Monday, 19 April 2021

The wines of Roussillon




Published today by Infinite Ideas, www.infideas.com  as part of their Classic Wine Library

Why write a book on the wines of Roussillon?    For the simple reason that Roussillon stands alone, proud and independent.  For so long it has suffered a union of convenience with the Languedoc, when the wines of two relatively unknown areas lacked any reputation, and when it was simpler to refer to the departments of the south, without differentiating between them, as Languedoc-Roussillon.  Roussillon deserves so much more than that; it needs to come out from under the shadow of the Languedoc and stand alone.    Its history is different; its language is different and the wines are quite different and original.   Much of Roussillon is Catalan; the people speak Catalan whereas the Languedoc is part of Occitanie and people speak Occitan.   Roussillon did not become fully part of France until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.   

The original reputation of Roussillon is founded on what are rather clumsily called vins doux naturels, VDN for short, and fortified wines with Grenache the key grape variety, as the most suitable grape variety with its easily attained high alcohol levels, with the appellations of Maury, Banyuls and Rivesaltes, in their many forms.  Vins secs, as the unfortified table wines are commonly called, are a relatively recent development in Roussillon.   It is only in the last twenty years or so that vins secs have really replaced vins doux in importance. 

 

Essentially Roussillon equates to the department of the Pyrenées-Orientales.  Its boundaries are limited by the Pyrenees, with the Canigou the highest peak, at 2,785 metres, providing an important landmark.   To the north, the foothills of the Corbières massif separate it from the Languedoc vineyards of Corbières itself, with the ruined Cathar castle of Quéribus and the lookout tower of Tautavel dominating the skyline.    

 

There has been much to discover, with many strands to the wines of Roussillon.  Like the Languedoc, Roussillon attracts outsiders, from elsewhere in France and from other countries and continents.   The price of vineyards is such that they are accessible to those with more limited means.   Often the newcomers have come from other fields of activity, bringing a different perspective to a second career in wine.  When once production was dominated by the village cooperatives, these have become very much less important, with an escalation in the number of independent wine estates, each trying to make its mark.   Several were the wine estates that I visited who have made their first wines within the last five years, and certainly within the past ten years.

One of the enigmas of Roussillon is the decline in its vins doux.  The best, the Hors d ‘Age, that have spent years in barrel, are truly wonderful original wines, and yet they have fallen from favour. How can their decline be halted?  Another puzzle is why has Roussillon not acquired the cachet of Priorat.   My friend and colleague Andrew Jefford describes Roussillon as a northern Catalan echo of Priorat, observing that “the wines are just as ‘mineral’; no less overwhelming; often fresher”.   I could not agree more.  

My book is the result of several recent visits to the region, but with an enthusiasm for it which began with two much earlier books.  My first visit of any length to Roussillon was back in 1987 for French Country Wines.    Inevitably the village cooperatives featured largely, but I also visited a handful of private wine estates, including Cazes Frères, Château de Jau, Mas Amiel and Château Corneilla, as well as other estates that longer exist.  A more extensive visit followed for The Wines of the South of France in June 1999, when the highlights included my first visit to Gérard Gauby, who when I asked him about the history of his estate, replied, with an apology to Louis XIV: ‘l’histoire, c’est moi’.  I also met Frédérique Vaquer for the first time, and visited other estates that continue to thrive such as Domaine Cazes, Domaine Piquemal and Domaine des Schistes, and in Banyuls and Collioure, Domaine la Tour Vieille, Domaine de la Rectorie and Domaine Vial-Magnères, all of whom feature in my new book.  

Fast forward nearly 20 years.  The research began briefly in the spring of 2018, with an initial visit to Roc des Anges and Domaine Gauby.  The object was to introduce Norwegian friends to the delights of Roussillon, and things got off to a very good start with lunch at Riberach in Bélesta, while we stayed at the Auberge du Cellier in Montner.  Then the research began in earnest in June 2019, with visits in the Agly valley and a couple of days in Calce.   I returned in September, and then in October spent a week in Collioure and Banyuls.   My next visit, the following March, was fated, and I returned to London a week earlier than intended, as President Macron planned lockdown for France.    My deadline was extended to allow for more visits once we were able to travel again, so a full week in July followed, staying in a cosy gîte at Domaine des Soulanes, and then I returned in September for a final couple of days, to tidy up loose ends.    Research on the ground could continue almost indefinitely – there is always another lead worth following – another wine grower worth seeing. I know that there are other estates that merit inclusion.  Wine growers will happily enthuse with mutual respect about their competitors and you know that a recommendation from one talented wine grower will lead to another.  Sometimes serendipity occurred when a chance bottle led to an enthusiastic cellar visit.  Quite by chance on my last evening in Roussillon in late September, we ate at Riberach, with the opportunity to enjoy their extensive local wine list, thus turning a full circle.  

So altogether The wines of Roussillon is the fruit of some 30 days of research on the ground, totalling almost one hundred cellar visits concentrated between June 2019 and September 2020.    It represents a distillation of those conversations and tastings, capturing the current concerns and enthusiasms of the wine growers that I talked too.  As I was putting the finishing touches to my manuscript, the wines of 2020 were finishing their fermentations, and being racked into barrel or vat.  Despite the problems and challenges of Covid, the wine growers are happy with the harvest.   

I would like to give the last word to Wendy Wilson of Domaine le Soula, who describes the region as ‘a hidden treasure, waiting to be discovered’.  And there are many who agree with her.  So, I would urge you to discover the region for yourselves, first via the pages of my book, preferably with a glass in hand, but also in the hope that it will encourage you to visit in person, once we are able to travel freely again.    As the Michelin guide would say: ça vaut le voyage. 


 

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Frost in the Languedoc


A photograph of a frosted vine, taken by my friend James Riley near Faugeres.    The vegetation was already quite advanced and is now limp and brown. 

