Tuesday, 17 November 2020

Tasting at the Abbaye de Valmagne


It has been twenty years since my last cellar visit to the wonderful abbey of Valmagne, when I met Diane d’Allaines, and her son Philippe, while researching The Wines of the South of France.  Philippe has now retired and his son Roland has taken over the winemaking, so it was time for a well overdue update.


2018 was Roland’s first complete vintage at Valmagne when he worked the whole annual cycle.  He studied agriculture and then business studies and then travelled to broaden his horizons, working in Bordeaux, and in Chile, and for a wine distributor in Paris. He returned to Valmagne with projects, notably to convert the vineyards, which have been organic since 1999, to biodynamic viticulture.  We talked about the two key preparations, namely 500-P which is based on cow dung matured in a cow horn buried in the ground, and sprayed twice a year in the vineyard.  500-1 is based on quartz and sprayed onto the leaves; the aim is to enhance the effect of the sun on the vines.  However, it must be done properly or it can burn the vines.


Roland now has 30 hectares in production.  Originally it was 57 hectares, but he has pulled up the less than satisfactory varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.   He would love to plant olive trees in their place.   For his white wine, he has Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc and he has planted Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc, using massal selection rather than a clonal selection.  Massal selection is more expensive, 3€ per vine, but the results are better.  For red wine, Roland has Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Cinsault, and one hectare of Carignan planted in 1948, and another planted in 2019.  There is also some Morastel which his father planted 20 years ago, but it is very susceptible to mildew.


Roland explained that there are three different soils.  There is some richer, deeper and more fertile soil, which provides the grapes for their entry level wine, Vitrail sur l’Abbaye.   Then there are limestone coteaux or hillsides, and then behind the abbey some very poor pink sandstone.  Sandstone makes for lighter tannins, whereas clay gives more power.  On 19th September, they still had about 10% left to pick, namely Carignan and Mourvèdre.  Virtually all the vineyards are machine-harvested, as machines are so much more efficient these days.

We tasted through the range:  


2019 Vitrail sur l’Abbaye Blanc, Pays d’Oc- 7.50€

A blend of 60% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc and 10% Chardonnay, fermented with natural yeast and kept in a stainless steel vat.   Blended in December and bottled in February.   They buy organically grown Chardonnay from a nearby wine grower.    Light colour.  Lightly floral with a hint of peach. Elegant finish, what the French call a joli amertume, an attractive bitterness.  


2019 Portalis, Languedoc AOP  - 11.00€

A blend of 80% Roussanne and 20% Grenache, fermented in vat with a little bâtonnage.  Grown on limestone.  A little colour.  Quite fragrant wine; neither too heavy nor too sunny and very elegant.   Roland explained that they do two tries through the vineyard, picking the Roussanne first at 11.9° for acidity and then at 13° for fruit, and then blend the two.  A blend of minerality and southern aromas, very elegant and nicely crafted.  We later enjoyed it for lunch in the abbey restaurant


2019 Turenne Blanc, Languedoc AOP - 16.00€

A blend of 80% Roussanne grown sandstone with 20% Grenache Blanc from the coteaux, fermented in oak, with six months ageing.   Roland uses neutral barrels, and is also trying a terracotta amphora from Spain.  Last year he bought a demi-muid.  A little colour.  Some integrated oak on the nose. Quite a firm structured palate, with some firm acidity and even a touch of tannin.  It should develop with some bottle age.  Roland admitted to an enthusiasm for Burgundy, and Puligny Montrachet in particular. 


2019 Vitrail sur l’Abbaye Rosé - 7.50€

Cinsault with a little Grenache; pressed grapes.  Pale pink orange colour.  Dry raspberry fruit on the nose, and palate.  Nicely rounded with a fresh finish. 


2019 Nicolaÿ Rosé - 12.00€

Saigné after 8 to 12 hours.  A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Quite rounded with some depth, some weight and some complexity.  For Roland, a rosé de saigné portrays the terroir better than a rosé from pressed grapes.  This was certainly a more serious wine with some depth and mouthfeel.  


They do make a red Vitrail sur l’Abbaye, but the 2018 was sold out and they had only bottled the 2019 the previous day.


