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Monein changes everything

Part 12 of a 2006 Cataluña/Pyrenées/Roussillon travelogue

by Thor Iverson

[pyrenées from jurançon]

Peering knees
23 October 2006 – Lourdes, France

Up and on the road early, we drift down from the lonely majesty of the Pyrenées into the outskirts of Lourdes. Most of our fellow drivers at this hour seem to be nuns packed into tiny little cars. I guess they haven’t quite kicked the habit.

Through Lourdes and headed west, the road turns a little depressing. Towns appear mired in a rumbling sort of postwar depression and permanent decay, and the countryside that surrounds them isn’t exactly pretty. The wine region that’s our destination isn’t all that much nicer, either. Maybe we’re just in the wrong part of it?

Monein, France

Domaine Cauhapé – It turns out that there are some attractive corners of the Jurançon vignoble, and this is one, with a striking amphitheater of vines backing a surprisingly sprawling winery. We wander a bit until we find someone who works at the domaine and is willing to host a tasting.

Wines here are made from petit manseng or gros manseng, though it’s not entirely clear to me if the choice is vintage-based or if the various cuvées retain their varietal makeup across the years. The trend seems to be that the richer, riper wines use petit manseng, while gros manseng seems to have an upper qualitative boundary. As for the cuvées themselves, there are eight; three dry, and five moelleux. We don’t get to taste the sweetest wine…though considering it’s harvested in January and is both incredibly rare and incredibly expensive (when it’s made at all, which isn’t often), that’s no surprise.

[cauhapé door]

Domaine Cauhapé

[cauhapé vineyards]

Manseng theater


Blessed are the cheesemakers
Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2005 Jurançon Sec “Chants des Vignes” (Southwest France) – Gros manseng in stainless steel, with six months of lees contact. Grass and bitter almond dominate, with pine nut and pineapple lurking. The structure is firmly acid-based, and takes the form of a tsunami of green apple. Long, crisp, and quite nice. I don’t know if I’d call it refreshing, exactly…it’s a little too razor-like for that…but what it lacks in gulpability it makes up for with low-key complexity.

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2004 Jurançon Sec “Sève d’Automne” (Southwest France) – Gros manseng, picked at the end of October and aged sur lie in wood. Riper, with a lightly yeast-driven nose and a papery texture. A full-bodied palate of walnut- and pecan-like bitterness draws a contrast with huge minerality and an overwhelming “wetness.” This has an appealing drinkability the Chant des Vignes lacks, though it also carries a bit of baggage: some light woody tones to the finish. It’s a “better” wine, but I prefer the lighter cuvée. That might change with age, however.

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2005 Jurançon Sec “La Canopée” (Southwest France) – Petit manseng, drying on the vine, fermented in barrique with batonnage, and aged sur lie for ten months. Much woodier, with bitter almond extract persisting but this time paired with ripe citrus. The wine seems almost salty with minerality. Very long. All that said, at this point, the wine’s mostly structure. Interestingly, the domaine suggests less than half the suggested cellar time for this bottling than for the Sève d’Automne (6 vs. 15 years).

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2004 Jurançon “Ballet d’Octobre” (Southwest France) – Gros manseng, picked very ripe at the end of October, and fermented in slightly older wood. This is meant to be the early-drinking entry in the sweet lineup, which is demonstrated by the lightness and balance of the wine; “ballet” is an excellent name. There’s sweet apple and sugared walnut, some of that unmistakable almond, and crystallized peach skin (both fruity and texturally bitter). Long, fresh, and clean.

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2004 Jurançon “Symphonie de Novembre” (Southwest France) – A first pass at petit manseng picked in the early weeks of November, fermented in a mixture of new and two-year wood, than given an additional nine months in wood, plus another six months in tank. Concentrated peach and pear with a healthy layer of spice, apple, and even some clementine. Very rich, but with fine acidity preserved throughout. Lovely.

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2001 Jurançon “Noblesse du Temps” (Southwest France) – Dried-on-the-vine petit manseng, picked after the first frost and in multiple passes from late November through early December, vinified in new wood and spending an additional eighteen months in wood (I think not new, but our host isn’t clear). Spiced honey – said spices being mostly cinnamon and nutmeg, both in a rich, freshly-baked form – with an apple-tang edge to a fruit syrup palate that’s energized by firm acidity. There’s a bit of caramel at the tail. A beautiful wine.

Ramonteu “Domaine Cauhapé” 2000 Jurançon “Quintessence de Petit Manseng (Southwest France) – Petit manseng (of course), picked in multiple passes in the latter half of December, from grapes well past mere passerillage or normal icing and into an advanced state of shriveling and water loss. Fermented in barrique and aged for two years more (not sure in what). Absolutely noble, with incredible density. Peach essence, apricot, orange marmalade, and bursts of flowers. This explodes with character. Texturally, it’s lusciously creamy, but still with a backbone of acidity for support. The finish is all honey, fresh cream, and nut oil, and it’s long, long, long. Majestic.

