Thursday, 29 March 2018

Virgin Wines - A trio from the Languedoc

 Gavin Crisfield is one of my favourite (amongst many) Languedoc winemakers, producing some of the Languedoc’s most elegant wines, epitomised by his delicious Cinsaut La Traversée.  So, I was delighted to discover that Virgin Wines are selling two wines that he has made for them, based on his négociant activity.

2015 Trois Calices Réserve, Vin de France - £11.99
Medium depth of colour.  An enticingly fragrant nose, with perfumed fruit.  An elegant palate, with fresh red fruit, balancing acidity and a streak of tannin.   A blend of 40% Syrah, and 30% each of Grenache Noir and Carignan.   Deliciously fragrant and appealing. 

2016 Cirque de Navacelles, Coteaux du Languedoc, Réserve d’Héric - £9.99
A blend of 60% Grenache Noir, with 30% Syrah and 10% Carignan.   The flavours are sturdier and more tannic than les Trois Calices, but nevertheless retain their benchmark elegance with some lovely fragrant fruit.   Both the wines have an appealing freshness, coming from some of the cooler vineyards of the Languedoc, and the alcohol in both cases is a modest 13°.

 Escura des Pins, a Pays d’Oc, Alicante Bouschet.  - £10.99

The third offering from Virgin Wines comes from a grape variety that was much decried and despised as a Teinturier variety with red flesh, but these days it is beginning to make something of a comeback.  Its yields need to be restrained, which they never were in the past, and then it has some characterful flavours, with ripe spicy fruit and supple tannins.    It makes an original choice if you are looking a more unusual variety from the Languedoc. 


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

St Chinian : limestone versus schist

I went to a fascinating tasting last week, hosted by the Institute of Masters of Wine.  St Chinian is a rare appellation to have two distinct terroirs, limestone in the south and schist in the north, with the two areas separated by the river Vernazobre. There is also a little bit of sandstone, but essentially the originality of St Chinian is its dual terroir.

Two St Chinian growers, Vivien Roussignol from Domaine des Païssels and Tom Hills from Domaine la Lauzeta, were in town with a collection of wines selected with the precise aim of illustrating the differences between the two terroirs for each grape variety of the appellation.  We tasted brut de cuve, wines from the 2017 vintage, that were vat samples, and all fermented in more or less the same way, a classic vinification with no carbonic maceration and no élevage in barrel, yet.   The idea was to see the differences between the two soils and how each variety performed on each soil.  St Chinian is always a blend of several grape varieties, so ultimately all these wines would find their way into a finished blend.  

Sadly, the tasting was incomplete in that three wines went AWOL in transit between London and St Chinian, but that did not prevent us from observing differences.   We kicked off with a pair of Grenache Noir, one grown on limestone by Château Viranel, and the other on schist by Vivien Roussignol.    The difference was quite marked.  The wine on limestone was firmer and more structured, with good fruit and tannin, whereas the wine on schist was more fragrant, with fresh acidity and perfumed fruit.  It was actually a heady 15.8, as opposed to 14.8 for the Viranel, but certainly did not taste at all alcoholic.  Sadly, a pair of Grenache from Clos Bagatelle, on limestone and on schist, as they have both soils, were missing.

Next came a lone Carignan from Domaine des Païssels, grown on schist.  The limestone example from Mas Champart had also gone walkabout.   This wine showed just how delicious Carignan can be, with ripe fruit balanced with some firm tannins.  It was significantly sturdier than the Grenache and comes from very old vines, some 100 years old.  Vivien observed how well Carignan had coped with the drought conditions of 2017.  

Two limestone Syrah, from Château Viranel and Domaine Sacré Coeur, were contrasted with three Syrah grown on schist, from Moulin de Ciffre, la Lauzeta and Domaine des Païssels.   All five wines had a deep purple colour.  There was a contrast between the two limestone wines in that Château Viranel was firmer and more tannic and structured, while Domaine Sacré Coeur seemed lighter and more fragrant.  Maybe the wine had spent less time on the skins.   

Although all three of the schist wines had good acidity, the Moulin de Ciffre was the freshest of the three, with some perfumed red fruit, while la Lauzeta and Païssels seemed riper and more substantial.  I was also more aware of the alcohol levels in these wines.  Sacré Coeur was the lowest at 14.5 whereas Lauzeta and Païssels up clocked 15.4 and 15.5 respectively.   It made me think that Syrah is sometimes less suitable and less adapted to the dry warm conditions of the Languedoc; more than ever it is time to reconsider Carignan.

The next two wines were a pair of Mourvèdre, on limestone from Château Coujan, and on schist from Domaine des Païssels.   The example from limestone had substantial red fruit, with firm tannins and some acidity with a fresh finish, while the Mourvèdre on schist had fragrant red fruit, with a lift on the finish.  It too was quite substantial with some firm tannins.  

The final comparison came from the same estate, Borie la Vitarèle, which also has both terroirs, with a blend of 60% Syrah with 40% Grenache, one from limestone and the other from schist.  The wine from limestone was rounded with ripe spice and firm tannins, whereas the wine grown schist was fresher with more acidity and elegance.    

Schist soil is generally deemed to make for wines with fresh acidity and that was certainly borne out by this tasting.   Indeed, the conclusion was, if you see the flavour of a wine as a shape, as I often do, limestone makes for more horizontal wines, whereas schist gives wines that are vertical in profile, with more depth.   And by way of a postscript, the next day I went to an utterly delicious Riesling tasting hosted by Jean Trimbach who made exactly the same observation in the context of Riesling in Alsace, that limestone makes for horizontal wines, whereas Riesling from granite is vertical in profile.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Malpère, a pair of producers - Château Guilhem and Château Belvèze

Château Guilhem 

Château Guilhem, in the village of Malviès, is one of the older, more established, and also larger estates of Malepère, run and owned these days by Bertrand Gourdou, the 6th generation, with Catherine Montahuc as his winemaker.  She has worked there since 2006, but comes from Burgundy. They have 32 hectares of vines in production, of which 25 are Malepère and the rest produce varietal Pays d’Oc.  

