19 April 2018

On reprend les mêmes...

...et on recommence. In this case, les mêmes are the rototiller, the lawnmower, and the two guys who walk behind them and keep them on course. This is the rototiller's 15th season in the vegetable garden plot — mine too, of course — but the lawnmower is the second one we've had since we moved here in 2003. It gets used not just in the spring but all summer and into the fall.

Above was what faced me on Tuesday. That was the day when the weather suddenly changed for the better. The photo shows the vegetable garden plot, of course. Last fall we had raked up dead leaves that fell out of the maple trees and spread them over a lot of the plot. Then Walt burned some downed branches and other yard trimmings there in the middle.

And here is the plot as it looked yesterday afternoon. I didn't do a deep tilling, but I did what I call a désherbage pass. In other words, I ran the tiller over the surface to uproot and pull out the weeds, and to turn all the dead leaves over. The ground was muddy in places, because the leaves and the weeds' roots hold in a lot of moisture. And it has been so rainy for months. I'll till  it again tomorrow or next week.

Here's the rototiller. It's a heavy, awkward piece of machinery that's not easy to handle. The wheel with the tire folds up when you run the tiller, so that the blades and disks dig into the ground and turn the soil over — in theory. Sticky mud and tenacious roots make the job harder than it would be in dry, loose soil. This morning, I woke up with a backache, but that's not surprising. At this point, the ground is drying out because of our sunny, warm weather.

Meanwhile, Walt dealt with the mess shown above. We don't know why the grass grew so tall and thick in that spot by the real fake well outside the greenhouse and back door, but it did. Maybe it got better light than did other parts of the yard.

Anyway, he got the grass back under control once it dried out enough to be mowed. He uses a self-propelled mower — the motor turns the wheels as well as the blade — but it's not a riding mower. It's not as heavy as the rototiller, but it's still a lot of work to follow it around, tilt it up to get it to go through tall grass, and to turn it around dozens of times when he comes to the edges of the yard and path. Yesterday he mowed the grass all around the section of the yard where the vegetable garden plot is located.

18 April 2018

Un jour qui ne ressemblait pas...

...aux précédents. In other words, what a difference a day can make! It seems like forever since we've had a warm, sunny morning. April is not being cruel right now.

Look at that sunrise! You'd think we were in the Sahara or somewhere else exotic. But no, it's just Saint-Aignan in springtime.

Tasha the Sheltie was pretty excited. Well, she's always excited when it's time for a walk, but yesterday was definitely different. There was a spring in her step.

There was such good early morning light that I was able to take photos like this. The gloom is gone. Good riddance. The temperature today is supposed to be in the high 70s in ºF. That's 25ºC.

Next week will be the first anniversary of Tasha's arrival in Saint-Aignan. She was born in Chinon and lived there for two months before we brought her home. She often needs bathing and grooming after the morning walk, as you might notice.

It occurs to me that next week will also mark the 15th anniversary of our becoming owners of our house here. Time is just flying by. We've been enjoying this tree's spring bloom for all these years already.

17 April 2018

Two trees

Spring has been sneaking up on us for a few weeks now. It was hard to notice because rain and drear hid the signs from us. While we were focused on slop and mud (on our walks with the dog), little flowers and new green growth recently started to become visible.

Above, the red maple trees off our front deck, which provide us with a privacy screen during spring, summer, and autumn, seem suddenly to have burst into bloom.

Meanwhile, the birch trees on the north side of the house are in flower too. Their flowers are catkins, so-called because they look a little like cats' tails. Yellow pollen covers anything we leave outdoors, including and especially the car. Luckily for me, this is not the kind of pollen that provokes my body's allergic reactions.

16 April 2018

Beaujolais, à bientôt peut-être

I'm finishing the Beaujolais series today. As I said in a comment, I'm very happy that the weather cooperated and that we drove over there from the Bourbonnais, despite the four-hour round trip, with truck traffic and winding country roads. It was a good use of our time.

On past trips, I had visited Burgundy. Lyon. Grenoble and the Alps. The Cantal in Auvergne. Provence. Nîmes. Marseille. Nice. Even nearby Mâcon. But somehow I had managed to travel all around it without ever setting foot, or car tires, in Beaujolais. I don't know how that happened.

