Friday, 25 February 2011

VINOPIC - a new approach to wine buying

www.vinopic.com

I tend to stay away from the commercial aspects of wine, preferring to taste and ask questions, rather than buy or sell. However, last autumn I was approached by a couple of young men, who were proposing to set up a wine retail business on the web, and one with a difference. The selection of a wine would take into consideration its health giving qualities, as well as the usual criteria of taste and quality – and they wanted me to write the tasting notes. Their inspiration comes from a book I read three or four years ago, when it was first published: The Wine Diet by Roger Corder. Roger had noticed that there are some communities in Europe, where the inhabitants enjoy a much longer than average longevity of life. And he set out to work out why – and the answer lies with the local wine. One such area is Gascony, where the diet might contain large quantities of duck fat and foie gras, but it is all washed down by generous quantities of Madiran and Côtes de St. Mont, red wines with a high level of procyanidins, which have a seriously beneficial impact on our health. I am no scientist – you will have to look at Vinopic’s website for more information – and read Roger’s book, which is an engrossingly good read. Black chocolate gets the thumbs up too. Roger has come up with a formula that quantifies the health-giving aspects of a wine, and has marked the wine selections accordingly. Again, you can read more about it on Vinopic’s website.

My job was to score each wine for its quality and rate it for drinking enjoyment. Vinopic’s list is a combination of our various enthusiasms, covering many of the world’s wine regions, but not in any great depth. This is not the place to look for classed growth claret or expensive Burgundy, but you will find any number of eminently drinkable everyday wines, with character and interest, that offer good value for your money. So of course the Languedoc features, with wines from Domaine de l’Hortus in Pic S. Loup, as well as Corbières from Domaine Ollieux-Romanis, and a Picpoul de Pinet. There is much else besides. So please take a look at www.vinopic.com The website only went live a couple of days ago, so it’s still early days.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

LOVE IN A WARM CLIMATE

Chic lit may not be the usual topic for a wine blog, but Love in a Warm Climate does have a wine theme, and it is written by my friend, Helena Frith Powell, so that is another good reason for mentioning it.

Love in a Warm Climate is about an English woman who finds herself making wine in a fictitious village in the Languedoc, not too many kilometres from the appellation of Faugères. Helena freely admits that her knowledge of wine is limited, and she is grateful to guidance from Jean-Claude Mas for some of the wine-making details. Indeed her heroine borrows the name of Jean-Claude’s best selling brand, The Arrogant Frog, for her own wine. You are not going to learn anything much about the wines of the Languedoc, but it is a lighted-hearted read, with an engaging vinous theme – and kept me very happy on a plane from Heathrow to Pisa last week. And Helena does capture a certain French atmosphere, with amusing vignettes of French village life, and she describes the Languedoc scenery and vineyards with colour and affection, as she lived there herself for a number of years.

Love in a Warm Climate by Helena Frith Powell
Published by Gibson Square 2011

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

THE MONTPEYROUX COOP

Montpeyroux is one of the leading wine villages of the Languedoc, situated in the hills to the north of the lively city of Montpellier. The skyline is dominated by mountains; Mont St. Baudile, which gives its name to the local IGP, rises to 847 metres. and in the distance you can see the Pic de Vissou. There is an attractive village square, with an old market stand and a lively wine bar, the Terrasses de Mimosa, which is related to one of the better restaurants of the area, Le Mimosa in St. Guiraud. The village really comes to life on the day of its wine festival, now held every other year, in the middle of April. Virtually all the wine growers host a stand or open their cellars, and offer their current vintages for tasting, for the price of one empty glass. Music and local gastronomic delights add to the atmosphere.

Montpeyroux has undergone the most extraordinary development in the last twenty years or so. I first visited the village back in 1987 when the village cooperative was the only producer of any significance; by 1998 there were at least ten independent wine growers who were beginning to create an international reputation for themselves, and today there are about twenty cellars, of varying sizes, with a good feeling of cohesion for the common cause of Montpeyroux. The wine cooperative has contributed in no small way to that success.
Montpeyroux was one of the early villages to be singled out for its quality, in a sea of indifferent red wine. Along with its neighbour, Saint Saturnin, they were both created VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure) back in 1959, for the quality of the hillside vineyards was recognised at a time when much of the bulk of the wine of the Languedoc came from the coastal plains. Then in 1985 it was incorporated into the all-embracing appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc. Today things are in a state of flux; it could be part of the terroir of the Terrasses du Larzac, but prefers to maintain its independence with aspirations for a cru in its own right, but only for red, not for white wine. When this will happen, and if it will happen, depends upon the vagaries of French viticultural bureaucracy.

