Thursday, July 28, 2016

Provence, France Revisited

It is already quite something to find a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in a Kentucky liquor store, but then to find one of the vintage from the same year that I actually walked through that specific Château’s vineyard is really magic. Pure nostalgic value! What a coincidence! Of course, if you live in a wine region then this kind of thing can happen quite often, but not when you live a continent away and a visit to France is a rare occurrence.

The Discovery

But that is exactly what happened a few weeks ago when I wandered through a local liquor store’s aisles and stumbled upon three lone bottles of 2012 Château Mont-Redon. They were standing on the edge of the French section, alone by themselves with no indication of price. I thought I had to relieve them from their loneliness. I saw the store manager nearby and asked him to check the price, expecting to hear something close to or above $40, the usual price for an average Châteauneuf-du-Pape. After a few minutes of trying to find the wine in their computer system, he said that the wine was supposed to be sold out and there is no price in the system. So I gave him the eyes and said “Well, obviously it’s not.” He then asked me where I found it and I said “It was standing near other bottles priced at $16.” I did notice that they were in the process of reorganizing the store.

Then he gave me the eyes. He was deep in thought for a few seconds, looked at the bottle again and then smiled wryly, and said, “Ok, you found it. $16.” I thanked him, took the bottle, quickly walked away before he could have second thoughts and then went to collect the other 2 bottles too. Returning home I search the internet and saw that is selling it for $42 a bottle. What a bargain!

What’s for Dinner?

So come Sunday, M took out a frozen packet of ribs for barbequing, thinking it was pork ribs, but instead it was beef short ribs. Which, off course, can also be grilled successfully if you like your beef tender and still half bloody on the inside, but my family does not like their steaks that way. In any case, that Sunday by 1:00 pm it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade, the humidity in the 90s, meaning the heat index could have been well over a 100 degrees, and we fled inside to the cool of the air-conditioned house. There was no way I was going to stand in front of a hot grill in that heat. So it became another experimental Sunday afternoon in the kitchen.

I was not in the mood for a boeuf bourguignon; I made that a few weeks ago to accompany a bottle of Allesverloren Shiraz that M bought me some time ago. So I stuck my nose into Jacques Pépin’s near 700 page culinary bible, Essential Pepin, to see if I can find a Provençal classic to bring the best out of its Châteauneuf-du-Pape neighbor. And on page 323 I found something that looked interesting and which I could adapt to put my own stamp on, a Boeuf Daube Arlésienne, a beef stew that comes from the Provençal town of Arles.


Starry Starry Night

Arles, located on the banks of the Rhone River, and the surrounding area have been populated for the past 2,800 years by various civilizations, among other the Ligurians from northern Italy, the Celts, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Moors from Spain, and eventually in 1378 it became part of the kingdom of France. During the late Roman era, the 4th and 5th Century AD, the town was very popular with Roman Emperors that used it as their headquarters during military campaigns in the region. The town still boasts several Roman ruins and buildings, including the magnificent colosseum-like amphitheater. But the town is probably more famous today for the 200-odd paintings that Vincent Van Gogh painted here during his 14 month stay in 1888 and 1889. The Night Cafe, the Yellow Room, Starry Night over the Rhone, L'Arlésienne and of course, Café Terrace at Night, is among the famous paintings Van Gogh painted here.

Vincent van Gogh's Café Terrace at Night in Arles

Another connection and point of nostalgia; During our 2012 visit to Provence we did not ventured as far south as Arles. Our furthest point south was Les Baux-de-Provence and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, where we visited the Saint-Paul Asylum. Van Gogh came to Saint-Rémy after his Arles period and spent a year in the asylum from May 1889 to May 1890. During his Saint-Rémy stay he painted many canvasses of the hospital’s garden, the surrounding fields and the famous The Starry Night and Irises. Two months after Van Gogh left Saint-Remy he shot himself and died in the town of Auvers-sur-Oise, north of Paris.  

Starry Night.
Painted by Van Gogh while staying in Saint-Paul Asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence

Of course, we also visited the tiny enclave of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (see my blogs here and here about our visit.) Although we never went for a tasting at Château Mont-Redon, we had lunch just up the hill from the estate, but after lunch our guide stopped at the domaine to give us a short history about the area and to tell us about the importance of the river stones that are the “secret” to the wonderful wines made in this valley. And we went for a walk through the vineyards.

