Friday, 4 December 2009

Wine in Restaurants

Languedoc restaurants have a challenging existence being in a region where the main industry is tourism. Trade is seasonal and, beyond the cities that form an arc along the A9 from Nîmes to Perpignan, markedly so. This means few restaurants can charge the prices or sustain the volume needed to keep regular staff, let alone a sommelier, all year round. Wine consumption in restaurants is also in decline as, quite rightly, customers become more drink-drive conscious. That said, they do have on their doorstep a massive choice of the best value wines France has to offer.

As passionate restaurant goers, cuisine is our first priority and dishes are chosen before any consideration is given to wine. If the wine doesn’t complement a dish we pause our drinking. After all, a classic vinaigrette will ruin the taste of just about any wine while some modern creations have too much going on. Fine wine goes best with simple food.

Can Peio – this delightful Catalan restaurant in a converted train station near Sommières has closed and is much missed, except the wine list that is.

A personal but hopefully realistic wine wish list for the regions mainstream restaurants is: -
  • Make the core of the list local wines e.g. Minervois, Grés de Montpellier etc. including one as nearby as possible (that merits listing of course). Source these wines directly from the producers or perhaps a local cavist.
  • List wines from growers or even co-ops rather than anonymous blends from large enterprises – those wines should focus their resources on much needed exports
  • List wines by the glass and state how much a glass is. Also list 250cl or 500cl carafes decanted from bottles. Do this even if only one white, rosé and red can be offered in this format. These carafes have been a most welcome trend in London but haven’t come across them in the Languedoc.
  • Stock 50cl bottles, if necessary in preference to 37.5cl halves – a trend that’s growing but clearly needs cooperation from producers. That said, if carafes can be offered for a reasonable selection then these bottle sizes are redundant.
  • Use appropriate glasses for the quality of the wine, but definitely nothing heavy and chunky or the wrong shape
  • Make sure the bottle is in reach of the diners and don’t be upset if they pour the wine themselves
  • Only list wines that can be enjoyed now. A possible exception is when several vintages of the same wine are listed. Especially guilty are lists with a token young bottle of Mas de Daumas Gassac, Grange des Peres, Peyre Rose and the like. Customer demand or not, it must be unfair not to show these expensive wines at their peak.
  • State the alcohol by volume of every wine
  • Indicate the cepage. A Vins de Pays could be a Cabernet Sauvignon or a Carignan – obviously a big difference.
  • List some wines of the moment, but make sure these are worthy wines. This helps customers choose and can help the restaurant with stock control.
  • Taking this further, the Languedoc is a large and far more complex region for the styles of wine made than other French regions. Include a one line description of the wine to at least indicate how rich and full bodied it is. This is especially important unless knowledgeable staff are readily available and greatly helps those of us who read French better than hearing it. If this is impractical for all wines at least do it for the mainstream ones.
The length of the list isn’t important as long as a cross selection of styles is offered at sensible price points. On prices and marks ups all I will say is that while restaurants are obviously businesses, I strongly object to any drinks being a source of profit over food.

Some considerations to get value from a list are: -
  • Where more than one wine from a domaine is listed the “lesser” wines can often drink much better than the “prestige” cuvees.
  • Where there’s a fixed mark-up policy, rather than a percentage approach, then the more you spend the greater percentage of the cost goes towards the wine
  • The pricing of older wine needs to reflect the cost of tying up money for years. That said, restaurants can occasionally pick up small parcels of mature wine from growers or simply need to shift older stock. Either way you clearly need to enjoy mature wine.
  • Where a restaurant buys direct from growers then some will charge the restaurant a wholesale price, others a near retail price. Of course spotting these wines, assuming the restaurant isn’t profiteering, means happening to know their retail price and that the wine is good value in the first place.
  • Buying a bottle and taking home what you don’t drink is often better value than a half bottle, plus the chances are the wine will be in better condition.
Coming soon, the Languedoc list that all others are compared to.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Why Languedoc?

The place. Discovering the Languedoc geographically was by chance. After years of taking holidays touring around gastronomic France in a hire car and living out of a suitcase, we took the opportunity through friends of a friend to have a fixed base for a week. On 3rd April 1993 we arrived at a converted manger of a village house in Soubès near Lodève. Despite chilly weather and little evidence of spring we fell in love with the varied countryside, the light, the wine and the amazing Le Mimosa restaurant.
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Past tastes and influences. Conversion to near exclusive consumption of Languedoc wine was a slow process. In the 1980s our tastes were pretty broad – the classic French regions (especially Alsace and better Bordeaux), Spain, Italy, Germany with dips into California and the start of the Aussie invasion; even Bulgaria. The early 1980s were also, arguably, the golden age for fine wine – classics were relatively undiscovered and affordable, but there were also plenty of duds. The biggest single influence on our tastes for almost 30 years has to be Mike and Liz Berry who now run Vins Fins de la Crau in Provence. A first purchase in 1980 from their mail order Mulberry Vintners, soon to be La Vigneronne, was a treasure trove of classics – Hermitage, 2nd growth Claret, top Sauternes, 20 year old vintage port. The cost today would be over double in equivalent money.

