Natural wines: the joys of simplicity

Local vigneron Rémi Curtil

Local vigneron Rémi Curtil

There’s a relatively new movement afoot here in rural France that has the wine world abuzz. Something called “natural wine” which is made almost like regular wine except it allows none of the 2,000 or so additives, enzymes, boosters of colour and other enhancers that can be used in wine production. Only sun-ripened grapes go into natural wines. That’s it. Simple, or so it may seem. The problem is there is not even a trace of sulphites added to natural wines so there is a risk of turning a juicy, well made wine into vinegar in no time. Not a choice for the faint of heart. It takes a special breed, with lots of courage, long-term commitment and a touch of folly to go this far against the grain.

Tasting on the market in Uzes.

Tasting on the market in Uzes.

Rémi at the wine cellar in Bourdic.

Rémi at the wine cellar in Bourdic.

My friend Rémi Curtil runs de Grappes et d’Ô, a one-man winery of 7.5 ha just south of Uzès.  Rémi is in the wine business for the love of pure, complex wines and the love of the land or the terroir he works throughout the year. He respects the soil and wants to transform the current norm of chemical based production to a much more ecologically friendly organic model. One only has to compare the rich living soil of an organically farmed vineyard to the weed free, barren vineyards of his neighbours to understand the harm we are doing.

Rémi has always loved good food and wine and initially trained as a sommelier. After several years working for several top restaurants in Paris, he become head sommelier for the huge Accor hotel chain and got progressively bored with wines that all tasted much the same. Rémi wanted a change so at 25 he went back to school for a year to learn the basics of grape growing and wine making at the Lycée Agricole in Beaune. Since that time he’s learned the rest on the job, working for some of the better domains in Bandol, Lirac and les Baux de Provence. He came to Uzès with the intention of one day starting his own domain and after a stint as cellar master at Domaine de Malaigues, Rémi started up in 2007 with a desire to create artisan, hand-made wines that reflect the vintage and the terroir. From what I have tasted, I would say he has done just that. There have been a few misses along the way but the vast majority of Rémi’s wine is balanced and full of character. He is very keen on the newly rewarded appellation status for the wines of Uzès and thinks it will help spread the renown of our local wines. For the moment, Rémi makes mainly red wine; a 100% grenache called Grenat, a 100 % syrah called Carmin and a blend of the two for the AOC Duché d’Uzès. And he is so thrilled about the 2012 vintage he may reserve the best lots for a super cuvée aged in top quality oak. Also in the works; a bag-in-box, unoaked white made from a  blend of white grenache, viognier and vermentino. Next year he will release the same wine in bottle.

When I ask Rémi if he has any regrets, his broad smile gives away his answer. Even though his adventure represents big risks and an enormous amount of effort, he wouldn’t give it up for anything. Long may he run.  De Grappe et d’Ô / telephone: 06 75 1999 55


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Harvest hymn

With September comes the pop sound of hunters hunting, the bright buzz of kids on their way to school and the familiar banter of a group of friends who gather to help Serge harvest his grapes. Fall and cooler weather is upon us and summer memories fade quickly. The team is out to do a job, hopefully before the rains come. But like all wine makers, Serge pushes the limits, trying to harvest his grapes at their optimum level of ripeness. And this year he beat the odds. The shears, boots and rain gear have been put away for another year and the grapes are slowly turning into wine. Perfectly ripe, concentrated grapes should mean lovely, concentrated wines down the road. The team can wipe their collective brow and smile for a job well done. The aching muscles,  great food and bad jokes will return in a year or so.

To learn more about Serge check out my earlier post, Bottles of wine and the mail’s on time.

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The Truffle King

The renowned black truffle or tuber melanosporum can be one of life’s memorable culinary experiences or a total waste of time and money. Much of what consumers buy has been processed, pasteurized and canned and by the time one gets round to using the tiny boite that cost a fortune, very little is left of the special scent that drives gourmandes mad.

But, thankfully, I live in a region with loads of fresh truffles and one of the largest producers is just a village away. La Truffière d’Uzès is run by fourth generation truffle farmer Michel Tournayre. He farms about 35 acres of truffle trees on the outskirts of Uzès and owns another 80 acres of scrubland forests in the hills surrounding Uzès. Michel can go on for hours about the finer points of growing this most difficult fungus. Crops can vary radically from year to year and hence the potential benefits. So much depends on the  getting the right weather throughout the year that one needs a solid constitution to make a business out of truffles.  Then there’s the constant threat of being robbed of the harvest at any time.

