Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Domaine du Pas de l'Escalette

A lovely sunny afternoon in the Languedoc in mid-September.  (sorry, I'm a bit behind with posts)  You might have expected the vintage to be underway, but everything was running late this year.  We has a picnic on the banks of the lac de Salagou, looking at the wonderful contrast of red rocks and clear blue water, and my friend, Monique, even took a dip. She pronounced the water to be refreshing.  And then we headed north up the motorway to the pas de lEscalette, which marks the passage between the Larzac and the Mediterranean.  Certainly when you are driving south down the A75, you sense a change of climate and atmosphere as you can come over the pass.  

Delphine and Julien Zernott have their new cellar just outside the village of Pégairolles, but first Delphine took us for a drive through the vineyards.  Languedoc vineyards are often pretty dramatic; these are especially so, with views of the pass and the craggy hills on either side of the motorway.  There was a gentle roar of traffic but we were well above it, so you could ignore it.

Delphine and Julien first came down to the Languedoc in 2003.  Julien was making wine in Menetou Salon at the time for Henri Pellé.  They started with eight hectares and now have fifteen, all cultivated biodynamically, in the villages of Lauroux and Pégairolles, at an altitude of 350 to 450 metres.  For red wine they have the usual Languedoc varieties, Grenache, Carignan, Cinsaut and Syrah.  Their oldest vines are 80 years old and their vineyards comprise a multitude of old terraces,  35 all together, of which the largest is just 80 ares.  We stopped to taste some Cinsaut grapes.  Cinsaut can be a table grape as well as a wine grape, and these were still very sour, not yet fit for either wine or the table.  They also have a vineyard in the adjoining valley of Lauroux, 50 ares of  beautifully restored terraces.  This is colder than the main valley, so that the grapes ripen later there.   And there are electric wires as a preventative measure against wild boars. 

Then back to the cellar to admire the tronconique  vats.  It is a well planned cellar, built into the hillside and partly underground, allowing for some natural insulation. 

And now for tasting.  We kicked off with the 2012 rosé

2012 Ze rosé, Languedoc - 9.50
I had enjoyed this at the Terrasses du Larzac walk earlier in the summer, and it was just as good a couple of months later.  Very pale colour.  Delicate rounded nose.  Dry fruit on the palate.  A mineral note.  Firm and dry, delicate and yet powerful.  Lovely balance and very satisfying.  Grenache is the main variety, with some Carignan.  They are the most productive vines of the estate, so destined for rosé rather than red wine. 

2012 les Clapas blanc, Pays de l'Hérault 20.90
Clapas is the local term for the dry stones walls, les murgers, that you see in the vineyards.  The blend is Carignan Blanc, Terret Bourret, which is another name for Terret Gris, and Grenache Blanc. Light colour. Notes of fennel on the nose - it grows wild in abundance around the vineyards.  Good mouth feel, with leesy texture. Fennel on the palate too and a touch of spice. The Terret and the Grenache do a malo, but not the Carignan.  Lovely satisfying finish and length.

2012 Ze Cinsaut - 13.60
A short cuvaison, 15 to 20 days in stainless steel vats.  All destemmed.  I tend to think of Cinsaut as the Beaujolais of the Midi, and I love both.  This is delicious.  Light red colour.  Fresh and fruity and very juicy. Some lovely spice, a streak of tannin to balance the fruit.  2012 is their first vintage of this wine.  Previously the grapes have gone into red les Clapas. I thought it was delicious.

2012 Les Petits Pas - 9.90
The name is a reference to the patter of tiny feet, of their two small children, Jules and Gabrielle.  And the wine comes from new plantings of Grenache and Syrah.  Élevage in vat.  Dry spice on the nose.  And a rounded youthful palate.  Medium weight.

2011 les Clapas, Terrasses du Larzac- 13.60
Old Grenache and Carignan, and a little Cinsaut and Syrah.  Part of the Carignan is aged in wood. Quite a firm closed nose.  Some spicy nose. Some structure, some elegance, smoky and long.  Julien is emphatic that it is essential to do the minimum in the cellar.

