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Gigondas and Vacqueyras
As I’ve said elsewhere, Provence is the only place I’ve ever felt homesick for apart from home itself. In June 1998 Pat and I went back to the Vaucluse - a trip that provided a much-needed ’fix’ for my homesickness and a welcome chance to replenish the cellar from no less than six producers.
A glimpse of Les Dentelles from the Terrace at Les Florets
Each of our tulip-shaped glasses could easily have acommodated over half a bottle of wine, but the beaming Monsieur Bernard poured no more than an inch of the 1993 Gigondas into each. The reason - for the beam and the small portion - became obvious as we swirled the wine around the swollen bellies of our glasses, dipped our noses into their narrow tops and inhaled. The vast air-space above the wine was full of a dense and complex aroma, the high-notes of which transported me straight to Jilly Goolden country.
Apart from various fruits, I rarely find clear echoes of anything but wine when I do this. I don’t have a problem with that - after all, wine is what I’m drinking. But, once or twice, I have detected vivid traces of unexpected things like liquorice and leather in the big reds of the Southern Rhône. Today was one of those occasions. It was leather again - fine, old leather - but this time with an unmistakable overtone of the very best shoe polish.
Pat and I tried to suppress our delighted giggles and maintain a dignity appropriate to such a fine wine. We failed, but Monsieur Bernard didn’t seem to mind.
Finally we sipped, drawing in as much air as possible with the wine and exhaling gently down our noses as we irrigated our tastebuds. The velvety smoothness, the mellow richness and the sheer complexity of the wine spread even bigger grins across our faces. And, seeing this, a touch of smugness was added to Monsieur Bernard’s own broad smile.
I have occasionally drunk wines from the great houses of Bordeaux and Burgundy - wines from what I was told were good years - but to my admittedly untutored palate few have surpassed this majestic Gigondas. Worse, many of the ’big name’ wines I’ve drunk didn’t even come close. Yet the hotel’s Carte des Vins listed the ’93 Gigondas at a mere 125 francs for a full bottle, and our half-litre had cost just 95. I later calculated that, bought direct from its source, the Domaine la Garrigue, it would have been a spectacular bargain at under a fiver a bottle. Sadly, the hotel had bagged the last bottles.
Un bon apéritif
Maxim Bernard, a colleague and Pierre Bernard tasting with two potential customers
We had started the day with the same Monsieur Pierre Bernard at the Domaine la Garrigue itself. Les Florets and La Garrigue are both owned and managed by the Bernard family, so it comes as no surprise that La Garrigue wines dominate the hotel’s winelist - in all but one section.
The exception is the Gigondas appellation. Six of the 39 Gigondas wines (all Gigondas is red) are from la Garrigue. Of the rest, 30 are from no less than 29 different individual producers and three from Gigondas’s cave co-operative.
This happy marriage of two family businesses gives the roving wine-lover a rare opportunity - to taste a range of wines at the domaine, experience one or two in the context of an excellent meal on the hotel’s beautiful terrace and then go back to the domaine to buy at extraordinarily low prices, even in bottle.
The domaine is a short drive from the neighbouring - and equally famous - wine village of Vacqueyras. It is every inch a working farm, and makes few concessions to the visitor. Unlike many caves de dégustation, which set out to seduce the taster to their less impressive wines with more bar-like surroundings, La Garrigue’s is a plain, businesslike room. The rest of the operation, which M Bernard spent an hour showing us with great pride, is even more businesslike.
Les Dentelles seen with the La Garrigue vines in the foreground
The 70 hectares (nearly 175 acres) of vines are divided between three properties, each with its own distinct soil. The Provençal word garrigue means ’waste land’, but the vineyards are well cared-for. On the high ground - le plateau des garrigues - the vines grow in pebbles, with no visible soil. These serve a valuable purpose in retaining the heat they soak up during the searing summer days through the night and in keeping the subsoil moist. Others grow in a chalky clay soil and a red, stony one. None of these look remotely hospitable, but the rugged vines, which have very long roots, obviously thrive on them, producing grapes of quite different characters which are blended with great skill to balance the finished wines.
The wines are made in the traditional way, fermented and matured not in stainless steel or oak but in huge cuves made of concrete and sealed with a special wine-friendly paint.
Again and again when talking to the winemakers of the Vaucluse, we heard phrases like ’pride in tradition’and ’love of the land’, and were told that if your priority was to make money, you wouldn’t make wine - not in the Vaucluse, anyway. This is certainly borne out by the low prices of these exceptional wines, at least when you buy them at the domaine. Life is all about striving for improvement within the constraints of an ancient tradition - and those of the French appelation contrôlée system.
In the Bernards’ case, this means a family tradition as well as the wider one of winemaking in the area. Pierre, his brother Maxim and his sister Martine are the fifth generation of Bernards to manage the domaine, which was acquired by their family around 1800, and the sixth generation is already committed to maintaining continuity - something else that all the growers care deeply about. They head a team that varies from 10 to 12 people depending on the season, producing an amazing 300,000 litres (400,000 bottles) of wine each year.
La Garrigue’s price-list currently offers two 1995 Côtes du Rhône reds, which have won silver and gold medals at Macon and a 1995 Côtes du Rhône rosé. The Vacqueyras appellation is represented by no less than seven reds dating from 1991 to 1995, including medal-winners at both Avignon and Orange, a 1995 rosé and a 1997 white. Finally, there is just one Gigondas, the 1995, winner of a gold medal at Orange and the current equivalent of the majestic 1993 we were to drink at Les Florets.
Prices range from the basic rosé at 28 francs a bottle to the Gigondas at a modest 45.
