Thursday, 14 November 2013

An educational poster

Spotted this educational poster in the impressive new cave at the Domaine du Pas de l'Escalette

Nicely illustrates some of the frequently encountered French terms.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Interesting trio

Of the new wines I've drunk over the past few weeks these three are particularly interesting.

Having tasted La Fontude's wines at the Roquebrun wine festival earlier this year I subsequently picked up a couple of bottles spotted at a Caviste. There is precious little label information, not even some creative encoding. The cork was embossed 2008 and the ABV a potentially refreshing 12.5%. The wine was certainly mature but not past it, despite suspecting the bottle had been at the caviste for some time it seemed none the worse. On opening there was a seriously pleasant surprise - nice ripe mellow and elegant sous bois followed up by a mouth feel and balance that just hit the groove. I wish more wine could be like this. Very little Mediterranean heat and pepper was noticeable, being grown high above the Lac du Salagou does limit the sea's influence. The wine is mainly Cinsault, the 12.5% along with my recollection of the wine festival line up gave that away.

Despite celebrating 20 vintages, Domaine du Poujol is one of those estates I've heard of yet never come across and struggle to place - it's roughly between the Pic St Loup and Terrasses du Larzac. I guess this follows the pattern of many larger estates, with 20 hectares the local market is just too small to warrant effort. Pico 2011 (Vermentino, Carignan Blanc with some Rousanne) was one of many wines bestowing a vintage party and was certainly the most interesting white. It reminded me of serious Italian whites, grown up hints of lime and bitters with a proper mouth grip; aromatic without being overbearing. I actually spent quite a while talking to grower and winemaker Robert Cripps before making the association and fortunately it wasn't one of those 'I wish the ground would open up' moments. I'll plan to visit next year, the one place locally where supplies can be secured.

Domaine de Cantagrel 2008 is a Marcillac, a small area near Rodez I covered back in 2010 here. We visit Belcastel every year and raided the tiny bar/gift shop run by a bubbly character from southern Italy. Amazingly about a third of his wines are Italian with another third plus local Marcillac. All the Marcillacs were under 10€. This one is extraordinary in that it is labelled a co-operative wine, the Cave des Vignerons du Vallon, which makes it by a country mile the finest co-operative wine I recall drinking. The character hasn't been processed out of it and nothing rustic is on show. Delicious fruit; rhubarb is a description I've plagiarised that resonates. In the mouth the fruit is more gentle and lets the wine express itself. Subsequent research indicates this is made from organic grapes grown by the Auréjac family so is far from a typical co-op wine, but credit to the cave for facilitating such individuality. Marcillac is the perfect antithesis to the global fashion of rich extracted ripe fruit reds.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Pas de l'Escalette

The Pas de l'Escalette is where the RN9, now replaced by the A75 autoroute tunnel, penetrated the Larzac plateau through a carved out nick in the Dolomitic limestone cliffs. The valley below down to Lodève delivers one of the most spectacular big scenery settings in the region. The Lodève tourist office has been holding a series of "Duo Vignerons" mornings consisting of a guided pastoral stroll followed by a local cave and wine tasting visit. The Domaine du Pas de l'Escalette was one of the more interesting vinously given its reputation, plus the walk on this occasion was through the domain's dramatic vineyards.

Despite being well into the second half of September the harvest had yet to start, some two weeks late as is the case for rest of the Hérault valley.

These prime Grenache bunchs are still a little rosé

Electric defences
The valley is surrounded by woodland, mainly dense native oaks which means sanglier territory. All the Domaine's vineyards use electric fence protection, something I've not seen before for vines. I have though seen the results of sanglier grazed vines, they strip grapes from the stems as cleanly as any vendanges machine.

Young Carignan Blanc vines
Delphine Rousseau joined us on the walk and explained how enthusiastic they had become over the more naturalised varieties - Grenache, Carignan and Syrah for reds and Carignan blanc, Terret and Grenache blanc for their white. For me their white Le Clapas Blanc is the icon of the estate, up there with the likes of Mas Jullien and Mas Gabriel. It was heartening to see that Carignan blanc had been planted to expand production.

Delphine Rousseau, fig basket to hand, explains all.
The cliffs of the Larzac plateau provide a spectacular backdrop
Back at their recently constructed chai we tasted Le Clapas Blanc 2012 followed by Le Clapas Rouge 2011 and the sturdily built Le Grand Pas 2011. The reds I know go well with food and benefit from a bit of bottle age. Certainly a generous tasting with the average bottle price working out at 20€.

