Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bandol and Cassis

BANDOL and Cassis are picturesque ports between Toulon and Marseille. Pleasure-seekers’ yachts fill their harbours and cheerful, pastel-coloured restaurants and cafés line their seafronts. Bandol is the undisputed capital of superior Provençal reds while Cassis is famous for its distinctive white wine.

Bandol’s vineyards cover an amphitheatre of slopes behind the town while the tallest cliff in France, Cap Canaille, looms over those of Cassis. The Bandol wine route takes in the dramatic Gorges d’Ollioules and three extraordinary villages perchés, Le Castellet, Evanos and La Cadière-d’Azur. The route around Cassis takes in amazing terraced vineyards where God is said to have shed a tear and given birth to the local wine. If true, God has straw-coloured tears with an herbal bouquet and salty tang. The Cassis coastline is best known for its vertiginous calanques, or mini-fjords.

Quite why Bandol developed a reputation for sturdy reds while Cassis busied itself with perfecting whites is something of a mystery. Perhaps the appetite for white wines in Cassis developed to complement a cuisine based around the local fishermen’s catch, including poached sea anemones, a local speciality from the calanques. Perhaps the tradition for reds in Bandol developed as Bandol was historically the more important trading port and reds simply travelled better than whites. There are accounts in the 18th and 19th centuries of Bandol reds going as far as America and India and improving with the sea voyage. And when Louis XV was famously asked the secret of his eternal youth, he replied “the wines of Bandol”. The winemaking traditions of both towns were recognised early by the wine authorities. In fact, Cassis was the first appellation in Provence (1936) while Bandol earned its AOC just five years later.

Bandol reds are generally vins de garde, spending 18 months in oak and often requiring a decade before expressing themselves fully. They are drinkable, if somewhat aggressive, up to four years old and can pass through a ‘dumb phase’ for a couple of years before becoming more mellow, complex and interesting. They are based on the thick-skinned, small-berried and notoriously finicky Mourvèdre (known as ‘the dog strangler’ in Australia for its tannins). Bandol rosés also emphasise Mourvèdre, although from younger vines. They’re intended to accompany food, unlike the thirst-quenching rosés of the Côtes de Provence. The appellation also allows Grenache, Cinsault and Syrah but the best reds are nearly pure Mourvèdre, with rich, firm, peppery, red and black berry flavours and a dark purple robe.

Cassis whites are straw-coloured, with floral and herbal aromas and a faintly salty tang due to the vines’ proximity to the sea. They are stronger and spicier than other Provençal whites and are based on Marsanne, Clairette and Ugni Blanc with some Sauvignon and Bourboulenc. They are at their best with food rather than as an aperitif and should be drunk young. Some say they are an acquired taste, even over-priced, but they certainly have character. Curiously, Syrah is excluded from the permitted grape varieties for Cassis reds, which are capable of aging but not like a Bandol.

First published in Discovering Wine Country: South of France (2005). Photograph of Cassis by Jonathan Healey.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009


NICE'S best-kept secret, apart from excellent ravioli (this is where it was invented), is the tiny and exclusive appellation of Bellet. It’s tucked away in the hills amid swanky villas and greenhouses of carnations less than thirty minutes from the celebrated, palm-lined Promenade des Anglais.

There are just a handful of producers, some fantasy châteaux, and you can visit them all in a day. They’re dotted between the villages of St-Isidore and St-Roman-de-Bellet, within the city’s limits. Bellet owes its fame to a crisp, dry white wine based on the increasingly fashionable Rolle grape, once found only here and in Corsica.

The Niçoise have jealously kept Bellet wines to themselves for at least three centuries, and they’re still hard to find outside the city’s limits. Even today, they rarely get further than the cellars of Nice’s top restaurants like the Belle Époque Le Chantecler at the Hotel Négresco, where they’re the favourite accompaniment to local specialities like sea bass and bourride, a delicate fish soup.

