Wednesday, April 22, 2009
We're now home in the U.S., having flown back from Lyon on Monday. We spent the weekend in Lyon after taking a train there from Annecy on Saturday morning. Annecy has a population of around 50,000, which was a bit of a change for us after spending the first part of our trip in small villages and towns, but Lyon was a different story still. Lyon is France's second largest city, with a population of over 1 million in its metropolitan area. And while many other cities or towns we visited were located on a river, Lyon has 2 major rivers running through it: the Rhone and the Saone (and some would add a third - the river of Beaujolais wine that flows into Lyon from just outside its northern boundary).
We spent most of our time in Lyon just wandering through different parts of the city, crossing its two rivers several times (and partaking of that third river on several occasions). We went into the courtyards of some of the colorful former silk weavers houses in Vieux Lyon (Old Lyon), and, along with about half of Lyon's residents, spent Saturday afternoon at the large Tete d'Or park near the center of the city. While walking through an out-of-the-way neighborhood on the way towards the park, we stopped into a wine store, where the proprietor was pouring a couple of red Burgundies to sample. We checked out the wine selection (it was outstanding), and talked to the owner briefly, asking if he had ever heard of the Chatus grape variety (he hadn't). Then, hoping to avoid the usual tourist haunts for dinner, I decided to ask him if he could recommend a restaurant that served traditional regional food. He highly recommended a restaurant just down the street -- Le Bouchon des Filles -- and suggested that we make reservations because it was such a popular spot among locals. So we called and made reservations for that night, and were very happy that we did. The place was packed for dinner, not a tourist in sight (except us), and the food was interesting and outstanding.
On Sunday, we began the day by going to Les Halles, the indoor food hall of Lyon, which was a short walk from our hotel. The shops at Les Halles carry an amazing selection of cheese, meat, seafood, vegetables and pastries, among other things, but since we were leaving the next day we could mostly only admire the food, just picking up a few cheeses and some bread for the next day and to bring home. We then walked to the center of Lyon, where a huge outdoor food market sprawled along the banks of the Saone. After again admiring an amazing array of food products, we had lunch in the center of Lyon. After lunch we spent a couple of hours in the Museum of Miniatures (www.mimlyon.com), located in a magnificent building in Old Lyon, then walked up (and up) to the Fourvière Basilica, which looks down upon the center of Lyon from high above the city. At the end of the day we had a simple dinner in the center of the city, then took one more walk into Vieux Lyon before heading back to our hotel to try to get some sleep before our 3:45 a.m. wake-up call the next morning.
The next day was long, and not worth describing. It was nice to get home after a grueling day of travel (including a 5-hour layover at the Madrid airport), but the first thing we noticed was that while all the snow was gone, the trees were still naked and there were almost no flowers yet, just a few daffodils. It was quite a contrast to all of the areas of France that we visited, since Spring was well underway in even the more mountainous areas. Below are some photos showing the contrast.
Friday, April 17, 2009
A Flower Pot in Annecy
Our long stretch of great weather continued into the middle of the week in Annecy, so we took advantage of it by continuing to take long walks into and through the center of town. On Wednesday afternoon we took a bus to the nearby village of Duingt, which is on the east side of Lac Annecy. There’s a magnificent chateau in Duingt that sits on a spit of land which juts out into the lake, and when we took a brief walk up into the hills above the village, we spotted another chateau, which was having its lawn mowed as we walked by (on our boat tour of the lake 2 days later we got good views of both chateaus).
Chateau in the hills above Duingt
On Thursday morning we took a train to Chambery, a city of about 60,000 about an hour from Annecy. Chambery is a rather commercial, bustling city, but the medieval center is charming. We had lunch there at a small restaurant (local specialties, including Diots, a type of sausage) after walking around the center of the city, then went up to the chateau. The chateau dates back to sometime before 1200, but most of it burned down and was rebuilt in the 1800's. At the chateau we visited an exhibition which portrayed the history of the Dukes of Savoie and the chateau. The House of Savoie is one of the oldest dynasties in Europe, tracing its lineage back to the beginning of the 11th century. The Savoie region was a duchy for hundreds of years, being separate from France and more aligned with what later became Italy, and the chateau in Chambery was the seat of the Dukes of Savoie for a good part of that time. The Duchy of Savoie was eventually incorporated into France in 1860, becoming a region of France that now includes the Haute Savoie as well as the Savoie departments.
