Friday, 13 March 2015

Personal Wine Laws and Principles

A dozen personal Wine Laws and Principles. Some new, some artefacts from the archives.
  1. Taste wines blind and focus on whether you like them. Only then move on to provenance, style, age, value for money and the like. Not particularly practical at home if you know your cellar, but try with friends from time to time.
  2. Don’t confuse expression of terroir with typicity of a region. Just because a white from a classic Loire region isn’t recognisable as Sauvignon blanc the wine can still (but not always) express it's origins.
  3. If a wine isn’t to your taste don’t dismiss the grower. Commercial necessities often result in the production of various styles for various tastes and markets.
  4. The same applies to grape varieties such as Cabernets, Merlot and Chardonnay grown in the Languedoc. This is a bias I struggle to overcome.
  5. From good growers the so called lesser (inexpensive) wines can often drink better than the “top” cuvées. This can especially hold true in restaurants when a prestige wine may need more age and more expensive often means lots of flashy oak, generous extraction and bottles with more than 11 units of alcohol.
  6. One difference often found between professionals and amateurs is that professions will assess a wine in absolute quality terms while an amateur will focus more on whether they actually like a wine. Some professionals will subtly elude to both in their writings, politics permitting.
  7. If you don’t like a wine because it’s left field and you struggle for reference points then make a note to revisit it in the future – more often that not it will grow on you and even become a favourite.
  8. Don’t be put off drinking red wine in the heat of summer. Cool them right down; they warm up quickly once poured if necessary. Conversely try rosés, or at least full bodied ones, all year round.
  9. There are no such wines as natural wines, only growers who like to call themselves natural winemakers.
  10. Being a natural wine maker means minimal intervention in the winery, but requires just as much work and demands more skill and experience to get right.
  11. “on the limit” zero-sulphite wines are susceptible to warm temperatures, especially if the change is sudden such as a couple of days and nights in the boot of a car.
  12. Don’t take matching food and wine too seriously. If a wine doesn’t match a dish or even a meal just take a pause. That said, there are wines that really work magic with the right food and these should be supported or they will disappear. Local food with local wine is the rule here.
19th Century cépage illustration

Friday, 6 February 2015

Driving to the UK Part 2 - Where to Stop

There are constraints with stopovers. This being a wine blog then staying somewhere that avoids driving to eat is important. A consideration for larger towns is parking and security as lugging everything to a hotel room is essential with street parking almost anywhere. Reasonably priced/budget hotels with some form of secure parking tend to be on the outskirts but at least these days the larger towns (Rouen, Orleans, Clermont-Ferrand) have tramways that make the journey into the centre easy and predictable.

Suggestions for dining and sleeping are influenced by personal preferences – economical, simple, clean, quiet accommodation; not put off by walking a Km or more from the hotel and splashing out on an occasional up to date gourmet restaurant with good wine that can set one back over €150 for two.

Near the channel ports - La Cour de Remi

A strong recommendation wherever it was sited, La Coer de Rémi is only 1h15m from the channel ports just east of Hesdin. Sited in the grounds of an estate a courtyard conversion has yielded spacious rooms and an atmospheric contemporary dining room. For good measure add a Bistro menu that would shine in Paris plus a highly personalised wine list full of value.
This is also a good base for the Somme WW1 museums and memorials.

Interesting Towns ordered north to south

Large busy town on the Seine a couple of hours or so from the channel ports. The Ibis/Mercure is conveniently next to where the A28 meets the Seine and has a secure underground car park. Origine delivered one of our best 2014 creative dining experiences, but otherwise the dining scene is mixed to say the least - beat the streets to find somewhere busy with locals.

Dominated by the famous cathedral the old town and banks of the Eure are pleasant for wandering around. Chartres is also well positioned if only stopping one night when doing the west of Paris route. Downsides are the budget hotels are a fair way from the centre and this is not a city for a gourmet meal. The easy to find Bistrot de la Cathédrale at least has a good atmosphere and some hearty dishes.

On the splendour of the Loire where for some real France begins when heading south. Several budget hotel options with secure parking on the outskirts and the tramway makes an evening in town simple. Not the most exciting town for dining out but natural wine lovers can console themselves in Les Becs à Vin (Place du Châtelet by Les Halles).

