Sunday, March 31, 2013

Water and Wine in Roussillon, France

It was a day full of beautiful surprises as I got to see incredible scenery while exploring the wine region of Roussillon.

I started the day with my favorite French breakfast of yogurt, fruit and pan au chocolat. I never eat the same thing for breakfast at home, but this seems to work well to start a day of wine tasting. Virginie Hurault from Vins du Roussillon picked me up at the Hotel Metropole in Perpignan for our trip to the mountains and the sea, further into the south of France.

The scene was like nothing I had scene. There were vineyards up mountains and in what looked like black dirt. The Mediterranean Sea was a glimmering turquoise and the houses on the hillside were unmistakably European.

Our first stop was at a small store in Banyuls sur Mer, where we met with Jean-Francois Deu, owner of Domaine du Traginer.  The shop also sold other local wines and we tasted a few.

I was taken with the 2007 Domaine du Traginer Collioure Blanc, a buttery vanilla which didn’t taste as oaky as its 14 months in a barrel would normally indicate.  I also liked his 2010 Banyuls Black Granache, a fruit-filled combination of dates and plum.

We drove with Jean-Francois up a winding dirt road to see the vineyards he works with his mule. He’s been doing this with his helpers – three donkeys and a mule. The views of the sea and Pyrenees Mountains and Mediterranean Sea were spectacular, but I never would believe someone could cultivate grapes (and make good wine from them) on this red clay if I hadn’t tasted it myself.

We took a drive back down to the town to Domaine de la Rectorie, where Marc Parce, president of the areas Cru Management Organization told us about the first white wines made here back in the 1990s and how they actually grew different grapes within the same vineyard instead of blending them later on!

My pick at Domaine de la Rectorie was definitely the 2011 L’Oriental, a mix of black grenache and carignan, but I didn’t get to have much as we had another drive to take before lunch.

I was still getting over the beauty of Banyuls sur Mer when I was captured by Collioure, from the ancient castle to the hills by the sea. Le Neptune Restaurant offered us incredible views into this seaside paradise – along with fantastic food and wine.

We started with a colorful salad and then a Cous Cous cake surrounded by hummus and vegetables. It was just the light meal I needed to offset the heavier wine of the day.  The dessert, however, wasn’t quite as light, but I couldn’t resist the presentation filled with chocolate mousse and Bailey’s Irish Cream ice cream.

During lunch I tasted some wines whose vineyards we didn’t have time to visit and found the Abbe Rous Collioure Cuvee Rosé to be quite memorable.

After lunch, we walked around the town and along the sea. It was a windy and cool day, but I still wanted to check the area out and take some photos. Before we left Collioure, we stopped to see the factory of one of their most popular exports, anchovies. It was interesting to watch the workers fold them up to put into the cans. I almost wished I ate fish. I certainly could smell them!

Our next stop was at the bakery compound of Olivier Bajard, who is a award-winning master of sweets.  My sweet tooth was definitely salivating as I looked at the cakes, cookies and, of course, chocolate.
The chocolate selection at Olivier Bajard appeared to be endless, from chocolate bars made from cocoa around the world to truffles in multiple flavors. 

We walked through the kitchen, which was as busy and organized as that of a major restaurant.  In a large room at the end, Olivier and his assistant Remy were waiting for us to do a wine pairing with some of their chocolates and French macaroons.  I didn’t necessarily agree with all the pairings, but I did really enjoy all the offerings.  If I had to narrow it down, I’d say I was most blown away by the macaroon with cassis and violet.

I went back to the hotel for a brief time to change and get ready for what would be a delightful dinner with Christine Campadieu of Domaine La Tour Vielle. She made the perfect choice in Le Grain de Folie restaurant in Perpignan. It was intimate for conversation and the food was some of the best I had thus far on my trip.

Christine told me about the wines she makes in Collioure, up on a sloping vineyard. She and her ex-husband (and current business partner) produce about 10 different wines that range from dry to sweet.  I liked the ones I tried, especially the 2011 Collioure Puig Ambeille, a combination of grenache and mourvèdre.  It was perfect with the mini ravioli in a cream sauce with asparagus and mushrooms, served after a delicious salad of artichokes, celery and garlic.

Dessert was a sampling and I was glad not to be faced with any big portions. The glace in a tiny cone, mini milkshake, chocolate pudding and mousse cake were definitely the way to finish a most incredible day. I couldn’t wait to see what else Roussillon had to offer.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Day One Wine Exploration in Roussillon

The weather was not cooperating the way we wished, with clouds and rain most of the day. It didn’t put a damper on my day as I had waited a long time to get to this area and was excited to be in the South of France.

Eric Aracil, Export Manager, Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon, picked me up for a full day of wine tasting in the Roussillon region. He apologized for the weather and explained how unusual it was since this area actually gets 320 sunny days per year.

I listened to him talk with pride as I enjoyed the beautiful landscape changing in front of the mountains. There were areas of green, but also many spots where it looked like the vines were growing right out of black! These are just a few of the things that make Roussillon unique from other French wine areas.

