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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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?

Sittin’ on the dock of the bay

After that wonderful visit at Noilly Prat (see last week’s post) we needed some sustenance!! ¬†There are a good number of restaurants to choose from in Marseillan – we headed to La Taverne du Port because of its quirky interior! ¬†I had eaten there a number of times before, and I knew that the food was going to be good – another major criteria when choosing a restaurant!! ūüôā

La Taverne du Port is just a short stroll away from Noilly Prat, and right across a canal which functions as a harbour for fishing and pleasure boats.

Standing with my back to the restaurant, I could see the visitor’s centre of Noilly Prat on the other side of the canal (on the right in the picture below)!

I mentioned the quirky interior of La Taverne du Port earlier – the picture below will give you some idea:

The furniture is all made from wooden barrels, and the walls are lined with rows upon rows of bottles.

La Taverne du Port has an amazing collection of whiskies, armagnacs, cognacs, spirits and wines, and they are all for sale, either by the bottle or by the glass!  All together, the restaurant stocks over 800 different types of drinks, and their list is impressive!!

But we had come for a bite to eat – we’d already had our ‘aperitif’ across the water! ¬†Here, without further ado, are the starters:

Gratinated oysters

Salad with smoked mackerel fillets

A selection of charcuterie, cured meats sliced wafer thin.

The restaurant has one of these fancy hand-cranked slicing machines, which allows the cured meats to be sliced ever so thin!

Next to the selection of charcuterie was an impressive cheese board, arranged on top of a barrel!

For my main course I had chosen the day’s special: boeuf bourguignon:

This was a most delicious and rich beef stew, wonderfully flavoured!

My dining companions had opted for the catch of the day – small red mullet and mantis shrimp, served with a very tasty garlic sauce.

All main courses were accompanied by a delicious potato and vegetable gratin.  The portions were generous, so we all skipped dessert.  Instead we decided to go for a walk around Marseillan.

Before we leave the restaurant, here is a picture of what the terrace in front of La Taverne du Port looks like – it’s just by the water, which you can’t see in the picture. ¬†For further details visit the website of La Taverne du Port.

Here are some pictures taken along the canal:

On a good day, you can see right across to Sete and the Mont Saint-Michel:

As well as the beautiful views along the canal, there are many quaint views and interesting corners in Marseillan, a few of which I’ll show you below. ¬†Do visit if you are in the area!!

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Shaken, not stirred

… that’s how James Bond liked his martinis! ¬†A classic martini cocktail has only two ingredients – that’s if you don’t count the olive! ¬†Gin and dry vermouth, in the proportion of 6 parts gin to 1 part dry vermouth, make up a dry martini, according to the International Bartenders Association (IBA).

The town of Marseillan, on the Etang de Thau, is the home of Noilly Prat, a company which has been producing dry vermouth since its foundation by Joseph Noilly in 1813. ¬†Purists say that it’s that dry vermouth that should be used to make the perfect dry martini cocktail!

Here’s a little bit of history for you: ¬†Joseph Noilly was born in 1779 in Saint-Bel-les-Mines. ¬†In 1801, the year that his son Louis was born, Joseph Noilly was a grocer and candle merchant in Lyon. ¬†In 1813, the city of Lyon closed down its central wine and spirits depot. ¬†Joseph Noilly seized the opportunity and started his own wine and spirits merchant business, creating his recipe for the dry vermouth which is still used today!

In 1843, a new branch of the business was opened in Marseille. ¬†The man in charge of that new business was named Claude Prat. ¬†The following year, Claude Prat married Anne Rosine, the daughter of Louis Noilly. ¬†In 1855, Claude Prat became an associate of Louis Noilly and the company’s name was changed to Noilly Prat & Companie. ¬†Between 1859 and 1862, a new production facility was constructed in Marseillan, for the ageing of wines. ¬†I’ll come back to the ageing of the wine in a moment.

