On our first visit to Uzes after arriving at the house we went for a coffee to our favourite cafe “la Cantine ” , owned by our hardworking friend Thierry, who has all the local contacts. And makes pretty good coffee if you drink it black. For some reason, everywhere in France they use UHT milk in coffee and it tastes awful. Thierry also does good, simple food and has a selection of very good local wines by the glass or bottle Speaking of which, we visited a bottle shop in Uzes called “Le Ballon Rouge”. We drive past it every time we go to Uzes, but had never called in because parking is a bit tricky. It is a real discovery. The “patron”, Jean, has a terrific knowledge of the wines of southern France and Bergundy and good stocks. In addition he does a great tapas style simple lunch with local charcuterie and of course fresh, crusty baguettes, accompanied by good, interesting wines by the glass and good coffee (black!). And his English is pretty damned good. A visit is essential if you are in Uzes.
50 metres from the Ballon Rouge is the Antique market. We love it. They have some interesting stuff. If you see something irresistable offer about half the asking price and don’t be surprised if you walk out owning the object.
Before our Italian wine adventure I did a veteran car rally with my friend Nick in his 1913 Hispano Suiza Alfonso. It was based in Cavaillon in Provence, about one and a half hours from our house. It is in the same area as beautiful St Remy de Provence and L’Isle de la Sorgue, which I have blogged about previously.
The rally was described as a “farandole”, which Nick described as a group of old cars motoring slowly from one meal to the next with intervening stops for “degustation” (drinks). Most stops are accompanied by a long, unintelligible speech from the mayor, but on this rally speeches were quite rare. On a farandole the crews of the cars often dress up in period costume. We were pretty much spared this, so didn’t have to bring out our false moustaches and nightshirts!
There is no doubt that the French take their personal pleasures seriously. We had our first degustation stop each day at about 930 am.
I should mention that the rally was headquartered at the Cavaillon Ibis Hotel, part of the Accor Group I believe. It was truly ghastly. The access gate was closed and remote controlled. Once locked in the hotel you were required to pre pay day by day. The glasses in the rooms were disposable plastic. No soap, only body gel, whatever that is. The breakfast coffee came out of a huge and complex machine and was truly awful but the baguettes and croissants were good. We snuck out to local restaurants rather than subject ourselves to what would no doubt have been pre prepared and portion controlled catering pack specials at dinner time.
After the rally we drove back to Sanilhac in convoy where Nick parked the Hisso in our garage and we had a memorable BBQ on our wood fired fireplace. We planned more old car motoring in a few weeks.
Next morning we set sail (metaphorically) for Italy, dropping Nick off at his home near Nice. At Nick’s suggestion we drove along the Autostrada (A12) through Genoa and past Rapallo to Sestri Levante on the Mediterranean coast, where we were to spend the night. This is one of those places you have to be told about or you would miss it.
It’s a grown up fishing village with two harbours split by a promontary on the top of which sits the beautiful old Grand hotel dei Castelli. It is an absolute knockout. The rooms are huge and beautifully appointed as are the public spaces. The gardens are extensive and well kept. There is a restaurant which overlooks the harbour with it’s fishing boats and the Mediterranean. It’s pretty idyllic. There is a private lift to take you down to the harbour, beside which there are lots of inviting restaurants and bars. It would be easy to spend a few days in Sestri Levante.
Depending on the season you will pay somewhere in the euro 200s for a double. Definitely worth it for a mini splurge.arone
Grand Hotel Dei Castelli. Via Penisola 26. www.hoteldeicastelli.it
From Sestri Levante we were heading up to the area of Valpolicella, near Verona. We decided to do this by staying off the main roads, so went cross country on minor roads to Parma, where we had a terrific simple lunch in a busy roadside cafe. At lunchtime we generally look for cafes or restaurants with lots of parked cars— the locals know what’s good. It seems to work pretty well.
The drive was a delight– little traffic, hilly, lovely villages, but slow. My rule of thumb is that you can’t average more than about 60 kph. if you are off the European toll road system.
Our stop for the next four nights was to be a place called “Massimego” — an Agriturismo near a village called Mezzane di Sotto, quite close to Verona. This is a beautiful part of Italy, between the lakes (Garda, Como and Maggiore) and Venice. Wine has been made here for over a thousand years. What we were looking for was some small producers of Amarone. Amarone is not a grape variety, it’s a style of wine made by laying freshly picked bunches of grapes on beds of straw and allowing them to dry out over about 3 months. What happens is that they lose water, which evaporates, but not flavour. They generally lose around half their weight. The bunches are then crushed and made into table wine in the normal way and stored in large oak barrels for at least 3 years. The result is a wine which has wonderfully complex flavours and which changes amazingly in the glass, if you give it a chance! They are necessarily high in alcohol, around 16% and are not cheap to buy, mainly because of the small yield of finished wine from a given weight of grapes. But if you are a red wine lover and haven’t yet had an Amarone please try one. Amarone is our absolutely favourite wine full stop! The main grape used is called Corvina. I don’t know of any planted in Australia, but there may be some.
