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Driving into Château Chalon for the first time, I almost completely forgot why we came to this town in the first place. The village is so unbelievably charming and quiet. Its ancient houses, the church and the south-facing garden terraces below on cliffs look nearly untouched through centuries war in Europe. The village is a time capsul and it’s easy to get lost in your mind amongst such a treasure chest of ancient eye candy around every corner. Jean-Claude Credoz is one lucky man. Not only because he lives in such an absurdly beautiful place but because he is one of the largest landowners on the infamous appellation of Château Chalon, with almost five hectares of vines. The middle-aged Jean-Claude and Annie Credoz radiate with enthusiasm for their wines and their life. Annie runs the commercial aspects of the domaine and the tasting room that is open to tourists in the afternoon. Like his wines, Jean-Claude is as equally friendly as he is serious. The domaine flirts with organic and biodynamic methods but have not committed to restraints they bring; Jean-Claude prefers to be flexible when he needs to be, especially concerning the use of copper and sulfur sprays in the vineyards. Organic methods require the employment of more of each of these elements in the vineyards (about three times as much as a lutte raisonnée farming) which he believes damages the natural yeasts he needs in his cellar for the “sous voile” aging, a process where wines are not topped up in barrel their entire life but are protected by a covering of yeast (voile) that keeps the wines fresh and gives them their completely unique character.
As the road into the Jura Mountains got steeper, a cliff loomed to our left like a slanting wall of neatly stacked flagstones, done by some midcentury architect with a sense of humor. Each layer of limestone had been laid down as sediment over countless years and then striated vertically every foot or so as the mountain pushed skyward. We turned off into an overlook where we could see the entire patchwork below: vineyards, yellow and green fields of canola and wheat, tan and terracotta villages encircled by bushy forests all quilted together under the bluest sky. The town of Château-Chalon was just a little further up, perched atop a promontory on the first step of the mountain range. The whole village is constructed of the same limestone and in nearly the same shapes as the cliffs below, only (of course) stacked more horizontally. Some walls were spackled over with cement that had long ago crumbled away like skin in spots to reveal the muscle of stones underneath. As we made our way down a narrow street looking for lunch, we passed low arched doorways with doors painted alternately white or red. The place was deserted, with most of the windows shuttered. Maybe only five people materialized from one of these squat structures, then hustled off in the other direction. It was like we had entered a medieval hamlet closed up for a possible invasion. We came to the first destination on our short list of choices from the Internet, Le P’tit Castel, and looked through the darkened window. Inside, the tiny room had about six tables, all full. We went on to the second, Auberge du Roc, and it was the same story. The whole town had apparently congregated where we wanted to eat. The third and final restaurant was closed. It was a pity, since all three were highly rated and looked like places where Hobbits might dine. Slightly discouraged but not defeated, we retreated to the bottom of the hill to a restaurant on the side of the road in a new beige stucco building that would have fit in well in suburban Los Angeles. (It will remain unnamed). The interior was all orange walls, beech furniture, rubber tablecloths and cheap brightly-colored pastoral art that must have been hung in the 1990s. Like many restaurants all over France, they offer a cheap prix fixe menu: three courses with a glass of table wine, for eighteen euros. What a bargain. Yet I can’t recall the first course, and the entrée was only memorable because what was listed as pork came as a slice of ham, like one might get at a HoneyBaked restaurant. For the third course, I passed on desert and ordered fromage blanc, only because I had no idea what it was. For those who don’t know, what I got was a cup of semi-liquid cheese curd reminiscent of Greek yogurt. I took a few bites, and then watched enviously as Ted sliced into his nice plate of real cheese, including some delicious looking Comté. Always health-conscious, Andrea wisely demurred on the third course. I made a note to self: call Le P’tit Castel ahead of time. To be fair, the place where we were eating was also highly-rated and had a great selection on their expanded menu. I may have just chosen poorly from the limited prix fixe, and/or on an off day. We still had some time to kill before our appointment with Jean-Claude Crédoz, so we returned to Château-Chalon and parked at his winery before wandering through town. One road led us to a stunning view of some palatial houses on the cliffs overlooking the beautiful rolling countryside far below. Tiers of green yards lined with ancient rock walls curved along the hillside. The pinnacle of a Romanesque church from the eleventh century towered over the village rooftops, begging us for a visit. After getting lost in a maze of concrete and stone, we finally found the old edifice with the cross on top, named for Saint Pierre. A breath of old wood and leather came from an open arched doorway. I went into the darkness and stood in awe of the silence, the history. The place had none of the grandeur of a