The Domaine Pas de l'Escalette line-up

Saturday, 5 October 2013

A special oenologue and wine not for sale

Most write ups on growers, at least in English including those in this blog, rarely mention the œnologue. A bit odd perhaps given that œnologues are the doctors of the wine world and often have a massive influence on the end result. In France they are professional wine production science and technologists. Almost all independents will subscribe to their services with the œnologue making frequent cave visits at key times. Some, especially those starting up, will rely heavily on their advice while for old hands a sounding board and second opinion suffices. For all they provide lab analysis services, especially critical during early fermentation. Helping ease the completion of legal paperwork needed before wine can go on sale is another role.

Hervé Chabert is a bit of a super œnologue. He specialises in vins naturels, although the majority of his clients I am aware of are pretty conventional. Everyone has nothing but superlatives for his guidance. He is also a negociant and sources wine in cuvées from his clients. Oh, and Hervé's hobby is making wine.

Hervé is the œnologue at Domaine Ribiera and I was invited to help finish off the picking last year (2012) on the first weekend of October. The vines, several rows each of mainly Rousanne, Marsanne, Picpoul and Clarette, are on the La Clape massif between Narbonne and the sea. Instructions were to bring a change of clothes. It turned out I also needed a toothbrush.

Le Clos des Cyprès (sunshine version)
The vineyard has a postcard setting under the peak of Pech Redon and is the wildest I've been in with brambles hiding everywhere to lash legs and arms. The bunches from these old vines are mainly small, low down and numerous. Nevertheless, things were going well until the forecast storm arrived - first lightening and then a torrent. As a cyclist and mountain walker I'm used to a soaking, but the big obstacle to picking in the rain (I discovered) is mud. It clings to footwear and seriously inhibits movement. After perhaps an hour of this we abandoned picking and retired to the chai of the nearby Domaine Pech Redon where Hervé makes his wine.

Here we were treated to a mini-vertical of Hervé's Le Clos des Cyprès. These are complex wines with significant variation in style from ripe and luscious through to minerals and citrus, all understandable for a wine picked on weekends when the diary permits. Some years the earlier ripening Rousanne and Marsanne are picked first as they were this vintage.
The tasting was followed by the finest bread, charcuterie and cheeses Les Halles in Narbonne had to offer plus a couple of interesting vin naturel reds. By now the storm had passed but persistent rain had set in. We retreated chez Hervé's and finished picking the next morning.

Roll forward to 2013 and what a contrast. With a bigger team of family and friends the whole vineyard was picked in less than 5 hours of glorious autumn sunshine. With the press on its last cycle and the cleaning done we retreated to the shady lawn for wine, a picnic and grillade.

Nearly (late) lunch time

Christophe Bousquet joined us briefly with a generous selection of very grillade friendly Pech Redon reds back to 2004. I particularly liked the unoaked 2012 from an unlabelled bottle - crunchy with plenty of those supple lavender notes characteristic of La Clape reds. Back in the late 1980s Pech Redon was one of the Languedocs that got us hooked on the region's wines. It's fair to say that today the estate is in need of a bit of updating and given the quality of the terrior arguably under performs.

Monday, 16 September 2013

A BIB from the Terrasses du Larzac

The Permian Rouge from Domaine de Malavieille is a wine I've enjoyed over the years, but not recently as I have to admit being annoyed by the excessive rise in price, perhaps the outcome of having become certified organic.

I came across the BIB Cinq Pierres de Mérifons from the Domaine at friends. The only information is what it says on the box; a Vin de Pays 2012 at 13% abv and made from organically certified grapes.

The wine has a reassuring full colour with attractive clean ripe rounded fruit flavours. Seriously easy drinking as in the mouth it's all very straightforward and does lack balancing acidity. It would also benefit greatly for being slightly chilled.

At €18 a box the bottle price is €2.70 so a reasonable deal if you want your wine on tap and care about grape production.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Assessing and enjoying wine

Over the summer there’s been considerable commentary and debate on wine assessment and a discussion on the matter even made it to the heights of the BBC’s Radio 4 Today Programme. I won’t go into details here, but it seemed to start as a journalistic spat at the competence of wine judges with inconsistency cited as evidence. Robert Joseph does a comprehensive overview with references on his indispensable blog The Joseph Report.

For a while now I’ve been contemplating a post along the lines of why I find it so hard to assess wine. For example, wines I taste and subsequently buy can disappoint when consumed chez nous. It could equally be called why I don’t give scathing wine reviews or, more debatably, the difference between amateurs and pros. I touched on this a few years back with my post on scoring wine.

