Saturday, 24 December 2011

Mas de L'Écriture flies the Languedoc flag

I recently went to a hugely enjoyable and relaxing "Christmas" lunch in the private dining room of the excellent Medlar - a relatively new restaurant in Chelsea. It’s organised by enthusiasts who converse on Tom Cannavan's in the wine forum. As a discussion board it befits wine itself for being one of the the most civilised forums I’ve encountered. Everyone is treated with respect, whether someone is seeking a £3.99 miracle wine or indulged in a rare near unobtainable icon.

Back to the lunch. Of the 14 bottles generously brought by the group only two were (just) from this century. The rest went back to the 1960s. The majority were reds with two vintage Champagnes doubling as dry whites. My contribution, by popular demand from the organiser, was my last bottle of Mas de L'Écriture, L'Écriture 2001 – a bend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre made around Jonquieres in the Terrasses du Larzac. It was partnered with no less than a Chave Hermitage 1998, a Penfolds Grange 1991 and a Beef en Daube. It was certainly not humbled despite the Chave being informally voted one of the wines of the lunch. I much preferred L'Écriture to the powerful Grange, an extraordinary wine in contrast to the line-up with the volume turned so high any Languedoc would seem meek. L'Écriture had a lovely ripe sweetness with elegant baked plums and waves of smoke. There was consensus that it didn’t come across as belonging in the Languedoc, something I’ve found less pronounced in more recent vintages. An interesting coincidence is that Mas de L'Écriture features strongly on the Medlar’s wine list. It’s also a restaurant I look forward to returning to.

The event was, for me these days, a rare foray into some mature classic wines. Something I'll muse on in my next post.

For the record the line-up was: -

Cheese choux puffs

Krug 1985

Grilled bream with baby squid, risotto nero, gremolata and shaved fennel

Chapelle Chambertin Ponsot 1998
Chapelle Chambertin Ponsot 1997
Ruchottes Chambertin F Esmonin 2001

Middle white pork chop with celeriac puree, black cabbage, crackling and marjoram

Palmer 1966
Leoville Barton 1978
Vieux Chateau Certan 1998

Daube de boeuf with parsnip puree, parsnip crisps and bourguignon sauce

Le Mas de L'Ecriture 2001
Chave Hermitage 1998
Penfolds Grange 1991

Dom Ruinart 1996 (palate freshener)

Tarte tatin with crème fraîche ice cream

Chateau Pajzos Tokaji Aszu 1993
Huet Le Haut Lieux Moelleux 1989

Graham's 1966 (port).

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Floyd Uncorked in the Languedoc

The late Keith Floyd changed TV cookery programmes forever in the 1980s. For Francophile gourmets the landmark Floyd on France series was and remains essential viewing. He also filmed a less well remembered series on wine, Floyd Uncorked, back in 1997. This episode on YouTube, kindly uploaded by a user known as gelert456 and split into two parts, covers the Languedoc. As well as wine talk and tasting enjoy the many scenic "spot that location" moments - mainly around Sète, the Étang de Thau and Béziers.

Cookery features of course and this takes place in vines with Carcassonne as a backdrop where Floyd demos his interpretation of Cassoulet and Crudites Anchoïade. While it lacks some of the pace and energy of his earlier food and cooking series, Languedoc wine lovers should nevertheless find it interesting.

To view these full screen and to browse other episodes in the series start on YouTube here

Monday, 31 October 2011

Cave Cooperative futures

Like many in the region, the Cave Cooperetive at Aspiran on the west side of the central Hérault valley has been in decline. Wine hasn't been bottled for pushing a decade, no doubt because a massive investment in equipment is required to make wine to modern standards. It hasn't always been like that. 1957 saw the first, at least for a Languedoc cooperative, Vaslin horizontal presses installed (replaced in 1975). As recently as 1988 was another first when a Bucher pneumatic press was acquired.

There are similar stories in the area. The cooperative at Caux closed several years ago and is already a decayed building - the grapes go down the road to Les Caves Molière at Pézenas. Nizas has a similar tale.

The trend has been for cooperatives to combine to create even greater economies of scale, but there are notable local exceptions. Fontès and Cabrières seem to do well and are certainly good at marketing. Fontès boasts the best rosé in the area and a new customer reception salon has been constructed this year. Cabrières uses their reception space to host art exhibitions and has managed to maintain a reputation for its wine. To the south at Florensac a light and airy tasting and sales space has been created with an excellent and popular attached restaurant Bistro d'Alex serving their wine at near retail price. Adissan has more land suited to growing Clairette and their bottles line the shelves of the regions and no doubt beyond supermarkets. Much will also be supplied to make Noilly Prat in Marseillan (blog article here). Further afield I have commented on the quality of the Roquebrun Cooperative in the Saint-Chinian appellation.

Things are looking more promising for the grape growers of Aspiran to obtain a higher price. Between 1963 and 2003 eight villages combined to produce wine under the Clochers et Terroirs branding. An enormous modern facility at Puilacher now makes all the wine and the Aspiran cooperative has joined in. The relatively dull cooperative building (photo above) survives for now as the harvested grapes are collected and de-stemmed there before being tankered off to Puilacher. I tasted some of the wine at a recent village event and the Chardonnay for example was well made and offered some interest.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Dinner with friends (oh, and some wine)

I have never invited wine makers to dinner before, but with the harvest and much of the subsequent cellar work out the way it was their turn to relax and for someone else to feel some pressure. Being friends, any pressure is of course imagined and bears no resemblance to what growers experience at the climax of a years work. Nevertheless, fuelled by the presence of a sommelier, restaurateur, lawyer and finance director (all ex of course), there was no shortage of imagined pressure.

I supplied the wines and had declared my guest's products interdit in advance. For the heart of the evening I had procured three whites and three reds with some tenuous connections to the guests - grape, style and all Languedoc of course. They were served blind, but I did reveal they were from the region. Most interesting were some of the comments. A white icon of the Terrasses du Larzac was harshly deemed by one of us to have contrived acidity and no more complexity than a Picpoul. Everyone, I think, agreed on which white showed best - Domaine Fons Sanatis B… d’Agniane 2009 (Aniane, geographically in the Terrasses du Larzac). A Vermentino I tried last year that had now shrugged off most of the oak of youth and opened into a lovely clean and rounded wine full of haunting interest. A comment "Riesling of the south" sums it up.

The bottle has an attractive glass closure originally held in place by the capsule. It avoids corked bottles and is certainly a more stylish (and expensive) alternative to a screw-cap.

The three reds generated a similar number of comments. Brett was detected by one observer on the first, but for the rest of us it was an expressive start. A still youthful 10 year old icon Carignan surprised everyone and it was the best equipped to complement cheese.

We all agreed the Léon Barral Tradition 2008 (Faugères) was the red of the night. Spiralling circles of flavour captured everyone's feelings. It will be hard to dislodge as my red of the year given how delicious it was on two previous occasions. I must make an effort to procure some.

