All in disgracefully good taste
Sue Style in THE FINANCIAL TIMES
The concept of the masterclass, originally confined to the musical register, has always lent itself to liberal interpretation. Nowadays you can find masterclasses in practically anything - golf, ballet, sustainability, even particle physics.
For Rory and Minette Constant, a British couple who made the move from the UK to south-west France almost 20 years ago, the idea of offering wine masterclasses seemed a logical option.
Minette's references were impeccable. After completing a winemaking course at the local Lycée Viticole (winemaking school), working in a vineyard and setting up as a wine broker, in 1997 she became a Master of Wine, one of about 250 people worldwide to have passed this ferociously demanding, British-based wine qualification. Together the Constants found the ideal location for their new venture, an ochre-washed, 17th-century chateau set in the gentle Béarnais countryside, with views from the terrace of the snow-capped Pyrénées. They were dealt a trump card when Ryanair began operating a daily flight from London to Pau, 20 minutes from the chateau.
So was born Tastevin du Monde, which offers tailor-made, top-end short breaks for groups with a focus on wine appreciation. Granted observer status recently, I joined one.
Typically, a group will have varying levels of wine expertise and interest. Ours (featuring, among others, an artist, a soldier-turned-security-chief, an IT expert, a resting chef and a wine grower) was no exception. The first session was thus to be pitched at beginner/intermediate level, with a more advanced approach for the second.
We each received a clipboard and a printed list of the wines. In front of us, a flight of glasses was gracefully arranged, V-shaped, like geese on the wing. There was a tactful reminder that there would be eight wines and two champagnes to compare (before we even got anywhere near dinner). We could, of course, drink the wine if we wished, or we could use the elegant black spittoons provided.
We started with pairs of wines from the same grape variety, so we could get a handle on what each cépage (vine variety) had to offer and try to identify and memorise common traits. We got our noses around a pair of Chenin Blancs first, one from South Africa, one - a Savennières - from the Loire. Next came two Sauvignon Blancs, one from the Loire again, another from New Zealand. With glasses tilted against the white damask tablecloth, we began to pick up nuances of colour ranging from pale straw to greenish yellow to deep honeyed gold. Most striking of all, with both Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc, were the differences between the Old World version and the New World one - different traditions, climate, soil, explained Minette, even different clones of what is ostensibly the same grape.
By the time we progressed to the pairs of reds (Pinot Noir, Syrah) we were beginning to warm to our subject, exchanging ideas on what the aroma suggested ("strawberries", "tea leaves", "rotting vegetation") and how they tasted ("classic Pinot", "high acidity", "quite tannic").
After a pair of champagnes taken on the terrace (too good to spit out), we set off for supper at the ferme-auberge in the neighbouring village. The patronne appeared, drying her hands on her apron. She proposed home-made foie gras with salad, followed by grilled duck breast and roast duckling, all from the farm, including her famous pommes de terre. It was all disgracefully good.
Next day, the advanced tasting focused on sweet wines and posed the burning question: is it possible to make luscious white wines without botrytis, the so-called "noble rot" that gives fabulous complexity and long life to some of the world's finest naturally sweet wines? We snuffled, sucked and spat, silently making notes on a brace of Sauternes, an alluring Bonnezeaux from the Loire, three delectable offerings from the south-west, an extraordinary vin de paille from the Jura and a Hungarian Tokay. Most were botrytis-affected, all were luscious. The wild card came from Château de Cabidos with a late harvested (but nobly un-rotted), barrique-aged wine made from Petit Manseng, the grape responsible for the superb sweet wines of Jurançon.
We learnt our final lesson well: it's perfectly possible to make a thrilling sweet white wine without the help of the magnificent mould.
Wined and dined in south-west France
Edward Bishop in SUNDAY TELEGRAPH Travel
"We came to meet Minette Constant, a Scottish Master of Wine who settled here with her family in 1987 in the magnificent Château de Bouillon. She offers small groups of weekend visitors a taste of what France is all about: fine wine, gourmet eating and sensual pleasure at the thermal spa of Eugénie-les-Bains.
Minette is a charming teacher. … In no time Minette ("call me Mini, all the locals do") was steering us on a journey from Sauvignon Blanc to Chardonnay, via Riesling and Semillon, indulging our increasingly eccentric descriptions ("kerosene", "library books"), and all the time feeding us with a steady stream of knowledge: the function of the palette, the meanings of different flavours …"
Join the chateauxing classes
Philip Faiers in FRANCE MAGAZINE
"Mini and her family live in the ancient Château de Bouillon, about half an hour north-west of Pau and her wine tasting courses are relaxed affairs aimed at beginners or intermediates. As a lifelong enthusiast of good wines, I was sampling one of her intermediate courses and was learning to appreciate luscious whites. Beginners explore different grape varieties from around the world and are advised on which wines work best with different foods. One of the first things we got to grips with was spitting the wine rather than swallowing it. Although it seems quite unnatural, it is of course necessary otherwise one might be comatose before the end of the day.
Mini talked us through the differences between certain grape varieties, helped us differentiate the subtleties of taste and bouquet, highlighted the distinctness of northern and southern hemisphere wine styles and explained how the wines were influenced by the type of barrel they were aged in. Mini's dining room was an elegant classroom that prepared us well for the field trips to follow.
Over the next couple of days we visited various wine-growers. Perhaps the most memorable was the Domaine de Cabidos, owned by the Comtesse Isabelle de Nazelle. This delightful property with recently planted vines is beginning to produce some sensational wines."
Nicki Symington in FOOD AND TRAVEL
"One more recent addition to the British population is Master of Wine Minette Constant who has made her home in a 17th century château to the north of Pau. A French-wine specialist, Minette is one of only 250 MWs worldwide (fewer than 50 of whom are women). She runs tutored tasting classes for professionals and keen amateurs, raising awareness of local winemakers.
One such is close neighbour Isabelle de Nazelle who only started making wine to fill the days when she was widowed. Having planted her first vines in 1995, she cultivates six-and-a-half hectares of principally petit manseng from which she makes a nectarous vin de pays under the label Comte Philippe de Nazelle, after her late husband. This is like Christmas in a bottle, golden and honeyed and bursting with sophisticated spicy, apricoty flavours….
Just a stone's throw from the Comtesse de Nazelle's winery, across some of the narrow, parallel, up-and-down valleys, is the hamlet of Morlanne, where is to be found the ferme-auberge of Stéphane and Cécile Grandguillotte-Lauzet. The tiny restaurant set up in their dining room must enjoy one of the shortest routes from farm to plate: Stéphane raises the meat and Cécile cooks it.
Here the menu is short and to the point: for starters, garbure (a thick local soup with chips of confit duck or ham, beans and local vegetables) or salade de gesiers (gizzards). Ducks feature large in their various forms and every presentation is delicious, particularly the magret that are cooked over a wood fire and served up pink, charred and tender as the night."