Saturday, 25 May 2013

La Clape - les Sentiers Gourmands

It is the season of balades  vigneronnes, so last Sunday saw us walking Les Sentiers Gourmands on the Massif of la Clape.  This year the walk was at Château Rouquette sur Mer,  just by the roundabout at the entrance of Narbonne Plage.    This estate totals some 400 hectares, of which only about fifty hectares are vineyards; the rest is garrigues and so perfect terrain for a greast walk.   You are never far from the sea, and there are good tracks through the garrigues and past vineyards, young and old.   You can also enjoy dramatic views of the steep cliffs of la Clape, making it some of the finest of Languedoc scenery.    The wet spring has ensured that the wild flowers were at their best, with brilliant yellow broom and white and pink cistus.   And the wind kept us alert, and hanging on to our sun hats.  I nearly lost mine in a vineyard on more than one occasion.

First stop was for oysters from Gruissan – but there was a bit of a bottleneck, so we decided to give molluscs a miss, but we did try the wines intended to accompany them.  A choice of three of which the best was Château Mire l’Etang Blanc 2012.  It was delicately salty and fresh with good acidity, while Château Capitoul,  Rocaille 2012 was fuller and more mouth filling, with a touch of oak and vanilla.

The food was provided by a restaurant in Narbonne, les Cuisiniers Cavistes, and very good it was too.  The mise en bouche was a cappuccino of asparagus with a little ham, some tomato and a hint of piment d’Espelette.  I love asparagus, and this was simply delicious, with an intense flavour.  The best wine here was 2012 Château Laquirou Blanc, Albus, a blend of Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc.  It was lightly herbal, with ripe fruit and a satisfying mouth feel, balanced with acidity. 

The path took us past vineyards with views of the sea, and a mule named Vanina who was demonstrating the old fashioned art of ploughing a vineyard.   

And then it was on to the cold starter, a terrine of quail and pigeon, with juniper.   

Vianney Fabre was pouring 2009 Château d’Anglès blanc, the grand vin, which is fermented in oak.  However,  Vianney was very insistent on the fact that the barrels were two years old, so they avoided any obvious oaky flavours.  The oak was indeed very well integrated, with ripe fruit and good body and weight.   The blend is 40% Bourboulenc, with 20% each of Grenache, Marsanne and Roussanne.    

At the adjacent  barrel was a name that was new to me, Domaine l’Angel, with a 2012 rosé, that was fresh and rounded, and avoided the pitfall of bonbons anglais, a term that  the French use to describe the taste of young rosé with an excess of amylic acid.    M. Kleinrichert explained that he worked the lees separately to avoid those  aromes primaires.  The palate was nicely rounded with herbal notes, and a touch of raspberry on the palate, from a blend of 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah.

2011 Château de Figuières rouge had quite a firm leathery nose and palate, and was warm and gutsy with a ripe finish.    And 2008 Château Ricardelle rouge, Closablieres had been aged in oak, with some vanilla on the nose, and quite a firm leathery palate. 

The hot starter was a delicious ravioli of lobster, in a cream of saffron, and we ate it looking out at the sea.   And the best accompaniment was the white wine from Château Rouquette sur Mer, 2012 Arpège, a blend of Bourboulenc and Roussanne, with a delicate nose and lightly herbal fruit and white blossom on the palate with appealing acidity and depth. 

The coop from the village of Fleury, Cave la Vendemiaire was pouring 2012 Blanc, les Arbres Blancs, a blend of Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Vermentino.  It was fresh and floral, and nicely refreshing and uncomplicated. 

2012 Château Combe des Ducs Blanc, Cuvée l’Estime was nicely salty and almondy with good acidity, and some white blossom and satisfying texture.

For the meat course, a succulent civet de canard, with some mashed potatoes flavoured with truffle oil, we had a great view of the ruined château of la Rouquette sur Mer. It dates from the 14th century but was abandoned after the phylloxera crisis, when it was noticed that the vines survived better in the sandier soil closer to the coast.  Then it was badly damaged during the Second World War and is now a picturesque ruin, with the remains of German defences nearby a reminder of the vulnerability of the coastline.    And there were ten wines to try. 

My friends Susan and Peter Munday were pouring the lone rosé, Château Moyau, a blend of Cinsaut and Grenache, which was fresh and fruity with good acidity, providing some nicely uncomplicated drinking.

Château Moujan changed hands a year or so ago and the new owner, Patrick Massoleni has as yet to bottle any wine.  He had two vat samples to try, an old Carignan, with some promising berry fruit and structured, and a Syrah with fresh peppery flavours.  They promised well for what will be the Cuvée Parole
d'Homme 2012.

