Wednesday, 29 September 2010


I first met Françoise Ollier when I was researching my book on the Wines of the south of France and she was secretary of the syndicat of the Faugères wine growers. She planned an itinerary for me and arranged visits, and also introduced me to the delights of honey ice cream in a restaurant outside Soubès, that sadly no longer exists. And now that we have a house close to the pretty village of Fos, we have become good friends and also good customers. Friends from England expressing interest in visiting a wine grower are usually taken to see Françoise, as you can be sure of a warm welcome.

This summer, as well as a simple visit to the tasting caveau, we’ve also managed to coincide with a journée cave ouverte and participate in a balade vigneronne. The open cellar day provided an opportunity to admire their new cellar; it is still a building site, but the last stone has just been laid. It is being built in porous pierre du Gard; the blocks apparently weigh a ton, but they are great for providing natural insulation and the cellar will be surrounded by earth on three sides, with un toit vegetale or green roof. This way they will save on electricity for insulation and air conditioning. And when you see where they currently make their wine, you can appreciate the need to move from the cramped conditions. The cellar is not ready in time for this year’s vintage, but should be operational by the end of the year.

Further entertainment at the cave ouverte was provided by a cheerful gentleman on stilts, Jacques, and his copine, Marianne, who joined in the jollities as we tasted and chatted. And to show just how well Faugères can develop with bottle age, we were treated not only to current releases, but also to some older vintages.

2001 Grande Réserve - a delicately leathery nose, with an attractive note of maturity on the palate. Perfumed leathery fruit. Very elegant and subtle, with a dry finish.

2000 Grande Réserve – Drier and more leatherier on the nose, but riper and more rounded on the palate. Again some elegant fruit, with a supple delicate finish.

1999 Castel Fossibus. This is their oak aged wine; medium in colour with mature leathery notes on the nose. The oak was beautifully integrated and gave just a touch of sweetness and richness on the palate. You would not have thought that this wine was over ten years old.

And the balade vigneronne earlier this month provided the opportunity to visit their vineyards outside Fos. The family have 35 hectares, which is still a manageable size for a family business I chatted to Francoise’s father, Alain, as we walked. The family vineyards came from his wife’s family – she was a Mlle Taillefer – hence the double barrelled name. He has been making wine since he was 20and is just clocking up his 47th harvest. His son Luc joined him in 1990 and is now in charge of the wine-making, while Françoise came back to work with her family in 2003. But M. Ollier said that even as a teenager, she loved coming with him to help with tastings.

They have a small vineyard just outside the village, with a collection of various vine varieties, including the traditional ones that you might expect to find in the Midi, such as Syrah and Cinsaut, and also Alicante Bouschet, and white varieties such as Vermentino and Roussanne, and something called Jacquet, a red variety that is there solely for historical interest.

We talked about the problems with the wild boar. M. Ollier explained that they put grain down for them, but in the woods far from their vineyards and that seems to keep them away. He didn’t rate electric fences; the little boar can get underneath and it is only the snouts of the adults that are sensitive to the electricity, with the result that if they lose a baby in the vineyard, they simply charge the fence. We walked further out of the village to where the pickers were hard at work and then on past a restored capitelle.

M. Ollier is pleased with the harvest this year. The quantity is lower than average as the summer has been very dry, but the grapes are wonderfully healthy, with no disease. Back at the cellar we tasted some grape juice, some Roussanne, which was lovely and sweet, and some Syrah that will be destined for rosé.

And then we tried the current vintages, with some local charcuterie as an accompaniment.

2009 Les Collines rosé – 5.95€
A blend of Cinsaut and Grenache, as well as some young Syrah and Mourvèdre. Both saigné and pressed. Fresh raspberry fruit on both nose and palate, with a rounded finish. The schist soil of Faugères is high in acidity which apparently makes for wines that are lower in acidity. I am not sure I really understand that – it’s something to do with pH levels ……

2008 les Collines rouge. – 5.95€ This has a lot of Grenache, with some Carignan and Syrah and some young Mourvèdre. This has suffered from the hail on the eve of the vintage, which as Françoise explained, concentrates everything, acidity as well as fruit. There is an edge of concentration of fruit and acidity, so that the wine is not as harmonious as other vintages. I really loved the 2007, which is more supple and spicy.

2008 Grande Réserve - 8.30€ This comes from a selection of the oldest vines. The colour is medium and the nose quite perfumed, with some structure and tannin and perfumed fruit, but more concentration and depth than Collines. It would age in bottle.

2007 Grande Reserve 8.30€
August was much cooler in 2007 than in 2008. The wine is rounded and supple, with the lovely spice and herbs of the garrigues, with a tannic streak and a certain concentration of flavour. It promises well.

2008 Castel Fossibus – 12.50€.
This is aged in oak and there is some perfumed vanilla oak on the nose, with some firm tannins as well as fruit on the palate. Youthful and fresh, and a wine to keep.

2007 Castel Fossibus – 12.50€
This is much more perfumed on the nose. The oak is beautifully integrated, with some lovely spice on the palate. Again still very youthful.

2009 Allegro, Faugères blanc – 9.00€ From Vermentino and Roussanne. I love this wine, and it develops beautifully with some bottle age. The Vermentino provides some natural freshness and herbal notes, while the Roussanne fills out the palate, with a touch of white blossom. Our local goats’ cheese from Mas Rolland in the village of Montesquieu is the perfect foil.

2007 Baies de Novembre – 12.00 for 50cls. From Grenache Noir picked in November. They leave one bunch per vine, and if the birds, the weather, and the tourists are restrained, the grapes are picked when they are fully raisined. The juice is fermented in oak, very slowly until the summer and the wine stays in oak for a couple of years, to develop the oxidative notes of the Grenache. There were notes of honey and orange, with balancing acidity; it was sweet but with a fresh finish. We drank it with some sugary biscuits called oreillettes – our grandmothers used to make these, said Françoise. Or you could try it with foie gras, she suggested.

And our tasting finished with Fine de Faugères – 31.00€. Faugères did once, back in the 19th century, have reputation for eau de vie, a tradition which they are striving to revive. A mobile still comes round the villages; it is a charentais still, which makes for some finesse. The distillate, from the fine lees – this is not marc from skins and stalks - is 60° – 70° proof, so they tone it down to 40° with local water from the Montagne Noir, and then it spends five years in barrel. To my nose it seemed quite subtle and elegant, and it struck me as an original alternative to an Armagnac. As always a great visit,

Monday, 27 September 2010


My sister-in-law and her best friend came to stay. Both are what the French would so elegantly describe as une bonne fourchette and they wanted to take us out somewhere nice for dinner. Le Mimosa in St. Guiraud was our choice. I first went to Le Mimosa with Aimé Guibert of Mas de Daumas Gassac back in the late 1980s, when David and Brigitte Pugh were just beginning to create their a reputation for elegant cooking and a fine wine list. These days the selection of wines, especially from the Midi, is stunning. David has two wine lists – entitled Vins d’Ici and Vins d’Ailleurs. This is the place to go for older vintages of some of the great names of the south, Mas de Daumas Gassac, la Grange des Peres, Tempier, Trévallon, Olivier Jullien and so on, and David also keeps abreast of newer names too.

