Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What I did with my summer - Plus a brand new book about the wines of Languedoc and Roussillon

OK, so my stated intention earlier in the year to start posting a little more on here has – at least until now – gone badly awry. I am putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the fabulous summer we have (or do I mean had?) been enjoying. Not that I have necessarily been lazing around doing nothing, but when push comes to shove, working outside beats working inside. Hence, since we returned from our June holiday in Provence and Languedoc (about which more in due course) I have been busying myself with jobs I have been postponing for far too long, such as erecting the large wooden gates on my driveway (which had been “seasoning” against the kitchen wall for a full 2 years!).

My beautiful new gates - our own little piece of southern France!

I've also spent many hours making various other renovations to the outside of the house, clearing and organising what TLD calls my “man cave” in the garage and – most time-consuming of all – tending the vegetables and fruits in my greenhouse and raised beds.

The Goode Life - Tom and Barbara would be proud!
The upshot is that we now have much more security and privacy (not to mention our own little piece of the south of France) courtesy of our beautiful new azure blue gates. Not to mention complete self-sufficiency in tomatoes, chillies, capsicums, cucumbers, beans, courgettes, shallots, onions, carrots, beetroots, lettuces and even some very successful frisée lettuces (yes I know, they are really endives). And in a few weeks, we should have corns on the cob galore!

The downside to all of this is, not surprisingly, is that most things wine-related (apart from drinking it, of course) have been put on the back burner. I have page after page of notes from numerous grower visits from my June holiday, which I haven't even begun to transcribe yet. I also have the bare bones of a new website, which I haven't touched for several months. And most importantly - and some would say most unforgivably - I have devoted very little time to the actual business of selling wine. That said, summer always tends to be the quietest period of all - and with the best will in the world, and effectively being a "one-man band", the 24/7 (365) wine business grind can sometimes be a bit wearing. At which point the multiple roles of head chef, housekeeper, gardener, handyman and all-round domestic super-hero make for a refreshing change. Furthermore, the great summer of sport - The World Cup, Le Tour, Wimbledon, golf (both watching and playing), motorcycling (ditto) and all manner of other things - has done little for my focus. But with summer seemingly morphing all too quickly into autumn, I guess it is time to regain that focus.......... 

But I digress. The main thrust of this post is to tell you all about a new (and very welcome) book about the wines and vineyards of our beloved Languedoc and Roussillon. Until very recently, I wasn't familiar with the name of Wendy Gedney, although I had heard she had recently published a book about the region. During the second week of our June holiday, I called winemaker Brigitte Chevalier, to arrange a brief visit to taste the latest vintages of her fabulous Domaine de Cébène wines. She told me that she would be at her cellar in the hills of Faugères the following afternoon - and although she would be conducting a tasting for a group of visitors, TLD and I would be welcome to join in. And as chance would have it, this group was led by none other than Wendy Gedney, on one of the many wine tours that she organises, via her company Vin en Vacances. Naturally, Wendy and I got chatting about our respective lives in the wine trade and she kindly gave me a copy of her book, The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. And I have to say, it is a delightful and very informative read.

The aim of this book is not to lead you to individual wines or wine growers - indeed, it only mentions the odd grower, in passing here and there, throughout the entire book. Rather, it offers an all-encompassing guide for the wine lover, with chapters covering the history of the region, the many and varied landscapes and terroirs, the grapes, the wine laws, the wine styles and viticulture. We are taken on a vinous journey from the Gard, in the far east of Languedoc, all the way to Banyuls and Collioure at the southern end of Roussillon, detailing the grapes, wines and terroir of every appellation and sub-appellation in-between.

Along the way, we learn about towns and villages of note, the stunning scenery, some of the region's notable food and drink specialities and lots more. The book is beautifully illustrated - not to mention greatly enhanced - by myriad specially commissioned colour maps, pencil drawings and watercolours by illustrator Jenny Baker.

