Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Very cool wine bar in Beziers - Le Chameau Ivre

My favourite place in Beziers is Le Chameau Ivre, a wonderful wine shop and Tapas bar which is owned by Philippe Catusse.

The selection of local wines is good but the most striking feature here is the esoteric range of wines from outside the L-R and the traditional triumvirate of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. The Loire is a speciality, both white and red and, should one feel inclined, one can buy several vintages of Cotat Chavignol (a wonderfully traditional Sancerre that rewards ageing in bottle). Also on offer are magnums of Jurancon, an enticing selection of Austrian wines and a good range of sherries. And lots, lots more.

For those who don't get quite so turned on by these esoteric offerings, I can recommend it as a good stop for a light lunch. The choice of wines by the glass is significantly better than the sorry offerings one finds in most restaurants here. Definitely no paris goblets either.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Is it snow? No, it's terroir!

At first glance, it seems like there is a light scattering of snow over these vineyards. But in fact it is a graphic demonstration of terroir.

We are in St Jean de Minervois where the 'snow' is the chalky white soil the covers this small section of vineyards on the plateau in the north east corner of the Minervois. The altitude here is over 200 metres above sea level and so the climate is cooler and grapes ripen later than on the plains. So the Muscat grapes need all the help they can get to achieve their heady, perfumed ripeness. That's where the soil comes in. It reflects sun and heat back on to the grapes and promotes ripening. The Muscat vines are pruned low, close to the ground, so as to maximise the effect.

These recently pruned Muscat vines are at Barroubio, producer of my favourite Muscat de St Jean de Minervois. Their black label Muscat is a classic and a staple in my cellar, particularly during the summer. It is full of grapy, perfumed aromas and delicately sweet without being cloying. It effortless supports its 15 % alcohol.

A visit to the Miquel family at the hamlet of Barroubio is always a pleasure. And tasting through their range of Muscats - dry, late harvest, fortified, late harvest with lees contact etc is a lesson in sweet wine-making.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Outsiders Rocking the Languedoc

I wasn't able to make the 'Outsiders' tasting in London last week. Judging by the comments on Outsiders Facebook page, Ryan at LovethatLanguedoc and the excellent reviews from fellow bloggers Graham and Leon Stolarski, the event was a success. Tasters commented on the 'family feel' of the tasting, the passion and humility of the winemakers. And also on the impeccable organisation, mostly due to the effort of that 'Languedoc powerhouse' (I'm quoting Ryan here), the enthusiastic and delightful Louise Hurren. Well done Louise.

But why focus just on those Languedoc wines made by expats? Why are they different? Well I guess the point is not that the wines are any better or worse than wines from independent producers who were born and raised here.

It's because Outsiders have a different perspective. For a start, for many it is a second (or third) career. Passion is an overused word when it comes to wine but it's difficult to see what else could justify giving up a well-paid desk job to scrape by making wine in rural France. Any romantic dreams vanish after weeks of pruning in January's biting winds. So they have made a conscious decision to move country and careers, as opposed to inheriting a domaine. Starting from scratch means having to learn quickly, not be afraid to ask lots of questions and to ask for advice. And just, well, give it a go.

Being an Outsider also brings an understanding of the market and wines from elsewhere. And, hopefully, contacts in one's native country that can provide an foothold in the export market.

And anyway, why NOT get together and promote their wines and the Languedoc region in general? It's good publicity.

There are 12 producers listed on the Facebook page but there are many more Outsiders making wine in the Languedoc. It'll be interesting to see if it all snowballs and there are 3 times that number by next year.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Stolen grapes make the Press

The recent theft of 30 tonnes of Cabernet grapes from a vineyard near Villeneuve de Beziers has certainly made the headlines.

A quick Google search finds the story reported internationally, from, amongst others, the BBC,
British broadsheets the Telegraph and Guardian as well as ABC news in Australia and NZ radio. More obscure websites that have picked up on the story include theirishemigrant.com silobreaker.com and the spooky Forteantimes. (I'll spare you the links to these sites).

Apart from the opportunity to churn out bad puns (grape escape etc), the reason for this frenzy of press attention is that it is such a rare occurrence. It is so specialised. I have never heard of it before and in terms of risk/reward it is not the most lucrative crime.

It isn't easy to discreetly harvest grapes - even with a harvesting machine it would take at least a couple of hours and machines are not the quietest of beasts. The absolute maximum price for Cabernet Sauvignon at the moment is 60€ a hectolitre. 30 tonnes would yield say 210 hectolitres giving a maximum gain of 12,600€. Alot of money for the poor vineyard owner, Roland Cavaillé. But not a fortune considering the risk involved. Take off the cost of harvesting and vinifying. And who do you sell the grapes to after such a publicised crime?