If you choose the menu capricieux, the menu of the day, you can also ask David to choose you a glass of wine to accompany each course. We decided to put ourselves in his hands, and we were richly rewarded. In fact it was quite one of the best meals that I have enjoyed for a long time, with such a delicious choice of wines, that I felt I had to share it with you.

Our aperitif, to accompany an amuse bouche of hummus, with some red pepper and courgette, was 2009 Mas Conscience l’In, a beautifully mouth filling Grenache blanc, light golden in colour, rich and textured with notes of white blossom, with some good acidity on the finish.

The first course was home smoked salmon, with a leek terrine. This came with a glass of a Limoux from a producer that was new to me. At least I had heard the name, but never drunk the wine, Domaine Mouscaillou and the vintage was 2007. An elegantly oaky Chardonnay, with some firm minerality and good acidity.

Next came an elegant helping of a risotto with three different wild mushrooms, trompettes de mort, champettes roses and girolles. We opted for a red wine with the mushrooms and enjoyed the 2008 Pinot Noir, Pomarèdes from Domaine de Clovallon. This is one of my favourite Pinot Noir, from anywhere, not just the Midi. It was deliciously fresh, with raspberry fruit and some tannin and acidity.

Our fish course was a small helping of St. Pierre, with a coquille St. Jacques. David had three vintages of Olivier Jullien’s Blanc, on the go – in magnum – the 2007, 2006 and 2005. We got to try all three. The 2007 was fresh and lemony with good acidity and some firm minerality; the 2006 was beginning to fill out with some rounded nutty fruit, while the 2005 was broader and fuller, richer with a slightly honeyed note, showing just how well the white wines of the Languedoc can evolve.

Some pigeon came next, with some lentils cooked with smoked pork and some finely chopped chestnuts which added an intriguing texture. And to go with this was OlivIer Jullien’s 1996 Cailloutis, also en magnum. It was wonderfully stony and mineral, with some leathery notes, medium weight, with elegant concentration and a remarkably youthful finish.

The cheese trolley at Le Mimosa is to die for – with all manner of goats’ cheeses of different provenances and age; various cheeses from ewe’s milk and then some of the great names of the French cheese board, St. Nectaire, Epoisses, Livarot and so on. We all chose quite different cheeses, with the result that we were able to enjoy tastes of three quite different wines.

2008 Clapas blanc, from Domaine du Pas de l’Escalette (see my posting last week) This was fresh, with good acidity and a touch of oak, and still very young and went very well with my powerful Epoisses.

2006 Domaine de Montcalmès. As it happened, we had drunk the 2004 earlier in the week and I much preferred the 2006, which had more substance, with some attractive spicy fruit and a touch of oak.

And then some 2006 Clapas rouge appeared, with some dry mineral fruit, and spicy notes and a fresh finish.

Pudding presented another dilemma – again we all had quite different things, so we were presented with three different dessert wines. Olivier Jullien was responsible for two of them:

2008 Méjanne, the sweet version of this cuvée, which was beautifully honeyed, with fresh acidity on the finish

1996 Clairette Beudelle, which was amber in colour, lightly nutty on the nose, and wonderfully intense with some honeyed, nutty flavours.

And with my sliver of chocolate cake, I enjoyed 2005 Maury from the Préceptorie de Centenach, Think young light vintage port, rather than the rancio, oxidative style of Maury. It was a youthful red, with some sweet fruit and balancing tannin, which gave a satisfying contrast to the chocolate. A delicious finale to a wonderful meal. And since you ask, I woke up this morning clear-headed and alert, and ready to enjoy a walk in the bright autumnal sunshine.

Sunday, 26 September 2010


Laurent Miquel has a new project. He is better known for award winning Viognier and Syrah from his family estate of Château Cazal Viel in the appellation of St. Chinian, but early last year he was looking for office space, which for some reason took him to Domaine des Auzines in the hills above Lagrasse in the Corbières. It was a coup de coeur at first sight – and I can quite see why. It is a fabulous spot. You take a winding road that climbs out of the pretty village of Lagrasse, with its Roman bridge, up to a plateau, where there is a cellar and a house, vineyards, garrigues and more land waiting to be planted.

Laurent and his Irish wife Neasa are really excited. It is such a contrast to St. Chinian. The atmosphere is very different, much cooler, and with greater extremes of day and night time temperatures. At the height of summer you could get 39°C by day and 15°C at night – and it is windy. Altogether there are about 200 hectares, with lots of garrigues, and just 14 hectares of vines in production. Laurent explained that he had only kept the Syrah, and some Grenache, and had pulled up a lot of vineyards. They were not in very good condition; indeed the property has suffered from a series of owners, four in the space of ten years.

And Laurent has a serious plan in mind – to plant Albariňo, which is best known as the white grape variety of Galicia in the north west corner of Spain. So far there is none in the Languedoc, so it is an exciting challenge. You have to get permission to plant obscure grape varieties. Albariňo is a variety that nobody in France knows, so they have no preconceived ideas, and he got the necessary authorisation in just three weeks, which sounds like a miracle for French bureaucracy. It’s a question of who you know. Laurent’s father was one of the first to plant Syrah and Viognier in the Languedoc, and the people he dealt with locally back in the 1970s, for that pioneering step, are now working in high places in Paris.

We went for a walk round the property and Laurent talked of his plans. It had taken two months to get rid of old vines roots, as the soil is so hard and stony. They did make some red wine in 2009, with a yield of just 15 hl/ha. The wild boars were a big problem. Now he has electric fences, so they eat the neighbours’ grapes instead. He talked about the need for water, and how they employed a walker diviner, who was much more accurate than the water geologist. They also have a project for drip irrigation under ground, which reduces the water consumption. He is full of enthusiasm. The first Albariňo vines will be planted next spring, probably about ten or fifteen hectares as a start and the vines will probably come from Portugal. Whereas the previous owners made only red, Laurent is looking at other white varieties, maybe Sauvignon blanc, or Sauvignon gris, or Grenache gris, and also Viognier and Chardonnay. He is convinced that the cool nights will be good for white wine. And when might we taste the first Albariňo of the Languedoc? Maybe 2014 – 2015, if all goes well.