By 1865, Louis Noilly and Claude Prat had both died and Anne Roisine was at the helm of Noilly Prat, ushering in a period of expansion and prosperity for the business.  In 1878, the Noilly Prat vermouth was awarded a gold medal at the Universal Exhibition in Paris Рa very high honour indeed!!

Anne Rosine Prat-Noilly was one of the few women who were running large and successful businesses in the 19th century. ¬†The only other one I can think of right now is Barbe-Nicole Clicquot, the Veuve Clicquot of the famous champagne house, but I’m sure that there were others.

Anne Rosine was succeeded by her sons Louis and Jean Prat-Noilly in 1902, and in 1928 the company structure was changed to that of a PLC, a public limited company.  Information exists on the year 1939, which shows that the Chairman of the Board was a granddaughter of Anne Rosine.

In 1977, Noilly Prat and Company was bought by Martini & Rossi, the makers of the Martini vermouth. ¬†In turn, Martini & Rossi was bought by Bacardi in 1992, and Noilly Prat vermouths joined a portfolio of illustrious brands such as Grey Goose vodka, Bombay Sapphire gin, and Dewar’s scotch whisky.

Now that I’ve told you about the history of the company, we can get back to visiting the production site in Marseillan. ¬†I’ve visited Noilly Prat many times over the years, and the guided visits are constantly evolving and becoming better organized. ¬†The visitor’s reception area is located in a large, spacious hall, with the shop at one end and the ticket desk at the other end. ¬†Old (and now unused) equipment is used for decoration.

Did you notice the green doors in the upper picture above? ¬†The lettering translates to “Behind these doors the first French vermouth is being made”! ¬†The doors were opened with great flourish by our guide and an assistant, to reveal the¬†Chai des Mistelles, the cellar where the mistelle wines are stored.

Huge oak casks line the cellar down both sides. ¬†Louis Noilly had them built in 1859 – they were made from Canadian oak, and they have been in use ever since! ¬†I’d never come across the word¬†mistelle before my visits to Noilly Prat. ¬†Apparently, this is lightly fermented grape juice, to which neutral alcohol has been added, to avoid it turning into vinegar. ¬†This process leaves residual sugars in the wine, and that adds a little sweetness to the vermouth.

I mentioned earlier that the site in Marseillan was intended for the ageing of wines.  In the days before modern transport appeared, wines were sent by boat, with the barrels often tied up on the decks of ships.  The barrels and their wines were exposed to sun, wind, rain, mists and sea air.  On longer journeys, this produced oxidation in the wine, which gave it a taste all of its own.  Louis Noilly wanted to recreate some of this taste for his vermouth, and chose Marseillan since it was close to the sea.

From the Chai des Mistelles we stepped out into an enclosed yard, where hundreds of oak barrels were out in the open air, exposed to the elements.  The sun beats down on them in summer, the sea mists impart an imperceptible flavour, and the temperature changes throughout the year affect the ageing of the wine.  Seeing all those barrels lined up was a spectacular sight!!

The picture below is from one of my earlier visits to Noilly Prat РI think it was in 2004, when visitors were still allowed into the modern vermoutherie, where the wines are blended and flavoured with aromatics.  That part of the site is now out-of-bounds for visitors, unfortunately.

The barrels come from many different parts Рthey are bought once they have been used for a good 10 years, some for the production of whisky and cognac, others from port and wine makers.  They are used purely for storage and ageing Рbecause they are second-hand, none of the tannins and flavours from the wood will be imparted to the wine.  A cooperage workshop on-site maintains and repairs the barrels Рbeing outside in all weathers means that they need some TLC from time to time!

Our next stop was the museum, where the history of the company and its vermouth were illustrated.

To turn wine into vermouth, it is infused with a blend of herbs and spices.  The recipe for the original dry vermouth has not changed since Joseph Noilly first developed it, and the ingredients are still bought all over the world!  To ship them, in the days when shipping meant only transport by boat, special cardboard containers were developed.

