We had a couple of French excursions, hitching or railcarding as students but our early marriage and the arrival of children saw us holiday under canvas in England, Wales and Scotland. Every one of those holidays is remembered for glorious fun and equally glorious weather. But when there came a desire to open our tent flaps to a different view Mrs Cheoff looked at such stuff as Eurocamp offered. At the back of the brochure were a very few pages advertising French ‘gites’. Ooh… not a huge difference in price and we do sleep better on a bed less bouncy and less low than a Li-Lo. Let’s go for it!
That was 1995 and since then every year but one has included a break of some sort in France. In 2004, struggling to finish the six course banquet on the last night of our Aghios Nikolaos waterfront bungalow binge, we agreed that our stay had been a wonderful and delightful indulgence… but we simultaneously looked at each other and voiced our firm desire to get back to our beloved France the next summer!
I’ll spare you the photo albums of the many regions, city and landscapes which we have experienced. This post concentrates on an element which has become a regular focus of our trips. French wines. Specifically, those we ‘harvested’ this September.
There will be no real recommendations here. I don’t know enough about the subject to advise in any more than very general terms. And I have finally realised how daft it is to expect anyone else to enjoy something just because I do!
Read a ‘chapter’ at a time if you like. I have split our tasting and buying into slurp-sized sections.
Champagne… a trio for starters
Our first night was spent close to Troyes where our hosts gave us a glass of their preferred choice from that land where bubbles and mousse don’t necessarily involve a bath or a shower. We duly paid for one bottle (on the right) before leaving. The other pair were supermarket buys in the same price bracket as Lidl and Aldi entry point offerings.
Our next four days in Lyon get no further mention here since no wine buying took place. I ‘m doing well at maintaining the focus so far, eh.
On further south, to our favourite part of France and back to the town we have returned to more than any other - Saint Didier, Vaucluse. There are still lovely places left in this world. Saint Didier has stayed lovely enough to generate repeat visits which, for us, is unusual.
A few supermarket wines
We stopped at Leclerc in Carpentras ten minutes from our destination. It provided enough shelf interest to settle on four extras. We did buy and drink other bottles while away but what you see here are all those we brought home. The sweet Bergerac was a must-have after reading Diana Henry’s latest cookbook, ‘How To Eat A Peach’, before we travelled across the English Channel to Calais. Allow me to leave you to discover ‘How’ that peach should be eaten.
We carried on and arrived to start our eighth stay in Saint Didier. Our self-catering discovery this year was a walk away from the centre of the town. Odile Paillard is an accomplished and generous host. I think I might have acknowledged elsewhere Mrs Cheoff’s fabulous skill in searching for and finding terrific places and people to make our holidays special. Le Cabanon at La Grande Vigne was yet another instance of her hitting paydirt.
Along with fig tarts, jam and equally tasty suggestions for exploration Odile recommended her own favourite local wine producer. We headed over to Domaine Solence just three kilometres away.
We were greeted by Anne-Marie who represents one half of a shared passion to produce organic wines with husband, Jean Luc. A 360 degree sweep around the Solence ‘shop’ can be accessed here. The modern environment and design qualities were to be repeated in the tasting which followed. Tradition layered over with new approaches made for lovely, complex but very drinkable wines. Steel and glass framed an unrestricted view out to vineyards where the Isnards and their team work with nature and not against it.
These three links will give more information than I could remember for you…
All the wines we bought will keep for 8 or 10 years but we have already earmarked one of each for pairing with Christmas 2018 food. The others might survive longer… let us see.
Before moving on, I must point out the significance of ‘Les Trois Pères’ (Three Fathers) which is made as a tribute to the business partners (not necessarily family members) who saw fit to put their confidence and some cash into this venture.
Domaine de Fondrèche
Before we left England I had planned to visit here. Their white had been offered (and chosen) at our wonderful Gravetye Manor Restaurant lunch. Arriving at their Ventoux ‘cave’ I realised that I had completely messed up my associations and confused Fondrèche with Fourmone, which we certainly had visited previously!