Most importantly of all, it is a book which will appeal equally to seasoned wine enthusiasts and Languedoc-Roussillon aficionados, as well as those who are new to the region. Furthermore, since it's main purpose is to provide the reader with an all-round guide to the region and it's wines and vineyards - rather than keep up with the relentless pace of change and evolution amongst the wine-making fraternity - it is sure to remain relevant and topical for many years to come. And for that, it deserves a place on the bookshelf or coffee table of any self-respecting lover of Languedoc-Roussillon.

Whilst on the subject of books about the region's wines, many years have passed - and so much exciting progress has been made - since any sort of in-depth publication about the growers and wines has been published. Thankfully, the wait may almost be over, as my good friend Peter Gorley informs me that he is progressing quickly towards publication (initially, at least, in e-book form) of the second edition of Gorley's Guide to the Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon. 2014 is certainly shaping-up to be an excellent vintage for wine books!

"The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon" by Wendy Gedney is now available via the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines online shop, priced at £19.95.

You can find out more about Wendy's wine tours, plus lots of tips on where to stay, via the Vin en Vacances website.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A new star in the Languedoc - Domaine Saint Sylvestre

I'm not quite sure how it was that I came to hear about Domaine Saint Sylvestre, although I have a feeling it may have been via their Facebook page. In any event, my interest was suitably piqued by the information I found and the images of their vineyards, scattered amongst the wild, oak-covered hills of the Terrasses du Larzac, near the village of Puéchabon, just a few kilometres north-east of Aniane - historically one of the real hotbeds of Languedoc fine winemaking, with such esteemed growers as Mas de Daumas Gassac, Domaine de La Grange des Pères and Domaine de Montcalmès all situated close by.

Vincent Guizard became involved in viticulture from an early age, working in the vines with his grandfather and, in the late 1990's, he worked with Olivier Jullien at Mas Jullien. From 2003 to 2010, he was part owner, in association with Frédéric Pourtalié, of Domaine de Montcalmès.

At the end of 2010, Vincent decided to break away from Montcalmès, taking his 7 hectares of vines and creating Domaine Saint Sylvestre, together with his wife Sophie, who also has several years' experience in winemaking, as well as having previously spent some time in London, working for a wine marketing company.

Having corresponded with Sophie via Facebook, she invited me to visit the estate whilst on holiday in the region last June. And so it was that we arrived in Puéchabon, for our 10 o'clock rendezvous with Sophie, on a somewhat atypical gloomy, overcast early summer morning. Before tasting the wines, Sophie drove us up into the hills, along a series of tracks almost as rugged as the landscape itself, for a tour of the vineyards.

The estate currently comprises around 8 hectares, set in clearings among the holm oak forests above Puéchabon, and surrounding the isolated 12th century church of Saint Sylvestre des Brousses de Montcalmès. The vines are planted in four separate plots, all of which are between 300 and 350 metres above sea level; 
  • "Fon de La Coste" is mainly Syrah, planted in 1989 on clay/limestone soil, with a north-west-facing aspect. 
  • "Saint Sylvestre" was planted in 1993, with Syrah and Grenache, on south-east-facing slopes, with a "topsoil" of galets roulés (similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape). 
  • "Défriche de Rouges" (défriche meaning cleared forest) is the largest plot, with a similar aspect and terroir, and was planted by Vincent between 2000 and 2003, comprising Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. It is worth noting that the wines resulting from each of these three plots are markedly different, providing a compelling argument for the concept(s) of microclimate and terroir - not to mention complexity in the final blend. More on this later. 
  • And finally, "Défriche de Blancs", comprising Chardonnay, Roussanne and Marsanne, was planted in 2007, with an east-facing aspect, on limestone soil. 

Even on such a gloomy day (weather-wise) the setting is beautiful and tranquil, leaving you with a feeling of being miles from anywhere - which is pretty much the case, actually (take a look at the satellite view on Google Maps and you will see what I mean). In many ways, it reminds me of Domaine de Trévallon - and not many vineyard sites can match such a landscape.

