Our program for the Laurus wine class indicates a full plate of activities, both in touring and education about the Laurus production in the Cotes du Rhone appellations. With an early morning start, we boarded a bus from Avignon to Gigondas, to the main winery for Laurus wines, the Domaine de Longue Toque winery and the Gabriel Meffre offices. We were gathered in a beautiful presentation room with large French doors that open on to a Mediterranean tile patio. For the first part of our visit, we became familiar with the company history in a presentation, and then introduced ourselves to our classmates. I was pleasantly surprised at the array of attendees! They included two agency representatives from Finland, two from Estonia, two from Russia, a French store operator now living in the Philippines, a French sommelier, and an Englishman importing for the Wine Society of India. Far flung guests for the Laurus course!
From the presentation we learned Laurus wines are the upper end of production from the Gabriel Meffre company, a long-standing name in the region since 1936. The company’s ownership has varied from family owned to corporate, and back to family and employee ownership, with the latest organisation holding the reins since 1994. One of the largest producers in the area, Gabriel Meffre has five main wine houses at various tiers: Chateau Grand Escalion, Domaine Bois Des Dames, Domaine Jullian, Domaine de Longue Toque, and Laurus. They also produce La Chasse, Wild Pig and Fat Bastard, which may be recognisable to the Canadian market, as a lower tier product. We paid good attention in the class, because there were to be quizzes later!
We then toured the Longue Toque winery, and were able to taste some very fresh samples coming from the harvest. Being further south in France, the harvest was already well underway with the warmer weather. We met our Canadian sales rep, Jacky Cole, and her husband Guillaume, who happens to be the winemaker for Longue Toque! The vines of the Gigondas property grow right up to the winery itself, with several varietal sample vines growing right outside the door. Guillaume took care to show us each plant and how to differentiate between them from the various leaf shapes and grape sizes. Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Mourvedre, Carignan for the reds, and Marsanne and Roussane for the whites. And little white snails populate the vineyard, keeping the mini-ecosystem in check.
A tour of the winery follows the path of the grapes, where they are brought to a sorting table, destemmer and then pressed, then into the fermentation tanks. We were able to witness, because of the time of year, very fresh juice undergoing the “Pumping over” process. As the grape skins are in with the juice, they float to the top of the tank, so the juice is pumped from the bottom of the tank over the top to give the wine as much colour and flavour extraction as possible. A precarious job, the winery workers always need to be aware of the CO2 levels escaping from the fermentation tanks~ accidents have happened of people passing out and falling into the tanks!
Outside in the fresh air, we were able to sample the partially fermented product, unfiltered but thick and fruity! Apparently it is rough on the stomach, so we had only small sips before we were divided into groups and loaded into 4×4 jeeps to visit the “Dentelles of Montmirail”. This landmark hilltop rock formation divides Gigondas from the Baumes de Venise AOC, where the Longue Toque vineyards rise and grow up at 470m above sea level. On very narrow winding bumpy paths up to the whiterock vineyards, we toured the mountainside to gain sweeping views of the plains below. From afar we saw the Plan de Dieu, the “Plains of God” which is the hottest open stretch of land in the valley between the L’Aygues and L’Ouveze Rivers . Up by the Dentelles grow primarily the old vines grenache and the syrah.
Next we were brought back to the Laurus winery, a huge state of the art facility down the street from the Longue Toque winery. We were given little white sanitary hats to wear though the tour, and saw more tanks, barrels, their testing lab, bottling and storage facilities. This was by far the largest production site we have yet visited.
We then set up for a 2 hour lunch on the beautiful patio – it was 30 degrees outside! I got a little bit sunburnt over our meal, but it was nice to be in the sunshine like this mid-fall. We enjoyed some lovely crisp dry rosé and the Laurus Cotes du Rhone white wine with our meal, a lovely introduction to the product of the area.
After lunch we prepared to test our knowledge of wine by partaking in a blending contest! We were divided into our 4 teams again, and were given a list of 8 different single and blended wines in bottles. The vintage and oaking levels, as well as soil sources the wines came from were provided, and each team was tasked with coming up with the perfect Gigondas wine for all to try! With our beakers and chemistry minds ready, we sampled the 8 bottles, and made our notes. The ultimate blend of fruity freshness and serious aging potential that the region’s wine can provide is a great challenge! We were helped by Veronique, another Laurus winemaker, and were given few clues except the opinions of those on our team. Figuring our percentages of each blend, we submitted our samples to the judges. This was a very memorable exercise ~ being able to grasp in some small way how the winemaker builds a wine in their head over the growing season from knowing the vineyards so well was a bit of an awakening for me. Each grape type and soil type contribute to the wines’ final expression, but the blending is an art I’m sure takes many vintages to begin to do well, and so from this little activity I gained even more respect for winemakers. Our green team didn’t win, but we did make a pretty good wine, and had fun trying!
After the blending game it was back to Avignon for supper with our group. It had been a lovely day, and we starting to get to know one another and the Laurus team.
