Saturday, March 30, 2013

Vinsobres, pretty village and producer of excellent wines in the Côtes du Rhône

We love wine and are fortunate to have a house in Sonoma County, California, one of the premier wine growing regions in the US and a house in Sablet, one of the 18 villages in the French Côtes du Rhône wine region authorized to put their village name on wine labels.

Did you know that there is a hierarchy for Côtes du Rhône wines? Yes, that's true! Côtes du Rhône wines are widely distributed so I think it might be helpful for me to try to explain the hierarchy of these wines. Be patient, there is a link between this explanation and Vinsobres.

The Côtes du Rhône appellation (map) stretches 125 miles between Vienne in the north to Avignon in the south and is separated into sub regions of Rhône wine: Côtes du Rhône septentrional in the northern part of the region from Vienne to Valence and Côtes du Rhône meridional from Montélimar to Avignon in the south.

The first level consist of 171 communes (similar to a township in the US) in the French departments of Ardèche, Bouche du Rhône, Drôme, Gard, Loire, and Vaucluse that produce wine. The average production of Côtes du Rhône wine is about 419 million bottles a year, making this one of the largest appellation regions in the world. Level 2 is Côtes du Rhône-Villages which are villages around the region which supposedly produce a higher quality of wine.

The third level is Côtes du Rhône-Villages (named village) which are 18 villages including our own Sablet who are authorised to put their village name on wine labels. The top level are Crus, a total of 15 villages who can put their name on the label but do not have to mention Côtes du Rhône. These include such well known appellations as Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage in the north and Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas in the south. One of the lesser known Crus, or at least to us is Vinsobres.

Vinsobres is a small village (population 1,101) on a big hill (604 - 1,706 feet elevation) crowned with a 12th century priory about 14 miles north of Sablet across the L'Eygues River in the French department of the Drôme. Since the southern part of Drôme is regarded as Provence, the area is called Drôme Provençale.


Every March the committee of Vinsobres winemakers puts on the "Salon des Vins de l'AOC Vinsobres" (wine festival) to promote their wines and locally produced artisan products such as olive oil, charcuterie, chocolate, nougat, cheese and escargot. This year the festival took place on March 17.

Pretty Vinsobres house

Last March we were in Sablet and saw brightly colored signs along the roads announcing the upcoming wine festival in Vinsobres. Since we had not been to Vinsobres nor did we know anything about their wine, we decided to kill two birds with one stone so to speak, and go to the "Salon des Vins de l'AOC Vinsobres."

An arched door through the old stone defensive wall

Vinsobres was first settled by the Romans. There seems to be some question about the origin of the village name. Some sources say the name comes from Vinzobrio, the oldest recorded reference from 1137. It comes from the pre-Celtic vintio (height), and the Celtic suffix briga (mountain). Other sources say the name probably originates from Latin "vin sobris" or "vin sobrio" meaning "wine and work."

Vinsobres boulangerie

Narrow streets, old stone houses and vaulted passageways are sandwiched between two churches, one Protestant at the top of the village and one Catholic at the bottom.

Vinsobres house with vaulted passageway

Add to this blue and green shutters and beige and ochre roof tiles, all of which makes Vinsobres a quaint village to explore.

A Vinsobres street

Wine is clearly the "raison d'être" (reason for existence) for Vinsobres. Vineyards cover about one-half of the 8018 acres in the commune, mostly on slopes where terraces are required to grow the vines. The vineyard parcels on these slopes are included in the Vinsobres Cru appellation. Vineyards off the slopes are in level 1 of the Côtes du Rhône hierarchy.

Arbor covered bar near the Catholic Church

I should mention that the Côtes du Rhône AOC was established in 1937. The committee of Vinsobres winemakers was formed in 1957 when Vinsobres wines were included in the new Côtes du Rhône-Villages appellation. In 1967, the wines of Vinsobres were elevated to Côtes du Rhône Village Vinsobres and on February 15, 2006, the red wines were reclassified to Crus.

The 18th century Catholic Church of Vinsobres

According to the committee of Vinsobres winemakers, 68.34% of the vineyards today are planted with Grenache, 24.15% of the vineyards are Syrah, 2.76% are Mourvedre, 1.84% are Cinsault, and 1.45% are Carignan.

Vinsobres café patrons enjoy the early spring day

About 72% of the grapes are vinified by La Vinsobraise, the local cooperative in Vinsobres. The rest is vinified and bottled by 21 wineries or sold to négociants who produce, bottle and market the wine under the négociant's label.

Vinsobres house with pretty blue shutters

The "Salon des Vins de l'AOC Vinsobres" (wine festival) took place in the Vinsobres community hall.

