Friday, 27 March 2009

French wine with an English accent

There are no shortage of Brits in the Languedoc, and quite a few of them have followed their dream of making their own wine in the south of France and bought wine domaines.

Jim and Sarah Pearce of Domaine de la Souterrane make wine but their initial interest was in farming rather winemaking. Jim had a farming background in England and in 2005 he and his wife bought a fruit farm near Argeliers in the Minervois which was mainly peach trees but also included some vines.  Their first year was a baptism of fire when the jam factory which had bought all the peaches went out of business and they were stuck with plenty of fruit but no market. This enterprising couple quickly put up a sign advertising 'pick your own' peaches in an effort to salvage at least some of the fruit. 'Pick your own' farms are not well known in this part of France but locals loved it and the Pearces now have extended the concept to raspberries, strawberries, melons, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and sweetcorn. And branched into pig farming as the pigs gorge themselves on the surplus peaches which fall to the ground.

As regards the grapes, these were all sold to the cave co-operative in Argeliers but prices were so low that Jim and Sarah felt they would get a better return if they bottled the wines themselves. Luckily, they had inherited well-tended vineyards with good quality varieties; the fashionable Viognier, Chardonnay, Merlot and some 50 year old Carignan. With the advice of Australian flying winemaker David Morrison, they have developed a small but sound range of varietal Vin de Pays wines.

Their 2007 Chardonnay-Viognier is a rich, peachy, simple wine with a touch of spice which is still drinking well. They have just bottled their first straight Viognier from the 2008 vintage. Partially barrel-fermented this is very aromatic and exotic on the nose with good rich, apricot, fruit flavours and fresh acidity to balance the richness and alcohol. It has only just been bottled so needs a couple of months to come round but is an excellent example of Viognier. 

I also liked the 2007 Merlot. I'm not a huge fan of Languedoc Merlot but this had lots of rich, cherry and blackcurrant fruit with grippy but not aggressive tannins. Not a subtle wine but very appealing. The old vine Carignan is the top of the range. The nose was slightly grubby but there was oodles of sweet, ripe black fruit on the palate and a long, sweet finish.

Overall, impressive, fruit-forward wines which offer excellent value for money. The Pearces have only just started and with Syrah vines coming into production next year, things can only get better.


Thursday, 19 March 2009


Hiding amongst the dusty bottles in my attic was this bottle of 1957 Carthagène.

Carthagène (or Cartagène) is a languedoc speciality, a vin de liqueur or mistelle which is made by mixing grape spirit with grape juice and so the wine does not ferment. The alcohol comes purely from the grape spirit and because the juice never ferments it retains all the sugar from the grapes. Pineau de Charente is made in the same way and is the Cognac region's version of a vin de liqueur.

Carthagène was normally made by winemakers for their own use. A couple of old barrels or whatever container that was lying around would be filled with grape juice (whatever grapes they had - grenache, carignan, aramon etc) and spirit and then forgotten for a few months or even years. And then gradually consumed by the family. It is still made this way today with the difference that producers may bottle it for sale, either at the cellar door or via local restaurants. Very little is exported.

The best Carthagène I have tried recently is made by my neighbours, the Frances family of Domaine Camberaud. Made of 100% Grenache, it is a deep red with enticing aromas of cherries and kirsch. It has gorgeous sweet plum/cherry flavours and is slightly chocolatey and spicy. There is a slight spiritiness but this is well balanced by the generous fruit. I showed this to a group of Australians on board the Athos barge on the canal du mid and they loved it.

Locals drink Carthagène as an aperitif but it would also go well with blue cheese and rich chocolate puddings.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Does Languedoc wine age well?

When we bought our house 2 years ago, we inherited a collection of about 100 dusty bottles in various shapes and sizes. Most are label-less and contain a liquid of an indeterminate mid brown colour, together with a fair quantity of muddy deposit. There are a few labels remaining which provide clues as to the contents.`1954 Maccabeu``1964 Carthagene`Èau de Vie`.

Over the last few days I've been opening a few bottles each day in an effort to free up some space. And, yes, not surprisingly the wines are pretty disgusting and completely past it. With a burnt, madeira like smell too which comes from the estufa conditions in our attic - 40°C in summer and 2°C in winter.

But it got me thinking about how well Languedoc wines age. Obviously not the ones in my attic but in the 1950s there were hardly any serious wines coming out of the Languedoc. It wasn't until the late 70s, early 80s that more producers, old and newly established, started bottling wines that had the stuffing to age. I've tasted some excellent 1998s recently which still taste youthful and have at least 5 years more life in them. And the 1982 Mas de Daumas Gassac is, by all accounts, still very sprightly. I'd be interested to hear of any good, old bottles that readers have come across.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Judging Minervois - again

This Thursday was the last day of tastings for selection for the Chai at Homps. Yet again I was tasting mid to up-market Minervois, which covered a wide price range from €5 - 15 a bottle.  There was a huge range of styles within this range and a couple of the wines were marked down for showing high volatile acidity.

