Thursday 21 January 2016

Wine tasting with Charlemagne Wine Club

The Charlemagne wine club meets most months in Ealing, West London and has been going since 1974. Charlemagne isn't really a club, with no membership fee and open to all. Tastings are currently outstanding value at £20 and some are given by professional speakers. We first went in the early 1980s and every few years I host an evening presenting Languedoc wines. It's a lovely group to present to, being principally friendly enthusiastic wine lovers with varying degrees of wine knowledge.

I am fortunate in being able to source the wines in the region. This does mean, not intentionally and to the annoyance of some on the evening, that most wines are not available in the UK. The theme was growers that are favourites, either relatively recently or going back to the 1990s. This meant sticking to Mediterranean varieties but I deliberately went for a diversity of styles.

So, this was the line-up, two whites and six reds with a wine from Roussillon :-

Domaine Ribiera Y'a un Terret 2014 (Pézenas) Terret blanc
Mas Gabriel Champ des Bleuets 2014 (Pézenas) Vermentino and Grenache gris
Mas Brugière l'Arbouse 2013 (Pic St Loup) Syrah Grenache
Mas Coutelou Le Vin des Amis 2014 (Puimisson) Syrah Grenache
Terrasse d'Elise Le Pradel 2013 (Terrasses du Larzac) Cinsault
Leon Barrel Jardis 2012 (Faugères) Carignan, Syrah, Grenache
Domaine Treloar Motus 2011 (Roussillon) Mourvèdre
Domaine Ollier-Taillefer Castel Fossibus 2006 blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan etc. (Faugères)

With the exception of the 2006 all the wines were decanted and poured back into their bottles on the morning of the tasting, an approach that weeded out a corked specimen. At the start I asked everyone to note their 3 favourite wines, plus to take it seriously as the vote would determine which bottles to open at the end with bread, cheese and conversation.

The Leon Barrel and Treloar Motus (a Roussillon interloper) polled the most votes with Mas Coutelou and the other three reds following closely. Adjusting (roughly) the scores for price then Mas Coutelou at about €10 edges it, but the only real conclusion to draw is that personal preference on style dominated.

The Domaine Ribiera Y'a un Terret divided opinion the most, as it does our household. Some loved the complexity and nutty baked apple oxidative style, others found it too challenging. The Terrasse d'Elise Le Pradel stood out stylistically to the Languedoc stereotype with a lighter more fragrant style and if pushed was my wine of the night. I loved the tannins and suppleness of the Treloar Motus. Perhaps next time I'll present a Roussillon only tasting. The Ollier-Taillefer 2006 was made to age 10 plus years, although this bottle had reached the stage where it could have come from anywhere.

The following domaines have UK stockists I know of. Some have agents that only supply restaurants.

Mas Gabriel - Wine Society and Cambridge Wine Merchants
Mas Coutelou - Leon Stolarski Fine Wines and Roberson Wine (but for reasons I'm not prepared to reveal prices in France are much less).
Mas Brugière - Yapp Brothers
Domaine Treloar - Cambridge Wine Merchants
Leon Barral - Buon Vino (at the time of writing list the wine tasted)
Terrasse d'Elise - Buon Vino (at the time of writing list a Syrah)

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Visit to Leon Barral

If asked the reasons for visiting a domaine then enthusiastic consumers, wine merchants/importers and journalists would exhaust my list of the obvious. The day after picking late harvest grenache at his Domaine Ribiera, Régis Pichon invited me to join him on a visit to meet Jean-Luc Barral. Jean-Luc is one of the two brothers who founded Domaine Leon Barral in Faugères back in 1993, calling it Leon after their grandfather. The purpose of the visit was to see some equipment.

The equipment in question has origins in Brazil and is used as a means of controlling grasses and "weeds". The French seem to call it a rolofaca. At Leon Barral there is no ploughing. In winter cows, horses and even pigs roam the vineyards to keep the vegetation in check. When the vines are active the roloafaca is used to gently break up vegetation and enable it to mulch into the soil. Rather than a traditional tractor a caterpillar version is used to avoid over compacting the soil - the tracks have a considerably greater surface area than tires.

The vines, starting to take on autumn colours, are on Faugères schist of course. The trunks are all well below knee hight so picking and pruning must be excruciating. Look carefully to see bones lying in amongst the lumps of schist.

In the winery the large traditional wooden press was being cleaned after a morning of pressing - look for the figure standing at the back for a sense of scale.

In 2010 construction of an extraordinary new chai started and is still ongoing. A chronological gallery of pictures is on the Leon Barral website. How long has this car been there?