But all of these obstacles don’t deter Michel, who  opened earlier this year a large reception facility and shop at his domain next to Uzès. He wants to make the truffle into a local star and attract tourists from all over. A typical tour icludes a brief introduction to the world of truffles, then Michel leads a walk  through the truffle park where he’s  dug out a three metre deep trench that lets you see the root system of the host white oak trees.

Michel Tournayre showing the intricate root system of the truffle oak.

And of course the tour would be missing something without a bit of cavage or truffle hunting. Michel has several specially trained dogs he uses to hone in on the scent of the truffle. Then the master has only to gently dig up the famous tuber and reward his dog for all his hard work with a special treat. At the end of the tour participants can browse in the shop at their leisure.

In the future, Michel plans on holding special events, dinners and tastings to the glory, bien sur, of this very special fungus. For more information contact Michel Tournayre at


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A great rosé for summer

An idyllic winery setting with Mont Ventoux as a backdrop.

Last week, on my very hurried way to a pre-wedding wine tasting I’d organized for a young couple from Australia, I had a feeling I needed more wine. You see, the numbers had increased the night before and it was a hot morning plus the theme was rosé and I only had two to pour. So, reaching the lovely rolling hills of the Ventoux, I caught site of a winery name on the side of the road that struck a distant chord in my cluttered brain so I screeched to a halt, did a 360 and turned up a steep mountain road.

A classy, salmon hued rosé made from Grenache, Cinsault and a bit of Syrah.

After several kilometres of tight hairpin turns and realizing my time was running out, I ditched the initial destination and turned into the first winery I happened upon, Domaine du Tix. This small 12 acres winery was started in 2001 by Philippe Danel and his wife as a way to escape the noise and pollution of Paris and live the easy-going life of a winery owner. Of course he admitted to me that he’s never worked so hard but he wouldn’t give it up for anything. We had just a bit of time to chat; just enough to learn he used to coach hockey and once went to Canada with a team.

I found a great, refreshing yet complex rosé that ended up being a hit at the tasting and a new domain that I am sure I will visit again soon.

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Back with a bang!

Wow. About time your likely thinking. Where did that food warrior guy get to? Was he swallowed up in the bowels of a gigantic bread dough machine? Or perhaps he got eaten alive by a gnarly wild boar. In fact, I can’t lay claim to anything nearly as exciting as the above. I just got busy doing other stuff. Some exciting new stuff like creating my new wine and food tour company called Promo Vinum Winery Plus Tours and lots of mundane, everyday boring stuff like being a taxi driver for my kids.

So, now that I have finally made the effort to get back into writing, I want to try to give you a small feeling of what my foodie life is like in this special part of the world. Summer is here after a slow start to the year and there are many stories to tell.

I am also trying to improve  my social networking skills. Thanks to a good friend, I have a FB page now that should be linked with this blog and my website very soon. Just search for Promo Vinum or go to

The seven, sorry eight lobed wonder berry.

Speaking of nature, I found a true twist a few days ago at the Friday market in St. Quentin. A seven lobed strawberry that my son pointed out, actually had eight lobes. No GMO’s in sight. In spite of the odd look it tasted soooooo good.

May your summer be filled with many ripe berries, good bubbly and lots of good friends.





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The Coucougnettes of Henry IV

As you might imagine, I’m not that up on my French history. I had a brief encounter with Versailles when I was 16 and I’ve seen the odd château or two over the years. And being a chef I did learn that good old Henry IV was the originator of the classic poule au pot or chicken in a pot – a hearty stew of bird, broth and garden veg that Henry proclaimed should be eaten by all his subjects each Sunday. It’s a dish that he grew up with in a remote south-west corner of France in the town of Pau.

It seems though, that the lowly poule wasn’t the only sort of bird that Henri liked to savour. Between his marriage to the Reine Margot, his 54 mistresses and the odd one night stand, Henry managed to sire 24 children. And so to honour his most proficient sex drive, a candy maker near Pau has come out with what they call France’s best sweet: les Coucougnettes du Vert Galant. Yup, you guessed right – life-size imitations of Henry IV’s balls! I have a hard time imagining a comparable honour being bestowed on more modern leaders, although Silvio Berlusconni might prove to be the exception.

So what do Henry IV’s balls taste like, you ask? Bof. If you’re a fan of marzipan you might find these chocolate covered almonds rolled in pink almond paste to your liking. I liked the story way more than the actual sweet. But who knows, perhaps they’re laced with Henry’s secret ingredient and well the rest I’ll leave to your imagination…

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I say cheese, ewes say cheese!