The factors that influence me I’ll coin, with an occasional bit of stretching, the 9 W’s.

Where at home, restaurant/bar, tasting, winery, outdoors, party, in-flight etc.
When time of day, maybe even the biodynamic calender
Who family, friends, like-minded company, “commercial” situations
Whence as in what was consumed (liquid or solid) in the build up to the moment
Whim personal frame of mind, mood, ability to concentrate, preconception, bad day
With/without food and what food
Weather temperature (including the wine), humidity, even aircon etc.
Within the stemware
 Wine bottle Stuff like when the bottle was opened, how recently bottled, storage conditions of older wines, state of the closure, tasted blind or not, knowledge of price.

These are all reasons why passing judgement on a wine with one encounter is often unfair. It may also explain why I often don’t “get” a wine on first tasting, but find it can grow on me with subsequent encounters.

I have most success in finding wines that become favourites from friends, more serious restaurant lists and caviste recommendations. Least successful is at busy stand-up tastings where I can be wowed by tasting samples of over oaked reds and obvious aromatic whites that never work at home, or indeed anyone's home. My theory is that in line-ups subtle understated wines are easily overlooked, out shouted, if not even bullied by bolder styles. All of this can be magnified by unfamiliar surroundings. Perhaps it's really a debate on the subjective vs. objective approach.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Cooperative starts Sauvignon harvest (at last)

A notice outside the Aspiran Cooperative announcing the start of the Sauvignon harvest, 4th September 2013. The caves at Aspiran and Puilacher will receive all the grapes over 4 days from 195 hectares in the central Hérault valley.

The estimate is 400 Tonnes a day which will give Clochers et Terroirs the equivalent of well over 2 million bottles of wine equating to a yield of 80 hectolitres/hectare (seems high to me as an independent grower fanatic).

There is a reminder to add metabisulphite (E223 or E224) so this won't be vin naturel sans soufre.

Thursday, 22 August 2013

Enviromental graffiti

OK, this isn't a Banksy but the message is worthwhile.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Sculptures in the vines near Montagnac

The vignerons around Montagnac (Hérault valley Picpoul country) have placed 14 commissioned statutes amongst the vineyards and garrigue in the scenic hills south of the town. The Cave Coopertive is the starting point and car park and they will issue a map for a self-guided walk, either a 15 Km circuit to do the lot or a shorter option that takes in 7. Alternatively, various guided walks are on offer for a small fee that includes a wine tasting, but you need to bring a pack lunch or go hungry. For details see

The scenery is most spectacular in spring or after autumn rains when the flora is lusher and flowers bloom. By chance, we covered part of the route on a "Rando Bio" that involved a circuit from nearby Castelnau-de-Guers with several stops to fit in breakfast, refreshments and lunch. The wine served was nearby Organic Abbaye de Valmagne in Bib which worked very well as an outdoor quaffing all rounder. I've always found their bottled wines, especially the more prestigious ones, a bit dull so things could be on the up. As an aside the Abbey itself is well worth a visit.

Postscript September 2013. An early autumn charity walk for cancer support covered more of the route and statues and I can confirm this is a good time of year to visit. Advice picked up from several others is that the initial walk from Montagnac Co-op is the least interesting and to save time/energy drive up one of the paved roads to join the route in the hills.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Languedoc-Roussillon Wine Course in London

I received this by email from the drinks business - the link takes you to more information. I hope it goes well, looks like there's enough time to get really in depth. Here is a full list of dates.

September 09 - September 10, 9:30am - 5:00pm, at London
September 30 - October 01, 9:30am - 5:00pm, at New York
October 17 - October 18, 9:30am - 5:00pm, at Los Angeles
October 24 - October 25, 9:30am - 5:00pm, at Languedoc-Roussillon

Apparently Matthew Stubbs MV works at Domaine Gayda in the Aude so will obviously have on-the-spot knowledge.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

2013 Vintage prospects

Most wine lovers will know that the spring of 2013 has been harsh to agriculture with rain, floods, late frosts and up/down temperatures causing problems. Mid-May saw vines in parts of Burgundy covered by fresh snow and devastating hail swathed along the Loire.

Vines in the Languedoc have fared much better. The wettest March since at least 1960, reported at the end of my recent Climate change post, put water tables back to normal after years of partial drought. Whilst April and May were as unsettled and cool as the rest of France, the flowering overall seems to have been little affected. A short article in the regional paper the Midi-Libre estimated a potential increase in yield of 6% over 2012. It also confirmed what is obvious from observing the vineyards, vine development is behind. The article states reports of 10 to 15 days behind recent years and I've heard 2 to 3 weeks from several growers which probably reflects the situation for cooler vineyard sites.

