec and Tannat

Historic Regions of Southwest France (Photo courtesy of hubertbrooks.com

Historic Regions of Southwest France
(Photo courtesy of hubertbrooks.com)

Political History

The political history of wine in Bordeaux explains in part why the appellations of Southwest France’s “high country” are hidden in its popular shadow. At times called Gascogne (including Béarn) and Aquitaine, today Southwest France is called l’Occitainie administratively.

Bordeaux was controlled by England from 1154 to 1453. This period proved to be a golden era for wine exports to England, Scandinavia, and Baltic ports, laying the foundation for Bordeaux’s enduring reputation as a preeminent source of fine wine. Because Bordeaux merchants controlled access to the sea and collected taxes for the English Kings, a system of market control emerged called Police des Vins or the Privilege de Bordeaux. Here’s how it worked: only new wine from Bordeaux could be shipped before December 1 each year. Even if “high country” wines arrived in Bordeaux in December, they could not be shipped until after Christmas. This prejudiced system remained in place well into the 17th century.

Regional nuances explain modern circumstances in some of the better-known areas of Southwest France. For example:

Only Bergerac was exempt from the Privilege de Bordeaux system. Bergerac became part of British Aquitaine in 1255 and was afforded the same shipping privileges as Bordeaux, thus enjoying the benefits of this golden era, especially shipping to Holland where the Dutch were particularly fond of sweet wines. But disparities existed nonetheless. Bergerac is in a different department than Bordeaux (Dordogne vs. Gironde), resulting in lower bulk prices for Bergerac’s wines. Its image suffers even today in comparison to Bordeaux.

The wine-related histories of Cahors and Gaillac go back to Roman times. Madiran’s foray into wine started later, when Benedictine monks arrived in the 12th century to found the Madiran priory.

Archeological evidence (amphorae) shows that Gaillac was a major wine production center as early as the first century. At the time of the Roman conquest of Gaul, it was one of the first places soldiers came to as they made their way north. (Neither Burgundy nor Bordeaux had yet become significant key wine regions.) They may have viewed Gaillac as the furthest north horizon for viticulture due to its positioning on a navigable river (Tarn). Wines from Gaillac emerge over the centuries in stories of gifts among royals and the court’s preferred libation.

Cahors was the place where Romans crossed the Lot River as they worked their way north. Vineyards were planted early and extensively in Cahors. The town was quite prosperous and cultured even before Bordeaux began to occupy that esteemed position. In fact, half of the wine shipped out of Bordeaux in the 14th century came from Cahors. Despite economic disadvantages caused by the Privilege de Bordeaux, and other setbacks through the 19th century, Cahors managed to maintain its reputation for fine wines. Problems began to escalate in the mid-1800s, however, and for the next 100 years (through the 1950s), Cahors experienced a sharp decline in production and market reputation. Today, producers are aligned in a rebranding strategy to reposition the region as home to “The Original Malbec” in a friendly competition with Argentina.

Madiran wines did not enjoy the export notoriety of the other regions of Southwest France. The Adour River, key to moving product from the region to export markets, did not become navigable until the 18th century, and then only in one small area. Madiran’s rural location in the “middle of nowhere” with no major cities or towns has meant that other crops such as cereals and root vegetables predominate. Most of the great winegrowing sites in the region have already been planted. The wine industry in Madiran seems destined to remain small, slow and steady.

Spiritual Home of Malbec and Tannat Grapes

Most wine consumers today highly associate Malbec with Argentina. Others may think of Malbec primarily as a blending partner with the major grapes in Bordeaux blends. One of many French paradoxes, however, is that Malbec’s original spiritual home is actually Cahors.

How can two countries, one in the old world and one in the new, both lay claim to the preeminence of one grape? The history of the Cahors region shows that Malbec has been documented to Roman times, but a combination of market forces and vine diseases diminished growing, production and market relevance.

Spiritual Homes: Cahors and Mendoza (Photo credits: Wine Folly grapevine; Wines of Argentina map; Lot Cycling Holidays “Cahors Malbec”)

Spiritual Homes: Cahors and Mendoza
(Photo credits: Wine Folly grapevine; Wines of Argentina map; Lot Cycling Holidays “Cahors Malbec”)

As this was happening, mostly in the mid-19th century, Malbec made its way to Argentina – according to “Wine Grapes,” possibly via cuttings that were imported to Chile from Bordeaux. The timing is key here: these vine cuttings escaped the deadly phylloxera louse taking hold in France! Malbec quickly found its happy place in the Lujan de Cuyo region just south of Mendoza.

