Tag Archives: France

Wine review(ish): Yet another Muscadet Sèvre et Maine sur Lie

This is the last night of my holiday, my final day having been spent at a soft play centre 40 minutes’ drive away while rain teemed down outside. This is what parenthood brings you. Sure, there’s fulfilment and laughter and moments of pure joy, but there are also a million frustrating bathtimes, an enormous amount of clearing up and many, many days spent doing things that only make you happy because of the way they don’t make the people who could make you unhappy unhappy.

The CF brood are here with my in-laws, my brother-in-law, his wife and their little son. I’ve been lucky enough to marry into a family with which I am genuinely happy to holiday, but none of them care much for their wine. Thus we have subsisted on a diet of supermarket-sourced plonk, with many bottles of my traditional French summer standbys of Muscadet (sur lie, importantly) and Picpoul picked up for something in the region of €3 a bottle and duly dispatched.

And while it’s felt rather like a wasted opportunity – last summer I discovered a brilliant local wine shop and drank genuinely interesting stuff with great regularity – it’s also been, well, OK. Part of being a wine geek is finding wines that will excite and challenge you, but part of it is choosing the right kind of wine for the company you’re in. Would I have liked to have enjoyed a fortnight of vinous thrills? Undoubtedly, but not if it would have alienated everyone who shared my dinner table. There’s a time for wines that are just good enough for everyone present to enjoy but not so good that anyone feels glum about just glugging them. I think I’ve got that pretty right this time.

And by way of consolation I sneaked into a wine shop (my first of the trip) this afternoon and snagged a couple of more interesting bottles that will be appearing in my suitcase, my stemware and on here, in that order, soon.

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Restaurant review: Le Familia, Vic en Bigorre, Hautes-Pyrénées, France

I’m currently on my annual holiday in France, but I’m having a grim old vinous time of it. This year we’ve found a villa in the Hautes-Pyranees, an area known less for its wine than for growing a lot of corn and then stuffing it down the necks of geese. Interesting wine shops do exist, but today (day seven) was the first time I saw one that was open, and a hungry child stopped me going into it (my own hungry child, I should add – France isn’t yet overrun with famished shop-obstructing street urchins).

This was in a town called Vic en Bigorre, where a market-stall-manning local I asked for a restaurant tip pointed me in the direction of a place called Le Familia, just next to the main covered market. The menu was exceedingly promising, reading, in its entirety: potage, entrée, viande, legumes, desert – €12, vin et café compris. For the non-French-speakers among you, that’s: soup, starter, meat, vegetables, pudding, with wine and coffee thrown in, for €12. The choice, such as it was, was thus: red wine, or rose? They didn’t even have white, that’s how little choice they offered – though they did agree to knock something special up foodwise for the kids (namely a thick slice of ham and loads of extra salty chips). One of the people I was with was vegetarian; she was given an avocado to start (and a lettuce leaf, to be fair. Plus they had graciously sliced the avocado in half and removed the stone), and for her main course got exactly the same vegetables as everyone else (chips and brocolli), only without the viande.

I basked in the authenticity of it all, as the room filled up with pensioners sitting alone and the occasional relaxed couple, while the families who had the foresight to book basked in the small pavement terrace. Everyone was welcomed by name, clearly enticed to return by the crazy prices (not the food, so much, though it was fine). The toilets were dirty, the service brusque. I loved it. Go.

(But don’t ask for ice cream for desert, because you get the grottiest Wall’s gunk imaginable, and they make pretty good rice pudding and crème caramel themselves)

In Britain, of course, where duty on a bottle of wine, plus VAT on that duty, is £2.17 (with VAT still to pay on the cost of the actual wine), and where restaurants think nothing of charging three times retail prices (or more) for wine, it is pretty much impossible to get a single bottle of plonk, however hideous, for the price that Le Familia charge for a well-lubricated four-course meal. Infuriating, and I might be more inclined to protest about it as well if I weren’t still so ruddy full.