There's a long way to go. Harvests have generally been earlier and earlier in recent years so the nett result could be something closer to a medium term average.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Languedoc Gastronomy

I originally wrote this piece for my Languedoc dining site where it still resides. Food and wine were never meant to be separated and a read through reminded me that the region's gastronomy is as diverse as the wines.

The Food of the Languedoc

Gastronomically, the Languedoc isn’t the most renowned of France’s regions – a turbulent history and a degree of confusion due to culinary diversity being the main reasons. Being located at a geographic crossroads does mean a wide variety of ingredients are available and the diverse cuisine this leads to make it a great all-rounder. On the coast is the seafood of the Mediterranean, go north and there is the full range of mountain produce – many overlook that Lozere is part of the region. Catalonia to the southwest brings a refreshing non-French influence. The Pyrenees and Gascony, land of the duck and goose, are to the west. Last but not least just to the east is the vibrant market garden that is Provençe.

The markets of the region are the best and most enjoyable means of obtaining ingredients. A comprehensive list of Languedoc markets can be found on the Languedoc Page. Also excellent are the increasing number of organic farms that sell direct. See for more information in the Hérault. In summer a profusion of stalls popup in lay-bys and the like, but beware of origin and prices.

Seasons are everything. Winter is obviously the leanest time for fresh fruit and vegetables, but at least the better supplies from Spain and North Africa are available as opposed to the blander Dutch greenhouse produce that dominates further north in Europe. The arrival of Green Asparagus from the Hérault at the end of March marks the arrival of spring produce.

Local ingredients

Fish from the Mediterranean – thon (tuna), sardines, anchovies, boudroie (local name for lotte i.e. monkfish), rouget (red mullet), seiche (cuttlefish), pisseur (red squid), soupions (baby squid), poulpe (octopus), dourade (bream), loup (sea bass) – to name but a few. Sadly overfishing and the practice of landing immature fish threatens most of these species. As a result fish mongers are in decline.
Red Squid known locally as Pisseurs

Shellfish – is reared in the large Basin de Thau behind Sete with its miles of oyster and mussel beds. Young shells are actually imported from the Atlantic coast to mature in the basin. Connoisseurs will say they are inferior to produce from cooler Atlantic waters, but locally they will be fresher. Also look out for small triangular clams called tellines, they’re sweet and make a superb jus.
Coincidentally or not, Picpoul de Pinet is made from the vineyards that surround the Basin de Thau.

Anchovies – most famously landed at Collioure on the Cote Vermille near Spain, are available fresh, salted, in oil or marinated in various ways.

Salt Cod – would have originally arrived via traders from the north and could penetrate much further inland than fresh fish in the days before roads and refrigeration. Best known for carefully mixing with olive oil, milk, garlic and perhaps a little potato to make Brandade de Morue, a speciality of Nîmes.

Charcuterie – dried sausages are made all over region but for something special and reliable seek out the mountain produce from Lacaune.

Cheese – with the Languedoc planes dominated by vines one has to head for the limestone hills to find sheep and goat country. The most famous cheese is the blue Roquefort. Matured in the caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon (politically in the Midi-Pyreneees) much of it originates from the ewes living on the high Grande Causses (limestone plateaus) of which Larzac is by far the largest.

All over the hills goat’s milk makes small Pélardons and Crotins. Perail is a creamier sheep’s cheese made throughout the region. Beyond the Causses are the mountains of the Auvergne and their famous cows cheeses – St. Nectaire, the Cantal family (Salers, Laguiole), Tommes of all descriptions etc.

Olives and olive oil – the Languedoc is on the northerly margins for the frost hating olive tree. The oils are light and elegant in style and ideal for complementing more delicately flavoured food such as fish. Low yields mean that they are expensive, so use them on their own as seasoning oils and keep Spanish or Greek oil for mixing dressings and for cooking. If you like your oil particularly peppery then watch out for new seasons oil from the end of the year.
Without doubt the star eating olive is the local bright green lucque. These are best freshly bought as they oxidise (go soft and dark green) within days once exposed to air. Under water in sealed jars will preserve them for several months. The green Picholine variety also eats very well, as do the marinated small brown variety known as Nicoise.

Honey – there are apiculteurs all over the region. Depending on the blossom and flowers in season different honeys are produced so have a tasting at a market stall or visit a producer. The range is as diverse as wine with the heady flavours from the indigenous plants and trees resulting in some powerful tastes such as chestnut and lavender. If you like something more delicate seek out bruyère (heather).