Meanwhile we got to try some Laurent’s current wines, some new releases for the UK market, and mostly from his vineyards in St. Chinian. Thanks to Neasa’s marketing expertise, their wines sell well on the UK market.

2009 Laurent Miquel Viognier Vendanges Nocturnes, Vin de Pays d’Oc - picked at 2 a.m. when the ambient temperature is 15 -16°C rather than 26°C. - £7.99 at Waitrose Rich, peachy broad nose. A fresh, full palate, with lovely, peachy aromas, and just a touch of oak, ‘especially for the very difficult UK market’.

2009 Laurent Miquel Viognier Nord Sud - Majestic - £8.99
From a selection of vineyards that are planted north south, with about 30 % fermented in oak. The nose is quite solidly oak, but with a fresh palate. Quite structured with good acidity, and fuller than the Vendanges Nocturnes.

2008 Laurent Miquel Viognier Vérité - £14.99 at Waitrose
The best Viognier possible. All fermented in oak, with some demi-muids as well as barriques, and with a selection of juice as well as plots. Rounded, textured, peachy, integrated oak and more depth of flavour.

And then we tried some Syrah:

2007 Laurent Miquel Nord Sud Syrah, Pays d’Oc - £8.99
Solidly perfumed, spicy fruit, quite rounded and mouthfilling. Some barrel ageing, including American oak. I wasn’t sure about the American oak – it made the wine too ‘Australian’ for my taste buds.

2007 St. Chinian l’Artisan - Majestic - £9.99
A blend of Syrah and Grenache, from Château Cazal Viel, which is just outside the village of Cessenon. Deep colour, perfumed nose with some spicy fruit and tannin on palate. Peppery notes, youthful and medium weight.

2008 Château Cazal Viel, Cuvée des Fées – from Syrah, with just a touch of Viognier, just 5 - 8 %, which means that it can’t be St. Chinian. Medium colour, fresh and elegantly perfumed nose; quite fresh and peppery on the palate, with perfumed fruit. I really enjoyed this. £11.99

2006 Faugères, Saga Pegot, which is the name of the vineyard plot. It means a large grasshopper In occitan. Pure Syrah, grown in schist. Firm, dense oak on the nose; youthful ripe and rounded. with a touch of minerality on the palate, after eighteen months élevage in oak. Long and serious. £13.99

2007 St. Chinian Bardou - Syrah grown on clay and limestone. Quite solidly dense and oak, on both nose and palate, with some intriguing perfumed. A fascinating comparison of the effect of different soils on the same winemaking techniques. The Faugères is softer and more supple.

We finished with a few barrel samples, including the 2009 Corbières from the property, a blend of 80 per cent Syrah and 20 per cent Grenache Noir, with a deep colour, fresh youthful tannins and perfumed fruit, and plenty of promise.

Saturday, 25 September 2010


I caught up with Katie Jones (see an earlier blog) in her vineyard in Maury, in the heart of the Pyrenées-Orientales. It is wonderful - vineyard scenery at its most dramatic and wild. Katie explained how she was looking for a small mazet, a little stone hut, and what she actually bought was four hectares of vines, and no mazet. She was brought to see the vineyards and it was a coup de foudre at first sight.

She has kept 2.7 hectares, some Grenache both Gris and Noir, some Muscat, wired off to protect the grapes from the ravages of the wild boar, who are particularly partial to sweet juicy Muscat, and some old Carignan, just 500 vines. Her vines are between 70 and 20 years old. And the soil is the dark schist of Maury. There is a view of Tautavel in the distance. I could quite see why she succumbed – and you can always build a mazet.

Then we went back to Tuchan where she has her small cellar, which she refers to as the Vatican, for the simple reason that it is in the rue du Vatican. It is an old barn and a year ago it had no electricity, vats or press, and the floor was dried earth. The floor has been concreted and stainless steel vats and a few, well two, barrels have been installed, one new and one that has just been used once. We tasted her red 2009, bottled at the end of July. It has a good colour, with some spicy cherries on the nose. There is a stony minerality, some raspberry fruit, and also underlying warmth, with a fresh youthful structure.

The 2009 Carignan is still in barrel; the nose was quite rounded and chocolaty, with a fresh palate, with a touch of oak, with some acidity and tannin and some spicy fruit. Katie reckons she will bottle it at the beginning of next year as Jones Reserve.

She has also bought a small plot in Tuchan, some Carignan and Grenache Noir which are planted together, and just 60 ares of Syrah. She has registered to make Fitou, but with a potential production of about 1500-2000 bottles, this will make her the smallest producer of the appellation. There is no doubt that her enthusiasm is infectious.

Friday, 24 September 2010


There were some pretty depressing headlines for wine growers in the Midi Libre last month – La désespérante dégringolade du revenu des viticulteurs – for which a loose translation might be the desperate collapse of the revenue of the wine growers. The article gave the figure of 41,675 for the number of hectares pulled up in the region since 2004, while the overall revenue for farmers had dropped by 47% and for wine growers, more specifically by 66.5%. It makes pretty gloomy reading.

And yet individual optimism prevails. There is no end to the number of new estates being developed in the region, and to the number of people who are prepared to invest time, money, energy and enormous commitment to producing wine, and they are often people of relatively modest means, without the financial backing of money made in other fields. They need the day job, or one of the couple has another job away from wine. But they are passionate about what they doing, determined to fulfil their dream and are not deterred by the adverse odds, and indeed the current economic climate.

Take two small examples. My village is not known for its wine quality – indeed the local cooperative plummeted to a new depth of ‘quality’, with bottles that we deemed not fit for the vinegar mother. And there are hardly any independent wine growers in the village. So the example of Eric Morot is an inspiring one. He came south from Paris some fifteen years ago and bought some vines, just six hectares, and then last year he decided to take the plunge and withdraw his vines from the coop and turn vigneron, from viticulteur. In 2009 he made just 5000 bottles in his cellar, an old barn, hence the name of his wine Vin de la Grange, Cuvée l’Ambrin, after his two daughters, Ambre and Marin. He hasn’t bothered with the hassle of bureaucracy so it’s a simple vin de table, and a great start, with some cheerful peppery fruit, and just 6.00€ a bottle.

Rather more ambitious are Patrick and Nathalie Goma at Domaine des Couleurs en Terres, just outside Pézenas, down the road from the Prieuré de St. Jean de Bébian. Patrick explained that he is self-taught. His parents were farmers in the Gers, where they had cows and grew maize and also some grapes. He has a farming qualification, but specialised in élevage, rearing cattle. When he arrived in the Languedoc in 1985, he went to work with Bertrand Jany at Domaine Condamine Bertrand. Nathalie is a qualified winemaker, and studied in Paris and then Montpellier, and also worked chez M. Jany, which is how she and Patrick met.

