Thursday, November 10, 2016

Southern and Northern Rhone October 2016 trip

Jay and I met in Geneva airport and rented a car there for the trip. The trip was great and here are some highlights. I decided not to take any notes of the wines anymore except for some very short impressions, so please forgive the lack of detailed descriptions. 

Hotels
Le Bristol in Avignon. Needs a renovation quickly. Staff is very nice and friendly, but rooms are a bit musty. The showers are old, the towels are thin, the mattress is lumpy, no second roll of toilet paper is provided, had to ask for one twice. Could definitely use some extra electric outlets. Horrible wifi. Place is very popular with tour groups but I can't avoid thinking that better options in Avignon abound. Breakfast buffet is €13, valet parking is €13 a day. 

Hôtel de France, Valence. Renovated it seems recently but quite haphazardly. Staff is extremely nice. Lobby is modern and welcoming. Rooms are more or less modern except for bathrooms. In one room, the bathroom stall was separate from the shower. In the other it lacked a shower curtain (but there was a drain in the bathroom floor (!)). Toilet paper would be helpful instead of the oneatatime Square paper tissues once prevalent in French bathrooms. Mattress is comfortable. Outlets plentiful and good wifi. Breakfast buffet was €16, parking €10 a day and there's free Nespresso coffee in the bar.

Nash hotel, Geneva airport. Good for what it is and a bargain considering the ridiculous hotel prices in Geneva. Pleasant staff, good wifi. Good shower, bathroom, mattress. Shuttle to airport is pleasant and prompt, breakfast is good. That along with the free transport card given to all hotel residents in Geneva make leaving hotel to tour the city a pleasure. 

Restaurants
Le 59 Aix les Bains. One waiter to take care of all the tables? Well, it worked, prompt service always with a smile, excellent food, reasonable prices. A pleasurable lunch. We had a delicious chestnut and pumpkin creamy soup with some foam on top, crunch powdered hazelnuts and vegetal coal(!) roasted and powdered were sprinkled on top. Incredible. A strip of sautéed cod on top of puréed potatoes and chives was very good. Dessert was excellent.

Le Caveau du Théâtre. Avignon. Recommended by the hotel and quite good. We had the following appetizers: salmon gravlax with goat yogurt and the brandade de morue which was a little bland. For mains, a hanger steak with foie gras butter and mashed potatoes was very good, a filet of cod on roasted fennel with saffron was a little sweet. We finished with a good cheese platter and the best panna cotta I've ever had. The wine was not memorable, otherwise I would remember it. Maybe some Cote du Rhone or other.

Le Forum, Orange. Found that it had good recommendations on Google, and needing a place to eat lunch I called on a Sunday at 1:10 and was told to please come no later than 1:30. After rushing there and arriving just as the church bells are ringing, we get the last table. 24 diners sitting in different table configurations, in the front of the room one waitress/hostess/buslady/probably owner, in the back, one prepboy/chef/cook/owner. The place functions beautifully, the food is fantastic, the presentation is gorgeous, the service pleasant. A wonderful urprise. We started with foie gras beautifully presented and an amazing squash and chestnut soup with prawns and truffle oil. I then had pesto risotto with delicious scallops and my friend had an incredibly tender veal roast. We finished with a tremendous trio of creme brulee. Everything was washed with a delicious bottle of 2013 Coteaux des Travers Rasteau La Mondone. Rustic and dark but with good structure and acidity. Very very nice. Probably my best non Michelin star dining experience ever in France. https://goo.gl/photos/69oWZKLWSEzH3egD6