Château Abbaye des Monges 2010, Augustine,   was a blend of Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, with only 10% of the cuvée aged in oak.  There was some dry spice on the nose, with some ripe fruit and a good balance of tannin on the palate. 

2010 Domaine Pech Redon, l’Epervier was also unoaked, with some dry leathery spicy fruit and a satisfying balance of tannins.  

Peter Close was pouring Château Camplazens, la Garrigue, and looking remarkably alert  for somebody who had flown in from the States the previous day.  However, he had had some good news – their 2011 Premium has just won a trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards, so he was dead chuffed.    La Garrigue was ripe and spicy, with a leathery note and a touch of orange.  It went well with the civet, as did Rouquette sur Mer’s  2011 Cuvée Henry Lapierre.   That is a blend of 75% Syrah with Mourvèdre, aged in new oak.  There was youthful oak on both nose and palate, but it was well integrated with lovely ripe fruit, avoiding the pitfall of oak leaching the fruit, which seemed to be the main problem with some of the wines that I did not enjoy so much.

And then it was on to the cheese course, a selection of goats’ cheese from Mas Combebelle near Bize-Minervois.  Domaine Ferri-Arnaud was pouring their white wine, 2011 Fleurs Blanches, which went deliciously with the goats’ cheese.  It was fresh and delicate, with some herbal notes.   The white from Château des Karantes was more solid. 

Christa Wildbolz from Mas de Soleilla was offering 2010 les Chailles, which is Grenache with a little Syrah, and no oak.  There was some lovely liqueur cherry fruit on the nose and palate, and  it was ripe and rounded, with appealing spice and a tannic streak.  And she also had incognito as she put it, their 2011 white, which is a blend of Bourboulenc and Roussanne, with a touch of oak, with fruit and texture.  It made a lovely finale, as we had decided to skip pudding.  And then it was time to go home,  for a cup of tea!



Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Back in the Languedoc

Husband picked up at the airport and home to open a welcoming bottle or two.  

My friend Amélie d’Hurlaborde from Mas d’Amile in Montpeyroux made her very first white wine last year, a Terret Blanc,  IGP Mont Baudile, and I had a bottle to try.   It was delicious.  Terret Blanc is one of those grape varieties that used to be grown extensively in the Languedoc and then rather like Carignan was neglected and despised, and is now enjoying something of a comeback, especially if the vines are old, fifty years or more.  One of the reasons it works so well in the Languedoc is the high acidity level.  Amélie’s wine had a touch of peach on the nose and a delicate rounded palate, with a little peachy fruit and some refreshing acidity.  The flavours were understated, with a satisfying texture on the palate.  

And then we checked out our old favourite Vieux Carignan from Domaine de Nizas, which goes so well with barbecued sausages from our local butcher.  It was the 2009 vintage, which very sadly is the very last vintage of this wine.  The elderly Carignan vines have been pulled up in favour of Syrah.  And this was drinking as well as always, with some ripe berry fruit on the nose and palate.  There was a satisfying richness, with a touch of spice and a balancing streak of tannin.  Thank goodness we still have three more bottles left to enjoy, and then we shall transfer our allegiance to Les Trois Terres, the old Carignan from Mas Gabriel.

Asparagus is still in season so that was irresistible for dinner earlier in the week.  But then the question arises: what to drink with asparagus?  In the Languedoc  Muscat Sec is favoured, so that is what I opened, 2012 Muscat Sec from Domaine la Croix Belle in the Côtes de Thongue .    The combination of grapey flavours with a bitter pithiness and a touch of orange zest just seemed to compliment the asparagus, that I served very simply with a drizzle of local olive oil and a scattering of grated Vieux  Cantal. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

A day with the Mediterranean Garden Society

You may well ask what gardens have to do with wine, apart from the fact that a vineyard can be considered a garden.   As it happens there are two wine estates in the Languedoc, and probably some others that I don’t know about, that do have stunning gardens, and make rather good wine, namely Château de Flaugergues and Château de l’Engarran.   Both are within easy reach of Montpellier.   My old school friend, Heather Martin, is secretary of the UK branch of the Mediterranean Garden Society and one of the things she does is organise wonderful garden holidays for the members.  This year she decided to focus on Pézenas and asked me to join them for a day and add a vinous perspective to the visits. 

