Sunday, December 20, 2009

Summer Dreams in Winter Rains




Of the many joys that wine has brought me over the years, one of the greatest is the connection to the land, providing a profound sense of place ...for what turned out to be some of the most beautiful places I've journeyed to and through.

So it's a particular delight on a chilly winter's night to be able to recall the hot flush of summers past with the warm glow of wine. In this case, I need go back only so far as this summer last, to remember the sights and sounds and tastes and textures of the Rhone and Provence, when I was privileged to enjoy the land, the wines, the food and the people. If any places are the summerlands, these are.

St. Tropez

The first time I visited St. Tropez, you could still see the origins of the humble fishing village it once was long ago. That's pretty difficult these days, with the incredible expansion of population (both tourists and new locals along the Provencal coast), and the rude crowds of glittery and showy over-sized yachts of the rich and famous thronging the harbor.

There's more Eurotrash and Globotrash than ever before, it seems. And many of them still cluster at St. Tropez. But then, so did we.

The 'village' still has its charms, and actually accomodates the crowds fairly well withal. The tiny narrow cobbled streets are still navigable, even along the stretches where the toniest of coutoure is displayed. And it is still fun to stroll the harbor late at night and watch the profligate cavort on their floating pleasure palaces, dancing on tables with champagne bottles in hand (and that quite literally, I might add), withered old men chuckling proprietorially over lissome young things with predatory gleams in their eyes. A free display of gratuitous consumption in front of the earthbound masses.

But there are still places... A nook here; a cranny there. A sagging portion of the old wall allowing a view of a rocky shore and a fog-enshrouded bay with sudden ships looming up in ghostly procession. An old round tower from the days of blood and pirates and king-conquerors. A couple walking along in the dim light arm in arm and thinking they were the only ones ever to love this much and this well.

And I found the same small gap leading out to a tiny, tiny beach of rock and sand, looking over the bay, with craggy islets waiting for careless ships, and in the middle of such numbers, was alone with the sea and the stones and the fog at the end of the day.

La Roubine

I love this photo for its total lack of drama, its seeming lack of any quality of structure or purpose or distinction. Without context it is merely a mass of Provencal garrigue, merely pretty at best, inconsequential at worst.

Ah, but in context, it is a magnificent and humbling picture that captures the imagination with force and grandeur. This plain little scene is the remnants, barely discernible, of the ancient Roman road from Frejus to Aix-en-Provence, traversing through the middle of the vine-studded estate of Domaine de la Roubine, one of the few Grand Cru-rated wine estates in the Provence.

You can walk along the old Road, treading on the same worn stones that clinked and sparked under the hobnailed boots of Roman legions and iron-shod cart wheels, and smell the pungent aromas of the wild thyme and rosemary and fragrant bunches of lavender that bake slowly under the sultry sun, and get lost in time. Oh, the sweep of history that has gone down this Road.

And now there is a great chateau, yes; but also a winery along the crest of the ridge where the new road runs, and in the middle of the vines a Culinary Center and Relais. And one of the gifts of the Romans, the vines in their orderly rows, lie alongside the Road that brought them here.




The Dentelles de Montmirail, Gigondas, and Saint-Cosme

When you reach the southern part of the Rhone, you can't miss the Dentelles de Montmirail. No, I mean, literally: you can't miss it. This ragged decaying range of giant stone dentifrice (they tell you the 'dentelles' means lace for the laciness of the rock, but the locals will just as quickly tell you that, yes, it does look like giant savage teeth in advanced decay) looms above the famous village of Gigondas, one of the villages of the Rhone entitled to its own appellation of wine.

And between the village of Gigondas and the Dentelles is a small and ancient vineyard, Saint-Cosme, and the hereditary owner of a family that goes back several generations and hundreds of years, Louis Barruol. Not a large man, and rather quiet and concentrated, Louis is nonetheless a man of force and presence through his quiet intensity and his natural connection to the land where he stands. He is as much a part of Saint-Cosme as the vines he tends and the wine he makes, and when he leads visitors around his place---for it is undeniably his place---he speaks with total confidence and knowledge.

He has, since he was a young child, wandered in and around the countryside, casually picking out shards of history from the soil---he has a well-maintained and fascinating museum of artifacts through the ages in the old cellar---and he has since dedicated himself to producing some of the finest and most intense wines from his estates and from the larger region.

And every day he can look up and see the Dentelles, always changing and always the same.



Montelimar

Almost a Disneyland attraction, flushing tourists from all over the world through its shops and restaurants, Montelimar has enjoyed affluence through the ages for its charms. If it is, as they say, "Location, location, location," then Montelimar has been particularly blessed with location, always astride a major trade or transportation route, and always having something worthwhile to sell.

Since Celtic times Montelimar has been on the hustle. Along the Rhone River, then along Highway N7, stymied for a while by the A7 autoroute (but recovering to become famous for its elaborate and unique aire, a tourist attraction all of its own), Montelimar is likely most famous for its nougat---which remains delicious, by the way---but now attracts tourists for its olives and olive oil, its spices and its fragrances. It's a fun place to visit, and there are far worse places to while away a warm summer afternoon, lolling under the arch of the old Roman bridge and tracing the path of a trolling hawk in the brilliant blue sky, and watching the mottled play of sunlight on rugged limestone escarpments. Colors are bright there, and the aromas are intense, and your senses come alive under the Provencal sun.


Hotel Bellerive, Relais du Silence, Rhone Valley

There is a small, secluded, and delightful hotel in the Southern Rhone, situated beside a pebble-bottomed river and looking out in any direction over the famous wine villages of the region. It is called le Bellerive, and it is a Relais du Silence, a lodging known for its restful nature and natural quiet repose. Bellerive has only a few rooms, and each has a lovely scenic view and a sense of solitude. There are lounging chairs scattered around the relais, and a couple of lethargic cats, and the sound of birds trumps the distant hum from the roadways in the distance.

Petit Dejeuner is on a terrazzo patio with a sweeping scenario of countryside at every glance, with sturdy thick silverware and bone china and crisp white tableclothes, and dense, dense black cafe noir with rich, thick cream and pain au chocolat to start the day.

My room is perched above the now sluggish river and looking toward the village of Seguret hunkered tightly atop its domed hilltop and gleaming dirty white in the morning sun, and as the fitful wind gusts back and forth it brings the fragrance of the wild herbs and the tangy whiff of the famous sun-baked garrigue, and I know that soon I will be at the foot of Seguret in the elegant vineyard of Domaine de la Cabasse, and enjoying the rich, dark, spicy red wines from the vineyards I am gazing over.
Hemingway was right, but not only about Paris, and not just for young men. The best places are all moveable feasts. And once savored they can be manifested again, in the mind's eye, and bring the indolence of summer to life, even in the chilly rains of winter.
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