The recipes for the herbal blends which flavour the vermouth, are closely guarded secrets.  However, in the museum we got to see approximately what is added:

Noilly Prat produces four different kinds of vermouth:  original dry, extra dry, red, and amber.  The pictures below show a simplified version of the recipe Рnot everything is listed.  Our guide told us that 27 different aromatics are used in the composition of the amber vermouth.

Here are their displays showing the differences in ingredients in their different vermouths.

Once the wines have been carefully aged and blended, a mixture of herbs and spices is added, and the wine is left to macerate with the aromatics for 21 days.  This maceration is done in casks like the ones in the following picture Р14 kilos of dried herbs and spices are added to each cask!

During the 21 days, the wines are stirred  by hand for three minutes every morning, to ensure that the herbs and spices infuse evenly.  A special tool was developed for that purpose.  You can see it in the picture below:

The curved blade at the end of the handle allows the cellar man to lift the herbs which have fallen to the bottom of the cask.  After the 21 days, the wine is strained and decanted into large refrigerated tanks, where all small particles settle to the bottom over a period of time, leaving the vermouth sparkling clear!  Finally, the finished vermouth is transported to Beaucaire by tanker, where it is bottled.

The last stop on our guided visit was the tasting bar – our appetites had been whetted, and finally it was time to taste the results of all that work!

Our guide poured samples of the four different vermouths for us to taste, starting with extra dry, then original dry, followed by the red, and finally the amber.

The original dry is exported all over the world, the extra dry is sold mostly in anglophone countries, the red is sold only outside of France, and the amber is only available in Marseillan! ¬†All four taste very different, and I’m not entirely certain which one I prefer.

Following our introduction to the four Noilly Prat vermouths, our guide took us to the room next door, the so-called cocktail bar!

Large glasses were lined up on the shiny brass top of the bar, and into each glass our guide dropped an ice ball. ¬†Yes, an ice ball!! ¬†Apparently this takes 40 minutes to melt and is therefore far superior to ice cubes!! ¬†Guess what? The moulds were for sale in the shop, and of course I bought one!! ¬†ūüôā

Everyone could pick their favourite vermouth, and our guide prepared them as follows:

  • A slice of lime zest with the extra dry
  • A slice of lemon zest with the original dry
  • A slice of orange zest with the red
  • A slice of grapefruit zest with the amber

Adding the citrus zest and the ice brought out completely different flavours in the vermouth – it was somewhat of a revelation for me!

We’d come to the end of our visit, next stop the shop, where I bought a bottle of each of the four vermouths as well as the ice ball mould – it was too good an opportunity to miss! ¬†Enjoy – but please remember to drink responsibly!

To find out more and/or to book a guided tour, visit https://www.noillyprat.com

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International Women‚Äôs Rights Day ‚Äď 8th March 2018

This post was kindly written by Suzanne, a friend and neighbour in Saint-Chinian. ¬†She’s a member of an association called WIC, short for Women’s International Club. ¬†The association is very active and brings people of all nationalities together. ¬†A big THANK YOU to Suzanne for sharing this visit!!


This year, WIC (Women‚Äôs International Club) chose to visit a rather special vineyard to celebrate Women. The vineyard is special in that it is run solely by a woman ‚Äď Lidewij – at Terre des Dames, just outside Murviel-les-B√©ziers – a beautifully situated spot.

The tour was interesting: after explaining the ups and downs of her adventures in launching herself in this new life, Lidewij took us for a walk amongst the fields of vines, showing us how bio-culture can regulate itself.

The lay-out of the vineyards in the Languedoc region is quite particular in that we have small fields of vines surrounded by hedges and trees, in contrast to other regions such as Bordeaux where the fields are immense. These trees and bushes create nesting places for all sorts of fauna, which have various effects on the fields: the birds eat some of the harmful insects. The quality of the soil is checked, amongst others, by counting the amount of a certain kind of spider per square meter. Due to the presence of the hedges, the spiders accumulate there and then are spread out over the fields by the wind.