While on the subject of wine, I should mention a little bit abut the wines of the region. About 80% of the wines of the Savoie region are white wines, and the Jacquere grape is the principal white grape variety; wines from the appellations of Abymes, Apremont, and Chignin are all produced from Jacquere. Fromagerie Pierre Gay stocks several wines from Domaine Blard & Fils, and while we stayed in Annecy we tried their Abymes Vielles Vignes ‘Cuvee Hubert,’ and their Apremont. Both were refreshing, flavorful wines that paired well with lighter foods, and were also great just sipping on the terrace. And the low 11% alcohol level was something rarely seen in wines these days.
One of the top appellations in the Savoie region is Chignin-Bergeron, located south of Annecy near Chambery. Wines that simply have the Chignin appellation are produced from the local Jacquere grape, while those from the Chignin-Bergeron appellation are made from the Bergeron grape, which is also known as Roussane. Roussane is an exceptionally flavorful grape variety, and is one of the principal white grapes used in the prestigious appellations of the northern Rhone. We tried several outstanding Chignin-Bergeron wines here, including a 2007 from Andre et Michel Quenard, which we purchased at our favorite cheese shop, and a 2007 from Denis & Didier Berthollier, which won a silver medal at the 2008 Vignerons Independants competition. Unlike many of the wines from the northern Rhone that we tried during the previous week, these wines were unoaked, which allowed the beautiful, floral Roussane fruit to shine through.
During the first 3 weeks of our trip we had almost no rain (except for a couple of times during the night), and almost uninterrupted sunshine. The first real rainy day was the day we went to Chambery, but even then the rain only lasted for a fraction of the day. Back in Annecy it was cooler than it had been, and mostly cloudy. However, the rain pretty much stopped until sometime during the night, and early Friday morning it was dry, but also mostly cloudy and threatening.
Although it didn’t clear, the rain held off on Friday, so in the afternoon we decided to take the boat tour of the lake that we had been planning all week. While it had been sunny most of the week, it was also generally somewhat hazy, but this afternoon it was clear enough to see the towns around the lake, and also the surrounding mountains. The tour went up one side of the lake and down the other, so we got great views of some of the things we had seen from other vantage points (such as the 2 chateaus in Duingt), and also saw some things that we hadn’t seen before, such as the Abbaye of Talloires and a grand chateau in the hills above the village of Thone. This chateau has been in the same family since the 12th century, and can be visited during the summer. Also on Friday, at lunch before going on the boat tour, we had a bottle of Chatus we had bought earlier in the trip, so once again it was a Chatus and chateau day.
Chateau in Duingt as Seen from the Boat
Chatus on the Terrace with Chateau of Annecy in the Distance
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
Another type of food establishment that Annecy has in abundance is ice cream shops and stands scattered all over the city; in the old center, the newer commercial center, and at carts in the park along the lake. Our evening routine has included after-dinner late night walks along the lake into the center of town, where we first stop at one particular little shop selling all kinds of flavors of ice cream, including raspberry and cassis sorbet, and hazelnut, pistachio, and caramel ice cream.
So far we’ve held off taking a boat tour around the lake because of the haze in the distance. It’s been sunny and mild almost all the time here, but apparently because of the temperature variation between Annecy and the surrounding snow-covered mountains, the distant lake area and mountains are frequently covered in haze. So we’re hoping for a clear bright day to take a boat tour. It did clear late yesterday afternoon, and the surrounding area was beautiful, but the boat tours had already ended for the day.
And while it may seem that all we’ve done is walk, eat, and drink, we have seen some of the sights, such as the chateau that towers over the town, the ancient former prison along the canal, and part of the west side of the lake, having walked several miles along the lake to the town of Veyrier du Lac. I had vaguely heard of Michelin-starred chef Marc Veyrat, and we stumbled upon his 3-star Michelin restaurant in Veyrier du Lac. It was closed for vacation, but with a price tag of 375 Euros (around $500) per person (plus wine) for a meal, I don’t think we would have gone there anyway!
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Chateau of Annecy
We're now in Annecy, in the Savoie region. Annecy has won the coveted 4 flowers (Ville Fleurie) so many times it has entered what is essentially the lifetime hall of fame. Above is a photo of just one of the hundreds of flower gardens or pots, and a photo of the Chateau of Annecy in the old center of the town.
After a long stretch without Internet access, and the first time on my own laptop in an even longer time, I have access at a public library here. Below is a recap of the last week or so, which I wrote as we went along our route.
