So what’s the deal with climate change? Hot topic, would you say? Wowza…. I’m on fire…. (Quick, get the extinguisher!) The Climwine conference hosted at our school is three days of 15-30 minutes presentations by the world’s experts on grape and wine sustainability in the context of climate change. My notes on the discussions range from “It’s complicated!” to “We’re screwed!” (or something) as we listen to climatologists and viticulturists explaining in detail what it means for grape growing regions as average temperatures are rising. It’s actually scary stuff – at the rate we’re going, the world will look dramatically different during our lifetimes. The solutions for wines proposed include moving back to gobelet vines (free-form, see the pic below from Châteauneuf), changing to new warm climate varietals, and starting irrigation programs (many countries in Europe do not currently allow it). Lots of food for thought – clearly water consumption is going to become even more important.

The opening speaker sets the tone for the climate change conference. My notes from said session. Fortunately the Sauternes tastings take the sting away - this is a new logo that represents all the different aromas that you can get from a Sauternes sweet wine. The two vines at the top are the same vine, two weeks apart - they're growing quickly! (....thank you global warming?) Our final class before the break on French accounting, and the lovely distraction of this church door.

The opening speaker sets the tone for the climate change conference. My notes from said session echo said tone much more precisely. Fortunately the Sauternes tastings take the sting away – the new logo represents all the different aromas that one can get from a Sauternes sweet wine. The two vines at the top are the same vine, two weeks apart – they’re growing quickly! (This is totally normal and not due to global warming.) Our final class before the break is on French accounting, and the lovely distraction of this church door.

Has it been six weeks since our last vacation?! (Goodness, more like 8, the tyrants!) Well, with one audit well and truly under our belts, it’s time to put wine school aside for a week and take advantage of my proximity to all these cool European locations. On the docket this week: I’m heading off to San Sebastiàn bright and early Saturday morning.

Mmmm hard to understand why we would ever leave this place!

From what I can tell, pintxos make up 100% of the local diet

San Sebastiàn is only three hours away, located on the north coast of Spain, squarely in Basque country, and home to many delicious savoury treats. I’m meeting up with a friend who’s been walking the camino, so our appetites are both well whetted. (The Txakoli helps the w(h)etting process – that’s the dry white wine from Basque country which gets poured from arm-length heights, Cocktail-style!) Since it’s mostly damp outside, it’s a perfect excuse to bar-hop. Pintxo bars, that is.

Pintxos are Basque versions of pinchos (meaning: to pierce) – basically they’re savoury treats on a piece of bread, pierced by a cocktail stick for one’s happy consumption. It’s like being at a cocktail party, but the entire downtown is the food table, so you just keep circulating to see what the next table has to offer…. For what it’s worth, Borda Berri gets my vote for best pintxos (probably the best octopus I’ve ever had…sorry Melide!) and for ambiance, my vote goes to Bar Goiz-Argi. Look, all I know is that there was a lot of singing, an Elvis impression or two, and some serious height on the txakoli pour. Let’s be honest, if you know me, you know they had me at the singing…

Ladies and gentlemen of the hat jury. Shadowy goals in the Museo. Scottish (or Basque...we never figured it out) bagpipers and (definitely) Basque musicians gather for a Sharks and Jets- style showdown (I hope; I never actually saw it. ) The famous Tchakoli pour, and an impressive umbrella stand. Finally, one of San Sebasiàn's famous beaches, and the sun going down.

Ladies and gentlemen of the fashion jury. Shadowy reaches in the Museo San Telmo. Scottish (or Basque…we never figured it out) bagpipers and traditional (and definitely) Basque musicians gather for a Sharks-and-Jets-style showdown (one can hope; I never actually witnessed said showdown.) The famous Txakoli pour, and a surprisingly organized umbrella stand. Finally, one of San Sebastiàn’s famous beaches, and the sun going down at the end of a long and oh so delicious day.

It’s a short stay in Spain (the servings are so small…), so it’s back to Bordeaux to show off my city for a day or two. There are a few must-dos when visiting Bordeaux for the first time. Seafood brunch at the Marché de Capucins, visiting the Place de la Bourse and the Miroir d’Eau (now newly rehydrated for the spring) by both day and night, lazy cafés in squares in view of beautiful limestone structures, and of course a swing by the wine museum in Chartrons to remind ourselves what this whole thing is about!

Seafood brunch at Capucins is a must! )As in have to do, not wine must.....geeze.... school is out for the week!)

Seafood brunch at Capucins is a must! (As in have to do, not grape must…..geeze…. school is out for the week!) This barrel is from a 400-year old oak tree, hence the special engraving. Some Margaux signage from the wine museum, a cheeky selfie care of our waiter in Chartrons, and Place de la Bourse gets lit up.

