Monday, 26 April 2021

Languedoc grape varieties in California

When I think of California, I tend to think of the usual international varieties, the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and so on, as well as Zinfandel.  Thus I completely forget that California also has some very old plantings of grape varieties such as Carignan and Cinsault, as well as a host of other varieties, as I discovered in a recent webinar hosted by the California Wine Institute amongst a series of events designed to replace the customary annual trade tasting.  


I had asked for some samples in advance – some featured in the webinars, some not and this is what I tasted.


2014 Baxter Winery, Baxter Caballo Blanco Carignan


Baxter Winery is based in Mendocino in the Anderson Valley and Pinot Noir features largely in their repertoire, but they also have some old vine Carignan.  Apparently, there is a lot of old Carignan in Mendocino, including some of the very oldest vines, 140 years old and the website refers to 90-year-old vines, though we were told that this particularly vineyard was planted in 1959.  I wondered if there is anywhere in Roussillon that could rival 140 years.   The vineyards are farmed organically and they only use natural yeast, and give the wine a five-day soak before fermentation.  Three years in neutral oak follows.    I have to say, I wondered if that was a tad too long, as the wine seemed very dry, and a touch green.   The sample had been decanted into a small bottle, so maybe it had lost something in transition…….


2018 Bonny Doon, Le Cigare Volant


The name of this wine refers to the comic story of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape forbidding Unidentified Flying Objects, or cigare volant to land anywhere in the vineyards of the village.     Randall Graham created the wine in 1984, blending Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, from vineyards in Santa Cruz, and this 2018 was delicious with some ripe spicy fruit on the nose.   The palate was fresh and fragrant, with fruit and an elegant finish.    The blend has subsequently changed to include Cinsault, but no more Mourvèdre, and this wine certainly has the fragrance of elegant Cinsault, rather than sturdy tannins from Mourvèdre.   


2018 BROC Old Vine Carignan, Mendocino


BROC Cellars is an urban winery, set up by Chris Brockway who comes from Nebraska, but studied at UC Davies, where he discovered the natural wine scene.   And in 2006 he set up his own winery in Berkeley, purchasing fruit from all over California, aiming to make wines that express both the grape variety and the site.  He has a wide range of different grapes and vineyards, but avoids the well-known varieties.  Fermentation vessels include eggs, amphora, stainless steel and concrete vats.  Minimal sulphur is used, with minimum intervention in the wine-making.   


The wine comes from a vineyard planted in the Alexandra Valley in Mendocino in 1890.  It is a field blend with a tiny amount of Alicante Bouschet, Zinfandel and Palomino.  Whole bunches are put in a concrete vat with a blanket of CO2 for a carbonic maceration. After pressing the wine spends eight months in vat before bottling.


This was a lovely interpretation of Carignan, with some dry spice on the nose and on the palate some fresh red fruit, with a peppery note.  Medium weight, with elegant structure, with balancing acidity and tannin.  I’d love to show this to some of my Languedoc wine-making friends!    As Keith Kirkpatrick, the wine buyer from Roberson’s who was presenting the wine observed, ‘it is not an intellectual wine, but quite simply a jolly nice wine’.  I can’t wait to drink it, rather than merely taste it.


2017 Gallica Grenache, Rossi Ranch 

A pure Grenache Noir from Sonoma County.  Medium colour. Nicely perfumed liqueur cherry fruit, with some rounded fleshy fruit.  Quite ripe with a touch of alcohol on the finish, as you might expect with Grenache, making for quite a warming finish.   Ten months in neutral barrels., with no fining or filtering.  


2017 Le P’tit Paysan, le p’tit pape

A blend of grape varieties, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, and others, without any further specification, from the Central Coast region.   Presumably the name is a reference to the southern Rhone blend, and an association with Châteauneuf-du-Pape.   The colour was quite light, with peppery fruit on the nose. And the palate was rounded, and almost sweet. It was certainly ripe and fleshy, and I was aware of the alcohol on the finish, but as we did not have access to the wine labels, there was no way of checking that.   The finish was certainly quite rich, but none the worse for that in context.


