Sunday, 26 December 2010

Vins Méditerranée tasting

The Cercle Francais de Chiswick meets most months with an evening centred around a presentation in French on a subject with a strong French connection. Even if the topic or speaker fails to grip me, I at least get some practice at listing to spoken French. Most years they devote a session to food or drink matters and this month they invited Anthony Auguin of very local and highly reputed wine merchant Lea & Sanderman to introduce French Mediterranean wines.


Five wines were shown, one each of sparkling, white, rosé, red and Vins Doux Naturel.

2006 Crémant de Limoux Brut Jean-Louis Denois (Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Pinot Noir) attractive apple blossom, yeasty, butter and toasted breadcrumbs with a clean finish. One of the best examples I recall tasting. Apparently Pinot Noir has been recently allowed under the appellation rules and Anthony feels this has improved Crémant de Limoux considerably. UK retail £13.50.

2008 Le Sarda Blanc Côtes du Roussillon Domaine Sarda-Malet (Grenache Gris, Marsanne, Malvoisi) very aromatic and quite fat with sage, thyme, green olives and grapefruit. For me a one glass wine but a good example of an up-front aromatic white, although personally I would prefer a Picpoul that should also come in a bit less than the £10 for La Sarda.

2009 L'Hydropathe Élite Rosé Côtes de Provence Sainte Victoire Domaine Sainte Lucie (Grenache and Syrah) with 5 other varieties) boiled sweets with pomegranate. Well made and pleasant enough but little more and poor value at £14. Apparently this is popular in Chiswick at Christmas which sort of figures.

2005 Côtes du Rhône Villages Saint Maurice Cuvée Maréotis Domaine Viret (Grenache and Syrah). My first impression, actually more a hit both visual and nasal, was of some sort of dense fruit bomb. Deep dark colour, cassis, prunes, fruit cake, spices, very ripe tannins, farmyard (Brett) with nice freshness and delicious flowing silky mouth textures. Amazingly 15% but doesn't seem like it. The vineyard is "cosmoculture" biodynamic with no additives, including sulphur, in the wine making - something many would coin a "natural wine". Extraordinary and I loved it.
Anthony pointed out and defended the brett in the wine - a bit advanced for such as audience but hopefully they weren't put off. £18.

2006 Mas Amiel Vintage Maury Vin Doux Naturel (Grenache) was served with chocolates to illustrate its compatibility. This is the (relatively) modern young fresh, sweet, spicy, supple concentrated cherry style of Maury. Delicious, but perhaps finishing a bit short making it too easy to drink. £17.

Interesting to see the approach to representing the French med in just five wines. While I'm disappointed the Languedoc missed out, tasting the Domaine Viret Maréotis more than made up for it.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Les Obriers de La Pèira 2008

La Pèira En Damaisela is in the heart of the Terrasses du Larzac and interesting to me because it seems to have a strong reputation outside France and yet locally is well below the radar. I've never noticed any of their wines at a cavist or restaurant wine list, although La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux lists Les Obriers. I've also never come across any at the many excellent festive events in the area.

Back in London I came across the 2008 Les Obriers when investigating the new branch of The Sampler in South Kensington. This is essentially a wine store with some intriguing technology offering self-service tasting samples for 80 different wines. While there were several bottles from two well known regions beginning with B plus a Rhone, no other French reds were on tasting. Still, the Languedoc selection on the shelves was fine and I was keen to savour a whole bottle anyway.



Les Obriers is a blend of two thirds Cinsault and one third Carignan. While most growers would make Rosé with the Cinsault or use just a dollop in a blend, a big chapeau for making a red. With the Carignan giving the Languedoc x-factor this is very much a local style rather than, say, a Syrah Grenache Rhone look alike or worse.

I found fresh mulberry with a hint of rose water and a raspberry palate with some plum and a black olive finish. A couple of days later and the wine had changed surprisingly little. Nevertheless, for me it was holding something back. It's bit like looking at a coral reef through glass at an aquarium. While this is the experience most prefer and enjoy, I fancy the snorkel and flippers approach for a different more edgy perspective. Either way, it has the balance to last for many years and will be well worth revisiting when it has more bottle age. I'll also keep an eye out for older vintages.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Domaine Treloar Dinner


Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon hosted a dinner at Le Café Anglais in Bayswater after the outstanding Outsiders tasting (see my November posts).


One Block Muscat 2009 (Muscat Petite Grains) was dry and  refreshing with a clean muscat scent, a rare aromatic Languedoc white when the second glass was as enjoyable as the first. One comment on what differentiated this dry muscat from the pack was how well the finish held up. It has some lees age and I think this toned down the fruitiness a notch and helped the transition to the wine's finish.
The pickled squash salad with prawns was unfortunately not a particularly wine friendly dish.

La Terre Promise 2009 (50% Grenache Gris, 30% Macabeu, 20% Carignan Blanc) was fresh and minerally and yet had assertive layers of cooked fruits and garrigue. Apparently has less Macabeu than previous vintages which has calmed the tropical fruit notes to let the dry flavours of the other grapes come through. A wine to savour.
Duck paté en croute, actually a delicious posh meat loaf served warm, went well.

The reds were all served together with a deep flavoured Beef en Daube with mash.

Three Peaks 2007 (60% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache) is the red I'm most familiar with. Has a deceptive dry style and one needs to look for its brambly fruits with tobacco and some spice. Le Secret 2007 (80% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache) struggled a bit against the heady Daube and may have benefited from decanting. Nevertheless, there was some classy blackcurrent in there and a nice structure. Tahi 2006 (50% Syrah 30% Mourvedre and 20% Grenache) has more oak, richness and perfume and did the best job at marching the Daube. While delicious now it needs a few years to integrate nicely.

Jonathan made the interesting comment that he makes three wines from similar blends to cover a broader spectrum of tastes. A fair point given I found the Tahi the least typical Roussillon red of the three.

Muscat de Rivesaltes 2009 served with roasted pineapple seasoned with ginger and chilli and panacotta  was the food match of the evening. The sweetness of the muscat didn't dominate and the wine had a nice purity and balance.

Le Café Anglais gave us excellent food and service. They don't appear to have a professional Sommelier and were obviously not familiar with the wines, which may explain some of the questionable food matches. That said, for me this really didn't matter and it was a fine way to end a great day.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Olive Harvest

This is not a post on wine, but there is a connection and, sadly, a shared plight. Olive groves have been sprouting up all over the place in the central Hérault valley over the past decade. Many of these will have been given a start in life by EU vine grubbing up payments - sadly a blunt instrument of a policy that doesn't protect prime terroir, but that's another subject.

Young olive trees overlooking the Hérault valley
The Clermont l'Hérault olive oil coopérative was founded in 1920 and is famous in the locality. It was one of the few "huileries" to survive the devastating frosts of January 1956 that killed or crippled all the trees (and quite a few vines) in the south of France for years. Recovery has been painfully slow but steady since the 1990s.

This year the trees are heaving with olives and picking for oil production started at the beginning of November (most eating olives are picked from September when green and not fully ripe). While wine overproduction is nothing new in the Languedoc the Clermont huilerie seems to have an oil overproduction crisis as well.

According to the region's Midi Libre daily paper they sell 80,000 litres of their member's oil a year. However, last years harvest generated 215,000 litres so to address this, and help keep the price to the growers at €8 a litre, 15% less olives will be accepted from their members this year (I assume in practice the olives are pressed but the surplus oil is returned). There are exceptions for producers of less than about 40 litres plus those who signed up to the special "Japan" cuvée who will have all their oil accepted.

The challenge for southern French olive oil is the climate is actually at the northern limits for the olive tree. It's a bit like Riesling from the Mosel. While quality and finesse is excellent and sometimes unbeatable, the yield is low and variable - a fraction of that achievable in southern Spain, Algeria, Greece etc. A typical tree will give just 2 to 3 litres of oil and to be economic local oils need to retail at around €14 to €18 a litre.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Outsiders Tasting Part 2

For an introduction to the Outsiders tasting do read Part 1.

