Sunday, September 24, 2006

from Vacquieres, France: fast running, heavy rains, slow snails and lively rosés

Sunday Morning

La Premiere Foulee des Vendanges! – reads the poster. A race to honor the wine stompers of the past.

I think the local jogging club simply wants to promote their sport, but that’s okay. Jogging is good. Grape stomping is (was) good. I am all for watching and supporting le local sport on a Sunday morning in the neighboring winemaking village of Corconne.

Only you have to feel sorry for the 47 who have chosen to participate in this thirteen kilometer mini-marathon through the vineyards. Sometime at night the rains came and their occasional pause hardly lasts the length of time needed to gulp down a café crème.

Still, it is a happening and so my host at the Chateau Lascaux, Jean-Benoit, takes time off from picking and pressing to drive me to the village where it all begins.

The race starts and ends outside the Wine Cooperative and the band is there to put some oomph into the day.

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The runners are off. We follow their progress across rocky soils and paved paths. Volunteers wave road traffic to the side and provide sustenance. Are those real fruit pates I see? That would just throw me off, were I running. I’d get out of the race and concentrate on selecting the cassis over the kiwi, despite the encouraging cries of “courage!, courage!” from the sidelines.

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Up village streets (they have run over to our village now!), past painted doors and Jean-Benoit’s caves…

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Onto the finish line. I am a poor observer of the human condition when the rains come down. I worry about my camera. I go inside the Cooperative and sample rosés that are freely being poured. I miss who came in first or last. I taste, I purchase.

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A farmer of snails has set up his table at the Cooperative as well. He sells escargots in jars or as a snack, roasted on the spot, served in a baguette. I buy those as well. Your guess as to which – the jars to take back, or roasted in a baguette?

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Sunday morning in the Languedoc. No one appears to mind the pause in the vandange (grape harvest). They all have read the reports. The sun comes out tomorrow. Today’s wet skies means that you can take time off, guilt free. Sort of like a snow day back in Wisconsin.

from Vacquieres, France: dusting off past harvests

Saturday Evening

Nina, we have visitors from a winery in New Zealand and I’m going to do a tasting for them. Come join us. Jean-Benoit calls up to the office where I am, as usual, frowning over Ocean text and photos.

So this Midwesterner who looks for opportunities to taste good wines and who has, for years, loved to listen to vintners discuss the particularities of terroir is supposed to say no?

A busman’s holiday! The New Zealander tells me. We are visiting wineries and having a good time as well.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you do the first then you will have the second…

Jean-Benoit uncorks a range of wines from his cave at the Chateau de Lascaux. Six bottles – two whites, four reds.

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It is a trick to taste the youngest, I think, because you have to predict how it will mature. Many of the vintners I’ve met in France sell you stuff that they want you to keep hidden until the year, say 2012. That’s fine if you have invested in a cave or at the very least, in a storage place that will let the wine relax in wine-spa-like conditions, temperature and humidity-wise. Me, I keep my wines in a dark corner of the loft. It’s the best I can do. Imperfect? Oh yes.

But it is for this reason that Jean-Benoit’s words are music to my ears. I ask him about how his wines will be X years from now.

I sell them if they taste good now. It’s no use selling them for the future. People live in apartments and cannot provide great conditions for wine. It is up to us to do that. You, the customer, buy a wine and you should expect to uncork it and love it.

Jean-Benoit uncorks, we sniff, swish, sniff again, drink.

Or at least I drink. Spitting is quite the acceptable option. But wait. A vintner uncorks his best wines. He shares his knowledge, work, effort with you in that small bit poured into your glass. The aroma and flavors are wonderful. Would your natural inclination then be to spit it out?

I have spat my way up and down wineries where the product was indifferent, or when I was driving, or when I was doing the fast and furious visiting, forgetting that there is always a slow road to take out there. But now, in the caves of Chateau Lascaux, the tastings are gifts from the person who has created the wines. They are to be savored. I savor them.