For the record the menu included: -

  • Roast aubergine and courgette with Pesto and Tapenade
  • Brandade made with olive oil from Mas Cal Demoura, fresh Paimpol beans, capers from the commune and roast red peppers
  • Pig's cheeks braised in Cévennes onions, fresh sage and bay, garlic, reduced Noilly Prat and home salted anchovies (no other added liquid) accompanied by green beans with garlic and aforesaid oil, a baked mix of Jerusalem artichokes and new potatoes.
  • Selection of cheeses including a Brebis called Nauc from the Larzac and chèvres from Le Chalet Roujan.
  • Quince Frangipane Tart with home made vanilla ice cream
  • Mature Armagnac soaked chocolate coated prunes.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Vendanges thoughts

"Great wine is made in the vineyard" is a pretty established saying but obviously only tells part of the story. I read recently, and rather like, a more embracing sentence that amounted to:-  the vineyard determines the quality while wine making determines the style.

The step that's missed out here is getting those grapes from the vines and into the hutch where the wine making process can assume control. On a per vine perspective the harvest is a short but intensive and critical process. Deciding when to pick is mainly a style decision, unless wet weather influences the pace, otherwise everything about the vendanges focuses on quality.

Here are two extreme and contrasting images.

The top picture has been machine harvested and is destined to be dumped into the receiving pit of a cooperative - a cooperative that hasn't bottled anything for at least six years. It will be tankered off for use in an anonymous blend or even to create industrial alcohol.

Below, cinsault bunches have been hand-harvested by a family with vigneron friends and placed into shallow cagettes. Quality control on selection takes place at the best point - the start of the process. There are no rotten or unripe bunches, no leaves, no stalks, no snails, no grasshoppers.

This is not a dig at mechanical harvesting which has many advantages, not least the ability to pick volume, pick quickly, and in the cool before dawn. Nevertheless, the very best machine results will need a pass through the vineyard in advance to, for example, remove late forming unripe bunches coined «grapillons». On harvest day a labour intensive sorting table will be needed to receive the grapes. Hand and machine both have their place. A fun way to look at it is something like this. A drinking fountain will struggle to put out a fire, hundreds of drinking fountains could, but only with some serious resource and organisation. Think carefully before taking a drink from a fire hydrant.

For finer wines the Languedoc-Roussillon favours both approaches. In most years the grapes will be in fine condition and less selection is needed than in northern climes where the harvest is later. The diversity of grape varieties grown spreads the elapsed time of the harvest to 6 or more week.This aids hand-picking on small holdings where perhaps half a hectare is manageable in a long morning of picking and gives vignerons time to help out neighbours and share expensive modern equipment.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Rosé in a day at Mas Gabriel

The plan, with the timing dictated by grape ripeness tests, was to pick for the rosé at Mas Gabriel over two days immediately after a couple of relatively tame days picking some parcels of red. Forecast rain changed the plan to pick and, this being rosé, also press in just one day. Plenty of pickers ensured a measured pace in the vines - the limiting process being transporting the cagettes (red and grey containers in the photos) to the cave and finding a corner to store them. Part one then was complete by lunchtime.

Every available container is used for storing grapes - Carignan, Cinsault and Grenache - ready for pressing.

The rosé is made the same way as the white. The de-stemmer ejects whole grapes into the empty white container - the only container other than the bath not storing grapes. The whole grapes, along with their separated stems, are then popped into the basket press to be gently pressed with the exuded juice pumped into a cooled cuve to settle overnight. That's it. Problem is there's well over 200 cagettes worth of grapes that, in the end, required three pressing runs.

The basket press in action. Surrounding it with a glass perspex screen (most visible on the top) not only catches skins as they are squeezed out, but also keeps in the carbon dioxide regularly dispensed over proceeding to minimise oxidation. It may look dramatic, but the press is very gentle and very slow. Just to be sure, the juice is tasted frequently towards the end of each pressing for any trace of bitterness.

Juice collects in the white bucket and is pumped away to a cuve through the purple tube.

The basket sits on a trolley so it can be wheeled out of the press mechanism to be topped up with more grapes and eventually emptied.

Despite these precautions, skins can be ejected indiscriminately - in this case on Peter's second shirt of the day. Even the ceiling took a minor hit.

I calculate the skin contact with the juice to be about 90 minutes on average. Long enough to give the wine a seductive colour plus impart a hint of grape tannin.

At the end of each pressing the cage and staves are removed to reveal a "cake" of skins and stalks. It's prised apart and loaded onto the tractor to be returned to vineyard.

The stalks help the release of juice during pressing.

Answers to what's being said on a postcard

Rather like a big party, there's all that washing up and cleaning to be done at the end, and some happy winemakers.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Hérault varietal trends

In my last post I referred to this site Observatoire viticole of the Hérault. Maintained by the Conseil General de l'Hérault it's packed full of data and statistics on all matters relating to the grape in the department. I've been pondering the area planted by vine in 2009 (most recent data) compared with 2004 (oldest data published).

The bare statistics are quite something. 15% of the department is under vines, but as a majority of the terrain is mountainous then where they grow they're dense. If all the vines were in a single square vineyard the sides would be over 30 Kms wide.

From 2004 to 2009 the total surface under vine has declined by more than 13%. In 2004, 99% of the vines consisted of 37 varieties with the remaining 1% is classified as "autres". In just 5 years four varieties have dropped from the list - Servant (blanc), Terret noir, Auban (noir) and Grenache gris.

Back in 2004 Carignan noir was the most widely planted at about 22% of the total, but has declined to barely over 15% - a fall of 40% and accounts for over two thirds of the nett vine loss. While this is alarming, at least 14000 ha (hectares) remain out there - plenty for independent start-ups looking to make something interesting. The other big losers are the reds Aramon, Alicant and, perhaps surprisingly, "king" of the rosé Cinsault loosing more than 30%. Grenache has lost 900 ha or 8%, but at least this is less than the average (13%) loss.

Just picked Grenache vines at Domaine Ribiera Aspiran 23rd August 2011

Just 8 varieties take up nearly 80% of vineyard space - Syrah, Carignan, Merlot, Granache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault plus two whites Chardonnay and Sauvignon. All big global players except the Carignan of course, but at a time when the world is warming up only three are Mediterranean varieties. Sauvignon has shown the most growth in 5 years of over 37%, Chardonnay expanding some 8% and Syrah a slight increase at just over 1%. The other five are in decline.

Other big winners are Pinot Noir, more than doubling in 5 years but only to a modest 522 ha and driven totally by the premium price for the name - the big case of Pinot Noir fraud in 2010 illustrates this. More aligned to the potential for interest and quality late ripening heat lover Mourvèdre is up 5%. Of the whites, and presumably mirroring the overall increase in white production, is a welcome increase in the Mediterranean varieties Roussanne, Marsanne and Vermentino. Starting from a higher base, Picpoul and Viognier have seen double digit growth with over 350 ha planted between them. Colombard, which didn't appear in the 2004 charts, has stormed in with 383 ha.

