Recently, we returned to Basque Country to explore the villages and witness the arrival of fall in the Pyrenees Mountains. As we traveled the mountain roads, weaving from France to Spain and back again, we pulled over to witness a magic moment high above the village of Pierrefitte-Nestalas …
We’re fascinated by the Basque region because it provides a glimpse into the history of Europe. Before modern European nations such as France, Germany, Italy, and Spain, local tribes ruled the land. The Basque people descend directly from one of these groups. Their language and culture survives in an area that straddles the Spanish and French borders through the Pyrenees and along the Atlantic coast from Bayonne, France to Bilbao, Spain.
Raising sheep for cheese and wool is an age-old occupation in this region so we weren’t surprised to have a “sheep sighting.” The tinkle of herding bells is one of the sounds of fall in Basque Country as they migrate from higher altitudes to the warmer pastures below.
As we drove through the region, we spotted road signs written in the Basque language alongside French or Spanish, including the sign announcing the charming village of Ezpeleta/Espelette (Basque/French). Each Basque village is a treasure. Pride of place, relationship to the land, and respect for ancient customs have preserved the culture, language and architecture to an extraordinary degree.
In Espelette, we wandered the quaint streets, window shopping and sampling regional fare. The Basques are known throughout the world for their wonderful culinary tradition which includes cured meats, cheeses (especially chevre), fresh peppers and the much-loved Espelette dried peppers.
We also admired the buildings, shops and homes. In our travels in Europe and other places, we’ve noticed that consistency in the architecture is what gives a region a distinctive character or personality. The architecture of the Basque region is remarkably consistent—both within each village and between villages.
This is because historically builders and architects relied on locally sourced clay, wood, stone and other materials. Over the years, that practice has been maintained. Each village is unique and vibrant, yet in harmony with the region and the land. There is almost a sense that the buildings sprang straight from the earth!
This sense of place is all-pervasive. We felt it even in a centuries-old cemetery in Urdax, a village with a population of less than 400, famous for its prehistoric caves.
Throughout our road trip, we were greeted with cosy reminders of fall—the migrating sheep, the warm hues of the changing leaves, the mists cloaking the mountainside, the invigorating chill in the air. We'd like to extend this cosy fall feeling to you with our six essential fall picks from the Languedoc…
Hand-harvesting with Christine and Franck, owners of Domaine Avela and newest members of the Princess & Bear family
The golden days of early fall in the Languedoc-Roussillon herald the return of a 2,000-year-old winemaking tradition — the harvest of the grapes! It’s one of our favorite times of year. We stroll through the vineyards surrounding our village of Quarante, sampling different grape varieties right off the vine. And we never miss an opportunity to join in the harvesting fun.
Part of our mission is to support small family farms. Most of our winemakers average only 50 acres. When hand-harvesting, many of these farmers depend on family and friends to pitch in alongside a skilled crew of workers.
Hand-harvesting requires earlier risers. A typical day begins at 4am when the cooler air protects the grapes from premature oxidation. It also requires good knees! Low-hanging fruit calls for lots of squatting :)
Harvest-ready red Carignan grapes and white Vermentino grapes
According to Camille Izarn, a young, rising star at Borie La Vitarele, for each grape and vineyard there exists a perfect day to harvest. Winemakers often rely on testing the sugars, but in her opinion the real harvesting magic comes from identifying that perfect day by taste alone. By walking the vineyards and continuously sampling the grapes, a winemaker can determine if the tannins in red grapes such as Carignan are well-developed (as they should be); and in white grapes, like Vermentino, whether the sugar level is low enough to retain acidity. When that perfect day arrives, the winemaker summons the troops and the harvest begins!
Most of our winemakers hand-harvest but some rely on machines to bring in the grapes. What’s the difference?
The main benefit of hand-harvesting is the gentleness of the process. Grape skins remain intact, preventing oxidation and premature fermentation. This added care is crucial. The moment a grape ruptures and releases juice, oxidation begins and the fresh fruit flavors degrade. Not even chemical additives can counter this (though none of our winemakers use additives).
Interestingly, the oldest vineyards must be hand-harvested. They were planted before modern tractors existed so the "horse-width" rows are too narrow for machine harvesting.
Left—Friends and family members join a crew from Spain who've been hand-harvesting for Borie la Vitarele for years. Right—Carol, Steve, and Gigi in the vines at sunrise.
And the benefits of machine-harvesting? Tractors save time and money, especailly for larger vineyards. But the process is rough. Grapes are scraped from the vine with silicone “fingers.” Even if the grapes survive this phase intact, there's the risk of being crushed in the storage vats beneath the weight of the rest of the grapes.
