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July 26, 2017

Postcard from France: Cote d'Azur

NICE, France — The French Riviera is a mixed bag for the wine enthusiast willing to travel thousands of miles to a foreign land in search of exotic wine and food experiences.

Here, in the heart of the Cote d'Azur, the most exotic wine experience at the beginning of my personal Tour de France came at a rustic French cafe, La Femme du Boulanger, located mere steps from the Promenade des Anglais.

For an aperitif before dinner on a warm summer evening, I ordered two glasses of Viognier. When they arrived, I noticed something at the bottom of each glass. When I pointed to the submerged objects, the woman in charge -- the owner, I presumed -- smiled and we think she said, "Raisins."

She offered an explanation in French, which I didn't quite understand, and then retreated inside the restaurant. I figured it must be some sort of local custom and enjoyed the Viognier anyway. Days later, at Bastide Saint-Antoine, the culinary jewel of the Cote d'Azur in Grasse, I told the story to the sommelier, who wrinkled his nose in disgust.

"That is no local custom," he assured me.

Probably not, considering I planted myself in Nice for seven days and only got the raisin treatment once. But I did see a number of people at the beach plopping ice cubes into their glasses of rosé, and every red wine I ordered throughout the week arrived chilled.

My greatest surprise, which was somewhat of a disappointment, too, was the absence of local wines on the wine lists of the restaurants in and around Nice. At the wine bar at the Welcome Hotel in Villefranche-sur-Mer, I came across one local wine, a 2016 Domaine de Toasc rose from the Bellet AOP, an appellation situated on cliffs just west of Nice. It was very nice, if you will forgive the pun.

Otherwise, most of the French wines I encountered were from the Cotes de Provence, Languedoc, the Cotes du Rhone and Burgundy. I say French wine because Nice, Cannes, Monte Carlo, Villefranche and environs offer nearly as much of an Italian wine experience as French. That's understandable if you remember that Nice was once part of Italy and the Italian border is but an hour or so away from the center of Nice.

I was reminded of this fact again and again, even as I had lunch at Bastide Saint-Antoine, one of the most famous restaurants in France. The first course? Risotto de mer. But of course. The Cote d'Azur is full of surprises.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 4:08 AM

July 5, 2017

The Big Chill

There used to be a saying among wine aficionados that "a wine's first obligation is to be red." Indeed, there is a significant body of wine enthusiasts that clings to that mantra and only drinks red wine — as an aperitif before dinner; with dinner, even if fish or shellfish are being served; or after dinner, as a nightcap.

To each his own. But my mantra is that a wine's first obligation is to be delicious. The thought of sipping a heavy tannic red wine served at room temperature on a sultry 90-degree summer day is far from appealing. Bring me something cool and refreshing.

For those whose thirst can only be quenched by a red wine, there is a solution. Several categories of red wine are frequently served with a slight chill, particularly in Mediterranean climates.

The most common red wine often served chilled is Beaujolais. It's light in tannins and easy to drink when young, and it has such a burst of bright fruit that it can even can be lip-smacking delicious served cold. The French sometimes even serve it chilled in the dead of winter.

Italy has its own Beaujolais-style wine in dolcetto, which is made in the northern Italian district of Piemonte. Dolcetto is generally lighter than Beaujolais — at least cru Beaujolais — but it is fruit-forward and delicious and loses nothing when given 10 to 15 minutes on ice before serving.

Spain also has a serious red wine that benefits from chilling in warm weather: Rioja Crianza. The Crianza Riojas are lower in the Rioja hierarchy, well behind Reserva and Gran Reserva. They are younger and usually fruitier with lower levels of tannins. Tapas bars throughout the Rioja region often serve Crianza by the glass with a slight chill.

So, if you're a die-hard red wine lover and the summer heat's getting to you, here's a tip: Chill.
Posted by Robert Whitley at 8:57 AM