Sunday, 22 September 2019

The 2019 vintage in the Languedoc - some observations

As I write in the middle of September, the harvest is by no means finished.  Some rain interrupted had the picking a few days ago, on 10th September; some friends have picked earlier; others later, and others have hardly started, and I have heard quite mixed reactions.

Yesterday morning I was up early to help with the harvest of Vermentino at Mas Gabriel.   By lunchtime a problem came to light - not enough vat space.   This vineyard. which had not produced any grapes the previous two years, as a result of frost, and then mildew, was generous and abundant.  I have never seen so many grapes on some vines - Deborah thought the yield about 40 hl/ha when usually they are lucky to obtain 25 hl/ha   And the quality is good, as Peter poetically put it, 'beautiful and bountiful'.   Although he had suffered from sunburn in some of his vineyards at the end of June, the damage was not as bad as he had initially feared.

At la Grange des Bouys Stéphane Monmousseau was picking his Carignan the previous week - he favours an earlier harvest than Mas Gabriel and here the yield was good, but not excessive, and the grapes were beautifully healthy.   There is something wonderfully satisfying about picking ripe healthy grapes.   

In contrast at Seigneurie de Peyrat, they were lamenting a small harvest, from the combination of sunburn and the drought.

Isabelle Mangeard at Clos des Nines near Villeveyrac has had just 80 mms of rain since March.  She made the observation that normally she would expect 1.3 kilos of white grapes to give her one litre of juice.  This year it has taken 2 kilos, vividly illustrating how much smaller than usual the grapes are, with so much less juice.   But she is not complaining about the quality.   And the fermenting juice of her white wine was rich and fruity.  

Lidewej van Wilgen at Terre des Dames  talked about this year’s harvest.  'The strangest year ever'.  A very dry summer and the vines are stressed, making for irregular ripening, but then a little rain just as the harvest was about to begin, woke the vineyard up.  When I saw her last week, she had picked her white grapes, in the dark, starting at 5.30 am, when the grapes are still cold, only 10ºC.  She talked about playing poker with the rain;  you mustn’t panic.   More rain was forecast and she was hoping to get the Syrah picked before it came, as the skins are thin and can split;  Grenache is thicker, and the rain would give it a bit more welcome juice.  

Continuing this post a few days later as it pours with rain in the Languedoc   I think we have had more rain today, Sunday 22nd September, than in the previous eight months of the year.  Lidewej is relieved; she has picked all her Syrah, with its thin skins, so that leaves some Grenache and Carignan, both with reassuringly thick skins.   She will have to wait for the vineyards to dry out before starting picking again.

My friend Catherine at Mas d'Alezon in Faugères has hardly started picking.  Despite the heavy rain this weekend she was surprisingly relaxed.

The effect of  carbon dioxide in the press protecting the juice from oxidation.

Jacques Boyer at Domaine la Croix Belle in the Côtes de Thongue has picked his whites and rosés, but does not think his red grapes are fully ripe yet.  He made an interesting observation about the proportion of sugar to actual juice.  Some vignerons are assuming their grapes are ripe as there is sugar, but for many people there is not much juice this year,  thanks to the drought, and the acidity is concentrated as well as the sugar.  So the flavours are not really ripe.   Jacques is patient.  And the rain today will probably help, as fine weather is forecast for the rest of the week.   

Monday, 16 September 2019

Terre des Deux Sources

I am always thrilled to meet people who are at the beginning of their Languedoc journey and that is what I did last week.  A New Zealander, Kirsten Creasy had got in touch, saying please come and visit her property up in the hills near Ganges, north of the Pic St Loup.   This is a part of the Languedoc that I rarely  see, so Kirsten’s invitation was the excuse for a grand day out.   We drove home through the dramatic Gorges de l”Hérault and past St Guilhem-le-Désert.  

