Tuesday, 25 January 2011


The little village of Cabrières is dominated by the Pic de Vissou, an extinct volcano that rises to 480 metres. It makes for a dramatic skyline. Otherwise Cabrières is a rather sleepy place; there is a mairie, a school, a grocer’s, a café at one end of the main street, and the wine cooperative at the other end, which accounts for the livelihood of much of the village. This is one of the more successful cooperatives of this part of the Hérault. Cooperatives from nearby villages have closed, or are amalgamating with other neighbouring cooperatives, in an attempt to cut productions costs and share marketing efforts. Cabrières continues proudly to stand alone.
I asked the director, Bernard Dross, to what he attributed its success. It’s a small cooperative with just 70 members, accounting for a total of 330 hectares. About half the members make a living from their vines; the rest are retired, for whom their vines are a hobby. Nonetheless the average age of the members is quite young, with a good core of them aged between thirty and fifty. This is quite unusual for a cooperative in the south of France where the average cooperative tends to have a conservative membership, that is approaching retirement and traditionally rather set in its ways. And there is also a dynamic unity of spirit and shared aims and aspirations..
Another advantage for Cabrières is its historical reputation, which, unusually for the Languedoc, is based on rosé, rather than on red wine. There is a reference to the vin vermeil of Cabrières in the archives of Montpellier, dated 1357. It also had a reputation at the court of Louis XIV for its medicinal qualities, thanks to the efforts of the village priest, Fulcrand Cabanon, who is said to have introduced the wine to the king. Mme de Sevigny refers to it in her letters. The cooperative founded in 1938, but only really developed its activities after the war. It was one of the first to put wine in bottle, in the 1950s, namely Vin Vermeil, under the brand name of L’Estabel. The description Vermeil or vermilion, implies a deeper colour than most rosé, more a light red, and L’Estabel is the name of a nearby hot spring, which only appears about once every 50 years; the last occasion being in 1996.
Cabrières was one of the first Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure or VDQS of the Languedoc, and then was incorporated into the appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc in 1985. Tt is now aspiring to an Appellation d’Origine Protégée, or AOP, the new category that is expected to replace Appellation Contrôlée. This is not the place to discuss the pros and cons of that particular development in French wine law. The significance for Cabrières is whether one village is acceptable as an AOP, with a cooperative that accounts for about ninety per cent of the production, alongside three independent wine growers. M. Dross is optimistic, as he is articulate about the individuality of Cabrières. The wines are quite distinctive from neighbouring villages, for the hills around Cabrières give its vineyards a very precise delimitation. They lie on a band of schist, very old soils, with a host of marine fossils. There is a fascinating display in the tasting caveau of the cooperative which explains the geology, and also describes the nearby copper mines, which were the earliest in France, dating back to 3000BC. They continued to operate until the middle of the 19th century.
Rosé can suffer from its seasonality. We often hesitate to drink rosé in the middle of winter, but M. Dross is insistent that it should not depend upon the seasons, and emphasises the historical reputation of the rosé of Cabrières. . The blend of grape varieties is different for rosé, compared to red wine, with a higher minimum percentage, 45 per cent, of Cinsaut, a grape variety that is particularly suitable for rosé. Of the three rosé cuvées, I like the Rosé Prestige best. The grapes are pressed after a three hour period of contact with the skins, rather than running off the juice from a vat, that will then be used to make red wine, and the flavour is delicate and fruity. The Cuvée Fulcrand Cabanon, named after the famous priest, has Syrah in the blend, which makes a richer, fuller-bodied wine, while L’Estabel Vin Vermeil, sporting the original 1950s label is ripe and rounded.
Nonetheless red wine is also an important part of their repertoire, with some spicy aromatic flavours coming from the schist soil. The Prestige red, a blend of Grenache and Syrah, without a trace of oak, is fresh and peppery, supple and easy to drink. They are experimenting with more serious oak-age cuvées, with Château Cabrières making a serious mouthful of rounded fruit, with firm oaky tannins. However, the supple unoaked flavours have the edge for my taste buds.
As well as pink and red Cabrières, the village comes within the tiny appellation of Clairette du Languedoc, based on the grape variety, Clairette. The flavours are dry and delicate; best was the Cuvée Fulcrand Cabanon made from 40 years vines. And our tasting finished with a late harvest Clairette du Languedoc, recalling the old tradition of using Clairette for sweet wine. It was lightly honeyed, with fresh acidity; simply tasting of ripe grapes.

There are some interesting figures in the current issue of Terres de Vins, illustrating just how important the wine coops are in France, and in particular the south of France. Once upon a time virtually every village in the Languedoc had its own cooperative, but no longer. Some have disappeared and others have joined up with neighbouring coops; and others have successfully forged a path that has enabled them to develop a reputation both at home and abroad. Some coops are vital to their appellation; quite simply the wine of Cabrières would not exist without its village coop, and the British market would probably ignore Fitou without the efforts of the Mont Tauch coop in Tuchan. It is a rare appellation that does not have a coop.