Interesting buildings and museums plus a gastronomic heritage are the plus points. The Logis Hôtel Des Allées is friendly and pleasant with courtyard parking and an easy walk into town.

Delightful medieval town of manageable size on the Yonne. The central Ibis has a great location with parking along the river (empty your vehicle). Sadly eating out is a bit of a mixed bag.

Attractive hilltop wine town. Not overtly tourist but enough to ensure a fair selection of accommodation and restaurants. Sited on the central place La Tour just about lived up to its Michelin star but wasn't memorable.

Large but not daunting town in the centre of France with and some well preserved medieval streets and buildings. The impressive cathedral tower is worth climbing for the view and exercise. For a delightful change of pace take a walk past the gardens and waterways of the Marais.
The old town proffers a selection of restaurant but for something special Le Cercle gets it right.
Although not particularly central, give the Logis Les Tilleuls a try (convenient for Le Cerle), otherwise friends recommend the Hôtel D'Angleterre where garage parking can be pre-booked.

Clermont Ferrand
Beyond the imposing dark basalt Cathedral Clermont Ferrand is more a functional than attractive town. However, several edge of town hotels by the tramway and near the autoroute smooth the logistics. The cooking plus stunning wine list at the inexpensive Le Saint Eutrope won’t disappoint. Run by the hands-on couple who previously operated Chassignolles (see below) Harry Lester also sources regional wines for the Gergovie Wines in London. Otherwise the town punches above its weight with Michelin macarons.
Being at the gateway to the A75 Clermont-Ferrand is little more than 3h from the Hérault so there will be time to spend a good couple of hours in the interesting Michelin Museum (free secure visitor parking and near a tramway).

There are too few country retreats in this list. To redress the balance a bit: -

The Auberge de Chassignolles (open May to October) is perhaps a bit close to the region to be an ideal stopover. On the other hand, at little more than 3 hours from the heart of the Languedoc and 45m from the A75 J20 south of Issoir, is also suited for an overnight excursion. Chassignolles is more a hamlet than village high up in the meadows and forests of the Auvergne. Come here for gimmick free tasty simple dining, carefully chosen wines (Domaine Ribiera is listed) and inexpensive accommodation. Run by Bristol chef legend Peter Tayor the result is something the French struggle so hard to deliver in the modern era.

Other towns on the list to explore are Gien, Troyes, Blois.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Driving to the UK (to transport that wine) Part 1

The subject of driving to the UK from the Midi comes up quite frequently with friends and acquaintances in both physical and social media environments. Sometimes the context is driving vs. flying. Assuming flying implies the need for a hire car then, all things being equal, fly for a trip of less than three weeks as costs should be less and travelling time is reduced. Of course there are many determining nuances to consider – number of travellers, luggage needs and pets, convenience and cost of a UK air route, age and size of car, the number of willing drivers and any plans to visit elsewhere en route. Perhaps, and this is a wine blog, the ability to bring back wine will be the most critical of all.

What surprises is how many who drive always treat the journey as a rally, only stopping for fuel, loos, leg stretches and to rotate drivers. Avoiding overnight accommodation and even meal costs makes this tactic economical and does maximise the time spent in the beloved south.

This post covers the express driving routes to the main channel ports. Part 2 proposes detours and wine friendly stopovers for those wishing, even if only occasionally, to take two or more days crossing France.

To/from the central France – A75, A20 or A7?

Without contemplating a major detour around the hexagon or a seriously sedate crossing the Massif Central there are realistically three routes between the Languedoc-Roussillon and central France. Between the centre and the main Channel ports more variations are available, but again broadly three routes.

Taking the A75 is the obvious route when based in the centre of the Languedoc-Roussillon. Packed with stunning mountain scenery for over 250Km and featuring two passes over 1000m it is, bar the wonder of crossing the Millau bridge, toll free as far as Clermont-Ferrand.

To the west picking up the A20 north of Toulouse also carves through hilly terrain and is toll free for much of the route after Toulouse.

Finally to the east is the A7 up the Rhone valley to Lyon and beyond. The downsides of this route are many. The Rhone valley is an industrial and transport artery making for plenty of indifferent scenery. The A7 is also perennially busy, Lyon has to be negotiated and there is no relief from tolls. Nevertheless, this can be the last route to suffer winter weather and is the quickest way for wine lovers taking in the Burgundy, Jura and Champagne regions.