This is probably the best-timed holiday I’ve ever had, coming as it does at the end of a period of loopy work pressure (serves me right for taking a big freelance commission I probably should have avoided) that coincided with a fairly stressful house-buying process – we exchanged the day before we flew to France. Sadly, the moment it ends I’ll be cast headlong back into an even more intense period of already-accepted freelance work coupled with preparations for actually moving, which happens a fortnight after our return. Which is why I haven’t been doing much blogging of late. Sorry. Normal service will be resumed shortly.

CF goes out shopping on tour and probably has to give up these silly and way too long intro bits: L’Epicerie Fine, Forcalquier

So I’m in France, where they are much better at making wine than the English but not as good at selling it. I mean, they’re great at selling their own wine, but pretty useless at accepting that anybody else, even the Italians, might have a product worth adding to their shelves. Which is bad for the French, but good for the English bloke in France for a fortnight and happy to try something local and obscure. Having been fairly emphatically disappointed by the selection in my local Carrefour, I found myself in a town I had never, until the moment I arrived there, heard of and went in search of something better. It was a short search, and ended at a small shop which sells cold meats, teas and coffees and a selection of wine that had burst out of its allocated shelves and into a couple of fridges and assorted wine racks squeezed into improbably spaces around the shop. I recognised a couple of labels from Les Caves de Pyrene, and engaged the owner in conversation about natural wine, which turned out to be his passion. I pointed to a wine called Le Soif Du Mail, which I tried at the Les Caves sale and enjoyed so much I bought four (sitting, with the rest of the Les Caves booty, in my parents’ basement for the time being). “Well,” he said, pointing to one of his wines, “if you like that, you simply must try this.” The wine he was pointing to was called Il Fait Soif, leaving the possibility that he thought I simply liked wines with the word soif in the title. “Oh, and this. And you’d probably enjoy that.” Neither of the last two wines had the word soif in the title.

And so it was that on my second shop review I abandoned the randomiser and just bought everything he pointed at.

Il Fait Soif 2008

Reduced to 10 Euros from a little under 14 because they want to move on to the latest vintage, this is made by Maxime-Francois Laurent, who also works with his mother at Domaine Gramenon. In America it costs $30 and is sold as one of the finest Cotes du Rhone on the market. I’ve struggled to find out much about it – the label is singularly unhelpful, there’s no rear label at all and Maxime-Francois doesn’t seem to have much of an online presence, but it appears to be “un cuvee de grenache”. It’s really excellent for the (my) price – very leathery odour, but quite a complex array of berry flavours and an incredibly peppery aftertaste. Really very peppery indeed. Excellent late-summer sit-outside-with-your-feet-up wine.

Babiole 2008

Andrea Calek is so devoted to his vines that he sleeps in a caravan in the middle of his vineyards. No sulfur at all in this blend of 40% syrah, 40% carignon and 20% grenache. A faulty bottle, methinks: I wasn’t too put off by the slight efervescence on the tongue, but the overpowering aroma (and flavour) was of pickled onion. I don’t like eating pickled onions, and I certainly don’t want to drink them. Perhaps this is why everyone else uses sulphur. (EDIT: When I told him this on my next visit, he gave me another bottle, which was much better but just not as vibrant and action-packed as the other two)

Domaine Jean David Seguret

Another hit. 71% grenache, 8% mourvedre, 6% syrah, 6% carignan, 4% counoise and 5% cinsaut. Cuvee Beau Nez, it’s called. Quite wild aromas (and with the wine glasses I’ve got at this rented villa it’s amazing it can smell of anything) of bramble and menthol and leather and tar. Amazingly vibrant fruity palate, really juicy. Again, not a jot of sulphur, but a better advert for the practise than the last.

Design: 4/5
Service: 5/5
Free tasters: 0/5 (there was a moment in our conversation when I waved at a wall said, “I don’t know any of these wines”, and he said, “Well, you need to taste them.” I got excited, thinking he was about to crack open a few for my entertainment and instruction, but it turned out he expected me to actually buy them first. Not unreasonable, really, but mildly disappointing in the circumstances)
Recommendations: 4/5
(incidentally, if you happen to be in this part of the world, I can recommend a small, obscure, out-of-the-way, crammed-with-locals bistro called Chez Jules in Puimichel for blindingly cheap delicious food)

The World Cup (Part One)

Although my children are sleeping like angels, I seem to be getting very little blogging time. My evenings are filled with eating, drinking, washing up, tidying up, watching my wife wash up, and by the time I get upstairs and turn on the computer it’s time to go to bed. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m about to write something that I should have written days ago.