After our tour of the vines, we headed back to Puéchabon, where Vincent and Sophie have built a small but functional new winery, on the very edge of the village. Although not officially organic or biodynamic, Vincent and Sophie prefer a sympathetic approach to viticulture, along the lines of "Lutte Raisonnée" (the reasoned struggle) and no synthetic fertilisers or herbicides are used in the vineyards - apparently, the biggest danger to the vines are the voracious wild boar that roam the vineyards, feasting on the ripening grapes! All of the work in the vineyards is done by hand, and they keep the yields very low (around 20 hl/ha) by way of de-budding and green harvesting. Fermentation is completely reliant on naturally occurring wild yeasts. For the red wines, each grape variety, from each plot, is vinified separately, with long cuvaisons of between 30 and 40 days, then aged separately for 2 years in used barrels (i.e. which have seen one or more previous vintages) before being blended 3 months prior to bottling. For the whites, each grape variety is pressed separately, with the resulting juice being blended and then fermented and aged in used barrels for one year. Bottling is carried out according to the phases of the moon.

We were joined by Vincent for a tasting of 2011 wines in bottle, plus various components of the 2012's from barrel, beginning with the whites;

Le Coup de Calcaire 2012 (from barrel)
90% Chardonnay, 5% Roussanne, 5% Marsanne. Very cool-climate and Burgundian in style. Floral, full of fruit, yet delicate and minerally, with a fresh, almost prickly palate. A really fabulous expression of Chardonnay. If only I could get my hands on some!

Le Blanc 2012 (from barrel)
45% Roussanne, 45% Marsanne and 10% Viognier. A cool, minty, herbal nose, rich but not dense, lemon and orange. Not oaky. Gently prickly, without being zesty. Elegant.

Le Blanc 2011 (from bottle)
Same blend. The yield for this wine was a miniscule 13 hl/ha (18 hl/ha for the 2012 above). A little less expressive than the 2012, but still very complex, with hints of flowers and orange peel. Quite rich, unctuous and lovely, and I imagine quite age-worthy.

Then a series of 2012 reds from barrel, being the various constituents which would eventually go into Le Rouge 2012;

Grenache 2012 from the Saint Sylvestre plot - Gently woody and spicy, smooth and elegant, with red fruits, rather than black.

Grenache 2012 from Défriche de Rouges - Stronger and more robust, slightly tarry and more overtly spicy and with richer/darker fruit.

Syrah 2012 from Saint Sylvestre - Dark and dense, with an elegant nose of preserved red fruits and subtle hints of leather and meat. The palate is at the same time taut, yet elegant and lovely, with soft tannins, tangy acidity and gently spicy and herby.

Syrah 2012 from Défriche de Rouges - Robust and dense, with hints of curry spices, but with a delightful streak of freshness.

Syrah 2012 from La Fon de La Coste - There's a lot going on here. New leather, spice, bramble and garrigue herbs. Big and expressive, but with underlying elegance.

Mourvedre 2012 from Défriche de Rouges - This is so ripe! Brambles and prunes on the nose, with a hint of orange peel. The palate is contrary - fresh, almost zesty, with velvety tannins, spice and cracking acidity. Very long and lovely.

Les Vignes de La Garrigue 2012 (100% Carignan) (from barrel) 
I must admit that I failed to enquire about the origins of this wine, but seeing as Carignan is not listed as being in any of the other four plots, it must be from an entirely separate plot. I have no idea of the age of the vines, though I suspect that they may be old and very low-yielding, for I believe only 300 bottles are produced annually. The colour is dense and, whilst the nose is a touch muted, the palate is gloriously expressive and elegant, with ripe red and black fruits, a hint of citrus and fantastic acidity. I love it!

Le Rouge 2011 (from bottle)
70% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre. A complex nose of ripe red/black fruits, leather and soft curry spices, with distinct notes of flowers and violets. Rich and expansive, with spicy undertones and herbs of the garrigue. A wine of real structure - lovely already, but with great potential for the future.