The next day we’ve decided to spend the day in St Emilion (à St Emilion, toujours fidéle) It’s a rude awakening for my guest – wine tasting before 9 am (See…. not so glamourous, is it??  Crap…it totally is kinda cool.) We start at the Union des Producteurs, the St Emilion cooperative, with a South African tour guide who came to France for the rugby and stayed for the wine. And, oh yeah, it’s my birthday, so I indulge in my favourite dessert, tarte à citron meringue deconstructed (no photo evidence due to my ninja-like devouring skills), before a wander through the limestone labyrinth at Clos des Menuts. We wrap up the day with a visit to Clos La Madeleine, an enchanting estate sprawled on the crest of the limestone plateau at the edge of the village.

Grape bunches are starting to form. Above and below the limestone plateau in St Emilion. The famous (second highest) steeple soars above the village, and the dovecote and open door at Clos La Madeleine beckon.

Grape bunches are starting to form. Above and below the limestone plateau in St Emilion. The famous (second highest) steeple soars above the village, and the dovecote and open door at Clos La Madeleine beckon.

The next day, bright and early, we decide to head off to Avignon, home of the short-lived French Papacy, and neighbour to Châteauneuf du Pape in the Southern Rhône (aka. summer home of the French popes, and lair of at least two antipopes.) Oddly enough the Chateauneuf appellation has embraced this particular Vatical tradition of electing multiple leaders – according to our tour guide there are two wine unions in existence, apparently due to competing factions among wine makers.

The Palace of the Popes is pretty impressive. Papal views. The Vatican's budget is right there for all to see... in French. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is right there. And our sassy chef designs her market-fresh menus daily.

The Palace of the Popes is pretty impressive with many papal views. The Vatican’s budget is right there for all to see… in French. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is can be seen from the top of the Palace. And our sassy chef at La Cuisine du Dimanche designs her market-fresh menus daily.

One delightful discovery is that Avignon is a culinary Mecca. It’s a small town – roughly 90,000 people – but for what seems like an astonishingly low price, you can get Michelin-star and Michelin-recommended restaurants. It doesn’t hurt to have the very impressive Palace of the Popes in the middle, plus the large palace gardens at the top of the city boasting stunning views of the Southern Rhône. I know very little about why the Popes took up residence here in Avignon and built not one but two palaces when they realized they were settling in for the long term (later discovered to be from 1309-1377). It seems my namesake, Catherine of Siena, was instrumental in convincing them to cease their roaming and return to Rome.

View from the top of Châteaneuf. That ruin on the right is the remains of John XXII's 14th century summer house. Ok, summer castle.

View from the top of Châteaneuf. That ruin on the right is the remains of John XXII’s 14th century summer house. Ok, summer castle.

Southern-Rhône-Map-Wine-FollyLet’s be honest though, we’re here for the wines. After signing up for a guided trip of three châteaus, it turns out to be a private tour with a local who knows a thing or two about the wine industry. Two estates are in Châteauneuf and one in Vacqueyras, although we’re learning quickly that the folks from the Rhône (Rhônesians?) like to play around with multiple appellations.

The appellation of Châteauneuf du Pape is much larger than the village itself, encompassing the villages of Orange, Bédarrides, and Sorgues. It is characterized by two hills of yellow pebbles (like the picture below), but a whole host of other types of soil too. The rules for blending are quite interesting – wines can be made from any or all of 13 different varietals: Grenache (typically the majority), Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Clairette, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul, Picardan and Terret Noir. So you can imagine that wines from this area can offer a lot of diversity in flavour.

Empty spaces in Avignon livened up with painted people. The vines at the top of the Châteauneuf hill grow in these signature pebbles. Though the barrels look the same as Bordeaux, wine from Châteauneuf du Pape can be made from any or all of these 13 grapes. This hallway at Domaine de la Charbonnière goes right through an old concrete tank, and the doorway leads to a courtyard with olive trees. Some gnarly old vines at Domaine la Monardière.

Empty spaces in Avignon livened up with painted people. The vines at the top of the Châteauneuf hill grow in these signature pebbles. Though the barrels look the same as Bordeaux, wine from Châteauneuf du Pape can be made from any or all of these 13 grapes. This hallway at Domaine de la Charbonnière goes right through an old concrete tank, and the doorway leads to a courtyard with olive trees. Some gnarly old vines at Domaine la Monardière in Vacqueyras.

And just like that, vacation is over; it’s back to Canada for my compatriot, and I’m back to Bordeaux to start school again. But before I go, I’ll leave you with this view of the Rhône Valley, and our tour guide’s dream retirement spot.

There's a little house there in the middle, if you can see it.

There’s a little house there in the middle behind one of the forested hills, if you can see it.

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