28 Sept 2011

A look at the wines of Corbières

The Languedoc part of southern France in its ensemble has been considered for some time by many specialists as a sort of eldorado for winemakers in France. Vast, varied in its relief, and with a generally mediterranean and therefore friendly climate, it also offers the possibility to produce a fairly wide range of types and styles of wine, depending on the specific vineyard site and the grape varieties used. If one opts for the appellation system, the varieties are selected for you, but one also has the choice of using the less restrictive vin de pays system (soon to be known as indication géographqie protégée) and planting more or less what you like, although it cannot then be named Corbières.

Corbières is by far tha largest single appellation within the Languedoc region. In fact it is the 4th largest French wine appellation, covering some 17,000 hectares (almost 43,000 acres). It lies just south of an imaginary line between the towns of Narbonne, to the east, and Carcassonne, to the west (not shown on this map, although you can see roughly where the place is within France). From this line it stretches south into and around the foothills of the eastern part of the Pyrennees mountain range, climbing as it goes, and stopping when it meets the Roussillon region, more or less along a line sketched by those magical Cathar ruins that perch on craggy mountain tops. The French adminstrative département within which Corbières lies is called the Aude. In the higher parts, winters can be quite severe, but summer is always hot & arid. Rock clearly dominates the soils in some places.

As this is an extensive area, its wines correspondingly vary quite a bit in quality, although over the past 20 years or so they have improved enormously. I recently had the opportunity to taste this for myself at a small tasting organised to celebrate the 20 years of the creation of the official appellation Corbières. A year or so ago, the central area around the small town of Boutenac created a seperate designation for itself, called Corbières-Boutenac, since they consider themselves to be the best area within the larger one. I expect that some other sub-areas will follow in due course. I personally doubt the wisdom of this tendancy to create ever smaller place appellations for wines in France. And I am not entirely convinced that one can actually systematically recognise a significant difference in quality, as I discovered in a recent blind tasting when Minervois and Minervois La Lavinère wines were mixed, and I found as many good (and less good) ones in each appellation. There are already far too many wine appellations in this country, and all this does is to confuse the consumer even more, making him turn to wines that are a little easier to recognise, and whose names they can memorise.

Grape varieties in Corbières

Carignan, often from very old vines, is the main variety here. It cannot legally exceed 50% in the blend, although this is not always fully respected I understand. It used to have a poor reputation, but this was probably due to poor farming and/or wine-making. It can taste a little rough and ready, but the best wines from carignan can have sensational, brooding intensity and great freshness to boot. Other varieties authorised are: Syrah, Grenache noir, Lladoner Pelut, Mourvèdre, Piquepoul noir, Cinsault, and Terret noir.

Wine types, styles and prices

Reds account for 90% of production, followed by rosés, rather fashionable here as elsewhere. Whites are rare but can be interesting from the cooler parts. The young reds are often produced using the carbonic maceration technique, of which I am not a geat fan as I find it makes them small very similar and not very pleasant. The best wines have some barrel ageing to them, which helps to refine their tannins and calm their youthful ardour a bit. These wines manage to combine intensity of dark fruit flavours with smooth, inky textures and great freshness.

Privces are, on the whole, very reasonable. One can find decent to good wines at levels between 5 and 10 euros (prices here in France), and the best cuvées may go up to 20 euros. Higher prices that this are not always justified. In particular, avoid anything in a heavy bottle. These are unnecessary and wasteful and only ensure that the wine is sold above its real value.

Some good wines from Corbières I have tried recently


Prieuré Sainte Marie d’Albas, Saisons 2010

This was my favourite of the younger and less expensive wines that I tried. It had plenty of clean fruit and was crisp and fresh to the finish. Only 6 euros.


Château Grand Moulin, Terres Rouges 2008

A wine that is regularly amongst the very best from Corbières. This is deep in colour and aromas, with good fruit flavours and quite a refined texture. I loved it and its price is very reasonable for this quality level (around 10 euros).

