Wednesday, 3 March 2021

Château Beauregard-Mirouze in the Corbières – a zoom with Karine Mirouze

Following on from a contact via the Millésime Bio website, Karine MIrouze and I arranged to talk on Zoom.    It has been quite a while since my last visit to Château Beauregard-Mirouze in the Corbières so it was time for an update.

Karine talked about their work in the vineyard and how it has evolved since my visit.   They have worked organically since 2010, but that was not enough.   She explained the need for what she called a global ecological approach, that encompasses everything in the vineyard, and also entailed the transition to biodynamics.   They are planting more trees and working to protect the birds.  They work with a shepherd and a flock of 70 sheep that graze on the property all the year around, with extra lucerne grown for their winter diet.  Essentially, they consider the whole environment of the vineyard.

They are also working more à la parcelle, and taking a more detailed look at their various plots.  For instance, they realised that a vineyard planted in 1973 and declared as Syrah actually included a significant amount of Carignan!   They now pick when the Syrah is ripe, and the Carignan not quite ripe, so that it adds freshness and character to the wine.  


And there have been additions to their range and some experiments in the cellar.  Some have worked; some have not.   There is a Pét Nat, Rouze, based on Cinsault, and light red in colour, to which they add some Mourvèdre.   It is left to ferment in the bottle and disgorged at the beginning of January.  Pétouze, meaning a petit oiseau or little bird, is a red pétillant, which Karine said was a little refined than Rouze. 


They are also experimenting with a white vin de macération, made oxidatively, so that it is rancio in character.  Karine admitted that the first attempt in 2017, for which the grapes were not destalked, and the wine given a long élevage, was undrinkable!  In 2018, they destemmed and gave the juice a week’s maceration before pressing, and that was much better.  They used Roussanne, and then aged the wine in oak for 12 months, and now it is in vat.  They want to accentuate the rancio character.    And in 2019 the juice spent three weeks on the skins.  You get more tannins, and then what Karine called the gras or weight and richness takes over, and that was ready earlier and worked well.  But then in 2020 their white wine harvest was too small, to allow for any experiments.


Karine explained how in 2019 the cool weather at flowering in June, followed by the heatwave had impacted on the flowering and the crop for 2020.  On the other hand, 2019 was the biggest crop that they had had in 20 years.


And I promised to visit just as soon as we are able to travel again.   Château Beauregard-Mirouze is close to the wonderful abbey of Fontfroide, so that provides another reason to venture into the Corbières. 







Monday, 22 February 2021

Millésime Bio – a digital experience

Millésime Bio, the wine fair devoted to organic and biodynamic wines, went digital this year, for a 28th session unlike any other.   I registered my interest and attended a couple of zoom conferences.  I also made contact with a couple of interesting wine growers, but that part of the organisation was a bit hit and miss.

I listened to the press conference on the first morning, which was conducted by various presidents, of Sudvinbio, Millésime Bio and the Region Occitanie, and which gave some interesting figures.   They had 1000 exhibitors from 16 countries.  However, 80% of them came from France.  They emphasised that Languedoc Roussillon is the most important region in France for organic viticulture and indeed 35% of the exhibitors were from Occitanie, with 310 exhibitors.   42,424 hectares in Occitanie are farmed organically, with 2540 estates in 2019, with a further 446 in the three-year conversion process, with a steady growth in the quantity of organic wine produced each year.   It was all very encouraging.


Half the visitors who registered were from outside France, with the digital element offering a distinct advantage to those from further afield, and consequently for 2022, they are anticipating a physical salon, with a digital dimension.   Personally, I hope that the digital element will lead on to real meetings, with of course, tastings.  


Organic wine with Virgile Joly 


On the second morning of Millésime Bio, there was a conference, entitled What is Organic Wine?  Virgile Joly, of Domaine Virgile Joly in St Saturnin, was the key speaker.


First it was explained that the new European regulations for organic wine now cover wine-making and not just work in the vineyards, so the entire process from grape to bottle.   Their implementation has been delayed for a year, thanks to Covid, so they will come into effect in January 2022.   Nothing chemical may be used, no pesticides, herbicides, synthetic products, chemical fertilisers, and the amount of sulphur is limited.  Organic viticulture entails a global approach, considering the vine in its environment.   Inevitably it entails more work in the vineyard, and for that reason it is inevitably more expensive to produce.  


The conversion process takes three years, and for the second harvest the wine may be labelled, produit en conversion.  The conversion to biodynamic viticulture also takes three years, with several possible labels such as Biodyvin and Demeter.   As for Vin Nature there is no official denomination, but a private cahier des charges, for Vin Méthode Nature.  


