Monday, 20 December 2010


If you have not come across The Wine Gang, you should remedy that omission. They are a lively group of five wine writers – they rightly describe themselves as some of the UK’s most experienced wine critics, who issue a monthly report on the tastings that they have all attended during the month, with an editorial on whatever they consider to be the burning issue of the moment. Annual membership is £19.99. And they are Anthony Rose, Joanna Simon, Tom Cannavan and two new recruits to replace two resignations, Jane Parkinson and David Williams.

And at the end of November, they hold a Christmas fair which is well worth attending, as it is well supported by some of the leading merchants, generic bodies and importers, along with a series of tastings and seminars. I went along to listen to Jean-Claude Mas, who has been a key player in the Languedoc over the last decade or so. He is also a keen observer, and always has pertinent things to say about his region. This time he wanted to enthuse about the diversity of the Languedoc, likening it to a Rubik cube, in that there are so many factors that contribute to make the one successful whole.

He talked of the climate, the different winds, the grape varieties – they have as many as twenty-five in their vineyards, while thirty-three are allowed in the Pays d’Oc. The key is finding the perfect grape variety for the site, to make the perfect wine. Soil is a significant variable. You need to know your soil ‘and its life’; you must consider water, aspect, altitude, suitability of rootstock. Vineyard management and the age of the vines are other factors, while the excessive use of chemicals over the last fifty years provides an additional challenge. Jean-Claude suggested that different parts of the Languedoc are suited to different grape varieties, which is a determining factor, as well as market demand. Blending is another variant - and for that, there is no mathematical model. The accompanying tasting illustrated the diversity of the flavours of Syrah throughout the Languedoc; from pepper, to blackcurrant, to tapenade, and ripe fruit.

A selection of highlights, in no particular order:

2007 Corbières, Vieux Parc Selection - £11.25 Great Western Wine
Carignan dominates the blend. Quite firm fruit, leathery, ripe. olive tapenade. Very intriguing. Good depth of flavour.

2008 Corbières, Château Les Ollieux Romanis, Cuvée Pierre Bories - £8.50 R.S. Wines Ltd.
Good deep colour. Quite a firm dry leathery nose; a warm rugged palate, with dry warmth on the finish. Conjures up that wild Corbières countryside in a glass.

2006 Corbières, les Clos Perdus, Mire la Mire - £9.50
Firm stony mineral nose, and on the palate. Quite sturdy and tannic, with a stony minerality. Characterful.

2008 La Clape, Château d’Anglès, Classique Blanc - £9.99
This is one of my favourite wines from La Clape, 50% Bourboulenc, three traditional variety of the region, with fresh pithy salty fruit on both nose and palate. The vineyards are close to the sea, and you can taste the marine influence in the wine. A rounded finish and very appealing.

2007 la Clape, Chateau d’Anglès, Grand Vin Rouge - £15.99
A blend of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache. This is serious; a touch of oak on the nose, with a rounded concentrated palate, and a warm leathery note. Still very youthful, with plenty of ageing potential.

2009 Château Paul Mas, Clos des Mûres, Vin de Pays d’Oc, SyrahDeep colour; quite a perfumed nose, with some peppery notes on both nose and palate. Quite firm with some tannin and a touch of oak. Medium weight.

2008 St. Chinian Château la Dournie – Majestic £7.99
Lovely perfumed easy fruit – ripe and supple; easy drinking.

2009 Domaine Lafage, Cuvée Centenaire, Côtes du Roussillon blanc. – Bibendum - £10.74
Intriguing white, showing just how the white wines of the Midi are improving apace. Quite a structured palate, with body, weight and texture. Lots of depth, some floral fruit.

2008 Domaine Matassa Côtes Catalanes blanc. - £28.99 – les Caves de Pyrène
A structured oaky nose, and on the palate. Tight knit, mineral notes and firm acidity. It will be fascinating to see how this develops with bottle age.

