Friday, 24 July 2009

The month of July is holiday time for winemakers

… because hopefully wines from the previous vintage are now in bottle and the next harvest hasn’t quite happened. This year Libby and I are off to discover the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte - the Mediterranean island of Corsica.

Just before we leave for Corsica there is the long awaited 40th birthday party for our cellar master Chris. We reserved a big table at the ‘La Plage’ riverside restaurant across the river from the Chai and so called because back in the day it was where the locals went swimming. The open air restaurant is very laid back with a simple menu and local wines; if you are in the region, I recommend a visit.

It was a great evening and Libby once again arose to the occasion with yet another brilliant birthday cake!!

Corsica, The Fun Begins!

At 6 a.m we arrived at the ferry port in Toulon ready to board the boat bound for the southern Corsican port of Ajaccio. Six hours later after some minor hiccups (my fault unfortunately) we finally cruised into the spectacular northern Corsican port of L’Ile Rousse.

We hadn’t planned on arriving here, so we started to look at the northern part of the Corsica map and decided (no thanks to the Rough Guide book) to head to Calvi for the night to start what would become quite an eventful 12 days!

The object of the holiday was to explore the incredible beaches and little-known wine regions and then to relax by trying the local food and wines in the evening. Calvi was bathed in sunshine and framed by a backdrop of sheer green mountain faces and crystal blue waters.

Before we knew it, we were booked into hotel (a very strange hotel, kindly recommended by the Rough Guide book) and diving off the rocks into the lovely warm waters. After the swim it was time to check out the local wine region so I picked up a couple of AOC Calvi wines to taste back at the deserted self catering shared balcony apartment (I did say the hotel was strange!). The wines of Calvi were superb and are made from the local Nielluccio (black grape). Soft and light in style but deliciously perfect with good rustic fish like Gurnard.

The next day we headed north to the fishing village of St.Florent. The road wound, snaked and skirted up along the mountain side until suddenly we broke out into probably one of the most spectacular vineyard views I have seen called Patrimonio. The soil had changed to slate and the wines we tasted from the Nielluccio grape here were extraordinary and very similar to Chianti Classico wines. If you can hold of these fabulously concentrated and age-worthy reds then I highly recommend them!

We decided to stay the night at a campsite in St.Florent as we had compromised that a bit of camping and little hotel here and there would be a good way to see the island and help the holiday budget. I haven’t got all that much camping experienced and what I do have is minimal and a distant memory!

The first night started with no tent mallet, an ants nest and a 40 degree heat but got better when I cooked some local bream on the stove and Libby matched it well with a local rosé from Domaine Leccia in Patrimonio. However the night grew steadily worse as we were entertained all night with a German orchestra of snoring!

Both very tired, we checked out the exciting wine region of Cap Corse which makes world class fortified Muscats to rival those of Rivesaltes, Beaumes-de-Venice and Frontignan.

As we were driving along, Libby spotted a sign for Clos Gioielli so we followed it to try and find the place. After no further signs and a lot of narrow roads we finally stumbled upon the winery. Libby eagerly jumped out and headed towards the wide open main door but there was no one to be seen. Then all of a sudden – much to Libby’s amusement – a very wobbly old man with stained red hands appeared after, what I could only imagine to be, a rather thorough lunch!

However, he managed to muster up enough energy to serve us (in slow motion) in the doorway of his house and mumble an explanation of the wines. Libby asked to taste his Muscat which he went to fetch from his fridge. For the time it took him to return, this was possibly located in the south of Corsica!

When he returned he became quite chatty and told us he was the owner and winemaker and his name was Michel. All the wines were very charming and the highlight was the Muscat and a fantastic barrel-aged dry white wine made from Vermentino.

The following day (after another night of snoring Germans) we had a fantastic drive around the Cap Corse with every bend producing more stunning scenery. We came across another little roadside winery and I tasted two absolutely delicious wines that I had never even heard of! The first was a sweet red Muscat and a natural sweet wine, locally known as ’Rappu’ and aged in brandy casks.

After not a wink of sleep for the past two nights, the third night’s camping was the last straw when I pitched my tent on the parking space of the world's grumpiest French lady on holiday, topped off by sleeping in a hurricane!

Tiredly we stopped in the capital town Bastia, before making our way inland to Corte and then up and up and up, through pine forests, wild pigs and canyons into the Alta Rocca region with the 2352m Monte Renoso mountain dominating the region.

We descended down the other side and decided to stop in the picturesque mountain village of Zonza. By this time we were suffering from severe fatigue and, after our last three nights of camping, it was quickly decided that hotels were to be the choice of accommodation for the remainder of the holiday! Libby then went completely mad and booked a hotel with all the bells and whistles including an infinity pool looking on to the mountains!

The evening in Zoza was fantastic; we ate in the Sanglier (wild boar) restaurant and then found a very lively bar with a great guitar trio playing a mix of Flamenco and Jazz.

The next morning we left Zonza for the town of Sartene, famous for being the most authentically Corsican town. Sartene is a walled town perched high in the foothills and inside the huge fortified walls, is a warren of streets with shops, bars and restaurants.