The vineyards were more extensive in 1860 when Nice and the rest of the Alpes-Maritimes became part of France. In the early twentieth century, after the phylloxera blight, many vineyards were turned over to market gardening and flowers. Today they’re standing their ground against the encroachment of yet more jet-set villas and greenhouses. In fact, Bellet is the only appellation in France located within the boundaries of a city and it’s unlikely to expand beyond its current 60 hectares. Some producers make fewer than two thousand bottles a year.

Bellet was created in 1941, making it one of the oldest appellations in France. It came of age in the 1960s after some teething troubles (it narrowly avoided demotion two years after gaining AOC standing). Château de Bellet, owned by the president of the syndicat, is probably the best-known producer and guardian of the appellation’s reputation.

The wine

The vineyards are neatly planted between fig and olive trees on small parcels and narrow terraces called restanques at 200 to 400m in altitude. The land is steep and sun soaked with relatively abundant rain for the area. The grey mixture of sandstone, limestone and puddingstones is prone to soil erosion so some vignerons grow wild grasses between the vines to reduce the risk. The vineyards are immediately east of the Var valley where alternating currents of sea and mountain air prevent overheating and keep the grapes healthy.

Bellet comes in all three colours and some grape varieties are unique to the appellation. The indigenous Braque, for example, is a fragile grape that gives red and rosé wines of distinction, with characteristic rosewater aromas. It’s often blended with the dark-berried Folle Noire, another local variety (famed for its capricious nature). Folle Noire gives candied fruit and peppery notes. Bellet reds are noble wines that can be aged for decades, if you can wait that long. If you can’t, consult your bank manager and buy a 1990.

The rosés are made to accompany food and to be drunk young. They’re rosés de bouche rather than aperitif-style rosés de nez. The famous Bellet whites are delicious young but age well. You’ll find a drop of Chardonnay blended with the indigenous Rolle giving floral and citrus aromas to these sought-after wines, reminiscent of Chablis. The best are fermented and matured in oak.

How to visit Bellet

If you’re staying in Nice, visiting Bellet’s vineyards couldn’t be easier. Bus 62 from the Gare Routière goes to St-Roman-de-Bellet and takes in a good part of the route des vins. Alternatively, it’s twelve minutes by train from the Gare du Sud to St-Isidore and services are frequent. You could combine the train and bicycle or take the car and walk. The wine route is just 15km.

The tourist office can help you choose amongst the many accommodation options in Nice. The inexpensive, two-star Hôtel Floride in quiet Cimiez north of the centre near the Chagal museum has comfortable rooms and a garden.
Another option is to stay near the wine domains. Michele Golle offers bed and breakfast in a villa set in parkland with sea views and a swimming pool on the route des vins. Or try the elegant and gastronomic Auberge de Redier in Colomars just north of St-Roman-de-Bellet.

In St-Isidore, head for the main square and follow the Chemin de Crémat to St-Roman-de-Bellet. This route takes in nearly all of Bellet’s producers. Take a break in St-Roman-de-Bellet before heading back on the Chemin de Saquier to St-Isidore and treat yourself (but not your wallet) to a meal at the village’s only restaurant, the Auberge de Bellet. Back in Nice, head for the city’s best veggie restaurant La Zucca Magica, or local institution Restaurant Lou Mourelec for affordable Niçoise cuisine.

First published in Discovering Wine Country: South of France (2005).

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Jonathan Healey: Terroirist

DID you have to read the subtitle a second time? I did when I found it on Jonathan Healey’s web page. Not to worry! If he is a fanatic, it is about wine. And vintage MG’s. And red Harleys. Also teaching and writing.

I met Jonathan in a cosy cafe on a windy Wednesday in March. He is tall and lean, a rugged-looking Yorkshireman in his faded denim shirt. His conversation roams from London to California to Australia to France with side trips to Japan and Egypt. Not bad for a man who claims he hates leaving his Argelès home.

