Howard Roark Sipped

My travels this summer were rich with first time experiences. My premier visit to Bordeaux, time trial for the Tour de France, El Bulli (more on that later), many vignerons, great wine, plush landscapes, and fabulous meals – the classic road trip.  As a follow up to a recent NYT article on small family Bordeaux winemakers, the meeting of one Monsieur Jean-François Fillastre is one of my fondest summer memories.

After arriving from a beautiful drive to St. Julien, passing famous chateaux and estates, laced with breathtaking vines under vast blue skies and golden sunshine, is a sleepy town where Mr. Fillastre resides.  His house is difficult to find.  The house number is curiously skipped as if part of some plan to keep him from interruption from outsiders.

Looking like lost tourists, an older woman emerges and asks if she can help.   After announcing our intentions, she disappears, acting as a screener of sorts.  Another interested party opens her shutters and points to the rear of the alley, where perhaps the domicile is located.

Having sufficiently made it through two checkpoints, Mr. Fillastre reveals himself.  He is a tall man with impressive forearms, a sun-soaked visage and wry, discerning smile.  He is dressed in khakis, an Izod polo, and work shoes, sooted from fresh soil.

He leads us to a garage, thus truly defining the term “garagiste”, and the moldy frost and cobwebs on the walls reveal a room full of barrels and old bottles, a treasure trove of labor in the vineyards.

Mr. Fillastre seems a bit distracted and is not overly chatty.  His tone is measured and seemingly cryptic at first, as if he had yet to trust our motives.  But reading between the lines, there stood a man with great passion and sense of duty to the vines.  It seemed the only important virtue to him at all.

Domaine Jaugeret is a story about a family of winemaking tradition, an historic continuation of  viticulture and expression of terroir, a practical, agricultural labor of bringing the best out of the earth naturally.

Indeed, it is evident that Mr. Fillastre is concerned with making wine for himself and his own pleasure.

We taste wines from a few recent vintages using a pipette that he made for himself when he was a young man learning the glassblowing trade.

How about technology?

It is not bad, to a point.

I don’t demand of the wine, it demands of me.

Just before lunch, he asks us to choose two among three select bottles.  Standing side by side on a wine crate – ’82,’90, and 2001 vintages.  I sheepishly point to the ’82 first, and then the ’90, naturally.

As we sat at a nearby restaurant with classic Bordelaise fare, duck, gratin, veal kidneys, and cheese, Mr. Fillastre opened up, offering opinions under direct questioning, revealing more and more of the man behind the wine.

When you are not drinking your wines, what do you drink?

I like to drink my wines.

How about rosé?

That is not wine for me.

What about Champagne?

I love Champagne with oysters, a tiny bashful grin.

What type?

It doesn’t matter.

After tasting the ’82 and the ’90, we discussed its power and finesse.  Mr. Fillastre remarked at their purity, but did not let on if one was better than the other, only that the ’82 is more ready to drink.

I am a bit maniac.

True to form, Mr. Fillastre looked a bit mad at his admission.

But you have to, to be a winemaker.

Do you know that you are gaining popularity in the United States?

No.

Do you drink other Bordeaux?

Not really.

Do you collaborate with other winemakers?

Not really.

No man is an island, but Mr. Fillastre works the land without concern for anything or anyone but the vines and his duty.  The result is wine with such purity and soul, only a “maniac” could have achieved such great results.

Mr. Fillastre has no heirs, just a brother who he claims he wouldn’t let near a vine, and so Domaine du Jaugaret is certainly in danger of being snapped up by a large corporation, which would indeed be very sad.  Just as the mom and pop joints in New York City have turned into a Starbuck’s, bank or Duane Reade, Bordeaux will also be a lesser place if many of the small farmers fade into history.

After lunch, Mr. Fillastre had one more surprise for us, an unlabeled bottle of some age.  A 1943 offering, peak and pure St. Julien, a testament to his father’s skill in an unheralded vintage, his birth year.

We left Mr. Fillastre as we envision him, sipping on his wine, enjoying the fruits of his father’s labor, having sent us away in astonishing gratitude.

The guardian neighbor emerges from her porch to bid her farewell.

Do you understand how great a man he is?

Now I do.

Pipette

Dad's car 1927

Cellar

Dom. Jaugaret Cave

Le Coq

Le Coq

Domaine de Jaugaret

1982 & 1990

Foie Gras

Le canard

Gratin Dauphinois

Fromage

Official seal - Dom. Jaugaret

Monsieur Jean Francois Fillastre

Pais Vasco (Basque Country)

This is the second year that El Capitan and I have made a pilgrimage to Spain, in search of good food and wines.  Last summer, Galician culture in Ribeira Sacra, drinking delicious mencia and godello crafted from impossibly terraced vineyards along the Bibei river.  This time around donned our best berets to sample Basque culture along a breathtaking countryside surrounded by mountains and ocean vistas along the Cantabrian coastline. If not for the Spanish language, you would think you were in a different country altogether.  But the Basque share a love for food, wine and adventure too, a very Spanish, if not global virtue.