There is no doubt that Montpeyroux has a strong sense identity, enhanced by the work of its cooperative, which is responsible for 85 per cent of the production of the putative cru. Altogether the cooperative members cultivate some 530 hectares, but not just Montpeyroux, also Coteaux du Languedoc, Terrasses du Larzac and IGP, for which they concentrate on the varietal market, with a range of single grape varieties. The village is surrounded by vines; as the director, Bernard Pallisé observed: ‘without the vines, there would be villas’, with a reference to the proliferation of new houses surrounding so many villages in the Languedoc, for this is one of the areas of fastest population growth in the whole of France. Quite simply the village is dependent on the cooperative for its economic stability. The big question is : how to manage the agricultural heritage of Montpeyroux? How to manage the vines?

Of the 130 families who are members of the cooperative, about fifty live from their vines alone, with holdings of about 35 – 40 hectares. The others may be as small as 20 ares. As M. Pallisé explained: their raison d’être is the well-being of those families who depend upon the cooperative for their livelihood. In a village with a population of just 1200 people, they represent a significant percentage of the population. The full name of the cooperative is Montpeyroux Coopérative Artisanale, implying that this is a cooperative with a human face. Enormous vats of anonymous wine are not their objective. And it is a welcoming place to visit. There is a tempting shop, selling not just a comprehensive range of their wines, but also local gastronomic products – I succumbed to a small barrel, a beautiful piece of workmanship, for making vinegar.

Talking to M. Pallisé, who has been at the cooperative since 1999, first as its commercial head, and now as director, since 2006, you sense that he is continuously concerned with quality, while at the same time emphasising the human scale of the cooperative. They have a viticulturalist who is responsible for managing the vines, helping and guiding the members. What the French call lutte raisonnée or integrated viticulture is practiced for 200 hectares, while 13 hectares are cultivated organically. There has been considerable investment in the cellar and a new young winemaker, Jean-Marie Lasmenes, who arrived in 2006, is having an impact on quality.

Highlights from a varied tasting included a Cuvée Prestige, with some warm spicy red fruit and Roquefeuil Montpeyroux, named after the Counts of Montpeyroux, with some appealing peppery flavours. For M. Pallisé the expression of Montpeyroux is smokey spice and blackcurrants, coming from the principal grape varieties of the south, Grenache Syrah and Carignan, which grow so well on the rugged hills of the Languedoc.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

DOMAINE DES CHENES

Somebody had mentioned Domaine des Chênes to me, I can’t remember who, and there the wines were on the first morning of the Salon des Vignerons Independents, without a crowd around the stand. And what a discovery. On first meeting Alain Razungles comes over as modest and thoughtful, and he makes some lovely wines, both vins secs and vins doux, as he is based in the heart of Roussillon in the village of Vingrau. He explained that his great grandfather had had vines at the beginning of the last century and his father had sent his grapes to Byrrh, the local aperitif which used to be very popular in the 1960s. The first vintage that M. Razungles bottled was 1988. And he now has 36 hectares.

2009 Les Olivettes blanc, Côtes Catalanes – 7.00€
A blend of equal parts of Macabeo and Muscat. The Muscat was not as overpowering as you might expect and the Macabeo lengthens the palate, so that the flavour is deliciously fresh and pithy. Nicely balanced and harmonious.

2008 les Sorbiers, Côtes du Roussillon blanc. – 7.00€
A blend of Macabeo and Greanche Blanc, from vines that are over 50 years old, and including some Grenache Gris - they are all planted in the same vineyard, along with Grenache Noir. The wine is given six months élevage in oak. It is deeper in colour than les Olivettes and there is touch of oak on the nose, with some rounded buttery fruit and good balancing acidity. Nice weight and mouth feel.