Frost is one of the regular viticultural hazards of Chablis, and something they are fairly used to dealing with, and well prepared with heaters and spray systems.  But the Languedoc is quite different.   You do not expect frost in the south of France, but last week, on the night of 7th/8thApril the temperature plummeted to as low as -8°C.   And the consequences have been devastating.   Nobody really has the means to do anything to protect the vines – bonfires, but what else.  They were helpless.    And like all climatic disasters, the impact was very erratic.   Some were spared and others devastated.   Cold air tends to settle in hollows and those would be the vines most affected.  There was a heart-rendering you Tube video of a young vigneronne looking at her vineyards in tears ……It is much too early to assess the full extent of the damage, partly as the danger of frost is by no means over, but conservative estimates suggest a 50% loss of production over the Languedoc.  

I sent a round robin email to some of my wine-making friends in the Languedoc and also Roussillon; some have replied and some have not.    

 In Limoux Caryl Panman from Château Rives-Blanques, after observing that it is absolute devastation from the Costières de Nimes to Roussillon, from Montpellier to Limoux, with everyone they know affected some degree or other, said they had nothing.   She can’t quite believe it and is enormously grateful.  The rest of Limoux suffered quite badly, apart from the high vineyards, like theirs.   And freezing temperatures are forecast again this week.  

 

In Faugères Françoise Ollier from Domaine Ollier Taillefer in the village of Fos said that there was relatively little damage in Fos, but that the vineyards between Fos and the neighbouring village of Roquessels had been badly affected, with anything between 40 to 100% damage.   Simon of Domaine des Trinités, who is based in Roquessels says: I’m afraid it‘s rather grim news from Roquessels, big losses with some more frost due tonight (13thApril).  I estimate at least 60% down for now but will know the full extent of the damage by end of next week.

 

Of course, it is much too early to assess the damage properly but nonetheless you still have an idea.  I have once seen a frosted vineyard, not in Chablis, but in the Languedoc, when they had an exceptional spring frost in April 2017.   Like this year, the vegetation was well advanced and we were out walking and suddenly came across a small vineyard that was the most disturbing colour.  The leaves were no longer a bright fresh green, but had turned a dull limp green with tinges of brown.  And the penny dropped.  This was frost damage and it is horrible to see.

 

Still in Faugères, Olivier and Adèle at Mas Lou said rather philosophically that they had suffered, but not as badly as some who have lost everything.  And Catherine Roque at Mas d’Alezon reckons to have lost between 20 – 30% of her crop so for her the situation is not catastrophique.  Nor is it for her daughter Alix at Domaine du Clovallon on the other side of the hills at Bédarieux.   

 

Domaine Caujolle-Gazet in the village of Lauroux, so one of the highest and most northern part of the Languedoc just below the Pas de l’Escalette sent a map that showed the extent of the frost damage all over the Hérault.  My technical skills are not sufficient to reproduce it in this blog, but amongst other things it shows that some of the northern vineyards such as theirs, are relatively unscathed.  They consider themselves very lucky.

 

But Beatrice and Sebastien Fillon in the nearby village of St Jean de Blaquière in the Terrasses du Larzac have been much less fortunate.   They reckon they have lost the crop of 12 out of their 15 hectares.  'A calamity'.  

 

From the Minervois, at Clos Centeilles in the cru of La Liviniere, Patrica Domergue replied : Thank God, we were spared, but the danger is not over yet.  

 

John Bojonowski from Clos du Gravillas at St Jean de Minervois sent me quite a detailed report, describing his neighbours’ vineyards as well as his own, as follows 

 

'I spent a couple of days not looking, but finally went out Friday night to see all our vineyards.  Our St Jean de Minervois Gimios vineyards, at 300M seem to be untouched.  I didn't go see the Muscat but the apprentice said it was just fine... perhaps I should take a look.   At Cazelles, most is ok; just the plantier of Grenache gris has 15% frosted (mostly the youngest baby plants from last year, which were still very short and close to the ground).  But our new Carignan Blanc is 90% gone. It's the lowest altitude and nearest to Agel.  Downhill from there, well at our neighbours' vineyards it's really all downhill.  All is lost.  Pretty ugly.  Similar view driving through Assigning, at least half gone.  And on the Barroubio side of the plateau it is much nastier than chez nous. And even our nearest Gimios neighbours, 300M away, are pretty slammed.  Mystery of nature'.  

 

It is indeed a mystery of nature.   Deborah Core at Mas Gabriel in Caux observed how one vine can be affected, but not the neighbouring vine, or even the shoot on one branch of a vine, and not the adjacent branch of a bush vine.   She says: ‘The frost damage is mostly at our vineyard at St Jean de Bébian where our Grenache Gris and young Carignan Blanc have been frosted almost 100%.  These were also badly affected in 2017. The Vermentino doesn’t seem as badly affected as most vines hadn’t got to bud burst, or are just opening out, so we will see.

 

At Caux on the slopes it generally a happier picture although one block of Carignan Noir has some damage, maybe 30%. In the plantiers, young vines which we cut right back down to 2 buds have also been burnt but should throw out another shoot. Otherwise, the rest of the Carignan (Noir and Blanc), Syrah and Grenache are ok. 

 

So we count ourselves lucky not to have been more badly hit. Fingers crossed for no more frost or other catastrophes climatiques this year!’

 

Stéphane Monmousseau at nearby Grange des Bouys says he was lucky, as only about 30% of his white vineyard on a slope was affected.  So ‘not too serious for us.’


In contrast Françoise Boyer from Domaine la Croix Belle a little further west in the village of Puissalion in the Côtes de Thongue says they have never had such bad frost damage.  The vegetation was 15 days ahead, as the weather had been so warm earlier in the spring.   It is particularly their Chardonnay that has suffered, 100% she says.  Chardonnay does have an early bud break.   Nor they do not have any insurance.   And Anne Germa de Sutra, at Domaine Monplézy, just outside Pézenas, reckons  she has lost 50% of her crop.  


I have received an email from the Orliac family of Domaine de l'Hortus in Pic St Loup.  They reckon 80% damage, both red and white varieties.   The problem was that the vegetation was so far advanced after some unseasonably warm weather.   They will have fall back on their negate wines to tide them over. 