Our first stop was at Domaine Piquemal, a family-owned winery that was now in the hands of the fifth generation, Marie Pierre Piquemal. She greeted us in the brand new building that now houses their tasting room and winery.

Marie Pierre explained how all the elements in her land, including black soil, clay, olive trees and wild herbs, influence the wines produced by Domaine Piquemal. It was here I had my first taste of Muscat Sec, or dry moscato. It is very popular in Roussillon for its tropical and fresh flavors.

My favorite wine at Domaine Piquemal, though, was the 2010 Les Terres Grilleés, a combination of syrah, grenache and carignan that exemplifies the herb influence in the vineyards.  

Next was Maison Cazes, the largest vineyard in France to practice organic and biodynamic farming.

Lional Lavail, owner and general manager at Cazes, met with us and showed us the solar panels used in this area, which is known to be windy and sunny most of the year. Among the unusual techniques they use to avoid chemicals is a supply of bats to kill spiders and encourage the insects that will help with pollination.

Maison Cazes also has plans to lead the area in another respect – wine tourism. Lional Lavail believes that more should know that the best vineyards to visit are right in Roussillon. He’s already working on building accommodations at the winery to encourage more to visit.

We tasted the wines of Cazes wines during a delicious lunch in their restaurant, which has fresh food brought in everyday from local producers. A 2012 Le Canon du Maréchal. This blend of two types of muscat and viognier together made everything I enjoy in wine – a combination of tropical and citrus that’s fresh, light and just slightly sweet from the fruit.

I had a wonderful quinoa cake and some bread out of the oven in this rustic setting while we tasted some spicy red blends and finished with a most unusual 1999 Rivesaltes Ambré. This barrel-aged Grenache was orange in color and a very good combination of sweet and woody, though it was still hard to pull me away from the Apple-Caramel dessert!

Before I could say no more, Lional pulled out a 1978 White Grenache, which had most incredible notes of apricot, dates, ginger and cherries. It was sad to leave Maison Cazes (and its wines), but we had more places to go and bottles to taste.

Cases de Pene is actually a cooperative of 60 growers from the town with the same name. One winemaker works here to blend and then store the wine in large concrete tanks in the middle of this quaint town. The wines are then sold and exported under the Chateau de Penya name.

Chateau du Penya also produces a fantastic Muscat de Noel, a limited edition Christmas muscato made by many of the wineries in Roussillon that’s worth pre-ordering.

It was time to climb the mountain a bit for the coldest vineyards of Mas Amiel. François Trouquet took us around and showed us some of the unusual winemaking techniques here, including the largest wooden barrels I’ve seen and the smallest containers – which are kept outside.

We did a lot of tasting at Mas Amiel of quite a selection of grenache. My excitement went from one end of the spectrum to the other.  I loved the 2009 Vintage Blanc, a grey grenache with tropical minerality (including strong pineapple notes), and a creamy, long lasting finish. I also relished the 2010 Vintage, a black grenache full of chocolate and back raspberry.

After a short break at the hotel, I had dinner with Gilles Jaubert of Château Planères at Le Café Vienne à Perpignan. Like many of the winery owners of Roussillon, he is fifth generation. We sipped a light 2011 Prestige, a mix of malvasia, vermentino, and white grenache and he told me how his family helped bring new varieties to the region. He also was proud of the fact that everything in his vineyard is done by hand.

My salad was good, but the cheese filled bilini and mushroom, potato, yam dish was just what I needed with the La Romania, an oaked malvasia/vermentino, which stood strong on its own. We ended the meal with a chocolate molten cake and Vin Doux Naturel AOC Rivesaltes Garnet, a black grenache that tasted of plums, black currant and a little bit of green pepper to finish my day with spice.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Reaching Roussillon

It was an uneventful start to the long trip from home to the city of Perpignan in the wine region of Roussillon, France. I didn’t get upgraded on the American Airlines flight, but I did get a seat in the emergency row so I was able to spread out a little and get a bit of sleep.

I had plenty of time before my afternoon flight, which was a good thing since I had to change in Paris from Charles de Gaulle to Orly Airport. That trip wasn’t quite so uneventful as a disruly passenger on the bus held us up quite a bit. I’d like to tell you what it was about, but my limited French could not come close to translating that conversation!

From Orly, I took a short flight to the south of France, where Roussillon is located between the Pyrenees Mountains and the Mediterranean Sea. It was my first visit to this region and I was excited about checking out another area of French wine. I would soon learn that this was much different than any other I had visited.

I had a chance to relax in my room at Hotel Mercure Perpignan Centree. It was right in the middle of town and would be my home for the next few days while I ventured out to explore the area. It was nice to stay put in one place.

Eric Aracil, Export Manager, Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon, met me in the hotel lobby to share some basic information with me about the region. He would be my main contact for the trip. He explained to me how this area represented the most diversity in land in all of France, with mountain slopes similar to Sonoma, salt air from the Mediterranean, terroirs that ranged from grass to dark soil and three rivers that ran through it. The wines – still, sparkling, sweet and dry – all varied by what came from the vineyards they were on.

