Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Biodynamic, Organic and Natural Winemaking by Britt & Per Karlsson.

The Languedoc is one of the fast growing areas for organic viticulture in France, so it seems highly appropriate to review the most recent addition to the growing literature on organic viticulture.  Britt and Per Karlsson are Swedish journalists who are based in Paris; the Swedish version of their book won ‘Best Wine book for Professionals 2012' in Sweden, and last year it was published in English.  

They say in the foreword ‘This book is not meant as an argument for organic (or biodynamic or natural wine production).  Instead we explain what all these concepts mean.’   And that is exactly what they do, and very useful it is too, written in a down to earth manner, with a very straightforward approach.  You may think that sounds rather dry but the text is beautifully lightened by some evocative photographs, including picturesque views of vineyards covered in wild flowers.

The contents page provides a succinct resumé. Farming Today covers the principal types of farming; there is a history of the development of organic viticulture and a survey as to how wide spread it is now – the Languedoc has 16,462 hectares, and that is growing.  They look at disease and pest control by natural means, and explain the steps a wine grower has to take to become organic.  And once I read the chapter on Biodynamic Wine Production, I understood the different preparations for the first time.  Work in the cellar is also considered, as well as additives and there is a useful chapter on labelling.  Natural wines are not ignored, nor is sustainable wine growing. And the book concludes with an overview of some of the environmental issues such as carbon dioxide emissions and packaging, and finally a couple of appendices of recommended wine growers.   There are other names that I could add in the Languedoc.

As Per and Britt say: ‘At the end of the day it is still the individual growers who decide what sort of wine they want to make’.  And they do not say which type of viticulture, organic, biodynamic, natural or sustainable is better.  ‘It is down to the wine growers themselves to convince us’.   And some of Britt and Per’s observations are convincing – and objective.  You cannot but notice that they are very level headed and unemotional about what can be a very emotive subject.   

Like so many wine books, it is not necessarily a book to sit down and read in one go.  However, it makes a very useful reference, providing a comprehensive overview.  I certainly felt that at the end of it I understood rather more about the subject than a few hours earlier.  .

Biodynamic, Organic and Natural winemaking
Britt and Per Karlsson
Floris Books – www.florisbooks.co.uk

Monday, 9 February 2015

Decanter's Roussillon Tasting - The Right of Reply

I was in Mexico for the second half of January so was blissfully unaware of the fallout from the results of Decanter's Roussillon tasting that were published in the magazine in early January, in the February issue.   It had not been a happy tasting.   I was one of three tasters, with fellow Master of Wine, Simon Field, who buys Roussillon, amongst other things, for Berry Bros & Rudd, and Simon Taylor, who set up Stone, Vine & Sun, a company which makes the south of France something of a speciality.  All three of us are therefore very enthusiastic about Roussillon, and had high expectations from the tasting.  But sadly these were simply not met. 

There were 82 wines in all, mainly Côtes du Roussillon and Côtes du Roussillon Villages, but also some Maury,  Collioure and Côtes Catalanes.  None achieved Outstanding status;  there were just five Highly Recommended wines, a large swathe of 47 Recommended wines, and a pretty large swathe of wines that registered merely Fair, including some of the big names of the region, such as Gauby, la Rectorie, Clos des Fées and Matassa. 

I had already been asked to write the introduction to the tasting.  I have always thought it a pity that Roussillon is so often always lumped with the Languedoc, when in fact it is so different.   Roussillon is Catalan.  It did not become part of France until 1659 with the treaty of the Pyrenees.  The viticultural history of the region is based on vin doux made from Grenache, and Grenache is still the principal grape variety of the region, though Syrah has grown in importance and you will also find venerable old Carignan vines, as well as Mourvèdre.   The terroir is a mosaic of soil types, with schist, limestone, clay .....and the sun shines.   There are a growing number of independent producers replacing the village cooperatives as the dominant force in the region.   To my mind the red wines are Roussillon are rich and warm, perhaps with more in common with Châteauneuf du Pape and Gigondas than with the neighbouring Languedoc.   Inevitably but not always they tend to quite high alcohol levels and 14.5  was pretty much the average amongst the wines at our tasting.

