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An unusual wine bar on the Canal du Midi

The French city of Toulouse lies between the wine regions of the south-west and those of the Languedoc-Roussillon and travellers to these wine regions may well start or end their journey in the city. Below, American Tom Fiorina, who lives close to the city and writes The Vine Route blog, shares a wine discovery that sounds well worth a visit.

Cale à Vins in Toulouse © Tom Fiorina

Cale à Vins in Toulouse © Tom Fiorina

The Canal du Midi, the UNESCO World Heritage Site that was built in the 17th century to connect the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, is an engineering marvel. This masterpiece of structural and hydraulic engineering contains over 91 locks, several aqueduct bridges and dams, and the first canal passage ever built through a tunnel. The canal revolutionized the transport of goods across south-western France until it was made irrelevant by the railroads that replaced it in the late 19th century. Today, it is the most popular pleasure waterway in Europe.

One of the canal’s most scenic sections passes through the city of Toulouse. The plane-tree-lined canal passes directly through the city, allowing the private or rented boats that ply the waterway in the summer to dock close to the city’s museums and other tourist attractions.

As a Toulouse-area resident, I have not floated through the city on one of these long, low boats. I have, however, walked the shady former towpaths that line each side of the canal, creating attractive hiking and cycling routes. It was on one of those walks that I happened upon La Cale à Vins, a classic French péniche, the flat-bottomed river barges used to transport goods. I found out, when I spoke with the boat’s owner, André Fuster, that cale is French for a ship’s hold. La Cale à Vins is a play on words for the French name for a wine shop, une cave à vins.

Since the boat was built in 1920 it has been used successively to transport grain, as a floating library by the city of Toulouse, and by the international medical and humanitarian aid organization Médecins Sans Frontières. It went through the hands of several private owners in the early part of this decade, and following a two-year renovation it emerged as the Oenothilus, a floating wine bar/restaurant/wine shop. The Oenothilus, which specialized in the wines of Southwestern France, made a name for itself as a nice place to drink a glass of wine. From online reviews that I discovered on the Internet, I learned that the food and service seemed to not be up to the quality of the wine, and that the drop in business must have led to the sale, in February of this year, to Fuster.

He has revamped the wine menu so that it includes wine from all over France, along with a few from other countries. Fuster became an oenologist in 1998. He told me that his wine ‘epiphany’ was in 1990 when he tasted a premier cru from Puligny-Montrachet. This wine, he said, made him understand the difference between ‘wine’ and ‘plonk’. His six years working for one of the world’s leading providers of commercial yeasts and bacteria, when he travelled throughout France to visit vineyards, gave him his primary source for his 200-plus list of wines offered at the Cale à Vins. Fuster says that he knows each wine producer personally, and that, unlike most restaurants where you select the wine after having selected a dish, he would like his patrons to first select a wine. Using his first-hand knowledge of the wines that he sells, he can then suggest a dish from the menu.

Forty people can be seated in the inside dining area and on the fore and aft open decks, while a maximum of 120 people can be on-board at one time. Lunch is served Tuesday through Friday and dinner Tuesday through Saturday. The food consists of fresh local specialties – charcuterie from Corsica and Spain, foie gras from local producers, a variety of fresh fish, and cheese from the Pyrenees. The winter menu will include more hot dishes. Lunch will cost you, depending on your wine selection, between €15 and €20, while dinner is not much more expensive. The boat can be reserved for private parties as well.

Fuster, who speaks French and English, plans on having a different winemaker present his or her wine each Tuesday evening. His partner, in both business and in life, Nadine Moreau, is helping to organize these wine tasting sessions, which will begin in October.

The wine menu is the size of a textbook, with information about both the wine and the winemaker. From among the more than 200 wines on offer at the Cale à Vins, you’re sure to find, a wine that will please you. And once you have, the expert advice offered by Fuster will pair your wine choice with an equally enjoyable food dish.

The Cale à Vins is moored near the Toulouse city centre at Boulevard Griffoul-Douval, near the Passerelle des Soupirs foot bridge and the Port Saint-Sauveur. The telephone number is +33 (0)5 62 16 39 47 and additional information is available on their website.

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