The key is to quickly transport the fruit from the field into tanks or the winepress. All of our winemakers farm their own vineyards with the caves close by. So the grapes are out of the vineyard and in the tank within the hour. The result — delicious, fresh wines with lovely fruit flavor.
Carol hand-harvests for Domaine Avela alongside a fellow picker who says her family has lived in Quarante "forever."
Soon another harvest will be behind us and we’ll return to discovering the Languedoc wines you love. We promise to keep you posted on our winetasting adventures. In the meantime, check out our Fall Seasonal Picks. Reds, whites, and rosés to enjoy by the campfire or pair with changing Fall menus:
Demetria (left) passed her fabulous zucchini recipe on to her brother, Yannis (right) owner of Bouboulina Taverna. The etching on the wall next to Demetria is Laskarina Bouboulina, the great female sea captain from Spetses.
We're blessed to continue our European road trip adventures, both culinary and cultural, while staying safe. This month we visited Greece and the Island of Spetses where we dined at Bouboulina Taverna, home to the Best Zucchini Fritters in The World (we conducted many tests!). We love Bouboulina Taverna not only for the heavenly fritters, but also for its namesake, Laskarina Bouboulina, the great female sea captain from Spetses who led Greece’s War of Independence of 1821.
Bouboulina used her fortune to feed and arm the rebels and also to build Agamemnon, one of the largest warships of the rebel army. Her efforts helped overthrow 300 years of occupation by the Ottoman Turks.
Carol whips up her own delicious zucchini fritter recipe, Robe Blanche in hand.
In honor of Laskarina Bouboulina and our friends at Bouboulina Taverna, we’re sharing the Princess' own Zucchini Fritter Recipe. While these fritters may not be the very best in the world, we think they're a close second!
We’re also highlighting three incredible white wines, perfect pairings for the fritters or as a refreshing companion for any summer moment, on land or at sea!
A crisp white wine with a luminous sparkle, this Vermentino bathes the palate in pears and melon with surprising hints of jasmine and grapefruit. The smooth mineral finish enlivens and refreshes. A pure varietal expression of terroir.
2019 Robe Blanche
85% Chardonnay, 15% Viognier
Fragrant white flowers and nice acidity characterize this delicious, all-occasion white wine. The Viognier adds floral notes to the freshness of the unoaked Chardonnay. A lovely, lingering finish!
Carol enjoying her freedom at the paws of "Puppy" by Jeff Koons
When our two-month lockdown ended in the Languedoc, we felt the overwhelming urge to spread our wings and travel. Since most folks in the EU are wearing masks and practicing social distancing, we felt comfortable with a road trip to the nearby Basque region of Spain. First stop — the Guggenheim Bilbao!
Bilbao won “Best European City” at the Urbanism Awards 2018. The Guggenheim, an architectural wonder designed by Frank Gehry, undoubtedly influenced the decision. There are fewer tourists these days and as we explored the museum, it almost felt as if we had the place to ourselves. On the plaza outside, we took in Jeff Koons's joyous Puppy, a 40 ft. tall sculpture of flowering plants in the shape of a West Highland Terrier. We then made our way to the arresting (and decidedly less adorable) Maman by artist Louise Bourgeois.
"Maman" by artist Louise Bourgeois
The interior of the museum was a marvel of space, light and movement. One of the more dynamic installations was Olafur Eliasson’s In Real Life, a beautiful confusion of cosmic spheres and spirals.
Our mission is to expand and delight the palates of American wine lovers, so we’re always on the lookout for new grape varieties and vinification methods. From the shores of the Mediterranean to the foothills of the Pyrenees, the wide array of climatic conditions and soil types produces an astonishing diversity of wines. We will continue to taste hundreds each year to bring our wine club members the best!
While dining at the fabulous Rekondo restaurant in San Sebastian, we were thrilled to discover Godello, a white varietal that was virtually forgotten until the 1980s. Our Languedoc wine educator Kate Wardell who does Zoom calls for our wine club members told us to be on the lookout for this grape.
The 100% Godello wine recommended by the sommelier was from a Galician bodega, As Sortes. The winemaker, Rafael Palacios, tends his vines on unforgiving, high-elevation plots that are often difficult to access and farm. Some of his vines are 100 years old producing very low-yields. No chemicals are used in the viticulture or winemaking, all of this making it clear why his jewels are considered “cult wines.”
