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.