Les Vignes de La Garrigue 2011 (from bottle)
100% Carignan, neither fined nor filtered. Lots of leather, mixed fruit and citrus aromas and flavours, with a typical rasp of  Carignan rusticity - which is just how I like it(!)

And that was it - a fabulous and very enlightening tour and tasting, in the company of delightful people. The only disappointment (and a big one at that) was that Sophie and Vincent had not a single bottle of wine that they could sell me. With (by my calculation) only around 20,000 bottles produced each year, their wines are in such demand that they are available only on allocation, to their loyal band of customers and cavistes. Considering that the first vintage Vincent and Sophie made together was 2011, it is remarkable that they have gained such a cult following in such a short space of time. But, as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait - and we eventually managed to secure a small (very small) allocation of the 2012 red, and an even smaller allocation of the white. Unfortunately, we still can't get our hands on Les Coups de Calcaire or Les Vignes de La Garrigue. But now that we finally have our proverbial foot in the door, hopefully we can manage to secure more wines (perhaps even the whole range) in the forthcoming years. Meanwhile, these two beauties will have to do.......

70% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, aged 2 years in barrel. A deep, semi-opaque colour, with a powerful nose - a complex and heady array of black fruits, fresh bread and exotic spice aromas, with notes of leather and woodsmoke lurking in the background. Even after a full 2 years in barrel, there is just the merest hint of (older) oak, which only serves to heighten the fruit aromas, whilst further nuances of preserved fruits and fine eau de vie emerging with air. The palate is deeply concentrated and crammed full of flavour, in a spiced, baked fruit kind of way - rich, warming and almost a meal in itself. It is certainly good now, but is really only just starting out on a long journey of evolution - I'd say 10-plus years to maturity - with just the right levels of juicy acidity and rich tannins. Young, but with a great future ahead of it. (£18.50) 

45% Marsanne, 45% Roussanne, 10% Viognier, fermented and aged in barrel for 1 year. A gorgeous, limpid, translucent pale gold colour. The nose is wonderfully complex, heavy with the scents of herbs, spices and stony minerality, at the same time exhibiting myriad aromas of apple and peach, mint, honeysuckle and fennel, with subtle notes of spring blossom and lime oil peeping through. The palate has a rich, creamy, almost oily texture, which is perfectly offset by juicy peach and apple flavours, a rasp of cut lime, garrigue herb and spice, whilst the heightened, limey acidity and intense core of minerality makes for an explosively refreshing, yet considerably complex wine. The flavours last an age on the finish, revealing extra layers of complexity and sensation as they do so. It is a shame we could only secure a handful of cases - and even then, we had to beg and plead - for this is without doubt one of the finest Languedoc whites we have ever tasted. A quite faultless and very special wine. Rated 18/20 in Le Guide Bettane et Desseauve des Vins de France. (£18.50)

Friday, 25 April 2014

A visit to Domaine Guillot-Broux - and finally, the wines are here!

The wines of Domaine Guillot-Broux are not entirely new to the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines list, since we featured a couple of cuvées a few years back, at the time they were (rather inexplicably) dropped by their UK agent, who bin-ended the remainder of their supplies. In fact, our introduction to these lovely wines came even earlier, courtesy of our friend David Bennett, who has a second home in southern Burgundy and has been a regular visitor to the Guillot-Broux estate, situated less than half an hour's drive away in the village of Cruzille-en-Mâconnais.

We first visited more than 2 years ago (although TLD had a migraine, so she slept in the car!). Our latest visit was in June 2013, when we were treated to an extensive tasting of wines from both bottle and barrel. As if I needed confirmation, after all of my previous positive experiences of the wines, the quality across the board was of a level which compared very favourably with so many other more esteemed (and considerably more expensive) growers in the Côte d'Or. I have written several times before about various Guillot-Broux wines, notably a few of the 2011's and 2010's, not to mention several bottles of a wonderful 1996 Gamay (see - it really is age-worthy stuff)! Below I have reproduced the tasting notes from my website on the new wines that have finally found their way onto our list. But first of all, here's a little history on the estate and some technical details................

