The definition of eccentric is unconventional, especially in a whimsical way, and I can think of nothing better to describe the 2003 vintage. The wines are different yes, but endearing to all but the staunchest of Bordeaux devotees. In fact, I would say that 2003 is actually a great vintage for the uninitiated, the perfect place to start the love affair that so many of us have developed. The 2003 Château Léonie, Graves ($23.99) is the perfect wine for those fans of California wines looking for something different to whet their palate. Juicy raspberry ripeness dominates the nose while the supple, creamy texture accents ample red berry fruit found on the palate. This is an unabashed 2003 fruit bomb that will surely turn heads, and it is easy on the wallet. While nowhere near as jammy, the 2003 Château Prieuré-Lichine, Margaux ($32.99) will be an easy transition for those used to drinking big California Cabernets. Coffee and vanilla ooze out of the glass and straight into your olfactories. This wine is packed full of the black cherry fruit and coconut spice so often found in the big names of California wine fame. Another stylish red from the same commune is the 2003 du Tertre, Margaux ($29.99). Most Margaux’s are about texture recently, and this wine is no exception. This will coat your mouth with a glycerin-like creaminess and all the milk chocolate covered cherry fruit you could ever want. A perfect cocktail Bordeaux. The 2003 Château Meyney, St-Estèphe ($24.99) is a bit more traditional, showing wet stone and rare steak qualities throughout. Bolstered by black currant and tobacco, this has a more tannic grip that will give it some longevity in the cellar. Finally, there is the 2003 Reserve de la Comtesse, Pauillac ($31.99), the stunner of the vintage. Layered black cherry puree and black tea leaves fight for dominance. Hard edged now, this will be fantastic with some aeration or age. A wine that is a perfect combination of vintage and house style. —Bryan Brick
"It is a very good day. We got a new tractor and the cicadas didn't start singing until 9AM." So began our wonderful day at Moulin de la Gardette, a small family-run estate in the Gigondas district of France's southern Rhone Valley about 45 minutes from Avignon. We spent a total of about five and a half hours with Jean Baptiste Meunier, the jovial owner and winemaker, during which time he showed us the grounds, the vines, the winery and the surrounding village before hosting us at a lovely luncheon in the town square. JC and I left with a feeling of total contentment and a conviction that if we are ever reincarnated as grapes, we'd like to be some of Moulin de la Gardette's. The day started with a warm greeting as described above at Moulin de la Gardette's very cute tasting room on the town square. About 200 people live in the village of Gigondas (jee gon dahs) proper, with an additional 500 or so in the outlying area. So as you can imagine, the "town square" is a tiny but lively place. If you're visiting Gigondas, the square and the Gardette tasting room are terrifically easy to find. This was fortuitous for JC and me, as we've discovered that navigating in France is definitely not facile (see upcoming entry "Blonde & Blonder"). JB made us feel immediately at home, whizzing us up the nearby hill for a breathtaking view of his family's vineyards, a local ruin and, beyond, the entire Rhone Valley. At the top of this little mountain is a circular indicator called the Belvedere Table d'Orientation instructing visitors on what can be found in the nearby countryside. Here's a pic of JC locating the Palace of the Popes in nearby Avignon, where we're staying. The giant mountain in the background is Mont Ventoux, the famed peak of this region and, apparently, a very windy place. The first pic in this entry captures the "Mistral," the famed wind that whips through the area and temporarily took JC back to the big hair days of the 80s. It's also apparently blown some people off of Mont Ventoux to their deaths, eek! Some more gorgeous pics of the Rhone! After our sojourn on the windy peak we ventured into the vineyards, where we observed three different colors of soil - white, gray and orange - indicating several unique terroirs on the 9 hectare estate (about 22 acres). The vines are a mix of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault. The most interesting was the Cinsault, a blending grape with bigger berries than the others. They were big, indeed! They've got, conversely, weaker stems than the Grenache, leading JB to make an amusing and, I must add, very French observation that the stems are "rather feminine" while the grapes "masculine." I had to chuckle to myself at that remark. Here's another pic of some old vine Grenache (the property has vines up to around 100 years old, planted by JB's grandfather) and a middle aged vine with a gorgeous bunch on it undergoing veraison, the conversion of the grapes from green to purplish colors. Cicadas, the bizarre large insects that make noise by vibrating while in trees and shrubs, can be heard all around the vineyard. JB explained that they make the noise to cool themselves, and that this racket can be heard as early as 6AM sometimes. When that's the case, it's going to be a scorcher, he says. Good thing they didn't get going 'til 9 today - as it was still incredibly warm and I can't imagine what it must be like when scorching. Random aside: while doing some follow up research on cicadas I was intrigued by the site My-bugs.com, which sells framed cicadas under the slogan, "No living room or study would be complete without one." Hmm, not so sure I agree, but whatevs - to each his own! Cuvee de Mon Fils Then, back in the car for a quick jaunt over to the Gardette's new winery, built just two years ago by a local architect we ran into later near the town square. The facility is small but efficient and, as you can see from the pic, quite striking against the bright blue sky. Inside we were shown the concrete fermentation vats, where only natural yeasts are used to conduct fermentation and where JB's son, Georges, fell in one time. This is actually incredibly dangerous since fermenting grapes give off CO2 that can lead to unconsciousness and, in rare instances, death. Fortunately, Georges was salvaged and I was able to safely joke, "did you call the wine 'Cuvee de Mon Fils'? We tasted several wines in the winery, including the recently bottled 2004 vintage of the winery's two main wines, the Cuvee Tradition (retails in the US for around $17) and the Ventabrun (about $27). Both were very good, and I found the Ventrabrum (which sees time in old oak barriques and undergoes a light filtration) particularly pleasing. 