Postcards From Abroad: "Becoming Wine Wise"
As Peter Close strolls through the Chateau Camplazens vineyard, he patiently takes his time, examining several vines adorned with luscious green grapes.
"You may have heard that we had a bad thunderstorm this week, a lot of rain with hailstones," Close says in an English accent. "Not enough to harm the vines, thankfully."
Close beams with enthusiasm as he discusses his passion: wine.Despite the long hot summers, cool wet winters with occasional frosts, harvesting 50 hectares of grapes, selling over 20,000 bottles of wine annually and presently surviving a hailstorm, one can tell that Close truly enjoys his profession.
Since 2001, Close and his wife Sue have been living out their dream of owning and operating a vineyard in La Clape, a town located in the historic Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France.
Previously, they were a quiet British couple that moved to New Orleans for a better opportunity and to raise their family. Now, Close and his wife travel the world, from Tokyo to the Big Easy, to promote their world-class vineyard planted on the site of an ancient Roman settlement. Roman remains can still be found in surrounding forests.
While at the chateau, Close is more than happy to play tour guide and wine educator for students and enthusiasts. He has opened his chateau for "Wines of the World," a class offered by the UNO Glories of France study abroad program, for three years now.
Most hotel, restaurant and tourism students in New Orleans learn about wine in an ordinary classroom setting, reading from a massive book and imagining what a real vineyard actually looks like.
"What better place to learn about wines than in France?" said Dr. Harsha Chacko, academic director and instructor for the wine course.
For the wine class -- which is so popular that the Glories of France program offered two sections this summer -- southern French vineyards like the Chateau Camplazens and the on-campus vineyard at local university Montpellier SupAgro are the classrooms.
Close glances back to the group of college students and discusses which particular grape variety his vineyard grows, why it grows so well (which is due to the soil type: the vineyard grows in an ancient limestone seabed filled with alluvial silt) and what particular techniques he and his assistants use to guarantee that the chateau reaches its projected harvest yield.
The UNO students thoroughly enjoy being near the vines and grapes and scatter through the vineyard, exploring, knowing the grapes hanging may one day become a delicious white wine, or perhaps the Chateau's signature red wine, Julius.
"I think it's an amazing experience in relation to our class, since we're learning about viticulture," said Cat Trahan, a student in the wine class.
While there are still regular lectures on grape varieties and textbook chapters to be read, strolling through vineyards and tasting wine has become an accepted perk of the course curriculum. Viticulture, the science of how grapes are grown, literally comes to life for the students roaming the vineyard.
Following the vineyard and warehouse tour, students and staff become equally excited about tasting the wines that Chateau Camplazens offers. Some are red with complex layers of subtle tannins, molecular compounds that give wine its dry taste -- while others are white, boasting a full body and fruity structure.
"This is the best red wine I have ever had in my whole life," exclaims wine student Alan Weiss over the Julius.
Weiss immediately buys a bottle of the Julius to take home to New Orleans and share with his grandmother. Peter and Susan Close sign the bottle for him, including the words "For Gigi" to add a special touch.
Trahan prefers the Premium. She buys a bottle to bring home and share with her fiancé on their anniversary.
"Our mission is to establish Chateau Camplazens as a world-class vineyard, by sharing delightful and memorable wine experiences with those who enjoy and appreciate fine wines," says Close.
He and his wife are doing just that.