The almond trees were coming to the end of their flowering season, but still carried some of last year’s fruit:

Lidewij pointed out the various species of grape that she grows. Unfortunately at this time of year, we couldn’t really appreciate this, what with all the plants being bare and waiting for their spring foliage.

Lidewij also explained how she tried to balance out yield and quality – a complicated equation, as it is almost impossible to obtain both at the same time. A certain type of pruning will increase the yield, whereas another way of pruning will improve quality.

The tour ended with a visit of the storage area and a tasting of a few very interesting wines, red and white.

If you fancy a very enjoyable afternoon, you can contact Lidewij Van Wilgen on mas.desdames@orange.fr. She speaks extremely good English and French, as well as Dutch.

Here is some more information about¬†Lidewij’s wines:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aperitif anyone?

In French, the word aperitif has several meanings.  At the base, an aperitif is an alcoholic beverage, taken before a meal.  The meaning also includes all the food and nibbles served with this drink, and it also means the convivial time spent with other people.    If you are invited for an aperitif (or apero) in France, there will be a selection of drinks of varying strengths:  whiskey, beer, pastis, vermouth, flavoured wines (more about those in a moment), kir (white wine with blackcurrant liqueur), straight wine, sparkling wine, muscat, cocktails Рyou name it!

Then there is the food, which can range from the simple Рa few nuts and crisps Рto the very elaborate aperitif dinatoire, which is a meal in itself.  I tend to go the middle road, below some pictures of aperitif tables laid out with a variety of food:  crisps, pate, cheese, sliced sausages, radishes, dips, crackers, cut up cucumbers and carrots, tapenade.

Last year, I was given a recipe for a ¬†flavoured wine which is typically French:¬†Vin d’Orange. Thank you Anne!!¬† This drink is made with Seville oranges, white or rose wine, clear spirit, sugar, vanilla beans and lemons.

The clear spirit is 40% alcohol and in France it is called Alcool pour Fruits. For the wine I used locally made chardonnay.  The oranges (also locally grown) and lemons were washed and cut up into quarters.

Gratuitous picture of cut-up Seville oranges ūüôā

The wine, spirit and sugar were put into a large enough non-metallic receptacle, and the oranges and vanilla beans added.  The whole was given a good stir, covered and left to macerate for two months.  I gave it a stir from time to time Рthe aroma was heavenly!

After the two months, I fished out the oranges, strained the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth, and bottled it.  It is best served chilled!  Cheers!!

Below you’ll find the recipe in a printable format. ¬†Please drink responsibly.

Vin d'Orange

  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A slightly bitter orange flavoured wine, perfect for a summer aperitif.

Ingredients

  • 5 litres of white or rose wine
  • 1 litre of clear spirit (40% alcohol)
  • 1.5 kg sugar
  • 1 kg Seville oranges
  • 2 unwaxed lemons
  • 2 vanilla beans

Directions

  1. Prepare a non-metallic recipient, large enough to hold all your ingredients.  It should be scrupulously clean and you should be able to cover it hermetically.
  2. Wash and quarter the oranges and lemons.
  3. Add the wine, alcohol and sugar to the recipient and stir to dissolve the sugar.
  4. Add the fruit and the vanilla beans, stir and cover.
  5. Leave to macerate for two months, stirring from time to time.
  6. After two months, remove the fruit and vanilla beans and strain the wine through a double layer of cheesecloth.  Bottle and cork.

Notes: As I prefer my drinks dry, I only used 500g of the sugar for my¬†vin d’orange. ¬†You could start with that quantity and add more sugar later if you prefer. ¬†If you are unable to find Seville oranges, you can use regular oranges and add 20 g cinchona tree (quinine) bark.

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