15 July, 2014

Day 12: Wine tasting and more reasons to ignore Rick Steves

According to my notes, we slept late today. I don't recall if "late" meant 9am, 10am, what? But I guess it was something intentional on our part to say that an early start was not necessary.

There was one plan today. We would visit Chateauneuf du Pape. That's a town. It's also a wine region. It's also a "kind of wine" since a wine must have very strict composition to be designated as CdP (as they call it). I was excited to go here, because I have been learning about wine a little bit back home. Though I would not call myself knowledgeable by any stretch of the imagination (and also I tend to minimize any knowledge that I do have), I have quite a healthy level of enthusiasm for wine tasting and learning. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say I have enthusiasm for wine drinking?

We ate the tomato tart for breakfast. It was quite tomato-y. I wanted it to be more like pizza than it actually was, but the crust was so good I was able to endure the extreme tomato experience. We stopped for coffee at our usual place, and augmented the coffee with a pistachio cookie, or maybe it was two.

The drive to CdP was pretty simple, save for a lot of roundabouts, which is clearly the way that France avoids stop signs or lights. Every time one road meets another, there's a roundabout. The navigation system in the car had an Irish accent, which I admit was by my choosing. So we would hear Sinead (or Siobhan) tell us "At the rind-a-bout go right" and that was just fine with me.

When we arrived in the town, the first place we stopped was a place called Brotte Winery and Museum. It was a wine shop, not really a winery. They're a distributor/reseller. There was a reasonably decent, if basic history (not really a museum) upstairs at the facility, with information about what it means to be Chateauneuf du Pape. It's a good place to start because of the anticipation upon arrival in a "special place." It was a Rick Steves recommendation. It's worth it as a tourism experience. But it was not the greatest place to buy wine because you're not (best as I can tell?) buying their wine. But they do a little bit of a hard sell and have a lot of touristy offerings. They were nice, but a little stiff. But they generously spoke English with us, and the experience was good. Like I said, though, a little stiff. Not sure how to explain it other than that. I decided I had to buy something because I didn't want to be rude. We bought a rose called "Tavel" and it actually turned out to be fantastic, so no regrets.

They were kind of busy, and the person running the place had someone helping out doing the pours who actually didn't work there. That guy was much friendlier. And, oddly enough, he confided in us that we shouldn't buy the wines here! He suggested a much better place down the street. How bizarre! Well, what more sincere of a recommendation is there than "Don't buy wine here!" So after departing Brotte, our next stop was Beaurenard Winery, right down the street.

We were greeted by a very friendly young French woman. Again, she kindly spoke English with us, after we greeted her in French. The interior of the building was very nice and rustic and French, though, honestly, not that much different than a lot of the best wineries in Walla Walla, who probably theme their interiors after the historical wineries. She let us taste everything that we wanted to taste, and she told us a little bit about the wines and the vineyards they have. Then she allowed us to take a self-guided tour of the wine-producing facility. We went through a cold room with barrels, into a warehouse with thousands of bottles and giant vats and more barrels. Rooms with strange equipment. We couldn't believe we had permission to be wandering through here, but nobody chastised us, even though we saw some workers.

We asked the girl who'd been so kind if she had any restaurant recommendations. I guess that was a bit of an obnoxious question, though we could not have known. She does not live in CdP and rarely ever dines there, likely because it's expensive and touristy. So she didn't really have any ideas for us, or at least not any in which she had confidence. So was made our way into the town, which was a mile or two up the road. It was up a hill a bit, as would be any desirable location from ancient times. It was getting hot outside already. And we parked along the side of the road in town. We were hungry, and hot, and we decided to eat at the first restaurant we encountered. There was an indoor portion of the restaurant, but everyone was sitting outside in shade under a canopy. The restaurant was called La Mule de Pape. We ordered a pork stew, which I think may have been the special, a chevre salad, and pommes frites. The food was excellent, and the service was very friendly. Most importantly, we got fed, and we were in the shade. The heat really was taking a toll on us, probably especially me.

After eating, we made our way up a narrow path/road that supported cars, but was not really very wide, up to the castle of Chateauneuf du Pape. There was a really good view from there out over the neighboring lands, which are mostly patches of farmland, and surely vineyards. The castle was not much to be impressed with, I think. Was it just a wall? Was it a building? I can't even remember. It was hot.

After taking some photos and looking around a sufficient amount, we started our way back down. I wanted to do some wine tasting, since this was THE PLACE. Allie was less enthusiastic about the wine tasting, not sure why. Maybe just hot? Maybe tired of listening to me talk about wine? Maybe who knows why? But she let me go into this one place that was a wine shop in a sort of basement cave-like place by myself while she wandered around the street looking at shops. It wasn't particularly touristy, actually. And there really were hardly any people around at all. When I entered the shop, there was a very confident smug man in the cave, and he asked me if I wanted to try his wine. I tried his wine, and it was not great. He wanted me to buy it, and it was expensive. I did not think it was worth it. The sign outside the shop gave the impression that he sold many different CdP wines, but the reality was that none of these were for the tasting. Only his wine. He explained how his wine was the best. I waffled, which he must have really loved. And I decided I would escape his cave without laying out my money for his so-so wine.

