Avignon (P1): Popes, Palaces, YMCAs, And Wine from Visan?

123 days into our EU Austerity Drinking Tour takes us to the heart (or at least funny hat) of the Rhône Valley: Avignon: home to Popes and Châteauneuf-du-Pape: arguably France’s biggest red wine.  We leave a very Roman Nîmes and a very horrible, horrible hotel (so horrid it was our last hotel for the next three months).

EU map New York to Avignon Day 123In Avignon, we get lost three times hunting for the bus. We give up, grab quiches, and hoof it with our luggage across town.  The YMCA awaits.  It looks empty. We expect little, check in, then discover this:

We audio tour the broken bridge with its own rock-hefting saint: Pont Saint-Bénezet:

Aaron Avignon BridgeThis triumphal papish gateway feeds us into the castle-walled, palace of the popes.

avignon palace of the popesGame of Thrones looks like a cheap video game.  We dig deeper through bare halls, finding massive stone bread ovens, underground gold hordes, and empty dining halls.  But the real gem that survived the French Revolution is the papal private chamber:

Avignon Papal Private ChamberFresco: an art forgotten since Roman antiquity struggled back into glorious, technicolor, medieval magnificence in the small rooms where Popes napped.  Stilted, Monte Python scenes of fishing and rabbit hunts survive.

After a few massive chapels we clamber to the turreted roof-top:

After, we discover the gift shop.  Thanks to museum subsidizing, regional wine prices are quite good, so we grab a bottle for the evening.   Back outside, Avignon becomes a perpetual, golden sunset. Ancient Alley AvignonWe weave along ancient alleys, hike to a park on a hill (with its own vineyard), and watch the sun finally dip into the distant Mediterranean.

Sunset AvignonBut what about that wine?

Back at the YMCA we open: Domaine la Florane, Terre Pourpre, Visan Côtes du Rhône Villages, France, 2009. €11.90

La Foraine Terre PoupreThis “Purple Earth” comes from a Rhône village AOC called Visan: an ancient enclave that Avignon’s Popes fought to control to get its wine not too far upriver.

Appearance:  A strong, deep ruby with a short shave of a clear rim, and extra thick legs.

Aromas: Young, medium aromas of black cherry, fig, violet, and custard (yes custard) don’t overpower.

Palate: A dry, moderately acidic, but notably tannic structure carries an average alcohol of 14% and a plump, medium plus body.

Flavors: Strong red and black cherry, fig, light cigar: all these finish with a lovely hazelnut that lasts quite a while.

Conclusions: Florane’s Terre Pourpre provides very balanced structural elements that allow loads of fruit to come forth. It is very good (4 of 5).  Not big enough for red meat roasts, but grilled chicken and medium cheeses are fine.   It’s definitely worth stepping up from a basic Côtes du Rhône to the Visan Village level.  I can see why Popes fought for the land.

Next Monday continues our visit to Avignon with, of course, a proper Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

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Thirsty Thursday: Barbera, Mazzoni, Piemonte, Italy 2009

Summer has hit us. Red wine is the last thing I want to drink. Beer would fare better.  But something needs to drown out the AC on eco-mode.  This Thirsty Thursday turns to that old favorite: Barbera.

Italy’s third most-planted red grape, this prolific paragon of the Piedmontese people has filled many glasses, regions, and styles (including a scandal of added methanol or “coloring” nebbiolo with it).

Mazzoni is the pet project of the Franceschi (Tuscan vintners) and the Terlato (American importers) families. Neither comes from the Piedmonte, but they sourced grapes to their facility in Tuscany for today’s wine.  The vintage is 2009.

MazzoniBarbera2009Appearance: It looks clear, garnet-colored, but awfully dark and short-rimmed.

Aromas: Very pure, almost distilled, moderate aromas of candied black cherry -like Red Jolly Ranchers- blood orange, dried rose petals, and a bit of burnt campfire wood play about.

Palate: This feels dry but fruity.  Acids are bright: tightening the palate like a shiny wrench.  Tannins are mild.  Alcohol is mildly medium.  The body hovers below medium.  The texture is equally silken.

Flavors: Bouncy yet brooding flavors jostle between tart blood orange and raspberry to dried cherry and raisin (likely, multiple sites or passes).  Then a thin knife of hand-whittled, dry ceder wood slices the fruit.  The length unexpectedly lasts a medium plus length.