Another intriguing piece of information I learned about Roussillon is that it was actually part of Catalonia at one time with a stronger Spanish culture than French one. Given the fact that Spain was just right on the other side of the mountains, a lot of that had remained in the wine, food, and even language.

I soon learned about the difference in the food as Karine Faucher from Les VignerionsCatalanas, the first wine cooperative to be formed in Pyrénées-Orientales, picked me up to take me for dinner at Le Tire Bouchon. It was just a short distance from the hotel in Perpignan and I loved the quaint, European décor.

The food was definitely lighter than I had ever experienced in France. I started with an amazing eggplant dish and continued with a mushroom omelet, both satisfying and not at all heavy. Even dessert was a flan type dish that didn’t leave me stuffed.

Karine told me a little about her area, which represents half of the wine sales volumes. We sipped the 2010 Les Village de Terroir Catalan Lesquerdes over dinner. The Croix Milhas Muscat de Rives was my first dabbling into the region’s most popular grape and it was a good one. I was excited to be able to sample more over the coming days, but it was getting late and I hadn’t slept much in two days. I went back to my hotel in preparation for my first outing into the vineyards of Roussillon.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Living the Disney World VIP Life

It's hard to wake up anything but happy when you are at Disney World and the first view out your windows are the giraffes walking around Animal Kingdom. I was on a trip with a group of journalists to check out Disney's Golden Oak mansions, as well as what was new at the Magic Kingdom.

Breakfast was at Jiko and it was a buffet like I had never seen. There was an omelet station that included treats like lobster and prepared dishes with delicacies such as ostrich eggs. The desserts were also delectable and we had a surprise guest – the big mouse himself came to greet us.

After breakfast we headed to Disney’s Golden Oak community. This is the first opportunity for people to live right on the Disney property, something your family could certainly treasure. The mansions come in a variety of models. They are all truly luxurious and are priced at $1.6 to $8 million. 

While the properties aren’t large (who wants to spend their time worrying about their lawns when living at Disney?), the houses are custom-made with amenities such as in-ground pools, courtyards, backyard kitchens and magnificent bathrooms. I was especially impressed with the master bath that had two toilets!

You will also find the presence of Mickey Mouse in places you wouldn’t expect (maybe in a wall tile or light switch).  Everyone who buys a home at Golden Oak also receives a plaque in front of their house that shows that they are a homeowner of Walt Disney World.

A clubhouse with a pool, gym and restaurant is available to Golden Oak residents. As the community fills up, they plan to increase the calendar of activities and clubhouse amenities.

The perks of being a Golden Oak homeowner does not end on the property. Homeowners will receive four passes that can be used at any of the Disney World parks – as much as they want, for whomever they want. They also have access to VIP service, something we had the chance to check out.

VIP guides at Disney can take you behind the scenes. You don’t have to worry about lines, parking worries or transportation to the park – you pull up right to the park of your choosing. The guides also take you wherever you want to go and can even get you into some areas that aren’t open to general guests.

Our guides took us right to a small parking lot behind Disney Studios and walked us right inside. We had lunch at The Brown Derby. (Be sure to leave yourself a ton of time if you decide to eat here as service was extremely slow and cut into our VIP park experience.)

Our first stop in the new Fantasyland was at the interactive “Enchanted Tales with Belle.” Players in Belle’s story came from the visitors (mostly kids) and all of the Beauty and the Beast characters were around to make sure it was done correctly.

Prince Eric now has a castle and just below it is Little Mermaid Ariel in the new “Under the Sea” ride. I thought it was a lot of fun and had plenty of moving, musical and bright characters to keep kids of all ages involved.

In the new Fantasyland there is also a new castle for Gaston and it contains the only restaurant in Fantasyland that serves alcohol. It is also booked for dinner months in advance so be sure you get your reservations in if you want to eat here.

I remember taking my then four year old to Disney World alone. She wanted to go straight onto the Dumbo ride, one of the most popular in the park. We waited an hour and a half and that was about it for both of us for the day! Disney has evidently heard this from more parents because Dumbo now has his own pavilion, with a second ride and a circus tent (in a whole Storybook Circus section) to hang out in while waiting for the time to head on the ride. Brilliant play, Disney.

After the Fantasyland exploration we got to spend some time in one of my favorite shopping places, Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. It was fun picking up a few surprises for my (now grown) daughter from the “happiest place on earth.”

We spent the evening at the Disney's Contemporary Resort where we enjoyed more of the Disney VIP experiences. We started with a Chef’s Table Dinner that was just amazing. Everything, including the soup and salad, was creative and paired with wine. Even the Surf and Turf included a large lobster tail for each person.

After dinner, we headed outside, where there was a scrumptious dessert buffet waiting for us to enjoy while we watched the fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle. It was a bit chilly, so I settled in with some pumpkin coffee with amaretto and did some sampling of Pumpkin Pecan Pie with Jack Daniels Panna Cotta, S’mores Macaroons, Carmel Corn Truffles and Deep Fried Brownie Pops.

It had been a trip unlike my others, but it was certainly a lot of fun. My only disappointment was that I never made it to the African Safari and a few other “grown-up” experiences I was hoping to catch. Then again, that gives me another reason to head back to Disney World soon.