This producer also makes a delicious white wine from Vermentino, Grenache blanc and Maccabeu grapes. Called La Tour du Grand Moulin, it is available for around 8 euros (see below).




Domaine Serres-Mazard, Altitude 2006

Fine aromas of spices and aromatic plants like citise, over an intense core of cassis. Deliciously fruity, softly textured and chewy, this has depth, length and freshness. Very impressive at about 15 euros.

Like the colours of this place in the autumn too

23 Sept 2011

More Norton Commando pics

I promise that I will get back to writing soon, but, in the meanwhile, here are a few more photos taken of the Commando by my photographer friend Christophe Goussard (http://www.goussard.net/). Could have put this in the "looks good" collection, but she is a bike after all...

For those who want some technical details on this slight transformation of a classic bike, I would refer them to several previous articles on this blog (see links below). I can see from the top picture that I need to hide that tail-light wiring somehow to tidy things up a bit. Otherwise this is a great success, thanks to Frank Chatokhine.





And, if you want a glimpse of what else goes on at the Chatokhine workshop near Chartres (this will be another kind of pilgrimage that you can make before of after the cathedral), here is the link :


Ride well and in safety

21 Sept 2011

Portraits of famous people as children: the work of Louis Boudreault

I had never heard of the painter Louis Boudreault until a couple of weeks ago, when two of his recent drawing/paintings appeared on a TV set during a talk show in which I regularly participate (Paris Art de Vivre, on BFM Business TV). I was immediately struck and intrigued by these, which showed not only great skill on the part of the artist, but also held an intensity in the look of the children whose portraits they seemed to be. The works mingle pencil drawing and some paint on paper surfaces that appear smooth and yet which, on a closer look, reveal that they are also composed of several layers, worked over and together to make a coherent whole. The apparent realism of the portraits is striking yet not servile, and made me think that the work was done from photographs and by someone with remarkable technique and a clear style. And the artist, when he also appeared and spoke well about his current work, merely added to my desire to go and see his current exhibition at the Tornabuoni Gallery in Paris. For details of the gallery and the show, use this link. If you want it in French, the site will guide you I expect.


This is the cover of the exhibition catalogue. Please excuse the colours of some of the photos, which I took rather quickly from the catalogue to give you some idea of what I am talking about here. I am sure that all this is copyright stuff, but I have taken the liberty of publishing as I am encpuraging you to see this work and, if you feel so inclined and have the means, even buy some of it. 

The small boy in the portrait used on the cover is Pablo Picasso. The theme of this exhibition, and the work that Boidreault has been doing for the past few years, is the portraiture of famous people when they were children. One is tempted to think about destiny, and can it be predicted from this retrospective vision of these faces. Futile as a reflection, but clearly induced by the theme. Some of these poeple, but not all by far, were artists. As far as I could make out, all of them are dead now. Here is another one (not an artist). Can you guess who this fairly self-assured and obviously strong-minded boy was called?

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Another famous American....

This is the young Elvis Presley. Doesn't look so happy as JFK, does he? Of course his background and childhood was considerably less protected than that of the future 35th US President.

Both men and women make up this impressive show of work. As we are in the field of music, here below is the French singer and former Saint Germain icon Julette Greco when she was a girl.

And here is another famed French personnality. Although not a singer, he was even more famous in his field, and is quite recognizable (look at the eyes and the mouth and just add thick glasses).......

Jean-Sol Partre

Speaking of Jean-Sol Partre (real name Jean-Paul Sartre for those non-Vian readers), there is also a glorious drawing of the young Boris Vian dressed as a girl (not shown in this article). Non-Europeans also get a look-in, such as Mao Tse Tung, the Dalai Lama, and this guy. Can you guess?

Mahatma Gandhi (and the tissues used are, I understand, Indian)

If you can get to Paris to see this show, I would strongly recommend it. The pictures are of a fair size, which makes their impression even stronger in my opinion. Most of them measure 2m10 by 1m50, or 1m80 by 1m20. Boudreault's use of superposing  small strips of paper here and there to deliberately re-work section of each drawing give the effect of layers like the levels of passing time. He then flattens them with an iron so the surface remains smooth. The result makes the images seem both close and distant, as if seen through a weil of time, somehow a little hazy despite the relative precision of the draughtmanship. This plays with the idea of time and our perception.