Vinsobres community hall

Vinsobres is also known for their "Craquantes de Vinsobres," a small, dry, almond biscuit (think Italian biscotti). Supposedly they first appeared in 1908 at the boulangerie in Vinsobres.

"Salon des Vins de l'AOC Vinsobres" (wine festival)

One of the Vinsobres wines we tasted and liked a lot was from Domaine L'Ancienne Ecole, a small, newish (their first harvest was in 2007) winery owned by Anna and Wilson Thorburn.

Anna Thorburn proprietor of Domaine L'Ancienne Ecole

Every festival in Provence has vendors selling a variety of goods, some good quality, other stuff is junk to be truthful and this festival was no exception.

Vendor selling locally made objects of wood

Vendor selling locally made Provencal souvenirs

We climbed up to the 12th century priory, which became a Catholic Church, and finally a Protestant temple of the Reformed Church.

12th century priory

From the church, there is a great view of the Vinsobres vineyards and Mont Ventoux.

View from the top of the village near the Protestant Church

View from the top of the village near the Protestant Church

View from the top of the village near the Protestant Church

Vinsobres street


While I was writing this post about Vinsobres, I found out that in 2012, Wine Spectator Magazine included the 2010 Famille Perrin Vinsobres AOC Les Cornuds on its list of 100 Best Wines for 2012. So I set off to Bottle Barn, probably the best place to buy wine near where we live in Northern California to see if they had this wine.

Lucky for me, they did and it was only $15.99 a bottle. So I stocked up and took a bottle with me to try last night with dinner at our Bistro Des Copains. It was perfect with our braised rabbit with kale and served over noodles in a mustard sauce.

Organically produced by Famille Perrin (they also own Château de Beaucastel), this wine is quite big but very elegant, with black cherry flavors (50/50 Grenache and Syrah). If you find it, buy a bottle. It's not only a very good wine, especially with food, it's relatively cheap, one of the great things about Côtes du Rhône wine.

2010 Perrin Famille Vinsobres AOC Les Cornuds

Have a great Easter weekend. Bonne journée mes amis et à bientôt.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

We exited from Fort Saint André and walked down the road that runs along the wall around the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction, the next stop on my visit with cousin André to sights around Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction is a monastery founded by Pope Innocent VI in 1536.

The road leading down from Fort St. André to the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction

While he was a Cardinal, Pope Innocent VI owned a big townhouse and some land in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. After he was elected pope in 1532, he donated the townhouse and land to the Carthusian Order (an Order of Monks founded by Saint Bruno of Cologne in 1084) and had it rebuilt to suit the monks.

Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction

With three cloisters and 40 cells for monks, the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction monastery was once the most important Carthusian monastery in France; it is still the largest. Today, the monastery provides lodging for aspiring playwrights and artists rent-free for up to a year. Art exhibitions are presented in the monastery throughout the year.

In 1649, the monument door entrance to the Chartreuse seen below was finished by the architect François de Royers de la Valfenière. In 1660, King Louis XIV, crossed through the door in a grand ceremony when he came to visit the Chartreuse with a large contingent including cardinal Mazarin.

Monument entrance to the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction

You might ask like me, how it came to be, that there are so many structures related to the Catholic church across the river from Avignon. Well, during the times the popes resided in Avignon, many cardinals built luxurious palaces on the Villeneuve-lès-Avignon side of the Rhône river. Overall 15 residences for cardinals were erected in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

The Allée des Mûriers (Mulberry Ally) entry to Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction

The door of the convent church seen below is based upon a drawing of François de Royers de la Valfenière.

The door of the convent church

A chapel in the convent church

A view of Fort Saint André from the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction

Pope Innocent VI born Étienne Aubert, and founder of the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction, was from the Corrèze department of France and the 200th Pope of the Catholic church. He was the fifth of the seven Avignon popes. Pope Innocent VI ordered the construction of the chapel on the side of the church at the Chartreuse where he is buried.

His tomb, a monument which was removed from the Chartreuse after the French revolution, was returned to the convent church in 1959.

The tomb of Pope Innocent VI

The convent church named Saint-John-the-Baptist and then Saint-Mary was built by Pope Innocent VI between 1353 and 1356. At the time it was built, it was small, just big enough to accommodate the 12 fathers and choir of brothers. It was enlarged by order of Pope Innocent VI with a chapel for a tomb for him when he died.

The nave of the convent church

The Little Cloister seen below is part of the original Chartreuse built by Pope Innocent VI. This gallery was known as the "Galerie du Colloque" or conference gallery because on Sundays and holidays, the monks were able to come here and break their silence for a short time. The Little Cloister was the most luxurious of all the monastery.