 

Roussillon in contrast does not appear to have fared too badly.   Daniel Laffite at Mas des Soulanes outside Maury, says he was lucky.  Just one plot is 40% damaged, and the rest of his vines have been spared, so far.

 

And Frédérique Vaquer in the village of Tresserre reassured me that Les Aspres had been spared, 'thank goodness, after the mildew of 2020 and the drought of 2019'.   


Elsewhere in Roussillon, I gather from Nicolas Raffy at Mas Amiel that there is some damage in their vineyards and also around Tautavel and Latour-de-France.   And Emilio Perez, the Argentinian winemaker at Domaine de la Rectorie said that Banyuls had been spared.  

 

I have not yet had replies to all my emails, so I will add to this post as and when anything more comes through.   



                            A photo from Domaine de l'Hortus in Pic St Loup.   So distressing to see.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Monday, 29 March 2021

Château Montfin – a new discovery via zoom


An invitation via Millésime Bio to meet resulted in an hour’s conversation on zoom with Jérôme Estève of Château Montfin in the village of Peyriac-de-Mer in the appellation of Corbières.   

Jérôme reminded me that I had tasted his wines in London a while ago, but also explained that the range and style had changed significantly, with the 2018 vintage.  His first harvest was in 2002.  He comes from Toulouse, and in 2002 bought a bankrupt wine estate.  He began with ten hectares, and now 20 hectares of vines on the massif of Fontfroide at an altitude of 100 metres.   Old Carignan dominates his vineyards, accounting eight hectares, with vines aged between 60 and 90 years old.  There is also Grenache, and some Syrah and Cinsault and a little Mourvèdre.  For white wine Jérôme has Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Roussanne and a little Clairette and Macabeo.  He has replanted some Cinsault and Carignan, but finds that Syrah does not work well as it copes badly with the wind and drought.

 

First of all, Jérôme described his range – tantalisingly, as there was of course no wine to taste.  All his wines are Corbières. He makes four red wines.  First is Sur Pilotis from Carignan with some Grenache and a little Syrah, that is aged in vat, with an emphasis on fruit.

 

Vincent, a wine without any sulphur and a play on words vin sans …..this conversation proved to be a sharp learning curve as far as my skills in French dictation were concerned and I was definitely found wanting…… Grenache is the main variety in Vincent, with some old Carignan and a little Syrah with a classic vinification and a long cuvaison, with the wine kept in vat and bottled in the spring.

 

Les Fées de l’Etang – another play on words, the fairies, or l’effet or the effect of the lagoon, which makes for freshness and salinity, with a gentle maritime breeze.  A selection of plots, Carignan, Grenache, Syrah and a little Mourvèdre, aged in old barrels, and also amphorae.  Jérôme commented that they have had more rain and humidity in the last couple of years.  He has worked with amphorae since 2018, and prefers sandstone amphorae, from Italy rather than terra cotta, which is too porous and much more difficult to clean. He uses them mainly for Carignan and puts the Syrah in barrel and Grenache in vat.

 

The final red wine was l’Une – rather than Lune… from two old plots of Carignan and Grenache with very low yields, just 15 hl/has.  The grapes are picked at the end of the harvest – the wild boar can be a problem – and the fermenting vat is a mixture of destemmed grapes and whole bunches, with some pigeage and a long cuvaison.  It is not made every year with 2016 the most recent vintage.  Jérôme observed that he is aiming for softer tannins and a more gentle extraction.

 

As for whites, there are two.  Sur Pilotis from Roussanne, Vermentino and Grenache Blanc with a little Clairette and Macabeo.  And Cuvée St Jacques, from 40-year-old Roussanne, with some Grenache Blanc, which are picked very ripe and vinified in wood.    The Rosé, L’Etang Danse, comes from Cinsault and Grenache, and is mainly pressurage direct, with a little saignée to give some vinosity and weight.  The label apparently shows a flamingo with a dancing shoe!

 

Jérôme talked about his work. He has been farming organically for ten years now and uses some of the biodynamic treatments.  He favours natural yeast for his red wines, but finds they are not so successful for white wines, and has had problems with stuck fermentations, so he prefers neutral cultured yeast for white wine.

 

In the vineyard, he is working on cover crops, which add nitrogen to the soil and prevent erosion and ravinement, and allow for better water penetration, making the soil live.  He is very interested in agriculture forestière and has planted over 2000 trees over the last six or seven years, mainly fruit trees such as pomegranate and almonds.  At Peyriac-de-Mer, all the wine growers are already organic, or converting to organic viticulture.  They are very aware that they are in a protected zone, with the nearby national park.

 

Jérôme also talked about what he called la taille douce, whereby you try to understand the functioning of the vine, and prune where you will least disturb the flow of the sap, and avoid a large cut in the vine, which can cause disease and tire the vine. The pruning is usually higher up the vine, which may also entail a need to debud later.   He first started this method in 2019 and has seen a difference in the change of the behaviour of the vines.

 

And our last topic of conversation was what Jérôme called a DGC- Délimitation Geographique Complémentaire - for an area within the appellation of Corbières to the south of Narbonne.  This has been under discussion since 2017, and Jérôme is involved with an area that covers a handful of villages south of Narbonne, which are limited by the Massif of Fontfroide, namely Bages, Peyriac-de-Mer, Sigean, Portal-des-Corbières and Roquefort-des-Corbières, including about 30 estates and a couple of cooperatives.   Essentially, they form an amphitheatre, with the Massif de Fontfroide behind them, facing east and the sea, so that they enjoy a maritime influence.  They do not want the cahier des charges to be too restrictive.  It is a collective project, and Jérôme has, as he put it, taken up the challenge, the baton or the stick for his area. The appellation of Corbières is one of the biggest, with considerable variations, and there are other DGCs in the pipeline, namely Durban, Lagrasse, Alaric, the Terrasses de Lézignan, but as yet nothing settled.   Boutenac is already recognised as a cru.  They would like the name for the coastal area to be Peyriac-de-Mer, which really identifies the area, but there is a problem, there is an IGP Coteaux de Peyriac in the Minervois, and you cannot have the same or a similar name for an appellation and for an IGP.  And inevitably confusion would arise. 