We savored every sip of his labors! Aromas of ripe fruit, gardenia and honeysuckle drift into cinnamon, nutmeg and a hint of cloves. On the palate, it's full and vinous with flavors of white peach and pear. We also detected marvelous mineral notes of limestone and slate, and bright acidity with long persistence in the mouth. And the gorgeous, golden hue was mesmerizing...
As Sortes with traditional Basque seafood soup
We hope Godello will be our next, up-and-coming Princess and Bear find as we continually search for delicious and unusual grape varietals.
At Rekondo we also loved the traditional Basque seafood soup, a dish which is a bit like Louisiana gumbo. Carol’s mother was a great gumbo chef, so we felt as if we'd come full circle on our road trip, our thoughts returning once more to home and the gift of connection.
Nothing says summer like a chilled glass of liquid sunshine. From backyard barbecues and oysters on the half shell to the perfect poolside sipper, picnic pairing, or date night wine, we have six essential wine options that just arrived from France to meet all of your summer needs!
Katie Jones of Domaine Jones (middle) & husband, Jean Marc Astruc (left)
In line with the theme of our June newsletter, localized communities of caring, we stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and all individuals who are peacefully protesting in the US and elsewhere. None of us are whole until all of us are cared for.
In the 1970s, economist E.F. Schumacher authored Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered. His book envisioned a "village-based" economy of “enoughness” shaped by human-friendly technologies and sustainable development.
We love Small is Beautiful! Part of our mission is to support the small family farmers who've existed in the Languedoc-Roussillon for over 2,000 years.
In the video below, we join Katie Jones of Domaine Jones in her recently purchased, one hectare, Grenache Gris vineyard. We thought Katie would be the perfect person to speak about "Small is Beautiful" in viticulture.
You'll hear her describe the joys of her small-scale farming practices—and the challenges, including vines planted with narrow, "horse-width" rows from a time before the modern tractor existed. You'll also see a panoramic of the gorgeous countryside!
Katie seeks out old vines, some 100 years old, with rare grape varieties, such as Macabeu and Carignan Gris. With exquisite care, she hand-harvests the small yields (apprx. 1 bottle per vine) to produce delicious, high-quality wines.
Katie relies on an antique tractor affectionately named "Mignon." The model was the first to replace horses and thus was designed for narrow rows.
We love visiting Katie Jones — and all our winemakers! But it's not only for pleasure.
A recent New York Times article noted the difficulty for wine lovers of verifying a producer's claims about "natural" French wines. We agree that wine designations are not enough. We personally visit every one of our winemakers, tasting wines, touring vineyards and winemaking facilities and, most importantly, building friendships and community. So you can trust that the wines your purchase from us are the best of the Languedoc-Roussillon, from root to sip!
Below are two wonderful wines from Domaine Jones. We think you'll find that small is delicious as well as beautiful!
During quarantine in the Languedoc, we’ve used the one hour allowed for daily exercise to explore the countryside surrounding our village. Often we walk to Domaine Château de Saliès where the Gombert family has made delicious wines since 1960. The estate is stunning, with rolling hills and glimpses of the Mediterranean. Vineyards, olive trees, wheat, garrigue and pine forests thrive on the fertile land.
But the greatest pleasure is visiting with the father and son winemakers, Xavier and Benoit Gombert!
The Princess with Benoit and Xavier Gombert at the gates of the Château de Saliès.
Xavier and Benoit are part of an incredible winemaking culture that extends all the way back to 79 CE, when Mount Vesuvius erupted and Roman winemakers resettled in the Languedoc. One such winemaker built Villa Celiano and began producing wines that shipped all over the Roman Empire. In the 18th century, Château de Saliès was constructed on the grounds of Villa Celiano.
History also marked the land by way of the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). Domaine de Saliès is halfway between Rome and the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostella, so pilgrims traveled directly through the property.
The Gomberts grow classic Languedoc red grape varieties such as Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan and Mourvédre, and international varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec. White varieties include Viognier, Ugni Blanc and, more recently, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.
Xavier and Benoit have graciously allowed us to tour the "caves," the underground cellar where the wine is made. We were amazed to see an enormous oak foudre, 25 ft in height, from the last century.
Left: 25 ft high foudre. Right: Original underground wine cellar, built in 1870
Five years ago, Xavier passed on the role of head winemaker to Benoit, who is in his mid-thirties. According to Xavier, his own wines were “rustic,” while Benoit's are “elegant and fine."
The wine community agrees! This year, Benoit won a bronze medal for his rosé (arriving at our Seattle warehouse in early June) and a silver medal for his Marcelan red wine.
A limited supply of Benoit's 2019 Sauvignon Blanc will arrive in June with the rosé. Want something sooner? His 2018 Sauvignon Blanc is available now for only $9.99!
