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‘Little town, it’s a quiet village…’

If you’re a Disney fan, your brain sang that line. (If you’re not a Disney fan, this blog post probably isn’t for you, although you’re very welcome to stick around for some gorgeous French scenery.)

The iconic opening to Disney’s 1991 film Beauty and the Beast is impossible to forget. Belle wanders into a sleepy village of colourful houses, cobbled streets and towering church spires that suddenly springs to life with gossiping villagers buying and selling their daily groceries.

This classic film moment came to life in Disney’s recent live-action remake of the film, but wouldn’t you like to walk the cobbled streets for yourself?

RiquewihrRiquewihr

Well, you can – and you can drink some delicious wines while you’re at it – because the setting is reportedly based on two villages in the Alsace region: Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé.

Riquewihr
Not too far from Colmar, visiting this storybook village is like stepping back in time. The half-timbered houses date back to medieval times, and are identical to those in Belle’s village, and you can definitely imagine the villagers thrusting open the pretty windows to shout ‘Bonjour!’

The village square, the Dolder Tower (once a defensive gateway, now a beautiful clock tower) and the cobbled streets transport you straight into the world of the film. It’s particularly nice to visit in spring and summer when the colourful houses are given a run for their money thanks to the village’s vibrant floral decorations.

Riquewihr's Dolder fountainRiquewihr’s Dolder fountain

There’s an antique shop if you fancy searching for your own candlesticks and carriage clocks (talking or otherwise), a fabulous pastry shop if you want to spy the ‘baker with his tray like always’, and plenty of picturesque old fountains at which to pause, take a seat and read a book just like Belle does (page-chewing sheep not guaranteed).

Famille Hugel's winery in RiquewihrFamille Hugel’s winery in Riquewihr

The wine
There are two grands crus in Riquewihr, Sporen and Schoenenbourg, and one of Alsace’s most famous wine producers, Hugel, meaning you won’t be short of fine rieslings and delicious gewürztraminer. A member of the family, André Hugel, also established a wine-themed museum here, giving you an extra reason to visit.

Ribeavillé
Ten minutes north of Riquewihr, and roughly double the size, the town of Ribeavillé is packed full of history and fairytale charm.

RibeavilléRibeauvillé

The beast would have his pick of real estate here as the town and the surrounding hills are dominated by the ruins of not one but three fortified castles (as well as a number of defensive towers, including the Tours des Bouchers, or Butcher’s Tower, which dates back to the 13th century.)

Castle over Ribeavillé

Wandering through the cobbled streets, you‘ll find postcard-perfect squares with more bubbling fountains that Belle would have pegged as reading spots, and you’ll find it a challenge not to burst into the Gaston song if you visit the Wistub Zum Pfifferhus, which really is the spitting image of the tavern Gaston and Lefou raucously frequent in the film.

The wine
Ribeauvillé has three grands crus: Osterberg, Kirschberg and Geisberg, and also hosts another of Alsace’s best-known wine producers: Trimbach. They are based just outside the town, and are known best for dry, steely riesling, producing one of the finest examples in Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile. Excellent gewurztraminer and pinot gris is also made here.

The Trimbach winery in RibeavilléThe Trimbach winery in Ribeavillé

There’s plenty of magic to be found in Alsace so it’s good to find another excuse to sing this region’s praises. It really is one of the most underappreciated holiday spots in France, in my view, so even if you’re not a Beauty and the Beast fan, if you are planning a visit you’re certain to find beauty, at least.

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Thu 28 Feb 2013

Keeping Up with Domaine Jones, Part Two

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This is the second of Laura Vickers’ two blog posts on working the 2012 vintage at Domaine Jones in the Languedoc-Roussillon. Having told us about the back-breaking work involved in harvesting the grapes in part one, here she discusses her work in the winery…

The VaticanThe Vatican
Nestled away in the southern French village of Tuchan is Domaine Jones’ winery HQ, aka ‘The Vatican’ – so-called because it is situated on Rue de Vatican… as well as being full of vats, of course. Although the décor was a little less grand than its namesake, it’s an impressive outfit indeed.

When we arrived after the morning’s harvest, our priority was to get the baskets of grapes from the van to the chiller. The chain-gang system we developed for passing the baskets made the work sociable and gave ample opportunities for laughter – aching all over and accidentally bashing heavy baskets of grapes against your legs has never been so much fun, nor so rewarding.

After lunch, our afternoon lesson was in grape pressing – often with a bottle of French beer to spur us all on. The large local co-operatives have grape presses that fill a room, but The Vatican is more about quality than quantity. The presser Katie has invested in is practically dolls-house size in comparison, but it still seemed a beast of a machine to me.

For each press (roughly 40 baskets) around half the fruit is emptied straight into the pressing machine, and the other half is destalked first. The destalker was a loud, scary-looking contraption which expels destalked grapes out of a funnel on its side, and then viciously spits out the bright green stalks into a bucket at one end.

Inside-the-Domaine-Jones-winery-300x225

The press takes a good couple of hours, in which time we cleaned the baskets and floors (a lesson in life: never let young adults loose with a power hose). While we worked, a translucent, lemongrass-coloured liquid dropped steadily from the bottom of the press into a waiting tray. We were allowed to sample it: sweet nectar. Once the press was complete the juice was transferred to stainless-steel vats to begin its fermentation.

