A weekend at Chateau l’Hospitalet

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Truth be told, I hadn’t realised that there was such thing as a pruning festival. But when the invitation appeared in my inbox, I wasn’t going to question. It was one that I couldn’t resist.

And so I found myself on a flight to Montpellier, France, in early December, set for a drive towards the La Clape appellation and, specifically, Gerard Bertrand’s Chateau l’Hospitalet near Narbonne. I had been there just a few months before. I knew the way. I knew what to expect. Except, of course, that back in August the weather was warm, even when it was raining. I hadn’t quite anticipated just how warm it wouldn’t be this time around.

When I landed, it was raining. And the opposite of warm. A punishing wind was blowing from the northwest and the rain came down in sheets. I regretted not packing a warm coat. Or even a jumper. All I had was a rain shell, a fleece and a Helly Hansen baselayer. My only hope was that we wouldn’t spend much time outside.

After a pleasant night of beef and wine in the Chateau l’Hospitalet restaurant and a solid sleep in my room, I woke the next morning to do what any sensible man would do prior to what was surely going to be a long day of tasting wine and gorging on food. I went for a run through the vineyards. Wearing shorts and a T-shirt. This would have been fine had it not been a) colder than a Siberian deep-freeze and b) blowing a gale that was as sharp as a Gillette razor.

At 11 a.m. we had our first wine tasting and 15 glasses of wine stood before me.

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The list of wines was an extensive tasting of some of Bertrand’s best vineyards and cuvees:

  • Domaine de Cigalus
  • Chateau de Villemajou
  • Domaine de l’Aigle
  • Chateau La Sauvageonne
  • Chateau l’Hospitalet
  • Tautavel Hommage aux Vignerons
  • Le Viala
  • La Forge

In another post I will list each of the wines tasted along with my notes and verdict on each one. For now I will just say that the quality level, as always, was high and all of the wines were well made and worthy of attention. Particular favourites included Cigalus, l’Hospitalet and Le Viala.

I would like to say that we spent the afternoon indoors savouring these wines in the cosseting warmth of the chateau. However, our hosts felt that it would be much more memorable for us to spend as much of our day outside as possible given that the wind had picked up, the driving rain had set in and the temperature appeared to have plunged to a level I wouldn’t have expected in southern France.

And this is how I found myself walking head first into a bracing wind and sideways rain, following a labradoodle through a grove of white oak trees as it sniffed around for truffles. I kid you not.

Surprisingly, we the dogs did, indeed, sniff out a few truffles (the proprietor could have showed me a lump of mud and I would have nodded my approval), and we, the people merrily following those dogs, did shiver and complain about the wind within our warm coats, rain jackets, gloves and hats. All the while, the dogs’ handlers looked entirely comfortable and unbothered by the weather without the assistance of any gloves or hats or what I would have considered warm clothing for the conditions.

And then we saw a mule. This, as it happens, was the pruning element in Pruning Festival. And we did prune, albeit for only a few moments until our hands were too cold to squeeze the clippers.

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Again, the mule’s handler was ungloved and unhatted, yet unperturbed by the chill. How do they do it?

At this point, our group was beginning to lose its nerve, diminishing by ones and twos as the punters gave up and headed back to the chateau. We were drawn by the warmth and the wine, and the promise of a dinner heavily laden in truffles.

Next time, I’ll tell you about the wine.

Winter reading: Sediment — a wine book for the rest of us

51Bgtb7y7gL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Despite having made my profession as a writer of various persuasions for most of the past decade, my reading list has been shamefully thin on the ground. Finding time to read seems to be more difficult and less appealing than ever, particularly when the other option is to vegetate on the sofa while watching reruns on Netflix.

This time six years ago I somehow managed to devote a worrying amount of time to reading Robert Parker’s Bordeaux cover to cover. That tome, all 1,200 or so pages of it, took a year to read at a pace that was, to be honest, as good as a few pages here and there until I’d had enough of Parker’s constant use of the phrases ‘blockbuster’ and ‘sleeper of the vintage’. Informative as it was, it was also an excellent sleep aid.

Since then I have somehow managed to read several other dry books on wine, but as the years have passed by, my ability to complete them — or even make it more than a few pages in — has diminished. I never did managed to read the entirely of the World Atlas of Wine, informative and valuable as it may be. But I do like to refer to the maps on occasion.

No matter what I read, a book needs to give me a reason to keep reading it. If it fails to grab my attention, to entertain me, to pull me into its narrative and hold me there until the final page, I can put it down and quickly forget about it. Some books I read quickly; other books will remain in limbo for several years as I dip in and out of their pages when I can be bothered to think of them. This is why I never did finish the Mayor of Casterbridge. I read Far From the Madding Crowd many years ago when I still had the patience, whereas the Mayor of Casterbridge tested my patience one too many times.

Wine books are no different from any other. They either pull me in or they push me away. I sincerely doubt I would have the patience to read another of Parker’s imposing reference books, for example. But give me something with a story to tell, a dash of wit and humour, and we’re in business.

This is the case for the only wine book I have managed to read in its entirety in the past year was Sediment: Two Gentlemen and Their Mid-Life Terroirs.

As I have also written for 12×75.com, this is a wine book that raises topics and views that are seldom seen among the wine press. It speaks to several audiences at once, from the everyday wine drinker who simply wants to know whether or not they should attempt to drink wine out of a box, to the sophisticated collector who has a sense of humour. While the book is based largely on posts that have appeared in the blog, the adaptation works because few of us have probably read all of their previous posts. There are times when a compendium is a good thing.

I devoured this book in a couple short sittings. In other words, on the seats of two discount airlines in early December. What would normally have been an uncomfortable hour and a half being flogged duty-free products and scratch cards by bedraggled flight attendants, I simply zoned them out and buried my head into the world of CJ and PK.

Sediment explores with humour and humility the minefield that is buying and drinking (and less frequently investing in) wine, whether it is bought in bulk from a co-operative in the south of France, a Germany discount retailer on the UK high street or from a merchant in St James’s Street in London.

Sediment: Two Gentlemen And Their Mid-Life Terroirs
By Charles Jennings and Paul Keers
John Blake Publishing
£12.99