Conclusions: Mazzoni’s Barbera demands little.  It may be a bit confected and lack a rustic origin myth, but its completely quaffable alone, even in the heat of summer.  The lack of tannins and mouth-dripping acidity accomplish this.  If your eating tomato-based anything, mild cheeses, beet salad, or simply grilled chicken, pork, or Quorn (yes, I went there), it will work them.  Well done (3 of 5) and under $15.


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Thirsty Thursday: Saké: Harushika Junmai Daiginjo, Nara, Japan

I know near to nothing about saké. I never review it. But secretly, this wine geek loves it. Every time I drink it, regardless of quality, it fascinates.

Saké is not beer, but it is brewed grains. Saké is not wine, but alcohols also average in the tweens. Truly, any comparisons fall apart. For saké is uniquely Japanese: like Kimonos, matcha green tea, or Godzilla…taking a tea (?) break between destroying cities:

Godzilla Sake breakAt sake’s core is rice, water, and a combo attack of mold and yeast. After different polishing levels have removed outer proteins, oils, and nasty congeners, the starchy core rests, then gets steeped, followed by a dual ferment with mold (Aspergillus oryzae) and yeast (wine’s old friend: Saccharomyces cerevisiae).  Things get increasingly complicated: fancy saké ferments cool, volume is expanded with staggered additions of water and rice, carbon filtering, multiple pasturizations, a rest, final watering down to 15%, and aging….and breath.

This Thirsty Thursday’s saké comes from the Nara Prefecture:

japan_travel_nara_lpJust South of Kyoto, Nara is home to famed Shinto and Buddhist temples, and adorable, adorable, (somewhat vagrant) deer:

Nara adorable deerAppropriately, today’s saké, Harushika, translates into Spring Deer (founded in 1884). This is its Daiginjo grade, the highest level, which means 50% of the grain has been polished away, leaving only the sexy, starchy core behind.

Sake Harushika Junmai Daiginjo Nara JapanAppearance: It looks glass-clear and colorless.

Aromas: Complexity is an overused word, but not here. Light honey, lychee, and melon aromas play off bold fennel, aniseed, and caramel.

Palate: Perfectly synced medium sweetness lines up with refreshing acidity, coupled with an intense, eye-widening, palate seeking, clean alcohol that fills and warms the palate. The body feels medium plus. The texture is creamy.

Flavors: all-encompassing lychee, white honey, marzipan, sweet rice, rose petals.  Insanely complex, long, yet not overpowering.

Conclusions: Indirectly, Harushika’s Daiginjo reminds me of a fantastic Hefeweizen or Gewurztraminer: equally refreshing as it is showy and demanding.  Its quality, in my uneducated opinion, is outstanding (5 of 5).  So is the price: starting at $55.  But perfection has no price.


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Temples, Towers, Beaujolais? And Duché D’Uzes a New AOC: Nîmes, France (P2)

Part 2, Day 121, continues our visit to Nîmes: birthplace of denim (get it, de Nîmes).  After last post’s Roman arenas and temples, we hike to the park.  Amidst Fall’s colors, fountains, and walkways rests the Temple to Diana:

Diana Temple NimesThe ruin still feels lifted, intricate, delicate: much like the following wine.  Although this is Southern France, it is November, and we buy the one wine that matters: Beaujolais Nouveau

Terra Iconia Beaujolais NouveauFrom Vignerons des Pierres Dorées, this 2012 “Terra Iconia” of Gamay Noir costs a mere and magical €6 at Nîmes’ covered market.

It looks a clear mild purple with a clear rim. Aromas present red apple, pink bubblegum, and clove. The palate is aptly dry, with 2012′s higher acid, forgotten tannins, average alcohol, and a delightfully lighter body.  Flavors follow type, with red apple, pink bubblegum (like at Halloween) throughout and a clove finish.

What surprises is Terra Iconia’s medium plus length. This ratchets this otherwise frivolous wine to good quality (3 of 5).  It has the character of the Temple to Diana: pleasing, light, it doesn’t belong here yet works.  It also fuses unexpectedly with the local Romarin cheese.

Romarin Cheese closeupAfter Diana’s Temple, we climb narrow paths to the Roman Tower, built around 12 BC, which overlooks all of Nîmes:

Nimes Roman TowerRumors developed around its hidden treasure, so by the last century only its core remained. However, this phallus of Roman imperium provides a fantastic view:

On our way back to modernity, we sight a mythic red squirrel of destiny (we had read of these, and for the last 121 days hunted Europe but never saw them).