2007 Bandol, Domaine Tempier - The Wine Society - £20
I couldn’t resist straying into Provence, as Tempier is one of my favourites, and this did not disappoint. Medium colour; quite a rounded nose, quite perfumed, with Mourvèdre viandé fruit. Very harmonious, elegant with supple tannins. Beautifully balanced, with ageing potential.

2009 Domaine de Simonet, Côtes de Pérignan, -£7.50 – The Wine Society.
With vineyards on La Clape. Pure Bourboulenc, with some fresh nettley, herbal fruit on both nose and palate. Fresh acidity and a rounded finish.

And I had better apologise for neglecting my blog over the past few days - I am embarrassed to realise that my last posting was two weeks ago. What can I blame - pressure of other deadlines; the snow; pre-Christmas chaos...... And with Christmas looming at the end of the week, I doubt that I shall post again until the New Year so may I wish you lots of good bottles from the Languedoc and elsewhere over the festive season.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010


After that detour into southern Italy, I am now firmly back in the Languedoc. And I have finally caught up with Pascal Fulla’s missing wines from a tasting a few weeks ago – see my posting of 6th October.

His vineyards are outside the village of Jonquières, in the Terrasses du Larzac. Freshness is the hallmark of the Larzac and Pascal’s wines exude elegance and finesse. He looks for subtlety and nuances of flavour in his wines. He began his working life as a lawyer, and came to wine with a career change and a first vintage in 1999, and he makes his wine with the same meticulous attention that he applied to the legal world. All his wines are vinified in the same way; what makes the difference is the assemblage. He uses mainly French oak barrels for élevage and over the years has moved towards larger barrels, 500 and 300 litres, and away from new oak. He keeps his barrels for five wines. He has also used oak fermentation vats for the last five or six years, and has a modern basket press. His vineyards have been fully organic since 2009.

2007 L’Emotion – 10€
This is a blend of 30% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 20% Cinsaut and 30% Carignan. This is his entry level wine, more accessible and lighter than the others. Medium colour; fresh red fruit on the nose and palate, with a streak of tannin to provide backbone and balance.

2006 Les Pensées – 19€
A blend of 45% Grenache Noir, 20% Syrah, 25% Cinsault and 10% Carignan. Good colour; ripe fruit and a more intense nose. A touch of oak, but beautifully integrated on the palate, which has rounded, ripe fruit, with the scents of the garrigues. Very satisfying and complete. For Pascal the Grenache gives fruit and elegance; Cinsaut also provides fruit, while Syrah gives length and the Carignan links everything together in one harmonious whole.

2006 L’Ecriture – 31€
Pascal’s top wine, a blend of 50% Syrah, 30% Mourvèdre and 20% Grenache. This is serious, and will age beautifully but is none the less is already relatively accessible with the right dish – in our case a roast chicken. The nose is quite closed and peppery, and on the palate there are youthful tannins, with the red fruits and the freshness of the Larzac terraces. There is a firm streak of oak, but it is nicely integrated, and you are left with the impression of a finely crafted wine. What a treat.

UK stockists -

Wednesday, 1 December 2010


We spent the morning with Sebastiano de Corato from the wine estate of Rivera, which is situated north of Bari, outside the town of Andria. But first of all Sebastiano took us to see Castel del Monte, the 13th century castle, which gives its name to the local DOC. He made a remarkably well informed guide, talking eloquently about the 13th century castle, which was built by the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, not to defend anything, but to assert his authority. It can only be described as dramatic and awe-inspiring, especially with the white stone reflecting against the brilliant blue sky of a bright autumnal morning. It was almost dazzling.

Some of Sebastiano’s vineyards are nearby. He explained how there used to be lots of Bombino Nero in the area, which was used for rosato, but that was pulled up in the 1970s, and wheat was planted instead; there is enough water for a winter crop. At the beginning of the 20th century the region was also important for sheep, and we did indeed meet a shepherd with his flock.

And the other important crop is olive oil. Olive trees are grown all over Puglia, but the olive oil industry is fraught with malpractices. The only way that you can be sure that an olive oil is genuine is for the label to bear a DOP, which states exactly where it comes from. Produce of Italy could mean Moroccan olives crushed in Italy, or oil from the EU blended with 1% Puglian oil. He also talked of Turkish nut oil miraculously transforming itself into olive oil mid-Mediterranean. The Italians have simply failed to defend their position in Brussels.