Patrick now works at Domaine Verena Wyss and Nathalie has a job at the Chambre d’Agriculture, and in the evenings and on weekends they work hard running their own small estate. They bought three hectares of abandoned vines in 1996, and replanted the old Carignan, Terret Bourret and Aramon, for Grenache, Syrah and Roussanne as well as some Muscat, and they also have a little Vermentino and some old Cinsaut. And their cellar and adjoining house, they have built themselves. They sell some of their grapes, which helps the cash flow, and aim to produce about 2000 to 3000 bottles a year, but only started selling in bottle with the 2007 vintage. Their labels depict paintings by Nathalie’s mother, conveying the wonderful colours of the Languedoc, and the inspiration of the name of their estate.

2009 Roussanne Vin de Pays d’Oc– 7.50€
Light golden. Delicate, fresh nose. Elegant white blossom on the palate, with a satisfying mouthful and a harmonious finish. The wine making is finely tuned, with some bâtonnage, and they take care to avoid any oxidation. Fermentation is in small vats at 16-18°C.

2009 Muscat à petits grains, Vin de Pays d’Oc – 8.50€
Golden in colour. Quite spicy, with the fresh grapiness that good Muscat should have, with a fresh pithy orange note on the finish. Nathalie suggested goats’ cheese or asparagus as an accompaniment.

2009 Rosé, Vin de Pays d’Oc – 5.00€
Cinsaut, with some of the related variety Œillade. A pale orange pink, with a delicate nose, and rounded raspberry fruit on the palate. Elegant and harmonious.
And then we tried what they call the Inspiration of the Year, made from later picked Cinsaut and vinified with some of the larger lees, and aged in barrel. It was rounded and mouthfilling, with a touch of oak, and quite solid dry palate. And quite intriguing.

2008 Languedoc Rouge, - 9.00€ A blend of 30% Grenache and 70% Syrah, fermented in vat and then aged in 300 litres wood for 10 months. It has good colour, with some spicy notes on the palate, and a rounded finish with a touch of wood.

Nathalie and Patrick work hard, selling their wine locally, in a modest way. No high-powered marketing plans for them. You will see them at the local fêtes, the Fête de l’Oignon doux at Lézignan la Cèbe, the Saturday morning marché vigneronne inthe rue Anatole France, in Pézenas, or at the weekly Estivales, on a Friday evening in Pézenas, when the cours Jean-Jaurès is closed to traffic to create one large street party with the local wine growers offering tastings and selling their wine. It is hard work and they deserve to succeed.

Thursday, 23 September 2010


I love following the progress of new young wine growers. I first tasted Amélie d’Hurlaborde’s wine at the bi-annual fête in Montpeyroux last year. Mas d’Amile was a new name for me, and my curiosity was immediately aroused, as the wine was delicious, so a few weeks later went for a cellar visit, and then went back again last week for an update.

Amélie, and her brother Sébastien, have taken over just one hectare of old Carignan from their grandfather. Her husband, Jérôme, who works for Jeanjean, also lends a helping hand. She explained that Mas d’Amile is the second newest and second smallest wine estate of Montpeyroux, with just over a hectare of old Carignan vines. The growth of Montpeyroux has been extraordinary. When I first visited the Languedoc in the mid-1980s, Montpeyroux was dominated by its cooperative – there were virtually no independent wine growers - but since then there has been amazing growth in the number of small wine growers – with people such as Sylvain Fadat and Alain Chabanon as pioneers, followed by Claude Serra, Jo Lynch at Villa Dondona and several others, so that there are now about 20 estates. Amélie admitted that it is quite difficult to acquire vineyards in Montpeyroux – it can depend on who you know. Montpeyroux is a very closed community, but also a prosperous village, unlike many of the Languedoc. She called it an island of prosperity.

Her cellar was her grandfather’s garage, by his house on the edge of the village. It is very compact, with just enough vats and barrels for about 30 hectolitres of wine. Amélie is very enthusiastic about Carignan, feeling that it is not properly appreciated. And as a pure Carignan, her wine is a Vin de Pays du Mont Baudile, rather than an appellation. We began our tasting with her oldest, and first, wine, the 2007. The nose is perfumed and fresh, with raspberry fruit on the palate, and a lovely balanced of fruit, acidity and tannin. They only took over their vineyard in March that year and consequently were only able to prune relatively late. However, this they have continued to do, which means that their harvest is always late too, with the advantage of getting really ripe fruit, with a slower ripening. 30 % of the wine was aged in barriques, and 70% in vat for the 2007, whereas for the 2008, the proportion is half and half, with some American as well as French oak.

Why American oak? I asked. They had acquired a barrel from Ogier (part of the Jeanjean group) and as Carignan can be relatively reductive, American oak is considered to be suitable for it, with the American oak drying the fruit less than with the French oak. The 2008 has a good colour; the nose is more perfumed and richer than the 2007, and the palate more rounded, with an attractive tannin structure. For this vintage they had cooling equipment, and also did a serious vendange vert.

And then we had a barrel sample of 2009, which will be bottled at the end of October. I found this beautifully aromatic, with fresh raspberry perfume. And the wine in the American barrel seemed more rounded on the nose, with more structure, and not obviously American. Now they are wondering about a tronconique vat for the fermentation.

They have projects; they would particularly like to try Grenache and work out its typicity. 'The Languedoc is blessed', Amélie observed, 'and the vines do not suffer'. There is a wonderful variety of soil around Montpeyroux. And the potential is enormous. I didn’t meet Sébastien as he also works for Alain Chabanon and was busy picking Grenache that morning, but there is not doubt that he and Amélie, with Jérôme’s support, deserve to go far.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010


Julian Zernott and Delphine Rousseau have been steadily developing their estate in one of the most northern and coolest parts of the Languedoc, below the pass of Escalette, since their first vintage in 2003. The Pic St. Loup is a little further north, and further east. If you drive south down at A75, you reach a point above Lodève, when the peaks tower above the road, and in the valley below there are small pockets of vineyards, around the villages of Pégairolles and Poujols. It is dramatic scenery. I have visited them a couple of times in the last few years, when they were making do with restricted cellar space in the village; now they have built a wonderfully stream-lined new building outside the village, and are enjoying the luxury of space. Unfortunately for us, our visit coincided with a torrential downpour, and their cellar is built on the one plot of clay in the area, and they have not yet landscaped or paved its surroundings. I was rudely reminded how sticky clay can be, when my shoes seemed to adhere firmly to stick to the car pedals on the drive home.

