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.