The wines sold en vrac are different from those sold in bottles. The 1996 vin de consommation courante (VCC) - wine for immediate consumption) - is sold for a ludicrous seven francs a litre. This is the second cheapest wine I have ever bought in bulk, equivalent to 55p a bottle at 9½ francs to the pound. With a respectable12% alcohol content, it is a sound, balanced and eminently quaffable everyday wine - a real winner for the bargain-hunter.
The more up-market bulk wines - all simply designated Supérieur - are an excellent rosé at 13.5% and 14 francs a litre (£1.10 a bottle), a serious 13% red at 12 francs a litre (95p a bottle) and an even more serious one at an awesome 14% alcohol for 16 francs a litre (£1.26 a bottle). The reds, after three months in bottle back in Derby, are truly impressive. They have definite echoes of the Gigondas- full, rich, fruity and velvet-smooth, with more than a hint of leather. You have to buy the Gigondas itself to get the polish, though.
We tasted seven wines in all at the domaine. As I said in an earlier article, the winemakers of the Vaucluse pour generous ’tastes’, so we were reduced to pouring some away. As I said before we departed for lunch, ’C’est un bon apéritif, ça!’
The main event
Our table on the terrace at Les Florets
Driving cautiously, we beat M Bernard to Les Florets by a short head and were shown to our table by his son Thierry.
There must be many more wonderful places to eat lunch than the terrace of Les Florets on a searingly hot afternoon at the end of June, when the leaves of the old plane trees that shade you are still fresh and sappy green and the flowers in the tubs surround you with brilliant colour. And I know that there are restaurants that serve more impressive food. But the combination of the two, with the marvellous wines, is just too good to miss - as is the warm welcome extended to all by Pierre Bernard, his son, their wives and the various other family members who make up most of the hotel’s staff.
We had read in the domaine’s price-list about le Myro - a local variant of the popular Kir but made with powerful Provençal rosé and crème de myrtilles (bilberry liqueur). Living dangerously, we tried this as a second - or eighth - aperitif. It tasted very strong, and its bilberry flavour was absolutely delicious with the amuse-bouches that preceded our meal.
The pricing structure aux Florets is refreshingly simple. You choose from a carte of eight starters, six main courses and seven desserts. A main course and dessert cost 100 francs (lunchtime only, Sundays excepted). A starter, a main course, cheese and a dessert cost 175 francs and, for the seriously hungry, the same with two starters is 230 francs. For those wishing to taste local specialities, there is the Menu du Terroir - Gratin de Brandade (salt cod), Crépinette Provençale aux herbes (a local sausage wrapped in pig’s caul) and the classic Nougat glacé (ice cream made with toasted almonds and honey to echo the sweet speciality of nearby Montélimar), all for 120 francs.
Considering the quality of the food and the setting, these prices are very low indeed. We opted for the 175-franc menu.
Somehow we were induced to balance our chosen red wine with half a bottle of 1996 Vacqueyras white, cool and crisp yet authoritative and the perfect partner for Patricia’s Minute de saumon frais, fine huile d’olive, salade de lentilles (cold, lightly-cooked salmon dressed with olive oil, with a salad of lentils) and my Cocquillages sur gateau d’épinards et petits croutons à l’ail safranés (shellfish on a bed of spinach, with tiny garlic saffron-flavoured croutons).
By the time we were ready for the Gigondas, Pierre Bernard had arrived - transformed from smart-but-practical vigneron to immaculate maître d’hôtel - to dispense it. It perfectly complemented both Patricia’s Agneau poëlé sur flan de courgettes, crème d’ail (pan-fried lamb served on a bed of courgettes with a garlic cream sauce) and my Rable de lapereau au caramelisé d’oignons et pommes douces (saddle of rabbit with onion jam and sweet apples), as well as the choice of local cheeses that followed them.
In my first article, I mentioned the vins doux naturels produced at the Domaine la Soumade in neighbouring Rasteau. Small glasses of one of these sweet but well-balanced wines appeared to help us with our desserts: Assiette de sorbet aux fruits frais (sorbet with fresh fruits) for Patricia, who is a lot smaller than I am, and the traditional Nougat glacé for me.
We fended off the digestifs (although I would have loved to try a Marc de Gigondas (brandy made from the pulp after the grapes have been pressed), settling for tiny, powerful espressos to end this memorable meal among the trees and flowers of Les Florets.
Lunch doesn’t get much better than this. If you are ever in the area on a warm, sunny day, I urge you to head for Gigondas and follow the signs to the Dentelles de Montmirail and Les Florets, which nestles partway up these delightful miniature limestone mountains.
Collecting the spoils
Our friend Jeff, in whose house we were staying, claims that the Vaucluse police never breathalyse British drivers because they are embarrassed by their own inability to speak English - an implausibe idea, but I decided to gamble and coaxed the car gingerly back to Vacqueyras.
We stopped briefly at the Domaine le Couroulu (’the curlew’) in the centre of the village, where Monsieur Ricard filled a new 10-litre container with his 13% 1996 Vacqueyras red for a total of 175 francs (less than £1.40 a bottle). Then we returned to La Garrigue to pick up our wine: 10 litres each of rosé, VCC, 13% red and 14% red (enough to fill 53 bottles) and three bottles of the ’95 Gigondas, for a total of 562.55 francs - an average of £1.11 a bottle, including the posh stuff!
After unloading all this into the shade of Jeff’s and Anne’s garage, we had just enough energy left to change and fall into their beautiful new pool and wait for the sun to set before considering a little light supper...
Personal site for Paul Marsden: frustrated writer; experimental cook and all-round foodie; amateur wine-importer; former copywriter and press-officer; former teacher, teacher-trainer, educational software developer and documenter; still a professional web-developer but mostly retired.
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