Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Montmajou - cracking St Chinian Blanc

St Chinian doesn't produce very much white wine - I'm guessing less than 5% of all production. And the AOC wasn't extended to white wine until 5 years ago. So it is not a wine that one comes across very often. But, for the record, I enjoyed a rather special St Chinian blanc last weekend.

We were tasting in the best possible environment. Relaxing with friends Patricia and Luc Bettoni over a leisurely Sunday lunch while the kids ran around outside making mud pies. Luc pulls out an unlabelled bottle of his new white, first vintage 2009. First impressions - very subtle aromas. To be honest, I can't get alot from it. Take a sip and initally subtle fruit too. Peach maybe, minerally. Then just when you start to think there isn't much going on - wow - the palate opens up into beautifully textured, creamy, nutty fruit and continues into a long finish.

I didn't write any notes on the wine at the time but my memory of the wine centres not so much on what it tasted like as on what it FELT like. It is all about texture and mouthfeel and balance, which this wine had in abundance. It felt more like a white burgundy than a wine from the south of France which is what Luc was aiming for. This wine will not appeal to everyone as it is not immediately fruity but it deserves a loyal following from good restaurants, upmarket wine shops and wine nuts like me.

So, what is it? Domaine Les Eminades Montmajou St Chinian Blanc 2009. 80% Grenache, 20% Marsanne. From Montmajou, a sub-region of approx 250m altitude between Cebezan and Cruzy. Organic, handpicked, natural yeast, maturation in barrels for 11 months on fine lees, malolactic fermentation.

You can't actually buy this wine as it's sold out (I know, I tried) but the 2010 will be available later in the year and there will be more of it. Price about 11€/bottle.

Friday, 18 February 2011


The Côtes de Thongue is that gently rolling area between Beziers and Pezenas which covers 14 villages. It may only be classified as lowly vin de pays, but it has a good number of forward thinking, energetic producers who produce cracking wines that are great value for money. Domaines de l'Arjolle, la Colombette, Sainte Rose, La Croix Belle and St Georges d'Ibry to name but a few.

The newest kid on the block is Domaine Montazellis, since 2005 owned by a French/British couple Dhanya and Nova Collette. The domaine is between Alignan du Vent and Abeilhan and on the map it is called Montarels. They had to choose another name for their wines as Montarels was already used by the local co-op and Montazellis was the name of the property in the middle ages. There are a collection of ancient buildings and approx 11 hectares of vines here; sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, syrah, merlot, carignan and alicante bouschet with plans to plant grenache and some more white, perhaps viognier or vermentino. 70% of the production is sent to the co-op.

There first thing you notice on entering the lofty cave is a set of drums. Dhanya is a musician while Nova works in fashion, commuting to the UK every second week, and it is clear that they brought their creativity and imagination to bear on their vision for the domaine. Not only the wines but plans for renovations of house, stockage, gites and parking for camper vans etc. They have their work cut out as several of the buildings are still ruins but they intend renovating a bit at a time.

Danhya had no winemaking background but learnt quickly via a course in Pezenas, various stages at other producers and from the advice of his oenologue. Low yields, pigeage, modest use of oak result in a wines that have delicious fruit, excellent balance and are very fairly priced. They are not showy or incredibly complex but provide a lot of pleasure. My favourites were the chardonnay and their top Syrah, Etienne although their entry level syrah showed well on retasting/drinking in the evening.

Chardonnay 2008
nutty, creamy nose. Gentle toasty fruit - very discreet touch of oak which provides richness mid palate. Elegant. 7€

Merlot 2008
Easy drinking, brambly cherry fruit here. A quaffer. Only 5€ a bottle but in my view it's worth paying a euro more for...

Syrah 2008
Pure raspberry, cherry fruit. Good concentration and firm but ripe tannins. Decent length too. Good value at 6€

Syrah Cuvée Etienne, 2007
Named after their son who was born soon after their arrival in France, this is their top syrah which is aged for around a year in oak. 2000 bottles made. Deeply coloured, good concentration of spicy raspberry, blackberry fruit on nose and palate. Tannins are grippy but there is plenty of fruit to balance. Oak is evident but not dominant. Good length.

Kaiya 2008
Tiny quantity made of this late harvest sauvignon blanc, named after their daughter. Pretty, medium sweet, nutty.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Château La Grave, Badens

I visit Château La Grave maybe 3 or 4 times a year and have learnt from experience that it is better to be overdressed. I'm not talking about formal dress - this is a working wine domaine after all - but rather that it is significantly cooler than at home, a mere 30 km away, and even in summer I have felt the chill of a fresh breeze blowing across the Les Balcons de l'Aude. This cooler microclimate is the main reason why this domaine is particularly successful with white wines, although the range includes red wines, rosés and a Cartagène.

It is a sizeable property, around 100 hectares in all, spread over the hills around Badens, between Trebes and Marseillette and just a few kilometres from the famous Cité of Carcassonne. It is owned by the Orosquette family (pictured above), who run the domaine with the help of a closely knit, young team, headed by the capable and very professional Jean-Francois Orosquette. The wines are consistently good and well made. And fairly priced. They have been successful in export markets, available now in 15 countries.

Wines tasted were mostly the 2010 vintage, the whites bottled just before Christmas and the red 2010 in January. Prices are per bottle, cellar door. I sell some of these wines in the UK so there is a commercial interest here.