The Guillot family have been making wines in Cruzille since 1954, when the current owners' grandparents, Pierre and Jeannine Guillot, started the first organic vineyard in Burgundy. Their son, Jean-Gérard, spent some years working on the family vineyard, before working for several years with Domaine de la Chanal in Brouilly and Bernard Michelot in Meursault. In 1978, Jean-Gérard returned to Cruzille, where he established Domaine Guillot-Broux with his wife Jacqueline, starting out with little more than a hectare of vines. By 1991 the estate had expanded to include further vineyards, and had also been granted official organic certification. During this time, Jean-Gérard's sons Ludovic and Patrice began working for the estate. Another son, Emmanuel (whose previous experience included 2 years as head sommelier at the St. James's Club in London) returned to the estate in 2000 and, following the death of Jean-Gérard in 2008, Emmanuel took over the reins as head winemaker. The estate now comprises around 15 hectares, with a number of small vineyards in the Mâconnais villages of Cruzille, Grevilly, Pierreclos and Chardonnay (which some say is the origin of the Chardonnay grape variety).

Tasting from barrel with Emmauel Guillot
The terrain of the Mâconnais region (and hence - to an extent - the terroir) differs somewhat from that of the Côte d'Or, with gently rolling countryside interspersed with numerous small hills and forests, rocky outcrops and valleys. Much of the region is given over to arable and livestock farming, yet is also widely interspersed with numerous vineyards. Mâcon and Mâcon-Villages are the basic appellations, whilst various villages which tend to make wines higher up the quality scale are permitted to append their name - hence Mâcon-Cruzille, Mâcon-Chardonnay, Mâcon-Pierreclos, etc. Despite this (all too typically) complicated hierarchy, the aforementioned appellations strangely apply only to Chardonnay and Gamay. Therefore, despite the fact that there are now some pretty impressive Pinot Noirs being made in the region, they can still only be labelled as humble Bougogne Rouge - even though, from the right terroir and in the hands of quality vignerons, they can be a match for their more esteemed Côte d'Or cousins.

Most of the vineyards of the Guillot-Broux estate are situated on east-facing slopes on clay-limestone soil, except for the 60-90 year-old Gamay vines in Pierreclos, which are planted on granite soil with a south-facing aspect. The nature of the soil in Cruzille particularly brings out mineral flavours, and produces wines which need a relatively long time to mature. Grevilly (in 2005, Mâcon Grévilly become Mâcon Cruzille) and Chardonnay produce fruitier wines that can be appreciated when young or can be kept for several years to develop greater complexity. The different characteristics of these varied terroirs and the wines they produce are reinforced by the Guillot's methods of cultivation - they only use natural methods of fighting parasites and disease, using a combination of ploughing, organic fertilisers (to feed the soil and not the vines), and organically-acceptable mineral sprays (copper and sulphites). They believe that respecting the soil in this way allows the vines to absorb all the elements they need to be healthy and balanced, thus producing healthy, balanced wines. In other words, to maintain the right balance rather than treat the consequences. Indeed, as well as being the oldest organic grower in Burgundy, the estate is essentially farmed (though not certified) according to biodynamic principles. 

Although the vines are, generally speaking, planted at a density of 8,000 to 9,000 per hectare, yields are still low, at between 30 and 55 hectolitres a hectare, with the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. This dense planting regime increases competition between the vines, making for naturally low yields and increased concentration of flavours and balance in the wines. All of the grapes are hand-picked, and then sorted in the vines before going to the winery. 