The most educational wine experience is to attending tastings. Mike and Liz started regular tastings that ran for years while Charlemagne Wine Club in West London (soon to celebrate 30 years) cover more everyday wines with the occasional look at the classics.

As the 80s progressed a change was needed. Old world red wine was often unreliable, hard, closed when young and required ageing. Prices increased as investors, informed amateurs and posers came on board – the 1982 Bordeaux vintage seemed to be the starter gun and it wasn’t long before fashion also encroached on the Rhône. We were also long term Alsace lovers – it was reliable and didn’t have the drawbacks of red, but even that was changing with richer and later harvest styles.

New World fayre didn’t arrive in the UK in earnest until the 1990s. The original Seaview Cabernet Sauvignon Limited Release from Oddbins was a sensation at the time; like a young fruity 1982 claret on steroids. In the white department New Zealand’s Cloudy Bay had similar impact. While not enough to sustain varied drinking it did mark a watershed for the adoption of modern winemaking practices in France. As for the Languedoc, it was just hidden under the bucket banner of “French Country Wine” that seems to cover anywhere vinous south of the Loire that isn’t Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône. Wines like Jurançon and Madiran were listed alongside the likes of Faugères and Minervois – and frankly they usually are today in the UK (Adnams is just one example, and they have made efforts over the years to seek interesting Languedoc wines out).

Enlightenment. 1990 was a turning point. The Berrys proffered 1988 Mas de Daumas Gassac (70% Cabernet Sauvignon) as the Claret alternative from a place called the Languedoc. Arguably this is gaining recognition by stealth, but why not – the Guggenheim worked for Bilbao. Liz Berry published The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon: The World’s Largest Vineyard in 1992 and the Berrys started to seek out and offer growers’ wines from the area.

Having visited the region regularly since 1993, by far our most enlightening guide has been David Pugh of the restaurant Le Mimosa – also described in Liz’s book and credited by the Berrys for many of the wines they listed. David’s extraordinary palate and talent to root out local gems that are well made and simply trying to be themselves is a beacon. His wine list deserves to be and will be the subject of another post.

The wine. For us Languedoc wine, and the reds in particular, combine the best of old and new world characteristics. They are Rhône and Provence style, i.e. full bodied, but better value. Most give great enjoyment when young and there’s great diversity thanks to the many sub-regions, the range of grape varieties planted and large number of growers. Few bad harvests is another bonus with enough vintage variation to give interest.

Of course there is a downside to these fine attributes. The wines are near impossible to classify in a way recognisable to the uninitiated consumer and every conceivable style is made. Even worse, most of the quality wines are only available in small quantities from growers so only small independent merchants stock them. Beyond Internet-only retailers, the most interesting UK selections seem to appear on adventurous restaurant wine lists.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Mas Gabriel - find of the year

There’s plenty of opportunity to try local wines at various events and village fairs, especially in season. By far the most intriguing encounter this year was Mas Gabriel back in May. Three wines were on tasting, their white, rosé and red. The rosé was clean and fresh with gently perfumed red fruits and strawberry yet had a serious stony backbone that could partner food. The white and red didn’t leave any particular impression other than an astonishing purity that underlined all three wines. A couple of bottles of Les Fleurs Sauvages 2008 rosé were soon consumed chez nous and confirmed how delicious it was. Being made from 50 year old vines of Carignan and Cinsault clearly makes a difference.

We soon made a trip to Caux for more supplies and the opportunity to taste the white and red again, although this time from pre-opened bottles. Clos des Papillons 2008 is made from old and rare Carignan Blanc and fresh almonds, lemon peel and rosemary were all evolving in the glass with a fresh hay finish. Clos Gabriel 2006 is 63% Carignan, 28% Syrah and 9% Grenache. A soft ripe blackcurrant and blackberry start becomes classy boot polish. Mouth filling and robust without being heady and the finish is balanced with reassuring tannins. When we returned in the autumn the rosé and white were sold out, although lovers of fine food should note that O-Bontemps in nearby Magalas will be listing the white. Just bottled in October was the Les Trois Terrasses 2008 Carignan – my bottles will rest over winter before I broach them. Cellar door prices are 6 € to 12 € and offer better value than most growers in the more fashionable Montpeyroux triangle.

Alchemy in action

2006 was Peter and Debora Core’s first vintage having been lucky enough to purchase some extraordinarily diverse parcels of vines from parts of the esteemed Domaine de la Garance. Now expanded to 6 hectares with some new plantings the vineyards, which were tendered organically, are currently in the three year “bio” certification paperwork marathon. The Cores also practice bio-dynamic principles. Before starting Mas Gabriel over two years were spent in New Zealand and Bordeaux learning the practicalities of viticulture and winemaking – yes this was a complete career and lifestyle change.

Mas Gabriel is easy to visit – on summer weekend afternoons just turn up, otherwise phone or email first to avoid disappointment (details here).

