It’s wine O’clock

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a number of wineries in the Saint-Chinian area were having an open day on December 8, 2018. ¬†In order to bring you a blog post, I had to go on a research trip! ūüôā

My day started at 10:30 in the morning at the Maison des Vins, the showcase for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines. ¬†The Maison des Vins is in part of the former home of Charles Trenet’s parents in Saint-Chinian – if you don’t know the story, you can find my previous posts here and here.

I had come to the Maison des Vins for a tutored tasting of some of the wines which had made the Virtuoses selection of wines from the AOC Saint-Chinian.  There were 11 participants to the session, which was led by Baptiste Poncet from the Maison des Vins and Vivien Roussignol of Domaine des Paissels.  We were led up an amazing and monumental staircase to the tasting room on the first floor.  Here was the room where pretty much every wine in the store below had at one time or other been tasted, to see if it measured up to the strict quality criteria of the AOC Saint-Chinian.  The room was packed with rows of tables.  Several tasting stations were built into each row, with each person having their own small basin and cold water tap!

The Virtuoses competition is specific to the Saint-Chinian wine area.  It was first held in 2014.  The competition is judged by panels of journalists, professionals and personalities in the wine trade, restaurateurs, etc.  Over the years it has been held in different locations (Saint-Chinian, New York, Montreal, London).

The entrance criteria are fairly strict, and winemakers have to enter three different vintages of the same cuvee. ¬†The idea behind that is to show the ageing potential of the wines. ¬†For this year’s selection (2019), 70 winemakers entered their wines, which were tasted by the 25 jury members in New York City. ¬†Before you ask, no, the jury members didn’t have to taste each and every wine! ¬†They were split into groups as were the wines – it would be nigh impossible for all but the most experienced tasters to work their way through over 200 different wines!!

For our little tasting, Baptiste and Vivien had selected the following wines:

Chateau Coujan – Cuvee bois jolie 2017
Domaine de Cambis – Les jardins suspendus 2016
Domaine des Paissels – Les Paissels 2017
Mas Champart – Causse du bousquet 2015
Domaine La Madura – Classic 2015
Domaine Cathala – Cuvee A 2016

Before we got to tasting all those wines, a little surprise had been prepared for us.  If you saw the picture of the tasting stations earlier in this post, you may have noticed three bottles standing next to one of the sinks.  There were four such sets of bottles dotted about the tasting area, each set contained bottles labeled with Syrah, Carignan and Grenache.  Vivien had brought these wines with him.  They had only recently finished their fermentation and had been drawn off the tanks just the day before.  The idea was that we would create our own blended wine with wines made from the three grape varieties that are frequently used for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines!

Four teams were formed, and we were given the requisite tools for blending, namely a measuring jug and an empty bottle for our final blend. ¬†We started by tasting the individual wines. ¬†The¬†Syrah had spent some time in oak barrels and was to add “structure” to the wine, the¬†Grenache was for roundness, and the¬†Carignan was for freshness. ¬†The colour of all three wines was amazing – a deep purple colour verging on black! ¬†This is where my multitasking ended – tasting and photographing do not go together, at least not for me! ūüôā

Once we had finished tasting the three different varietal wines, we set about working out a “recipe” for our blend. ¬†We started with 30%¬†Syrah,¬†60%¬†Grenache and 10%¬†Carignan. ¬†Next we tried 20%¬†Syrah, 50%¬†Grenache and 30%¬†Carignan. ¬†Finally we tried¬†30%¬†Syrah,¬†40%¬†Grenache and 30%¬†Carignan. ¬†We tasted each of these blends in comparison to one another, and yes we did keep track of our glasses!! ¬†A sheet of paper had been placed at each station, with number 1 to 6 printed on it!! ¬†We came to the conclusion that our winning blend was the 20-50-30 one and prepared our full bottle according to that recipe.

Each group submitted their bottle, which was then covered with a sleeve, and then we all did a blind tasting of the four different blended wines.  Baptiste had given us a simplified version of the tasting sheets used for the Virtuoses competition.