2018 Portalis Rouge, Languedoc  AOP - 11.00€

A blend of 60% Syrah with 30% Grenache and 10% Mourvèdre.  All fermented and kept in stainless steel vats. Blended in December and then bottled 12 months later.  The maceration can last between five days and two weeks; ça depend!  Deep colour.  Rounded red fruit with some spice and on the palate a tannic streak.  Medium weight.  Nicely balanced.   Youthful fresh finish, with some ageing potential.


2016 Turenne, Grés de Montpellier - 16.00€

A blend of Syrah and Grenache with a little Morastel and Mourvèdre.   Aged in barrels of three or four wines for 12 months.  A deep colour.  A richer nose. and on the palate rounded ripe fruit, with some depth.  Black fruit and well integrated tannins.  It doesn’t taste as though it has 14° alcohol.  Roland enthused about Mourvèdre.  They are not too far from the sea at Valmagne, so he does get the sea influence in his vineyards, with a temperate climate.  Roland blended this wine, but did not ferment it.


2015 Cardinal de Bonzi, Grés de Montpellier - 24€

This wine was made by Philippe, rather than Roland.  Deep colour.  Quite a firm nose and palate, with some fruit underneath, but the oak is still quite dominant.  Quite structured.  


I quizzed Rolland about changes he has made.  For the wine making, he thought, less extractions.  He dampens the cap of grapes for two or three minutes rather than doing remontages.  He is working with natural yeast and in the vineyard on biodynamics and massal selection.  A flock of sheep spend February to April into vineyards.  You sense that Rolland is very enthusiastic about his vineyards; that is where he feels most at home.


The wine names all convey a sense of the family history.  It was the Count of Turenne who bought Valmagne in 1838 and it has been in the hands of the family ever since.  Suzanne de Nicolaÿ was his granddaughter, who married the Marquis de Nicolaÿ. and she is the great-grandmother of Roland’s grandmother Diane, and mother of Jean-Baptiste Portals built the cellar in 1920, applying the principal of gravity to his wine-making.   Cardinal Pierre de Bonzi was governor of the Languedoc under Louis XIV and Valmagne was his main place of residence; he turned the abbey into a home.  Two new plots of vines pick up the names of the new generation, L’Enclos de Ninon, after Ninon, Roland’s daughter, and Le Petit Moine for Oliver, his nephew, whose father is English and very aptly with the surname of Monk.  Each child has a plot of massal selection vines from which Roland has yet to make wine. then We then repaired to the Auberge de l’Abbaye for a very convivial lunch. 



Monday, 9 November 2020

Maison Lafon


It has been a while since I did a cellar visit with Bruno Lafon of Domaine Magellan.   Things have moved on; his sister-in-law Sylvie, with whom he ran Domaine Magellan, has sadly died and now he has a lot less vineyards.   He has recently remarried, to Sharon, who he met at a wine fair in Hong Kong, and they are now working together, with Bruno’s daughter, Alice, to develop the label, Maison Lafon.


Bruno now runs nine hectares and he also buys grapes from a neighbour, Jean Couderc of Domaine des Trois Puechs in Fouzilhon.  First, we tasted a few 2020s, my first of the year.    See an earlier post for Bruno’s view of the harvest.  All Bruno’s vineyards are farmed organically, and he is working on biodynamics. 


Our tasting started off in the cellar, with a vat sample of one third Roussanne to two thirds Grenache Blanc was the colour and density of grapefruit juice.  Part of the cuvée is in barrel and Bruno also has some Grenache Gris and Piquepoul in barrel.  The wine will do a malo; as a Burgundian, he likes a malolactic fermentation, and all his white wines have undergone a malo since 2011.  I am not very experienced at tasting very young wine from vat, but this struck me as nicely textured with some refreshing acidity.   


A blend of Syrah and Grenache followed, a future AOP Pézenas, with a deep colour and ripe cassis fruit.  It was very intense, with some peppery tannins, and the yield from 2.5 hectares was just 63 hectolitres.   Too small a yield can be problematic economically. Bruno thinks the area around Magellas is getting drier; it can rain heavily in Montpeyroux when there is hardly a drop here.   We talked about the mortality rate of Syrah with vines of 20 years old dying before their time.   It may be linked to the type of graft, but nobody really knows.   Vers de la grappe is another problem that is becoming more common.


