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.