cathedral in the big cities of Europe; it was a place of austere worship. A local glanced at me on the way out and I imagined suspicion there. Heathen that I am, I immediately backed out, somehow intimidated by a god I don’t believe in, or maybe, by that cold look from the believer of something I don’t understand. We got separated from Andrea, the shutterbug, but rejoined her back at Domaine Jean-Claude Crédoz. He immediately came out and offered warm and firm handshakes all around. He spoke no English, so it was left to Ted to translate. I understood chunks, but as any intermediate student of a language can confirm, quick speaking natives leave one in the dust. He summarily showed us his two winemaking hangers, with their towering steel tanks, then cut to the chase and led us out to his SUV for a vineyard tour. Crédoz is medium height, very thin and wiry, like a man who works so much he forgets to eat. He has a big mop of straight dark hair parted down the center above a face that’s seems to have more of a permanent pink burn than tan. A thousand super fine crow’s feet fan out from the corners of his eyes all the way to the hair on his temples and halfway down his cheeks, when he squints and smiles, which is to say, almost always. It was the face of someone who works in the sun every day most of the year, tending to his land like the most dedicated of farmers. (Find a little more on Crédoz here). This was the crux of the my trip with Ted, to meet the vignerons he imports who are not the aristocratic château owners of Bordeaux, lording over their field workers, but guys who work the grape from bud to glass, right alongside their employees. To hear Crédoz talk about his land and his process, his passion, dedication and determination came through even when I only caught every other word since Ted was so absorbed that he was only summarizing bits and pieces. The first stop was on the Château-Chalon slope (the first image in this chapter), which faces west in the valley down below the town, where half of his grapes are grown. Then we headed over to the AOP “Côtes du Jura” slopes, which face southwest. Crédoz pointed out that this variance in direction (or “aspect” as it’s called, which can also refer to the slope of the hill) makes a huge difference; as one would expect, it affects speed and ease of ripening and therefore the harvest times in the different areas. We got out at every parcel to examine the vines, with their early season young buds and small clusters of leaves. Andrea took stunning photos of the rolling landscape, occasionally showing me the screen on her camera. Ted did so too, but not before he aimed his lens at the ground to get close-ups of the dirt, soil and healthy greenery. Crédoz uses natural techniques, and his vineyards were covered with natural grasses and weeds over cracked beige clay and chunks of marl. Ted picked up pieces and crumbled them in his fingers, took sniffs and looked closely with his magnifying loupe. It was all very different from the overgrowth and orange decay on some of the other parcels we had seen down below. Andrea and Ted took quick candid photos of Crédoz as he spoke and he humored them with shy grins when he wasn’t trying to ignore the attention. In this age of social media, they carefully strategize what they want to post and say about their producers. Like many natural winemakers, Crédoz uses the undergrowth vegetation as fertilizer by plowing the rows every other year instead of using herbicides, killing two dirty birds with one stone. He also shuns the use of manure, which, he said, artificially induces power in the vines, making the grapes ripen too fast to develop the desired complexity. It is the inclination of purists is to do exactly the opposite of boosting growth, to take steps that make the grapes work harder for their dinner. Another technique is to plow just to each side of the vines so the roots have to dig deeper and make their way down to the rich minerals and other nutrients well below the surface. Yet another way is to allow clover and other grasses to grow close to vines in higher precipitation areas where they can steal water, which also forces the roots downward where, Ted says, “they find their way to more interesting earth, like decomposed bedrock and stone, the bones of a true vin de terroir.” Crédoz gestured in different directions and noted the ages of some of his vines all over the hillside. While some would consider his forty-year-old chardonnay, old vines, he doesn’t agree. But he’s pickier than others about what he classifies that way, which is easy for him to do, since some of his holdings have been around for 120 years. Next: Crédoz’s Cave and Bar
Crédoz took us back to his house, a 300-year-old cement-faced structure with slatted shutters, which he planned to renovate soon and turn into a bed and breakfast. I thought the change a good idea, since the building was a bit homely and seemed hastily built, an appraisal that Crédoz seemed to share. But it stood over the real attraction: the ancient cave underneath, built long before the house, where he now stores his fermenting barrels. The entrance to the cave is through a huge, arched doorway of thick, dark-stained wood with exposed rounded bolts and a lock Crédoz opened with an eight-inch rust-patinated skeleton key. Inside, the walls and domed ceiling are rough and moldy limestone blocks. It all felt eerily like a dungeon in some medieval castle; there’s even one small open window with iron bars on it near the ceiling that look out at ground level, for ventilation. I was in awe of the eerie history of the cramped space, even with its modern uplighting that shines cones onto the