Thursday, 23 July 2009

Swine Flu - have I or haven't I? And where is summer?

There is one thing worse than being ill in the winter and that is being ill in (what we Britons laughably call) "summer". I had a very nasty bout of flu at the back end of last year. I was bed-ridden on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (and it felt like 2 weeks, rather than 2 days) and it took until well into the New Year for me to get back to feeling anything like healthy. Nevertheless, one of the "benefits" of suffering such an illness is that the immune system (assuming one is otherwise healthy) builds up the antibodies.

So when I got what I assumed was just a summer cold, a few days into our holiday in France, I thought it would go away after a few days. A persistent cough, sore throat, swollen glands and a mild temperature hardly amounted to a ruined holiday and I was able to largely enjoy it as much as any other, without feeling too bad. But the last few days have seen no improvement - in fact, I'm feeling a lot worse. The sore throat is not there, but the cough (sometimes dry, sometimes not) has got worse, I feel generally lousy and now my joints are feeling a bit weak and tender. So I have experienced most of the symptoms of Swine Flu over the last 2 weeks, though not necessarily at the same time. And - it has to be said - none of these symptoms have been anywhere near as debilitating as the ones I suffered at Christmas.

So........ do I have it, or don't I? I honestly thought the doctor was joking the other day when he said I may have it. Still, I returned to work, as scheduled, on Tuesday. But this morning I felt lousy enough to call in sick because, whatever this illness is, it really is starting to get me down. My theory is that I have avoided going down with full-blown, certifiable Pig Fever because I still have a certain amount of immunity left over from my Christmas illness. Which all serves to make me feel like a bit of a fraud - I'm ill, but I'm hardly dying (I hope)! It's just that all I want to do is curl up in a ball and sleep until it goes away.

And the exasperating thing is that nobody else in the household was affected by the illness I had at Christmas, and none of them are affected by the current one either. Which may of course be either a good thing or a bad thing. Perhaps it would be better for them to get it now, rather than a few months hence, when it is likely to be much worse. Either way, this whole Swine Flu thing has become a big pain in the backside, not to mention a little worrying in its evolution. Still......... it may help to bring the unemployment figures down and reduce the state pension bill, whilst at the same time boosting the coffers of the drug companies. I do like a nice conspiracy theory!

Of course, I might be inclined to feel a bit better if the rain would go away. Anybody know what happened to this great summer we were supposed to be having?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Our final few days in Languedoc

We’ve had a couple of cracking days on the beach at Marseillan, with a lot of hot sunny weather and some great surf, which doesn’t half warm the water up. As always, we have spent less time at the beach than we would ideally have wanted, so we have crammed in as much into the last few days as possible.

Tuesday night, we dined at the delightful Les Goutailles restaurant in Neffies, which is owned and run by Karene and Didier Pernet. Karene hails from Lyon and Didier is from Alsace, though having spent several years in Nottingham (of all places!) Karene could easily pass as English, such is her perfect accent! The food was remarkably good, the highlight for me being a fantastic magret de canard with black cherry sauce, served with a beautiful selection of vegetables, including carrot purée, curried celery, crispy beetroot and breaded potato. The lavender-infused crème brulée wasn’t half bad, too. For anyone holidaying in the area, I would thoroughly recommend this hidden gem of a restaurant. They have a website, too – see

Les Goutailles restaurant in Neffies

Last night (Thursday) we dined with my friends Anne Sutra de Germa and Corinne Pastourel and their families at Domaine Monplezy. It was a lovely, balmy evening, with the touch of altitude just taking the edge off the heat we have felt for much of the week, lower down in Neffies. Anne served a selection of her beautiful wines, with the 2006 vintage of Felicité being a real stunner. I currently stock the 2005, but the 2006 is definitely one to add to my list as soon as possible – it really is a fantastic wine.

Anne Sutra de Germa and husband Christian Gil

Today, I drove Alex and his girlfriend to Carcassonne airport, for their return flight, followed by a quick visit to my old friend and inspiration, Guy Vanlancker, at Domaine La Combe Blanche in La Liviniere.

Vines around La Liviniere, with the Black Mountain in the distance

We now have to pack and grab an evening meal, so I’ll post more on these visits in a day or two, when we will be back in sunny England (where I see the weather is decidedly iffy, at present).

