Monthly Archives: July 2013

May Visit

I have recently returned from a 3 week trip to La Belle France to do the final few jobs that needed doing on the house before taking in paying guests.

This time I went on my own, as Janelle was busy with her Aussie business.  To try and keep the cost down, but keep the comfort level acceptable I went Premium Economy on Cathay Pacific.  Basically, it’s 9 hours to Hong Kong, a 2 hour stopover, and then 13 hours to Charles de Gaulle.  And the TGV to Avignon leaves from Charles de Gaulle.

A few observations on the trip –  I think Cathay is one of the really good airlines and this trip confirmed that.  I asked for, and got, seating in the front row of Premium Economy against the bulkhead so I had heaps of leg room and no seat in front of my face.

Cathay flights land at Terminal 2 at Charles de Gaulle, which is the one from which the TGV leaves. But Terminal 2 is huge and I had about a 15 minute walk from the Baggage Carousel to the TGV Station.

The TGV instruct you to be at the station 30 minutes before the train leaves, but in my experience as long as you are there before the scheduled departure time you will have no problem.

The TGV from Charles de Gaulle takes about 30 minutes longer to Avignon than the one from Gare de Lyon because it stops in Lyon and Valence.

The signs to look for in Terminal 2 are “SNCF-Gare”.

The first part of the TGV trip was wet and misty with the countryside looking astonishingly green and fertile.  Fields very green and lush, trees now in full leaf.  After the stop at Lyon the sun came out.  Rivers and streams in flood from the spring melt in the alps.

Espresso machine in the dining car broken down, as it was when we travelled to Paris in February (and as it would be when I returned to come home on this trip).  I wonder if there is some conspiracy of the dining car staff in relation to these machines.

Picked up a rental car at Avignon TGV Station and was at the house in Sanilhac within 30 hours of leaving  Australia, I think that is pretty amazing.

You really have to be quick on your feet with the car rental companies.  This time it’s Europcar – when I booked they asked for a loading of 12 Euros a day to guarantee a diesel!

Returning to the house and the village was interesting.  Like coming home in a way.  Very familiar and, to me, welcoming.  Having the house makes me feel different about being in France.  Lucia met me at the house.  She had given it a clean and turned things on.  We had a coffee and a gossip in the course of which she told me that Le Tracteur, the hot local restaurant that closed simultaneously with us buying the house, had opened in a new venue about 5 minutes drive away-very exciting!

After a quick unpack I wandered around to the boulangerie for a real baguette and a pastry – as if I hadn’t left.  Then down to Carrefour to stock up.  That night I spoiled myself – fish soup, a duck breast on the wood-fired BBQ and a beautiful Mas de Jallon organic wine from Fournes.  It’s a blend of shiraz and Grenache.  We liked this wine so much that we have imported some to sell.  It’s only $16.49 a bottle (or $197.00 a dozen)   If you would like some, ring me on 0427 109866.  We have also brought in a range of other wines from the South which impressed us with their quality and price.  More on them further on in the blog.

I had two basic reasons to go to France at this time.  The first was to get a few final jobs done before letting the house to strangers and the second was to host my sister, Catherine and brother in law (beau-frere) Rob, who would be our first actual guests and therefore guinea pigs.  They travel a lot and know what they like and expect.  They were due to arrive at the house the week after me, so I had time to get the jobs done, I hoped.

The jobs were:

  • Get the iron bannister rail extended at the top and bottom to make things safer on the old stone stairs and an iron door fitted to the wine cellar.
  • Get the plumber to fix a tiny leak in bathroom one,
  •  Build a bench top beside the stove in the summer kitchen, have a stainless steel top fabricated to cover it and match the other bench top  in the kitchen.
  • Get the pay TV (which we have been paying for since December) to work.

Lucia had organised a ferroniere to do the bannister – Alain.  He arrived on time and measured up.  We had one of those strange discussions using sign language and sketches and some bent wire I had made up.  He went away and came back with the roughly shaped bits and his electric welder and angle grinder.  In a very short time he had fettled the rail and welded it in place.   He then fitted the cellar door, took a small table frame away to his workshop and mended it.  Totally professional.

The plumber arrived on schedule and soldered up a tiny split in a joint.

I built up the benchtop out of wood and carefully made a pattern of the stainless steel top I wanted made.  On the way into Avignon there is a big business dealing in catering equipment.  Catering equipment means stainless steel.  So I went there with my pattern.  They couldn’t have been nicer.  But, they said, the man who runs our workshop is away until Friday.  We will ring you.  A little red light went on in my head.  No phone call on Friday or Monday.  I rang on Tuesday to be told that my contact was even then in the workshop speaking to the foreman about my job.  “We’ll ring you”
I am still waiting.  So I have sanded and oiled the wooden top and think it looks pretty good.  Maybe I’ll get the stainless fabricated by someone else next visit.

