Friday, 25 May 2018

Domaine la Rouviole

Another property, that sadly did not make the cut, as I had to cull words for Wines of the Languedoc.    And tomorrow I am off to Chablis for three weeks, so apologies, there will be a bit of a lull in the Languedoc.

Domaine la Rouviole is the next-door neighbour to Clos Centeilles, - Rouviole is the name of the stream that separates the two properties - where Franck Léonor has been making wine since 1998.  He has 16 hectares of which just two and a half are La Livinière – it is a question of having the right proportions of the various grape varieties. They are all cultivated organically.   His cellar is in what was once the old bergerie, which housed 200 sheep as well as several chickens.   Franck was first a school teacher, and he does have the air of an absent-minded professor as he talks about his wine.  Syrah is his main variety and he enjoys its aromatic complexity with notes of black fruit; Grenache Noir gives balance and drinkability and should not be too heavy.  It resists drought much better than Syrah.  Essentially Franck makes a Minervois and a Minervois La Livinière, choosing the best barrels for the cru. Usually the blend is about 75% Syrah to 25% Grenache Noir, with some firm oak, initially balanced by fresh fruit. On my last visit Franck demonstrated just how well his wines age, when our tasting included 2012 and 2011 and finished with a 2004, that was just reaching its plateau in the autumn of 2016.

Monday, 21 May 2018

The Big Fortified Tasting

The Big Fortified Tasting has become an annual event and is a great occasion for an update on all manner of fortified wines, not just the classics, Port, Sherry and Madeira,  but also luscious liqueur Muscats from Australia, distinctive Moscatel de Setúbal, and other curiosities.  Sadly the South of France was poorly represented, with just two wines from Roussillon, a lovely pair of Banyuls, from Coume del Mas.

NV Coume del Mas Banyuls Tradition 
Medium red colour, turning tawny, with a rounded ripe spicy fruit on the nose, with more ripe spice on the palate.  Nicely balanced and very satisfying.   A lovely glass of wine.

2016 Banyuls Rouge, Galatea.
This contrasted beautifully with the previous wine, with much fresher, more youthful flavours, again with spice on both nose and palate, but with a fresh lift on the finish.    A satisfying comparison, showing the diversity of Banyuls. 

More original and very unexpected, with a southern French link, were some fortified wines made from Alicante Bouschet, but not from the south of France, but from the Alentejo in southern Portugal.  I’ve encountered Alicante Bouschet from the Alentejo before, but never as a fortified wine, and very intriguing it is too, with three vintages to compare.  I was told that the Reynolds family had brought the vines from France in the 1880s.   

2008 Alicante Bouschet, Robert Reynolds
Medium red colour. Quite ripe and sweet nose, with berry fruit.  Rich and ripe with chocolaty notes.  Very intriguing.   The wine is aged in French 225 litres barrels for three years and then spends about seven years in bottle before being released for sale.   

A cooler vintage, with medium colour. More notes of fig on the nose. Quite a smooth ripe palate, with a later harvest, at the end rather than at the beginning of September, making more concentration.  A touch ‘medicinal’ on the finish, but none the worse for that.

Rich herbal fruit on the nose. They only used free run juice, never pressed juice.  Ripe spicy fruit on the palate, with a supple streak of tannin, with ripe chocolatey flavours.  It would be great with a piece of dark chocolate.

They are imported by LWC Drinks Ltd, who told me that they are destined mainly for the on trade, with a price comparable to a 20-year-old tawny.    In conclusion, an original curiosity.   

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Simpsons - From the Languedoc to the Garden of England

Ruth and Charles Simpsons already run a very successful winery in the Languedoc, Domaine Ste Rose, in the Hérault village of Servian, which concentrates particularly on varietal wines, as Charles would say, Old World wines using New World methods.  But  family reasons, such as their daughters’ education, have brought them back to England and to the village of Barham, near Canterbury, where they have planted 30 hectares, of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier.   Their first vines came into production in 2016, for a Chardonnay, Roman Road.  The vineyard is indeed on the old Roman road.