The original name of the property outside Montoulieu between St. Bauzille de Putois and St Hippolyte du Fort was Domaine da la Devèze, but Kirsten has preferred to rename it Terre des Deux Sources.  It is an historic estate, with Roman origins and remains, including a well, and there are indeed two springs on the property.  Also the new ownership is a partnership, Kirsten with her American husband, Glen, provide the winemaking and viticulture expertise while Rémi and Hélène Taillerfer have business and administrative skills.  The previous owners, Marcel and Claudette Damais arrived here from Algeria in 1963 and their son has reached retirement age, so it was the moment for them to sell.  

There are 35 hectares of vines, all around, with fifteen different varieties altogether, with apology for a list but it illustrates the diversity of the region.   So for whites - Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier and Vermentino.  And for reds, Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah, Aramon, Auban, Alicante, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  The Aramon and Auban are to be pulled up and replaced with Mourvèdre, and also Chenin Blanc and Grenache Blanc.   Kirsten enthused.  The 15 varieties are not a headache, but an opportunity.  There are also missing vines to replace.   Kirsten is particularly enthusiastic about this part of the Languedoc; this is where she wanted to make wine as it is the coolest part of the region, with enormous diurnal differences, as much as 20ºC.  It is not unknown for the thermometer to reach 38ºC in the height of summer, and to drop to 18ºC at night.  Essentially they chose the region for the water and the altitude, seeing it as a buffer to climate change.

Kirsten knows the south of France well; she has worked extensively throughout the region, from Corsica, Provence and Roussillon, as well as the Languedoc, as a flying winemaker, and also in South Africa and South Africa.  She has also lived in Australia, where she met Glen and taught at Roseworthy College.  And when they went back to New Zealand she had a tiny vineyard outside Christchurch.  But then they decided to uproot and come to France.  And they actually signed for their property in December 2018.  However the previous owners were very happy for them to make wine in 2018. 

We looked at the cellar.  The first thing you see is an enormous basket press - it dates from 1890 and it takes three strong men to operate it.   And it would be impossible to move, such is its weight.   They also have a smart new pneumatic press.   There are concrete vats which Kirsten loves, and she has kept some of the old foudres.  There are smaller barrels too, but essentially this is an estate that needs investment.   Kirsten has her own lab - she is a qualified oenologist.   

Glen talks about the vineyards; there are about 25 different blocks, which they are getting to know.   Ten of the 35 hectares are in the Terrasses du Larzac and the rest are either AOP Languedoc and IGP St Guilhem-le-Désert.  The area can be cold in winter, with snow in the Cevennes, but the vines must also be drought tolerant.  The soil is clay and limestone. They are less enthusiastic about organic viticulture, criticising it for the lack of versatility in vine management and preferring lutte raisonnée and the use of some appropriate ‘softer’ chemicals.  Wild boar are a problem; and birds too.  

And then we tasted.  Kirsten explained her very logical range:  Amourette is the entry level, aiming to be fun and simple in all three colours.  Château de la Devèze Monnier is for the  appellation wines, all blends, red, white and pink.  Accords, IGP St Guilhem-le-Désert, is the name given to any particularly good plots, and will vary from year to year.   And there are currently two Terrasses du Larzac, made by the previous owners.

Kirsten observed that they were not able to chose when to harvest in 2018 and so the alcohol levels are higher than she would like.   However she felt that she had made a success of the whites, and on my initial tasting I would certainly agree.   

2018 Les Amourettes, Pays d’Oc - 7.50€
A cheerful blend of Roussanne, Marsanne, Ugni Blanc and Vermentino.  Lees stirred to give some mouthfeel  It was initially fresh and pithy, lightly floral with some texture.  There is a colourful pair of bee eaters on the label. 

