Friday, 19 June 2009

I've been browsing through Graham's blog on Languedoc wines (see the list of blogs I follow) and enjoying his post on dry whites. It's 30°C out there which doesn't do red wine many favours, particularly if the alcohol is on the hefty side. So I am drinking much more white and rosé wine at the moment. I've particularly enjoyed the following white wines.

In a previous post I mentioned the delicously fragrant Viognier from Domaine Murettes in La Livinière. The 2008 is at least as good as the 2007 and well worth €6,50. There isn't much made of this wine and I've only ever seen it at the domaine itself. Another excellent Viognier is from Domaine Coudoulet in Cesseras. A flowery, peachy, elegant brew for under €6 a bottle. Berry Brothers sell it in the UK for a curious £6.74/bottle.

Chateau de la Negly in La Clape make a stylish Coteaux du Languedoc called La Brise Marine. Made from Bourboulenc with Roussanne and some Marsanne, this is rich without being showy with stylish flavours of lemon and peach kernel with a minerally edge . And all for 8 euros a bottle.

A terrific Minervois Blanc comes from Chateau Canet in Rustiques. Again, Bourboulenc and Roussane are the grape varieties here, vinified cool but then given the slightest touch of oak to add richness but not oaky flavours. €8,95/bottle

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

18 vintages of Mas de Daumas Gassac

The story of the success of Mas de Daumas Gassac is an extraordinary one. Aimé Guibert, a prosperous businessman, owned a glove factory near Millau but also had an unassuming farmhouse near the Languedoc village of Aniane. It had land but no vineyards and he did not intend to make wine. However a visit by one of France's leading geologists, Henri Enjalbert, convinced him that the red, glacial soil was perfect for viticulture and for making top quality red wine. He planted Cabernet Sauvignon and employed Emile Peynaud, the celebrated Bordeaux winemaker, as consultant.

The first vintage was 1978 and the wine was (and still is) a mere Vin de Pays as Cabernet Sauvignon is forbidden in Languedoc AOC wine. The 1978 eventually attracted the attention of the French and International press who acclaimed it as a Grand Cru of the Languedoc. Its reputation was made.

This success was important, not just for the Guibert family, but also for Languedoc wine as a whole. Mas de Daumas Gassac showed that the Languedoc was capable of making great wine and this inspired other producers to follow suit. Today there is no shortage of independent producers in the Languedoc who are making excellent quality wines which express their terroir.

Last week, I was lucky enough to taste 18 vintages of this legendary red wine. This was thanks to David Gilmour who was the first to import Mas de Daumas Gassac into the UK. Also tasting were David's wife Sheena, Paul and Jeanne Strang, authors of, respectively, 'Languedoc Roussillon - the wines and winemakers' and 'Goosefat and Garlic'. And Languedoc based chef Peter Shaw and his wife Sally. And my multi-talented husband Simon.

This was a fascinating tasting as it showed how well this wine can age - and also how approachable it can be in its youth. The 2006 was surprisingly accessible and elegant. Highlights of the tasting for me were the lusciously ripe 2005, the stylish 2001 and the quite delicious 1994 which is drinking beautifully now. The 2004 and 2000 were also good but not quite as beguiling. The 1998 was the most butch in the line -up and would be magnificent with game. Of the older vintages the 1983 was excellent and just right now. The 1980 was also surprisingly sprightly with soft, sweet fruit flavours. And as for that legendary first vintage, it was beginning to show signs of age but had attractive sweet berried fruit mid palate and elegant tannins. Initial vintages were 100% Cabernet Sauvignon but gradually other weird and wonderful grape varieties have been introduced so most recent releases are 80% Cabernet and 20% 'other'.

On the strength of this tasting, it would seem that there is some truth in the legend on the back label 'ce grand vin puissant, complexe, original, peut se boire en fruit de 3 à 5 ans, en maturité de 10 à 15 ans, en majesté de 15 à 25 ans'.

Thank you David for so generously sharing your wines with us.

