Saturday, 30 December 2017

Back in the Languedoc

Friends to dinner always provides a good excuse to open a few bottles.    We kicked off with a white la Clape from one of the pioneering estates of the appellation, Château Mire l’Etang.   The name  means view over the lagoon and the vineyards are indeed right by the lagoon. It is no surprise that the wine has a refreshing salty tang on both nose and palate, balanced with good acidity and a little weight on the finish.  Bourboulenc is the backbone of la Clape blanc, with some Grenache Blanc and roussanne.  

Next came 2016 Princesse, the first white wine from Domaine Picaro’s, a small estate in my home village of Roujan.  The blend is Grenache Blanc with 40% Chardonnay, both aged in demi-muids with some bâtonnage, for six months.  The nose is rounded and lightly nutty and the palate nicely textured and rounded, with a hint of oak, balanced with good acidity. 

Then on to a couple of reds, Domaine de Sarabande, Faugères, les Espinasses, from 90% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre, with fresh peppery spice and supple tannins.  It was still quite youthful, with a fresh finish.

We compared it with a St Chinian from the village of Roquebrun, Mas d’Albo, le Pérarol 2012, a blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan which has evolved very nicely, with some supple spicy fruit and an elegant finish.  The two wines made for a satisfying comparisons of two adjoining appellations, with the similar terroir of schist.

And we finished with a Muscat de Lunel from the best estate of this small appellation Domaine le Clos de Bellevue, Cuvée Lacoste after the previous owner of the estate, who established its initial reputation.  The wine was fresh and honeyed, with balancing acidity, and made a delicious finale to the evening. 

This will be my last post of 2017, so may I wish everyone a very Happy New Year, une très Bonne Année, along with plenty of bottles of the Languedoc’s finest.  

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Languedoc Roussillon The Wines and Winemakers

Firstly, many apologies to my regular readers for completely neglecting my blog for past few weeks.  My excuse was my end of November deadline for my own book, The wines of the Languedoc, which is planned for publication on 22nd March.

Meanwhile Paul Strang has brought out a completely new edition of a book he first wrote in 2002, Languedoc Roussillon, the Wines and Winemakers.   Jason Shenai is the photographer, as he was for Paul’s earlier book, and the new book is a visual delight.  I first enjoyed the humorous contrast between the inside front and back covers – you will have to look at the book yourself to see what I mean.   Throughout the book Jason has very effectively captured the expressions of the various vignerons, the wry smile of Thierry Navarre; the sensitivity of Marion Gallet of Roc des Anges; the vivacious intensity of Katie Jones of Domaine Jones.   There are some magical landscapes, one taken near my Languedoc village of Roujan – I would like to know exactly where, and where did Jason find that particular dry-stone wall of schist in Faugères?

As well as a brief introduction to each area, covering the basics of the various appellations, there is also a succinct history of the Languedoc and details about practices in the vineyard and cellar and a summary of the most commonly found grape varieties.

However, the real nub of the book is all the information about the various producers.  Paul’s blurb boasts more than 670 growers, who are arranged by appellation and area.  For some he has written small profiles, giving an approximate price point for each wine that is mentioned, as well as an overall star rating for the estate, whereas for others there are just the contact details and a rating.  I am full of admiration for all that attention to detail.  As with any selection, it is always interesting to see who is included and who is omitted.  Inevitably I thought: where is so and so? Or who are they?  as I did for Muscat de Lunel, for example.   Château Grès Saint Paul, as the oldest estate, deserves its place; Domaine de la Croix Saint-Roch is a name that is completely new to me, but where is the most important estate of the appellation, Domaine le Clos de Bellevue?   Inevitably with so many growers, it is impossible to keep tabs on everyone – Domaine Plan de l’Homme in the Terrasses du Larzac has been sold to les Grands Chais de France; Domaine la Croix Vanel in Caux is now owned by Marc-Olivier Bertrand and Faugères has only had one cooperative since 2010.