Camargue Red rice – is an attractive brick red colour with a nutty flavour and firm textur.

Garrigue herbs – the limestone scrubland dotted with holm oaks and other shrubs is known as the garrigue. It will always be land that was once cultivated  by man but has been abandoned. A profusion of wild rosmary, thyme, fennel, bay, juniper (higher areas) etc. make it a heady place, especially a few days after some good rains.

Salt – The town of Aigues-Mortes at the edge of the Camargue remains a major producer of salt. Fleur de Sel is collected by hand when the conditions are right for surface crystals to form on the evaporating salines. Buy it in small cork lidded tubs that state the name of the family producer and use it as a garnish. La Balene (whale) make a more everyday salt that’s exported all over the world.


Cebes, sweet white onions famous in the area around Lézignan-la-Cèbe in the Hérault valley.

Seasonal Ingredients

Green Asparagus – the first of the new seasons produce appears from the end of March (best, with most flavour) to the beginning of June

Garlic – new seasons green garlic from May. The purple tinged skin of the Ail rose de Lautrec is the most recognisable. From April watch out for young garlic with horsetail like leaves that can be used directly in salads.

Cherries – Ceret is near where the Pyrenees meet the Mediterranean and lays claim to the region’s first cherries in early May, but for the sweeter eating wait until early June.

Strawberries – the local Gariguettes peak from mid-April to the end of May but watch out for other named varieties such as Mara de Bois from small holders.

Apricots, Peaches and Melons – ripen in June when roadside (beware of origin and price) and ad-hoc village stalls appear in abundance.

Tomatoes, Aubergines, Courgettes and Peppers – are best in summer. Look for small-holder produce and remember that ugly shape usually means best flavour.

Late summer figs
Figs – these grow wild and there are two seasons. In June some trees produce a fig-fleur that  are delicate, fresh and succulent. From August the main crop is prolific.

There are several varieties, although relatively few travel or keep well enough to be commercially viable.

Grapes – table grapes arrive from late August with several varieties being available. Don’t expect many seedless varieties, those with pips do have more flavour.

Chestnuts – the slopes of the Cevennes, especially away from the limestone areas, are heaving with chestnuts from mid-autumn. Olargues is a particularly renowned area.

Walnuts and almonds – the regions trees provide an abundant autumn harvest.

Wild mushrooms – are most common in the autumn after the rains when the large cèps arrive from the mountains of Lozere.

Pomegranates – bushes grow in the hedgerow but the fruits rarely ripen.

Quinces – can again be found in the hedgerows, but wild one’s are susceptible to insect infestation.

Winter vegetables – the village of Pardailhan in the cooler Haut-Languedoc is renowned for its Navet de Pardailhan (black turnip that has white flesh), carrots and other root vegetables grown on a clay-limestone soil plateau.
Navets de Pardailhan

Some Regional Dishes

Finding good examples of region dishes can be a challenge. Many restaurants find they don’t sell well as presumably most diners want something different. Where they are available it’s often for tourists and cost pressures invariably mean that short cuts are taken and quality suffers.

Rouille à la setoise – cuttlefish cooked in a tomato and saffron sauce thickened with a garlic and olive oil aioli. Also cooked in a similar way is encornets farci – stuffed young squid. Bourride de Sète is similar but features monkfish (locally called boudroie). Bourride can also mean a soupy fish stew – the Languedoc version of Provençe’s bouillabaisse that is a bit more rustic.

Tielle or Tièle – these orange glazed seafood pies are commonly seen in markets. Big is best as small ones have a higher percentage of pastry. A splendid as takeaway food. Based on poulpes (octopus) and tomato.

Anchoïade – is a spread similar to tapenade (olives, capers, garlic, olive oil) but includes anchovies.

Petits pâtés de Pézenas – these disappointing small pastries look like toadstools and are stuffed with sweet lightly spiced mutton. Said to have been introduced by Clive of India.

Cassoulet de Castelnaudary – acknowledged home of this rich, slow cooked crusted haricot bean stew packed with duck or goose confit and Toulouse sausages. Definitive winter fayre.

Brandade de morue – amalgamated salt cod, olive oil, milk, garlic and perhaps a little potato. Can be served warm or cold.

Aligot – what is basically a mixture of mash potato and mountain cheese with garlic is, when well made, a uniquely stringy textured and delicious creation that demands second helpings.

À la catalane – a dish with a base of tomatoes, onions, garlic, red or green peppers and ideally some red Banyuls wine.