Saturday, 31 October 2009

Domaine d’Aupilhac tasting and dinner

Sylvain Fadat started Domaine d’Aupilhac back in 1989 and along with Olivier Jullien (see Mas Jullien posts) was a pioneer for the area. In addition to his vineyards around Montpeyroux, Syvain’s big investment has been in forging new vineyards out of the garrigue at altitude above the village. This means a broad range of wine styles are produced, ideal for what was the last tasting and repas vigneron evening of the season at La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux.

13 wines were tasted over the evening, 5 with the delightful dinner.

Les Cocalières blanc 2005, 2007
Roussanne, Marsanne, Vermantino, Grenache Blanc. From vines 350m above sea level on dolomitic limestone overlooking Montpeyroux. Aromatic floral with gentian and fennel leading to a palate of lemon peel and apple. The 2007 was fresher – lemon balm with lime and a fine partner for risotto with mussels.

Mont-Baudile blanc 2008, 1996 Ugni blanc, Grenache blanc and Chardonnay. Creaminess of youth with fresh, citrus, fennel and churned butter in the 2008. Worked well with marinated salmon. The 1996 was the first vintage. Nuts and figs with vanilla but done dry and in perfect balance, extraordinary. There were two bottles, one of which did not have a malolactic fermentation. With only one tasting glass I couldn’t detect a difference.

Montpeyroux rouge 2003, 1997 Mourvèdre, Syrah and Carignan with 10% Grenache and 5% Cinsault. Simplistically clay and chalk (argilo-calcaire) vineyards with lots of oyster fossils apparently. 2003 was the year of the canicule and many fine reds have not aged well but this isn’t one of them. Animal with ripe cassis and a pepper finish. 1997 was a difficult wet and cool year but this wine was a masterpiece – Burgundy sweetness and delicacy with some liquorice, good length and poise. Would be impossible to place if tasted blind.

Le Carignan 2008, 2000 (Magnum), 1998 (Magnum) A landmark wine for the region. Sylvain was generous enough to credit les anglais for buying it in the early days and I was one of them. Most vintages show best when young or older with a closed run of years in between. The 2008 was heady ripe fruit propped up by good acidity and a tannin canvas. The 2000 still had a dense colour, damsons and soft spice. The 1998 was my wine of the night – spices, olive, bay, brambles and damson and just so complete and satisfying.

Les Cocalières rouge 2005 Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre grown at 350m altitude. Quite sweet and heady with elegant brambles. The lighter style went well with the duck.

Le Clos 1999 (Magnum), 1989 (Magnum) Mourvèdre and Carignan with 20% Syrah. Fresh farmyard with mushroom. Herbs and supple oak tannins - will keep. 1989, the first vintage for Le Clos, was earthy, sweet and elegant with garrigue herbs.

"La Boda" Rouge 2006 Mourvèdre and Syrah with 10% each of Carignan and Grenache. An assemblage from Montpeyroux argilo-calcaire vineyards and the altitude Cocalières. Dark and brooding with cassis, liquorice and spice. Clearly needs time and will no doubt please important export markets.

Great winemakers make good and interesting wines in difficult vintages and d’Aupilhac is the best proof of that I've come across for years.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

A good week

It’s always satisfying when wine exceeds expectations and this has been a satisfying week.

Ollier Taillefer (Fos in Faugères) makes consistently good wine at a fair price and seems to know how to market it. Castel Fossibus is their oaked Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre blend designed for ageing and the 2002 is still at its peak. A browning rim and a soft, ripe herbal nose leads to a mouth filling rounded and gentle spicy palate. It’s mature enough to perhaps come from anywhere, but was delicious. The 2002’s have proved to be a most elegant year, at least to the west of the Gard that suffered a severe harvest deluge.

My experience with tasting reds from Saint-Saturnin (Terrasses de Larzac) has yet to particularly excite me. I find the characteristics to be rich dark fruits and chocolate and this was exactly what I found drinking Virgil Joly 2001 - notes of black olives, chocolate and even hints of coffee were not for me. That said, it was beautifully mature and balanced with a soft mouth feel and good length; the last bottle and more enjoyable than expected.

Viognier has been trying to become fashionable for decades despite being tricky viticulturally. In the Languedoc it has made some successful everyday wines - the Cotes de Thongue between Beziers and Pezenas produces good bottles (as it does Chardonnay as well). Domaine La Condamine L' Evêque’s Viognier for example has always been a reliable restaurant wine list spot. A touch also works well in white blends adding fat and exotic perfume. Of the pure Viogniers from the region Domaine de Clovallon Les Aires has consistently come closest to good specimens from Condrieu Rhone territory. Vintage differences are more pronounced up in Bedarieux and the 2006 is exceptional – apricot, hints of peach stone with (unsweetened) Chantilly cream and linseeds in the mouth. Normally a one glass then move on wine, but not this bottle. My thanks to David Pugh of restaurant Le Mimosa for the tip off and being prepared to part with a couple of bottles. Alas, this was the second bottle.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

La Terrasse d’Elise tasting and dinner

Xavier Braujou started La Terrasse d’Elise in 1998 but it was 2001 before his range started to expand. I was introduced to his wines through a mixed tasting case bought in the UK back in 2004 from Mike and Liz Berry who now run Vins Fins de la Crau in Provence. This was another terrific repas vignerons at La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux with Xavier there to introduce his wines.

