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Riviera Gold

February 10, 2015

Thanks for tuning in again! Vino Voices has been ‘out of service’ awhile.

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Villefranche-sur-Mer in the foreground, separated from Cap Ferrat by the Mediterranean

The reason?

I just spent a month at language ‘boot camp’ at L’Institute de Francais in Villefranche-sur-Mer, ten minutes from Nice. From 9.00 am to 5.00 pm fifty of us immersed in five separate intensive French language courses, in a location with gorgeous hillside vistas of Cap Ferrat promontory poking into the Mediterranean Sea (classmate Niel informed us how the Rolling Stones once resided there). Our brains smoked from the course intensity – losing concentration during class was not an option.

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Look what happens with classmates after a few bottles of riviera wine…

The experience was exhausting, but excellent. The instruction was superlative, the food delicious, the students diverse and motivated, and the camaraderie enormous. Fellow students included a British financial consultant who wants to understand French clients, a European manager of the International Monetary Fund, a Florida professional guitarist who now lives in Congo managing malaria prevention projects, the Dutch owner of a riviera boat inspection company, and a Californian who piloted a drone to create a documentary about Africa’s Serengeti. And many, many more colorful characters.

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The Angel’s Share

We sampled local wines. The real pro on specific wines along the French Riviera region is fellow blogger Chrissie – whose Riviera Grapevine blog covers both France and Italy. The default wine in this region is rosé (which kept us company many evenings) but we branched out to try others.

One evening we took the bus to Nice for a sampling at La Part des Anges (‘The Angel’s Share’), where we ate cold meats – charcuterie – and cheeses, and sampled five diverse wines. Three were local, one came from near Bergerac to the west, and another came from the northeast, above the Burgundy region. What the wines share in common is all are produced organically or biodynamically. They are also excellent quality, good value wines.

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Enjoyable way to practice French

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A good start to an evening

We sampled reds before whites, because whites matched cheeses we ate last. (Unlike English and German, many French words don’t end in a hard consonant; this helps provide the language with its musical rhythm. That mindset is reflected in how the French also prefer ending their meals with sweet food, rather than savory – hence cheese before dessert, unlike in England. And Americans who eat cheese before a meal? Some consider us barbarians…. :) .)

The first red was Les Grimaudes from the Costieres de Nimes – the southernmost portion of the Rhone Valley. This region has produced wine since ancient Greek civilization thrived. The local low-lying limestone soil includes large pebbles, drains easily, and is low in fertility – forcing vine roots to plunge deep, resulting in more complex wine. This heavy biodynamic wine is a Grenache and Syrah blend – smooth and distinct (15 Euros per bottle).

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The lineup – from left to right – three reds and two whites

The second red was a 2012 Domaine Hauvette Le Roucas. This more oaky, flavorful blend includes Grenache, Syrah, and also Cabernet Sauvignon – providing a tannic edge and greater kick than the first red. This Grenache predominant (60 percent) wine comes from a small producer south of Avignon, and is produced organically (not biodynamically). It costs 25 Euros a bottle.

The third red was a 2011 L’Ancestral, produced by Chateau Lestignac. This one hundred percent Cabernet Franc comes from the Perigord region near the city of Bergerac – a long way from Nice. The wine is smooth, though lacking the distinction of the second red. It’s produced by a young couple – Camille and Mathias Marquet – who have been making wine since 2008, and are looking to make ‘wine with a personality.’ This is an impressive red for new winemakers. The wine is ‘certified organic,’ and was the most elegant of all reds we sampled. The cost per bottle is 25 Euros.

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For the whites, we first tried a 2013 Cuvée du Pressoir Romain, a blend of the Rolle grape (known as Vermentino in Italy) – produced on local slopes (opposite the slopes to the famed Bellett grape), ten kilometers north of Nice. This is blended with Ugni Blanc (also known as Trebbiano). This is a fresh, light white. Each bottle costs 19.90 Euros.