 

These things take time and at the moment they are in discussion with the INAO in Narbonne and are preparing what Jérôme called a pre-dossier.  The next step would be a dossier to submit to the INAO.  They do not want it to be too restrictive; they may limit the percentage of Syrah, but they would prefer not to have a délimitation parcellaire, and it would include all three colours.   They would also like to impose organic viticulture.   And when might this actually come into effect?  Jérôme thought it would take at least two or three years, so maybe for the 2025 vintage.    So a question of watch this space.  




 

Monday, 15 March 2021

New Zealand Syrah - an overview

February would normally see New Zealand winemakers in London for the annual New Zealand trade tasting, but not this year, so instead the New Zealanders organised a series of webinars.   Some brave souls braved a very uncivilised 4 a.m. alarm call to be able to talk to England at the very civilised hour of 5 p.m. all about new developments in New Zealand and then there was a webinar on Pinot Noir, with a different cast, the next day.   And a  Syrah tasting was conducted by Rebecca Gibb MW, who is based in Yorkshire, with miniature samples sent out ahead of time.   

 

I know that New Zealand has absolutely nothing with the Languedoc, but Syrah is grown in the Languedoc as a cepage améliorateur and so I think it is interesting to put Syrah in context and compare it in other parts of the world.  In fact, there is very little Syrah grown in New Zealand, just 437 hectares, which accounts for one percent of the country’s vineyard area.  The first commercial planting of Syrah in New Zealand was as recent as 1984, by Alan Limner of Stonecroft Winery in Hawke’s Bay.   Hawkes Bay is the most important region for Syrah, with four wines in the tasting, plus one from Waiheke Island and perhaps unexpectedly, a wine from Marlborough.  There are all of 11 hectares of Syrah in Marlborough.


So this is what we tasted, with plenty to enthuse about, showing how New Zealand is a delicious alternative to the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc as a source of Syrah.


Prices are recommended UK retail prices, but we were not given stockists.

 

2018 Te Mata Syrah - £19.99

I have always had a soft spot for Te Mata, ever since I went there on my very first visit to New Zealand thirty years ago.   At that time Te Mata had not even considered growing Syrah.   This wine is a blend of two areas within Hawke’s Bay, Bridge Pa and the Woodthorpe Terraces.  2018 was a very hot summer, with some heavy rain in early March, which did cause problems at the harvest.  The wine spent five months in oak and has a fresh peppery nose and palate, with gentle tannins and an underlying freshness. I liked it a lot and it represents good value. Bullnose Syrah is their top cuvée for Syrah.  

 

2019 Paritua - £31.99

This also comes from Bridge Pa and is a much richer style than the Te Mata.  There is some perfumed peppery red fruit on the nose, and on the palate the wine is much fleshier, with oaky notes and supple tannins.  Half the wine is aged in new French oak. This was fermented at under 30°C, illustrating a current  trend to ferment at lower temperatures in order to avoid excessive extraction and tannins.  

 

2018 Trinity Hill, Gimblett Gravels - £24.99

Gimblett Gravels is further inland and warmer than the coastal area of Hawke’s Bay. The gravels retain the daytime heat during the night.  The grapes were picked earlier than they would have liked, thanks to the rain in March.  And they use 25% whole bunches, and also add some Viognier skins to the ferment.  The wine then spends 14 months in French oak.   The colour is deep and the nose redolent for black fruit.  The palate is firm and structured, with dark fruit and a long finish.   It needs time and in due course will be delicious.

 

2019 Craggy Range, Gimblett Gravels - £25.00

2019 was a very dry vintage. There were some whole bunches in the ferment – 18% to be precise, and the wine spent fourteen months in oak, 25 % new.  The colour is deep with a firm dense nose, with black fruit and pepper.  The palate is tight knit again with firm fruit and a certain juiciness of the finish. There are peppery notes with tannin and black fruit, and a long finish.

 

2017 Man o’ War Dreadnought Syrah - £37.50

Man o’ War is one of the leading estates of Waiheke Island, and also the largest estate on the island, with an extensive vineyard at the eastern end of the island.  Conditions on Waiheke are warmer than in Hawke’s Bay. 

 

Deep colour.  Red fruit with a very perfumed nose.  Some quite firm tannins and oak on the palate, with fleshy red fruit.  Medium weight.  Rebecca explained that as well as being warmer, the soils are richer and the wine had a higher alcohol level at 14° than the wines from Hawke’s Bay, averaging 13°.  2017 was quite a wet vintage.  

 

2016 Fromm Vineyard, Marlborough - £42.50

Marlborough is of course better known for Sauvignon, and also Pinot Noir.  This Syrah was planted in 1992 and it ripens a month later than Pinot Noir, with the talented winemaker at Fromm, Hätsch Kalberer, agreeing that Marlborough is marginal for Syrah.   Marginal or not, this was delicious.  Good deep colour.  Quite a perfumed fragrant nose, beginning to evolve a little, as the oldest wine of the tasting.  Again, the palate was beautifully balanced, with a tight structure and some spice and pepper.  Hätsch includes just 2% of Viognier juice.  All the grapes are destemmed and he uses indigenous yeast and ages the wine in barrel for eighteen months.  And he made just six barrels in 2016.  It was a delicious finale to the tasting.   And Rebecca concluded with the observation that 80% of the Syrah drunk in New Zealand comes from Australia!   

 

 

 

Monday, 8 March 2021

Women in Wine - International Women’s Day

Today is International Women’s Day, so it seemed an appropriate moment to look back on nearly 50 years in wine.  When I joined the wine trade in July 1972, it was very much a man’s world.   Answering the phone at the Wine Society, I was one morning greeted with the words:  I want to speak to somebody who knows about wine!  There were very few women working in the wine trade who did anything other than secretarial work, or if they were a wine grower’s wife, they kept the books and looked after the paperwork, but they certainly did not go into the cellar.   How things have changed.