Virgile talked about his work.  He farms 26 hectares of AOP Languedoc, Terrasses du Larzac and St Saturnin, and committed to organic viticulture right from his very first vintage in the Languedoc, in 2000, at a time when organic wines were much less fashionable and sought after than they are now.     The first consideration was the health of the vineyard workers.  As he observed, 'we are the first to be exposed to pesticides when we spray them on our vines'.  He emphasised the importance of the environment, with the respect for nature.  And why take the trouble to obtain the certification?  As Virgile commented, it is very easy to raconter des histoires; it is all too easy to talk.   The organic organisations can do spot checks, unannounced, as well as a regular audit for which they make an appointment.  Virgile has had an inspector appear at the end of a hard day of harvesting, just to check there was nothing untoward in his cellar, that should not be there.  And in the spring, they will check for herbicides.


Virgile talked about the work in the vineyard.  He uses natural fertilisers; grass and weeds are controlled mechanically and only contact products can be used, and no systemics.  Copper and sulphur are allowed, but are limited.  The problem with contact products is that they are washed off in the rain,  but the equipment available for vineyard work has also improved over the last 20 years.   In the cellar, there are not too many constraints.   Chaptalisation and oak chips are still allowed, for those who want to use them.  I realise now that nobody mentioned yeast, but I think that any serious organic winegrower would only ever use natural indigenous yeast.  


Virgile talked of wanting to go further, mentioning HVE or Haute Valeur Environnementale and Bee Friendly, programmes that consider biodiversity.  He talked about the development of hedges with indigenous varieties of trees, and considered ground cover for alternate rows in the vineyard, which enhances biodiversity.  He also talked about the neighbours.  The vineyards in St Saturnin are very fragmented, so you need to be on good terms with your neighbours and ask them to avoid spraying your vines when they are spraying theirs.   Happily, organic viticulture is better perceived these days, even by those who do not actually practice it.     So all in all, a fairly rosy picture.  





Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Pays d'Oc - an overview

Patrick Schmitt, the very articulate editor of The Drinks Business and a fellow MW, recently conducted a series of three webinars on the Pays d’Oc, looking at three specific themes, namely the varietal and commercial aspect of the Pays d’Oc.  Organic and sustainable followed, and third was Native and Novel.  

First Patrick introduced the Pays d’Oc.  Robert Skalli was pioneer of what was then called Vin de Pays d’Oc, back in 1987, focusing on varietal wine, which was unusual in France at the time.  His brand, Fortant de France, sold 80,000 bottles at the end of the 1980s.   In contrast, in 2021 the annual sales of Pays d’Oc are predicted to be 800 million bottles; that is 24 bottles sold every second! There are 120,000 hectares classified as Pays d’Oc out of a total of 240,000 hectares in Languedoc Roussillon.  They account for 10% of the French vineyard area and 16% of the total French wine production.   They are ten times bigger than Burgundy and the same as Argentina in volume, with 1000 independent wine estates and 160 cooperatives.   The colour breakdown is 48% red, 26% white and 28% rosé, so significantly more rosé than Provence. 


The strengths are numerous. The wine growers have an enormous amount of liberty.  Fifty-eight different grape varieties are now allowed, so that the Pays d’Oc account for 92% of all varietal wine from France.  The permitted varieties continue to evolve with Albariño, Tempranillo and Sangiovese amongst more recent additions to the list.  Merlot is the most widely planted varietal for Pays d’Oc; surprisingly perhaps Pinot Noir comes 4th.  Marselan is becoming more important.  We are also seeing a re-emergence in Carignan, as the emblematic variety of the Languedoc.  For white wine, varieties like Viognier. Grenache Blanc, Vermentino and Marsanne are important, as well as more international varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon.     Pays d’Oc accounts for one third of France’s plantings of Chardonnay and Sauvignon and one quarter of its Merlot, as well as 60% of its Syrah.   Blends are also developing in importance, rising from a meagre 2% to 7%.


Patrick talked about the strengths of the wines, their scale, their image, with their diversity and authenticity.  He rightly suggested that they complement the appellations, which have more controls and are more terroir driven, whereas the Pays d’Oc gives a wine grower more freedom and creativity.  And they also represent great value for money.  


Talking about Organics and Sustainability, Patrick focussed on the advantages of the Languedoc for organic viticulture, especially considering the climate.  The winds are all important, an important cooling and drying influence, with the Mistral, the Tramontane, the Marine and the Autan, as well as the 300 days of sunshine, which allow for low-intervention viticulture.   The Pays d’Oc’s annual production of organic wine is 67 million bottles, so there is an enormous choice.   


In the final webinar Native and Novel, Patrick looked for unusual blends or more obscure varieties, and for this, I was lucky enough to receive the accompanying samples, eight dinky little bottles.  So this is what I tasted.


2018 Domaine de Puilacher, Circulade Blanc  

A blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Vermentino.    From an estate in the Hérault Valley, north west of Montpellier.  Fermented in stainless steel vats, with some time on the fine lees.  Light colour. A rounded nose, with hints of pear. I would have expected the Viognier to be more obvious, with some peachy notes, but no.  The palate was rounded and textured, lightly buttery, with a dry finish, and a slightly bitter, refreshing note on the finish.    Suggested UK retail price £10-15.