2011 Le Grand Pas -25
80% Grenache, with some Carignan.  Bottled in May.  Élevage only in vat, to retain the fruit.  A wine to age.  Ripe cherry liqueur fruit on the nose, and on the palate youthful freshness, with rounded spicy fruit and some tannin.  Ripe and long, but not heavy.  They explained that this is a Grenache daltitude, with some freshness.  Grenache performs well at higher altitudes, as it does not get so alcoholic.

And they were quite sold out of le Pas de lEscalette, a blend of Cinsaut, Grenache and Carignan, all fermented together.  Never mind, it was still a great visit.  Their white wine is one of the great whites of the Languedoc, and from indigenous Languedoc varieties too.  And I was able to buy some of the last few bottles of that rosé

Friday, 13 December 2013

Château Viranel in St. Chinian

Again it had been a while since I had visited Château Viranel, so it was high time to remedy that.  You take a road outside Cessenon and follow the Orb river.  Nicolas Bergasse showed us round.  Viranel has been in his family since 1551. He works with his brother Arnaud, who does sales, while Nicolas is the winemaker. They have an enormous cellar, with concrete vats, of different sizes, as well as some stainless vats for storage, and some barrels.    There are two buildings that date from 1887 and 1870, at a time when  they concentrated on a produit de masse, and needed grosses marmites, the enormous indestructible concrete vats.  And the house dates from 1900. 

Nicolas talked about their vinification methods.  They favour délèstages, especially at the beginning of the fermentation, to extract fruit, as well as a few remontages and a bit of pigeage.  They submerge the cap and leave it to infuse for at least a couple of weeks, and possibly as long as six weeks, depending on the cuvée.  
Then we went for a drive through the vineyards.  They have 32 hectares in production with a further 8 hectares planted.  The estate totals 60 hectares altogether.

 The most original grape variety is the old Alicante Bouschet, just 2.40 hectares of it, that was planted in 1939 by Nicolas’ great great grandfather.  And Nicolas planted some more, just three years ago.  He has some land that is too flat for appellation St. Chinian and so produces vins de pays.  This gives him two ranges, the appellation wines come from the hillside sites, and the vin de pays from alluvial vineyards near the river.  He reminded me that Alicante Bouschet is a cross of Petit Bouschet and Grenache Noir that was developed by Henri Bouschet in 1855.   It is a teinturier variety so that the juice is coloured a deep red.  And that is why it was planted in the first place, to add extra colour to more anaemic looking wines.  As for flavour it is quite rustic, with quite firm tannins and high acidity.  If Grenache has 2.5 gm/l acid, Alicante has 5/6 gms/l.  It has thin skins which make it susceptible to rot, and also rather astringent stalks.

In the vineyard they practice lutte raisonée, and use no chemical weed killer, and their own compost from the marc.  Nicolas took us to a viewpoint, with a cross, where you could see over the vineyards.   There are the remains of a gallo-roman villa, and they have found amphora.  150 people once lived there, and a Roman road goes close by. 

And then it was back to taste in the kitchen

2012 Languedoc Blanc -7.00€
They don’t have the right grapes for St Chinian. Grenache Blanc dominant, 75%, with some Roussanne and Bourboulenc.  The Vermentino is not yet in production.  A classic vinification without any wood.  Light and fresh with herbal notes on the palate, and slightly bitter on the finish, but none the worse for that.  The Grenache is grown on clay and limestone, and also sandstone, which adds complexity.

2012 Viognier, Pays de Cessenon – 8.30€
Light coloured. A delicate nose.   Dry and peachy with slightly bitter fruit.  It lacked a bit of oomph, for a Viognier.

2012 St. Chinian rosé – 7.00€
Syrah and Grenache, saigné and Cinsaut pressed.  Pale orange pink.  Light fruit on the nose, and on the palate rounded with some weight and ripe fruit. A food rosé.

2012 Trilogie, Pays de l’Hérault - 6.30€
One third each of Alicante, Syrah and Cabernet Franc. Medium young colour, with a slightly rustic note on the nose, as well as some red fruit.  And on the palate there was plenty of red fruit, with a tannic streak and a rustic note, and a fruity finish.  Nicolas called it un vin de pétanque!  Something not too serious to quaff while you are playing a game of boules.  He explained that it is given a short maceration so that the fruit does not dry out.