Once we had another nice hotel we set off towards the Fishing town of Propriano, about 15kms away, situated in the Valcino Gulf to get some lunch. We found a cracking 5 generation family-owned seafood restaurant in the heart of the town and tried a local rosé from Domaine San.Michel.

After lunch we went to explore and discover the vineyard region of AOC Sartene. We soon learned that the soils and climate were very different and that the region had its own indigenous red grape variety, the ‘Sciacerrello’. Some highly recommended wineries that are making very exciting reds and rosé from this unique grape are Domaine Saparale (valley l'ortolo), Domaine Fiumicicoli (propriano), and Domaine Pero Longo (lieu dit Navara).

With the ferry departure checked 10 times, we finished our stay in Corsica with a couple of days in the wonderful port of Ajaccio on the West of the island. Ajaccio has great old port Marseille feel to it, with bustling bars, restaurants and shops. That evening we decided upon a quiet little restaurant in the back streets which was very quiet until a large family rocked up as if they owned place!

As more and more of the ‘family’ arrived, we soon came to the conclusion that they did own the place! We got chatting as we were the only customers there and our knowledge of the islands wines and vineyards stood us in good stead as we were brought free wine from the ‘family’ estate and a half price bill, followed by a rather long Cuban cigar to accompany the on the house ‘eau de vie’ (spirit from chestnuts in this case) in the ‘family’ ice cream parlour!

The Corsican experience was certainly magical and the diversity in culture and scenery, from east to west and north to south, for such a small island is mind blowing.

All the local people we met throughout the trip were friendly and helpful. Although not an ideal destination for strict vegetarians, the food and restaurants were of a high standard and good value for money. The vineyards and wines were certainly one the most surprising and outstanding experiences I have had with the spectacular vineyard locations and very high quality and individual wines.

The most interesting and inspirational wine for myself and Libby was certainly the dry white barrel-aged Vermentino of the north and I will certainly be trying my best to find this grape variety in southern France hold to make a new Chai wine. The only disappointment was not being able to find the rare maggot-ridden speciality cheese they call ’U Casigo Merzu’ … maybe next time!

So with the car packed up with wines from all the areas we visited and the next best thing to maggot cheese, we waved good by to Corsica and set off for the mainland.

Once in Toulon we headed straight for Avignon and the small town of Bollene, deep in the heart of Cotes du Rhone country, to meet up with our friend Patrick. Patrick also works at the Chai Au Quai and is the person behind all the organisation of transport, legalities of stock and labelling and, very importantly, the dry goods (bottles, corks, capsules, boxes) for the bottling of all the Chai wines.

Patrick lives in Bordeaux but is originally from the Cotes du Rhone area where his parents and family still live. We did get a bit lost but for once it was Patrick’s directions, not Libby’s! At last, we pulled up to the big family house surrounded by vineyards of Grenache vines trained in the Gobelet method. Patrick showed us around to the terrace to introduce us to his Mum and Dad, Josette and René. A friend of ours Fraser – who is the manager of our customer service in the UK – was also on holiday with his wife Jeanne, originally from Le Harve and their new baby boy Clement.

We awoke the next day to the noises of shovelling, sawing, hammering and scraping but it was only Patrick’s dad René doing a full days work before breakfast.

René is a very passionate and hardy man. A builder by trade, he has obviously worked his entire life outdoors. He has built their family home, a couple holiday gites and a house for his daughter on the land that he inherited from his father. He also had the biggest allotment I have ever seen with about 15 different varieties of tomato!

He spoke mainly about the problems of the local wine. His brother, who owns and works 30 hectares, was struggling to make a living selling his grapes to the cave cooperative of Sainte Cécile Les Vigne. However the wines are good and they also make very interesting white wine from the typical Châteauneuf-du-Pape grapes Marsanne and Roussane, maybe one to sound out for a new Chai wine?

His wife Josette was the classic French mother, endlessly supplying us with rosé, saucisson, jambon and olives. When we were all just about to burst, we were ushered inside for the main lunch! We had a great lunch of fresh melons, ham, salad from the garden followed by ‘tielle’, a kind of fish pie speciality from the fishing village of Sete. We opened some much appreciated Corsican rosé but René preferred what he called ‘the best wine in the world’ which was rosé from the local Co-op!

After lunch we relaxed by the pool until it was time to get ready for our evening out in Avignon. This week Avignon is the host to the famous Festival du Theatre d’Avignon. During the festival the streets of Avignon are full of bizarre acts, musical groups and there are dozens of theatres showing a whole range of plays throughout the day and well into the night. Patrick had booked us in to watch a short comedy play in a tiny back street theatre comedy play called “Couple Ouvert a Deux Battants”. It was a lovely evening and everyone really enjoyed the play – even though we didn’t all speak French!

The following day we were up early for the long drive back to Bordeaux but before we could set off, René and Josette insisted that we take back a ton of fresh figs and tomatoes.

We rolled into good old St Colombe late evening to a bare cupboard and an empty fridge but luckily we had the figs and tomatoes and we finished off the holiday perfectly with some roasted figs, a fresh Gazpacho, and a cold Corsican rosé to remind us of the trip.