Finally we were shown the black pigs feeding on the vines by a stream and oak forest of 18 ha where they roam. The organic waste from households in the village also goes to them.

Jean-Luc bonds with the contented hog who services 18 sows.

A treasure trove of sustainable viticulture. No ordinary Domaine, no ordinary visit, and not a glass of wine in sight.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

All over? It is now

It can be measured in weeks since the main grape harvest was wrapped up. My 18th and final days picking took place 18 days after secateurs previously saw vineyard action. At Domaine Ribiera (Aspiran) two modest parcels of grenache were left patiently to let the grapes ripen further and shrivel a little. The objective was to produce a sweet Vin Doux Naturel - think modern vintage Banyuls or Maury in style. The old low yielding vines are sited on exposed windy slopes with thinning foliage as autumn beckons. This all combines to facilitate rapid drying after rain and those occasional humid days.

In 2014 all was lost to the deluges at the end of September that, more seriously, claimed several lives in the Hérault. This year the potential alcohol was around 16 degrees as mid-October approached. In order to make a Vin Doux Naturel with minimal winery intervention at least 20 degrees is needed for a good chance of a safe fermentation. For some reason (summer heat? too dry until mid-August?) ripening had been blocked for too long and 20 degrees wasn't going to happen. The Pichons decided to make Cartagene, a Languedoc speciality that involves adding alcohol to the must before fermentation gets going.

As usual the harvested grapes went through the de-stemmer and into a tank. To speed up the maceration they received 10 minutes of manual pigeage from Regis Pichon.

Saturday 3 October 2015

Independents - an upwards trend

Aspiran took the European Weekend of Heritage (patrimoine) seriously this year and included in the events and exhibitions was a display covering wine. Specifically highlighted were the Aspiran producers who now number 10, along with the cave cooperative (Clochers & Terroirs).

The longest established are Domaine de Fabrègues (1835) and Chateau Malautié (1900). Domaine des Montèzes arrived in 1995 having been displaced by the building of the A75 autoroute above Lodeve. The grapes around their Aspiran property apparently go to the cooperative with wine being made on site from grapes brought down from their Pégairolles de l’Escalette vineyards.

It was after 2000 that new arrivals took root, possibly fuelled by the decline of the cooperative before relatively recently joining the Clochers & Terroirs clan of cooperatives. Domaines Mon Mourel, Ribiera, Clos Mathelisse, Villa Symposia, des dimanches and most recently Gregory White and Mas Troqué complete the list.

Interestingly several producers in nearby villages have vineyards in the commune, ones I know about being Mas Costefere (Adissan), Julien Peyras (Paulhan) and Domaine les Quatre Amours (Bélarga).

Are there trends here? Of the new arrivals at least two (David Caer of Clos Mathelisse and Christelle Duffours of Mas Tronqué) have strong local roots. The six most recent arrivals practice organic standards with minimal intervention in the cave. Five of them appear regularly at Vins Nature events.

Perhaps the main observation is that villages with relatively dynamic and successful cooperatives have content viticulteurs and precious little land for sale, so have few independents. Witness nearby Fontès and Cabrières that both have exciting terroirs but few independents. The nearest equivalent commune with a similarly diverse land (limestone Villafranchien and galets roulés, clay with silt and limestone, basalt et al) is Caux, where independents also thrive while the abandoned cave cooperative building decays into an eyesore.

Wine from almost all the producers can be purchased from the Aspiran Tabac which is by the village crossroads.

Friday 25 September 2015

6th year of grape picking

My 6th season of grape picking is more or less over. Obviously the experience has become familiar with much of the mystique long gone - now more than replaced with catching up with friends. The magic remains as fresh as ever along with the collective energy and sense of common purpose of the team.

For anyone who fancies picking here are some observations.

Picking is hard on back. Well, certainly there is much bending over for hours and several muscles are in for a shock. Squatting is also necessary at times to give visibility and uses different muscles so gives gives the back some relief. Experienced pickers are generally able to avoid this and save energy. Plucking away a few obscuring leaves is the key to this.
In a well organised team porters will shift buckets and cagettes so pickers can avoid lifting. For many day 3 is the hardest before the body settles in and things ease (a little). Nevertheless, the reality is that individual backs react differently. Personally I find the whole experience helps strengthen those all important back supporting muscles.

Picking is hard work. As a sustained effort beyond a couple of hours a certain degree of stamina is required. The ability to concentrate when tired is critical. As ever, experience results in a less energetic technique.

The partying is hard. Draw your own conclusions.

