Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Touring the Rhône Valley While Cleaning the Farm

It seemed that winter here in Kentucky switched directly to summer,  bypassing spring, if I consider the sudden heat, time to write has become few and far between the house and farm work. The house is now in such a condition that it is livable to our standards after the repairs, alterations, cleanup and paintwork. Now that the seasons have changed it is time to get out and do what needs to be done outside. Not that we had a real winter to speak of. It was the warmest winter on record here. We hardly had any snow and the temperature rarely dipped below freezing. More than 15,000 temperature records were set during winter and spring in the US. And instead of the average 80 tornadoes during March, there were more than 200. And the violent weather continued in April. Highly unusual. Loved every balmy day of the winter though. Now, everyone who pretends to be a weatherman and being in the know is predicting a hot, scorching, dry, bug-infested summer.

If it turns out to be a hot one then I will just pretend I am in Provence, France. Especially if the humidity stays away and the light is as bright and colorful as painters and artists through the ages have told us about Provence. I must say since moving to the farm the wind is back in our lives. Since moving from Cape Town I have not missed the Southeaster one bit. We got use to virtually no wind in town. On the farm it blows a lot more. Very similar to the Cape’s Southeaster and Provence’s Mistral. It will blow the whole day but by early evening it dies down as if it knows we want to go sit outside on the porch and enjoy a sundowner and the multicolored, multifaceted sunsets through the trees. 

I am still sticking to my original plan for year one on the farm:

1)      Fix the house then everyone is nice and comfy and off my back.

·        Done. Well, most of it.

2)      Prepare space for equipment to be store safely and out of the elements and buy the very necessary equipment.

·        Animal barn is halfway unpacked and tractor with loader has been purchased and there is space for its safe storage. New workshop/barn has been ordered and building should be completed by late May.

3)      Establish an orchard because it takes long to produce fruit.

·        Most of the fruit trees have been purchased and planted. Fencing must still be erected to keep Bambi and her deer friends and especially Easter and her bunny friends at bay (they love fruits trees as much as humans) and the rest of the trees are on their way, except for the vines. It took a while to study and get the right fruit varietals for our region that are pest resistant and will survive the winter cold (the cold will come back again next year) and produce bushels of fruit that can be used for eating, cooking and canning. Oh…and jamming and maybe a rip-off of Mrs. Balls chutney. It is only a tiny orchard. Just for us. So far we have apples, pears, peaches, apricots, figs and plums.  The dwarf tropicals like lemons and limes and oranges have also arrived and were planted in their containers, and then the Mediterraneans, olives, bay leaf laurel and maybe a pomegranate, that, by hook or by crook, I will make survive and produce. Then some blueberries. Some blackberries and raspberries already exist and the thorns have already done their scraping work while attempting to prune them, but we decided to destroy them all. They have naturalized and taken over in an area which we have identified as part of the greater yard area so they are in an inconvenient location. Also, we do not want the thorns. I have already planted new blackberries, the thornless kind, in one corner of the orchard. 

·        Then the vines! Big decisions here…got to find the right locations and I’m waiting for the soil analysis report to come back…watch this space…Kentucky is actually a good area to plant grapes, especially American grapes. The wet springs and hot summers are ideal. Our biggest issue is late frost. Every agriculturalist I have been talking to about growing European grapes as a weekend farmer looked at me kinda sideways, but hell, if they can make decent Syrah wines in British Columbia, Canada, yes Canada, and dry reds up in Montana I can surely try to experiment with some vitis vinifera in Kentucky. And experiment is the key word here. I will be planting table grapes like Concord and Vidal blanc too, but I have my mind set on producing my own wine on very small scale for own use only. There are many wineries in Kentucky and the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, are widely planted as well as Chambourcin. While Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are making inroads into Kentucky, it is especially Pinot Noir that interests me because the farm’s soil is very similar to what one finds in Burgundy, France. A mixture of limestone, clay and silt. Here we call it Crider or Alfisol soil, while winegeeks will call it Marl soil in Burgundy. It’s the kind of soil that has driven the world’s wine production for centuries. But Pinot Noir is known to be one of the most difficult grapes to grow and my final decision is not yet made. It will probably be the Bordeaux varietals. But then again, what’s life if not for the fun of experiment and discovery?

