Book review: The Road to Burgundy: The Unlikely Story of an American Making Wine and a New Life in France

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One of the many vineyards in Burgundy

Many people think of giving everything up to follow their dream. Very few, however, end up taking the plunge. This is the story of Ray Walker who had a secure career in finance until he took a wine-tasting vacation which ignited a passion for wine that he couldn’t stifle.

Now the interesting part of the story is that unlike most wine lovers who develop their passion over many years, Ray Walker could not be bothered about wine and actually could not really see the point or stand snobbish behaviour related to wine. But once the wine bug hit during a tasting of Burgundy wines, he could not get away from it and pursued his dream taking huge risks and sacrificing family life.

Not speaking French, he took the plunge by  watching TV or reading old books trying to learn the techniques of wine making and the language and daydreaming about what it would be like to create his own wine.

He quits his job and gets his hands dirty with some winemakers in California before heading to France to start a winery with little money, a poor command of French, very little winemaking experience and no guarantee that he could procure grapes to produce his own wine.

I would recommend this book not only to wine lovers wanting to read about the life in one of the most talked about wine regions of the world but also to those who want to read about a story of someone who, despite the heavy odds stacked against him, follows his dream to pursue what he really wants in life.

In the process, Ray, becomes the first non-French winemaker to purchase grapes and produce a wine from Le Chambertin which is considered by many to be the king of grand-crus in Burgundy and which challenges Romanee-Conti and Montrachet Grand crus. A few days before the first harvest, he was not yet sure whether he would procure any grapes. At first he set his mind to create a generic ‘village wine’. But by a stroke of luck, he manages to get not only get generic grapes but also the coveted Le Chambertin, a grand cru.

At times ridiculed for using ancient techniques which no longer were in vogue, this is also a story about an amateur whose passion and inexperience leads to a creation which may be considered as special. I will not write more about the story not to ruin the fun other than to say that I will visit Ray when I am next in Burgundy. And I look forward to tasting his wines called Maison Ilan.

Below you will find a short video about how he pursued his dream.

Book review: Shadows in the vineyard – the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine

Vineyards in Burgundy

What kind of man the cellarer of the Monastery should be

1) As cellarer of the monastery should be chosen from the community, one who is sound in judgement, mature in character, sober, not a great eater, not self-important, not turbulent, not harshly spoken, not an off-putter, not wasteful.

2) but a God-fearing man, who will be a father to the whole community

3) He is to have charge of all affairs

10) He must regard the chattels of the monastery and its whole property as if they were sacred vessels of the altar

(Chapter 31 of the Benedictine Rules, as posted in English inside the Burgundy’s Abbey Notre Dame de Citeaux)

So starts the book, Shadows in the Vineyard, the true story of the plot to poison the world’s greatest wine. The author Maximillian Potter admits at the end of the book that when he came to write this story for a magazine and later turned it into a book, he knew very little about wine. This is all the more amazing because the book reads very well, has incredible details and history of the wines of Burgundy. On top of it all, he recounts a true story which happened in 2010 and which threatened to ruin the wines of the Domaine de la Romanee Conti.

Now for any serious wine lovers, the wines from this Domaine are the holy grail of wines. On just about any list of the world’s top 25 rated wines you will normally find seven wines from this wine house: the Richebourg, Echezeaux, Grands Echezeaux, La Tache, Romanee-St Vivant, Montrachet and Romanee-Conti.

Burgundy wines are well known for their finesse, particularly if they are well made. But finding these well-made wines is not as easy as it seems.Made from Chardonnay (white) and Pinot Noir (red), no other region is as complicated even for wine experts as Burgundy. The reason is that this north, it is very difficult to make wines and therefore terroir plays a very important if not crucial role in the wine production. With so many appellations based on villages (87 in total) and vineyards shared by some 3,5000 winegrowers it is no wonder that Burgundy wines can be confusing.

Getting your way through Burgundy wines is like getting a very thorough geography lesson. You need to know the villages, where the vineyard is, in which part of the hill it is and whether it faces the sun or not.

You need to know why a wine from a village may cost double or triple the price of another which is produced just across the road but from another village.

There is therefore a certain allure to Burgundies, and when you discover well made Burgundies even from small producers, you normally return to buy these wines time and time again first because a well made Burgundy wine is fantastic.

But the wines from DRC as the Domaine is often known are among the world’s most sought after wines and also unfortunately unaffordable to many.

Few people knew about the story to poison these wines. So when I spotted this book, I was immediately curious. I actually thought it was a work of fiction and had to check the story out before I actually bought the book,

The author writes beautifully about the wines and the Burgundy region, the plot reads like a thriller and makes you really curious to find out what finally happened.

I will not spoil the story of the book but if you are interested in wine, want to discover a bit more about Burgundy and read a different sort of book related to wine, then I highly recommend it.