The grapes from the various plots and grape varieties are vinified differently, depending on the type of terroir, the vintage and the age of the vines. Fermentation is completed without the addition of cultured yeasts, whilst the use of SO2 and chaptalisation are kept to a strict minimum. The Chardonnay grapes are pressed immediately and the juice is put straight into 225 litre oak barrels, where both the first (alcoholic) and second (malolactic) fermentations take place. After malolactic fermentation, the wines are racked and either put back into barrels (single vineyard wines) or into vats (Mâcon Villages). The top cuvées then spend a second winter in barrels before being bottled, without fining or filtration. The Gamay grapes are put into small vats (50hl) without being de-stemmed. They are macerated and fermented on the skins, before being pressed 6 to 30 days later, depending on the vintage. During this time, the grapes are trod by foot or by using a long plunger once or twice a day. The Pinot Noir grapes are de-stemmed before undergoing maceration and alcoholic fermentation for a minimum of 15 days. After being pressed, the wines are matured for between 11 and 18 months in barrel, and then bottled without fining. The wines are only gently filtered, if necessary, or in many cases not at all. 

This parcel of land had been one of the best in the Mâconnais at the beginning of the 19th century, but was left out of the reclassification for vine-growing land in 1935. Uncultivated since the phylloxera epidemic, it was re-planted in 1983. 

A bright mid-gold/straw colour, leading to a pale rim. Wonderfully lime-scented, with an array of freshly-cut hay, basil and oregano notes, not to mention a strong perception of wet stone minerality. And that stony theme continues through onto the palate – a veritable double-whammy of bracing, citrus-tinged acidity and a dry, almost chalky mineral edge, which really does make your tabs laugh and your eyes water, in a most enjoyable way. There are plenty of tart Bramley apple and soft citrus fruit flavours, with perhaps the merest hint of something richer, like slightly under-ripe peach or apricot. All of which amounts to a pretty good knife-edge balancing act – with less fruit, the tartness might make the teeth jangle, but any more and it wouldn’t excite the taste buds so much. My goodness, this is lovely wine - and long, too! (£17.95) 

Despite the fact that the vineyards of Les Combettes and Les Genièvrières are contiguous, the two wines produced are dramatically different. Les Combettes is close in spirit to a wine from the Côte d'Or - woody, rich and full-bodied. 

A bright gold/straw colour, leading to a pale rim. Delightfully expressive, high-toned and almost prickly on the nose, with gloriously intense lime oil and fresh apple aromas, buttered toast and hints of peach and apricot. So wonderfully intense and flavoursome on the palate too, with bucket-loads of fruit and minerality, utterly mouth-watering acidity and a gentle herbiness. This really is the business - Côte d'Or quality at a much more sensible Mâcon price. A real stunner of a wine, to drink now, or to age for a few years. (£18.50) 

The terroir of the Perrières vineyard consists of Oolitic limestone, in layers of limestone slabs and a thin soil cover (20 - 40 cm). It is porous, making for good drainage, but at the same time very fragile and difficult to work, and was abandoned after the phylloxera epidemic for these very reasons. Comprising just 1.1 hectares, it was re-planted in 1978, with a density of 9,000 vines per hectare. Yields are between 35 and 35 hl/ha. 

The wine is aged for 18 months in second or third generation oak barrels without either fining or filtering. The nose is simply gorgeous - all prickly and zingy, scented with the oil of freshly-cut limes, hay, nettles and massive minerality. Not that it lacks in the way of fruit, though - spiced apple, dried orange and soused sultana aromas abound, in a wine of tremendous complexity and verve. All of which carries through onto the palate - and then some! You can spend an eternity picking out myriad flavours and nuances, whilst simply enjoying such a delicious, structured and compelling wine. It grips and caresses at the same time, with tremendous depth and concentration of complex, herb-tinged fruit and stony minerality, wrapped around a backbone of positively eye-watering acidity. Long, complex and utterly lovely, this is undoubtedly a wine to match many a Côtes de Nuits 1er Cru. (£19.99) 