Christian Etienne, Avignon. A one star Michelin, this was quite good but more in an intellectual than a gourmand experience. Good amuse bouches, especially the panna cotta bouillabaisse with cucumber coulis (say what???), excellent foie gras and butternut squash, very good scallops with a potato pancake and onion confit but the fish was just ok on a barley like risotto and the duck correct and nothing more. The cheese tray was incredible and the desserts excellent. Unfortunately, accompanying the meal was a mediocre wine I chose, a 2012 Chateau des Tours Reserve, Cotes du Rhone white. This was made by Emmanuel Reynaud of Chateau Rayas and it is fat and flabby like a lot of Rhone whites. Couldn't stand up to the meal at all and was a let down. https://goo.gl/photos/wvAd1vf5LKPdZ8NX8

Bistrot de Serine, Ampuis. Not great but not bad either, a good wine list, great salad appetizer but the rumsteak was very tough. Better places everywhere but pleasant enough.

Bistrot des Clercs, Valence. Looks wonderful from inside and out. An old fashioned bistro with a lovely hostess and friendly service but the meal is nothing to write home about. We did have a great bottle of 2014 Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitage but while we went to bigger places with more tables and one competent server, here we had four incompetent waiters and ten tables max. The food was ok, locals ordered the mussels and seemed happy and maybe we should have done that as well.

Le Milou, Valence. Tiny with good food, one competent and friendly waitress serving everyone, a good bottle of St Joseph. Tres sympa as the locals say. I had another delicious pumpkin and chestnut cream soup and an excellent steak au poivre. Probably my favorite joint in Valence. 

Anne Sophie Pic, Valence. Finally the culinary highlight of the trip. Three star Michelin and an incredible menu from all aspects. Poetic description of every menu choice, multiple waiters, all helpful and friendly, flavors that I 've never tasted before, no words can do this place justice , so I'll show the pictures. Btw, the prices were also wow! By far the most expensive place we ate at. https://goo.gl/photos/GE6Tv7AZHzsRt7mk6

Wineries: 
Fortia, Chateauneuf du Pape, a great visit with Pierre Pastre. we tasted three wines Cuvee Tradition, Cuvee du Baron and Cuvee Reservee. The wines contain a blend of Syrah, Grenache and a little Mourvedre. All different cepages come from the same vineyards, are aged the same, and blended before bottling in different proportion according to the Cuvee. I liked the wines a lot. The Cuvee Reservee with its highest Syrah proportion my favorite, the Cuvee Tradition with the lowest Syrah also delicious. Fortia uses no new oak at all and the wines are pure and vibrant. Pierre mentioned that the 2016 harvest looks fantastic and he's rarely seen such perfect fruit. We visited the cellar and had a great rapport with Pierre, maybe because all three of us were about the same age with the same curmudgeonly attitude, were all wearing a half zip dark sweater and jeans, and sported a similar hairdo. https://goo.gl/photos/rWLnRey3EiYGdMms9

Ogier, Chateauneuf du Pape. Not to be confused with Stephane Ogier from Cote Rotie, this is more of a corporate setting and they produce the Clos de l'Oratoire des Papes. A good visit but the only one that cost money, €12 a person in this case. I liked the wines and Vincent did a great job with the tour. https://goo.gl/photos/ut8oPq92nLjPPNts8

Domaine de la Janasse, Chateauneuf du Pape my least favorite visit. Even though we had an appointment, we couldn't see the cellar, the wines were harsh and insipid. Skip it.

Chateau La Nerthe, Chateauneuf du Pape, just drove by and decided to stop, a beautiful place and the visit was short but quite nice. The cellar was being renovated and we were only allowed to pop in to take a quick look. The wines we tasted were really good, too bad I didn't make an appointment as we could have had a more in depth visit. https://goo.gl/photos/RBQVRAGodxBLy3269

Domaine du Pegau, Chateauneuf du Pape. We visited this famous place and had a tour along with a two hipster guys from the restaurant Purple in Seattle, a sommelier and a manager. The visit was nice and was conducted by Laurence Feraud who was very pleasant but was about to fly to Hong Kong in a few hours and seemed a bit frazzled. She explained that they make a regular Cuvee Reservee every year, a higher end Cuvee Laurence and in great years, a Cuvee da Capo (instead of the Laurence). Apparently they will make Cuvee da Capo in 2015 but not in 2016. The estate is growing due to great reviews by Parker, but I think their wines need a lot of time, only their Cotes du Rhone seemed anywhere near ready.https://goo.gl/photos/xDiMNFXxft4fhurQ6

Domaine du Pesquier, Gigondas. Just lovely wines and probably my favorite Gigondas. A quick nice visit with a tasting of their last two vintage, both quite tasty.