Saint Jean de Fos is where the Herault gorge exits to the plain having swathed through the high Larzac plateau and this results in a microclimate of cooler nights. Nature dominates Xavier’s total approach from minimal vineyard treatments through to several of his cuvees even avoiding the use of sulphur.

Le Puech n°8 (Chardonnay) 2008 A cask sample hence the slightly foggy grape juice colour. Grapey and honeyed with a lemon sherbet palate and gentle bitters finish. Not at all varietal, just as I recall a much earlier vintage was.

Rose 2008 Luminous garnet. Rose hips and raspberry. Sorbet like freshness. Delicious but feels alcoholic. Cinsault and Carignan.

Le Pradel 2005 (Cinsault) Light colour. Vegetable, beetroot and boiled sweets make it intriguing and attractive to smell. This was the wine I mistook for Pinot Noir at a blind tasting in the spring. Palate seems new world in style – fine tannins, clean and relatively simple fruit. Doesn’t seem Languedoc, probably because so little quality Cinsault red is made in the region.

Le Pradel 2006 (Cinsault) Red fruits, quite spirity. Plumy fruit body with good structure – serious yet remarkably fresh. Developed well over a few minutes.

Le Pigeonnier 2004 (Carignan) Fuller colour. Liquorice and soft leather. Berries and chunky but evolves all the time and is extraordinarily fresh.

Le Pigeonnier 2005 (Carignan) Rhubarb, cherry and lychees (Nico’s observation). Lemon balm palate with great acidity and finish. Yes it is red wine. The finest Carignan I recall tasting and my wine of the evening.

Elise 2002 (Syrah and Mouvedre, aged 2 years in barrels) Blackcurrant with lemon. Elegant, racy, great length. Felt like there should be more, but that’s probably from tasting too many Languedoc blockbusters – this is more Northern Rhone. Worth keeping to see if the flavours start to layer.

Elise 2003 (Syrah and Mouvedre, aged 2 years in barrels) Sweaty, animal with mouth coating tannin. Quite baked. If the 2002 is cool Rhone this is Spain. 2003 was of course the difficult year of the canicule. Went very well with the sublime roast lamb later in the evening.

Mas de Blanc 2003 (Merlot) Prunes and chocolate. Baked and hot. Not good evidence that Merlot is at home here – would have been nice to try a cooler year.

The reds all show an underlying personal style – freshness, elegance and a racy acidity. These were also drunk after the tasting with the delightful meal and were not phased by red mullet, chocolate roulade or even the strong herbed fromage Boulette d’Avesnes. My only gripe would be that after four hours of tasting and drinking the style began to tire – as would any style. I much preferred the Le Pradel and Le Pigeonnier - the latter a very reasonable €13, nearly half the retail price of the Elise.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Dégustation à l’aveugle (Blind tasting)

La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux is running blind tastings on the second Monday of the month. It’s an informal stand-up tasting around the bar and there’s no charge. One brings a bottle (disguise the label of course) and sommelier Nico orchestrates proceedings, which is to say he pours the wine and does much of the analysis. Guessing as to what the wine is isn’t really the point. It’s to personally decide whether you like and enjoy the wine without any preconceptions generated by seeing the label and knowing the price.

This tasting was well attended; I counted 17 of us, including local star Alain Chabanon, and there were 10 wines. There’s no theme to the wines people bring so the resulting selection can be pretty eclectic.

  1. Ballade en Straminer (Gewürztraminer) 2007 Domaine de Bachellery.
    Aromatic but fresh and quite racy. At the grapefruit end of the Gewurtz spectrum that I like. Alsace on steroids – only on revealing the bottle were the more tropical flavours apparent.
  2. Malaga Blanc, Thailand Unlabelled bottle.
    Can’t recall a wine with so little colour. Dry, strange herbs and minerals. The panel though it could be Muscadet. Clearly needs some spicey Thai food. Apparently Louis XIV gifted the Malaga vines to the King of Siam 200 plus years ago.
  3. Picpoul de Pinet 2007, Domaine St. Martin de la Garrigue
    Full straw colour. Sweet oak nose (despite being no use of oak....), dry elegant acidity. Bitters finish with a touch of pine. Certainly surprised everyone.
  4. Domaine de la Petite Gallée, "Vieilles Vignes” (Gamay), Coteaux du Lyonnais
    On to the reds. Garnet colour. Firm fruit, metallic mineral, redcurrant. Good structure but straight. Could well be worth ageing. Apparently made from gamay vines planted in 1896.
  5. Domaine du Grand Crès 2002 (red), Corbières
    Ripe blackberry fruit leaps out of the glass. Delicious liquorice palate. Everyone heaped praise on it. I though it very much like Domaine Barroubio Cuvée Marie Therese
  6. Domaine Saparale Casteddu 2006 (red), Corsica
    Mulberry fruit. Hot, tannic, noticeably alcoholic. A bit edgey, almost clumsy, perhaps needs time to settle down – or is it just rustic?
  7. Domaine Croix de St Privat ''Cuvée du Papé Laurent '' 2007, Aniane
    Quite rubbery with some mineral. Peppers and cassis, brazil nut sweet ripeness. By now most peoples palates were becoming a little disorientated (Aniane is only a few kms away)
  8. Gigondas Cuvée Prestige 2006 François Arnaud
    More constrained nose than the predecessors. Soft berry fruit, quite hot finish. Food wine. I would keep this.
  9. TMV Syrah 2006, Swartland South Africa
    Spicy and leathery, smokey. Fine tannins and good balance. Not obviously Syrah – one taster suggested Cinsault.
  10. Teófilo Reyes Crianza 1996, Ribera del Duero Spain
    Browning red. Sweet ripe farmyard. Mature, long and flavoury. À point now, but old enough to be from anywhere hot.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Organic Wine - inevitable?