2006 les Magdaléniens – 12.50€ - presumably Côtes Catalanes – I omitted to write that down – mea culpa.A blend of half each of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. M. Razungles was the first to plant Roussanne in Roussillon, back in the early 1980s, having first enjoyed it at Tain l'Hermitage with Louis Jaboulet. Henri Arnal at Langlade was the first to plant it in the Languedoc. This has been aged in old wood and it gives the wine a lovely rounded, textured palate, balanced with good acidity. It is ripe and satisfyingly mouth filling, and almost Burgundian in character.

2007 Les Grands-mères, Côtes du Roussillon Villages – 8.00€
In theory this should not be an appellation, as with 80% Carignan in the blend, there is too much Carignan. Only 50% is allowed, but who cares? It’s the taste that matters, and I thought it was delicious. The Carignan comes from 50 year old vines and is blended with some Grenache Noir, and just a drop of Syrah. Good colour; ripe rounded fruit on the nose, with lovely freshness and minerality on the palate, some cherry fruit, rounded with body and a good balance. M. Razungles explained that Carignan must be absolutely ripe. Reaching at least 14º to give good results; 12.5º simply will not do.

2006 Le Mascarou – Côtes du Roussillon Villages Tautavel
– 10.50€
From one third each of Syrah, Carignan and Grenache Noir, and with élevage in old barrels for some oxygenation rather than any oak effect. Deep colour; rounded and ripe on the nose, with some rich fruit and a dry finish. M. Razungles thought it would be at its best in 2014. I couldn’t disagree, so a bit of patience required.

2004 Lo Carissa, Cotes du Roussillon Villages, Tautavel – 17.00€
A blend of 40% each of Grenache Noir and Syrah, with 10% each of Carignan and Mourvèdre. The yield of the Carignan was 10 hls/ha, and the others reached 30 hls/ha, so pretty meagre . And one fifth of the wine is aged in new wood, and the rest in old wood. It was still young and closed, even though it was six years old. Quite firm, quite stony and mineral on the palate. Quite solid but with an elegant finish.

2005 Lo Carissa

This is a sunnier vintage, and you can immediately taste it. The nose is much riper, almost confit, with rich concentrated fruit on the palate, balanced by firm tannins. Quite dense and rich, with some alcohol on the finish.

And at the end of the next day, I was just about to leave the salon when I suddenly remembered that I had never gone back to taste M. Razungles’ vin doux. Thanks goodness I did. They were lovely.

2009 Muscat de Rivesaltes – 10.50€
Quite ripe and honey and fresh – good grapey Muscat fruit.

2003 Rivesaltes Ambré – 12.00€
A blend of Grenache blanc, Grenache gris and Macabeo, aged in wood for three and a half years. Lightly nutty on the nose, with more fresh walnut fruit on the palate. Very elegant.

2004 Rivesaltes Tuilé – 14.00€
Grenache Noir aged in wood for three years. Quite a fresh nose, with liquorice fruit on the palate. Medium weight and nicely balanced.

(1995) L’Oublié, rancio sec, vin de table – 14.00
There is no vintage on the label, but M. Razungles admits to 1995. And why the name? Quite simply because he had left the barrel outside, forgetting all about it for four years, and had then left it to age for another three, making seven altogether in wood. The flavour is firm and dense, almost salty, like a fino sherry, with good acidity and some distinctive rancio flavours. Wonderfully quirky and original.


And now I am off to Tuscany tomorrow morning for a week of Sangiovese.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

MONT TAUCH, THE COOPERATIVE AT TUCHAN

Think of Fitou, that wonderfully gutsy warm spicy wine from the south of France, that prides itself on being the Midi’s very first appellation for table wine, and the producer that immediately springs to mind is Mont Tauch, the cooperative of the village of Tuchan.