I'll go back if I can. It was one of those places where I started thinking: Maybe it would be nice to live here. It seemed so dry, airy, and scenic, with snow-covered mountains in the distance and magnificent views of the Beaujolais landscape and vineyards because of the hills and valleys.

From that point of view, the Cantal area of Auvergne was comparable. We went there and spent a few days in 2009. It was mountainous, but green, lush... and damp. There were great views — except when it was rainy and foggy. In Auvergne, I loved walking through a pasture and watching the Salers cows being milked. I loved visiting a dairy farm and seeing how Cantal cheese is made. I never thought I would want to live there though. It was too remote and isolated, and I could imagine how cold the winters there would be.

Beaujolais was definitely rural, but it didn't seem remote. It's like the Touraine, where we've lived now for 15 years, in that way. Big cities are not so far away — Paris from Touraine, Lyon from Beaujolais. There are nearby autoroutes and high-speed rail lines for TGV service. It felt more like Provence than Auvergne, which seemed somehow lost in time. Beaujolais felt open and spacious in contrast. And that wine...

15 April 2018

One for the road

After stopping in the Juliénas wine co-op shop and buying a few bottles to bring home to Saint-Aignan, we went and had one for the road. A coffee, I mean. We drove into the village and found the main street down at this end of town.

We parked on a little square across from this café, Bistrot Le Sarment, and sat out on the sidewalk in bright sunshine. One other couple came and sat down at an outdoor table and ordered glasses of sparkling wine. A waiter brought us our espresso coffees and a bowl of cold water for Tasha.

A sarment (de vigne) is a flexible vine shoot or cane that results from the year's growth and is then pruned back in the autumn or winter. People use sarments as kindling or as fuel for the barbecue grill, but mostly these days the grapegrowers' crews come through with a grinder or chipper and pulverize the clipped-off sarments to be rid of them.

I noticed this piece of street art on the side of a building across the street from where we were sitting. It's called Les Quatre Saisons de la Vigne. I'm not sure I've figured it all out. Maybe you can. A plaque said the artist had donated it to Juliénas and it carried the date 1999.

There was another bistrot or taverne just a few meters down the street from Le Sarment, but its outdoor tables were in the shade. While I went and took these photos, Walt stayed with Tasha. It actually felt too hot to leave the dog in the car by herself.

14 April 2018

Juliénas views, pronunciation, and harvests

The town's web site says the final S of Juliénas is not pronounced — it's Juliéna’ and not Juliénasse. However, I think the local people pronounce the name their way, while people in the rest of France disagree. The same is true, for example, of the name of the big town of Tournus in Burgundy (Tournu’ locally, rather than Tournusse as pronounced in Paris and other areas). Think about the names of other wine villages: Gigondas, Vacqueras... S or no S? And I've heard about one case where a town, Nyons, changed the recommended pronunciation of its name from having a silent final S to a pronounced final S (because there is a town named Nyon in nearby Switzerland).

The photos here are some views of the village of Juliénas taken from in front of the Cave des Producteurs and the Château du Bois de la Salle, inside which are located the co-op's tasting room and wine shop.

About pronunciation, my 1980 Larousse Dictionnaire de la Prononciation says that the standard pronunciation of Juliénas is with the final S sounded, but the "regional" (Lyon and Beaujolais) pronunciation is with the final S silent. French, eh? It'll trip you up every time. I always pronounce the final S on words like these unless I have no doubt about the standard pronunciation being silent S. Paris in French is Paree, as we all know, for example. Tours is Tour’, not Tourss or Tourz, and Blois is [blwah]. But is Salers called Saler’ or Salerss?

Let me mention something about the Beaujolais vineyards that I never knew before going there and reading background material for this series of blog posts. All the grape harvesting in Beaujolais is done by hand. Here in Touraine, the majority of the grape harvesting by far is what they call mécanique, not manuel. In Vouvray, to cite another case, the grapes considered to be of highest quality are harvested by hand, which is more expensive, and the rest are harvested by machine, which is faster and cheaper. The mechanical-harvesting process involves de-stemming all the grapes, whereas manual harvesting means cutting whole bunches, stems and all.