On Saturday, April 4, we left our bed and breakfast in Chauzon and first stopped in Aubenas, which has a large Saturday market. Among the vendors whose products we bought was La Ferme au Chateau, a cheese producer from the village of Chastanet, near the town of Valgorge in the southern Ardeche, between Le Puy and Joyeuse. Over the next several days we had their cheese: a sheep blue less salty than Roquefort; a semi-aged soft sheep cheese; and an aged goat cheese log covered with cinders. After leaving Aubenas we had a picnic lunch on the way to the northern Ardeche, and also stopped briefly in Privas for a coffee at an outdoor café. We then continued on to our gite in the northern Ardeche. Our gite was one side of a two-story renovated old farm structure, located up in the hills between the towns of Ardoix and Sarras.
On Sunday we took a long drive to the morning market in St. Felicien, which turned out to have only a few cheese vendors and a boudin (blood pudding sausage) seller. In the afternoon we visited the Cave de Sarras, the nearby wine cooperative. The day before, the gite owner had given us a bottle of the Cave’s 2005 vin de pays Syrah rouge, which was made from young vines of the Syrah grape in the St. Joseph appellation. It was a terrific wine with roast chicken that we had purchased at a shop in Tournon, and then today we tasted the producer’s entire line of St. Joseph reds and whites, as well as their Condrieu. It was an exceptional array of wines, and we bought a bottle of their 2007 Condrieu and the 2005 St. Joseph ‘Cuvee Memoire’ rouge (atthe end of the week we went back and bought a bottle of one of their St. Joseph whites). Then we took a walk from the cooperative parking lot along the Ay river.
On Monday morning we went to a large outdoor market in St. Agreve, a large town in the mountains. After the market we drove south towards the Eurieux valley, then back to the gite for lunch. In the afternoon we visited Domaine Bernard Gripa, a wine producer just south of Tournon. We tasted several wines, including their fabulous St. Peray (2007 Cuvee ‘Les Figuiers’; 60% Rousanne/40% Marsanne) and St. Joseph (2007 Cuvee ‘Le Berceau’; 100% Marsanne) white wines, and bought a bottle of each. Afterwards, we walked along, and then across, the Rhone River in Tournon.
The next morning we drove to the outdoor market in the small town of Satilleau, where we picked up a few provisions. At Maison Crouzet, a “charcuterie ardechoise” in the center of the village, we bought steak for dinner, as well as grillitons, a rillette-like pork product. The closest parallel to pork rillette in the United States is probably North Carolina pulled pork barbeque, but rillette is fattier yet more refined, and is meant to be eaten at room temperature. The boulangerie/pattisserie in town, Maison Roux (firstname.lastname@example.org), with its young baker, makes fabulous breads and pastries, including the two amazing chocolate pastries we had at lunch at our gite We walked around Satilleau for awhile, took some photos of the 19th century church and the old center of village, then drove up the mountain to La Louvesq, a walking/hiking center. We went into the St. Regis church (where the bones of St. Regis reside), and took some pictures of the exterior as well as of the surrounding valley. In the afternoon we drove to Tain l’Hermitage to the large, reputable cooperative, Cave de Tain, where we tried a wide array of their wines. We bought a bottle of their 2005 Crozes-Hermitage ‘Les Hauts de Fiefs’ rouge, and their 2003 Hermitage blanc.
On Wednesday we went to the morning market in the large town of Annonay. The market itself was fairly small, with mainly local farms selling their own produce, but the town had every type of food shop imaginable to supplement the market. We bought a roasted farm chicken for lunch, along with some produce from the market vendors, including local white asparagus. In the center of town we stopped at a fish monger to pick up some fish to cook for dinner, and also stopped at a food and wine shop that had a great selection of wine from the Rhone and elsewhere. We bought a bottle of the 2008 Morgues du Gres ‘Fleurs d’Eglantine’ rose, which has ben a favorite of ours in past vintages. In the afternoon we took a drive north towards Condrieu and stopped at Domaine Pierre Gaillard in the village of Mallval. At this domaine we tried a wide range of wines, including red and white St. Joseph, a fabulous white Cotes du Rhone made entirely from Viognier, and their Cote Rotie, Cornas, and Condrieu wines. Pierre Gaillard is also a partner in an estate in the Roussillon region of France, Domaine Madeloc, and we tried their outstanding Banyuls. We bought quite a bit here, including the white Cotes du Rhone and a terrific white St. Joseph.
On Thursday we had a morning appointment at Domaine Belle, a small wine producer in the village of Larnage near the town of Crozes-Hermitage. The visit was arranged by Carole Decouard, Bobby Kacher’s New England representative, and we tasted the entire range of their wines with Philippe Belle, the owner/winemaker. Their wines, which include both reds and whites from the appellations of St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Hermitage, were spectacular, particularly the reds. All of the red AOC’s are based entirely on the Syrah grape, yet each wine was very different from every other one, graphically demonstrating the significance of the illusive concept of terroir. Particularly fascinating was the cassis aroma and flavor of the St. Joseph, which we had not encountered in any of the Syrah-based wines we tried on this trip.