I went to visit a couple of weeks ago.  It was one of those gloriously sunny days when  the weather is almost too good to be true, and it made a grand day out from London.   First, we admired a piece of equipment sitting in the yard that is designed to protect the vines from frost by causing the air over the vineyards to circulate.  An arm goes up and oscillates, blending the cold air with less cold air, and causing a constant movement.  They had used it the previous week, after suffering severe frost damage in 2017. As Ruth said, we simply cannot afford not to do something about the frost.   I have yet to see anything like this in Chablis.  

First of all, Ruth took us to look at their oldest vineyard, on a chalk slope outside the village. They have several clones, twelve for Chardonnay, and seven each of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, making for diversity in the vineyard and planted either on Fercal or 41B rootstock, which are the only choice, with such a high calcium content in the soil.  The composition of the first  vineyard is 50% Chardonnay with 30% Pinot Noir and 20% Pinot Meunier, but in the second vineyard the balance will shift to 50% Pinot Noir. They prefer Pinot based sparkling wine.    They are not aiming for organic viticulture, but do want to be as sustainable as possible.

The land had been farmland for a long time, first arable and then more recently used for pigs. The Pinot Meunier, which buds later, is planted in the more frost prone pocket at the bottom of the slope and they had left what they called a ‘sacrificial arm’, a third arm, in case of frost damage, which is then removed after the risk of frost has passed.  There is grass between the rows, and they use weed killer between the vines.  Ruth talked about the planting which took three days in 2014, but in 2016 was much quicker with GPS guidance.   Rabbits are the main pest; they love green shoots, so they protect the vines with netting.  Pheasants are another problem.  The local shoot feeds the pheasants until harvest time, and then the pheasants come scavenging in the vineyards,  but happily then the shooting season opens shortly afterwards.   And we could see the second vineyard, Railway Hill,  in the distance, above the village of Barham.    Here they have planted wind breaks, of fast growing Italian alder.

Back in the village we looked at the cellar, constructed from two large barns, in time for the 2016 harvest.  They will be disgorging some rosé in June, but otherwise it will be another year before there is sparkling wine available.  They have not invested in neither a bottling line – they prefer to bottle everything at once, to avoid any bottle variations - nor in a disgorging machine   The cellar is well equipped with stainless steel vats of varying sizes.   They are planning a dedicated press room, explaining that they have a two-week window of opportunity get everything picked and pressed; in contrast at Ste Rose, it takes six to eight weeks, with so many different grape varieties.  Three pressings are the absolute maximum you can achieve in one day.    They had initially thought there would be a break between the two harvests, but with climate change, that is becoming less obvious.

A new piece of equipment to me was a large bag that allows for oxygen-free pressing.  A bag that Is identical in size to the bag in the press replaces the oxygen with nitrogen as the press operates.  With oxygen-free Chardonnay, you obtain citrus notes, but with some contact with oxygen you obtain more tropical notes.  Charles would like to combine the two.  With the standard champagne press, you do not actually know to what extent the juice is oxygenating, but with the bag you can control the oxidative process, and it is all enclosed, including the juice tray under the press.  It is called the Inertys system.  The nitrogen can be sucked back into the bag so that there is a constant exchange.   Charles is convinced that this adds to the complexity of the wine.

And there is a very smart tasting room, with a helter skelter slide to take you down into the cellar, with wine tourism in mind. I have to admit that I was chicken and declined to be one of the first Masters of Wine to try it out.   We tasted the 2017 Roman Road, (£22.95) which is certainly a very convincing Chardonnay, maybe a Chablis lookalike, but with a note of England.  Thirty per cent of the blend spent four months in 2-year-old barrels, that had previously been used for Roussanne at Domaine Ste. Rose.  It was lemony and floral, rounded with balancing acidity and a stony note and had only recently been bottled.   It promises well and I will look forward to enjoy the Simpsons’ sparkling wine in due course.   

We also talked about wine tourism and the development of a group called The Garden of England, consisting of seven local wine estates, namely  Simpsons, Gusbourne, Chapel Down, Hush Heath, Squerries, Bidenden and Domaine Evremond, the Taitinger estate.  Charles explained that they would like to encourage local tourism; the neighbouring  population is enthusiastic in a way that simply does not happen in the Languedoc. An initial order to the Barham village stores sold out in minutes, causing Charles to observe that it may be easy making wine in the south of France, but it is a lot more difficult to sell, whereas the opposite is true of England.

