Terra Sigillata

Another Wine Escapade: Valle du Lot
by Erleichda

Sweetpea and I enjoy hiking as a platform for vacationing (when we’re not partaking of some beach spot). We’ve managed to attract a few likeminded fellow hikers, and are now able to customize our adventurers to suit our collective preferences. One of my only preferences has been that we visit a place that is known for their wines. In early May, we and three other couples set forth for the Lot Valley of SW France.

Not as well known as nearby Bordeaux, or Provence, at least not by Americans, the Valle du Lot has been a thriving viticulture area for centuries. The predominant grape variety is the Malbec (known locally also as Auxerrois and even Cot), recently making a splash in Argentina, and also Merlot and Tannat grapes. The wines are robust (tannic), deep purple in color, and have a bouquet of coffee, spice (or licorice), mushrooms and perhaps plums. Certainly it must be these earthy wines that somehow succeed in counteracting all the artery-hardening attributes (aka “French Paradox”) of the duck confit, foie gras, pate and cassoulet consumed there in quantity. Lest we be smitten with clogged arteries during our hikes, caused by our evening (and lunch, come to think of it) meals, we were sure to consume an ample sampling of the regions wine offerings.

Our initial gathering point was the city of Cahors on a bend of the Lot river, about a 90 min drive north of Toulouse. The entire contingent set out for our first evening’s culinary adventure, and found one of those restaurants (L’O A LA BOUCHE) I daydream about years later (exclaiming, as I’ve been known to do, “why can’t we have a place like this near home” – but I suppose that’s why we go on these vacations). There was no wine that evening worthy of note, and only one the next night, a Domaine de Caugnelle, Coteaux du Quercy 2002 that was pleasant while partaking of a foie gras accompanied by a fig marmalade. We were also introduced to a new cheese (for me) called P’tit Basque. So many of us liked it that I’ve since located versions of it locally and its now apart of our “cheese repertoire”. Since this is a wine column, and not a travel log, I’m going to fast forward thru this trip and tell you about the wines of note we did discover, and for whom the group’s raised eyebrows denoted something special was just set upon the table. But before I leave Cahors, should you fine yourself in this lovely medieval town, be sure to visit the open air market which is held twice a week. For here, on market days, many wines from the surrounding vineyards can be sampled and you may make your own discoveries.

After many a bottle of pleasant but unremarkable local wines, we stayed outside of the village of Puy L’Eveque, in a marvelous place I’m almost afraid to divulge (for fear their success will prevent any future visits at such a reasonable price) but the Ch. de Rouffiac was a highlight of this trip, and their 2002 “L’Exceptional” the first standout wine of our Lot valley experience. It cost about the equivalent of $25, and unfortunately may not, or ever, be available in the US. But should you ever see this in your wine shop, it will be worth trying. It went particularly well with our hostess, Isabelle’s, pork loin in tomato reduction with a zucchini casserole. I don’t know what vintner Philippe did to blend this Malbec-based offering, but to reinforce my opinion of it, let me say it was the only wine I carried home, as a gift to my neighbor, friend, racquetball partner, colleague, and fellow wine-enthusiast.

A few days later found us all hiking in the area of St. Cirq de Lapopie and the mildly interesting wine tasted while dining in the village one night was a Domaine du Prince 2001. All of the Malbec-based wines of the region had a full-bodied, earthy essence to them, but the ones I’m mentioning were generally softer, more pleasing on the palate, while still retaining an interesting complexity. This particular wine went well with both the sep mushroom omelets, as well as the traditional cassoulet of duck, sausage and beans, or the more delicate, heavenly, duck with truffles and figs.

Nearing the end of our hiking experience, we dined with the mayor of Vers, Michel, and his wife, Colette. What wonderful hosts. And here we were treated to a variation on the traditional aperitif called fenelon. This is usually a blend of a Cahors’ wine with crème de cassis plus walnut liquor, but ours had Cointreau as a substitute for the latter. Very tasty, and a good beginning to the evening’s repast of wild boar, mashed celery root, beet salad, and homemade foie gras.

