To be honest. I could breathe a bit better upon leaving Tarbes. I am not certain what, but that place had a creepy hand on my shoulder during my stay. I never was quite settled (aside from that one moment in the church of St. Jean Baptiste). A three hour journey to Conques was well-received by all in the car–especially after a day in the Tour that was, well… less than joyful.
We were to stay at Moulin de Cambelong on the edge of town. Rolling in at midnight, it seemed as promising on the outside as it had on the website. A vocal river teeming with frogs and cicadas filled the soundtrack of our entrance. A sky as dark as molasses was freckled with radiant stars, which helped to light our way up the stony path to this restored wind mill. The reception, the lobby and the walk to our room felt as though they hired hobbits for the renovation. It was warm, cozy and full of endearing patches of uneven textures of wood, stone and brick.
And then they opened the door to our room.
Florescent light cracked the mood. A strong, distracting odor of paint or some kind of funky chemical invasion talked over the light. Black tar rubber mats were our carpet. Cold and hollow. Funny little details, like the fact that they chose to only paint half the shower when mid-stroke they decided to break for lunch… and not come back to finish the job. These were just a few of this room’s idiosyncrasies (not to mention the random stencil of a lamp with bedazzled rhinestones…just because. Or, blank canvas boards with no art on them that didn’t quite have what I hoped was their intent for deep thinking.). We opened the patio doors to air out the smell, upon which hundreds of critters came to join us for the evening on our ceiling. When one must choose between bugs and chemicals to sleep with, paying for lodging over a campsite suddenly felt absurd. Bugs and all, I pretended I was glamping, reveled in the sounds of the great outdoors and slept like a rock.
I learned quickly though, after an outstanding lunch today, that this was one of those rare little gems– the hotel that you go to for a memorable meal, sensational wine and multiple reasons to venture outside one’s room. The hiking is top notch and the you are sure to get a belly ache if you consume much of its history. Sorry hotel snobs, this is not for you. But traveling gourmand? You found it. Michelin-rated Herve Busset is the chef here, and it’s more than worth the drive (usually a couple hours from, well, everywhere–Toulouse, Bordeaux, Rhone).
Suddenly those little quirky details are somehow now, well, charming. But a room that smells like a paint can. Come on people. Don’t ruin the mood.
The ancient town of Conques is heavy with stories, buried deep and far in the hills of the central Massif. We walked into town, up its steep cobbled steps to find a crammed little village surrounding an active monastery. We plan to go tonight to hear their nightly chants.
Today, though, we took a side trip to Marcillac. I was curious to get better acquainted with the Mansois or Fer Servadou varietal (‘fer’ meaning iron which is thought to be named for its iron clad roots but possibly the reddish iron soils of the area said to impart such flavor in its wine–all up for grabs if you care to debate). We chose to see Domaine du Cros, one of the better known winemakers of the area. Here, they carry on a tradition for 5 generations, though really the most recent generations (since 1982) have greatly expanded their production as well as their reputation.
This winery encompasses 200 hectares of gorgeous, steeply terraced land– an amphitheater sorts sucking up copious amounts of southern-oriented sunlight. Fat, solid vines burrow themselves in red clay ‘rougieres’ soils (for which, one of his wines is named so), peppered with calcareous limestone and schist in some areas. He is not fully organic but only because he does not believe in using Bordeaux copper mixture to control & prevent fungus. This method is one of the only ways to effectively fight disease while remaining ‘organic’, but it’s long term effects on the soils are debatable. He does not think it is the healthiest choice for vine, land or wine. Though the rows can be mechanically managed, the harvesting is not. All is done by hand and not one ill-looking berry will make the cut. Ruthless grape sorting is a main focus for controlling quality here.
The winemaker, Phillipe Teulier, is proud to introduce us to his home and to this unique grape, thought to be indigenous to the Southwest area of France. As we taste through his selections, it’s no wonder this grape is thought to have relatives in Cabernet. There is a peppery, herbaceous quality that is more than reminiscent to a soft-spoken, fruity Chinon–rustic yet vibrant with raspberries, fennel and pink peppercorn. There is an underlying note of cassis that beats in the background with humble discretion, like a anonymous metronome pacing a piano piece. While his higher end Vielle Vigne and Rougieres reds were absolutely lovely, it was his entry level Lo Sang del Pais that impressed me most, and possibly he as well, as he laughed when he explaining that while this wine was a reflection of his hard work and the flavor of the land, the others (well, namely Rougieres) required a suit and tie to consume. Oak can get in the way of the expression if what you are seeking is the purity of fruit, as he further discussed.
Lo Sang de Pais is a name which loosely refers to this table wine being the ‘blood of the land’– the source and sustenance of this local economy… an economy that has seen a slow recovery since the world wars and phylloxera, when a thriving mining industry dissipated, vineyards were destroyed and the general sentiment was to move into urban areas for better opportunities. According to Charles Neal, who writes a fantastic piece about Southwest wines on the Somm Guild website, “Many locals moved north to Paris where, it is said, more café owners have roots in the Aveyron than in the capital itself.” The latter half of the 20th century saw much change in this area. Now, there are a several solid growers looking to get areas like Marcillac, Gaillac, Buzet, Cahors and others back on the map with the help of such importers like Wine Traditions, Kermit Lynch and Charles Neal.
I really do want to take a moment to give a shout out to the white and rose he makes at this domaine as well. The white is of 20% Muscat Blancs a Petits Grains blended with 80% Semillon. A delicate nose of underripe stone fruit (peach, apricot) and white florals on the nose led to a much deeper, thought-provoking palate, motioning towards marmalade and lime blossoms. It was tense, dry and awkwardly waxy in texture, but not in a bad way. It was like that first kiss. You aren’t sure if it’s right, wrong, thrilling or lacking… So you need to try again. Upon practice, you confirm that this was just a new experience with a new personality. And actually…quite delicious.
The rose, a saignee of Mansois, while simple, was quick to let the world know it was not yet another pink wine to be quaffed with little to know thought execution on the consumer’s part. No, this was a rose of substance, slight tannin and purpose, meant to be enjoyed with salty, savory snacks. While this wine rolls its eyes at us porch pounders of the world, forgive her. She just takes life a little more seriously than we typically expect.
Lunch, as mentioned, back at the hotel was nothing short of exemplary. Spongy lichen-looking cakes followed by an oversized pierogi with swiss chard, cream and trout, concluding with the tenderest pork tenderloin ever to exist–all executed with flawless precision. A true work of art. We continued our exploration of local wines starting with a Method Ancestrale Mauzac Brut from Domaine du Moulin, an elegant, finely tuned sparkling with a string quartet of green apples, lemon curd, fennel and gardenias playing the melody. We then enjoyed a simple but refreshing blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Mauzac and Chenin by Vignerons du Vallons in nearby Marcillac, composed of 38 vignerons who comprise 55% of this small region’s production. Grapefruit and lemon zest were the takeaways here… and its effortless affinity towards salty sheep’s milk cheese. Finally, we tried a red from Michel Issaly at Domaine de la Ramaye in Gaillac, also made of Fer Servadou. It was considerably denser than those of Domaine du Cros, more extraction, deeper berry fruit and less elegance. While enjoyable, it lacked the finesse I discovered in du Cros just hours earlier.
And so, that’s it for today. Off to find out more about monks. Basically, I think monks are the best. More on that in the next blog.