I’d heard and read good things about Domaine Cébène so this was a first taste. All three (Ex Arena 2008, Les Bancèls 2009 and Felgara 2009) managed to combine garrigue flavours of the south with fresh, ripe concentrated – but not baked or too spicy – fruit. The Ex Arena, from vineyards just north of Béziers, showed the most pepper and savoury garrigue herb character. Les Bancèls and Felgaria is grown on schist in the heart of Faugeres. Les Bancèls had intense but structured black fruits with wild flowers. The Mouvèdre dominated Felgaria was much headier and meaty, even iron, and needs time to integrate. The big clue was savouring the flavours that lingered in the empty glass of all three wines – while dangerously attractive now they will keep. Brigitte Chevalier has been making wine for others for some time and the wines show a much more advanced state of work in progress than most new domains.

O’Vineyards must be as well known for Ryan O’Connell and his extrovert Languedoc wine videos as it is for wine. Being near Carcassonne the Mediterranean influence is relatively feeble which is why Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more suited. One word that summarises the three 2005s, their first full vintage, is oomph – but these wines are certainly not out of control and are not trying to be Bordeaux. O’Syrah 2005 is nice and chewy and I got pine, mint and dried plums. Trah Lah Lah 2005 (Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon) had spice and plenty of classic Merlot fruit cake and plum. Proprietor’s Reserve 2005 (Syrah with Merlot and Cabernet) combines the elements of the first two but racks up the fruit concentration while keeping everything in balance – it will go on for years.

The smallest domaine on show is Katie’s 2.7 ha (but soon to expand) Domaine Jones. Having worked with wine in the area (Corbières) for 16 years Katie is perhaps less of an outsider than most. Jones Blanc 2009 (Grenache Gris) lovely clean white flowers with citrus and a nuttiness from the lees. Jones Rouge 2009 (Grenache) rowanberry, sweet heathers, fennel juices, delicious mouth coating tannins. Great to have a pure Grenache for the area that doesn’t taste like a Maury.

Chateau d’Anglès is sited in La Clape among hills right by the Mediterranean. The Classique Rouge 2007 (Syrah, Mouvèdre and Grenache) was what the French coin gourmandise, moreish with quite sweet lush ripe fruit and some liquorice. The Grand Vin Rouge 2007 (Syrah, Mouvèdre, Grenache and Carignan) had some cool supple fine tannins but seemed more international than Languedoc in style. I found the two whites were not for me – a bit flat and lacking zip.

Domaine Hegarty Chamans lies in the Minervois and has been established since 2002. Les Chamans Blanc 2008 (Marsanne and Roussanne) was both creamy and crisp. Cuvee No.2 2008 (mainly Grenache with Mouvèdre and Cinsault) was my pick of the reds – sweet, earthy, black cherry with some nice dry tannins and worth stashing away for a couple of years.

Mas des Dames is north of Béziers where Lidewij van Wilgen has been making wines since 2002. Unusually for November in London she was showing a Rosé which leaned more towards a firm food style nose with an attractive strawberry palate and long finish - really nice. The Blanc 2009 seemed closed and quite hard to taste, perhaps it had been recently bottled, unfortunate as the anticipation of a pure Grenache Blanc excited me. La Dame (Grenache, Syrah and Carignan – I didn’t note the vintage) was smooth with soft quite sweet fruits and black cherry, although too heady and four square for my taste.

A wonderful tasting and full of variety. Fingers crossed it becomes and annual event.

Monday, 15 November 2010

Outsiders Tasting Part 1


The “Outsiders” tasting at London’s Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon hosted grower-winemakers who moved to the region, be it from nearby Bordeaux, Europe, USA or even New Zealand.

Why Outsiders? The Languedoc-Roussillon offers the best value in France for a newcomer to potentially make interesting wine. With the decline of co-operatives for example, affordable established but underachieving vineyards on fine terroirs are available. These Outsiders have either brought new ideas or simply open minds to their craft, but are all strongly motivated by a love of wine and making it.

From a UK tasting perspective these “Outsiders” all have a fine command of English to communicate their all important philosophy. This perfectly organised event was also buzzing but not heaving so there was plenty of time to engage with those behind the wines – and surprisingly little to write notes.

Of the 12 growers (links at the foot of this post) I am familiar with three. Mas Gabriel tasted just as fine in London as it does in the Hérault (see Leon Stolarski’s blog comments here), as did Treloar – I’ll post separately on a memorable Treloar dinner that evening.

La Grange de Quatre Sous I’ve enjoyed for many years and Hildegard Horat’s Les Serrottes 2007 (Syrah and Malbec) is fat and supple with sweet blackcurrant and a delicious balanced mouth feel. The white Le Jeu du Mail 2008 (Viognier and Marsanne) has hints of sherbet and elderflower with a bit of depth from ageing on the lees.

The surprise of the day was Château de Combebelle which turns out to be just 3 Km from La Grange de Quatre Sous. Peaking at 300m it’s has the highest vines in Saint Chinian plus they have been organic before Catherine Wallace purchased them in 2005 and went biodynamic. “Les Fleurs Sauvages” 2008 is 90% Syrah and the surprise was its elegance – this is Syrah that lets the light in, gentle red fruits and hints of game and reminiscent of northern Rhone. My suspicion of such a Syrah dominated (Languedoc) wine was completely derailed. “Henri” 2008 uses up the Syrah from young vines and was hand bottled in just 150 magnums(takes half the time of bottles), Lovely fresh, unsophisticated but luscious fruit with hints of smoke.

I was introduced to one wonderful Limoux Chardonnay this year and I can now add a second. Château Rives-Blanques Cuvée de l'Odyssée 2009 oozes mineral coolness with racy white flowers. Apparently fermented in barrels but you hardly notice. Vintage Rosé 2007 is crémant style and I find the soft mousse mouth feel ideal as an aperitif – strawberry and dry fruit with citrus tones.

Chateau d’Anglès
Domaine de Calet
Domaine Cébène
Chateau de Combebelle
Mas des Dames
Mas Gabriel
Domaine Hegarty Chamans
Domaine Jones
La Grange de Quatre Sous (no website)
Chateau Rives-Blanques
Domaine Treloar
O’Vineyards

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Spider from Mars

Spotted in a vineyard.


It's purpose is to dispense fertiliser (I assume) into a tractor pulled trailer.

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Pinot Noir of the South

Back in the spring the first International Grenache Symposium took place in the depths of the Southern Rhône. While obviously a trade event, it was good to see that anyone could make a case to be invited and, thanks to bloggers, quite a bit of video and written commentary on the bash is available.

Of Languedoc interest Ryon O’Connell posted a video (embedded below) of this round-table session led by Robert Joseph Grenache and Carignan in the Languedoc-Roussillon. In it Robert makes reference to Grenache being “the Pinot Noir of the South”. John Bojanowski of Clos du Gravillas, by way of describing how good Carignan can be in the region, makes a case for Carignan. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the term “Pinot Noir of the South”, but I’m curious as to what the simile really means to those who use it.



Pinot Noir’s home is Burgundy in the centre of France and here it has five interesting and probably relevant characteristics: -

1. Been around for centuries
2. Is used as a 100% varietal in almost all wines, and is especially king of the fabled Côte d’Or
3. Is challenging to grow, is challenging to make good interesting wine from, and has limited success outside of its homeland
4. The wine is reasonably recognisable as being Pinot Noir (at least when young)
5. It has the ability to take on endless different subtleties depending on where it grows – even down to vineyard level.

For a bit of fun I’ll score Grenache and Carignan against these characteristics and tally the results.

Both Grenache and Carignan have been in the midi for at least a couple of hundred years. Not as long as Pinot Noir in Burgundy, but then the midi has needed to change grape plantings to meet market demands. Both score 3 (out of 5).

Languedoc wines are generally blends. The exceptions are basic quaffing varietals and, curiously, some very top end wines. Carignan makes a few interesting 100% examples, Grenache even fewer (except perhaps in the Roussillon). Carignan 3 Grenache 2.

Old vine Carignan naturally restricts the yield of this phenomenal cropper. John Bojanowski points out in the video that the trick is harvest it late so the tannins fully ripen – it still retains good acidity and the sugars don’t go beyond 13.5%. It does have problems with odium and late harvests increase risk for growers. Very little Carignan exists beyond the Languedoc these days. Conversely Grenache is grown all over the planet so is presumably as easy going as vines get. The challenges are its narrow picking window of desirable ripeness and tendency to oxidise.
Carignan 4 Grenache 2 – but some growers will no doubt score this one differently.