Little Cloister

Hallway around the Little Cloister

The Sexton of the Chartreuse had dual responsibilities; first he was responsible for looking after the valuables of the monastery and second he was the person who kept the time. The latter was an important function since the life of the community was marked by regular church services and prayers. Prior to 1551 when a clock was installed in the Chartreuse, time was kept in rudimentary fashion based on such things as the crowing of roosters, stars, lighted candles, and hourglasses.

A well in the courtyard outside the Sexton's cell

The monk cells, one of which is seen below, was where the fathers spent the majority of their time. This is where they studied, did their physical and manual work, and where they prayed and ate and slept.

Monk's cell

Great Cloister

The Great Cloister was a green space and in the most southern part of the cloister near the church was the cemetery where the monks were buried.

Great Cloister with the Chapel of the Dead and Saint-John-Baptist Church

Next to the door of each monk's cell, there was little wood door through which plates of food could be passed. The passage through the wall was built such that they could not see each other and were not tempted to speak.

Hallway leading to monk's cells

A view of Fort Saint André from the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction

When a monk died, his body was laid in the Chapel of the Dead seen in the picture below the night before his burial in the cemetery of the Great Cloister. It is said that this chapel dates from the 18th century.

Chapel of the Dead

The Chapel with Frescoes was part of the founder's original mansion. The frescoes were painted by Matteo Giovanetti during the papacy of Innocent VI. The frescoes portray scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist.

Chapel with Frescoes

Another wall of the Chapel with Frescoes

Another wall of the Chapel with Frescoes

Another wall of the Chapel with Frescoes

Saint John's Cloister was founded by Pierre de Monteruc, the nephew of Pope Innocent VI in 1372. In 1750 a dome was built over the main well.

St. John's Cloister and the main well of the Chartreuse

At the time of the French revolution, the Chartreuse was divided into lots and sold, its library and art scattered and the monastery was severely damaged.

The entrance to Les Jardins d'été café-restaurant of the Chartreuse

By the time we finished our visit to the Chartreuse de Val de Bénédiction, it was lunch time. So we hurried back to the cousin's house to have lunch with Mauricette who had stayed behind to cook for us. We smelled mouth-watering aromas from the kitchen even before we walked into the house. We sat down and filled ourselves with perfectly roasted Gigot d'Agneau (leg of lamb), little Yukon Gold potatoes roasted in the pan drippings and haricot verts. This was all washed down with some tasty Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For dessert, we had an apple tart. Fabulous! It makes me hungry just thinking about that meal again.

Bonne journée et à bientôt.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Fort Saint-André, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon

One day, shortly after we signed the papers to buy our house in Sablet, we were with cousin Jean-Marc and wife Christine, who suggested we go visit elderly cousin André and wife Mauricette who live in Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. Until just recently, I didn't know we even had relatives who live near Avignon or anything about Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

Jean-Marc suggested we get our own Notaire, preferably one who spoke English when we signed the Promesse de Vente (promise to sell). Stay with me, this is relevant to my story; The agent immobilier (real estate agent) recommended a Notaire, Maître Florence Falque in Carpentras who speaks and writes English. For any of you who are thinking about buying a house in France, and English is your first language, it's a good idea to use a Notaire who can explain and translate legal documents into English, no matter how well you speak French.

As it turns out, Jean-Marc has not had much contact with the cousins until recently. André is my father's first cousin (their father's were brothers). Jean-Marc is a renown cardiologist at the University of Montpellier and André had recently come to see him about his heart. Jean-Marc mentioned that we signed a Promesse de Vente and were using a Notaire from Carpentras. Turns out Maître Falque is a friend of Mauricette (she is originally from Carpentras) and is the Notaire that André used.

We called the cousins and asked if it was a good time for a visit? Once seated, and offered cookies and a drink, we discovered that after André heard we were buying a house in Sablet, he got on his bicycle and pedaled to Sablet and back so he could see where we were going to live. André is a long-time bike rider, has ridden up and down Mont Ventoux quite a few times, but I think it was a mighty feat to ride 90 kms (56 miles) at nearly 80 years of age.

We had a wonderful visit with the cousins, he worked for the SNCF (France's national state-owned railway company) for many years, has an amazing green thumb, you should see his garden, and both are very good painters. We are now proud owners of several of their paintings. I have since found out that she is a very good cook. We visit each time we are in Sablet but until a few months ago, we still didn't know anything about Villeneuve-lès-Avignon.