4)      Clean up the perimeter of the yard and farm in general. Currently we have a war going on against the noxious poison ivy. They are everywhere. They are a far bigger pest then even the cow pasture roses. The general cleanup is taking longer than I hoped for, but then this is probably the first time in ten years that someone is seriously doing cleanup on the farm. The previous owner was a naturists by heart and spirit and she was also elderly and certainly not in a state of health to maintain the place. Tens of truckloads of old fallen trees and branches have already been burned. I am creating a bigger plaaswerf between the house and the barns and that area was also covered in debris from an ice storm some three years ago and no one has cleaned that up since then. Furthermore, I have started to plant 40 crape myrtles to form a lane from the street entrance to the house before beautifying the actual entrance to the farm.

5)      Secure the farm’s perimeter with good fencing where needed and establish camps with water. The pasture already exists. Waiting…for the animals.

Then and only then, next year in late winter, early spring I will get the animals. If I can do all of this by December then I can maybe have time to squeeze in a trip to France over Christmas. God, how I would love to have time for that.

One good thing about all the wood and debris burning is coals for dinner. It doesn't mean we have to be primitive about it. A tablecloth from Rome over a makeshift table in the middle of the veldt, Chianti from Tuscany and cup from the Cape's West Coast bring civilization to the scene. And what better way to finish off the last of the wine than sitting around a late night camp fire with the last of the logs.

Talking of France. The past two month or so I have turned into a Francophile of some sorts and tasted various reds from the Rhône valley. I just happened to get stuck in cart traffic in the French wine aisle of our local Liquor Barn, not surprisingly because the same aisle also stock all the South African wines, and I loaded up for a self-study cultural lesson or is that cultural tasting lesson, on the Rhône valley’s wines.   

Wines from the Côtes du Rhône region are some of my favorite wines. The diversity in terrior is immense and that makes these wines sometimes temperamental, sometimes gentle and pleasant, sometimes big and bold and sometimes prim and proper. And sometimes downright terrible, unbalance or bitter.

The Côtes du Rhône vineyards run along the banks of the Rhône River between Lyon and Avignon and it is divided into 2 areas: Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône. In the Northern Rhône they make wine mostly from Syrah, while the southern Rhône is dominated by the Grenache varietal and the wines are almost always blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan or Cinsault or a mixture of these grapes and several other varietals. In general the reds from the left bank are full bodied, tannins rich at young age with undertones of earthiness and graphite, while the right bank produce lighter, more fruitier wines. Taste is too difficult to define because it can vary from plum to cherries to herbal, especially lavender, to licorice and many things in between.  Côtes du Rhône reds wines may or may not have a spicy ending depending on the blend.

Then there are the villages. A limited number of villages inside the generic Côtes du Rhône appellation can add the word Villages behind the name Côtes du Rhône based on their history, quality and the uniqueness of the wine that is produced. In some case the village can also add its name on the label, usually only the best of them can.


Renting a car in Lyon and exiting the city on the N7 sur. One could also take the A7 south but on a wine expedition why drift too far away from the Rhône river and the spectacular views that the N7 offers as it run, mostly, parallel with the Rhône river; river on the right and forests on the left (after the factories that are on the outskirts of every big city.) Driving through small town after small town with names like Saint-Vallier and Erôme, and pass the Chateau de Fontager. After about an hour’s drive, as you round a steep hill you arrive at the famous village of Tain I’Hermitage, famous for making wines for the kings of France. Look left, up the hill and the south face of the hill is covered in vines. Follow the N7 through town until its crossing with Avenue Docteur Paul Durand.  At number 18, on the corner with Rue du Commandant Noir you will find Maison M. Chapoutier, enter to taste what some calls “of the world’s best wines.”

Chapoutier’s 2009 Belleruche Rouge, Côtes du Rhône.

