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

Burgundy
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.

What I’ve been drinking last month (August)

Alsace vineyards
Vineyards just outside Riquewihr, the home of Hugel in Alsace.

Summer in Malta is long and hot, and having spent most of the month on the little island in the Mediterranean, drinking red wine was not really an option except on rare occasions late in the evening when the temperature drops below 30 degrees and the cool summer breeze is welcomed by people who are trying to rest before they face another hot day.

Close to the sea, it is normal to try and eat fish as much as possible and although I am not fixated with having to always match a white wine with fish, the focus for the month of August has mainly been white wines such as Chablis, Sancerre, Falaghina and Zibibbo among others though here I share with you three whites and two reds.

White wines

Hugel Riesling 2008 (Alsace, France): Riesling is a grape you either love or hate. It is one of my favourite grapes for white wine because aside from its intense acidity and fragrance it is very refreshing and easy to enjoy. Many associate Riesling with sweet wines, which is clearly the case, but in the hands of good wine producers, a dry Riesling is exceptional and is one of those white wines which defies logic and can age extremely well. In this case, the Hugel Riesling from the pretty village of Riquewihr in Alscase had all the freshness of a young wine despite its six years. We paired it with a seafood platter made up of a mix of raw and cooked fish dishes.

Meridiana Baltis – Moscato 2012 (Malta): If there is one winery in Malta which you need to remember, this is Meridiana. The winery produces around 140,000 bottles of which there is a relatively new addition, a Passito with the Moscato of Malta grape variety, This wine is made with raisined Moscato grapes. This was the first time I tasted this wine and it was excellent. It had a golden yellow colour and had a crisp finish for a sweet wine. This is clearly one to keep in the cellar.

Lunae, Etichetta Nera 2012 (Liguria, Italy): I find the Vermentino to be a perfect grape for matching with seafood and fish. Grown mainly in Sardegna, Tuscany and Liguria, Vermentino is an easy drinking grape. In the hands of a good producer, however, it can develop complex notes. The black label wine from Lunae is an excellent wine with very pleasant aromas and freshness.

Red wines

Chateau Grand Mayne 2006 (St Emillion, Bordeaux, France): The 2006 blend of Chateau Grand Mayne is made up of 75% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Although still relatively young, this wine was already drinking very well. Decanted for over two hours, it was complex on the nose but well balanced for its age. One to try.

Cusumano Noa 2002 (Sicily, Italy): The Noa is a blend of Nero d’Avola, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Served blind, this wine can be surprising for the right and wrong reasons. It is an incredibly good wine which is now perfectly balanced. What it has lost in power, it has gained in finesse. The only negative point is that it is incredibly difficult to guess that this is a Sicilian wine and while the Nero d’Avola is a distinct Sicilian grape, in this case, if it is served blind, many wine experts could easily confuse it for a Bordeaux blend. Nevertheless, this is an exceptional wine.

Links to the wineries of the above wines

  1. Hugel
  2. Meridiana
  3. Cantine Lunae
  4. Chateau Grand Mayne
  5. Cusumano

 

 

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.

 

 

Recipe 4: Pasta with fresh tuna and slivered almonds

IMG_0327The good fresh fish shops in Mediterranean countries are a joy to visit. When you have a kitchen available, all you need is to just follow your instinct and choose what is fresh and appealing.

A visit to my favourite fish shop in Malta led me to fresh tuna, which at the moment is available in abundance and incredibly cheap.

What I miss most about the Mediterranean is sea urchins or what we call in Maltese rizzi and in Italian ricci. I have been dreaming of a Spaghetti ai Ricci for a rather long time now. It is the thing I probably miss most from my home country

But alas it was not available at my fish shop and it seems unlikely to be available anytime soon (probably the restaurants at this time of year buy whatever they can find given it is peak tourist season).

There was an incredible choice but given the fact that the fresh tuna looking incredibly good, I opted for penne with tuna. The following is the recipe.