Shaun Hill, one of Britain’s finest chefs and restaurateur, wrote a few years ago in his book How to Cook Better that “organic is good, but not all good things are organic”. He was talking about buying vegetables and fruit, but as far as wine is concerned there may be a long way to go.

Simplistically I observe the evolution of organic wine production as having three ages: -
  1. Early enthusiasts. Here organic production is mainly by newcomers to grape growing and wine production. Results are mixed, mainly due to inexperience.

  2. Leaders convert. Established growers set out to become organic. Commercially this will add value by giving the wine a marketing edge; but for many producers I’d like to think it’s simply a case of being the right thing to do in the quest for a better environment – after all their families live and work in their vineyards.

  3. Organic is the norm, where consumers expect their purchases to be organic and not being so is a distinct disadvantage.
In the Languedoc at least, age two is now an irreversibly underway as evidenced by domains such as Aupilhac, Mas Bruguiere, Virgil Joly and Alain Chabanon. Julia’s post on the Montpellier organic wine fair suggests there are now over 300 certified producers in the Languedoc.

Personally there’s another key aspect. As someone who loves to walk and cycle in vinelands, then the sight of vines on scorched earth and skeletons of dead plants is, frankly, sad and repulsive. Just as serious is the impact of the weed killers responsible on my foraging for salade sauvage.

Of course things are never black and white. Many producers are effectively organic but haven’t become certified because they would like the option to spray in an emergency – the emergency being the otherwise severe cut in quality grape production and hence income. Then there’s time and all that certification paperwork. Growers who don’t use weed killers will at least have more natural looking vineyards and keep my eyes happier.

Will we ever get to stage three? That will depend on consumers so in general no, but for fine wine maybe.

Do organic wines taste better? I haven’t tasted enough to comment, but most I’ve had recently have been fine and do possess a purity about them. Much has been written, but one point that seems key is that organic wines need skilled winemaking as there is less scope for the winemaker to manipulate the final product. This, and consumer apathy, could leave many producers struggling to make it to the first age.

Scorched earth

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Mas Bruguière (Pic St Loup)

The Pic St Loup, seen here from the Pic Baudille about 27 Km away, is just 12 Km north of Montpellier but feels a world away. It is one of the coolest and wettest of the Languedoc wine areas, although still warm enough in places to ripen Mourvèdre. Here the reds are generally a touch more charcoal and fennel than tar and liquorice.

Mas Bruguière sits in the valley between the Pic St Loup and the Montagne d’Hortus - one of the most stunning locations imaginable for a vineyard with the dramatic profile of the valley discreetly introduced on the labels.

Even more remarkable than the geology is the family history. The Bruguières have been farmers in the area since the 13th century and vignerons for seven generations since the Revolution.

In 1986 Guilhem boldly gave up the local co-operative and there’s been continuous investment and improvement ever since. The first vintage we tasted was the 1994 and we’ve regularly stocked up ever since. It’s an easy place to visit ad-hoc as Isabelle has her artist’s studio above the chais (open mornings and afternoons except Sundays). Today Xavier has taken over from Guilhem and bio certification is in progress.

What about the wine itself? A well hung and perfectly cooked steak is as complex and unbeatable as the finest creation of a starred chef. For me the reds, such as the unoaked Syrah/Grenache L’Arbouse (named after the strawberry tree), are the steak of the wine world with the complexity in its fine structure rather than layers. There’s also good acidity that gives the wine a freshness and must help it age so well – the 2003 was still delicious in 2009.

Currently available in the UK from Yapp Bothers.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Terrasses du Larzac Map

The Terrasses du Larzac appellation was defined in 2004 to essentially give a bit more granularity to the massive catch-all Coteaux du Languedoc appellation. The site lists 59 producers and these are shown on the map below. Note that this simply illustrates the producer's business location and not necessarily where the vineyards are, although in most cases they will be nearby.

This map began as a means to become familiar with using Google maps as a web site development tool, but the real challenges were getting them to work in a Blogger environment. Rather unfortunate given they are both products of the same organisation.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Domaine de Barroubio Red

Domaine de Barroubio occupies most of a hamlet above the sleepy village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois was one of the first domains we visited on discovering the Languedoc back in 1993. It was to seek out the elegant floral and citrus vins doux naturel Muscat we had enjoyed in a restaurant. It’s always been our preferred style of the region’s sweet Muscat – more grapes than raisons and a bit racier.