The wine: Interesting label with Brail letters. A medium-bodied wine, 80% Grenache and the rest Syrah and Mourvèdre from winemaker Michel Chapoutier. M. Chapoutier was founded 1808 and original ancestor Marius Chapoutier made history in the region when he made wine from his own grapes. Those days’ farmers produced the grapes and wine was made elsewhere. Very much like when the Beatles arrived on the music scene in the early 60’s and sang and recorded their own written songs.
On the eye: Dark red, leaning toward cloudy rubies.
The nose: Dark berries, but nothing overpowering or distinctive.
On the tongue: Earthy, old world style Côtes du Rhône wine. Fruity on entrance with slight peppery ending. Not a very expressive or complicated wine at all. What I would call a reasonably good house wine if I’d ordered this in a restaurant. It doesn’t taste like they used any or very little wood.  
Gulp, gutter or gobble: Easy drinking wine, but bland. The Syrah provides a little body. The winemaker himself describes it as a “Sunday afternoon lunch” wine. That says it all. Nothing like the other famous, expensive wines he makes that I can only hope to taste one day. It will also make a delicious Provençal lamb stew with lots of Herb de Provence or a Hunter’s leg of lamb.  

From the tasting room drive back to the N7, and a few blocks further turn left into Route De Lamage or the D241 and climb the hill to where it meets Chemin de l‘Hermitage. Turn right and you’ll find Cave de Tain where you can taste wines from many of the region’s wineries without having to drive to all the wineries (and get lost like I always do.)

For lunch cross the Rhône to the ancient village of Tournon-sur-Rhône.  Visit the old 10th century feudal castle that overlooks the two towns and the river, stroll along narrow streets through the ancient city center with its brown stone buildings and enjoy local traditional cuisine in the tower-like La Chaumiere restaurant before commencing the journey south.

After lunch get onto the Route D86 south for a trek into the Ardèche country, that rugged land of mountains, rivers and rural communities. After only a short drive the road enters the village and tiny Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée of Cornas. This is Syrah country and although different varietals are planted, only wines made exclusively from the Syrah grape can be labeled from AOC Cornas. Other wines must be labeled as Côtes du Rhône. It is here, against the steep hills that overlook the village and where vine roots can go down 50 feet for nutrients that Jean-Luc Colombo creates innovative wines.

Jean-Luc Colombo Les Abeilles, “The bees”, Côtes du Rhône Rouge 2010. 
The wine: A medium-bodied red wine. A classic southern Rhône blend of 33% Grenache, 34% Syrah and 33% Mourvèdre, vinified in stainless steel vats and later only 18% of it was aged in new oak. However, it is a new world style wine from the mainly Syrah-based AOC of Cornas. I only had a glass of Les Abeilles the first evening. As usual I extract the air and put it back into my wine fridge and the next evening the wine was a total different experience. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came to mind. I was pleasantly surprised. Gone was the millennial-generation fruity, just okay kind of wine and in its place a true old style Côtes du Rhône.
On the eye: Initially it was dark red, leaning toward purple. The next day is was nearly black and royal purple on the edges
The nose: Mostly fruity with hints of spices and black pepper. 
On the tongue: Being a young wine the fruit is dominant. An easy drinking wine with smooth tannins and a spicy ending. The aromas are stable and constant from entry to ending. The next day the spices were more prominent and the wine had added texture and complexity with a slight bittery aftertaste, maybe cinnamon. The tannins were still smooth but with much more body and boldness. Overnight I guess the Mourvèdre added its leathery characteristics and the Syrah added body to the fruity Grenache. Of course, it often happens that a wine change from one day to another, but seldom have I tasted such an improvement.
Gulp, gutter or gobble: Jean-Luc Colombo is known for his innovation in a rather stoic appellation, but this is a very enjoyable and classy wine if left to breath. Ideal for barbeques and meat-and-tomato-based Italian dishes.

The Jean-Luc Colombo Blanc went exceptionlly well with a Ligurian tomato and garlicy seafood and rice stew with a freshly baked Tuscan boule.