We were very shocked and very disappointed and at a loss to explain why the wines had shown so badly.   As the person asked to write the concluding expert summary, I was faced with the challenging task of finding some positive things to say.   I like the wines of Roussillon and in the past have greatly enjoyed other vintages of some of the wines that did not show well.   We all know that tastings notes are not carved in stone.  Tasters can have off days, and so can wines.   Taste buds can easily be influenced by the preceding wine, so that a blockbuster will overwhelm a more elegant wine.   Some believe in the biodynamic calendar and that fruit and flower days are better for tasting rather than root or leaf days.  Also climatic pressure and the prevailing wind can make a significant difference.  Pascal Dalier from Domaine Joncas in Montpeyroux asserts that a change in the barometer has more impact on how a wine tastes, than the change from a flower to a root day. I have not infrequently encountered a wine grower who has observed that their wines were not tasting well that particular day because of climatic pressure.   Another adverse  impact on wine flavour is how recently the wines were bottled.  The majority of the wines we tasted came from the tricky 2013 vintage, and had probably not been that long in bottle. I certainly found quite a few of them to be distinctly adolescent, but like most adolescents, with plenty of potential.

There was also a summary of our immediate impression, written by Christelle Guibert, Decanter's tasting director who was responsible for obtaining the wines in the first place.  Decanter had contacted individual wine growers through the CIVR, the Comité des Vins de Roussillon, the professional body of the region.   

Roussillon seems particularly upset that we said that the wines were not elegant.  I was quoted by Christelle as saying that you do not go to Roussillon for elegance, and that we should have been tasting full-bodied wines that would cheer you up enormously on a winter's day.  And I stand by that.  I do not choose Roussillon for delicate ethereal wines.  I want a punch of flavour, something rich, warming and spicy.  The wines are usually pretty high in alcohol but that does not mean that they are heavy or clumsy.  They should be in harmony, with enough fruit and flavour, and maybe some judicious oak ageing to balance the alcohol. 

I am not going to reiterate the individual results in the magazine.  And while I can appreciate and understand that individual producers might be upset that their wines fared badly in the tasting, they need to remember that it is just one result on one day.   You could well ask: what is the purpose of such tastings?   The newer wine regions tend to place great value on results in a blind wine tasting.  It can be a useful barometer for young wine growers to assess their wines among their peers.   But I also think that all blind tastings need to be taken with a large pinch of salt.  As I observed to Brigitte Verdaguer from Domaine de Rancy in Latour de France, after her Rivesaltes Ambré had won a trophy in Decanter’s world wine awards, you bought a lottery ticket by entering your wine for the competition and you won the jackpot.   Nobody likes to be criticized, but critics are essential in any field where something is presented to a discerning public, and their judgments are open to discussion, and that is healthy.   Life would be awfully boring if we all liked the same things.  I would have thought Roussillon mature and experienced enough a region to rise above the comments of three people in one magazine on one particular day. 

Decanter has conducted other tastings where the results have been equally damning for a particular region, but to my knowledge this is the first time that there had been such a collective outcry from the region in question.  Classed growth châteaux or champagne houses shrug off the blip in their reputations caused by an adverse tasting result, but to suggest as one grower did that the article was mean-spirited with a hidden agenda to show up Roussillon badly against the Languedoc is absolutely unfounded.  That was how the wines showed on the day, and our marks were remarkably consistent.  And I for one will carry on enjoying the wines of Roussillon.   And don't forget that all publicity is good publicity.   The tasting will probably prove to be a storm in a tea cup that may well have brought Roussillon to the attention of people who had previously paid it little attention.

And if you want to exercise your French,  the following two links - one newspaper article leads to a blog - offer some  entertainment value, but what jelly and porridge have to do with wine tasting, I am not quite sure.  We were accused of being old-fashioned in our view of Roussillon, but it is only too apparent that some people still have a very out-dated view of English food!.