Not all varieties are equal. Dealing with a waist high goblet of old Grenache with light foliage is on a par with shelling peas. Generously cropping Syrah on trellis wires that extend to above head hight is exhausting and frustrating with bunches hidden away at all levels.

Triage. Grapes grown to organic standards may produce superb fruit, but bio-diverse environments create a gamete of organisms to attack what is a monoculture crop. Selecting only perfect bunches is the main reason for hand picking and is the one area that demands experience, but the simple rule is don't pick anything you wouldn't eat.

There are dangers. Secateurs cut fingers and each season there are a couple of minor incidents and I have been a statistic - everyone does it once. Amazingly I've only witnessed one retirement. Concentration and always looking are critical.
Brambles and thistles also pose hazards. Fingers, and especially finger nails, become stained (a slice of lemon rubbed in helps clean them up). Those of a vain disposition wear gloves, but touch and feel are a crucial part of efficiently rejecting unhealthy bunches.

Allergies. Living vineyards are full of organic materials and picking some varieties entails literally burying one's head in a dry dusty vine occasionally. As the scorching summer sun retreats a second season of plant growth ensues - more pronounced with occasional rain to fuel it. Hay Fever suffers (like me) need to be aware and take precautions.

Clothing takes a battering. Yes. But at least, for some reason, grape stains wash out more easily than wine stains.

Wednesday 24 June 2015

Journée oenotouristique with Les Beaux Nez Rouges

Groups of small independent growers banding together to do marketing is not new. The coopératives movement that started over 100 years ago was about collectively marketing wine before the construction of the cavés we see today. The Outsiders group and Vinifilles are two contemporary examples from the region with the themes of growers from outside the region and vigneronnes respectively. The theme for Les Beaux Nez Rouges is they share the same oenologue Hervé Chabert, albeit that for many he seems more a friend, sounding board and a man with a portable bottling line. The diverse styles of wines being made back this up - these are independently minded growers.

Lunch beckons at Villa Symposia
Apparently the group have held an annual event for 10 years. This year over 100 enthusiasts headed to Villa Symposia in Aspiran - seemingly the epicentre of the groups vineyards with the majority visible from the commune. The format of the day is an outdoor tasting followed by lunch and optional promenades en calèche (horse carriage rides). The quality of the buffet lunch created by the vigneron's families is taken as seriously as the wine making. Sensational sour-dough baguettes were ordered from the wood burning ovens in nearby Canet, pélardons from Mas Rolland, chèvre tomme from the Larzac, organic vegetables from the commune, 25 Kg of fruits including strawberries picked in the Aude the day before.

Post lunch
Promenades en calèche

Eight vignerons were showing 23 wines between them so tasting everything wasn't onerous. The majority of bottles were under €10 making it the most modestly priced tasting line up I've attended for ages.

Here are some highlights

Domaine Bonetto Fabrol (Philippe Bonetto) are north of Orange in the Rhône and had the furthest to travel. The journey will have temporarily upset their wines but enough promise and interest came through Colombier 2014 (Grenache, Syrah) and Heritage 2013 (Syrah) that I purchased a couple of bottles. Nice perfume and softness, especially pronounced on the Heritage (sic) Syrah. The only openly biodynamic producer present.

This was my first encounter with Domaine Emile et Roses (Marcel Gisclar) at a tasting. The Carignan blanc 2014 was just starting to come to life with fresh garrigue herbs and lovely integrated acidity plus a bit of body. The reds weren't for me. For Léa 2011 (Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet) I noted "woody woodpecker". Unfortunately Marcel wasn't showing his Cinsault or Aramon and I was shocked to learn that his delicious inexpensive Mouvedre is no longer made. This makes our couple of bottles sort of irreplaceable.

Mas d'Agalis (Lionel Maurel) Le Grand Carré 2014 (Terret, Clairette, Vermentino and Chenin Blanc) was certainly the wildest white on show - spiky, apples and nuts, refreshing. Will divide opinion but not mine. Yo no puedo mas 2013 (Carignan with Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault) is a red that ping-pongs savoury fruits around the palate and has become one of our favourites.

Villa Symposia (Eric Prissette) were the home team. The prevailing gale was keeping everyone cool and would have passed through their vines just seconds before reaching us. Blanc 2014 (Grenache, Carignan, Terret) is their best so far and they've absolutely nailed the level of oak to my taste i.e. you barely notice it. Amphora 2013 (Cinsault with some Syrah) is proper red wine with some grippy tannins yet supple character. Equilibre 2012 (Syrah plus Carignan, Mourvèdre amd Grenache) is more savoury with more length and obvious but well integrated oak.