There are three kinds of red wine made in the Valpolicella region. The basic (and least expensive) are labelled “Valpolicella” or “Valpolicella Superiore”. These wines are made in a conventional way.
Midway between Valpolicella and Amarone is a wine called “Ripasso”. What happens here is that Valpolicella wine is aged for a time on the lees from Amarone. Ripasso is much less expensive than full on Amarone, but has some of its wonderful complexity. You can find all these wines in good bottle shops in Australia. Brands to look for include Masi, Speri, Allegrini .There are many others.
In Italy, as in France and for that matter Australia, we are seeing a revolution led by young winemakers who feel the need to throw off the yoke of tradition where they think it to be necessary in the interests of producing a superior product from their vines. They tend to be well read and well travelled and to be on a mission to make the best wine they can, by following philosophies which they have developed. So our aim in this trip to Valpolicella was to see what some of the younger winemakers were doing.
Now , back to Massimego.
To our delight, Massimego is just what we were looking for– a working vineyard producing Valpolicella and Amarone wines, run on organic principles and owned by the delightful and very dedicated Camilla Rossi Chauvenet.
Where do I start about Massimego?
It is situated high on a hill overlooking a beautiful vista of vineyards and farmlands. The main buildings are stone and very old. They are set in lovely gardens surrounded by the Massimego vineyards and olive groves.
Downstairs in the main building is a lounge/ reception room with open fire and dog adjacent to which is the office where Camilla and her helpers run the business. There is also a tasting room and a kitchen.
Upstairs are six or so bedrooms which are simple and lovely. There are also a number of delightful apartments.
On arrival, Camilla greeted us and offered us a glass of wine, which was most welcome after our drive from Sestri Levante. She told us that the property has come down from her grandfather. Camilla has trained as a winemaker and has travelled and studied extensively. She has developed a philosophy about winemaking and Amarone and is putting that into practice. What she is attempting to do with Amarone is to produce a wine of great flavour , structure and elegance. In our view she is succeeding. We thought her Amarone easily the best that we tried on this trip. And the price was very competitive. While we were staying at Massimego Camilla was judged to be one of the 200 best Winemakers in Italy!
Massimego comes with another huge plus–Camilla lives in nearby Verona and if you want to visit that exqisite city (and who wouldn’t), she affords you free access to the carpark under her apartment building in the very centre of the city. We went to a number of local restaurants suggested by the girls at Massimego . All were terrific.
We also went to two other Amarone producers worth mentioning Corte Sant Alda is an all- girl operation owned and run by the larger than life Marinella Camerani. When she arrived for our tasting , roaring up in her Jeep ,an assistant said to us half humourously” here comes the hurricane!” Again, the wines are “bio” and very good, perhaps bigger and less seamless than the Massimegos. They have a great website. www.cortesantalda.com. If you are in the area a visit is compulsory.
An unexpected highlight for us was a visit to meet Zeno Zignoli who owns Monte del Ragni. Although our visit was arranged we obviously woke him up, but he insisted on giving us a full tasting of his range (again bio) and a lengthy exposition of his viticultural and winemaking philosophy. “I believe that the vines talk to me, but I don’t yet understand what they are saying to me” Quirky.
I thought all the wines he showed us were terrific. At the conclusion of it all It seemed the polite thing to do was offer to buy some of the wine, so I popped the question. “you can’t buy any”he said. “it won’t be ready to sell till next easter” “but if you are going to the village of Mulino there is a bottle shop there and he will sell you one bottle” What a man! A true eccentric.
If you Google Monte dei Ragni there is an interesting blog on the operation from English wine merchant Berry Brothers and Rudd .
After four unforgettable days we headed back to France with a boot full of wine, tossing over the question of whether to try importing some Massimego Amarone. We would have to sell it at about $80 a bottle. Any starters? Trust me, it’s worth every cent.
We straight lined it on the Autostrada past Milan and Turin and through the Mont Blanc tunnel to Valence, Orange and home—-seven hours.
Altogether a really great trip and just what our having the house in France was designed for — our Mothership
To be continued —-