The wines had to be rated on appearance, i.e. colour and clarity of the wine, intensity and complexity of the “nose”, followed by various criteria of taste: Intensity/concentration/bouquet/complexity, acidity/freshness, tannins/structure, balance/harmony, “length” in the mouth, followed by an overall note. ¬†Each note carried points¬†and, as you can see, I rated the wine named “B” at 13.5 out of 20 points. ¬†I found that exercise to be incredibly difficult. ¬†Tasting all those wines was tough enough, but giving notes was tougher yet. ¬†Added to that was the fact that the wines were very young, and the flavours not yet very developed.

Did “our” blend come out with the highest score?? ¬†Nope, it came in last, but in our defence it was the first wine to be tasted, which, as Baptiste said, does nothing for the ranking. ¬†The winning formula was not too dissimilar to ours though: it consisted of 30%¬†Syrah, 50%¬†Grenache and 20%¬†Carignan.

Vivian told us that he prepares about 3 different blends for a cuvee before he arrives at the final “recipe”. ¬†Sometimes, final adjustments are made to the blend just before a wine is bottled.

Being a vigneron is a highly skilled job AND it requires many different skills: growing the grapes, turning them into drinkable wine, blending the wine, and finally selling the wine!  Before this tasting, I had no idea of just how the blending of a wine works Рnow I know just how much work and skill is involved, and I hope you, also, have learned a lot about all of the work, skills and abilities that are necessary to create a wonderful wine.!

Thank you to Baptiste and Vivien for this great experience!

After all the excitement of the blending, we tasted some of the winning wines, which Baptiste had selected for us from the¬†Virtuoses competition. ¬†I stopped taking notes after the first wine, which was cuvee bois jolie from Chateau Coujan in Murviel-les-Beziers. ¬†This was my favourite wine in that selection, wonderfully round, with a lovely “nose” of honey and pear (not literally, only notes of !! ūüôā ) and a great taste! ¬†Of the reds, my favourite was Domaine Cathala’s cuvee A.

With the exceptions of the three wines used in the blending, you can buy all other wines mentioned in this article at the Maison des Vins or via their on-line shop.

After a late lunch (the session took longer than planned Рno complaints though!) I went on to visit the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian and then to Domaine La Madura.  More about this in a future post perhaps.

Drink responsibly!

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First Class

Question: When does a restaurant automatically become first class? ¬†Answer: When it’s in a former post office! ¬†This pun will be more obvious to British readers – in Britain letters can be sent 1st or 2nd class, which translates to priority and regular mail in most other countries! ūüôā

La Carte Timbree in Thezan-les-Beziers is in the former village post office AND it really is a first class restaurant! ¬†I discovered this restaurant with friends, after I had heard about it on the grapevine. ¬†Mathieu (the chef) and Chloe (front of house) transformed the old village post office into a modern and welcoming restaurant – if you have a look at their Facebook post here, you can see that the transformation was pretty radical and far-reaching! ¬†But the end result is a great space, a modern dining room that manages to feel warm and welcoming. ¬†Here’s my attempt at photographing the dining room:The lunchtime menu changes every day, and the a-la-carte menu changes once a month – to make the most of seasonal produce, according to the chef. ¬†It’s also more fun to regularly have new dishes to cook!

This was the lunchtime menu the day I visited:

The starter was a creamy carrot soup spiced with curry and coconut milk, and accompanied by slices of toasted baguette topped with lemon flavoured goats’ cheese! ¬†A great combination and very tasty!!

The main course was a stir fry or “wok” as it’s called in France, naming the dish after the pan it is cooked in. ¬†Rice noodles had been sauteed with chicken and vegetables and seasoned in the style of Thai dishes. ¬†Very yummy and just the right size portion!

The dessert of the day was a tarte tatin which had been made with quinces instead of apples.  I will have to experiment with that at home Рthe flavour was exquisite and it made a perfect ending to our meal!

The lunchtime menu is priced at 18 Euros for three courses, including either a glass of wine or coffee! ¬†The evening menu (choose from the dishes on the a-la-carte menu) is priced at 28 Euros for three courses and 32 Euros for four courses. ¬†They have vegetarian options available. ¬†You’ll be able to find full details on the website for the restaurant. ¬†La Carte Timbree is open for lunch every day except Monday and for dinner from Wednesday to Saturday inclusive.