So is this some sort of professional grape mafia at work? Theft to order for a negociant? Revenge from vindictive neighbours? An opportunity to make a fast buck for dispossessed grape farmers? Who knows? Well somebody does but it is doubtful that the crime will be solved. Lets hope it's a one-off.

By the way, in case any amateur sleuths out there are looking for clues, the harvester in the photo is NOT the one used in the heist. Library photo.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Meteoric Faugères

The distinctive circular 'hole', pictured above, is 220m in diameter and is likely (but not proven) to be the crater formed by a meteor which fell to earth some 10,000 years ago. It also inspired the name for Domaine du Météore, a small family domaine near Cabrerolles in Faugères. The domaine has been in the Genevièves Libes' family for several generations and has 23 hectares of vines in Faugères and St Chinian.

I have come across Dom de Mètèore's wines a few times over the last five years but only recently visited the domaine and tasted the whole range. Genevièves Libes took me through the wines with enthusiasm and she evidently has great pride in her wines. And justly so. I have to say that I was impressed. The wines are consistently good quality: well-balanced, not overextracted, lovely fruit flavours.Wines to enjoy drinking but not not necessarily show stoppers or medal winners.

Worth seeking out and good value for money.

I particularly liked their Faugères Blanc, Les Léonides, 2009. This is an unoaked blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, which has delicate peach and herb aromas and flavours. Crisp nutty finish. I bought a case of this to drink over the summer and it disappeared very quickly! 6,50€

Their standard Faugeres Rouge is Les Léonides (5,70€) and is medium bodied with soft black fruit flavours. Slightly vegetal on the nose. Easy drinking. It is worth paying a couple of euros more for their St Chinian which comes from vines near St Nazaire de Ladarez which are also on schistous soils. Very expressive nose with exuberant red and black fruit. Attractive fruit palate with a intriguing minerally character.

There are three further cuvées of Faugères, each named after a different constellation and with different degrees of oakiness. Les Orionides spends 12 months in oak and is satisfyingly rich and spicy albeit slightly dominated by oak. Good but I couldn't get that excited about it. My favourite of the 3 oaked wines was Les Perséides. 60% Syrah, 40% Mourvèdre. 18 months in oak but it has excellent concentration of plum and blackcurrant fruit to support it. Supple tannins and an elegant backbone of minerality. 11.90€ but worth it.

Top of the range is Les Lyrides, almost pure Syrah which spends nearly 2 years in barrel. The 2007 is still very young and dominated by oak. But there is excellent concentration there and a hints of mineral and spice on the nose and palate which will reveal themselves further over time. Keep 3 years at least. 19€

See Rosemary George's notes on Faugères from last year's fete.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

The fountain of youth

A look in the mirror reminds me that, sadly, I haven't yet managed to find the fountain of youth. Yet this offering from Prieuré du Font Juvenal is just the thing to drown sorrows at the appearance of the latest grey hair or wrinkle.

Just 10km north of Carcassonne, the domaine is tucked away in a beautiful little valley off the road towards Mazamet, right in the middle of the Cabardès region. All the wines are impressive, stylishly made under the ownership of Georges Casadesus.

The 2005 Fontaine de Jouvence is a blend of Cabernet France, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache and Cot. Unoaked. Very deep ruby colour with gentle cassis and plum aromas. Slight spice, clove perhaps. Medium bodied with lovely pure black fruit. The tannins have grip but are well rounded. Good length - a hint of cherry on the finish. Drink now - 2012. Good concentration and elegance and well worth the 7 - 8 euro price-tag that I believe it to be. Can't find the exact price on their website.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Languedoc Roussillon wines - a good investment?

I was chatting to Hamish of Bella wines today about various things and inevitably the conversation turned to the crazy prices of top Bordeaux 2009.

It reminded me of Andrew Jefford's article in the Financial Times in June this year when he talked about the possibility of the Languedoc-Roussillon's top wines being one day considered a good investment. To quote him, 'The investment potential is not so much risible as premature. It seems plausible to me that the best sites in the Languedoc might, in a few decades hence, produce red wines to challenge the best from Cote Rotie, Cornas and Chateauneuf'. He doesn't make a comparison with Bordeaux, presumably because he sees the best wines as being made from Syrah, Grenache et al, not Cabernet and Merlot.