He discovered Argelès through a friend about 10 years ago and bought his own place in 2002. When he settled here he looked for a book on the wines of Roussillon. Unable to find one, he wrote it himself: 'The Wines of Roussillon'. Then he was contacted to write 'Discovering Wine Country: South of France' published in 2005. Both books are available at Caves du Roussillon opposite the market in Collioure.

Jonathan’s current book project is aimed not at wine drinkers but at wine makers. It’s focus is how to develop tourism on wine domains. He believes there is a lot to be done here in Roussillon and in France in general. “In California, vineyards can earn one third of their income from tourism. Here it’s 2 or 3 per cent.” His wine tourism course at the University of Perpignan is popular with French and foreign students.

From a “wine culture” at home in Yorkshire, Jonathan went on to study wine in California, near the Napa Valley. At every opportunity he’d jump onto his red Harley Davidson following Highway 29 to explore the vineyards.

“Like a lot of English people I’ve come to understand wines through new world wines. When you get a bottle of Chardonnay or Merlot or Sauvignon, you know what grape variety you are getting.” Where then does terroir fit in? “Terroir is extremely important. You have to match grape variety with a terroir which suits it.”

What hot tips can he give about the best Roussillon wines? Jonathan says he favours independent winemakers who produce handmade wines. Here in Roussillon the terroirs of interest are the Agly Valley, the Aspres and the Albères. Look for “the hilly parts of the department, those with unforgiving soils, rocky slopes”. Jonathan says young winemakers are more switched on in terms of good cellar practices, modern vinification methods. “The Catalans are focused on tradition. The best combination is old world wine with new world techniques and methods.”

Future projects include a book to help English people rediscover French wines through the knowledge gained from their experience with grape varieties. For instance, if you like Chardonnay, then try a white wine from Burgundy.

He is also writing a piece of fiction about a homosexual scandal within Ronald Reagan’s campaign team when he was running for Governor of California in the 1966.

During his studies in California in the 80’s, Jonathan started writing for the university paper. From there he went on to present TV programs. At his home in Argelès he writes at a large desk beside a picture window with a view of the Golfe du Lion. And a cup of tea!

Wine and wine-tasting he saves for the wine tours he leads in the area. One-, two- or three-day tours in Collioure, the Agly or the Aspres are available with wine-tasting in the morning and vineyard tours in the afternoon. Why not contact him and become a terroirist yourself? Or join his organic winemaking club and start making your own-label French red wine?

First published in P-O Life.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Discovering Wine Country: South of France

Discovering Wine Country: South of France
Jonathan Healey

‘An abundance of entertaining information, wine and otherwise – a useful book for armchair travellers too’   DECANTER

‘An informed and delectable tour – even the connoisseur would be strongly advised to read this guide’   FRENCH MAGAZINE

The essential guide to understanding and exploring the best wines from southern France.

. Part of Mitchell Beazley’s Discovering Wine Country series
. Highlights wine tours of popular and lesser-known regions
. Details of top producers and tourist attractions
. Expert recommendations help you choose top wines
. Guidance on getting wine home safely
. Useful tips on local culture, eating out, where to stay
. Plus advice on the most effective way to travel around
. 140 pages, paperback, published 2005

The Wines of Roussillon

The Wines of Roussillon
Jonathan Healey

'Roussillon has a wine bible'   L'INDEPENDENT

'The essential guide to understanding and exploring the best wines from Roussillon'   LE MIDI LIBRE

'Roussillon produces wines of a variety, originality and quality that it’s hard to imagine another wine region that offers the wine enthusiast such rich and exciting experiences’   From the introduction

. Full details of the region’s wine styles
. A fascinating account of the grapes
. Notes and recommendations on recent vintages
. 50+ of the best chateaux and domains to visit
. The story of Roussillon’s wine-based aperitifs
. An overview of Catalan cuisine and wine accompaniments
. A full calendar of food and wine festivals
. Tips about where to learn more

. 312 pages, hardback/pocket format, published 2002

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Beating the French at their own game

Peter-Danton de Rouffignac meets an Englishman 
who became a wine expert in France

Of all the careers to choose, becoming a wine expert is probably not the easiest, especially when you are English and newly arrived in France. But that’s exactly what editor, author and acknowledged wine expert Jonathan Healey has managed to do in his region of Languedoc-Roussillon. He is the first person to write a guide, in English, to the wines of Roussillon and has carved a niche for himself advising local vignerons on how to market their wines to the English world. His latest venture is to set up his own wine club, which will enable members to help to cultivate – and drink – their own organic wines.