One reason for the hand-harvesting in Beaujolais is the way wines are fermented. Whole grape bunches are cut off the vines and then put in a vat to ferment on the stem for a certain amount of time. I think the theory is that the woody stems add flavor to the juice — think about wine aged in wooden barrels. Then, in Beaujolais, the grapes are stripped off the stems and pressed to release more juice for further fermentation. In Chablis (S or no S?), to the north in Burgundy, virtually all the grapes are machine-harvested. I was surprised to learn about that a few years ago, because I had assumed the opposite given the quality and reputation of the Chablis [shah-blee] Chardonnay wines.

13 April 2018

La cave cooperative des producteurs de Juliénas

We were really glad to have identified this place during internet research before taking the drive to the Beaujolais area. It's the Cave des Producteurs de Juliénas, but its selection of wines is broader than just the cru Juliénas.

Above is a long view of the co-op buildings that I took from the streets of the village later in the afternoon, after our visit to the wine shop. Below are shots of the front door of the tasting room/boutique, one wider and one closer up.

On the left is a list of some of the Beaujolais cru wines that are sold in the shop. I assume all or most are available for tasting too, but we weren't tasting because we were going to be driving back to the Bourbonnais, two hours west, after leaving the shop.

Actually, there were other wines available too. Juliénas is at the northern tip of Beaujolais, adjoining the Mâconnais wine region of southern Burgundy. The neighboring part of the Mâconnais specializes in white wines made from Chardonnay grapes, including the well-known Pouilly-Fuissé wines. Some of those were available for sale as well. Juliénas is only about 10 miles south of the much bigger town that is Mâcon.

Wine in France is sold not in 12-bottle cases, but in 6-bottle cartons, which are easier to move around and carry to your car. We bought three cartons, if I remember correctly. Eighteen bottles, added to the six I had already bought in Régnié-Durette at lunchtime.

Notice that the co-op also sells boxed wine in the packaging called a "bag in box" and commonly referred to by its initials, BIB (pronounced beeb). We buy a lot of wine in BIBs, which are also sometimes called fontaines à vin. Inside the cardboard box is a plastic "bladder" — holding three, five, or ten liters —  with a spigot. The plastic bag shrinks or collapses as you take wine out of it, so that the wine doesn't come into contact with oxygen, which would cause it to spoil quickly. They say you can safely keep wine in a BIB for about three months after you open it.

There was just one other car in the wine shop parking lot. The couple driving it were the only people in the shop besides us, and they had a little white dog on a leash with them. They bought about the same amount of wine as we did. We had left Tasha in the car after walking her around for a few minutes before going into the shop.

Above is the shop's price list for bottles of wine. Judge for yourself whether you think the wines are expensive or not. Remember, wine is a commodity in France, not just a luxury product, and most of these are about the best Beaujolais wine you can buy.

12 April 2018

On the way to Juliénas

Our last stop on the Beaujolais tour was the northernmost wine village in the appellation. It's called Juliénas (pop. 895), and to get there from Moulin-à-Vent you drive around a mountain, go fairly high up, and then drop down into a deep valley. The views along the way are nice.

In the World Atlas of Wine, I read that the wine of the Juliénas cru is more like the wine of Fleurie than that of Moulin-à-Vent. It's "Fleurie-like in youth, but at best fatter, fleshier, and spicier with the backbone to keep it going for five years." In other words, you can keep a bottle for five years with confidence that the wine will continue to improve.

"Juliénas is steep, ideally sheltered, and drained. No cru has a higher overall standard." That's from the same paragraph as the sentence above. In his earlier wine "encyclopedia" the same author says that Juliénas is considered to be "mealtime Beaujolais" rather than simply a thirst-quenching wine like many other Beaujolais vintages. And, I'll add, there's a big wine co-op in Juliénas that was open for business by the time we got there that afternoon.

11 April 2018

The next leg

Wrapping up this set of posts about Moulin-à-Vent and the Beaujolais wines made there and near there...

The photo above shows our next destination. We were headed to the north, and it was still the middle of the day, so everything was closed and we didn't want to linger or just wait around for wine co-op tasting rooms and shops to open for the afternoon.

The Moulin-à-Vent AOC area straddles two French départements and régions. Half of of it is offcially in Burgundy, and the other half is officially part of the Lyon administrative area. The tower above has a typically Burgundian mult-colored roof.

