Château Portier

Beaujolais is a section of Wine Country just north of the French city of Lyon.  It is  well known for  the Beaujolais Nouveau released each November.  In Beaujolais, it is the celebration of the end of the harvest, without any pretention.  It’s a great marketing gimmick and is the inspiration for parties all over the French-speaking world, but these wines obscure the quality of some excellent wines made from the Gamay grape in this region.

A slightly chilled Beaujolais Villages goes well with a barbecue on a warm summer evening, but these wines aren’t very memorable, either.  The best of Beaujolais comes from the crus, 10 appellations in the northern end of the region.  All of them are named after villages (Chenas, Julienas, Morgon, Brouilly, etc.)  Well, all but one: Moulin à Vent, which means windmill.  And not just any windmill, but a specific one that became the emblem of this cru when the appellation was established in 1936. As noted, these folks have a flair for marketing.

The famous windmill of Moulin à Vent.

The windmill in question sits on a hill overlooking a wide valley, full of vineyards, in the town of Romanèch-Thorins.  Right across the road from the windmill is Château Portier, whose wines will provide a good introduction to this well-regarded region of Beaujolais.  (Because it is the closest to the windmill, the owners of Château Portier are the official custodians of the landmark.)

One of the outbuildings at Chateau Portier.

The proprietor is Denis Chastel-Sauzet, who is the president of the Moulin à Vent vintners association.  We’re not sure what the President’s duties entail, but it is a good indication that the other winemakers hold M. Chastel-Sauzet in high regard.  The building that houses the winery is from the 19th century, with extensions that were there in the 16th and 17th centuries.  You can walk around the grounds, which offer pleasant views of these older buildings and of the valley.

The tasting room will remind no one of a Napa palace.  It’s a bit dank but it is functional.  And Château Portier bottles wines from all around the Beaujolais crus, in addition to several from Moulin à Vent.  It’s a better introduction to the quality wines of the region than in the Caveau de Moulin à Vent (the local winemakers’ cooperative) just down the road.

Many critics would say that the finest Beaujolais wines come from Moulin à Vent.  While we appreciate other crus, especially Morgon, we would be inclined to agree.  There is a richness in the mouthfeel in these wines that make them much more interesting than the easy-going Beaujolais Villages and certainly more so than Beaujolais Nouveau.  Top end Beaujolais wines deserve to be in any collector’s cellar and the best of them are age-worthy and can accompany many meals, from steak to salmon.  This is not to say that Château Portier is among the best of the region, but this winery is a worthy destination for a visitor who wants to see the famous moulin à vent (the windmill) and learn about the wines.

Walking Through Vineyards, Part 2

In our last issue, we discussed the pleasures of walking through vineyards and also noted that most farmers aren’t crazy about the idea of tourists doing so.  Here are various ways to get near or into a vineyard, some more official than others.

One way is to visit a winery that has set aside a few rows of vines for the express purpose of access by visitors.  You’re most likely to find these near California wineries.  Grgich Hills in Rutherford in Napa Valley and Dry Creek Vineyards in the eponymous region in Sonoma County are two examples of wineries that have these model vineyards.  One of the advantages is that they have different sorts of red and white grapes growing right next to each other, so you can compare them.  Of course, the best time to do so is in August and September, when there are grapes hanging from the vines.

The best way to learn about the vineyards is to take a winery tour that includes a walk though the vines.  In fact, some wineries only offer tastings if you take a tour and build a walk among the vines into the tour.  Stags’ Leap and Chappelet on Pritchard Hill, both in Napa Valley, are among those that arrange their tastings that way.  There are some plusses and minuses, though. A guided vineyard tour offers particular advantage if your guide is a well-versed educator.  You can get some valuable lessons by seeing why grapes grown in this kind of soil, near that water source, produce grapes that are used to make the wine you just tasted.  However, you need to plan more time at the winery and be ready to hear the sales pitch at the end of the tour.

Weather can be a factor, too.  We once took a tour at Chappelet on a brutally cold day in December (yes, it happens) and a few sips of Sauvignon Blanc among the barren vines was not enough to warm us up.  We took another one in fall and it was the most beautiful view of the vineyard when the leaves of the vines had turned color.

In a Burgundy vineyard.

For the most part, American growers fence off their vineyards.  The same can be said of producers in Bordeaux.  But in Burgundy it’s different.  The reason is a bit complicated, tied up in the inheritance practices of centuries gone by in that region.  A person’s estate was divided among all of his, or occasionally her, children.  As a result, each child received a few rows of vines in this vineyard and another couple in that one in the next town.  Today, even in the most famous Burgundy vineyards such as Chambertin or La Romanée, there are many owners of each parcel of land.  The vineyards can’t be fenced in because too many people have to have access to them.  And so tourists are welcome (respectfully, please) to walk among the rows.

Better yet, you can take a picnic and enjoy it alongside a vineyard, which we have done many times.  Once we had stopped at a charcuterie in Nuit St. Georges and then picked up a bottle in a wine store and then headed up the road.  We found a quiet spot next to a vineyard owned by a Monsieur Dugat and settled ourselves in for lunch.  (Don’t try doing that in Napa/Noma!)  At that point M. Dugat happened to walk by. We were afraid he would ask us to leave, but he just eyed what we were eating and in particular wanted to know what we were drinking.  “Oh, just a picnic”, Lucie replied in French.  The farmer eyed our wine bottle and saw that we had chosen a nice premier cru so he said, “Quel pique-nique!” (What a picnic!) and went on his way.