Both Cahors and Argentina have made the modern mistake of either replanting sick vineyards (Cahors) or grubbing up Malbec vines (both countries) in favor of more popular international varieties. It has taken some time to restore total Malbec vine supply in both places. Today about 70% of all Malbec is grown in Argentina, perhaps at least partially explaining consumer familiarity. At considerable risk of oversimplification, differences in terroir yield Malbecs in Argentina that tend to be higher in alcohol and fruit-forward, whereas the Malbecs of Cahors are more savory, even meaty, with firm tannins.

It wasn’t until Cahors AOC was approved in 1971 as a 100% red appellation that the region embarked on a three-decade “golden age.” There has been a strong brand strategy movement afoot for nearly a decade to reposition Cahors as home to the original Malbec. “The French Malbec” campaign was born to elevate Malbec and Cahors to “the center of the modern world.”

Tannat is a dark-colored red grape, richly textured with readily extracted tannins, and relatively high in acidity. But there is one common misunderstanding, oft-repeated by wine writers (and even some wineries on their websites): Tannat is not a thick-skinned grape! Like its brethren great grapes – Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Grenache, just to name a few – Tannat has thin skin, but excellent skin-to-pulp ratio, and thus generates excellent tannins for structure and aging potential.

Tannat from Madiran (Photo Credit: aquitaineonline.com)

Tannat from Madiran
(Photo Credit: aquitaineonline.com)

An emerging view of Tannat’s health properties is that it has the greatest concentration of procyanidins among common red grapes. This is not the same thing as resveratrol (a polyphenol, or antioxidant). It’s even better. Cardiovascular research conducted by Dr. Roger Corder, author of “The Red Wine Diet” (2006), has found procyanadins to be the main source of red wine’s health benefits. Offered as evidence is the surprisingly long lifespan of people living in the département of Gers in Southwest France where Madiran, home of Tannat, is located. This is the real French paradox!

Less well known in wine world is the fact that, like Malbec, Tannat also has two spiritual homes: Madiran and Uruguay. Wine write Alder Yarrow (vinography.com) describes Uruguay as a “quiet neighbor” to South America’s big producers: Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Uruguay has been producing wine for over a century, and getting to a pretty high level of quality in the last 25-30 years. Many of Uruguay’s residents are Italian immigrants – a longer story for another day. Their native grapes did not do well in the windy, humid Uruguayan climate. In 1870, a Basque immigrant by the name of Pascal Harriague brought Tannat plantings to Uruguay. Today, Tannat plantings represents about 25% of all vineyard acreage.

Traditional Food

Southwest France is the land of geese and ducks prepared every way imaginable (including pâté, foie gras, and rillettes). Fat from these birds is used in many recipes ranging from potatoes to confit. But don’t overlook the many other regional specialties including garlic soup, black Périgord truffles, goat cheeses, walnuts, and dried fruits (especially prunes). The Southwest diet, plus all that tannic red wine, is actually a very healthy one – the real French paradox!!

“Perhaps there is no dish in the Southwest France more iconic, cherished, and controversial than the cassoulet. Cassoulet was originally a food of peasants–a simple assemblage of what ingredients were available: white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, gizzards, cooked together for a long time.” [dartagnan.com, a French purveyor of gourmet food]

The legend of cassoulet is claimed by Castelnaudary, dating back to 1355 during the Hundred Years War when hungry townspeople gathered up available ingredients to make a hearty stew. Other cities – particularly Toulouse and Carcassonne – also lay claim to this traditional dish as the one, true Cassoulet. The name cassoulet comes from the word cassole, the traditional clay pot in which it is cooked (c. 1377).

Cassoulet (Photo Credit: Curtis Stone on Pinterest)

Cassoulet
(Photo Credit: Curtis Stone on Pinterest)

Traditional cassoulet is made with goose or duck confit, but the recipe varies from town to town in Southwest France. Some recipes include pork shoulder and sausage or mutton. Whether or not to add crumbs to the top is a matter of fierce debate. Even the type of bean is debated. In southern areas closest to the the Pyrénées Mountains, the bean must be the Coco, or Tarbais, bean. Further north, flageolet beans are used. In the spring, fresh fava beans are used. But in other parts of the world, cassoulet is typically made with Great Northern or Cannellini beans.