But those are niggles. There is no doubt that this is a very useful addition to our wine book shelves.   I am planning to explore Roussillon in more detail and I shall certainly be consulting it to see who I should be going to visit, with the help of some excellent maps, that show very clearly who is where.   Paul and I agreed very amicably that our two books will compliment each other perfectly, and you will just have to wait until 22nd March to see how

Softback available from Amazon for £35.00

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Syrah in Hawke’s Bay

Syrah is one of the key grape varieties of the Languedoc, so every now and then it is useful and interesting to compare it with wines from other parts of the world, for a sense of perspective.  A couple of New Zealand wine makers, Steve Skinner from Elephant Hill, and John Hancock from Trinity Hill, were in London recently, to present a range of different Syrah from Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island.   They asserted that this part of New Zealand is able to produce world class Syrah, and that Syrah has an even better future in Hawke’s Bay than the Bordeaux blends that first created the reputation of the region. The first Syrah actually arrived in New Zealand in 1830, and was subsequently planted in Hawke’s Bay in the late 1800s.  However, its modern history began with a winemaker called Alan Limmer saved some Syrah vines from the Te Kawhata research station and made his first wine at Stonecroft in Hawke’s Bay in the mid-1980s.  And from that hesitant beginning Syrah has developed apace, though it does still only account for a meagre 1% of the country’s production, and only 4% of Hawkes Bay. 

Both John and Steve enthused about the transparency of Syrah, that it shows where it is grown.  The wines from Hawke’s Bay are distinctly peppery, with region variations depending on  soil, and, in the case of the coastal vineyards of Te Awanga, climate, with a strong cool maritime influence.  You can’t ripen Cabernet Sauvignon at Te Awanga, but you can ripen Syrah.  Gimblett Gravels is just that, as much as 100 metres depth of gravel, with very little organic matter,  making irrigation absolutely essential.  This is an old river bed with the youngest vineyard soils in the world. And at nearby Bridge Pa you will also find gravel under old top soil.  And New Zealand very firmly calls Syrah Syrah, and not Shiraz as they do across the Tasman Sea, asserting that Syrah conveys an impression of elegance and subtlety in contrast to some of the richer, heavier flavours of the Barossa Valley and elsewhere in Australia. 

Winemaking techniques were discussed, whether any Viognier was added, and whole bunches in favour of destemmed grapes or proportions of both.   There are now several different clones available.  And this is what we tasted.

2014 Babich Winemakers’ Reserve Syrah, Bridge Pa
£21.95 -
This is a pure Syrah, given 12 months ageing in French oak, of which one third was new.
A rounded perfumed nose, with red fruit.  A fresh palate, with good acidity as well as tannin, and quite a dry meaty finish, with some grippy tannins.    2014 was a good dry vintage.

2014 Paritua Syrah, Bridge Pa
£17.99 -,
Deep colour, with a firmer,  more intense nose and on the palate very dense, ripe and oaky, with ripe blackcurrant gum fruit, and good balancing tannins, with a fresh finish.  All Chave clones.  The wine has spent 14 months in French oak, half new.

2015 Rod McDonald Wines Quarter Acre Syrah,    - £23.00
A blend of grapes from Havelock North, which is one of the cooler parts of Hawkes Bay, and Maraekakaho.   Also a mixture of clones, Chave, Grippat and Mass Selection, from the Limmer clone.
Medium colour.  Fresh pepper and red fruit on the nose and an elegant fresh palate,  Not obviously oaky even although it has spent 18 months in French oak.   Very elegant and finely crafted with youthful tannins and plenty of potential. I liked this a lot.

2015 Craft Farm, Bridge Pa - £25.00
14 months in French oak, 505 new.  Chave clone 
I found this a touch bretty on the nose, but the palate was quite elegant, but with some meaty notes.   There was good acidity, as well as tannin, and the bretty notes blew away.

2012 William Murdoch Coldstream Syrah, Gimblett Gravels  - £40.00
Mass selection clones and 13 months in French oak, two thirds new.
Very perfumed cassis gums on the nose and on the palate,  Concentrated tight knit flavours, with perfumed fruit.  2012 was a difficult vintage and this was deemed to be very good for the year, with John observing that acidity was the hall mark of the vintage, but the wine was none the worse for that.  Increasing I find that Syrah grown in hot conditions, indeed in some parts of the Languedoc, the flavours are too ripe and jammy, confit as the French would say.