Quite simply, without Mont Tauch, Fitou would be made by a handful of small wine growers and the village of Tuchan would have no livelihood. As it is, the lives of the population of 800 people are focussed on wine. The name, Mont Tauch, comes from the mountain that dominates the skyline, forming a dramatic backdrop to the vineyards of the inland area of Fitou. Perversely Fitou is in two parts, with vineyards down on the coast around the village of Fitou itself, as well as inland around Tuchan, and mixed up with the vineyards of Corbières. The reason is historical; when the appellation of Fitou was created, the mayors of the villages between the two areas did not wish to accept the constraints on grape varieties and yields that an appellation would impose. Nowadays as Fitou is a more prestigious and successful appellation than Corbières, their decision is regretted.
Like many of the wine cooperatives of the south of France, Mont Tauch was founded just before the First World War, in 1913, to handle the grape harvest of the village. The appellation of Fitou was created in 1948 and the adjacent appellation of Corbières in 1985. And the cooperative has grown with the appellations. It has linked up with cooperatives from the adjoining villages of Paziols, Durban and Villeneuve, with everything centralised into an enormous wine cellar on the outskirts of Tuchan. You can see some of the most modern and streamlined winemaking equipment in the whole of the south of France. And each time I have visited, there has been yet more innovation and modernisation.

The cooperative is responsible for just under 2000 hectares of vines, owned by 250 members. Many cultivate just one tiny plot of vines, so that about a hundred members account for ninety per cent of the vineyards. Much of the success of Mont Tauch can be attributed to the attention the vineyards receive. Within those 2000 hectares there are some 7000 individual plots, all registered on computer, indicating one of twenty different soil types, as well as grape variety, which for Fitou can be Carignan, Cinsaut, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache Noir, not to mention other varieties for vins de pays, white wines and the local vin doux naturel, Rivesaltes. Age of vines is another consideration, with about 300 hectares of Carignan described as old vines, which could mean as much as 100 years old. There are three viticulturalists who help and advise the wine growers throughout the year, and since 2001 there has been a concentrated move towards sustainable viticulture, entailing a reasoned approach in the use of chemical treatments, with a consideration of the prevailing climatic conditions.

More than any other cooperative in the Midi, Mont Tauch has encouraged the commitment and involvement of its members. They are no longer content merely to deliver their grapes to the cooperative on the appointed day. Instead they take an active interest and indeed pride as to where their grapes go, with the creation of wines like Les Douze and Les Quatre. The first vintage of Les Douze was in 1998, and as the name implies, it is the production of twelve vineyards. There is a tasting each year to determine which twelve and the wine is sold with a back label giving the names of the twelve growers, and their photographs. One grower’s wife said this was the best Christmas present they could have had: to be selected for Les Douze. In contrast Les Quatre, of which 2000 was the first vintage, comes from the same four best sites each year.

As well as these two flagship wines, the cooperative produces a wide range of different wines, starting with a range of cheerful vins de pays under the Village du Sud brand. The label for each wine illustrates a character from the village, with the aim to give the cooperative a human face, as the tendency is for large wine cooperatives to be anonymously impersonal. The rosé features Sophie the Flower Seller and the Merlot, Roland the café owner, while the tetrapak of Old Vine Grenache portrays witty cartoon characters from the whole village, designed by the talented Tim Bulmer. The Cooperative’s own label Fitou is a quaffable mouthful of rustic spicy fruit. Mont Tauch Fitou Reserve is given some oak ageing, and is more concentrated and refined, while l’Exception, the wine which is deemed to be the best expression of its vintage, has some discreet oak on the nose and is rich and structured with layers of flavour and a long finish. And our tasting finished with vins doux, a deliciously nutty Rivesaltes Reserve and a sweet grapey Muscat de Rivesaltes.

With an annual production of 12 million bottles, Mont Tauch is the largest independent cooperative in France, but despite its size it maintains a very personal touch. And if you should find yourself in Tuchan, in the heart of the Corbières hills at the foot of the Pyrenees do drop by their new shop where there are tastings and vineyard tours on offer.

2010 Les Garrigues Grand Reserve from Mont Tauch

Mont Tauch in the village of Tuchan is one of the most serious and successful coops of the south of France. It has almost single-handedly created the reputation of Fitou on the UK market, and produces a convincing range of Corbières, as well as vins de pays, Maury and Rivesaltes. Nothing stands still – its new crusade is sustainability and environmentally friendly work in vineyard and cellar, so that all its bottles now sport the logo V-DD – for Vignerons en Développement Durable.

I was offered a sample of their newest release 2010 Les Garrigues, Grande Réserve, Grenache Noir, Vin de Pays de la Vallée du Paradis.