Carignan wines from the region invariably posses varying degrees of bramble fruits, black olives, coffee and dark chocolate. Grenache is more variable in style and I find it hard to recognise – pepper is one indicator, forest floor, animal, sometimes rustic, sometimes sweet red fruits. My score Carignan 3 Grenache 2.

The last characteristic is about reflecting the Languedoc terroir and is presumably the main reason why Syrah is not a candidate, plus Syrah already has a happy home in the Northern Rhône. The more chameleon Grenache wins out here. Carignan 2 Grenache 4.

For what it’s worth the totals are Carignan 15 and Grenache 13. My candidate for Pinot Noir of the South is Cinsault, not as the workhorse of rose but for serious examples of red. Trouble is, these are as rare as hens teeth.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Lledoner Pelut

Lledoner Pelut is related to Grenache and apparently has hairy leaves. It's unusual to see it named in a blend, let alone used as a 100% varietal bottling. I know of two. One is made at Domaine Canteperdrix at Gabian in the north of the Côtes de Thongue, although I haven't tried (or even seen) a bottle for several years. The other is made due south from Gabian on the outskirts of Béziers at Domaine La Colombette.

I picked up a bottle of the 2004 Domaine La Colombette Lledoner Pelut (Vin de Pays des Coteaux du Libron) from a local caviste at the height of summer. Even in the hottest weather I can't live without drinking red, but stick to young vigorous wines. As this has some age I resisted broaching it until cooler autumn weather.

I found it balanced and pleasantly mellow. Black cherry fruit with spice and some butch tannins that leaves the side of the palate with a warm slightly chewy but pleasant feel. Good elegant length and lovely to savour.


Does Lledoner Pelut differ from Grenache in taste and quality? One problem here is that there are relatively few Grenache or even Grenache dominated blends made in the region. Roussillon does better and famously Grenache make its vins doux naturels (Maury, Banyuls). Grenache is king in the Southern Rhone but I've tasted few in recent times. The Languedocs I am know vary in style - degrees of oak and ripeness. Grenache seems able to express terroir better than most varieties, which is to say it reveals different subtleties in different vineyards. Conclusion - I find the question more or less unanswerable.

For Leon Stolarski's enthusiastic review of this wine see his blog here

For Rosemary George's review of Domaine Canteperdrix see her blog here

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Special Mas de Daumas Gassac dinner

In the 1980s the restaurant Le Mimosa in Saint Guiraud and Mas de Daumas Gassac across the Hérault valley were complementary pioneers for the area that today is the heart of the Terrasses du Larzac. With the Pugh’s hoping to hand over the restaurant to a new chef during the 2011 season this was a celebratory dinner instigated by the Guibert family.

Rosé Frizzante was what it says, a gently pétillant fragrant fruity róse. I’m surprised more serious growers don’t try making this style.

Blanc 2009 The apricot and peach from the Viognier was shining through, with dancing but structured flavours of white flowers and minerals underneath. Certainly my dry wine of evening and went wonderfully well with fois gras on a potato and onion rösti, and later with the stronger red wine challenging cheeses.
Apparently the whites received no oak after the millennium vintage, an admirable step that makes them fresher and much more consistent and interesting in their youth.

Rouge 2008 Quite intense blackcurrant and some tight tannins, but certainly not too much apparent oak. Worked better with the wild mushroom risotto than on its own, but ultimately a shame to drink it so young.

Blanc 1995 Posh caramel with honeysuckle and grapefruit. Plenty of fresh acidity. An aristocratic match for lobster with mint beurre blanc.

Rouge 1996 Acorns and leaves with berries and some charcuterie. Dry and reminiscent of when I drunk Bordeaux in the 1980s. Went well with pigeon with lentils, liquorice and an artisan pastis sauce, but lacked the layers of flavours and length one would have hoped for. [I tasted this wine back in January, see this post].


Rouge 1978 This was their first vintage and had been cellared at the property for 32 years, something very special indeed to be able to taste. Mushrooms and stalks with some pastel leathery fruit. Dry but certainly neither lean nor drying out unduly. Certainly exceeded my expectations. Later I discovered a near new cork by one of the bottles, it had been re-corked relatively recently so a much longer life is expected. Unprecedented for a Languedoc red.

Vin de Laurence 2007 Muscat and Sercial (the Madera grape). The Muscat is late harvested and the Sercial gives it heaps of acidity. The result is gentle orange flower with quince wine with lovely balance and purity. Absolutely delicious. Has only been made in four years since 1998.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Domaine Ribiera



Aspiran has an historical legacy of growing Clairette that ends up in that rather aristocratic vermouth Noilly Prat. With the Terrasses du Larrzac starting just up the road and a basalt lava flow identical to that at Caux (near Pézenas) just to the south, Aspiran definitely under performs. Things should start to change once some new wave independents become established. Already some vineyards are owned by outsiders in neighbouring villages and new plantings are evident on some of the hillside sites.

Of the half dozen independents, Domaine Ribiera excites the most. Before starting in 2005 Christine and Régis Pichon had, between them, previous lives that included sommelier, restaurateur and wine buyer for a prestigious épicerie. They now have 6 hectares in various parcels throughout the commune and practice organic and natural wine techniques including fermentation using the yeast present on the grape skins.

Carignan and Tapenade

La Vista 2008 2/3 Grenache and 1/3 Carignan. Peppery fruit, redcurrents, fennel. A gentle wine, probably connected to the absence of Syrah and oak, that's deceptively full of flavours that gently spiral around. One of those wines I didn't get on my first encounter back in the spring. Proves that oak isn't essential for complexity and rounded tannins. €9 to €10.

Carignan 2005 chocolate, liquorice, blackberry hints of eucalyptus freshness on a base of stalks. More than a quaff. Note that this wine is no longer made but Le Nez dans le Verre in Pézenas have some for just €6.

Les Canilles 2008 white Roussanne with 10% Clairette. Not tasted since it was younger and needing time to open up - quite herby with a good clean mouth feel.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Domaine de Malavieille Permian Rouge



The Terrasses du Larzac's Domaine de Malavieille is just off the western edge of Lake Salagou close to Octon, home of the well known Mas des Chimères that shares a similar terroir. The landscape is dominated by a red soil and red rippling hillsides known, at least locally, as Ruffes. This is oxidised fine grained sandstone formed some 250 million years ago at the end of what Geologists call the Permian era. Mixed in with this is basalt from volcanic activity - the picture below was taken at the base of an eroded volcanic plug.

A blend of Carignan, Grenache and Cinsault the 2006 Permian Rouge is the domain's entry red. It has gentle soft red fruits with suggestions of mint and a cherry stone finish. An uncomplicated but satisfying drink and good value at €6, although younger vintages will be a bit more and sport an all red label. Definitely on my distressingly short list of red wines with some interest and character for under €6. Malavieille has also been certified bio for several years.

The domaine also makes a Carignan dominated red Le Mas de Bertrand from vineyards over the hill in the Saint Saturnin - Montpeyroux axis, a wine that also offers excellent value for that terroir.


Monday, 20 September 2010

Vermentino

Several northern white grapes have been planted in the Languedoc over the past 20 plus years. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc along with Viognier from the northern Rhone are the most obvious examples, mainly driven by fashion and are hence easier to sell. Chenin Blanc isn't fashionable, but does well because it keeps its acidity.

Vermentino has its base in southern Italy. In the Languedoc it was, until quite recently, commonly referred to as Rolle. This is Vermentino's northern outpost where it ripens late and is more likely to result in a more mineral style of wine. While usually a modest proportion in a blend, I would like to see more near 100% Vermentinos made - I know of less than half a dozen Languedoc examples.


Chateau Malautié is in Aspiran between Pézenas and Picpoul country to the south and the Terrasses du Larzac to the north. Malautié is a long established independent in what is a fading bastion of Clairette and a cooperative that only supplies wine tankers. Their Vermentino is gently floral with a lemon balm background. It has all the acidity of Picpoul with the tropical fruits toned down a notch, plus at €6 is at a similar price point. I love it as an apero. The 12% alcohol is also welcome.