Domaine-Jones-winery-225x300There’s plenty more to The Vatican than that of course – including a curious corner filled with Frankenstein-esque test tubes and the like. This is where sulphur is added to the wine – as Jean-Marc explained, this chemical intervention is a vital for the wine’s staying power.

Our stay came to an end before we knew it – it was a week of honest and enlightening work, stunning surroundings, hearty food, deliciously long, hot days and friendships forged for life.

Not only that – I discovered wines I will enjoy drinking for decades to come, and with each new vintage I buy I will remember the effort, tenacity and gusto involved in its creation. Put simply, Domaine Jones is a real pleasure to drink – from the plump, citrusy freshness of the Grenache Gris, to the soft juicy Grenache Noir, and even beyond: the Fitou is a marvel in structure, dark complexity and effortless drinkability.

I finished the week exhausted, sunburnt and a few pounds lighter than when I began. Would I go back again? In a heartbeat.

Laura Vickers

Categories : France, South of France
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Tue 26 Feb 2013

Keeping Up with Domaine Jones

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Laura VickersLaura Vickers
The current edition of Societynews features a piece on Domaine Jones, Katie Jones’ small winery high in the hills of Cathar country in the Languedoc-Roussillon, which is producing tiny quantities of exceptional award-winning wines that The Society has stocked for some years.

2012 was known here as ‘the Facebook vintage’: let down by pickers at the last moment, Katie posted pleas for help online and soon received 50 willing volunteers. One of them was Laura Vickers – coincidentally, whose article on female winemakers is also featured in the latest Societynews! – who until very recently worked in The Society’s Member Services department.

Here is the first of Laura’s two-part reminiscence of what it was like working this vintage.

Katie JonesKatie Jones
When I saw The Wine Society had retweeted an appeal for help harvesting grapes in the idyllic southern French summer weather, I actually did a little dance around my office.

The issuer of said appeal was Katie Jones, whose infectious enthusiasm in her leadership of Domaine Jones in the Languedoc-Roussillon area is impossible to resist.

When she offered to collect my grape-picking pals and I from the train station at Rivesaltes once we’d arrived on the allotted balmy Sunday evening in late August, my naïve sense of politeness insisted we make our own way to the house we’d be staying in at Paziols. Luckily, Katie refused to take no for an answer – the area inhabited by Domaine Jones is about as far away from anything as anywhere I have ever been. Everywhere you look, it’s red roofs, co-operative wineries with their two-storey tall vats, and hundreds of vineyards in all shapes, slopes, and sizes.

We went into this knowing Domaine Jones wines were something special, but as the other volunteers and I toasted our first night there over a glass of Katie’s Fitou and some local sausages, we realised just how exquisite the 2011s are. The expectations for our 2012 vintage were suddenly much higher.

Unsurprisingly, Katie’s warnings to get an early night fell on deaf ears, such was our excitement (and enthusiasm to sample a bottle or two more of Domaine Jones) on our first evening in Paziols. Oh, how foolish we were: the next day, groggy heads were shaken into action by our alarm clocks at 6am – a wakeup call we were due to repeat every day that week.

The morning started with a sleepy walk to the village square, through rustic streets that had a haunting beauty in the pre-dawn shadows. We then embarked on the 45-minute drive to the first vineyard site. Our pickup truck was driven by fellow volunteer and ex-marine Damian, and his military nerves of steel proved very helpful indeed – the tracks are bumpy and unpredictable, and as we climbed up through scenic vineyards, the sheer drop at the side of the road became so high it was positively mountainous, and somewhat terrifying. Of course it was all perfectly safe really, but if us novices had been tired before, we were certainly awake now.

Domaine-Jones-vineyard-300x300

When we arrived (and I’d stopped hyperventilating), we met Katie’s partner – the wonderful, smiley Jean-Marc. His friendly chat as we each collected a bucket and some pruning shears made us eager to show him we were hard workers, but in comparison to the local pickers we were, frankly, an embarrassment.

They might have made it look effortless, but picking is seriously back-breaking work: we were given a row of vines each at a time, and our job was to snip off bunch after bunch of ripe, fat grapes until our bucket was full. We then emptied the bucket into baskets littered around, which – when full – were collected by the stronger men in the group and taken to the van, which filled up remarkably quickly.

Taking a well-earned break in the vineyardTaking a well-earned break in the vineyard
We moved like this through the vineyards, row after row. Needless to say, the local workers spent half their time helping us beginners finish our rows, but the baskets quickly begin to fill up: each basket takes a good three full buckets of grapes, and on our best day we did 120 baskets.

The sun came up as we worked, and the valley we were scaling was illuminated in all its glory. With the sun came the heat, however, and by mid-morning the work got somewhat more challenging.

It was messy, earthy, unpretentious – and surprisingly easy to forget the airs and graces one is used to in a more office-based work environment. Suddenly, our sticky fingers, unrelenting perspiration and dissolving hairstyles simply didn’t matter. It was invigorating stuff.

Harvesting continued until noon each day, and then we clambered back into the pickup and drove back to Tuchan, feeling the most contented kind of tired imaginable.

Laura Vickers

Categories : France, South of France
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