 

 

Discovering the beauty of Champagne

IMG_8874The first time we went to the Champagne region in France we had read about a very small producer in the South-East area of champagne in the Aube region known as the Côte des Bar. This is far away from the glitzy Champagne capital of Reims and Epernay. The Aube region produces a quarter of France’s champagne, and much of what the small producers make is sold on to the big houses that line the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay.

We were relatively new to visits to wineries in France and given that this was just before the summer period, we assumed that going to wineries for tastings would be pretty easy.

Finding the winery in Ville sur Arce did not prove a problem but given we arrived at lunch time there was a problem. The village just had a few houses and since it was lunch time we were by now pretty hungry. We headed to the winery to see whether we could get the tasting over and buy a few cases of champagne but found a note saying that the winemaker would only be back in three hours.

Given the fact that there was nothing to eat anywhere in the village, we headed to a village closeby. But to our dismay, everywhere was closed. This was again a wake-up call for us. I had read that holidays are taken seriously in France and Italy in summer but this seemed to defy logic.

Two village restaurants were closed for the holidays, we tried the bakery but it was also closed for the afternoon and would only reopen at 4pm. By now, panic was setting in. I am normally calm but there are a few things which can bring a temper. These are normally thirst and hunger. Only two shops were open at this point, the village supermarket and a bar. We asked at the bar whether there was any place we could eat and they told us the kitchen was closed but they would be happy to make a steak with fries.

Beggars cannot be choosers so we ventured in and had what at the time was probably the worst ever meal that we could eat in France. Nothing bad about it but just the fries were from a packet and the meat overcooked. It became all the more disappointing when some locals walked in half an hour later and were served with what looked like very appetising food.

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Not yet ripe for picking

We finally made it to champagne Remy Massin et fils and ended up spending a good hour with Madame Massin who gave us a thorough explanation of the soil conditions of the terroir and then led us through a tasting. This was our first experience with champagne and was indeed a great eye-opener particularly since we then headed to Epernay and Reims for some champagne tasting at the major champagne houses. It was also the first time I managed to have a full conversation in French, albeit with a pronunciation which must have been close to incomprehensible.

We headed to Moet et Chandon a few days later and toured the beautiful champagne house and cellars. While the wine house, grounds and cellars in the city of Epernay are majestic, the minute you taste the wines, you realise that these are commercial champagnes and have nothing to do with champagnes produced by smaller producers or the top cuvees.

It seems like adventures are always within reach when we are in Champagne. When our stocks finished, two years later we headed back to the region, given it is within 2 and a half hours drive from Brussels. We were having a great time when on a Sunday morning towards the end of July panic struck again.

I was taking a scenic route amid the beautiful scenery of the Montagne de Reims and was hoping to fill my fuel tank since it was now on reserve. I still had a 70 kilometre range so there was no reason to panic. Little did I know that finding a petrol station open on a Sunday would be a far greater challenge. I tried two in different villages but both were closed and did not have an automatic pump. Given I was on reserve, I looked for the nearest petrol stations on the GPS and headed to the next village to again find the petrol station closed. I therefore went to the next one. This was on a national road so I was confident that this time we would be able to fill up the tank. But as we arrived, there was a sign saying the petrol station was closed for the holidays. It was 1 August and the sign said the petrol station will be closed till the end of August.  By now, we were reaching a state of desperation. I walked into a hotel next door to the petrol station and asked the receptionist to guide us to the nearest petrol station explaining that we only had an 11 kilometre range left. She sent us to a supermarket a few kilometres away and told us that she was sure that there were automatic pumps. We ventured there knowing that if we got it wrong this time we would run out of fuel in the countryside on a hot August day. We were relieved to make it with just 7 kilometre range to spare and find that we could finally fill our fuel tank.

But amid these adventures (and this happens in many wine regions in Europe in the quiet months), this is a region worth visiting and not only for tasting champagne though there is a certain allure to walking in a bar, restaurant or cafe and being able to order a glass of champagne and enjoy the world go by.

One word of warning though, you will never look at champagne in the same way after a visit. You might become a bit more discerning and snob some champagnes which you might have been accustomed to before but which become too glitzy and commercial. That is not a bad thing though.

There are various ways to approach Champagne as a region. You can either base yourself in one of the main cities and then go for a day trip outside the cities or else you can try to stay in an idyllic village though risk not having amenities closeby.

There are three main areas to discover. There is Reims and its surroundings also known as Montaigne des Reims, there is Epernay and the Marne Valley with the famous Cote des Blancs which specialises in champagne made solely from the Chardonnay grape. Then there is the Aube, further south.

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Great scenery wherever you go

The scenery in Champagne is always pleasing. Hautvillers, the home of Dom Perignon (who discovered the famous champagne method to make sparkling wine) is a very scenic village with picturesque houses and amazing views. The small champagne house Champagne G. Tribaut is not only worth visiting for its wines but also for the splendid views from its terrace. On a nice summer day, you might be able to taste their champagnes on a terrace overlooking vineyards. It is worth keeping in mind when you are visiting the region that most small champagne houses are closed on Sunday.