Malautié also make an oaked version I haven't tried, but I did have a glass in a restaurant the other day of a young oaked Vermentino  Domaine Fons Sanatis from Saint-Jean de Fos in Terrasses du Larzac country. The oak transforms it into something different and it will no doubt gain in complexity, as it should for around €20.


An alternative in the Malautié mould is Domaine Saint Hilare on the edge of the Picpoul Appelation. I find their basic inexpensive un-oaked Vermentino by far their most successful wine.

Outside the region it may be easier to buy Corsican examples and, outside of France, look to Sardinia. Even so, they seem to be few and far between - something that should change.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Vendange manuelle

It’s surprising how many friends one bumps into at the excellent Pézanas Saturday market despite the crowds who flock there in season. The Cores from Mas Gabriel in nearby Caux (my previous posts here) were taking it relatively easy for a few days having bagged the Carignan Blanc vendage and were waiting for their red varieties to ripen. Would you like to come and do some picking? was almost a passing comment. After a quick assessment of my back (now improved having quit a 30 year career sat at a keyboard or in meetings) along with a “is this a polite invitation or a time of need call” I said yes.

The day started at 7 a.m. when it’s just light enough to see a bunch of grapes. The training course at three sentences was the shortest I’ve ever experienced. 1. Cut the bunches with the secateurs next to the cane as this will free two bunches at once (at least it does with Syrah). 2. Put the bunches into your bucket that can be emptied into cagettes (basically airport x-ray machine bins) strategically placed between the vines. 3. Finally, and most importantly, no grappons – these are small unripe bunches on thin tendrils resulting from later growth and flowerings.

Day 1 young syrah. Picking is done in groups of 2 or 3 to a row so the trained vine can be tackled from both sides and to make it a social event. Young vines are green harvested to give three bunches and avoid overstressing the vines. They also have relatively few leaves so easy pickings – this is definitely low hanging fruit. Picking was faster than tractor transportation to the winery so stretch breakes seemed frequent. Cloud rolled in by lunch time and kept the heat down. Before 3.30 p.m. it was job done. 1750 litres of de-stemmed grapes and juice. At the post analysis beer consumption meeting the forecast rain for the next day was discussed. Solution was to find an internet site (meteociel.fr) that wasn’t forecasting rain.

Day 1 sunrise

Off to the winery

Day 2 adult syrah. A few more vines and a couple of less pickers. Denser foliage and more bunches made for slower picking than transport capacity so less breaks. Young girl whizzes along with Edward Scissorhands action - turns out she's done some hairdressing. Post lunch was clearly an effort with concentration needing to overtake conversation. The sun was out now. Even so, by 4 p.m. it was job done.

Day 2 and job done. Unfortunately one picker is incapable of standing.


Meanwhile, back at the cave.

For a different perspective do see Rosemary George’s account of the Mas Gabriel white harvest.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Foire aux Vins

September is the season of the French supermarket “Foire aux vins” – wine sales. It coincides with vintage time, presumably as everyone needs to move stocks on and make space in the cellars and warehouses for more wine.

Midi Libre, the department’s daily local paper, devoted a full page to the matter. I was a bit shocked to read that wine from Domaine Henry (Saint-Georges-d’Orques near Montpellier) would be appearing in the sales. This estate is long established and right up there with finest of the region, making wines that deserve some ageing – I still have some 2001. The wines are only sold to cavistes and négociants and in this case have been sold on to a supermarket as they weren’t selling or an export order fell through. The article states the wine is 18,95 € “Foire des vins” price but only 16 € from the property, which will also be the caviste price.

This isn’t an isolated example. This Midi-Vin caviste’s blog is rightly keen to point out they sell Clos Marie L'Olivette (a top Pic St Loup estate) at 13,30 € vs. 15,50 € at a supermarket, although after deliver charges there won't be much in it.

Both the intermediary and supermarket are making money out of this at the expense of the consumer who presumably thinks "foire aux vins" means a bargain. Perhaps more worrying is that these are established wines that are struggling to sell. Maybe, but I’ll be optimistic and believe that the cavistes or négociant is taking the lazy route to shift the wine in these examples.

Note that non-foire supermarket prices I’ve seem are generally identical to a caviste’s.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Grand new order of things

Anyone who follows the Languedoc wine scene will probably have read about the new wine hierarchy of Grands Vins du Languedoc and Grands Crus du Languedoc. Commenting objectively is tough as little has been announced.

The body concerned is CIVL (Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Languedoc) who translate this to “the joint trade council of the wines of Languedoc”. Note CIVL doesn’t cover Roussillon who may be observing this with bated breath. CIVL receive funding from anyone who produces wine in exchange for the right to label it “AOC Minervois” or equivalent, so it's reasonable to assume they represent winemakers interests at all levels. Their President is, after all, Frédéric Jeanjean who owns that giant of a producer Jeanjean.

The problem being addressed is that the Languedoc Appellation system is too complex, the result of gradual developments as more areas and sub-areas qualified for AOC status over the years. It needs simplifying and it needs to be clear to the consumer. In fairness to CIVL it’s a case of they’re dammed if the don’t and perhaps dammed even more if they do. To their credit they've made a move with the launch of the new order of vineyard areas, although some ratification is needed by the INAO – the AOC authority for all agricultural products in France.

The terms “Grand Vin” and “Grand Cru” are going to be recognised by any consumer of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Alsace. The Rhone and Beaujolais regions were more modest with simply named “crus” for the better areas or villages such as Gigondas or Fleurie. While “Grand” is quite a brazen tag, Languedoc wine is now in a global market and bold confidence is needed.

My initial reading of the announcement was like a schoolboy eyeing sports league tables – who was placed where. The Grand Crus are Minervois La Livinière, Corbières Boutenac, Saint Chinian Roquebrun, Terrasses du Larzac, Grès de Montpellier, Pic Saint Loup, Pézenas, La Clape and Limoux (still wines). The Grands Vins du Languedoc are Minervois, Corbières, Saint Chinian, Limoux (sparkling wines), Malepère, Faugères, Cabardès, Muscat areas and part of the Terroirs des Coteaux du Languedoc including Picpoul de Pinet.

My schoolboy reaction was how come Faugères isn’t a Grand Cru (and what have they done to upset CIVL), that Grès de Montpellier covers a large diverse area with few exceptional wines, and I couldn’t think of a wine from Corbières Boutenac. On further research it turns out some AOC sub-areas were created in 2005 including Boutenac and Roquebrun in Saint Chinian. Awarding them Grand Cru status seems consistent with that initiative, although why not Saint Chinian Berlou as well? On a positive note the catch all “Coteaux du Languedoc” disappears.

For wine lovers the real Languedoc is about the vignerons; the small independents or even the more interesting of the larger enterprises such as Paul Mas. The authorities are still sticking to the principle that quality of the terroir and restrictive rules about grape varieties is what matters in a classification. This was appropriate for a time when all wine was made in pretty much the same way before the technology and knowhow revolution. I’m all for terroir, but quality grape growing and accomplished winemaking must be in place first and foremost. Only then can it be about the all important efforts to make the wines express their origins.

For more on this and a winemaker's perspective do read Ryan's O'Vinyards Winemaker Blog

Sunday, 15 August 2010

AOC nonsense

The subject of AOC, wine and the Languedoc would make anyone with hair want to tear it out. I came across a particularly poignant example on a French caviste’s web site. I won’t name the site (any French one has the same issues) other than to say it fronts premises not far from Montpellier and is strong on Languedoc specimens. The ‘catalogue’ has over a score of regions listed in France and beyond. Drilling down on the Languedoc section (Roussillon has its own entry) came up with the following: -


CORBIERES
COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC
COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC MONTPEYROUX
COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC PIC ST LOUP
COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC ST GEORGES D'ORQUES
COTEAUX DU LANGUEDOC TERRASSES DU LARZAC
FAUGERES
MINERVOIS
SAINT CHINIAN
MUSCAT de ST JEAN de MINERVOIS
VDP des COTES de THONGUE
MOUT de RAISIN
VDP d'OC
VDP de L'HERAULT
VDP de la VALLEE du PARADIS
VDP des COTEAUX DU SALAGOU
VDP des MONTS DE LA GRAGE
VDP du MONT BAUDILE
VDP DU VAL DE CESSE
VIN de TABLE DU LANGUEDOC


I changed the order from alphabetical to illustrate my points - reducing confusion is impossible. The first half down to Côtes de Thongue, except Coteaux du Languedoc, at least indicate the area concerned although only locals will know St Georges d'Orques is near Montpellier and the Thongue river is to the west of Pézenas. Overlap occurs here because Monteyroux is in the Terrasses du Larzac and Georges d'Orques in Grés de Montpellier. Bad enough, but some producers in these villages opt out of the broader appellation, apparently as politics and villageism are more important than addressing consumer confusion.