Ingredients (Serves 4)

  • 500 grammes fresh tuna diced
  • 500 grammes pasta (I choose penne but you can also opt for something else)
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • 24 green olives chopped
  • 4 fresh tomatoes
  • 60 grammes slivered almonds
  • 125ml of white wine
  • A handful of fresh basil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon sugar.

Method

1. Boil enough water for the pasta. I normally calculate around 1 litre for every 100 grammes of pasta.

2. When tuna is in season, fresh tomatoes are also in season therefore use fresh tomatoes for this recipe. I normally pierce the tomatoes and place them in boiling water for 30 seconds. They can then be peeled very easily. Remove the seeds and then chop finely.

3. Chop the garlic. Pan fry the garlic in around 3 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Just before it starts to colour add the tomatoes and stir. Add the sugar and salt and pepper to taste and stir occasionally for around 10 minutes.

4. While the tomato sauce is cooking, finely dice the tuna and slice the olives. Add the olives to the sauce after around 10 minutes.

5. In another pan, brown the slivered almonds making sure they do not burn. If you are using a non-stick pan you do not need to add anything. (You can also do it in a grill but make sure they do not burn). Once they have a golden colour remove from the heat.

6. Throw the pasta into the boiling water (that has been adequately salted) and cook according to instructions. (For al dente pasta, I always stop the cooking at least one minute before the instructions since I mix the pasta to the sauce and continue cooking for around a minute).

7. Once the pasta is cooking, add the tuna to the sauce and the white wine and increase the heat to medium. You should make sure that the tuna is not overcooked. Once the tuna has coloured keep the sauce warm. Add the slivered almonds and shredded basil and season to taste.

8. Drain the pasta and then add to the sauce and continue cooking for around 1 minute. Serve immediately with an additional drizzle of extra virgin olive oil to taste.

Wine suggestion: It is summer and this is a summery pasta dish with fresh Mediterranean ingredients. Tuna is a versatile fish which can even be enjoyed with a light red wine. However my recommendation would be a nice Sicilian white wine. A blend of Chardonnay and Insolia (the Angimbe from Cusumano for example) would work wonders with this dish. Most pasta dishes marry well with Italian wines. Another option for a white wine would be a Falanghina from the Campania region. A Vermentino from Sardegna or Tuscany would also work well.

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.

 

O Liban – a great Lebanese restaurant in Bascule

There was a sense of disappointment in our family when Giovanni on Chaussee de Vleurgat closed a few years ago. When we arrived in Brussels nearly nine years ago, it was not only close to home but it also served one of the best Italian espressos or cappuccinos you could find in Brussels. Moreover, the cannoli (which we are so accustomed too in Malta) were to die for.

Now either my palate has become accustomed to ‘worse’ coffee or else the Belgian coffee scene has clearly made remarkable improvements. I tend to believe that it is more the latter than the former.

Italian food is clearly comfort food but Lebanese food can be exceptional particularly when using fresh ingredients. I can today say that his replacement has proved himself on many occasions over the past years.

O Liban is a great place to stop for a quick lunch or dinner. It is also perfect to grab a take-away or to try one of their delicious typical Lebanese ‘sandwiches’ or pittas. They are all excellent using fresh ingredients, excellent sauces like the garlic sauce or hummus. They are so good that you might develop a craving for them. Whenever I am in the area of Bascule at lunch time, I nearly always end up going to grab a sandwich from there. My favourites are the lamb kefta, chicken and the falafel.

Hummus (better known as a chickpea dip) can easily be made at home or bought from a supermarket or speciality shop. Nevertheless, the test for a Lebanese restaurant is to make hummus taste special. O Liban passes this test with flying colours.

This is also an excellent place if you are vegetarian. Among the lunch or dinner options, you can put together a plate of your choice with some of the dishes that are ready prepared and which you can either eat at the restaurant or else take home. The meat option includes a choice of meat as well as six vegetable dishes or salads while the vegetarian option (also excellent for non vegetarians) gives you an option for eight different choices. You can of course include the excellent hummus as well as the Moutabal which is an incredibly tasty aubergine dip.

O Liban is great for a quick lunch or dinner. It is always busy which is a guarantee for fresh ingredients and salads. Service is extremely good though at times when it gets extremely busy might be a bit slow at the start.

