Monday, 28 September 2009


I make no apology for returning to the Terrasses de Larzac. It is quite simply one of the most exciting corners of the Languedoc, with a wonderful mixture of soils, and above all some of the coolest temperatures of the region, with daytime temperatures tempered by the cooling nights, so that the vines are much less stressed than in some part of the Languedoc. And there seems to have been a veritable explosion of new wine growers within the past few years.

First stop was LA PEIRA, an estate created by the Australian composer, Rob Dougan. He is best known for the music in The Matrix. As he spends more time in London than the Languedoc, his vineyards are managed for him by Jérémie Depierre, a young guy with an impressive CV of wine studies and viticulture experience, in Dijon, Colmar, Reims and Bordeaux. Rob bought his vines – 11.5 hectares, planted with the usual Midi assortment of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut, Carignan and Mourvèdre, and also Viognier and Roussanne – at the end of 2004, in time to prune for the 2005 vintage. Jérémie began working for him in June 2005. And a new cellar was built, outside St. Saturnin, in time for the 2008 vintage. It’s a well-organised functional shed, surrounded by well-tended vineyards.

So why did Rob choose the Languedoc? There are no set rules, which makes it so much more interesting. In Bordeaux everyone is doing the same; you are not allowed to deviate. And while vineyard and cellar techniques have improved enormously in the Languedoc, there is still much to learn about élevage, the ageing of wines. For a start there are virtually no coopers in the region.

First we tasted barrel samples from the 2008 vintage. Cinsaut with some Carignan displayed ripe raspberry fruit; a Syrah was restrained and peppery, a Mourvèdre structured and firm, all promising well for future drinking.

And then onto bottles:
2007 Les Obriers, 10.00€
Predominantly Cinsaut and Carignan. A lovely spicy nose, with hints of cinnamon and cloves. Acidity and supple tannins, and some opulent fruit, balanced by the characteristic freshness of the Terrasses du Larzac. The most accessible of the three wines.

2007 Las Flors de la Pèira - 24€
Based on Grenache, with some Syrah and a little Mourvèdre. This is quite dense and solid, with rounded youthful fruit. A satisfying combination of concentration and elegance, with a long finish.

2007 La Pèira - 64€
Syrah dominates, with some Grenache. This is dense and youthful, rich and intense with rich spicy, chocolate notes. It is still very young and needs at least five years, if not ten. Testosterone charged, observed the friend I was tasting with.
And they also make a little white wine, but in such tiny quantities that there was none left for us to taste. It is called Deusyls, or two islands, and comes from two vineyards, with two varieties, Viognier and Roussanne.

Their UK agents are Berry Bros & Rudd –

Next stop was CAPITELLE DES SALLES, in the village of St. Jean de la Blaquière, with Estelle Salles. She explained how she has taken over a couple of hectares of her in-laws’ vines – her husband Frédéric is the 6th generation in the village, and the family vines were with the village cooperative. But things are not good at the coop and she wants to do something with the vines. She is bright and lively and has got off to a good start, with her first vintage in 2007. She works in the tiny cellar under her mother-in-law’s solid stone house on the edge of the village. We sat and tasted in the rather sombre dining room.

First was 2008 Caminaire, Vin de Pays de Mont Baudile, named after the peak which dominates the village. 6.50€
It’s a blend of Cinsaut and Syrah. Medium depth of colour, with fresh raspberry fruit on nose and palate. Light and refreshing.

2007 Caractère, AC Languedoc. 8.00€
Again a blend of Grenache and syrah, aged in vat, with a good colour and spicy fresh fruit. Grenache Noir does well here as it resists any drought conditions well. It is more tannic and substantial than Caminaire.

2008 Hommage, Terrasses du Larzac -12.00€
Again Syrah and Grenache, with Grenache the dominant variety, and aged in vat. This tastes fresh and youthful with some red fruit, and needs some time in bottle to fill out. 2007 Hommage was more satisfying with some lovely spicy flavours and an elegant finish.

Finally there was Goè 2007, also a Terrasses de Larzac, but a blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache, aged in barrel. She has made just one barrel. There was some spicy fruit, but the oak is still quite obvious with some notes of vanilla, and needs to tone down. My usual prejudices about oaked wine came into play here.