Finally, we tasted a 100 percent Chardonnay from Domaine de la Tournelle, located northeast of the Burgunday region – far north – on the border of France and Switzerland. This domaine produces both organic and biodynamic wines. This wine – Terre de Gryphées – is hand harvested and aged for at least two years in oak barrels. The taste was less zesty and crisp than the first white, but smooth and enjoyable. The price – 20 Euros a bottle.

The lessons from this tasting? First, drinking red before white is no sin. Enjoy wine any way you like. Second, be creative about choosing a tasting theme (here, all wines were organic or biodynamic French). Third, a winemaker’s age does not necessarily correlate with the quality of what they produce. And as always, diversity keeps people alert – in taste, geography, and modes of production.

Time and wine on the French Riviera were priceless…mais de parler français couramment? C’est un autre histoire.

It’s Nice in Nice

January 6, 2015

IMG_1041I am busy with intensive language school while taking some time off work, so you will have to standby for a longer post later about the French Riviera. These photos were taken this Sunday in Villefranche-sur-Mer, ten minutes from Nice.

My blogging friend Chrissie from The Riviera Grapevine (now on a well deserved holiday in Australia) has told of the virtues of the bellet grape in this region during the past year…so perhaps I’ll switch from the ample rose to bellet within the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the ‘chilly’ winter weather means wearing a sweater at night. Pas mal, as they say here. Not bad.

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Surprises In a Cellar, and Christmas Artists

December 23, 2014

Surprises In a Cellar – 

Let’s visit a ‘cave’ in an ancient stone basement in Bordeaux – comfortably lit, with a classic cellar vibe – chilly, dank, and smelling of must and dust. Perfect. :)

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A trove of 2009 – ready for unpacking

This cellar is on Bordeaux’s right bank, beside the Gironde estuary, where vintages are not expensive, and taste is amazing. Why? Generations of winemakers work here – hundreds. Here’s a sampling of what is stored, the original cost, and current values.

Chateau AOC Vintage Bottle size Original purchase price/bottle (Euros and US dollars) Current value/bottle (Euros and US dollars)
Chateau Cantinot Blaye, Côtes de Bordeaux 2009 750 ml € 10($12.25) € 15($18.35)
Chateau Cantinot Blaye, Côtes de Bordeaux 2009 Magnum € 20($24.50) € 30($36.70)
Chateau Clos Saint Emilion Philippe Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2009 750 ml € 16($19.60) € 22($26.90)
Chateau Clos Saint Emilion Philippe Cuvée 109 Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2009 750 ml € 22($26.90) € 32($39.15)

The point? These are well priced wines. The quality is excellent (Bordeaux winemakers take immense pride in the quality and reputation of their output). These are bargains compared to many US, Australian, and other European wines of comparable quality. That’s the magic of purchasing from smaller producers on the right bank, where the term ‘Bordeaux’ does not necessarily equate with ‘expensive.’

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Wine is best with friends

Second, the increase in value is not shabby – 45 percent over five years. Not a bad investment. And if the economy tanks and the world goes to heck, then it’s time to pull a few glasses out with a corkscrew.

Christmas Artists – 

Here are a few artists/musicians met during these past Christmas season days.

Clarisa & Les Kellen

Clarissa at work in Blaye

Clarissa Schaefer runs La Galerie in Blaye after living in South Africa and Germany. In her own work she tries to put ordinary objects into new contexts so they can be appreciated when viewed from different angles.

During 2015, La Galerie will feature another creator residing in Blaye. Thierry Bisch is not only a renowned French artist, but a winemaker – producing an unusual (for Bordeaux) 100% cabernet sauvignon wine – named Etalon Rouge. At the price, it’s a steal. Click on this link to see paintings Thierry produces.

In the video below Thierry explains – humorously – why he produces images of animals rather than people, and why being true to yourself is of the greatest value.

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Jacob on right, with friend and fellow New Zealand traveler Finn.