Location in the Languedoc makes a difference when time is of the essence. Anywhere where Carcassonne is nearer than Narbonne makes the A20 the main contender. East of Montpellier and the A9 starts to look more attractive to avoid back-tracking. In between the A75 is the obvious choice.

Paris or not

Traversing Paris well out of rush hour makes it the quickest route. A popular option avoiding the notorious Périphérique and the boring lorry bulging A1 uses the relatively new A86 tunnel on the west side of Paris. Heading south take the A16 from Boulogne to Paris. At the end the A16 turn right onto the N184 and soon after left onto the A115 that joins the A15 just before the A86 turnoff. At the end of the long A86 tunnel section take the N12 west and then the N10 south west. At Ablis pick up the N191 to the A10 and on to Orleans. It’s complicated, but friends always go this way.

West and East around Paris

Avoiding Paris the most popular route is to the West via (direction south) Rouen and Chartres before joining the A10 autoroute north of Orleans. After Orleans the A71 leads to Bourges and the A75 at Clermont-Ferrand. For the A20 turn off the the A71at Vierzon. This route does have slower bits – Rouen, around Dreux and Chartres where heading though town is as quick as the long bypass. In between is mostly quiet toll free dual carriageway, but use the A16 péage between Boulogne and Abbeville.

The route to the east involves the A26 from the channel ports via Reims and Troyes and if avoiding Paris is an option for Lyon and Montpellier. A scenic and toll relieving alternative with some attractive open country is to go from Troyes to Auxerre and on to the Loire valley at Cosne-Cours and the heart of Sancerre country. Head down to Nevers and Moulins (mostly dual carriageway) then cut across to Saint-Pourçain and pick up the autoroute just north of Gant to join the A71.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Observations on Naked Wines

I’ve written very little on this blog about two of the biggest challenges for small independent wine producers. How to raise finance and how to market their wine. Big subjects requiring serious professional research, but I have some observations in a specific context.

Here are some perennial questions. Why is it so hard to sell small grower’s Languedoc wine to the UK market? How can a winegrower expand their business? How can sustainable finance (especially post 2008) be obtained? With limited time and budget, can wines be marketed in far away English speaking countries?
There seems to be an answer that addresses all of these questions to some extent without introducing too many more.

I first came across Naked Wines back in 2011 when it was much talked about (mainly sceptically) on social media. Four highly respected Languedoc domains I’ve followed for years (Domain Jones, Virgil Joly, Domain Saint-Rose and O’Vineyards) are involved so add to my curiosity and intrigue. For a description of Naked Wines' business there are links at the bottom of this post.

In brief, Naked Wines is essentially an on-line mail order platform where customers (can optionally) subscribe to help small wineries with capital and buy wines guided by customer ratings and discussions. There are two further crucial attributes. Everything is wine novice friendly and non-stuffy, plus there are photos and pen portraits of the winemakers themselves. You can even ask the winemakers questions on a shared forum. There are no wine fiches, just a few plain words to communicate the style of each wine.

Back in 2011 I was sceptical, mainly fuelled by: -
  • A buyer cashback scheme felt overly gimmicky. This has been discontinued and the customer proposition nicely simplified. Members, called angels, do pay a £20 monthly minimum towards orders and this, their website states, funds winemakers (until the customer places and order).

  • Pricing has a “normal” along with a typically 25% to 50% discounted member’s price. This plays the game UK consumers love so the reality must be that more customers are attracted by this than put off. After all, the very successful now near nationwide Majestic is always peppered with plenty of rotating buy 2 bottles and save a quid or two deals. UK supermarkets permanently freature BOGOF et al promotions.

  • All the wines seem to be exclusive to Naked Wines so are not available elsewhere. In some cases the grapes won’t be from the grower’s vineyards or even nearby, but this is explained for the wines I’ve checked. This makes assessing value for money guesswork. I have never seen nor received an answer to his, so concluded that if the winemakers are happy with their overall package of funding and sales that’s fine. All wines are scored as the percentage of customers who would buy again (as opposed to not buy). A simple mechanism that should ensure the perceived best value wines sell. Many, including the four Languedoc growers, continue to make and market their regular lines.
At the time of typing a third (21) of the French wines listed are Languedoc-Roussillon and they don’t dominate the cheaper wines. Will this expand the UK market? Given the growers produce separate ranges for Naked Wines then there isn't direct competition with established specialist merchants. A few customers will be lost to Naked Wines, but their marketing isn't really aimed at the established enthusiast or customer who likes a personal service. There are also plenty of quality small grower Languedocs yet to be represented in the UK.