From Gamay vines of between 60 and 90 years of age, grown on granitic soil in the village of Pierreclos. The translucent ruby colour and tremendously fragrant nose scores very highly on the come-hither scale. Cherry and redcurrant aromas abound, with subtle hints of spiced rhubarb, violets, new leather and damp earth, and perhaps a suggestion of fresh root ginger. The palate is delightfully fresh and invigorating, with a mouth-watering core of citrussy acidity and just the right amount of tannic grip to accompany the vibrant, tangy, spicy red fruit. Whilst superficially light and airy, it doesn't take too much scratching beneath the surface to reveal extra layers of complexity and flavour, which raise it to another level. It may be Gamay, but it is quite different to Beaujolais. Rather, it has a grace and elegance one might normally encounter in a light, vibrant young Pinot. A wonderful expression of the Gamay grape. (£15.95) 

The estate's top red, from an old, low-yielding vineyard on a mix of marl and limestone, comprising just 0.65 of a hectare, which was re-planted in 1956, with cuttings from Pinot Noir vines from the Cote de Beaune. With a planting density of 8,000 vines per hectare, the average yield is just 30 hl/ha - or just over half a bottle per vine! 

A beautiful, bright, translucent cherry/carmine red colour, with a complex, perfumed nose, combining red summer fruits, white pepper and spice, with subtle woody and earthy notes. A good swirl and a few minutes' air reveals yet more complexity, with hints of redcurrant, old leather and woodsmoke. If it sounds elegant, that's because it is - and the palate certainly lives up to the promise of the nose, caressing the tongue with waves of tangy cherry and redcurrant fruit nuances, not to mention something almost floral, like violets and fruit blossom, with a hint of fine white pepper for good measure. It simply exudes elegance, in an almost feminine way, embracing rather than squeezing, as do the tannins, which are fine and gently grippy, whilst the most gloriously juicy acidity carries the flavours all the way through to a long, lingering finish. At the risk of labouring the point, this really is *proper* red Burgundy. Is it worth 24 quid? Definitely. (£23.95)

Having harboured a desire to import from Guillot-Broux for several years (with so many growers in Languedoc and Roussillon to juggle, there never quite seemed to be an ideal opportunity) I could resist no longer. For these wines are simply too good not to be available in the UK, providing as they do (in comparison with more exalted estates to the north, in the Côte d'Or) a genuine source of 1er Cru-standard wines at Village wine prices. Oh, and the Gamays are pretty darned good, too!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Terre Inconnue - finally, they are here!

Robert Creus (pronounced "Cruise"), works for the French Chamber of Commerce. He is actually an experienced scientist, having been heavily involved in the Ariane space rocket programme. Whilst continuing in his main career, he also began making some wine in 1997, having bought some old Carignan vines. He has since added Grenache, Syrah, Serine (a northern Rhone variant of Syrah) and a little Tempranillo, all in excess of 30 years old, in several small plots near the villages of Saint-Christol, Saint-Geniès-des-Mourgues and Restinclières. One plot of Carignan is in excess of 70 years old (see the picture below). The total area under vine is just 4 hectares - and with yields of between 10 and 25 hl/ha (depending on the vineyard), it doesn't take a mathematician to work out that there isn't much wine to go around. 

The work in the vineyards throughout the growing season is minimal, aside from a certain amount of green harvesting (resulting in just 4 or 5 bunches per vine) and no treatment (organic or otherwise) are used. Robert employs a dozen or so amateurs for the grape picking, at a rate of around 1.6 tonnes per day. He says that the harvest is "sober until noon, but after that I can guarantee nothing"(!) Around 80% of the grapes are de-stemmed, and maceration/fermentation lasts for between 3 and 5 weeks. The use of sulfites is minimal, with just 5 mg per litre added before fermentation, and none thereafter. The free-run wine is then mixed with the pressed wine and placed into old oak barrels and aged for 2 years. The finished wines are then transferred to tanks for at least 2 weeks to settle, protected by nitogen, after which they are bottled without fining or filtration. Although Robert's farming and winemaking principles are essentially biodynamic, his day job dictates that he bottles when he has the time, irrespective of the prevailing atmospheric pressure or phase of the moon. 

