Sunday, May 02, 2010

Stage 4: Route du Vin

Ste. Genevieve: home of beautifully restored French colonial homes, narrow streets, an ethos reminiscent of my neighborhood in New Orleans and a surrounding landscape of dry mesic sandstone woodlands which host populations of elegant pink wild azaleas, now in full bloom. The search for outstanding Nortons continues this spring, and my trusty friends from Louisiana, Judy and Spencer (those with the large cellar of European wines and discriminating palates) continue the exploratory missions by my side.

One of Missouri's designated wine routes courses through the Ste. Genevieve area. Named the Route du Vin, it represents one of the older wine regions in the state (the oldest wine-producing area in Missouri is the St. Charles region). Well marked off I-55, the wineries here are centrally located, allowing visitors to the region to experience several wineries in one day. Having spent the previous night in my remarkably dry tent and the morning hours drinking coffee and ambling through exquisite (managed with fire) sandstone woodlands, we allocated a mere 6 hours to only three wineries along the Route du Vin: Chaumette, Charleville, and Crown Valley.

Historically, shortleaf pine-black oak-white oak woodlands with a little bluestem/lowbush blueberry understory dominated the landscape here. This deeply dissected and rocky country possesses super sandy soils which drain quickly. These highly acidic soils are shallow with cobble, stones and boulders commonly found on the surface. Much like the gravelly, cherty soils of the Ozark Highlands, sandstone woodland soils are not very fertile from an agricultural perspective, but the native grapes (especially Vitis aestivalis, one component of the Norton grape) and a suite of endemic wildflowers thrive here. And so, thousands of exquisitely trellised grape vines cover the gently rolling hills around Ste. Genevieve.

Heading down Hwy. WW, the vast acreage of Crown Valley Winery's grapevines stretch for only a short distance before the sprawling complex of parking lots and metal roofed buildings appear. We passed up Crown Valley precisely because of the commercial nature of the enterprise, though returned at the end of the day to compare their wines. Chaumette Winery is next in line on the Route du Vin, a much smaller operation that makes an effort to portray the region's French influence.

Historically, throughout Burgundy vintners planted rose bushes at the end of each row of grapevines to serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for plant health; if the roses showed signs of disease, the grapes were next. Of course, by the time the roses were affected, the grapevines were already at risk. Nevertheless, at Chaumette Winery and Vineyards, the Burgundian tradition continues, and red rose bushes are planted at the end of each row.

Inside the Grapevine Grill at Chaumette, tables are bedecked in rich blue and yellow Provencal tablecloths with rich wooden chairs and cabinets reminiscent of a French chateau. Behind the tasting bar, a sumptuous mural depicts the history of the Chaumette family of winemakers from their beginning in France to Virginia. There's an exuberance at Chaumette, an enthusiastic love of hearty wine and good food that the baristas pass on to everyone at the tasting bar. The staff of two gentlemen behind the bar spoke professionally about wine, without a beat telling us about the oak barrels and the aging process for each wine we tasted.

The Grapevine Grill menu is remarkably diverse and chocked full of healthful items, including a fantastic roasted vegetable panini with tofu, beets, portobella mushrooms and chard. Even if you don't drink wine for some reason, the restaurant is worth the trip. But Chaumette's dry wines are solid, big, and bold, not necessarily complex, but full of character. While the 07 Norton Reserve will surely age well (as most Nortons do) it's ready to drink now. I never try the sweet wines, but appreciated their names: Huguenot Red and Huguenot White.

Make a right out of Chaumette's drive and continue down Hwy. WW until you see a gravel road with a big Charleville Winery sign. The winding road continues for a while past a house, grapevines, and roadsides chocked with native vegetation: Silene virginica, columbines, Tradescantia virginiana, a nod to the true character of the unburned/ummanaged woodlands. What Charleville Winery and Microbrewery lacks in French Colonial decor inside their charming cabin in the woods is made up with the prestigious lineage of the Charleville family. Francois Chauvin dit Charleville b 1754 "assisted George Rogers Clark, brother of William Clark, in the capture of Vincennes during the Revolutionary War. For his service in the campaign, Francois was granted 200 acres of land near Ste. Genevieve." Today, his descendents operate a little winery and brewpub that offers a suite of dry and sweet wines and--according to my beer drinking friends--serves up mighty fine pale ales.