I also tasted his Jean-Luc Colombo Les Abeilles, “The bees”, Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2010 made from 80% Clairette and 20% Rousanne. It was one of the nicest and most pleasant drinking white wines I have had this year. It had an excellent balance between acidity, texture, sweetness and flavor. Because I have never tasted a Clairette/Rousanne wine before I have to compare it with other varietals. On the nose and the palate apple, pear and especially pineapple and lemon were prominent. The wine is not as acidy as a Sauvignon Blanc, but not as bland as a Californian Chenin Blanc and none of the sweetness of a Chenin Blanc from Vouvray. It is lighter than a Chardonnay, but more balanced in taste than a Tuscan Vernaccia from San Gimignano, although it has less texture than a Vernaccia. It is very similar in fruitiness and texture to a Soave from Veneto, but without the characteristic lemony infusion, and drinks as easily as a Pinot Gris. Another winner from Jean-Luc Colombo.  

Spend the rest of the day sightseeing Cornas and the nearby city of Valence, which, in antiquity times use to be a colony under the Roman Caesar Augustus.

Into the land of poets and painters

The next morning get on the A7 Toll Route south and after about an hour’s drive, depending on your driving, take exit 19 to Bollène. Skirt the town and take route D8 and enter an ancient land of hilltop castles and Templar fortifications, of villages clinging to hillsides and Roman ruins, of the Mistral and azure shutters against Provencal-colored stone houses.  This is the land of slow-travel France. This is the Haut Vaucluse.

Continue along route D8 through the villages of Rochegude and Saint-Cécile-les-Vignes to the village of Cairanne, one of the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellations and its 23 domains (wineries, farms) and co-operative cellar. These farms are known to produce spicy Syrah wines. The village has been occupied by ancient peoples even before the Gauls, then the Romans and in the Middle Ages it was also one of the last citadels where the Knights Templars ruled in France before passing the town to the Knights Hospitalers and eventually to the Popes of Avignon.  
Cairanne, France
Delas St. Esprit Côtes-du-Rhône Rouge 2009
The wine: This blend of 70% Syrah, 20% Grenache and the rest Carignan and Mourvèdre was produced by Delas Freres on the steep granite hills just outside Cairanne. This is not a true Carainne Villages blend because then the Grenache should have been at least 50% and the Syrah and Mourvèdre together 20%, hence the Côtes-du-Rhône label.
Color: This medium-to-full bodied wine is garnet red in the glass with deep pink on the rim.
Smell: Fruity on the nose and hints of flowers and herbs.
Palate: Mildly spiced, mildly bitter. Tannins are rough upon opening with no lasting ending to speak of. I didn’t like the wine at all on day one. However, the next day the tannins were much smoother, longer finish, a bit spicier and more pronounced peppery, but the bitterness remained. It tasted much better the next day. Overall the bitterness unfortunately overpowers the spiciness.
Gulp, Gutter or Gobble: Fair drinking wine with meaty dishes and grills, but even better for using in a wonderful “Tant Willem se Estofado”, an slightly sweetish tomatoey Argentinian beef shank stew with sultanas and olives.
Note: The Robert Parker Wine Advocate gives this wine 90 points. He knows a lot more about wine tasting than I, but tastes differ. I found it too bitter.    

In this land where the temperature rises quickly take a casual stroll through the old village on top of the hill before the sun burns of the last crispness of the morning. Most of the buildings in the old village date from the eighteenth century except the old ramparts which date back to the 12th century and the times of the Knights Templars. The panoramic vistas of the vineyards below and the Dentelles de Montmirail Mountains to the east make for spectacular photo opportunities.
Exit the village and continue east on the D69 for a short 5 km ride through the rural landscape of vineyards and open plains surrounding the village of Rasteau. The Rasteau appellation is a tiny appellation of approximately 900 hectares and its wines are usually mildly spicy with a sweet licorice flavor.

It is claimed that vines have been planted around Rasteau for 2000 years but the oldest written sources dates to 1414. During the Middle Ages the village belonged to the church and later became the property of the Pope during the Avignon period, like so many other French villages in the south. At the top of the hill are the 12th century Romanesque Church of St. Didier and the rest of the village cascades from its foot like Tarragon flavored Hollandaise sauce over a mound of freshly grilled asparagus spears. This is not a touristy town, rather peaceful and quiet.