2011 Arômes Sauvages, Pays de Cessenon – 8.70€
This was pure Alicante Bouschet.  Medium colour.  Some rustic fruit on the nose, and on the palate  quite rustic with firm tannins.  The grapes come from the same plot as for the previous wine, but they are given  a longer extraction of about 20 days.

2012 – the same wine as a vat sample.  Good colour, with quite a firm nose, and quite dense ripe fruit. Youthful fresh red fruit, with a certain charm.

2010 St. Chinian Tradition – 7.70€
40% Grenache, 40% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre and 10% Carignan.  A little élevage in barrel, 400 litre barrels and certainly not new.  And only for 15-20% of the cuvée.  The Syrah and Mourvèdre go into wood, but not the Grenache, and everything is blended after about 18 months, and bottled about six months later.  Deep colour.  Black fruit on the nose, and on the palate spicy black fruit, with a balancing streak of tannin. 

2010 St. Chinian V de Viranel – 11.70€
Deep colour.  Quite firm structured nose, and on the palate, finely crafted with good tannins and elegant fruit.  They make just 3000 bottles of this, as opposed to 30,000 bottles of Tradition.

Nicolas then talked figures.  They still do a little vrac, sales by the litre.  The going rate is 1.10€ - 1.20€ for a litre of St. Chinian and 70cts for vin de pays.  And the average cost of producing a litre of bulk wine, so without any habillage, bottle, capsule or label, is 1.50€.  The economics are far from satisfactory.

And we finished with Gourmandise, vin de liqueur mistelle, Cartagène  - 12.70€ for 50cls.
Nicolas explained that it is made in a kind of solera that was begun in 1987. They produce about 1 – 2 hectolitres per year, consisting  two thirds of saigné juice and one third alcohol.  And each year they bottle 500 bottles, which represent one tenth of the solera.  It is a vin de liqueur from the must of fresh grapes and eau de vie du Languedoc.  Two thirds of the alcohol has been aged for two or three years, and the other third is new, white alcohol.   The fruit of the grapes and the alcohol must blend; they are mixed together and then put into old barrels.  And the result was quite delicious.  Good colour.  The nose was redolent of liqueur cherries, with spices, cinnamon and it was wonderfully soothing on the palate.  You could describe it as alcoholic cough medicine!   I really felt that it was doing me good.  The alcohol is very well integrated, the effect of the solera.  And we sipped it with some figs that had been cooked  in the same cartagène.  It was a marriage made in heaven.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Château Milhau Lacugue

Jean Lacugue was my godfather when I was intronised into the St. Chinian Confrérie last summer, but I had not seen him chez lui since my research for The Wines of the South of France at the end of the last millennium!  So another visit was well overdue.  . 

Milhau is a tiny hamlet between the village of Puisserguier and the enchanting ruined abbey of Fontcaude. First of all Jean took us for drive through the vineyards; he has 60 hectares of vines on the 100 hectare property.  He explained that the origins of the property are Roman, from the 1st century BC.  Villa Emilia became Milhau.  It is a wonderful spot, with dramatic views of the Caroux that dominates the skyline of St. Chinian.  Jean gave me a detailed explanation of the geology, how two geological plates met and pushed up lower strata of rock, but we were on a bumpy track making any detailed note-taking well-nigh impossible! He took us to various viewpoints; the soil is red and very stony with clay, and he also has some schist, and some sandstone, and there are a lot of underground water sources.  He explained how his parents bought the estate some 45 years ago and that he took over full responsibility in 1993, although he had already started working on the estate in 1982, after qualifying as an oenologist in 1980.  And then it was back to his welcoming little tasting room.

2012 St. Chinian Blanc - 5.00
Two thirds Roussanne to one third Grenache Blanc.  In vat and bottled early, in December.  Light colour. Almondy nose. Quite firm acidity on the palate. Roussanne gives a touch of apricots, and also cloves, Jean suggested, while the Grenache blanc provides some fleurs blanches. Quite rounded, with dry honey on the finish.