These are statistics for part of the biggest vineyard in the world and as such will have little bearing on the fine wines that merit talking about for pleasure. The vast majority of production goes into anonymous blends and big brand names. However, the increase in better known popular varietals, and especially the whites, must be creating a good base for competing in world markets with a more locally identifiable product.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Carignan blanc

My first experience of grape picking was at Mas Gabriel last year. This year I joined in with the white vendange of their two parcels of mainly Carignan blanc. Do see Rosemary George's detailed and informative description with photos of the Mas Gabriel 2010 white harvest. There really isn't anything I can add beyond what happens to the press at the end of each pressing, but I'll save that for a report on the rosé harvest.

Given the quality and popularity of the Clos des Papillons, the Carignan blanc from Mas Gabriel, I am intrigued as to why this variety is virtually unheard of and seemingly rare. After all, red relation Carignan is arguably the defining contributory grape to the identity of the region's red wine. Having picked it for a couple of days I now appreciate that, like the noir, yields need to be low and that even in the best years a labour intensive thorough triage of the bunches is essential for a quality wine. It basically isn't economically viable and can only really exist as a second fiddle for an independent producer.

I came across this site Observatoire viticole of the Hérault maintained by the Conseil General de l'Hérault. Its packed full of data and statistics on all matters relating to the grape in the department. Finding stuff is a bit clunky, much of the content is just documents, the search facility works well at a high level when one gets the hang of it.

In 2009, the most recent data, Carignan blanc is reported to occupy 230 hectares. Maybe this sounds a fair amount, but it represents just 0.25% of the Hérault's surface area under vines. Much of it will end up as the minor component of a blend, but if there's any good news it should all be good quality low yielding old vines. By comparison, in 2004 there were 392 hectares representing 0.36%. At this rate it will be very rare indeed by the end of the decade.

Monday, 29 August 2011

Vendange 2011

I spent my first day grape picking this year at Régis and Christine Pichon's Domaine Ribiera in my village Aspiran. 7 am start yes, but at least there was no commute involved. To my surprise it was going to be Grenache and the 22nd August was believed to be the earliest recorded day for a Grenache harvest the village had know. That said, the objective was to make a fresh and expressive wine for drinking young which is not too rich and not too alcoholic. To achieve this the Grenache was being picked "early" and the instructions were to discard all unripe bunches that, by my estimation, amounted to 30% of the crop. Once it starts to ripen Grenache apparently ripens quickly so waiting until those 30% of bunches were ripe would mean 70% were overripe.

It occurred to me that passing through the vineyard a second time at a later date was an option, but as the photo shows, healthy leaf growth makes it near impossible to see and assess the ripeness of an individual bunch without actually cutting it away from the vine. The discarded bunches will return their goodness to the soil and vines so no waste, just loss. I calculated the resulting yield was around 30 hl/ha - the ideal spring flowering conditions have ensured a good crop.

The team were clearly experienced locals with the classy smooth action of hairdressers and speed of champion sheep shearers. 6 hours of picking had just one pause café when I managed to snatch this picture of the team (Christine had popped back to the cave).

No doubt I was expected to make my apologies but kept going and even helped with the destemming of the last batch before a very late lunch. Here the destemmed grapes will be pumped directly from the base of the machine into the cuve, a system that minimises exposure of the juice to the air.

Next up will be the Carignan blanc at Mas Gabriel. As white wine needs to be pressed immediately in one batch the picker's duties will be limited to the size of the press - a lighter interlude is in prospect.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Vinotaure (a Bio Wine fair)

Vinotaure 2011 is a Salon des vins Bio et naturels organised by Epicuvin, who describe themselves as a club of wine and gastronomy lovers from Montpellier. Overall this was a slightly disappointing showcase for Bio wines. Several producers offered poor value and there were also too many underwhelming wines, an observation magnified by a few notable exceptions. That said, "regular" wine shows in France are just as variable, but if you're going to have a Bio/Natural Wine event they need to excel and differentiate themselves in the glass as well as on paper.

The event took place at a rather soulless resort complex the Résidence Domaine du Golf near Fabrègues east of Montpellier. A navigation check on Google Streetview reveals a scene of bulldozed terrain - that's how new this regimented village is. Fear not though, the spacious tasting hall turned out to be near ideal.

There were 17 producers billed, including 10 from the Languedoc and Roussillon. About the right number although the majority were showing five or more wines. It was also worryingly quiet on the Saturday and several producers understandably vacated their pitch for a early and long lunch. A few didn't even turn up, at least for the morning.

There were no new "discoveries" to report at producer level, but there were some interesting individual wines.

I enthused about the 2008 red from La Réserve d'O back in April. Equally impressive is the white (2009?) lovely balance, fresh, clean yet complex with hints of white flowers, fennel and preserved lemon. Unusual blend of Chenin, Grenache and Roussane grown at 400m above Arboras in the Terrasses du Larzac. Sanssoo is a play on Cinsault (but also has some Syrah) and never sees sulphur so is natural wine by any definition (La Réserve d'O is also biodynamic). Harmonious ripe red fruits and unusually fresh raspberries - a flavour and berry rare in the Languedoc. Along with Mas Gabriel they were the star attendees with wines I'd be happy to, and do, buy.

Mas Delmas is at Salses-le-Château just north of Perpignan. I found the whites more successful and the Marie Delmas Muscat Sec, a blend of Muscat de Petits Grains and often derided Alexadria, the most interesting. It combined aromatic grapeyness with a backbone of earthiness and grapefruit peel. Their reds disappointed - jammy sums them up.

Domaine Mămăruta just north of Fitou is relatively near Mas Delmas. A white from 70% Macabeu and 30% Carignan Blanc showed best - a nice balanced seafood wine with a pleasant acidic bite. Otherwise an oaked nutty Muscat was a bit too offbeat and another white just apples.

Stella-Nova at Caux (Pézenas) takes low sulphur seriously and their white Les Pléiades 2009 from mainly Grenache Blanc and Clairette was a fine effort - delicate yeasty eldeflower. The red Mira Ceti is zero sulphur and I just noted cider.

Mas Zenitude is sited in the hallowed Montpeyroux/St Jean de Fos patch of the Terrasses du Larzac. Audace 2009 is admirably pure Cinsault. Fresh, not heady, nice mouth feel and quite tasty. Vent d'Anges 2009 is a well made carignan - ripe, soft fruit with some classy smoke and tapenade. Only problem is the RPQ (15€ and 20€ respectively).

Domaine Turner Pageot at Gabian is just to the south of Faugères. I found their whites different and a very personal style. For example La Rupture 2009 is an oaked Sauvignon Blanc with plenty going on - coriander seeds, preserved lemon, resins and cats. I returned later to try the reds and left with an impression of fruit driven wines with an oak backbone.