Rasteau Côtes du Rhône Villages 2009

The wine: A blend of Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, the 2009 Cave de Rasteau Côtes du Rhône Villages La Domeliere was featured on the front page of The Wine Spectator magazine’s 2010 October issue that featured 200 great value wines from around the world. As a matter of fact, they rated this wine at 90 points and the highest rated Rhône red for under $15. I concur.
Color: Inky dark ruby with a purple rim in the glass.
The nose and palate: It smells very similar to its taste; plums and cherries with hints of black licorice, and earthly flavors of leather and soil. In the mouth there are no major variances from the first sip to the ending and there is no middle to speak off. It is velvety and ends a bit bittery and true to Rhône character, spicy and with a long aftertaste.
Gulp, Gutter or Gobble: Not a complex wine but a very nice drinking wine. This is a good wine at a very good price of $12. No wonder the magazine rated it so high in value for money.
 Vaison La Romaine

By now it is nearly lunch time and a slow lunch and small detour to the “Jewel of Roman”, Vaison La Romaine, is a must do and see from an archeological interest. From Rasteau follow the D975 to the rustic village of Roaix and then on to Vaison La Romaine just a few kilometers down the winding road alongside the Ouveze River. Inhabited since the Bronze Age and once the capital of the Celtic tribe, the Vocontii, before the Roman conquest in the 2nd century BC, Vaison La Romaine still has several Roman ruins in the lower section of the town along the river, especially houses of the rich families, and a Roman Theater. Unfortunately the entire ancient Celtic city is now under the area name La Villasse, which contains the Gallo-Roman ruins.

During the Middle Ages the populate moved to the upper section of Vaison La Romaine, which clings to the cliffs on the right bank of the river and within the safety of the chateau of the Counts of Toulouse because the lower town was regularly attacked by barbarians and later due to the Hundred Years war between France and England. During the 17th and 18th and especially during the 19th century the population moved back to the lower section of town and started to build the current, new town on the section  that use to be the Gallo-Roman town.

Enjoy local Provençal cuisine at the Restaurante Le Tournesol in the upper section of town and after lunch explore the Roman ruins in the lower section of town before departing. After lunch and the history-enriched excursion of Vaison Le Romaine, take route D975 west to Orange and beyond to the Châteauneuf-du-Pape for our last tasting.

"The Pope's new castle" or “The Pope’s new home”, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, is one of the most important appellations in the southern Rhône region. Wine making got a serious boost around 1308-09 when Pope Clement V moved the papacy from Rome to Avignon. The Pope, previously the Archbishop of Bordeaux, was a great wine enthusiast and lover of Burgundy wines and promoted viticulture of the area surrounding the papal estate, especially the area north of Avignon near the Rhône River. However, Clement V’s successor, Pope John XXII, who build the papal castle in Avignon, did even more to promote winemaking and the wines from the area started to be called Vin du Pape, which later became Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC  allows 13 grapes varieties: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Muscardin, Cournoise, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Roussanne, Terret Noir, Picardan, and Vaccarese and is grown in four different types of soil, hence, the variety in deep rich colors, aromatics and taste.

Domaine Grand Veneur Côtes du Rhône Les Champauvins 2009

The wine estate Les Champauvins is one of several farms that belong to Alain Jaume and his sons under the name Grand Veneur. They have vineyards in the AOC of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Côtes-du-Rhône and on the right bank of the Rhône River in Lirac. This specific vineyard is located just across the street from where the appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape ends, but it nevertheless produces wines that taste very similar, hence my description of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape AOC above. What difference does a single street make? Well, in this case not much in taste but probably some in price.

The wine: The Domaine Grand Veneur Côtes du Rhône Les Champauvins 2009 is their single-vineyard Côtes du Rhône composed of 70% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 10% Mourvèdre and represents a “baby” Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
Color: Ruby red in color and slightly dark pink on the rim.
Smell: Fruity, especially plums, and herby, strong hints of lavender.
Palate: Medium bodied leaning to full bodied, fruity with nice, soft tannins. Good beginning, fruity middle and a long ending with very little spices.
Gulp, Gutter or Gobble: It is not an overly complex wine, but with good texture, body and flavor. Overall it is well balanced and a very nice linger-longer drinking wine. At $15 this is a real steal. The full to medium body and well balanced fruitiness makes this an ideal wine for storing a few years. I think this will be even better 2 to 3 years from now. Well worth investing in a few bottles for the cellar.