walls from the floor. I’ve been to many cellars in California wine country that try and fail to achieve this atmosphere--we in the states just don’t have the antiquity Europeans take for granted. I wasn’t sure I’d ever get used to it and hoped I wouldn’t. Crédoz went into detail about the strict winemaking guidelines of the Château-Chalon AOP. It was review for Ted, but as he translated, I was rapt. Crédoz pulled one of the big wooden corks from the top of a barrel and we looked inside with the help of our iPhone flashlights. The surface of the liquid was covered with a milky, green-gray film. It’s a strangely repulsive sight, yet a key component of the process in making these wines. Vin Jaune is one-hundred percent Savagnin, and it’s done in an oxidative method, continuously exposed to oxygen during and after fermentation. Referred to as “the veil,” that film is a thin layer of yeast that forms over the wine early on in the aging process, protecting it from too much oxidation and imparting a very specific smell and taste. The wine is left alone in barrel as it ages, without a single top-off for the precisely six years and three months required by law. The liquid evaporates over time, which lets in even more air. In the end, so much has evaporated that what was once a liter is reduced to 620 milliliters, just enough to fill the signature squat, bottom-heavy bottles, called clavelins, the size of which was determined by this process. If the wine makes the long journey, Vin Jaunes is one of the most durable wines there is; it can age beyond a hundred years, and younger bottles can be enjoyed many weeks (if you happen to forget about the wine for a while) after being opened. Château-Chalon is one wine where so much is lost during aging that the finished product seems like a bit of a pyrrhic victory, but it is well worth it. We headed to the tasting room, a cozy little space with a bar long enough for just six people. Andrea, Ted and I joined a couple that had driven all the way from Belgium to try the wines and bring back a few cases. They were quite jovial and seemed like they may have been “tasting” for quite a while. Crédoz excused himself to his office for some business and his smiling wife Annie attended to us from behind the bar. She lined up two Chardonnays, a Chardonnay/ Savagnin blend, a Château-Chalon, a sweet wine made from dried grapes (vin de paille), all of which Ted imports. We also sampled a couple more cuvées from a previous vintage. Ted didn’t say anything, just nodded his head in approval; he was already sold. They were all so good that I wanted to hang out long enough to catch up with the Belgians. Annie kept trying to speak English and with every phrase made fun of herself for her mistakes. I told her I actually understood her quite well. She waved me off and did that perfectly French thing where she blew air through expanded cheeks like air escaping a balloon. Each unique wine was more fascinating than the next. After all the talk and built up mystique, I was preoccupied with the Château-Chalon, with its big dry body and scents that I’d never experienced in a wine before. After looping through the other selections, I returned to the Vin Jaune for another splash and pondered its density, a compression of many unfamiliar tastes that I will leave to others to experience for themselves. I definitely understood why Ted was such a fan of Crédoz’s wines. Crédoz was in his office printing a stack of labels for the new vintages and to give Ted a few bottles for the road, one of the great perks of being an importer. After more warm handshakes and waves to him and his wife, we got in the car and pulled away. Then our minds turned quickly to dinner. As with all trips, it seems, the coming days would constantly revolve around where we would find our next meal. If you’d like to check out some of Crédoz’s wines, go to: The Source Imports. Next: The Meat of Mâcon
Come morning in Puligny-Montrachet, Ted threw together a great breakfast of farm fresh eggs with the most golden of yolks and sautéed potatoes with the requisite baguette from the gods. I inhaled it all in a couple minutes and washed it down with four strong pod coffees kindly provided by the Airbnb host. Then we packed up and left for the first official business visit of the trip in the department of Jura (also just called “the Jura”), about sixty miles east of Beaune. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d spend only one night in a room before moving on. (Ted and Andrea do it a lot.) After two years of importing Jean-Claude Credoz's wines, Ted was excited to finally meet the vigneron at his eponymous domaine. One of The Source’s collaborators, Jérôme Brenot, made the introduction between Ted and Credoz, one of the preeminent producers in Château-Chalon, an AOC with some unusual and strict requirements. While the Jura region grows a lot of Chardonnay and other grapes, only Savagnin (somewhat similar to chardonnay, or a Chenin Blanc from France’s Loire Valley) may be used to make white wines in the distinctive style called Vin Jaune, or “yellow wine,” of Château-Chalon. Credoz makes other styles, but it was this one with the unique rules that I was really looking forward to trying. On Ted's first time to the Jura a number of years ago, he was there to visit the legendary domaines, Jacques Puffeney and Domaine de Montbourgeau, both of whom are imported by one of the very best importers of French wine, Neal Rosenthal. Ted told me that Jacques was a friendly man who spoke no English but was kind and listened earnestly to what Ted called his then infantile French. Jacques has since retired and though he made white wines when he