April 28 2011
With these extra days off, the UK is beginning to feel more like Italy, with folk increasingly reluctant to drag themselves into work. If you have to go in, then at least you can spend time at your desk planning your next extended weekend break. Mine tend to be wine-related, naturally, and the one I am most looking forward to is a return visit in early June to La Verrière in Provence for the estate’s Extreme Wine Experience. This doesn’t involve my student party trick of downing whole bottles of prosecco or, more latterly, keeping down anything fermented from Macedonia, but rather is billed as “the ultimate boot camp for wine enthusiasts”.
Most people’s requirement of a wine-tasting session and vineyard visit is to retain just enough anecdotal knowledge to impress dinner guests and pretend that you share your sommelier’s passion for riesling. Extreme Wine is different. And if your idea of a stay in a converted Provençal priory is all Peter Mayle – gentle pottering after cheeses and trinkets in sleepy villages, with pool and tennis sessions broken by prolific rosé consumption and artisan feasts – then stick to the “spouses” options at La Verrière, and leave the hardcore wine immersion to your partner.
Extreme Wine is the project and passion of estate owner Nicole Rolet, formerly a part of David Rockefeller’s think tank, and the very hands-on methodology of the course demonstrates the lessons learned. It’s a smell it, drink it, live it experience for the duration of your stay, and takes place as much in her Chêne Bleu vineyard and winery as in the classroom – better places by far to understand the curious blend of science and artistry that goes into wine’s creation, especially when hosted by award-winning husband-and-wife wine-making team Jean-Louis and Bénédicte Gallucci (the awards being for the wine, rather than the marriage – but they may have medals for that too).
This unique course has been designed by Clive Barlow, MW, who still finds time in his busy international wine-judging and consulting schedule to lead the classes alongside fellow educator Nick Dumergue, their combined wine knowledge and distinctively differing but complimentary teaching styles being considerably more impressive than their abilities on the dancefloor. They bring life to topics such as terroirs and vinification, and introduce novel games to encourage a little competition and improve confidence when describing wines.
The clever thing about Extreme Wine is that all levels of knowledge are welcomed. From the “I know what I like” junior-but-keen palate to the “I like what I know” aspirant buff, all will be encouraged to retain more than they arrived with. There are also visits to other top vineyards such as Château La Nerthe, in nearby Châteauneuf du Pape, while an array of local types will magically appear at dinner time to impart local viticultural knowledge and faux-reluctantly accept invitations to stay for each ensuing banquet.
Needless to say, meals are veritable troves of local delicacies and regional classics, thanks to chefs Jon Chiri and (the thankfully inimitable – you only need one of him in the Jacuzzi) Jean-Claude Altemeyer, while the wine selection is an incomparable curation of Cru Classé wines from Europe’s finest vineyards – think Dom Pérignon, Leflaive and Pichon-Lalande, Pieropan, Allegrini and Fontodi, plus some top picks from the New World (Ridge, Ata Rangi, Qupe). You’ll earn your dinner each night, though, for sure, for Extreme Wine, like the imposing Mont du Ventoux which dominates the landscape and to which any keen cyclist will attest, is not something to be tackled lightly.
It requires a commitment of time, effort and not a small amount of cash, in return for which you will be able to look back and know that you took part in the most intensive, thorough and rewarding wine experience you’re ever likely to have. You’ll also have met like-minded enthusiasts from around the world, consumed superb wines and have earned the right to bore anecdotally at dinner parties without censure. You can even take home a bona fide certificate of achievement – to hang on the wall or, God help you, to continue your wine journey professionally.
Talking of professionals, I breezed in last year for the final day, with its awards ceremony and memorable poolside after-party. But, arriving after the hard graft had been finished, I felt like the towel-boy in the support car or the helicopter-ensconced camera crew (appropriate, given La Verrière’s convenient helipad) coming in at the end of la Tour de France, the camaraderie of the weary veterans as closed to me as were the bottles of Ridge Montebello and Clos Vougeot Grand Cru they were enjoying over lunch. La Verrière is offering a hefty discount to FT readers so book now and I look forward to meeting you in June and recording some of your experiences. (That’s if you come close enough to the pool to get on my waterproof Flip camera.)