Il Pomodorino

If you love wine tasting and you love Italian wines (that would include us), you should definitely visit Tuscany.  And if you visit Tuscany, you should definitely spend some time in Siena, a city where the best of the Renaissance seems to be just yesterday.  If you go to Siena, you should definitely wander around at night.  And if you want to have some fun while you’re wandering around, you should have some pizza at a restaurant called Il Pomodorino.

Il Pomodorino in Siena.  Photo courtesy of Casa-Worldorgs.com.

Power Tasting is not in the business of restaurant reviews, so we’ll simply say that you can get very good pizza at Il Pomodorino.  That’s a lot like saying you can get very good steak at Whole Foods.  It’s true, but it’s hardly exclusive.  There are a lot of places in Italy where you can get very good pizza and we’re not getting into the question of where to get the best pizza.  But we’ve never had more fun eating pizza than we did at this spot in in Siena.

For one thing, Il Pomodorino is always full and everybody else seems to be having a good time.  There are lots of families and therefore a fair number of children.  Dinner times, by American standards, are rather late in Italy.  We always wonder how the kids are going to make it to school the next day, but they do seem to make it.  There are also young lovers out on a date, older folks still convivial after a half a century, and the occasional tourists.

Unlike many other places in history-rich Siena, there aren’t that many foreigners dining at Pomodorino.  That may be because it’s a bit difficult to find the place if you’re starting from the center of town where most of the hotels are located.  Getting there from the famous Piazza del Campo at the very middle of Siena necessitates walking through some pretty dark streets and back alleys.  For the real Sienese, who mostly don’t live in the touristy areas, it’s not so hard to get to Il Pomodorino.  For them, it’s just down the hill from the big stadium, so maybe the crowds at the restaurant are just post-game celebrants.

The atmosphere at Il Pomodorino just draws you in.  When the other patrons hear you talking English, they’ll ask you where you’re from.  No matter where you live in the States, you’re bound to find out that someone at a nearby table has a cousin living there.  So you’re almost a member of the family already.

The view from Il Pomodorino.

While you can eat inside, you really want to join the party on the terrace outside.  Perhaps even more important, you are treated there to a spectacular view of the heart of Siena.  The dome and the roof of the Duomo (cathedral) and the Campanile (bell tower) are the most obvious sights, but the tiled roofs over the homes add to the viewing pleasure.  Just below you is the home and shrine of Italy’s patron saint, Santa Catarina.  So even if you’re not in a party mood, Il Pomodorino is worth it, just for the vista.

If you want to feel Italian and not just a visitor to Italy, we suggest you have a meal at Il Pomodorino.

Just Stopping By

For most people, travelling to Wine Country is a trip, one that often involves a flight and a rather lengthy drive.  If you’re going to go through all that, you surely want to justify your exertions by visiting several wineries, if only to get a feel for what that region can make.  However, some fortunate people live close enough to a wine-producing area that they can spend a few hours wine tasting whenever they want.  Or they can just stop by a winery for an easygoing half-hour or so, with some nice wine to add to the pleasure.

If you happen to be among those happy few, you may already have taken advantage of nearby wineries.  We have met some people in our wine tasting adventures who have told us that they live so close that they often hop on their bikes and come over on particularly pleasant weekend afternoons for a taste or two.

As residents of New York City, we can’t take advantage of “just stopping by” wine tasting.  Even a trip to Long Island’s North Fork entails at least two hours on the expressway.  But on a few occasions, we have had the chance to be the “locals”.

A vineyard in the Île d’Orleans.

We have a home in Québec City, which is a fairly populous metropolis.  But it’s also only minutes away from the Île d’Orleans, which is unquestionably countryside, the source of much of the fruits and vegetables for the city.  It is also the home to a half dozen wineries.  Many a summer weekend we drive over to the island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River to buy corn and tomatoes or just to breath some rustic air.  It’s no big deal for us to stop by and try a glass or two at one of the wineries.  To be honest, none of the table wines are particularly notable, but some of the ice wines (it gets awfully icy in Québec) are quite good.