Not to worry. The wines were thin on the ground but not on quality. Thin on the ground because of weather-limited previous harvest. So after a restricted tasting we came away with their entry red and a couple of beers. And left them expressing surprise at our news that their wines had already travelled beyond the confines of French merchants and local hospitality to the realms of Michelin dining in the UK.
This is the ‘cave coopérative’ which now stands on the roundabout before entering St Didier. It has been the outlet for the wines of the area’s growers and vintners since 1924 under the name ‘La Courtoise’ but has recently been given a shiny new building and an old Latin name. A couple of visits confirmed their wines as perfectly drinkable, nicely varied in style and generously priced. A 5 litre Bag In Box each of the Merlot and Rosé were bought without tasting (we do exercise trust now and again). The second visit confirmed our choices from the bottled wines.
Here is a special place. Discovered through recommendation from our hosts on our first visit to Saint Didier in 2005. That year we made what was our first proper, developed wine dégustation. And our first purchases of wines which, given the care taken in production, were not priced aggressively enough to put us off. The ‘Vieux Clocher’ which appears in written and graphic form on most bottles belongs to the church bell-tower right next to where the original cave stood at the top of the town.
The composite picture below shows that tower and the old Arnoux premises opposite in photographs taken on our August 2006 visit.
This year we had no need to sweep up the rise to the very top. Arnoux et Fils has moved its ‘front of house’ back, lower down the hill. The tasting, offered by Catherine, involved a reintroduction to old friends and the chance to try more of the expanding range of wines on offer.
Clicking on the link for each bottle below to find the Arnoux website description of the wines we chose. Those descriptions are not vintage specific and grape percentages used might vary but it should give a reasonable view of characteristics.
Those three were decided on with Mrs Cheoff’s full approval after tasting. The white is a contender for Christmas turkey pairing. I was left to carry on alone with proposals from our host, Catherine. There are fresh, young styles on offer as the Arnoux brothers expand their range and use grapes from vineyards other than their own. These stood up well against the more familiar bottles we had just revisited. Two ‘newbies’ from Château Lestours Clocher, Les Pénitents were added to the mix. The name suggests that someone is confessing their sins but I think drinkers should carry on and ignore any suggestion that their soul might be in danger. Made in a fresher, less immediately challenging way, the two I tasted still had depths which asserted themselves and tempted. My jaded taste buds rallied with the final bottle. There was no escaping its qualities. Excitement and flash are present. But any Hollywood surface gloss soon drops away and you begin to discover something much more meaningful. ‘1717’ refers to the year in which “Count François de Castellanne, de Lauris, de Vassadel, de Gérard, Chevalier marquis of Ampuis, de Lagneroux, Vacqueyras and its territories universal and direct landlord, gave away a vineyard to Pierre Bovis, an ancestor of the Arnoux family.” It is the family’s devilishly deliberate attempt to cock a snook at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Or, rather, a poke at those who think no-one in the vicinity can produce a wine to match the attractions of that appellation. Yes, Arnoux propose their own C de P. At around 30 Euros. The ‘1717’ asks for a further 20 Euros. I would be happy to pay that for the quality it offers. It was complex, crafted, utterly delightful shampoo. ‘Head & Shoulders’ above the rest… #cringe #sorry. Reluctantly passed over this time, it is under very serious consideration for next year.
Before we leave Saint Didier, allow me to reminisce. This will be a moment where only family and friends need stay. Any digital footprint I leave with my blog will have moments like the one that follows which will only be of real interest to my descendants and strangely inquisitive anthropologists. There is a wine context with further reference to Arnoux but no need to linger. If you find a rope and go off and skip until the italic text runs out and the font straightens up again, you have my blessing.
I made a delicious decision the first time we travelled to Saint Didier. We would leave the ‘Autoroute du Soleil’ at Bollène, further north than had been suggested, and take the D8 south-east through Carpentras and on to our final destination.