2018 Newfound Wines, Carignane, Colombini Vineyard

Newfound Wines were set up in 2016 in the Sierra Foothills.   From 75-year-old vines from a vineyard in Mendocino County’s Redwood Valley.


Deep colour. Quite a firm dry nose, with some red fruit.  Lots of nuances.  On the palate, again lots of nuances.  Red and black fruit, a good balance of tannin and some acidity, with a sturdy backbone. Medium weight.  Good depth and youthful promise with a refreshing finish.


2019 Orin Swift Abstract


The Orin Swift label was created by Dave Phinney and subsequently sold to Gallo who provide all the fruit for the various blends.   They have some 8000 hectares of vines all over California, so plenty of choice.   I have also come across Dave’s wine in Roussillon, with D66.


In a seminar about these wines, conducted by fellow MW Edouard Baijot, who works for Gallo, we were told that the blend for Abstract is always based on Grenache, from several different parts of California.   This vintage was a blend of Grenache Noir, Petite Sirah and Syrah.  However the other components can vary; in 2018 there was Cabernet Sauvignon and in 2017 Zinfandel.  The wine was aged for eight months in both French and American oak, 32% new, with the American oak adding sweetness.   


Very deep colour. Dense youthful peppery on the nose and on the palate a dense palate with oak and vanilla and an element of sweetness on the finish.  Full rich and quite alcoholic on the finish.  Long oaky finish


2017 Orin Swift Machete

A blend of predominantly Petite Sirah, with Syrah and Grenache Noir.  Deep colour.  The nose is quite solid and inky, with some sweetness.  And on the palate, it is dense and fleshy with tannins as well as acidity.  There are peppery notes, and some blackcurrant, with a strong oak influence and some alcohol on the finish.   The wine has spent 12 months in French oak, 40% new.   


According to Edouard, Dave places a lot of emphasis on fruit, and that is certainly what you taste in these two wines.  


2018 Tablas Creek Vineyards, Patelin de Tablas

This winery was set up in 1987, in Paso Robles, an area particularly known its Rhône varieties, as a joint venture between the Perrin brothers  Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the Haas family of Vineyard Brands.  A blend of Syrah, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre and Counoise, from Paso Robles.    Their website suggests spice from the Syrah, with the brightness and fresh acidity of Grenache, the structure and meatiness of Mourvèdre and a small addition of Counoise for complexity


Medium young colour. Lightly peppery nose and on the palate some fresh fruit and peppery. Medium weight.  Youthful with a steak of tannin.  Elegant and stylish, and a grand finale to a very interesting selection from the Golden State.  


I was sent some figures about areas planted, in acres, so here are the figures for the five key red varieties of the Languedoc, as follows:   so apart from Syrah, these varieties are still very much a minority interest.  



                                           2011                2018


Cinsault                                70                     82


Grenache Noir                 3,496                4,294   


Carignan                          1,957                2,363            


Syrah                             14,591              15,904


Mourvèdre                          947                 1,111


Picpoul blanc                        28                     53


Grenache Blanc                  238                   318




Monday, 19 April 2021

The wines of Roussillon

Published today by Infinite Ideas,  as part of their Classic Wine Library

Why write a book on the wines of Roussillon?    For the simple reason that Roussillon stands alone, proud and independent.  For so long it has suffered a union of convenience with the Languedoc, when the wines of two relatively unknown areas lacked any reputation, and when it was simpler to refer to the departments of the south, without differentiating between them, as Languedoc-Roussillon.  Roussillon deserves so much more than that; it needs to come out from under the shadow of the Languedoc and stand alone.    Its history is different; its language is different and the wines are quite different and original.   Much of Roussillon is Catalan; the people speak Catalan whereas the Languedoc is part of Occitanie and people speak Occitan.   Roussillon did not become fully part of France until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659.   