When I passed the MW in 1979 with a friend, Aileen Trew, we doubled the female content of the Institute of Masters of Wine overnight.   Sarah Morphew was the first female MW, in 1970, 25 years after the foundation of the Institute and Serena Sutcliffe followed her in 1977.   And then a steady flow of women began.   The Institute now numbers over 400 members, world-wide, of whom a good third are women, and the majority of whom passed the exam in this century.

 

Then consider work in a cellar.  When I wrote my first book on Chablis, published in 1984 I mentioned two women winemakers, Madeleine Coquard and Lyne Marchive.  Things were not much better in my second edition, published 25 years later. The pioneers were still Lyne Marchive of Domaine des Malandes and also Clotilde Davenne of Domaine des Temps Perdus.   Fast forward to my third edition, published in 2018, and there has been a veritable explosion of women making wine in Chablis, with a tsunami of daughters rather than sons.   Some of the most talented of the new generation are women, 

 

One of the most famous estates, Domaine Raveneau, now has Isabelle Raveneau in charge.   When we met, she observed that her grandfather, François, who established the reputation of the family estate, simply did not believe in women in the cellar.  Had she been speaking English she might have said that he would be turning in his grave at the thought of his granddaughter in his cellar.   She also mentioned that with the mechanisation of so many pieces of equipment, you now longer need the strong shoulders of the earlier generation. 

 

Other estates with women primed to take over, include Charlene at Domaine Pinson, Camille at Domaine Besson who recently won a Jeunes Talents competition for young winemakers in Burgundy and Julie at Domaine Gilles and Nathalie Fèvre.  Cécilia Trimaille runs Domaine Long Depaquit, after a stint as chef de culture at Château Margaux.  Lucie Dupuydt is in charge of J. Moreau & Fils.  Virginie Moreau makes the wine at Domaine Moreau-Naudet and Marie-Ange Robin at Domaine Robin.  There is Athenaïs de Béru at the Château de Béru in the eponymous village, Nathalie and Isabelle Oudin in Chichée and Eléonore Moreau in Poilly-sur-Serein.  I know I have missed some names, not to mention other examples in the surrounding villages of the Yonne. 

 

In the Languedoc, there is an organisation called the Vinifilles, which is primarily for sharing marketing and communications.  Not all the women in the group are winemakers, but they all play an important part in their family business.    And with the Languedoc’s openness to outsiders, there are perhaps more women making wine there than in other more traditional parts of France.  To name but a few, there is Catherine Roque at Mas d’Alezon in Faugères, with her daughter Alix running Domaine du Clovallon in Bédarieux.   Brigitte Chevalier created Domaine de Cébène in Faugères.   In the Minervois, Patricia Domergue runs Clos Centeilles, with her daughter Cecile and there is Isabelle Coutale at Domaine Eugénie and Anne Gros from Burgundy has also come south.  Nicole rather than John Bojonowski is the winemaker at Clos du Gravillas in St Jean-de-Minervois; Estelle rather than Pierre makes the wine at Domaine Clavel. Jo Lynch shares the winemaking with her husband André Suquet at Villa Dondona in Montpeyroux.   Emmanuelle Schoch created her own estate of Mas de Seren outside Anduze.

 

Researching my next book In Roussillon, I have recently enjoyed cellar visits with Frédérique Vaquer at Domaine Vaquer; Wendy Wilson at Domaine le Soula, and Carrie Summers at Domaine de l’Enfant and Laetitia Pietri-Clara at Domaine Pietri-Giraud in Banyuls

 

I could carry on, but lists become boring.  So I just wanted to say that it is just so gratifying to see how the balance is being corrected and continues to be corrected.   The wine trade is no longer a man’s world, but it is still a white world, and that now needs to be addressed.  

 

 

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Château Beauregard-Mirouze in the Corbières – a zoom with Karine Mirouze

Following on from a contact via the Millésime Bio website, Karine MIrouze and I arranged to talk on Zoom.    It has been quite a while since my last visit to Château Beauregard-Mirouze in the Corbières so it was time for an update.


Karine talked about their work in the vineyard and how it has evolved since my visit.   They have worked organically since 2010, but that was not enough.   She explained the need for what she called a global ecological approach, that encompasses everything in the vineyard, and also entailed the transition to biodynamics.   They are planting more trees and working to protect the birds.  They work with a shepherd and a flock of 70 sheep that graze on the property all the year around, with extra lucerne grown for their winter diet.  Essentially, they consider the whole environment of the vineyard.

They are also working more à la parcelle, and taking a more detailed look at their various plots.  For instance, they realised that a vineyard planted in 1973 and declared as Syrah actually included a significant amount of Carignan!   They now pick when the Syrah is ripe, and the Carignan not quite ripe, so that it adds freshness and character to the wine.  

 

And there have been additions to their range and some experiments in the cellar.  Some have worked; some have not.   There is a Pét Nat, Rouze, based on Cinsault, and light red in colour, to which they add some Mourvèdre.   It is left to ferment in the bottle and disgorged at the beginning of January.  Pétouze, meaning a petit oiseau or little bird, is a red pétillant, which Karine said was a little refined than Rouze. 

 

They are also experimenting with a white vin de macération, made oxidatively, so that it is rancio in character.  Karine admitted that the first attempt in 2017, for which the grapes were not destalked, and the wine given a long élevage, was undrinkable!  In 2018, they destemmed and gave the juice a week’s maceration before pressing, and that was much better.  They used Roussanne, and then aged the wine in oak for 12 months, and now it is in vat.  They want to accentuate the rancio character.    And in 2019 the juice spent three weeks on the skins.  You get more tannins, and then what Karine called the gras or weight and richness takes over, and that was ready earlier and worked well.  But then in 2020 their white wine harvest was too small, to allow for any experiments.

 

Karine explained how in 2019 the cool weather at flowering in June, followed by the heatwave had impacted on the flowering and the crop for 2020.  On the other hand, 2019 was the biggest crop that they had had in 20 years.

 

And I promised to visit just as soon as we are able to travel again.   Château Beauregard-Mirouze is close to the wonderful abbey of Fontfroide, so that provides another reason to venture into the Corbières. 