Delphine and Julien have been gradually buying vines, with an initial purchase of eight hectares now expanded to fifteen, in the valley of Pegairolles and going towards the plateau of the Larzac. They have about 30 plots altogether, the largest is 80 ares and the furthest 10 kilometres away, that is, by road, as the motorway lengthens a journey that would be 5 kilometres as the crow flies. The vineyards are at latitude of 350 – 400 metres with the orientation of the vines north / south, as the valley slopes face east and west. Delphine observed that in winter, the village of Pégairolles is in the shadow from 3 p.m. Their vineyards are well-drained, with soil that consists of éboulies calcaires, so predominantly clay and limestone. They are amongst the pioneers in this area; there is a small rather sleepy coop in Pégairolles, Olivier Jeantet, and his partner, Geraldine, have vines near by, with a cellar in la Vacquerie, and Domaine de Fabregous is outside Soubès on the other side of the motorway.

Grenache and Carignan are the principal varieties, along with some Syrah and Cinsaut, as well as Carignan blanc, Terret bourret and Grenache blanc for their white wine. The average vine age is 45 years old, with some as old as 80 years. They have planted some more Syrah, as well as some Marsanne and Roussanne. Delphine enthused about the growing conditions here; it is one of the coolest parts of the Languedoc, with a long slow ripening season making for beautifully balanced wines with good acidity.

Our tasting began with 2009 Rosé, Ze Rozé, Coteaux du Languedoc – 8.25€. A blend of 40% Cinsaut, 30% Grenache, 20% Carignan, 10% Syrah, that are all pressed. The wine is a pretty pale colour, delicate and rounded with elegant fruit, and balance. Delphine is adamant that they want to make wines that are elegant and what she called digeste, with an emphasis on finesse.

2009 Les Clapas blanc, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault – 17.50€
A blend of 40% each of Terret and Carignan, with 20% Grenache. They have just 1.5 hectares of white vines, with an average age of 60 – 80 years. The wine is given a traditional élevage on its lees, in either barrel or cuve tronconique or wooden vat. They have a good source of second hand Burgundy barrels. They usually block the malo, but didn’t in 2009. The wine is rich and buttery, on both nose and palate, with some elegant nutty fruit, with fresh acidity on the finish, and plenty of ageing potential.

2009 Petit Pas, Coteaux du Languedoc - 8.50€
This is their entry level red, coming mainly from Grenache and Carignan and the wine spends eight months in an oak vat. The fruit is juicy and fresh, with some peppery notes and a touch of minerality, medium in weight, and quite elegant on the finish.

Next we tried some of the wines for Les Clapas 2009, which were still in barrel, including the oldest Grenache, Carignan and Cinsaut. It will be bottled next March. There were some appealing spicy flavours, cherries and other red fruit, and a touch of warmth, with an overriding elegance, some minerality and some firm tannins. It all promised well. Usually about 40 % is aged in fut. and 60% in vat, with the final blend taking place in the spring, with a total of eighteen months ageing. Les Clapas is the term for the the piles of stones with which the countryside is littered, often supporting the dry stone walls.

2008 Les Clapas, Terrasses du Larzac – 12.40€
Medium colour. Quite firm, mineral fruit on nose. Some fresh tannin and acidity, balancing some elegant raspberry fruit on the palate. Medium weight; stony minerality, with freshness. It was really striking how different this is, with none of the usual warmth of the Midi. A lovely long finish.. Great potential for bottle ageing.

2008 Le Grand Pas, Terrasses du Larzac – 24.00€
This is the best of the vintage, so the precise blend varies from year to year. In 2008 there is a very high percentage of Grenache Noir. Medium depth of colour. Rounded nose with some cherry fruit, balanced with freshness and acidity, as well as some tannin. All beautifully integrated, with a lovely long finish. In contrast 2009 is likely to include more Syrah and Carignan.

I admire Delphine and Julien’s courage; neither of them comes from the Languedoc and when they started buying their vines here, Julien was working for Henri Pellé in Ménétou Salon – a five hour drive north - and Delphine was expecting their first child. This is certainly an estate which will go far, amply illustrating the exciting potential of one of the cooler areas of the Languedoc.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010


Our tasting group came to stay. We are a group of six, three and a half Masters of Wine – you trying taking a tasting exam with hay fever – a wine merchant, and my husband who proudly proclaims himself a customer. We meet up in London once a month or so to taste half a dozen wines blind – it usually proves an educative, as well as humbling experience – and then we finish the bottles over a convivial dinner. The others don’t know the Languedoc very well, so we suggested some blind tasting chez nous over a long weekend.

Easy Jet to Montpellier was late, so we revived their spirits with a glass of Verena Wyss’s Vin de Fête, a soft peachy sparkling Viognier. And then it was down to some blind tasting – six reds for the first evening.

2007 Campredon, Montpeyroux from Alain Chabanon. A blend of Syrah, with some Mourvèdre, Grenache and Carrigan. It was ripe and spicy, perfumed and supple with soft tannins.

2006 Domaine Daniel le Conte de Floris, Cuvée Villefranchien, which is mainly Grenache Noir. This was solid and meaty, dense and ripe with some furry tannins. A concentrated mouthful.

2008 Mas d’Amile, Vin de Pays de Mont Baudile – a pure Carignan from Montpeyroux, from a hectare of very old vines. Some lovely peppery fruit on the nose, and fresh peppery spice on the palate, with a streak of tannin. Elegant, and one of our favourites, from an estate that is the second newest and second smallest in Montpeyroux. (More to come on a future posting).

2003 Faugères, la Maison Jaune from Jean-Michel Alquier
Deep colour; a solid dense nose, with hints of chocolate. The palate is dense and concentrated, warm with some furry tannins. This was the year of the heat wave and I think it shows in the wine.

2001 Château Valflaunès, Un peu de toi – predominantly Syrah with some Carignan.
A fresh, peppery nose and perfumed palate, with red fruit and soft tannins. Very cassis, and almost sweet on the finish.

2005 Domaine de Cabrol, Vin de l’Est, Cabardès
Quite a deep colour, with fresh peppery notes on the palate. Quite elegant and finely crafted. Cabardès is where east meets west, so the appellation includes both Bordeaux and Mediterranean grape varieties. Vin de l’Est is predominantly Syrah, whereas the estate’s other cuvée, Vin de l’Ouest is more bordelais in style.

Then we opened a bottle of Domaine Ollier Taillefer’s Faugeres blanc, Allegro 2007, which is a blend of Vermentino and Roussanne. It had developed with a little bottle age and has filled out nicely on the palate, with some lovely textured fruit. And for a sweet taste on which to finish dinner we had Domaine de Bourdic’s Muscat, 2009 Côtes de Thongue, which was lightly sweet and grapey, with some pithy orange notes and a fresh finish.