At lunch at our gite, after first stopping in Tournon following the tasting at Domaine Belle, we opened a bottle of the 2007 Pierre Gaillard Cotes du Rhone Blanc, made entirely of Viognier. It was truly exceptional; probably the best white Cotes du Rhone I’ve ever had, and as good or better than any Viognier I’ve had, including those from the prestigious Condrieu appellation. In the afternoon we wandered through the winding roads in the area where we were staying, then drove to the nearby village of Ozon, where there is an amazing view of the Rhone River far below, stretching both north and south.
On Friday morning we headed off to Burgundy, where we were meeting Ghisilane, a friend whom we met through Jim and Cathy Baxter (the British couple we stayed with at the start of our trip), as well as the Baxters’ daughter, Lindsay, who was visiting Ghisilane and her husband during her break from nursing school (We had last seen Lindsay several years ago when she stayed with us in Portland). We met Ghisilane and Lindsay in Macon, a busy commercial center, where we had lunch. After lunch we followed Ghisilane through the hills of southern Burgundy, where we stopped at two wine producers in the Maconnais region. Then we left the Maconnais and drove through part of the Beaujolais region, through some of the wine villages such as Morgon and Brouilly. Ghisilane then took us to a producer in the village of Regnie-Durette that she had visited once before with her husband, and which her husband frequently visited with their sons. We were met by the proprietors, Gabrielle and Claude Rey, who sat down with us and poured several of their wines while they chatted with Ghisilane. The Reys produce red wines in the Regnie and Morgon appellations of Beaujolais, and also make a Beaujolais-Villages rose. We tried an oak-aged 2007 Regnie, and a newly-bottled unoaked 2008 Morgon, as well as a rose. The wines were among the finest examples of Beaujolais I’ve ever encountered. The wonderful Gamay fruit showed through, even with the oak-aged wine; far superior to the mass produced Beaujolais that one generally encounters in the United States.
On Saturday, April 11, after cleaning up our gite and saying goodbye to the owner, we drove to Annecy for our next stay. It was the day before Easter, and also in the middle of school holidays for many Europeans, so the roads were jammed with traffic. We finally made it to Annecy a little after noon, dropped everything off at the apartment we were renting, and returned the rental car (a somewhat harrowing experience, which I won’t go into). Once we finally got settled in, we realized what an amazing site Annecy has along the lake (Lac Annecy). The apartment we were renting for a week was in a nondescript building right on the main road along the lake, but the apartment itself was charming inside, and it had a great terrace with a table and chairs for dining outside while looking over the lake towards the mountains, and also towards the chateau and cathedral in the center of town.
That afternoon we walked along the lake towards the center of Annecy (a walk we were to make several times over the next few days), then wandered through the town, first up the pedestrian area that cuts right through the center, then into the very old part of town. In the pedestrian walking area we stopped at a fromagerie (cheese shop) where the owner showed us their ageing room below the shop. We bought several Savoie cheeses, and also a bottle of a local white wine, an Apremont from Domaine Blard et Fils. We drank the wine later in the day sitting on our terrace; it was a light, flavorful refreshing wine made from the obscure Jacquard grape, and at 11% alcohol it went down very easily.
Friday, April 3, 2009
I was hoping to post more than this, but again my time is limited. Most of our trip to the southern Ardeche (3 days) has involved things like chestnuts, chateaus, and chatus (plus churches).
In the southern Ardeche there are plenty of chestnuts, chateaus, and wines made from the Chatus grape variety. While in the area we visited the chestnut museum in the town of Joyeuse. Joyuese is a bustling little town with a delightful old center up above and a modern commercial center below, where the main road runs through town. The chestnut museum is located in the old center, next to the medieval church, and we spent some time there one afternoon. The museum was filled with fascinating information about the cultivation and use of chestnuts in the Ardeche, and the importance of chestnuts to the local economy and the daily life of the population for hundreds of year. Although chestnuts have declined in importance in the area, the southern Ardeche still produces a fair amount of chestnut products, including chestnut honey, soap, liqueur and flour.
