Thursday 23 July 2009

Wild goose-chase in Provence

On a regular visit to Provence we thought we would look deeper into the diversity of the area but were consistently frustrated and disappointed. Beginning with a call to Eric Pfifferling of Domaine de l’Anglore in Tavel
we asked where we could buy his Vin Naturel. The charming Mme Pfifferling said they were sold-out but there was a caviste behind the Médiatheque in Nimes who stocked their wines or else we could get them from a restaurant at Sanilhac-Sagries near Uzès called ‘Le tracteur’ (vin et produits naturels. Reservation essentielle).

We never made it to Nimes for reasons too embarrassing to relate and Sanilhac-Sagries was a bit far for us staying as we were in the Lubéron. We made the further mistake of trying to look around Marseille on a Saturday morning which is traffic hell.

In the petite bourgade of Coustellet there are two cavistes: the Caveau St. Christophe which has only been going for a couple of years and the cellar of Maison Gouin, a rather expensive traiteur and restaurant. The wines common to both are significantly cheaper at the former but the latter has the better selection,
although Japanese whiskey is surprisingly well represented at St. Christophe. Neither has Vin Naturel and not many Vins biologiques either. When requested, French cavistes tend to feign a complete lack of knowledge of Vin Naturel and when explained to them give a detailed account of why they don’t stock them (too much bottle variation, too many spoiled bottles, too much volatility etc.). If Coustellet is typical of the other small towns and villages in the area, the scene is not encouraging.

All these places have a sort of roving market on different days. We tasted the cheap but listless offerings in Coustellet which seemed to hark back to the bad old days. Only a 100% Carignan showed any signs of life but chalked up 14.5% alcohol. The vigneron was suitably abashed when explaining that he couldn't get the taste without that ABV level.

In the Epicerie at Menherbes, we found a dry Muscat from the Pays d’Oc which was encouragingly successful as an aperitif with a discriminating lunch party crowd

as well as a Languedoc white from Grenache Blanche, Maccabeu and Bourbelenc which sounded jolly; both for under €7. There is also a farm outlet there still selling their excellent Marselan in the same price category. Marsalan is a hybrid between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Another perhaps less successful hybrid is grown in the Cotes du Luberon area; Chasan which is from Palomino and Chardonnay.

We coasted a few supermarkets but the choice is even more boring than in previous years, except for perhaps a few more wines from North Africa. Venturing farther afield into the Cotes du Rhône, the situation was no better. Ploughed-up fields with grubbed-up vines piled in the middle were quite a common site. More cavistes with barely a biodynamic wine etc.

In Monte Carlo, the scene is characteristically plush but unthinking: the blue-chip caviste ‘l’Oenotheque’ limits itself to only the best of everything at best prices too. Prices elsewhere are also steep. At a wine bar called ‘Wine O’clock’ there were some slightly more interesting bottles including a Bellet from Clos St. Vincent at a rather optimistic €27.
The cheapest bottle at €7 claimed to contain ‘cepages meditérraneans et océaniques.’ We thought ‘océaniques’ sounded exciting but just turned out to be Bordeaux varieties (Cab. Sauv. and Merlot) on the basis that Bdx was on the Atlantic. Anyway the back label was common to that producers whole range of wines but happened not to apply to that particular bottle which contained only Mediterranean varieties (Grenache, Carignan, Syrah etc.): a symptom of prevalent sans-foutisme here as in many other places concerning the grape varieties, never mind the actual ingredients.

The upside? The wines of the Lubéron continue to make great strides in quality. According to residents with memories of 20 years and more, the changes have been of the 360۫ variety. Where to get these wines? Thanks to some fine ‘Riverains’ of our acquaintance, the best solution seems to be to know the appropriately named Sebastien Glaçon. M. Glaçon spent 10 years as a sommelier in America and describes himself as ‘Sommelier-Conseil'.

Sebastien Glaçon as Sommelier in New Orleans.

He is a sort of immensely courteous and efficient roving wine-merchant representing over 40 producers. He used to sell from the back of his car but now has his own delivery service. He is available at all hours to give advice and take orders. We tasted an excellent white which he reccomends, Côte du Lubéron - Bastide Claux: Cuvée Barraban 2007 made from Grenache Blanche (65%), Vermentino (25%) and Ugni Blanc (10%). Not too expensive and delicious.

