Passion Points: Food/Wine
I never knew going back to school could be so delightful. But when it involves swirling, sniffing and then tasting a variety of exceptional wines with two amusing and super knowledgeable wine experts, what could be more pleasant? Add to that a fun group of curious adult students, ranging from the serious wine collector to the novice (like me), fabulous food and an utterly idyllic setting on a sublime wine estate and you have…well, a treat.
The Extreme Wine Experience I recently attended (think of it as wine boot camp) was at the Chêne-Bleu winery (www.chenebleu.com), based in the hills of Provence, a forty-five-minute drive from Avignon. For the six-day, action-packed immersion course, our group of eight students was based at La Verriere, a medieval priory and 18th-century bastide that is surrounded by woods, fruit groves and acres of rolling vineyards. The site had been abandoned for some four decades when Nicole and Xavier Rolet (she’s from New York, he is French) fell in love with this diamond in the rough. The couple set out to restore this special spot and today, more than fifteen years after they first laid eyes on the property, La Verriere boasts 100 acres of beautifully-tended vines growing Syrah, Grenache and other Rhone varietals. The ancient buildings on the property have been painstakingly restored and modernized in a brilliant meeting of “old school and new world,” as Nicole puts it.
Everything is state-of-the-art, from the technology used to make the wine to the class room setting and tasting areas. Guests are housed in the Priory and the Bastide; the former consists of seven luxurious rooms (four of which are suites), while the latter offers simpler, rustic charm. But it’s not just the exceptional setting and facilities that distinguish this wine week; it’s the breadth of activities. Guests really get a sense of the hard work and dedication involved in making a great wine, because in addition to spending time in the classroom, you venture into the field. During my stay, we examined soil on different vineyards, pruned some vines, used a handheld device to measure the alcohol-producing potential of various grapes (key to timing when to harvest). We saw up close and personal where Chêne Bleu wines are made from the de-stemming, de-pipping machines to the lovely solid oak barrels. We even tried our hand at blending our own varietals (when I really started to appreciate the skills involved in making a delicious wine).
And best of all, we laughed a lot. The teachers, Clive Barlow and Nick Dumergue, are not just experts in their field, but they are engaging and clearly love what they do. Every lecture, outing, wine game and fantastic meal was imbued with a sense of fun. On day one, I was still shy about expressing my opinions during the blind tastings. But then the teachers themselves used down-to-earth descriptors, like “swashbuckling acidity,” “raspy cat’s tongue,” “unashamedly Californian,” and “goody-goody wine” (the latter one from Chile), which really broke the ice. Everyone got into the spirit, and soon words like pineapple, black currant, red pepper, old cigar box, leather strap and rotting leaves became part of our regular vocabulary. One of the aims of the course is for novices to gain enough “wine speak” to be able to communicate with people in a wine shop or a sommelier. And the atmosphere and setting is magical for anyone: there were three students who sat at the “advanced” tasting table and seemed just as enthralled with their customized lessons as us rookies. (All students are recommended to take an optional exam at the end of the six days; if passed you’re given an internationally recognised diploma, known as a WSET Intermediate Certificate.)
I learned a lot during my six days at Chêne Bleu. For instance, Nick believed that Spanish wines offer the best value in Europe, as they are currently the only country expanding their vineyards. “The French and Germans are so serious. The Italians are too consumed with the bella figura. But the Spanish have a great attitude towards life,” said Nick, who also singled out Alberino from the north, a white grape that goes well with seafood. He was also partial to a Sauvignon Blanc called Verdejo from Galithia Rueda. Other tips include buying Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley in California, Au Bon Climat 2008 from Santa Barbara for weddings (“a crowd pleaser”), and Australian Chardonnay from the Adelaide Hills is an up-and-comer. I arrived knowing little about wines and left intoxicated by how absorbing the topic truly is. This transformation was basically the impetus of founding the Extreme Wine program. As Nicole explained: “If me, a girl from Manhattan who thought nature meant a walk in Central Park, could grow to understand, love and produce wines, then anyone can.”
Extreme Wine Weeks are offered once a year, but the Rolets can also arrange bespoke courses throughout the year. (The next wine course will be held June 5-9, 2011.) La Verrière estate can be taken over by groups of friends and families traveling together and customized food and wine experiences can be arranged upon request. Contact Indagare and introduction.
Read about other great restaurants in Provence
Read about bespoke wine tours in France
Read a Q&A with the founder of bespoke tour company Purple Truffle
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