A bientot!

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Canoeing on the River Orb, plus lots of Bastille Day fireworks

Only a quick entry today, as it is so hot down here in Languedoc – for all that I love it here, I really am not very good at coping with heat!

Yesterday, we went canoeing on the River Orb, on a 9 kilometre strech between Poujols-sur-Orb and Tarassac. This is the third year running we have tackled this stretch and it is always a fun (albeit tiring) day. Lots of rapids to contend with, along with plenty of deep, slow water inbetween. And the scenery is, of course, stunning……….

A typical view from the River Orb

The wildlife is also varied and abundant, with kingfishers, eagles, herons, dragonflys, lizards, mountain goats all putting in appearances. This really is the most glorious place to spend a day, and at just 92 Euros for five of us, not expensive. If you fancy giving it a try, drop me an email and I’ll be happy to give you some tips.

The stunning scenery of the Haut Languedoc, north-east of Saint Chinian

Yesterday was 14 July, Bastille Day, and it seemed like every village in the region was celebrating. We had seen a firework display the night before in Marseillan, but last night from around 10pm onwards, all around our hideaway near Neffies, the horizon was lit-up by multi-coloured pyrotechnics from at least half a dozen of the surrounding villages. Very impressive – and a lot warmer than Bonfire Night!
Now we are off to the beach again……………. ;-)

Monday, 13 July 2009

More sun and a visit to Mas de Lavail

Internet access is not so readily available, now that we are out in the middle of rural Languedoc. Who’d have thought I would ever lament the absence of a nearby MacDonalds (for Internet access only, mind)! The sun finally arrived with a vengeance on Friday, for our last day in Roussillon and has stayed with us ever since, until we awoke to rain this morning. But the sun is starting to break through and it looks like we are in for another hot, sunny afternoon. So we are heading for the beach at Marseillan.

On our journey from Roussillon to Languedoc, we took the scenic route over (and around) the hills towards the Fenouilledes and my grower in Maury, Mas de Lavail. Winemaker Nicolas Batlle and his family were pleased to receive us and we tasted through his current vintages, including a big, yet elegant white, several fine reds and two brilliant Maury vins doux naturel (a red and a white). All of the wines were excellent and we came away with samples of all of them. I had almost forgotten what a brilliant winemaker Nicolas is and I certainly look forward to replenishing my list with plenty of Mas de Lavail wines.

The vineyards surrounding Mas de Lavail with Chateau de Queribus perched on the hillside in the distance

Our latest accommodation in Languedoc is a lovely wooden lodge, situated in the middle of a vineyard near Neffies. The villa in Roussillon, with its extremely high standard of comfort and facilities (not to mention those stunning views of the Pyrennées) was a hard act to follow, but we have settled in to our surroundings and are enjoying the peace and solitude out here. And the pool is like a nice cool (i.e. almost verging on warm) bath!

Although this is predominantly a family holiday, I will no doubt look to make one or two more grower visits in the few days we have left, and I will report on these in due course. Meanwhile, it is time for the beach!

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Hot and sunny at last!

After a couple of days of incessant cloud and some rain (but mainly in short bursts) the sun has finally arrived in Roussillon. The Pyrennées are still shrouded, but our “little” hill and the valley below are finally bathed in sunshine, with a refreshing breeze blowing from the north-west. I think the forecast remains mixed but, for now, we are happy to be soaking-up the sun.

Here are a couple of photos which show our accommodation and the view in all its glory………..

Our rented villa with pool

The stunning view of the Pyrennées
Now I am off to Carcassonne airport, to collect number 1 son, Alex, who is flying down with his girlfriend to join us for the remainder of the holiday. Meanwhile, Diane and number 2 son Daniel get to stay and relax by the pool. Pain in the backside though he can be, we’ve all missed Alex (even Dan!) so we are looking forward to it!

A bientot – more soon.

A visit to Domaine Treloar

Last night we visited our friends Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar, who are based in Trouillas, around 20 miles away from our hideaway. Before dinner, Jon treated us to a tasting of various barrel samples from the 2007 and 2008 vintages.