A neighbor, himself a vintner, is with us, listening attentively. When Jean-Benoit speaks, it is always with something worthwhile to say. He does not indulge in random small stuff. I may have to explain the tone and tenor of Ocean when the time comes.

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I join the family again for supper. I eat all meals with them – it was not in the original plan, but I have fallen into the habit of saying yes when they ask and they always ask. I would be a fool to pass on French country cooking. I don’t know if people here even know how to do it poorly.

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from Vacquieres, France: a village coop

Saturday Afternoon

The village is surrounded by vines, forests and hills. I am told it creates a perfect terroir (climate, environment, culture etc etc) for grapes. I know it creates a perfect view from the tower room of the family home.

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Not all vines surrounding Vacquieres belong to the Chateau de Lascaux. Indeed, quite a number of fields (including some of Jean-Benoit’s) produce grapes for the cooperative that makes wine from the two neighboring villages (Vacquieres and Corconne), oftentimes under the label of Vin de Pays d’Oc.

I drank that on my Air France flight! -- I tell the men bringing in their grapes here. One by one, they drive up and unload the day’s clusters.

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The grape separator (which I am sure has a fancier name than that) is huge. Out go the stems and leaves. At the Chateau de Lascaux, this is done by hand for the reds. You cannot let a leaf remain. The fermentation is too long – there would be taste consequences!

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As the winegrowers (why is the English vocabulary so imperfectly suited for wine making terms?) dump their grapes in, information about their lot is put into the computer. It’s all extremely sophisticated. I'm impressed.

These are the wines that stores and restaurants in the States love to sell. At the cooperative, I can pick them up for somewhere between 3 and 5 Euros. Fine wines,well priced here and back home.

Jean-Benoit drives me back to the Chateau. I snap a photo of the road up ahead and the two cyclists approaching our village. Le velo? I ask, showing off my brilliant command of French. I know it is no longer "le bicyclette," like in the olden days. Here, we like to ride what we call "le ve-te-te" ("velo tout terrain"). Okay, I was close.

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from Vacquieres, France: the arrival of the wine taster

Saturday Afternoon

The wine expert guy, the oenologist, comes, basket in hand. There are little bottles in it and he takes samples from different bins, marking the progress of each grape as it moves from juice to wine at the Chateau de Lascaux.

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I spend so much time in the cave that I feel I need to bring in an outside opinion, just to hear another perspective, Jean-Benoit (vintner and proprietor of the Chateau) tells me.

I follow the three of them – the expert, Jean-Benoit and the apprentice (happy birthday to you, you’re just eighteen years old this week, you would not be working as a winemaker’s apprentice in the U.S., but you could be in the army, happy birthday to you) – and taste from each bin, as they do.

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Take a Midwesterner who is in love with the wines and Languedoc and ask her to go easy on the tasting rounds. It’s a challenge.

I listen to the comments -- an intricate analysis of how sweet the grape is, how deep in color, how aromatic it is on this day, how over time it begins to mature into something so complex that it's hard to find words to describe what has just happened, all in the space of a few weeks.

Jean-Benoit is completely focused on his wines. His face lights up at the sight of the dark reds, his eyes smile at the vibrant notes in the roses and he looks relieved and happy with the maturation of the oldest (almost three weeks now!) of the whites.

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Jean-Benoit sniffs, the oenologist writes

His apprentice fills our bottles and glasses and talks suggestively – noting things, but not asserting yet. He is there to learn, not to educate.

The wine oenologist is brutal. He scribbles things on the board, talks of temperatures and of fermentation, and appears to want to spare no blows, indifferent to a blogger’s presence.

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Except there aren’t really any blows. Jean-Benoit’s wines are performing magnificently. It must be like testing the student who does his homework and is equally creative and brilliant.

Towards the end, I am tempted to lead everyone in song and dance right there in the vineyards. Shouldn’t one celebrate the success of all that fermenting grape juice? In the alternative, a nap sounds deliciously pleasant.

I sit down to review my photos instead. I have a few minutes before Jean-Benoit takes me on the next round of visits. The rain is holding back. Terrific luck. They should hire me as a rain-staller.