That was supposed to be the easy bit to explain. Of the rest I didn’t know where the Paradis or Cesse rivers or Monts de la Grage are. Salagou and Baudile are in the Terrasses du Larzac. One famous grower in Jonquieres has wines in at least four of these categories. VDP de l’Hérault includes some of the finest wines in the region such as Grange des Peres. And so on.

My gold award goes to the wines in the Vin de Table category for presumably waving two fingers and the whole AOC/ADP/VDT system.

Arguably none of this matters for consumers who are unfamiliar with the region except that in France the merchants (and restaurants) have to use these headings and this is doing the Languedoc wine image, in France at least, no good at all.

I’m all for the idea of AOC in food products. The upbringing of a Poulet de Bresse or production of Roquefort has been honed over centuries and needs little if any fine tuning. I have some favourite Roquefort producers, but couldn’t name a single poultry farm so the AOC label coveys a great deal about the bird and justification for the price. Languedoc wine is at the other extreme and is simply changing far too fast for the AOC/VDP/VDT framework to be applied in the current form.

My vote for a way forward would be for labelling standards and diverting effort away from AOC bureaucracy to further tackling fraud and ensuring the label tells the truth.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Wine scoring

First the up front bit. Scoring wines isn’t an option for me. I simply don’t taste enough different wines often enough to be consistent in marking. The closest I get is at tastings where I may give relative scores in little more than a ranking exercise. The challenge is if, say, 90/100 is penned one moment then would the same score for a different, but of similar style, wine on another day mean the wines are equal quality? For a relatively short period in the mid-1980s I attended several tastings a week, so I can appreciate that with a high degree of palate exposure (or is that palate assault) one has a fighting chance of the calibration necessary for noting consistent scores.

There are other factors. I taste wine to decide whether to buy for drinking at home or, generally for expensive wines, because I’m curious or simply find it interesting. Professional tasters usually have to think of customers or readers. I try to be optimistic and seek out interesting qualities I like rather than look for faults, but marking is perhaps easier based on a subtraction principle - assume a “perfect” wine and deduct for what’s missing or even faulty. Even Robert Parker in explaining his adopted 100 point system states that the approach is a "very critical look at wine". When it comes to Languedoc reds some tasters find too much volatile acidity for their taste, but that's often part of the package with a hot climate.

Another challenge with scores is that actually drinking the stuff, as opposed to tasting, is much more than the wine. Expectations, company, mood, location, event, climate and weather, food (or not), glassware and even wines that came before influence the enjoyment factor. A tasting sample can woo, but back home after the first couple of mouthfuls the wine can be anything from too overblown and heady to flat and one dimensional – fruit driven reds and viognier have track records here.

All that said, I usually enjoy reading wine scores for wines I know or writers I am familiar with, as long as a score does not replace a tasting note and an insight as to whether the taster actually likes the wine rather than just admires it.

Richard M James’s excellent site (until recently subscriber only) and accompanying blog is strong on Languedoc, as it should be given that Richard is based in the region. He also proffers scores, although does state “First and foremost, I don't really like giving a score to wine”. More than likely this reflects the reality of being a wine professional.

Past its best - remains of a wine storage pot at the excavation site of the oldest known winery in France (dating from the 10th year AD) at Aspiran in the Hérault valley

Monday, 12 July 2010

Terrasses du Larzac Circulade Vigneronne

The Terrasses du Larzac Circulade Vigneronne is now a regular fixture for the first Saturday in July but this year was our first attendance. St Jean de Fos, with its backdrop of Larzac foothills, was host village for this year’s bash.

The event is seriously popular and only early departure slots available a couple of weeks out. Arriving at the departure gazebo at 16:40 we were issued with various essentials – nice hat, glass, menu and guide, pencil, cutlery, neck pouch and breathalyser kit. We’d heard stories that food had run out the previous year, so an early start seemed a good idea in that respect, but it wasn’t ideal for the chaleur.

The organisation turned out to be exceptional – excellent signage, grass cut to cross fields, lollipop wardens at road crossings, handrails erected for the odd stony section, plenty of drinking water, tables and chairs laid out – the list goes on. To combat any food shortages due to greedy attendees a voucher for each course was needed.

The format is to walk a kilometre or so to reach a pleasant spot such as an olive grove where a field kitchen backed by a number of vignerons await. Stay as long as you like and then move on. Over 40 (more than half) of the Terrasses du Languedoc producers were represented, the deal being they could only show one wine. That wine had to qualify for the AOC (now AOP or whatever) regulations, sad evidence that reform is needed urgently.


Being well over 30°C and breezy it was more an occasion for overall wine impressions rather than definitive note taking.

We started with a rosé from Domaine La Croix Chaptal 2009. Made “the old fashioned way” with much riper grapes than would be suitable for making red. The result is a nice chewy rosé with cool soupy fruits. Made a note to seek out and try a bottle.

Of the four whites sampled the pleasant surprise was Château de la Devèze Monnier 2009 Blanc. Pointing out I’d never heard of the place, the explanation that 75% of production is sold at the cellar door accounted for the low profile, as did being sited beyond Ganges north of Pic St Loup. The vineyard grows a menagerie of varieties but this Roussanne and Marsanne blend is aromatic with a nice integrated citrus zip.

White Mas Brunet 2009 was recently bottled and the floral Viognier shone through. By contrast, Mas de la Sérranne les Ombelles 2008 is a much richer and heavier style and not for me, as was Domaine d’Anglas Face au Château 2008 which seemed reminiscent of ripe banana.

Red is what the area is all about. Broadly they fell into two categories – those that opened a window onto layers of intertwining savoury and fruit flavours. These also possess what the growers describe as fraîcheur (freshness) that balances the Mediterranean richness.
The second category were full bodied with rich fruit, showing quite a monolithic flavour and sometimes noticeably oaked wines that were ideal barbeque accompaniments or a pleasant quaff. To be fair, most in this category are cheaper and would have shown better had they not been up against the area’s finest.

Reds in the first category: -
Domaine Archimbaud Enfant Terrible 2008 - nice juicy fruity and spice, satisfying finish.
Mas des Chimères AOC 2007 - plenty of grip, structure and, surprisingly, blackcurrant like fruit.
Domaine du Pas de L’Escalette Les Clapas 2008 - verging on lean, but would cut into savoury food well, pity it wasn’t at the main course station.
La Reserve d'O 2008 - summer fruits, nice balance, touch of cinsault giving a pleasantly sweet finish.
Domaine de Montcalmès 2007 - spicy with perfect balance, long and delicious.
Domaine des Grécaux Terra Solis 2007 - a wine that for me is hit and miss. Perhaps it’s a vintage thing, but this was a hit. This is very individual and oozed addictive and expressive garrigue flavours.
Domaine de Familongue Trois Naissances 2007 - Straightforward but with lovely fruit and a well knit mouth feel.
La Jasse Castel La Jasse 2007 - elegant, ripe, savoury, layered, fresh and long.
Mas Cal Demoura L’Infidèle 2007 - quite understated, subtle with lighter fruits.
Mas Conscience L’As 2007 - heaps of spice, savoury notes, big but not clumsy.

St Jean de la Blaquière was wine village of the event. All three had a deceptive simplicity, heaps of fraîcheur and a savoury mouth feel.
Domaine La Sauvageonne Pica Broca 2008, Le Clos du Serres La Blaca 2008 and Capitelles des Salles Hommage 2008.

The oldest wine presented was Domaine des Conquêtes Les Convoitises 2004 and not surprisingly the heat was against it, so difficult to assess.

Reds that disappointed were: -
Domaine des Orjouls Nandou 2007 - too much oak for me, a bit flat.
Domaine Jordy Tentation 2008 - again quite oaky.
Domaine Alexandrin Alex 2007 - seemed sweet and tutu fruity.
Château Capion Le Juge 2007 - big and monolithic.
Domaine des Crés Ricards Les Hauts de Milesi 2007 - noticeable wood and straightforward.