Jon and Rachel, perched on their barrels of La Terre Promise 2008

First was the 2008 La Terre Promise, which is a blend of Macabeo, Grenache Blanc and Carignan Blanc, which I loved. With aromas of gunflint, citrus and mineral, it is perhaps also a little dominated by the oak, at present, but that will integrate once the wine is in bottle - which will be soon, I hope, so I can get my hands on some of it! But this is no oak monster. It is somewhat creamy and quite rich, with those citrus and mineral elements also coming through and, at just 12% abv, it is beautifully balanced and showing a great deal of elegance – dare I say it, almost Burgundian in structure. Delicious wine, and I can’t wait for my customers to taste it.

We then tasted some reds, starting with a Carignan (from a plot of 60 year-old vines that Jon purchased last year) which was rich, fruity, balanced and delicious. Jon says he doesn’t yet know what he will do with it (blend it or bottle it as a single varietal) but it is remarkably good for a first effort at this much maligned (unfairly, in my opinion) grape.

Jon with a barrel sample of Carignan 2008

Then we moved onto Mourvedre 2007 and 2008. The nose of each was heady, with classic black fruit and tobacco and leather aromas. The flavour profiles were also remarkably similar, characterised by rich fruit, ample acidity and velvety tannins, not unlike young Bandol, but less fierce and easier to drink. The only difference between the two vintages is that the 2008 is still dominated by the fruit, whereas the 2007 (with the benfit of that extra year in oak) is definitely more “winey”. But both are beautifully poised, elegant and balanced. Jon says that he struggled with the authorities to obtain AOC status for the 2006 Motus (95% Mourvedre and 5% Syrah) as they think Roussillon Mourvedre should be soupy and alcoholic. But what do they know about great winemaking?! Jon is not interested in alcohol – he picks at optimum ph levels, not on sugar content. And the proof of the wine is in the drinking.

To finish, we tasted ’07 and ’08 Syrah, which again were remarkably similar – and also delicious. Jon is experimenting with some different barrels with 25% being slightly less toasted (and hence more resiny/oaky) than his usual barrels. Personally, I preferred the Syrah from the toastier oak – it is more elegant and less international in style. But Jon is a master at blending and I am sure the finished results will be just as good, if not better than the 2006’s. All-in-all, 2007 and 2008 are shaping-up to be two cracking vintages at Domaine Treloar, and I can’t wait to unleash them onto my customers!

Jon and Diane tasting Syrah

We then repaired to the Hesford/Treloar family living quarters above the winery, where Rachel had prepared a cracking meal, consisting of a mixed dressed salad with lardons and pitta, delicious roast pork loin with Dauphinoise potatoes and lemon-glazed carrots, and a wonderful date sponge with toffee/caramel sauce, finishing off with a selection of cheese. Oh, and we certainly didn’t go short of good wine!

Although I tend to see Jonathan 2 or 3 times a year, it is always nice to visit him and Rachel and the family at the nerve centre of the operation. They are lovely, hard-working people, who deserve all the success that is surely coming their way. And Diane and I are glad to be along for the ride. Jon is a star winemaker of the future – and, as far as I am concerned, the future is now.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Changeable weather in Roussillon

One good thing about MacDonalds is that they provide free wireless Internet access, so I was pleased to find one situated just across the road from the local supermarket (no, I haven’t eaten there!) which enables me to make Blog posts without too much hassle.

The weather in Roussillon is changeable at the moment, to say the least. Mornings tend to start fairly clear and sunny but, by afternoon, there are angry storm clouds looming over the mountains – hardly the best conditions for a half-decent tan. And hardly the best conditions for viticulture, either – Jonathan Hesford tells me that downy mildew is a big problem at the moment, so spraying is necessary to keep it under control. Trouble is, every time it rains, he has to go out and do it all over again, which must be very frustrating (not to mention time-consuming). And all we are bothered about is our suntan! At least it is still nice and warm, though, even though we are situated at 500 metres above sea level.

Today, we are off for a quick trip into Spain. Meanwhile, here are a few photos, mostly of the stunning views from our villa of the Canigou (altitude 2,784 metres – 9,131 feet) and surrounding mountains………

Diane, enjoying a nice glass of red, on our arrival at Arboussols, Roussillon

A waxing moon, rising over the Canigou massif

Time for some practice with the macro lens setting

The hilltop village of Arboussols bathed in sunshine, whilst angry clouds gather over the Canigou

Monday, 6 July 2009

My favourite time of year – holiday time!