I was in the early throes of learning more things about wine than are really needed for simple enjoyment. Sainte-Cécile-les-Vignes was passed in ignorance of its wine-making credentials. But then signposts for Cairanne and Rasteau appeared and began to ring a few bells. I smiled as I recognised, Séguret and Sablet. Oh, my... Gigondas leapt out with its ‘leader of the pack unless you’re prepared to pay Châteauneuf-du-Pape prices’ credentials. Only one thing distracted from this glorious glut of slightly magical wine-related names. Mont Ventoux loomed in the distance and then swung to our left as we turned towards our destination. Thoughts of this iconic feature of the Tour de France and the sad, drug-accompanied death of Tom Simpson on its ascent were slowly but surely dismissed as Vacqueyras and Beaumes-de-Venise insisted on adding themselves to an ‘I-Spy’ tick-list of Southern Rhône appellations. We finally arrived at our holiday home with firm intentions of exploring back along that route to expand our knowledge of the vine and its product. As luck would have it, our hosts had a huge love of wine, a well-stocked cellar and much to impart which would help to send us in the direction of interesting growers.
They were the ones who suggested a visit to Arnoux et Fils. Thirteen years have passed since then. Enough for me to forget whether it was Marc or Jean-François who guided us through that first tasting of the reds on offer. We educated our palates as far as they would allow and decided on half a dozen each of Vacqueyras Vielles Vignes and Arnoux Gigondas as well as a Bag In Box Côtes du Rhône. We mentioned our hosts, who were recognised as great customers, and asked if Marc/Jean-François would recommend a bottle we might take back for them. This was added to the final bill. But after settling our account and beginning to practise our French thank yous and goodbyes, we were asked to wait a while. From racks behind the counter a magnum of Vacqueyras Classic was produced and handed to us with the family’s compliments. We still have the empty bottle. It was brought out a few times at home before drinking. When dinner guests gifted us some wine on arrival, we would cheekily Crocodile Dundee them with, “That's not a bottle.” [pull out Arnoux prize magnum]… “THAT’s a bottle.”
Next comes our three day Burgundy stop, including Beaune, Nolay, Santenay, Saint-Aubin, Meursault and Puligny-Montrachet. Just a mention without further detail. We didn’t bring home any wines from this region… so it doesn’t get any more coverage in this post. Mind you, our ‘Emotion’ tasting lunch at Olivier Leflaive will be referenced soon. Keep tuning in for that!
Joly - Champagne
We joined friends in Burgundy and travelled on with them to Troissy to round off our holiday. Mrs. Cheoff’s final discovery was a family run affair. The accommodation and facilities were wonderful but the icing on the cake was the Joly Champagne house three hundred metres away.
I mustered enough French with father, Rémy Joly, to arrange a tour of the production. Since Monsieur Joly speaks no English, I was relieved to find that we had understood each other and there was no surprise when we turned up at eleven the next morning. Lúcia was our guide. She speaks very good English and French. Which was just as well because none of us is at all fluent in her native Portuguese! The video below from the Joly website shows work in the vines as well as some of the cellar tour which we enjoyed.
Lúcia managed to introduce technical and scientific matters without spoiling the essential magic of Champagne. The cellars contained enchanting examples of specially labelled bottles commemorating special occasions, including many from the Joly family’s history. We approached our tasting with considerably more understanding but still with the romance of celebration’s iconic drink intact.
Our dozen bottles of non-vintage will not be truly great for drinking after much more than two years. Never mind… we have no plans to make them last even that long!
It was a memorable end to France and its wines but we will have an additional reminder of the Joly family who will make an appearance every time the foil is removed from one of their bottles.
On the whole trip we ended up with seventy bottles, averaging out at £7.50 each. Some are stored away to see the light of day in a few year’s time. The rest are now at serious and immediate risk of enjoyment in an English climate.
All that remains is for me to come up with reasons to justify further purchases in France when we return next year. Maybe I’ll read this post again before we depart…