All Roads Lead To Rhône

Ok, so I lied.

I didn’t go to the Douro Valley.  I went to the Rhône, north and south.  It was fun.  Here’s a very lengthy post about it…(but I’ve bunged in plenty of pictures to help us along our way). As always, if it’s in yellow, it’s a link.

I dropped Noah off at his summer camp – where, following, if not a rocky start, certainly a pebbly one, he was made capo gruppo (group leader) – one Friday morning in August, and headed for the hills.

Mountains, in fact: cut it any way you like, if you’re driving to France from Piedmont (Piemonte), you have to budget for the occasional mountain.  I chose to go over rather than through: time estimates were roughly comparable, but the scenery and driving much more fun up-and-over.  Plus, no tolls meant more for wine purchases…

I arrived at the Franco-Italian border around 1.30pm so I stopped for a bite to eat.  There were cars parked everywhere, picnics in progress.  Right on the border, the restaurant, half in France, half in Italy, was packed.  Trucks, cars, motorbikes, caravans constantly on the move in both directions.  In order to stop Covid’s spread from France into Italy and vice versa, there were fewer than 1 Carabinieri on the Italian side, while the French had employed all the might of the Gendarmerie that they could muster in the area, which, if it was greater than that of the Italian state, was so by fewer than 1 whole person; the practical effect, since fractions of Gendarmes are not generally deployed, being that France had equal the human resources utilised by Italy. It made for serene progress.

It took a little longer than it perhaps should have to arrive at journey’s end – there were a couple of hold-ups in places – but I arrived at my destination around 5.30pm.  A cup of tea and a large glass of water and I was refreshed, especially when I espied what had been laid on by my friends in addition to the cuppa:

It’s always good when your surroundings look like this

I had elected to leave my computer at home, which proved a good idea – I felt a few days’ complete break was required; almost to come up for air.  Between looking after Noah, work and stressing about this and that, I theorised that staying in bed at home for a week might give me some sleep, but that each time I awoke, I would then find a little something to do, open the laptop and do an e-mail or two, worry about not having done such-and-such.  A different environment would be much more relaxing.  Especially with a hot spell (37 to 40°C) and a pool…

So I spent a very relaxing weekend with friends just doing not much except visiting the local market:

Ahh, French markets…
Cracking Cheese Gromit
You have to like garlic…

…Mucking about in the water, sleeping, eating and having a glass of something local and delicious:

Something local and delicious – the homemade gazpacho was wonderful…

Northern Lights?

On the Monday, I headed north from Cairanne to Tournon, right across the mighty Rhône from Tain-l’Hermitage.  I had 2 nights booked in an apartment there and 2 winery visits planned – I didn’t want to go overboard and taste every which way I could, but just to have a really relaxed couple of days in a region I had never visited before.

My first visit was at Vincent Paris in Cornas, ironically a producer who is imported by a company in Alba, and whose wines I had sold and admired in my Berry Bros & Rudd days.  I was reminded that the wine tasting experience can vary widely from region to region and country to country: about 30 minutes after crossing the threshold, I was back at the car, putting the wines in the boot: in the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, I am used to 1.5 to 2.5 hours (last week, I was at one winery for 4 hours…).

After the tasting I headed to Valence for a Covid test (long story, but suffice to say that my second vaccination timing meant that I fell between the tiles of 72 hour test still being valid, and 10 days having had to have passed from the vaccination to my getting the green pass).  With that done, I pottered to Tournon around lunchtime to find my dwelling:

which was optimally placed one street back from the Quai Farconnet, which itself had plenty of shaded parking:

I checked into the AirBnb, dropped off my stuff and wandered around Tournon and over the bridge into Tain for a mooch.

I have to say, at risk of heresy, I daresay, to those with a passion for Hermitage, that I found both Tournon and Tain rather dismal towns.  They seemed down-at-heel, and not in a way that you would expect to have been the result of the economic privations of the past couple of years.  They were slightly grubby and uncared-for in feel, which surprised me.  Now I realise that Hermitage itself is a small appellation – at 137 hectares it’s about the size of Bussia in Barolo – but the likes of Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Delas make plenty of other wines (in the millions of bottes) at elevated prices, to say nothing of the other producers of the region.  Tain is also home to Valrhona, a chocolate producer big enough to have a Cité du Chocolat in Tain and the École Valrhona Brooklyn pastry school in New York.  The town has money, yet it did not seem to manifest itself in the buildings or public spaces in the way it does in, say, Cognac.  Large parts of Tain where a visitor might go appeared to be somewhat dilapidated, while Chapoutier is churning out millions of bottles, some selling at €500 a pop.  Ditto Jaboulet.  Delas’s tasting room was very slick, and clearly expensive, but there appeared to be almost no bleed-through of this into the rest of Tain or Tournon.

I understand very well, seeing news from and about Afghanistan, that these are not the most serious problems facing the world.  And even more that Tain and Tournon have no obligation to slap on a coat of paint and repair the wooden shutters to be seen falling off every third building, to make me think differently or better about the town.  They may think, justifiably, ‘Sling your hook!  You know nothing about us and our town or our situation’.  And they’d be right.

