I have to admit that I get to see a lot of beautiful places as a wine importer. People don’t go on reverently about the South of France for nothing, after all. For most of first vine’s producers in the southern Rhône Valley and other southern parts of France, though, the beauty of wine touring is natural rather than architectural. The scenery is gorgeous, but the wineries are in buildings that are nice but weren’t designed to be showplaces.
That was my thought up until a couple of weeks ago, when I got to visit a historic winery that is gorgeous. Part of the reason you haven’t seen blog posts in a while is that I was invited on a trip for wine buyers to the Languedoc region of France. More than 100 wines a day for five days and a lot of time traveling from place to place, so some of the tastings are a blur. Not the one at the Abbaye de Valmagne, though. It’s hard to forget a winery that’s partly inside a 13th century church.
The abbey is northwest of Montpellier and was started in the 12th century. By the 14th century it housed as many as 300 monks, members of the Cistercian order. Local landowners bestowed money and land on the monks, including a small vineyard, and the monks became excellent grape growers and winemakers.
Things went downhill around the mid-14th century, though, with the black death coming through the region. While the abbey continued to function through the 16th century, a seemingly endless array of religious wars and looting left the property uninhabitable. Even the church, which dates from 1257, had all of its windows shattered in 1575, rendering it unusable. In the 17th century, some minimal preservation work to keep the structure intact was begun, and the property’s use as an abbey started again.
As you’d expect, the French Revolution brought more looting and wreckage. The Abbaye and its land were taken over by the state, and the last three remaining monks fled the site in 1790. A year later, the whole package was sold to M. Grainer-Joyeuse, who was left with a bunch of large, virtually unusable buildings and a big problem.
The problem was that most old structures were considered to be quarry material by local citizens. (Understandably, the need for shelter and good building materials outweighed potential tourism opportunities, especially in areas of widespread poverty.) Grainer-Joyeuse had to find a way to keep the place together — literally — and so he turned his attention to producing something that everyone wanted: wine.
Of course, the monks at the abbey had continued making wine through all the disruptions (they were monks after all). Wines from the Abbaye de Valmagne were exported as far as Mexico through the 18th century. But winemaking had taken place in outbuildings rather than the abbey itself, and in increasingly limited quantities. From the beginning, M. Grainer-Joyeuse used the church and other parts of the abbey buildings for wine storage. In 1820, he went whole-hog, installing massive wooden vats throughout the church, and greatly increasing production capacity. I’m guessing the wine was either good or cheap enough to convince the locals to keep their hands off the stone — no small feat when there was likely a lot of wine around to begin with.
Grainer-Joyeuse died in 1838 and the Abbaye was sold to the Comte de Turenne. His descendants have owned the Abbaye de Valmagne since then, and have done massive restoration. While the church is no longer used for wine storage and the winery has moved to another building, the vats are still there, a truly unique sight. In the right light it looks as though time has stopped — and the people making wine there stepped out for lunch. While there has been obvious repair, the family has kept much of what was there during the church’s wine storage heyday. Even the “Part des Anges” or Angel’s Share, the airborne dust that comes from wine evaporating from the wooden vats and stains the walls around them. (A great name, especially when it’s in a church…)
I’m not going to talk specifically about the wines from Abbaye de Valmagne in this post, since I plan on writing more about the trip and the wines. I get excited, though, when I get to try varietals I’ve never had before, and the winemaker makes two reds with Morrastel, a local grape. The best way to describe the flavor it imparts is clove and a little funkiness, unusual but nice.
In addition to the big wine casks in the church, the rest of the Abbaye is worth visiting as well, and includes one of the few octagonal fountain cloisters (called a lavabo) that still has all its surrounding structure, and relics of mosaics from the original 12th century construction. The open stonework covering the lavabo is laced with grapevines — they hadn’t leafed out yet while I was there, but it’s easy to see how it would provide a welcome bit of open-air shade in the summer. You can also walk through some of the beautifully appointed rooms used by the owners in the 19th century. There is a walled medieval garden outside, a “model” vineyard with vines of each of the grapes used at the winery, and a vineyard restaurant. And, of course, you can taste and buy the Abbaye’s wines there, and attend concerts throughout the summer.
