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.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Wine Fair 3rd May

The 5th edition of the Festival des Vins Natures will be on 3rd May near Adissan, 10 Km north of Pezenas. The last edition was two years ago in Roquebrun - my comments are here. This years setting in a copse of trees with a commanding view and small chapel is equally attractive.

For those wishing to enjoy the late lunch the menu Roman Henry Niess is proposing (no vegetarian option - we asked) is :-

Tartine grillée à l'ail, oeufs mollets froid confits à l'huile d'olive au piment d'Espelette, ventrèche seche et jeunes pousses [essentially egg and bacon on toast]

Poitrine de cochon "Ibaiona" d'Eric Ospital, pommes de terre , condiments Savora/Moutarde [belly of pork with potatoes]

Ganache au chocolat et chantilly citron vert [chocolate with lime infused whipped cream]

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Salon des Vins Nature Bédarieux

This was a first visit to what has become a regular spring event in Bédarieux organised by Christine Cannac. Held in the small sheltered Place outside her wine bar Chai Christine Cannac, the organisation was exceptional. Having commented on the somewhat limited publicity, any more attendees would have made it overcrowded. To sustain everyone there was an efficient buffet serving inexpensive tasty plates. Live music boosted the atmosphere. All of the 64+ wines on tasting were for sale, but could only be purchased from the chai - a neat idea freeing the vignerons to devote all their attention to showing their wines. It also made buying much easier - I would have needed to return and interrupt four growers.

The overall standard of wines was high and nothing I tasted (just over half the wines) were overly volatile or funky. By and large the grapes were allowed to show some varietal characteristics. While it no doubt helped that all the bottles were brought by the producers, it can also be seen as a sign of vins naturels coming of age - at least for the growers invited and what they presented. Vintages were mainly 2013.

Mas D'Agalis is a wine I've enjoyed on several occasions but is rarely seen and overdue a mention on this blog. Made in Nébian between the "official" appellations of Terrasses du Larzac and Pezenas, the reality is that there are bits of terroir here with equivalent potential.Yo no puedo mas is a blend of the mainstream Languedoc red varieties and exudes balanced fruit with elegance and crunch. The white Grande Carré is half Terret with Vermentino plus several other varieties and showed a lovely structure with a citrus finish. With both at just under €10 a bottle these were some of the best value wines on show.

La Fontude also joins the category of rarely seen. Entremonde has Carignan and Aramon as the main grapes and I like the polished hardness and hint of nostalgic mouth feel on the palate.

The new to me Domaine Riverton was showing a particularly attractive Carignan Tombée du Ciel that oozed freshness with a fruit perfume the Roussillon can so well. The Blanc Bec was intriguing as I found it quite reductive - match head and flint - that would no doubt subside with a good decant and shake.

Mas Coutelou was showing an interesting rosé and two elegant and lively reds 5 SO (a pun on Cinsault) and Classe (Carignan). All were excellent value.

Yannck Pelletier's is an established name and his wines are seen on many of the regions best wine lists. L'Oiselet (Cinsault) has always been reliable over the years and this 2013 had nice mouth grip with cool and (but not over the top) gourmandise fruits.

Julien Peyrasis is another Hérault valley grower with vineyards above Paulhan north of Pézenas. My favourite was Lo Tarral (Grenach, Syrah, Carignan) with some nice supple fruit but at €14 not great value.

Léon Barral's wines stood out in more ways than one - style and price. There was more concentration and extraction than anything else tasted on the day. Potential was there for layers of complexity, but on the day integrated structure was lacking. Bottles to keep and revisit. One attendee I was chatting to was very enthusiastic over the €40 Valinières, no doubt seduced by the (well judged) oak ageing.

I deliberately tasted Domaine Ribiera and Clos Methélisse wines last as a point of reference. While I certainly had palate fatigue by then it did confirm that the the €11 and under wines were the stars on the day.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Wine Fair 4th April

A couple of Hérault wine fairs are coming up, both very much below the radar publicity wise.

Christine Cabac runs a (the) wine bar in Bédarieux and is the mastermind behind this Easter Saturday event. She emailed us the above fiche on request - better late than never. It should expand if you click on it.

The excellent list of 19 growers on the fiche is :-

François Aubry (Hérault) La Fontude, Brenas
David Auclair (Ardèche) La ferme du bout du ch’min, Étables
J. Audard, L. Boussu (Hérault) Domaine Monts et Merveilles, La Livinière
Gilles Azam (Aude) Domaine Les Hautes Terres, Roquetaillade
Didier Barral (Hérault) Domaine Léon Barral, Lenthéric
Vincent Bonnal (Hérault) Domaine de Pélissols, Bédarieux
David Caer (Hérault) Clos Mathelisse, Aspiran
Alain Castex (Pyrénées-O.) Casot des Mailloles, Banyuls-sur-Mer
Laurence Manya Krief (Pyrénées-O.) Le petit domaine de Yoyo, Albères/Banyuls
Lionel Maurel (Hérault) Mas d'Agalis, Nébian
Jean-François Nicq (Pyrénées-O.) Les foulards rouges, Montesquieu-des-Albères
Yannick Pelletier (Hérault) Saint-Nazaire-de-Ladarez
Julien Peyras (Hérault) Domaine Julien Peyras, Paulhan
Régis Pichon (Hérault) Domaine Ribiera, Aspiran
Axel Prüfer (Hérault) Le Temps des Cerises, Le Mas Blanc
Philippe Richy (Hérault) Domaine Stella Nova, Caux
Frédéric Rivaton (Pyrénées-O.) Latour-de-France
Jean-Louis Tribouley (Pyrénées-O.) Latour-de-France
Wim Wagemans (Hérault) Le bouc à trois pattes, Mons-la-Trivale

I have also been tipped off about a similar event on Sunday 3rd May near Adissan, between Pézenas and Clermont l'Hérault. Details will follow when I track them down.

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.