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John S

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Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by John S » Wed Jun 28, 2006 8:32 pm

Here is a recent travel report that might be of use to future travellers.

I recently returned from 23 days in Germany, France and Italy. Just over 3600 kilometres of driving! Pretty well kept to wine regions, but just played it by ear this time. However, this meant that I rarely had time to make any advance reservations to taste, which cut down on the quantity and quality of my winery visits. Also, my partner had demanded that we not spend 100% of our time wine tasting. After the shock of this announcement wore off, I had to admit it was reasonable, in a twisted kind of way! Mornings were usually spent wandering, and afternoons and evenings were left for wining and dining.

Man, did we eat a lot of amazing food and of course we drank some amazing wines as well.

We flew into Frankfurt, as I find it's really easy to get in and out of, unlike the Paris CDG airport, which is a bit of a nightmare. After a recovery night in Frankfurt - we tried some local apple wine and tried a couple of regional dishes at a neighbourhood applelwein tavern - we went to nearby Alsace. The weather was a bit sucky here - lots of rain - so we only spent 2 days here. Only hit a few wineries, including Trimbach, Hugel, and Pierre Sparr. Bought a lovely vintage cremant from Sparr (9 euros) to celebrate the start of our trip, and a even more wonderful Hugel 1997 Pinot Gris 'Hommage a Jean Hugel' (28 Euros) to savour later. Had a nice dinner at Caveau Morakof in Neidermorchwihr, and dealt with our craving for an Alsacian tarte at St Martin's restaurant.

But warmer climes called, so we drove about 7 hours to Piedmont. Again, it was pissing down when we arrived. We stayed near Alba the first night, at the Paitin winery, but it wasn't that great, so we moved to the La Morra area the next day. In Piedmont you really need reservations, so we only visited 4-5 wineries in the next 4 days. We stayed at an amazing place (Monesteria - 90 Euros) near La Morra that had the sweetest owner you could ever meet, and she got us into a few wineries no problem. An amazing room with an even more amazing breakfast, including 4-6 regional cheeses and a different home made pastry and tarte. We had a great visit at Elio Altare, and his vivacious daughter gave us some excellent restaurant recommendations. We also went to Manzone, and that was one of my favorite visits of the trip. Very welcoming and warm people there, and in a realy beatuiful site (though most places are here!). Visited Settimo too. Found 'Osteria La Salita' restaurant, a real winemakers haven we were told, and sure enough the first night we were there a group of 12 racous winemakers next to us. Magnums of Barolo kept appearing at their table with alarming alacrity. But most of the barolos on the menu were recent vintages, so I ordered a Clerico - but the Dolcetto d'Alba 2004 only, I'm afraid. 15 Euros from the list, the best Dolcetto I've ever tried. The food was amazing, and outstanding value. The whole 3 course meal cost less than 50 Euros for two, including the Clerico and some Moscato to start. The food and wine was better priced in Italy than in France, that's for sure. Went to a nice little Dolcetto tasting in La Morrra, where we tried 11 different Dolcettos from local producers - quite fun and very informative.

Next up was the southern Rhone. I like staying in the Gigondas/Vacqueras region, as everything is so close from there. We found an amazing gite to stay in at the Domaine le Clos de Caveau, a restored 15th century farmhouse at the winery. Great out of the way location in amongst the vines. Lots of wineries visited here. One thing that became clear to me is that I'm not a fan of the 2003s in the southern Rhone. Just too unbalanced in terms of the tannins now, though this might change in the medium term I guess. The 2004s are more my style. In Gigondas, two producers stood out: the Ch St Cosme 'Valbelle' 2004 was outstanding, up to and surpassing many CNPs. For 21 Euros at the winery, I couldn't resist bringing one home. Domaine Bouisierres' 'La Font de Tonin' 2004 was another outstanding Gigondas. A great winery to visit in CNP was Bosquet des Papes in CNP. They had a range of vintages, from 1999 to 2004 on tasting. The star of the show to me was the 2001 A la Gloire de Mon Grand Pere', a 98% grenache cuvee: a killer wine that was only 21 Euros at the domaine. Chateau Beaurenard was another good visit, and at Ch de la Gardine, they opened up the 2003, 2001 and 1998 for me, which I appreciated! Paul Autard was an interesting visit with an uncomprising modernist - all barriques all the time. I visited Lirac and Tavel too, and am still kicking myself for not buying some Mordoree Lirac 'Les Reines de Bois' 2004 for 14 Euros. I was embarrassed for buying a demi bouteille of the D'Aqueria Tavel Rose for 3 Euros! We loved buying half bottles, as it allowed us to try more wines over the 3 weeks.