Puglia does not have the hills of Calabria; the countryside is quite different. There are groves of olive trees, almost as far as the eye can see, and vineyards – a dramatic sight of a flock of black starlings on their way to Africa flying over red leafed vines – and then there is scrub land, which is scattered with little casette, or small trulli, the stone houses that look like igloos, that are traditional to the area. Although people farmed, they lived in towns and came out to the countryside to work, staying for a few days in a casetta.

And back at the cellar, Sebastiano explained that Rivera is the name of the estate. It was originally 800 hectares and was bought by his great grandfather. There were some vines and olive trees, but it was mainly pasture for sheep. His grandfather was the youngest of eleven children. When he criticised his older brother’s inability to manage his vines, he was given the property. This was back in 1946, and his grandfather set to work to develop the brand of Rivera. At this time all Puglian wine was sold sfuso, in bulk, and it had an image for high alcohol, though in fact the rosato was usually only about 10.5º. In the 1960s the rosato became very fashionable; they have a photograph of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton drinking a bottle of Rivera rosato on the Via Veneto in Rome, and it featured in a film with Sophia Loren.

Sebastiano also gave us a very good overview of Puglian viticulture, explaining that the region is 400 kilometres long but only 50 kilometres wide, so that most of the vineyards are relatively close to the sea. The Adriatic is not very deep so that it does not have much effect on temperatures, but it does bring wind. The north wind cools in summer and brings snow in winter. Winters are much cooler in northern Puglia than at the bottom of the heel. You can divide the region into three, each with its own indigenous grape variety. Salento is the place for Negro Amaro, Primitivo is grown around Manduria and Gioa delle Colle, and in the north, where we were, Nero di Troia, or Uva di Troia, is the key variety. You will also find Aglianico as the Basilicata is nearby, and Montepulciano is used in blends, as it grows from the Marche down to Puglia. In the south Primitivo and Negro Amaro ripen early, during the hottest part of the year, whereas in sharp contrast the grape varieties of northern Puglia are late ripening, specially Nero di Troia. Montepulciano is usually picked at the end of September, Aglianico at the beginning of October, and Nero di Troia as late as late October, so that the harvest takes place two months later than at the foot of Puglia. The grapes are still unripe during the heat of summer, and the wines have lower alcohol and higher acidity than those of the south.

The DOC of Castel del Monte covers red, white and pink. With its long coast line white wine is important in Puglia, to accompany the wealth of seafood. Sebastiano’s father, Carlo, introduced international varieties some thirty years ago, planting Chardonnay, Sauvignon andSebastiano observed how Chardonnay lacks acidity; this year it was picked on 12th August, as opposed to 20th September for Bombino bianco.

We were treated to a comprehensive tasting, finishing with a vertical tasting of Il Falcone, the wine that really established the reputation of Rivera.

2009 Marese, Bombino Bianco – 6.00€
Light and delicate, quite fresh, simple and innocuous. Great with seafood, and reminded me of Picpoul de Pinet.

2009 Pungirosa, a rosato made from Bombino Nero. 6./50€
Soft strawberry nose. Fresh acidity; very crisp dry raspberry fruit and good acidity. Really tastes of a cooler climate. Bombino Nero has low sugar and high acidity, and is rather thin-skinned and therefore used for rosato rather than for red wine.

2006 Violante, Nero di Troia – 7.00€
Medium colour; quite a perfumed nose. Some dry fruit with a touch of spice. Quite firm tannins. They are working on clonal selection for Nero di Troia with Attilio Scienza, the leading ampelographer of Italy, and professor at the University of Milan. Nero di Troia has big berries; it is a tannic variety with a lot of juice, and they are looking for selections of old clones with smaller berries. With Violante they aim for an easier style; the wine has spent twelve month in tank and there is no oak. They want their wines to be fresh and drinkable – acidity is the key.