The original reputation of Roussillon is founded on what are rather clumsily called vins doux naturels, VDN for short, and fortified wines with Grenache the key grape variety, as the most suitable grape variety with its easily attained high alcohol levels, with the appellations of Maury, Banyuls and Rivesaltes, in their many forms.  Vins secs, as the unfortified table wines are commonly called, are a relatively recent development in Roussillon.   It is only in the last twenty years or so that vins secs have really replaced vins doux in importance. 


Essentially Roussillon equates to the department of the Pyrenées-Orientales.  Its boundaries are limited by the Pyrenees, with the Canigou the highest peak, at 2,785 metres, providing an important landmark.   To the north, the foothills of the Corbières massif separate it from the Languedoc vineyards of Corbières itself, with the ruined Cathar castle of Quéribus and the lookout tower of Tautavel dominating the skyline.    


There has been much to discover, with many strands to the wines of Roussillon.  Like the Languedoc, Roussillon attracts outsiders, from elsewhere in France and from other countries and continents.   The price of vineyards is such that they are accessible to those with more limited means.   Often the newcomers have come from other fields of activity, bringing a different perspective to a second career in wine.  When once production was dominated by the village cooperatives, these have become very much less important, with an escalation in the number of independent wine estates, each trying to make its mark.   Several were the wine estates that I visited who have made their first wines within the last five years, and certainly within the past ten years.

One of the enigmas of Roussillon is the decline in its vins doux.  The best, the Hors d ‘Age, that have spent years in barrel, are truly wonderful original wines, and yet they have fallen from favour. How can their decline be halted?  Another puzzle is why has Roussillon not acquired the cachet of Priorat.   My friend and colleague Andrew Jefford describes Roussillon as a northern Catalan echo of Priorat, observing that “the wines are just as ‘mineral’; no less overwhelming; often fresher”.   I could not agree more.  

My book is the result of several recent visits to the region, but with an enthusiasm for it which began with two much earlier books.  My first visit of any length to Roussillon was back in 1987 for French Country Wines.    Inevitably the village cooperatives featured largely, but I also visited a handful of private wine estates, including Cazes Frères, Château de Jau, Mas Amiel and Château Corneilla, as well as other estates that longer exist.  A more extensive visit followed for The Wines of the South of France in June 1999, when the highlights included my first visit to Gérard Gauby, who when I asked him about the history of his estate, replied, with an apology to Louis XIV: ‘l’histoire, c’est moi’.  I also met Frédérique Vaquer for the first time, and visited other estates that continue to thrive such as Domaine Cazes, Domaine Piquemal and Domaine des Schistes, and in Banyuls and Collioure, Domaine la Tour Vieille, Domaine de la Rectorie and Domaine Vial-Magnères, all of whom feature in my new book.  

Fast forward nearly 20 years.  The research began briefly in the spring of 2018, with an initial visit to Roc des Anges and Domaine Gauby.  The object was to introduce Norwegian friends to the delights of Roussillon, and things got off to a very good start with lunch at Riberach in Bélesta, while we stayed at the Auberge du Cellier in Montner.  Then the research began in earnest in June 2019, with visits in the Agly valley and a couple of days in Calce.   I returned in September, and then in October spent a week in Collioure and Banyuls.   My next visit, the following March, was fated, and I returned to London a week earlier than intended, as President Macron planned lockdown for France.    My deadline was extended to allow for more visits once we were able to travel again, so a full week in July followed, staying in a cosy gîte at Domaine des Soulanes, and then I returned in September for a final couple of days, to tidy up loose ends.    Research on the ground could continue almost indefinitely – there is always another lead worth following – another wine grower worth seeing. I know that there are other estates that merit inclusion.  Wine growers will happily enthuse with mutual respect about their competitors and you know that a recommendation from one talented wine grower will lead to another.  Sometimes serendipity occurred when a chance bottle led to an enthusiastic cellar visit.  Quite by chance on my last evening in Roussillon in late September, we ate at Riberach, with the opportunity to enjoy their extensive local wine list, thus turning a full circle.  