It was just a surprise, that’s all.

This place, for example, looks pretty nice. But I never saw it open in 3 days.

Well, it being a Monday, and my not fancying a take-away pizza, my dining options were limited to the fare on offer at the local shop: scrambled eggs, crisps and bananas.  They did have other stuff, I have to admit, but I didn’t really fancy any of it, a large-ish percentage of which was pre-packed pizza.  I did get a beer, however.  And I’m not having a go at Tournon here – I could have driven to a large supermarket and procured all manner of fine stuff to cook.  I just couldn’t be arsed.

Not the finest dinner I have ever had. Not the worst, either…

Then I ate and settled in with Ted Lasso for company.  And jolly good company it was, too.

Tuesday, and a trip to Yves Cuilleron in Chavanay, for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie.  I used to sell this fella’s wines even further in the past than Mr Paris’s: in the previous millennium.

I didn’t polish off all of these…

Elodie, the lady manning (?) the tasting counter at Mr Cuilleron’s emporium, allowed me to taste pretty much whatever I liked, and was most engaging about the region and her time in other regions.  I was soon furnished with a range of wines, which I stuck in the car, and a rather nice map of the regions of the northern Rhône.  Which I promptly left in the tasting room upon departure.

With the rest of the day on my hands, I went further north for more Condrieu, Saint-Joseph and Côte-Rôtie.  I ended up in Ampuis, as one does, I expect, when in this part of the world…It was lunch-ish time and I just grabbed a sandwich, mangling Italian and French in response to any question I was asked about what I would like, and pottered around the village, ending up at the Château d’Ampius, proprietor, one E. Guigal.

The gates remain firmly closed. But they do let you in here:
Guigal’s tasting garden. Don’t mind if I do…

A few minutes up the road was the large, elegant Manor House pictured above, that housed their museum and tasting rooms, as well as the tasting garden.  The temperature had dropped between Sunday and Monday, so it was a pleasant 28°C outside while I tasted.  You could select a range of wines and tailor it to what you wanted to try.  The lady, whose name was not confided, conducting the tasting was really lovely and the wines good.  And I got a special treat at the end of a taste of the Ermitage Ex Voto (as though Côte-Rôtie La Landonne wasn’t enough…).

A nice way to ease into the tasting
Good wines…
One of Guigal’s legends – Côte-Rôtie La Landonne
Just in case La Landonne wasn’t enough…

Wednesday morning saw me going back to the lab for my Covid test result at 7.30am, since it had now been 2 days since the test – valid for 3 – and I had not received the result (arriving 4 minutes after they had closed the previous evening, necessitating this third visit).  A lady printed out the negative result, without a QR code, and I was on my way.  I was heading back to Cairanne later in the day, so I stuck to the tasting rooms and shops of Tain in the morning.  I tried some pretty slick stuff at Chapoutier, including a go on the 2011 Ermitage L’Ermite:

That’s an expensive line-up. All tasted gratis

This was available for purchase at the August-discounted price of €465.  My tasting was free and you can just walk in off the street and try the wines.  Hats off to Chapoutier for that.

I also went back into a shop called Compagnie de l’Hermitage, having poked my head inside the previous evening about 5 minutes prior to their closing.  I wished to make good on my promise to the young couple staffing the joint that I would return the following day with a bottle for their delectation.

A fine establishment run by Georges Lelektsoglou. Seek it out when you’re in Tain-l’Hermitage

Upon entering said establishment today, however, I found a rather older vintage of proprietor, and no trace of the younger pair of the previous evening.  I explained that my French was not very good and the fellow was kind enough to reply to me in English, revealing himself to be an outsider, too: Greek in origin, but a denizen of these parts since the 1970s.  The young couple materialised at the door and a conversation then ensued about my bottle and the offer to leave it with them to enjoy at their leisure.  I had noted that the shop had a range of wines from Paitin in Barbaresco, and one or two from Braida di Giacomo Bologna, so the owner was familiar with, and a fan of, good Piemontese wines.  What I took to be his son was instructed to get a bottle of ‘our wine’ for me, and I was handed a bottle of Crozes-Hermitage with the label of the Greek proprietor on it while I explained that the wine I was bequeathing was essentially a Cru Barbaresco 2012 that I had aged with a couple of friends and we had bottled by hand.

Upon being apprised of this, the older man said to the young buck, “Get something better”, and a 2018 Châteauneuf-du-Pape was ferreted out for me as an exchange.

Of all the bottles that I brought back with me, this is the one I am most excited about: 1 of 480 produced and likely available only at his shop.  Wine may represent civilisation’s defeat of barbarism, as Hubert de Montille had it, but it is about this: openness, generosity and sociability.  I can’t decide whether to stick or twist with this bottle.  On the one hand, it’s too young.  On the other, I want to try it to see what it is like and if it is good, to see how much it is and can they ship more to me?

As you can see, I twisted. It was young, but very good indeed – rich and Grenache-heavy I’d bet

What a grape Nebbiolo is…

So what did I think of my first foray into the northern Rhône?

