20 April, 2009

The coast, done differently.

Take the A9 southward toward Spain sometime. Trust me on this.

On the tollway, Montpellier--the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon region--is rather quickly followed by Narbonne, a sleepy spread of a city. The magnificent (unfinished) thirteenth century cathedral rises out of the small city like a surfacing dream. You could stop for a stretch and wander, but I'd save myself for a real break just down the highway in Perpignan. Dining choices abound in Perpignan, but look for someplace charming in the old center, such as cosy, old-school Les Antiquaires on Place Desprès. The food and the quartier, or neighborhood, won't disappoint.At Perpignan, you forsake the highway and its views of the mighty Pyrenées mountains for the little D914, still winding southward. Take a deep breath (because now the holiday really begins). You are entering true Catalan territory, French-speaking still, but with a distinctly Spanish-inflected style. Along this bit of road, you are taken to the vertiginous edge of the Vermilion Coast, but then here even the vineyards are tucked into the very sea-edge (as in the photo below), and if you're anything like me, you come for the open spaces, dramatic views--and wine. Apparently others come for the nude beaches.
And yes, there is also the art; Fauvist painters like Matisse and Derain spent time on the Côte Vermeille, drawing inspiration from the windswept, craggy seashore, old watchtowers and fishing boats moored in the port-villages. But in travel as in life, sometimes one must choose. Wine versus art, hmm...For this trip, the calculus was for the more portable, and potable, wine.
A basic, very short primer about this relatively little-known wine region. Banyuls and Collioure wines were at their most well-known in the Middle Ages, when they were the tipple of choice in the Aragonese court, having been introduced and developed by the Knights of Templar. After that, they were slowly forgotten; this amnesia continued well into the twentieth century. Wine connoisseurs suggest this has slowly been changing. You wouldn't know it to see the area, however, which in terms of wine-making and tourism seems to be the land that time almost forgot. A good thing, actually, for those of us lucky enough to visit, as the locals seem unfailingly warm and chatty.
The vines of the region grow in very schistic (read: rocky) soil, a thin layer often atop a solid rock bed, located anywhere from next to the Mediterranean to 15 kms inland. They grow on absurdly steep terraces which mean all work must still done by hand. These terraces are kept in place by hand-made dry rock walls, which put end to end, it is said, would measure over 6ooo kms, about the length of the Great Wall of China. As if all this isn't extreme enough, the vines are submitted to very demanding weather: a very hot, dry climate, with no rain six months of the year, then a flash rainfall, often right in the middle of the autumn harvest, which can make or break wine quality. The rainstorms, while relatively rare, are so devastating that laborers have had to build deep, narrow dry-stone gullies that angle across the terraces. The actual yield from all this is very low compared to other wine regions, which of course has a real impact on the character of the wine.
The principal difference between the wines of Banyuls and Collioure is of how they are made: most Banyuls, whether red, rose or white, are unfortified (no sugar added) sweet wines, while Collioure are dry wines, whether red, rose or white. In the case of Banyuls, alcohol is added to stop fermentation. But another essential distinction is rancio, which is what Banyuls often have in spades. Described as the taste of "nutty, oxidized fruit" (thank you, Rosemary George), this is a result of exposing the barrels, as pictured below, or glass bonbonnes (sitting on the first-floor roof pictured above) to the extreme weather variation--outdoors, rather than in the constant, humid cool of a cave. For a startlingly long time.If you are interested in grape varieties, Grenache Noir is the principal one used, blended with Grenache Gris and Blanc for Banyuls, and Syrah and Mourvedre for Collioure.
The finished Banyuls product (which has by then also spent a bit of time barreled in a cave, as pictured above) can be exquisite, like the most refined of ports or sherries. The variation in Banyuls character is astonishing; some go well with a good summer melon and ham, many seduce best when paired with chocolate, others match a strong cheese, like Roquefort, beautifully. Cigar aficionados swear it is meant to be enjoyed with a good smoke. But most French Banyuls drinkers still choose it as an aperitif.
If you are willing to heed my advice, then go one step further: in addition to visiting some domaines themselves, visit Cave St. Jacques in low-key Banyuls-sur-Mer. I know, the exterior of the shop is a bit twee, but the inside is a well-chosen treasure trove of independent Banyuls and Collioure vignerons. Ditto for Vin d'Auteur in Collioure. Although the Cellier des Templiers is despair-inducingly large-scale in comparison to the independents (it is part of the principal regional cooperative), its wines do remain consistent people-pleasers, and a visit to their well-oiled operation is worth it--as long as you go in the off-season, when real people talk to you, as opposed to your rather bovinely watching a video. All tastings considered, this trip's winner has to be Domaine de Vial-Magnères; I went home with two cartonsful. If you're really interested, ask me--and I'll send you some notes on individual wines... I also went home with a bagful of these local artichokes (and fresh peas, and asparagus) from the Sunday market in Collioure. So I guess I did bring home some art after all--the kind best enjoyed with a mustardy, shalloty vinaigrette.

1 comment:

  1. You are giving me the travel bug! Looks beautiful!


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