And for more on English wines do consider A Celebration of English Wines by Liz Sagues, just published by Robert Hale in Chichester.  Cover price £16.99.  It captures the essence of English  wines, combined with some evocative photographs.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Mas de Novi

Mas de Novi is a rather smart domaine outside Montagnac, in the Grés de Montpellier  It has been quite a few years since my last visit and I have to say the wines have improved significantly.  One reason for that is a change of winemaker.  The estate is owned by Jean-Claude Palu and his wife Michèle, who bought it for a song over 20 years ago, and then spent a considerable amount of money restoring the property and streamlining the cellar.  In M. Paul’s absence, Mas de Novi now run by Thierry Thomas, who deeply committed to the estate, for his very first job was at Mas de Novi, and then he went onto work elsewhere before returning to Mas de Novi in 2012.  One of the first things he did was to convert the vineyards  to organic viticulture.  They now have 42 hectares in production, all around the cellars, as well as another 5.5 hectares coming into production. The terroir is argilo-calcaire, clay and limestone.  

The cellars are well equipped, with stainless steel vats, as well as some cement and stone vats that are useful for blending, and a small barrel cellar for white wine, and a larger one for red wines, with barriques and demi-muids.  Sulphur is used as little as possible, at the end of the fermentation for white wine, and after the malo-lactic fermentation for red wine.  And hygiene is meticulous.

There was originally a Roman villa on the site and then it became a dépendence of the lovely Cistercian abbey of nearby Valmagne, from 11th century until the Revolution.   I was taken for a drive through the vineyards up to a viewpoint that looks towards the Mont Ste Claire in Sète, the abbey of Valmagne and the village of Villeveyrac.  And then we adjourned to the welcoming tasting caveau. 

2017 Lou Rosat, Languedoc AOP - 9.00€
A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Cinsaut and Carignan.  However Thierry is not very keen on Carignan, observing that it performs better on schist.  It is also better with a carbonic maceration, but then you have to drink it quite quickly.  I begged to differ.  The grapes for the rosé are pressed  so quite a pale colour.  The 2016 was even paler, following the fashion for the palest of rosés.  I was quite surprised to learn that a powder made from garden peas can provide an effective  fining agent to remove colour.   The palate was crisp and fresh, with a dry finish.  

2017 Lou Blanc, Pays d’Oc, Chardonnay - 11.00€
A pure Chardonnay given an élevage on its lees in stainless steel vats, as well as three to four hours of skin contact.   The skin contact was the consequence of a press breaking down when it was full of Chardonnay grapes and they found they liked the result, so now do that regularly.  The nose was rounded and lightly nutty, with a ripe palate and fresh acidity.  There is no malo-lactic fermentation; they want to retain acidity, and also in the rosé.

2014 Chardonnay Pays d’Oc - 17.00€
with the fermentation and 12 months ageing in barrel.  Lightly golden colour. Firm nutty nose; quite rounded, with ripe fruit and some texture and firm acidity on the finish.  

2015 Chardonnay - 17.00€
The same wine, but with quite a vintage difference, in that it tasted much more structured with a tighter palate and fruit.  I much preferred it. 

2016 Lou Mazet, Pays d’Oc - 9.00€
From of equal parts of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, kept in vat.  All destemmed as they harvest by machine, and the machine has an optical sorting device, a tri optique, which eliminates a lot of unwanted grapes, leaves, insects and so on in the vineyard, before the fruit gets to the cellar.  Deep young colour.  Quite rounded with some  firm tannins.  Pretty easy drinking.

2015 Le Chemin de Novi, Grés de Montpellier - 11.00€
A blend of 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache.  in stainless steel vats.  Good colour.  Quite a rounded nose, with some dry leathery notes on the nose, and on the palate some ripe fruit and a certain warmth on the finish.   

