Château Puech-Haut

Château Puech-Haut ( is just about the eastern-most winemaker in Languedoc, France.  Their winery is located in the Pic St-Loup appellation, with vineyards in Saint-Drézéry and in the Cevennes mountains further north.  The tasting room is an easy drive from the city of Montpellier, which is well worth a visit itself.  Now, all these place names may be fairly foreign to American readers.  They’re in a less visited section of southwest France, and they’re worth knowing about.

The tasting room at Château Puech-Haut.

There are a number of reasons to visit Puech-Haut if you’re in the vicinity. Of course, there’s the wine.  For the most part, their wines are quite pleasant, especially their rosés.  They make them from the usual Rhône grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne.  Their usual tasting menu gives you a good idea of what they make in white, red and rosé.  We found that if you show a serious interest in what they make, they’re quite willing to open some of their better bottles for you.

Puech-Haut is located near the foot of the Pic St-Loup mountain, which gives its name to the AOC.  The winery is surrounded by grape vines and overlooked by a vine-covered château that is more of the nice French country house.  A big deal is made about the massive barrel near the château.  It is indeed large, holding so they say, 300,000 litres, which they claim to be the biggest in the world.

One of the painted barrels, with some containing wine in the background.

There is more to say about barrels at Puech-Haut.  It’s not often that we take any notice of bulk wine, a bag-in-a-box.  These serve a purpose; Puech-Haut has a different approach.  They sell wine in bulk is three-litre barrels.  Moreover, the barrels are painted in colorful, amusing, modernistic themes.  When you finish most boxed wines, you throw away the box.  Puech-Haut’s are collectibles.  They also show off some of their actual aging barrels, which are also gaily decorated.

They also make a deal out of some of their bottles.  They’re elongated and nearly triangular in profile with a squarish base.  The bottles for the whites and rosés are frosted and they have glass stoppers (pink ones for the rosés).  In a wine store, your eye is immediately attracted to these bottles and we bet that many people buy one with the thought of reusing the bottles as vases or carafes.  Puech-Haut realizes that they make good advertising and give them away at the tasting room.

A few notes in case you do visit Puech-Haut.  The tasting room is spacious and well furnished, but the layout is such that it can get quite crowded rather quickly.  Those of us who go wine tasting often are used to heading for one winery and then visiting others in the area.  This doesn’t work well at Puech-Haut; there’s virtually nothing else around.

Oh, and by the way, it’s pronounced (sort of) poosh oh.

Advising Friends

Sometime in the near future, we certainly hope, people will start traveling again.  Some of your friends may plan on a vacation in which wine tasting will be a part.  Because they know that you’ve been to the part of the world that they’ll be visiting, they may turn to you for advice.  This can put you into a very tricky position.  You don’t want to be planning their vacation for them and they might not have the same level of knowledge about wine.  You don’t want to be evasive but you don’t want to be too prescriptive, either.

Let’s assume that they’ve been wine tasting before, so you don’t need to tell them about the basics.  At the same time, you don’t want them to be annoyed with you if they follow your advice and don’t have a good time.  Here are some tips to help you be to be helpful, without putting a strain on your friendship.

Tell them about the views.

  • Avoid the “favorite” question. There’s no way you can deal with “What’s your favorite winery?”.  For one thing, you may not have a favorite (and ought to say so).  But then there’s the matter of favorite for what?  The best wine?  The best tour?  The most fun?  The most knowledgeable servers?  You’re better off listing these types of categories and suggesting several places that fit in each one.
  • Steer them away from places you didn’t like. It’s better to tell people what to avoid than what they “absolutely must taste”.  If they go to your big time recommendations and aren’t as happy as you were, they’ll be disappointed.  But if you tell them that a certain winery has awful plonk or that the décor is lugubrious, they’ll thank you.  It’s a good idea to say why you did and didn’t like a particular winery.  For example, we remember one where the wine was just dreadful but they had an interesting collection of antique instruments.  If your friends are musicians or music lovers, they might put up with the wine just to see the cellos.
  • Consider the seasons. If you visited the area they’re going to in autumn, and their trip is in the early spring, they’ll have a different experience than you did.  You saw the radiant colors; they’re going to get bare vines.  They may have a wonderful trip but it won’t be the same as yours.  So qualify the advice you give them with the time of year in mind.
  • Think about their vacation, not just their wine tasting. No matter how great the wine wherever it is they’re going, it won’t be the totality of their trip.  The guidebooks will tell them about the great, new, chic restaurant.  You can tell them about the spot two blocks away with killer Mexican food.  Or the bar with jazz on the weekend.  Or the greatest chocolate ice cream you’ve ever tasted.  Let them discover the wines on their own.  They’ll never find that ice cream cone without you.

Wine Drinking in Arabia

When we say “Arabia” we are quite sure that the image that comes to mind is endless desert, Bedouins in robes and camels.  Well, yes, there’s a lot of sand.  It does get awfully hot.  Tourists do take camel rides.   And many of the men do wear robes, called thobes.  But today many of the countries of the Arabian peninsula have ultra-modern cities, with skyscrapers (including the world’s tallest), restaurants, museums and sports arenas.