2018 Domaine de Figuières, Impetus Blanc

A blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Viognier and from a property within the appellation of la Clape, close to Narbonne.  Fermented in barrel.  Light colour. Some peachiness on the nose and quite a rounded palate, with well integrated oak.  A slightly salty tang on the finish.   Suggested UYK retail price  £16-20.


2019 Les Domaines Barsalou, Grenache Gris  

From a group of three estates, based in the Corbières.  A pure Grenache Gris, with just the merest hint of pink, after some maceration on the skins   Rounded ripe fruit on the nose and palate.  Supple and textured.  Very satisfying and at less than a suggested UK retail price of £10.00  very good value.


2019 Mas la Chevalière, Rosé 

A blend of 60% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 10% Cinsault.  A little colour.  Quite fresh raspberry fruit on the nose and palate, with some salty acidity on the finish. Quite fragrant, delicate and fresh. The grapes are picked at night.  Fermentation in stainless steel vats. Minimum filtration.  A lovely example of a Languedoc rosé, competing very well with Provence.  UK Retail price - £10 - £15.    This comes from an estate outside Béziers, that was bought a number of years ago by Michel Laroche of Chablis fame, and is now part of the Advini group.  


2019 M. Chapoutier, Marius, named after Michel Chapoutier’s grandfather.  

A blend of Grenache and Syrah.  Ten days maceration.   Ageing for five to eight months in stainless steel tanks.  A great combination of ripe cherry fruit from the Grenache, balanced by the spiciness of the Syrah, producing Languedoc sunshine in a glass.   Young colour.  Rounded spice; ripe without being jammy.  With no oak and a fresh finish. UK retail price £9.80


2018 Serre de Guéry, l’Esprit d’Eloi, Petit Verdot

From an estate in the village of Azille, in the heart of the Minervois.  Petit Verdot is a grape variety more commonly found in Bordeaux and almost never as a single varietal anywhere, and certainly not in Bordeaux. In the Languedoc, it benefits from the heat and sunshine and ripens well, as this example shows, with a deep colour, after 12 months ageing in barrel.  Rounded cassis fruit on the nose.  Quite intense and ripe with quite a tannic edge on the finish.  Still very young.  UK retail price  £12.00


2018 Les Jamelles, Les Traverses, Sélection Parcellaire, Mourvèdre

Half the grapes are destemmed, and half not.  One month on the skins.  Ageing in 500 litre barrels of three wines until the summer.  Quite a deep colour.  Quite a firm restrained nose, with an elegant palate and considerable potential.   Youthful, fresh and nicely balanced.   Les Jamelles is a brand developed by Laurent Delaunay, one of the Languedoc’s most successful winemakers.   Mourvèdre performs well in a Mediterranean climate and this comes from 40-year-old vines.  Suggested UK  Retail price £20-25


2018 Domaine d’Aigues-Belles, Cuvée Nicole 

A blend of Syrah, 75% and Cabernet Sauvignon 25%. From an estate in the Gard, near the Pic St Loup. A very successful blend which I liked this a lot.  Deep young colour.  Fresh peppery fruit, and on the palate, elegantly ripe red fruit.  Well balanced, with a fresh tannic streak.  It has spent 12 months in oak, and the oak flavours are nicely integrated.   An excellent finale to the tasting and series of webinars.   


Monday, 1 February 2021

Rivesaltes Ambré from Domaine Comelade


A treasure, another delicious Vin Doux Naturel, came by way last week, with thanks to Stewart Travers of Cambridge Wine Merchants, who are one of the best south of France specialists in the country.   I leapt at his offer to try his current favourite VDN, from Domaine Comelade in the village of Estagel in the Agly Valley.  Stewart is selling their 1988 Rivesaltes Ambré le Barral for the ridiculously cheap price of £21.99 for a 50cl. bottle.   Where else would you find a wine over 30 years old for that price?  


I have to admit that I had never heard of Domaine Comelade, so they will not be in my forthcoming book, but I do hope that I might go and visit them when we are finally allowed to travel again.  Meanwhile I savoured the wine.  It is amber brown in colour, with a firm dry nutty nose.  On the palate, there are delicious notes of walnuts, with a firm bite of acidity, that makes for a refreshing finish.  Tried again a couple of days later, after sitting in a stoppered decanter, it seems more rounded with some lightly honeyed notes.   Wines like this have nothing to fear from oxygen.


And it is very definitely what is so eloquently called un vin de meditation, a wine to sip and savour at the end of a meal on a winter’s evening.  It goes a treat with a few walnuts.   The grape varieties are a blend of Macabeo and Grenache Gris, and the wine was transferred into old wooden barrels after mutage, and had spent 32 years in wood, until it was bottled, specifically to fulfil the order from Cambridge Wine Merchants. 

Monday, 25 January 2021

The Terrasses du Larzac, with a selection of wines

Gavin Crisfield, who is one of the leading wine growers of the Terrasses de Larzac, with La Traversée, gave a zoom presentation of the region to the Circle of Wine Writers last autumn.
  The growth in the Terrasses du Larzac has been nothing short of breath-taking. Thirty-five new estates have been established since the appellation was recognised in 2014, and today there are one hundred estates, compared with 75 five years ago.   