It seems entirely plausible to me too. In fact, in my view, top wines such as Mas Jullien, Gauby, La Peira are as good as top Rhone. But they are not viewed as a good investment in monetary terms.

And do I want them to be? Well if they were it would be evidence that the L-R wines were finally getting the worldwide recognition they deserve. That's good. But it would mean that those of us who actually enjoy drinking the stuff wouldn't be able to afford it any more. We love L-R wines precisely because they are such great value for money, even at the top end.

I've just come across the press page from la Peira which considers this very subject. Most eloquently. Have a look.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Fire fighting at Domaine de la Trimballe

Spare a thought for Sabine and Olivier Durand of Domaine de la Triballe who are currently harvesting grapes amidst the devastation of burnt woodland and singed vines.

On 31 August this year a massive fire destroyed 3000 hectares of garrigue, pine forest and vineyards in the north east of the Herault. Unfortunately for the Durands, their estate was in its path and 40 hectares of their forest went up in smoke and the edges of their vineyards were badly singed.

The telephone lines were restored this week, hence the email and pictures. And a wry comment that the harvest does at least take their minds off the devastation. One wonders if the 2010 wines will have an intriguing hint of smoke, a phenomenon found in wines from other fire-damaged vineyards (eg South Africa).

The Durands are bullish about the quality of the grapes. They farm organically so they will no doubt be at Millisime Bio in Montpellier next year when we will be able to taste the 2010s for ourselves.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Chateau Canet La Chapelle 2009

Chateau Canet is in the Carcassonne end of the Minervois, near the pretty little village of Rustiques. It is owned by a Dutch/New Zealand couple, Floris and Victoria Lemstra-Bake who previously spent 17 years in Burgundy working in the wine and tourism industry respectively. They have put their experiences there to good use at Canet where they have a collection of well appointed holiday cottages as well as the wine estate.

They have 45 hectares of vines and their newest release comes from their oldest plot of Grenache vines which lies on the site of the old 11th Century chapel - hence the name La Chapelle. It is the 2009 vintage so very young. It is deliberately not oak aged and bottled early to capture the grape's fruitiness. Hand harvesting and daily foot-treading says the back label (well the French bit anyway. Interestingly the French and English blurb on the back label are completely different!). Coupled with an extremely heavy bottle, this is clearly aiming to be a top notch product.

And, yes, it is pretty smart. Floris recommended decanting this. I didn't but I poured a generous tasting glass and kept going back to it over the afternoon which amounts to the same thing. The aromas took several hours to unfurl and are now very enticing with black cherry and raspberry notes. There is lots of generous, fleshy fruit on the palate. Again raspberry, hint of violet. Plum skin. Just a touch of a leathery character which will no doubt develop in bottle. There's a fair bit of tannin here but it's well balanced as there is so much fruit. This is a big wine - the label says 14.5% but I reckon it's closer to 15%.

Open a bottle of this on a cold winters evening when the fire is blazing. Drink with something slightly gamy such as pheasant or woodcock. Mushrooms will work too. Make sure you're not driving. And decant it. At least 2 hours in advance.

Friday, 24 September 2010

New tiers for Languedoc wine - good news?

The announcement of new wine legislation rarely fills me with joy as it is so often producer led with little or no thought as to the consumer. Result = more confusing labels which the average wine drinker has no hope of understanding.

So are the latest proposals for Languedoc AOCs any different?

First of all, some detail. CIVL, the organisation that represents Languedoc's AOC wines, is creating two new AOC tiers: Grands vins du Languedoc and Grands crus du Languedoc.

The first category, Grands vins du Languedoc, is at the broader AOC level. So far, the AOCs that qualify for this category are Minervois, St Chinian, Corbières, Limoux fizz, Faugères, Cabardès, Malpère and some parts of the sprawling Coteaux du Languedoc AOC.

The Grands crus du Languedoc includes sub-regions within some of those AOCs. The qualifying regions are Minervois La Livinière, Corbières Boutenac, St Chinian Roquebrun, Terrasses de Larzac, Gres de Montpellier, Pic St Loup, La Clape, Pezenas

Now while I'm not exactly jumping with excitement at all this, on the face of it, it seems a positive move. The promotion of quality Languedoc wines is a good thing. While the first category seems very general (and potentially meaningless), the regions in the Grands Crus du Languedoc AOC are all hotspots where there are a high concentration of producers making excellent and exciting wine. Of course some excellent producers will fall outside these areas, but it is nigh on impossible to come up with a simple system that includes everyone.