2018 Viognier Pays d’Oc - 8.5€
This has been kept in old barrels. 'I can’t stand new barrels', observed Kirsten and the fermentation was cool, followed by lots of lees stirring.  It was a refreshing style of Viognier, not oily, but with good salinity, with structure and elegance.  An understated subtle Viognier with lightly peach fruit and a dry finish

Château de la Devèze Monnier, AOP Languedoc  - 9.50€
Predominantly Roussanne, with some Viognier, and Ugni Blanc.  Ugni Blanc is allowed in an appellation wine if it has been planted before 1978.  Kirsten finds it a very good blending component, giving acidity and brightness.  The wine has less overt fruit than les Amourettes.  There is texture and complexity, with white blossom and a hint of peachy fruit and a long finish.  Ten percent has been in barrel, and there has been plenty of lees stirring.

Accords, IGP St Guilhem-le-Désert - 12.00€
A blend of Roussanne, with 20% each of Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, blended in January and bottled in April  80% was fermented in oak, with a percentage of malo, and all was kept in oak for a few months, which gives weight to the palate.  Quite a rounded nose with a hint of vanilla. Acidity, texture, peachy fruit.  Some citrus notes.

After the whites we went on to rosé.  The grapes were saigné rather than pressed, and Kirsten thought the wines too ripe and alcoholic for her taste.  Here she was not in complete control.  And the reds that she was showing were wines that she had blended and bottled but not actually made, so a tasting note would be unfair.  Ultimately the Terrasses du Larzac will be the top red wine, but for the moment it is very much work in progress.   We did however taste a barrel sample of some Carignan, which was fresh and ripe, with promising potential. The Carignan is amongst the oldest vines, bush vines from 1954.  

And then we adjourned for a friendly picnic lunch with local charcuterie in the shade of an old plane tree.  

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Clos du Temple - Gerard Bertrand’s latest rosé offering

Gerard Bertrand’s latest rosé was released this summer.   It is no ordinary rosé but a wine that is as finely crafted as any good red or white wine.   And it comes with an elevated price tag which is hard to justify for any new wine, and certainly for a rosé.   Gérard already produces a considerable range of rosés from his various estates, some quite simple; some more complicated  (see my earlier rosé posts) but this is intended to be the pinnacle at the top of the pyramid.  

There is no doubt that the wine has been made with enormous care and attention to detail.   It comes the hills above the village of Cabrières, a village long recognised for the quality of its rosé.  If you want to try a much more accessible wine, the brand of the cooperative of Cabrières, L’Estabel, is well worth checking out.   I visited the vineyards above Cabrières when Jean-Claude Zabalia owned Domaine des Deux Rocs, which has subsequently been incorporated into Gérard's vineyards.  Domaine du Temple was the neighbouring estate, and now also part of Gérard’s holding in Cabrières.  The vineyards are in a stunning position, at 240 metres, close to the Pic de Vissou, with vines planted on schist soil.   They are farmed biodynamically.   The grape varieties are Grenache 40%,  Cinsault 35%, Syrah 15%, Viognier 3% and Mourvèdre 7%, including some old vines, Cinsault planted in 1959, but the rest are more recent.   Gérard explains that he has conceived this wine like a temple, Grenache provides the foundations.  The columns are formed by the Cinsault; the walls are Syrah and the architecture is Mourvèdre, while the roof is provided by the Viognier.    Or more poetically in Gérard's own words : ‘J’ai conçu ce vin comme un temple : les fondations sont constituées par le Grenache, les colonnes sont formées par le Cinsault, les murs c’est la Syrah, l’architecture c’est le Mourvèdre et le toit c’est le Viognier » 

The grapes are hand-picked at sunrise, to benefit from cool temperature and pressed at 5ºC; the juice is clarified and fermented, with each variety fermented separately in a vat, except for the Viognier and Cinsault which are co-fermented, and then aged in new French oak barrels for six to eight months, with some bâtonnage, initially three times a week, and then once a week until February.  However, that depends on the weekly tasting.  The blending takes place on a fruit day in April.  And they have made just 9000 bottles for the first vintage.  

As you can see from the photograph, the bottle has pretensions to a work of art, with a square base and a pyramid indent, and some gold lines that are apparently intended to recall the hillsides of Cabrières. 