Domaine Patrick Jasmin, Ampuis. A private visit all in French and I had to translate the whole time. Patrick , a big burly man, was absolutely charming. We tasted his delightful wine, some barrel samples of 2015 and some of the 2016 still fermenting in stainless steel. Both obviously very young but the core of fruit is there and augurs two excellent vintages. I always liked Jasmin wines as I think they are approachable young and very pure and fragrant. They only make one Cuvee and lost their Kermit Lynch representation in the US so they are looking for a new rep. I hope they find one quickly. I love their wines. https://goo.gl/photos/6AGQ51zMBfuar7Km9

Domaine Garon, Ampuis. Visited with Kevin Garon and took a walk in his vineyard before touring his immaculate operation. They make three cuvees from three different parcels in Cote Rotie, we could only taste the Triottes which was very young but with good structure underneath. We tasted the 2015 barrel sample of the Cuvee des Rochins and that was delicious, excellent core of fruit and structure. It will be a great wine to buy. Kevin said they used to sell in the US through Chambers Street Wines exclusively but now are being represented by a new importer called Angel's Share. One to look for. https://goo.gl/photos/iJ4EfswWwoyLkKyk9

Domaine Guigal, Ampuis. If the other two visits in the Northern Rhone felt like family operations, this felt like a visit to a Pepsi bottling plant. Huge almost fully automated we were on a tour with a 19 people group bus from Iceland and after touring the operation we escaped before the tasting as that would have taken hours. Plus we saw they were not serving any LaLas (not that we expected any, but we would have stayed for a Mouline sip :D )https://goo.gl/photos/Ht21WbYMVsqn66PQ9

Vineum Maison Jaboulet, Tain l'Hermitage. So this is more like a store that stocks Jaboulet only wines (and la Lagune). We had a good tasting of whites and reds including some Petite Chapelle and the latest La Chapelle. I love the wines but the prices are stratospheric compared to what I could find in the US.

Cities and villages:
Avignon inside the walls is cool, with an old vibe and tons of people strolling around the lovely pedestrian area. We really enjoyed the markethttps://goo.gl/photos/CU8x918dLa4VznEj8, the bridge and the Palais des Papes. 
Vaison la Romaine has two parts, and ancient town, with narrow hilly streets leading to the fortress and a stunning view and a more modern area with shops and markets. https://goo.gl/photos/GQNm6xZanvWmKca38
Orange has one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters I've seen, not to be missed. https://goo.gl/photos/qroJJnAW3WtZTaSz9
Gigondas with the dentelles all around, nice views and yet another medieval town sprawling up is quaint and inviting at the same time. We visited a chocolate factory with a good selection of truffles and a lovely young lady who showed us around.
Châteauneuf du Pape felt like a tourist trap with all the wine stores, their tastings, and their overpriced wines. I especially disliked the Beaucastel store.
Valence has some great restaurants, we ate at Anne Sophie Pic a three star Michelin which is quite an institution in the town.I liked the park and its views but after two day in the place I was ready to split.
Ampuis, the best thing about Ampuis are the hills surrounding it. Mouline and Landonne are quite beautiful but so are the others.https://goo.gl/photos/rh7s26XXyw9s4oeA6
We missed Grignan but heard great things about it. Next time.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Trip to Piedmont Oct 9-17

We got back from a wonderful week in Piedmont and here are a few notes to provide some help for future visitors to the region, everything in my notes is jumbled so please forgive me while I do this from memory:

Torino
Hotel:
Principe di Piemonte: We had a last minute booking bargain rate through Booking.com and jumped on this.  Great luxury hotel in the center of town, all excellent spa, breakfast, rooms, service. We stayed two nights.

