A Peak Experience

I recently  had an incredible opportunity, thanks to the Colombos.  Jean-Luc, Laure, and the gang were entertaining a group of sommeliers from London, coordinated through the Hatch Mansfield group.  There were 7 total, of whom 4 were of French origin, one from the Côte d’Ivorie, one from Bulgaria, and the last from Brazil.

Yours truly in the foreground

First we drove by the Côte-Rôtie area, then went directly to Condrieu to have a look at the vineyards and terroir.  It has rugged hills composed of granite overlooking the Rhône river, which do not allow for mechanization.  The granite is more solid than that of Cornas (more later on that subject).  Next we returned to the Côte-Rôtie, with very steep cliffs and treacherous vineyards managed by hand.  I took several photos looking straight down the hillsides at the road way below.

Straight Down the Cliffs of Côte Rôtie

The soil is mica schist of two types: Côte Blonde has more silicate; and Côte Brune has more iron.  They grow Syrah and a maximum of 20% Viognier.  Blends can have up to 20% Viognier (Colombo’s La Divine has about 5%).  You’ll sometimes see wines which are solely Côte Blonde or Côte Brune, but many are a combination of the two.

Then we went to lunch at the beautiful Michelin 2-star restaurant “La Pyramide,” run by chef/owner Patrick Henriroux.  Lunch was, indeed, delicious and beautifully presented.  Spending over 60€ for lunch (plus wine) is a bit much for me right now, so I was incredibly happy to be treated to it!  I had to visit the “little Americans room,” which was over the top in deep aqua tiles, painted white trim and gold accents.

La Pyramide

The Powder Room at La Pyramide

Upon my return, I was given my own little bread tray of 4 beautiful morsels.  I tried the cereal (whole grain) roll shaped like a donut, which was nice, and loved the spiral pain au olive made of crumbly croissant dough and black olives.  We had a Taittinger champagne toast to start, then several Colombo wines with lunch.  The amuse bouche was an avocado mousse on top of bits of something meaty and chewy (bacon lardons maybe?).  The mousse was frothy and light; guacamole à la nouvelle cuisine.  Yes, my mouth was highly amused.

My Own Little Bread Tray

Next were 3 tubular seafood croquettes over a salad of fennel and pomelo.  I was afraid the pomelo would overwhelm the dish, as I seem to be especially sensitive to the grapefruit family, but it worked very well.  The white paired with the croquettes was a Viognier, “Amour de Dieu” (“God’s Love,” or as I say, “Oh, for the love of God!”) from Condrieu, in the northern part of N. Rhône.  They are only allowed to grow Viognier in that appellation, and they do it very well.  The wine had enough acidity to balance out the slight oiliness of the fried croquettes, and the freshness of the fennel and pomelo made a good contrast to the shrimp and crab inside.  They weren’t gooey like some seafood croquettes in Japan, but firm-textured like my Mom’s amazing crab cakes.

Seafood Croquettes

As we moved on, three red wines were poured: ’10 Collines de Laure Vin de Pays; ’10 La Divine from Côte-Rôtie; and ’09 Les Ruchets from Cornas.  All Syrahs, with a tiny bit of Viognier in the La Divine.

The next course was roasted pork tenderloin, incredibly tender and yummy, over mildly spicy ratatouille.  Realizing it was blasphemous to do so, I cut the fat edge off my pork.  I completely understand that there is a lot of flavor in the fat, but my diet see-saws between pleasure and health, and I’d (always!) rather save my fat quota for cheese.  I thought this dish paired best with the Les Ruchets, but that is currently my favorite Colombo Syrah, so perhaps I’m just biased.

Pork Tenderloin over Ratatouille, with Syrahs

Last we had a layered dessert of dark chocolate, pistachio mousse and pistachio ice cream inside a dark chocolate shell, served with an ’85 Ramos Pinto-Porto.  The restaurant’s sommeliers made a big show with the port, by heating very long tongs over an open flame for 20+ minutes, then applying the tongs to the bottle below the cork until the top of the bottle broke cleanly away.  They said that they have occasionally had bottles explode when they do this, but my guess is that they’re playing on the “Fear Factor” for the amusement and titillation of their guests.  Their explanation for why they do it is that ports can age so long that the cork can deteriorate, so rather than decant it and have to filter out any cork in the wine, they avoid the issue entirely.