It was on later visits that we were introduced to Barroubio’s reds from vineyards lower down the slopes. The basic Minervois is a Cariginan, Syrah and Grenache blend that's rounded, fruity, balanced and fine easy drinking. Available fairly widely from cavistes and at just 5 € it’s one of our reliable everyday drinking staples.

The Cuvée Marie Therese is 75% Syrah and 25% Granache and spends a year in large oak barriques. We’ve been drinking the 2000 in the UK over the past three or so years having filled our boots through irresistible bin-end offers. The colour is full garnet red that offers a soft fruit raspberry aroma with fresh thyme and a hint of liquorice and cherry. It tastes as it smells with a supple mouth feel and gentle finish and is not too heavy. In its youth it had a more defined structure with handbag leathers, more spice, and a lot less raspberry which is the surprising character of what is now a fully mature wine that will soon decline. The 2006 is around 9,50 €.

There's a third highly regarded red of mainly old vine Carignan, Cuvée Jean Miquel that for some reason I’ve never tasted. Raymond is the current winemaker from the Miquel family who have been at Barroubio for many generations.

Monday, 6 July 2009

French Coutry Wine RIP?

OK, this entry has nothing to do with the Languedoc, it's about a holiday wine on the Ile de Ré. Perhaps the only connection is that it concerns a Vin de Pays, and Languedoc wine lovers will know this isn't an indicator of quality.
I ordered this white, Le Royal from the island's only coop, for a family lunch on the sun drenched quayside bar bistro at La Flotte. While the food is best forgotten, along with the near x4 mark-up on this 3,50€ wine, it left two lasting impressions.
The first was the extraordinary descriptive note on the back label. I translate and précis a little (click on the image to read the French).
«By its style and taste, this wine presents itself to the gourmondise. It is faithful to its terroir. This white is proud of its insular expression. It suggests to you a well-being gourmand.» Now for the tasting notes «Colour pale luminous yellow. Nose floral (broom, mimosa, lime flower). Hint of lemon-balm and, when swirled, passion flower. Lively palate with notes of citrus fruits.» After this are the more practical food accompaniment suggestions and serving temperature. Amazingly there was no mention of the cepage - Colombard with some Sauvignon and Chardonnay.

The second impression was the taste of the wine. With some imagination, and allowance for the low-key finish that necessitated a good mouthful, the tasting notes are just about believable despite the French tendency to seriously elaborate the (in this case) floral similarities. The real point, however, is this wine could have come from anywhere; California and South Africa being strong candidates. Nowhere on the label was «faithful to its terroir» explained. No vine on the island can be more than a mile from the sea, but any character this imparted wasn't detectable by me nor mentioned on the label. Three quarters of the grapes grown are used to make Cognac or Pineau Ilrhéa, the local name for Pineau des Charentes (one third cognac, two thirds grape juice). Nevertheless, the wine just tastes like a stainless steel international success. French Country wine RIP?

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Mas du Pountil

On the memorable Ascention walk and picnic tasting with the winemakers on the summit of the Pic Baudille one property we've never tasted stood out as producing good value drinking at a more everyday price. Mas du Pountil at Jonquières has been in the Bautou family for generations and seen it all with modern winemaking starting in 2000.
«Gourmandise» 2006 is a Grenache dominated red blend with ripe sweetness, mouth filling red fruits and streaks of pepper and liquorice. This was a brilliant barbecue wine posessing some structure and is much more than a good quaff. 6€.
The Mas du Pountil rouge is Syrah, Grenache and Carignan dominated and partly oaked. The 2002 has a browning edge and is well into its plateau of maturity. Warm with cassis and liquorice. The palate is rounded and voluptuous, rubbery yet elegant. Quite easy to drink, but for just 23 € in a local Michelin starred restaurant (De Lauzun) a steal. Around 10€ at the caviste.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Mas d'Alezon 2005 (Red Faugères)

With the Languedoc sun and chaleur now well established then any red with refreshing characteristics is most welcome. Mas d'Alezon 2005, drunk on the terrace of a restaurant, had just that. Structured ripe fruit with a cool blackcurrent undertone supported by just a little spice, both on the nose and palate. A delicious mouthful but not a quaff - the length sees to that. The 12.5% alcohol seemed to give the subtle fruits a chance to shout. From Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre this is also another wine grown at altitude; 450m in this case, right on the northern tip of the Faugères appelation. Around €13 to €14. Mas d'Alezon is actually produced by Catherine Roque of Domaine de Clovallon, who makes our favorite special occasion Viognier and a good value cool Pinot Noir.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