And what does the wine taste like?  I shared it with winemaking friends and a salade niçoise.  I am told that the main dish for the smart press launch in Paris was lobster…..The colour is very pretty and enticing.  Initially the nose was quite delicate, but the vanilla notes of new oak became more noticeable, and were very obvious on the palate.   There was some weight and structure, but I felt the vanilla overwhelmed the fruit.   And that the oak integration was less successful than for Gérard’s hitherto most expensive rosé, La Villa from Domaine la Sauvageonne in the Terrasses du Larzac.  If given the choice, I would prefer to drink that.   

I wondered if Viognier really adds to a rosé with its quite strong peachy flavours.   And I also wondered whether the wine would taste better with some bottle age.   I was very generously sent two bottles, so I intend to keep the second one for next summer and see how it has developed.  But you do not usually expect a rosé to improve in the bottle.   That for me is another reason why the high price tag is hard to justify.  If you buy a bottle of fine white or red wine, you expect some evolution in the bottle; you are paying for something that will improve with bottle age if you chose to keep it.   Rosés are usually designed to offer fairly instant and delicious gratification, and then decline as they age.  But in this instance, maybe not.

The price is an interesting issue?   And raises various issues.   Why assume that rosé should always be cheap and cheerful?  Indeed, it is not.  SachsaLichine has already proved that in Provence with his Whispering Angel from Château d’Esclans, but even his pricing is not as ambitious as Gérard Bertrand’s.   Rosé deserves to be taken seriously.  It is a difficult wine to make, some say more difficult than either red or white, as the colour is so complicated to control.  It must not be too dark, nor so light as to look like white wine.   It requires meticulous winemaking.   

And Cabrières is the perfect choice of vineyard for an aspiring stellar rosé from the Languedoc.  And do not forget that the Languedoc produces much more rosé than Provence, so it is high time for Languedoc rosés to take the limelight and not be compared unfavourably with Provence.  As Gérard Bertrand is demonstrating, they have very much their own style of rose.    At 190€ this wine is certain to be talked about.  

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Tasting with Laurent Calmel of Calmel & Joseph

A few weeks ago I met up with Laurent Calmel at his fairly recently acquired estate, Domaine de la Madone, in the picturesque little village of Montirat.  We saw rather more of the village than was intended, as fearing large potholes from roadworks, we obeyed the deviation signs at the top of Laurent’s lane, which in fact proved to be quite superfluous to requirements, and arrived at the back entrance, having followed a circuitous dirt track past olive groves and vines.

Essentially Laurent is the winemaker for a négociant business.  M. Joseph is his business partner, and until September 2015 they did not have any vineyards at all.  Laurent describes his business as a négoce sans chais, without a cellar, but with producteurs partenaires, making wine in their cellars from selected plots.  For example, his Faugères is the blend of grapes from three different wine growers.  He chooses the plots, and makes the wine in each different cellar and then blends the wines and ages them, and bottles them in a centre de conditionnement in Béziers.   He is a great believer in the virtues of an élevage in bottle, feeling strongly that it enhances quality, and adds extra value, observing that culturally and traditionally the Languedoc has not been good at ageing wine in bottle.   It is time for that to change.  

Laurent has developed a very well-conceived range of wines, of which I tasted a small selection.  The Villa Blanche range covers a selection of single grape varieties, including two cépages anciens, Terret Blanc and Piquepoul Noir.  There is a pair of AOP Languedoc, red and white and a selection of three called Amstamgram, which I learnt, is the French for eeny meeny, miny moe!  Next comes Les Terroirs, from different appellations, all based on varying blends of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, with the objective of illustrating the enormous variety of the Languedoc.    A pair of bubbles from Limoux, Blanquette and Crémant, and then there are the Crus, which Laurent described as his conception of some of the best areas of Languedoc-Roussillon such as St Chinian, Montpeyroux, Terrasses du Larzac and Caramany.  They are all aged in barrel.  Cuvées Rares covers exceptional plots, producing just 3000-4000 bottles, what Laurent called the nuggets, or pépites of the vintage.  These wines are made with minimum intervention, from destemmed grapes, with natural yeast, and an élevage in oak, all to emphasise the terroir. And finally, there is La Madone, from his new vineyard, a selection of the very best grapes, vinified as simply as possible, and sold at an appropriate price.     

