Wednesday, November 02, 2005

A&G Off to France--Day Three

(Author's note: This entry is the third of two weeks of daily entries about our trip to Provence.)

18 October 2005

I've been known to drink a little bit of wine in my time, and so I'd be lying if I didn't admit one reason to go to Provence is to drink all the wines (well, not all the wines). King of wines of the region (not in the Budweiser way) is Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and the king of kings (not in the Jeffrey Hunter way) is Chateau de Beaucastel. Through our membership in a club at Tablas Creek, the winery Beaucastel established in Paso Robles, CA (that makes utterly delicious wines matched by its utterly helpful staff), we have an appointment to visit Beaucastel. Little do we know that it will be one of the highlights of the trip, and not just because part of the tour will be co-led by Monette, the very friendly cat (what a great country for pets, France is, as long as you don't mind dodging all the dog poop on the sidewalks).

The major reason the visit is terrific is we're given a tour and tasting by Fabrice Langlois, sommelier, ex-student in Georgia (the U.S. one, not the Soviet one), and a brilliant spieler. He loves wine, loves Beaucastel, and it shows in his every word and action. As he tells the tale of the winery--a story of a man who tries to make wine as a way to win his wife, and then gives birth to a wine genius Jacques Perrin, a story of rocks that hold the day's heat to warm the grapes and that make for quick drainage of rains to the vines' roots--you can't help but get drawn in, eager to sense, in every sense, the product of all this fortuity. But then there's more explanations, more about the importance of organics, the beauty of many bottles piled high in a cellar. This man is a splendid creator of anticipation, a tantalizing tease.
When Fabrice finally lets us taste (there are 3 other Americans on this tour, and that's it), the wines are full of vines, lives, love, lore and brilliantly tasty in a cellar that's appropriately cold and aptly atmospheric. Not only do we taste recent releases but he also opens a 1986 red Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with the age rounding the wine's edges to a velvet fruitiness, and he opens a Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, a white wine that is so full of taste (without any oak or butter--this is no meek CA chardon-naïve) it makes me completely rethink my wine cellar's 95%red/5% white composition, at least until I hear it's hard to buy, and he opens a 2001 Hommage à Jacques Perrin, which is kind of like someone throwing you the keys of his Maserati. It's a knock your socks off, not that you wear socks on your tongue, blast of flavor, depth, deliciousness, the kind of wine that re-arranges your mouth to help you taste it fully. Although there's not even the option to buy any of the wines at the winery, Beaucastel made life-long fans of Amy and me.

We proceed to check out the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape itself, which, quelle surprise, is as charming as practically every Provence village (it became our running joke, "Oh, another charming village?"). We ate a terrific lunch on the patio at the back of La Mere Germaine, the appropriately name-dropped place in all the guidebooks, both having a mixed platter with everything from bandade--a wonderful salt cod mix--to a chevre melted in a crepe, the world's best grilled cheese sandwich. Just the view from this lovely spot is enough, down over grapes eager, or so it seems when you drink the wines, to offer their scrumptious juice. We also made it up to the ruins of the actual chateau, since every French day deserves a good climb, and thereby an even more spectacular view.

Before leaving the general Chateauneuf-du-Pape area, we made two more stops for wine and chocolate, because vacation, thy name is decadence. The first was at Chateau la Nerthe, mostly because we had a bottle of their Chateauneuf-du-Pape at the wonderful and wonderfully priced Passionfish near Monterey once, and it made me fond of their wines. Although we got to see a praying mantis outside their door, we didn't get to spend much time inside--while the woman let us taste, it was clear the impulse was, "So, what do you want to buy?" Not the Beaucastel experience. We also went to Chocolaterie Castelain, a chocolate factory, devoid of Oompah-Loopahs but full of lip-smacking calories, including the Chateauneuf-du-Pape liqueur-filled chocolates I'm considering going to eat in our kitchen right now.

This was base-moving day, so we drove down to Gordes, home for the next three nights at le Mas des Romarins. Gordes is evidently a French in-spot, and you can see why once you approach the town. Neither of us felt we were gaining altitude, but then there's this view, of a village on a hill. What there wasn't a view of was the hotel, as we didn't quite get the internets map we printed out. So we wandered the town a bit, trying to figure things out, only to walk down the road to the base of the village, look up, and see the hotel across the way. Stumble, and ye shall find.

The hunt for dinner becomes tricky as we discover that our first 42 choices (hey, I never exaggerate) are closed on Tuesday evenings. Worse yet, it begins to rain lightly, so we have darkness (real darkness--the sky in this area of France is not corrupted by that pinkish eternal halogen glow seen in too much of the U.S.), and rain, and narrow roads, and our geographic uncertainty. I drive some, and get hated by half of France, as we end up on a detour that seems to run partially on people's driveways. Finally we end up at Le Clos de Gustave, which is at the very address of a different place we were trying to find from our Frommer's Guide. It's warmly rustic, with the exposed wood beams it seems every Provencal restaurant must have. But it's also delicious, as we share the entree of pissalederie, fig relish, carrots and artichoke cooked in wine (as we would learn, this vegetable pairing is late-October for the area), greens and pate (why, oh, why are all the American pates such neutered things?). For her main course, Amy had a tasty pork loin cooked in fig and honey while I had a quail and wild mushroom dish that was much more wild on the tongue than you'd guess upon ordering it. The table got little ceramics of fingerling potatoes and a zucchini souffle, and the table was very pleased. There was also a cheese course, and a bottle of a 2004 Domaine Brusset Cotes-du-Rhone Villages, but goodnesses eventually just fold and blend.

It rained chats et chiens all night, but we slept the sleep of the teeth-stained.


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