In the 1990 I was an admirer of Domaine Henry (Saint Georges d'Orques) who were on an early wave of the region's rising stars. The reds were always an oaked style and my personal taste has moved on. Nevertheless, I was shocked at how inaccessably woody they were. In their defence they are food wines that need ageing, but cheap they are not. The wines also seemed totally out of character if one of the objectives of organic practices is to allow terroir to express itself.

I didn't taste Abbaye de Valmagne having drunk quite a few in the recent past and always finding them a bit overworked and short on character.

One out of region wine demanded a mention. Domaine du Picatier is a Côte Roannaise by the upper reaches of the Loire. They make a nice fresh Chardonnay, easy drinking Gamays and a delicious, balanced gourmandaise Pinot Noir 2009 Auver-Nat-Noir.

Friday, 15 July 2011

Bordeaux getting worried?

Today's Midi Libre, a regional daily covering the Languedoc and Aveyron, had a snippet about a court case involving Château Taillefer in Pomerol challenging one of the leading lights of Faugères, Domaine Ollier-Taillefer, over their use their name. After a year and a half the tribunal at Bordeaux is reported to have ruled in favour of the family from Fos.

Considering Ollier-Taillefer has been the name for the Domaine and bottle labels for over 10 years its curious why this challenge has been so long in coming. Perhaps the continuing rise of Languedoc independents is starting to be seen as a threat that justifies court action. The tide is turning?

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Too hot for reds?

As inside temperatures, even in the evenings, edge above 25 deg. (77 °F) plus then common wisdom dictates a regime of rosé or dry white wine. Nothing wrong with that, but as a lover of reds these can be tough times. While white and rosé make fine aperos, not moving on is like a cricket match with the second innings rained off.

This season I've been much bolder at putting a bottle of red into the fridge for an good hour or so followed by a move to a wine cooler and all seems to work just fine. The wine quickly warms up when poured and the evolution in the glass takes on a few more stages that warmer wine ever can. It's also more refreshing. I'd hesitate to try this on a fully mature bottle, wines proffering a good dose of primary fruit do best as do those where the oak is low key. A hit so far.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Intercep Protection

These young Vermentino vines at Mas Gabriel enjoy a home built solution to weeding and lunching rabbits, hares and the like. Hundreds of metal bars have been bent into a hoop and supported by a central bar attached to the trellis. The blue net is a common solution to deterring the hungry while the metal enables the use of an intercep for weed control - a special plough that uproots weeds growing between the vines. An intercep happily bounces off and around a grown stump, but these vines are barely thicker than pencils.

While this construction requires considerable work, the prospect of weeding young vines by hand is equally daunting.

Growing at the base of the vine on the right is perslane (pourpier in French) - one of the finest wild salads there is. Being biodynamic perslane it was manually weeded for lunch.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Outsiders Revisited

Outsiders are a group of some of Languedoc-Roussillon's best and most creative producers who have relocated to the region. The tasting last November in London was a wine highlight of the year. A few members were at the London International Wine Fair to support their importers and wrapped up one of the long days with a get together, along with their founder Louise Hurren, to say a few words, chat and share a few bottles.

This was a chance to drink rather than taste. The newest Outsiders member is Domaine Sainte Rose - with the exception of La Grange de Quatre Sous the one I've known the longest, starting with Charles and Ruth Simpson's first harvest back in 2002. Les Derniers Cépages 2009 is from late ripening Mourvèdre and Petit Verdot and has heaps of velvety ripe black fruit with just the necessary tannic grip. La Garrigue is a classic Languedoc blend - Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, and a favourite red. I have bottles going back to 2002 but the 2007 has refined elegance with a wonderful fresh finish. Domaine Sainte Rose is north of the axis between Pezenas and Béziers in the Côtes du Thongue. This is also one of the region's most suitable white wine areas - their whites are just as good. Easily the best value Languedoc available, and as it happens widely available, in the UK and elsewhere.

Domaine Jones can only be described as a micro domaine at barely over 3 hectares in some of the wildest terrain imaginable. The product is simple, a Grenache rouge and a Grenache Gris blanc. The Jones Blanc 2009 was the most enjoyable wine I'd tasted all day. Since last November it seems to have relaxed a bit while retaining its extraordinary mineral structure and discreet savoury interest. Do read Katie's blog.

I rarely come across wines from La Clape, a rugged coastal ridge near Narbonne. Along with Banyuls, it's the only Languedoc-Roussillon red wine area near the cooling sea. The reds have an almost haunting perfume about them - lavender is the best association I've read. I need to get used to their character and the Château d'Anglès Rouge (2009 I recall, mainly Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre) is something I appreciate the more I try it. It combines softness with structure perfectly.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Sud de France Prestige UK wines

At the London International Wine Fair Sud de France were showing their prestige selection of 42 Languedoc-Roussillon wines that are available in the UK. A varied panel of 11 influential names from the UK wine scene made the selection by blind tasting 200 wines presumably submitted by participating distributors. Now 200 different wines sounds and is a lot, but for a start this is a region with over 20 recognised areas plus near infinite Vin de Pays tucked in and between. Multiply this by factors such as red, white, sweet, rosé, aromatic, mineral, oaked, full bodied, fresh, mature - let alone grape varieties - and you get the picture.

The 158 wines that didn't make the selection aren't disclosed but knowing the lists of some of the importers all could equally have made the selection. Either by chance or some judging fine tuning, the 42 do project a diverse but balanced range of styles and a good spread on the map.

I came across the stand late and wished I'd discovered it earlier, so didn't taste them all. Still, my personal highlights and observations were: -
  • Plenty of boutique growers were represented alongside some of the big name producer/negociants.
  • Four terrific Rivesaltes Ambrés - natural sweet wines usually from Grenache Blanc and/or Macabeu from around Perpignan. Totally underrated wines that are clearly easier to find in UK than much of the Languedoc. Good move to show four to make a point. Surprisingly there was no sweet muscat in the line up.
  • Nice to find a couple of cool Orb valley (Bedarieux) masterpieces from Domaine de Clovallon, including the Les Pomarèdes 2008 Pinot Noir.
  • Virgile Blanc 2005, Domaine Virgile Joly I'd tasted at Dudley & de Fleury Wines and again showed how brilliantly complex a Languedoc white can be.
  • The fresh and vibrant white Mas Bruguière Les Mûriers 2010 has scored twice by also showing at the overlapping London Natural Wine Fair
  • I was disappointed with Château de la Negly "La Falaise" 2008, a wine I'd enjoyed in the past but this was too much of an inky blockbuster. Maybe the wine has changed, but more likely my taste has moved on.
  • Others I'd put in this category include a 100% Syrah (not sure the excellent spiral bound booklet is accurate on this) 2007 Domus Maximus, Massamier la Mignarde from reputed Minervois la Livinière. Hot, heady and spicy - perhaps aimed at those prepared to lay it down.
A thoroughly professionally presented line-up that seems to have been kept a bit of a secret. Fingers crossed I'll get another chance and taste a few more of them.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Carignan Blanc - Clos des Clapisses

Occasionally I do make a spontaneous purchase of a wine new to me, although this quite often results in a rather uninspiring evenings drinking - even if recommended by a cavist. This is a shame as for every grower I've heard of within 10 miles there are at least two I know nothing about. This is the size and complexity of the Languedoc.