The 07 Chambourcin has the texture of an 05 St. James Norton, dry, thick, and without the berry sweetness of most other Chambourcin. The 07 Norton, on the other hand, was a little thin, with the feel of a California pinot noir (very unlike the brassy green oak Norton found just up the road at Chaumette). The commanding view from outside shows only one sign of human habitation, an old field and house on the opposite ridge. Mature oak woodlands surround Charleville, a truly serene setting for the bluegrass musicians from St. Louis playing on the porch yesterday. Charleville offers picnic baskets, cheese and sausages, and cozy outdoor seating. On the way out of town, I stopped into a gas station for water and found a full rack of 05 Charleville Norton, just aging and aging, collecting dust under the fluourescent lights next to beef jerky and Fig Newtons. Nortons aged for five years seem to be perfect, so I picked up a few of the 05s for the first float trip of the season.

Judy and Spencer left the Route du Vin with a trunk full of wine: 14 bottles from Chaumette, and armfuls of Chambourcin from Charleville. Having lived in Europe for several years and frequenting world class wineries like Phillipine Rothschild's and Chateau Haut-Brion, Judy's thumbs up at the end of the day was a good sign. The massive Crown Valley complex located on the way back from Charleville was not in the cards for Judy and Spencer, but it was for us.

In the Osage Beach Hy-Vee, one long aisle is dedicated to Missouri wines. I recall the day I went there to find a bin at the end of the aisle full of affordable wines of various grapes made by Crown Valley--none of the grapes I recognized. In fact, their wines were so affordable that I was dubious, thinking they were producing fortified jug wines a la 1950s Krug and other early Napa wineries (a movement in American viticulture that coined the term "wino" as a skid row appellation). Since then, I've tried the Crown Valley Norton, which is nice.

Crown Valley's big billboards and well-lit hotel lodging speak to a different crowd than mine. I associate Crown Valley as the Ste. Genevieve version of Les Bourgeios--plenty of good grapes, world class winemakers, but making and selling sweet junk to buses full of Mizzou kids wanting to "party." Not my crowd at all, but we pulled in anyway, so I could see what it was about and to find out if I was wrong.

A vast diversion from Chaumette's and Charleville's little tasting bars, Crown Valley's tasting bar is in a room the size of a megaplex. The tasting costs 5$ for five wines, but, like at Augusta, your tasting buys you a lovely Reidel Norton wine glass (so now if I break one I won't whine about it). Big pours, a long wine list that includes Petit Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Norton, Chambourcin, and some of the lesser known Missouri-grown wines like Frontenac. The staff at the tasting bar are still pretty new for the season, but show great eagerness towards learning about wine (always a good sign).

Sidled up next to us as I swirled my wine in the Norton glass was a couple in their 20s. They're new to Missouri wine, and Crown Valley may have been the first winery they visited that day. As I ran through my own glowing tasting notes of Crown Valley's dry reds, I thought of the niche this massive commercial operation was filling. Like St. James Winery and every other winery in the state, Crown Valley does make sweet junk for Mizzou kids and people who like sugary cocktails on a beach. I realize the Reidel glass seems to make almost every wine taste better, but Crown Valley's Petit Syrah, DeChaunac and Cabernet Sauvignon were really quite nice. Like the early days of Robert Mondavi Winery, maybe Crown Valley is introducing a non-wine drinking audience to wine; let them start with a sweet red and then ease them into a Chambourcin. But if visitors here spill over to the rest of Route du Vin, Chaumette will always have a reason to honor the Huguenots.


Travis said...

charleville is one of the best places on earth. super friendly people, plenty of good stuff to drink, dogs, woods, fire pit. really, what else could anyone ever need?

Allison Vaughn said...

As usual, you're totally right. Will be bringing the 05 Norton to the Gulf Coast with me for my tent.

Allison Vaughn said...

As usual, you're totally right. Will be bringing the 05 Norton to the Gulf Coast with me for my tent.