I’ll definitely be going back to La Carte Timbree – it’s been added to my list of go-to restaurants! ¬†And next time I might even explore the village a little more!

Seasonal blend

The third Thursday of November marks the release of¬†Beaujolais nouveau, a newly made wine which has just finished fermenting. ¬†There is quite a bit of tradition surrounding this event, which has been going on since the 1950’s – the Wikipedia article about it can be found here.

The wine producers in our area thought that the idea of¬†vin nouveau would be too good an opportunity to miss, so several producers offer a¬†vin nouveau or a¬†vin primeur, two names for the essentially the same product:¬†newly made wines which are bottled and sold shortly after the wine has finished fermenting. ¬†These wines are usually characterised as being light, fruity and easy to drink, preferably slightly chilled. ¬†It’s a real treat if paired with roasted chestnuts!

This year, I found that the cooperative winery in Saint-Jean de Minervois was doing their version of the vin nouveau, offering a Muscat de Noel, a Christmas muscat!

I had to make a trip to Saint-Jean and try the muscat for myself, purely in the interest of research, you understand! ūüėČ

The day I visited the winery, the space out front was stacked with pallets of empty bottles! All of these would be filled up in due course!

The¬†Muscat de Noel is the first muscat to be drawn off and bottled from this year’s vintage. ¬†I tasted it in tandem with another muscat from the winery in Saint-Jean, Eclat Blanc,¬†which the lady behind the counter told me was the closest equivalent. ¬†The comparison was very interesting, with some marked differences between the two wines. ¬†The Muscat de Noel had a much fruitier taste and a lovely smell (nose) of pineapple. ¬†It tasted as though there was not much alcohol in it, even though it packs a punch with 15.5% alcohol, and it was far too easy to drink! ūüôā ¬†The¬†Eclat Blanc muscat was a very elegant wine, with a very good balance between fruitiness and acidity. ¬†The alcohol content was the same, but somewhat more in evidence!

A sweet Muscat de Saint-Jean de Minervois wine is ideal as an aperitif before the start of a meal, with foie gras (duck or goose liver pate), or with some nice blue cheese such as Roquefort.  It can also be used in cooking РI made a very delicious flan, which was flavoured with muscat!

Do you enjoy muscat wine?  What is your favourite food to pair with muscat wine?

Still lots going on!

You’ll be forgiven for thinking that at the end of the summer the area falls into a Sleeping Beauty-like torpor – but far from it! ¬†There is still plenty going on to keep us entertained!!

As soon as fall starts, there are the harvest festivals such as the ones I wrote about last week.  The theatre season starts up again in Narbonne, Beziers and Montpellier.  Beziers has several venues for theatre, classical music, dance and even opera Рyou can find the full programme here.

The theatre in Narbonne is housed in a very modern building, quite a contrast to the quaint old theatre in Beziers.  It does have better sight-lines than the theatre in Beziers, and the second (smaller) auditorium has been equipped for cinema screenings.  The programme can be found via this link.

The live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City are screened at the Theatre in Narbonne, and at the MonCine cinema in Beziers!

Montpellier, being a big city, has a number of theatres of all types – a modern opera house, a grand 19th century theatre building and several smaller theatres. ¬†There’s always something going on! ¬†The programme can be found here.

November is the time when people in this area start to buy fresh foie gras and other bits of duck and goose, to prepare a stock of goodies to last them the winter!

Coursan and Limoux have their Foires au Gras –¬†literally translated as ‘Fat Fairs’ but they are really foie gras markets – on November 18 (Coursan) and 24 (Limoux), 2018.

The truffle markets start this year on December 15 with a market in Moussoulens.  The last truffle market of the season will be on March 10, 2019 in Cabrespine Рyou can find dates and the programme here.

In preparation for Christmas (think shopping!!), eleven wineries in the Saint-Chinian area have a day of tastings and visits on December 8, 2018 – the programme can be found via this link.