Clermont l'Herault is a typical market town, the Wednesday market is a must, and could be described as the gateway to the Terrasses du Larzac. The Huilerie Cooperative is renowned for olive oil but their recently expanded touristy shop also stocks some quality food stuffs along with interesting trinkets and beauty products at fair prices. This bottle of Clos des Clapisses Carignan Blanc 2009 caught my eye as I'm a big fan of the rare Carignan Blanc from Mas Gabriel (see my post here). It comes from nearby geological marvel Octon, although this cepage has to call itself a VdP Coteaux de Salagou rather than Terrasses du Larzac.

It's a splendid effort. White flowers and mineral oat cake lead to a clean palate with a savoury gunflint - a sort of ripe Chablis of the south and at 12.5% the delicate flavours are nicely balanced. From about €9.

Friday, 20 May 2011

London's Natural Wine Fair

The Natural Wine Fair held recently at London’s Borough Market is not the first. Les Caves de Pyrène are at the forefront of “natural wine” promotion in the UK and have held annual trade tastings for some time. Things are starting to come of age and expansion has included four other importer/retail partners and a day devoted to paying consumers like me. It seems much of this is down to Isabelle Legeron, who is on a mission to raise awareness using her considerable communication talent. I wrote about her re-vamping of the Hibiscus restaurant wine list here, admittedly focusing on how a Michelin 2* London restaurant now lists as many Languedoc-Roussillon wines as it does Bordeaux.

Well over 100 growers were present or strongly represented with 500+ wines to tempt. It felt busy but never crowded with a great buzz as the day went on. The growers had plenty of time to engage and this did sabotage note taking. A master stoke, actually a Borough Market necessity, was to be outside and avoid booming wall syndrome. “Natural” psychology was at play.

19 growers from the Languedoc-Roussilon represented a sixth of the total and was right up there with recognised pioneers the Loire and Italy. There were no Bordeaux wineries. In the spectrum of natural wines pretty much everything was on offer, often from individual growers, but the majority I would class as independent producers trying to get the best expression from their patch. Well known Languedoc names heading on the organic path were there - Daumas Gassac, Aupilhac, Alain Chabanon (all Hérault valley) and Mas Bruguière (Pic Saint-Loup). At the wilder “modern rustic” end Fontédicto (Caux) and Clos Fantine (Faugères) proffered textbook examples.

My L-R discoveries included Domaine Ferrer-Ribière (Roussillon) for a sublime Grenache Blanc and wind swept Carignan. Mas Foulaquier (Pic Saint-Loup), actually a bit of a rediscovery, for delicious clean purity and freshness of the fruit. It was also good to taste the Clos du Gravillas (St Jean de Minervois) range, including the legendary Carignan and delicious minerally white L'Inattendu, wines I'd recently bought but have yet to broach.

Writing this I regret not tasting more L-R wines, but I need to get out more and so much from the Loire, Alsace, Beaujolais and Italy beckoned. As regions I encounter less often they brought home the contrast in styles and, with Beaujolais and Loire reds especially, how noticeably much less varietal they were.

  • These were essentially wines at the organic end of the spectrum from family scale growers in mainly "country regions" imported by five UK merchants. Calling them natural wines is getting them attention and that’s a great thing for small artisan producers everywhere.
  • Grape varieties are less obvious and perhaps less important with these wines.
  • I tasted/spitted some 50 wines. Normally my palate would be numb after half that number, but the minimal use of oak made all the difference. Yes, many will be too tannic for some, but I find grape tannins dissipate faster.
  • There were no real duds except perhaps an Alsace Pinot Noir that really was too low key. Quite a few whites had an oxidative style that was countered by complexity. You either like them or don’t – our household is certainly divided.
  • The fair needed more than a day. All three in fact. I didn't try any Rhone or South West tables.
  • Last but not least it was a fantastic opportunity to meet so many caring passionate growers, something one takes for granted when on their own patch. Sadly, depersonalised wine fair really doesn’t have that ring about it.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Terrasses de Maynard aka Roquebrun coop

I'm always wary of cooperative wines. There is something depersonalised about them. The wine can only be as good as the poorest performing grape grower and usually undergoes particularly heavy handed winemaking to counter this. Most I've tasted at events along with independents and they show badly, but it has to be recognised they provide a massive service for the sub €5 a bottle market and have local affinity.

Coops are aware of this image and seek the cachet of an independent grower with their flashier cuvées. This bottle of 2008 Saint-Chinian Roquebrun "Terrasses de Maynard" is testimony to that - you need to read the micro-print to spot the origin as Cave de Roquebrun. I encountered the wine at dinner where the hosts, who spotted it at a local grande surface, stated they followed the cave and its fine reputation for decades. In the glass it was a pleasant melange of brambles, cherry and smoke with some grippy tannins and a nice medium weight. The oak was kept in the background - rare restraint with cooperative "premium" wines. It finished as it started, but was nevertheless a pleasant drink, confirmed a few days later having procured a €6.40 bottle to consume chez nous. 60% Syrah with Mourvèdre and Grenache from a schist terroir very similar to Faugères that borders to the east. A pity so few co-ops seem able to achieve this standard and hence value for euros. The flowers are wild garlic by the way.

Friday, 29 April 2011

Montpeyroux Toutes caves ouvertes 2011

As local village wine events go this is the one to look out for. My first, back in 2003 on a sweltering June day, was a memorable family bash and included a twinning with the other Montpeyroux up in the Puy-de-Dôme. This made it replete with the likes of Aubrac cattle and aligot (melted cheese and potato). Subsequent years have been patchy on the animations and attendance front. One year it was cancelled altogether at a few weeks notice when someone twigged it clashed with the annual Roger Pingeon cycle race that needed open streets.

This year was well advertised and organised, well attended and blessed with ideal tasting sunshine. 17 Domaines is perhaps too much, especially as they they all offered at least three wines. Tactics were to start with the established stars with fresh palates.

A weeks holiday back in 1993 ended up in a nearby village by complete chance and marked a personal discovery of the region. A visit to Aupilhac was a wine highlight. These days the cave seems to have expanded into the houses next door, but there are still star wines. From a rather rapid fire tasting I would highlight Le Carignan 2009, still the regions benchmark for that grape, supple and complex with lovely grip. Montpeyroux Red 2008 and 2003 with the latter ageing well for the legendary canicule year. Cocalières 2008 red, from vines planted by Sylvain Fatat high above the village, had great elegance. Of the whites Cocalières 2010 blanc stood out - fresh white flowers and, in this vintage, the right amount of oak for me.