Visiting the bodegas that produce txakoli requires skilled driving and expert map skills, and we persevered by making most of our appointments with only a slight fender bender.  Anyone who has driven throughout Spain knows of its narrow streets and small jutting dividers, perilous for any driver.  But the long drives and wrong turns from time to time was well worth it.  If the view and winding turns are not enough incentives, then the thirst for txakoli during a hot and humid summer would serve as the reward for our efforts.

Txakoli is consumed mainly in the Basque country and is made up of hondarrabi zuri (white) and hondarrabi beltza (red).  The mostly white wine is meant to be consumed young, and often exhibit a slightly carbonic quality specific only to txakoli.  The wines are often tart, with racy acidity, and are quite a match for fresh seafood, although some Basque claim they drink txakoli with meat dishes as well.

Txomin and Ameztoi, in Getaria, are situated atop the mountains overlooking the beach, the water, and the French frontier.  Winemaking looks incredibly challenging, except for Bulb, the Txomin dog, who enjoys fetching sticks thrown over the rail into the abyss of vines, only to return shortly with tail wagging,  prize in mouth.   The style of txakoli in Getaria is decidedly more carbonated, and enhanced so by tall pours from high above the glass, to encourage further bubbles.  Young, tart, refreshing and delicious is the name of the game.  Txakoli is meant to be consumed within two years, and some wineries bottle to order to preserve freshness and peak drinkability.

In Bizkaiko, the style of txakoli vary considerably, and are not crafted for the sake of bubbles.  On the contrary, the aim is still to produce young tart wines, but with a bit more finesse, an attempt at a distinctive white wine without much carbonation. A good example can be found at vineyards such as Uriondo, which are located on more manageable hilltops, but have the benefit of being included in part of a natural ecosystem of other plants and animals.

Some projects are new, such as at Gurrutxaga, and are still honing a particular style.   At Doniene Gorrondona, they are branching out with a tinto (red) wine which is delicious and spicy.  Nextdoor neighbor to Txomin is Ameztoi, who produce the only rosado, and happens to be one of my favorites.  The contrast of styles from Arabako to Getaria to Bizkaiko are intriguing, but the result is definitely txakoli, and Basque in spirit.

Our home base was Bilbao, where, after glimpsing the Guggenheim and the famous dog, makes one hungry.  We sought out pintxos and txakolinas, as well as tippled aged Rioja which is on every wine list and reasonably priced.  At Casa Rufo, we enjoyed a LDH Blanco 1991 for 21 euros!  The real highlight meal was at Etxebarri, a renowned asador with masterful smoking techniques.  Located in the ancient town of Axpe, the restaurant is faced by a soaring mountain.  I am not a huge of fan of smoked foods because often the dishes are oversmoked, flavors of the ingredients lost in a sea of black char.  But at Etxebarri, each dish is masterfully misted with smoke, like a soft cloud enhancing the natural juices.

Txakoli has become quite accessible in New York City and other parts of the U.S., and I believe it is a great addition to any wine list, not just for Spanish restos.  At Pata Negra, I rotate producers every couple of months, as I feel txakoli can be consumed year round.  After all, it matches quite well with jamon iberico.

Next stop on the journey, Barcelona, where tapas is on the mind.  Please check out the feature on Txakoli in the NYTimes as well as the ensuing photo gallery for highlights.

Txakoli Vines

Uriondo Vines

Ameztoi Vines

View at Gurrutxaga
View of Txomin Extaniz

Bulb, Txomin mascot

Father at Uriondo

Uriondo Vines

Doniene Gorrondona distillery for Orujo
Txakoli at Getaria Port
Gambas at Getaria Port
Almejas at Getaria Port

Fish for two at Getaria Port

Smoked Spinach soup at Etxebarri

Smoked butter at Etxebarri

Smoked Sea Cucumber at Etxebarri
Smoked Belons at Etxebarri

Smoked Belons at Etxebarri

Smoked Mussels at Etxebarri

Smoked Gambas at Etxebarri

Smoked Rape ate Etxebarri

Smoked Beef at Etxebarri

Smoked Ice Cream

Smoked Salmon at Casa Rufo, Bilbao

'91 LDH Tondonia at Casa Rufo

Chuleton at Casa Rufo