Le Rosbif Writes: Is a Rhône Valley wine, which has been named the finest served in the skies. Anthony Peregrine braves a broken foot to sample it.
The concrete steps down to the Rhône Valley wine cellar were steep, but manageable. Tannic aromas of wine maturing in barrels monopolised the air. “It’s OK now,” said the winemaker. “The floor’s non-slip down here.” So I hopped along, some way behind the rest of the group. Then one of my crutches went slip-about on the non-slip floor, I swung left, right and centre, and was spread-eagled against a barrel, as if in readiness for knives chucked by a circus performer.
No one else noticed. They were all several vat rows ahead. A good job, too: top-end winemakers become very sniffy when you crash into their barrels. No harm done, then, except to my self-esteem, balance, shoulder, back and elbow – all sacrificed to save further damage to my foot, which I’d broken a few days earlier.
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I had done so diving into a rocky river to save drowning infants, cycling down a Pyrenean cliff pursued by bears, or (the most convincing explanation) tripping over a step on our garden terrace. I was now plastered from toe to knee, and dependent on crutches. This was, and remains, annoying to an unexpected degree. It did, though, afford an opportunity to test whether having broken bones affected appreciation of fine wines, a little-explored field of study. Initial results suggested: No, not at all. But they were based on two bottles of Provençal rosé shared with neighbours at the aperitif hour. They couldn’t be termed conclusive, not in a scientific sense.
So I went to Condrieu, the most northerly Côtes du Rhône white wine district, and the wine domain of Rene Niero. Mr Niero, a handsome and charming fellow, is notable as the producer of an award-winning white vintage. The award in question is contested by the world’s airlines. It goes to the finest wines served on the international airways.
You maybe didn’t know that, as well as comfort, in-flight entertainment, prices, VIP lounges, safety records, leg room, friendliness and punctuality, airlines also compete over wine. Not all wines. They don’t seem so bothered about little plastic bottles served in economy class.
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The real rivalry happens in business and first. It is here that matters get tense. Mr Niero supplies his Condrieu to British Airways’ Club World. The airline entered the wine for the competition’s “white wine in business-class” category. It won. BA did so well in the other categories that, against 35 airline competitors, it also bagged the overall gold medal for the very best “Cellar in the Sky”. (Qantas came second.) This is a feather in the cap of our national airline. If you’re flying with anyone else, you’re likely not drinking as well as you might be.
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The award was, then, a good reason to visit chez Niero, to conduct field research into the broken bone/fine wine question. I had the fractured metatarsal. They had indisputably fine wine. It was time we met. (The other good reason was that BA had invited me. It would have been unpatriotic to refuse.)
Now, if you have driven or sailed north up the Rhône Valley, you will know that, as it approaches Vienne, the right banks go perpendicular. There is the river, then a little space for a road and a succession of Rhône-side villages, then the landscape rises sharp. Consequently, most of the vineyards of Condrieu, as also those of the Côte Rôtie next door, are configured into terraces. These follow the contours this way and that, constituting great green steps on the hillside.
They look both beautiful and heroic, as if, over generations and against powerful odds, farmers had been determined to order nature into productive shape. Which they had. All work is manual. No machine, bar a ski-lift, could handle the verticality. The best workers are doubtless those with the agility of goats, and abseiling skills. Though this was outstandingly interesting country – there was a suggestion of the Italian Lakes in the proximity of water, hills and spring sunlight – it was unsuitable terrain for crutches.
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So we went back down to Niero HQ in Condrieu village. There, the non-slip slippery cellar was also, as noted, catastrophic to the crutch-borne. So it was a relief to sit in the tasting room. The 2012 Condrieu, star of British Airways, proved to be everything you might want from a Rhône white wine. From a quality white wine, full stop, really. Drinking it under the hill where the grapes were grown, in the presence of the grower, helped. Such a back-story doesn’t save a bad wine but always enhances a good one.
Also enhancing the experience was the presence of Keith Isaac, a Master of Wine who works with BA. Generally, wine buffs are a pain in the butt, with their bow-ties, smiles pained by inferior vintages, and contention that oaked-v-unoaked is the era’s defining controversy. Keith was different. He had a mixture of useful knowledge lightly worn, wit and companionability that meant he could say things such as “There’s more apricot on the nose than peach” without anyone wanting to slap him. This is a trick almost impossible to pull off successfully.
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At any event, the broken foot hadn’t impaired enjoyment of the Condrieu. I marked this down on a spreadsheet and we repaired to the hotel. (Beau Rivage in Condrieu: first-rate spot, luxurious, fab staff, exceptional food, gardens right to the river: don’t miss it.) There we tackled much more, including a couple of Côte Rôtie reds which, though even more expensive than the Condrieu, struck me as insipid. “Perhaps it’s the effect of the foot?” I thought aloud. “Or perhaps,” said my wife, along as helpmeet and driver, “of the aperitif whiskies?” This opened a new and challenging avenue of research. I’ll let you know how it develops.
Next day, we transferred operations 90 minutes south to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where the Font-de-Michelle domain is another BA supplier. (There are very much worse reasons for visiting a winery.) The Châteauneuf vineyards go up and down, and are known for two things. First, they are very stony, which makes walking difficult for dainty feet and impossible for the be-crutched. Second, they produce reds of power and standing. Font-de-Michelle’s owner, young Monsieur Gonnet, and his Australian wife had set up a vertical tasting of two of his wines, going back to 2009. Real oenophiles claim to love this kind of thing, analysing nano-differences between years as if they were seismic. (“This one is less big on the shoulders, but has much more length.” M Gonnet was full steam ahead.)
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These were, though, terrific wines, ample and rewarding of taste without being overwhelming. But, after 10, I was done for. I needed fresh air and beer, in that order. That said, the experiment had been enlightening. Demonstrably, broken bones didn’t affect appreciation of good wines (especially not if we allowed for the whisky variable). They did, though, make it a damned sight more difficult to get at. And they hampered stamina. Bear this in mind before you break anything.
Telegraph recommended reader offer: A five-day escorted tour of the key wine regions of Bordeaux with Victoria Moore, the Telegraph’s wine expert, costs from £2,295 per person. Includes a four-night hotel stay in Bordeaux, wine tastings, vineyard tours, three lunches and a dinner.
By Anthony Peregrine from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/destinations/europe/france/11629554/The-worlds-best-in-flight-wine.html