Chocolate and Pistachio Dessert

The Port Show

The dessert was very nice for those with a sweet tooth, but “where’s the cheese?”

The Port and It’s Top

In the afternoon,, we visited the Colombo winery and barrel room, where Jean-Luc and Laure explained their methods and philosophy of winemaking, and then climbed through the Cornas vineyards which make up the heart of Colombo wines.  Grown on steep hills made of decomposed granite with no irrigation allowed, the vines are really stressed, which brings out the best in the grape according to many winemakers.  The trimmed vines lay on the ground, making treacherous footing on those steep slopes, especially for one young som from Brazil who had to borrow boots several times larger than her tiny feet!

Terraces and Vines of Cornas

No, I Won't Throw It for You to Fetch!

We ended the afternoon at the house of Jean-Luc and Anne Colombo, for a wine tasting of 15 wines, with copious notes written by a few, and very little or none by others (it had been a very long day).  Dinner started with steamed white asparagus and béarnaise sauce,  and Jean-Luc roasted some prime rib over an open fire (take that, Jack Frost!).  It was tender, juicy and really delicious.    

Jean-Luc Serves the Prime Rib

The wine flowed (Colombo Cornas Les Ruchets ’04, ’06, and a magnum of ’01), toasts were given (including one by yours truly regarding the generosity of my hosts), and a fine time was had by all.

After dinner the cheese course finally came (jeez louise, I’d been waiting all day!).  I was in no condition to make notes about the cheeses, sorry.  Along with my lovely fromage we were served a 2000 Taittinger Comtes des Champagne Blanc des Blancs (one of my favorite champagnes, of which I took a bottle on my honeymoon in 2006 – as I recall, it was the 1994), Paul Bocuse XO Cognac and a J.M. Rhum from Martinique (and a few others – see the damage in the photo).  Some also toasted their palates with cigars.

I Thought I Would Never Make It!

The Cheese Course – At Long Last!

Glad I Didn't Have to Wash All Those Glasses!

The Damage

The Round Stones of Crozes-Hermitage

 The next morning I picked them up at the hotel at 9am for breakfast at Chez Colombo, which consisted of a mildly sweet bread with orange essence, another slightly sweet, very dense bread in the shape of a soldier called a “Suisse” (both local specialties, the latter named after Swiss soldiers who would venture into the area), yogurt, fresh kiwis, coffee and tea.

Breakfast at Chez Colombo

Then it was off to Crozes-Hermitage, with terraced hillsides of granite and alluvial soil, planted to Syrah, Marsanne, and Rousanne.  The Syrah bottlings are allowed to have up to a 15% blend with the two white grapes.   The soil was quite different.  Round rocks over sandy clay, the vineyard manager told us the roundness of the stones contributes to the “roundness” of the wines. Hmmm.  Next was Hermitage, with more granitic soils on rolling hills.  This is the home of my favorite Colombo white wine, the “Le Rouet” Hermitage Blanc, made up of mostly Marsanne and some Roussanne.  You’ll hear more about this in future posts, I’m sure.

Before we knew it, it was time for lunch, which we enjoyed at The Quai Restaurant at Tain l’Hermitage, run by Carole, the daughter of the renowned chef Michel Chabran.  We began with some rosé to celebrate the clear, sunny day.  Our first course was a lovely Drôme et Ardèche plate (local carnivorous specialties) featuring an unusual pork and spinach sausage as well as other treats, paired with a 2010 Colombo Hermitage Blanc.

For Us Carnivores

A Glorious Day By the Rhône

We sat outside on the sun-drenched terrace, where some reveled in the warmth while I preserved my fair skin in the shade.  Our group of 12 took over a large table overlooking the Rhône and the bridge, a very pretty view, but I’m not sure our neighbors on the upper terrace were as thrilled to have such a big, wine-loving group several feet below them.  Following the meats we were served big plates of small fried fishes with lemon & aioli, which I found too heavy, and a 1999 Hermitage Blanc which I found sublime.  Dessert was a confection of strawberries and fromage blanc.

After lunch the soms rushed back to London; most by plane, and one by train.

Next time, maybe I’ll have to take a tour of the wine cellars of London restaurants!