What they don’t have is alcohol or, at least, not much.

The dining room at the Abu Dhabi Sheraton.

Muslims aren’t supposed to drink any alcohol and many observe this stricture.  But a lot of the cities in Arabia, such as Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi are centers of finance, trade and of course oil.  Quite a few expatriates live there, working for the big companies and governments.  There are a lot of tourists these days, too.  A fair number are Americans and Europeans who are used to a beer after work, a little whiskey on the weekend and wine with dinner.  So, in some cases, exceptions are made for non-Muslim visitors.

We have worked in that part of the world and were usually able to have some wine when we wanted to.  In the hotels that cater to Westerners, there is almost always a bar and a wine list available with meals, but there aren’t any in the unaffiliated restaurants.  Prices tend towards the high side for what you can order and there isn’t a lot of variety.

On Dubai Creek.

Many Lebanese people work in Arabia.  While Muslim, they make wine and do enjoy drinking it.  Many of the wines you’ll see on the lists come from Lebanon and some of them are quite good.  Chateau Musar is the best known and, in our opinion, the best tasting.  You’ll also see Ksara and Massaya, which are worth trying. There are some American and European wines on the lists, but they’re not the ones you’d choose back home.

There are occasional problems that remind you that you’re far away.  Women are not allowed in the bar of our hotel in Doha, Qatar without a male escort.  They also check for passports to make sure that those men and women who enter are not Qataris.  And one evening we were informed that it was a local holiday and no bars were open anywhere.  (Room service bailed us out.)

Business dinners can be problematic.  If your host is observant, you don’t want to impose on him (your host will always be a man) and order some wine.  At the same time, we have been to dinners many times where half the group wants a glass or two with dinner, while the others abstain.  It can be a little awkward, but it seems that everyone is used to it.  If you’re the host, ask if anyone else wants any wine.  If no one else is interested, it’s diplomatic to skip it yourself.

There are no wine stores and we strongly recommend that you not try to bring a few bottles in your luggage.  (We have had no personal involvement with the police authorities, but the word is that such interactions are not very pleasant.)  We were told that registered expatriates may have alcohol in some countries, with a permit.  Saudi Arabia, however, is very strict in forbidding alcohol and there really is no chance of getting any there.

So if life should bring you to this vibrant part of the world, be a good guest and stick with the hotel bars.

Memories of the Barossa Valley

There are sections of Wine Country that we return to over and over: California, France, Italy, Long Island among them.  We suspect that many wine tasting enthusiasts focus on these and other popular destinations.  And then there are the wine making areas that are near cities where life just happens to take us.  It has been many years since we visited Australia’s Barossa Valley, because we had some work in nearby Adelaide, only 45 minutes away.  We’re sure that much has changed in the interim, but some things have remained the same.

The Barossa Valley, among the most beautiful wine-producing regions in the world.  Photo courtesy of TrailHopper

We are certain that they still drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right side of the car.  If driving while wine tasting concerns you, then doing everything backwards won’t ease your worries.  Maybe this is the occasion to take a tour. (We were hosted and chauffeured by a business colleague, so as they say there, “No worries, mate”.)

A distinctive feature of the Barossa Valley is its German heritage.  Many of the wineries there sport Germanic names and a lot of the restaurants are the wurst places to go.  (Sorry about that.)  Of course, there are many people of British extraction there as well.

Barossa is famous for one grape: Shiraz.  Yes, it’s called Syrah in France and America, but Aussie Shiraz is really distinctive.  The first time we were served it by Australian friends, we thought the wine had gone bad.  Then we realized it was just different from anything we’d ever tasted before.  Of course, Australian wines are better known these days but be prepared for some eye (and mouth) opening experiences.

Wine tasting in Barossa is familiar to many Americans.  The people are friendly and welcoming and if possible even more casual than the servers in Sonoma or Paumanok.  Being Australian, they are hearty and bold, and the same can be said of their wines.  If you like power hitters, you’ll be in heaven here.

The Henschke winery tasting room.  Photo courtesy of the winery.

They are intensely proud of their wines, as they should be.  Their wineries were little known outside Australia when we were there but wines from Seppelt, Peter Lehmann, Torbreck and Wolf Blass (note all the German names) can be found in wine stores around the world.  Of course, what we get at home are the mass production wines.  You can taste some of the rather spectacular wines they keep for themselves if you visit Barossa.

Two Barossa wines can hold their own with the best in the world.  The most famous is Penfolds Grange.  Even greater, to our taste, is Henschke’s Hill of Grace. These are massive wines, 100% Shiraz and sought after by wine lovers everywhere.  Of course, they come at quite a price, north of $650 American dollars at the winery.  To give an idea how long ago we visited the Barossa Valley, we were able to pick up bottles of both at $25 American dollars, equivalent to $63 today.  Here’s to the memories.