Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Calatayud FIESTA!

The weekend was a bit of rigmarole with Southwest Trains managing to make me miss my flight back from Southampton to Bergerac on the Sunday. I managed to fly back on the very early flight from Exeter to Bergerac on the Monday morning and arrived safe and sound around 11am. I was due to pick up a hire car and meet Beth Willard our new buyer in Spain to finalise a blend of Garnacha for a new wine from Calatayud.  

The drive from Castillon is around six hours so I needed to make progress quite sharpish. So I’d called and left a message with the hire car the day before (Sunday) to make sure the reservation was all ok but they were closed and my flight left before they were open on the Monday. However, by the time I arrived at 11am, the hire car company told me they had cancelled my hire car as it was August and with the French holidays in full swing, they’d decided to give it to someone else.  

I finally managed to get a car by 4pm and headed off towards the Spanish border from where I would turn left to Pamplona then onto Zaragoza before finally turning south to Calatayud. I arrived just after 10pm and it was still 32°C! I was kindly put up by my good friends Norrel and Sharon who live and work in the region, Beth arrived around the same time by train and we actually had an early dinner by Spanish standards!

The following day the blending session was held at the San Gregorio winery. It’s a relatively small winery with young growers averaging 34yrs old, one of whom I have visited before. It seems the full circle has come around as this was where Tony bought some of his first Spanish wines many years ago!  The DO Catalayud appellation was created in 1989 and has both slate and clay limestone soils but the key here is the altitude of between 664-830m which gives the superb freshness to the hot climate fruit. We visited the clay soils in the area known locally as Armantes. The air temperature was now 43°C and the dry red soils and barren surroundings made it look Mars-like! 

The heat was becoming unbearable so we took refuge for a typically late Spanish lunch at the brilliant El Ciervo (The Stag) restaurant.   

The restaurant serves local dishes with flavour-packed simplicity. It reminds me of our old Voyageur restaurant in Castillon. Just like the Voyageur there is no menu, mad staff, mad chef and organised chaos. The etiquette of the lunch is to start in the downstairs bar with either a beer or a homemade punch with warm torreznos (huge strips of thick pork crackling) before (and might I add an hour later) heading upstairs for the actual lunch. 

Lunch started with a ripe tomato salad, followed by fresh succulent runner beans and artichokes. The main was tender beef cheeks with homemade chips and a glass of cold local red wine, perfect.  We headed back into Calatayud to get ready for the evening where we would be attending the opening of the five-day San Roque Fiesta! 
It was my first time and each person must be part of a Peña (a local club). I was inducted into the prestigious Garnacha Peña which was quite a privilege due to my love of the Grenache grape. Big thanks to my friends Norrel, Sharon and their two boys James and William who invited me into the Peña.  I was issued with my purple Garnacha T-shirt and we headed into town to meet the Peña. We arrived to a sea of purple and all ages were out dancing to the trumpets, tubas, bugles and drums of our Peña band!

Everyone was dressed in the colours. We had some local policemen, vineyard growers, bank managers, even the kids who were being issued with balloons, cans of foam, flour and sweets. The adults got beer and we danced behind the band who slowly (very slowly) led the way to the main square.  

The streets were narrow and as we met other Peñas we played and shouted louder, pushing them back until things became very congested indeed.  I do not advise wearing flip flops. In fact I was the only person wearing flip flops and a few members of our Peña seemed rather worried for the welfare of my feet … but we eventually managed to push through to the main square with our hundred or so members. We were a few kids down but nobody was worried and everybody was confident they would turn up at some point, and they did!
The opening ceremony took place in the square and once the Fiesta de San Roque was declared open the whole place went ballistic! We had Darth Vader to lookout for us but being new to the scene I almost copped it!

Suddenly we were back on the move to head to our makeshift Garnacha Peña headquarters where the gigantic Paella awaited us. Eventually (after about two hours!) we made the 300m to the entrance of our Peña and sure enough the Paella was waiting. The river of purple flowed into the marquee and suddenly beers were flowing again and tables being set ready for dinner. The place was buzzing and everyone was so friendly. Even Darth Vader was a big (very big) softy! The tables were tidied away as swiftly and quickly as they were put out and the disco began!

Everyone, the grandfathers, grandmothers, and the small children walked home together at around 4am! Fortunately the following day was a bank holiday in France so I made my way safely back home to Belves de Castillon. What an amazing experience but that was day one. Can you imagine four more? Apparently the following day the Garnacha Peña was holding a Bavarian fancy dress lunch and a pirate costume evening!  Viva España!

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Day two: a reverse Battenberg

It soon became clear that ‘slate soil, old-vine Grenache’ was not the only theme we were going to have. A ‘late to bed, early to rise’ theme was emerging, too! Yves and I were up early to get to Lesquerde for some shots in the morning light. I lived here for almost 5 years and had this view every morning. You never forget a landscape like this of rugged garrigue, old goblet pruned vines, Cypriot trees and with a backdrop of the snow-capped Pyrenees mountains.