“It’s not exactly what I planned when I moved to the region seven years ago,” admits Jonathan, a forty-something who looks half his age. “I had been on holiday here a few times with my parents and knew the region well. The local wines had suffered from a poor reputation and over-production, but I set out to study them and was surprised by what I discovered”.

By chance Yorkshire-born Jonathan had spent his teens and early twenties in California, where he had gone originally with the idea of taking a short holiday. He ended up completing his studies at a local community college, and went on to complete a BA and MA at the University of California-Davis.

“UC-Davis happens to be the foremost wine school on the West Coast of America and I started taking a few courses as part of my degree. I also worked for a local wine maker and learnt a lot about the New World approach to wine making,” Jonathan explains. In between studying and working, Jonathan was also editing the university’s daily newspaper and presenting local television programmes. It was a full life. He was on his way to completing his doctorate when a tragic motorcyle accident cut short his university career and he had to return to England. “It was a tough time for me,” he admits, “but I got into university teaching, and I thought that’s where my career would progress”.

However, increasingly fed up with London and the academic life, Jonathan decided to abandon his teaching career and settle in Languedoc-Roussillon. “I had no clear ideas about how I would earn a living,” he says, “though a business partner and I had some ideas about developing tourism in the area, part of which included running cultural and wine tours. By chance this got me into contact with a local publisher and very soon I was writing my first wine book. The publishers very bravely decided to take on the first book in English about the region’s wines. And in the course of my researches I met a number of exciting, often young vignerons, who were producing some distinctive wines, more than a dozen of which have AOC classification”.

Not quite sure how to take this new English expert, the local producers gradually warmed to Jonathan’s enthusiasm. Gradually a business was built up helping to translate brochures – and increasingly websites – into understandable English (“some of it was appalling” Jonathan notes), advising on PR and marketing, and introducing the idea of wine-based tourism to encourage visitors to visit local vineyards and try the wines out for themselves.

As a vegetarian and keen on personal fitness – Jonathan cycles, swims and scuba dives – Jonathan was naturally attracted to a small but growing number of local wine producers who were in the process of switching to organic production.

“Progress is relatively slow in France overall” Jonathan explains, “probably accounting for less than 2 per cent of total wine production. I was fascinated by the total contrast to California, where production is often highly mechanised, and dependant on chemical fertilisers and sometimes genetically modified grapes. It is the antithesis of everything I believe in about how wine can and should be made”.

Not surprisingly to launch his wine club Jonathan has turned to a local producer, now in his third year of going organic and about to receive formal certification. “We have insisted on a total ban on chemical fertilisers and plouging the vines will be done by horses and harvesting entirely by hand. We have designed the club in such a way that members can participate in the main production events over a period of twelve months, including tasks such as pruning and training the vines, to the more exciting harvesting, fermenting, bottling and tasting.

“The club year will run from March to the following February, and members will be able to join in as many events as they wish. I already have a group of friends who are fulltimes residents in the region who want to join, while others may wish to come down only during holiday times,” Jonathan explains.

Always willing to pass on his expertise, Jonathan emphasises that club members will benefit from practical guidance by local producers and ‘classroom’ sessions to supplement their knowledge. The club is based in an ancient Roussillon mas which was formerly the site of a fortified castle occupied by the Knights Templar. “Members have the chance to learn a bit of local history as well as organic wine-making” says Jonathan. “What nicer way to spend a few days in the Roussillon sunshine?”.

First published in French Property News (June, 2009)