The next day saw us out in the vineyards on a balade vigneronne with Alain Ollier. The pickers were at work, and then it was back to the cellar to taste some fresh grape juice – Roussanne and Syrah, and to watch the destemmer at work. Françoise Ollier conducted a tasting in her inimitable cheerful manner, and the wines were served with local charcuterie and tomatoes from their garden. (More details in future posting).

In the afternoon we went over the hills to Bédarieux, to Domaine de Clovallon, where Catherine Roque and her daughters, Alix and Delphine received us. We tasted Aurièges, the young Pinot Noir as well as Pomarèdes and her two cuvées of Faugères. Tasting notes in an earlier posting.

And before dinner that evening, we tasted a range of white wines, as follows:
2009 Picpoul de Pinet, Domaine Félines Jourdan, from one of the leading producers of this appellation. It is fresh salty and sappy, with good acidity.

2009 Domaine Belles Pierres, Cuvée Mosaique
Damien Coste has developed a reputation for his white wines; this is a blend mainly of Sauvignon, with some Viognier, Grenache and Muscat. The nose is quite perfumed, with some peachy hints of Viognier, with a rounded palate and a dry finish.

2008 Domaine des Conquêtes – a blend of Chardonnay, Chenin blanc, Grenache blanc and Vermentino, which are aged in barrel for twelve months. I have preferred earlier vintages of this and found the oak to be quite aggressive with rather a solid palate, that lacked charm.

2007 Domaine Pas d’Escalette. This is a blend of Carignan blanc, Terret blanc and Grenache blanc from one of the most northerly vineyards of the Languedoc, in the hills north of Lodève. The wine is aged in oak and the oak is still quite present on the palate. However, there is also a delicious freshness and acidity, as befits a northern vineyard. Drinking nicely now, but with plenty of ageing potential. Watch out for a posting on this up and coming estate.

2008 Domaine de Centeilles, Côtes de Brian – one of the vins de pays of the Minervois.
This is an experimental wine from some old grape varieties. It was full and rich, with resinous textured notes, and lacking in acidity. A touch of stewed apples on the finish.

2005 Domaine de Ravanès, Coteaux de Murviel, le Renard blanc.
Quite a deep colour, with a tarry, oaky nose. A rounded rich palate, with good acidity. Maybe the oak needs a bit more time, but the wine is nicely crafted and satisfying And for dinner we drank 2006 Pomarèdes from Domaine de Clovallon, and delicious it was too. Beautifully mature and everything that a fine Pinot Noir should be.

We had a day off on Saturday – Pézenas market and the fabulous Millau bridge called, not to mention the handbag shops of Millau. And friends came for dinner, including Simon and Monika Coulshaw from Domaine des Trinités, so naturally we opened some of their wines, but first we had some Blanquette de Limoux from our friends Caryl and Jan Panman at Domaine Rives-Blanques, and bottle of 2009 Le Canon du Maréchal, a Muscat Viognier blend from Domaine Cazes. Then we compared two of Simon’s wine from his first vintage, the 2007, la Devès and les Maurels, a Coteaux du Languedoc and a Faugères, respectively. La Devès had more structure with some lovely spicy fruit, while les Maurels was beautifully perfumed. Then, for fun, we tried of a bottle of 2008 from our friends, Lizzie and Ali, in the village, which has retained its fresh youthful fruit.

A week or so ago, Guilhem Dardé from Mas des Chimères had given us a magnum of one of his very first wines, 1995 Mas des Chimères, Cuvée des Artisans. And this was the moment to open it. It was amazing to see how it developed in the glass; initially rather restrained, it became rich and leathery and beautifully mature, a wonderful example of how the red wine of the Languedoc can age in bottle. And we finished with a Rivesaltes Rancio from Grand Guilhem, with the lovely nutty notes of good Rancio.

You may observe that we seem to have been ignoring the rosés, but not so. They were tried at lunch time; Domaine Bourdic's fresh wine; a substantial but elegant Roc d’Anglade and a fruity Domaine la Clapière.

There were two more wine visits; Françoise Boyer at Domaine la Croix Belle very kindly opened her cellar for us on a Sunday afternoon, and introduced the group to the Côtes de Thongue.
And Sunday evening saw us at our favourite local restaurant, the Presbytère, in Vailhan, trying Domaine Turner Pageot’s two white wines, Le Blanc and la Rupture, as well as Plaisirs from Domaine de Monplezy. See previous postings.

And Monday morning Arnaud Deville gave us a comprehensive tasting of the wines from Domaine de Nizas,(again more information in an earlier posting) including the 2006 Vin de Pays d’Oc Réserve, a blend of 50% Petit Verdot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Syrah. The wine is rich and cedary, intense in flavour, and elegant in structure, with some spicy fruit.

And then it was on to the Bistrot d’Ariane in Lattes, ‘our departure lounge’ for the airport, for a 2008 Terret Blanc, Vin de Pays de l’Hérault from Domaine la Fadèze, with some fresh sappy fruit, and a full flavoured rosé, 2009, from one of the leading estates of the Pic St. Loup, Clos Marie.

I think eyes were opened as to the quality and variety of the Languedoc – I found it fascinating to taste blind wines that I thought I knew quite well – it certainly helps to blow away preconceptions - and more importantly we had enormous fun – and if you are wondering, 33 bottles went to the bottle bank this morning!

Monday, 13 September 2010


I’ve been visiting the Prieuré de St. Jean de Bébian regularly since the mid-1980s. Back then it was the property of a maverick wine maker, Alain Roux, who planted all thirteen grapes varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in his vineyards outside Pézenas, for the simple reason, that the soil is identical, with the distinctive galets roulées of Châteauneuf. When I casually observed that most of the thirteen varieties did not conform to the appellation of the Coteaux du Languedoc, he told me firmly that ça n’a pas d’importance. He made thick chunky wines, with body and character, quite unlike anything produced by his neighbours, who back then were mostly cooperative members. I remember the 1985 vintage as being dense and warm, with spicy fruit. I drank the last bottle of a case not that long ago, and it was still rich and characterful.