Along with Aupilhac, Pascale Rivière's La Jasse Castel set a very high standard. The 1998 vintage was her first and at the time the wines made a memorable impression with their clear expressive style. All four current wines impressed. L'Égrisée (2010?) blanc intriguing floral and citrus grapefruit, La Pimpanella 2009 a straightforward red with heady primary fruits and quite gourmandise, La Jasse with its seductive Syrah that doesn't bully. Finally La Combariolles proved that serious Grenache is growing on me, but is sadly expensive to make (€27). Pascale also invited us to taste a stunning library selection going back to 2000. It proves the wines age well with the great 2001 vintage shining along with 2000. Plenty of complex mushrooms and forest floor.

Also of note was Alain Chabanon's wines. Campredon 2009 rouge with a nice perfume and balance offers plenty for €10. L'Esprit de Font Caude 2006 was surprisingly expressive but needs time to develop complex layers - it has a track record, Alain has been making it for at least 10 years.

Mas d’Amile make one wine, a pure Carignan that I discovered at the 2009 Montpeyroux bash. The 2007 has developed hedgerow flavours and still has great meaty tannins. 2008 is supple and fresh while the 2009 is earthier and currently a bit chunkier. All recommended and great value at around €8.

Three other estates sadly disappointed with two hampered by following the stunning quality of La Jasse Castel. Next year will need a strategy that visits more caves.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Grand new order revisit #1

It was 8 months ago I posted here about the proposed new hierarchy for Languedoc wines. After a splendid but tiring day at the Montpeyroux's "Toutes Caves Ouvertes" I relaxed with a mug of tea to catch up on Sunday's regional daily paper the Midi Libre. The Languedoc wine hierarchy was front page news - read the on-line version, in French, here. There isn't anything particularly new in the article. Five of the appellations involved have voted and signed up, but with no indication as to whether this progress matches any plan or timetable.

I subsequently found a press dossier issued by CIVL and dated 2011 here which looks to be a key source for the Midi Libre article. Quite why this didn't appear back in August to keep up the momentum and clarify rumours perhaps hints at the politics involved. Interestingly, the introduction states the criteria for Grand Vin and Crus is "qualitatifs et économiques". The only elaboration on the quality aspect is a restriction on yield, how long the wine stays in the cellars and that wines are bottled locally - but no mention of harvesting techniques. Obviously these are in addition to the underlying AOC rules.

The press release includes this useful bit of "power point".

For me, two key points come out of the press dossier.

Firstly, it reveals hard evidence that the classification is very tenuously based on the quality of the wines and their terroir i.e. as would be revealed by a tasting or looking at current market prices. Back in August I was shocked that Faugères had only been classified as a Grand Vin and not a Grand Cru. The Terrasses du Larzac is a Grand Cru but the dossier reveals that Montpeyroux and Saint-Saturnin, villages geographically, climatically and geologically at the heart of the Terrasses du Larzac, are merely Grand Vins. If anyone from CIVL was at the Montpeyroux Toutes Caves Ouvertes and actually tasted the wines they will realise something is very wrong and there are big problems. Another upshot of the Montpeyroux and Saint-Saturnin islands is to add unnecessary complexity and confusion.

Secondly, there is a strong emphasis on the price of wine at the heart of this. Appellations that qualify geographically to be Grand Crus, a status depicted as being at the top of the pyramid, will only be able to label their wines as such if they retail at €10 or more. For the middle tier of Grand Vins the price is between €3,5 and €10. The principle here is that if producers and retailers cannot sell their wines at these price points then it will have to be labelled AOC. So, Grand Cru becomes a badge that says this wine comes from a designated AOC and can be yours for at least 10€. An upside of this is that the middlemen will need to satisfy themselves that the Grand Cru wines they buy will shift at over 10€ and hence focus them on rigorous selection. No doubt the hope over time is for Languedoc Grand Cru and Vins to gain a quality reputation with consumers. As a consumer, I would also expect hand harvested grapes for a 10€ plus bottle, a quality aspect that's not mentioned.

Here's a telling quote in the Midi-Libre article from the Director of the the AOC Languedoc Jean-Philippe Granier.
"Un grand cru à 10 €, ce n’est pas du luxe, c’est la réalité. Aujourd’hui on trouve des produits superbes à des petits prix. A l’heure actuelle seul un connaisseur peut s’y retrouver. Pas un Chinois. Un grand cru ou un grand vin, c’est plus facile à comprendre.".
My translation is that "Grand Cru quality does cost 10€ but at present only connoisseurs can unearth these great bargains. A Chinese consumer would have no chance until he/she can read "Grand Cru" on the label."
In reality little will change for connoisseurs as many of the best wines will be made outside the "Grand" territories or use non-qualifying grape varieties.

Obviously for me the Languedoc is about Independent Vignerons because they make the most exciting wines crafted from vine to bottle by characterful dedicated individuals. The problem being tackled here is the prosperity of the wine business as a whole, something as important to the region as Finance is to London. Just as politicians never please everyone, CIVL must be in the same position - they too have procedures involving voting.

Back to Montpeyroux. Today they can use the village name on labels and must see that as a bigger brand today than Terrasses du Larzac or Grand Cru. As far as only achieving Grand Vin status I propose a couple of theories; a ploy by CIVL to get them to embrace the Terrasses du Larzac combined with no big negociants producing in Montpeyroux so it's all below the radar in the overall scheme of things. Somewhere "seul un connaisseur peut s’y retrouver".

For more on this I'd recommend Ryan's O'Vinyards blog - just type CIVL in the search box. In the meantime I suspect it may be less than 8 months before returning to this topic.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

La Réserve d'O Red 2008

I've been close to commenting on the wines of Marie Chauffray's La Réserve d'O but held off while waiting for a late season repas vigneron last year that was unfortunately called off. However, this bottle of 2008 red I've just picked up impressed and is worthy of an immediate mention. I'd enjoyed the 2005 (their first vintage) and 2006 over the past couple of years, although the latter become disappointingly closed of late. La Réserve d'O 2008 oozes ripe blackberries and sweet chestnuts with an almost lemon verbina freshness. Supple with a nice mouth-filling structure yet subtle at the same time. The vineyards are 400m up the slopes of the Larzac above Arboras - a small neighbour of Montpeyroux. The cépage 50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 10% Cinsault apparently.

I've also tasted the wine's heady and opulent big brother Le O on a couple of occasions (60% Syrah, 40% Grenache). No doubt an even better wine but most of the time I prefer the more restrained La Réserve d'O that's also two thirds the price at €11.50. Perhaps having 40% rather than 60% Syrah is one reason? All I need to do now is secure a few more bottles.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Domaine des Trinites

I'd heard good things about Simon and Monica Coulshaw's Faugères based Domaine des Trinites from friends so an opportunity to visit, albeit in a group of over 40 others, was hopefully going to be a vinous pleasure as well as a social one.

Trinites is really two domaines in one. 24 hectares are split between vines on the schist soils of Faugères around Roquessels and less than 5 Kms away around Montesquieu. Here the land is mixed and includes limestone, basalt and other schists with the result that the area has been classified in the relatively distant Pézenas appellation. My overall impression after the tasting was more than just well made wines at a price point (from €4 to €8 and not much more for the last wine). They are uncomplicated but lively, well balanced and let their lights shine. The 2007s are a glorious first effort.

