Honestly, I try not to be a travel bragger. Really. I know I’m lucky to have a job that takes us to wonderful places, tasting delicious things, and meeting great people. And even after going back to the same small part of the world many times, I’m even luckier to find that there are new things to discover and that I get to know the people there even better.
So what am I rambling on about? Cy and I just got back from a trip to the Southern Rhône Valley with our friends Darrene and Chris, and we spent a lot of time in Vinsobres. It’s an extraordinary place – with some of the best wine on the planet, and a bunch of really nice people, too. The name means “sober wine” in French, which seems contradictory at best. Legend has it that an 11th century Cardinal gave the name to the village because its wine didn’t make him drunk. We all believe that, right? Who knows what that guy was up to. But the more prosaic (and logical) explanation is that the name combines two ancient Celtic words meaning “tall mountain.”
The tall mountain is literally the truth – the village itself sits on a cone-shaped hill and the best land for wine grapes is a south-facing, undulating mountain ridge that goes on for miles. The ridge is unique in the Southern Rhône Valley, and produces grapes that are rich and mature, yet less fruity than some others because of the slightly cooler temperatures at the high elevation.
First Vine buys wine from two producers in Vinsobres: Domaine Chaume-Arnaud and Cave la Vinsobraise. This trip, Cy and I got to spend a lot of time with both. I wrote about Valerie Chaume-Arnaud and her husband Philippe Chaume in an earlier post. This time, I want to introduce you to Pascal and Marie-Pierre Monier.
Pascal is the director of Cave la Vinsobraise, a cooperative winery. He oversees all the cave’s operations, which means that in addition to being a wine expert, he is also responsible for running a fairly large organization. So he has a head for business and wine. And his job involves a good deal of human interaction, not just with the customers. The coop is owned by the grape growers who sell those grapes to the coop – and there are dozens of them. They decide whether or not he keeps his job. Imagine having that many bosses to keep happy…
And it looks like it might be a little tougher in Vinsobres than in other places. Vinsobres became a cru for wine production in February 2006, the highest designation for wine-producing villages in the region. (Click here for an explanation of the whole naming/classification business.) Vinsobres achieved the step just below cru – Côtes du Rhône Village – in 1967. So it took nearly 40 years for Vinsobres to make the transition. Compare that to another cru in the same region, Gigondas (Village in 1957, cru in 1971), or Vacqueyras, which became a cru in 1990 after about 20 years as a Village.
Why so long for Vinsobres? Well, at least 10 years were spent demonstrating that they could achieve the consistent quality standard the regulators demand. But cru status also requires that cru wine grapes only be grown on certain parcels of land, and for those grapes the yields are lower than for a Village or Côtes du Rhône wine. That means less wine produced, but the grower gets a lot more money for cru wine grapes (and cru wines), so the competition can be, shall we say, intense. Getting a binding agreement from all the producers in the village can be difficult and demands good organization as well as good interpersonal skills.
Pascal Monier was the right man for the job. From the start, I was impressed with the way he has managed the marketing of the Cave’s cru wines, from label design through distribution, changing the look of the Cave to make it customer-friendly, and other details. And as I’ve gotten to know him better, I’m equally impressed with his warm personality and great sense of humor. When I mention his name to producers in other villages, you can tell that they respect and admire him too. By most accounts, it was Pascal’s effort that brought everything together for cru status in Vinsobres.
Marie-Pierre, Pascal’s wife, is a high-school math teacher, and she and Pascal have lived in the region around Vinsobres their entire lives. They have two children and live in a 300-year-old house that they bought as a wreck (no roof, trees growing in the rooms) and are still restoring, using very old structural elements from around the region. Like an enormous carved stone mantle surrounding a fireplace that’s practically big enough to stand in. Pascal lights it on chilly evenings, making an already warm atmosphere even more welcoming.
This visit we got invited to the Monier’s home for dinner and to try the 2007 vintages of the Cave’s top three red wines: Diamant Noir, Emeraude, and Thérapius (we have the 2005 Diamant Noir and Emeraude now, and will get the 2007s next month). Thérapius is a special cuvee made from 100% Syrah, which is unusual for the Southern Rhône Valley. This wine is a little earthier than other Syrahs, but still has the complexities of leather and tobacco flavors with dark, ripe fruits. Marie-Pierre made seared duck breast accompanied by a zucchini gratin, which were great with the wines. The Thérapius carried beautifully into the cheese course, and even went with the fondant au chocolat – the not-very-sweet flourless chocolate cake we had for dessert. Marie-Pierre served the cake with sassafrass ice cream, which had a little root-beer flavor that was perfect with the cake and the wine.
As I mentioned before, the best thing about being in this business is that we get to know nice, interesting people. Over the four years I’ve been working on First Vine, Cy and I have come to be considered friends by our producers. It’s a treat to have earned their friendship as well as their trust, so this trip wasn’t just business for us. Now that we’re back we plan on having the Thérapius ($20) with a grilled steak and our own version of the zucchini gratin. This is a recipe I copied by hand a long time ago, so I have no idea where it came from. It’s not like a quiche because it has no milk or cream, although the eggs make it puff a little while it’s still warm. We like it at room temperature, too, and it’s even good cold, although the cheese gets a bit too hard. Chill the wine for about 20 minutes in the fridge after you open it, and you’ll have a meal that makes you think of Provence, no matter where you are!
1-1/2 to 2 pounds small zucchini (about six), scrubbed, ends trimmed, and cut into ¼-inch slices
5 tablespoons olive oil, plus more to oil the baking dish
¼ cup raw rice
2 garlic cloves, crushed, peeled, and minced
2 sprigs fresh thyme, chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 very large onion, peeled, cut in half through the poles, then cut into thin slices
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese AND 1/3 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the rice and a little salt, and cook for about 15-18 minutes, until tender. Drain and set aside, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking together. When cool, stir in a tablespoon of olive oil. Meanwhile, salt and pepper the zucchini slices, then heat 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet and cook them for at least 10 minutes, until they’re cooked and brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the zucchini to a plate and set aside. Add another 2 tablespoons of oil to the skillet and sauté the onions with the thyme and a little salt and pepper until soft and lightly browned, about 10 minutes, then add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes.
Combine the zucchini, onions/garlic, rice, parsley, and cheese in a large bowl. Taste for seasoning, then add the eggs and mix well. Lightly oil a large, shallow baking dish, spread the zucchini mixture in, and bake for 10 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 425 degrees F and bake another 10 minutes or so. The top should be browned and everything should look puffed and delicious. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.