Saturday, 21 November 2009

Why Languedoc?

The place. Discovering the Languedoc geographically was by chance. After years of taking holidays touring around gastronomic France in a hire car and living out of a suitcase, we took the opportunity through friends of a friend to have a fixed base for a week. On 3rd April 1993 we arrived at a converted manger of a village house in Soubès near Lodève. Despite chilly weather and little evidence of spring we fell in love with the varied countryside, the light, the wine and the amazing Le Mimosa restaurant.
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Past tastes and influences. Conversion to near exclusive consumption of Languedoc wine was a slow process. In the 1980s our tastes were pretty broad – the classic French regions (especially Alsace and better Bordeaux), Spain, Italy, Germany with dips into California and the start of the Aussie invasion; even Bulgaria. The early 1980s were also, arguably, the golden age for fine wine – classics were relatively undiscovered and affordable, but there were also plenty of duds. The biggest single influence on our tastes for almost 30 years has to be Mike and Liz Berry who now run Vins Fins de la Crau in Provence. A first purchase in 1980 from their mail order Mulberry Vintners, soon to be La Vigneronne, was a treasure trove of classics – Hermitage, 2nd growth Claret, top Sauternes, 20 year old vintage port. The cost today would be over double in equivalent money.

The most educational wine experience is to attending tastings. Mike and Liz started regular tastings that ran for years while Charlemagne Wine Club in West London (soon to celebrate 30 years) cover more everyday wines with the occasional look at the classics.

As the 80s progressed a change was needed. Old world red wine was often unreliable, hard, closed when young and required ageing. Prices increased as investors, informed amateurs and posers came on board – the 1982 Bordeaux vintage seemed to be the starter gun and it wasn’t long before fashion also encroached on the Rhône. We were also long term Alsace lovers – it was reliable and didn’t have the drawbacks of red, but even that was changing with richer and later harvest styles.

New World fayre didn’t arrive in the UK in earnest until the 1990s. The original Seaview Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release from Oddbins was a sensation at the time; like a young fruity 1982 claret on steroids. In the white department New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay had similar impact. While not enough to sustain varied drinking it did mark a watershed for the adoption of modern winemaking practices in France. As for the Languedoc, it was just hidden under the bucket banner of “French Country Wine” that seems to cover anywhere vinous south of the Loire that isn’t Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône. Wines like Jurançon and Madiran were listed alongside the likes of Faugères and Minervois – and frankly they usually are today in the UK (Adnams is just one example, and they have made efforts over the years to seek interesting Languedoc wines out).

Enlightenment. 1990 was a turning point. The Berrys proffered 1988 Mas de Daumas Gassac (70% Cabernet Sauvignon) as the Claret alternative from a place called the Languedoc. Arguably this is gaining recognition by stealth, but why not – the Guggenheim worked for Bilbao. Liz Berry published The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon: The World’s Largest Vineyard in 1992 and the Berrys started to seek out and offer growers’ wines from the area.

Having visited the region regularly since 1993, by far our most enlightening guide has been David Pugh of the restaurant Le Mimosa – also described in Liz’s book and credited by the Berrys for many of the wines they listed. David’s extraordinary palate and talent to root out local gems that are well made and simply trying to be themselves is a beacon. His wine list deserves to be and will be the subject of another post.

The wine. For us Languedoc wine, and the reds in particular, combine the best of old and new world characteristics. They are Rhône and Provence style, i.e. full bodied, but better value. Most give great enjoyment when young and there’s great diversity thanks to the many sub-regions, the range of grape varieties planted and large number of growers. Few bad harvests is another bonus with enough vintage variation to give interest.

Of course there is a downside to these fine attributes. The wines are near impossible to classify in a way recognisable to the uninitiated consumer and every conceivable style is made. Even worse, most of the quality wines are only available in small quantities from growers so only small independent merchants stock them. Beyond Internet-only retailers, the most interesting UK selections seem to appear on adventurous restaurant wine lists.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Mas Gabriel - find of the year

There’s plenty of opportunity to try local wines at various events and village fairs, especially in season. By far the most intriguing encounter this year was Mas Gabriel back in May. Three wines were on tasting, their white, rosé and red. The rosé was clean and fresh with gently perfumed red fruits and strawberry yet had a serious stony backbone that could partner food. The white and red didn’t leave any particular impression other than an astonishing purity that underlined all three wines. A couple of bottles of Les Fleurs Sauvages 2008 rosé were soon consumed chez nous and confirmed how delicious it was. Being made from 50 year old vines of Carignan and Cinsault clearly makes a difference.

We soon made a trip to Caux for more supplies and the opportunity to taste the white and red again, although this time from pre-opened bottles. Clos des Papillons 2008 is made from old and rare Carignan Blanc and fresh almonds, lemon peel and rosemary were all evolving in the glass with a fresh hay finish. Clos Gabriel 2006 is 63% Carignan, 28% Syrah and 9% Grenache. A soft ripe blackcurrant and blackberry start becomes classy boot polish. Mouth filling and robust without being heady and the finish is balanced with reassuring tannins. When we returned in the autumn the rosé and white were sold out, although lovers of fine food should note that O-Bontemps in nearby Magalas will be listing the white. Just bottled in October was the Les Trois Terrasses 2008 Carignan – my bottles will rest over winter before I broach them. Cellar door prices are 6 € to 12 € and offer better value than most growers in the more fashionable Montpeyroux triangle.

Alchemy in action

2006 was Peter and Debora Core’s first vintage having been lucky enough to purchase some extraordinarily diverse parcels of vines from parts of the esteemed Domaine de la Garance. Now expanded to 6 hectares with some new plantings the vineyards, which were tendered organically, are currently in the three year “bio” certification paperwork marathon. The Cores also practice bio-dynamic principles. Before starting Mas Gabriel over two years were spent in New Zealand and Bordeaux learning the practicalities of viticulture and winemaking – yes this was a complete career and lifestyle change.

Mas Gabriel is easy to visit – on summer weekend afternoons just turn up, otherwise phone or email first to avoid disappointment (details here).