Estelle enthused about the geological diversity of the area; in her vineyards, she has four capitelles, the lovely old stone shelters that look like stone igloos, but sadly there was no time to see them, as the next appointment called.

Estelle came with us to see Olivier Bellet at CLOS RIVERAL in the next village of Loiras. He is another young vigneron who has just taken some family vineyards out of the village coop, just 2.5 hectares, but planted with Chardonnay, Viognier, Grenache blanc, and for reds, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsaut. He doesn’t have Mourvèdre, as it doesn’t ripen properly here. His first vintage was 2008.

He makes a white wine as a vin de table. The 2008 is a blend of 40% Chardonnay, 40 % Viognier and 20% Grenache blanc, which are fermented in oak. There is some perfumed peachy fruit, with a streak of oak and some fresh acidity on the finish. The Grenache Blanc provides some welcome freshness and also some texture in the mouth. And he planning to ferment the 2009 in an egg-shaped cement vat; apparently this will keep the lees in constant suspension and thereby avoid the need for bâtonnage. The cement makes for less micro-oxygenation than in a barrel. And why vin de table? Too much bureaucratic hassle and paperwork, and not enough wine to bother to ask for vin de pays. 7.50€

Next came a 2008 Vin de Pays d’Oc, la Cuvée Infinie, from Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Cinsaut. 5.00€ The grapes are blended together from the beginning, and part of the Syrah is fermented by carbonic maceration. There are fresh spicy notes, with some red fruit, and what Olivier described as fruit balsamique, balanced with some supple tannins. A rounded mouthful of flavour.

2008 Les Fontanilles Terrasses du Larzac. 7.50€ Mainly Grenache, partly from some 40 year old vines, blended with some Syrah, made by carbonic maceration. This has some lovely spicy fruit on the nose, with some body and tannin, making a nicely crafted glass of wine.

2007 Les Souls blanc Vin de Pays d’Oc 22€ We tasted this from vat; it will not be bottled until next March. The blend is Chardonnay, with just 10% Roussanne. Dare I say it, as the author of two books on Chablis, that this had certain mineral notes that reminded me of Chablis, with some firm acidity, and the oak is beautifully integrated. And now onto red wines: 2007 Clara, Terrasses du Larzac – 10€ M. Almeras’ entry level red wine is usually called Mission, except in the years when a grandchild is born, so 2007 is called Clara. It is a blend of 40 % Grenache and 60% Syrah, that are aged in vat. The nose is quite confit and concentrated, with some spice and on the palate there is firm youthful fruit, with dry spice, some tannin and the characteristic acidity of the region. All the labels are distinguished by a woodcock feather, for hunting woodcock is his other passion.

2006 Les Souls, Terrasses du Larzac – 22€
This is a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. It is more concentrated on the nose, with more depth of fruit and weight on the palate, balanced with some supple tannins and a ripe finish. Half the blend has spent eighteen months in wood, and the oak is well-integrated. You sense that there is a meticulous attention to detail here, which shows in the wines.

And we finished with a late harvest Vendange Tardive Lumière d’Automne, vin de table – 25€ It is made from Viognier with just ten percent of Petit Manseng, a grape more commonly found in Jurançon in the Pyrenees, which are picked in early November. M. Almeras explained that the same Viognier vines can give you grapes with botrytis, grapes that are passerillé or raisined, and grapes that are neither. He aims for a balance of acidity, so that the wine is not too sweet. There are 71 gms/l of residual sugar, with an alcohol level of 14.9˚ and it has spent over two years in old barrels to round it out. I thought it was delicious, very honeyed with notes of beeswax and some very good acidity, so that the finish was almost dry, and very elegant.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Picking Grapes