And this is a more measured overview of Roussillon by my friend Sylvie Tonnaire in Terre des Vins:

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Tasting for the new cru of Pézenas and Coté Mas.

I was invited to a tasting which was designed to show off the relatively new cru of Pézenas, and also to launch the wine that has been dreamt up by Jean-Claude Mas, a collective communal cuvée, to which several of the growers of Pézenas have contributed wine.   It is called Coté Mas, which is also the name of the restaurant outside Montagnac that showcases the Domaines Mas wines.  I am not really sure of the purpose of the communal cuvée, or whether it fulfilled its promise.  Altogether 42 producers have participated and the first vintage was 2012.  At this tasting the 2013 was on offer.  Coté Mas certainly provides an opportunity for Jean-Claude Mas to exercise his not inconsiderable talent as a marketeer.  However, the wine did not have the same appeal to my taste buds as several of the wines from the smaller, independent wine growers.   I found the oak very perfumed, with a dry palate.  A second taste of another bottle was curiously sweet and sour,  and a third bottle ( I did keep trying) was best of all, more balanced with some fresh spice.  I was concerned by the bottle variation.  It must also be said that tasting conditions were not ideal, as we were outside in front of the tourist office in Pézenas on quite a windy day.  Nor was there a tasting sheet, so in some instances I failed to note the vintage or blend of grape varieties for some of the other wines.   

One of the problems of Pézenas is that it really does not have a specific identity, unlike Faugères with its schist, or the Pic St. Loup with its distinctive peak, or the virtual island of la Clape.   It is quite simply an amalgam of villages around Pézenas, including Caux, Nizas, Magalas, Gabian, and others and the grape varieties are the usual Languedoc quintet.  There is no white Pézenas, nor indeed rosé.  The cru was recognized in 2007, for the 2006 vintage. .

Highlights at the tasting included:

A spicy Clos des Lièvres from Mas Gabriel

Domaine de Monplézy, with Plaisirs and Felicité; one oaked and one rich and warming.  

Domaine la Grange was offering Castalides, with some rich Syrah.

Domaine Nizas. La Réserve 2010 is half and half Mourvèdre and old Carignan, with a little Grenache.   It was quite rich and powerful

Domaine Magellan, a blend of equal parts of Syrah and Grenache, which was nicely rounded and balanced.

The joint coops of Alignan and Neffiès have a rounded supple wine, and la Marquise, a wine from the Pézenas had some soft easy fruit with a tannic streak.  Prince de Conti was firmer and sturdier, and Don Juan displayed some ripe oak.   The Pézenas coop is clearly working well for its cru.    The Fontès coop was doing well too, with Latude, a 90% Syrah, 10% Grenache blend, with some rich fruit and a tannic streak.

Domaine Stella Nova was showing three wines of which I really liked Quid Novi 2011, which is Carignan with a little Grenache. It had some rustic red berry fruit and a smoky note.   Very characterful

My friend Christine from Domaine Ste Cécile du Parc was showing her Notes d’Orphée, which is mainly Syrah with some dense ripe fruit and cedary note and she had also included her Cabernet Franc, Notes Franches, even though it is not Pézenas.  Lovely fruit with some supple tannins and a fleshy note.    Sonatina from her oldest vines is quite firm and structured.

2011 Cousu Main from Allegria is only available in magnums, a blend of 60% Mourvèdre and 40% Syrah, which was still quite tannic and youthful.

La Croix Vanel, Fine Amor 2013 has some fresh fruit, and benefited from no oak.   Ma non troppo is 93% Mourvèdre, with some firm smoky fruit and a fresh elegant finish.  Very stylish.

Villa Tempora was showing a range of 2011s.  Le Demon du Midi was quite sturdy, concentrated but with an elegant finish and some fresh fruit and l’Ange Vin was quite solid and dense and needed some bottle age.  A good note on which to finish.   But I really wasn’t really any the wiser as to the true character of the identité piscenoise.   

And I also tasted wines from Clos Roca, Domaine Bayelle, Domaine Pech Rome and Domaine Condamine Bertrand.