Etude Winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

A few years ago, business required us to spend a few months living in Sacramento, only an hour from Napa Valley in one direction and Amador County in the other.  There were of course some weekends when we visited multiple wineries, with others when had non-wine reasons to be in Napa Town.  The road back to Sacramento took us right by Etude Winery, one of our favorites, where we are members of their wine club.  The servers became used to us stopping by for a few pours of their top wines, which we enjoyed in big Adirondack chairs on their terrace.

Finally, we once took a lengthy vacation in the Languedoc.  When it was market day in the village of St. Chinian, we’d drive in for our pain and fromage. And as long as we were there, why not stop by a winery?

If you are or ever will be that close to Wine Country, make sure you just stop by a vineyard or two.

How to Have Fun While Wine Tasting

There is, of course, an elemental problem with this article.  That is, if you don’t already know how to have fun, nothing we say is going to help.  On the other hand, if you already think wine tasting is fun, then we are happy to provide some tips on how to add to your fun whenever you are in Wine Country.

  • Have a fun attitude.  That advice may seem obvious, but there are a number of reasons to go wine tasting – having fun is only one of them.  Your objective may be educational, which may be satisfying but isn’t necessarily fun.  Or you may be in a buying mood.  If you are tasting wines for the purpose of buying a case or two, you ought to be paying attention, not being devil-may-care.

Good times at Domaine Chandon.  Photo courtesy of Haute Living.

  • Go where the fun is. Now this is a matter of taste.  If you think it’s fun to be in a crowd, drinking more than tasting (not our idea of a good time) then go to a popular winery on a holiday weekend.  This mostly applies to the major California destinations.  We’ve never encountered a partying crowd in Europe, but we have in Australia and South Africa.  In our experience, Domaine Chandon and Miner, both in Napa Valley, fit this bill.
  • Book a sit-down tasting. This alternative is a bit more restrained, but you still get to meet some (usually) nice people while you taste.  Best of all is a tasting where the winery also gives you some bites of food so you can truly experience what the wine might taste like at your dinner table.  Jordan Vineyard & Winery in Alexander Valley is our favorite in this regard.

Reims Cathedral.  Photo courtesy of Viator.

  • Make time for a really nice lunch. In general, wherever fine wines are made there are excellent restaurants nearby. So instead of making the objective for the day to visit wineries, grabbing a quick meal in between, consider a day built around a lunch at a top restaurant, with a bottle of the local wine, of course.  This describes wine tasting almost anywhere in Europe.  We have particularly warm memories of meals on the square in Montalcino, in front of the cathedral in Reims and on Main Street in St. Helena.  But, be careful how much alcohol you consume during the day.
  • Do something else. Just because you’re on a wine tasting trip doesn’t mean you have to only taste wine.  If you’re near the shore, declare a beach day.  This works in Santa Barbara, Tuscany and Languedoc.  In some places in California, France and Switzerland, you can taste wine one day and go skiing the next.  And almost everywhere has some interesting landmarks, sights and cities.  Leave yourself some time to take them in.
  • Visit wineries for reasons other than wine. Some wineries are landmarks in themselves.  Two examples are The Hess Collection in Napa Valley and the wine museum at Mouton Rothschild in Bordeaux.  Winemaking is an art, so why not mix in some art with your wine tasting?

Paraduxx

Duckhorn Vineyards is one of Napa Valley iconic wineries, best known for its Merlots.   In 1994, they began to expand the number of wineries and labels under which it produced wine, the names of which are all related to our little quacking friends.  The first of these was Paraduxx (www.paraduxx.com) which today occupies a rather unique niche in the valley’s winemaking.

All their wines are blends, except their rosé.  That in itself is not so exceptional; many wineries mix their grapes, but most stick either to Bordeaux or Rhône varietals.  Paraduxx follows the Australian example: Blend anything with anything else and if it tastes good, bottle it.  So you’ll find bottles of Paraduxx wines that contain Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, Syrah and Viognier (like Côte Rôtie) and even one made of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Syrah, Tempranillo and Merlot.

Enjoying an outdoor wine tasting at Paraduxx.

