Occasionally I do make a spontaneous purchase of a wine new to me, although this quite often results in a rather uninspiring evenings drinking - even if recommended by a cavist. This is a shame as for every grower I've heard of within 10 miles there are at least two I know nothing about. This is the size and complexity of the Languedoc.
Clermont l'Herault is a typical market town, the Wednesday market is a must, and could be described as the gateway to the Terrasses du Larzac. The Huilerie Cooperative is renowned for olive oil but their recently expanded touristy shop also stocks some quality food stuffs along with interesting trinkets and beauty products at fair prices. This bottle of Clos des Clapisses Carignan Blanc 2009 caught my eye as I'm a big fan of the rare Carignan Blanc from Mas Gabriel (see my post here). It comes from nearby geological marvel Octon, although this cepage has to call itself a VdP Coteaux de Salagou rather than Terrasses du Larzac.
It's a splendid effort. White flowers and mineral oat cake lead to a clean palate with a savoury gunflint - a sort of ripe Chablis of the south and at 12.5% the delicate flavours are nicely balanced. From about €9.
The Natural Wine Fair held recently at London’s Borough Market is not the first. Les Caves de Pyrène are at the forefront of “natural wine” promotion in the UK and have held annual trade tastings for some time. Things are starting to come of age and expansion has included four other importer/retail partners and a day devoted to paying consumers like me. It seems much of this is down to Isabelle Legeron, who is on a mission to raise awareness using her considerable communication talent. I wrote about her re-vamping of the Hibiscus restaurant wine list here, admittedly focusing on how a Michelin 2* London restaurant now lists as many Languedoc-Roussillon wines as it does Bordeaux.
Well over 100 growers were present or strongly represented with 500+ wines to tempt. It felt busy but never crowded with a great buzz as the day went on. The growers had plenty of time to engage and this did sabotage note taking. A master stoke, actually a Borough Market necessity, was to be outside and avoid booming wall syndrome. “Natural” psychology was at play.
19 growers from the Languedoc-Roussilon represented a sixth of the total and was right up there with recognised pioneers the Loire and Italy. There were no Bordeaux wineries. In the spectrum of natural wines pretty much everything was on offer, often from individual growers, but the majority I would class as independent producers trying to get the best expression from their patch. Well known Languedoc names heading on the organic path were there - Daumas Gassac, Aupilhac, Alain Chabanon (all Hérault valley) and Mas Bruguière (Pic Saint-Loup). At the wilder “modern rustic” end Fontédicto (Caux) and Clos Fantine (Faugères) proffered textbook examples.
My L-R discoveries included Domaine Ferrer-Ribière (Roussillon) for a sublime Grenache Blanc and wind swept Carignan. Mas Foulaquier (Pic Saint-Loup), actually a bit of a rediscovery, for delicious clean purity and freshness of the fruit. It was also good to taste the Clos du Gravillas (St Jean de Minervois) range, including the legendary Carignan and delicious minerally white L'Inattendu, wines I'd recently bought but have yet to broach.
Writing this I regret not tasting more L-R wines, but I need to get out more and so much from the Loire, Alsace, Beaujolais and Italy beckoned. As regions I encounter less often they brought home the contrast in styles and, with Beaujolais and Loire reds especially, how noticeably much less varietal they were.
These were essentially wines at the organic end of the spectrum from family scale growers in mainly "country regions" imported by five UK merchants. Calling them natural wines is getting them attention and that’s a great thing for small artisan producers everywhere.
Grape varieties are less obvious and perhaps less important with these wines.
I tasted/spitted some 50 wines. Normally my palate would be numb after half that number, but the minimal use of oak made all the difference. Yes, many will be too tannic for some, but I find grape tannins dissipate faster.
There were no real duds except perhaps an Alsace Pinot Noir that really was too low key. Quite a few whites had an oxidative style that was countered by complexity. You either like them or don’t – our household is certainly divided.
The fair needed more than a day. All three in fact. I didn't try any Rhone or South West tables.
Last but not least it was a fantastic opportunity to meet so many caring passionate growers, something one takes for granted when on their own patch. Sadly, depersonalised wine fair really doesn’t have that ring about it.
I'm always wary of cooperative wines. There is something depersonalised about them. The wine can only be as good as the poorest performing grape grower and usually undergoes particularly heavy handed winemaking to counter this. Most I've tasted at events along with independents and they show badly, but it has to be recognised they provide a massive service for the sub €5 a bottle market and have local affinity.
Coops are aware of this image and seek the cachet of an independent grower with their flashier cuvées. This bottle of 2008 Saint-Chinian Roquebrun "Terrasses de Maynard" is testimony to that - you need to read the micro-print to spot the origin as Cave de Roquebrun. I encountered the wine at dinner where the hosts, who spotted it at a local grande surface, stated they followed the cave and its fine reputation for decades. In the glass it was a pleasant melange of brambles, cherry and smoke with some grippy tannins and a nice medium weight. The oak was kept in the background - rare restraint with cooperative "premium" wines. It finished as it started, but was nevertheless a pleasant drink, confirmed a few days later having procured a €6.40 bottle to consume chez nous. 60% Syrah with Mourvèdre and Grenache from a schist terroir very similar to Faugères that borders to the east. A pity so few co-ops seem able to achieve this standard and hence value for euros. The flowers are wild garlic by the way.