Here our wine scribe Jim Walker recounts his first wine tasting experience that had real consequences. It wasn’t exactly a pretty sight, but the outcome was both favourable and flavourful.
It seems a lifetime ago. But then again, it feels like only yesterday. In fact it actually happened in the late autumn of 2006. We had taken the necessary steps to become wine import agents by becoming licensed by the Alcohol and Gaming (that always seemed a curious juxtaposition to me) Commission of Ontario (AGCO) and had, improbably, become the Ontario agency of record for three foolhardy French wineries. Take a peek at my first Gentleman’s Portion Wine Post, A Long and Winey Road for all the details.
An official looking, very white envelope bearing the blue, white and red emblem of the Consulate General of France French Trade Commission in Toronto (catchy title that) appeared in our mail box shortly after we registered with the AGCO. Inside was an invitation to come to their offices and meet a representative of the Cave Cooperative de Lavilledieu du Temple to taste their wines. No doubt the AGCO had provided the commission with the names and addresses of neophyte agents who just might be looking for wineries to represent. That was us.
So on the specified date at the appointed hour we dutifully presented ourselves at the French consulate all decked out in our business finery. We had expected a grand and elegant edifice, perhaps fitted out with Louis XIV furniture and lots of gilt mirrors but instead found ourselves in a soulless office tower decorated with all the panache of a customs office. An officious receptionist acknowledged our presence and in the fullness of time ushered us into a cavernous meeting room fitted out with a large non-descript table, a few chairs and not much else. There we met a young lady who turned out to be Isabelle Mignot, commercial attaché for the wine cooperative. Isabelle had set up an impressive tasting station that included several glasses, several open bottles of wine, a jug of water, a few crackers and a crachoir (spittoon).
After introducing ourselves, Isabelle proceeded to tell us all about the region in France that was the source of her wines – Le Tarn-et-Garonne. The Tarn-et-Garonne department can be found just north of the bustling city of Toulouse in the south-west corner of France where the Garonne and Tarn rivers converge. It was part of Aquitania prima under the Romans, controlled by the Franks in the 6th century and became part of the autonomous Duchy of Aquitaine in the 7th century. In the mid-11th century the English controlled the southern part of the area and in 1360 all of it. France took it back in the 1440’s. Fierce religious conflicts ensured during the 16th century. Then in 1808 Napoleon created what is now Le Tarn-et-Garonne as a special favour to the burghers of Montauban, the present prefecture of the region.
The Tarn-et-Garonne department contains six wine appellations – AOP Fronton, AOP Coteaux du Quercy, AOP Brulhois, AOP Saint Sardos, IGP Lavilledieu and Coteaux et Terrasses de Montauban IGP Comté Tolosan. Intotal they contain some 4,600 acres of vines. Records show that wine was being produced there as far back as the time of Julius Caesar. Benedictine and Cluniac monks extended the vineyards during the 9th century as did the Knights Templar 300 years later. By the 13th century the planted area reached 6,400 acres which was greatly appreciated by those thirsty English who occupied the region during the Hundred Years War. The grape varieties grown there include traditional ones such as Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Gamay and also lesser known regional specimens like Cot, Négrette and Tannat.
Now then, back to Isabelle and her wines. At this juncture I must fess up. I had never been to a formal wine tasting before. Oh sure, I had slurped many a glass with the lads and hoisted a few at a number of wineries but had never participated in one that had real commercial consequences (we really wanted more wineries to rep) as well as an attentive witness. And, employ the use of a spittoon … are you kidding? What a thoroughly daft notion.
Isabelle began the proceedings by pouring Hélène and I a glass of a red wine called Cassyta. It was non-vintage (likely made from grapes harvested in different years) and made from 35 per cent Cabernet Franc, 35 per cent Syrah and 30 per cent Tannat. Just 12 per cent alcohol by volume, it was a bright crimson colour with a surprisingly lively aroma of mature red berries and new leather. It was well-balanced with a nice fruity (strawberry) taste and a decent tannic structure. It wouldn’t be confused with a Château Haut Brion, but it was definitely drinkable. Then came the moment I was dreading – confronting the spittoon. I had heard that expert tasters could coax a gentle stream from their mouths and direct it into a small cup placed on the floor by their feet, all the while spilling nary a drop. But this was my first try. I grasped the thing by one of its handles and let fly. Wine dribbled mercilessly down my chin and onto my tie! Fortuitously I had chosen to wear a multi-coloured, patterned cravat which was now quite damp. I then surreptitiously (or so I hoped, but it was unlikely) wiped off my chin with the back of my hand and put on my best ‘nothing happened here’ look.