Next came a blend of Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache, from grapes bought from M. Couderc, which they harvest themselves, thus controlling the harvest date. A deep colour, with ripe fruit, firm tannins and a juicy finish.  Buying grapes gives them flexibility.   However, Bruno would like to find some Cinsault vines to buy.  Twenty years ago, Cinsault had a bad reputation and Bruno replanted five hectares of Cinsault, for which he had paid just the price of the land, without the vines. But he now thinks that Cinsault is a grape for the future, like Piquepoul.   Cinsault grows slowly and is more resistant to climatic difficulties.    


Then we adjourned to the shade of large plane tree in the courtyard and considered some bottles.  Bruno explained that the label Maison Lafon began in 2016, but it only really got going in 2019.  


2016 Cuvée Reserve, AOP Languedoc - 18.00€

 A blend of a high amount of Grenache grown on sandstone, with some Carignan and a little Syrah. Sandstone makes for less powerful Syrah.  About a 15 months élevage in barrels and then in cement vat, and bottled late, in the summer of  2019.  Medium colour.  Rounded, perfumed fruit on nose and palate, with an elegant streak of tannin. Elegant red fruit.  Still very youthful.  Bruno enthused about 2016; it has the richness of 2017, but the balance of 2014.


2017 Grenache, Vieilles Vignes - 18€

From 60 year old vines, grown on sandstone.  Medium colour.  Very elegant fruit on the nose, with a tannic streak.  Fresh and youthful.  Some mineral stony notes.  Grenache at its best.  Bruno observed that you can find aromas in Grenache that you would normally find in white wine, such as the mineral stoniness. 


2018 Syrah, Les Temps Changen

Inspired by the Bob Dylan song, Times, They are a-changin’.   The last vintage from this particular vineyard, that faces NW, with a terroir of villefranchien clay and limestone.  Deep colour with firm youthful peppery fruit on the nose. Very fresh with a streak of tannin.  A more northern style of Syrah with some restraint.


2018 Deja Vu

A blend of 70% Grenache and 30% Carignan vinified together.   Both varieties are in the same vineyard. Quite a deep colour.  Elegant red fruit and spice.  Grenache makes for quite soft fruit while Carignan provides a firm streak of tannin.  Very nicely balanced, with an underlying ripeness.    Aged in Burgundian barrels for 12 months.  


2019 Syrah, a barrel sample, with some firm spicy fruit, and blackcurrant gums on the nose. Quite a rounded palate.  Quite intense with some cassis fruit.  Promises well. 


2019 Mourvèdre 80% / Carignan 20% blend

The two varieties are aged separately.  Firm youthful nose, and firm red fruit on the palate.   The Carignan gives freshness, with red fruit and tight tannins, and a ripe finish.  Aged in Burgundian pièces, but Bruno is considering demi-muids, and even small 20 hectolitres foudres.  He is not into eggs or amphora, Terracotta is too porous; though he might consider a ceramic amphora.  And he prefers barrels that have been used in Puligny rather than Meursault, observing that in Puligny they bottle before the harvest, whereas in Meursault they keep their wine in barrel for longer, so that there is a moment in the year when the barrels are empty, and Bruno does not like that.  He also laughingly observed that his brother’s barrels were much too expensive!   You don’t need the support of wood; it is the micro-oxygenation that is beneficial and gives stability to the wine.


Next came 2013 Coteaux du Languedoc, Pézenas.  A blend of Syrah and Grenache - 50/50 in the vineyard but not necessarily in the wine.  Rounded maturing nose and palate, with supple ripe fruit and a firm finish.  Some leathery notes, and the intriguing nuances of a maturing wine.  with a long finish.


The next treat of the day was a vertical tasting of Domaine de Magellan Blanc. We began with 2008.    The wine is a blend of  2/3 Grenache Blanc to 1/3 Roussanne.  Half of the Grenache and all the Roussanne was aged in barrel, and the rest of the Grenache in vat.  A little malo, but not 100%.  The wine was kept in barrel until February and then racked and returned to vat, and bottled about a month later.    The only difference in the wine making over the years is the malo-lactic fermentation. Bruno likes 2008 as a vintage and the wine had rounded fruit with good texture and a certain note of maturity, with layers of flavour.


2013 - Some coulure in 2013 so the proportions of Grenache and Roussanne were 50 /50.  Some reductive notes so quite a tight nose and palate, with some elegant fruit. Very complete and harmonious.


2014 - Quite a resinous nose, with some notes of maturity.  Rounded, ripe and rich on the palate, with subtle fruit. 


2015 - Rounded and concentrated, rich and rounded, with some balancing acidity.  