I relayed the story to Allie, who was appropriately amused, and probably glad she didn't bother coming in with me. We got back down to the mid-level of the hill where we'd eaten lunch, and discovered the tourist information center there. We went in, and asked some questions about wineries. They didn't really tell us much, sort of just one of those "There are many wineries here, and we will give you a map, and not all are open for tasting without appointment, but some are, etc. etc. etc." I was determined to TASTE SOME WINE since we were in CdP, and I really do appreciate and thank Allie for having the patience to endure this quest of mine (though, in fairness, it was one of the few missions I was driven to accomplish).

We passed a shop that looked pretty interesting... another cave-like building. The name of the winery was Pegau. We entered. Inside, we met a young man, perhaps 19 or 20 years old. He was manning the shop by himself. It truly was like a cave. A cave with a wooden table, and some wines. It was cool and damp, which was fine by us, since the alternative was 90 degree blazing heat. We learned that Max was the son of the owner, grandson of the original owner. They grow the grapes themselves. It's been in the family for these generations. Max is in college now studying viticulture. He was very knowledgeable, and it seems he will proudly carry on the family tradition, with the added knowledge of a formal education in winemaking. Max let us taste some wines. And he was very friendly and explained things to us, answering our (perhaps annoying) questions patiently. Meeting him stands as a highlight of the trip, because it is exactly the kind of memory I want to retain: a young frenchman who is carrying on the family tradition... tasting wine in the presence of one of the makers of said wine. When we were there, someone came in and asked if they could buy a case of the 2010. Max said that the 2010 would be X Euro per bottle (I don't recall). The person said "Well, last time we were here we got it for <much less than X> Euro" and Max said "Well, that is no longer the case." So there was some haggling, and Max said he'd need to ask "The Boss" and told the guy to come back later. I suspect that Max is "The Boss" and that he's just fucking with the guy, and will decide whether or not he feels like cutting him a deal on the 2010 (since 2010 happens to be a fantastic year for CdP wines).

His wines were great. We bought one bottle, not because we didn't love the wine, but because there's a problem with bringing wine (easily) back to the states through customs. Apparently one can bring either 2 bottles per person or 3 bottles, can't remember which, before things get "dodgy." And I didn't want to deal with dodgy. So I decided that we'd stick to the limits. But I now could imagine myself having bought a case of that wine. But alas, onward. We asked Max where else he recommended us trying. He mentioned two places, both of which we'd already heard about earlier: 1) Via Telegraphe, and 2) La Nerthe. He said that if we were interested in "The Wine" then go to Via Telegraphe because it's renowned. But if we were interested in a beautiful place with a beautiful tasting room, go to La Nerthe.

Where do you think we went?

So, we returned to the car, and headed to La Nerthe. Max had called ahead for us to ensure we had permission to visit, since it was not exactly an open tasting room. But on Max's call, we were "insiders," if you will. I could have imagined going to both, but (like I said) Allie was allowing for this out of the kindness of her heart. It's so weird, thinking back now, about why we didn't just go taste wine at twenty different wineries in the region. Since I have returned, I am all about the Rhone. And I am always ordering wines from the Rhone. Or from Languedoc. Or anywhere close enough to these regions that they're stomping on Grenache and Syrah grapes. But in that moment, it was as much as we could do, and as much as we needed. It was perfect, in that moment.

We arrived at La Nerthe, and it was, indeed, a very beautiful place. There was the vineyard, which was expansive. There was the winery building which was a very large, mansion-like building, overlooking the vineyard. There were shade trees and forest all around on one side, and then other farms and vineyards in the distance in the other direction. When we entered the winery, we were greeted by friendly people who spoke to us in English. The woman who helped us was young, and she told us about the wines. They had 3 wines for tasting: a 2011 (current year), a 2010 (the magical year), and a 2004. We tasted all of them and they were all good. They had a fancy tasting room setup, with a machine that did the wine pours, and must have kept the wine under vacuum or something. Very elaborate. There was lots of money behind this operation. We decided to purchase a bottle of the 2004 because (I reasoned), being an older wine, it was more special, and unlikely to be something we'd ever find here.

So we bought the 2004 with the plan of drinking it while we were still in France. Then we wandered around outside and looked at the vineyards, and we took a bunch of photos. It was very beautiful, and shady enough to be comfortable, even though the day was still hot. At some point after that we drove back to St. Remy.

According to my notes, I did yoga while Allie went shopping (for food, I presume). This was our last night in St. Remy, so we had to clean things up a bit. We were a bit concerned about Delphine, the owner, not being satisfied with the condition we left things, since her instructions were very specific about what needed to be done. We cleaned everything, got the trash together, put away what could be put away, washed dishes. Then we ate dinner at home, according to the notes, but I don't honestly recall what we ate, which I suppose is of trivial consequence at this point, 4 months later (actually, it's hard to believe it's only been 4 months... it feels like a lifetime).

We drank a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet (a white wine, which I am pretty sure comes from the Languedoc region), and relaxed. We'd bought that wine at a shop in St. Remy, and it was a variety I've had back home and liked.

After that, I guess we went to sleep.

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