The appellation, for red wine only, covers 32 villages north west of Montpellier, stretching from Octon and the lac de Salagou, towards Aniane, with 650 hectares of vineyards. They lie under the limestone ridge of the Larzac, making them some of the most northern vineyards of the Languedoc, and some of the highest, at 350 – 400 metres.


The geology is very diverse, with extinct volcanoes, schist, sandstone, and limestone, all making for a variety of wine styles, with freshness and drinkability their defining characteristics.   The influence of the Massif Central is far greater than anywhere else in the Languedoc.


The grape varieties are the five classics of the Languedoc, Grenache, Carignan, Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Cinsault, of which Gavin is a particular fan.  He makes a particularly fine example, but in small quantities. Not to be missed, if it should come your way.  


Gavin talked about the changes in the Terrasses du Larzac over the last 20 years. There is a lot of interest and investment, with people coming there from all walks of life, both French and foreigners.  Inevitably land prices are rising, when once a hectare of vines changed hands for 10-12,000€, it is now reaching 30,000 – 35,000€, but that still compares favourably with the Pic St. Loup at 100,000€.  Many of the vineyards are on tiered terraces, with the rebuilding of many of the old retaining vineyard walls, and 90% of the vineyards are hand-picked.   Organic viticulture accounts for 70-75% of the vineyards.  The average age of the vines is about 30 – 40 years old, but with some very old vines, even centenarian vines, and there are also new plantings, of all five red varieties, but less Syrah as they find that is not so suited to the area.  As for whites, which are growing in importance, but still only mere Languedoc AOP or an IGP, Carignan Blanc is being planted, as well as Grenache Blanc, rather than Gris, and also some Terret.  


The average wine estate is about 10 -15 hectares; and the largest is Château La Sauvageonne, owned by Gérard Bertrand, with over 50 hectares.


The area is gradually becoming better known in France and the future for the region is rosy.  Independently of the webinar, I was sent some bottles to try, which demonstrated the diversity of the Terrasses du Larzac, both in place and taste, as follows:


2017 Mas des Brousses - 18.00€

From vineyards around the village of Puéchabon.  A blend of 55% Mourvèdre, 30% Syrah and 15% Grenache.  Thirteen months élevage in 400 litre barrels.  Xavier Peyraud is particularly attached to Mourvèdre, as he originates from Bandol, where his grandfather, Lucien Peyraud of Domaine Tempier, worked tirelessly revive the fortunes of Bandol and to create an appellation based on Mourvèdre.  


Deep colour.  Quite a firm structured nose; youthful.   And on the palate, quite ripe and perfumed, with some silky tannins.  A hint of well integrated oak.  Quite a ripe alcoholic finish at 14.5°.


2018 Mas Lasta - 20€

Anne-Laure Sicard is one of the newcomers to the region, with vineyards near the village of St. Privat, at an altitude of 450 metres.  A blend of 50% Syrah with 40-year-old vines, which is a good age for Syrah in the Languedoc, 40% Grenache, from 80-year-old vines and 10% Cinsault, with 50-year-old vines.  60% aged in vat, and 40% in barriques of 4 – 5 wines, for 10 - 11 months.   


Deep colour. Ripe berry fruit with some underlying oak on the nose, and on the palate, some rounded spicy black fruit with a streak of oak and tannin.  A fresh finish.   Promises well and will benefit from some bottle age.

2017 Mas des Arômes, le Dernier Charbonnier  - 15.00€

A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan.  Aged in barriques for 12 months. Deep colour.  Quite a rich dense nose, with some ripe fruit. On the palate a solid mouthful of black fruit and spice, ripe with a streak of oak and tannin.  Richer than Mas Lasta.  Again, the wine needs some bottle age.   A completely new estate to me and on the basis of this one wine, definitely deserves further investigation.


2016 Château Saint Jean d’Aumières, L’Alchimiste Black Edition  - 24€

An estate in Gignac.  A blend of 10% Carignan, vinified by carbonic maceration, with 70% Syrah and 20% Grenache Noir.  As much as a three-week maceration, and aged in oak for 12 months.   Very deep colour.  Very ripe and rounded on the nose, with dense oaky concentration on both nose and palate.  ‘Un peu too much’ as the French so elegantly say!  I was also put off by the very heavy bottle. 


2018 Domaine de Ferrussac, Nègre Boeuf  - 20.00€

A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, from vineyards at Poujols, at 300 metres.  Twelve months ageing in 300 litre barrels.  The Rossignol family also rear Aubrac cattle and consequently have an excellent source of natural manure for the vineyards that they are converting to organic viticulture.


Deep colour.  Quite rich rounded oaky nose and on the palate, plenty of vanilla and sweet oak, balanced with some firm tannins.  Youthful. Some good fruit, but the oak was slightly out of balance.  It may benefit from some bottle age.