He also echoes this idea of superposition by adding onto the side of each work, rather than putting it into a frame (which he dislikes), strips of paper clipped together so that the whole thing looks like it is made from a pile of hand-made paper. This is original in a way, but because he uses it so systematically, I find it rather gadgety. It adds nothing to the power of his work, but some might like the offhand decor effect that makes carfully worked pieces look as if they have just been thrown together or emerged from the linbos of time. And, yes, they were worked from photographs.

Would I buy one if I could afford it? Yes, undoubtedly. Choosing would be the only problem.


20 Sept 2011

Rugby speak in New Zealand

As I spoke yesterday about the current Rugby World Cup, currently being played in New Zealand (http://morethanjustwine.blogspot.com/2011/09/rugby-world-cup-2011-what-lessons-so.html), I thought that this little lexicon, sent to me by a friend, might come in handy in case you might need to discuss the subject with someone from the land of the All Blacks, over a glass or two of Steinlager, or some other local brew.

19 Sept 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011: what lessons so far?

At half-way through the pool stages of this competion now under way in New Zealand, what conclusions can we draw as to the next major stage, which will be the qualifications for the quarter-finals after two more pool games for each side? For those who do not follow the competition, you should know that from 4 pools, each containing 5 national teams, the top two teams from each pool will go through to a knock-out competition with quarter and semi-finals before the final. In the pool stage, 4 points are awarded for a win, and 2 for a draw. In addition, a team can earn bonus points in the following situations: 1 point attacking bonus by scoring 4 or more tries, and 1 point defensive bonus by not losing by more than 7 points.  

Before the competition started on September 9th, I had said that the favourites were New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, England and France, and that the 4 semi-finalists should come from these 5 teams. I made no predictions as to the other 3 quarter-finalists, although Argentina, Wales and Ireland had to be the most likely candidates. Let's look at the situation now.

In Pool A, New Zealand, the favourites to win in this competition played on their soil, made a clear demonstration of their rugby skills in beating Japan 83-7 in their second game. They were very impressive and remain clear favourites, although they have yet to be seen against any strong opposition, having defeated Tonga 41-10 in the opening game. They will play France, who lie at 2nd place in the same pool, next weekend and that should be an interesting game for both sides, as France has, in the past, defeated New Zealand on several occasions (and also taken a few hammerings). The French game has not been too impressive so far.

France struggled to beat Japan, although they dd manage 4 tries in the game, and only defeated Canada this weekend by a clear margin (46-19) when the Canadians tired in the last 15 minutes, having had 4 days less than the French to recover from theur previous match. It is possible that France will not, tactically speaking, want to win the pool game against New Zealand in order to find less arduous opposition in the quarter-finals. This is only an option because their opposition (not yet fully determined) would normally be England if France comes second in Pool A and England 1st in Pool B, as they will probably prefer to play their historical rivals in the Northern Hemisphere than one of the Southern Hemisphere teams that they would meet if they win their pool. So I think that we can safely bet on New Zealand and France qualifying froom Pool A, in that order. The France vs New Zealand pool game will be interesting to measure the relative levels of the 2 teams.

Martin Johnson, the English manager (see above), cannot be fully pleased with his team's first two games, although they are just top of Pool B, having won both of them. They had a close game against Argentina and struggled for a while against some ferocious Georgian opposition before scoring 6 tries in their 41-10 win this weekend. In fact Johnson has described this performance as "sloppy". Second in the pool is Scotland, although I will still take Argentina as the future second team to qualify from this pool, behind England. Scotland would create a surprise if they beat the South American team.

