Wine - Le Salon du Palais Gourmand - An unmissable wine show just ten minutes from Nice
One of the great things about living in the south of France is the easy availability of top quality yet affordable food and wine. And one of the best but lesser known outlets for these modest luxuries - I would contend necessities - is the twice-yearly wine show at the Hippodrome in Cagnes-sur-Mer, ten minutes west of Nice. In May it goes by the name Le Salon des Vignerons (or “Winemakers’ Show”) and in November by the slightly Iess catchy title Le Salon du Palais Gourmand (or “Gourmet Palate Show”), due to the latter’s focus on festive staples such as champagnes, cognacs and foie gras.
The complicated names and the chaotic poster (below) - which even exhibitors agree is graphically unnavigable - reflect, as is so often the case with impenetrable French wine labels, what could be seen as an exclusive rather than inclusive attitude on the part of the organisers — thankfully one not shared by the attending producers, who are without exception friendly, informative and eager to please. So if the pretense and pretension seems off-putting at first, rest assured that your persistence pays off in kind. Believe me, the spittoons aren’t just for show!
How it works: Entrance is either €8 or free if you have an invitation, which for future shows you will receive in advance by post or email from any stands you buy from. For both events you pick up a free programme which lists all the exhibitors by region and, if you’re attending the May show, a complimentary tasting glass, too. (Inexplicably, at the November show a €2 surcharge is required.) Anyway, armed with this tasting glass you cruise round the hundreds of stands, most of which offer red, white and rosé, across entry-level, mid-range and fine-dining ranges, with organic varieties often available, too.
The Champagne, Cognac and Armagnac producers are typically more parsimonious with their tasters - understandably so, as their products are more expensive.
The stands are labeled with the name of the winemaker or the exhibitor, and their location. Of the wine stands around half are ‘local’ - from Provence, the Var or from Bellet on the west side of Nice - and the other half are from the other wine regions of France: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Languedoc & Roussillon, Alsace, Loire, Rhone (northern and southern), Champagne, Beaujolais, Muscadet, Corsica, Jura, Cahors, etc. However, you will find no foreign or New World wines - I have a friend who imports wines into France directly from Australia but they wouldn't let him book a stand.
Exhibitors tend to be small-scale producers, often multi-generational family businesses, and you are usually talking to the people who grow and tend the vines and produce the wine - so they know their stuff! Quality, integrity and respect for tradition and nature tend to be the choicest watchwords. Elsewhere at the Salon, assorted artisanal cheese makers, chocolatiers and charcuterie producers are on standby for all your luncheon needs — useful for soaking up all the alcohol.
Prices: Produce is generally very reasonably priced, with wines selling for approximately the same amount as they might direct from the vineyard — averaging at about 8-10€ a bottle for the entry level, about 10-15€ for the mid-range, 15-25€ for the fine-dining ranges, and upwards from there if you’re in the market for some serious, rare or collectible wines. All the stands have stock with them so you can take home your purchases.
So over the course of a few hours you can sample top quality wines from all over France and share a toast with the extraordinary people who produce them. What better way to get a handle on the complex world of wine? I've been attending these shows for twenty years and their two annual events are not to be missed.
Recommendations: Based purely on these past two decades of dedicated, diligent and dutiful “research”, I thought I’d share a few of my favourites with you.
Provence & Var
Château LA CALISSE, Pontèves. Not cheap but astonishingly good. Whites: Rolle grapes (same as Vermentino) & Grenache Blanc. Reds: Syrah, Cabernet, Grenache & Merlot. Patricia Ortelli and Laurent Fabre continue to do a great job. Their reds even feature in the cellar of the Hôtel Matignon, the official residence of the Prime Minister in Paris.
DOMAINE DE TOASC, Bellet, Nice. This is why this tiny appellation’s wines are little known: made with bygone varieties and yet expensive. Reds: Folle Noire 70% @ €25. Rosé 70% Braquet @ €18. Whites 98% Rolle @ €23.
Maison CAZES, Rivesaltes. Top hot climate reds (Grenache, Syrah, etc) and Muscats to die for. Check out their up-market sister vineyard, DOMAINE DE PAULILLES, at Port Vendres, which includes beautiful stone cottages for rent in the vineyards.
Château DES HOSPICES, Le Canet en Roussillon. Top hot climate reds (Grenache, Syrah, etc) and whites (Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussane, Macabeu…). Plus the boss Marc BENASSIS is a diamond geezer who took over from his dad about 6 years ago and is doing great things.
MANOIR DU CAPUCIN, Fuissé. Very good Pouilly Fuissé (Chardonnay) and Saint-Véran.
Château BARRABAQUE, Fronsac. Standard Bordeaux and good.
La MAISON DES VIGNERONS DU RHÔNE, Ampuis. The individual producers of Côte Rôtie, Condrieu, Cornas, Crozes Hermitage & St Joseph can be very pricey, but these guys offer good wines at reasonable prices:
MAS DE DAUMAS GASSAC, Aniane, near Montpellier. Expensive but stellar. Reds: Cabernet Sauvignon (maj) @ from €35 ; and whites: Petit Marseng, Viognier, Chardonnay @ from €39.
DOMAINE FRANCIS BOURBONNOIS, Dormans. No Insta, no website — I think they've only just got a fax machine; but they spend all their time in the fields & the shed and their wines are top - and cost from just €14 per bottle. We did a blind tasting of 6 champagnes at the show and Bourbonnois’ came out top.
The next event is the Salon des Vignerons in early May 2019, exact dates to be announced. Visit the official website for more information.