Domaine de Saliès
100% Sauvignon Blanc
The sun-kissed grapes of the South of France give this wine a lively, refreshing and expressive character.
Super drinkable on its own, but also perfect with grilled white fish in a lemon butter sauce.
Excellent as an aperitif with cheese and crackers or even popcorn!
We eagerly await more "elegant and fine" wines from this brilliant young winemaker. Just a short walk from our home and soon to be within reach of all US wine lovers!
Left: Xavier Gombert and the Bear share a laugh. Right: the Bear brandishes three new Domaine de Saliès vintages, ready for tasting!
First let’s get one thing straight, when they say isolation at home in France they mean it. We are well into our third week of being completely at home with no guests and no outings other than grocery shopping, and a maximum of 1 hour walking but within 1 km of home. To leave home you need your passport and a signed and dated form with the time of leaving one’s home.
Our village of 1,200 people is eerily quiet.
Fortunately our village is surrounded by vineyards and olive tree orchards. Everyday we walk our maximum of 1 hour, trying not to go over the limit. Spring is everywhere and it is so beautiful!
We have been cooking up a storm as you can see on Instagram @princessandbearwines and we harvest wild herbs on our walks every day.
The vineyards are just beginning to bud so the glorious carpet of green lushness will soon arrive, giving all of us hope that we are in a cycle and things will return to normal by mid-summer.
We are also reminded of the continuity of civilizations and generations of humans inhabiting this earth. Our village is an old pre-Roman hilltop settlement. On our walks we see the stone huts in the vineyards built by earlier generations in pursuit of the good life that comes from farming.
In this tiny village in this time of great need, since the schools are closed, the village is providing child care for children ages 3-12 for those parents who can still work.
This reminds us that we are all connected and helping others builds a strong web that ultimately supports all of us. Be Safe. Help Others In Any Way You Can. Spread Joy.
With love from the Team at Princess and Bear.
To Our Princess and Bear Family,
Steve and I were planning to be in Seattle until the last week of March. We were excited about seeing everyone at our tasting room and at events around Seattle. As the magnitude of COVID-19 started to become apparent a couple of weeks ago I had a really strong feeling we HAD to return to France. As it turns out it was a good instinct! While I was flying out of Washington, D.C on Wednesday heading back to Paris, the US travel ban went into effect. Steve left Seattle on Friday and was on one of the last international flights out of Seattle. He landed in Frankfurt and here is what he saw upon landing:
We are so disappointed to miss seeing everyone and share our wines in person! But leaving early was the right decision for us. We have a lot of work to do to help our winemakers get their wines ready for our shipment, scheduled to leave France the first week of April. Because everything is so uncertain and many of them have never shipped their wines to the US before, we are very glad we are here to help them.
Like many of you, we are obsessively tuned in to news from Johns Hopkins University, the CDC, and the WHO. Our heartfelt thanks go out to all of the scientists who are trying so hard to get everyone all over the world the best information possible from the limited data they have. We will share and implement any advice we get which affects the health and safety of our club members, customers, guests and employees.
The great news, in an otherwise dreary setting, is that our shipping staff is ready to go! To ensure you don't run out of our hand selected wines or have to run around all over a city looking for something great and life-giving to drink, from now through April 30, we are offering free shipping on all orders regardless of the number of bottles you purchase, plus 50% off all 2018 rosés (trust me, we picked ‘em and each one of them has a special character), as well as our Domaine de Saliés Sauvignon Blanc, the most easy drinking wine in the world with some extra special je ne sais quoi that makes it friendly and interesting to hang out with. As in, “How ‘bout just you and me, a great vintage TV series, a soft blanket and this bottle of wine?”
Visit our webstore and use promocode STAYSAFE50OFF
Keep track of all the hugs, kisses and handshakes you didn't get to give, and one day you'll have a chance to make them up! Santé! Stay safe and healthy!
With love from Princess and Bear!
Our winter Road Warrior journey began in January and we just crossed the finish line the first week of March! It all started at the MillésimeBio Organic Wine Fair in Montpelier, France.
Millésime Bio is the world’s largest organic wine fair and it’s our favorite event of the season! We see some of our favorite winemakers there and they are always so curious about how their wines sold in the US because, like 95% of our wines, theirs have never been imported to and enjoyed in the US before. It is also a rich source in finding new wines for our Princess and Bear wine clubs. Our winemaker friends at the fairs are generous enough to share the names of their favorite winemakers with us and so we get to taste them on the spot!