Next, we have Christmas markets!  They are becoming ever more popular in the area Рhere is a small selection for you:

November 24 and 25, 2018 Р(Christmas) Cracker Fair at the Abbaye de Valmagne

December 2, 2018 – Christmas market in Saint-Chinian, Salle de l’Abbatiale

December 9, 2018 – Christmas market in Capestang, Salle Nelson Mandela

In the bigger towns, the Christmas markets are on for most of December:

Les Hivernales Christmas market in Montpellier is open from November 29 to December 27, 2018.

Carcassonne’s¬†Magie de Noel opens on December 6, 2018 and closes on January 6, 2019.

So far, most of this post has been about food and other shopping opportunities.  Here now are a few more opportunities for entertainment:

On December 12, 2018 the Salle de l’Abbatiale in Saint-Chinian hosts a concert with the¬†La Cantarela choir from Beziers, Ulrike van Cotthem (soprano), Sebastien Mazoyer (bandoneon) and Conrad Wilkinson (piano). ¬†There’ll be music by Debussy, Faure, Schumann and Strauss, and the Misatango by Martin Palmeri. ¬†This should be a very good concert – don’t miss it!

The Christmas concert in Narbonne takes place on December 15 in the cathedral, with the Narbonne Symphony Orchestra, the Via Lyrica choir and Daniele Scotte (soprano).  This should be another great concert.

And finally, If you are a fan of the circus tent, you’ll have to visit Toulouse between December 1, 2018 and January 6, 2019. ¬†The¬†Grande Cirque de Noel pitches its tents at the Cepiere racetrack in Toulouse. ¬†There will be acrobats, clowns, horses, daredevil stunts and more!!

 

A firm favourite

In our area, autumn is chestnut time, and there are several festivals to celebrate the chestnut harvest. ¬†I’ve written about the festivals before. ¬†You can find the posts here, here, and here. ¬†This year, I went to the Chestnut Festivals in both Saint-Pons and Olargues – over the years they have become firm favourites of mine!

The weekend the festival took place in Saint-Pons, the area was experiencing a cold-snap:  temperatures plummeted to 6 Celsius, well below the seasonal average!!  The stall-holders were well wrapped up against the cold!  Below is a picture of a very warmly dressed Lex Page from Love la Foret!  Lex and her husband Andy specialise in dried mushrooms РI bought some delicious cep (porcini) mushroom powder from them a little while back, and I needed a top-up!

The festival in Saint-Pons always has a large number of exhibitors and I found many familiar stands!

I adore roasted chestnuts, so I made a beeline to the square where the chestnuts were being roasted over open fires!

The hot chestnuts were delicious AND they warmed my hands!!

Bands of roving musicians provided entertainment, and there was lots to see and taste.  Despite the cold weather this was a very enjoyable festival!

The Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau (the festival of chestnuts and new wine) took place in Olargues a week later. ¬†The weather couldn’t have been more different – it was beautiful! ¬†The sun was out and there was a marked difference in temperature – absolutely no need for thermal underwear!!

I had of course come for the roasted chestnuts!!  The set-up in Olargues is much smaller than it is in Saint-Pons, but the chestnuts were every bit as delicious!

On a recent visit to L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, I tasted a tiramisu which had been made with¬†creme de marron, a sweet chestnut puree made from broken pieces of marrons glac√©s. ¬†This was a very delicious dessert and I have attempted to recreate the recipe for you below. ¬†When you next visit L’Auberge de l’Ecole, you’ll be able to taste Brigitte’s authentic version!

Tiramisu with creme de marron

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A delicious tiramisu, with a special flavour of autumn. You can make this in individual serving dishes, or use one large dish.

Ingredients

  • 250g mascarpone (1 tub)
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g creme de marron (chestnut puree)
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 12 sponge fingers (also called ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits)
  • 200ml strong coffee
  • 2 Tbsp Rum

You will also need six to eight individual serving dishes (I used glass preserving jars), or a single serving dish, large enough to hold 6 sponge fingers in a single layer.

ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Directions


1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites.
2. In a medium-sized bowl beat the egg yolks with 1 Tbsp sugar until white and thick. Add the mascarpone and the creme de marron and mix until lump-free.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form.  Add the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Fold one third of the beaten egg whites into the mascarpone mixture to ‘loosen’ it. ¬†Then add the remaining beaten egg whites and fold in until the mixture is smooth.
5. Pour the cold coffee into a shallow bowl and add the rum.
6. To assemble the tiramisu, put some of the mascarpone mixture in the bottom of your dish (one third of the mixture if using one large dish).  Dip each sponge finger briefly into the coffee and arrange in a neat layer in your dish.  Top with another third of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the sponge fingers.  Finish with the last third of the mascarpone mixture and level with a spatula. If you are using individual serving dishes, break/cut the sponge fingers to make them fit.
7. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to chill for four to six hours.

Before serving you may wish to dust the tiramisu with cocoa powder but try it without the cocoa powder first. I find that it can overpower the delicate flavour of the chestnut puree.

Note:  In her version, Brigitte uses chestnut brandy, which is pretty impossible to find.  I found rum to be reasonable substitute, but if you can find chestnut liqueur it would be even better.  Brigitte also omits the coffee and uses only alcohol to soak the biscuits in.  

 

Splish splash

Where there’s fresh water there is life! ¬†The Benedictine monks knew all about the importance of water when they founded their monastery, and with it the village of Saint-Chinian, near the banks of the Vernazobres river in the 9th century!

They harnessed the power of the water to drive mills, and built a canal to irrigate the fields and gardens.  The Vernazobres river still flows through Saint-Chinian, and although the water mills are long gone, the canal which irrigates the gardens still exists!

When the summer weather has arrived and the cicadas sing their seemingly endless songs in the languid heat, there’s nothing more inviting than a refreshing dip in the water. The river is perfect for that!

Upstream, just a little outside the village, is an area called Les Platanettes where the water tumbles over the rocks and flows through a series of pools.

The area is shaded by mature plane trees ¬†(platane is French for plane tree) and there’s usually a light breeze – heaven on a hot day!!

A few years ago, picnic tables were installed at¬†Les Platanettes, and there’s plenty of space if those are already occupied when you get there.

There are more river pools farther upstream from¬†Les Platanettes, just walk along between the river and the vineyards, and you’ll get there!

Saint-Chinian also has a semi-olympic swimming pool, for those who prefer to do some serious swimming!

At Cessenon, the Vernazobres river flows into the Orb, a river which ends its journey at Valras plage.  Up-river from Cessenon is the picturesque town of Roquebrun:

The Orb makes a sort of right turn at Roquebrun Рyou get a great view of that from the Mediterranean garden just below the ruined tower at the top of the village:

The pebble beach on the opposite side of the river is very popular and the plane trees provide welcome shade. ¬†To the right of the bridge (in the picture above) is a canoe and kayak base – there’s great canoeing and kayaking all along the river Orb! ¬†You can rent a canoe or kayak, and once all the formalities are dealt with and you’ve been kitted out, you’ll be driven farther up the river so you can just paddle your way down to where you started from.

There are several other locations along the river for renting canoes and kayaks.  My favourite is in Reals, where the rapids are used for competitions!

Those rapids are downriver from the boatyard in Reals. ¬†They are not for the use of an amateur like myself – I prefer calmer water, even though that might mean more paddling!! ūüôā

On the way to the base in Reals there is an exhilarating water slide!

Cessenon, which is located halfway between Saint-Chinian and Roquebrun, is also on the river Orb.  The pebble beach there is near the old suspension bridge Рvery picturesque!

The Golfe du Lion¬†is famous for its sandy beaches – the nearest beaches for me are at Valras Plage and Vendres Plage. In the summer it can be quite busy, but there’s plenty of space for everyone!

My favourite time of day at the beach is late in the afternoon, when there are fewer people and the heat is less intense!

With all this glorious weather it’s time I took a little blogging vacation – but I promise I’ll be back!! And don’t forget: I’ll be here if you need any help with booking accommodation – you can always drop me a line! ¬†Enjoy your summer!!