On the night we’d have walked away with the Montcalmès and Jasse Castel. For once the most expensive wines (although both are comfortably under 20€) showed best and perhaps the accessibility of the 2007 vintage helped them.

On the food front the best dish was an aspic of rabbit with coriander, but there were other highlights such as fresh goats cheese with tapenade, diced courgettes and olive oil. A gaspacho of red fruits to finish was spot on. The main plat was a fricassee of veal with rice and vegetables and for mass catering was a fair effort. A fine evening that's in next year's diary.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Aspiran and the now closed Champ's Avenue & Vintage


Aspiran is a traditional wine village that was once famous for Clairette, a variety many of us would have tasted after some serious transformation into that noblest of vermouths Noilly Prat (recommended for cooking when anything originating from the sea is involved - I get through a couple of bottles a year). Today Aspiran has a co-operative on its last legs and a few, but gradually growing, band of independent vignerons. For some reason, perhaps the abundance of limestone and basalt based terroirs, quite a few vineyards are worked by growers from elsewhere.

The village even lends itself to a grape variety; Aspiran blanc, gris and noir. One of the oldest known in the Languedoc, pre phylloxera it was a major workhorse grape but most of it was gone by the 1950s. Also known as Ribeyrenc there's still some at Domaine Henry at St Georges d'Orques, Domaine Thierry Navarre at Roquebrun and Domaine de Centeilles in Minervois.

Located in the central Hérault valley Aspiran has a population of some 1250. When friends told us that a Champagne Bar had opened it was both jaw-dropping disbelief and elation. The village has a typical French bar but Champ's is totally complementary - smart but not posh and a place liquids of the vine take pride and place. Update - perhaps predictably the bar closed in 2011.


The owner Jean Paul was a vigneron in the Champagne region and sold up to presumably fulfil an ambition to create and run a wine bar. In a too narrow for vehicles central street what was once a shop has been totally renovated.

Original stonework has been exposed and cleaned. The entrance leads to three rooms with the bar in the back room. A small courtyard offers relief for smokers and atop an open spiral staircase is a delightful terrace.
Champagne obviously tops the bill and is extremely reasonably priced. Respected names that barely advertise are best value - Waris Larmandier, Legras & Haas, Duchene and Villmart. These can, and have, been enjoyed for around €26 a bottle and if you're with label drinkers then big names are also available. When it's time to move on to still wine a broad selection of commune and nearby domaines is stocked, although perhaps not as rigorously selected as the Champagne to my taste. That said, there are a few I've yet to try or not sampled for several years. My pick would be reds from Terrasses du Larzac Domaine La Sauvageonne and a white Rousanne Les Canilles from village grower Domaine Ribiera.

Champ's does a selection of tapas style dishes and, like most wine bars in the region, is also a cavist.


Friday, 2 July 2010

Buying Wine - Languedoc Select Wine Club

When I first heard of the Languedoc Select Wine Club I must admit to being sceptical. For quite a few Euros (price now reduced) you receive a 10% discount at around 60 independent vignerons listed on the web site. Perhaps not quite as beneficial as it sounds as, with a reasonable purchase, vignerons usually throw in a bottle of something you didn’t buy to try anyway. Tastings are also organised where a number of growers bring their wines, something I’ll definitely attend when location and diary permits.

The other week I heard the main man, Colin Trickett, talk about Languedoc Select (as well as other Languedoc wine matters, but I won't diverse). Colin had a career in the wine industry and this seems to give him a refreshing and pragmatic perspective. The idea is to help independent vignerons while encouraging wine lovers to discover how much more character their wines have over what’s available in the supermarkets and co-operatives. There’s also the dimension that wine isn’t anonymous; seeing where it’s made and the people behind it increases understanding and appreciation.

With way over 1000 independents in a region with some 6000 wineries everyone has their favourites, but the Languedoc Select list of 60 growers have passed some very specific criteria. Firstly, they’ve been visited unannounced to ensure a friendly welcome. Tasting facilities need to be available. Coverage across the region is even with a spread of prices for all pockets and occasions. There's also a broad mixture of styles e.g. international vs regional grape varieties. While fun, apparently 200 domaines were visited, all this research involves seriously significant travel costs, something the now reduced to €10 annual membership is unlikely to cover.

As with any list of Languedoc producers there are plenty I’ve never heard of or are just a name. In the Hérault the following Domaines are well worth checking out - Canteperdrix (Gabian), Ollier-Taillefer (Fos, very reliable wines), la Croix Belle (Puissalicon), Jordy (Loiras), Domaine Saint Hilaire (Montagnac, I love their simple Vermentino), Domaine Ribiera (Aspiran), Domaine des Conquêtes (Aniane) and Mas Brunet (Causse de la Selle). Mas Brunet is an established favourite. A bottle of Mas Brunet Cuvée Prestige 2006 red the other evening had savoury red fruits and blackberry plus a hint of sweet leather from some oak. Ripe and mouth filling with some fruit stone grip and showing well. Syrah (75%) with Grenache. A Terrasses du Larzac that could pass as a Pic St Loup. About €13, but 10% less if one joins Languedoc Select and makes a visit. The white is also delicious although a touch too oaked for my taste in some years.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Domaine Rimbert Mas Au Schiste 2006


It's been a while since I've tasted any Domaine Rimbert wines. Most recently was a Les Travers de Marceau in a restaurant - a good uncomplicated and inexpensive luncheon choice with the benefit of a relatively tame 12.5% alcohol.

The Mas au Schiste is about a third each of Carignan, Syrah and Grenache with a splash of Mourvèdre. Schist is the clay/shale soil found in this part of Saint-Chinian, the village of Berlou, along with neighbouring Faugères. I decanted it a couple of hours in advance as advised by the caviste. Chocolate red colour. Quite an elegant and gentle wine - mineral with hints of sour cherry, wild mint and smoke. Nice finish. It's not a layered wine, more a sweeping curve of flavour, and it certainly doesn't come at you.

The flowers are a type of wild garlic (allium acutiflorum) that grow by vines.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Two Carignans

Other than the extraordinary Le Carignan 1998 from Domaine d'Aupilhac I haven't said much about pure red Carignans. It's well understood these days that old vines with self-regulating low yields on poor soil can give Carignan the one thing it normally lacks; interesting fruit flavours to contrast the clumsy tannin and acidity it possesses in spades. These two examples illustrate this, and at around 8€ and 9€ respectively are pushing half the price of the areas benchmark.

Mas d'Amile Vieux Carignan 2007 I came across at the Montpeyroux Toutes Caves Ouverts day in 2009. There are too few interesting sub 10€ wines in this commune these days, but at least this was one of them. I know little about it except that 2007 was the first vintage, there isn't much of it, and the wine is unfiltered - witness the sediment in the empty bottle. It's also produced by Amélie, daughter of Le Mairie of Montpeyroux, which is perhaps all one needs to know. In the glass there's cool thyme and blackberry and the mouth gets a pleasant coating of meaty fruit, certainly a fine quaff with interest.

I mentioned Mas Gabriel Les Trois Terrasses 2008 here when I purchased a half-case of the then just bottled wine after nearly a year in tank. It has settled down to layers of mint leaf, composting leaves, ribena and wild rose. There's also a ripe freshness and while there's heaps of tannin this stays in the background. I will be stocking up with more - the last bottle posed for this picture and yes, I pasted the image in.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Terrasses du Larzac Geology

I posted a map of the Terrasses du Larzac appellation in an earlier post here. Thanks to Languedoc Wines on Facebook I recently came across this fascinating video (in English) on how the Terrasses du Larzac were formed. It features Charles-Walter Pacaud of La Croix Chaptal, a domaine in the tiny hamlet of Cambous at the southern end of the Terrasses - the stepped plateaus that Charles-Walter explains and points out in the video.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Jonquières May Day “Caves Ouvertes”

Montpeyroux’s “Toutes Caves Ouvertes” day has always been a great success the couple of occasions I’ve been over the years. Well attended despite low key publicity, even in 2009 when someone realised very late on the annual Roger Pingeon cycle race would be passing through and the date was hastily rearranged. The village is sealed off to vehicles and you purchase a glass and a map for a few euros that gives access to a tasting at a dozen or so of the producers. This year was the first equivalent event for Terrasses du Larzac next door neighbour Jonquières.