I previously wrote about the wines from the Ardeche made from the Chatus grape, so I won't say any more about that. But as to chateaus (and churches), there are plenty of those in the area. And besides Chatus, there are an amazing number of interesting wines, despite the fact that the southern Ardeche has almost no AOC (appellation d'origine controllee) wines and must make do with Vin de Pays wines. A restaurant owner told us tonight that there is only about 15 years of bottling wine here (previously it was all sold in bulk), so no AOC is on the horizon. But many producers are making amazingly good wines. His restaurant was a simple pizza plus ravioli place, but he clearly liked his wines, and we had a great red and then a rose from Chateau de la Selve, a local producer of Vin de Pays de Coteaux de l'Ardeche.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
OK, sorry about the lack of any posts, but I haven't had any Internet access until now, and I don't have much time at the moment. So I am adding here a short recap from some notes I typed up along the way. And I'll also try to attach some pictures. Hopefully, at some point I'll be able to elaborate some more. So here are the notes:
March 26: After flying from Boston to Marseilles via Madrid, we picked up a car at the Marseilles airport and drove to Mas Neuf, a winery in the Costieres de Nimes. Some of the basic wines from Mas Neuf are exported to the US, but most of their wines don't make it here, and none of them are sold in Maine. At the winery, we tried the full range of reds, whites, and roses from Mas Neuf. All were outstanding, particularly the top-level “Mourvache,” which is a blend of Mourvedre and Grenache, and rivals any Rhone red wine for quality.
After leaving Mas Neuf we drove to our chambre d’hotes (bed and breakfast) in the small Provencal town of Aubord, where we spent the first night.
March 27: The next morning we had an appointment at Chateau d’Or et de Gueules, another Costieres de Nimes winery. The wines from this domaine, and those of Domaine de la Petite Cassagne, its sister domaine located on the same property, are imported into the US by Bobby Kacher, and our appointment was arranged by Carole Decouard, Kacher’s New England representative. We got a tour and tasting of the full range of wines from Martin Lasserre, assistant winemaker and grape grower for the estate. The wines were outstanding, particularly the reds. And although the Petite Cassagne wines, which are the only wines from the estate that are sold in Maine, are considered their lower-level wines, those wines were truly exceptional.
After our tour and tasting at Chateau d’or et de Gueules, we drove north to the Auvergne, in the center of France, where were staying with British friends, Cathy and Jim Baxter, who have a second home in the town of Chantelle.
March 27-30: During our 4-day stay in Chantelle, we toured around he area, visiting the nearby cities of Clermont-Ferrand (March 28) and Vichy (March 29) as well as the medieval village of Charroux, a few minutes from Chantelle. The day before leaving Chantelle, we drove to the Burgundian town of Paray le-Monial with the Baxters to visit two friends of theirs who live nearby. Paray is a bustling commercial center which features a Cathedral built in the 1500's.
On March 31 we left Chantelle and drove through the Auvergne to Le Puy en Velay. Le Puy is a bustling town that is also a religious center. The first pilgrimage to Saint Jacques de Campostelle began here at the beginning of the first millennium, and the town is dominated by a medieval chapel and cathedral that tower above the lower part of the town. We spent one night in Le Puy, and had dinner at an outstanding restaurant, Le Romulus, which specializes in regional cuisine. The chef/owner, Thierry Rome, was born near Le Puy, and after spending a number of years as a chef for Club Med in North America, he returned to Le Puy, where he has run a successful restaurant for many years.
On April Fools Day, or Poisson de Avril as the day is called in France, we drove from Le Puy to the southern Ardeche. During the drive we saw plenty of snow in the fields (we thought we had left that behind), but when we arrived in the Ardeche we were greeted with warmth and sunshine. Asparagus was already in season there, and flowering trees and irises were in full bloom. At the end of the day we stopped in the small village of Chauzon, where we had booked a room at a chambre d’hote, Les Clapas, for 3 nights. Shortly after checking in we took a short drive to the town of Rosieres to visit the wine cooperative La Cevenole. La Cevenole was featured in Robert Camuto’s book Corkscrewed, which portrayed a dozen or so iconoclastic French wine producers. In Corkscrewed, Camuto writes about La Cevenole’s efforts to revitalize the production of wine made from the Chatus grape, a variety that almost died out and is now grown exclusively in a small part of the southern Ardeche. We tried La Cevenole’s 2005 Chatus, and were so impressed we bought a couple of bottles for our trip. The 2005 vintage was almost depleted at La Cevenole, and was being replaced by the 2006, but since the Chatus grape is known for being extremely tannic when young, we decided to stick with just the older vintage, the 2005. And the next day we visited Domaine de Grangeon, the other producer of Chatus that Robert Camuto featured in his book. If anything, the Chatus from Grangeon even outdid the version from La Cevenole. So our bags are also packed with their 2006 Chatus, which, despite being a little tannic, was spectacular.