With the emphasis on engagement with the personalities behind the wines hopefully Naked Wines can only nurture new wine lovers to take a more in-depth interest and move on. Growing the UK customer base is the one thing that should benefit everyone.

Jancis Robinson’s piece is here

Quartz offers an interesting business perspective here

Naked wines web site.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

2014 Vintage prospects

For the past two vintages (2012 and 2013) the Languedoc, and indeed most French Mediterranean wine areas, have faired much better than the rest of France. The Languedoc avoided the 2012 wet spring and summer, in fact rainfall was well below par in most sectors. In 2013 the late cold wet spring was shared with the rest of France, but in many areas grenache struggled to set in the early June downpours. After that, buoyed by healthier water tables and sun, things purred along into a 2-3 week late harvest blessed with ideal weather.

By all accounts 2014 is a great deal more encouraging for France as a whole than the previous two growing seasons. However, for the Languedoc 2014 has been one of the more challenging of the millennium along with 2007, 2002 in the east and, for heat reasons, 2003.

First up there was very little rain for the 12 months to June 2014 with the region suffering the driest winter for 20 years. This reduced yield to varying degrees and the vines I've observed had noticeably less foliage as the summer went on. Water stress could have been much worse had there not been several summer storms to keep the vines going although some pockets received very little precipitation.

Hail damage was a France wide phenomenon over summer and, unusually, the Languedoc didn't escape. Vineyards in the Languedoc-Roussillon are a big target with La Clape along with significant parts of Corbieres and Minervois suffering extensive damage.

Grenache vines on 9th October 2014 waiting to make a late harvest style red
Nevertheless, the quality of the grapes was excellent and most whites, along with quantities of early ripening red varieties (such as Cinsault), were harvested before the storms of the 8th September. Further deluges followed on 17th and 29th. Each event deposited weeks, even months of rainfall in just a few hours with the axis from Béziers through to the Pic St Loup particularly affected. The storm of the 29th broke records for a single day's rainfall around Montpellier. I head an extreme story of a vineyard near Montpellier severely damaged by trees carried down by a torrent.

Some vineyard in the flatlands were under water to varying degrees for an extended period. Those on the slopes fared better, but matters were not helped by humid weather after the deluge on the 17th. The normal pattern after rain is for the bone dry Tramontane wind to dry the vines in hours. One upshot is that yields have been reduced further by the necessary triage. All these factors mean that for quality concious domains the harvest is down from 20% to over 60% on 2013. Mourvèdre, the latest ripening popular variety, will have suffered the most. Some good new is that the gaps between the storms were long enough for the acid/sugar balance of the grapes to stabilise.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

A lot of bottle at Villa Symposia

Large format bottles at Villa Symposia impressive winery outside Aspiran. For comparison the labelled bottle is standard size.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

I overlooked Pastis

Following on from my last post on marc and spirits I overlooked mentioning Pastis. Having nothing to do with grapes and wine is a good reason, but love it or hate it, aniseed based spirit and the Mediterranean are pretty inseparable.

Pastis has French origins in Provence and the big and well know names still come from beyond the Rhone. As with wine there are artisan producers, and as with fine and marc, there aren't many. Differentiation from large scale producers is through the use of fresh aromatic plants many producers grow themselves.

My tipple is Pastis des Homs from the northern edge of the Larzac plateau. Added to the aniseed and liquorice base are 15 aromatic plants (thyme, rosemary, savory and the like) grown on site. The result is a taste at the fennel end of the aniseed spectrum with no bitterness. Light, yet is packed with flavour and almost has crunch. I also like the snow white it turns when water is added; most take on an unappetising yellow tinge. About €22, but as a bottle lasts me a season well worth it.

For a deeper star anise style try Pastis aux Plantes from Bernard Marty. Made in the heart of the Hérault at St Thibery several ingredients are included in the bottling so the maceration can continue until the bottle is finished.