Here the format was more low key. There was a bustling “bin end” pottery sale in the centre of the village and leaflets were handed out showing how to navigate to the nine participating caves.



This was all well and good except that few people seemed to be actually visiting the caves – we were on our own with growers for much of the time. Given this was a major public holiday and they gave up their day, no doubt with a three line whip from the Mairie, I’m sure there will be an inquest over a lack of publicity. Debates will also ensue on whether to broaden the appeal of the day – animations is the French term that comes to mind. Paying for the tastings is another. Nevertheless, with the exception of Mas Jullien where no mainstream wine is available for sale due to advance allocation, everyone was generous with their time and had plenty to say about their products.

First up was Mas Cal Demoura with a thorough and personally tutored run through the range by articulate Vincent Goumard himself. These are wines that impress me more every time I taste them, no doubt due to Vincent’s approach of considered evolution rather than revolution since taking over in 2004. Rosemary George’s impeccable recent blog post here has all the background and tasting notes. I would only add that L’Infidèle, the main red, has moved on to the 2007 vintage; a cooler year that has resulted in elegant reds that are relatively attractive now. This has fresh red berries and a touch of garrigue about it, not dissimilar to neighbour Mas Jullien’s 2007 except it’s approaching half the price - €13,50. A 2002 L’Infidèle, made before Vincent took over the estate, was available to taste and showed continuity in style and how elegantly a cooler year can mature.

A short walk out of the village is Pascal Fulla’s Mas de L’Ecriture, a wine I encountered in London when the first vintages (1999-2001) were being launched. Then the young wines were impressive and seductive but for some reason, perhaps not decanting in advance as Pascal emphasises, those I’ve broached have not been memorable. Pascal put on a splendid show of decanted ready to drink vintages.

Emotion Occitane 2006 €10 is a Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan mix. Plenty of red berries, quite elegant, hints of liquorice and sweetness. Seemed lighter than it was. Les Pensées 2004 €18, half Grenache with Cinsault, Syrah and Carignan. Ripe raspberry and blackberry with quite mellow integrated tannin and a fine finish. The Tour de Force, L’Écriture 2004 €29, is 60% Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre. Much richer fruit with some spice. Silky mouth feel, complex and long but more of a progressive curve of pleasure than layers of flavours. There was an extra surprise, Message Personnel 2005 €18 (on the day, but not normally for retail) with 70% Syrah plus Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan. The Syrah, apparently from an excellent Syrah vintage, comes from a vineyard on a small hill called terroir de «Pechaurel». I would crudely describe the “soil” as consisting of large stones of fossilised shells such as oysters. It has a seductive fatness, rich but with less opulent fruit, dashes of smoke and a finish that was trying to dance around a bit. It had no problem following the L’Écriture. I don’t often buy €18 wines but left with a bottle of this. To me the wines illustrate what must be a dilemma for many Languedoc winemakers. Edgy, less crafted wines that strive to express the terroir that I’m continually learning to love seem impossible to market at this price level. The area desperately needs more prestigious global wines, and this is one that’s doing it with Mediterranean grape varieties, so a chapeau to Pascal for that.

Back in the village to visit Mas de Pountil that I wrote about last year - click on Mas de Pountil on the contents menu. The wine that stood out was the rouge 2006 (€10), that blends all five of the mainstream red grapes. It has a reassuring grip in the background from a touch of oak and a pleasant mixture of cooked fruits, leathery aniseed along with a hint of butterscotch.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Marcillac

Marcillac is just west of Rodez in the Aveyron so not part of the Languedoc, even historically, and is well away from any Mediterranean influence. With only about 160 hectares in the AOC it’s also pretty small and perhaps one reason for being relatively little known, although it does crop up on a surprising number of restaurant lists in the UK.

Usually considered a South West French wine the grape, Fer Servadou, is certainly a South West speciality. The area does have one thing in common with the Languedoc – it shares the same red volcanic soil. A Permien Sandstone with bands of limestone coined ruffes also occurs in the bit of the Terrasses du Larzac below Lodève; this picture was taken near Octon and Lake Saligou.



For the absolutely delightful Vieux Pont restaurant in Belcastel, Marcillac is the local wine. 2007 Domaine Laurens had fresh juicy fruits with some herbaceous and mineral notes. The palate seems quite light and hollow and this can be a shock, but everything is in proportion and it ends with good finish. A modest 12.5% makes it an ideal luncheon choice and at just under €20 extraordinary value given the quality of the dining experience.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

2007 Reds, Corks and Wine Boxes

The more serious 2007 reds have been emerging from producers cellars over the past year. I’ve tasted several in the last couple of weeks from some favourite domains - Mas Jullien (Jonquières), Aupilhac Montpeyroux, Ollier Taillefer Grand Reserve (Fos in Faugères), Mas Gabriel, Clos de Lièvre (Caux) and Treloar Three Peaks (Trouillas, Roussillon). They all make attractive drinking now; the tannins seem softer with the fruit more the red rather than purple end of the spectrum. They're certainly ripe, balanced, not short of concentration and, by Mediterranean standards, elegant. Recommended as a restaurant young wine choice.

The 2007 growing season was somewhat cool and the results are not unlike the 2002s, also a cool year although one that suffered harvest downpours to the east of the region.

Corks
I'm not going to even begin discussing the merits of various wine closures. Whatever the problems with tradition corks and corked wine, nothing beats the look of them. So what to do with all those pulled corks and, in the Languedoc, increasingly rare wooden wine cases?

Here are some ideas.

A sculpture with corks, part of a wine box
and a vine leaf


Or a bedside shelf with a wine box


Maybe some bathroom shelves


Perhaps a door fly screen



Or simply box in some pipes

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

“Traditional” Languedoc red wine?

If asked what a traditional Languedoc red wine was I would proffer a blend at least two of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mouvèdre and perhaps Cinsault in reasonably balanced proportions. With the reality that the vines planted have come and gone over the centuries then either these varieties are it, or traditional red hasn’t been made since phyloxera forced total replanting over 100 years ago.

For most producers these are benchmark wines. One of my all time favourite examples was Domaine Alain Chabanon's Font Caude Tradition. I say was, because 2000 was the last vintage he produced. Four years later he launched Campredon, but that has a different objective – unoaked, can be drunk young and is ready to go after 6 months thus keeping the price down, making room in the cellar and no doubt providing much needed cashflow. By contrast his “Tradition”, a wine that built Alain’s considerable reputation earlier in the 1990s, took the best part of 3 years to exit the cellar. Fortunately I still have a few bottles of the 2000 to reminisce over, a 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 10% Mouvèdre blend.

Alain Chabanon Font Caude Tradition 2000 Savoury, red berries with tobacco and a touch of chocolate. An understated wine that you need to meet half-way. Consumed over two evenings the empty bottle still yielded a gentle perfume for hours.

Looking at the excellent technical fiche provided with the wines it’s interesting that the yield was 35 hectolitres/hectare – well over 50% higher than his other reds, the Syrah dominated L’Esprit, Grenache Les Boissiers and Merlot Merle aux Alouettes. While I’m all for winemakers moving on, and it’s one reason why the Languedoc is so exciting, why abandon something so good? Despite branching out as well, nearby Domaine d’Aupilhac for example still makes excellent Montpeyroux rouge usually containing all five of my “traditional” grapes.



At least I have now found a worthy alternative in Domaine Treloar's Three Peaks. Curiously, the 2007 has the identical assemblage in exactly the same proportions with the same yield as the Font Caude 2000. Even the soil types are both described as argilo-calcaire, albeit the domains are over 130 Km apart.

Domaine Treloar Three Peaks 2007 Dried cherries, bay and tobacco. Ripe, round and mellow fruit which characterises the best Roussillon reds. The next day it became deliciously brambly with good length.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Rosé tasting in London


I have to admit that, on the back of the coldest winter for 30 years, the 2nd March for a London Sud de France rosé tasting was going to need something special. This came in form of a day of Languedoc quality spring sunshine that beamed through the front window of the Maison de la Région Languedoc-Roussillon on London's Cavendish Square (the address “behind John Lewis” will make better sense to Londoners). Obviously the timing is dictated by the need for the new vintage to reach retailers and restaurants in time for, well, appropriate rosé weather.