The best wine in the flight was from a domaine I knew little about, Chateau Canet. The helpful back label explained that it was made by a Dutch/ New Zealand couple who settled in the Languedoc after 17 years in Burgundy. Their website is very helpful. L'Evangile is their top wine, made from 90% low-yielding Syrah and aged in new; 1 year and 2 year old oak. It was deep coloured with an appealing oak and garrigue nose with appealing bramble and cassis fruit on the palate. The tannins are ripe and although the oak is very dominant now, it has the fruit to support it. Estimated drinking time 2010-15+

I also liked 2007 Minervois from Vincent Enaud at Domaine Monastrel in Pouzols Minervois. I first came across this domaine a couple of years ago and was impressed by the concentration and balance of the wines. The 2007 was very richly fruity with a distinct oakiness and licquorice character which, together with the alcohol, gave an overall impression of sweetness.  Still young, this will improve over the next 5 years. 

For sheer fruitiness, Nuit Noire from Domaine de Parazols, stood out from the crowd. It was just brimming with summer fruits with an appealing mid-palate richness. Very drinkable. This domaine also makes good Cabardes.

Other wines of note included a good honest Minervois from Chateau de Calamiac. Good value at €5 a bottle. The Cuvée Tradition from Rouviole was a classic, garrigue scented Minervois at 7,50. And slightly more expensive at €8,50 was a robust, leathery brew from Chateau de Vergel, Cuvée Costebelle.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Judging Minervois

The Chai Port Minervois, beside the canal du midi in Homps, is an excellent shop window for Minervois wines. Its manager Laurent de Roulhac, is enthusiastic and knowledgeable about local wines and each year he organises as series of tastings to select the best wines for the Chai.

The tastings are held at the Maison du Minervois in Siran and involve tasting various flights blind and rating them in terms of quality and value for money. I tasted a flight of upmarket Minervois reds, ranging in price from €6 - €11. It was a respectable line-up with no real mingers. My favourite was 2006 Chateau du Donjon, a beautifully balanced, elegant Minervois with fine tannins and good depth of black fruit with hints of tea and smoke. Well worth €9/bottle. I also enjoyed the Cuvée Vincent Minervois from Domaine Festiano in Tourouzelles. It was brimming with ripe blackerry and raspberry fruit and good value at €7.10. I liked the Minervois from Domaine Entretan, finding it concentrated and long with a lovely garrigue nose. Sadly, my co-tasters disagreed with me. The 1997 Chateau Maris had attractive depth of black fruits on the palate, framed by youthful but smooth tannins, and an impressively long finish. It lost points from me for an overly reductive nose.

Saturday, 7 March 2009

Pinot Noir exports don't add up

An investigation is ongoing into alleged fraud of wine which was sold as Pinot Noir when it wasn't in fact made from pinot. The discrepancy first came to light in Spring 2008 when a vinous fraud squad did a spot check at SAS Ducasse de Carcassonne, a well known negociant in the region. Sieur d'Arques in Limoux is also involved in the investigation. 

The Languedoc Roussillon's annual production of Pinot Noir is around 53,000 hectolitres but it is estimated that since 2005 more than 100,000 hectolitres of Pinot Noir was exported to the USA each year. 

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Faugères facts

My last post talked about schist and a couple of producers of note. Here are a few more facts about Faugères, courtesy of the Faugères Appellation Press Dossier.

- The appellation consists of 2075 hectares of vines
- There are 7 villages in the Faugères appellation
- Faugères was awarded the appellation for red and rosé wine in 1982
- They had to wait until 2005  for it to be extended to white Faugères
- the average altitude in Faugères is 250 metres
- the average yield for AOC Faugères in 2007 was 34 hectolitres per hectare. The maximum yield permitted by the AOC regs is 50 hl/ha
- 11% of Faugères is exported

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Faugères - all about schist

Yesterday afternoon I toddled off to Faugères for a tasting of the 2008 vintage. 35 producers presented their wines in the appropriately named Salle de Bacchus, under large posters displaying the region's new artwork and strapline ' Faugères, l'appellation Nature schiste.`

This striking new poster captured the essence of Faugères. Schist. For the record, schist is a metamorphic rock which can be easily split into thin layers. The french word 'schiste' also means slate, which is a type of schist, as well as the broader term, schist.

All the vineyards within the Faugères appellation are grown on schist - in fact it is the only appellation in the Languedoc to be based on one homogenous terroir. Vineyards with a high proportion of schist are  naturally low yielding and they force the vine to send its roots deep down in search of water and nutrients. This stands the vine in good stead in times of drought. In addition, the stones act as mini heat stores. They absorb the heat during the day and radiate it back to the  grapes at night, so promoting grape maturity.

So what of the wines? I particularly enjoyed the 2003 Grande Cuvée from Chateau des Estanilles, which had oodles of dark,  brooding fruit and was just beginning to develop and reveal tantalising hints of tea, dark chocolate, tar and smoke.  Soon after I moved to the Languedoc I tasted the 1998 vintage of this wine which was (and no doubt still is) staggeringly good.

In complete contrast, but just as good, were the wines of Domaine Cottebrune. This domaine is small, only 10 hectares and is owned by Pierre Gaillard, an accomplished and celebrated winemaker in the Rhone. He is best known for his Cote Rotie, which is also based on schist.  Pierre's sure touch is in evidence in these impeccably made, stylish wines. The 2007 Transhumance is concentrated yet elegant, with a deft touch of oak. The 2007 Parole de Berger is the top wine, a masterly blend of 80% Syrah and 20% Grenache. Cold maceration pre-fermentation, malolactic in barrel and 12 months ageing in barrel, of which 30% were new are the points to note in the vinification. The resulting wine is brimming with plum and black cherry fruit with hints of smoke and coffee. The oak is well  balanced and it has a lovely long finish. A classy wine with a good future ahead of it.