was still producing, he was most known for his Poulsard and Trousseau red wines as well as his Vin Jaune. Ted said that when Jacques moved on, he sold his vineyards to a famous producer from one of Burgundy’s greatest villages and domaines, Domaine Marquis d’Angerville, from Volnay, and it kicked up quite the controversy. The new owners came in and started making their wines “cleaner” and more “Burgundian,” and since the Jura locals pride themselves on their eccentric style, rumor had it that they were pretty unhappy about the changes. But after just a few vintages the wines began to show authenticity and a different kind of purity; it began to hold its own as a vin de Jura and not an imposter from another AOC. We rolled over gentle hills and passed many more shocks of yellow canola and dense woods of thin, straight and still naked trees, which made it feel like we were driving through a giant hairbrush. The occasional field full of grazing beige cows flew by, along with many signs for unseen chicken farms. Andrea fielded business emails from the front passenger seat, occasionally checking in with Ted for answers that could only come from him. It seemed like Ted, she also worked nonstop the entire trip, always on her phone or laptop, emailing and maintaining the graphics and layout of The Source’s website. She also helped Ted navigate through the often-frustrating French roads that sometimes stymied Waze and the car’s navi, and merely smiled when he cursed about getting off track. She is Ted’s right-hand woman at all times, and it’s my humble opinion that he’d be lost without her, in more ways than one. After being stuck in a car many hours a day for months by that point, they continued to get along well the entire time I was there. All I could think was, "what would most people give for a life partner like that, and to be pursuing and succeeding at their life’s passion every single day, together?" Before we entered the Saone Valley, between the Côte-d'Or and the Jura, the land around us flattened out, and Ted said we had just dropped in altitude. He added that we had entered an expanse where the movement of the Alps had pulled the earth apart between Burgundy and the Jura, creating this depression. The many rivers and glacial migrations in the area had denigrated the stones into sediment, leaving the mother rock many meters below the surface and the soil above deep and fertile. Meadows in every direction were vibrant with green spring grasses, chock full of rich nutrients, a time when local cows make the best milk of the year. We soon passed close to the commune of Arbois, known for its dairy production and the place where Louis Pasteur grew up. Arbois is in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region, where Comté, a distinctive and ironically unpasteurized cow’s milk cheese is made. Though the French pasteurize most of their milk for grocery stores where it often sits on shelves without refrigeration, they don’t subject any of the milk in their domestic cheeses to this process of heating to kill bacteria (the US more widely adopted Pasteur’s innovation). Comté is a favorite pairing with the wines in the Jura, especially Château-Chalon, and the always quirky and sometimes funky wines of the Jura are known to have scents of nuts, curry, or Comté itself. Ted remarked that "They challenge a drinker’s usual expectations, and while they're great for the adventurous looking for something new, they may not be for those with rigid expectations.” Another star pairing for Jura wines is the local breed of chicken, the Bresse Gauloise. When I pointed out a sign for a farm, Ted said, “They’re known for their blue legs and feet that supposedly come from a diet of local bugs, earthworms and grass from a specific type of volcanic soil. They can also cost four or five times the price of your average organic chicken." For generations the Bresse has been valued for its rich flavor and has been referred to as “the queen of poultry” and “the poultry of kings.” The people of the Jura are convinced that these locally produced goods are the best compliments to the local wines due to their shared terroir, and it makes sense that the flora and fauna grown in an area would take on similar attributes. The same is thought about products all around France, and any local across the country will attest to this sense of continuity, with pride. The closer we got to Château-Chalon, the more excited Ted got about digging into these lands—literally: he couldn’t wait to get his hands on some of the limestone marl and compressed mudstone composed of countless minuscule creatures from a shallow lagoon-like sea, long dried and gone for millions of years. He said, “the properties of the end product of each grape seem so obvious; it is the decoding of the physical and social atmospheres around a vigneron’s techniques, these foundations of the process, that I find compelling.” He added that since he has graduated to such abstract thoughts and analyses, he’s grateful to sometimes work with Jordan McKay, a highly accomplished and eloquent food and wine writer who often contributes his own material to Inside Source, The Source’s webpage blog. Ted feels that Jordan helps to keep him grounded, to keep his explorations of wine accessible. Jordan is one of the few with whom he can go deep on abstract “wine talk. He understands where Ted's coming from and supports him in clarifying his ideas and theories. Ted thinks Jordan is quietly one of the most talented, deeply thoughtful and knowledgeable wine people out there. “He is able to come up with completely original thoughts, no matter the subject. He just goes off into his own world, processing things on a different level than almost anyone I’ve met in the wine business.” As we began to wend our way up into the Jura Mountains, we passed parcels of vines on the slopes beside the road to our right, and had a great view of many hectares on a hillside bowl across a small valley. It was all a patchwork of green and beige (many with tinges of orange) in every geometrical shape. While many plots looked healthy, with modest undergrowth and brown soil, some (including those just a few feet from our car) had vivid orange weeds, signs of death by herbicides. Still others were overgrown and a little too green, a sure sign of artificial fertilizers. Ted pointed out the many examples of these and shook his head. Next: An Okay Lunch and the Great Credoz