2012 St. Chinian rosé 5.00
Jean said that he had given this wine a new look in that it is lighter in colour than usual and he no longer includes any Syrah.  And there used to be 50% Grenache Noir, but has been reduced to 25%, with 25% Mourvèdre and 50% Cinsaut.  The Cinsaut and Mourvèdre are saigné and the Grenache pressed.  A rounded, ripe nose and on the palate quite mouth filling with raspberry fruit and fresh acidity.   Nicely balanced.   Jean has also planted some Piquepoul Noir, which is allowed in the appellation of Coteaux du Languedoc.  He will have vinified it for the first time in 2013, as an experiment for the rosé.

2010 St. Chinian, Cuvée Magali 5.00
After his daughter, as a 20th birthday present.  What a great birthday present, to have a wine named after you!  I was quite jealous!  Syrah dominates, with some Grenache and Cinsaut.
Quite a deep young colour.  Quite a ripe nose, red fruit, and cherries and warming.  The palate is quite ripe and soft, and very supple, with some spice.  I would have preferred a little more grip, and a little less alcohol, but it makes for easy undemanding drinking.

2008 St. Chinian, Cuvée des Chevaliers 7.00
The cuvée has been produced since 1980. Again Syrah, with Grenache and Cinsaut, but from older vines, now at least 30 years old.  Quite a deep colour.  Quite rich with concentrated black fruit on the nose.  Much more than for Cuvée Magali.  And a rounded palate with ripe black fruit.  Rich and supple and quite mature.  Élevage only in vat.  Jean has given up on barriques; he feels quite strongly they dont achieve anything, but just add a bit of make up to the wine.  He made his last oaked wine, Réserve du Commandant, in 2007, and has now dropped that cuvée. 

2010 St. Chinian les Truffières 13.00
From the highest vineyards, at 205 metres, near some truffle oaks.  On very stony clay and limestone soil.  77% Syrah to 23% Grenache.  Élevage in vat.  Rounded ripe spice.  Youthful fruit; black fruit and spice on the palate and a hint of liquorice, with good depth.

2010 Syrah, les Truffières, Vin de France 15.00
These vines were planted in 1990 and the wine has spent at least 18 month in vat.  Good colour.  Quite a firm closed nose.  Firm young palate, but with some rich fruit to develop.  Good concentration.  Quite rich and mouth filling.  Develops in the glass, some leathery notes, liquorice. And black fruit.   The first vintage of this wine was 2005; Jean wanted to see how Syrah would perform on its own. 

2008 Les Curées Expression Syrah.  Pays de lHerault. 14.00
The name of the hill, and nothing at all to do with priests.  6 10 months of élevage.  Deep colour; quite rich and leathery on the nose.  Quite ripe, with a certain confit note.  I didnt find it very Syrah; it seemed more Grenache in character, richer and exuberant, and pretty alcoholic at 15˚.  The difference between this and the previous wine lies in the soil; the vines are on different hillsides.

2008 les Curées, Expression Grenache, Pays de l’Herault – 14.00€
The same vinification as for the Syrah, with délèstages and racking and one month on the skins.   Quite a solid dense nose.  Quite perfumed and ripe on the palate, with fresher acidity on the finish. The Grenache was showing better than the Syrah, but apparently a few days ago it was the other way round.

2008 les Curées, St. Chinian – 17.00€
Half Syrah and half Grenache, so basically a blend of the two previous wines.  Medium colour.  Quite closed with concentrated black fruit on the nose.  Rounded, ripe and dense with a tannin streak and quite a sweet finish.  The wine evolved in the glass, becoming more spicy, as we chatted, acquiring more depth. 

And then Jean asked if we would like to try something a bit more mature.   I never say no to that question, so he produced a bottle of 1996 Cuvée des Chevaliers.  He called 1996 a ‘millésime de circonstances’.  There was a storm on 28th January, with heavy rain and hail.  Nearby Puisserguier was under water.  The hail crushed the tiny young buds, which were just forming, with the result that the harvest was 40% of a normal crop.  But the grapes were very good.  Medium colour.  Leathery dry spice.  Quite rounded and quite intriguing on the palate.  Rounded with some leathery notes, wax and balsamic.  There would have been a lot of Carignan in the blend, as well as some Syrah and Grenache.