Chris Ashton's 1st try against Georgia in the game at Dunedin. I expect that Johnson has given up trying to stop him pretending to be a bird

In Pool C we have had the only true surprise from the major teams so far, with Ireland defeating Australia 15-6. (see below) The Irish perfectly blocked the very creative Australian back line and deprived them of space and the ball to win a tight game by their precision and determination. It was effective if not spectacular. Ireland and Australia should both qualify from this pool, but, with Ireland probably coming first, this will re-distribute the cards for the final stages and maybe allow teams from Europe into both semi-finals. The Australians, initially favourites to reach the final against New Zealand, have so far failed to put their best game in place. Their scrum is still as bad as it has been for some time, and we have yet to see their beautifully fluid and fast game for more than 30 minutes in their first 2 games.

Pool D is clearly dominated by the current world champions, South Africa. After a very close call against Wales in their opening game, they looked very impressive against Fiji in their 49-3 win on Friday. Apart from the blacks (New Zealand), this was the most fluid and convicing rugby that I have seen so far in this competition (and I am NOT a Springbok supporter!). In fact I cannot remember ever seeing the Boks play such attractive and practically faultless rugby. Fiji are not a bad team and this game was impressive in the control that South Africa showed in all departments of the game. They should go far in this competition if they can play like this regularly. Wales should get through in second place, but this is the closest of all 4 pools so far, and either Samoa or Fiji could create a surprise.

Apart from the so far disappointing performances of the Australians, the main lesson so far for me has been the improvement in the level of rugby played by the less favoured teams. Georgia, Canada, Fiji and Japan, for example, have all performed way above their levels of 4 years ago. You only have to look at the score differentials between them and the major nations on each of these 2 occasions to see that. The gap is closing, and that can only be a good thing for the future of rugby as an international sport.

17 Sept 2011

Building stone walls

Building stone walls is an age-old practice. Until the use of concrete took over, stone cutting and building was so important to all forms of construction in France that the trade which had the largest number of workers was that of stone-masonry. Building stone walls happens to be one of my activities during the summer holidays. I do other building work of course, but this endeavour, largely considered by members of my family as futile, since these are outside walls which serve no obviously useful purpose apart from creating prospects of their being able, in a year or two, to sit on the terraces thereby created and watch the sun go down, is perhaps my favourite of all, along with woodwork. This article includes some pictures that attempt to show a current job in progress. The best of them (the one below and the black and white shot) were taken by a friend of mine, Christophe Goussard, who is a professional photographer (www.goussard.net).

One of the main difficulties in stone-wall building can be finding the raw material. Stones vary enourmously on their colour, texture and density, but they are always bulky and heavy. Transport is therefore usually the major cost involved and so you need to find them as close as possible to where you are building, and then find a way of carrying them. I use trailors behind cars, tractors or trucks, when I can borrow the latter two. It is best to have one that tips it's load, otherwise you almost double the work involved. In an ideal situation you would have machines to load and unload, but I don't. It is also important to unload the pile as close as possible to where you are going to be building, without that pile getting in the way. In other words, a bit of planning will make the job easier.

So far I have not had to buy any stone. There was some on the site to start with, and I have transported three other loads of about 5 tons each so far in order to build the two levels of the current project, which is not yet completed. So thanks also to generous donors who had some surplus. You need a hell of a lot of the stuff, and it should have variable sizes. Big ones that you need to have help to move (I also use a makeshift tripod and chain-hoist, as well as crowbars and planks) since they can weigh up to 200 kilos and maybe more, medium sized ones of between 20 and 50 kilos, and lots of smaller stuff to block and fill the nooks and crannies and create some variation. They should all have at least one face that is fairly flat, and a base that will lie reasonably well on the layer below. You can of course cut and chip them into shape with an electric stone cutter, or hammer and stone chisel. I use both (see top picture for handwork in process) and you need to do quite a bit of this to get good seating for each stone, especially if you are not using any mortar.