If you would like to see full tasting notes, contact me. Or tell me how to attach a word document to a blog post!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Old carignan - Domaine les Eminades

In my last post I started off by talking about some 107 year old Carignan vines but then got distracted and veered off into a history lesson. Where I meant to end up was talking about the wine made from said Carignan vines and the producer responsible for it, Luc Bettoni of Domaine Les Eminades in Cebezan.

I have to declare a personal and professional interest here. Luc and his wife Patricia are friends of mine and I have in the past sold their wines in the UK. So I may be a little biased. But everything that the Bettonis do is aimed at producing individual, concentrated, complex wines that express their terroir. Quality rather than quantity. Yields are kept low, they are currently in conversion to organic production, hand harvesting, barrel ageing for their top reds and white. 

Luc has just over 10 hectares of vines around the village of Cebezan in the heart of the St Chinian appellation. His first vintage was in 2002 and he makes a small but focussed range of St Chinian and Vin de Pays wines (including a sought-after barrel aged sauvignon blanc).  Their reds are not fruity, glugging wines. They reward bottle ageing, particularly Sortilege, their top St Chinian red which needs time to unfurl and reveal smoky, lingering dark fruit flavours. Also, as Luc does not fine or filter his wines, they are best decanted too.

But, back to the old Carignan. The age of the vines and the poor soil on the hillside means that yields are naturally low - a measly 28hl/ha. Hand picking, long maceration before pressing and 18 months in barrel have resulted in a big, rich wine (14,5%) with brooding flavours of plums and black cherry with hints of tar and a beguiling edge of vanilla. The tannins are present (this is carignan after all) but there is so much fruit here that they are balanced and the finish is long long long. The wine is aptly named 'vieilles canailles' or 'old rascal' which refers to the difficulty in tending gnarled old vines on the top of a steep hill. At 24 euros a bottle it is not cheap but it is very very good.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

107 year old Carignan vines - a lesson in history

Last week I took a group of winelovers on a day tour round some producers in St Chinian and Minervois. We started the day with a gentle walk to a beautiful vineyard in the heart of the St Chinian appellation. This is a very special vineyard and not just for the beautiful views and the abundance of wildflowers surrounding it. The vines are Carignan and they must be some of the oldest in the Languedoc as they were planted in 1902. 

The beginning of the 20th century was a turbulent time for vignerons in the Languedoc. Following phylloxera in around 1870, vineyards were replanted on American rootstocks which were resistant to the pest.  Demand for cheap wine was high but the newly replanted vineyards struggled to meet demand and so cheap imported wine from Algeria plugged the gap. Fraud was rife. 

Vineyards were replanted with high yielding Alicante and Aramon although some better quality varieties such as Carignan and Grenache were also planted. As the new vineyards reached peak production the problem changed to overproduction and so prices crashed. This led to mass protests by the vignerons culminating in the riots of 1907. This is an important date in Languedoc history, not just for the social unrest. It also prompted a series of reforms aimed at preventing fraud, reducing the area under vine and planting better quality, lower yielding varieties.

100 years on, what has changed? Well on the face of it, not alot. The Midi today is in the grips of a viticultural crisis. Prices are at record lows - a wine producer would be lucky to get 40 cents a litre for a decent vin de pays - and grape growers are faced with falling prices for their grapes at the co-operatives. The financial incentives for ripping up vines have persuaded many and sorry fields of dead or ripped up vines are common place. And while the social unrest may not be at the same intensity as in 1907, there are frequent demonstrations. Wine is most definitely a political issue.

There are clearly no easy answers to the crisis and many more vineyards will be ripped up before an equilibrium between supply and demand is reached. It will take far longer for small, rural communities to adjust to an economy where grapes are not the main source of income. 

However unlike the Midi of 100 years ago, there are a significant number of producers in the Langueodoc today whose focus is on quality rather than quantity. Aramon and Alicante are disappearing fast while planting of high quality varieties such as Syrah and Mourvedre and on the up. Yields are falling and the quality of Languedoc wine is better now than it has ever been.