We certainly don’t do things the easy way in the Stolarski family. Every year, for the past 15 or so years, we have taken our annual holiday in the south of France – and every year, we choose the option of driving, rather than flying. Why? Well, I sometimes wonder myself. A 6 am Friday ferry from Dover means leaving Nottingham at around 1 am, which basically means a night without sleep, for me, at least. So when we hit the French roads, with 220 miles already under our belts and another 700-plus miles to go, it can be a bit of a drag - not to mention very tiring! Of course, an overnight stop is essential. Completing the journey all in one go is possible (indeed, I have done it before) but the urge to get us all there in one piece outweighs everything else. And the offer by my friend David Bennett of the use of his house in the beautiful, sleepy village of Saint Gengoux Le Nacional in the Cotes Chalonnaise region of southern Burgundy was not to sniffed at. And what a lovely place - tardis-like, with four bedrooms, two shower rooms and spacious kitchen, dining and living space. It was almost a shame we only had one night there. Here's a photo………..

Our onward journey from Saint Gengoux to our destination in Roussillon was always going to be a little fraught, since this is one of the busiest Saturdays of the year on the French roads, with what seems like half the population heading for the Mediterranean. I’ll spare you the detail, but suffice to say that the autoroute south of Lyon often resembled a huge car park. After several hours of stop-start (more of the former than the latter), we eventually got past Orange, where the autoroute splits into two – one heading to Marseille and the Cote d’Azur, the other heading to towards Languedoc, Roussillon and Spain. Finally, we made some serious progress, eating up the miles, hampered only briefly by the mother of all rainstorms. After a quick stop for a comfort break near Narbonne, we were off on the last leg of the journey. And then, disaster! Accelerating hard up the hill back onto the motorway there was a loud “pop” from the engine. Our 2 litre turbo diesel Mondeo suddenly had all the power of a sewing machine. Luckily, there was another aire (service station just up the road, so we chugged along for a mile or two and pulled in. Fearing the worst (think ruined holiday and a huge repair bill) I looked under the bonnet and found that a large rubber pipe leading from the engine to the turbo had blown free from its seating. Joy of joys – a simple job to fix! 5 minutes later, we were back on the road, with full power restored. An hour later, we arrived at our hideaway, perched 500 metres up above the Roussillon plain in the village of Arboussols, with magnificent views of the Canigou massif and the eastern Pyrenées towards Andorra. I’ll post some more, later, including some more pics.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

A great old wine from Spain

It has been a bad week for wine tasting, which is unfortunate, given that I have been to two tastings, with about 35 wines on offer. Not because the wines were bad - just that the heatwave we are currently enduring has made it almost impossible for the wines to show at their best. Whites that started their journey nicely chilled ended up at room temperature and reds that were slightly chilled ended up warm. Apart from a few decent whites and a couple of light Burgundies, every thing else struggled to perform. Frankly, we would have been better off drinking a few ice cold beers!

However, one red wine that really did stand out was a Marques de Grinon "Gran Vino Tinto de Crianza" Cabernet Sauvignon 1982. This really was delicious and still very much alive, which is remarkable for a wine of this age and this denomination. It reeks of heady, ripe red and black fruits, undergrowth, cigar box, mint and nicely-integrated smoky oak. The palate is stunning - rich, but not overpowering, with truly sweet fruit balanced by wonderful acidity and silky soft tannins. This may even have been a bit of a bruiser when it was young, but 27 years of age has seen it mature into a lovely, elegant wine, which put me in mind of a really good Domaine de Trévallon, with its rich, multi-dimensional fruit profile. I was surprised, though, to find that it was pure Cabernet, as I would have guessed it had some Syrah. It just goes to show that Cabernet can make great wine, even for a Bordeaux-phobe like me! Its a shame that Bordeaux rarely, if ever, makes wines with such generosity and elegance (by which I mean that it is more often one or the other, rather than both). A cracking wine, with complexity by the bucket-load, which sort of bridges the gap between old-style Spanish wine and the bigger, more soupy modern style. One of my wines of the year so far!