The people at Paraduxx want to make visiting their winery a fun experience.  Of course, they want you to come and taste their wines.  But they’d also like you to bring your kids and your dog. (Both need to be well-behaved but only fido needs to be on a leash).  They invite you to relax under trees or umbrellas in their courtyard or on their veranda and stay a while. [Our description of Paraduxx is based on pre-Covid experience.  We sincerely hope that this, like so much else, returns to the way it was in before times.  Today, dogs are still allowed, but no person under 21 years of age.]

The setting at Paraduxx would seem to lend themselves to people who are more interested in a pleasant day out, including good wine to be sure.  A picnic would be perfect, but Napa County’s rules limit the number of wineries that allow picnicking.  However, they do sell plates of charcuterie.

The tasting room at Paraduxx.

The sort of experience offered at Paraduxx may not be to everyone’s tastes.  For our part, we never bring children or pets with us and our objective is to gain a serious understanding of the wines offered by each producer we visit.  And for those like us, you can enjoy wines outdoors or in the winery’s well-appointed tasting room.

One tasting feature we like at Paraduxx is that they pour you glasses of all the wines on offer, provide you with tasting notes and then they leave you alone to enjoy them.  A server will stop by periodically to answer any questions you may have.  He or she usually uses the occasion to urge you to stay a while.  There is, however, a feature we are not as fond of.  They ask you to pay for your tasting as you enter, before tasting their wines.  Of course, we recognize that wine tasting in Napa Valley is a commercial enterprise, but it still feels wrong to ask you to pay ahead of tasting and it leaves a bad impression.

The fun atmosphere at Paraduxx does not preclude serious wine tasting.  Come try their rather individualistic wines and have some fun too, if you wish.

 

 

 

 

Domaine Paul Autard

There are many wines that show the skill of the winemaker.  There are only a few that demonstrate the artistry of a winemaker.  Today, especially in America, rich people or corporations own wineries; they hire winemakers.  It is difficult to be both an artist and an employee.

When a person owns the vineyard, makes the growing and harvesting decisions and then produces the wine, he or she has the means to express creativity, individuality and style in a bottle.  To experience such artistry, we recommend a visit to Domaine Paul Autard (http://www.paulautard.com/, in French only).

Jean-Paul Autard.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The winemaker is Jean-Paul Autard; Paul was his father.  Jean-Paul took over in 2005 and the vineyard was soon mentioned among the best of Châteauneuf du Pape.  Today, Autard makes four Châteauneufs: a white and three reds, foremost among which are La Ronde and Juline.  There is also a Côtes de Rhône and, true to tradition, some local wines unavailable in North America.

Interior of the winery.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

The Domaine is not actually in the town of Châteauneuf du Pape but just outside it in a hamlet called Courthézon.  It’s not hard to reach, just a short drive away from the main town.  In our experience, the winery is nothing like what we Americans are used to.  It’s a large farmhouse, where Jean-Paul and his family make, store and sell wine.  It is not set up for visitors in the way we find in California, although you can expect a pleasant welcome.  When we visited, it was Madame Autard who welcomed us and chatted amiably with us (in French, of course).  After a tasting, we asked some rather specific questions about the winemaking technique and distribution back home, so she called out “Jean-Paul, please come.  We have visitors.”

We then had an interesting conversation and offered him to visit us when he was next in New York (an offer never taken up, alas).  It was not so much that we had a unique experience (although we did) but rather that the man is as approachable as is his wine.  We make no guarantee that you will have a similar experience if you should stop by, but we do think you will enjoy the wine.

Domaine Paul Autard has been making wine since 1924, a talent passed down through the generations.  This continues today.  Jean-Paul is communicating to his children, Jules and Pauline, “une somme précieuse de connaissances, d’observations et le travail de la vigne” (“a precious sum of knowledge, observations and work in the vineyard”).  The winery’s flagship wine is Juline, derived from his kids’ first names.

When we visited, the Autards gave us a corkscrew with the Domaine’s name and logo on it.  To this day, we use it to open his (and other people’s) wines.  Each glass of Paul Autard comes with an extra dollop of memories.

 

 

Fields of Lavender

The Southern Rhône is in Provence, which is famous for many things, notably wine, of course.  Then there are food, sunshine, an easygoing joie de vivre, and the people with their beautiful Provençal accent that is unique in France.   It is also a center of perfume production and much of that perfume is made from a flower characteristic of the region: lavender.