2005 Cappellaccio Castel del Monte. This is made from Aglianico; Monte Vulture where Aglianico is at its best is only 30 kilometres away as the crow flies. However, the soil is quite different, volcanic limestone, whereas at Castel del Monte the limestone has marine origins, with shells. The nose was quite perfumed, with certain warmth. It is in French oak, which was nicely integrated.

2007 Triusco IGT Puglia – 10.00€ A pure Primitivo. This is the grape of southern Puglia and it was dramatic how much riper, more raisiny the wine was; a complete contrast to the cooler flavours of the north, with a firm tannic streak.

And then we embarked on a vertical tasting of Il Falcone Castel del Monte Riserva, with one vintage of its predecessor Stravecchio. Sebastiano observed that the first vintage of Il Falcone was 1971, the same as Tignanello, the inspirational wine from Antinori in Tuscany. The wine is not a single vineyard, but a wine that represents the best of the vintage. Originally the Stravecchio was aged in concrete vats, then botte were used in the late 1960s, and then in 1995 the first barriqueswere introduced. The blend is traditional to the area, 70% Nero di Troia and 30% Montepulciano which is how the vineyards were originally planted. They want the wine to be accessible, but that trend went too far in the wrong direction from 1985 to 1993,and indeed 1988 was the weakest of the line-up. In 1994 they introduced the technique of délestage, which has had a beneficial effect on quality. As befits a blend, Il Falcone does not taste of a particular grape variety.

1967 Rosso Stravecchio – which does means very old.
Quite a deep colour, with a tawny rim. Dry cedary nose. Quite firm mature fruit, mature elegant, long. Some depth. Fading but still drinking beautifully.

1971 Il Falcone, Castel del Monte Riserva Quite light colour, with a tawny edge. Quite an elegant nose, with firm fruit on the nose and palate, Some lovely mature cedary notes. Depth, length and elegant. I liked this a lot.

1980 – Deep colour; a brick edge. Light nose, with cedary hints. Elegant cedary fruit on the palate. A supple tannic streak. Lovely length. Again wonderful elegance.

1988 – The lightest of the first four wines, a mature meaty Bovril nose, with more Bovril notes on the palate and a dry finish.

1995 – Deep colour, beginning to show a hint of age. Some rounded berry fruit. Smokey mature notes on the palate. Good fruit, a streak of tannin, elegant, satisfying and long.

2001- Deep young colour. A tight nose; some peppery, berry fruit. Quite fresh and elegant, pepper and red fruit, with a tannic streak. Balanced and harmonious.

2005 – The current vintage on sale and a bargain at 13- 14€
Deep young colour; hints of red fruit on the nose. Young fresh red fruit on palate. Some tannin; depth and elegance. Youthful and needing time.

2006 – will be released for sale in April 2011
Deep young colour; quite oaky still with spice and cassis. Also a minty hint, unlike the others. Good tannins; youthful fruit and masses of potential.

We were tasting history and my tasting notes simply do not do these wines justice.

And we finished with 2006 Puer Apuliae, a pure Nero di Troia, Castel del Monte – 30€ this has spent 14 months in new French oak, and it is deep in colour, with a firm nose, with structure and concentration and tannin on the palate, but with an underlying freshness. The first vintage was 2000.

And then it was time to dash to the airport. We finished with a last taste of Puglia, for it is in Puglia rather than Calabria that burrato was invented, and believe it or not, the café at the airport offers a deliciously creamy fresh burrato with a cheerful salad, which we washed down with a glass of rosato, before catching our flight to Rome.

And you may wonder why a blog on the Languedoc is covering the wines of southern Italy. Apart from the fact that the wines are delicious and well worth seeking out, I do think there are parallels. Both regions have had a chequered history and have only recently established a reputation for wine in bottle. In the past the wines have been used to blend and boost weaker wines from further north. As in the Languedoc, southern Italy has a growing number of independent and energetic producers, and it offers some intriguing and original grape varieties and flavours. In both regions you feel that there is an enormous amount of untapped potential.