To try and get the TV problem solved I went back to the company from which we bought our TV and which installed the antenna for the free to air TV.  Here, the language problem was too much and I decided to return on another day with Lucia.  Meanwhile ……Lucia, God bless her, had telephoned a contact who said that in many villages, although the pay TV signals were supposed to come in over the ADSL wires, the service was so slow that it was necessary to put up a transponder (available at M Bricolage for 30 Euros).  So we booked Lucia’s recommended antenna man who in due course came and installed the transponder and only 5 months after signing up, we had pay TV.  Learning how to drive it is quite another thing.  But at least it’s there.

In due course Catherine and Rob arrived, gave the house the once over and pronounced themselves satisfied.  In fact they loved it.  No changes needed.

Shortly after they arrived we went to the new Le Tracteur for lunch.  It is on the main Avignon road about 4K out of Uzes and is very quirky.  It is mainly a restaurant which is inside/outside, but it also has a wine shop (stocking some of the wines we are importing), a delicatessen for Spanish ham, sausages, designer butters and cheeses and an art gallery and a nursery.  The toilet (unisex) is really out there!  I have never visited anything like it!  The chef, Numa, is one of the owners.  The format is 3 courses for 29 Euros –  No that is correct!  There is a choice from 2 entrees, 2 mains and 2 desserts.  Numa is the only person in the large open kitchen except for the washer upper.  It’s quite a performance.  The food is really excellent and changes daily.  We “just love it”.  A small example of its quirkiness is that I took a drink coaster so i wouild have a phone number in order to make bookings.  After I left to come back to Oz, Catherine and Rob tried repeatedly to book, but with no success.  They drove down to the restaurant and told Numa they were having problems.  He said that the number on the coaster was wrong and offered to give them the correct number.  But he also said he was full and couldn’t fit them in.  Ah, France!

Let’s talk about wine.  It has been a great interest and love of mine and Janelle’s since we were in our respective late teens.  (It’a hard to write this – Sooty the cat is walking over the writing pad asking for a pat – and she’s very insistant!)

If you are Australian the grape varieties you have been brought up on and which are therefore familiar to you are chardonnay and more recently sauvignon blanc in white and shiraz, Grenache, cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir in reds.  More recently we have been also been drinking Italian varieties like sangiovese and Spanish tempranillo.

The predominant red grapes in the southern part of France are Shiraz, Grenache and Mourvedre, so wines from the south tastes familiar to us.  France produces wines made from cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux, from pinot noir and chardonnay in Burgundy and from sauvignon blanc in the Loire (sancerre).

The French have been making wine for over 1000 years, so they have pretty much figured out what works best in each part of France and how to grow it there and then turn it into wine.  And if an area proves not to be perfect some years due to the climate being hostile, then add some sugar – a very practical, and French  solution.

What all this is leading to is that I think that the wines of the south are wonderful – “bottled sunshine”, as the man said – and are very familiar to our palates.  But different somehow.  Maybe it’s that 1000 years of experience.

There are vineyards right across the south of France, from the Italian border to the Spanish.  Just one area, Languedoc-Roussillon, produces more wine than the whole of Australia.

Historically in the south grapes have been grown by farmers who have been members of village co-operatives which is where they have sold their grapes and where the grapes have been processed into wine.

This system has had a number of shortcomings –

  • Farmers were paid for quantity not quality.
  • Winemaking techniques were, shall we say “traditional” and somewhat unhygienic which resulted in tainted and oxidised wines.  This has been substantially overcome now, thanks in major part to the scientific winemaking methods pioneered in Australia, where were not slaves to tradition.  But it has taken the French a considerable time to realise and overcome the shortcomings of some of their “methods traditional”.
  • France has very strict labelling laws relating to “appellation” which tend in the light of modern farming and winemaking methods to be pretty out of date.  These laws govern where grapes can be grown, the kinds of grapes and the quantity yield of grapes per hectare.  These laws seem to be less strict in the south, because the French don’t have a high regard for the wines from the south, generally speaking.

What is happening in the South, now is that many co-operatives have failed, younger people have travelled and read and studied New World winemaking techniques and brought these back to France and applied them.  So now in the south there are literally thousands of small and not so small wineries making a wide range of inexpensive and fantastic wines.

I should say that this wine renaissance is also happening in Italy and Spain.

Wine is a passion of ours.  We consider a perfect day to be an interesting drive to visit a couple of wineries, a nice lunch and another winery or two in the afternoon – followed by an early night!

In our experience winemakers are educated, hospitable, proud and passionate about what they do and keen to chat about it.

So last December we visited a winery which our real estate agent and bon vivant Frederic recommended – Les Coteaux de Fournes, which is in the village of Fournes, near Avignon.  Frederic said that it was a small co-operative, but that the wines were very good and very inexpensive for their quality.  It rang all the bells, so we headed off.  It’s about 30 minutes drive from our house.  Some of the members’ vineyards qualify as “Cotes du Rhone” and some as the more prestigeous

“Cotes du Rhone Villages”.

