Monbazillac vendange: time and patience

October 30th, 2008

Autumn’s bright afternoons have been ideal for the upcoming harvest, and so have the chilly fingers of morning fog that wrap around clusters of Sémillon grapes. Every year is different, as the winemakers of Monbazillac’s succulently sweet wines know so well, progressing through the picking into pressing phases. This week marked mid-harvest, with still another round or two of selective picking to be done. Only bunches spotted and shriveling with the fungus botrytis cinerea - or noble rot- are clipped. The juice is reduced but concentrated by this pourriture noble, giving the wine more power and complex aromas as it ages. It is a lengthy and time-consuming process, this business of making sweet wines, which I appreciate more after a guided tasting at the Monbazillac Château visitor’s center.

The Château, a rather autstere fortified 16th century castle with later Renaissance turrets and flourishes, rides a steep north-facing hillside overlooking tile-roofed wineries, cross-hatched patterns of vineyards and the Dordogne wine town of Bergerac. A tour of this three-level castle puts the region’s wine-making in perspective, not only for its displays of tools and local history, but for a sense of the families’ real lives as history has shaped the wines, culture and trade. The important wine trade with Holland, the devastation of the Wars of Religion, even the old well and original bread oven in the cellar are essential touch-points to gather an understanding of Monbazillac wines. These are sweet wines, made with great patience and skill that doesn’t happen overnight. To be more down-to-business, we stopped for a tasting (free with the price of the château ticket, 8 Euros) in the contemporary visitor’s center. Other visitors – English families, classy Spanish tourists, French couples out for an afternoon – had the same idea.

The Monbazillac Château vineyards lie on 30 hectares of rocky and clay-dense north facing hillside. It is ideal placement for the valley’s natural ground fog to hug the vines and encourage the botrytis fungus, and the Bergeracois is blessed with a temperate micro-climate to aid in ripening. At least five pickings are made, depending on the vineyard, to select affected, shriveling grapes during October into November. The classic trio of cépages or varieties go into Monbazillac: Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as smaller amounts of Muscadelle. In a fine Sauternes, a rich Barsac, or a golden Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, the same cépages in varied proportions are basic to these sweet French wines. The tasting helped me understand how essential the botrytis (in Sauternes, the affected grapes are picked individually!) to the dense and sweet character which develops over time.

The flight of three Monbazillac wines began with a 2004 Château Sabatière: a distinctly fruity nose and refreshing taste when I expected it to be cloying. Then a Château Septy, with the concentrated honey so typical of botrytis-affected grapes, before a 2003 which was Very sweet but lacked something, a depth found in the others. Why? It was the year of the canicule, the drought year that was so hot for months that no botrytis developed – sweet – but not very complex. And last, she added, “Lots of botytis in this millésime, 2005…what do you think?” and poured a splash of 2005 – a very good year to age, to keep for another thirty years. Even so young, paler in color than the rest, the 2005 had more appeal, hints of fruit confit that will expand as it becomes a shimmering golden nectar. More honey, aromas of accacia, apricots and velvety textures will develop – if I can keep the 2005 for even five more years – with time, patience and volonté, will power.

Notes: The château is open from mid-February to mid-January. For more details on Monbazillac wines, vist their (English pages) site: and . Clearly, each harvest results in a quite different set of aromas and flavors, so sample more than one before selecting a bottle for your cellar or table. Next up: the best partners to enhance the qualities of sweet wines as a season of rich winter dishes approaches.

Southern flavors, northern tables

October 1st, 2008

For an autumn round-up of flavor now, it’s easy to fill this week’s market basket with eggplant and red peppers to grill, saving perfect stems of sweet chasselas grapes for the basket’s top layer. Then, when setting the table for an evening’s feast with friends, I reach for a splash of color like none other: Merimekko. These Finnish textiles may be referred to as vintage table-top, but the scattering of fruity forms has such a direct link to the mood of this bountiful season – I can’t imagine using a bland underpinning for a colorful meal. My favorite tablecloth is simply titled ‘Tori’ (Marketplace) by Maija Isola, Merimekko’s signature designer of the sixties and seventies. She artfully mastered the play of bold, clear colors in floral patterns as well as subtle nuances of tone in a Byzantium series. All of Isola’s fabrics were printed in long repeats that could be hung against a white wall as easily as being spread across a pine table. This penchant for Nordic graphics has been at work (in fact, it’s in my blood) long before I traded textiles and teaching for…. writing about tomatoes, grapes and cheese over a decade ago.

The earliest sweet chasselas grapes, clusters of translucent green pearls, arrive in September – but I wait a few weeks, when more mature bunches are harvested along the Garonne and in the Tarn. By mid-October, sweet-sharp Italia grapes are heaped on market stalls, ready for the simplest of desserts: fruit and cheese. If I’m very lucky, some clever vendor will have a few boxes of both purple and white figs to grace the fruit plate or to poach in lightly spiced syrup. And under all these treasures, Maija Isola’s vibrant colors and shapes will dance across the table.

Next up: Cabbages and kings, a day of vendange, and a Paris baguette under my arm.