Vin de Pays des Hauts de Badens, 2010
An easy drinking blend of Listan (aka Palomino, the grape that makes Sherry), Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chasan, a cross between Chardonnay and Listan.
Attractive green fruit nose, slight gooseberry, citrus flavours with fresh acidity. Good balance, medium length. Very good value. 3,90€

Expression Blanc, AOC Minervois, 2010
Their entry level Minervois white was particularly successful in 2010. Based on Maccabeo with some Vermentino and Marsanne, this has citrus, nutty aromas and a sprightly lemon, nutty palate. Quite elegant and understated. 6,20€

Privilège Blanc, AOC Minervois, 2008
This is their top white wine which they only make it the quality merits it. A blend of Maccabeo and Grenache which is fermented and aged in oak. I was told this was really too young but it seemed just right to me.
Nutty, oaky nose followed by smooth creamy palate. There is oak here but there is an elegance and delicacy to the palate which prevents it being over oaked. Very good, even at this price. 10€

Expression Rosé, AOC Minervois, 2010
Paler than in previous year, this is delicately pink and pretty. Bit closed (very cold) but some attractive red, herby fruits there and good mid palate richness. 6€

Tristan et Julien Rouge, 2010
50/50 Syrah Grenache, this is only just bottled and is brimming with youthful summer fruit flavours. Lots of lovely juicy fruit. This is delicious and easy to drink. Look forward to summer and enjoy slightly chilled with a picnic. 6€

Expression Rouge, AOC Minervois , 2008
50% Syrah with Grenache and Carignan, unoaked. This is drinking beautifully now. Mid-weight Minervois with soft, brambley, spicy fruit balanced by fine tannins. €6

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

natural wine

Fellow blogger Graham got me thinking about natural wine in his informative post last month. In wine terms, natural means no additives, including sulphur dioxide.

SO2 is a both a disinfectant (anti-microbial) and a preservative in that it prevents a wine from oxidation. It has been used in winemaking since Roman times - probably before - but thanks to labelling laws, consumers are now aware that wine does contain added 'sulfites'. While sulphur levels in wine are controlled and not harmful to health (except possibly severe asthmatics), there is a significant body of people who prefer their food and drink with as little additive as possible. Hence the demand for natural, no added sulphur wine.

Not just any old wine can be successfully made without sulphur. It needs to be made from healthy, rot-free grapes. Hygiene throughout the winemaking process is critical and the use of inert gas to protect the wine at all stages, including bottling is important. Sterile filtration before bottling to remove yeasts and bacteria minimises the chance of refermentation and microbial spoilage in bottle.

I tasted two 'no sulphur' wines at Millisime Bio last month. The first one from Domaine de Mayrac near Couiza and the second from Domaine Allegria, near Pezenas. Both smelt nice and had attractive fruit-forward flavours and were for early drinking. Both also had earthy/grubby flavours on the finish which detracted slightly from overall quality. But they were basically attractve, fruity wines. The people at Allegria only sell their sulphur free wine cellar door where they can explain that it should be consumed soon and not cellared. 'We would never export this wine, as we could not guarantee the stability'.

Apologies for the sideways photo. I rotated it in iPhoto but it has fallen over again in the blog. Cute label though!

Monday, 7 February 2011

Millisime Bio - organic wine

The first time I went to Millisime Bio was in 2005. I remember it clearly as I was there for only a couple of hours, not wanting to taste too much as I was pregnant. But that was fine because it was a small, cosy little salon, not quite fitting the expo hall in Narbonne. 175 tables of mainly french wines, with a few interlopers from Spain and Italy.

Fast forward to 2011, and Millisime Bio has blossomed into a lively, vibrant fair of around 500 exhibitors and now takes place in 2 of the halls in Montpellier exhibition centre. Despite its size, it still retains its friendly atmosphere and visitors are encouraged to discover wines from different countries. To this end, there is no order to the arrangement of stands with Italian wine producers next to a Burgundian who is next to the lady from Rioja etc. I can't help feeling that although the spirit of this arrangement is admirable, it must be irritating to the buyer who only wants to taste wines from the countries on his patch and has to trawl through the catalogue to find them. The lack of fancy, show-off stands is refreshing - each producer has exactly the same size of table, a white tablecloth and 2 chairs, allowing visitors to focus on the wines.

France has by far the most number of exhibitors but Chile, South Africa, Argentina and the US were also represented. The Languedoc-Roussillon had the largest representation of all regions, not surprising given that the fair originated in the Languedoc and has always been held here. Also, the region has the most organic producers (798 and 5% of the total vineyard area) and the rate of conversion to organic is impressive with a 52% rise in the acreage of vineyards certified as organic from 2008-2009.

So much for the stats - what about the wines? Well I was only there for a day and, in the spirit of the fair, tried to taste from different regions and from estates I didn't know. Highlights were some deliciously nutty, fresh whites based on Greco and Fiano from Colli Della Murgia in Puglia. And tasting at Jean-Marc Brocard where we shamelessly cherry-picked from the extensive range and tasted Village to wonderfully minerally Grand Cru Chablis.

Closer to home, notable were the latest releases from Pech-Redon in La Clape, an estate of which I am very fond. l'Epervier and Les Cades both have the most enticing, garriguey aromas. Domaine Virgil Joly offered an instructive vertical tasting of ten vintages of Virgile rouge. I also had the pleasure of retasting wines from two old friends in St Chinian, Catherine Wallace from Combebelle and Patricia Bettoni from Domaine Les Eminades.

I had never come across Domaine de Sainte Marie des Pins before, a small domaine near St Hilaire and Limoux, but was impressed with her creamy, nutty chardonnay. Allegria was another new discovery, a new venture and the result of a Franco-Argentinian collaboration. A competent range in a modern style. A table d'hote amongst the vines is planned from May and I plan to check it out.

I really enjoy this wine fair. Next year, I'll make sure to go for 2 days to do it justice.