Well, I enjoyed the whites, Condrieu especially: though as a grower you have to be attentive in the vineyard, and as a punter you have to be attentive to alcohol levels and vintages.  Viognier, the grape of Condrieu, is not naturally high in acidity, so warmer years, which may give plenty to the reds of the region, might leave you exposed to the risk of ‘hot’ wines with little freshness (that’s from the acidity) and high alcohol which can show both on the nose and on the palate and aftertaste as a heating or burning sensation.  Mr Cuilleron himself used to say that you should look out for Condrieu in cooler years; years that might be considered not too good for reds might be terrific for Condrieu.  These days, the cooler years would have been considered warm 30 years ago.  You can always pick earlier at harvest, but then you run the risk of not having mature enough aroma and flavour compounds.

As for the reds, again I enjoyed them.  For both reds and whites, I only dipped a toe in the water here, and would like to return and taste in-depth at plenty of producers.  But I have to say that trying a number of Côte-Rôties and Hermitages – essentially 100% Syrah wines – I was left with the impression that these wines were like Barbera with a powdery or chalky tannin character on the finish.  Set against this is the fact that the wines that I felt were like this were from large producers and churned out in significant quantities.  It is not untrue to say that if I visited the equivalent big producers here in Piemonte, I would be whelmed at best with their offerings: the small producers that have a tight grip on everything from vineyard to bottle are where the real quality and interest lie.

And so it was in the northern Rhône.  The wines I liked the best were from Cuilleron (not small at 350,000 bottles per year – but not the 2 million of Delas, for example, to say nothing of Chapoutier, Guigal and Jaboulet) and, even more so, from Vincent Paris.  Paris has 8 hectares of vines (20 acres) so he tends them all himself, and his production, off the top of my head without looking at the specific rules in his region, would be a maximum of around 80,000 bottles a year – likely it’s much fewer.

Next time, I will get stuck into Côte-Rôties and Hermitages from much smaller producers to see what they’re like.  My problem with the ones from the big fellas I tried is that these were €50 to €250 bottles, offering me what I considered to be the equivalent quality to good Barbera’s made here, and costing €20 or thereabouts.  At least here, if I’m not inspired by a big fish’s Barolo, it’s €30 or €40, not €150.  Time and again, tasting things such as the Côte-Rôtie La Landonne at Guigal, I found myself thinking, ‘What a grape Nebbiolo is…’

Still, guess that’s why I chose Piemonte over anywhere else…

Southern Comfort

Back in Cairanne, I ran into 4 Dutch fellas who were in the area to make a promotional video for Rutger’s shops, called Wijnadvies.  They were tasting when I arrived unannounced at my friend’s house, and they were kind enough to invite me to join in. I needed no second invitation.

Once done we went our separate ways for an hour or 3 before heading out for dinner.  And jolly good it was too!

Thursday featured a serendipitous morning with the Dutch group and my two friends.  They were all going to Gigondas, and on to another property to taste their wines, before a lunch in Seguret – all being captured on camera for Wijnadvies.  At dinner the evening before, they had invited me to join them again, and a visit to Gigondas and on to Seguret are not to be spurned. Gigondas is a lovely village, and I highly recommend a visit; Seguret, however, is probably the place if you want picturesque Provençale village vibes.  I’d say it’s more attractive than Gigondas – it reminds me a little of Siurana, a village in the Priorat region of Spain – but, on the other hand, doesn’t have the free tasting room with 80-odd wines open that Gigondas has. You pays your money and you takes your choice…

Hard at work in Gigondas

Once the Dutch contingent were safely on their way to the airport, we each did our own thing: I myself toddled off to Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes, site of the Saturday market, to find a present for Noah and then had to take care of a little work (Booooo!).  By 6pm, however, following around 90 minutes of frustration with electronic payments and apps on my phone, I was ready for a drink by the pool.  As I sat with a glass of white, I reflected that, though I had found resetting passwords, downloading another app and trying to book a couple of things online had driven me a bit crazy, I had spent just 90 minutes in France sorting out several things back in Italy using nothing but my phone.

I realise that to any younger reader, that’s no big deal, except why did it take you 88 minutes longer than necessary?, but when I was a whippersnapper, I would have had to have written letters (on paper, with a pen (sic) or typewriter (ditto) ) and attended several different establishments in person, probably over the course of days, to be able to get done what I achieved sitting under some olive trees in a foreign country in less time than a standard lunch break (where I live).

There was only a bit of packing left to do prior to heading to my friends’ for a light dinner.  Sadly, there was still some wine left from the tastings, so we ensured that this did not go to waste – selflessly saving someone else the bother.

Keeping it light on my last evening in Cairanne

Then it was back on the road on Friday morning – I had to pick Noah up from his summer camp at 5pm, so time was of the essence.

You know the old cliché about feeling like a new person?  Well, this was the starkest difference I have ever felt between the beginning of a break and its conclusion.  Upon my return, it was as though so much had simply evaporated and I felt ready for new adventures.

But they will have to wait for the next post, which will contain the most exciting news imaginable…