 

 

 

  

 

 

Monday, 22 February 2021

Millésime Bio – a digital experience

Millésime Bio, the wine fair devoted to organic and biodynamic wines, went digital this year, for a 28th session unlike any other.   I registered my interest and attended a couple of zoom conferences.  I also made contact with a couple of interesting wine growers, but that part of the organisation was a bit hit and miss.

I listened to the press conference on the first morning, which was conducted by various presidents, of Sudvinbio, Millésime Bio and the Region Occitanie, and which gave some interesting figures.   They had 1000 exhibitors from 16 countries.  However, 80% of them came from France.  They emphasised that Languedoc Roussillon is the most important region in France for organic viticulture and indeed 35% of the exhibitors were from Occitanie, with 310 exhibitors.   42,424 hectares in Occitanie are farmed organically, with 2540 estates in 2019, with a further 446 in the three-year conversion process, with a steady growth in the quantity of organic wine produced each year.   It was all very encouraging.

 

Half the visitors who registered were from outside France, with the digital element offering a distinct advantage to those from further afield, and consequently for 2022, they are anticipating a physical salon, with a digital dimension.   Personally, I hope that the digital element will lead on to real meetings, with of course, tastings.  

 


Organic wine with Virgile Joly 

 

On the second morning of Millésime Bio, there was a conference, entitled What is Organic Wine?  Virgile Joly, of Domaine Virgile Joly in St Saturnin, was the key speaker.

 

First it was explained that the new European regulations for organic wine now cover wine-making and not just work in the vineyards, so the entire process from grape to bottle.   Their implementation has been delayed for a year, thanks to Covid, so they will come into effect in January 2022.   Nothing chemical may be used, no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic products, chemical fertilisers, and the amount of sulphur is limited.  Organic viticulture entails a global approach, considering the vine in its environment.   Inevitably it entails more work in the vineyard, and for that reason it is inevitably more expensive to produce.  

 

The conversion process takes three years, and for the second harvest the wine may be labelled, produit en conversion.  The conversion to biodynamic viticulture also takes three years, with several possible labels such as Biodyvin and Demeter.   As for Vin Nature there is no official denomination, but a private cahier des charges, for Vin Méthode Nature.  

 

Virgile talked about his work.  He farms 26 hectares of AOP Languedoc, Terrasses du Larzac and St Saturnin, and committed to organic viticulture right from his very first vintage in the Languedoc, in 2000, at a time when organic wines were much less fashionable and sought after than they are now.     The first consideration was the health of the vineyard workers.  As he observed, 'we are the first to be exposed to pesticides when we spray them on our vines'.  He emphasised the importance of the environment, with the respect for nature.  And why take the trouble to obtain the certification?  As Virgile commented, it is very easy to raconter des histoires; it is all too easy to talk.   The organic organisations can do spot checks, unannounced, as well as a regular audit for which they make an appointment.  Virgile has had an inspector appear at the end of a hard day of harvesting, just to check there was nothing untoward in his cellar, that should not be there.  And in the spring, they will check for herbicides.

 

Virgile talked about the work in the vineyard.  He uses natural fertilisers; grass and weeds are controlled mechanically and only contact products can be used, and no systemics.  Copper and sulphur are allowed, but are limited.  The problem with contact products is that they are washed off in the rain,  but the equipment available for vineyard work has also improved over the last 20 years.   In the cellar, there are not too many constraints.   Chaptalisation and oak chips are still allowed, for those who want to use them.  I realise now that nobody mentioned yeast, but I think that any serious organic winegrower would only ever use natural indigenous yeast.  

 

Virgile talked of wanting to go further, mentioning HVE or Haute Valeur Environnementale and Bee Friendly, programmes that consider biodiversity.  He talked about the development of hedges with indigenous varieties of trees, and considered ground cover for alternate rows in the vineyard, which enhances biodiversity.  He also talked about the neighbours.  The vineyards in St Saturnin are very fragmented, so you need to be on good terms with your neighbours and ask them to avoid spraying your vines when they are spraying theirs.   Happily, organic viticulture is better perceived these days, even by those who do not actually practice it.     So all in all, a fairly rosy picture.  

 

 

 

 

Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Pays d'Oc - an overview

Patrick Schmitt, the very articulate editor of The Drinks Business and a fellow MW, recently conducted a series of three webinars on the Pays d’Oc, looking at three specific themes, namely the varietal and commercial aspect of the Pays d’Oc.  Organic and sustainable followed, and third was Native and Novel.  

First Patrick introduced the Pays d’Oc.  Robert Skalli was pioneer of what was then called Vin de Pays d’Oc, back in 1987, focusing on varietal wine, which was unusual in France at the time.  His brand, Fortant de France, sold 80,000 bottles at the end of the 1980s.   In contrast, in 2021 the annual sales of Pays d’Oc are predicted to be 800 million bottles; that is 24 bottles sold every second! There are 120,000 hectares classified as Pays d’Oc out of a total of 240,000 hectares in Languedoc Roussillon.  They account for 10% of the French vineyard area and 16% of the total French wine production.   They are ten times bigger than Burgundy and the same as Argentina in volume, with 1000 independent wine estates and 160 cooperatives.   The colour breakdown is 48% red, 26% white and 28% rosé, so significantly more rosé than Provence. 

 

The strengths are numerous. The wine growers have an enormous amount of liberty.  Fifty-eight different grape varieties are now allowed, so that the Pays d’Oc account for 92% of all varietal wine from France.  The permitted varieties continue to evolve with Albariño, Tempranillo and Sangiovese amongst more recent additions to the list.  Merlot is the most widely planted varietal for Pays d’Oc; surprisingly perhaps Pinot Noir comes 4th.  Marselan is becoming more important.  We are also seeing a re-emergence in Carignan, as the emblematic variety of the Languedoc.  For white wine, varieties like Viognier. Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Marsanne are important, as well as more international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon.     Pays d’Oc accounts for one third of France’s plantings of Chardonnay and Sauvignon and one quarter of its Merlot, as well as 60% of its Syrah.   Blends are also developing in importance, rising from a meagre 2% to 7%.

