Now that the only reminder of our giant snowfalls a month ago is a crusty, blackened mound of ice out back in the alley, I was surprised to hear about snow from J.F. Hillebrand, our wine shipping company. Apparently there has been a lot of snow in southern France, enough to close roads to truck traffic. We’ve since had e-mails from a few of our producers about the weather, and everyone seems to be OK and as snover-it as we were. I have been promised some pictures of the vineyards deep in snow – a sight I’ve never seen, so I’m looking forward to them.
The e-mails reminded me just how much I like our producers as people as well as for their winemaking abilities. I’m convinced you have to be a little nuts to make wine for a living, but it’s a kind of nuts I can appreciate. Wine is an agricultural product, but also a mix of chemistry, creativity, knowledge, skill, art, and luck. Add in that it’s often multi-generational and you find that our producers are firmly entrenched in everything that goes on in the region. And even though their families have been making wine for decades, many of our producers chose to pursue other careers first, returning to the family business and bringing with them a new perspective to add to the best of the older traditions.
So beginning this week I’ll write an occasional post featuring one of our producers – not just in the wine recommendations. Those of you who have been to our wine tastings tell me that learning about the producers is one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience, and I’d like to bring a little of that to the rest of our readers.
I’ll start with the producer of some of the most elegant of our wines: Cécile Dusserre of Domaine de Montvac, in Vacqueyras. She also owns land next door in Gigondas (and makes Gigondas wines), and the two villages are the most famous for wine in the Southern Rhône Valley after Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Montvac is named for Vacqueyras and the nearby Dentelles de Montmirail – a rocky range of hills eroded over time so that it looks like lace (“dentelles”). Domaine de Montvac is on its third generation of female ownership – and since Mlle Dusserre and her husband have three daughters, there may be a fourth.
[By the way, you do indeed pronounce the “s” at the end of the name of both of these villages. Unusual for French, I know, but say them right and you’ll sound like a native!]
Her winemaking itself adheres mostly to tradition – there’s no need to mess with success. She was happy that we showed an interest in her hourly fermentation temperature charts, which she still plots on oversized graph paper the way her grandfather taught her. It’s matched to all of the chemical and observational measurements in a way that allows her to make daily decisions about each vat (that’s where the skill comes in, although she’ll be the first to tell you that she’s lucky enough to have very good land and grapes too) to create enviable wines. She’s a master at blending from small plots/batches to make a remarkably consistent product, even in the region’s off years (like 2006).
She and her husband, Philippe Cartoux – she literally married the winemaker next door (Philippe runs Domaine des Espiers in Gigondas, a fabulous winery) – split their duties along farming/winemaking lines, and it’s really fun to see them together: he’s likely to have come in grungy from the fields and she’s totally put together, down to the French manicure.
Mlle Dusserre looks every inch the ballet dancer she was before returning to the village to run the winery. Petite and thoroughly chic, she greeted us on our last visit wearing a very stylish little coat with a fur collar, stiletto-heeled boots, a fabulous array of bracelets, and diction and gestures clearly intented to project to the very last row of a large theater. There’s no detail that escapes her attention; she remembers everything you tell her, and doesn’t say anything she doesn’t mean.
One afternoon over a lot of wine tasting she recounted a tasting tour she did in California in the late 1990s, where she was told that her wines were “too weak” for the natives’ taste. When she asked for something they like, she was given a glass of a 100% Mourvèdre – a grape that’s blended into French wines in small amounts for structure. She wouldn’t tell me what she said to her hosts when they asked her what she thought of it; her only comment to me was “Just because they can make it, doesn’t mean they should make it,” accompanied by a beautifully dismissive wave of the hand that I’m sure was visible from across the road.
Mlle Dusserre’s sense of style is evident when you lay eyes on the wines. She was one of the first winemakers in the area to abandon the traditional parchment/rustic farmhouse-style labels for a simple, classic design. It’s not easy to convey the elegance of the wines and their handcrafted nature at the same time, but she managed to do it. And she was savvy enough to know that the 2007 vintages would be so good that they needed another visual makeover to set them apart from the rest. So in addition to even more beautiful labels, she gave the wines dance names that she feels reflects their essential characters (Mélodine, Arabesque, Adage, Variation, all of which we plan to bring over later this year.)