À la languedocienne – a dish with a base of dried ham, garlic, chard and parsley but in practice has pretty diverse interpretation.

Crème catalane – is crème brûleé flavoured with lemon peel, fennel seed and perhaps cinnamon bark.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Bottling at Domaine Ribiera 2013 style

My 2012 post on Bottling at Domaine Ribiera at Aspiran described a lego-kit family and friends bottling line. This year, to explore an alternative, the faster but more expensive approach of a full-scale bottling lorry was taken.

Enormous lorry complete with pop-out sides
Like the lego-kit operation at least 7 people are needed, although four come with the lorry. The benefit is speed with up to 1 bottle a second which is three times faster.

The grab arm feeds a whole row of bottles at a time

Everything is computerised
Once the bottles are loaded, everything is automated under computer control except packing the bottles into cases - a job needing two professionals to keep up.

Checking the white Terret for clarity
Boxes are manually loaded onto palets and a fork-lift truck whisks them away to the cave.

Régis Pichon and David Caer (Clos Mathelisse) loading boxes onto palets

Friday, 14 June 2013

Naural Wine 3 years on

I see it’s now 3 years since the term natural wine has registered in my wine conscience and attending the Roquebrun Festival des vins naturel prompted me to reflect. Back then I more or less concluded “so what” given that most independent Languedoc growers were following practices upheld by the movement, especially in the area of organic/sustainable grape growing and minimal intervention in the winery.

Today, if I go to a natural wine fair, natural wine bar or just browse the vins naturel shelves of a caviste, I have expectations, at least in France (less so in the UK). Expressive young wines that dance around the senses perhaps playing with the limits of volatility and yeasty characteristics. Brett often features. Whites might be prickly, oak for reds will be less common and used lightly. The majority are best enjoyed relatively young.
B list grape varieties that are particularly low key on widely recognised characteristics will feature strongly. This is one area where natural wine makers excel; making interesting wines from the likes of Cinsault, Terret, Aligote, Gamey, Cot, Melon de Bourgogne etc.

I’ve also learnt that most “natural wines” are not made by zero SO2 fanatics with beards and sandals. Most growers are pragmatic and will, for example, add a dash of sulphur for wine destined for export. Others make “conventional” wines, but when conditions are right will bottle a modest cuvée sans SO2. Some bottlings will only be sold locally to reduce the risk of spoilage in transportation.

France vs UK emphasis

In the UK I’ve found the “definition” of natural wines to be a bit looser, possibly down to the dominance of marketers in a land where wine making is niche and hence lacks a winemaker driven movement. I've witnessed Organic and Biodynamic grape production used to make conventional wine branded as natural wine. In France a Bio wine fair has a different emphasis to a vins naturel one.

Road to an accepted norm?

I spent many years working in IT, an industry where new ideas and products emerged continuously. There is what observers call a "hype" cycle for new technology before it becomes mainstream. Take mobile phones. Initially they were hyped as the next big thing but then the first products were launched. They were seriously bulky, had a short battery life, offered no coverage and were expensive. Disillusion set in and the traditional telecoms companies continued to shun them. All these shortcomings melted away as the technology became ubiquitous rather than novel. The traditional telecoms invested heavily and made acquisitions to catch up.

Natural wine isn't an IT technology but some parallels with a "hype -> disillusionment -> enlightenment -> mainstream" cycle can be observed. There are still too many poor and overpriced examples that put consumers off, but know-how and standards are improving. Conventional wines are gradually using less sulphur and other additives. Significantly,  Languedoc negociant giant Gérard Bertrand now offers non-sulphured lines (stocked by Marks & Spencer in the UK) which signals a market for those who want or require such wine. A market beyond thrill seekers like me. Mainstream consumer acceptance may never fully happen, but this is a significant step. Arguably restaurant wine lists are the closest we have to broad acceptance with many serious lists featuring natural wines interspersed and indistinguishable from more convention offerings.

For me, “natural wines” have shaped a new style of wine to enjoy; up there with the “new world” invasion 30 years ago and my discovery of the Languedoc.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Festival des vins natures 4th edition Roquebrun

The marketing for this event is pretty specialised, seemingly through growers and cavistes. It was also spot on, buzzing not heaving and with nearly 200 seated for the long late lunch. Fewer were there earlier for the Balade vines to Domaine Marquise des Mures on the hillside above Roquebrun, an informative and pleasant prequel to the tasting. The setting, along the banks of the Orb in the shade of poplars, was idyllic.

