Facing Physical Challenges, Our Food and Wine Critic, Fly-on-the-Wall Don Merlot, is About to Embark on a Wine Tour that Might be His 'Last Tango in France.'
WritersClearinghouse News Service
In January 2015 I am taking a trip that will be 'My last Tango in France' because it is too difficult for me to travel and it is summing up my love affair with French wines. Originally I planned my visit for April of 2014 but I had the misfortune of slipping on some wet tile in my bathroom when our hot water heater blew off the water line in February, and I developed a bad case of bursitis in the right hip. It became very painful to move, sit up and or walk. The pain was so bad that I could not find a non-narcotic pain killer.
Finally my doctor sent me to a specialist, who was coming to the conclusion that if physical therapy did not work, I should schedule a hip replacement. So for six weeks I did physical therapy. Exercised that hip every day and by the end of the therapy, I had really improved and I felt ninety-five percent recovered, so initially I postponed my travel plans and then rescheduled my travel to January 2015.
When I rebooked the ticket, I changed travel destinations. Instead of going to Paris, and travel on TGV to Lyon where my Dijon-based host would pick me up, (It was the walking and travel that I feared might hurt my hip again.) Friends in Geneva said I should go to Geneva instead of Paris as it is two hours away by car to Dijon. So the plans are made: Geneva to Dijon and environs. My Dijon friends had really made a wonderful program for me, but I really could not move well. There were previously-scheduled visits to vineyards in Burgundy that I looked forward to visit again. One of my favorite wines was Clos des Lambrays in Morey St. Denis and I was to get a special treat, but that was not to be.
My Geneva host has asked me to put together a trip that would include visits in France from Geneva. He also suggested that we visit Switzerland. I bought a ticket for my wife Denise, and so we will both go and make it our last travel hurrah.
Denise and I have spent a lot of time in Burgundy and were exposed to the Burgundian tradition when I joined the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin in Nuits St. Georges in France in 2002.
As I write the French side trips down, I have concluded that I want to see the Rhone valley. In all my exploration of the history of wine, I really have not devoted a lot of time to studying these (red) wines; a neighbor, but they are not Burgundy of the Cote d’Or.
When I started my personal wine quest, the paradigm was to compare Bordeaux and Burgundy because in a traditional sense that was what the study of oenology demanded back in the 1960s, but I knew already and was swayed to Burgundy (the Cote d’Or). The hidden less-known secrets of the Rhone reds have never popped up because these wines were not popular in that period of time in wine haute cuisine kitchens and on wine cellar lists of France, England, Germany, Italy, or Spain.
Admitting that I did not appreciate the Rhone grapes until I met the Australian version of Shiraz in the late 1970’s made me study Rhone wines. Soon I found out that Shiraz and the Syrah; were genetically the same DNA, but the Southern Rhone does not use Syrah and it uses Grenache. To learn more about these wines, I had to explore my Rhone affair with Chateauneuf Du Pape. Chicago was nine miles away from my former Michigan home, and the wines available there were generic labels such as B&G (Barton and Gustier) and that is how I found my love for Chateauneuf Du Pape. Many generic labels were available in the 70s.
My colleagues introduced this wine to me when we had bouef fondue. In Switzerland (where they were based) they had Swiss Dole, which is a Pinot Noir varietal, but not commonly available in Michigan, so the wine match became Chateauneuf Du Pape with fondue. It became a wine I liked and looked for it when I traveled. I also covered the Caribbean and Latin America where French and European wines were hard to find but there always was a Swiss restaurant in the major capitals, and there was a Chateauneuf Du Pape to match the bouef fondue.
In the 70s, the preference for wine with a meal was a major consideration in the world’s top markets. So I kept up with my markets’ wines and kept Rhone in the back of my mind.
I remember the old saying about knowing a country and culture: If I visited Paris for two weeks I could come back and write a book. If I visited Paris for two months I could come back and write ten pages and if I visited Paris for two years I would come back and not be able to write a thing, because complete knowledge is contradictory and nothing is 100 percent.
That is where I was on wine. In France I was stuck on Burgundy or Bordeaux Reds.
Here I found out that the wine is a blend of varietals. So Rhone is like Medoc and Burgundy: Single varietal or blends. French wines become very complicated. Needless to say there are other French wines such as the Loire; Alsace the old VDSQ wines that French say will rival the German whites and Spanish and Italian reds.
My target in January will be to visit the Rhone area, so I have dusted off my wine and French travel books. Searching for food and wine is intriguing in Lyon, which is the capital of French gourmet restaurants; and is famous as well for Bresse Chicken ( famous cheese, Bleu de Bresse), and high quality Charolais beef.