Some general advice for making a classic cassoulet:

  • The texture should be similar to a thick stew. If it is too dry, add some liquid. If it is too moist, cut the crust to concentrate the juices.
  • If adapting a recipe to maximize flavor, which is encouraged, use as many different confit meats as possible.
  • Always eat cassoulet very hot!
  • Cassoulet is better the next day as a leftover after the flavors have had more time to meld.

“How to Make Cassoulet” from allrecipes.com

INGREDIENTS (8 servings)

Beans
1 pound dried Great Northern or Cannellini beans
1 whole clove
1/2 onion
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
10 cups water

Soak Great Northern (or Cannellini) beans in water in a large bowl overnight. Drain beans and place into a large soup pot. Push whole clove garlic into the 1/2 onion and add to beans; stir in 4 cloves smashed garlic, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, and 10 cups water. Bring beans to a simmer and cook over medium-low heat until beans have started to soften, about 1 hour. Drain beans and reserve the cooking liquid, removing and discarding onion with garlic clove and bay leaf. Transfer beans to a large mixing bowl.

Casserole
1/2 pound thick-sliced bacon, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 onion, diced
salt to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 pound link sausages (preferably French herb sausage), cut in half crosswise
1 pound cooked duck leg confit
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (or similar herb mixture)
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes

Topping
1/4 cup butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Cook bacon in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat until lightly browned and still limp, about 5 minutes. Stir celery, carrots, and 1/2 diced onion into bacon; season with salt. Cook and stir vegetables in the hot bacon fat until tender, about 10 minutes.
  3. Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat; brown sausage link halves and duck confit in the hot oil until browned, about 5 minutes per side.
  4. Season vegetable-bacon mixture with 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, cracked black pepper, and herbes de Provence; pour in diced tomatoes. Cook and stir mixture over medium heat until juice from tomatoes has nearly evaporated and any browned bits of food on the bottom of pot have dissolved, about 5 minutes. Stir mixture into beans.
  5. Spread half the bean mixture into the heavy Dutch oven (or traditional Cassoulet baking dish) and place duck-sausage mixture over the beans; spread remaining beans over meat layer. Pour just enough of the reserved bean liquid into pot to reach barely to the top of the beans, reserving remaining liquid. Bring bean cassoulet to a simmer on stovetop and cover Dutch oven with lid.
  6. Bake bean cassoulet in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.
  7. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add 4 crushed garlic cloves, panko crumbs, and parsley to the melted butter. Season with salt and black pepper, and drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil over crumbs. Stir to thoroughly combine.
  8. Uncover cassoulet and check liquid level; mixture should still have several inches of liquid. If beans seem dry, add more of the reserved bean liquid. Spread half the crumb mixture evenly over the beans and return to oven. Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. There should be about 2 or 3 inches of liquid at the bottom of the pot; if mixture seems dry, add more reserved bean mixture. Sprinkle remaining half the bread crumb mixture over cassoulet.
  9. Turn oven heat to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) and bake cassoulet, uncovered, until crumb topping is crisp, edges are bubbling, and the bubbles are slow and sticky, 20 to 25 more minutes. Serve beans on individual plates and top each serving with a piece of duck and several sausage pieces.

Up next: Appellations and Winemakers (Part 3)

Southwest France: Diverse by Design?

Southwest France (Sud Oest) is best known for what it isn’t. Frankly, and unfortunately, it’s not widely recognized at all. With an accompanying eye-roll, I must report that many people have asked me – quite genuinely – “where is Southwest France?”!