On this project, where the walls are essentially in-filled at the back with rubble and earth, I have dry-built everything, with the exception of the angles and the capping layer. In other words little or no mortar is used. In this case I have taken care to have large and long stones at the base when starting, and also to put in a longer stone every so often to help anchor things. The in-fill also contains a lot of small, stone, broken tiles etcetera immediately behind the wall, as well as the odd drainage pipe, to ensure that water-logged earth will not build up too much pressure in the future.

The house and its out-buildings are built into a slope, so the walls will create terraces that will later be partly paved and partly planted. This is why in the above shot you cannot see the uppper wall, set back from the lower level and less high. A staircase is under construction (see below), leading up through the walls to the house, alongside the barn that serves as a wood-shelter for the moment. I build it as the walls move along and up, thereby creating filling material to go behind the walls and create the terraces. The bottom wall, which is about 6 ft high, has a concrete foundation, whereas the smaller and lighter upper terrace wall (that is the one I am working on in the first picture), and which is about half as high, is built directly onto the compacted earth.

As you can see from the picture to the right, finding some good corner stones enabled me to build the entrance to the stairway. The wall section to the right of the stairway is finshed, whereas the part to the left will be continued on for a further 10 yards or so.

Below the walls and at the bottom of the slope is an artificial lake. Good for reflecting sunsets and to give birds and deer a drink. I hope to finish this project next summer. Wish I could work on it full-time, but I guess the break will give my hands time to heal! 

12 Sept 2011

Nando Parrado: the art, the luck and the will to survive

I was recently priviledged to meet a man called Nando Parrado. You may remember the story of a Uruguayan rugby team during the 1970's whose plane crashed in the Andes while carrying them to a match in Chili. And from that ordeal 19 (I think) of the passengers finally survived, long after search for the wreckeage had been abandoned and despite extreme conditions. One needs to bear in mind that the crash took place at 5000 metres, they did not know where they were, this was long before mobile phones, and they had never seen snow before! 

Here is a picture of Nando playing for his team.

Clearly a second or third row forward in a lineout. I also think that the lucky clover leaf symbol of his team has some significance when you hear his story. I will not tell it in detail as it has been well documented in articles, books and a film. It is one of exceptional resilience and determination in circumstances so extreme that they are hard to imagine.

What I want to talk about are the qualities and breaks (yes, luck always plays its share) required to survive what seems to be a hopeless situation. Nando talks about this regularly now, giving lectures around the world. I was fortunate to be at one of these, during an event that also combined rugby and wine, and it made a considerable impression on me, both deeply moving and posing questions to which I hope I will never find answers, since until you have been to such places, you simply can never know.

The combination of what helped Nando and some of his team-mates to survive could be described thus : courage, intelligence, determination, making decisions, the drive that fear provides, solidarity, discipline, intiative, ingenuity and luck. What put them in that situation in the first place also involves bad luck and bad decision making, as the crash was due to a pilot's error.

Seeing Nando telling this story for what must be the hundredth time for him was deeply moving. He is a man usually at ease with the world. He is affable and successful in the life he has earned and made for himself since surviving. Yet when he talks about this catastrophe and the experience he and his colleagues had, he suddenly seems so vulnerable, filled with the emotions that rise up and which he had to control in order to survive. One should remember that he lost his mother and his sister in the crash, not to mention many friends.

Nando Parrado behind a Chilean policeman after rescue. He had lost 45 kilos prior to rescue  

Nando and a colleague were the ones who walked and climbed their way from what was left of the plane, weeks after the crash, in a desperate attempt to get to help. And they miraculously made it, despite having no climbing equipent or any other stuff that mountaneers take for granted. How they made it remains partially a mystery to many, and is to me a tribute to the capacity of some to overcome seemingly impossible adversity.
Nando says that it is also due to rugby. If they had not been a team and acted like one (one for all and all for one), used to dealing with tough opposition in a way that combines grit, instinct, decision making and skills, he thinks they would never have made it. I believe he is right, but there are also the individual qualities that each one has, and the combination of these with making the right decisions at the right time, and getting the necessary breaks. A rugby ball can bounce in several directions, but you also need to pass it and kick it right and play as a team.

