As I continue to search for the right French Grenache for our first Wine Club shipment, last weeks tasting brought back a flood of emotions regarding our trips to the Rhone Descouvertes over the past few years. A combination of tender memories and a longing to return to my heart of heart favorite destination has been genuinely inspiring.
The Rhone Descouvertes is an incredibly organized wine tasting event held in the Rhone Valleys every other year. Both times that John & I went, we were invited by the Hospice du Rhone. We were to join them to prepare a dazzling meal paired with California Rhone wines for French Rhone Winemakers. This was an exceptional ten days. The wine tasting in 2005 started in the Northern Rhone in Ampuis/Condrieu and then headed south to Cote Rotie, Cotes du Rhones, Gigondas … We arrived a few days prior to the tasting to get organized for our meal, review the kitchen (very small), determine the menu, shop for food (see what was available and what was in season in March), prep in unfamiliar surroundings and then finally cook the meal for 40 impressive guests. Creating food for the wines of John Alban, Steve Beckman and Mat Garretson is a daunting task. We are enthralled by their talents and it humbles us to even attempt to create the perfect pairing that will showcase their wines. And then to actually serve our interpretation of country French food to actual Country French wine aficionados added to the already high level of stress. All in all the meal was lovely success – and our guests seemed appreciative and satiated. After the meal, the rest of the trip was a whirlwind.
Each day the Inter-Rhone organization set up a large tasting area – some were in school gymnasiums, parking lots, church halls, under tents in the vineyards, wineries and almost anywhere they could fit 500 people or more. Some days there were 1 – 2 locations and other days, 4 – 5. The valleys were dotted with large red arrows on the round rounds leading the way to the next tasting. The effort to start with white wines in the morning and pace myself throughout the day did not last long nor did the note taking efforts in the early days look more than scribbles upon return. Many of the locations were paired with a local caterer. Some meals were large buffets highlighting the specialties of the town others were small bites (tea sandwiches, tiny desserts …) and always cheese. These were educational days, networking and occasionally seeing other friends in the business.
When the day of wine tasting was finished the evening wine drinking and party began. Some nights we went to dinner at a restaurant and then ended up at a Descouvertes event and some evenings were spent in French winemakers homes with hospitality in abundance. One of the restaurants that I had almost forgotten about was Les Florets – a countryside restaurant with a long history.
Les Florets is one of the most famous restaurants and hotel in the area. It is located in a a beautiful wooded valley that is located near the rocky Dentelles du Montmirail behind the wine village of Gigondas. The property has a beautiful outdoor stone terrace under large grand trees with a view of the wooded hills above the valley. When we were there in March the terrace was closed and it was definitely too chilly to dine al fresco. I remember sitting against one of the walls of the country-style dining room (lots of knick knacks and flowered? wallpaper). Dinner was lovely – we feasted on a multi-course prix-fix tasting menu including game birds of duck and pheasant, braised rabbit and lamb, and wintery vegetables. Dinner concluded with a cheese course from the trolley.
Interestingly enough, I am telling you this story because one of the wines that we tasted last week was a Grenache blend from Vacquerayas, from the Domaine de la Garrigue – one of the oldest Domaines in the region and owned by the same family that owns the Les Florets restaurant. The Bernard family’s vines were planted in the late 1940s after the Germans left the area after World War II. Though, from reading historians’ notes, “the garrigues” or “the ruins” date back to centuries prior where the Romans were known to make wine here.
The climate in the Southern Rhone is extremely warm in the summer, with consistent temperatures in the 90’s during July and August. Because of this, rich, full-bodied, and spicy wines are to be expected. The soil is similar to that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with massive rocks dotting the vineyards. The old bush vines of Garrigue are planted on these rocks and for most of the vineyards, there is not visible soil present, just rock. The wines are made in the traditional winemaking methods with minimal manipulation. The importance of the land itself, the rocky hillside and the hot temperatures are what the winemakers count on the show off the terroir in their grapes. The winemaking process again takes a minimalist approach with long macerations and fermentations (no stainless steel is used) and seldom pumpovers.
The 2004 vintage from Vacquerayas has a 20% blend of Mourvedre which shows up in the strong black pepper-vanilla finish. The wine is a deep purple with herbal and floral aromas and flavors. The mid palate of the wine comes through as very fruity with wild berry tastes that bounce in a berry-cherry flavor spectrum. The wine has a light, dark chocolate-lavender dry finish. Carefully crafted, this wine can afford to be aerated and/or decanted to let the strong pepper aromas tone down. Only 1000 cases were produced for the American Market and once again imported by the famed importer Eric Solomon. Robert Parker's Wine Advocate published a 91 for this wine with applause for its uniqueness and quality considering the extremely reasonable cost. Though this wine was enjoyed by our tasting panel, it did not make the cut for the club. The 2004 vintage is rare to find now, though I have spotted some of the 2005 vintage around.