2018 Château de Jonquières, Lansade - 12.50€

A blend of 50% Carignan from 80-year-old vines, with 20% each of Syrah and Grenache and 10% Cinsaut.  Natural yeasts, a long maceration and ageing in vat.  Deep colour.  A rounded nose with some berry fruit.  Tasted alongside the Nègre Boeuf from Domaine de Ferrussac, it seemed quite light, but there was a note on the back label which said: Open two hours ahead.   It worked!  In a couple of hours, the wine opened up and became very elegant, harmonious and complete, with some rounded fruit.  An elegant balance with a long finish.


Château de Jonquières is the most wonderful Renaissance château in the eponymous village and has been in the hands of the de Cabissole family for 900 years.    Lansade is their second wine, and Baronnie the grand vin.

Monday, 18 January 2021

Domaine Maris - A pair of Minervois


First an extract from my book: Wines of the Languedoc.  Obviously present circumstances not allow for a cellar visit.


Come and see my vegetal roof, or toit végétal was an invitation, that I could not possibly refuse!    It came from Bertie Eden of Château Maris. He has built a brand-new cellar on the outskirts of La Livinière off the road to Caunes-Minervois.  Not only is the roof green, but the bricks are made of hemp straw and the whole cellar, apart from the concrete floor, could be recycled.  


Bertie talked about the bricks.  Building material in France must be authorised, so that its   parameters are recognised, as to how much weight the bricks can bear and so on.  Hemp is not recognised as such, but wood is, so there had to be a wooden frame joining the bricks, which are made from hemp straw mixed with lime, put in a mould and dried.   The bricks are extraordinarily light.   Ordinary straw is very similar to hemp straw, but with one big difference, hemp straw can breathe, so it redistributes air and consumes carbon dioxide, at the rate of 44 kilos per square metre per year.  Altogether there are 4000 square metres of wall, and no temperature control in the cellar as that happens naturally.   The floor is concrete for reasons of hygiene and weight.   An alternative would have been lime, that that can crack, which would give problems with bacteria.     As for the vegetal roof, you buy it in rolls by the metre like a lawn.  Bertie is also considering a vegetal covering for the outside walls.  In the cellar, there are barrels and tronconic vats, equipped with a chapeau flottant, so that they have a dual purpose, for fermentation and for élevage, and also unlined cement vats, and concrete eggs.  Bertie had wanted concrete vats without metals supports, and the way to achieve that is with eggs.   He has compared Grenache from a barrel and from an egg, and found the egg to be is more lively and fresher.


Bertie now has 47 hectares of vines all around La Livinière.  His first vintage here was 1997.  He has had vineyards in other parts of the Languedoc, but these days is just concentrating on the Minervois.   And when did he know that he wanted to be a winemaker?  When he got kicked out of school, the rather smart public school, Stowe, for making beer.   He then went to Australia to work for Len Evans at Rothbury; spent time at Castello di Rampolla in Chianti Classico, and with Becky Wassermann in Burgundy and Christopher Cannan in Spain.   Then he came to the point when he wanted to be his own boss and make his own wine.   He looked in the Languedoc and really liked what he saw in the Minervois.  La Livinière has a reputation for the quality of its Grenache, with some splendid old vines.  Bertie’s vineyards range in altitude between 250 – 180 metres and he has been certified biodynamic since 2004.  Asked about the tipicity of La Livinière, Bertie suggested that was a delicate subject, and a difficult question to answer.  Every vineyard is individual; it depends on the wine grower.


Bertie makes a variety of different wines. There is a textured Grenache Gris, Brama, Vin de France, from young wines.  Les Anciens is mainly Carignan aged in 50 hl foudres for 15 months.  Bertie enthused about Carignan.  'It is a noble variety here, and it can stand up to the seasons'.    This had the elegant rusticity that is the benchmark of good Carignan, with some firm red fruit.  And there are three quite contrasting Minervois.   La Touge, Minervois la Livinière, is 60% Syrah, 40% Grenache Noir, with a drop of Carignan, with a vinification in concrete tanks, with a four-week maceration, and 16 months ageing in eggs and tanks.  For Las Combes, Grenache is the dominant variety, coming from 80 years old vines, with twelve months élevagein an egg.  And Les Amandiers, Minervois la Livinière, from Syrah, is fermented in large wood and then aged in new French barriques for sixteen months.


Thanks to Armit Wines, I have recently enjoyed, and indeed compared and contrasted La Touge with les Combes. 


2017 La Touge, Minervois la Livinière - £18.00

Deep young colour.  Ripe spicy berry fruit on both nose and palate, with a balancing streak of tannin.  Lots of red berry fruit.   A lovely depth of flavour.  Quite simply, the warm south in a glass, sunshine and garrigues, and all the more appealing on a cold winter’s evening with sausage and mash.  Nicely balanced and drinking beautifully. 