We were headed toward the southern tip of Burgundy and the big town of Mâcon, which is its own wine area. Above is a view of the town of Romanèche-Thorins, which is also in Burgundy (département de Saône-et-Loire). This is looking basically south from the windmill, and toward the mountains.

Above and below are shots of a famous wine village taken from the Moulin à Vent. It's the village called Fleurie, which is another cru du Beaujolais. I mentioned it yesterday and quoted a wine expert saying that Fleurie wine, light and drinkable, is completely different from Moulin-à-Vent wine, which is "severe" when it's young and benefits from years of aging in the bottle. The two wine areas are adjacent to each other and the church in Fleurie is only a mile and a half from the windmill.

Here's an impressionistic view of the village of Fleurie that I made from one of my photos. Speaking of wine, as I was, we had bought only six bottles of cru Régnié so far, because we were driving around between noon and 2:30 p.m., hours when so many shops in France are not open for business. All the shopkeepers and employees are at home or in a restaurant eating lunch. Walt and I needed to move on because we had a long drive back to the Bourbonnais ahead of us, and we wanted to be there by dinnertime. Were we going to find some wine to take home with us, or not?

10 April 2018

Terroir — stone, soil, topography, weather, climate

In his book The World Atlas of Wine (1994 edition), author Hugh Johnson says of the village of Fleurie — just to the west and south of Moulin-à-Vent — produces wines that epitomize the spirit of Beaujolais. "The scent is strong, the wine fruity and silky, limpid; a joy to swallow." Remember the photo of that little isolated hilltop chapel I posted a few days ago? It stands on the territory of Fleurie.

The wines of neighboring Moulin-à-Vent are very different. Johnson uses the term "severity" to describe them and says the differences are "a tale of terroir writ large."

« Terroir » is that complex combination of soil, topography, weather, and climate conditions that makes one place ideal for growing grapes that produce wines of superior quality, while the same variety of grapes, grown in another place — even nearby — will give you a completely different, even mediocre wine.

Pruning the vines and burning the clippings in Beaujolais

The soil of the Moulin-à-Vent area, Hugh Johnson writes, "is rich in iron and manganese, probably but unprovably implicated in the concentration, dumbness even, of its young wines and their ability to age ten years."  Most Beaujolais wines are meant to be drunk young and don't really improve with age beyond two or three years in the bottle. Moulin-à-Vent is the exception, not the rule.

Meanwhile, let me show a couple of photos of the back, north-facing house I showed yesterday and described as a typical old Beaujolais building. Iron and manganese... Pink granite... Soil is basically crushed or eroded rock, isn't it?

The back side of the house, and I'm sure the front too, were once and still are partly are covered in what is called an enduit or crépi in French — a kind of rough-textured coating like stucco, I'd call it. It's supposed to help prevent moisture from seeping into the stone and mortar underneath. It's too bad that it completely hides the colorful stone that houses like this one are built of.

09 April 2018

Cru Moulin-à-Vent

Moulin-à-Vent was the first Beaujolais cru to be delimited and recognized officially. At the beginning, in the 1860s, it was named after the nearby village of Romanèche-Thorins. Wine expert Hugh Johnson, in his 1983 Modern Encyclopedia of Wine, calls it "the most 'serious' and expensive Beaujolais appellation." And he says Moulin-à-Vent Beaujolais is normally the last wine served during an elaborate Beaujolais dinner — with the cheese course, because it has enough body to stand up to strong cheeses that would overwhelm the other, lighter, Beaujolais crus.

It's too bad the tasting room/boutique was closed when we were there. But this was one our three longer stops as we drove from Beaujeu up toward the big town of Mâcon, north of Beaujolais, over the course of the afternoon. We climbed up the steps to the windmill with the dog and took a lot of photos.

The windmill itself dates back to the 15th century. In 1983, when Johnson published his book, the blades of the windmill had fallen off the old building, attacked by a fungus that weakened the wooden structure. The blades were restored 10 or 12 years ago.

Above is a map of the Moulin-à-Vent wine production area. It covers something like 1500 acres (less than 2½ mi²) and includes the village of Chénas, which is a Beaujolais cru in its own right. I'm posting the map at a fairly large size so that you can read it if you want to, by clicking on it to enlarge it. All the names of the different vineyard parcels (les terroirs) are interesting, and there's a blurb in English as well as French about the place.

