As the grape vines are beginning to sprout their citrine leaves in the hills and valleys of the Rhône, people are talking about the 2015 wines that are going into the bottles now. And the big news is that it's purported to be an exceptional year after a disappointing 2014.
In the tiny wine town in the Vaucluse where I live, this is the time when vintners have small informal tastings. Generally eight to ten vintners come to the local Foyer Rural to present their new wines. Usually it's a family affair, many vintners leave a son or daughter to represent the vineyard, good practice for a young person to learn how to talk about the making of their wine. It's exciting to see young winemakers starting up their own vineyards side by side with vintners who represent properties several generations old.
Spring is also the time for more formal presentations at wine fairs. One of the very biggest and best is the Salon des Vins, held April 2nd and 3rd at the Southern Rhone's most famous appellation, Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Their fête du vin is the first major one of the season and draws an international clientele, as well as hoards of locals. It's held in the spacious Salle Dufays right in the center of town. Parking is never easy but nobody's giving out traffic tickets on this important weekend, so it's easy to pull up on a curb in the vicinity. The entrance fee is ten euros.
For that you receive a wine glass engraved with Châteauneuf du Pape, a raffle ticket, and the right to taste anything you want. Down a short flight of stairs, the vintners are lined up cheek to jowl in a huge, high-ceilinged room. They stand behind tables with bottles at the ready and price lists clearly displayed, the domain names inscribed on white cardboard flags above their heads. Cartons of wine are stacked behind for immediate purchase and the usual crachoir (spittoon) for the professionals who sniff, swirl the wine over their palates taking in its sensations, but generally don't swallow. The big buyers have to keep their wits about them. It's all too easy to taste three or four wines and then forget what you've tasted and what they were like, especially if you simply drink down what is offered.
Almost all the famous domains are there, including: Domaine du Pegau, Château de Beaucastel, Roger Sabon, Domaine les Cailloux, Marcoux, and Vieux Donjon. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most expensive of the southern Côtes du Rhône and it's not surprising to see some of the vintages going for more that 50 euros a bottle, but their lesser appellations sell for far more reasonable prices. We paid 6 euros for a light and fruity rouge from Les Grandes Serres.
A plethora of foreign voices wafts through the crowd. Germans, Danish, Swedes, Japanese, English and Americans are all there tasting, whether they are simply pleasure seekers or serious buyers there on business. Two intense young Japanese men making notes on a clipboard were trying the same wines we were. I struck up a conversation, but they were too discreet to say exactly what they were doing there.
Soon it was time for lunch and, as Châteauneuf is considered the finest in the region, the food served under a massive tent next to the salle certainly aims to match its quality. Every year the stands get more and more elaborate and there is much to choose from including oysters, charcuterie, Bigorre ham and all manner of cheeses and desserts. This year there was the hard-to-resist Canard Rossini, tournedos of duck grilled to order and topped with a round of hot foie gras accompanied by roasted new potatoes--all for 7 euros! The adjacent stand was selling aligote -- auvergnate mashed potatoes filled with cantal cheese and slowly stirred until it becomes so cheesy that the chef pulls it up with a wooden spoon in a long unctuous strand like Turkish taffy. Many people were wolfing down sausages with a side of aligot. Poulet de Bresse, the most famous variety of farm chicken in France was served creamed or roasted with a gratin of pommes dauphinoise. This isn't light eating. It's designed to go with the Châteauneuf wines that are big and complex.
Everything is consumed at long formica tables, so you find a seat jammed together with couples, families with kids, groups of men who bring their own folding Lagioule knives (as is my husband's long-standing habit). A child named Raphael was crying because his mother had left him alone at the table while she went to get something to eat. We talked to Raphael. He told us he was three. My husband said he looked like he was 20. His family were vintners. We asked Raphael if he ran the vineyard since he was already 20 years old. Raphael forgot his chagrin and started to laugh.
People brought bottles of wine to the table, they poured for others, everyone tasted, conversations started up. Natives of this region like to talk and laugh, and they are usually neither shy nor subdued. The tent was a place of noisy conviviality. The people at an adjoining table were drinking a white Châteauneuf that happened to be a Vieux Donjon, one of the best. A man lifted it up to show us. "We've always wanted to try that white," we told him. "But we've never been able to get it. We love Vieux Donjon!" A white haired man turned around. It was Lucien Michel, the owner of Vieux Donjon. He poured us a glass. My husband kidded him that he's never in his cave and that it's impossible to buy his wine. "I'm here today," he said. Then he got up from the table and disappeared. The next thing I knew he was presenting me with a bottle of his wine!
We eventually left our table, went back into the salle, tasted a few more wines and bought plenty (including some from Vieux Donjon), that we carried back to the car. That evening we prepared a dinner of aligot and a country pate that were both purchased at the fair.
Our day was a welcome reminder that for all their troubles, the French continue to love and celebrate life, including the precious pleasures of the table in the company of others.