The first wine cave cooperative was created in the village of Maraussan in the Hérault back in 1901. So in 2010 France had 715 wine coops, of which 215 are in Languedoc-Roussillon. In 2008 French wine coops produced 18 million hectolitres from 350,000 hectares of vines, representing nearly half the wine production of France. And Languedoc Roussillon is responsible for a little under 9 million litres, which represents 70% of the wine production of the whole region. The moral here is: don’t take your local wine coop for granted. They may rarely produce great wine, but the best produce some remarkably fine wine, and often at an excellent rapport qualité prix.

Until recently I was writing a series of articles for the internal magazine of the UK Coop shops about wine coops, and since the series has been dropped – blame cut backs – I thought I would post the articles about the various Languedoc coops that I visited for the series.

First up – Cabrières in the sequel to this post.

Sunday, 23 January 2011


Another fine example of the development of new estates in La Clape. This was taken over by Bruno Pellegrini in 2000. There are 45 hectares of vineyardS and 70 hectares of garrigues, on the south side of the Massif of La Clape. Although the cellar is quite old fashioned, a large Midi barn, the technology has been modernised and the winemaker has trained at Bordeaux and worked elsewhere.

2009 Viognier, Vin de Pays d’Oc, Les Dames de Ricardelle – 5.95 €
I was not so taken with this, as I did not find that it had much varietal character and it was a tad unbalanced. The two white La Clape were SO much better.

2009 Combemale Blanc, la Clape – 7.50€
A blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul and Vermentino. Fresh herbal notes on the nose, and a hint of fennel on the palate. Quite firm fruit, with a rounded finish.

2009 Vignelacroix, la Clape
– 11.00€
Mainly Bourboulenc, 70%, with 30% Grenache Blanc. Quite a firm salty note, from the maritime influence, as well as some hints of fennel, which are apparently quite characteristic of Bourboulenc. A salty, sappy palate, very refreshing; quite textured and medium weight. Very satisfying.

2008 Alencades Rouge Vin de Pays d’Oc
– 7.50€
Alencades is the name of the vineyard and it is planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Marselan, a newish crossing that has been developed from Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache Noir. Three hectares were planted at Ricardelle seven years ago. The wine is ripe and rounded on the palate, with some spice and a warm finish, but with a slightly stalky hint. Again I much preferred the appellation wines.

2008 Combemale, La Clape – 7.50€
A blend of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah. Deep colour. Quite firm leathery fruit on nose, and quite arounded ripe spice on the palate. You detect the ripeness of the Grenache, with some lovely ripe cherries and a streak of tannin. No oak – the wine spends nine months in stainless steel.

2008 Closablières, la Clape rouge – 10€
One third each of Grenache, Carignan and Syrah, aged for eight months in old wood. Quite a smoky nose, with the herbs of the garrigues. Rounded, ripe and sunny; attractive spicy fruit, with considerable length. This was my favourite red of the range.

2008 Blason de Ricardelle – 15.50€
65% Syrah, with some Carignan and a little Grenache. Aged half in new and half in old wood. Deep colour. Quite rounded oak on the nose. Quite a tannic palate with some firm fruit, though less obvious oak than on the nose. Some hints of tapenade and a touch of vanilla on the finish. Quite a rich long finish. Still very youthful.

2008 Cuvée Juliette – 25€
2004 was the first vintage of this, a very small crop. They make more in 2005, and none in 2006. And they said that 2010 will be superb, but they needed patience.
A blend of Syrah, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre, aged in oak – one third new – for 12 months. Deep colour; firm dense oak on the nose, with some firm oak on the palate; tapenade and spice. Quite sweet and quite ripe, with supple tannins. Mouth filling.

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Friends gave us a black truffle. The aroma is overpowering, earthy and sensuous and to my mind the only thing to do with it is shave it over some eggs in an omelette. And what do you drink with a truffle? It has to be Pinot Noir, the farmyard notes of the truffle compliment the perfumed savoury character of the wine. The best Pinot Noir in the Languedoc comes from Domaine de Clovallon, but we didn’t choose Catherine’s top wine, her Pomarèdes, but her young, more simple Pinot Noir, the 2009 vintage, with some lovely fresh raspberry fruit. It complimented the egg and the truffle perfectly.

A few days later we had another Midi moment, this time with Catherine. She had invited us for dinner – first of all a magnum of Sangiovese di Romagna from Fattoria Zerbina, a lovely unusual choice, especially in the Languedoc, and then her friend Nicole had made a chocolate mousse to die for. It was feather light and deliciously rich, and Catherine served 2000 Mas Amiel, Maury. This estate is one of the most articulate exponents of wine with chocolate arguing that their vintage wines, with their red berry fruit and hints of liquorice provide a perfect accompaniment. And last Saturday it did.

Monday, 10 January 2011


The annual Salon des vignerons Independents in Paris is great opportunity, not only for discovering new wines, but also for catching up with old favourites. Mas du Soleilla on the Massif of La Clape comes into that category.