The Salt Flats of Trapani

If you go wine tasting in Marsala (and you really should if you visit Sicily) less than two hours drive from Palermo, you will likely want to stop for lunch.  You can try to find a restaurant in the town of Marsala, but to be honest the town is rather dull.  The people in the wineries recommended a few places, but it seems they were only open for dinner.  But then the server at Cantine Pellegrino suggested we drive up the road a short way, “only 10 minutes away” to Mamma Caura’s.

Mamma Caura’s restaurant on the beach in Trapani

As is often the case when you get advice from the locals, they don’t have a true sense of distance on roads they know so well.  She then spoke the most dangerous words of advice: “You can’t miss it.”  As long as we hugged the coast and watched for signs for the ferry, we’d be fine.   And in fact, we were.

What she didn’t tell us is that the road itself was worth travelling.  It took us past the salt flats of the next town north, called Trapani, where they take salt from the sea.  (The most desirable salt in France is called fleur de sel and its Italian cousin is sale marino, which comes from Sicily’s western coast.)  Sea water is pumped out of the Mediterranean into shallow, squares  pools, or pans, set up on the shore where the water evaporates and leaves salt with mild flavor, moist texture, and tiny, irregular grain sizes.  The salt is harvested and piled up into small hills that remind us North Americans of snow after a blizzard.

Salt has been made here this way for many centuries, even before the Romans.   The pumps were driven by windmills (evidently a recurring theme in this issue of Power Tasting) and a few are still there, more for show than for practicality.  Motorized pumps do the work these days.

Which brings us back to Mamma Caura’s.  Yes, it was easy to find and it is on the beach near the ferry jetty that takes people to the nature preserve on San Pantaleo island.  The food is simple but enjoyable. Indeed, what’s not to like on a very hot day when you enjoy a fresh and crispy tuna salad with a bottle of white wine (Donnafugata Anthelia, from the winery where we had just visited).  And the view is wonderful!  In front of you are the salt pans, the mounds of salt, and a magnificent windmill.  A few boats round out the vista.

After lunch you can walk out to the windmill, learn more about the history and the process and buy some salt at the shop.  It comes in small or large packages and in a variety of colors.

One word of caution, though.  It can be very hot on the beach.  We were there in mid-September, not the middle of the summer and we broiled, even under Mamma Caura’s outdoor pavilion.  You should still go; just have a nice cold bottle of white wine with your lunch and enjoy.

Visiting Napa/Noma in June

This article continues our occasional series on the “best” month to visit Napa Valley and Sonoma County for wine tasting.  Of course, there is no best month; they’re all great and each has its own special attraction.  In past editions we’ve discussed January, February, April and October.  It’s time to include a summer month.

Ah, June! The days are warm; the nights are short; the bees are buzzing and all’s well with the world.  All surely is well in Napa/Noma.  The vines are full of leaves and the aforementioned bees have done their job of pollinating the plants, so fruit is beginning to appear.  What will be formidable grapes in a few months are only be tiny green berries, but the hope of great wine has been lit.

An afternoon in June at Château Montelena.

The weather will often follow its usual California pattern.  Mornings will be grey and dank, sometimes downright cold.  Then sometime around 10:30, as if on cue, the clouds will part and disappear leaving blue skies and bright sunshine.  You’ll like it and so will the grapes.  By midday it will start to get hot and by the middle of the afternoon there will be no doubt about it.  Fortunately, when the sun goes down, the evenings will be pleasantly warm and you may want a sweater on occasion.

June 15, 9:00 p.m., Etude Winery in Carneros.

Many of the wineries have special events for their Club members in June.  If you are a member of one or more, these make visiting in June even more alluring.  If you aren’t a member, you might be able to participate in a barrel tasting or the opening of special bottles just because you’re there and it wouldn’t be polite to exclude you.  But you may also find visiting hours curtailed for an event, so it’s best to call ahead if you plan to visit near the end of the day.

Tasting rooms can become quite crowded in June, especially on the weekends. You will see more tour buses, stretch limos and bachelorette parties at wineries. The locals have been enjoying good weather since March, even if the vineyards haven’t been at their best.  Visitors from northern climes are drawn to Napa/Noma this month for the combination of scenery, temperature and fairly new releases of their favorite wineries.  Try to come on weekdays and if that’s not possible, prepare to be patient and maybe schedule some appointment tastings.  With an appointment, you will make sure you will be served the wines you are looking for.   They may even set a table for you to avoid the weekend crowd.

Hotel reservations may be a bit harder to get in June and prices are certainly going to be higher than in cooler months.  On the other hand, this is generally the first time in the year when you can come back from wine tasting and take a dip in the pool.  [We particularly enjoyed doing that at the Wine Country Hilton which was, sadly, a victim of the 2017 fires.]  The sun doesn’t go down until 8:30, so you have lots of time for a dip and maybe a sunlit aperitif too.

Many restaurants and groceries feature seasonal local produce.  You’ll find some of the best strawberries, peaches and plums you’ve ever tasted.  Santa Rosa’s Night Market is a great place to sample them.  Again, it is always a good idea to make a reservation at the restaurant where you’d like to eat.

What is so rare as a day in June…in Napa/Noma Wine Country?