Alain Chabanon Dinner

Serious anticipation...........
This spring has seen some terrific tastings and dinners thanks to the team at Les Mimosas and the area’s producers. The latest was none other than Alain Chabanon hosting a dinner at Le Mimosa, and a big thank you to Alain for providing the wines free of charge. We have more of Alain’s wines than any other producer by a fair margin. One reason for this is simply down to their longevity and the older reds we drank on the night will still develop further. On a day that reached the mid-30 degrees C conditions were not ideal for serious red wine. Le Mimosa’s dining room was laid out with four long tables and helped generate a convivial atmosphere with Alain introducing each wine. The delivery and standard of the dishes served to the 50 of us never faltered. Rosé Trémier 2008 aperitif. Pale colour. Strawberry sorbet, herbs. Floral palate with a hint of bitters. Has the body of a food rosé but is hugely enjoyable on its own. Trélans 2006 hummus with seed and olive bread roll Vermentino and Chenin Blanc. Gentle toast, linseed oil, fennel and grapefruit. Racy, long palate that dances in the mouth. Trélans 2002 marinated citrus scallops Pale gold colour. Nuttier – hazel. Aromatic and again grapefruit, but balancing acidity. Took the lemon sauce with the scallops in its stride. I’ve had mixed experiences with Trélans and some years such as 2004 really need food, but this pair showed very well. Les Boissieres 2000 Magnum girolle and cheese mille feuille tart Mainly Grenache. Tinted red colour. Sweet leather and warm red berries with pepper. Full flavoured without being tannic and powerful. Campredon 2007 Magnum red mullet, prawn and shellfish Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carignan. No oak. Full red, ripe heady and warm – cherry and cherry stone. Ripe tannins avoided problems with the seafood. Drink young or keep (the 2004 is still delicious) L’Esprit de Font Caude 2003 Magnum rabbit and its abats with mash Syrah and Mourvèdre. Browning colour. Warm, bay, mushroom and farmyard with a pepper palate. The searing heat of 2003 has made this approachable now but needs time to develop complexity. (the 1999, which has more extraction, is delicious now) Le Merle aux Alouettes 2001 incontournable à point cheese board Merlot and a little Grenache. Sweet, ripe and balanced. Full flavoured – blackberry. Did as well with cheese as any red. Again needs time to develop layers of flavour (the 1999, his first vintage of Le Merle, is drinking well now) Villard 2001/2003chocolate sponge, chocolate sorbet, apricot and crème brûlée Chenin Blanc. A blend of two years to get the balance right. Amber. Orange peel, bitters, raisins and caramel all concentrated on a steel backbone. Quite an evening.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Mas Jullien tasting and dinner

Mas Jullien’s wines are part of our history in the Languedoc. We discovered and fell in love with the area by accident in April 1993, renting a converted manger of a village house in Soubes near Lodeve for just a week through friends of a friend. We also discovered the amazing Le Mimosa restaurant where we were introduced to Olivier Jullien’s wines. A bottle of warming but supple 1991 Les Depierres red by a roaring wood stove will stick in the memory forever. From a family of vignerons in Jonquières, Olivier started back in 1985 after studying viticulture and oenology. Since then his journey seems to have been a quest for the ideal combination of terroirs by acquiring various vineyards in the folds of various soils that flow from the Larzac plateau and the Pic Baudille which dominates the Herault valley. 24 years on Olivier hosted a tasting and repas vigneron at La Terrasse du Mimosa in Montpeyroux. As the cepages vary from year to year, plus even Olivier’s memory is not perfect, my notes on the grapes used will be incomplete. Given how many different wines he makes the approach was to taste ready to drink and fully mature examples. Also bear in mind that most of these wines have been stored in an air conditioned cellar since bottling so have matured slowly and evenly. Mas Jullien White 1999 the first year a single white was made. Carignan Blanc, Chenin Blanc. Melon and aromatic herbs, heaps of acidity, oils. Good length and perfect balance. Presented as a “wine of the south with a goût of the north”. Mas Jullien White 2006 presented after the 1999 to show the progression in wine making. Fresh, citrus peel, grasses and minerals with a strapping palate. Blanc 2007 served afterwards with dinner – mineral blast, citrus peel reminiscent of Alsace like steeliness. Mas Jullien Rose 2008 Grenache, Carignan Blanc and others. Scarlet colour. Gariguettes (strawberry) and quince but not overly blowsy. Full bodied but dry. Delicious alone or with food. Red Les Etats d'Ames 1997 Being a Grenache based blend makes it approachable to drink young, but this proves it ages beautifully despite 1997 being a relatively difficult and forward year. Brick red. Ripe, supple, elegant with hints of farmyard, almost burgundian. À point maturity. Red Carlan Les Etats d'Ames 2004 First year from a sandstone vineyard at altitude tucked under the Larzac plateau. Grenache, cinsault, carignan. Elegant red fruits, rubber with herbs. Still has plenty of structure. Red Les Cailloutis 1996 (Magnum) Mouvedre, Carignan, Syrah, Grenache. Heady, ripe. Bay and game. Tannic grip but rounded, balanced and long. Illustrates the ageing potential, something Olivier admires about les Britanniques with their love of ageing wines. Red Les Depierres 1996 Syrah blend from schist terroir. Fresher, racier fruit with pencil, elegant, warm weight. Perfectly cellared. Mas Jullien Red 1999 In 1997 Olivier moved to making one Mas Jullien cuvee. Claret like mature fruit and wood. Chamois and daube with juniper. Pleasantly heady. The 2001 drunk with squab pigeon had the liquorice and prune characteristic of the best 2001’s. Clairette Beudelle (sweet) Vintage not noted. Made from partially dried (passerillés) Clairette grapes. Barley and honey with lemon, terrific concentration. Mas Jullien La Méjanne Blanc 2005 (sweet) Late harvest Chenin Blanc and others. Dry, fresh but weighty and grapey. Pineapple and gentian. Long and delicious. A very special evening.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Dry Whites - some favorites