Let’s get positioned on the map. Sud Oest is the deepest rural France, la France profonde. “In terroir terms, it’s a big area and rather difficult to generalise about, but most of the high-quality vineyard zones…owe their existence to the slopes created by rivers coming down either from the Massif Central, or from the Pyrenees. The overall zone is the Aquitaine Basin, and almost all of the soils…have been developed from sedimentary rocks of various kinds, or by the action of the rivers themselves.”[1]

  • To the west, the Atlantic Ocean curves along the French coastline, moderating altitude and winter weather (along with several smallish rivers) to create both maritime and semi-continental climates with plenty of rainfall.
  • To the south, the Pyrenees Mountains separate France from Spain. Beautifully majestic and occasionally craggy, the mountains are quite permeable. Basque language, food, and culture seep into the foothills on the French side.
  • To the north, Southwest France stretches inland, cupping the edges of Bordeaux and capturing misty river effects to generate some of the world’s greatest (if little known) sweet wines.
  • To the east? Well, that’s a good question. Several of the appellations that comprise Southwest France are actually nestled within the great Massif Central. The city of Toulouse might be a good eastern marker signaling the regional shift to Languedoc-Roussillon.
Map Credit: Wine Folly

Map Credit: Wine Folly

So what is (or is not) Southwest France? It is not an official appellation; it is a collection of appellations, glued together for convenience into a sort of cornucopia. Its terroir is not homogenous, although there are some common threads. It is the spiritual home – exclusive, in some cases – to spectacularly interesting grapes. Despite New World claims to the contrary, Malbec and Tannat can rightly claim Cahors and Madiran, respectively, as their spiritual homes. It’s not all obscure and mysterious, though. The appellations closest to Bordeaux do grow international varieties and make familiar blends.

This all adds up to a perplexing global-market branding nightmare for the winegrowers of Southwest France. There is very little that ties this huge geographic region together naturally as either an appellation or a brand. What might it be called instead? South X Southwest? Pyrenees North? Bordeaux Near? Gascony? High Country? l’Aquitaine?

Contributing to the overall brand issue is the fact that only about 25% of the 330 million bottles produced in Southwest France is AOC wine. Most of it – nearly 2/3 – is a regional designation of IGP (formerly Vin de Pays), and the rest is basically table wine for local markets. It is difficult to lift up and distinguish the highest quality wines.

It’s quite possibly impossible to create a proper synthesis of the region. While this alignment and branding problem is being sorted out, perhaps at a smaller scale on an appellation by appellation basis, the interim solution seems clear to me. Take a deep breath, hire a driver, plan a wine route that matches your sense of adventure, and enjoy by design the diversity of Southwest France. Just be sure to plan enough time to make the most of the >1,800 km touring experience!

Up next: Part 2 | History, Food & Wine

[1] Thank you to Andrew Jefford for the use of his extensive reference notes and excellent leadership of a Wine Scholar Guild tour of Southwest France.

Southwest France: Monbazillac, Pecharment and Bergerac

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

Chateau Tirecul La Gravière

The misty morning launched with great aplomb: sweet breakfast treasures from Monbazillac. Standing with us on the edge of vineyards where botrytised grapes awaited the launch of harvest (by hand) on October 19, Bruno Bilancini led a discussion of the vineyard’s primarily clay (with a bit of limestone) terroir, explaining the influence of being situated in the microclimate of a valley on the left bank of the Dordogne River and the effects of slopes that face north and east (rather than the more customary south and west). Although Sauternes is perhaps better known than Monbazillac, the latter has twice the vineyard area. We also savored a vineyard sampling of raisined Semillon and Muscadelle grapes. The Bilancini family’s hunt for their white vineyard cat — yes, cat! — added a suspenseful moment to the visit.

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Our tasting started with a dry white wine, 70% Muscadelle and 30% Semillon (2013), named “Andrea” for Luc’s daughter. Unoaked, virtually no skin contact, only a single day of fermentation (no MLF), resulted in a rather flinty but elegant super-dry wine. The centerpiece of the tasting, however, was a trio of sweet wines, all revealing a tangy tangerine note that Bruno said was characteristic of the region. Ranging from light and crisp (young vines) to bold and complex (vines 20-30 years old), these field-blended wines are not intended for dessert! Bruno’s advice was to serve them decanted for as long as two days and quite cold, the lightest (2015 Les Pins) as an aperitif and the more luscious pair (Tirecul La Graviere, bottled spring 2015, and a 1998 Cuvee Madame) with spicy cuisine.