First were two whites. Viognier 2009 and Rousanne 2008 were grown on the Pézenas parcels. The Viognier was more herbs and grasses than fruit and would disappoint someone expecting classic aromatic apricot notes. The Rousanne was linseed and melon meets apple peel, a very attractive food white and a bit of a bargain.

Rosé 2009 was dry and mineral with a perfumed palate, very much Provence style and ideal with a meal. Made from the free running lightly coloured juice (saignée) of mainly Syrah.

2007 was the Coulshaw's first harvest after purchasing the estate, the under performing Domaine du Moulin de Couderc and a name re-used for one of their Faugères reds.In 2008 the devastating early September hailstorm only spared the Rousanne and was a massive blow for established growers let alone new arrivals.

Simon and Monica
Pézenas Tradition 2007 showed elegant light ripe red fruits with hints of mild coffee beans. Soft with a mature roundness. Simple yet drinks well. I tried a bottle a few days later and it didn't disappoint. 70% Grenache plus Syrah and Carignan. Simon talked about the challenges making Grenache poses and he's clearly equal to the task.

Faugères Tradition 2009 has more structure and nice gripping tannins with darker fruits, pepper and spices. Do the terroirs make a difference? Here my vote would go to the differences due to the cépages. This Faugères has 40% Syrah and 30% each of Mouvedre and Grenache.

Pézenas les Dèves 2007 is a fuller version of the Tradition with more pepper and hints of thyme (Grenache reduced to 50%). Sort of a weekend wine to the midweek Tradition.

Faugères Mourels 2007 is meatier and sweeter with a richer finish than its Tradition counterpart. It also ups the Syrah content.

To finish there was an interpretation of Simon's curiosity to emulate one of his favourite wines Côte Rôtie. A Syrah/Viognier 2007 oak aged with 90% Syrah from a schist vineyard. This didn't do much for me - too much oak vanilla that hides its roots and I found the structure curious even though the idea is for the Viognier to soften the Syrah. I would keep a few years to aid integration. I also admit to not having tried a Côte Rôtie for many years.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Léon Barral Tradition 2007, naturally

Léon Barral is a Faugères name I've known for years but a wine I don't recall ever trying. If I had, it would have been more than a decade ago and obviously failed to leave an impression. Either way, I had a glass at a gathering of wine lovers at La Fromagerie South Kensington where the month's theme was, topically, natural wines (my observations on this subject are here). We each brought a bottle or two and of the 17 wines the red Léon Barral Tradition 2007 was my wine of the evening. Beautifully balanced with ripe damson acidity and fruit along with heathers and bonfire - straightforward yet not simple and seemingly at its peak.

It wasn't the most complex and layered red - that accolade goes to the warmer and weightier 2005 Domaine Viret Maréotis (Côtes du Rhône) I brought along having tasted it back in December (that post is here). A favourite of many of the imbibers, but the elegance of the Faugères won me over. Not surprisingly, the Faugères wasn't as cool, fresh and mineral as the 2008 Foillard Morgon Cotes du Py, a wine with a bit of a reputation as a hero of Beaujolais and natural wines - a reputation it lived up to.

Disappointing was 2007 Le Temps des Cerises Les Lendemains qui Chantent from just north of Bédarieux in the cool upper Orb valley. I had a bottle (earlier vintage) at Octopus in Beziers 5 years ago where I perceived it as a fun wine for warm weather. The sommelier decanted it and proceeded to shake the decanter violently - one reason why the memory stuck. It certainly divided opinions on our table of two. This bottle had nice tannins and some classy smoke, along with scrumpy cider yeasts and pear skin odours. Then after a while it was distinctly apply. Perhaps this is what observers coin as the wild end of the natural wine spectrum. There was a suggestion it hadn't travelled well - stability with such wines is an issue. Price is another, apparently 16€ at the cellar door and a disproportionate increase on the 22€ restaurant price in 2006.

This wasn't a France only tasting and I placed 2009 Cos Pithos Rosso (Sicily) up there with the Léon Barral Faugères, Viret Rhone and Foillard Morgon.

There's a lot to conclude. The wines certainly made for a convivial evening, for many this was a first look at the "style" beyond the odd bottle. There were two orange wines, "red" wine made from white grapes, that were nothing if not complex. The two whites were at the conventional end of the natural wine spectrum. Alas three were corked - maybe not statistically significant but worrying. Two or three had faults by most yardsticks; nail varnish and scrumpy cider character with the latter working very nicely on a pétillant Gaillac but not the reds please.

The wines continually evolved all evening and with hindsight decanting in advance would have helped. None of the wines were remotely reductive nor notably oaked. No headaches were reported the next day. None seemed to be a bargain, although at some 12€ on it's home patch I'll be seeking out the Léon Barral. Natural wines are a bit of a punt when it comes to bottle variation and deterioration. I suspect the skill of the grower/winemaker is magnified dramatically, something that was big back in the early 1980s before the pendulum swung the way of technological manipulation.

We finished with a 2007 Domaine Ribiera late harvest Grenache from just off the Herault valley north of Pezenas. The evening was well beyond note taking by then. All I can say is that the style is young vintage Maury, quite cherry with nice pure fruits and tannins.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Dudley & Fleury Wines tasting

French Mediterranean wine tastings are still rare in London. A big thank you to Louise Hurren for bringing this one to my attention. Louise is based in Montpellier and doing an outstanding job promoting the region's wines - masterminding the recent Outsiders events (my experience is here) is just one example. Following her on Facebook (or Twitter, although I'm not a Twitterer myself) is a nice lazy way of keeping abreast of Languedoc wine news and events (along with her taste in music).

Dudley & de Fleury Wines started last year and are still building their list. Currently it sports a majority of producers from outside the traditional stalking ground of most UK based merchants. The full gambit from their three Languedoc, actually Hérault, imports were available for tasting at their elegant Notting Hill mews office.

To ease my London streets sabotaged palate I started with ISA White from Chemins du Bassc (Cotes du Thongue). Nice fresh acidity and whiffs of wild rose with a nice dry finish.

La Grange de Quatre Sous

Hildegard Horat was at the Outsiders tasting I mention above and a wine I first tasted back in 1993, so it seemed the obvious place to start. Her wines are Saint-Chinian's but her choice of grapes rules them out of the appellation.

Chardonnay 2008 reminded me of coconut and straw and has a nice nutty finish - a reassuringly southern style. Jeu de Mail 2007 has a nice perfume and creaminess about it and a streak of almonds and olive. The last white Bu N'Daw 2006 is made from Petite Arvine. I found restrained pineapple with dried herbs and deliciously mouth filling. Clearly a grape with little of its own character to get in the way which is what interesting Langudoc whites are all about for me.