So one day I called André and asked if he would show me the special sights around town. We drive past Fort Saint-André on the way to the cousin's house. And so although there is no relation between the fort and cousin André, the Fort was our first stop on our tour of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon. The town and Fort Saint-André are located in the Gard Department at the eastern edge of Languedoc-Roussillon, on the border with Provence directly across the Rhône River from Avignon.

Fort Saint-André

King Philip IV of France, known as Phillipe le Bel (the Beautiful) commissioned the construction of Fort Saint-André in 1292 as a show of power of the Kingdom of France and to keep watch on the Holy Roman Empire on the other side of the Rhône River. At that time, Villeneuve-lès-Avignon was on the eastern border of France and Provence was part of the Empire.

Fort Saint-André Reception Building

Although the Fort was commissioned in 1292, it was not built until the 1360's by King Jean II le Bon (the Good) on Mount Andaon, a rocky hill that rises over the floodplain of the Rhône River. Prior to the 1770's, the Rhône flowed just below the rock where the Fort was built on Mount Andaon. Around 1770, the Rhône River moved its bed 900 meters away from the rock.

Saint-André Abbey Garden

Besides showing the power of the Kingdom of France, the Fort also provided protection for the Benedictine Saint-André Abbey and the small village of Saint-Andre already present on Mount Andaon.

Saint-André Abbey Garden

The walls and towers of the Fort protected a large area of more than 3 hectares (7.5 acres). The current reception area and neighboring building were used in the 18th century as the military headquarters and garrison.

View of Papal Palace in Avignon from Fort Saint-André

The fortification walls are 750 meters (2,460 feet) long and included comfort amenities such as latrines, fireplaces in the entrance fortress and sentry boxes on the wall walk.

Cousin Andre heads towards the vaulted rooms under the terrace

As I mentioned, the Fort surrounds the remains of an abbey built on Mount Andaon near the tomb of Saint Casarie in the 10th century. Very powerful in the Middle Ages, this abbey owned more than 200 monasteries and convents between Uzès and Forcalquier. After a period of decline, it was rebuilt in the 16th century according to the plans of the architect Pierre Mignard, who also designed the gardens.

The 16th-century gardens disappeared a long time ago. Redone in the 18th century, they were restored at the beginning of the 20th century when, in 1914, Gustave Fayet, patron to Paul Gauguin and an important art collector, bought the Fontfroide Abbey south-west of Narbonne and the Saint-André Abbey.

Vaulted Rooms under the Saint-André Garden Terrace

The abbey gardens are nicely maintained and contain numerous statues, fountains and other ornaments.

Vaulted passageway

The gardens provide a vast view over the surrounding countryside and Rhône valley.

View from the abbey garden with Philippe Le Bel tower in the distance

Remains of the abbey

Another vaulted passageway

The Saint Casarie Chapel was constructed during the 11th century on Mount Andaon near where St. Casarie is said to have died in a cave in 587. Casarie was married to Valens, who later became a bishop. Casarie became a hermit and lived on Mount Andaon where the monastery was founded in recognition of her sanctity.

The Saint Casarie Chapel

Cypress trees in abbey garden

Remains of the abbey

At the base of a beautiful large terrace is a pergola with stone pillars holding wisteria and roses, creating a shady corridor that is covered with flowers of all kinds.

The Pergola in the Saint-André Abbey Garden

Elsa Koeberlé who was a friend of Gustave Fayet became committed to restoring the Abbey’s garden. While remaining faithful to the old plans, she created two pools separated by beds of roses edged with santolina and oleanders. She redesigned the flowerbeds favoring Mediterranean plant varieties. The cypress tree alley, the olive trees, the arbors and pergolas, the big terrace, all help give the appearance of a Florentine garden to the place.

Cousin Andre pauses at the Saint-André Abbey garden

The Masques Tower takes its name from the Provençal "masco", meaning witch or magician, reputed to attract the wicked spells so that the rest of the battlements were protected. The Masques Tower has a single high room because of the unevenness of the site.

The Masques tower

The entrance fortress, called the Royal Château or the twin towers, was built in several stages. It ensured the defense and command of the fort and afforded an uninterrupted view of Mont Ventoux. It still has a crown of machicolations, openings through which stones, or other objects, could be dropped on attackers from the top of the curtain wall. It housed the working quarters of the châtelain, the commander of the castle, and the administrative and judicial officer.

Twin towers guard the main entrance to Fort Saint-André

After leaving Fort Saint-André, we walked down the street to Chartreuse du Val de Benediction Monastery which I will tell you about in my next post.

Bonne journée et à bientôt.