Once Yves was satisfied with the shoot, we headed back down into Maury and up the other side of the l’Agly Valley, into the red clay terroir of the Corbieres. We continued for a little further, stopping in Padern at the Café des Sports. Time has stood still here and so had the coffee! But it’s great for some real French village photos.

A further 10 minutes on, we crossed in to AOC Fitou, rejoining Tony, Andrée and Cat at the Mont Tauch winery. Fitou is another remarkable pocket of soils and micro climates with Carignan, Grenache and Syrah being the star grapes here, each being suited to a particular soil. Fitou has quite a history and was actually the first place in the Languedoc to be awarded AOC status way back in 1948!

Fitou is situated on the border between the Languedoc and the Roussillon. In fact, the name Fitou comes from the latin word for border ‘fita’. The Fitou appellation consists of nine villages. Inland in the mountainous areas there are the slate soils of Villeneuve, the ‘Poudingues du Pilou’ (cobblestones) of  Paziols and the limestone soils of Tuchan and Cascastel. Then, on the Mediterranean coast, you find the villages of La Palme, Treilles, Caves and Leucate

We tasted through each of the terroirs and I particularly liked the softness of the Carignan from the limestone but, surprise-surprise, the slate-planted Grenache was the standout wine for us!

Next was lunch at the infamous Vignerons de Embres et Castelmaure winery with Tony’s long time friends and wine pioneers Patrick de Marien (President) and Bernard Pueyo (director). I have heard a lot about these guys but I have never had the pleasure to visit or meet these living legends. And my word, what a visit it was to be!

We were greeted by the very jolly Bernard ‘the bear’ Pueyo and taken to see the old and the new winery before being shown into their brilliant home made tasting room!  The colours of the labels and the recognisable Castelmaure decorations are just brilliant, too.

Bernard and his team had built the tasting room themselves … and on a shoestring budget. I quickly began to realise what a legendary place this is as it’s all about what is the best for the wine.  The bar looks very cool and rather Red Heads in style. And although the hanging lights are the ones used for dangling into wine vats, there are big, clean tasting glasses, the wines are all chilled to perfection, and a top-class enomatic bottle dispenser allows the wines to be tasted by customers in perfect condition. Now that’s how to serve wine!

The tasting was just brilliant, Bernard and I getting along very well indeed talking about the winemaking and vineyards (amongst other random things!).  I particularly liked the freshness of the Grenache Gris/Rolle blend, the chilled red Buvette, 2010 Pompadour was lovely as always, the Syrah/Grenache Castelmaure 2009 Grande Cuvée and lastly the stunning Cuvée 3 2010.  This was a tasting I will always remember and be sure to re-live again!

I still hadn’t met Patrick the president, but Bernard told us we were invited to lunch at Monsieur President’s house, high above the village. We arrived at Patrick’s front door. The bear didn’t knock; just barged in ‘comme chez lui’ and Patrick suddenly appeared, hopping about and already laughing. He immediately reminded me of a bizarre cross between John Lennon and Clive Dunn!  

Within minutes we were seated on the terrace each with a big glass of chilled ‘Sois beau et Tais-Toi l'Esprit du Vent 2011’ and plenty of homemade liver pate, what a combination.  I – and I’m sure Tony – felt A REAL MIDI LUNCH coming on! Sure enough, out came the magnificent charcuterie board, hams, pates, boudins and saucisson, with non-stop laughing and joking from Patrick, Bernard and now Tony and Andrée; just great to see old friends back together.

More wine flowed and then the main dish of homemade ‘legumes farcie’ with a tomato rice, so perfect. Of course we finished with local goat’s cheese and a brilliant 2009 Donner du temps au temps which has 2 years bottle age before being released.  Cherries, white fig and peaches from the garden trees to finish.  One of the best lunches I’ve ever had; simple and such an inspiration.

By now it’s hot. Extremely hot, in fact, so with the agility of an excited 14-year-old boy, Patrick jumps up (his espadrills defy logic and continuously stick to his feet) and into his bright-red land rover, “into vineyards he roars”. The bear follows, then Tony, I, Cat and Andrée; it’s now its clearly only mad Midi men and women and English men and women out in the sun.

We wound up the steep tracks high into the vineyards and – lo and behold – old-vine Grenache on slate soil! There were more antics for the camera before a crazy ride back down to the 11th century Chappelle St.Felix. Looking up from the chappelle you can see the ruins of the original village of Castelmaure abandoned in 1850 due to lack of water and a murder!  

Goodbye was hard; I had had such a great time and wanted to stay and learn more. We left with a boot full of wine and I even got a kiss from Patrick! Madmen and legends, merci. 