This video was produced by an up and coming young film maker from the wine country of Marlborough, New Zealand, who now lives in France: Jacob Beullens.

This past Saturday in Blaye, a Bordeaux blues musician named Raoul Ficel graced La Galerie restaurant and art gallery with hours of soulful music. If you check out Raoul’s site you’ll find a splendid sepia-toned photo of one album cover – taken along the banks of the Gironde estuary – which Thierry calls the “Mississippi River of France.”

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Blues along the Gironde – the ‘Mississippi River of France’

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Raoul Ficel with his No. 1 Fan – His Daughter Zoe

But the best part of this season? Being grateful, and perhaps having a friend or two to share that gratitude with.

Happy Holidays All.

Back in Bordeaux

December 3, 2014

After catching flights from Islamabad to Paris and onto Bordeaux – I’m with friends in the city of Blaye and enjoying free time after four years spent working in Asia.

Novmber sky above the Gironde estuary

November sky above the Gironde estuary in Blaye, Bordeaux

The good news is that conditions appear to have been optimal for the 2014 vintage. That’s a relief. After stellar vintages in 2009 and 2010, the years 2011, 2012, and 2013 were unremarkable by comparison.

This may have been one reason why the mood was particularly festive and bubbly at a party which friends Les and Clarissa invited me to on Saturday night at the home of friends Alain and Dominique Bredin – physicians and members of a local wine tasting group.

Within minutes I met some of Right Bank Bordeaux’s most colorful winemakers.

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Isabelle – back home with good family wine

Isabelle Chetty shared the story of how she abandoned France when fifteen years old, took a job as a butcher in New York, then traveled the world working on cruise liners before spending time in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands (St. Thomas is my birthplace, so we chatted about the isle we share in common). Eventually, she returned to Bordeaux where she and her brother now own and manage Château Mercier (Appellation Côtes de Bourg) with 23 hectares (57 acres) of south and west-facing slopes that include clay and gravel soils.

IMG_0327Isabelle shared generous helpings of her 2010 Cuvée Prestige, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec. I later learned how the wine goes well with Pyrénées cheese (coincidentally, I purchased the same Pyrénées at an open air market in Blaye that morning, where the vendor wearing a red beret insisted on pouring us glasses of red wine to drink while we tasted his cheese).

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Corinne proudly shared her 2007 vintage

Corinne Chevrier-Loriaud shared some of her 2007 vintage Château Bel-Air La Royére (Blaye – Côtes de Bordeaux) a hearty blend with an intriguing composition of 70 percent Merlot and 30 percent Malbec. Great promise with this winery.

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When he was not busy charming his audience, I greeted Yann Bouscasse. We first met last July. Previously the owner of the third largest container shipping company in the world, Yann and his wife Florence decided to move to Bordeaux – where they now own Château Cantinot. I had the fortune to buy futures in 2009 Cantinot years ago, and the cellared vintage is now balanced and a joy to drink.

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Yann regaling Isabelle with stories

What else is new? The $9.7 billion Tours Bordeaux high-speed rail project – begun in 2012 – will be completed by the end of 2015. It will shave more than an hour off train travel times from Paris to Bordeaux, reducing a typical three-hour twenty-minute ride to less than two hours.  This is the world’s largest rail concession contract, meaning that the consortium that designs and builds the rail line will also operate and maintain it for fifty years. The project is massive, and the road between the City of Bordeaux and Blaye shows the buzz of construction and earthwork projects. Soon, Parisians will visit the southern wine world of Bordeaux for a day. No doubt many Bordelais will appreciate choosing to live outside the city. Regardless, the rail line provides evidence of how Bordeaux’s economy is revving up.

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Les and Clarissa enjoying life…

 

 

 

 

Wine in a Refuge and Enclave

November 11, 2014

I live and work in an Asian country where the population’s religion is predominantly Islam. I drink within a diplomatic enclave at a restaurant associated with the French embassy. The waiters (all are male) have become friends over time. They pass me a wine list soon after I enter. Because none drink alcohol, they are unable to recommend new wines on the list, but only tell how each sells compared to others.