One of the most majestic panoramas of the French wine culture is to gaze out from Chateau Grillet & Condrieu to experience the flow of nature, wine and food, to have a lunch overlooking the famous Rhone River that flowed out of Switzerland and joined the Soane in Lyon and came down to Vienne and sit in a restaurant and see the fields of Chateau Grillet and Condrieu. The famous wines here are white from the Viognier varietal.
Vienne is twenty miles south of Lyon and is a famous and rich in history. Among the elite restaurants in and around Lyon are the excellent famous restaurants from after World War II, La Pyramide in Vienne established by Ferdinand Point and Paul Bocuse an understudy who later in the 70s opened his restaurant in Collogne (Rhone). He became the most famous French chef in the late 20th century.
The culinary tradition of La Pyramide owned by the Fernand Point was the zenith of culinary experience. The restaurant and hotel became famous for its gastronomic delights. Bocuse followed, Lyon long, known for its gastronomy, rose to the top.
The wine culture in France is famous from Bordeaux and Burgundy and to this Rhone Valley. The red grapes (varietals) are different in all three and trace their origins to the Greeks and later the Romans. Bordeaux has the Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot as primary red varietals; Burgundy has the Pinot Noir in the Cote d’Or and has Gamay in Beaujolais, and Rhone has most reds in the Northern section that use the Syrah, and the Southern Area uses the Grenache. Some areas blend their wine and the Chateauneuf du Pape is famous for using a blend of varietals.
The Northern Rhone vineyards start as one leaves Vienne. But when one starts the trek into the Rhone vineyards. Once leaving Vienne, we find ourselves in the vineyards of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet These use only the white Viognier varietal. There is magic in this area. Chateau Grillet is the most famous white wine and expensive real estate in this area. Its production is so limited that young new millionaires will not be able to taste it until the older followers pass on. Condrieu has much fame too.
The Syrah is renowned in the names of Cornas, Hermitage (sometimes written as Ermitage). This red varietal has a historical legend and lore. A Crusader Gaspar de Sterimberg found himself in Provence, the center of French Christendom. He brought with him a few cuttings of wines from his travels in the Holy Lands. He looked for a hill where he could ride out his life. He dubbed some Roman ruins on top of this hill his Hermitage. Over the years as the vineyards developed the Hermitage wines were the best of the North Rhone wines. These wines are described as very manly wines. The best France has to offer. The Cote Rôtie is known because as it name the wines are roasted hence the name. Following south is St. Joseph and St. Péray.
There is a center Rhône valley and AOC wines include Chatillon-en-Diois;Clairette de Die, Coteaux du Tricastin.
Moving down South the Regions are famous Chateauneuf Du Pape, Gigondas which are made with the Grenache Noir (eighty percent) and can be blended with the Syrah. The central and Southern Rhone wines use the Grenache and are blended with other varietals. The Chateauneuf Du Pape is originated near Avignon. The red wines are blended. It was created and named during the period when the Roman Catholic Church was centered in Avignon and the Pope extended his power from there. The new house of the Pope. AOC include Tavel, Vacqueyras, Cote du Rhône Villages, Cairanne, Chusclan, Laudun, Rasteau, Roaix, Rochegude, Rouset, Sablet, Saint Gervais, Saint Maurice-sur-Eygues, St. Panteléon-les vignes, Séguret, Valréas, Vinsobres,Visan, Cote du Ventoux, Cote du Lubéron. There are also some VDQS.
The white wines from the Rhone valley are very much in demand also. The Northern Rhone White is Viognier at the top of the list. Also found in the Rhone valley are the rosés of Tavel, the sweet wines of Baumes de Venise made from the Muscat varietal. This is prized in France as dessert wine.
So the targets become food and legendary wines. I was hoping to make a three day trips back and forth and use Geneva as a base, but do not know if that is practical. I know the famous restaurants of Bocuse and Point are achievable (but we will not go there to eat) and hopefully that included a walk through Lyon and Vienne. As a history nut I find Vienne fascinating because I read that is where Pontius Pilate ended up. Between Emperors Tiberius and Caligula he did not fare well after the crucifixion of Christ. His last post before his death was Vienne.
I wanted to add that in reading the food and wine magazines I have also come across some excellent movie documentaries. There has been a huge paradigm shift in food and wine. If you want to be up to date on wine, I recommend the movie SOMM. It is a heavy path to become a Master Sommelier. A Year in Burgundy gives the viewer a current perspective of Burgundy wine its leaders and its direction. And Red Obsession which talks about the role China will have on fine wine availability. My personal recognition is that I will never catch up and I am falling behind. As we used to say, I am falling behind the eight ball.
(Don Merlot is otherwise known as Ron Alonzo).