If you are craving Mediterranean food and looking for something quick, comforting and good, O Liban on Chaussee de Vleurgat is a great choice.

If you have never tried Lebanese wine, this is also your chance to try it. We have always tried the ground floor snack and ‘traiteur’ though there is a restaurant on the first floor which also serves interesting set menus.

Verdict: If you develop a craving for their ‘sandwiches’ using the typical Lebanese flat bread do not blame me. They are that good. Among their vegetable choices, you need to try the hummus, moutabal and the ‘moussaka’. This Lebanese version is a stew of aubergine, chickpeas and tomatoes and is incredibly tasty. Go there for a quick takeaway or else for a casual lunch or dinner. You will not be disappointed.

O Liban is open everyday (closed in the evenings on Sunday and Monday). He can be found at Chaussée de Vleurgat 324, close to La Bascule.

Volpaia – a medieval Tuscan village you have to visit

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Volpaia at sunset

It is possible that you can go to Tuscany many times and completely miss Volpaia. This is a tiny village in the middle of the Chianti region which is not mentioned on tourist guides and only accessible by car unless you feel like walking for kilometres up a never ending hill. This is a place which is completely off the beaten track though a few years ago I got worried when one of its restaurants was reviewed in a travel magazine as one of the best places to dine al fresco in Tuscany.

There is no such thing as tourist shops like many ‘touristic villages’  in such popular tourist areas. The allure comes from a picturesque medieval village, great views, a great bar, two restaurants and a winery which goes by the name of Castello di Volpaia.

This is a village that you can visit time and time again without getting bored. There is not much to do other than walk in the countryside or amid the narrow streets, drink a coffee or a glass of wine at the village’s only bar. All you need is good company or a nice book to soak up the splendid views.

There is also a winery which is part and parcel of the village and which has been making wine since the 1100s.

The impact as you head up to Volpaia is immediate. The view of this fortified town is breathtaking. But what is stunning about Volpaia is the unique atmosphere of this medieval village.

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The Bar-Ucci

Once you arrive to the square you will see the restaurant La Bottega on one side and the wine bar Bar-Ucci on the other side. At the opposite end you will also see the entrance to the winery Castello di Volpaia which makes some exceptional wines including Chianti Classico as well as a range of Super Tuscans and the Tuscan sweet wine Vin Santo.

The Bar-Ucci which takes its name from the owner of the bar is a gem. Firstly, the coffees in the morning are exceptional. There is a great selection of wines by the glass from the Chianti region and you can also get platters of home-cured meat as well as pecorino which is served with honey and a selection of mustards.

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The stunning terrace at La Bottega

The restaurant La Bottega has probably one of the best terraces in Tuscany. It has a view of the famous Tuscan rolling hills (see below). But on top of that this is home cooking at its best. You get simple but great ingredients and turn them into a perfect meal. We have eaten here many times and the service and quality of the food has always been top notch. A few recommendations include the Pici al Cinghiale (a Tuscan type of pasta with a wild boar sauce), the pappardelle al tartufo or porcini mushrooms, the ribollita, rabbit served with a truffle sauce, the obvious bistecca alla fiorentina (t-bone steak) or a wild boar stew with olives. Their chocolate tart is unbelievably good. It is the first and only time that I can remember that all of us at table (six) ordered dessert twice it was so good.

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The Castello di Volpaia winery

We did not try the other restaurant in Volpaia but visited the winery and tried a range of their wines. Castello di Volpaia, with vineyards surrounding this hilltop village, makes Chianti Classico, the Chianti Classico Riserva and a white wine which is a blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc). They also make single vineyard wines which are all exceptional. My favourite is Il Puro Casanova, a 100% San Giovese. The property also produce wines from the upcoming region of Tuscany, the Maremma.

Their Vin Santo is also extremely good. The last time I tasted their Vin Santo was last December. it was a 15 year old wine with great complexity and still incredible freshness. Volpaia is only a few kilometres away from Radda in Chianti. If you are in the area, I recommend you visit and then drop me a line about your experience.

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The view from Volpaia