Villa Blanche 2018 Terret Blanc - 8.00€
This is a new look at a grape variety that has been much despised in the past.  It used to be produced with prolific yields to provide a base wine for Noilly Prat. For that, all that was needed was something  easy to cultivate and neutral in favour.  Reduce the yields to a more sensible 60 - 70 hl/ha and the flavours change, becoming refreshing and herbal with good acidity.   The grapes are grown Marseillan, the home of Noilly Prat, and the Bassin de Thau.  And the wine makes a refreshing apéro and would go deliciously with a plate of seafood.  

2018 Amstragram Clairette du Languedoc - 11.00€
Clairette is another neglected grape variety, which deserves a comeback. It can be quite difficult to work in the vineyards, and you have to take care with the harvest date, as it can lack acidity. This example was soft and grassy, with some salty notes, with some structure and texture on the palate.   An argument for a revival in the fortunes of Clairette.

2018 Amstagram Cérès AOP Languedoc Rosé - 11.00€
A blend of Mourvèdre from the Terrasses du Larzac, Cinsault from the Minervois and 
Grenache, mainly Noir but with a little Gris, from Roussillon.  Pressurage direct; saigné simply gives too much colour. This is a pretty pink, rounded and ripe, and nicely vinous with good fruit and balance.  

2016 St Chinian Blanc, from the range of Crus - 17.00€
A blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Viognier and Roussanne, fermented in vat and élevé in wood for six months.  Quite a golden colour.  Quite rounded and ripe with good acidity.  Good mouthfeel. Very harmonious and rounded.  Laurent is particularly enthusiastic about white St. Chinian, feeling that it has enormous undeveloped potential.  

2018 Villa Blanche, Piquepoul Noir - 8.00€
This is another grape variety that deserves a comeback.  Medium colour.  Sour cherries, griottes, on the nose.  Very fresh, red fruit, with good acidity and a hint of tannin.   A refreshing finish, making a perfect summer red.  

Amstagram L’Epicurius - 11.00€
A blend of 60% Petit Verdot from the Minervois and 40% Malbec, from Limoux. 30% of the blend is aged in barrel. The colour is very deep, as you expect with Petit Verdot and the wine is rounded and ripe, with rich cassis fruit and tannin.   And the label is very striking, designed by a Parisian artist, Vincent Tavernier

From the Terroirs range, I tasted

2016 Côtes du Roussillon Villages - 12.50€
A blend of 60% Syrah and 20% each of Grenache and Carignan.  The grapes come from two producers in the villages of Tautavel and Caramany.   Good colour, with ripe spice on the nose.   Rounded, soyeux fruit and well integrated tannins.   An elegant 13.5º which is modest for Roussillon. 

Laurent talked about the Terroirs range.  Each wine must represent its appellation.   Sometimes that can be difficult to determine.  

2017 Vieux Carignan, Côtes de Brian - 12.00€
From vines planted in 1909 at Cazelles in the Minervois.   30hl/ha.  Medium colour. Fresh red fruit, with some smoky notes.  Nice depth and good balance.  No wood and elegant rusticity.  I have a soft spot for old Carignan.

And then onto the Crus:

2015 Montpeyroux - 17.00€
A blend of equal parts of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, farmed organically, with six months in 2-year-old barrels.  Smoky cherry fruit with well-integrated oak.  Quite elegant, with fresh acidity and tannin.

2016 Terrasses du Larzac – 17.00€
50% Mourvèdre with 25% each of Syrah and Grenache.  12 months in wood.  Quite ripe and rounded with hints of tapenade on the nose.  And on the palate, rounded fruit with freshness on the finish.  The Mourvèdre makes for some elegance.