If you are coming to taste wine in Provence at the right time of the year, the late spring and through mid-summer, you will have the added attraction of seeing lavender growing in the fields. You may catch a few buds in April and there are stragglers in the fields after the main harvest in the middle of July, but the radiance of the fields in full bloom is a reason to visit in the prime months.

Lavender fields in front of the village of Grignan, in the Drôme Provençale.  Photo courtesy of Complete France.

Much as with grape vines, lavender is planted in orderly rows, so that it appears that fields and hillsides are striped in purple.  Of course we call that shade of purple by the name of the flower, but lavender takes on different hues, depending on the time of day.  In the hazy sun of morning, the plants are almost pink in hue.  In full sunlight, it takes on the light violet color we associate with lavender.  If you see the fields in the waning light of early evening, the plants appear to be a deep blue purple.

The scent of lavender hanging over the villages cannot be adequately described in words.  This indescribable fragrance envelopes you, leads you on, holds you back, entices, seduces and ultimately leaves you with a wistful smile that lingers in your memory.  If it is hard to summon the notion of a village embraced in this aroma, it is impossible to communicate the idea of an entire region smelling of lavender.

Processing lavender at the Distillerie Bleu-Provence.  Photo courtesy of Drôme Sud Provence.

You ought to visit the Drôme Provençale, where you’ll find the charming villages of Nyons and Grignan with its château. You can take a tour of the Distillerie Bleu-Provence and see how they process the flowers into lavender oil.  You will also enjoy a tasting of lavender tea and of course visit their attractive shop.

Our Provençal friends in Nyons have told us that they rub their arms and legs with lavender oil in the hot summer to avoid mosquito bites.  It certainly smells better than what we find here in the US.

Even if you miss the high season, there are lavender products available in all the Provencal towns throughout the year.  In almost every gift shop, you can find dried flowers, cosmetics, bottles of oils and tablecloths with lavender design.  Lavender is sometimes mixed in herbes de provence and there are those who sprinkle the flowers on salads.

We like to think that some of the aroma of lavender finds its way into the more delicate wines of the southern Rhône.  Search for it the next time you open a Côtes du Rhône.

Roussillon, the Red Village

Let’s say you’re on a wine tasting visit to the Southern Rhône.  Everywhere you go, there seems to be a mountain hovering over you.  One of them is Mont Ventoux, the Windy Mountain, and it is emblematic of the region.  You might wonder, what’s on the other side of that mountain.  The answer is that there are other wine producing areas, the Vaucluse and the Luberon.  They make pleasant wines, not as well known as the ones from the Côtes du Rhône.

The voyage over the mountains is worthwhile in itself.  For one thing, the panorama is breathtaking.    Wherever you’re driving from, you will cross many beautiful little villages as you drive over Ol’ Windy.  In many years, a stage of the Tour de France goes up the Mont Ventoux; they will return to the mountain this year.  No matter how hot it is when you leave the valley floor, you’ll find it to be quite chilly at the top of Mont Ventoux.  At the crest of the mountain there used to be a meteorological station; the building is still there even if it’s not used anymore.

The village of Roussillon.  Photo courtesy of Civitatis.

Once you get over the mountains, we recommend that you make your way to the village of Roussillon (pronounced roo-see-yon).  Although they’re spelled the same way, this village has nothing to do with Languedoc-Roussillon further to the west.  This quiet spot is ensconced in a Natural Regional Park, so that even if some tourists do find their way there, it is relatively unspoiled (or at least it was when we were last there).

Along the walls of Roussillon.  Photo courtesy of The Savvy Bostonian.

The town is built from stone quarried there in years past.  The rocks are full of ochre, a red-orange clay that has long been used to make artists’ paint.  Thousands of years ago, the prehistoric people living in what is now the south of France used it for body decoration and for coloring their famous cave art.  In Roussillon, the ochre creates a village where all the buildings are red, yellow, orange or shades in between.  French villages in general are charming; this one has charm pouring from every colored wall.