It's success will depend on how it is implemented and communicated to the consumer. Let's wait and see.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Pinot Noir from Domaine Pierre Cros

In the wake of the Pinot Noir scandal of the Aude where fake pinot was sent to Gallo, it is interesting to come across a Pinot which is definitely 100%, even if there is no clue to this on the label.

The Pinot in question comes from Pierre Cros in Badens, a staunch defender of terroir who makes wine from both traditional Languedoc varieties and newcomers. Labelled as a mere Vin de Table (hence no grape variety or vintage allowed on the label) this is a medium ruby black colour. Very dark but not opaque. Very spicy on the nose - almost cigar box and cloves ) with delicate plum and rose aromas. Full bodied on the palate (14.5%) with oodles of very ripe, creamy plum fruit with hints of spice - cloves again. The tannins are very ripe and smooth and the oak is well integrated. Good long finish. Only criticism is that the alcohol is a touch high for my tastes. An opulent Pinot Noir with very smooth tannins. From memory, around 18€ a bottle so not cheap, but good Pinot never is.

Sometimes amiable, sometimes enigmatic, ex-rugbyplayer Pierre is perhaps best known for his other Vin de table, Mal Aimés, made from traditional Languedoc varieties of Aramon, Alicante, Carignan and Picquepoul Noir. Historically, these varieties were massively overcropped and the resulting wines were poor quality. Aramon and Alicante in particular have been derided as poor quality and most have been grubbed up. While they may not be noble varieties and capable of greatness, Pierre proves that these 'unloved' grapes can produce a very pleasant, smoothly fruity red when the vines are old and yields are kept low.

If you can, visit Domaine Cros in Badens which is about 15 minutes from Carcassonne. His cave is right in the centre of the village and well signposted.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

My current everyday red - Domaine Pierre Fil

Living as we do smack bang in the middle of the Minervois, there is no shortage of good value wines to supply us with wines for everyday drinking. We don't have to go far for our current favourite. Domaine Pierre Fil's cave is at the other side of the village (a full 500m away) and he has an excellent range of reds for any occasion.

Pierre is a delightful chap and has winemaking in his blood. His family have been vignerons for 7 generations and he owns vineyards around the Minervois village of Mailhac. He has an unusually high percentage of Mourvèdre which ripens well here on the plateau overlooking the plains and La Clape in the distance. Mourvèdre grown just the other side of the hill in Olonzac struggles to ripen, as the microclimate is fractionally cooler. Unusually for the languedoc, most of the grapes are harvested by hand, important as they undergo carbonic maceration which requires that the berries remain intact.

His top-of-the-range wine is Dolium, which is delicious but needs several years in bottle to unfurl. Orebus is a stylish, barrel matured red which is rated by the Guide Hachette. I am a big fan of the 2006 Cuvée Heledus which is made of roughly equal proportions of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Carignan and aged in older French oak for 12 months. It has a vibrant nose of blackcurrants and licquorice and oodles of black, herby fruit on the palate, again with a smack of licquorice. Lots of character and definitely Minervois, this is a super little wine for 6 euros a bottle.

His bag in box red is not half bad either.

Friday, 16 April 2010

O vineyards - a lesson in oak

So, what type of barrel do you want? Size (225 L standard barrique, demi-muid ..), wood (ok mostly oak but ... slovenian chestnut anyone?), type of oak (French, American), which forest (Allier, Vosges, Limousin ....), cooper (Francois Frères, Seguin Moreau, Demptos ....), toast level, heads toasted? New? 2nd or 3rd fill? phew! And that's just a few of the options!

The permutations are endless and, as anyone who has tasted the same wine in different barrels will attest, it does make a difference. But barrel tasting is usual the preserve of professionals. However, thanks to the O'Connells of O vineyards in Cabardès, the humble consumer is able to discover for himself how ageing a wine in French oak, American oak or no oak at all affects the flavour of a wine.

The wine is question is a Vin de Pays de Cité de Carcassonne (the vineyards are a stone's throw from the famous cité) and is a blend of precisely 53% Merlot and 47% Cabernet Sauvignon. It can't be an AOC Cabardès as appellation rules require a blend of Atlantic and Mediterranean (ie syrah, grenache, carignan) varieties.

The unoaked wine had attractive aromas of raspberries and blackcurrants with a hint of leafiness. Pleasant creamy black, brambly fruit on the palate balanced by ripe but not overbearing palate. Fruity, good concentration of flavours but fairly simple.