The château itself dates from the 1870s, and on some of their labels they use an old photograph of the family from 1902. Originally the property was called Chateau Malviès, but Bertrand thought that could cause some confusion, and preferred to rename it, after the family name of his grandfather, Guilhem.  In the vineyard they work organically, and the cellar at first sight looks like the classic Languedoc cellar, with old cement vats and some old foudres.  However, they have divided the cement vats into smaller sizes, which was not easy, but nonetheless preferable to removing copious amounts of reinforced concrete.  They also have stainless steel vats; Bertrand’s grandfather was one of the first to use them for wine in the Languedoc, in the mid-1970s, inspired by the example of the dairy industry.  They were also amongst the first to plant Merlot in the area, again at the beginning of the 1970s and their oldest Cabernet Franc is 15 years old.  

As Catherine explained, the characteristics of Malepère are quite different within the appellation with the vineyards on the Carcassonne side of the hill are more languedocien in character, whereas on southern side of the Malepère, nearer to Limoux, the vineyards are more suitable for the Bordeaux varieties and Grenache would simply not ripen there.   Their Malepère rosé is a blend of equal parts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot, with some fresh fruit.  There are four red Malepère; Héritage Famille Guilhem has an emphasis on fruit with a blend of Merlot and Cabernets, with an élevage in vat.    Prestige du Château Guilhem is 50% Merlot with 20% Cabernet Franc, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Malbec and spends eight months in old wood.   With the Grand Vin the blend can change according to the vintage characteristics, with Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with twelve months’ barrel ageing.  If it is too cool, Cabernet Sauvignon does not ripen, but it does not like hot years either, while Cabernet Franc adapts much better.  It has some firm structured cassis fruit and makes you think of Bordeaux, ’but with the sunshine’ added Catherine.  

Clos du Blason is 90% Merlot, with one barrel of Cabernet Franc and one barrel of Cabernet Sauvignon.   The idea is to show how well Merlot performs in the Malepère, especially when the vines are 40 years old.    This is serious with a firm oaky impact, with ripe vanilla and cassis fruit. How will it age in bottle?   For sheer drinkability, the Heritage cuvée was hard to beat. 

Château Belvèze

Château Belvèze is another traditional estate.  The 17th château in the village of Belvèze-du- Razès has belonged to the Mallafosse family for 150 years. Guillaume Mallafosse has 40 hectares of vines, planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc for Malepère and Chardonnay for a Pays d’Oc.  He bottled his first wine in 2003 and makes two cuvées of Malepère, a blend of equal parts of Cabernet Franc and Merlot with good structure and fresh fruit, and the cuvée élèvé en fût de chêne includes Cabernet Sauvignon in the blend and is more structured with oak as well as fruit.  

For Guillaume the tipicity of Malepère is its freshness, with him observing that it is easier to drink than Cabardès. He also considered the commercial difficulties;  ‘we are very few independent growers and none of us are well-known.  The cooperatives at Razès and Arzens, and also Anne de Joyeuse in Limoux, account for half the appellation, but are suffocating us, the small wine growers, and keeping the prices low”.  However, he is optimistic that Gérard Bertrand’s recent purchase of Domaine de la Soujeole should have a beneficial effect – “il est moteur”.    On verra! 

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Maison Ventenac in Ventenac-Cabardès

Maison Ventenac is the largest producer of Cabardès. It was started by Alain Maurel in 1973 with 30 hectares and these days is run by Olivier Ramé, who married Alain’s daughter Stéphanie, with 130 hectares, and another 70 en fermage.   Olivier has studied business, but then went on to do the OIV Master’s degree, whereby you visit 200 wineries in 40 different countries.  His first vintage at Ventenac was 2007. You immediately sense that he has a strong commercial sense, and is very focused, knowing where he wants to go. as well as understanding and enjoying wine making. They also have a négociant business, for which they control the production of the grapes.  Essentially, they produce two ranges, Domaine de Ventenac for varietal IGP and Château de Ventenac for Cabardès, with a range of Sélection, Réserve, Grande Réserve and Mas Ventenac, the top cuvée.   
The cellars are modern and streamlined; there are some new concrete tanks for both vinification and élevage, insulated and equipped for temperature control.  Smaller tanks allow for the fermentation of smaller plots and there are some amphorae, for an experiment with Cabernet Franc.  They are gradually moving from 300 litres barrels to demi-muids to foudres and Olivier particularly favours the Austrian cooper Stockinger, but also uses Boutes in Narbonne.  Olivier asserted that they want to be specialists in Cabernet Franc; it should be fresh and elegant, and above all he wants drinkability.   There is a lot of attention to detail, with a sorting table, to supplement one already on the mechanical harvester, pneumatic presses, nitrogen blanketing, and so.  In the vineyards, they follow lutte raisonnée and moving toward organic viticulture.
We tasted a selection of convincing Cabardès.  La Reserve de Jeanne is a blend of 50% Cabernet Franc with 40% Syrah and 10% Merlot, which spend a year in vat, with a little barrel ageing for a small part of the Cabernet Franc, with fresh dry cassis and some firm pepper and streak of tannin.  La Grande Réserve de Georges, is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon of which a large part is aged in oak, so that it is more structured with some firm cassis fruit.  Mas Ventenac comes from 50% Cabernet Franc, with 40% Syrah and 10% Merlot, with 14 months ageing in oak, with youthful structure and elegant restraint.