Off to the Loire next, a first visit here. I thought I knew my wines, but I couldn't identify 10% of the wineries here! Lots and lots of producers I never heard of. We stayed at another great converted 15 century farmhouse among the vines just outside Chinon. Just missed a wine festival in Savennieres by one day - what a bummer! - but loved the visit there anyway. Went to Baumard and Closel, both great visits. Also went to the Domaine aux Moines, when Madame Larache, the winemaker, asked us if we were more interested in the newer or older wines. When offered a choice, I go with older wines, so she started with the 2000 vintage and we worked back to the 1992 vintage! I was dead set on buying the 1992 when she asked if we liked sweet wines too. When a hasty 'yes!' was offered, she opened up a rare sweet savennieres from the 2002 vintage, and we had to get that. She rather discouragingly noted it was much easier to drink, and seemed a little disappointed with us, but we bought the moulleux to bring home anyway. What a great wine! A visit to Huet in Vouvray was a highlight too - they poured a lot of wines for us from the 2000-2004 vintages. The 'Les Annees 30' was a great restaurant in Chinon, with an amazing four course set menu for 26 Euros. The Chinon area proved to be a nice base for the Loire: a cute little town with coblestone streets and some nice restaurants. I liked the 2002s and 2003s here better than the few 2004s I had: a nice vintage, but not up to the two previous vintages.

A quick stop in Chablis was next, as I wanted to try the 2004 vintage. I'm not a fan of the 2003 vintage here, but the 2004 vintage was much more to my liking. Lots of nice wines here, as always. Great 2004 lineup at Fevre. Bought several older vintage chablis wines to drink. One of our favourite B&Bs in the whole world, a place on a truffle farm and winery, had closed - quel malchance!, so we just stayed in the Hostellrie des Clos.

Then it was off to the Moselle Valley in Germany for a quick 2 day visit. The weather was again a little lousy, but we wandered around and visited a few wineries. Several towns in the middle Mosel were having an open house for wineries, so we wandered around and tried a glass of wine at several wineries we had never heard of. Good fun! The Indian restauarant in Bernkastel - believe it or not - is excellent! A killer paneer (cheese) dish! I think it's called the Tak Mahal.

We were going to stay there a while, but decided to head to the Pfaltz in hope of better weather. We based ourselves in Deidesheim, at the heart of the wineroad. Had some great visits here, including one of the most memorable on this trip. I had heard of Weingut Koehler-Ruprecht, but had never tried their wines, as they aren't available in Canada. We were met at the door by Herr Philippi, the winemaker, who lead us into a great tasting room and somewhat gruffly sat down down beside us. He spoke excellent English, so I was able to grill him about his wines. You got the impression right away that you were talking to a real maestro. He eshewed cultured yeasts and belived in long slow fermentatrions with no temperature control during fermations. When I mentioned we were from BC, he mentioned he had been invited to BC to plant vines for some company. I didn't ask who, but regret it now! We both agreed the Okanagan made reasonable table wine, but that was about it. When I suggested that some of the ice wines were world class, he firmly stated that ice wines weren't 'real' wines, and he never made them himself. A real curmugeon, but a winemaker who wasn't afraid to mince words or take any shortcuts. The wines were outstanding, really a notch above some stiff competition. I regret not bringing one back, but we didn't meet him until the day before we left, so I had already bought all the wines I could bring back.

Other nice visits in the Pfaltz were Bassermann-Jordon (who bottled some of their wines with a neat glass stopper), Dr Burklin Wolf, Biffar, von Buhl and Kurt Darting. The latter was a special visit, and the wonderfully kind woman in the tasting room brought many many bottles for us to taste. BTW, the number of wines made by many German wineries is incredible, but Darting takes it to another level, as they make a lot of less common wines (e.g., Muskateller, Scheurebe, Huxelrebe, Rieslander, Weisburgunder, Sauvignon Blanc and even a Chardonnay) as well as the normal multiple riesling bottlings. And that's just the whites! The woman mentioned we missed Terry Theise by 2 days: very sad, he's one wine person I'd really like to talk to. We brought back a half bottle of a Weissburgunder TBA from Darting - wow, what a powerful sweet wine! The 'Kirchenstube' (right beside the church in Deidesheim) is a great local restaurant.

The German wine regions and wineries are wierd to visit in a way: about 90% of their production is trocken style wines, yet we rarely see them here, and indeed very little is exported. The 10% or so of fruity or sweet style wines are shipped to places like Canada. It's a wierd dichonomy. I tried as many trocken styles as I could, but I still can't say I am a huge fan. I agree they can be much better with food, but I guess I am too used to the fruitier versions. Only tried a few of the 2005s, so can't say much about the vintage. Most producers talked about the amazing purity of the botrytis in the vintage, though.

What do I miss the most? The cheese!!! Why do we submit ourselves to such lousy cheese in North America?!?!?
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Robin Garr » Wed Jun 28, 2006 11:47 pm

Very nice post, John! Thanks for taking the time to share your travel diary, and a very warm welcome to the forum.

Cheese? That might be a great separate thread for the FoodLovers group, but I don't think things are half as bad as they used to be. No, the US is far from Europe for cheese geeks, but there are more and more quality artisanal producers coming on all the time, and a growing number of restaurants that take their cheese program very seriously. We've got a goat-cheese producer in this region that I honestly believe is right up with French for quality, and a couple of decent cow's milk producers (including a famous Trappist abbey) that are a little more conservative but still very good.
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Jenise » Thu Jun 29, 2006 4:39 pm

John, great post. Your cheese lament made me laugh out loud. You, in Vancouver, with sources like Alice's (Les Amis Fromage), complaining. Compared to us with our fear-mongering governmental limitations on unpasteurized products, you live in cheese heaven. I come back from just about every visit north with a couple. You also get a wonderful supply of artisnal cheese from all over your province. There are relatively few down here.