First we went to the Château de Flaugergues, in the area of Méjanelle, and these days almost surrounded by the encroaching suburbs of Montpellier, which makes it a delightful oasis in the middle of urban sprawl.  It is the property of the de Colbert family, descendants of Louis XIV’s minister, who was responsible for the building of the canal du Midi.   First we were taken round the garden – I am no garden expert but I do enjoy looking at them, even in the drizzle that was Thursday’s weather.   There are formal gardens of box hedges, a wonderful forest of bamboo and a small garden of the five senses.  Roses were in flower.

And then we tasted, with Pierre de Colbert. 

2012 la Sommelière Blanc
A blend of Rolle, Viognier, Grenache blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne.  It had a lightly herbal nose, with more white blossom on the palate and sufficient acidity to provide freshness.  A nice balance and a good finish. 

2012 Cuvee des Comtes rosé
A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Cinsaut.  A very delicate pale colour. There is a trend in the Languedoc to emulate the pale tones of Cotes de Provence rosé.  On the nose there were hints of raspberry and some herbal notes, with fresh acidity and some dry herbal fruit on the palate.  It had only just been bottled, and I thought it would taste more forthcoming in a month or so.  The Syrah part is saigné  and the Grenache and Cinsaut are pressed.   Pierre observed that rosé consumption is on the increase in France.  And he has used screw caps for ten years, which is pretty innovative for the average French wine grower – the French consumer does not like screw caps, but most of Pierre’s sales are on the export market, with China in number one position. 

2011 Cuvée des Comtes red is a blend of Grenache 50% , Syrah 40% and Mourvèdre 10%,   The Mourvèdre gives acidity and spiciness.  It is a late ripener, so they do not pick it until the end of September and it enjoys the proximity to the sea; they are only 6 kilometres from the sea, and at an altitude of 45 metres. 2011 was not a tannic vintage and  the wine was medium in colour, with some ripe brambly fruit on the nose, from the Grenache, with some leathery notes, and some ripe fruit.  We later enjoyed it for lunch.

2011 la Sommelière, a blend of 65% Syrah, with 30% Grenache and a touch of Mourvèdre, and again with no ageing in oak.  There were peppery notes on the nose from the Syrah, with a deeper colour and more structure and depth than the Cuvée des Comtes.  

Château de Flaugergues is also worth a visit as it has a rather good restaurant – we had an imaginative starter, with some cauliflower puree, a poached egg and a slice of chorizo – it made a surpassingly tasty combination.   And next came an elegant filet  of fish, a lieu,  which I think is related to hake.    And to accompany lunch, as well as the Cuvée des Comtes there was another white wine, Foliae 2012.   I was slightly taken aback by the bright blue bottle.  It was light and fresh with some acidity.   The château is also open to the public – we saw an elegant dining room with the table laid with lovely old wine glasses and porcelain,  and the library, and a magnificent staircase adorned with tapestries.  And the house is still lived in by the de Colbert family, so it feels more like a home than a monument historique.

And then we went to the Château de l’Engarran, in St. Georges d’Orques, which like Méjanelle comes within the Grès de Montpellier.   At l’Engarran we were welcomed by Diane Losfelt , the winemaker there.  I’ve blogged about l’Engarran before but on this visit Diane was in particularly theatrical mode and gave us a lovely interpretation of the various symbols in the carvings on the façade of the chateau.   And the gardens are formal, but nonetheless exude great charm with their statues and urns and a large pond.

And of course the visit finished with a tasting;
2012 Cuvée la Lionne, Pays d’Oc, a pure Sauvignon with some ripe fruit.  Sauvignon from the Midi never has the crisp minerality of the Loire Valley; this was ripe and rounded; quite soft with good fruit and some ripe varietal character.

2011 Cuvée Ste Cécile, Languedoc, a blend of 43% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 15% Carignan and 12% Cinsaut. It is refreshingly unoaked, with some ripe spicy fruit on the nose and ripe liqueur cherries and a streak of tannin on the palate.  It provided warming Midi sunshine on a rather cool day..

2009 Château de l’Engarran, Grès de Montpellier.  A blend of 73% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 6% Carignan and just a touch of Mourvèdre and Cinsaut, given 12 months in oak.  This is more serious.  The colour was deep, with a rounded nose, with hints of vanilla, spice and mocha that were repeated on the palate.   A good note on which to finish the tasting of the day. 

And then we went to look at a field of irises which has survived a battering in the rain of the previous day.


The Mediterranean Garden Society is a must for anyone at all interested in gardening in Languedoc.  Check out their website: 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Greece and Decanter

Apologies for completely neglecting my blog over the last couple of weeks.  I could say that I don’t know where the days have gone, but I do – and they did not allow time for blogging.