The name ‘valley of paradise’ always strikes me as pretty irresistible. And it turned out to be a delicious example of Grenache Noir, with a deep colour and opulently ripe spicy fruit, with hints of garrigues on the nose. And the palate it was satisfyingly mouth filling. The label says élevé en fût de chêne, which usually sounds a warning note for me, but the oak was not at all obvious on the palate, just nicely integrated, so that it added body and complexity. A lovely example of Grenache Noir from old vines, some over 100 years old. And sunshine in a glass, which is what we all need at this time of the year.

And it is on special offer at Sainsbury from 9th February for six weeks, for £6.74 – in other words 25% off the recommended retail price of £8.99.

And more on Mont Tauch in the following post.

Friday, 4 February 2011

CHATEAU DE COINTES

What is the most obscure appellation in the Languedoc? How about Malepère? If you are wondering where it is, try south west of Carcassonne, going towards Limoux. The vineyards are scattered around the Massif de la Malepère. This is one of the two appellations – Cabardès is the other – where the grape varieties of Bordeaux meet those of the Languedoc. You can find Merlot, Cot or Malbec, Cinsaut, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Noir, Lladoner Pelut and Syrah in varying percentages. Merlot is the most important. And Malepère tends to have more Grenache, while Cabardès favours Syrah. But there is no avoiding the fact that Malepère does tend to get overlooked by bigger and bolder neighbours, so I think life must be pretty tough for a Malepère producer. Part of the problem is that there are only ten producers altogether, and no real leader, not even a successful cooperative. To be blunt, the wines are not selling terribly well at the moment, and the bulk market is hopeless. I felt that they deserved better, especially Château de Cointes. Anne and François Gorostis make the wine; her father planted his first Merlot there in 1977. What follows are my tasting notes from the Paris Salon des Vignerons Independents in December.

2010 Côtes de Prouilhe, which is the local vin de pays. – 5.00€
A Grenache blanc made in vat, with no skin contact. Fresh and lively on nose and palate; fresh and crisp. – and undemanding.

2008 Blanc de Jean, Côtes de Prouilhe – 8.00€
Again a vin de pays; the appellation Malepère is only red or pink, Incidentally it was originally Côtes de Malepère, but the name changed with the awarding of the appellation in 2007. There is a touch of oak on the nose, and much more on the palate, so a rather solid mouthful.

2009 Malepère rosé - 6.00
A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Noir, Syrah and Cinsaut, made by the saigné method, with the juice run off, after twelve hours of skin contact. Rounded, ripe nose; and rich strawberry fruit on the palate. Ripe and vinous, but with some balancing acidity.

2009 Merlot, Côtes de Prouilhe – 4.50€
Deep colour. Easy fruit on the nose, with a ripe, rounded easy palate. Deliciously easy drinking and great value for money.

2009 Cabernet, Côtes de Prouilhe – 4.50€
Cabernet means both Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon, aged in vat. Quite a firm nose, with some ripe cassis fruit. Nicely rounded. Again a jolly nice glass of wine.

2008 Château de Cointes, Malepère. – 6.00€
A blend of 50% Merlot, with 40% Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc and 10% Grenache, aged in vat. Deep colour; rounded nose and palate; quite ripe and mouth filling - a ripe claret. Think a petit château from a good year, but not too warm. Nicely crafted tannins.

2007 Malepère, Cuvée Marie Anne, after a grandmother. – 8.00€
A selection of the best Merlot – 50% - with 25% Cabernet Franc and 25% Grenache Noir, and no wood. Deep colour; quite rounded, with ripe fruit. Nicely smoky, and an elegant finish.

2006 Malepère, Cuvée Clémence, after another grandmother. – 10.00€
This wine is aged in wood, and comprises Merlot and Grenache, but with Cabernet Sauvignon rather than Cabernet Franc, with lower yields, 30 hl/ha as opposed to 50 hl/ha for the basic Malepère. The wine is well made but the oak is very present, with a smoky nose and some vanilla on the palate. I preferred Marie Anne.

2008 Rouge de Noëlle, Côtes de Prouilhe – 13.00€
A blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache Noir, aged in new wood for 12 months. Deep colour; solid dense smoky oak on the nose, and more oak on the palate. Nicely made but I simply preferred the unoaked wines for their lovely fruit.

www.chateaudecointes.com