Restaurants:
L’Agrifoglio: Our first taste of Piemontese cuisine: battuta, vitello tonnato, verdure a la griglia, tagliolini al tartuffo. Excellent all around! Truffles were €3.50 a gram. We had a 2011 Burlotto Barolo Monvigliero,
beautiful perfume, ripe and approachable even at this age with just a few dusty tannins. A top notch meal.






Bruschetteria Pautasso: My first bagna cauda, and probably the most vegetables I had in a restaurant in Piemonte.  Ended with a good tagliata di vitello.  We drank a 2013 Renato Ratti Nebbiolo d'Alba Ochetti that was correct but nothing more.  Good food, rustic atmosphere, but the place was jammed and service was very slow.




To do :
We went to the amazing Egyptian museum. Puts the NYC Egyptian wings in the Metropolitan Museum and the British Museum to shame, a MUST GO!. Nice walking city, great pedestrian areas in all downtown.  I was surprised as I thought this would be a very industrial metropolis. Lots to explore not a lot of time.




Langhe
Hotel:
We ended up staying at Ca del Lupo in Montelupo Albese the whole time.  We were supposed to be there for two nights, then continue to Alba for three nights and finish at La Morra for the last two, we found traffic in Alba impossible (as almost everyone said) and La Morra nice enough for a one day visit but no more.  Birger did recommend an agriturismo but we were too late and that was fully booked for the period.
That said, we found Ca del Lupo perfect for our needs, not cheap but not too expensive, modern, spacious, beautiful views, great service, and easy parking. But we especially liked the ease by which we could drive to any place in the area.  Oh, yes, the breakfast buffet was also amazing, with homemade jams and cakes along with the usual plentiful fare.  Thank you Ian Amstad for the recommendation


Restaurants:
We went to quite a few, in no particular order:
Trattoria in Piazza in Montelupo Albese:  Great family atmosphere, friendly and warm, we had a great dinner and the wine list is varied and quite affordable.  We shared a vitello tonnato, a tajarin al ragu, a brasato al Barolo and a rabbit.  For dessert great panna cotta and the bonet - chocolate pudding - that I am now definitely addicted to.  To drink we had a wonderful 2011 Francesco Rinaldi Barolo Brunate that like all the 2011 Barolo that we had is very aromatic and while this has plenty of time ahead, it is delicious to drink right now.






Trattoria Cascina Schiavenza in Serralunga d’Alba: Thank you Ian Sutton for this great recommendation; both a restaurant and a winery.  A delicious lunch, mixed antipasti with the usual - bagna cauda, battuta, vitello tonnato, funghi filled crepes, then tajarin and ravioli al plin. We drank a good 2013 Langhe Nebbiolo.


Ristorante Ca del Lupo, Montelupo Albese: So we were too tired to drive anywhere and went to the restaurant in, or actually near, the hotel. As we had not had truffles in two days, we went for the truffle menu: battuta with truffles, insalata russa (no truffles ), tajarin with truffles, baked egg with truffles and a dessert.  All were great, and a bargain for about €60.  We had a great wine, elegant and vibrant – the 2005 Camp Gros Martinenga from Marchese di Gresy.  A great meal and a bargain wine yet again.





Enoteca con Cucina Degusto, Barbaresco: Lunchtime and cases of wines everywhere, tight spaces, totally jam-packed, looks like a hole in the wall but again, great food, and again I go for the delicious mixed antipasti - pepper with bagna cauda and vitello tonnato – and for a plate of tajarin, finishing with an incredible tiramisu, best we had this trip. I am now officially addicted to Piemontese cuisine.  Everything is always delicious.  The wine we wanted wasn’t available so the waitress recommended a 2011 Barbaresco Borgese Albesani Pierro Busso. The wine wasn’t on the list, so the waitress called the winery to ask how much they should charge, at €40, this is another good wine.