But that said, I hear you. The bountiful variety of European cheese is something very special indeed.
My wine shopping and I have never had a problem. Just a perpetual race between the bankruptcy court and Hell.--Rogov
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Hoke » Thu Jun 29, 2006 5:05 pm

Hey, you did the Three Bs!!! Smart man. Good wines, still often overlooked today.

Sounds like some good times. Sorry your Alsace weather didn't cooperate; that place is always best when it's sunny hot, or really cold. The inbetweens can be blah.
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Bob Ross » Thu Jun 29, 2006 7:03 pm

Great Post, John. Cheese is getting better here -- there are even some excellent courses to learn how to make it yourself. But Europe still leads by a great distance.

Thanks so much, and welcome. Regards, Bob
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by John S » Fri Jun 30, 2006 2:56 am

Jenise, you're right about the nice cheese shops here, especially Les Amis de Fromage. I'm just bemoaning the fact that it's a specialty store as opposed to the European reality of having numerous regional cheeses available in various fromagerie scattered around each town/neighbourhood.

But I agree there are a few artisinal cheese places nearby, especially in the Fraser Valley. The Poplar Grove winery in Narramatta makes some nice cheeses too.

Robin and Bob, I agree that more and more artisanal cheese producers keep cropping up throughout N. America, but there's a long ways to go yet.

Quel domage avec le fromage! Let a thousand cheeses bloom!
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Bob Ross » Fri Jun 30, 2006 4:08 am

John, do you have a place like Bobolink near you?

http://www.cowsoutside.com/

I grew up on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, and in those days it was possible to bike from one Swiss cheese maker to another. They were about ten miles apart. That was the distance a milk truck could cover without the milk spoiling in transit.

During my college years, we would ride from creamery to creamery, tasting cheese and BSing with the cheesemaker. Wonderful times.

There are more and more places like Bobolink in our area now. We drive from one to another, and take courses, and taste and eat the cheeses.

Good stuff. Not only in memory, but in current day reality.

Regards, Bob
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Jenise » Fri Jun 30, 2006 12:23 pm

Bob, John lives in British Columbia.
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Otto » Fri Jun 30, 2006 5:26 pm

Fantastic report, thanks! How did you like Biffar? I had some fantastic Biffars recently and thought that this is a winery I must get better aquainted with. You didn't visit Messmer? They also make a fantastic array of wines, all of which I find great QPR and some of which are truly great.

I also miss cheeses. We can get an adequate selection here but due to lactose problems I can't eat many of them.
I don't drink wine because of religious reasons ... only for other reasons.
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by John S » Tue Jul 04, 2006 7:37 pm

Thanks Otto. I agree, Biffar makes some very nice wines. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to visit Messmer, but I have heard lots of good things about them.

I really wanted to visit Muller-Cattoir as well, but I got lost trying to find the winery, and then the road was blocked by construction, so I arrived 10 minutes after they had closed! Arghh!!

I know a few people who have lactose intolerance. I can't imagine not being able to stuff my face with cheese, so I definitely sympathize with that affliction!
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Paul B. » Wed Jul 26, 2006 12:58 pm

John S wrote:A real curmugeon, but a winemaker who wasn't afraid to mince words or take any shortcuts. The wines were outstanding, really a notch above some stiff competition.

John, that is a great observation. I really believe that sometimes, the gruff sorts have just the kind of angular personalities needed to make great wines. Generally, uncompromising winemakers with vision eschew shortcuts and many tend to be independent thinkers - again, causing them to think differently than those who meekly churn out the "same ol', same ol'" stuff.

As for Trocken wines - wish we had more of those here. I can't say I've seen very many. And artisanal cheeses - ditto. In many ways, our continent really has a long way to go in terms of thinking of food not as a mere commodity of production, but as art, as life itself. We need to learn from the beauty of the Old World approach to many an issue, IMHO.
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by Paul B. » Wed Jul 26, 2006 1:02 pm

John S wrote:I'm just bemoaning the fact that it's a specialty store as opposed to the European reality of having numerous regional cheeses available in various fromagerie scattered around each town/neighbourhood.

Ditto again! Rather than being specialties, I have also wished that such things were commonplace here in North America. We could stand to regain an appreciation for farming in the general population. I cringe every time I meet the types who, stereotypically, think milk or fruit or cheese or whatever just "comes from the store".
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Re: Musings from Recent Europe Trip

by John S » Thu Jul 27, 2006 9:59 pm

Yes, the mavericks in any industry tend to follow their own path (by definition) but also often seem to be rather 'curmugeony', I guess a s a result of having to constantly be questioned as to why they're not doing it the 'normal' way...

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