The best way to soak in all that charm is just to walk around.  There are steep stone streets (but no cars) where you pass quaint homes.  There’s an ancient Romanesque church, with “new” facades from the 17th century.   There’s a market on Thursday mornings and there’s a town square in front of the Mairie (town hall) where you ought to stop for a coffee, a meal or a glass of wine

Most of all, you should walk the walls overlooking the old quarries.  Roussillon sits atop a mass of red rock, and you can see it from the walkway.  You can take a stroll on the Ochre Trail (sentier des ocres) and walk into the quarries.  In particular, try to see Roussillon at the end of the day, when the color of the setting sun makes the walls of Roussillon and its surrounding seem to come ablaze.  It’s an awesome sight that you’ll never forget.

If in your wine-tasting travels in the Southern Rhône you want to spend a little time in the perfect Provençal village, you’ll find it in Roussillon.

Driving Tips in the Southern Rhône

In some sectors of Wine Country, there is one main road that sort of ties the entire region together.  There’s Route 29 in Napa Valley, the D2 in the Médoc or Main Road in Long Island’s North Fork.  But if you want to spend time driving around  the Southern Rhône to taste the wines, it’s not so easy.  For one thing, the sector is really large, around 140,000 acres in the Côtes-du-Rhône.  For another, many of the villages are very far from even the relatively large routes.

Châteauneuf du Pape.  Photo courtesy of La Mirande.

So if you do plan to drive around the Southern Rhône, here are a few tips to make your travels easier and your tasting more fun.

  • Choose a few nearby villages for a day’s tasting. Châteauneuf du Pape and the area around it is the most famous in the region and it justifies a day (or two, or a lifetime) by itself.  Beaumes de Venise, Gigondas and Vacqeyras are quite close to one another as are Rasteau and Cairannne.  Further north, Vinsobres and Visan are near to one another.  Try to minimize the driving so you can have more time for tasting and visiting the villages.
  • There are some spots where you don’t have to drive very far between wineries. For example, at the intersection of the D69 and the D975 in Rasteau, you can visit Domaine du Trapedis, Domaine la Soumade, the really excellent Cave de Rasteau cooperative, Domaine des Nymphes (for dessert wines) and Domaine Côteaux des Travers all within a few kilometers of one another.  That’s really a day’s tasting in one small place.
  • Get a good roadmap. You may have a car equipped with GPS or you may want to use your cell phone.  But we have found that these systems calculate the shortest route, not the fastest or most sensible one.  So you wind up driving through somebody’s vineyard with no village in sight for miles.  Michelin sells very good maps and there are others, all available at the local tabac or gas station.  Buy one that’s specific to the area you plan to visit.  Maps that cover a broader area may save you a little money but they lack the specificity to keep you from getting lost.

Gigondas. Photo courtesy of Our House in Provence.

  • Trust the signs. The roads are very well marked.  Since many of the villages aren’t on major roads or even large minor ones, your map might not be enough for the last mile.  But if you see a sign indicating that Gigondas is this way, keep going until you see the next sign for the village.  You’ll get there (and you’ll be glad you did).
  • Make time for lunch. You may as well, because all the wineries close up from around noon to 2:00.  So aim to be in a village just before lunchtime.  That way you can scout around and find a restaurant or café to your liking.  The better ones fill up, so you might need a reservation.  Even the more casual ones become full with locals, so make sure to get there around noon to make sure to get a table.

 

Château Cabezac

At virtually the eastern-most extreme of the Minervois region in southwest France, there is a winery in the village of Bize-Minervois called Château Cabezac (www.chateaucabezac.com/copie-de-home).  It is housed in a yellow building that combines Mediterranean architectural touches with some medieval parapets and an inviting terrace where you can sip your wine under skies that seem always to be blue.  You may encounter some confusion because there is also a Château de Cabezac just down the road which is an actual castle renovated today into a hotel.  It is not associated with the winery.

Photo courtesy of the winery.

 Cabezac makes sprightly, fruit-forward wines that are respectful of the terroir.  Most of their wines are from the traditional Rhône-style grapes:  Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan in the reds and Roussanne, Muscat Sec and Grenache Blanc in the whites.  With thirteen wines to choose among, you can have quite a tasting.