I almost embarrassed to admit that I had managed to work with wine for thirty-five years before I ever picked grapes. It was a big gap in my wine education, and an omission that I finally remedied a couple of years ago, thanks to our friend, Virgile Joly, a young wine grower in the village of St. Saturnin. Virgile hosts a grape picking day towards the end of each harvest, as a kind of harvest festival. He invites his friends for a morning in the vineyards; we are expected to work, but our reward is lunch, French style. Last time we escaped lightly, two hours, if that, of grape picking for a four hour lunch. This year things were a bit more serious, with rather more vines to tackle.
We were summoned to meet outside his old cellar in the village square of St Saturnin. It is well-placed between the church and the mairie, and a chalk sign above the door, tells you that he has been a vigneron since 2000. Most wine growers in St. Saturnin are members of the village cooperative, which demanded a fifty year commitment from its members, when it was founded in 1950. Consequently independent growers in the village are few and far between. We were bidden for 8.45 a.m; the British contingent took that to mean 9 a.m. so that we were still waiting for most of the French at 9.30 a.m. and we eventually made it out into the vineyard closer to 10 a.m. Our target was a block of old Grenache Noir, planted in 1972. The vines have thick gnarled trunks; some were laden with grapes; some had barely a bunch, let alone two. The grapes for the most part looked very healthy, with no sign of disease, but you could see the effects of the hot summer, with quite a few dehydrated and shrivelled grapes. We were firmly told not to pick the grapillons, the secondary, smaller bunches of grapes. But then Virgile’s sister-in-law, Martha, began to berate us for missing bunches. She is Polish, but has just completed a winemaker’s course.

The morning passed, initially pleasantly, with gentle conversation as you went down the rows. Christopher Johnson-Gilbert, the latest newcomer to the wine scene of St. Saturnin, explained how he came to wine, after reading law at Oxford. He is still a lawyer, but wine is becoming a growing commitment, as he has bought 10 hectares of vines in the hills behind St. Saturnin, and is sharing a cellar with Virgile just outside the neighbouring village of Arboras. Virgile is thrilled by this arrangement as it means that they can share equipment and costs.

One of the hazards of grape picking is the possibility of snipping your own fingers or indeed the fingers of the person on the other side of the vine. Grapes bunches don’t just hang loose, so that you can see where to cut them. They have an irritating habit of intertwining their stalks. I managed to avoid damaging anybody’s fingers, but my husband self-inflicted two injuries, happily both fairly minor. However we learnt that a squeeze of sweet grape juice on the bleeding finger staunches the flow of blood; sugar is sticky and helps the blood to coagulate. How about that for an efficient old wives’ remedy?

There is also the natural temptation to sample a grape or two. These small Grenache grapes seemed beautifully ripe, with lovely sweet juice, but of course, rather tough skins. I was also surprised by the overwhelming aroma of fennel and aniseed - the vineyard was full of wild fennel plants, which gave off quite a heady scent if you crushed them underfoot.

French vineyard workers usually break for lunch at midday on the dot, but thanks to our collective tardiness, we were expected to carry on until we had finished the block. The midday sun was getting warmer; bottles of water were running out and the last row of vines seemed to stretch on for ever. And then secateurs were downed with a sigh of relief. And we adjourned to the new cellar in Arboras for refreshment. Never has a bottle of beer been so welcome. And I don’t usually drink beer.

Back at the new cellar, revelling in the space, compared with the cramped conditions of the St. Saturnin cellar, Virgile was master-minding operations. The grapes arrived in large boxes on a trailer; the contents were emptied into the destemmer and the berries were vibrated along the table de trie, or sorting table, for the removal of any inferior grapes or bits of leaf or stalk. It was a surprisingly challenging operation; the grapes are sticky and the vibrations of the table de trie made me feel surprisingly seasick after more than a few moments concentration.

Meanwhile lunch was being prepared; an array of salads, while large hunks of beef were sizzling on the barbecue. And there was an opportunity for a quick update on current vintages. Virgile’s colleague, Jean Denoy, who does the sales – we had last met in Chablis - was cheerfully pouring large tasting samples;
2007 Saturne blanc Vin de Pays de l’Hérault - 11.00€
Pure Grenache blanc, and not a trace of oak. Fleurs blanches (or white flowers) and delicately satisfying herbal notes on the palate, and fresh acidity. Very elegant, especially on the finish.
2004 Virgile blanc, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault 21€
This is rather more serious, quite a rich oxidative style, with honeyed notes on the palate, but none the less with a dry finish and good acidity.
2007 Le Joly Rouge, Coteaux du Languedoc. 5€
This is Virgile’s entry level, a fresh cheerful easy to drink wine, from Grenache Noir, Cinsaut and Syrah. It has a fresh spiciness, some leathery notes and soft tannins, and makes a great barbecue wine when slightly chilled. Generous quantities would be consumed later.
2006 Saturne rouge, St. Saturnin, Coteaux du Languedoc - 13€
From Grenache Noir, Syrah, Carignan and Cinsaut, with élevage in vat, not barrel. This needed to breathe a bit, as it was quite closed and peppery, with a firm freshness and good fruit.
2003 Virgile rouge, St. Saturnin, Coteaux du Languedoc 29€
A barrel-aged blend of Grenache, Syrah and Carignan. Good deep colour. Quite a warm raisiny nose, from the effects of the heatwave vintage. The palate is firm and cedary, with some rich sturdy fruit and firm tannins. Youthful, but already drinking well.