Trattoria La Coccinella in Serravalle Langhe: A little more elaborate, great service by the two brothers who own/manage the place.  Friendly, knowledgeable and happy to stop by and chat.  At this point, we were a little tired of the usual pasta and meat offerings and opted for the seafood menu. Delicious, especially the swordfish (cooked rare! A first for me).  We drank a 2013 Giuseppe Rinaldi Langhe Nebbiolo.  A great producer and it went great with our food (actually, it would have been great with any food) we loved the wine!  Thank you to Filippo Ginanni for recommending both the place and to go for 2013 Nebbiolo Langhe and 2011 Barolo.





Osteria la Cantinella, Barolo: As we were leaving town, we tried to go to a couple of places that were recommended but Veglio and Osteria del Vignaiolo were full, this place had a table outside in the garden so we grabbed it. Cold and rainy, we warmed up with a 2012 Bartolo Mascarello Barbera d’Alba that was a little sweet and non-descript, we’d have been better off with yet another 2013 Langhe Nebbiolo from anyone. The food was again great, I am sure, there must be one bad restaurant in the Langhe but we couldn’t find it despite all our efforts.  

Now for the expensive stuff:
Davide Palluda, Canale: Fantastic food and wine at a tasting menu dinner, we had a tartare of amberjack, a ragout of porcini mushrooms topped with shaved raw porcini mushrooms, a fondutta on top of sweet potatoes and cardoons, all topped with truffles, ravioli with some tomato, agnolotti with guinea fowl and a kick ass dessert.  Washed down with a great 2007 Prunotto Bussia Barolo.  A wonderful experience!








Piazza Duomo, Alba:  Well, we just had to try after all the hype.  And here it was also great but a little mixed.  The truffle menu was ridiculously expensive at €160 per person, especially since one has to pay for the truffle on top of that.  Those at €7.50 per gram were also ridiculously priced. The wine list is extensive but no bargains.  We drank a 2011 Ceretto Barbaresco Basarin that was actually the most boring wine of the trip. Sweet and elegant at first but does not evolve at all during the whole dinner. Best way to describe it is monolithic. The food was amazing!  Every bite is an explosion of flavors; every dish is gorgeous to look at.  The service is befitting a 3 star Michelin place.  Too bad about the outrageous prices and the bleh wine but we’ll put that as a one in a lifetime experience and move on.

Restaurant conclusions: No bad meals anywhere, battuta, vitello tonnato, bagna cauda, tajarin, ravioli al plin, for most meals.  Always delicious, only criticism is I wish there were more vegetables served at the meals, the few times we tried verdure a la griglia we got two slices of eggplant and two of zucchini.  I guess the Piemontese don’t believe in eating vegetables.

Wineries:
We visited six:
Azienda Agricola Fillipo Gallina, Roero: We were met by Laura and her husband Guillemo (sp.). Warm, friendly, informative, good wines, intrigued by their Arneis, seduced by their Sorano, everything about this visit is lovely.  We bought a few bottles and would have bought more if we even had room.  Thank you Birger for the intro.

Oddero, La Morra: We had a very informative visit with Isabella Boffa Oddero who I believe is the granddaughter of Giacomo Oddero.  While the winery had its critics lately, mainly claiming the wine is too good young and can therefore not possibly be just as good with age, we loved their regular Barolo bottling as well as the Barbaresco Gallina.  We also were very impressed by the cleanliness, the focus and the professionalism of the operation.  This along with Bruno Rocca in Barbaresco were our two favorite visits.

Azienda Agricola G.D. Vajra, Barolo; We were greeted very warmly at the entrance by the owner, Milena, but it went downhill from there.  The visit, itself, we enjoyed less, the wines were kind of nondescript, the tour was given by a nice eager intern of Chinese origin but her accent was difficult to understand and I think the visit could have been a lot better.