Despite her success (including a star and a Coup de Coeur from the prestigious Guide Hachette plus 90+ point ratings in Wine Spectator), she still exhibits child-like delight when I tell her how much my customers like her wines (even more so when some of you have stopped in to tell her yourselves, so be sure to visit if you’re in the area). She has also been generous in her advice and encouragement of First Vine, well beyond what I would expect from a supplier-customer relationship (especially when we have to converse in my ever-diminishing French). It’s really an honor to collaborate with someone whose products are definitely world-class.
As I mentioned, we’ll have her newest wines later this year. For now, we have her reds from 2003, 2005, and 2006 as well as her 2007 white. The 2003s are things of beauty (and rare, since we have only a few bottles left). The 2005 reds are lushly mature. The 2005 Gigondas ($27) is aged in oak and is rich with leather, tobacco, and earth. The 2005 Vacqueyras ($22) is aged in concrete and is complex. In a way, it’s even more remarkable than the Gigondas because it achieves its smoothness without oak. Both of these wines are 70% Grenache, 25% Syrah, and 5% Mourvèdre. The final red, the 2005 Vincila ($24), is made from Vacqueras grapes (60% Grenache, 40% Syrah) and aged in oak.
You can serve these wines alone or with practically any richly-flavored food. (If you’ve never tried a beautiful wine with a perfectly-cooked burger or a wedge of bleu cheese, you’re missing a real treat.) But if you want something special, try this beef stew. Over the years I’ve made a lot of versions, accumulating favorite ingredients and techniques. I like to marinate the beef overnight in wine before cooking, and add roasted red peppers (they dissolve into the sauce and add a hint of smoky flavor), roasted tomatoes (ditto), fresh bay leaves, black olives, strips of orange zest (a nod to Provence), big wedges of onion (they hold up well in cooking) and large whole mushrooms. We’ve had some 60-degree days here in DC, so you may not feel like having winter comfort food, but I’ve made this in mid-summer. So once you’ve gotten over your desire for Spring-y salads and asparagus, break out the Dutch oven and crank up the oven. Open a bottle of Domaine de Montvac, put on a little ballet music, and enjoy!
[Note — this week we’ve started putting the recipes in an additional spot with a link so you can print them more easily. Just click on the name. As we have time, we’ll get the old recipes up this way too.]
Serves 6 with leftovers
3 pounds beef stew meat or boneless chuck roast, cut into two-inch pieces
Salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1 bottle light- to medium-bodied red wine (for example, see our Everyday Reds page)
8 garlic cloves, smashed and peeled
6 large fresh bay leaves
Fresh thyme and rosemary
2 red bell peppers
3 strips of fresh orange peel, cut from an orange with a vegetable peeler
4 carrots, peeled and cut into six pieces
2 large onions
1 pound whole Cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
1 cup pitted black olives (such as Kalamata or Niçoise)
1 14-ounce can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
1 cup beef broth or stock (canned is fine)
The night before: combine the beef, about a teaspoon each of salt and pepper, four of the garlic cloves, two of the bay leaves, a few sprigs of thyme and rosemary, and the wine in a bowl or plastic bag. Mix well, cover or seal, and refrigerate overnight. You can also roast the peppers ahead any way you like to do it (I put them right on the gas burner to get them charred all over, then put them in a bowl covered with plastic until they cool off. Peel off the charred skin, then core them and slice the peppers and refrigerate).
The next day: strain the marinade, reserving the liquid but discarding everything else except the beef. Combine the marinade with the beef stock, bring to a boil, and turn to a very low simmer. Cut off the top end of the onions leaving the root end on, then peel off the skin and just barely shave the root end off. Cut each onion lengthwise in half and then each half into thirds, making 12 wedges that hold together by the root end.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F, with a rack in the middle of the space. Dry the beef pieces with paper towels. Heat a few tablespoons of oil in a Dutch oven (that also has a tight-fitting lid) and brown the meat all over using medium-high heat, doing just enough not to crowd the pan and thoroughly browning the beef on all sides. Remove the beef to a plate, and add more oil if necessary to completely brown all the meat.
Put the onion wedges in the pan and brown them for a few minutes on each cut side. Add the wine mixture and gently scrape the bottom of the pan, then add the beef and any juices on the plate, the carrots, olives, roasted peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, the four remaining bay leaves, the orange zest, a couple of additional sprigs of thyme and rosemary, the remaining garlic cloves, a teaspoon of salt, and a few grinds of pepper. Bring to a simmer, then cover the pot and put it in the oven for 3 hours. Remove from the oven, let it sit for a half hour, then serve.