Then in the spring of 1994 he decided to sell and Bébian was bought by Chantal Lecouty and her husband, Jean-Claude, both journalists on the Revue du Vin de France. Chantal had an enormous experience of wine, from the tasting and writing point of view, but her wine making expertise was severely limited. Alain supervised her first vintage, and as they filled the last vat, he told her that her wine was a great success and that he was leaving for Caracas that night! Chantal remembers Alain telling her that the secret of good wine making is low yields and very ripe grapes and that the rest was a load of rubbish. He had no oak barrels and his wine making was very simple. She has fine-tuned the wines at Bébian, developing the range; buying a table de tri; destemming, some but not all of the bunches, which is something that Alain never did; nor did he have any barrels, which she has introduced for both red and white wine. And the wines have developed elegance and finesse, especially in the hands of her talented Australian winemaker, Karen Turner. (see my posting on Turner- Pageot.) Bebian now totals some 33 hectares, including some very old vines, mes vieilles dames, as Chantal used to describe them.

Then Chantal and Jean-Claude decided it was time to move on, and last year some Russian investors made them an offer that they could not possibly refuse. Happily for Bébian, Karen remains as the winemaker, indeed has been promoted to wine-making director, and is left pretty much to her own devices.

We went to visit last week, with friends Alud and Maggie. Alud has been a Bébian enthusiast for years. Karen was busy with the harvest, but she took a moment off to chat and her colleague, Amandine hosted our tasting.

2009 La Chapelle de Bébian – 13.10€
This is the second wine of Bébian. A blend of 60% Roussanne, 25% or so of Grenache Blanc, and the rest Clairette. Half of the blend, including all three varieties, is fermented in wood, and half in vat. The oak is nicely integrated, with some elegant buttery notes on the palate, and a rounded, harmonious palate, with balancing acidity. A very complete wine, drinking well now, but also with future potential.

2007 Prieure de St. Jean de Bébian blanc. – 27.00€
A blend of 60% Roussanne, 15% Clairette, 10% Grenache Blanc and about 15% Picpoul. All of the wine is fermented in oak, one third of the barrels are new. and the yield is very low, 15 hl/ha. This is still a young wine that needs time. It is oaky and rich and concentrated, finely crafted, and elegant, but powerful, with enormous length on the finish.

2008 Bébian en rose – a play of words on la vie en rose - 8.00€
A blend of Grenache Noir, that is pressed and Cinsaut, which is saigné. The nose is ripe and rounded, reminiscent of raspberries, or maybe strawberries, going from one to the other. It is quite rich and ripe, with some body and weight, especially for a rosé, more a food wine than an aperitif. Maggie, who sees her wines in the form of material, rather than colours, or shapes, or fruit flavours, or whatever images you might employ, said this was lace. The two white wines were silk and velvet respectively.

2009 Bébian en rose – 8.00€
Medium depth of colour. Fuller on the nose than the 2008. A fresh palate, but more concentrated, richer and almost sweeter than the 2008. The dominant fruit flavour for me was strawberry, and the wine had a better balance than the 2008. Maggie said that it had the texture of embroidery.

2007 La Croix de Bébian – 8.00€
This is the entry level of the red wines, an easy glass for summer drinking. And a blend of Grenache and Cinsaut given a short maceration and spends six months in vat. It is light and fresh, with cherry fruit on the palate.

2007 La Chapelle de Bébian – 12.00€
Predominantly Grenache, with some Syrah and Cinsaut, and aged half in vat and half in wood. The nose has some smoky berry fruit and the palate is quite firm, with youthful tannins, a touch cassis and some dry spice. It has quite a warm finish, but is not too alcoholic. 2007 was quite an elegant vintage, with a cooler than average August.

2007 Prieuré de St. Jean de Bébian rouge. – 26.00€
This is the wine that includes all thirteen grape varieties of Châteauneuf. The blend is predominantly Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre and then there is a plot of all the others. The colour is deep; the nose is solid and rounded and quite dense, and the palate is rich, with quite furry tannins, leaving a warm finish, with elegance and concentration, and also considerable length. One of those wines that keeps you guessing.

1996 Prieure de St. Jean de Bébian.
This was a treat, to show just how well Bébian can age. It is quite dry and meaty on the nose, and the palate was elegantly cedary, and very intriguing, with lots of nuances of flavour. There were leathery notes, and a cedary finish. Wonderfully appealing, beautifully mature, and a great note on which to finish our tasting.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

A SHOCK - going thirsty at Montpellier Airport

There is a large sign at Montpellier airport, welcoming you to the largest vineyard in the world. And most of the publicity boards are wine-related, Listel, Jeanjean, Val d'Orbieu amongst others. Even the barriers at the car park say: En Languedoc Roussillon, découvrez les produits and les vins du Sud de France - discover the produce and wines of the south of France. So imagine how I felt last night, when I arrived at the airport after a somewhat gruelling drive along the A9 motorway, and thought that a restorative glass of wine would while away the time, while waiting for my husband’s delayed flight - we had already agreed that he was going to drive home. I asked the airport café what the choice of white wine was, to be told that they hadn’t any left – je n’en ai plus. I was gob-smacked. They hadn’t any red wine either. Indeed the only alcoholic drink available was Amstel beer. And this is in the airport that services the largest vineyard in the world, for the vineyard area of Languedoc-Roussillon, although declining, nonetheless totals over 200,000 hectares. Would somebody please tell the airport café manager?

Saturday, 11 September 2010


And now back to the Ariège, as promised a couple of postings ago. Unlike the Languedoc, the harvest there will not start until early October.

The Ariège is one of the lost departments of France, nestling in the Pyrenees between the departments of the Pyrenées Atlantique and the Pyrenées Orientales – so in wine terms between Jurançon and Madiran and the robust wines of Roussillon. Foix with its magnificent castle is the main town of the region.

We spent a fascinating couple of hours with Philippe Babin from Coteaux d’Engraviès in the village of Vira, between Foix and Mirepoix. He explained that in the 1920s there had been 20,000 hectares of vines in the Ariège, but that these had disappeared as the economic activity of the region had changed, so that it had become one of the few departments of France not to have vines, and certainly the only one in the deep south.. It was once a region of small mining communities – and mining is thirsty work – the miners consumed seven or eight litres of wine a day, wine that was low in alcohol, more like beer, and in today’s terms, probably pretty undrinkable. Although the 20,000 hectares were scattered pretty well over most of the department, there were two areas that were considered better than the others, the valley of the Lèze to the south west of Toulouse, and the valley of the Douctouyre, which means a torrent doux, or sweet torrent, where Vila is situated. A wine called Coteaux d’Engraviès was apparently offered to the English court by Philippe IV, le Bel, who was the father of Eleanor of Aquitaine. The nearby town of Pamiers was a river port, sending wine along the Garonne to Bordeaux.