Sitting just at the foot of the windmill is the house pictured above. I think it's a pretty typical old-style Beaujolais house, built with the stone of the region. According to the map, the windmill and the house stand on land that is at about 800 feet (250 meters) of elevation.

08 April 2018

The three parts of Beaujolais

When we left Régnié-Durette after our picnic lunch, our plan was to drive north through the prime Beaujolais « cru » vineyards before driving back to the Bourbonnais late in the afternoon. « Cru » is one of those French terms like « terroir » — it's pretty hard to translate. Let's just say "local vintages." Anyway, Beaujolais is actually divided into three distinct wine areas, or « terroirs ». In the south, closer to Lyon, the soil is clay and limestone (as it is around Saint-Aignan), and the wines produced are just labeled as Beaujolais. Paradoxically, the south in south Beaujolais is "colder" — slower to warm up in the sun — than the soil in north Beaujolais.

The middle part of Beaujolais is where the soil transitions from being clay and limestone into a layer of sand and schist over a granite base. The wine towns there label their production as Beaujolais-Villages. Most are made with a mix of grapes from different vineyard parcels and villages, but still they are considered a step up in quality from the plain Beaujolais wines made to their south. They don't carry a more specific appellation than just Beaujolais-Villages, however.

Finally, the northern part of Beaujolais is an area where topography, soil type, and weather conditions produce the wines that are considered to be the best that Beaujolais has to offer. It's a much hillier area, so not only are the granitic soils lighter than the clay of the south, but the vineyard parcels are better exposed to warm sunshine because they are often on east- or south-facing slopes. The soil warms up more quickly and the grapes ripen more completely, making for richer, tastier wines.

We had done just a little bit of research to see where we might find good places to buy some bottles of Beaujolais to bring back to Saint-Aignan. We tend to favor wine cooperatives rather than individual producers in situations like these, when we don't have a lot of time. Individual producers are often very busy people, and many require you to make an appointment rather than just show up unannounced to taste and perhaps buy bottles of their wines.

Co-ops are places of business with regular hours. You can just drop in, with the assurance that somebody will be there to advise you and sell you the wines you want. You can taste too, but we weren't tasting because we were driving. We drove north through the vineyards and through villages we've long heard of — Villié-Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, and Juliénas, for example. Those are the Beaujolais villages that are authorized to put their name on their wine labels, because each village produces a vintage that is distinctive compared to all the other varieties of Beaujolais, and has its own special characteristics and reputation.

07 April 2018

A day outdoors in the Beaujolais vineyards

One of the points of going on the trip to the Bourbonnais, with a day trip to Beaujolais, was to get Tasha the Sheltie puppy used to traveling around in the car and spending nights in new, unfamiliar surroundings. Another was just for us: it was a break from the low-grade cabin fever we'd been suffering from. We'd had a very rainy and dismal winter, I then had to make a emergency trip to the U.S. because my mother was dying. Also, Walt and I both had very bad colds that lasted for more than a month.

Going to see the Beaujolais region, which we'd somehow never visited before, turned out to be a great way to spend one of the very few sunny and mild days of this hiver horrible. I was glad to be outside all day. I wanted to see new sights and enjoy driving around in the Citroën. I wanted the feeling of freedom that had been missing from life for a few months, and I needed to breathe fresh air.

Beaujolais was not at all what I personally expected it to be. I imagined it green and hilly; it turned out to be more brown and almost mountainous. It wasn't better or worse, but just different from what I had imagined. The vineyards cover fairly steep east-facing hillsides running down to the Saône River, and off in the distance you can see the snow-covered Alps. That surprised me.

Régnié-Durette, where we picnicked at noon and I took these photos, is at about 300 meters of elevation — a thousand feet — if I'm reading the map correctly. There was a festive atmosphere in the middle of the village (pop. 1,000), which was neat and clean. A little carnival with bumper cars and other attractions was set up on the square in front of the church.

People working the carnival were preparing their mid-day meal and getting ready to sit out on the little front porches of their trailers to eat and drink. There was a clothesline behind the church, just a few meters from our picnic table, and people were drying their laundry. A young woman came to take some dry clothes in and wished us a cheerful Bon appétit ! as we ate our sandwiches and enjoyed a glass of the Régnié red wine.