The 109 wines were sorted by price. This makes being objective tough, but with the sheer number involved any other system would probably mean chaos. At lease a splendid brochure eased navigation. Styles ranged from plain fruity through to slightly more serious dry food wines. As would befit a statistical normal distribution most clustered in between. Personally I like rosé to be pure, fruity and balanced with something to savour – those that slip down too easily leads to regrets. I can’t taste 109 wines in one go, but managed 47 with none of the oral after effects whites or reds would have inflicted – must be a complement to the wines and their style. My selection was made by trying properties relatively near to the Herault valley along with examples from farther afield.

Overall impressions?

There were plenty of worthy specimens at all price levels. That said, the presence of volatile acidity (pear drops or at worst nail polish remover) inflicted at least six wines. It’s a fine line though; a couple had just a trace that actually enhanced the wine – a nice hint of quality tinned pears.

There were wines from big producer/blenders, cooperatives and independent vigneronnes with no one sector standing out. Some of the larger producers entered several wines and surprisingly most were inconsistent despite a house style. The several wines from Saint-Chinian and environs (Orb valley) seemed the most consistent and reliable.

Various grape varieties are used, either as a single variétal or blended. While the visibly pinker and fruitier wines contained Syrah, the hand of the winemaker seems to have more influence on the overall result.

In general the entry level wines (from €1.50 ex-cellars) were lighter with strawberry and raspberry fruit progressing to more complex peach and melon aromas that lower yields generate. Here are some solid specimens, some more interesting wines and a couple of disappointments.

Les Vinobles Montagnac, Cuvée Saint André was the cheapest wine in the tasting and had an attractive light raspberry colour; dry and clean with hints of pine and herbs. Simple food wine.

Paul Mas Claude Val Rosé was perhaps the pick of the sub €2 (ex-cellars) wines. Fresh clean simple strawberry in a touch more concentration than its peers. Also showed better than the other two Paul Mas wines.

Cave de Roquebrun Col de Lairole attractive colour with nice strawberry fruit. Herbaceous, some sweetness but nice fruit. First runs on the board for Saint-Chinian.

Mont Tauchmoint Tauch, Le Village du Sud Unclean nutty smell although the tutti-frutti palate fared better.

Les Vignerons de Montblanc, Les Fleurs Touch of pear and a pleasant flavourful fruit salad palate. Good party fayre.

Domaine Borda, Faugeres Refreshing herbs and flowers but a bit short.

Chateau Saint Martin des Champs, Saint-Chinian Floral red fruit aroma, nice mouthful. Good apero style.

Domaine de Familongue Eté and La Basitide aux Olivers These wines are virtually identical in make up and with only one tasting glass their similarities far outshone any differences. Dry, mountain ham and nuts. Plenty of interest and a good food wine. Familongue produce good value wines in an area overflowing with big names. A bargain at €2.65 (ex-cellars).

Chateau St Martin de la Garrigue Clean, simple and well made but that’s it. Probably from recently planted vines at this excellent prestigious property near Montagnac.

Chateau viranel Another Saint-Chinian that showed well – raspberry and cherry, melon in the mouth but not too sweet.

Chateau de Lancyre A well established name in the Pic St Loup, but one of the wines where pear drops upset the balance.

Les Vignobles Assemat Domaine des Garrigues Lirac (Rhone). Fresh fruit with floral peach and herbal taste. Refreshing.

Rambier Ainé et ses Enfants, Les 3 Filles The poorest wine tasted. Sweaty, musty, resins, flat. Frosted bottle and naff label says it all.

Domaine de Nizas Sherbet, clementine and some aromatic garrigue. Different from the rest and really quite intriguing.

Domaines Julien & Fils, Cabrals From the outskirts of Beziers another different style. Lingering grapefruit aroma with pleasant floral and mineral notes. More like a white wine and quite interesting.

Domaine La Croix Belle, Le Caringole Hints of liquorice and mountain ham. Melon and peach in the mouth. Nice classy party fayre and worth €4.30 (ex-cellars). Property that Rosemary George is a fan of - see Rosemary's blog article.

Domaine des Carabiniers Tavel Nutty, classy boot polish. Nice chewy palate. Closer to a very light red than rosé.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

The Restaurant Wine list - Le Mimosa

No restaurant wine list in the region I've seen or heard of comes remotely close to Le Mimosa’s. On depth alone the statistics are extraordinary: -
  • 11 vintages of Grange des Pères red (3 in magnums) plus 7 of the rare white
  • 22 vintages from Daumas Gassac (with endless magnums) and 4 whites
  • 42 different wines from Mas Jullien (Jonquières is just a mile away)
  • A mere 24 from Alain Chabanon, 20 Aupilhac, 15 Peyre Rose and 14 Clos Marie in the Pic St Loup.
  • One of our favourites, the good value Grange de Quatre Sous, is represented by 16 specimens.
Gems from Provence, notably 32 Domaine Tempiers, along with the Rhone, such as 14 vintages of Cornas (Clape) and 8 Hermitage (Chave), would merit an enviable reputation in those regions. With a particular soft spot for red Loire, especially when a change from Mediterranean power is needed, there are a dozen to choose from.

All of this takes years to amass. Le Mimosa was started in back in 1984 when Bridget and David Pugh finished converting a former wine maker’s property in the centre of St Guiraud into their restaurant and home. David devoted considerable energy seeking out growers each winter when the restaurant closes, obviously starting in the days when few of today’s stars existed.

Prospective wines are always tasted irrespective of vintage and reputations. Bottles are collected directly from the domains to lie in the permanently climatically conditioned cave. Local wine makers who enjoy their own wines from the cellar remark on have fresh they are in relation to their own stocks.

David ensures this is a living list. The popular six course menu “capricieux” is often taken with the dégustation offering of six wines that David will choose based on what will match the guest’s dishes and what’s drinking well. For whole bottles there’s a fixed mark-up of 16€ for most wines which obviously makes the more expensive wines particularly good value. That said, and as David’s suggestions will testify, many diners will end up with a hugely enjoyable bottle for less than their initial ideas.

What of the list's future? With so many excellent and exciting growers in the immediate area I predict the emphasis will be on local wine and the Terrasses du Larzac in particular. In 2007 the Pugh’s bought the nearby Montpeyroux wine bar and cavist they named La Terrasse du Mimosa and only stocks very local wine.

For an excellent article on the Pugh's see this The Vine Route article.

For more on the regions restaurants visit my Languedoc Dining site.

Matured with the same care as the wines, Le Mimosa's cheese trolley.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Mas de Daumas Gassac rouge 1996

Aimé Guibert's Mas de Daumas Gassac single handedly put the Languedoc on the fine wine map back in the 1980s. Cabernet Sauvignon was planted in 1972 and Émile Peynaud hired as consultant resulting in a wine very much in the Bordeaux mould. It seems by luck his property had a cooler micro-climate from being overlooked by the high Larzac plateau. It also needed Aimé's considerable passion and energy to promote his wine and the region in the right circles. For a recent video of him reminiscing on this period don't miss this Love that Languedoc episode.

My first purchase, a case of the 1988 vintage, was a couple of years before first visiting the region (accidentally) in 1993. Having tried it at a tasting I simply perceived it as better value than Bordeaux. It more than fitted the bill and subsequently I bought most vintages until the 1998, of which I have high hopes but have yet to taste - my case lies with a friends in bonded storage. All this said, something changed after the 1991 vintage - leaner more closed wines that have not been at all memorable.

I broached my second to last bottle of the 1996 (80% Cabernet Sauvignon) and consumed it over two evenings. Dark garnet with little browning for it's age. Distant blackcurrant, although this emerged somewhat the next day, and a palate of tight fruit with hints of broom and pepper. Reminiscent of a Medoc in structure with plenty of chewy tannins that I enjoy. More balanced 24 hours later, but ultimately it lacks the richness and generosity of the better 1980s vintages. Further ageing could well help.


Proving that the Languedoc can deliver a Bordeaux style alternative seemed a necessary first step to shake up the fine wine merchant and consumer mind set. There is, of course, still a long way to go for the regions mainstream Mediterranean cépages.