IMG_0646For four years, this little walled-in enclave with decent wine and food have helped make the experience of living in this foreign land not unenjoyable. By ‘enclave’ I mean it. You pass through multiple road blocks and pat downs to enter. Why? Security. Consider recent events in this nation: 45 people were killed last week in a suicide bombing at the Wagha Border; days ago, a Christian couple (parents of three children) were bludgeoned by neighbors, strapped to a tractor and hauled around dirt roads, then finally shoved alive into a brick kiln to be incinerated by rural neighbors in Punaj Province. The reason? They reportedly (and this is questionable) criticized another religion. So far this year, 160 women (and those are only the known victims) were doused with acid and disfigured by men intent on ruining their beauty for diverse, ludicrous, reasons.

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Jean Jacques and Chloe

The wine list here is chosen by a young Frenchman (Jean Jacques) with an excellent sense of taste and value. He also added maps of wine regions, and lists of typical grapes from each.

There are other diplomatic restaurants/bars/clubs nearby: Canadian, Australian, British, American. Due to security, it can be challenging and difficult to gain entrance to most. Also, other wine lists are often inferior in terms of quality. This remark is not snobbish – but true. By inferior I mean many other wines are fruit bombs lacking character or complexity. It’s like watching a movie heavy on action and thin on plot or acting. Think of watching Casablanca. Why does it remain classic? There’s an intriguing plot set in a semi-exotic locale with excellent acting by Humphrey Bogart. You’re entertained because of quality and originality at many levels.

It’s the same with wine.

The wine list at this restaurant is not extensive, but includes decent Bordeauxs (with bottles from St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Emillion, and well as good quality bargains from Blaye and Bourg). There are often Rhones, at least one white Burgundy, as well as an Alsace, Mosel, or Rhine Riesling.

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Moi, Aussie Michele, and Aussie Steve

I love to visit this restaurant, because the guests are from diverse international backgrounds – Norwegian, Moroccan, French, American, and dozens of other nationals. Because of constant job turnover, the faces change over the space of months, not years.

Last weekend I spent time with three friends – Claudio from Argentina (but with a Spanish passport and a home in Portugal), Alfred from Sierra Leone (just back from a visit to Uganda), Steve from Australia (now owning a home in Malaysia with his Japanese wife).

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Weekend chill time

Here, we leave work behind, appreciate the truth that violence is not destined to rule the planet, and appreciate that a good way to break down potential animosities is by sharing time and meals with people from different backgrounds. Here, we enjoy the company of good friends, decent food, varied wine, fresh stories, and different opinions.

In a few weeks I shall leave this country. I cannot begin to describe how wonderful it has been to work with local staff – polite, courteous, hard-working, and generous people. Yet, for legal reasons related to religion – they are not allowed within the walls of our favored social venue here in the capital city.

Pity.

Tolerance is born with dialog, and dialog can begin by sharing food and ideas in the company of diversity.

Farewell to you and your wonderful staff, Club 21. Au revoir.

Wine and Sea Life in the Maldives

October 14, 2014

The Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean do not produce wine. Those living on any of the inhabited two hundred (of over a thousand) coral reef atolls earn their income from fishing or tourism. The highest point on the islands – a golfing tee – is less than ten feet above sea level. All wine is imported (it’s a four-hour flight from the capital of Malé to Dubai, and a one hour flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka).

The arrival scenario here to the capital city of Malé is unique: walk outside the airport, cross a road, and you stand before an ocean shoreline pier lined with ships waiting to buzz you out to your destination island.

Prepare to unwind.

 

The Maldives is Islamic, and alcohol you bring into the country  is confiscated at customs. However, you’ll be provided with a receipt – and allowed to pick up your bottles on the way out. Resorts operate bars that serve visitors. On exiting the country, the duty-free store at the airport will happily sell you a range of bottles – including first-growth Bordeaux wines.