The latest Bibendum bloggers’ evening last Thursday (last Thursday!), then. They’ve previously had us round to drink Italian wine, and Australian, and Champagnes. This, however, was the first round of their World Cup. A spurious concept, this, whereby they pick a few competing nations which make decent wine, pick a few of their wines, and then ask us to judge which is best.

Nothing that we decide should be taken at all seriously. Chile, for example, makes a lot of excellent wine, but we got served an unlovely chardonnay and a downright unpleasant Valdivieso cabernet franc with a combined value of under £19 (the Valdivieso, at £11.26, offers spectacularly bad value for money). It wouldn’t have taken much to beat that, but they happened to be up against an Italian chardonnay/pinot grigio – not mind-blowing, but interesting, integrated – and a mini super Tuscan, Ceppaiano “Violetta”, that was really good. Combined value: just under £29. An unfair fight, and Chile were dumped at the quarter-final stage.

Fighting the Ceppaiano for man-of-the-match awards was the Els Pyreneus, Les Hauts de l’Agly, Cotes du Roussillon Villages, which made up for the outrageous length of its name by being totally ace and, at £10, super duper value. As the Wine Gang said, a “stunning wine of impeccable balance”. With that on their side France could hardly lose, and the USA, with a Loredona pinot grigio proving profoundly, deeply average, had no chance despite a quite impressive Marmesa Syrah (the people whose pinot noir I liked at the Bibendum annual tasting).

In other results, South Africa beat Argentina and the game between Australia and Spain was so close by my scores that I can’t work out who won.

As a competition, Bibendum’s vinous World Cup is hopelessly flawed. As an artificial construct intended entirely to get people in a room together with some glasses and some wines, it was a scorcher.

Chateau La Dournie Saint-Chinian 2007

Now, since we last met I’ve discovered cellartracker. This has left my poor blog with a bit of an identity crisis, there now being somewhere better to keep my tasting notes, such as they are. What is it now for? Stuff about wine that isn’t tasting notes, then. Interesting. I’m going to have to do some thinking about this one, at the end of which this blog will, I’d have thought, be either much better for a casual reader, or dead.

In the meantime, tonight I’m drinking a really delicious bargain French red, something though would make whoever puts the Society’s Full French Red together feel a little embarrassed, I’d have thought. Of course most of the country wouldn’t class a £6.99 wine as a bargain, but damn if it isn’t worth it and more. It’s a wine with intelligence, I’d say. Spicy, peppery, mouthwatering, smooth but by no means dull. Bought after a couple of recommendations on the winepages message boards, the first such wine and certainly not the last, I’d wager.

Les Caves, and much more

Vincent Girardin Rully Vielles Vignes 2006Last Friday I visited a wine merchant I’d read a lot about: Les Caves de Pyrene, in Guildford. My trip coincided (not, to be honest, much of a coincidence) with their annual bin end sale, and didn’t disappoint. They had lots of mad stuff, some wines that stank and tasted awful, others that stank and tasted great, lots of excellent discounts, and plenty of things I’d never heard of. I bought a pretty random dozen, Gilad (who came with me), an even more random 19 bottles. We got there two hours into a two-day sale, and they were already selling out of stuff – including, sadly, the handful of bottles of Bierzo (see below, somewhere) that I’d enjoyed at the Modern Pantry.

We didn’t have a lot of time to spend there, because we had lunch booked at Drake’s, a nearby restaurant with a £25 meal deal and one Michelin star. The meal was fine, not wildly exceptional and a bit over-fussy, to my mind. I’d have preferred another hour in the wine shop.

Then a horrific, three-hour journey through evil traffic and, by way of reward, a delicious white Burgundy – not from Les Caves – that showed how good chardonnay can be. Much, much more enjoyable than the flinty, austere new world style of my last bottle of chardonnay, from Maycas del Limari (who haven’t been a great hit with me all round), though at about £14 it’s also 50% more expensive and waaay too much to become a regular chez moi.