Isabelle reached for the second wine, but before she could pour we reached for the jug of water, splashed a bit into our glasses, swirled it around and dumped it into the spittoon. It seemed the appropriate thing to do. You should have seen the look of utter bemusement on Isabelle’s face. As we later learned, real wine tasters don’t rinse their glasses between servings. Who knew?
The second wine we tried was a 2004 Coteaux du Quercy – Jacques de Brion red (all the wines we tried were reds). Blended from 20 per cent Cot, 20 per cent Gamay, 50 per cen Cabernet Franc and 10 per cent Tannat, it was deep purple with aromas of plums, pepper and a hint of leather. Just 12.5 per cent alcohol by volume, it was another well-rounded wine with a nice spicy, peppery, plum and red berry taste that pleasantly and persistently lingered. It had a tad more complexity than the Cassytaand was slightly more enjoyable.
After another perilous confrontation with the spittoon came a 2003 Chevalier du Temple du Christ. It sported the following terse pedigree: Appellation d’Origine Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure Lavilledieu! Just 12 per cent alcohol by volume, it was comprised of 25 per cent each of Syrah and Cabernet Franc, 20 per cent Négrette and 15 per cent each of Gamay and Tannat. Isabelle proudly noted that it had earned two stars in the 2006 Hachette Guide (the noted French wine guide). Bright red in colour, it possessed an aroma and taste of red fruits with soft tannins – definitely a step up from the first two wines.
After another losing battle with M. Crachoir, we were presented with our final wine, a 2002 Domaine de Magnac. Assembled from 30 per cent Syrah, 25 per cent Cabernet Franc and 15 per cent each of Négrette, Gamay and Tannat it also weighed in with an alcohol content of just 12 per cent. It was a rich ruby red with purple/blue hues and the aroma was of blackberries and that wonderful wine term: ‘animal!’ Scary, but all it means is that there was a leathery, earthy nuance in the bouquet. Again, it was well-balanced with a taste of blackberries and powerful yet soft tannins. It needed to be decanted well before drinking and would have been a perfect match for duck, game and cassoulet. This was definitely the highlight of the session.
Thus endeth our adventure at the Consulate General of France French Trade Commission in Toronto. We bade Isabelle a fond farewell (she was a totally delightful person) and told her how much we wanted to represent her wines in Ontario. Truth be known, we figured we had faint chance given our pathetic tasting performance. So you can imagine our complete surprise when, a week or so later, we received a letter from Isabelle informing us that the Cave Cooperative de Lavilledieu du Temple wished to appoint the venerable firm of Arthur Sellers & Company to be their exclusive representatives in Ontario! It is highly likely we were the only ones who showed up.
We met Isabelle again a couple of months later at the wine shows in Cannes and Montpellier. Her wines continued to impress for their purity and value. When we returned to Canada they became the second wines that we introduced to the wine club: Cassyta – $7.95; 2004 Coteaux du Quercy – Jacques de Brion – $9.25; 2003 Chevalier du Temple du Christ – $9.25 and; 2002 Domaine de Magnac – $10.50. At those prices we anticipated that they would fly of the proverbial shelf.
Not so! And here’s why. First, at the time the LCBO decreed that wine clubs may only sell by full cases – 12 bottles in this instance. Second, who had ever heard of the wines from the Tarn-et-Garonne? And third, do wine grapes called Cot, Négrette and Tannat cut it against Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz/Syrah? It would be a brave soul who would order 12 bottles of one of these babies without first tasting them, no matter how tempting the price. Overall, it was a paltry order and we decided that there was no point in carrying on – sadly. We let Isabelle know and thanked her once again for her ill-placed confidence in us. Perhaps the spittoon episode should have warned her?
We never did see the wines of the Cave Cooperative de Lavilledieu du Templeon the LCBO’s shelves. And, the co-op was forced to close its doors on January 9, 2008, evidently due to the incompetence of the management who preceded those for whom Isabelle toiled. And that, dear readers is the story of Isabelle Mignot and the Cave Cooperative de Lavilledieu du Temple.
Here’s wishing you an excruciatingly romantic Saint Valentine’s Day.
PS: Click here to find out about our current wine club offerings; a sensory treat awaits!
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