Red Squirrel NimesNo, I won’t compare it to a wine (not yet).

We wrap around the city, past the Roman waterworks, and reach the museum.  Aside from riding the city mascot crocodile…

Tracy Ride Crocodile Nimes…we discover ancient Roman vine cutters!!!

Ancient Roman Vine Cutters NimesOk…sure, they look like sad lumps of disappointment. But two millenia ago, these trimmed shoots, cut leafs, and lopped grapes from vines.  The resultant ancient wine founded what we make today.  Maybe one carved into a grave marker might help visualize it:

Roman Vine Cutter GraveThat hook would lop off clusters.  Even brother Vallo here and his humble work mattered enough to be memorialized.

But how does the region’s wine taste today? Above Nîmes sits the newly minted region: Duché D’Uzes AOC. 

Duche D Uzes Map We hold to the strictures of our EU Austerity Drinking Tour and grab a $9 red called “Orénia”.  2011′s Syrah and Grenache from Coteaux Cévenois were blended by Philippe Nusswitz, Master French Somm.

An inky ruby purple runs to the rim.  Aromas converse in raspberry, blackberry, white pepper, and a mild dash of vanilla.  The palate is dry.  Adequate acid keeps it fresh. Tannins register mildly. Alcohol is a fine 13.5% as is the medium body.  Approachable flavors of mainly raspberry and a bit of blackberry are followed by herb de provence, vanilla, and a chalk dust finish of medium length.

Orénia is soft, fruity, with dusty but easy tannins.  It is neither Provence’s pinks nor the Languedoc’s or Rhône’s robust reds, but a region betwixt them all.  The style is modern, approachable alone but will hold up to most Mediterranean dinner fair.  A solid good (3 of 5).

We leave Nîmes happy. The city mixes modern and ancient beautifully. The Amphitheater bulls are adora-bull!

Adora Bulls Amphitheater

The grand boulevards slice town with their sand-colored apartments until a perfectly preserved Roman ruin halts them.  Aside from getting no sleep in our dive hotel, getting lost here was delightful. The wines of the region present fantastic value and the food tastes brilliant.

But next Monday will find our EU Austerity Drinking Tour in the heart of the Rhône.  See you then.

Roman Temple Nimes


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Wine for July 4th: Qupé Syrah, Central Coast, California 2011

US Soccer may have lost, albeit heroically, to Belgium (a country about the size of Maryland) in the Fifa World Cup 2014 knockout stages.

axel witsel usa belgium 2014 world-cup

Rubbing it in.

But crying is un-American. We have the explosive bombast of July 4th to distract ourselves with this Friday.  Better yet, we can watch France lose to Germany.  So dab those (non-existent) tears with the flag.  Fire up that meat-annihilating grill.  And grab a bottle of American wine.

Qupé, Syrah, Central Coast, California 2011

In 1982, Bob Lindquist went indie, after having helped Zaca Mesa and Jim Clendenen found the Rhône Ranger revolution.  While the rest of California was fixated on Chardonnay and Cabernet, Bob started sourcing Syrah from Santa Barbara. Thirty years on Bob still makes this wine from there (with 25% from Edna Valley).

Qupe Syrah Central Coast 2011What does this history translate into:

Appearance: Clear but densely intense purple color is framed by a narrow, clear ruby edge. Thick veil-like legs cover the glass.

Aromas: Monumental, patriotic, boysenberry jam get clamped down by blackened firewood, fennel, nutmeg, and a light dust of vanilla powder. Something savory also lurks here…

Palate: It is dry, with mild acids and tannins, a nice lump of alcoholic heat that makes for a somehow balanced, plump medium body.  The texture seems light yet velvety.

Flavors: Again, dominate flavors are ripe and dried Boysenberry (that most American of crossings).  The smoke and oak step back to let this happen.  Yet something savory and soft vies for attention, like white wood, or, dare I say it white meat akin to roasted pork.  The length is medium plus.

Conclusions: Bob’s 2011 Syrah is Very Good (4 of 5). It nods to Southern France with Syrah, but is firmly American in its ripe, spiced, pleasant, yet funky style.  It will meld beautifully with hot dogs, burgers, barbeque, or just own you alone.  Drink it now, for he won’t be at the helm forever.

Happy 4th!

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