General observations: -
  • These were wines at the natural end of spectrum – organic vineyard standards, "wild" fermentations, no or minimal sulphur added
  • The majority of growers come from less well known sites in their appellations. Cinsault and Terret were popular with most wines made way outside AOC regulations for grape variety percentages.
  • Oaked reds less common or toned down while some whites had too much and/or were too young (2012).
  • All wines leapt out of the glass showing their characters – no desperate glass swirling to coax closed wines
  • No prices with little selling taking place
  • Knowledgeable attendees
  • High quality wines, only one I though was at the limit of VA and a couple were a bit too rustic, plus many of the 2012s on show needed longer to settle down in bottle.
Some highlights (from memory, nobody was making notes)

Les Temps des Cerises I recall having a red at the excellent restaurant Octopus in Béziers 6 or 7 years ago and it stands out as my first exposure to (as I can now associate) modern natural wine. Since then a couple of encounters have sadly seen volatile wine falling apart, perhaps down to poor storage by their guardians.
These examples, especially the reds, had the vibrant freshness I would have expected from a wine made in the relatively cool upper Orb valley north of Bedarieux.

Far Ouest Mylène Bru is from the unfashionable (excepting Peyre Rose) Saint-Pargoire on the left bank of the Hérault. From Grenache, Carignan, Syrah with some Cinsault, Marselan and Tempranillo it's quite a rich full stlye and very Mediterranean without being heavy - clearly carefully made. At the more conventional end of the natural spectrum and none the worse for that.
I was served a glass last year at the (now closed) Le Mimosa restaurant, so high praise indeed.

Domaine Yannick Pelletier Saint-Chinian. L'Oiselet (Cinsault) is another wine I've had in several restaurants including the aforementioned Octopus in Béziers. It always has a nice pure and structured cutting fruit and drinks well, as it did at the fair.

l'engoulevent is more savoury and substantial (mainly Grenache, Carignan, Syrah) with lots going on under the surface.

I found Coccigrues too oaky, especially in the context of lunch time in the open air.

La Fontude is a Domaine sited in the hills just to the west of Lake Saligou. I came across a bottle a few years ago but it didn't leave an impression. Clearly things have been refined as the "rouge" (Cinsault) was vibrant and delicious.

The only disappointment was the 2006 Entremonde (Carignan, Aramon, Grenache, Cinsault) where the oak was still bullying the wine. Reusing the barrel made the younger vintages on show much more promising.

Domaine Ribiera. Last but not least the home team from my village. Régis Pichon was showing two whites, Y'a un terret (Terret) and Les Canilles (Rousanne) that were the whites of the show. Both 2011s, they had been in bottle a year and settled down. I found them the best whites on show. The Terret had a light racy crunch with attractive mouth feel while the Canilles is more aromatic but not at all heavy - fresh fennel and citrus peel.


Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Domaine Thierry Navarre including Aspiran Noir

Last year I wrote about a small exhibition of lithographs 150 Years of Languedoc grape varieties. One variety I highlighted was Aspiran Noir and commented that Domaine Thierry Navarre at Roquebrun had rescued and grafted some vines and is now making wine from them. By chance the caviste at Les Caves Gourmandes in Gignac recommended a bottle that turned out to be Thierry's Rybeyrenc - yet another synonym/spelling variation for the variety.

Rybeyrenc 2011 has an attractive red colour, quite light for a Languedoc, and a distinct aroma of strawberry and mulberry. The palate is light and refreshing, a delight to just drink and at 11 deg. is a shock to one accustomed to southern reds. The closest in style would perhaps be a basic vrac red from a co-op petrol pump, but in this case the wine has the rustic edges and other dodgy characteristics eliminated and a lot more interest.

I've tried a couple of other of Thierry Navarre's wines recently. Le Laouzil 2010, a classic red blend enjoyed at the superb Octopus restaurant in Béziers where it's listed with a very modest mark-up. Ideal luncheon fayre, it also danced around a bit en bouche - the only clue that many would classify it as vin naturel.

Cuvée Olivier 2011 is also an appellation blend and is a fuller, slightly richer style with wonderful poise and balance. Apparently aged in 500 litre barrels, but clearly these are not new as the oak is not really noticeable which is the way I like it. Feels like a wine that will keep for a few years yet also drink well throughout its life.

Prices seem reasonable and range from €8 to €13 for the Olivier. Must get over there.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Sunday lunch at Domaine des Agriolles

Domaine des Agriolles don't make wine, it's a Ferme des Cochons (Pig farm, although that just doesn't have the same ring to it). Lunch and entertainment was the centrepiece on their popular open day.