2017 Minervois les Combes - £21.68

From old vine Grenache, and making a very appealing contrast with la Touge.   The colour is much lighter, as you would expect from Grenache.  And there is a wonderful liqueur cherry note on the nose, which repeats on the palate with a streak of tannin.  Medium weight.  A touch of alcohol on the finish and indeed it does reach 15°, but none the less retains its balance.  A touch of cinnamon and spice, with elegance and depth.


Monday, 11 January 2021

Gimblett Gravels Syrah in the 2018 vintage

Zoom is shrinking the world.   We may not be able to meet face to face in the same room, but we can see each other on a screen, so one morning in December, I went to a tutored tasting, on zoom.  Warren Gibson, the winemaker at Trinity Hill, was in New Zealand, at 11 o’clock at night – he admitted to attending a Barolo dinner earlier in the evening – and Rebecca Gibb, author of the latest book on New Zealand wines, was at home in England at 10 o’clock in the morning.   The theme of the tasting was the 2018 vintage selection of Gimblett Gravels from Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island.   Twelve little sample bottles had been delivered the previous day.   Every year since the 2008 vintage, fellow MW Andrew Caillard has chosen the 12 wines he considers to be most representative of that particular vintage. 

You could well be forgiven for wondering what this has to do with the Languedoc, and the short answer is Syrah.   Syrah is an important grape variety in the Languedoc and it is also a very significant variety in Hawke’s Bay where it produces some of the country’s finest interpretations of that variety.    Hawke’s Bay is also known for Bordeaux blends, and six of the twelve wines were based on Cabernet Sauvignon, but the other six were Syrah.   Syrah is much more recent introduction, with Alan Limner of Stonecroft Estate planting the very first Syrah in Hawke’s Bay in 1984, with a first release in 1990, so a history of just 30 years.  


Gimblett Gravels, within the large region of Hawke’s Bay. is a strictly defined area, based on gravel.  Essentially it is a former river bed, for the Ngaruroro river changed course in 1867, leaving gravel.   A far-sighted wine grower, Chris Pask planted the first vines in 1981 and the area started to develop.  Then in 1989 a mining company acquired a large part of the area, and viticulture nearly disappeared, but once it was determined that the mining company had no more rights in the area, planting took off and Gimblett Gravels now constitutes 850 hectares of vines.  And why Gimblett?  Quite simply, William Gimblett, who came from Devon, bought the land in 1904. 


2018 was a very hot summer, the hottest since records began in 1935.  But there was some humidity later in the season which did cause problems. Some wine growers described it as a vintage of two halves.   But the wines, as our tasting showed, have turned out very well.  But 2019 and 2020 may be even better.   So, these are the Syrah that we tasted:


Elephant Hill Stone Syrah - £44.00 – Corney & Barrow
There is just 1% of Viognier in the blend, which they consider to add an extra hint of complexity. The wine has spent 12 months in French oak barrels, of which half were new.   A quarter of the grapes were whole bunches for the fermentation, which gives good results I warmer vintages.  The wine maker, Steve Skinner, leaves the wine on the lees for a while, to fill out the middle palate, and the grapes came from two different vineyards.

Good colour, with elegant spice and hint of perfume on the nose.  The palate is finely crafted with elegant peppery notes balancing a streak of tannin.   There is a hint of oak on the finish, but the oak is well integrated, and any taste of oak will fade with bottle age.  The wine was youthful, but elegantly rounded with a long finish.  A lovely example of New Zealand Syrah.

Next came pair of nicely contrasting wines from Smith & Sheth.  Smith is Steve Smith MW, who I first met when he was the viticulturist at Vidal’s in Hawke’s Bay.  He then went on to help set up Craggy Range and now he is in partnership with Brian Sheth, working both in Hawke’s Bay and also at Pyramid Valley near Christchurch. 


Smith & Sheth Cru Heretaunga Syrah - £30.00 Louis Latour Agencies

This is a pure Syrah that has spent 11 months in oak, of which 35% was new.  The grapes came from two sites in Gimblett Gravel; one giving some floral notes, with lighter structure and the second with older vines, making for more tannin and darker fruit.  I loved the fragrance of this wine, with its elegantly aromatic peppery fruit on the nose, and on the palate, some peppery spice and perfume, with an elegant finish.  It was already drinking well, but will continue to develop   And made a fine contrast with Steve’s second wine.


Smith & Sheth, Cru, Omahu Syrah- £40.00 – Louis Latour Agencies
Pure Syrah, with 19 months oak ageing, with 35% new barrels.  Omahu is the name of a hamlet.  The nose was denser with firm black fruit and on the palate, the wine was richer, denser and more structured, with more weight, making a fascinating contrast.   It also has much more ageing potential, with considerable length on the finish.  

Stonecroft Gimblett Gravels Reserve Syrah 
This wine comes from two blocks, the original 1984 block and then a second vineyard planted in 1992. Alan Limner retired and sold to Dermott McCulloch in 2010.  The winemaking is quite traditional, with fermentation in open top fermenters and a daily plunge.  There are no whole bunches, so all destemmed.