We stop at a nearby producer of Ossau-Iraty, but it’s a little too close to lunch, so the only voices in evidence are those of the resident sheep. Though I’m sure they’d sell to us if they could. Since it is lunchtime, we find a decidedly unpretty pull-off (it’s all that’s available) and gnaw on our roast chicken on top of the open trunk cover.

Pau, France

By the time we pull into this wealthy, rather striking town, rain is coming down with considerable force. It obscures the view of the mountains and makes casual strolling somewhat unwelcome, and for whatever reason most of the city seems to be closed, which seems odd. If it’s still lunchtime, wouldn’t the restaurants be open? If it’s not, wouldn’t the major tourist sites be open? And why am I asking, when I know this is France and it will be unexpectedly closed whenever it damned well wants to be?

[biking sculpture]

Jaune of art
[palms in pau]

Pau palms
[pau view]

Bridging the gap between rich & Pau
[pau sign]

There’s a Pau thé goin’ on right here

Bize-Minervois, France

It’s a miracle we’re here at all. I can only conclude that “fun” in the Languedoc involves moving signs around so that non-locals can’t find anything. Time and time again, signs point exactly in the opposite of the true direction, and eventually we end up navigating by feel and landmark, keeping the massif of the Montagne d’Alaric firmly on our right. This works until we lose sight of it, after which there’s a lot of stopping to check the Michelin map, driving to the next town, stopping to check the Michelin map…

There’s a rustic charm to the area, despite its navigational vandalism. Historic sites are strewn like litter, and with a few exceptions, villages seem not to have changed for centuries. And vines? They’re everywhere.

La Bastide Cabazac – A mix of old and new, this is clearly designed to be a self-contained tourist destination: there’s a gated parking lot, a twelve-room hotel, a large pool, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and an on-site winery. Since there’s not that much to “do” in the Minervois, it makes a certain sense to collect a lot of higher-end features under one roof.

Externally, it’s a beautiful facility, rich and opulent. The rooms, however, are completely different: spare and cold (in mood), with sparse furniture. Our first room, called La Minervoise, is right on the busy highway, but lacks any sort of air conditioning (and it’s hot when we arrive) aside from a window that opens onto that road. I’m not sure why we’ve been put there, since the hotel seems mostly empty. We complain, and are moved to a quieter room (l’Aquitaine), which has an actual climate-control system. They don’t seem all that happy about the change, though.

They’re even less happy when we decline a rather insistent invitation to book a table at the restaurant. The cuisine does look enticing, but the prices are dramatic (even for a one-star), and I’m inherently suspicious of empty restaurants, which this one is. Over three nights, I’ll see maybe four tables occupied (though I don’t know about lunch). They’ll repeat this invitation, with an increasing degree of irritation, every time we pass the front desk.

Ultimately, it’s a pleasant enough place to stay (though perhaps not in a front-facing room), but there are pretensions and quirks that keep it from being quite the relaxing oasis it seems to promise. (I should also note that since our stay the hotel has changed hands. I don’t know what that means for it or its restaurant, but the above comments may no longer apply.)

Narbonne, France

Narbonne has a strange aura at night. It glows orange with age and tinted lights, the streets seem closed-in and forbidding, and the sidewalks either teem with pedestrians or echo, empty and full of imagined danger. And right through the center of town, a canal straight out of some magical conception of a classic European city provides breadth, scope, and real beauty.

Navigation is no easier here than elsewhere in the region, and while we spend a good deal of time trying to find a place to park, we spend even more circling on tangled one-way streets, trying to get back to where we’ve just been.

Brasserie Co (1, blvd Docteur Ferroul) – This corner establishment, perched in a prime location within striking distance of the canal, serves a fun, hip menu of transformed Mediterranean dishes; it struts with the youthful energy that so much of culinary France lacks, something that has been thrown into stark relief by our time in Cataluña. It’s not that the cooking here is top-flight – it’s not, but then it’s not intended to be – but it’s a shame there’s not a way to bring these two ever-more-divergent mindsets together. If French cuisine is to have a future, a way must be found.

Much of the menu has a clean simplicity that’s somewhat reminiscent of modern, fusiony “California cuisine,” though not with that movement’s steadfast concentration on top-quality ingredients. I start with a “tuna tataki” that’s in no way tataki, but still tastes refreshing over a bed of red peppers. There are richer dishes, too: a pastilla of pigeon and foie gras is full of spicy, semi-exotic brilliance. Chocolate “moelleux” is simply a lava cake with better-than-normal chocolate but slightly overcooked, though the accompanying ice cream and sauces are tasty. Coffee is confident and fine, and the service is youthful but quite competent. As for the wine list, it’s local, inexpensive, and as youthful as the staff.

They “Château Vieux Moulin” 2000 Corbières “Les Ailes” (Languedoc) – Softened a bit by modern winemaking, but with an unquenchable foundation of rustic dark berries, meat soda, and rough minerality. Good, but I think it could be better with a little less futzing in the cellar.

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Copyright © Thor Iverson.