Chateau de Tiregand

Onward to Pécharmant, where the youngest heir to the Saint-Exupéry dynasty met us for a tour of the vineyard, winery and tasting. Cyril is the son (and winemaker in training) of the current winery leader, François-Xavier, who was en route from a trip to Belgium. A bit nervous to lead the presentation for eight wine students and professionals, young Cyril did a fine job walking us through the vineyards, the basics of wine production, and a tasting. (At one point in the cellar, a black cat, heavy with soon-to-be-born kittens, managed to give us all a start as we discussed barrel aging.) Due primarily to its location, Ch. de Tiregand specializes in blends of traditional Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Our walk through the vineyard revealed vines heavy with nearly ripe grapes, sweet and juicy to the taste until met with the crunch of a still-green pip. The date for harvest will be soon, but had not yet been selected.

Cyril Saint-Exupery; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

Cyril Saint-Exupéry; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

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Texas (Wine) Rodeo

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Huh? Texas wine? Isn’t that the home of “Chateau Bubba”?

Even though roughly 90% of all wine produced in the U.S. comes from California, today wine is made in all 50 states. It’s perhaps not surprising that Washington, Oregon and New York State (Finger Lakes, Long Island) are the other top producers of quality wine, collectively making up an additional 8%. So that leaves 2% for all other states. In 2014, Texas ranked 10th in production and 6th in the number of wineries. (My home state of Ohio is also in that ranking at 7th and 8th positions, respectively, in production and number of wineries.) Recent intel supplied anecdotally by local winemakers indicates that Texas moved up to 5th position in 2015.

Texas wine history mirrors that of other western states. Missionaries planted vines in the 1600s. German immigrants arrived in the 1800s, bringing homeland vines that didn’t grow well in the hot Texas climate. Like California, the Texas wine industry catapulted forward in the 1970s. Texas pioneers include Doc Clinton (Llano Estacado Winery), then a chemistry professor at Texas Tech University, who is widely considered to be the father of Texas winemaking. But it wasn’t until growers like Neal Newsom and Jet Wilmeth discovered that Rhone, Spanish and Italian varieties love Texas that things really began to take off.

Recent growth in wineries has been meteoric. Texas Grape Growers Association documented 180 Texas wineries in 2009. Now there are close to 300. The Central Texas Hill Country, seated by the quaint (somewhat touristy) town of Fredericksburg, has 46 wineries, all with fancy tasting rooms. Local winemakers who keep a watchful eye on growth note that there are 25 more wineries under construction right now in and around Fredericksburg.

The Hill Country is often described — at least by locals — as the Napa Valley of Texas. The wine region’s growth in tourism popularity is booming. In the mid-2000s, Orbitz.com reportedly ranked the Texas Hill Country as the second fastest growing wine destination in the U.S. Local signage still proudly displays this somewhat dated piece of visitor propaganda. Perhaps more realistically, in 2014 Wine Enthusiast named the Texas Hill Country Wineries as one of the 10 best wine travel destinations in the U.S.

There are eight American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Texas, with the Texas High Plains AVA in the panhandle around Lubbock supplying most of the grapes to Fredericksburg wineries. To a person, the staff serving up flights describe the climate as Mediterranean. It’s probably the closest description for this sunny, dry region in which vineyards must be irrigated to survive. The secret is the “High Plains.” Like many quality wine regions, Texas landscape includes an escarpment, the edge of which offers ideal winegrowing conditions — hot days, cool nights, (relatively) high altitude of 3500 feet.

Quality wine. That’s always the key. So what about Texas? Has it moved beyond its “Chateau Bubba” reputation? While I can’t attest to the merits of the whole lineup, on a recent drive from Austin through Johnson City and Stonewall to the historic Germantown of Fredericksburg, we stopped in the Texas Hill Country AVA for a wine and food pairing at Kuhlman Cellars, followed by a drive through LBJ National Historic Park and a tasting at Pedernales Cellars. Over the balance of the long holiday weekend we also visited Becker Vineyards and Grape Creek Vineyards.

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Opened in 2014, the wine tasting room at Kuhlman Cellars offers a unique wine and food pairing opportunity that is a fantastic addition to the wine trail along Hwy 290. Reservations are necessary for a guided tasting experience of five wines paired with “nibbles” that are carefully selected to bring out flavor nuances. Open Thursday through Sunday only. 18421 E. US Hwy 290, Stonewall; (512) 920-2675.

