France - another Great Visit.....

October 2012...

enroute Alsace

Paris, Alsace and Provence

It's mid-October 2012 and the last box of fresh grapes has left the building at Preston Hardware.  Juice pails from Niagara and California have been distributed and there is a hiatus until the third week of November when the frozen Spanish must appears.  At this time, it's back to the Hardware business transitioning into winter mode and Sam Giannetti gets his warehouse back.

Ile de la Sorgue

For a person only engaged in the grape-juice-wine-making aspect of this business, it is an opportunity to refresh and revisit the Old World culture of grape growing and wine making.  In Western Europe the warm fall weather tends to  linger , especially in the south.  Some grapes usually are still hanging but the best part is that the tourists have gone home.   Except in Paris, of course, where they never go home at anytime of the year.

So.... when the frost sets its sights on the pumpkins in Ottawa, it's off to France to retrace some previously enjoyed tracks.  What follows is a few thoughts and impressions of places visited.

A Vineyard in Paris-Montmartre

For most visitors, Montmartre means the Basilica de Sacre Coeur and its crowded Place de Tertre, full of artists, hustlers, tourist shops and restaurants.  At the bottom of the south side of the hill or “butte” lies Pigalle with its spicy mix of clubs, sex shops and cast of street  characters. Think Moulin Rouge and Toulouse Lautrec as you walk through this adult playground.

The contrast to this neighbourhood lies to the northwest of Place de Tertre where the last vineyard in Paris is located.  During the middle ages this area was covered in vines but over time housing development has taken over and  only the 2000 vine “Le Clos” vineyard remains.le Clos vineyard in Montmarte  There are 27 varieties planted here with about 75% Gamay in the mix of which Pinot Noir is the next most represented.  To my eye, there are also French Hybrids in the vineyard, which produces about 1000 bottles a year.  The wine produced is an early drinking red like Beaujolais deemed unremarkable by those in the know, however, I  have never  tasted the wine.

Every October the bottles from the previous vintage are auctioned off at  a wine festival that celebrates this vineyard icon.  The resulting higher than market prices sponsor good social works in the community. It is in the spirit of historical significance and good causes that people overpay for the privilege of consuming a bottle.

The vineyard can be accessed through the Musee de Montmartre which itself is worth a visit.  musee de montmarteThe house and gardens give the visitor a good appreciation of life over the years in this historical neighbourhood.

I hang my hat in Montmartre in an apartment  near the rue d' Abbesses – a lively street devoted to eating and drinking and all the other necessities of life.  This area is on the south flank of the hill which during October and November, hold the warmth better than other parts of the City.


overlooking AlsaceThe one wine region in France that labels its wine by the varietal is also one of the most scenic and varied.  The Vosges Mountains which offer a high moisture barrier to the west trends down to foothills whose slopes contain some of the world's great white wines, running right up to Grand Cru status.  Medieval  castles and villages dot the area that is easily accessed by car.  The Wine Route,  connects the various villages whose reason d  étre is the grape.  The signage is not the greatest and you will miss turns following this route, but the alternatives are just as scenic in most cases.  A network of hiking trails runs through the vineyards and up into the higher reaches of the mountains,  where many interesting castles are situated.  Views are everywhere.

The hills descend to a semi-industrial plain leading to theAlsace view Rhine River.  Across the river is Germany and  around a ninety degree bend  the Rhine turns eastward upstream  to Switzerland.

Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat and Pinot Blanc dominate here.  Pinot Noir is the only red of major significance.  The wines from this region seem to be getting fatter over the years as improved viticulture and warmer conditions work their magic.  Pinot Gris in particular seems to be made more in a off-dry style with a mouth coating richness not experienced  in  years past.

Alsace roadside vineyard harvest

The wines with their varied flavourful characteristics do match the equally tasteful local cuisine.  With food I generally opt for Riesling and in some cases Pinot Blanc which I think reaches its zenith here.  There are also serious producers of Pinot Noir in this region especially around the town of St. Hippolyte.

Riquewihr is central and a very interesting place to stay.Alsace harvest  Zellenberg is a hill town nearby that has a hiking trail circling the top of the village while you gaze upon kilometres of vineyards from all directions. Small working wineries are everywhere.  Drop in and you will probably be greeted by the owner.

Kayserberg, Ribeauville (touristy but walkable) and Colmar are all worth a visit.

Strasbourg, the seat of the European parliament and the centre of the region is only a 3 hour high speed train ride from Paris.  This is one of the most classic cities in Europe in an area that has seen settlement since 1300 BC.

Wines from Alsace in Canada are well represented in the $15 to $20 category, which give the consumer a good appreciation of what the region can do at a reasonable price.

AlsaceThe 2012 vintage had a moist cool spring that delayed flowering and reduced yields 15-20%.. The second half of the growing season had a lot of sunshine that turned the growing season around somewhat.  My unscientific personal sampling methods indicated that there were not high sugars but that balance may be achieved.  We will have to start checking out the results in 2014.

Provence --- The Luberon

Provence view

Since Peter Mayle published his book  “A Year in Provencein 1989, this area inland from the Mediterranean has become a focal point for cold climate tourists the world over.  Many vacation properties have been bought and renovated by outsiders who mostly only stay during the warmer months of April to October.

Mac in AlsaceFrom mid-October on, the place is yours, although there is a smaller stream of savvy visitors that realize the potential of a less crowded picturesque and easy living destination. 

It is relatively easy to rent one of these houses in the off season as many are on the market with their seasonally reduced prices. 

The Golden Triangle towns of Bonnieux, Gordes, Gault,Menerbes in Provence Lacoste, Menerbes, Oppede and Roussillon dominate with their hilltop locations while carpeting the valleys are vineyards, olive groves and fields of lavender  that lead up to forest covered mountains. 

Distances are short -  Avignon and Chateauneuf du  Pape are only about an hour away.

There are about 500 growers and wineries which provide convenient local choice.  Grenache Noir and SyrahProvence overview dominate the reds and roses;  Cinsault,, Mourvedre and Carignaine lend a supporting role. Clairette Blanhe, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Rousanne are the legistlated choices for white wines.  Vermintino is also showing up here as it seems to be the old new thing in a lot of wine producing areas.

rose in MenerbesThere is a lot of  wine sold in the $5 to $10 bracket and it is good although in most cases it is best enjoyed young.  If you want something more expensive head north and you can easily pay $40 and up for the same varietal blends.

Villagers bring their own containers and fill them up for as little as $1.00 per litre at wineries and wine shops.  You can do the same ( at a higher price) for olive oil .

Local markets abound and the roads are good.  There are many excellent restaurants. 

truffle truckWe bought truffles at our village market  to try our hand at cooking with this delicacy.  You can’t have a heavy hand with this product (black gold) but sometimes the most simple of combinations work out best.  It was breakfast with scrambled eggs and few shaving of truffle that did it for me.  Wine​​? 

Toujours... a sparkler!

Mac is currently revisiting eastern Australia during February and March and will also be stopping by South Africa in April; he will share his insights on the life down-under and, of course, on  wine growing in the regions this Spring harvest season... stay tuned.

Mac enjoying truffles and scrambled eggs

In vino (et tuber) veritas...

Mac MacDonald
December, 2012

(updated 2013-03-25)

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