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The Melanosporum (black truffle) is the most sought after and commands the highest price, $1700 per pound.  (Photo: Flickr user, by-sgullies)
The Melanosporum (black truffle) is the most sought after and commands the highest price, $1700 per pound. (Photo: Flickr user, by-sgullies)

A weekend in Provence

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Last weekend I had the rare opportunity to fly to southern France, specifically the area surrounding Châteauneuf du Pape. The occasion was the annual Truffle (Le Truffe) festival held each year in Richerenches, a tiny village in the hills north of Avignon and Chateauneuf du Pape. Each year between November and March, the celebrated “Black Diamond” of the truffle world, called the black Périgord is showcased throughout the region with numerous restaurants creating menus around this King of the Fungi. One of the main attractions is the annual Truffle Market, which runs every Saturday from November to March. The market, a one-of-a-kind in the region is said to be even the most important in all of Europe.

The weekend was organized by the Caves de Rasteau, one of the oldest wine cellars of the Côtes-du-Rhône. Created in 1925 as a cooperative of growers around the village of Rasteau (Pop. 626), it was only in 1966 that Rasteau was granted AOC status. In 2002 the Caves applied for AOC Cru status and were granted this in June of last year. It can now count itself as a member of an inner circle of Southern Rhône AOCs, which include Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Tavel, Lirac, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise.

I arrived in the port city of Marseille after a long flight and headed up the Rhône Valley to Châteauneuf to the hotel Château des Fines Roches. About thirty people were invited by the winery to participate in the weekend, a mixture of journalists’, wine wholesalers and retailers, mainly from France but also Belgium and Germany. My colleague Dave and I were the only two North Americans invited.

Dinner for Friday evening was scheduled at the La Beaugravière restaurant in the small village of Mondragon where proprietors Guy and Tina Jullien specialize in dishes incorporating Truffles. Four out of the five courses used the Black Truffle. My favourite? There were two, the Soup de Truffe et Cèpes, bouillon de poule (Chicken broth with Porcino and Truffle) and the Chausson de Truffe et Foie Gras (Truffle and Foie Gras baked in Puff Pastry) with an Armagnac reduction sauce.

The wines that accompanied the meal were equally spectacular - wines such as the 2010 (yes, 2010) Les Viguiers Blanc, a wine produced from Rhône varieties Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Bourboulenc. Not available in BC because they produce so little (the majority of wines produced are red), the Les Viguiers costs about $6.50 CDN before the government gets their hands on it - then the price more than doubles due to the 123% tax on import wine. The 2004 Château Mont-Redon white Châteauneuf du Pape accompanied the soup and the wine was still vibrant and fresh after 6 years. It was out-of-stock at the winery and in BC it is delisted ($45 CDN) but the current vintage (2009) at the winery is priced at around $27.40 CDN.

Saturday found us at the Truffle market on the main street in Richerenches, a village of 500 people in the hills northeast of Chateauneuf. There were numerous stalls set up selling the treasured fungi and after spending a little time wandering through, I was able to get a idea of the prices and which ones to buy. There are two types of winter black truffles that are available - Brumale and Melanosporum. The Melanosporum is the one that is most sought after and it is the one that commands the highest price, $1700 per pound. Brumale is not as intense so it is priced lower, $800 per pound.

At the end of the market is a side street where all the secretive deals are made between buyers and sellers. Cash is the name of the game here with amounts of $10,000+ changing hands. All this is dependent on the quality of the truffles. Because they grow under ground, they are not always uniformly shaped. The buyers will sell their purchases to restaurants throughout France and want the best quality.

After the market, it was over to the winery in Rasteau for lunch and a tasting of wines from the 2010 vintage. The winery is modern in every sense of the word, on par with BC wineries such as Mission Hill or CedarCreek. Their signature wine, the Cru class Cotes du Rhône-Village has a production of about two million bottles. Not exactly a small winery.

The white wines from 2010 were fantastic, fresh and vibrant with lots of fruit but the reds were a little harder to evaluate. They are so young right now that the acid dominates the fruit, which has not yet started to develop.

Lunch was an adventure. The starter was a scrumptious omelette with Truffles and a green salad but it was the next course that caused me to pause. Boudin is typically a sausage made with pork but with pig’s blood added. What we had was a dark sausage patty infused with the pork, blood, onion and season with pepper and spices. Surprisingly, it was absolutely delicious.

Dinner on Saturday night was at the Pre du Moulin restaurant in the tiny village of Sérignan du Comtat, 8 km east of Orange. Owners Pascal and Caroline Moulin are two of the hardest working couples I ever seen running a restaurant. We started with L’oeuf et Topinambour, Truffe et Moelle Persillée (soft poached egg with Jerusalem Artichoke, Truffle and Marrow). The 2010 Les Veguiers was the perfect match for this delicate dish.

Second course was Quenelle de Volaille, sauce suprême truffée, a Chicken dumpling with truffle cream sauce. This was a stunning match to the wine, a 2009 Château Mont-Redon Châteauneuf du Pape white. The wine is priced at $20€ at the winery.

Next was the Cancoillotte et Saucisse de Montbeliard aux Truffes (Montebeliard Sausage with Canoillotte cheese and Truffles). Delicious rich and an artery clogger because of the rich Canoillotte cheese, the 2005 Les Haut du Village Rasteau Cotes du Rhone Villages had the fruit, acidity and tannin to open up those stuck arteries.

Sunday morning found us back in Richerenches for the 10:30 mass at the 12thC Commanderie des Templiers church, Église St. Denis for the highlight of the Truffle season, the annual Messe de la Truffe, the Truffle Mass. The mass is devoted to Saint Antoine, the patron saint of truffle growers and is a moving ceremony which pays homage to the "Black Diamond", as the truffle is known. When we arrive at 10:15, the church was already filled.

The Mass is said in the French Provençal dialect and at the time of the Offertory, the faithful give truffles as an offering. At the end of the Mass, the members of the Confraternity of the Black Diamond and Gastronomy, parade out of the church in full ceremonial costume followed by the 500+ people from the mass and those waiting outside. The procession ended in the square in front of the Town Hall, where the truffles are auctioned off and the proceeds donated back to the church. The Confraternity offers an aperitif which is shared by all those in attendance, then sponsors a grand meal based on truffles.

We did not stay for everything as we were expected back at Pascal and Caroline Moulin’s restaurant for lunch. With another glass of the delicious Les Viguiers in hand, we were able to socialize or for those interested, an olive oil tasting was setup. A great opportunity to sample the many different oils that are produced, each one was as unique as wine.

Lunch started with a Salad de haricots verts, foie gras chaud de canard et pignons de pins aux truffes, a mouthful meaning a green bean salad, cold duck foie gras with pine nuts and truffles. The wine was the very elegant Domaine Pisan Rasteau Côtes du Rhone villages. Domaine Pisan is a vineyard owned by Cave de Rasteau where the terroir has an individual personality and the average age of the vines is 35 years old. The wine is a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah.

Next course was Perdreau à embeurré de chou or young Partrige with buttered cabbage. We had two wines with this dish, a 2007 Prestige Rasteau Cotes du Rhone Village, a rich, fruity, earthy wine with lots of garrigue complexity and the 2007 Chateau Mont-Redon Chateauneuf du Pape. There is not any Mont-Redon listed in BC and the current vintage of the Prestige is 2006.

All-in-all it was an amazing weekend, one that I will not soon forget. It was tough on the body, what with the jet-lag and all the rich food but oh, so many great memories.

In Vino Veritas

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