Fournes is unusual – it’s a small co-operative whose members have figured out that its future lies in producing well priced wines of real quality.  To that end, they employ an agronomist to visit and advise the growers, a full time winemaker/CEO and an Export Manager.  The Export Manager is Annelie Axelsson who is originally from Sweden, but who loves wine and France.  Annelie gave us a run through the Fournes range and we were just bowled over by the quality and prices of their offering.  Cheekily I asked her if they were exporting to Oz and she said “no” So what’s a bloke to do?

There is a big, really big, movement in France to Biological wines, that is wines made from grapes grown without the use of herbicides or pesticides and with virtually no added chemicals in the wines – most have some sulphur to aid preservation.  It takes 4 years to convert a vineyard to “bio”.  Fournes have one bio wine which we think is just outstanding – Mas de Jallon.  It’s a shiraz/Grenache blend  (and a “Cotes du Rhone) and we sell it for $16.50.

Unlike reds in Australia, most of the Southern French wines are not matured in oak, but in huge concrete vats, lined these days with  fibreglass (it used to be wax).  On a tour of the Fournes winery I passed two massive vats which had the names of two of the most highly regarded producers of Cotes du Rhone written on them.  This confirms the quality of what Fournes produces I think.

Annelie also represents a number of other wineries for export and introduced us to two of them – Fontavin and La Garelle.

Fontavin is situated at Courthezon, near Chateauneuf du Pape.  It is owned  by the Chouvet family.  The delightful Helene Chouvet is a seventh generation winemaker – that means her family was in the wine making business before Capt. Cook first graced our shores. Helene is a qualified oenologist and makes wine in the modern, spotless winery for her extended family who have vineyards in many parts of the Cotes du Rhone.  This allows Fontavin to offer a very representative range of wines from the Rhone – Chateauneuf du Pape (red and white), Gigondas, Vacqueras, Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, “Cotes du Rhone” (red, white and rose) and a quaffer called “Les Vignes de Jo”.

We think that the Gigondas and the Muscat de Beaumes de Venise are just outstanding.  The

Beaumes de Venise comes in elegant 500ml bottles.  It is a sweet wine and to us is the distilled essence of the muscat grape.  It is fruit sweetness, rather than sugar sweetness.

The soil around Fontavin winery if you can call it that, is very stoney, like an old river bed and the vines are not trellised, but pruned as individual bushes.  The pruning and picking must be hell on people’s backs.

Like so many wineries in France, Fontavin is moving to biological vineyard and winemaking practices – a 4 year transition – which will be complete across all the vineyards this year.  The 2011 wines are the first to be fully organic. The others are in transition.

Helene says “organic methods give us the opportunity to make true and authentic wines combining freshness and concentration.  The philosophy of the Estate: emphasising the pure expression of terroir in each of our wines”.

The Fontavin wines have been well reviewed by Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, Stephen Tanzer and the French wine press.  We feel privileged to be able to offer them in Australia.

Domaine de La Garelle is the third winery our little team visited.  It is just outside the Cotes du Rhone area, in the Luberon near Oppede and Menerbes – very posh – we are now officially in Provence.  Gordes is just up the road.

The immaculate vineyard of 19 hectares is at the foot of Mt Luberon, about 35K from Avignon.  The vineyard is owned by an agronomist, Alain Audet who has a family connection with the area and managed  by Christophe Harder, another agronomist.  You can tell that it is more science based than the other vineyards.  The wines are terrific, ranging from a delicious white – The Solstice, made from vermentino (90%) and ugni blanc (10%), through a lovely rose, a merlot to shiraz/Grenache blends.  The wines are beautifully crafted and packaged.  A very professional outfit indeed.

We have imported a range of wines from these three wineries.  Details of the wines are under the “Wine Offer” tag on this website.  You can order them by either sending us an email at swallows@dcsi.net.au or ringing us at 0427 109866.  They come in boxes of 6.  We are happy to mix and match and there is an unconditional money back guarantee.

This blog is getting to be pretty long, but I must mention another restaurant which is nearby in Montaren.  La Table 2 Julien.  Why does it have that strange name?  Because they had a previous restaurant which was – you guessed it. La Table Julien.  The restaurant is in an old building on a fairly busy road.  You go inside to discover an ultra chic modern restaurant which seats about 40 inside and 30 outside (weather permitting, it didn’t on the day of our visit).  Food and wine are terrific and very reasonable – the menu at lunch time was 25 Euros for 3 courses.  When we were over at Xmas we tried and failed to get in 3 times.  We now understand why.

So, in no time at all three weeks went by.  I got all my jobs done.  Visited some new restaurants, showed Catherine and Rob around and got their household seal of approval.  The first paying guest arrives in late June.