I’ve just spent a couple of days at the annual organic wine fair in Montpellier. Although it has been running now for nearly twenty years, this was my first visit to the fair, and apparently it has grown quite considerably over the last couple of years, from around fifty exhibitors to nearly 400 this year. Inevitably the majority are French, with Languedoc-Roussillon the largest region represented, but there was also the occasional winery from Argentina, Chile and South America, and most surprising of all, Egypt.
I was certainly was not going to pass up the opportunity to try my first ever Egyptian wine and I have to say that I was really quite impressed. Admittedly, without wishing to sound patronising, my expectations were not too high. The winemaker, Labib Kallas, for Egyben Wadi, which apparently translates rather prosaically as International Beverage Co. has trained in Bordeaux and Montpellier. He speaks beautiful French and clearly knows his stuff. The first vines were planted in 2001, at Karm al Nada, which is north of Cairo some 200 kilometres from the Mediterranean, in basically what is sand and desert, on old river terraces of the Nile. Irrigation is a key factor and controlling the water supply the principal viticultural issue.
First I tried a white Jardin du Nil 2008, a blend of 60 per cent Vermentino and 40 per cent Roussanne. It was quite rounded and lightly buttery, with some acidity and fruit. Not madly exciting but perfectly drinkable.
Next was a 2007 red, from equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It was fermented and aged in vat, using interstaves for a touch of oak, as well as some micro-oxygenation. The flavour was quite rounded, with a touch of cassis and some soft tannins, with no great depth of flavour, but again quite drinkable.
Much better was a vat sample of the 2008 red. Labib explained that the blend had been changed, as newer vineyards came into production, to include some Petit Verdot and Syrah, and less Merlot. I thought this was much more successful. It had some fresh peppery fruit, and a lightly tannic backbone. There was more concentration and fruit than in the 2007 and it really promised well. I was told that the retail price would be about the equivalent of 9 – 10€.
The next surprise of the fair came from Chablis, and provided a shining example of the impact of organically grown grapes on wine quality. I have visited George Pico at Domaine du Bois d’Yver in Courgis a handful of times over the years, most recently in 2003, and have always found his wines to be sound and correct, but not necessarily terribly exciting. This time the transformation was palpable. Georges explained that he had converted to organic viticulture at the insistence of his son, Thomas. Basically Thomas had issued an ultimatum: if you want me to take over the family vineyards, you have got to go organic. The 2008s have real character, with wonderful minerality and depth of flavour. I was really impressed. The improvement in quality was quite dramatic. They now use indigenous yeast, and neither fine nor filter their wines. Georges commented that it was like going back to the wines that they used to make 30 years ago.
First I tried 2008 Chablis. The colour was deeper than his previous wines. It had lovely texture, real mouthfeel, with layers of flavour and the benchmark minerality and firm acidity that good Chablis should have.
Next came 2008 Beauregard, one of the newer premier crus, from the village of Courgis. This was wonderfully rich and mineral on the nose. You could almost smell the flinty stones of the vineyard. I loved the minerality in this, balanced by firm fruit and acidity.
And the third wine was 2009 Montmains, one of the traditional premier crus just outside the village of Chablis. The nose was more discreet, with supple fruit on the palate, and a firm edge of acidity and good flinty minerality, what the French call pierre à fusil, which is one of the benchmark flavours of good Chablis.
And apologies to those of you hoping for something on organic wine growers from the Languedoc. You will have to wait for my next posting.