Christa Wildbolz was pouring the wines; her husband Peter was travelling elsewhere in the world, was it Hong Kong or Japan? They bought their vineyard back in the spring of 2002, after a long search,begining in the Rhone Valley and gradually moving west to discover La Clape. Peter and Christa come from Switzerland; he had studied oenology at Bordeaux and worked as an agricultural engineer, and now it was the moment to do his own thing. The first time I tasted his wines, at a small fair in London, about six years ago, I found them quite heavy and oaky. Since then he has fine-tuned them significantly and they are elegant and refined. And I’ve been to visit the estate, and seen the fabulously situated Clôt de l’Amandier.

2009 La Rupture La Clape blanc - 13.00€
2009 is the first vintage of this white, which comes mainly from Bourboulenc, the traditional white variety of la Clape, with some Roussanne. The nose is very intriguing; I found notes of fennel and the taste had a certain salty, sappiness, with fresh acidity. The wine is mainly vinified in stainless steel and enjoys some lees stirring.

2008 La Clape blanc Reserve – 18.00€
A blend of 55% Bourboulenc and 45% Roussanne, with the Bourboulenc fermented and aged in vat and the Roussanne in new barrels, for nine months. The nose is quite firm and nutty, and on the palate the oak is well integrated, with similar notes of fennels and the influence of the sea. Nicely rounded and nutty, with good mouth feel.

2008 Les Chailles, La Clape rouge – 14.00€
Chailles means cailloux or stones in Occitan, and is the name of the plot, which is planted with Grenache and Syrah. The wine is kept in vat. On a cold December day in Paris, this was sunshine in a glass. Rounded and ripe on the nose; supple and spicy on the palate and eminently gouleyant.

2008 L’Intrus, La Clape -
A blend of Carignan, Grenache and Syrah – the name stems from the fact that they do not have their own Carignan, hence the intrusion. There is some lovely fruit, and a beautiful balance, with a certain elegant rusticity that I associate with good Carignan. The wine has been kept in 500 litre barrels. 2008 is the first vintage, and sadly there may not be another, as their neighbour has pulled up his plot of Carignan.

2008 Les Bartelles – 18.00€
A blend of Syrah and Grenache. Good colour. Quite firm quite solid rounded ripe fruit. Quite a dense palate, wit ha firm tannic streak. A long finish. Aged in wood for six month, partly new. Needs time and should develop beautifully.

2008 Terre du Vent, ICP Coteaux de Narbonne. – 22€
A vin de pays ,or IGP for the blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, aged in barrel. Deep colour; quite rounded ripe fruit. Cassis notes and quite fleshy and ripe on the palate with a touch of oak. Nicely balanced. A long finish and masses of ageing potential.

2007 Clôt de l’Amandier – 35€
From Syrah and 50 year old Grenache, from a wonderful vineyard site in the middle of the Massif of la Clape. Deep colour; quite solid nose, with rich olive tapenade notes. Rich rounded palate with silky tannins. Masses of ageing potential and very stylish.

2008 Petit Mars – 9.00€
This is their entry level wine, the most accessible of the range, a blend of Syrah and Grenache Noir aged in vat. Medium colour; rounded ripe nose; easy fresh palate, with some spicy ripe fruit. Very accessible. A lovely drink. And apparently Mars Bars protested about the choice of name, but their brand is only registered for chocolate!!


Monday, 3 January 2011


It was a wonderfully sunny day, one of those winter days that are too good to be true. We had arranged to meet friends for lunch in Bouzigues, at La Côte Bleue, to be precise. The restaurant is on the edge of the étang de Thau, and the dining room looks out on the oyster beds. The lagoon was a bright blue and the water was sparkling in the sunshine It was almost too perfect.

And not only is Bouzigues famous for its oysters, but it is also adjoins the cru of Picpoul de Pinet, so as far as I was concerned, the only possible choice for lunch was a dozen oysters, washed down with Picpoul de Pinet. La Côte Bleue serves its own cuvée of Picpoul from the excellent cooperative of Pinet, and the combination was perfect, the refreshing salty acidity of the wine complimenting the oyster like a squeeze of lemon. All seemed very right with the world.

New Year’s Eve was pretty good too – not a New Year’s Eve party, just three friends for dinner, with a couple of Languedoc highlights. Domaine de Cabrol is the leading estate of the tiny appellation of Cabardès, which is where the Languedoc meets the grape varieties of Bordeaux. However, their Cuvée Vent de l’Est is predominantly Syrah and has the wonderful peppery fruit, that I associate with Syrah. Definitely one of the best Syrah of the Languedoc.

We also had a bottle of 2002 Cuvée Hardiesse from Château de Valflaunès, one of the newer estates of Pic St. Loup, from a young wine grower who has seen the world, working in Oregon and New Zealand. This cuvée is a blend of Grenache Noir, Carignan and Mourvèdre; it was more rugged and less refined than the Vent de l’Est, but none the worse for that.

And we finished the evening with Banyuls, rather than port, with the Roquefort and walnuts – 2006 Cuvée Léon Parcé from Domaine de la Rectorie, with deliciously ripe perfumed liquorice fruit.

Bonne Année.