So altogether The wines of Roussillon is the fruit of some 30 days of research on the ground, totalling almost one hundred cellar visits concentrated between June 2019 and September 2020.    It represents a distillation of those conversations and tastings, capturing the current concerns and enthusiasms of the wine growers that I talked too.  As I was putting the finishing touches to my manuscript, the wines of 2020 were finishing their fermentations, and being racked into barrel or vat.  Despite the problems and challenges of Covid, the wine growers are happy with the harvest.   

I would like to give the last word to Wendy Wilson of Domaine le Soula, who describes the region as ‘a hidden treasure, waiting to be discovered’.  And there are many who agree with her.  So, I would urge you to discover the region for yourselves, first via the pages of my book, preferably with a glass in hand, but also in the hope that it will encourage you to visit in person, once we are able to travel freely again.    As the Michelin guide would say: ça vaut le voyage. 


Tuesday, 13 April 2021

Frost in the Languedoc

A photograph of a frosted vine, taken by my friend James Riley near Faugeres.    The vegetation was already quite advanced and is now limp and brown. 

Frost is one of the regular viticultural hazards of Chablis, and something they are fairly used to dealing with, and well prepared with heaters and spray systems.  But the Languedoc is quite different.   You do not expect frost in the south of France, but last week, on the night of 7th/8thApril the temperature plummeted to as low as -8°C.   And the consequences have been devastating.   Nobody really has the means to do anything to protect the vines – bonfires, but what else.  They were helpless.    And like all climatic disasters, the impact was very erratic.   Some were spared and others devastated.   Cold air tends to settle in hollows and those would be the vines most affected.  There was a heart-rendering you Tube video of a young vigneronne looking at her vineyards in tears ……It is much too early to assess the full extent of the damage, partly as the danger of frost is by no means over, but conservative estimates suggest a 50% loss of production over the Languedoc.  

I sent a round robin email to some of my wine-making friends in the Languedoc and also Roussillon; some have replied and some have not.    

 In Limoux Caryl Panman from Château Rives-Blanques, after observing that it is absolute devastation from the Costières de Nimes to Roussillon, from Montpellier to Limoux, with everyone they know affected some degree or other, said they had nothing.   She can’t quite believe it and is enormously grateful.  The rest of Limoux suffered quite badly, apart from the high vineyards, like theirs.   And freezing temperatures are forecast again this week.  


In Faugères Françoise Ollier from Domaine Ollier Taillefer in the village of Fos said that there was relatively little damage in Fos, but that the vineyards between Fos and the neighbouring village of Roquessels had been badly affected, with anything between 40 to 100% damage.   Simon of Domaine des Trinités, who is based in Roquessels says: I’m afraid it‘s rather grim news from Roquessels, big losses with some more frost due tonight (13thApril).  I estimate at least 60% down for now but will know the full extent of the damage by end of next week.


Of course, it is much too early to assess the damage properly but nonetheless you still have an idea.  I have once seen a frosted vineyard, not in Chablis, but in the Languedoc, when they had an exceptional spring frost in April 2017.   Like this year, the vegetation was well advanced and we were out walking and suddenly came across a small vineyard that was the most disturbing colour.  The leaves were no longer a bright fresh green, but had turned a dull limp green with tinges of brown.  And the penny dropped.  This was frost damage and it is horrible to see.


Still in Faugères, Olivier and Adèle at Mas Lou said rather philosophically that they had suffered, but not as badly as some who have lost everything.  And Catherine Roque at Mas d’Alezon reckons to have lost between 20 – 30% of her crop so for her the situation is not catastrophique.  Nor is it for her daughter Alix at Domaine du Clovallon on the other side of the hills at Bédarieux.   


Domaine Caujolle-Gazet in the village of Lauroux, so one of the highest and most northern part of the Languedoc just below the Pas de l’Escalette sent a map that showed the extent of the frost damage all over the Hérault.  My technical skills are not sufficient to reproduce it in this blog, but amongst other things it shows that some of the northern vineyards such as theirs, are relatively unscathed.  They consider themselves very lucky.