Bruno has planted more white varieties, Grenache Gris, and a little Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Piquepoul.


2018 - I really enjoyed the more youthful 2018, with round floral fruit, with texture and mouthful and a youthful finish.  It was drinking very nicely.


Next came a couple more reds:   2016 Pézenas with fresh fruit on the nose, and more red fruit on the palate, with a streak of tannin.  Nicely youthful and it was tasted alongside a more mature 2012, a vintage that Bruno really likes.  It was nicely elegant, again with fresh fruit.   There is more Grenache and Carignan than Syrah in the blend.  Youthful tannin and nicely balanced, and young for its years.


In short, a great tasting, showing what a Burgundian approach can achieve in the south of France. 






Monday, 2 November 2020

Mas Lou in Faugères - an update. .

I spent a happy hour, one morning in late September tasting Oliver and Adèle’s current vintages in their little village cellar in the heart of Faugères. They now have eight hectares of vines. They had finished picking, and the wines had mostly finished fermenting, but were still sur marc, on the skins, for a three-week maceration.  However, there had been a cold snap a couple of days earlier, and Olivier was concerned to keep the wines warm, at 25°C.  As Adèle put it, they have put their winter coats on, in other words, an insulating cover.   If the temperature drops too low, it makes for bitter flavours.


This year they started the harvest at the end of August, with the Viognie for their white Côtes de Thongue.   For Faugères itself they started on 7th September, a little earlier than usual, and had finished by 18th.  On 2019, they were still picking on 9th October.  This year everything was ripe all at once, and they also hurried as the weather forecast had announced a downpour, that never came in the end.  The quantity is satisfactory and the quality very good.

The other problem this year was the wild boar.  They were thirsty and consumed about 70% of one plot of Mourvèdre, and also a large amount of Syrah.  You can install electric fences but they are expensive and not always 100% effective.  it is best to work with your neighbours and fence larger plots, but you have to do that quite early in the season, and that can cause problems with using tractors.

2019 Angaco - 10.00€

60% Carignan, with some Grenache and Lledoner Pelut, all aged in vat. Medium colour; fresh cherry nose, from the Grenache, with some firm tannins from the Carignan.  Some lovely fruit and an elegant balance.


2019 Jalka - 15.00€

This was a new cuvée for me, based on 70% Cinsault, grown at 400 metres, with some Grenache.  They are kept in vat and blended in March just before bottling.  It was quite delicious. Cinsault is my current enthusiasm.  A light bright colour.  Very fresh red fruit on the nose - the Cinsault makes for very appealing perfume. Delicately fragrant palate with lovely fresh fruit.


Adele explained that it is a micro-cuvée, they make just 10 hls, or 1500 bottles, from one small plot of 40 ares. All their cuvée names have a link with their time in South America.  Jalka are the Bolivian women who weave the local materials, which are illustrated on their labels.


2018 Aksou - 13€

Mainly Syrah, grown in a vineyard at around 250 - 300 metres, with some Grenache and Carignan, kept in vat, while the small amount of pressed juice is put in an old barrel, to round it out with some micro-oxygenation.   Adèle described it as their cuvée référence for schist. The nose was quite rich with black fruit and a hint of tapenade.  Fresh peppery fruit on the palate.  Medium weight.


2016 Tio - 20€

Mainly from Syrah, 90%, with some Grenache and Carignan, with an élevage in wood, including a little new oak.  2016 was a very hot year, with some drought and a small yield.   The oak immediately adds a different register of flavour and the wine is quite firm and structured with some underlying fruit. It should age well.  Though Adèle said: on cherche.  They are not sure that they have got it right yet; they are wondering about giving up on oak, and maybe trying a terracotta amphora.  They think that people like oak less than they used to, especially with the other possibilities available for élevage. Concrete vats are so good for both fermentation and élevage.


Their next project is a new cellar, outside Roquessels.  They hope to get planning permission early next year; the village mayor is supportive.  Their cellar in Faugères is simply too impractical.  Getting a bottling machine to them is well-nigh impossible and they have nowhere to store any wine, which precludes an impromptu purchase if somebody stops to taste. 


Their 2019 Côtes de Thongue, Ïnti, a pure Viognier, was all sold out and the 2020 will be kept in a for the next six months. 


I liked the way that their labels say jeunes vignerons.  Adèle explained that you are allowed to use that term until you are 35.  They still have a few years to go!