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

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.