A very youthful purple colour.  Quite a firm tight nose, with some peppery fruit.  The palate is much fleshier than the nose would suggest, with a touch of vanilla from the oak, which never the less is well integrated.  There is rounded peppery fruit, with some youthful tannins, making for ageing potential.  A stylish, elegant finish.

Trinity Hill Homage Syrah - £98.99 – The New Zealand House of Wine; Simply Wine Direct

This is the flagship wine of Trinity Hill.  The vines were planted in 1995, with further plantings in 2002 and 2008, and the first vintage was 2002.   Warren talked about the three different sites, with a three-week range in picking times.   The old vines are an important factor, and one of the clones may well have been brought to New Zealand by James Busby from Hermitage in the 19thcentury.  There is just a hint of Viognier – all of .04% of the blend.  Warren explained that he does not use the juice, but adds the skins during the fermentation.   They have about 40 different batches of Syrah from 20 hectares, and about a quarter of the grapes are whole bunch fermented.  And they favour an extended post-fermentation maceration, maybe as long as sixty days, which adds some richness.  


The wine is impressive. On the nose, there was perfumed spice and peppery, with red liquorice and dark red fruit.  The palate was elegantly structured with tight knit youthful fruit making for ageing potential with an elegant streak of tannin, balanced by perfume and spice.    


Homage does not come from Gimblett Gravels every year; it depends on the quality of the grapes.


Vidal Legacy Syrah 
Sadly 2018 is the last vintage of this wine.  Vidal’s is part of the large Villa Maria group, which is now going to focus its activity in Hawke’s Bay on their other winery, Esk Valley.  It is a blend of 97% Syrah, from vines planted in 1998, with 3% Viognier, which spent 20 months in barrel, of which 49% were new.  All the grapes were destemmed. 


Good colour. Elegantly peppery nose, with rounded red fruit and pepper on the palate.  There is some underlying perfume from the Viognier.  A nicely rounded glass of wine with some ageing potential and an elegant finish.   



Monday, 4 January 2021

Gérard Bertrand - A Masterclass

One of my best Zoom experiences last autumn was a Masterclass with Gérard Bertrand.   Ten bottles of wine were delivered before the class and we - my husband and a fellow Languedoc enthusiast friend - tasted our way through them, listening to an accompanying commentary from Gérard.

First, he talked very articulately about his philosophy.  He is passionate about the south of France and very committed to biodynamic viticulture.  He reminisced about his father, Georges, describing him as a visionary, with a great talent for blending wines.   I remember Georges from one of my early visit to Corbières when I was researching French Country Wines.  He pioneered the élevage of Corbières in French oak barriques, which was ground-breaking at the time, and gave me a vertical tasting of ten vintages beginning with 1978.  


On the subject of biodynamics, Gerard enthused about the low yields, the phenolic maturity, the higher acidity levels, and the biodiversity which enforces the taste of somewhere, the sense of place.   He is looking for balance and energy in his wines, and considers biodynamic farming to have changed his life.  He began small, with four hectares and working up to 800 hectares, to include all his properties in the Languedoc.  

2019 Clos du Temple, Cabrières Rosé - 190€

This rosé comes from seven plots totalling eight hectares up in the hills above the village of Cabrières, where the landscape is truly breath-taking.  The wine is a blend of Grenache Noir, Cinsault, Syrah and Mourvèdre, with just a hint of Viognier.   I had last tasted this wine about four months earlier, and thought now that it had started to develop very nicely.  The colour is very pale and the nose firm and dry, with a rounded palate and good depth and an elegant finish.  It was a satisfying balance of elegance and weight.   There is no reason why this wine should not evolve in the same way as a white wine, over, say the next five years or so, which given the price tag, you would certainly expect it to do so.  Most of the wine has been aged in oak, balanced with about 20% in a concrete vat.

2019 Château l’Hospitalet, Grand Vin, la Clape - 25€

A blend of Bourboulenc, Vermentino and Grenache Blanc.  Château l’Hospitalet, on the Massif of la Clape, is Gérard’s flagship estate.   The wine is fermented and aged in oak for about seven to eight months, and the oak is very well integrated.   There are rounded herbal notes on the palate and also a touch of salinity with some weight and a firm finish.  Another wine with plenty of ageing potential.    I have drunk white wines from other La Clape producers, notably Château d’Anglès, that have aged beautifully.    A shining example of the wonderful improvement in the white wines of the Languedoc.    


2018 Château la Sauvageonne, Grand Vin, Languedoc - 25€

A blend of Grenache Blanc, Vermentino. Viognier and Roussanne.   Gérard enthused about the 2018 vintage, a year with a wet winter, building up good water reserves, and then sun and rain during the growing season at just the right moment.  La Sauvageonne is up in the hills of the Terrasses du Larzac above the village of St. Jean de la Blaquière in one of the coolest areas of the Languedoc.    I usually like the white wines from Sauvageonne a lot, but on this particular tasting, I found the oak too intrusive, which seemed to flatten the palate, with less fresh acidity, and so I much preferred Château l’Hospitalet.   However, the rosé from Sauvageonne is consistently a star amongst the Languedoc rosés.