Garsinde 2009 has a lovely pure raspberry and cassis fruit jelly character. Uncomplicated, fresh with nice length. An ideal restaurant luncheon wine. Les Serrottes is the wine I know best and older vintages usually needed ageing to be at their best. More recently, including this 2006, it drinks well young without compromising on the meaty tannins and this has interesting herbaceous fruit to contemplate. Lo Molin 2006 is rich and solid with tar and heaps of tannin and is worth keeping. Finally La Grange de Quatre Sous 2007 is like a grown up version of the Garsinde with an extra dimension of flavour.

Mas de L'Ecriture

I tasted Pascal Fulla's 2004 on his village Jonquières' open day last spring. Here was a chance to sample the 2006 and 2007 vintage along with a 2001 which would help me decide when should I broach my last couple of bottles. Serious Languedoc reds from 2007 have been surprisingly approachable for their age and these followed the pattern. Les Pensees 2007 has warm ripe heady fruit with a gentle spiciness while l'Ecriture 2007 has a fuller more concentrated style with sweet leathers. In contrast both Les Pensees and l'Ecriture 2006 needed more work to appreciate through their big tannins and illustrated why Pascal advises decanting well in advance - something I discussed with Richards behind Dudley & Fleury. Everyone agreed that the quality of fruit on all these wines is outstanding. L'Ecriture 2001 is starting to integrate and grow layers of complexity. It was well oaked in its day and the style has evolved to make oak less prominent - something that parallels my changed taste in the same period. Certainly a treat of a flight.

Virgile Joly

Virgile's arrival in the Languedoc as a grower winemaker is well documented at a personal level through Patrick Moon's Virgile's Vineyard published 8 years ago. I still have some 2001 Virgile Rouge that started as an uncompromising new oak beast that's only been ready to my taste in the past few years. Saturne 2008 Blanc has sherbet and pineapple but isn't over the top tropical but on the palate it seemed a bit flatter - this could be a white that would benefit from a decant. Virgile 2005 Blanc is an extraordinary complex yeasty (fino sherry or Jura flor) and oxidative style yet has a lively mouth feel. Joly Rouge 2008 makes for pleasant early drinking. Heady, ripe tarry fruit that seems the hallmark of Saint Saturin terroir (more clay content perhaps?). Saturne 2007 Rouge is adorned with elements of baked liquorice and molasses while the Virgile Rouge 2004 shows maturing fruit and leathers and seems as oaked as I remember the 2001.
I never found Virgile's wine offer particularly good RQP, but with Dudley & de Fleury pricing (link below) things are heading in the right direction despite the recent weakness of the UK pound against the Euro.

For retail prices check Dudley & de Fleury's list.

Their other French Mediterranean offerings, such as Mas de Gourgonnier, are worth checking out. Interestingly grape varieties aren't emphasised as much as most retailers, preferring  to let taste be the focus.

Friday, 11 February 2011

Restaurant wine lists - on the up?

Fiona Beckett's recent article on her Wine Naturally blog describes how highly rated London restaurant Hibiscus has launched a new wine list (PDF download here) where some 90% of the wines could be described as "natural wines" - the subject of my previous post on this blog.

What stuck me most on studying it, however, is that more Languedoc-Roussillon wines are listed than Bordeaux - 30 vs 21 including magnums and dessert wines.  Even on reds alone its evenly matched at 17 to 18 clarets if one ignores four half-bottles of Bordeaux. Obviously excepting restaurants in these respective wine growing regions I've never seen such a ratio.

On the negative side, UK restaurants invariably offer a Languedoc Vin de Pays d'Oc as their house or entry priced wines and this can only fuel the perception that the region isn't for choosing a better more expensive bottle from. Back in France, a rural restaurant in Normandy recently listed zero L-R wines and on chatting to the owner she commented lovely wines but no customer demand. Back at Hibiscus, the entry price is £26 for a red from the Gard but you could part with £390 for a magnum of “Le Merle aux Alouettes” from Alain Chabanon, a Merlot from near Montpeyroux that pipped Petrus and others in a blind tasting a few years ago.

As the market for natural wines evolves the image of the Languedoc-Roussillon, along with other "country wines" will only benefit although the window of opportunity may be short lived.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Natural Wine

I first read about natural wine less than a year ago, but more recently the term just keeps cropping up. Unlike Bio and Biodynamic farming practices there aren’t any formal standards that define natural wine, it’s just a term coined by the media to describe a trend. The definition I like is 1) Grape growing to Bio or Biodynamic standard 2) No added yeast 3) No filtering or fining and minimal racking 4) No other additives such as sugar, tartaric acid and stabilisers including (the big one) sulphur.

Now I could fold my arms and state “so what” since all these practices have been a trend for many Languedoc vignerons for years even though they never seem to talk about «vin naturel». I find a great deal in common with the nouvelle cuisine fad coined by journalists to restaurant food in the 1970s. It was a move away from heavier usually overcooked dishes dominated by cream, butter and flour - techniques developed to make indifferent ingredients interesting. Many of France’s top chefs were cooking lighter, fresher last minute dishes where the flavours of local regional ingredients were allowed to shine. There are more than a few parallels here. Turning indifferent grapes into something drinkable is one. Then there is the contrast between international style wines that could come from anywhere vs. regional wines with the character and taste of the area (expressing the terroir). Natural wine making must be the way people originally made wine with the big difference being modern hygiene and equipment combined with global shared knowledge. Perhaps an extreme example of retro is fermentation in Amphoras (giant clay pots) - something one domaine in the Rhone is trying.

Going back to my “so what” stance I’ve checked details of domains I regularly imbibe. Of those where such info is available, most qualify as natural wine except in the yeast and sulphites department – by far the two riskiest aspects of natural wine production. I’ve heard of one small producer losing 20% of their vendage to a natural fermentation gone wrong. Nevertheless, many rely on indigenous yeasts such as, I quite quickly found, four top notch domains from the Terrasses du Larzac: Montcalmes, Mas Conscience, La Reserve d’O and La Terrasse d’Elise.

When it comes to the high-wire act of no added sulphur I’ve since discovered, following a cave and vines visit, that Ribiera in Aspiran is in that category (my October tasting notes, when I didn't know the wines were "natural", are here). A tasting of all ongoing cuves was fascinating. A barrel of 2007 Rousanne was at 15.5% and still fermenting (apparently it’s not like this every year). Oak is no longer used as it disguises expression, plus I suspect up front cost is an issue. Syrah is being phased out in favour of heat loving Cinsault and Grenache. More mysteriously, old Carignan has been grubbed up and that vineyard put up for sale. Bottled wines are kept in temperature regulated storage in Montpellier to ensure stability.

Returning to my nouvelle cuisine parallel, it was soon tarnished with a bad name as it was practised by chefs who jumped on a fad without the skills demanded by the style. It's also long dead when it comes to describing restaurant food today although, tellingly, all the principles are alive and well in contemporary dishes.

For now, I've made a New Years resolution to try some more extreme examples.

Fiona Beckett writes a great natural wines blog with plenty of links in her posts here Wine Naturally.