First of all I was on an MW study trip to Greece, an action-packed week, with 19 other MWs culminating with two days on the fabulous island of Santorini, and organised with consummate skill by the one Greek MW, Konstantinos Lazarakis.  He is the most fantastic ambassador for his country’s wines.   And each day was full of new discoveries.

We began the week in Athens, with a tasting of wines from Crete – in a restaurant appropriately called Dionyssos, and superbly situated at the foot of the Acropolis.  It was a tasting and dinner with a view.  My Greek friend, Sandra, who I stayed with the previous day, read my programme and observed: you are going to eat well, and we did.  Memories of tepid moussaka from my student days were put to rest by the wonderful  array of delicious and creative dishes.  I had no idea that Greek food could be quite so good, and so full of variety and flavour.      

But I digress: we were there for the wine. We visited a few wine estates in key appellations, namely Nemea, the largest red appellation based on the Agiorgitiko grape, and Naoussa and also Amynteon based on gutsy Xinomavro.  We went north to Thessaloniki and as far south as Napflion, a stunning coastal town in the Peloponnese, but in the interests of tasting as many wines as possible, and meeting as many producers as possible, the wine growers usually travelled to a central point for a collective tasting. That way, one of our number counted, that we clocked up 92 producers and 390 wines.    Usually the tastings were at a wine estate or restaurant, but one was in a fabulous museum of modern jewellery at the foot of the Acropolis.   The charms of Robola of Cephalonia and delicious dessert wines from Samos were almost put into the shade.  And then we had a cheese tasting – cheese is a absolute staple of the Greek diet – and we learned that there are variations in feta, as well as other harder cheeses.

A day did not go past without a new grape variety – from Crete there were white varieties Athiri and Vidiano, and Kotsifali for red.  Nemea is only Agiorgitiko, so less surprises there.  A  tasting of the white wines of Mantinia introduced us to Moschofilero, with its lightly muscaty flavours.  From elsewhere in the Peloponnese we encountered Mavrodaphne,  Lagorthi and Asproudes, Roditis, Black Korinthiaki, and Mavroudi.  Macedonia produced Xinomavro, and Limnio, but also grows the usual suspects amongst the international varieties, Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and others.  

A tasting of Thessaly wines in a lovely old family tavern in Piraeus produced white Debina and red Limonia, Krasato and Stavroto, sometimes as blends and sometimes as a single variety. From the Aegean and Ionian islands there was Fokiano from Ikaria,  Robola from Cephalonia, Monemavassia and Mandilaria from Paros, and Mandilaria. Attica grows Savatiano, Malagousia, as well as Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc,and  is also the home of retsina, which we did not escape completely, but I have to admit to a perverse  liking for those fresh gingery resinous flavours.  

And then we flew to Santorini.  There is no denying that this was the absolute highlight of the week.  The viticulture is so extreme that it has to be seen to be believed.    The vines need protection from fierce wind, and fierce sunshine, and so they are pruned in the shape of protective baskets in a small hollow.   The soil is volcanic ash, with some pumice and other stones, but there is no organic matter, and it is astonishing that anything grows at all, but it does.  The vines depend on sea mist for moisture and can tap some moisture retained by the pumice stones after occasional rain, and the island is phylloxera immune.  If there is no clay, there is no phylloxera.  Actual replanting is rare.  When a vine needs replacing, it is ‘decapitated’ and will regenerate from the existing deep root system – this can be done about every 80 years – and when it is finally dying, after about 400 years, they practice the system of provinage, taking a shoot and placing it in the ground so that it will grow roots.   There are very few plantings, as you would normally understand them.  Yields are tiny and the principal white grape variety is Assyrtiko, which is also found in northern Greece, but on the island it takes on a fabulously original mineral character.    There is no doubt that Assyrtiko is my new favourite grape variety, and well worth seeking out. 

And you may well ask what all this has to do with the Languedoc and the short answer would be ‘not a lot’ but I think that,  like the Languedoc, Greece is in the process of discovering its true potential.  It may have been making wine for thousands of years but until very recently, methods in both vineyard and cellar have been pretty primitive, but now you sense that all that is changing – and there is an enormous amount to explore and discover.   True, there is the  underlying economic situation to consider, but our hosts chose not to mention it – and increased wine sales especially on the export market can only help. 

And why did I also entitle this posting Decanter?  Last week I spent five intensive days chairing the Languedoc-Roussillon panel for Decanter World Wine Awards.  Results are embargoed until later in the month, so I cannot comment more than to say that there were some lovely wines, and also some not so good.  But more on that in due course.  I am flying to Montpellier on Monday so my next posting from the Languedoc.