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View from the terrace of Champagne G. Tribaut

In Hautvillers you can also sit and laze in the main cafe in the centre, the Cafe d’Hautvillers or else head to a splendid wine bar and shop Au 36 where you can either buy a great range of champagnes, taste wines and eat.

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Another favourite village of ours is Oger in the Cote des Blancs. Getting to the Cote des Blancs is firstly very scenic. Oger is home to one of my favourite small champagne houses Jean Milan.

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The picturesque village of Oger

Apart from the small villages, you would do well to visit the main cities of Champagne. These are Reims, Epernay, Chalon en Champagne and Troyes.

Reims is easily reachable from Paris and Brussels. The architecture in these cities is stunning, the cathedrals, as you can expect in this part of Europe beautiful. If you have time to visit only one champagne house, make it Pommery. Its chalk cellars are stunning as is the estate.

There is a big difference between Reims and Epernay. In order to visit a few of the major champagne houses in Reims you will need a car because the avenue which houses these wineries is huge. On the other hand, most of the champagne houses in Epernay can be found on probably the most spectacular street in the whole of Champagne. This is the Avenue de Champagne which houses some of the most impressive estates in the regions. All the top champagne houses of Epernay are within an area of less than a kilometre and the estates such as the one below are stunning.

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In future blogposts I will give you tips on what to do and see in Champagne and its surroundings as well as a review of some of my favourite small Champagne producers.

 

What is happening to French restaurants?

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Is it possible that three out of four restaurants in France are serving food prepared elsewhere?

There is no question, at least at the high end of the restaurant scene that the French are still at the top of the culinary world although the competition has become incredibly fierce with countries like Spain, Italy, the UK (yes you read that correctly) and Japan challenging for the top position.

But amid that reputation is a creepy feeling that not all is rosy. While the top chefs can command huge international respect for their creations, you need to sit and wonder at what is happening in the more traditional ‘bistros’ and ‘brasseries’. That feeling is more pertinent when you learn that France is introducing a law that will force restaurants to mark their food as ‘fait maison’ or home made to save their culinary reputation.

When this happens you realise that things are not always as they seem. As you can see from this article in The Guardian, many mid-range restaurants are using industrial companies as a way to cut costs and serve customers food that has been prepared elsewhere. We are not speaking here of canteens or fast food places but restaurants around France. The report says It is difficult to estimate what percentage are doing so but it could vary from 30% to three quarters of restaurants.

If you think about it this is incredible though it might be noticeable to the discerning eye particularly since ‘the classic dishes’ seem to be replicated in many places with similar results irrespective of the region of France you are in.

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Is it best to stick to baguettes?

I could realise something was going wrong with French cooking on a combined trip to Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France a few years ago. The reputation of these two regions is very high. But on balance, it was clear that there was no contest between the overall quality of food in Tuscan restaurants when compared to those in Provence. Don’t get me wrong, we still ate very well in Provence in certain restaurants but at the lower end, i.e. in the osterias and trattorias in the Chianti area of Tuscany there was very little chance of going wrong. Stop at any restaurant, sometimes, even a bar in a 500 people village and the chances of going wrong were close to zero. There was no need for guides or advice from locals. The reason is that at its core Italian food is simpler to French cooking because the focus is always on the quality of the ingredients and not the sauces or the complexity of the preparation required.

We also ate very well in the beautiful villages of Provence, the search for a good place was more painstaking and required considerably more research. We noticed, quite easily that the chances of going wrong were higher and to eat well you needed to spend considerably more than in Tuscany.

The question people are asking is whether this law will work. It is difficult to assess particularly in view of the fact that ‘fait maison’ might not necessarily always be better. But clearly, it should inspire people to vote with their feet. Let’s hope it works for the sake of the French culinary reputation.

Serious or not? The proof of the pudding is in the eating

Alain Passard is one of the most influential chefs in France. Thanks to my friend Eric who pointed me to this video, here you can see what it means to use top quality ingredients.

Passard is a chef who is obsessed with working with quality products, he has even created his own kitchen gardens for his restaurant.

Here in this video, you cannot but wonder whether he is serious or not about serving such a dish. Just a touch of olive oil at the end, some salt and that is it. No vinegar, no dressing, just prepped vegetables, salad leaves and herbs mixed together to bring about an explosion of freshness.

Does the dish work? Who knows. You may need to take a trip to Paris to try it at his 3-Michelin Star restaurant L’Arpege.

For sure, you need to be incredibly confident of the quality of the ingredients to let them shine like this. But it is also a lesson in simplicity and creativity.

Beat your fear – how I overcame my phobia of cheese

IMG_6135Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.

I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.

Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.

So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who  talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.

It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.

I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.

The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar.  As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.

The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.

The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.

And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.

So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.

Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.

The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.

Here are my tips

1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.

2. Believe that you can beat your fear.

3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are  afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.

4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.

5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.

6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.

7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.