There are no wine surprises here – most resorts serve basic fare that include both inexpensive and costly Chilean, Californian, French, and New Zealand reds and whites and bubbles to help you unwind during the late afternoon on a white sand beach while watching a gorgeous sunset after a day of diving, snorkeling, sailing, or just reading and taking it easy.

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Full bottle, tropical breeze, sound of lapping waves…time to unwind

The short video above shows that rather than spending time working on a wine post this past week – I’ve simply been on vacation. Peaceful and quiet. Remedial. With some intriguing aquatic friends…

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Tread very carefully

 

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Most visitors are from Asia and Europe. For example, this is Monsieur and Mademoiselle Roger, from a village near Lille in France. They have come to this same resort for 34 years and speak not a word of English. Filled with energy, they invited me to meet them in the morning to go see ‘a show.’

IMG_2134Curious, I met them at 10.00 am. They led me down some back alleys to where a chef was preparing food by chopping up chickens and throwing scraps into water – where a dozen basking sharks and ten sting rays eagerly tucked into the grub. Children stood nearby (but not too near) taking photos and laughing.

Soon after this visit, the Roger’s and I sat at the sand covered bar, where they drank glasses of scotch before lunch. One evening we shared wine before dinner. The retired doctor raised a glass, called the Maldives parfait, and then toasted to our mutual health – “a votre santé.”

 

The Universe of Wine in Context

September 30, 2014

Words and Wine – Book Review 

If you like wine, but squirm at words churned out to describe it, here’s a book for you.

How to Love Wine: A Memoir and Manifesto by Eric Asimov tells how it’s okay to disregard looking for a quill of three thousand nouns and adjectives to describe wine. (How many Americans have even tasted a gooseberry? And just what is ‘tapenade and lavender’?)

Chapters alternate between stories about appreciating wine and wine regions, with the story of Eric’s own career. As a long time wine writer for The New York Times, Asimov explains how a few strong descriptors – instead of detailed minutiae of tasting notes – are usually adequate to describe a wine. He also questions whether it’s necessary to describe a wine. As long as we’re smiling, who needs it?

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Context can include food…

 

In a chapter titled The Tyranny of the Tasting Note, Asimov writes:

“…I’ve found that people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.”

“…the flowery litany of aromas and flavors does little to capture the experience of a fine glass of wine.”

“…exaggerated language makes it far more difficult for people to enjoy wine without fearing that they somehow don’t understand what they are tasting…”

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…location…

 

In a chapter titled Drinking by Numbers, Asimov elaborates in simple terms how scoring wines, and purchasing wines according to scores, can suck mystery and beauty out of appreciating wine. He offers the importance of considering context.

“Considering context requires asking crucial questions. Where will you be drinking this wine? With whom will you be drinking it? What will you eat? What’s the weather, the mood?”

Whereas the 100 point scoring system has merit, Asimov tells how it fails to consider context. That cheap but wonderful wine you drank with your beloved on a sunny evening on a beach that provides golden memories? Context. That overpriced red that you winced at while drinking with overcooked beef and annoying company? Context.

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…and company

 

Asimov’s words reflect those of my friend Les Kellen, who, speaking of wine, tells friends:

“Wine can taste different at different times depending on what you’re eating, the temperature, even who you are with.”

Asimov is an experienced traveler, and has been privileged to taste a great range of diverse wines – at all price points. His writing also shows that he’s a normal guy who worked hard to gain his experience. He appreciates the benefits of discovering the magic and mystery of wines without depending on words or scores to point in any direction.

Perhaps he best sums up wine’s beauty in the second chapter:

“As much as we learn about it, as much as we know, it is at its heart a mystery.”

This book tells how exploring that mystery can provide joy.

If you love wine, but are still mystified as to why, you’ll appreciate this book even more.

Nice one Mr. Asimov.

 

 

 

 

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