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Riviera Wines(!)

April 1997

The Riviera isnít one of the noted wine regions of France, but a tourist guidebook in the hotel noted that there was an officially classified wine region known as Bellet not far north of Nice and listed the phone numbers of several wineries. Although weíve visited the more renowned winemaking areas during our travels, this sounded intriguing. I rehearsed how I could say, in French, that we were officers of our local chapter of the American Wine Society ("chapitre," at least according to my pocket dictionary, didnít include that meaning, but "branch" does), had already toured many wine regions in the U.S. and Europe, and would like to visit them.

Of course, after my initial introduction, I asked if they spoke English. "Pas du tout!" was the answer at the first site. So I went through my speech, at the end of which the woman told me I had to call another number. And, since French phone numbers are separated into groups of two (e.g, 34.17.22.97), itís not "trois, quatre" but "trente-quatre." Okay, thatís not so bad, but "quatre-vingt-dix-sept" (97) isnít something that comes naturally to mind. Eventually I deciphered the second phone number and after calling it and repeating the entire process (including "no English spoken"), was told that they didnít give tours to fewer than fifteen people!

Then Betty Lou noticed that the illustration in the guidebook included several wine labels, many of which included phone numbers. We chose one, the Domaine Augier, that we had seen in a wine shop at the Nice market the day before, and called it. This woman was very receptive, although she apologized that they had a very small property. (And yes, this was still French only.) We made an appointment for eleven oíclock the next morning, Saturday. Since we had made a reservation at a two-star restaurant in the countryside north of there for one oíclock, this seemed to give us adequate time.

Until we wound our way through an increasingly elevated series of switchbacks into a small town on the way and found that since Saturday morning was their market day, the road through town was closed! Taking the only other road out of town, we stopped to check the map. It seemed to show that something the size of a goat-path looped around the town, but did it really, and could we find it? I asked at a nearby house, but the only occupant was a repairman who wasnít from the area.

Driving back towards the town we saw a small road to the left which could be the one we were looking for, and we turned down it. It curled around, between small houses, gradually narrowing. At least it was paved – oh, oh, now it became gravel. At any minute I expected it to end at some farmerís front door and we would have to back completely out the way we came in. Then we saw the town above us and the road widened again. So we arrived only a little late.

The winemaker was charming, pointing out their small vineyard on an adjacent hill, showing us newspaper clippings of the awards they had won and the chefís dinners at which her wine had been featured. We bought a couple of bottles of their Rosé and were about to depart when she asked us if we would like to visit another vineyard. It was now noon and we werenít sure how long it would take to get to the restaurant, but we said yes – we assumed the road through town would be open by then. She went away to make a call and on her return told us to make a left a mile down the road.

This drive was uneventful and we soon approached the impressive "Château de Bellet." Hmm, that sounded familiar. No wonder – it was the first one we had called the day before! I started to open the door but was confronted by two very large, ferociously barking dogs. I cowered back inside and considered my next move. Then a woman emerged from the chateau, the dogs became pussycats, and I nervously began to explain who we were.

Madame de Charnacé was fluent in English and immediately made us welcome. The elegant château has been home to the Barons of Bellet for four centuries; the present proprietor, Chislain de Charnacé, is president of the Bellet wine syndicate. We benefited by having followed a group of Swiss journalists whose scheduled tasting had left a plentiful assortment of open bottles for us to taste.

Although the two wineries were near each other, they had very different philosophies of producing Rosé. Four grapes can legally be included in a Bellet Rosé; two that for all practical purposes only exist in that region: Folle Noire and Braquet, and two that also occur elsewhere in southern France: Grenache and Cinsault. Domaine Augier, although a small property, uses all four in their blend, while the much larger Château Bellet includes only the classic Grenache and Cinsault. My taste buds didnít find one significantly different than the other; they were both tasty enough that we brought several bottles back.

© Copyright 2000 Jack Ludwick - All Rights Reserved

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