 

Patrick talked about the strengths of the wines, their scale, their image, with their diversity and authenticity.  He rightly suggested that they complement the appellations, which have more controls and are more terroir driven, whereas the Pays d’Oc gives a wine grower more freedom and creativity.  And they also represent great value for money.  

 

Talking about Organics and Sustainability, Patrick focussed on the advantages of the Languedoc for organic viticulture, especially considering the climate.  The winds are all important, an important cooling and drying influence, with the Mistral, the Tramontane, the Marine and the Autan, as well as the 300 days of sunshine, which allow for low-intervention viticulture.   The Pays d’Oc’s annual production of organic wine is 67 million bottles, so there is an enormous choice.   

 

In the final webinar Native and Novel, Patrick looked for unusual blends or more obscure varieties, and for this, I was lucky enough to receive the accompanying samples, eight dinky little bottles.  So this is what I tasted.

 

2018 Domaine de Puilacher, Circulade Blanc  

A blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Vermentino.    From an estate in the Hérault Valley, north west of Montpellier.  Fermented in stainless steel vats, with some time on the fine lees.  Light colour. A rounded nose, with hints of pear. I would have expected the Viognier to be more obvious, with some peachy notes, but no.  The palate was rounded and textured, lightly buttery, with a dry finish, and a slightly bitter, refreshing note on the finish.    Suggested UK retail price £10-15.

 

2018 Domaine de Figuières, Impetus Blanc

A blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Viognier and from a property within the appellation of la Clape, close to Narbonne.  Fermented in barrel.  Light colour. Some peachiness on the nose and quite a rounded palate, with well integrated oak.  A slightly salty tang on the finish.   Suggested UYK retail price  £16-20.

 

2019 Les Domaines Barsalou, Grenache Gris  

From a group of three estates, based in the Corbières.  A pure Grenache Gris, with just the merest hint of pink, after some maceration on the skins   Rounded ripe fruit on the nose and palate.  Supple and textured.  Very satisfying and at less than a suggested UK retail price of £10.00  very good value.

 

2019 Mas la Chevalière, Rosé 

A blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Cinsault.  A little colour.  Quite fresh raspberry fruit on the nose and palate, with some salty acidity on the finish. Quite fragrant, delicate and fresh. The grapes are picked at night.  Fermentation in stainless steel vats. Minimum filtration.  A lovely example of a Languedoc rosé, competing very well with Provence.  UK Retail price - £10 - £15.    This comes from an estate outside Béziers, that was bought a number of years ago by Michel Laroche of Chablis fame, and is now part of the Advini group.  

 

2019 M. Chapoutier, Marius, named after Michel Chapoutier’s grandfather.  

A blend of Grenache and Syrah.  Ten days maceration.   Ageing for five to eight months in stainless steel tanks.  A great combination of ripe cherry fruit from the Grenache, balanced by the spiciness of the Syrah, producing Languedoc sunshine in a glass.   Young colour.  Rounded spice; ripe without being jammy.  With no oak and a fresh finish. UK retail price £9.80

 

2018 Serre de Guéry, l’Esprit d’Eloi, Petit Verdot

From an estate in the village of Azille, in the heart of the Minervois.  Petit Verdot is a grape variety more commonly found in Bordeaux and almost never as a single varietal anywhere, and certainly not in Bordeaux. In the Languedoc, it benefits from the heat and sunshine and ripens well, as this example shows, with a deep colour, after 12 months ageing in barrel.  Rounded cassis fruit on the nose.  Quite intense and ripe with quite a tannic edge on the finish.  Still very young.  UK retail price  £12.00

 

2018 Les Jamelles, Les Traverses, Sélection Parcellaire, Mourvèdre

Half the grapes are destemmed, and half not.  One month on the skins.  Ageing in 500 litre barrels of three wines until the summer.  Quite a deep colour.  Quite a firm restrained nose, with an elegant palate and considerable potential.   Youthful, fresh and nicely balanced.   Les Jamelles is a brand developed by Laurent Delaunay, one of the Languedoc’s most successful winemakers.   Mourvèdre performs well in a Mediterranean climate and this comes from 40-year-old vines.  Suggested UK  Retail price £20-25

 

2018 Domaine d’Aigues-Belles, Cuvée Nicole 

A blend of Syrah, 75% and Cabernet Sauvignon 25%. From an estate in the Gard, near the Pic St Loup. A very successful blend which I liked this a lot.  Deep young colour.  Fresh peppery fruit, and on the palate, elegantly ripe red fruit.  Well balanced, with a fresh tannic streak.  It has spent 12 months in oak, and the oak flavours are nicely integrated.   An excellent finale to the tasting and series of webinars.   

 

Monday, 1 February 2021

Rivesaltes Ambré from Domaine Comelade

  


A treasure, another delicious Vin Doux Naturel, came by way last week, with thanks to Stewart Travers of Cambridge Wine Merchants, who are one of the best south of France specialists in the country.   I leapt at his offer to try his current favourite VDN, from Domaine Comelade in the village of Estagel in the Agly Valley.  Stewart is selling their 1988 Rivesaltes Ambré le Barral for the ridiculously cheap price of £21.99 for a 50cl. bottle.   Where else would you find a wine over 30 years old for that price?  

 

I have to admit that I had never heard of Domaine Comelade, so they will not be in my forthcoming book, but I do hope that I might go and visit them when we are finally allowed to travel again.  Meanwhile I savoured the wine.  It is amber brown in colour, with a firm dry nutty nose.  On the palate, there are delicious notes of walnuts, with a firm bite of acidity, that makes for a refreshing finish.  Tried again a couple of days later, after sitting in a stoppered decanter, it seems more rounded with some lightly honeyed notes.   Wines like this have nothing to fear from oxygen.

 

And it is very definitely what is so eloquently called un vin de meditation, a wine to sip and savour at the end of a meal on a winter’s evening.  It goes a treat with a few walnuts.   The grape varieties are a blend of Macabeo and Grenache Gris, and the wine was transferred into old wooden barrels after mutage, and had spent 32 years in wood, until it was bottled, specifically to fulfil the order from Cambridge Wine Merchants. 