Sebastien Glaçon. No website but his list is available on request: 00 33 66 419 8020. He’s the man!

Monday 6 July 2009


As we have noted you have to go to the different wine areas of Switzerland to find the respective wines (it is difficult to find Zurich wines in Geneva for example). An exception is Weinkeller Mowenpick who have branches all over Switzerland and also in Germany and Liechtenstein. As a result we bought Zurich, Valais and Ticino wines in their branch near the Badische Bahnhof in Basel.

These included some of the characteristic Swiss wines made from Gamaret,
Chasselas (Fendant) and a new one on Slotovino, a Cabernet Jura from Zurich which we were assured is a distinctive variety.
In fact it turns out to be a recent crossing by the appropriately named Valentin Blattner of Cabernet Sauvignon and 'resistenter Partner'. The suffix Jura comes from the Swiss canton where Mr. Blattner is located. Blattner describes the characteristics as follows but doesn't elaborate on what the 'resistenter Partner' may be other to say that they are not vitis amurensis as in many crossings whose positive attributes he says do not always last.

Reife - mittelfrüh
Austrieb - früh
Wuchs - sehr aufrecht, aber mit lange Seitentriebe
Traube - gross, locker
Beerengrösse - klein
Reifeüberschreitung - hält sehr gut, ab 100 °Oe beginnt die Beere zu trocknen
Produktionseigenschaften - wenig Auslauben, ev. Ertragsregulierung
Krankheitsresistenz - Falscher Mehltau sehr gut, Echter Mehltau mittel, Botrytis sehr gut
Önologisches Potenzial - intensive Farbe, Rosenduft, Heidelbeer, Holunder, feines Tannin

So now we know.

We also bought a Merlot from Ticino just to try to understand what makes this the signature grape of Italian Switzerland almost to the exclusion of all others.

The internet pointed us to another wine merchant in Basel, Musik und Wein. This turns out to be a highly idiosyncratic undertaking, for Switzerland, incredibly so. We assumed this was an initiative of some of the players of either the Symphony or Opera Orchestra in Basel on the side open only in the afternoons (between rehearsals and performances?) but the truth is it is an adjunct to a Hi-Fi dealership also interested in wine. We arrived at 13.00, an hour before opening time and were accosted by the kind representative and given the run of the place out of hours. The selection was not tremendous but we picked up a bottle of Cornalin at not too exorbitant a price.

Walking through town we stumbled serediptously across what must be one of the losngest established and most elegant wine merchants of Basel, Paul Ulrich AG (

There may be found a range of Swiss wines mainly from the French speaking part with nothing from Zurich. We were directed towards a good Humagne rouge; again a variety which had not exactly bowled us over in the past so a purchase to re-inforce or overturn prejudice.

In Mulhouse, there appeared to be no especially prominent caviste. We were directed to Nicolas and told the place to go was Turckheim. However, we found Caviste Jacques Baumann (depuis 1912) in the centre and although the selection was not extensive the gentleman in charge was kindly and knowledgeable. When asked for his driest Muscat and lightest Pinot Noir d'Alsace he pointed us in the direction of Schlumberger on both counts.

We had been looking for Knipperle, an obsolete Alsacian variety previously used to make everyday wines but no one we met in Alsace had heard of it.

With 8 bottles in the suitcase safely dropped off at the BA check in, we took another look at the EuroAirport Duty Free but this time were sorely disappointed. Some lines seem to have been sold out and not replaced since we were last there in mid-May and the only bottle which looked interesting was a Freibach Schaffhausen Pinot Noir Auslese at E. 23.50 or CHF. 38, more than any of the bottles we had bought landside either in Basel or in Mulhouse. So much for price reductions at this airport. We were mildly interested to see the term 'Auslese' applied to a red table wine but not THAT interested.

One last point on the Swiss wines we saw, several didn't mention the country of origin. We assume this was not in order to disguise their provenance, more a kind of campanalismo.