If you’re near Montpellier, the Abbaye is great place to spend a couple of hours, and a truly beautiful sight. It’s fun to think that wine saved a national landmark. This may not be the only example of alcohol leading to historic preservation, but it has to be one the most impressive!
We didn’t eat at the Abbaye restaurant during the tour, but did eat at one just up the road, at Côte Mas, a huge modern vineyard/winery/restaurant complex. It’s a lovely place to eat, and has a roof terrace with a great view of the surrounding hills. The meal was very good and one of three entrées in particular was simple yet spectacular: slices of barely-seared tuna served with a horseradish whipped cream.
The presentation was beautiful, as you can see in the photo — on the left are two round portions of foie gras, one coated in a red wine gelée and the other in honey. Then a terrine of rabbit in the center, and the tuna on the right, served with rice noodles and roasted seaweed, and coated in something like a pesto. The loin of tuna was first cut into a square cylinder two inches on each side, then seared, coated, then sliced, and served. My version leaves off the noodles and the garnish. Since most of us can’t afford to buy a tuna loin to cut it up this way, I came up with a less beautiful but tasty alternative. Searing two two-inch-thick tuna steaks, then brushing the tops with a puree of basil and parsley in olive oil, slicing the steaks across the grain 1/4-inch thick, and serving with the horseradish whipped cream will make a lovely starter for six people along with a salad. The tuna at the restaurant was beautiful and fatty, you may not be able to find something like it, but use a good-quality tuna and cook it as little as possible.
My version of the cream uses whipping cream and crème fraîche, which is sort of a French version of sour cream. The one made by Vermont Butter and Cheese is very nice, and if you buy a small container you’ll definitely find other uses for it. The cream at Côte Mas didn’t have any onion in it, but I think a little diced shallot is a good addition. The amount of horseradish is up to you, start with the minimum and add more if you want, just be sure to fold it in gently. Different brands of prepared horseradish have more or less vinegar in them, so add a little lemon juice if you think the cream needs it.
You’ll want a nice crisp wine that has a little more going on to serve with it, so try the Traslagares Verdejo ($13). Traslagares doesn’t have the history of the Abbaye de Valmagne, but they make great wines. And you have to eat and drink something to get enough energy to preserve all those relics, right?
Serves 6 as a small appetizer
2 small tuna steaks, cut 2-inches thick, about 1/2 to 3/4 pounds in total
Flavorless vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
A small handful each of basil and Italian parsley
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup chilled crème fraîche
3/4 cup chilled whipping cream
1 small shallot, minced fine
1-2 tablespoons prepared white horseradish
Fresh lemon juice (optional)
Combine the cream and crème fraîche in a medium-sized bowl, add a bit of salt and pepperthen beat with an electric mixer until the mixture is a stiff whipped cream. Gently fold in the shallot and one tablespoon of the horseradish and taste the mixture for heat, seasoning, and acidity — you can add more horseradish, salt and pepper, and a little lemon juice if you think it needs it. You don’t want the cream to taste lemony or acidic, just so that it leaves a little tingle on your tongue. Put the cream in the fridge until you’re ready to serve it.
Using a mini-food processor, grind up the basil and parsley with a tablespoon of olive oil. Add a little salt and pepper. Add another tablespoon of oil and process again, the herbs should be nicely pureed. If they won’t puree, add little more oil and process again. Set the herbed oil aside.
Film the bottom of a small skillet with vegetable oil, and heat on high until you just barely see a whisp of smoke coming from the pan. Salt the tuna on one side and put it salt-side down in the pan, sear for 30 seconds then turn it over and sear it on the second side. Put the steaks on a plate and let them rest for 5 minutes, then brush them with some of the herb oil. You should have a lovely thin layer of green on the top of the steaks. Transfer the tuna to a cutting board and slice them across the grain 1/4-inch thick with a very sharp knife. Put a dollop of the horseradish cream on each plate, then arrange the slices of tuna on and around the cream. Serve immediately.