Lunch time!

From afar I am sure I’ve made a mistake. Row upon row of plastic covered greenhouses, like giant silvery worms, appear out of the fog and not a sheep in sight. It’s only when I approach a long, greenish tunnel and my ears are filled with a symphony of BAAAAAA’s that I know I’ve found the right place.

Les Bergers de Belvezet is a small, artisan ewe’s milk cheese company run by Jean-Michel Reymond and Christelle Houy. They greet me with warm smiles and the relaxed assurance of people who are totally happy with the choices they’ve made. Both have worked around sheep for years. Jean-Michel grew up on a farm in the Crau to the south of Arlès and found he enjoyed working  with sheep over the summer vacation.  Christelle has always worked on farms but the day she discovered shepherding she knew it was for her. Soon afterwards she earned a diploma from the only shepherding school in France near Salon de Provence in 1999.


Christelle at work

So when a good friend decided to get out of the sheep rearing business four years ago and asked Jean-Michel and Christelle to take over what was left, they jumped at the chance. And right from the start the couple decided that they wanted to make cheese. The fact that neither had a clue about where to start says volumes about their courage and tenacity. Before long they contacted an experienced fromagier, Alain Perret in the Pyrenees mountains and arranged to work with him for a time. He gave them all the technics they needed to produce the classic Tomme style of cheese.

Christelle remembers it as an intense, exciting time.  “We started with only 40 sheep and a handful of baby lambs, no barn, no land and very little equipment. Now we milk 100 sheep twice a day and have plans to build a new fromagerie and milking barn on a small piece of land close by within a year or so. It was hard in the beginning, getting up at 5:30 a.m. to bottle feed the baby lambs or sometimes we had to wrap them in warm blankets to protect them from the cold.” The work is still hard but now the couple are equipped and experienced. For Christelle nothing beats a spring morning spent walking through the lush garrigue with her troupe of sheep and the huge sheep dogs she uses to keep them in line. The air is fresh and the only sounds are those of her dogs and the bababa of the herd.

Back at the tunnel the noise is deafening and I wonder to myself how anyone of sane mind could manage to work with these wooly, four-footed milk machines for longer than a few days. When I pose the question to  Jean-Michel and Christelle, they tell me that after a while it isn’t that bad! I guess one could resort to earplugs or an Ipod. But then you might miss something, for it seems sheep talk. And I guess if you’re around them as much as Jean-Michel and Christelle you start to understand. Before long the daily milking is over and three large jugs are transferred to the adjacent fromagerie.

While Christelle tends to the sheep, Jean-Michel makes the cheese. The building resembles a large fibreglass Lego block house and looks totally alien amongst the typical old stone buildings of the Uzège countryside. Jean-Michel explains that this odd-looking portable fromagerie hails from the Pyrenees mountains where they’re used to make cheese in high altitude alpine pastures after being brought in by helicopter. For Jean-Michel and Christelle the structures provided an inexpensive way to produce their cheese under  modern, hygienic conditions.

Jean-Michel heats the milk to 30˚C

Everything must be spotless

He makes his cheese in the same manner as the Pyrenean Tomme. The milk is heated slowly to 30˚C with  rennet that causes the milk to separate into curds and whey. The curds are removed, cut up a bit and ladled into moulds where they spend about a day to take on their final shape. Then they’re dry salted once a day and rubbed with a cloth to remove any black mould. The rounds, which weigh about four kilo each, mature slowly for a minimum of two months ending up with an orange-tan  rind and a creamy, ivory coloured heart. The taste is typical of ewe’s milk cheeses, mild and fruity but with a funky kick. Jean-Michel explains that the flavours get quite strong after five or six months maturation but the production sells so quickly he seldom has rounds that get to that ripe old age.

Helper Nicolas Cabello washes the rind daily with sea salt

The cheese along with ewe’s milk yoghurt and fresh ewes ricotta are available at the Wednesday farmers market in Uzès and at the Friday market in St. Quentin la Poterie. During the summer you can also run into Christelle and Jean-Michel at a small Friday evening market in Belvezet that usually includes some live music at the café municipale. A great local tradition that’s worth checking out.

The bottom line? Even though the two young entrepreneurs were both quite ill just before my visit – a result of four long, hard years of constant effort – I get the feeling they wouldn’t give up this lifestyle for anything. And each Friday when I head to the St. Quentin market Christelle backs up my intuition in the form of a lovely, contented smile.


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