After a week of group hiking, one other couple joined Sweetpea and me for an extended self-guided tour of the area’s bastide towns and vineyards (and one day in Toulouse). Our visit to Le Vert in Maroux brought us to our favorite restaurant (thanks to local guide, James Tamlyn, for the recommendation) and wine of the trip. During dinner I picked, with what divining stick I know not, a bottle of 2003 “Le Prestige” from nearby Ch. du Cedre. Was it the juxtaposition of good friends, a wonderful meal, and the first day of not having to hike (we tried to canoe on the Cele River, but it was too swollen with rain) that made this wine such an eye brow raiser? As our murmuring grew a little louder, a woman at a nearby table ventured over to ours, and explained that she had overheard us discussing “Le Prestige”. She and her husband had just retired from their Michelin-starred restaurant near Maastricht (Holland), and she related that they had, the year before, upon tasting “Le Prestige” at the winery, bought several cases for their restaurant. Then she mentioned that the winery was just a few kilometers down the road toward Vire-sur-Lot. The next morning found us at the Ch.du Cedre property but, alas, no more of the 2003 was available, and nothing we tasted quite measured up. But we obtained the names of their US distributors and am happy to report that we managed to eventually buy two cases upon returning home. The US price is about $19/bottle.

Additional wineries visited outside of Vire-sur-Lot (Ch. Couatale, Ch. Latuc; Ch. Gaudou) revealed several pleasant wines, but like many experienced earlier in the week, none was worthy of particular note. The only exceptions were wines tasted at Ch. Lacappelle-Cabanac, their 2003 version of “Le Prestige”, which is a Malbec-blend with 15% Merlot, almost black in color (like many wines of the region), with both fruit and a touch oak blending into a nice, very full-bodied (>14% alcohol) experience for about $13, and their 2000 “Tradition” (~$10) , also a Malbec and Merlot blend, but with a hint of spice. I also enjoyed seeing peacocks strutting around the property, to remind me of my own “boys” back home, and playing with the Chateau’s French bulldog.

One post-hike wine of Cahors has since been found that is worth mentioning. The 2001 Ch. Haut-Monplasir “Prestige” ($19) was presented to several members of the Lot Valley hike and acclaimed as worthwhile. Interesting that the wine was crafted for the vineyard’s owners by the same brothers who own the adjacent property at Ch. du Cedre!

We toured the Lot valley for two more days and a fine adventure was had by all. Only a few wines of distinction, but many memories to savor.

Weeks after writing this column I came upon the following paragraph written by Jane Anson writing for Wine International :

“Cahors is one of those towns that France seems to have bottled and stored in some never-ending warehouse – all spiralling medieval streets, riverside restaurants and perfectly preserved buildings. If you are here for only a day, don’t leave without visiting Château du Cèdre, in the attractive hamlet of Vire-sur-Lot. If you can get hold of any of its ever-dwindling stock, try the Cuvée Le Prestige 2001 for a heady combination of chocolate, violet and woodsmoke. Château Haut-Monplaisir is less well known, but it is equally excellent (its Pur Plaisir 2001 more than deserves its name).”

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An unrelated (to Cahors) wine of note that I must tell you all about. While at a recent tasting at a friend’s home, we were treated to a wine of Washington State, a 2001 Woodhouse Dussek Cabernet Sauvignon ($38). Wow. Indescribably delicious, to quote the candy ad. Obviously not inexpensive, and it took two weeks to convince myself to buy a few bottles. But, as my mantra of late proclaims, “its time to drink the good wine”, so I did.

Thanks for the restaurant tip, Pam. If I find myself in Charleston I will certainly consider Al di La (with the former chef from Barboursville Vineyards restaurant).

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About Erleichda: Erleichda is the nom de plume of a guest blogger who has contributed recently to the Friday Fermentable columns. The act of contributing a column periodically on the topic of wine is consistent with the philosophy embodied in his pseudonym, i.e., to “lighten up” (from ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ by Tom Robbins).

Erleichda holds a PhD in microbiology following a baccalaureate in the same discipline. Post-doctoral training was received in tumor immunology and virology. While initial employment involved transplantation immunology research for a few years, a subsequent job at a research institute focused his attention on experimental chemotherapy and tumor biology. For the past nearly 30 years, Erleichda has worked in the pharmaceutical industry as a cancer drug developer. In that time, he has contributed substantially to the evaluation and development of scores of advanced compounds, culminating in the introduction of more than a dozen drug candidates to clinical trial, and continues to shepherd several of them toward satisfying unmet medical needs. With his colleagues, Erleichda has brought many of today’s well known anticancer drugs to our armamentarium against this family of diseases.

The search for new anticancer therapeutics, and interest in natural products especially, led to the meeting of Abel Pharmboy and Erleichda, who, whenever the opportunity permits, continue to work together in this vein.

When not engaged in cancer drug development, Erleichda can be found hiking in Europe ,”wherever grapes grow” he says, playing bridge on-line (listening to his personalized “Billie Holiday” station on Pandora.com) while glancing outside at the peafowl he keeps, playing a few games of racquetball, collecting medieval coins, and, of course, entertaining friends while sampling many wines.