Jean talked about how his wine making has evolved, and also how the work in the vineyards has changed.  Initially all the vines were gobelet bush vines; but he realised that trellised vines allows for better air circulation.  You also need to consider the ratio of leaves, the surface foliaire, to grapes.  In 1985 he started destemming the grapes, and in 2001 realised that tasting the berries was a much better way to determine ripeness, rather than relying on an analysis. 

2001 St. Chinian, Cuvée des Chevaliers
2001 was a very good vintage, his best vintage ever, with a dry summer giving good concentration, after a wet spring, so no water stress made for balanced wine.
Good colour; rich smoky and concentrated with a tannic streak.  Quite ripe and powerful on the palate, with some mineral notes.  Rich an elegant.  A leathery tannic note, with some black fruit.  Some herbs from the garrigues.  Elegant but concentrated, but not heavy.

And then a sweet note on which to finish:
2010 Grains d’Automne, Chenin blanc, Vin de France – 9.50€
Light golden colour.  Honeyed acidity on the palate.  Jan explained that you need to expose the grapes to oxygen so that the tannins don’t oxidise in the bottle.  There is a lovely freshness in the wine, with concentrated fruit and balancing acidity.  The grapes are picked about two to three weeks later than the other white grapes, but often before those for les Curées.

And then Jean opened the 2008 Grains d’Automne.  It was fascinating to compare the two. This had a deeper colour and was much richer and more honeyed, with more concentration, but again with very good balancing acidity.  It had not been in wood.  The two wines were made in the same way, and had the same alcohol level and residual sugar, 60 gms /l, but the 2008 had more acidity.  Jean observed that the higher acidity reinforces the sugar, making the wine seem sweeter.  And the flavours opened up in the glass, with quince and honey.  It was a grand finale to a lovely tasting.    Cher parrain, un grand merci!

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Château la Dournie

Château la Dournie is a fine property on the outskirts of St. Chinian on the road towards St. Pons.  Véronique Etienne had worked in sports PR and then took over the family estate from her father, about 20 years ago.  He had inherited it from his aunts.  Their vineyards consisted of lots of Aramon and a little Carignan, so her father invested a lot in the estate in the late 1950s and 1960s.  There are now forty hectares of vineyards all around the château, of which the oldest vines are 70 years old; most the rest were planted by Véroniques father.   She only has schist, so none of the argilo-calcaire, or clay and limestone that is the other terroir of St. Chinian.  Ideally she would like to have more variety.   Another disadvantage of having all your vineyards in one big plot is the risk of hail; it can be a case of all or nothing.  The river Vernazobre flows through her property, and half her vineyards, those nearest the river are not St. Chinian, but Pays dOc.  They could equally well be Pays de lHérault, or even Pays des Monts de la Grage, but nobody would know where that is.  But Hérault is even more difficult to market.  

The château is an old family house, used for family reunions, but not lived in., with the result that the interiors have not changed much since the time of the aunts, and are a fine example of French interior decoration from the early 19th century.   And there are lovely gardens with mature trees, making it an idyllic spot.  You sense that Véronique is very attached to her heritage. She talked of maintaining the tradition of the estate, of the soul of a family domaine. Je utilise les vieilles casseroles - you make the best soup in an old pot.  However, the cellar has been modernised.  Stainless steel vats have replaced the old foudres, and there are now about a hundred barrels in an enormous cellar, with a wonderful beamed ceiling, that was built in the early 19th century. 

We talked about the Vinifilles, of which Véronique is a member.  She feels that the outsiders have done a lot to develop the Languedoc, and that the Vinifilles are very successful and effective in helping to promote the region.  They also seem to enjoy themselves enormously at tastings and you sense that there is a strong common bond between them. 

