Monday, August 04, 2014

Lagrass: André's Cave

Trip to Aude: Day 3

While strolling around the beau village of Lagrasse (see previous post), we came across a signboard: Vin Bio. Another signboard said :

Domaine Henry Carbonnel

It was a garage-like chamber with creaking red doors. The walls were covered with ivy. Intoxicating smells came from within. It was cool and dark inside. Intriguing casks and barrels and vats lay about. A reedy, pleasant-faced man in fading denim pottered about inside. This, clearly, was a cave.

A cave, as you know if you have been following these posts, is not a place where lions dwell. At least, not in France. It is a place where winemakers give you a free sampling of their wine, and then look at you meaningfully, expecting you to buy a bottle. Of course, you can always smile winningly, say 'Merci !', and scuttle out without buying. The winemaker won't kill you. Not usually. Although you might get look that'll make you wish you were dead.

Now France is filled with caves, and my natural impulse is to dive into all of them. I can live with murderous looks. But not Blandine.

According to Blandine, only cheapskate tourists do that kind of thing. It is not comme il faut for Frenchmen to enter a cave and leave buying at least a small bottle. Not unless the wine really is terrible. So, if you leave without buying, you are essentially telling the winemaker their wine is terrible. Or that you are a cheapskate tourist.

So, keeping Blandine's scruples in mind, we had been avoiding caves of all description on our trip. We did not want to drive all over France with a cartload of wine bottles. But this one was different. For one, it said, in large inviting letters, 'Vin Bio'. Blandine is a sucker for anything marked Bio. And the gent inside seemed exceptionally benign. And there was something magical and mysterious about this cave. It looked a bit like Aladdin's grotto. We went in.

The reedy man in fading denim introduced himself as André Argellies. He was the owner of the vineyard Domaine Henry Carbonnel. He produced red and white wine, of course, carrying the appellation Corbières, the wine of the region of Languedoc-Roussillon. But his real specialty was Carthagène, a wine liquor specific to that region.

Carthagène, he explained, is produced using 80 % moût de raisin frais and 20 % eau-de-vie de vin. Moût de raisin frais is the liquid that rises to the top when grapes are crushed . Grape juice, if you insist. Eau-de-vie de vin -- or the water of life of wine -- is double-distilled fermented grape juice. What the rest of the world calls brandy. Not in France. Here, it is called Cognac or Armagnac if it is produced in those regions, and eau-de-vie de vin if produced anywhere else. So, essentially, carthagène is a mixture of grape juice and brandy.

André popped open a bottle for us. We sampled the stuff.
Ahhh! It was sweet and fruity and heavenly and full of enticing perfumes. And it kicked like a mule. This is what I had always imagined wine tasted like, as a kid. I often came across that word in novels, as a child in deepest Africa, but had never actually seen the stuff, let alone tasted it until well into my twenties.

Surprisingly, Blandine loved it too. Usually, anything I love, she detests. Like dark chocolate, strong beer and pretty French women (other than her, that is). But this one she loved too. She hastened to buy a bottle. I wanted to take a picture of André holding the bottle. It was for my blog, I explained. André made a wry face. He was sick of Chinese tourists surging in and photographing everything in sight. Blandine said I was Indian. André was intrigued. A friend of his had recently taken a trip to India. To visit a holy guru. I said we have lots of them. We have as many holy gurus as the French have wines. They grow well in the Indian climate. You can see them sprouting all over the Indian countryside, a bit like grape vines in the French.

André acquiesced, albeit reluctantly. He said I was the first Indian who had ever visited his cave. He even posed for me with a winning smile on his rugged face...

André also sells wine en vrac. En vrac means basically that you come with your own canister, and get it filled up from a wine tank at a wine cellar. The French buy their wine by the gallon. You can get it at ridiculously low rates. The dirty secret of the wine industry is that three-quarters of the price of a bottle is the bottle itself -- and the cork, and the label, and the storage cost and retailer's margin. We did not have a canister, but André helpfully dug out an empty beer bottle -- one of those artisanal beer bottles that have their own self-sealing porcelain caps. Wine in a beer bottle? The purist would have made a face, but what the heck, we weren't purists.

André filled it up for us with his red wine. Here is a pic of him doing it. He refused to take payment for it. He said I was the first Indian ever to visit his cave.

We glugged down that wine over the following evenings over sandwich suppers in seedy hotel rooms. It was excellent. Truly excellent. Not as mysterious and intoxicating as his carthagène, but all the same, a robust and full-bodied red wine.

So, people. If you are ever in this region of France, do pop down to André's cave. You'll get an an excellent wine at a reasonable price from a very nice man. And if you try that carthagène, you'll be kicked like a mule.

Oh, and if you want to take photos, just say you're Indian. Even if you are a Chinese tourist.

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