The 2009 Vintage

If you have been driving around the roads of the Languedoc in the last few days, you are more than likely to have found yourself sitting behind a large mechanical harvester, or a trailer full of grapes heading for a nearby cellar. The harvest is in full swing, which begs the question: how is it looking? In a nutshell: Good, but not uniformly so. We had a wet spring – remember the deluge of Easter – so that there are good water reserves, but some vineyards have suffered more than others from the dry, hot summer. Vines like warm sunshine, but they need a bit of rain too, or else they begin to suffer from stresse hydrique or drought and the ripening process slows down. This year there were none of the usual storms around the middle of July and the middle of August and the whole of August has been hot, with mutterings about a canicule, similar to that of 2003.
The harvest has started earlier than usual. One friend, Jacques Boyer from Domaine la Croix Belle, in the Côtes de Thongue, picked his Sauvignon on 11th August and now in early September most wine growers have started their harvest. Most people I have spoken to are relatively happy about quality; some even very happy, but winegrowers tend to be cautious in their judgements, and will not commit themselves until the harvest is finished. But most are lamenting the lack of quantity, for the grapes are small and tending to lack juice, and in some cases even shrivelled and sunburnt, so that yields are down, and by as much as one third in some cases. Chardonnay for some reason seems particularly affected. Also although sugar levels are good, some people are expressing doubts about phenolic or flavour ripeness. But on the whole, if the sunshine continues, there is every reason for optimism and we can look forward to some delicious bottles of Languedoc wine from 2009.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

CUVEE No.1 L'ORAGE from Le Couvent

I am always in deep admiration of people who come to winemaking later in life, and particularly those without any training or winemaking experience, apart from a lifetime of enjoying wine. Take our friends, Lizzie and Ali, in our village in the Languedoc. Not content with running one of the best B & B’s in the area, which would provide a wonderful haven for anyone wanting to spend time exploring the local vineyards – NB une bonne adresse Le Couvent at Roujan – they bought an old mazet (or stone shepherd’s hut) up in the hills behind the village at the beginning of last year. It came with a couple of hectares of old vines, Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsaut, as well as some Muscat. The vines had been somewhat neglected for the previous few years so with the help and advice of local wine-making friends, they set about bringing the vines back to order. Everything was looking good at the beginning of September – the harvest was a week away – when disaster struck. One of worst hailstorms that the region has experienced in recent years blew through on the evening of 4th September. The result was complete devastation. I have never seen such distressed vines. The vineyard looked as though a herd of goats had rampaged, chewing up leaves and shoots, leaving shredded leaves and battered grapes. The hail stones had been the size of golf balls. So the only thing to do was to harvest the remaining grapes before rot set in.

They pressed the grapes in a small basket press. Fermentation went smoothly. I tasted the young wine in January, when it had lovely fruit, but was still quite raw as the malo-lactic fermentation had yet to happen. And I begged them not to put it in an oak barrel – advice I am delighted to say that they followed. Then followed a few nail-biting months, with wine obstinately refusing to complete its malo. Their oenologist finally gave the all-clear for bottling in early August. Just 364 bottles. The wine is a simple vin de table; for the quantity is small enough for them to ignore bureaucracy and any labelle tastings. And the name, L’Orage, was a natural choice, for this is a wine born out of a dramatic storm.

And on Sunday evening Lizzie and Ali came to dinner bearing a couple of bottles. What can I say? It was simply delicious. The nose is restrained, so that the fruit which explodes out of the glass completely takes you by surprise. Like all good wines from the Languedoc, it conveys sunshine along with the scent of the herbs of the garrigues-covered hillsides. There are lovely spicy flavours, with supple tannins. And it is dangerously easy to drink. What a pity that there are only 364 bottles. Let’s hope for more this year.