Monday, 21 January 2019

Domaine de l’Aster and Pézenas

Jacques Bihac was previously a shareholder in the Cabrières estate of Domaine du Temple, and how now taken over his grandparents’ vineyards, 28 hectares of vines, mainly outside the village of Péret, of which he vinifies and bottles the production of just six, the vineyards within the cru of Pézenas and the appellation of the Languedoc.  The rest go to the cooperatives of Péret and Puilacher, which tend to concentrate on IGPs.  Bilhac is a local name; there have been viticulteurs with that name in Péret since the 1640s.  Jacques observed that you can find nearly all the soils of the Languedoc appellation in the hills around Péret, with basalt, from the nearby extinct volcano of Malhubert, villefranchien gravel, marl, Devonian sandstone and clay.  The diversity makes for lots of choices when planting.  Aster is the name of a pretty pink flower, which is usually to be seen at harvest time, and for that reason is often called a vendangeuse.

Jacques has built a neat little cellar and his barrel cellar contains just six barriques.  He is particularly enthusiastic about his cooling equipment, the tool that has allowed the Languedoc to ‘sortir de la masse’, making a real impact on quality.   

Prélude is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Vermentino; pink Angelicae, a variety of Aster, comes from Cinsaut, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.  Trescol, the name of the plot, is supple and fruity, a blend of Cinsaut, Carignan, Grenache Noir and a little Syrah, intended for early drinking as opposed to the more structured cuvées of Pézenas.  

The first Pézenas is En montant la calade; a caladeis a stone street in a village and Jacques remembers a street like that in the centre of Péret as a school boy.  Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre are given a three-week fermentation and aged in vat to make for some rounded fruit with some depth.  

Le Hussard Noir is a homage to Jacques’s grandfather who was a lay school teacher, orhussard, as opposed to a religious teacher, during the Third Republic. This comes from 50% Mourvèdre with 35% Grenache and some Syrah, given twelve months in oak, and is quite serious and substantial.   With a first vintage in 2015, I felt that Jacques had made a good start and as president of the syndicat of the cru of Pézenas, he also has the challenge of achieving  appellation status for Pézenas. 

The aspiring appellation of Pézenas covers fifteen surrounding villages, of which Nizas and Caux are the most important.   However, it is difficult to see what really accounts for its tipicity.  Jacques suggested the basalt that you see all over the area, but there are other soils too. The vineyards are on gentle hillsides, none higher than 300 metres and there is a climatic unity for this is one of the drier areas of the Hérault.  It is an area of mainly of independent wine growers, with few of any significant size, making a total of 35, with four cooperatives, and as Jacques put it, no big locomotive for the appellation. He suggested that the tipicity of flavour is the finesse of the tannins, with fruit and spice.  

Others consider that there are so many different terroirs that it is difficult to define Pézenas.  It does almost seem to be an amalgam of villages that do not fit anywhere else and are conveniently close enough to Pézenas to be able to take advantage of its name. Christine Bertoli Mouton from Domaine Ste Cécile du Parc is quite dispassionate; ‘there is no tipicity, Pézenas is simply a geographic administrative area, with the advantage of its name, that is well known for Molière’.  

Domaines Paul Mas produce Côté Mas, a blend of wines not only from Domaines Mas, but from other contributing producers.  Jean-Claude Mas himself is optimistic about the future of Pézenas; it is true that they need to create a specific style of wine, with a coherent message, but it has the potential to be a convincing appellation with an excellent image and reputation.   

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Just back from ten days in the Languedoc over New Year, and looking back on some good bottles and some rather bibulous evenings.

Highlights included:

2016 Blanquette de Limoux from Château Rives Blanques, with delicious herbal flavours, making an original sparkling wine.  And also J Laurens Cuvée Demoiselle, Crémant de Limoux, which was rounded and creamy.

White wines amply illustrated the wonderful diversity of the Languedoc and showed just how much the whites of the region are improving.  

Domaine Cabrol, Cuvée Quinze, a Vin de France from a leading Cabardès estate is made from an extraordinarily eclectic blend of  Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Gros Manseng, Chenin Blanc and Semillon, with one third of the blend fermented and aged in barrel.  The wine has herbal notes and hints of honey and layers of nuances. it is one of those wines that keeps you guessing.  

Cascaille Blanc from Domaine Clavel in Pic St Loup is another extraordinary blend, of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Vermentino, Clairette,  Viognier, Marsanne and Muscat à petits grains.  They are all fermented together, with the juice of each grape variety added to the vat as it ripens.  The oak is well integrated and the wine has structure and length with a satisfying depth of flavour and a balanced finish.  

Mas d’Alezon’s Cabretta is a lovely white Faugères made from Clairette and Roussanne, with some intriguing herbal notes and a rounded palate.  

Domaine la Louvière’s la Souveraine, a pure Chardonnay from the cooler Malepère, was nicely balanced, with buttery fruit and well integrated oak, showing Jem Harris’s talent as a winemaker.   

As for reds, my discovery of the week, thanks to a new friend, Emma Kershaw, who lives in a Corbières village is Domaine des Deux Clés, an IGP Vallée du Paradis and a blend of Carignan and Grenache Noir.  It had rounded spice on both nose and palate, with nicely balanced tannins.   I am planning a visit with Emma in the spring.    Meanwhile I do wholeheartedly recommend her cookery book, A Taste of Le Sud, which concentrates on the wonderful Mediterranean ingredients and flavours.  

And on New Year’s Day, I opened some St. Chinian for a group of friends gathering for a post-walk dinner.   Of the six wines, my absolute favourite was Borie la Vitarèle, les Schistes, a satisfying blend of Grenache Noir and Syrah, with some liqueur cherry fruit, balanced by some elegant tannins.  But the others were good too, and much appreciated by the assembled company. There was also Château Coujan, Cuvée Bois Joli, Domaine de la Femme Allongée, a name new to me; Château Prieur des Mourgues, with some well integrated oak, and a pure Carignan Vieillles Vignes Canailles from Domaine les Eminades, with some fresh fruit, and Domaine du Sacré Coeur, Cuvée Jean Madoré.   They all went splendidly with a warming boeuf bourguignon.

And just for fun I opened a trio of Gimblett Gravels from New Zealand’s Hawke’s Bay, all variations on a bordelais theme, with a very New World taste.    it is virtually impossible to find any New Zealand wines in the Hérault, so our languedocien friends enjoyed being taken out of their comfort zone!

Dinner with friends who are wine growers always entails a bottle or two of their own wines, so on our last evening we enjoyed a lovely rich spicy Clos des Lièvres with Deborah and Peter Core from Mas Gabriel, and dinner finished with Délice from Domaine de Monplézy, a delicious late harvest Grenache Noir, which was redolent of red fruit and spices.  

Arriving early at Montpellier airport the next day, in order to avoid the gilets jaunes at our usual motorway entrance, we thought we would wash down a winter salad with a half bottle of Picpoul de Pinet.  Not a good idea; I don’t think the wine had been properly stored.   Also it was a 2016, and it tasted tired, and was quite golden in colour, not a good sign.  So we restored our faith in Picpoul de Pinet, by opening a bottle for an aperitif when we finally reached London.