Saturday, October 19, 2013

Sève d'Automne


During a trip to South West France five years ago, I woke up near Pau at the foot of the Pyrénées mountains and felt I was in heaven. The cool morning air was still and the view of the snow-covered Pyrénées that rose up to the sky before me was majestic. The only sound breaking the silence was the rushing water from a nearby stream.

I was reluctant to stop my reverie but I had an appointment to catch at Domaine Cauhapé in nearby Monein in the heart of the Jurançon wine region. I was excited to meet the proprietor and winemaker Henri Ramonteu and to taste his wines for the first time.

The domaine is widely regarded as one of the greatest producers in South West France. It is praised mainly for its very affordable sweet wines, which can embarrass more expensive rivals from Sauternes, Alsace, and the Loire. Didier Dagueneau was captivated by the sweet wines of Jurançon, and expanded there before his ufortunate demise.

Despite his lofty reputation, Henri Ramonteu is unknown to most wine drinkers, which really says a lot about the overlooked South West wine region. I spent the entire morning tasting through different vintages of all the domaine's wines, both dry and sweet. The dry wines consist mainly of the Gros Manseng grape, while the sweet wines are made from Petit Manseng. Harvest in Jurançon occurs late in the year, starting in October for the dry wines and continuing through November and December--sometimes up to January (!)--for the sweet wines.

The vineyards face south and southeast, with the vines espalier-trained not only to protect them from the frost in the harsh mountain climate, but also to catch the warm south winds late in the season that dessicate the berries and turn them to raisins for the sweet wines.

Despite his success, Henri Ramonteu is not resting on his laurels. For him, the challenge now is to make equally great dry wines.

The potential was very clear when I tasted a few vintages of his vivid dry Jurançon Sec "Sève d'Automne" (autumn sap). A blend of 70% Gros Manseng and 30% Petit Manseng from vines averaging more than 30 years-old. The grapes were picked at the end of October and the wine was aged on the lees in used barrels for about a year before bottling. Its richness makes it versatile with food, including meat dishes.

By the time I finished the appointment it was early afternoon and I was famished. Tastings make me hungry. Henri Ramonteu suggested that I go check out a traditional Béarnise restaurant in town, L'Estaminet. He called the restaurant to book me and he also took the liberty to order the special plate of the house, which consisted of: friton de canard, 1/2 pied de porc tiède en vinaigrette, ris d'agneau, tomate, salade, asperge et médaillon de foie gras, confit de canard. It was like a heart attack on a plate, but it seemed like everyone in the restaurant was having the same thing. The plate was enormous, but I almost finished it, helped along by a bottle of Jurançon Sec and a bottle of off-dry Jurançon. I wanted to take a nap afterwards, but the next appointment was waiting.


Jurançon Sec "Sève d'Automne", Domaine Cauhapé 2009 375ml $17.00 (order)


Jurançon "Symphonie de Novembre", Domaine Cauhapé 2009 375ml $22.00 (order)

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