Véroniques vins de pays are gradually changing.  Le Rouge de la Dournie is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.  Twenty-five years ago it was easier to sell Merlot than Vin de Pays de lHérault.  She also makes a Marselan Syrah blend and is gradually shifting towards Mediterranean varieties, and getting rid of the Merlot, but not the Cabernet Franc, as those vines are still too young.  For white varieties she has Roussanne, Vermentino and Viognier which were planted about eight years ago, and also some older Grenache Gris for St. Chinian. The grapes for the appellation wines are handpicked and the vins de pays mechanically harvested. 

We tasted in what was once the old cowshed, now attractively white-washed, but retaining the old stalls.

2012 St Chinian Rosé - 6.00
Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut.  Lightly coloured. Delicate herbal nose. Light and fresh and quite rounded easy drinking.  Grenache and Cinsaut are pressed which makes for a fresher wine, with less alcohol, while Syrah is saigné.  Inevitably there is some skin contact during pressing, as Véronique does not have a pneumatic press. 

2012 St Chinian Rosé, Léa - 9.80
2012 was the first vintage of Léa.  It is a blend of Syrah and a little Cinsaut, entailing a selection of the best Syrah juice.  Half the blend is fermented in oak and stayed in wood until November.  The oak is very well integrated, leaving a satisfying mouth feel and finish.   Nicely rounded nose, with rounded fruit on the palate, and good texture and mouth feel.  Very satisfying.  An oaked rosé that works well.

There was none of Le Blanc de la Dournie to taste, as it was sold out, so we went on to:

2012 Pays dOc blanc, Marie - 9.80
The names of the various cuvées are all after various members of the family. Marie is Véroniques daughter; Léa and Elise her two nieces, and she is planning Sarah, a late harvest wine, for another niece, and Etienne is, of course, the family name.   So Marie is pure Roussanne.  Light golden.  Leesy with a touch of oak.  White flowers, and more oak on the palate, but it is nicely integrate, with good weight and texture.  All fermented in fût, and it stays in fût until January.  Good balance but no great depth.   Véronique considers that Roussanne is the most interesting for ageing, rather than Vermentino and Viognier.

And now onto red wine:
2011 St. Chinian, Classique - 6.80
The idea of the Classique range is to show the tipicity of the schist, with accessible wines, made with a classic vinification, with a 15 - 20 days fermentation.  Mainly Syrah with some Grenache and  Carignan.  Élevage mainly in vat.  Medium colour.  Spicy red fruit. Medium weight. A little minerality from the schist.   A tannic steak.  Nicely rounded, with a dry finish

2010 St. Chinian rouge, Etienne - 10.60
Syrah, Grenache, Carignan.  A. blend of the best vats, and then into wood.  2010 was a small vintage, compared to the large vintage of 2011.  So the wine is more concentrated. There were no climatic problems in 2010. 12 months in barrel, but not new wood.  The wine opens up more slowly than the Classique, with a rounded nose and palate. Quite stony, with red fruit.  No obvious oak, so nicely integrated.  Véronique described it as the most severe of the range, with elegance and restraint, and also red fruit.

2010 St. Chinian rouge, Elise - 14.50
Perhaps the least St. Chinian in character.  90% Syrah with some Grenache.  12 months in new 400 litre barrels, rather than bordelais barriques, for less oak impact.  The first vintage of both Elise and Etienne was 2009.  Quite a deep colour. Rich red fruit on the nose.  A rounded palate with a hint of vanilla., but again the oak is not intrusive.  The Syrah reinforces the character of the schist with some acidity and freshness; the schist adds a mineral note.  Good fruit and not heavy.

2011 La Dournie - 24
Old Grenache vines, with a little Carignan, given 12 months in old wood.  Dournie is in fact the name of that particular parcelle. 2011 was the first vintage of this wine, and Véronique might make it again from the 2012 vintage; it all depends on how the barrels evolve.  Quite a deep young colour, with liqueur cherries and a touch of wood on the nose.  Very spicy palate.  Véronique admits that it is not very representative of St. Chinian, but the idea is to get people talking.  It is a delicious example of Grenache, reminiscent of more of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not too heavy or alcoholic.  Just 600 bottles were produced for this first vintage. I was lucky to try one.