Time to drive on to Avignon and return the imaginary rental car…If only…

Just a thought…

Now, I am sure the French do the same as the Italians. They “underdress” or “sanitize” their wines for export to America compare to the wines sold locally, because during my trip to Italy the local wines tasted better than anything similar I bought in the US. Even homemade Chiantis I tasted in Liguria tasted better than some of the stuff they sell here as Tuscan Chianti. The result is a lack of serious body and substance and flavor.  As if they want to say Americans can only drink wines if they were over-refined, crystal clear in taste. Hell, since when have we Americans ever seen anything in clear day light? There always have to be a murky side to any issue to be attractive to us. Is our wine taste buds over-refined?  Is it a perception or a result of too many overused focus groups by marketing folks?

Whatever the case may be, it seems the wines got better as I went south in terrior toward the Mediterranean. I suspect that these 5 wines (6 if you include the white Colombo) I tried and described will taste slightly different, (read better) when a real-deal tour of the Côtes du Rhône is undertaken. No doubt, the atmospheric ambiance of going local, the breathtaking vistas of the Haut Vaucluse, being surrounded by a land carpeted by vines while driving picturesque country lanes, the clinking of glasses in a tasting room, the romantic French language on the ear and the sheer enjoyment of being on holiday and relaxed, will all contribute to making these wines taste even better locally as oppose to in my dining room or kitchen.

But then real experiences during vacations are usually more magnified and surreal than simply writing about it from a distance. Especially if the writing is nothing more than just a dream. 

Note: All images of France are from various Internet websites and not my own.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Disgusted in Newlands Crowd

Last Saturday evening after a really long and hard day’s work on the farm I had just enough energy left to braai (BBQ) some boerewors (Kentucky farmer’s sausage in my case since it is homemade on the farm) and a few lamb chops before I settled in front of the TV to watch the weekend’s Stormers versus the Cheetahs rugby game. But barely was I seated and I was totally disgusted by the Newlands crowd for booing Heinrich Brussow as he led his team out on the field for his 50th Super rugby game. A milestone for any player! Something to be respected and celebrated with any player that week in and week out entertain fans that go to stadia or watch games over the TV alike.   

I am a born and bred Capetonian and a lover of the beautiful game of rugby. As I mentioned in my profile, my blood is blue with white hoops, and I have always supported the Stormers or any of the local teams that play at the hallowed grounds of Newlands. During the Super rugby tournament I try to make time every weekend to watch at least one game, the Stormers game. Although I must say, lately, with the Stormers’s inability to score bonus point tries per game, and their terrible second half performances, the Blue Bulls games are far more entertainment. Not that I will become a Blue Bull soon, but at least they are providing me more entertainment value for my time than the Stormers at this moment.

However, booing has become a sad sickness at Newlands where not only New Zealand and Australian teams are booed during run on, but also South African teams. Now booing happens at other stadia too during kicking for goals (which is really silly too) or when bad refereeing decisions are made, but why boo when a team runs on to the field to provide entertainment. Who are these nutcases that come to a stadium with the purpose to get the negative experience from entertainment instead of the positive? And if it were just 20 or 30 random persons booing one could still understand it, but it sounded like half the stadium did it. If I was disgusted by it from far away I wonder how many “good” spectators were ashamed by it at the stadium.

Looking at statistics Newlands draw the most crowds of all the teams on a regular basis, more than 32,000 people per game, and that is fantastic, but it still does not justify disrespectful behavior. I know that rugby is a professional sport and the amateur notion of doing it for enjoyment is gone. I know that sport is a powerful energizer of spirit and camaraderie, but do we have to demean the ones who are providing us the pleasure and enjoyment of the sport?

And please, don’t tell me they are booing at Loftus or Kings Park too. What has happened to the Cape Town ethic of being civil, respectful and decent, and welcoming to all, united or divided, friend or foe, to one of, if not the best city in the world. Just because fans are booing at other stadia does not mean the Newlands crowd should strive to go down the same cesspit. Be better! Be respectful. You always used to be.

Picture from http://www.crosfields.com/content/sport/gallery/