Andrée is always in charge and now tells us dinner is in Château Pech Ceyleran near Narbonne. “Dinner?”, we shout, “we just finished lunch!” So it was off to Narbonne and to dinner with the 6th, 5th and 4th generations of the family de Exubury in their 18th century Languedoc Château Pech Ceyleran!  Second wind came as we were presented with a dusk tasting under the moonlit turrets of the magnificent château.

Nothing would outshine the brilliance of Castelmaure, but the day will be clearly remembered by what was to be served next: (you may have guessed from the title of this blog) a ‘Reverse Battenberg’!  This huge cake thing what they referred to as ‘un gateau du pate d’amande’ suddenly arrived, covered in cream. As it neared, the cream was sliding from the surface and clinging on for dear life!  I was offered a ‘petit tranche’ to which I regrettably replied “oui madame”.  Goodness knows what a ‘grande tranche’ is and I hope never to find out. But what I was about to discover was the sponge-looking consistency was in fact a pure, inch-thick slice of marzipan and that the little topsoil of sponge and cream had long-since slid away … a Mr Bean sketch came to mind. 

All I can say is that the dinner and wines started off perfect and light, but finished off like being thrown into a swimming pool with a brick of marzipan attached to your right ankle. BED.

Monday, 6 August 2012

Andrée’s Midi Trip: Day One

After working for 40 years as a Midi wine negociant, Andrée is without doubt the Midi master! She has now come to her well earned retirement but before she lays down the tools she decided to take Tony, Cat, photographer Yves and I on a magical tour of the known and – more excitingly – the unknown Midi. 

We set off from a rather cool Bordeaux on Sunday and a couple of hours later, even though there are no signs we knew we were entering the Midi. How? Because of the sun, the heat (32°C), the wild landscape, the thick Mediterranean French accents, the waft of garrigue in the air and of course the pace of life which seems to slow down every kilometre southwards. I’m sure even the petrol pumps flow slower!  

It wasn’t long though before Yves was up to his usual antics and risking his life to get that perfect shot (it’s all that time he spent photographing war zones for newspapers!)

However, we safely arrived in Banyuls for a tasting at the oldest winery ‘La Cave Etoiles’.  Banyuls has to be one of the most stunning wine regions of the world, with the old steep vineyards seeming to plunge into the sea. They used to harvest onto boats at the foot of the vineyard and sail to the town. It was day one and little did we know it the theme was already set: old Grenache vines on steep slate (schist) soil vineyards, my heaven.

By mid morning it was already in the mid-thirties so we decided to go into the vineyards, mad dogs and English men sprang to mind …

The slate here is brown (more correctly called Marne) and the vineyards are planted on curved half-moon terraces for the drainage to keep the few inches of top soil from washing away. Fig and almond trees are scattered all around and still used today as crucial shade from the relentless sun.  I learned that a Banyuls native is called a Banyulenc and these are hardy people indeed. The precious terrace walls that hold their livelihood must be constantly maintained and it can take a whole day’s work to do just a meter of wall!

Once Yves had got his shot even the mad English realised it was probably best to get out of the sun and into the cool dark cellars in the center of Banyuls. However, before we could get into the cellars we had to experience just how the winemakers harness the sun’s power and we went up onto the terrace. No solar panels here, but demi-jons in the full face of the sun where they keep a certain style of fortified wine they call Banyuls Grand Cru Doux Paille. The sun accelerates the ageing which can be so affective you can get wine that looks and tastes like it’s been 20 years in big barrels in just 1-2 years!

The tasting kicked off with some dry whites and reds cleverly named AOC Coillure so as not to confuse with the fortified-only Banyuls AOC. Next came the Banyuls Vin Doux Naturel (VDN) wines and highlights were a 1989 and a 2002. A good tip I learnt from them regarding food matching with Banyuls VDN was to simply match colour of wine with the colour of the food!

It goes without saying we had lunch and it was in a little bistro on the beach. I had a typical locally fished anchovy salad and squid cooked on the  plancha with lots of olive oil.

Enough for one day? Absolutely not! We headed back up towards Perpignan and into my territory the l’Agly valley. Here, as I have spoken about so often, is the home of the Vent de Folie and the XV du Président, actually started 35 years ago by Tony and Andree and guess what? Old Grenache vines on steep slate soil vineyards!

Tonight we were invited to chez Hervé Sabardiel in the village of Claira near Perpignan. Hervé is a very skilful winemaker and is the man behind such wines as Chante-Clair, Cabalié and many others. Well what an evening to kick off with! Herve has a great place they have converted two old barns into Ibiza style club decoration!

And the food he cooked was superb! Started off with a lobster caught that morning just down the road in the Med Sea, followed by veal and morel mushrooms accompanied of course with beautiful Midi wines he had made. BED.