Monthly Archives: September 2010

Learning about wine from the ground up

Lets face it. Most people I know like wine and drink the stuff in varying amounts. Eventually some even get passionate enough about wine to want to learn the ins and outs. The road to fulfillment on the education front can be intimidating at best. And along the way one runs into more than a few wine snobs who don’t really get the point. You know. That wine is mostly just a humble beverage that brings people together and offers some small pleasures.

So you can imagine my excitement when I was invited to spend an amazing day learning about wine amongst the rolling hills of parasol pine,  old gnarly vines and a deep blue sky at Domaine Clavel in the Côteaux du Languedoc.  The day was organized by a young French company called mesvignes.com. They’re betting on the down to earth (literally) trend that brings together professionals from all walks of life to worship the golden grape.

An organic vineyard is full of life

Mes Vignes has partnered with 15 top wineries throughout France to offer their customers a hands-on way to learn about wine. People sign up for one to three workshops that take place at the winery of their choice and initially harvest the grapes that are destined for the cuvée Mes Vignes.  After a year of more of periodic workshops and lots of online updates, these web vignerons receive a couple of cases of “their” wine.

The participants, myself and 15 couples from all over the south of France are greeted by Stephen, Mes Vignes enologist/host for the day, Pierre Clavel and his wife Estelle. Over coffee and croissants we’re briefed on the day’s events.

Off to the vineyard

Before long, with shears in hand, it’s time to head out to the vineyard and pick grapes. The group is relaxed but excited at the same time. The steep, rocky vineyard is not the easiest of terrain but who cares  when the senses are teased by the stunning views of  nearby Pic Saint Loup and the intense scents of savoury herbs and parasol pine.

The “work” part of the day only lasts for an hour or so and then we’re off to learn about  tanks, vats, barrels and all the other hardware that help turn those ripe, succulent grapes into great wine. The information is precise without being overly technical and the crowd laps it up.

Pierre Clavel explains the primary fermentation

...under the watchful eye of Bacchus.

By noon our hosts sense our brains are full and in need of serious refreshment. The Domaine Clavel 2009 rosé is lovely, fresh and full of ripe, strawberry scented fruit. Soon we sit down to an excellent four-course meal and get to taste the domain’s best wines. By the time dessert is served almost two hours later, I and likely several others,  feel like a wee siesta, but duty calls so we all gather round the modern press where Pierre explains the intricacies of pressing grapes.

Stephen explains the art of using barrels to age wine.

Then it’s off to the barrel chai where some of the domain’s wines are matured in 228 l. oak casks. Stephen explains the reasons behind oak ageing and by the end of his talk we’re all fascinated by this complex and mysterious part of fine wine making.   Finally, our very satisfied albeit slightly tired group, heads to the tasting room, where those who want to can purchase additional wine.

My verdict? A great hands-on way to learn about wine from the people who make it their life’s work. And you’ll get a feel for the life of a vigneron to boot. The amazing vistas, the warm welcome and the knowledge one picks up,  make for an unforgettable experience, one that you’ll be reminded of each time you open a bottle of “your” wine.

More information can be had at; www.mesvignes.com (French only; a new site in English will be online by mid October) http://www.vins-clavel.fr/

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Local heroes – Organic style, part 1

Succulent heritage tomatoes

One of the best things about living in this corner of our little planet in space is the great produce one can find locally. Farmer’s markets abound and I was thrilled we arrived home to learn that our village has, in addition to the regular Friday market,  a producers only Tuesday morning version.

Three years ago when we packed our bags to head back to Canada the only local farmer’s market was up the hill in Uzes and there was only one organic producer.Now both the Tuesday and Friday market here are teeming with dedicated, young farmers who care about what they grow and sell.

Hedwige and Loic Martin

Take Loic and Hedwige Martin for example. In their thirties, the couple farm about 2/3 of a hectare of prime land near St. Siffret. They were originally certified organic but to differentiate themselves from other organic farmers, they’re now using a relatively new technic called Ramial Chipped Wood (RCW). This revolutionary method was developed in the mid 80’s  by a team of researchers at Laval University in Québec. They discovered that the best way to regenerate a spent, dead soil was to cover it with a thin layer of chipped hardwood branches. But not just any branch will do. Loic explains to me that only young wood of 7cm diameter or less have the proper balance of carbon and living cells. He sources his wood from local landscaping firms then roughly chops them up and spreads them over his soil. Over time this thin layer of wood decomposes through the action of a white mould, basidiomycota. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basidiomycete. The result is a moist, dark, living soil that Loic claims is 500 times more nourishing than a standard agricultural soil. Although his vegetables don’t look as perfect as those from traditional producers, they are full of complex, intense flavours.

The very strange, mediterranean plant, Ficoide Glaciale.

As an added calling card, the couple grow some very distinct plants – ficoide glaciale, a furry leafed lemon flavoured salad green and something called Para watercress that leaves me with a stinging, tingling sensation in the mouth. An acquired taste I think.

A few stands away I run into another not so young organic producer named Luc Descoins. After many years in the insurance business he decided at 50 that the best way to do something meaningful for the planet, his community and his family was to go into organic farming.

Luc Descoins

Luc’s wife, Azra, took a year-long, hands on class at a local agricultural school to learn how to make it all work and the couple took the plunge in 2008. Today he grows salad, zucchini, aubergine, green beans, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables on a hectare of excellent, certified organic land that he leases from two local landowners.

Luc finds more and more people are buying organic, even though a recent study pegged organic fruits and vegetable prices  a whopping 70% higher than conventionally grown produce. Luc’s prices, however seem mostly in line with the other traditional producers at the market and he explains to me that buying direct from the farmer as opposed to a distributor keeps the price down. As if on cue, a Parisian woman wanders over to his stand and is amazed by his low prices.

As for the future of organic farming in the south of France, Luc is optimistic. The key, he feels is to get the consumer out of the supermarket and back to local farmer’s markets where one is guaranteed the most nutritional, healthy produce available. The reward for Luc is the direct contact he has with his growing base of satisfied customers. The wide smiles on their faces makes it all worthwhile. www.lesjardinsbiodeluc.fr

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