Home-field advantage matters, whether it’s sports or whether it’s wine.
In the small French village of Rivesaltes, located in the southern tip of the country in Pyrénées-Orientales, I recently spent an afternoon at the winery and restaurant of Domaine Cazes, a family-run operation since 1895. With over 220 hectares of vines, Cazes is the largest certified organic and biodynamic estate in France and one of the biggest in the world. They produce 15 wines annually, grouping them into the categories of “Pleasure”, “Prestige”, “Icon”, and “Natural Sweet”, the latter of which, like many wineries in Roussillon, the Cazes family consider a specialty.
It was a cool, breezy afternoon blanketed with blue skies, the kind of day that comfortably teeters between summer and fall, the kind where short sleeves or long sleeves are equally comfortable. Lunch was served outdoors in the shaded courtyard of Restaurant La Table d’Aimé, which is housed in a peach-colored brick villa with terracotta roof tiles. The day’s menu, as well as the wines available by glass and by the bottle, were neatly scrawled in chalk on two small blackboards, which the busy manager took from one folding table to the next.
My three-course meal (22 euros) began with a colorful, acidic quinoa salad, served with raw pieces of orange and purple cauliflower, a green tomato wedge, thinly sliced radishes, and a dash of spices. The main, a generous hunk of sea bass served on a bed of red peppers, and complimented with a dollop of apple compote, light mustard cream, and small mound of mint-green zucchini cream, paired well with a glass of Cazes’ Le Canon du Maréchal 2010 white, as did the light dessert, warm peaches drizzled in raspberry sauce with a scoop of sorbet.
With the romantic courtyard setting, an artful presentation, and well-balanced flavors, this proved to be one of the more memorable meals of my travels through the region of Languedoc-Roussillon.
After lunch we headed to the tasting room, but our regularly scheduled programming took an unexpected turn when Bernard Cazes, who’d managed chief winemaking duties since the early ’70s before gradually passing the torch to his son, Emmanuel, invited us to join him for an impromptu tour of the facilities and cellar.
It was the last day of the grape harvest, which was done by hand during the day and by machine at night for weeks. Bernard told us, through our wine-tasting host cum translator, that this is the happiest he’s been with the harvest in at least 10 years. Everything has been just right, in his view, particularly the amount of rain in this the driest region of France.
First, we watch grapes shaking down a conveyor belt with 5 people on either side sorting through them and picking out the best ones for Cazes’ top-shelf wines. It’s rare to witness this part of the process–even our tasting host says he’s never seen it before. These grapes will go to new French oak barrels, where they’ll ferment for 5-6 weeks then be transferred to other barrels for longer-term aging. During that initial fermentation period, Cazes says the juice/grapes are sampled every day and checked for temperature, density, alcoholic content, and tannin levels, after which temperature and mix adjustments are made as needed.
From there, we walk to the harvest reception bay, where the grapes are de-stemmed and where we see the long, cylindrical “crushers”, which are slowly inflated to press the grapes. Then it’s down to the mature red wines cellar, where we’re briefly joined by Emmanuel, who smiles and poses for a few quick photos with his father, but clearly has more important work to do than mingle with journalists.
Afterwards, finally, comes the wine-tasting, which takes us through each “class” of the Cazes wines, from the Ego de Cazes 2009, a soft red with a hint of spice on the nose and blackberries on the palate, to the Rivesaltes Ambre 1998, a (very) sweet wine made from 100% grenache and carrying a warm, butterscotch finish. My favorite was the Notre Dame des Anges 2009, a well-rounded red from the “Prestige” category of which only 5,000 bottles were produced–a pity, then, that we tasted from one of the last ones left.
At that point, after a gourmet lunch at La Table d’Aimé, and a tour of the wine-making facilities led by Bernard Cazes himself, those tasting-size pours of wine had become something greater than their label. They had developed character, a historical context, a face. The wines were colored with shades of an idyllic late-summer afternoon in southern France, tasted like a fresh piece of sea bass, and smelled like freshly harvested grapes in their earliest stages of fermentation.
So did I like the wine? Some more than others, but yes. However, like Budweiser always tastes better in St. Louis, and Jameson’s goes down smoother in Dublin, the home field, at least a little bit, was certainly in play in here… and Cazes took full advantage of it.
All photos copyright Brian Spencer
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for the purpose of review by Atout France, Pyrenees Orientales Departmental Tourism Office, and the Languedoc-Roussillon Regional Tourism Office. While it has not influenced this review, Perceptive Travel believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.
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