After our visit at de Montille’s garden, Ted’s friends decided on a restaurant for dinner in Beaune, the nearby, perfectly preserved and walled-in medieval city at the center of Burgundy’s Côte de Beaune. We rolled down its one-lane cobblestone streets between ancient buildings with storybook gables and spires until we came to a modernized town center. It was full of squat two-story houses with old wooden shutters on their second floors above sleek, glass front pharmacies and cafés at street level. La Dilletante is a cozy little establishment with a façade of thirty-three small rectangular windows with wooden panes. Inside, there is an entire wall of upright bottles: a colorful three-dimensional wine list to choose from. The owner, Laurent, is a bearded bear of a man, a jolly Bluto with rosy cheeks who greeted us with a shout. Once a popular maître d’ at another restaurant in town, he brought throngs of his following along to his own successful venture. A jambon à los (cured pork leg) sat poised for slicing on a shiny steel cutter in the tiny open kitchen toward the back. The owner’s wife, Rika, attended to the countertops and stove and chatted with customers on the other side of a low glass divider as she filled orders for things like their croque monsieur, a specialty of the house. I had one, and with its crunchy and buttery toast, melty cheese and savory ham, it was the epitome of decadent comfort food. One of those things where when I was devouring it I could have sworn it was the best thing I’d ever eaten. (Not the last time I would think this on the trip). The guys debated the selection of the first bottle at the wine wall and Ted voted for a Beaujolais, the 2014 Marcel Lapierre Morgon Cuvée MMXIV. Ted said, “I’ve had enough mouse for the day and I need a guarantee if we are going to pay for the bottle.” They brought it and three others to our table and of course would soon ask the server to bring more. Debates and agreements commenced about which were the best producers and which ones tried their best but continuously missed the mark. Discussion of the worst bottles somehow (yet naturally) led to mention of Donald Trump’s recent victory. The ex-patriots were mortified for their country and countrymen, and reinforced in the choices that took them away from their home states. Whenever anyone over there mentioned the subject, I felt inclined to groan and say, I didn’t vote for him! In truth, this seemed somehow implicit by my presence there as an observer and chronicler of high culture. I may be making a leap in thinking his base wouldn’t be in France on a journey through wine country, but I’d prefer to think of it as an educated guess. And then, as if on cue, another bottle was popped and there it was: the dreaded mouse, a literal stink to overlay the running conversation. Everyone thought back to Ted’s first choice and remarked on the Morgon, the hit of the night, and perhaps one of the greatest modern day Beaujolais wines to be put to bottle. It was a memory of a recent and better time, which somehow reminded me of the comparatively halcyon days of Obama. To rid our palettes of mice and Small Hands, we ordered some of La Dilletante’s famous, rich and fluffy chocolate mousse. It was a sweet and slightly bitter cocoa mouth cloud, and immediately blew the stench from the air. Ted chatted with a young woman who worked for Kermit Lynch, one of the best-known American importers in France and the states. A wine she and Ted both liked was only exporting to the east coast, which they both found curious. The conversation zigged to the common occurrence of "books" (portfolios of producers that importers carry) moving around and seeing this for what it was, a strange and mercurial practice. I was eavesdropping on importer shoptalk and doing my best to keep up. The gang started to joke about moving on to a nearby bar to close it down, a place notorious for things taking a left turn as the night approached dawn. Beaune is a small town, with only about twenty thousand residents, the kind of place where everyone always sees the same people at the regular haunts. The joint in question apparently offers copious amounts of revolving coupling. But few in the group were single, and thankfully, no one seemed up to the task——least of all me and my jet-lagged brain. The group broke apart out on the street with everyone promising to see each other sooner rather than later. Ted, Andrea and I went back to the Airbnb, where I fell into a fitful sleep, snoring the grind of a garbage disposal the entire night (according to reports the next morning). I’m not a great sleeper to begin with, but I don’t usually do this, and wondered if it had something to do with the earache and the antibiotics I was on. The label read, “Do not drink alcohol while taking this medication.” As if that would be possible on this particular trip. NEXT: Crédoz, Chateau Chalone and The Meat of Mâcon