Monday, 25 January 2021

The Terrasses du Larzac, with a selection of wines



Gavin Crisfield, who is one of the leading wine growers of the Terrasses de Larzac, with La Traversée, gave a zoom presentation of the region to the Circle of Wine Writers last autumn.
  The growth in the Terrasses du Larzac has been nothing short of breath-taking. Thirty-five new estates have been established since the appellation was recognised in 2014, and today there are one hundred estates, compared with 75 five years ago.   

The appellation, for red wine only, covers 32 villages north west of Montpellier, stretching from Octon and the lac de Salagou, towards Aniane, with 650 hectares of vineyards. They lie under the limestone ridge of the Larzac, making them some of the most northern vineyards of the Languedoc, and some of the highest, at 350 – 400 metres.

 

The geology is very diverse, with extinct volcanoes, schist, sandstone, and limestone, all making for a variety of wine styles, with freshness and drinkability their defining characteristics.   The influence of the Massif Central is far greater than anywhere else in the Languedoc.

 

The grape varieties are the five classics of the Languedoc, Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, of which Gavin is a particular fan.  He makes a particularly fine example, but in small quantities. Not to be missed, if it should come your way.  

 

Gavin talked about the changes in the Terrasses du Larzac over the last 20 years. There is a lot of interest and investment, with people coming there from all walks of life, both French and foreigners.  Inevitably land prices are rising, when once a hectare of vines changed hands for 10-12,000€, it is now reaching 30,000 – 35,000€, but that still compares favourably with the Pic St. Loup at 100,000€.  Many of the vineyards are on tiered terraces, with the rebuilding of many of the old retaining vineyard walls, and 90% of the vineyards are hand-picked.   Organic viticulture accounts for 70-75% of the vineyards.  The average age of the vines is about 30 – 40 years old, but with some very old vines, even centenarian vines, and there are also new plantings, of all five red varieties, but less Syrah as they find that is not so suited to the area.  As for whites, which are growing in importance, but still only mere Languedoc AOP or an IGP, Carignan Blanc is being planted, as well as Grenache Blanc, rather than Gris, and also some Terret.  

 

The average wine estate is about 10 -15 hectares; and the largest is Château La Sauvageonne, owned by Gérard Bertrand, with over 50 hectares.

 

The area is gradually becoming better known in France and the future for the region is rosy.  Independently of the webinar, I was sent some bottles to try, which demonstrated the diversity of the Terrasses du Larzac, both in place and taste, as follows:


 


2017 Mas des Brousses - 18.00€

From vineyards around the village of Puéchabon.  A blend of 55% Mourvèdre, 30% Syrah and 15% Grenache.  Thirteen months élevage in 400 litre barrels.  Xavier Peyraud is particularly attached to Mourvèdre, as he originates from Bandol, where his grandfather, Lucien Peyraud of Domaine Tempier, worked tirelessly revive the fortunes of Bandol and to create an appellation based on Mourvèdre.  

 

Deep colour.  Quite a firm structured nose; youthful.   And on the palate, quite ripe and perfumed, with some silky tannins.  A hint of well integrated oak.  Quite a ripe alcoholic finish at 14.5°.


 


2018 Mas Lasta - 20€

Anne-Laure Sicard is one of the newcomers to the region, with vineyards near the village of St. Privat, at an altitude of 450 metres.  A blend of 50% Syrah with 40-year-old vines, which is a good age for Syrah in the Languedoc, 40% Grenache, from 80-year-old vines and 10% Cinsault, with 50-year-old vines.  60% aged in vat, and 40% in barriques of 4 – 5 wines, for 10 - 11 months.   

 

Deep colour. Ripe berry fruit with some underlying oak on the nose, and on the palate, some rounded spicy black fruit with a streak of oak and tannin.  A fresh finish.   Promises well and will benefit from some bottle age.




2017 Mas des Arômes, le Dernier Charbonnier  - 15.00€

A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan.  Aged in barriques for 12 months. Deep colour.  Quite a rich dense nose, with some ripe fruit. On the palate a solid mouthful of black fruit and spice, ripe with a streak of oak and tannin.  Richer than Mas Lasta.  Again, the wine needs some bottle age.   A completely new estate to me and on the basis of this one wine, definitely deserves further investigation.


 


2016 Château Saint Jean d’Aumières, L’Alchimiste Black Edition  - 24€

An estate in Gignac.  A blend of 10% Carignan, vinified by carbonic maceration, with 70% Syrah and 20% Grenache Noir.  As much as a three-week maceration, and aged in oak for 12 months.   Very deep colour.  Very ripe and rounded on the nose, with dense oaky concentration on both nose and palate.  ‘Un peu too much’ as the French so elegantly say!  I was also put off by the very heavy bottle. 

 

2018 Domaine de Ferrussac, Nègre Boeuf  - 20.00€

A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, from vineyards at Poujols, at 300 metres.  Twelve months ageing in 300 litre barrels.  The Rossignol family also rear Aubrac cattle and consequently have an excellent source of natural manure for the vineyards that they are converting to organic viticulture.

 

Deep colour.  Quite rich rounded oaky nose and on the palate, plenty of vanilla and sweet oak, balanced with some firm tannins.  Youthful. Some good fruit, but the oak was slightly out of balance.  It may benefit from some bottle age.

 

2018 Château de Jonquières, Lansade - 12.50€

A blend of 50% Carignan from 80-year-old vines, with 20% each of Syrah and Grenache and 10% Cinsaut.  Natural yeasts, a long maceration and ageing in vat.  Deep colour.  A rounded nose with some berry fruit.  Tasted alongside the Nègre Boeuf from Domaine de Ferrussac, it seemed quite light, but there was a note on the back label which said: Open two hours ahead.   It worked!  In a couple of hours, the wine opened up and became very elegant, harmonious and complete, with some rounded fruit.  An elegant balance with a long finish.

 

Château de Jonquières is the most wonderful Renaissance château in the eponymous village and has been in the hands of the de Cabissole family for 900 years.    Lansade is their second wine, and Baronnie the grand vin.