2015 Ô de Novi, Grés de Montpellier - 17.00€
From 40 year old vines, 70% Syrah and 30% Grenache.  Average yield 25 hl/ha as opposed to 40 hl/ha for le Chemin de Novi. Aged in stainless steel vat.  A deep colour.  Quite firm nose; nicely concentrated dry spice, with firm fruit.  Well integrated tannins.  Nicely youthful, with ageing potential

2014 Prestige, Grés de Montpellier - 13.00€
85% Syrah with 12% Grenache and just 3% Mourvèdre, the salt and pepper, observed Thierry.   You really miss  the Mourvèdre if it is not included.  12 months élevage in fut. Quite substantial and rounded on the nose and palate, with ripe spicy fruit and a fresh lift on the finish.  Well made with ageing potential and fresher than the O de Novi, perhaps because of the Mourvèdre.

Then to show how well their wines age, Thierry explained that they have a policy of keeping back some bottles, 15,000, to release when they are ten years old.

2008 Novi, Grés de Montpellier - 21.00€
with 85% Syrah, 12% Grenache and Mourvèdre, from 40 year old vines, with some élevage in vat, and also in barriques and demi-muids. The colour is beginning to evolve, as is the nose with some cedary notes, making for a pleasing maturity with rounded cedary fruit on the palate.  Thierry described  2008 as a classic vintage

2009 is a sunnier vintage, with the same blend, but is not yet on sale.  The wine is more solid and rounded, denser with more tannin than the 2008.  I preferred the 2008.  The 2009 also seemed more alcoholic on the finish.

And then I spotted a sign on the wall of the tasting room - Alcohol because no great story ever started with somebody eating a salad!

Our tasting finished with 2011 N de Novi,  Grés de Montpellier at 55.00€  A pure Syrah that was planted after a fire in the garrigue nearby in 1994.  The first vintage was 2008.  The density is 6000 pieds per hectare, with a yield of a natural 15 hl/ha, without resorting to a green harvest.  The wine spends 18 months in new demi-muids.  The palate is rounded and spicy, with supplie tannins and some satisfying texture.  Thierry admitted that for 2012 he has included some Viognier, so that will be interesting to taste in due course.   

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Why write a book on the wines of the Languedoc?

Why write about the Languedoc now?  Quite simply, and without exaggeration, it is the most exciting wine region of the whole of France.  The pace of change in the last few years has been breath-taking, and for that reason I wanted to concentrate on the Languedoc of the 21stcentury and describe the many changes in the region and the new wine growers who are behind those changes.  In a nutshell, the region has become, in the words of one grower, more confident and another suggested, more sage,wiser and more grown up.   It is not only that work in the vineyard and cellar have improved dramatically, but that the atmosphere has changed, with a buoyancy and optimism.  While it is true, that there are still problems, and indeed dull wines, there is the underlying realisation that the Languedoc has so much to offer.  The lure of the Languedoc for outsiders, and newcomers to wine, is very strong, and many said that it was more welcoming than other regions they explored.  The newcomers have brought ideas from elsewhere and that all adds to a vibrant melting pot of dynamic attitudes.   There is an extraordinary enthusiasm and energy amongst the wine growers.  I have lost count of the times somebody said:c’est ma passion.  Life may be hard; their vines may be frosted or hailed, but they simply could not imagine doing anything else, and they are all making the very best wine that they can.  They enjoy the liberty that the Languedoc offers; if you make an appellation, you must conform to its regulations, but if you make an IGP, the rules are much more flexible, and if you make Vin de France, the restrictions are minimal.  For this reason, the Languedoc is a hotbed of experimentation, with a wonderful choice of grape varieties.  The appellations retain the established varieties, but the producers of IGP and Vin de France may experiment virtually to their heart’s content. 

There has been much to discover.   As a local wine merchant observed, the new estates are popping up like mushrooms. The newest appellation of the Languedoc, the Terrasses du Larzac, has absorbed 25 new estates since 2011; Faugères had four new wine growers in 2014, and a further four since then.   There are new arrivals at every vintage, and those are the people on whom I wanted to concentrate for this book, for they are the people who are creating the Languedoc of the 21stcentury. Of course, I could not ignore the long-established estates, and indeed some of the cooperatives, where they continue to perform well for their appellation, but my focus is on the new developments and the newcomers of the past 17 years.   There are well over 2,500 estates in the Languedoc, so selection was essential and I apologise for all the omissions, of which there are doubtless numerous, but I also hope that I have paved the way to new discoveries, in the 200 or so estates covered in the book.