2016 Côtes du Roussillon, Caramany 
Syrah, Grenache and Carignan given 12 months in wood.  From a young organic viticulteur, in the village of Caramany who does not make his own wine.  Good colour. Quite ripe and rounded with some tannin. Ripe cherry liqueur and spice. Denser than the preceding wines.  14.5

2016 La Ruffe, Vin de France 
Ruffe describes the terroirs rouges of the lac de Salagou and vineyards around St Jean de la Blaquière.  In theory, the wine is a Terrasses du Larzac, but then it must be vinified in a cellar within that appellation. This is Laurent’s natural wine, made with natural yeast and maybe a small addition of sulphur at bottling.  It is fermented in stainless steel vats, with destemmed grapes, no remontages, but a light dampening of the cap, and then into wood for a few months.   No carbonic maceration, which can be quite common with natural wines as the carbon dioxide provides protection against oxygen.  The wine is very refreshing, with fresh red fruit.  Medium weight with some spice.  

2016 Minervois la Livinière, la Planette - the name of the plot. at 450 metres on the causse, on the plateau above the village of Fauzan.  A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Carignan given 12 months in oak in a Chassin barrel, from a relatively new cooper in Burgundy.   Laurent likes Burgundy barrels.   14.5°. Quite tannic and quite sturdy, with dry spice and some depth.  Needs time.

2015 le Roc, Corbières
Part from the vineyards here at Montirat and part from the village of St Laurent-de-Caberisses.  Medium colour.  Quite firm and story, with a certain density and good concentration.  Some freshness on the finish.  Youthful.  Twelve months in oak 

2017 Collioure, les Elmes
We talked about heroic viticulture, considering the steep terraces of the vineyards of Collioure.  Medium colour.  The emphasis is on Grenache, with just 10% each of Mourvèdre and Syrah.  Grenache is not usually put in wood; you must take care not to oxidise it, and must retain the fruit.  Which Laurent has done, very successfully.  Medium colour.  Quite elegant spicy fruit, with some tannin on the palate, balancing some elegantly concentrated cherry fruit.   Laurent is also interested by the vin doux of Roussillon, but lamented, as I do, that nobody buys them; yet people love them when they try them.  

And our tasting finished with 2016 La Madone, which is the first vintage of this wine.  A blend of 80% Grenache and 20% Syrah, aged together in wood for twelve months, in barrels that had been used previously for a white wine.  Deep colour.  Quite a discreet nose, and a harmonious palate.   Some tannins balanced by spicy fruit.  Youthful and understated.  Definitely a wine that will develop in bottle, but it was already beginning to drink nicely, as we proved when we finished the bottle with wine-making friends later that evening.  

Then we adjourned to the Moulin de Trèbes, a cheerful restaurant on the canal just outside Trèbes and enjoy a lentil salad with Laurent’s Languedoc Blanc, with fresh herbal notes, from Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino and Grenache blanc, and then a refreshing apricot soup laced with ginger, and watched the boats go by.  Laurent enthused about the Languedoc.  observing that the Pays d’Oc has taken the place of AOP Languedoc at the base of the pyramid.  For him the appeal of the Languedoc is that it is young region, ‘we can do what we like - we can take risks - it is the El Dorado du vin, and it has no weight of history’.  Liberty and creativity are the rules of the game.   Laurent is a thoughtful and talented wine maker who is making a mark on the region, and when I asked who he saw as his competitors he modestly replied that he had none; the more good producers there were, the better it was for everyone.

Since my visit, there has been a large fire, covering some  700 hectares, very close to Montirat.  I am told that they lost a small number of trees, but thankfully no damage to the vineyard or other property, but they did have to move all their gite customers to other properties for safety.  And there is a welcoming tasting room and shop so do go and visit, and take my advice and ignore the deviation signs!