2015 Te Mata Bullnose, Bridge Pa
The Wine Society - £30.00,
This wine has spent fifteen months in French oak, both new and old.  Medium colour, with rounded perfumed fruit and on the palate, elegant tannins and supple fruit.  This estate has some of the oldest Syrah vines of Hawke’s Bay.   Lovely depth of flavour and a star performer in the line-up.   Possibly benefits from the cooler summer of 2015

2014 Vidal Estate Legacy Syrah, Gimblett Gravels
2013 is available from The Halifax Wine Co - £30.00 and the 2011 from the New Zealand House of Wine - £36.00
Probably Limmer clone
The wine spends 18 months in French oak, one third new.  Good colour.  A rounded sturdy cassis gum nose and palate.  Firm and structured with good fruit, and oak on the finish.  Youthful and tight.  Needs time

2014 Trinity Hill Homage, Gimblett Gravels
Mainly mass selection, i.e. Alan Limmer’s clone
14  months mainly in new French oak
£61.60 for 2013 vintage from; The New Zealand House of Wine – 2010 vintage - £66.99
Good colour. Quite firm peppery fruit.  Medium weight elegant palate.  Spicy cassis gum fruit; nicely perfumed and youthful.  John Hancock talked enthusiastically about his Syrah.  He made it for the first time in  1997, and this particular cuvée in 2002.  He uses open top fermenters, with 30 – 35% whole bunches, which adds another dimension, but not necessarily every year, especially not in the cooler years. He also favours a small amount of Viognier, as they do in Côte Rôtie, making for supple fruit, and while he likes new oak, he prefers larger oak barrels, including 50 hectolitres foudres.  Syrah is now Trinity Hill’s biggest selling wine, with three different cuvées, and as John no longer makes a pure Viognier, he adds it to the Syrah, probably as much as 3%.  And he is also firmly described Syrah as the wine of the future.  ‘We can make it our own’. 

2015 Craggy Range le Sol, Gimblett Gravels
Hennings wine - £55.00.  Hedonism Wines - £66.60 – 2013.  The New Zealand Cellar - £60.60  - 2011 vintage. and The New Zealand House of Wine – 2010 vintage - £47.84 and 51.99 respectively
This is pure Syrah, as Craggy Range does not grow any Viognier and the wine is aged in French oak, 30% new.  Quite a deep colour.  Rounded perfumed fruit on the nose, and on the palate, ripe with some acidity and supple tannins and a freshness on the finish.  More elegant than some, and less intense.  2015 is generally considered to be a very promising vintage.

2013 Elephant Hill Airavata, Gimblett Gravels and Te Awanga
Clones – Mass Selection and 470.  17 months in French oak, 60% new; mainly barriques or 300 litre barrels.   Includes just 1% Viognier and 28% whole bunches.  Quite a deep young colour.  Solid rounded spice on the nose.  Firm youthful tannins on the palate; some solid oak balanced with a fresh streak of tannin.  Promises well.  2013 was an easier vintage after the complicated 2012.

Other common themes included lower average alcohol – about 13.5°, which makes for more refreshing flavours.   There is also a trend towards older and larger oak. John Hancock asserted: do what the vineyard says and don’t apply make-up, i.e. heavy oak to the finished product.  The oldest Syrah vines in Hawke’s Bay are only about 20 years old.  Syrah generally does not like stress and does need irrigation in the appropriate conditions.   

And what comparisons, if any, could one draw with the Languedoc? I think it becomes apparent that Syrah performs well in slightly cooler areas, that it does not like drought or stress and in the Languedoc, could benefit from judicious irrigation on occasion.  I also found the lower alcohol levels nicely refreshing, again another lesson that the Languedoc could learn.   And of course, the main focus of the Languedoc appellations is the blend.  In theory, you should not find a pure Syrah in an appellation; in practice, of course you can.  John finished by observing that it was Côte Rôtie that inspired him, whereas Steve admitted to being more of a Cornas man.