Nando Parrado today

9 Sept 2011

Wine from Eastern USA: a look from afar

I confess that I have always been intrigued by the fact that the state of New York is the USA's third largest producer of wine, after the giant California (some 90%) and the state of Washington, yet without feeling any particular urge to go there and explore. I suppose that what has deterred me is the knowledge that most of the wine made there comes from vitis labrusca, one of North America's native vine species which is infamous for producing wines with strange (sometimes called "foxy") flavours. Or else from French or American hybrids using local species crossed with the Asian/European vitis vinifera. In fact it was not until quite recently that vitis vinifera, properly grafted of course onto phylloxera resistant root stock, was planted commercially in this region.

(my photo of this bottle, whose label has suffered a bit, shows a lake in the backgound. This is not one of the Finger Lakes, but the one at the bottom of the land in my base in South-West France)

My low level of awareness of this wine-growing region of New York (which exports little, having plenty of consumers on its doorstep) was raised recently when a friend in France who imports wines from various points around the globe, mostly far away, produced a bottle of a Riesling from a winery in the Finger Lakes area called Sheldrake Point. We tried this wine at lunch one day and I found it much better than drinkable. It was clean, fresh and with just the right amount of crisp, citrus-like character to get the bottle drunk in a fairly short space of time on a warm day. In fact it would have shown well alongside many Rieslings from Alsace, with a character perhaps midway between such wines and the more delicate German dry Rieslings. Because yes, it was perfectly dry. Even if a Gewurztraminer from the same producer was not nearly so good (in fact quite poor), this Riesling made me think that maybe I should get across the Atlantic and explore the wines of New York State someday soon. And, if any readers out there have some recommendations to make about the wines from here, I am all ears and eyes. 

For those of you who (like me) know little about wine from New York State, here is an excerpt from the entry in Wikipedia :

The state has four major wine-growing regions, including Lake Erie AVA on the western end of the state, the Finger Lakes AVA in the west-central area, the Hudson River Region AVA in eastern New York, and the eastern end of the Long Island AVA. In 1976, when the Farm Winery Act was passed, the Finger Lakes and Long Island regions had 19 wineries. By 1985, there were 63 wineries, and now the regions hold approximately 212 wineries. The wine regions' soils originated from the last glacial advance which left gravel and shale type soils with heavy clay deposits in the Finger Lakes region and sandy soil in the Long Island region. The climate differs amongst the regions based on the Atlantic Gulf Stream and the numerous bodies of water and mountainous regions around the state. The annual precipitation ranges from 30 inches (76 cm) to 50 inches (127 cm). The growing season in the Lake Erie and Finger Lakes regions ranges from 180 to 200 days a year, while on Long Island, the season is extended to 220 days and the humidity is higher and the fall precipitation is somewhat higher as well.

3 Sept 2011

Help Japan by buying Burgundy

We can all remember the appalling natural catastrophy that struck Japan a few months ago. It filled the news columns for days and even weeks, compounded as it was by the nuclear disaster it caused. Maybe some of us did something to help, making a gesture or something. But the people affected by this tsunami and its consequences will be affected for a long time, and help from the rest of the workd is still needed.

You can help, and fill your cellar with some fine wines at the same time!

Japan happens to be a major market for the wines of Burgundy and this event caused many Burgundy wine producres to get together and offer wines, many of them of considerable value, and which are shortly to be sold in two charity auctions, to be held in Paris on Septeber 21st and 22nd.

Here are some details:

The first sale will be held on September 21st at 7pm, at the Hôtel Le Bristol, Paris (75008), under the patronage of the Japanese Embassy in Paris
The second sale will be held at Christie's, Paris, on September 22nd, at 6pm

You do not have to be in Paris to bid, as there are electronic and postal bidding systems available. All the details can be found here:

There are some very fine wines available, so do not hesistate to send in bids. And remember that you will be helping people at the same time, as all the proceeds will go to the Japanese Red Cross. Wines, transport and the venue, as well as the auctioneer's fees, have all been donated