2004 was an outstanding vintage in this area, and the wine is redolent with flavors of plum and currant as well as an exciting collection of things found in the surrounding area: lavender, thyme, wildflower and sweet grass. There are also notes of cocoa, orange peel, cinnamon, flowers and licorice. Highly recommended. We also enjoyed tasting a 1998 vintage wine JB created in honor of the birth of his daughter, Zoe. Zoe has personalized her wine with these very cute chalk drawings and signature. I told JB over lunch I think Zoe, who's learning to play the harp and enjoys philosophy, will certainly be his next winemaker. He looked reflective after I said this and simply said, "I hadn't thought of that." It'll be interesting to see what happens. After tasting there was a smooth transition to lunch in the village courtyard, just a brief jaunt away in JB's car. We thoroughly enjoyed our meal of summer salad, tartine and a charcuterie/cheese plate along with some Moulin de la Gardette wine. The highlight of the day was JB's opening, at lunch, a really lovely bottle of his 1995 Gigondas, which was bottled unfined and unfiltered. It had a beautiful nose of nuts, figs, coffee, some gun flint and dates and had structure to go on aging for 10 or more years. Definitely a class act. "It's a very nice place to be a grape." I can't think of a more pleasant day than today. Jean Baptiste, who worked at famed estate Diamond Creek in the Napa Valley for some time in the 90s and is pictured here with his eldest son, put it perfectly when he described the land surrounding the village of Gigondas and his vines. The pine trees, the rosemary and all the other things in the area contribute character to the vines and, in turn, the region's wines. "It's a very nice place to be a grape," he said on the drive back from the little mountain. I couldn't agree more. www.moulindelagardette.com --- Courtney Cochran, aka Your Personal Sommelier, provides personalized wine services to adventurous wine collectors, purveyors and enthusiasts, making wine accessible and fun for those who think outside the mainstream wine box. Visit her site at www.CourtneyCochran.com
Everyone, meet Rodolphe de Pins, current winemaker-owner at Chateau de Montfaucon, a southern Rhone estate that's been around for just about a Millenium. Davis-educated, world-traveled, and totally down-to-earth, de Pins is in the process of rejuvenating his family's ancient estate and turning out some really excellent wines. In the process, he's beautifully marrying new methods with old locations and philosophies, as evidenced in his outfitting the estate's 500-year-old winery with new equipment and barrels. The result is a totally functional and appealingly harmonious coming-together of old and new, all situated just beneath his family's 1000-year-old chateau on the hill. What's old is new, but better As we approached the village of Montfaucon for our appointment JC exclaimed "wow! do you think the family owns that castle on the hill?" "No way," I said emphatically. "Castles like that are all national monuments now." Hmm. Definitely not the first time I've been wrong, and boy was I wrong: The de Pins family most certainly still owns the chateau, which has been in their lineage for about 300 years. The place itself is closer to a thousand years old, erected originally to guard the border between the Royaume de France to the west and the Holy Roman-German Empire to the east, and later to guard the passage of trade on the adjacent Rhone River. Quickly, a little history trivia: the region to the west has long been Protestant while that to the east Catholic, hence the popes making nearby city Avignon the papal seat for about a century during the Middle Ages. So as you can imagine, this made for lots of potential conflicts over the years and, clearly, the need for an imposing castle/fortress to guard the boundary. The castle of Montfaucon was one of a series of such castles built along the Rhone river to guard the boundary. Much later, Rodolphe's grandmother, a Countess, convinced the invading Germans not to blow it up before they retreated from France after one of the world wars. Rodolphe has named one of his wines in her honor, as a way of thanking her for her savvy negotiating skills. Even more fascinating, Rodolphe's parents still live in the castle, which we had the pleasure of touring shortly after our arrival. Wow! It's old! Here are some snaps of us on the roof, looking out at the surrouding countryside. The chateau is old-school indeed, complete with ramparts and gargoyles like this one. Nearby are the villages of Tavel and Lirac, and across the river is the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation, where the region's most famous wines are made. This proximity bodes well for Montfaucon's wines! Vineyards alive! Rudy, as Rodolphe's Davis classmates called him, also took us into the fields for a closer look at the vines. I was immediately aware of how alive the fields were - Rudy uses a natural grass cover crop and doesn't use any incecticides or pesticides - because there were grasshoppers and other insects literally jumping all over. There was a low hum from all