In general the Languedoc is a red wine area as befits the climate. Most well known white grape varieties struggle to make dry whites that are anything other than heavy, flabby and lifeless. Grapes more suited to the chaleur – Rousanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette to name a few, result in wines that are full bodied and aromatic; more herbal and grapefruit than the fresher, grassy, lemony mineral whites from further north. Relatively recently a new generation of wine makers have been planting or rejuvenating vineyards in the relatively cooler microclimates and at altitude. This goes some way towards simulating more northerly growing conditions. These are whites that we’ve enjoyed most and have been consistently fine.

Mas Julien Blanc. The blend varies over the years, but a touch of oak and usually some viognier make this vibrant and complex. Also ages well thanks to the balancing acidity. Not much is made and it’s always been sought after. Les Clapas Blanc Domaine Le Pas de l'Escalette Carignan blanc and Terret Bourret. Rescued vines at a heady 350m on steep limestone scree right under the Larzac plateau produce a flinty mineral white that’s impossible to place in the Languedoc. First vintage was 2003.

Mas Brunet Blanc Causse de la Selle. A causse is a limestone plateau and this one is over 200m above the gorges of the Herault. A delicious blend of Roussanne, Vermentino and Viognier that has flavours dancing around the mouth. A good value alternative to Les Clapas. “Les Aires” Domaine de Clovallon is a 100% Viognier made in the slightly fresher climate at Bedariux on the river Orb. In its more successful years it competes with the best Condrieu has to offer yielding plenty of the elusive apricot and peaches factor. The Pic St Loup area north of Montpellier is cool and wet for the region. Two whites have been consistent over the years.

Manon Clos Marie from Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Maccabeu, Carignan Blance and Clairette has subtle tropical fruit tones while

Les Mûriers Mas Bruguière is a fine example using the more aromatic Marsanne (80%) and Roussanne varieties which pulls off zippy citrus flavours.

Domaine de Bridau Picpoul de Pinet. Picpoul is the region's Muscadet. Relatively light, easy to drink, and ideal with shellfish and seafood. Domaine Bridau make a brilliant everyday wine at a miracle less than 4 € a bottle. Unlike most Picpoul, the vineyards are in the hilly garrigue behind Montagnac which gives what can be a fairly low key neutral style of wine a hint of fresh aromatic herbs. Hard to source although easy to buy from the property.

Muscat sec is another good buy (around 5 €) for a simple refreshing aperitif white. Three fine examples come from Mas des Chimères at Octon near lake Salagou - the land of basalt and the extraordinary red Permien era deposits; Domaine de Barrioubio St Jean de Minervois (also the address for elegant and racy sweet Muscat) and Domaine Treloar at Trouillas in the Pyrenees-Orientales with their One Block white (and an extraordinary effort from the unfashionable Muscat d'Alexandrie).

The most complex (and rarest) Languedoc dry white comes from the Grange des Pères at Aniane made from Rousanne, Chardonnay with a touch of Viognier and aged in oak for two years. Critical is the proximity of the Larzac plateau and Herault gorge that bring lower night time temperatures.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Blind tasting is tough

Wine tasting is hard. This week at a blind tasting I thought that La Pradel from Domaine La Terrasse d'Elise, a wine that's 100% Cinsault, was Pinot Noir. There is some comfort in this - I was not alone. Fortunately I didn't then have to pronounce where this Pinot Noir came from (St Jean de Fos, Hérault). Needless to say this is an exceptional Cinsault; elegant, ripe, balanced, full of fruit and flavour but not big. Delicious drinking. Perhaps worse was yet to come. When offered three glasses of white and told two are identical then identifying the odd one out should be easy. Wrong again. The trick here was that they were the same wine, it's just that one had been diluted with water. I blame the 30 plus degree Languedoc sun on that one.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Uplifting tasting on the Pic Baudille

May 21st is of course Ascension day and what better than an invigorating ascent of the Pic Baudille - the mountain that dominates the vineyard heart of the Herault valley. What's better is combining the walk with fine wine and a bring your own picnic. Many of the local wine producers, we counted over 10, bring their wine (driven up not carried!), families and friends. Even engraved glasses were available, apparently provided by the Terrasses du Larzac. We found the finest wines were Mas Brunet (Causse de la Selle), Reserve d'O (Arboras) and Mas Cal Demoura (Jonquiers). Also good, and at a more everyday price, was Mas Pountil (Jonquiers). The standard was very high, perhaps the weakest wine by far was from the Montpeyroux Coop and that has a good reputation. Just as memorable was the walk back taking in the magical and serene Larzac plateau.