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.