Taking a walk through the vineyard of Château Mont-Redon

Perusing the recipe I realized I had all the ingredients required for a Boeuf Daube Arlésienne, but I decided to replace the white wine the recipe asked for with red wine, making it a little heavier dish than the original. A few days earlier I opened a local Kentucky merlot, but after a few sips I destined it to be more suited for the pot than for my palate.  The merlot now came in handy. In order not to change the recipe into a bourguignon one has to have a light hand with the red wine. I was maybe a little too heavy handed because I marinated the short ribs in the merlot, some garlic and dried Herbes de Provence for about two hours. That in itself made it lean towards a bourguignon. Nevertheless, I am not going to publish my recipe because I am sure my daube did not taste at all like that of Pepin’s and the method I used was also much different than his. So it will be a gross injustice to Mr. Pepin to publish my adaptation or his recipe, because mine, I am in no doubt, was a far flung deviation from his.

I tested a piece of the short rib after browning it in the pot and it was melt-in-the-mouth tender.

It’s All About The Terroir

I have to admit I was in two minds about opening a bottle of Mont-Redon. It was only 4 years old, relatively young for a Châteauneuf-du-Pape red, but I was also charmed by its possibilities and by what it could offer at this tender age. I have learned over the years that modern wines could be surprising good at a young age and sometimes terrible at an older age. In the end my inquisitiveness and sentiment got the upper hand.  

The Château Mont-Redon.
In the family picture of the current owners, top left: Didier Fabre (front left), Yan Abeille, Jerome Abeille, Pierre Fabre and Jean Abeille (front right)

Wine has been produced on the Mont-Redon estate since the age of the Avignon Popes and the estate was first mentioned in historic documents from 1344 as “Mourredon’. Between then and the 1700s not much is known about the property until Joseph d’Astier, a lawyer from Avignon, obtained the property. His descendants, the Mathieu family owned the estate until about 1856 when, at the death of Clara Mathieu, the property was divided between her children. Shortly thereafter the phylloxera epidemic of the 1880s devastated wine-making at the estate and in most of the winemaking regions of the world. In 1923 when Henri Plantin obtained the property, Mont-Redon consisted of only 2.5 hectares of scattered vineyards. Plantin and his descendants actively worked to enlarge the estate, buying up adjacent land when it became available and today it consists of 186 hectares with 100 hectares under vineyard,  making it the largest single-vineyard estate in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape valley and one of the most well-known and respected producers of crus in the appellation.  The current owners, Jean Abeille and Didier Fabre, the 3rd generation descendants from Plantin, have also expanded their operations beyond the valley and now also produce Côtes-du-Rhône wines from 35 hectares they own across the Rhône River. 

In the glass the wine was a deep ruby red and still very purple at the rim. On the nose it was fruity with faint hints of chocolate and characteristically from a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine, strong hints of licorice. But the proof is always in the pudding, and on the palate the initial taste had surprisingly strong tannins, with cherries and blackberries and the licorice was now shining through as if to confirm its terroir. The ending was rather abrupt and mildly spicy.

I thought I made a big mistake to open the bottle so soon with the tannins still grossly underdeveloped. So I let the wine rest while I continued with the Boeuf Daube Arlésienne, which by this time looked more like a bourguignon. In hindsight the Burgundian version was better suited for the wine in any case and I am sure there is a Provençal dish out there with red wine very similar to its northern cousin.

Finishing off a Mediterranean ensemble

An hour later to finish off the dish and to give it a more distinctive Mediterranean twist I added some Greek capers, Spanish Manzanilla olives, but to counter the vinegary taste of the olives and saltiness of the capers I added a teaspoon of “treasure” from our pantry to add sweetness, Confit d’Olive, all the way from Blaauwklippen Road in Stellenbosch, South Africa. The confit or mountain marmalade has a very unique flavor, and until I found it in a store in Lexington, KY, of all places, I would not have thought one could make jam from black olives. BTW, it goes very well with camembert or brie cheese on crackers.

The rest and the air did the wine a world of good. Although the tannins were still distinct, clinging to the tongue, it has mellowed a bit. The middle became soft and rounder and the aftertaste longer and a little spicier with a stronger hint of chocolate. (Oops! That sounds like I am describing a maturing woman. But don’t they always say a woman is like a good wine that gets better with time?)

The wine, made mainly from the Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvèdre cultivars and topped up with Cinsault, Cournoise, Muscardin, and Varrarèse, was, to use a Kentucky term, a thoroughbred Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Overall the wine was a very good, fully bodied, well-balanced wine, a true grand cru that can only get better with age. It went very well with the food, which in the end turned out to be a classic I-like-to-cook-with-wine-and-sometimes-even-put-it-in-the-food experiment. How long the other two bottles will last time will tell.

What a bargain for $16?

My apologies Mr. Pépin, but in my hands your boeuf daube Arlésienne, turned out to be more of a Mediterranean-influenced boeuf bourguignon.

 The chef at work in the kitchen.