Philippe explained how the Swiss owner of the Domaine de Ribonnet in the Haute Garonne, near Toulouse, Christian Gerber, had encouraged the development of the new
vineyards of the Ariège, leading Philippe to plant his vines in 1998. He had been farming wheat for thirty years and he admitted, that he had the enthusiasm and motivation, but no savoir-faire. And that is what Christian Gerber supplied, for him and three other associates, each of whom planted ten hectares. Two cellars were set up, at Lézat-sur-Lèze and Montégut-Plantaurel, so that he takes his grapes to nearby Montégut.

We ate rounded his kitchen table and chatted and tasted. He has five hectares of Syrah, 2.5 hectares of Merlot and 2.5 hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon. I wondered why there was no Pinot Noir, as Limoux is not so far away. Philippe grinned and admitted that he had just planted 60 ares, but it is not on the list of permitted grape varieties for the Ariège, that some ignorant fonctionnaire had compiled, who probably knew no more about it than he did. He is also considering Chardonnay and Petit Manseng for some white wine. Before phylloxera Gamay was one of the most widely planted varieties in the Ariège and then in the 1920s it was mainly hybrids. However, INRA, the national research organisation, is looking at some original varieties that may have come from the Ariège. Tortozon, Berdomenec, Carnaris, Camaret de Lasseube and Mandrege were certainly new to me. The plan is to start with five vines of each variety and gradually increase to 500 vines of each, which will give enough for some trial vinifications. It will probably be about 2017 before Philippe actually makes any wine from these historic varieties.

His first vintage from more conventional grape varieties was 2000, when he had three hectares in production, which gave him just 15 hectolitres. 2009 was rather better, with a crop of 250 hectolitres. I observed that he was courageous, which he denied. Non, c’est passionant. And then he opened a bottle.

2009 Dimanche à la campagne, Vin de Pays de l’Ariège – 5.90€
This is a blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Merlot. The name immediately set the tone, it has rounded fruit with soft tannins, and a fresh lift on the finish. A perfect picnic wine, and quite delicious.

2007 Roc des Maillols – 7.95€
A blend of 60 % Syrah, 20% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, given twelve months ageing in old barrels, more for oxygenation than for the wood effect. There are some peppery notes from the Syrah, with some red fruit; the tannins are quite firm and the palate medium weight. Philippe observed how the area is at a cross roads, not just between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean – for those transitional appellations of Cabardès and Malepère are not too far away – but also there is a strong influence from the mountains. His vineyards are at an altitude of 350 metres, in eight plots.

2007 Fount Cassat – 7.50€
This is a blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, with some elegant fruit and supple tannins, and a structured finish. In contrast the 2006 Fount Cassat – 7.60€ - is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. There was a touch of cassis on the palate, with some youthful fruit and a smoky finish.

And then we went to see the vines, on gentle slopes, with a river flowing at the bottom of the valley through the village. He practices organic viticulture, so no fertilizers, or pesticides and everything as naturally and simply as possible.

Philippe Babin is keen to create something that represents the Ariège, and also something where he is in charge and sees the finished product. You don’t get that satisfaction with wheat. He is very dedicated and he deserves to succeed, and gradually he is gaining local recognition, and even further afield.

Thursday, 9 September 2010


There was a bit of a panic on Monday morning this week, as storms were forecast for the following day. Some people hadn’t yet started the harvest, and they just sat tight and hoped that the rains would not be too heavy. Others had nearly finished and were keen to get the rest of their grapes picked before the rains came – memories of the hail storm just before the vintage two years ago die hard.

Some people use machinery – big brutes driving through their vineyards, gobbling up the grapes at speed.

Others, such as Lizzie and Ali in our village, enlist the help of willing friends and go at a more leisurely pace.

They only have a tiny vineyard and just had their Cinsaut left to pick – Cinsaut can also be a table grape and I have to say that these were deliciously ripe.

It was a sunny morning, but you could see the clouds looming in the distance and indeed by 11 o’clock that evening the thunder had arrived, but fortunately no hail, and no damagingly heavy rain.

The grapes were in the trailer within a couple of hours, even with a coffee and croissant break, and into the crusher. They are now gently bubbling in the cellar.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010


It’s early September and the harvest in the Languedoc is getting going. Our friends Deborah and Peter at Mas Gabriel in Caux picked their white grapes on last Friday morning, so we went along to help, or hinder, and observe. My experience of wine-making is distinctly limited. I know the theory but have never actually got my hands dirty, so I was keen at least to have a look. Their white wine is mainly Carignan blanc – that is what it is labelled – but in the vineyard there is also a bit of Grenache Gris and a little Viognier. The bunches are quite different; the Viognier is tight bunched, while the grapes of the Carignan are much looser and longer, and the Grenache gris has pink, indeed almost red skins.

We arrived just as they were getting the destemmer going. There had been a small technical hitch earlier when they had discovered that the cooling drapeau, which sits in the fermenting vat was leaking some water at a joint, but that was soon sorted. They have a basket press, which is very gentle, and therefore sometimes leaves whole berries unpressed, so they have evolved the technique of destemming their grapes and then adding layers of stalks to provide drainage channels. And that was what we did. The grapes were beautiful, a translucent gold colour, and beautifully healthy, with not a trace of rot to be seen. Peter has a new toy, for making dry ice – to protect the juice and grapes from oxidising. He was busy applying this to the press, which had the effect of making it look rather like a witches’ cauldron, as white vapour filled the small cellar.

You realise quickly that there is an enormous amount of physical effort involved; nor can you rush. Everything takes its time. We filled the destemmer and then we filled the press, with large buckets of grapes, and then added a thick layer the stalks. By now the press was pretty full, so a first slow gentle pressing made space for more grapes, and some juice was pumped into the fibre glass vat, and more dry ice was added. The cap to the outlet of the press got stuck – Peter was thrilled. He had bought a clé anglais (a possible English translation is a monkey wrench) at the flea market in Marseillan the other day for the princely sum of 3€ and here it was being put to good use to sort out a tricky complication.

We had an appointment at the Prieuré de St. Jean de Bébian, so had to leave the workers adding more grapes to the press. The juice would be chilled over night, with the addition of a drop of sulphur and by morning would be beautifully clear, leaving a layer of sludge of lees in the bottom of the vat, and the fermentation would get going. I was fascinated by the attention to detail, of the things that you would not consider unless you have actually used wine making equipment. A basket press is all very well – in fact it is a great little press, but there are gaps between the staves of the ‘basket’ so when the pressure increases, grapes squeeze out between the staves and go everywhere you do not want them. The solution is to wrap some thick plastic sheeting round the basket, which keeps everything under control. We later learnt that putting whole bunches round the inside edge of the basket also had the desired effect. Nor had they finished pressing until nearly 11 p.m. Was I relieved that I had another appointment that afternoon!
But I think I’ve let myself in for helping with some red wine making later in the month, so more on that experience anon.