On the wine front it was BYO to accompany the fine - for mass outdoor catering - lunch. In our group I was reminded how racy and stimulating Muscadet can be, too good to be mixed with cassis as a kir. On the other hand a magnum of 2005 claret from somewhere in the Haut Medoc didn't inspire me; chunky and too firm.

We brought a bottle of 2012 SansSoo Domaine de la Réserve d'O from Arboras/St Saturnin (i.e. Terrasses du Larzac). A blend of Syrah and roughly a third Cinsault there is no added sulphur, hence the pun. Initially there was heaps of sweet straightforward red fruit that took a while to calm down; maceration carbonique was suggested. Attractive drinking but not as serious as the ridiculously thick heavy glass bottle might suggest. Well made and certainly won't upset those wary of the wilder styles of unsulphured wine. I suspect this was recently bottled and should improve as the elements settle down.

The Domaine des Agriolles is not far from the A750 west of Montpellier and has an attached shop Boutique Ô champs where the deep flavoured pâté included in the lunch can be purchased, along with plenty of other pork products and more. The cochons are raised on an artisan scale with unrestricted access to plenty of outside space. Everything is processed on site. Most of the produce is sold locally to those in the know.

Monday, 22 April 2013

En retard

Northern Europe experienced the coldest March ever recorded in places with the meteorological finger pointed firmly at the jet steam which was sitting further south than "normal" for early spring. The consequence of this in the Languedoc has been a wet March, certainly the wettest for more than 50 years and near the Pic Saint-Loup all records were broken with 357mm for the month (or pushing half and inch a day if you prefer).

Given there were relatively few damaging floods this is mostly good news as the water table is now back to "normal" after a run of too many relatively dry winters. Ditches have flowing water and the countryside looks greener for it, as do weed killer free vineyards.

Weed killer free vineyard enjoys a wet 2013 spring
An asparagus grower in the village told me the season started a month late, although a mid-March start would have been considered a bit prompt. Cold nights are blamed with the inability of the skies to string together more than a day of sun. In the photo above, taken on the 11th April, the vines are visually dormant. A week of sunshine from 12th has done the trick and bud-burst in under way.

Old Cinsault vine bud-burst 22nd April 2013
Given a "normal" summer, no doubt the least likely scenario, the harvest is going to be a couple of weeks late. At least the drier vineyards will be sparing established vines water stress.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Climate change

My post on "Freshness" in wine reminded me about climate change and specifically evidence for it. The Observatoire Viticol site for the Department de l'Herault is an excellent source of all sorts of statistics related to matters vinous. Original material can be reproduced providing credit is given.

The following chart is from the 'Documents' section under 'Viticulture' sub-menu 'Milieu Physique' and uses data from Meteo France. It plots the average annual temperature over 62 years in Montpellier.

Clearly the 1980s saw a transition and since then the average temperature has risen by pushing one degree C in relation to the long-term average since 1950. 1987 is the most recent below average year, although 2010 got close mainly due to a cool summer.

Further analysis of this quickly becomes subsumed into other variables, a reminder that statistics can be used to prove anything. This chart plots average winter temperatures with the interesting observation being that colder winters tend to come in 3 year clutches.

Other charts show that most of the warming since the 1980s is down to warmer May to August weather. This fits in with the winter temperatures chart above, along with 2010 having a cooler summer than recent years resulting in a lower average temperature than its peers.

I found some Eurostat and DataMarket data on Languedoc-Roussillon Degree-Days from 1980 to 2009. Degree-days are used as a guide to how much heating a house will need, so the lower the figure the warmer it is. On days when the temperature exceeds 18 deg. C that day scores zero. Below that, the colder it is the bigger the number so the data is more a measure of winter temperature than summer highs.

As expected, Degree-Days shows a correlation with the average winter temperatures chart above. What my chart displays is the moving average (purple line) which is clearly in decline.

When it comes to wine then cooler nights in the growing and especially ripening season will normally be more desirable for growers than the absolute average temperature.

I also looked at rainfall data for the Hérault. Because of the mountainous hinterland rainfall amounts vary dramatically but one conclusion that can be drawn is that since 1999 below average winter rainfall featured in the majority of years, especially on the coastal plains. Most climatologists seem to agree that we must expect more weather extremes going forward. March 2013 has been the wettest since 1960 in most places (Montpellier had 191 mm) and in some areas, e.g. close to Pic St Loup, the wettest on record. On a positive note the water table, having been in decline due to too many dry winters, has recovered and is good news for most vineyards.