2019 Cigalus, IGP Aude Hauterive - 31€

A blend of Chardonnay, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc, which do not belong in the appellations.   The winter was wet in 2019, which was followed by an irregular spring and a hot summer.  70% of the wine has been fermented in new oak barrels followed by an élevage, with regular lees stirring, with the rest in stainless steel vats.  ‘The Chardonnay provides structure, the Viognier aroma and the Sauvignon freshness’, so said the tasting booklet, but I found that on the night it was oak that dominated both the nose and palate.  There were some peachy hints from the Viognier, but also plenty of vanilla from the new oak.  How will it age?  For the moment, it was all ‘un peu too much’.


2017 Château la Sauvageonne, Grand Vin, Terrasses du Larzac - 25€

The vineyards at Sauvageonne are at an altitude of 300 metres and includes plots of old vines.  Grenache is the main variety, with as much as 50 – 60%, plus some Syrah, Mourvèdre and a touch of Carignan.  Gérard enthused about the Grenache in the Terrasses du Larzac; it is very distinctive, while Syrah provides structure.    2017 was marked by spring frost, on 26thApril, which is very unusual in the Languedoc, and a dry summer followed.  


My tasting notes say quite simply ‘the Languedoc in a glass’.  Good colour, with a ripe rounded spicy nose and on the palate, some silky tannins, with elegant spice balancing the fresh tannins that are a hallmark of the Terrasses du Larzac.  The flavours were lively and fresh with a mineral note on the finish.   I have to admit that we finished the bottle with supper afterwards!  

2018 Cigalus, IGP Pays d’Oc - 31€

A blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Caladoc, Cabernet Franc, Grenache and Carignan. Aged in oak for 12 months.  Deep colour.  Lots of nuances on the nose, red fruit and oak, but I found the palate a little muddy, almost as though there were too many different grape varieties so that the wine lacked focus and definition.

2016 Château Villemajou, Corbières Boutenac - 25€

Georges Bertrand bought this estate back in 1967.  A blend of Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, including some 80-year-old Carignan vines and some 30-year-old Syrah, which is a good age for Syrah in the Languedoc.  Elevage in Bordeaux barrels for 10-12 months.   Deep colour. Rounded ripe spicy nose.   A warm rich wine, with length, and some firm tannins, making for a refreshing finish. However, it is pretty alcoholic at 15°, but not noticeably so.  A wine with considerable ageing potential. 


2016 had a mild winter, which was followed by a cool wet spring and a hot summer.  The harvest took place in ideal conditions.   

2017 Château de la Soujeole, Malepère - 25€

A blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Malbec.   This was a complete change of register, with the bordelais grape varieties that are essential to the appellation of Malepère, the most western part of the Languedoc.  Cabernet Franc is the driver here.  Medium colour. A restrained nose and palate, with dry cassis and some firm tannins.   It is quite different from anything else in the Languedoc.  Malepère deserves to be better known and maybe Gérard will be able to help develop its reputation.  


2018 Château l’Hospitalet, Grand Vin, La Clape - 39€

A blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre.   Deep colour. Rich, black olive tapenade on the nose and on the palate rich rounded spice, balanced with a firm structure. Youthful solid and dense, with a fresh finish, and considerable ageing potential.  ‘Still a baby’ commented Gérard.   


He talked about buying Château de l’Hospitalet back in 2001; 'it changed my life'; it was an iconic estate, and he would never have dreamt of owning it, but the previous owner, M. Ribourel, who wanted to sell, suggested to Gérard that he buy it, and then he had to convince his bank manager!   For Gérard and for wine lovers of the Languedoc, it is more than just an estate, but a destination with a restaurant and a hotel and a tempting shop, all in a beautiful part of the Languedoc, just outside Narbonne.   


2017 Clos d’Ora, Minervois la Livinière - 190€

A blend of Syrah – 60-65%, Grenache 15-20%, a little Mourvèdre and just a touch of Carignan, from a nine-hectare plot with limestone and marl.  Deep colour, with black olive tapenade on the nose.  Rich rounded, ripe and dense, with a firm streak of tannins.  The oak is still very apparent, as is the alcohol at 15.5°.  How will it age?  That is the key question, especially for a wine that is one of the most expensive red wines of the Languedoc.  Gérard suggested drinking it sometime within the next 40 years.  As a three-year-old wine, it was certainly still too powerful to enjoyed, appreciated yes, but not drunk with any great pleasure.


The first vintage of Clos d’Ora was 2012, so it is still early to observe its potential for longevity. A lot of care and attention has been lavished, both in the vineyard and in the cellar.  They work only with horses – no tractors here.   Each grape variety is vinified separately, with differences of technique to suit each variety and then the wine is aged in French oak for 12 months.   It certainly made an impressive finale to the tasting.