Azienda Agricola Azelia, Castglione Falleto: We visited this small operation and had a long tour with Lorenzo Scavino, the great grandson of the founder of the same name.  The young man explained that they are cousins of the more famous Paolo Scavino.  This is a more traditional operation but they use modern methods and the cellars looked almost brand new.  We liked the wines, especially the single vineyards Barolo, they showed a lot of power and structure but these are wines for long aging.

Moccagatta s.s.a. - Barbaresco; I have a soft spot for Moccagatta, I like the classy clean modern label, I fondly remember the 1993 and 1997 Bric Balin, but the wines imo need a lot of time.  The visit itself was enjoyable.  Martina, was knowledgeable and friendly, we liked some of their newer wines, no point in buying at the winery since they are widely available in the USA.

Bruno Rocca Az. Agr. Rabaja – Barbaresco; Our last visit to a winery was also one of the best.  We tasted great wines, the elegant 2011 Barbaresco, the powerful 2011 Barbaresco Rabaja, a Barbera d’Alba and a Langhe Nebbiolo.  What struck in all these wines was the great fruit but also a sense of balance.  We also caught from the terrace a wonderful view of the vineyards, the cellars themselves were clean, well organized.  I was very impressed by Bruno Rocca, here was a winery with a sense of harmony with its surroundings coupled with focus and professionalism.


Wines conclusions (warning! gross generalizations coming!!): I imagine by now everyone is aware that the modern vs traditional battles that had taken place here are now (for the most part) in the past, most wineries have moved to a more or less traditional style with modern method ways of production.  There may still be some bad blood though, as one person said they wished everyone kept their style instead of constantly changing every few years.
Of the Barolos and Barbarescos we drank at wineries, we found the 2010s well structured and built for the long haul, the 2011 perfumed and approachable, with the Barbarescos a tad more elegant and the Barolos a bit more rustic, we only had one or two 2008s and these were shut tight.
The 2012 Barbera d’Alba were for the most part good pizza wines but I found they all had between 14.0 and 15.5 alcohol, they were quite balanced though but I imagine I would have trouble drinking more than a glass during a meal. 
The 2013 Langhe Nebbiolo we had were all delicious, perfumed, balanced, with good fruit and acidity, they were our favorite wines for current drinking.
One more point I would like to make and that is single vineyards vs blends.  I find single vineyard Barolo and Barbaresco to be more of an intellectual exercise, trying find the strengths and flaws in each vineyard. I personally prefer blends which, when properly done, are more enjoyable and are a better reflection of the area and the winemaker as whole.

Walks, we only did a couple of hikes.  Bought a €6 walking map at the weird enoteca/touristoffice/corkscrewmuseum shop in Barolo:
From our hotel, a short walk toward Sinio, get on Via dei Pini, picnic on the side with a stunning view overlooking vineyards, got back and detour through the town of Montelupo Albese where we read all the wolf stories on the walls. Easy, quick on paved roads.
From Barolo to La Morra, a walk through the vineyards, the path is quite clear at first, but the signs get more and more sporadic as we continue. Wear hiking shoes, prepare for steep hills and a lot of mud, beautiful views from anywhere.  Mostly unpaved but some portions on the paved road.








Conclusions:
We loved the area, it has a rare natural beauty with gentle rolling hills, vineyards everywhere, the Alps in the background on clear days, a sense of magic when the fog rolls in.  It is also a land of contradictions; rural and modern, rustic and sophisticated, family warmth and farming traditions on one side and wealth from the wine and tourist business on the other.  The food is not very varied and, again, I wish there were more vegetables offerings during meals, but everything we ate was excellent.  We wanted to try Osteria Gemma in Ruddino which is apparently the go to place in the area, but couldn't get in.  Still, this was one great trip.