Winemaker Nenko Dunev with venue owner Éric Prissette
David Caer pours his crunchy Cinsault

Clos Mathelisse (David Caer) makes one red, Exorde 2013 (Cinsault) which is our house and party wine - crunchy with hints of bitter cherries, uncomplicated inexpensive drinking. The only pure Cinsault on show but a good one. I think the secret is the cool north facing aspect of the vineyard.

Domaine Grégory White took over the promising Mas d'Arlenques a couple of years ago when the previous owner was forced to retire with back trouble. White is Rosé 2014 (Grenache, Cinsault) is a relatively rare no added sulphur rosé. Soft peach nose with a palate that lets the light in. Terret 2013 has hints of the sea and iodine and an acidity that isn't contrived. Jamais pas Soif 2014 (Grenache) I'd tasted a couple of months before and found it a touch too much heady fruit gourmandise, now seemingly calmer and more interesting.

Domaine Ribiera (Régis Pichon) have no red wine until the 2014s are bottled in a few weeks time. Y'a un Terret 2013 has a mineral flint character and structure that's rare in the midi. Canilles R... 2013 (Rousanne) manages to be a Rousanne that avoids being heavy and aromatic, the secret being no added sulphur apparently so the result is more northern Rhone than midi. Canilles 2014 (Clairette) is more subtle and understated with flowers, citrus fruits and fennel.

Grégory White enjoys his zero sulphite rosé
Cool as mid-summer's day - Christine and Régis Pichon

Friday 1 May 2015

Montpeyroux Toutes caves ouvertes 2015

The annual Montpeyroux bash has suffered with rain over the past two editions. At least this year there were dry periods and mild temperatures with all the tasting taking place well under cover. At least the crowds were manageable and mild dull weather does not detract from the business of tasting.

There were 22 caves participating - 21 growers and the cooperative, so pretty much all the producers. An event like this requires a different perspective to a specialised wine fair where producers are selected from a wide area. Not everyone is producing wine that stands out, bears scrutiny or seeks international markets. Another challenge is there were a fair number (too many) 2014 wines on tasting that needed bottle time to integrate.

A very pleasant surprise was Le Petit Domaine, established barely 2 years ago by Julie Brosselin and Aurélien Petit. Between them they have practised oenology, being a caviste, tendering vineyards and making wine. Having restored a couple of abandoned old vine vineyards they have been able to become established in a village with some of the most expensive vine lands in the region. The Blanc with Terret and Clairette had delicious acidity and a lovely structure. The Cinsault dominated ne touche pas le grisbi 2013 (€13) was vibrant and evolving and I returned to make a purchase. Also interesting was a pure Syrah Myrmidon 2013 - crunchy, savoury, not too baked and drinking well.

Aupilhac put on a splendid show with over 16 wines on tasting including a table of mature wines going back to a somewhat peppery could be anything 2003. Showing particularly well was the "Lou Maset" 2013 a Grenache and Cinsault dominated blend. Essentially the domain's entry red (€7.80) there's a foundation of proper tannins with layers of red fruit. This is a cellar with some magical old vats. Delicious drinking that I preferred to the bigger, more leathery Montpeyroux 2012 (€14.70). The near legendary Le Carignan 2012 (€17.70) was still young and pretty tough, but extraordinarily complex in the mouth and a wine to chew on in the nicest sense.

Mas d’Amile have been making consistently excellent pure Carignan for nearly a decade. Like the Aupilhac, the Vieux Carignan 2013 (€10) was also complex en bouche. I'm surprised given the quality of the Carignan in the village more growers aren't inspired to attempt a pure cuvée.

Along with Aupilhac, Pascale Rivière's La Jasse Castel was showing a good selection. L'Égrisée (2014) blanc (Grenache with some Carignan blanc and Roussanne) was racy with intriguing floral and citrus grapefruit. The reds were all from 2013 and would have benefited from more bottle age, even the unoaked La Pimpanela was a little tight. Blue Velours (Carignan and Syrah) and Les Combariolles (Grenache) certainly showed some potential for keeping.

Disappointments? Domaine de l'Escarpolette was absent this year, unfortunate as there were some interesting wines on show two years ago. I also had hopes for Domaine du Joncas, but the reds especially were too crafted for my taste and not expressive enough to press any buttons.

The 8th (afternoon) and 9th May sees the Le Printemps Fête Ses Vignerons at nearby Saint Saturnin. This is essentially where all the domaines mainly to the east, north and west of Montpeyroux have their turn.