Featured Wine 2014 Calcaria (“cal-CAR-ee-uh”): 12.7% abv, unusual white grape blend of 75% Trebbiano, 17% Roussanne and 8% Viognier. $22.00. Kuhlman’s most popular wine, named for the deep calcereous soil on the Kuhlman Estate. Aromatic, round and full bodied; aromas of stone fruits and white flowers, crisp citrus acidity on the palate. Paired with grapefruit “tartare,” onion, jalapeño and cilantro in a Tostitos cup (salt and citrus bringing out those qualities in the wine).  The 2014 is sold out, but look for the 2015 vintage release the week of January 25th!

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Every winery has a big back story. At Pedernales Cellars, it’s earning a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition for its 2011 Viognier Reserve, and taking the Grand Gold prize for its 2012 Viognier Reserve at the Lyon International Wine Competition (the only U.S. winery to win a top honor). Of course the 2012 vintage is long gone from the market — except for a precious bottle tucked away by friends in Austin — and it was a beauty of a classic Viognier. The Kuhlken family planted vineyards 20 years ago and are still operating as a family operation. Open 7 days a week, no appointment needed. All wines available through the tasting room are $29.99 to $49.99. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-8186.

Featured wine 2014 Viognier Reserve: Slightly more delicate in body than the 2012 vintage, with clear aging potential, this wine exhibits the body, perfume and floral essence of a quality Viognier. Notes of butterscotch and vanilla owing to 90 days spent on new French oak; aromas of rose petal and peaches. $39.99. Open 7 days a week. 2916 Upper Albert Road, Stonewall; (830) 644-2037.

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In order to experience the wines of Becker Vineyards, you will likely need to visit the Texas Hill Country! Although Becker is one of the largest Texas producers and its wines are widely available, the wines presented at the tasting room are only sold there, not via retail distribution. Becker also offers a club membership with wines available only to members. Vineyards were planted in 1992 on dolomite soil. The first wines were produced in 1995, and the tasting room opened in 1996. Becker was the first winery in Texas to commercially plan Viognier. Open 7 days a week. 464 Becker Farms Rd., Stonewall; (830) 644-2681.

Featured wine 2012 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Wilmeth Family Vineyard: 13.3% abv, 100% Cab. $40.00. Grower Jet Wilmeth is one of three farmers who contract vineyard-designated grapes for a reserve Cab. With top notes of earth, leather and tobacco, and dark fruit notes emerging in a second layer, the wine is a “late bloomer” (according to Becker staff).imageThe eponymous Grape Creek Vineyards sits on a 17-acre plot planted in 1983. Initially a grower, the founder began producing wine in 1989 — the oldest winery on the Hwy 290 wine trail — and built the first underground cellar in Texas. Current award-winning winemaker Jason Englert joined the winery in 2004. In 2006, the property was purchased and expanded by Brian Heath who has created a “Tuscany in Texas” look and feel to the experience. The picturesque winery campus is set among gnarled peach trees, blackberry bushes and herb gardens. Tastings, tours, lunch (pizza, panini pasta) at Stout’s Grape Creek Vineyards Trattoria. Open 7 days a week. 10587 E. US Hwy 290, Fredericksburg; (830) 644-2710.

Featured wine 2013 Rendezvous: 13.8% abv, Rhone blend (GSM plus Viognier). $26.95. Classic spicy notes, red fruit, rose petals; smooth, integrated tannins; well balanced. This lovely wine would be terrific chilled on a hot summer day.

Photos courtesy of: Pinterest (Texas Viticultural Area Map); stevestastingsandtravel.com (tasting table) and texasmonthly.com (wine bottle) at Kuhlman Cellars; pedernalescellars.com (logo) and expressnews.com (outdoor patio) at Pedernales Cellars; snooth.com (label) and winetrailtraveler.com (lavender) at Becker Vineyards; Grape Creek Vineyards logo courtesy of texaswinetrail.com. All other photos taken by or for Kathy Merchant.

Resources: “Crush” Hill Country Edition 1; “Texas Wineries: A Guide” (2012, no longer published)

Up next: profile of Kuhlman Cellars.

A Spectacular Chaine Holiday

Chaine logo

The Hilton Netherland’s Hall of Mirrors adds sparkle and festive vibes to any event. Monday’s holiday dinner for more than 100 members and guests of the Cincinnati chapter of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs was no exception. Greeted by glittering glasses of Roederer Estate Brut NV (Anderson Valley sparkling), canapes passed deftly by a charming staff among hugs and holiday greetings, we were eagerly ushered into the Hall where chef Todd Kelly’s extraordinary meal awaited our undivided attention.