Thursday dawned sunny and we began our action-packed day. First stop was a stroll through the heart of Avignon ~ and in behind the Palais des Papes to a hotel named La Mirande. Built on ancient Roman foundations, this building was once the residence for the cardinals and dates from 1309. Now turned hotel, we lounged in the tea room bright with sky lights, awaiting our hosts for our very own French cooking class! Several of the salons on the ground floor are restored to period decor of the 18th century, including the library with carved, painted-wood ceilings, period wallpaper, chandeliers and plush furniture.
We were brought deep down into the old cellars by a narrow winding spiral staircase, into a beautiful tasting room and kitchen. La Mirande teaching chefs were led by John Chiri, originally from the USA and having been in France for about 10 years. Sitting around a very large wooden table, we each had our workstation laid out and were put to task after donning our Laurus aprons. With a wood fired oven from the 19th century, we started preparing our meal! I took some serious notes, so hopefully if I can find the ingredients here, I can replicate this food for my family.
Our multi-course meal included:
~Fresh figs in red wine sauce beside seared Foie Gras on toasted Brioche
~Herb crusted whole chicken with French carrots, Farci Gratin Cabbage rolls, and wild mushrooms
~And for dessert ~Goat Cheese & Vanilla Panna Cotta with slivered almonds and fresh strawberries in a balsamic reduction , yum!
Needless to say it was a delicious meal, which we enjoyed over several Laurus wines and a splurge 1997 Chateauneuf du Pape from the hotel cellars. I found this genuine cooking class one of the highlights of the trip!
Well fed, we came back out into the daylight for the afternoon adventure. “Outdoor activities” on the program became a three-part outdoor challenge, including riding quad ATVs around the vineyards in obstacle courses and a map-course challenge! What fun! The first challenge was riding the quad about a small course while holding a wine bottle on a tray – tricky! The second challenge was riding the quad blindfolded, as our teammates guided us with their voices and cheers, and then a tour around the vineyards with a map as a guide to be quizzed at check-points on Gabriel Meffre trivia. We also did a “Le Nez du Vin” contest, where we were given vials of wine aromas to smell and guess at what they aromas were. Tougher than you think! All this took place at the Grand Escalion winery, also part of the Gabriel Meffre group. It was a fun bonding afternoon with the teams, and the Laurus group is really vibrant and fun to get to know.
With our outdoor challenge behind us, we cleaned up for a casual supper at a neat little restaurant called L’Offset, originally an offset printing house in the 1900s on the Rue des Teintures. Once the street was known for its busy manufacturing industry for dying textiles, and used the street-side canal directing the Sorgue river through the city for water. Now it is lined with funky little bars and cafes in the cobblestone streets. After supper we were guided through the area to a little named Chez Ripert. Part of a co-sponsoring of the event for Gabrielle Meffre, little did we know we would be joining an artistic bistro crowd in the middle of a French poetry reading about romanticising Absinthe! Two crazy characters acted out the poems from the mid 1800s including Beaudelaire, Rimabaud and who knows who else. For a slice of time I thought I was inside the movie Le Moulin Rouge and the Bohemian Rhapsody all at the same time. Serious flashbacks from my early French literature classes were dizzying me as these two were chided and cheered by the small dedicated crowd. And after the poetry and a full examination of the Absinthe fountain flowing freely in the back bar, we spilled on to the patio and enjoyed an evening that Sandra and I won’t forget for a long time. Cheers to Laurus
Up and at ‘er early Friday morning, we were off to visit a few more wineries that are a part of the Gabriel Meffre holdings. The grandson of Gabriel Meffre is the last link in the family, running the Domaine Bois des Dames winery in the Plan du Dieu vineyards. A tour and taste from this area was followed by a rooftop view of the entire surrounding valley, what a beautiful panorama! But only briefly were we there, to hop back onto the bus for a longer ride south to the Chateauneuf du Pape region. Known for its robust, flavourful red blend wines, we toured a few stops including a patio lunch at Domaine Jullian. Winemaker Veronique gave us some barrel samples from the recent vintages (delicious of course!). Unique to Chateauneuf du Pape region is the extreme rocky soils, which my photo shows smooth round stones. The old vines Grenache grow more gnarly and thick in the roots as they age, producing less fruit but concentrated rich flavours. The heat of the region dictates the pruning method of the vines, keeping in a low-to-the ground goblet style, collecting the heat radiating of the “gallettes” the stones natural to the vineyards. The Chateauneuf du Pape Chateau that sits atop the hill in the town is now only a symbolic shell of a castle, bombed out in the second world war. Two sides of the main tower remain, but it is scenic nonetheless.
Our final soiree with the Laurus team was back at the main winery, amid the many full wine barrels for a lovely supper. We got our course certificates, and Anthony opened a 6 litre bottle of Gigondas for us all to share! I have to extend many thanks to the entire Laurus team that made us feel so very welcome, and guided us so expertly through the Cotes du Rhone region.
And with that, the Cava Wine Team concluded the French tour! Hopefully we will get a chance to go back sooner than later. A la prochaine mes amis!