Aged in new American oak for 8 months, the wine had a forward nose of black fruit, coffee and a slightly resinous oaky aroma. There was plenty of broad, chunky black fruit on the palate with notes of spice and vanilla. The tannins were very firm but the fruit just about balanced it.

Aged in French oak for 12 months, the wine had the most restrained nose of the 3 wines. Hints of black fruit and dill. The palate was also more closed - there was good concentration of fruit there but the flavours were hiding still. Tannins firm but finer grained than in the American oak wine. Acidity more pronounced. Structure finer but needs time in bottle for the fruit to evolve and harmonise with acid and tannins.

In conclusion, the wine aged in oak did have more complexity and richness than the unoaked version which was nice but quite simple. The American oak wine was more approachable now, despite the grippy tannins, as the fruit was more forward and appealing. Needs robust food. The French oak gave fine structure but the fruit is still shy. Worth trying in a year or two to see if the fruit has emerged from its hidey-hole.

Thanks to the O Connells for generously providing the wines.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Minervois tasting

It's that time of year again when the Chai at Homps, the shop window of the Minervois, organises blind tastings to select wines for sale for the coming year. There were 223 wines being tasted and about 40 tasters, most of them local vignerons who may, unknowingly, be judging their own wines!

I was tasting AOC reds from 4 - 5 euros and the star wine in the flight came from the Cave Co-operative in Argeliers. Their 2007 Marcelin Albert sells for 4,90€ and with ripe fruit,smooth elegant tannins and a lick of spicy oak, this is great value. Marcelin Albert is feted as the leader of the 1907 vignerons revolt and it is his face that adorns the label. That is the worst thing about the wine. Also good was 2006 Cuvée des Clots from Chateau de Puicheric. I detected a touch of oak here too and plenty of ripe, smooth fruit. Unoaked and brimming with easy, accessible fruit was Domaine Cavailles 2007. Worth stocking up on for summer BBQs. And finally, Les Trois Bloisons 2008 Minervois was fruity, smooth, easy drinking. Simple, yes, but who cares for under 4 euros a bottle?

Kind of the top Minervois reds was Chateau Beaufort, 2003 (I forget the cuvée name). Sumptuous and with lively fruit, despite the age, and an enticing nose of the garrigue.

Spring in the air, so it's good to note a couple of fine rosés. Chateau Ste Eulalie is a perennial favourite and the 2009 does not disappoint. Vibrant pink with oodles of red fruits and a fine backbone of tannin. Paler and more elegant but with lots of round summer fruit mid-palate was Chateau Villerambert 2009. Coup de coeur for the tasters, including me.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Vinifilles - Languedoc girlpower!

ViniFilles is the cute name for the organisation of female winemakers in the Languedoc-Roussillon. Created at the beginning of 2009 by Pascale Riviere of La Jasse Castel in Montpeyroux, ViniFilles now has 18 members.

Their aims are
- to share their know-how and passion for wine and viticulture and to develop a mutual support system between women winemakers
- to preserve the terroir, landscape and environment which they love and defend
- to pass on the culture of wine, conviviality and gastronomy by including men and women from all walks of life in their movement

This will be achieved by wine fairs, tastings and debates and by raising awareness and generating sales of wine through networking. In addition, ViniFilles will highlight the benefits of wine drinking and actively defend French culture and its deepest values, namely its agricultural roots.

As well as their founder (or should that be foundress?), their members also include Hildegard Horat at La Grange de Quatre Sous, Isabelle Champart at Mas Champart, Francois Ollier at Domaine Ollier Taillefer and Francois Frissant le Calvez and Chateau Coupe-Roses. Many of their members will be at Vinisud. Email me if you want a list.

OK, male winemakers can do all his but this organisation is not anti-men. In fact Vinifilles stress that they work alongside their male counterparts. But women have a different approach. ViniFilles are 'women with a fresh yet critical of the world, not afraid to stand our ground, yet always open to constructive change. Our words and actions are direct and practical, shaped by our nature as women, wives and mothers;'

I'll raise a glass to that.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

O Vineyards and Love that Languedoc

Ryan O Connell of O Vineyards in Cabardès has rightly chided me for not putting in a link to his video diary. Ryan is young and innovative and has started up a Languedoc video site cutely called Love that Languedoc. He started it the back end of last year and is already on episode 34. Not bad going. The videos take the form of interviews with Languedoc winemakers, sommeliers and tame MWs. Some are in French, some in English and some both.

He has sent me the following links which I think are to the clip I did in December last year. In French and in English. (or is it vice versa?)

I'll do a full report of my visit and tasting at O vineyards in February.