Though the experience of quality fine dining is central to being part of the Chaîne, wine pairing plays an equal measure. This holiday dinner was “100/100” as one member described it in a Facebook post. I’m sure you will agree!

Chaine 1st course

First course: Seriously, I could have declared victory for the evening with an utterly perfect pairing of foie gras with Sauternes. Cleverly presented on a savory, peppery shortbread, the disk of silky goodness accompanied by classic pistachio accents and a cooling dab of Muscadine gel, was frankly inhaled by everyone at the table. Always a good match with salty undertones, the unctuous honeyed sweetness of the Sauternes lingered on the palate, lifting the punch of the pepper into a long spicy finish. Château Roûmieu-Lacoste Sauternes 2013.

Chaine 2nd course

Second course: Cleverly presented as a carrot-billed duck, our second course featured a Maitake mushroom strudel topped with whipped red wine, and plated with shaved truffles and root vegetables. What better to go with this earthy dish than Burgundy? The whipped wine dissipated into a lovely sauce for the savory strudel. While truffles can at times overwhelm a dish, this was a light touch preparation. The root vegetables were pickled, striking fear in the hearts of wine lovers who know what vinegar can do to red wine — but the acidity in the Pinot Noir made it work! Maison Roche de Bellene Gevrey-Chambertin 2011.

Chaine 3rd course

Third course:  Grilled swordfish medallions were accented by aged Wattle Ham and clams, plated on smoked butter and celery, and accompanied by red and white miniature potatoes. The wine selection for this dish was an oaked California Chardonnay, again causing some trepidation for the oenophiles. Named for roasted hazelnuts, our wine selection is considered the winery’s most “appellation-expressive” Chardonnay. Oak influences were modest (30% new French barrels) and the roasted/citrusy flavor profile was more like northern Burgundy than northern California. Kistler “les Noisetiers” Sonoma Coast 2013.

Chaine 4th course

Fourth course: It took some effort among several diners to collect a photo of this bacon-wrapped filet. Not because it wasn’t terrific, mind you; rather because the wine was so amazing! This very rich beef course was presented with smoked chicken hearts, pomegranate ragout, swiss chard, and a Champagne/tarragon sabayon. Most of us simplified the experience to its essence, focusing on the filet and the wine, a smooth “drink now” Cabernet Sauvignon with a unique and vibrant aroma of milk chocolate and licorice. Odette Estate Cabernet, Stags Leap District 2012.

 Chaine 5th course

Dessert course: It was a happy moment when the Sauternes made its way back into the final course anchored by a disk of fromage blanc custard. Geometrically pleasing to the eye, the top bar was caramelized white chocolate; the “balance beam” was a hazelnut praline; and a swoosh of cranberry gelee accented small marinated fruits. The Sauternes paired beautifully with each element of the dish.

Photos courtesy of Mary Horn, Jt Mayer, Michael Lancor

Bolognese + Brunello

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It’s Monday. You may be revving up for NFL. I’m swooning for the “Monday night special” at Nicola’s Ristorante Italiano flanking the northeast corner of OTR.

Nicola’s Tagliatelle alla Bolognese is so popular among knowing neighbors and patrons that I hesitate to call even more attention to this fabulous experience. Every Monday night, the restaurant is packed with diners who will undoubtedly spend more on wine than on dinner for the table. This unbelievably value-priced bonanza starts with a basket of house-made and classic Italian breads and crunchy breadsticks. Carbo avoidance be damned! Next, either a fresh greens or caesar salad. And finally the moment you’ve been waiting for: a rich, soulful, mouth-watering bowl of ragu served on fresh pasta with a dusting of parmigiano grated at the table just for you. On my most recent visit, my guests enjoyed a bottle of Donatella Brunello di Montalcino 2007. But don’t get your hopes up for that particular selection — it was the last bottle of an amazing vintage in Nicola’s cellar.

Seriously, does it get better than this? Well, it does. I won’t share the price to avoid a stampede, plus Nicola must reserve the right to change it from time to time. But let’s just say you should get on over on a Monday night as soon as you can fit the date in your holiday schedule and the restaurant has room for you.

Photo credits for wine and pasta: http://www.lifeinitaly.com; http://www.thekitchn.com

 

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