But Beatrice and Sebastien Fillon in the nearby village of St Jean de Blaquière in the Terrasses du Larzac have been much less fortunate.   They reckon they have lost the crop of 12 out of their 15 hectares.  'A calamity'.  


From the Minervois, at Clos Centeilles in the cru of La Liviniere, Patrica Domergue replied : Thank God, we were spared, but the danger is not over yet.  


John Bojonowski from Clos du Gravillas at St Jean de Minervois sent me quite a detailed report, describing his neighbours’ vineyards as well as his own, as follows 


'I spent a couple of days not looking, but finally went out Friday night to see all our vineyards.  Our St Jean de Minervois Gimios vineyards, at 300M seem to be untouched.  I didn't go see the Muscat but the apprentice said it was just fine... perhaps I should take a look.   At Cazelles, most is ok; just the plantier of Grenache gris has 15% frosted (mostly the youngest baby plants from last year, which were still very short and close to the ground).  But our new Carignan Blanc is 90% gone. It's the lowest altitude and nearest to Agel.  Downhill from there, well at our neighbours' vineyards it's really all downhill.  All is lost.  Pretty ugly.  Similar view driving through Assigning, at least half gone.  And on the Barroubio side of the plateau it is much nastier than chez nous. And even our nearest Gimios neighbours, 300M away, are pretty slammed.  Mystery of nature'.  


It is indeed a mystery of nature.   Deborah Core at Mas Gabriel in Caux observed how one vine can be affected, but not the neighbouring vine, or even the shoot on one branch of a vine, and not the adjacent branch of a bush vine.   She says: ‘The frost damage is mostly at our vineyard at St Jean de Bébian where our Grenache Gris and young Carignan Blanc have been frosted almost 100%.  These were also badly affected in 2017. The Vermentino doesn’t seem as badly affected as most vines hadn’t got to bud burst, or are just opening out, so we will see.


At Caux on the slopes it generally a happier picture although one block of Carignan Noir has some damage, maybe 30%. In the plantiers, young vines which we cut right back down to 2 buds have also been burnt but should throw out another shoot. Otherwise, the rest of the Carignan (Noir and Blanc), Syrah and Grenache are ok. 


So we count ourselves lucky not to have been more badly hit. Fingers crossed for no more frost or other catastrophes climatiques this year!’


Stéphane Monmousseau at nearby Grange des Bouys says he was lucky, as only about 30% of his white vineyard on a slope was affected.  So ‘not too serious for us.’

In contrast Françoise Boyer from Domaine la Croix Belle a little further west in the village of Puissalion in the Côtes de Thongue says they have never had such bad frost damage.  The vegetation was 15 days ahead, as the weather had been so warm earlier in the spring.   It is particularly their Chardonnay that has suffered, 100% she says.  Chardonnay does have an early bud break.   Nor they do not have any insurance.   And Anne Germa de Sutra, at Domaine Monplézy, just outside Pézenas, reckons  she has lost 50% of her crop.  

I have received an email from the Orliac family of Domaine de l'Hortus in Pic St Loup.  They reckon 80% damage, both red and white varieties.   The problem was that the vegetation was so far advanced after some unseasonably warm weather.   They will have fall back on their negate wines to tide them over. 


Roussillon in contrast does not appear to have fared too badly.   Daniel Laffite at Mas des Soulanes outside Maury, says he was lucky.  Just one plot is 40% damaged, and the rest of his vines have been spared, so far.


And Frédérique Vaquer in the village of Tresserre reassured me that Les Aspres had been spared, 'thank goodness, after the mildew of 2020 and the drought of 2019'.   

Elsewhere in Roussillon, I gather from Nicolas Raffy at Mas Amiel that there is some damage in their vineyards and also around Tautavel and Latour-de-France.   And Emilio Perez, the Argentinian winemaker at Domaine de la Rectorie said that Banyuls had been spared.  


I have not yet had replies to all my emails, so I will add to this post as and when anything more comes through.   

                            A photo from Domaine de l'Hortus in Pic St Loup.   So distressing to see.