The tasting room is handsome and airy, made largely of wood.  When we were there it was not very busy, but that was a weekday in late September.  We understand from our server that it can be quite bustling at times, which makes their terrace even more valuable.  We received quite an education in Cabezac’s viticulture and winemaking philosophies.  We also learned that the same proprietor has properties in Calvados and Champagne, producing the wines and spirits associated with those regions.  Alas, they were not available for tasting.

Cabezac takes its tasting program quite seriously.  Of course, you can just drop by as we did and have a standup tasting of four wines (although we found that “four” is more of a concept than a limitation).  They also offer half-day and full-day tastings that include more extended explanations and tours.  Cabezac also has a program for corporate clients to host tasting events there.

Cabezac is a relatively young winery, established in 1997.  The proprietor, Gontran Dondain, has invested in wine making in a modern, sanitary manner.  We found that these practices at Cabezac are exemplary of a trend that has, happily, swept across Languedoc.  Improved winemaking practices are being followed across the Languedoc region.  When you visit Cabezac tasting room, you’ll find a window that allows to view the production facilities.  They are gleaming and spotless, indicative of the investment and the care that has gone into this winery.  We have observed this in many other leading wineries in the region.

Where once wines were thin in the mouth and harsh in the throat, today Languedoc wineries such as Cabezac are producing wines that, in our opinion, are comparable with many of those from the Rhône valley (excluding the top-most in that region).  Many of the new generation of Languedoc wineries have adopted bio and vin methode nature growing techniques.  Although Cabezac is not among these, they did tell us that they are scrupulous about their growing methods.

Sadly, Château Cabezac’s wines cannot be found in the United States, to our knowledge.  It does make a worthwhile stop if you are wine tasting in southwest France.

 

Organic? Biodynamic? Natural? What’s Going On?

As you’re enjoying the rustic air of Wine Country, you might want to know how well the grapes were raised and harvested and then what was done to the juice in the industrial processes of crushing, fermenting, aging and bottling.  Vignerons and wine makers are as concerned about sanitary and healthful practices as anyone – in fact, more so than many of us – and they have responded in a number of ways.  But many of the terms in use in the world of wine today can be very confusing.

Making wine used to be rather simple, at least in concept:  Plant vines; Nurture grapes; Harvest and process grapes; Repeat.  Now there are considerations that are intended to make the wine better that are either advanced or trendy, depending on your perspective.

  • Organic wines – We are all used to seeing organic fruits and vegetables in the supermarket. Grapes are fruit so there’s no reason why some of them might be raised organically.  In practice, what does that mean?  In a sense, it’s a return to the simple principles of olden times.  Specifically, organic grapes are raised without a lot of chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.  Now, we’re not fond of drinking a glass of bug-killer, but then we’re not too happy about knowing that little critters have been gnawing on the same grapes that went into out glasses.  At least in theory, crops should be certified as being organic but we’re not sure that all organic winemakers go through this step.

Some biodynamic wine practices. Photo courtesy of Bibendum Wine.

  • Biodynamic wines – Makers of these wines follow the same organic practices but then go quite a bit further. Evidently an Austrian fellow in the beginning of the previous century espoused some theories about agriculture that proponents call advanced and detractors think of as just plain whacky. Among these are following astrological observations and burying cow’s horns filled with manure in the vineyards.  We’d be thoroughly in the detractor category except that some of the biodynamic wines we’ve tried have been pretty good, so maybe there’s something there.  (Just to confuse matters, French winemakers who raise grapes organically, but not biodynamically refer to their wines as “bio”.)

The logo for French “natural” wines.  Courtesy of decanter.com.

  • Natural wines – These wines place less emphasis on how the grapes are raised but rather focus on what happens to the juice once it is crushed out of those grapes. The winemakers don’t add yeast to force fermentation but rely on the natural yeasts that settle on the grapes in the vineyards.  Some makers of natural wines add a little bit of sulfites to preserve the wines, but much less than the producers of most commercial wines.  Others add no sulfites at all.  In the United States, there are no formal rules for natural wines but the French government has recently set a designation for vin méthode nature the prescribes methods and practices.

We at Power Tasting applaud any methods being applied to make better wine.  We have found that these practices have vastly improved winemaking in areas that used to be known for “rustic” (i.e., low quality) products.  But we are not fans of cultish ideas that are more about lifestyle philosophy than winemaking.