Monday, December 15, 2008

Postcard from Châteauneuf

My friend Jancis Robinson, wine writer extraordinaire, is one of the most accomplished people I know. Not only is she the editor of the award-winning Oxford Companion to Wine and co-author, with Hugh Johnson, of The World Atlas of Wine (both standard references worldwide), she has written 20-plus other books, many of which have won major awards. Her column appears weekly in the Financial Times. An award-winning TV presenter and producer, Jancis travels the world conducting wine events, judging competitions and tasting. In 1984 she passed the “fiendishly difficult” Master of Wine exam and, in 2003, was awarded an OBE by Her Majesty the Queen, on whose cellar she now advises. As a consultant to British Airways, she treks out to Heathrow every few weeks to taste up to 100 wines blind. And she does charity work…lots of it. Jancis grew up in a tiny village in northern Cumbria, just south of the Scottish border, studied math and philosophy at Oxford and fell in love with wine during a year spent in Provence. She and her husband, food writer Nick Lander, have three children (“vintage-dated 1982, 1984 and 1991”), live in London and summer in the Languedoc. Her “obsessively updated” website,, has subscribers from 80-plus countries. So as though she has nothing better to do, I asked her to contribute to Provence Post. Just back from the southern Rhône Valley, she sent this…

I've started to make a habit of visiting Châteauneuf-du-Pape in early winter to taste the vintage that’s 15 months old. It's a great time of year to escape London for somewhere pretty reliably warmer, or at the very least, sunnier.

Tasting nearly 300 Châteauneufs in three days (blind, thanks to the super-efficient Federation des Syndicats des Producteurs de Châteauneuf-du-Pape) was much less taxing than I expected, mainly because they were so delicious (despite being so young), and partly because they managed to disguise their high levels of alcohol and tannin so well (because the tannins and fruit were so delightfully ripe). Throughout the southern Rhône, 2007 is a great vintage.

The mistral was particularly keen when I arrived to taste in late November, and I was unable to stay at the Château des Fines Roches, with its exceptional view across the plain towards Marseille, since it was closed. The Federation, one of far too many wine growers' syndicates in this compact appellation, recommended I stay at La Sommellerie, just west of the village, and I would recommend it to you. It must be especially pretty in summer, with tables on a terrace by the pool, but I felt very well looked after, even in temperatures so low that the serving staff huddled around the open fire.

I was particularly impressed by a dinner that I (and my laptop) enjoyed in a nearly empty dining room. A lack of customers can instill apathy in many a chef but my foie gras several ways--best with figs and balsamic vinegar--was inventive and well executed. I didn't really need pigeon, and cheese, and a chestnut mousse with almond milk ice cream, but am a sucker for those inclusive menus. The breakfasts were good too. The rooms were spacious and individual and, most important for itinerant website proprietors, there is free WiFi on a mezzanine overlooking the reception.

The wine list looked good but after tasting as many young wines as I had, all I could manage was a glass of white Châteauneuf 2007 to add to my notes. My all-inclusive bill for a two-night stay with one dinner was about €250.

La Sommellerie
Route de Roquemaure

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