the bugs, and they kept running into me - I would hear little a little snap and feel a subtle jolt on my sleeve and realize a bug and I had just had a collision - literally. Rudy explained that he thinks of the vineyard as an organism that's alive in many ways - the bugs just being one example of that. If he were to excessively spray his vines he would lose something in the process, he believes. Not completely organic - Rudy said he likes to reserve the right to use the necessary means to combat diverse environmental problems if and as they arise - Montfaucon's vineyards all the same reflected this healthy philosophy of "less is more." There are a total of 11 Rhone grape varieties grown on the estate's 100 hectares, including (for the reds) Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise, and (for the whites) Viognier, Clairette, Marsanne, Bourboulenc and Picpoul. Each variety brings a unique element to the estate's several wines, and this blending is a hallmark of wines from the region, which are almost always made from a blend of at least several grapes and sometimes as many as thirteen. Here we are in the estate's barrel room, where wine was being made 500 years ago on the castle farm, which was auto-sufficient since there was no organized market at that time. Besides producing all of the residents' food and other necessities, the farm produced their wine - bien sur! Can you imagine waiting out a siege without sufficient stocks of wine? I mean, puhleeze. What a drag. Inside you can see the old winery's ancient press and a trough (pictured) where the juice would flow after pressing. Just next to these old pieces is the estate's recent vintages in barrels. What was most interesting to me about the cave was its temperature - a balmy 20 degrees Celsuis, or about 68 degrees Farenheit - which Rudy said was quite typical for Rhone barrel caves. This warm temperature helps the wine evolve while in barrel, although Rudy is worried about the effects of global warming on his cave. Without artificial cooling systems the temperatures keep creeping up, which won't be good for the good stuff. This wasn't the first time the effects of global warming were brought up during my visits, yikes. The best way to taste = over an excellent lunch Now, what you really want to hear about: the wines. Rudy was really generous with his wine, allowing us to taste more than a half dozen during the course of the day and over a really lovely French country lunch. Besides the fantastic tuna and dill tart we sampled, we had some really nice wines, including the 2005 Comptesse Madeleine, a white named in honor of his savvy grandmother. Made from usual Rhone suspects Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette, Bourbelenc and Picpoul, the wine had lovely aromas and flavors of apricot, peach, green melon, flowers, baking spices and orange marmalade on the finish. My favorite wine of the day was the 2003 Cotes du Rhone red, which at about $10 in the US is a total steal. It has aromas and flavors of bright cherry and is just beautifully balanced and pleasant to drink. It's a wine that, I think, will be pleasing even to staunch Pinot Noir drinkers, who tend to look for finesse and mellow tannin in their reds. I wasn't surprised, then, to learn that Rudy's favorite cooper is Burgundy's Francois Freres, which is known for producing "gentle" wines. Rudy says it's been sold out in the San Francisco area for some time but that more is on the way this fall. Eeeeexcellent. Montfaucon's flagship wine is a cuvee called Baron Louis, named in honor of another relative who refurbished the castle during the 19th century to its current excellent state. It's made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignane, Mourvedre and Counoise. The 2005 was really pretty, with notes of red and black berry fruits, dark plum, char, corn, cinnamon, potato, cocoa powder and pomegranate. It also had a - good although it might not sound pleasant! - barnyard aroma I find often in wines from the Rhone. Altogether I think the wine beautifully captures the essence of the area and is a real pleasure to drink. The 1995 Baron Louis confirmed all this, and was particularly special to quaff since it was Rudy's first vintage after taking over the family estate. I was tickled to find the same aroma and flavor of Jolly Rancher Cinnamon stick in it I encountered in the 2005; evidence, I believe, of a special terroir here at Montfaucon. After a decade the wine was still fresh and - not surprisingly - beautifully balanced with acid, tannin and fruit harmoniously cohabiting in my glass. Notes of aniseed, crushed roses, coffee and toffee rounded out the experience and left JC and me completely sated. Then, in the true French way, Rudy's companion Mari brought out still more food - this time in the form of goat cheese of six different ages. Here's a pic of JC just moments before she had a Pretty Woman moment cutting the cheese. Like the escargot that Julia Roberts catapulted across the resto in that film, JC sent a wedge of the VERY hard to cut 6-month-old frommage to the far side of the table. We all sort of held our breaths for a few moments after that happened, unsure of how to proceed, but alas the awkward moment passed and we continued on our merry eating and drinking way. When Rudy did the exact same thing shortly thereafter we knew we should all be at ease. We were in La France, after all, and, as when in Rome, we had just done as they do here: catapulted some old cheese across the table, laughed, and tipped up our glasses once again. What more could one want? A castle on a hill, perhaps. --- Courtney Cochran, aka Your Personal Sommelier, provides personalized wine services to adventurous wine collectors, purveyors and enthusiasts, making wine accessible and fun for those who think outside the mainstream wine box. Visit her site at www.CourtneyCochran.com
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