While we were in Montpellier we went to see our favorite group at winemakers, Vinifilles. Their events are private invite-only tastings called an “Off”. The wines poured are by members of this association of Languedoc and Roussillon female winemakers from 25 different appellations in the region. We know most of the winemakers, and already import and love their wines, but we are always searching for new fabulous finds. This year, we found two! One wine from La Clape and one from Terrasses du Larzac. Upon recommendation from our Vinifilles friends, we found Domaine Reserve d’O, owned by Marie Chauffray from the Terrasses du Larzac Appellation, and the queen of Picpoul, Anäis, at La Croix Gratiot.
After Vinifilles, we went to another “off” in a little town called Lattes on the outskirts of Montpellier. On the stairs of the event, I saw winemaker Jean Paul Serre of Sainte Lucie d’Aussou in the Boutenac Cru appellation. I have been chasing this man for almost 2 years! He’s never exported to the US and was scared to get an FDA number. We ended up going to his domaine where I registered him with the FDA and now we will have two of his wines coming for the spring and summer! He has one of the most delicious white wines I’ve ever tasted, an aged white carignan, which is why I have been chasing him for so long!
We also were invited to an off in Paris of winemakers from La Clape and St. Chinian. There we found one of the most outstanding white wines in recent memory from Pech Redon. Soon to arrive in the US!
After attending the two wine fairs we tasted about 800 wines and had to narrow it down to our favorite 100 wines. And now, it was time to see the vineyards! Our favorite thing to do is walk in the vineyards; feel the soils; smell the wild herbs everywhere; and understand the aspect of the vineyards’ altitude, proximity to the Mediterranean sea and the mountains surrounding the Languedoc-Roussillon. We covered 13 appellations over a 10 day period, driving over 1000 miles. We always take home bottles from each domaine for tasting with food before we make our final selections!
Road warrior itinerary
Halfway through our journey we stopped in Maury, known for its Vins Doux Naturels (VDN) or naturally sweet wines. No added sugar!One of our partnerships is with an LGBTQ exclusive guesthouse Cinq et Sept that assembles cases of Languedoc wines to show their guests the bounty and quality of the region. One of the wines included was a VDN from Domaine des Schistes in Maury and we currently don’t stock any sweet wines from this appellation. This appellation is known for its schiste soils and we were on a mission to seek out Domaine des Schistes, certified organic since 2015. After visiting we will be importing not only one of their VDNs but a white and a rosé.
La Clape Cru
Soon we were on our way to seek out another new domaine for the Princess and the Bear tasting room: La Clape Cru.
We visited Domaine Pech Redon, located on the Mediterranean sea, whose vineyards have a kiss of the sea! The sea breezes and high altitudes result in a long growing season which is perfect for many of the indigenous grapes they grow including Bourboulenc and Picpoul.
Terrasses du Larzac
Terrasses du Larzac is a prized appellation. There we visited Marie at Domaine Reserve d’O. This domaine has been biodynamically and organically farmed since its inception in 2005. During our visit through their vineyards, we found curved roof tiles of Roman buildings buried within the cobblestone soils. Their 40+ year old vines include Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault.
Pic St. Loup
Towards the end of our journey, we went to Pic St. Loup, 30 miles north of Montpellier. WOW! What beauty. Domaine de l’Hortus has some of the most beautiful vineyards we’ve ever seen. It is cradled between the Hortus Massif and the Pic St Loup. The land was chosen because the patriarch of this family-run domaine is a rock climber. The domaine is known for its indigenous Mediterranean varieties. We ordered a fabulous white and a rosé that should be here in about a month. Secret: some reds will arrive later this fall.
By the time we got home, we had more than 60 bottles to taste. After a good night’s sleep, Steve and I tasted roughly 20 rosés and 25 whites from the hundreds that we had looked at since the end of January. On the day we tasted, Steve and I first tasted alone and shared notes. Then we tasted through the wines again a few hours later with three professional wine tasters. Richard and Linda Neville, Languedoc tasters for Jancis Robinson, and Marcel van Baalen of Fait a Maison fame. Then, Steve made moussaka and 20 “lay people” from our village and the surrounding villages came over and they gave us their “favorites” list. So fun!! In the end we chose 15 new white wines and 8 new rosés. Wow!!
Right now we are filling out the purchase orders, drafting letters of appointment for them to designate us as their importer for Washington state and, very time consuming, working on labels for U.S. government approval. Once the labels are approved, we’ll be sending the information back to the winery so they can print and apply US labels to each and every bottle by the beginning of April. We can’t wait to get these 2019 whites and rosés in stock for the summer!