TLD and I actually first visited Terre Inconnue in the summer of 2010. Having heard so much about the wines (and having recently tasted a 1999 Carignan, which was pretty amazing) I was very keen to taste the whole range. Unfortunately, Robert was working on the day we visited, so his father Lucien received us at his house in Saint Seriès. Although Robert makes the wines, Lucien himself has more than a little involvement in Terre Inconnue. Indeed, he no longer has room in his garage for his car, since it clearly comprises part of the Terre Inconnue wine store! Lucien is a charming old man, with a real passion for the wine, not to mention a real zest for life and a wicked sense of humour. 

Lucien Creus shows me around the vineyards in the summer of 2010
Ever since that visit in 2010, we had been trying (but for a variety of reasons failing) to secure some of these wines for our list.Fast-forward to the summer of 2013 and we were invited to a tasting of a variety of wines, including several Terre Inconnue wines, at the house of Mark Ratcliffe, a friend and associate of Robert Creus who has a house in a nearby village. 

A rather pleasant way to spend a June afternoon in the Languedoc. Incidentally, the gentleman on the right is Olivier Crouzet, who makes brilliant wines at Domaine de Foltodon. The man on the left also makes some rather delicious wines, too. I don't recall his name - only that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Paul Newman!. 

Once again, Robert's work schedule meant that he could not be at the tasting - but a flurry of correspondence with him at the beginning of 2014 eventually led to him offering us a few cases of several different cuvées! And now we have our proverbial foot in the door, we hope to be able to secure more Terre Inconnue wines in the future. 

Since Terre Inconnue is essentially a "garagiste" operation, all of the wines are labelled as Vin de Table - mainly because Robert and Lucien cannot be bothered with the bureaucracy involved in applying for appellation controllée (or even vin de pays) status for their wines. Vin de Table is (at least, in theory) the “lowest” denomination possible for wine produced in France. Indeed, until recently, it was not permitted to even show a vintage on the label, although Robert got around that problem by including a code (for example, L:2005) in small print in the bottom right-hand corner of the labels. This no longer poses a problem, as the vintage can now legally be added to the label. Not that such a humble denomination is any indication of the quality of the wines, for although they are not cheap, these are some of the most expressive, concentrated and finely-crafted wines you will find anywhere in Languedoc. Can we sell them? Who knows - but we'll have a damn good try. And if all else fails.... TLD and I will be more than happy to drink them ourselves!

Here are my notes for the wines we have just imported, all of which are now available to buy on our website...

The wine without a name(!) 100% old-vine Grenache, described by Robert as a "cuvée oxidative". And on first opening, there is perhaps a slightly oxidative quality to it, but it opens-up in double quick time to reveal an impressive array of aromas and nuances - a mix of crystallised and baked red and black fruits, freshly-baked bread, polished leather, meat, sun-dried tomato, incense, curry spices and damp earth. Indeed, over the course of a couple of hours, it grows yet more complex, as does the palate, which is crammed full of fruit, spices and herbs, rich and warming, with fine, soft tannins and plenty of acidity, making for a powerful but supremely balanced wine. A perfectly mature wine, and a brilliant introduction to the Terre Inconnue style - and because we were able to get some for not much money, so can you! £11.99 

Guilhem 2011 Vin de Table de France
Carignan, Grenache, Tempranillo and Merlot. Despite the seemingly eclectic blend, the nose is classic Carignan - intense aromas of soused bramble and raspberry, fresh bread and aromatic herbs, with evocative sous-bois notes, like a funghi-filled autumn forest. The advertised 15% abv is in this case just a number, for it feels more like 13% - the palate is tremendously fresh and vibrant, with a combination of ripe red and black fruits, fine tannins and mouth-watering acidity making for a wine of real balance and not a little elegance. It's lightness of touch really is a very pleasant surprise, and whilst the finish is underpinned by a gentle warmth and spiciness, it remains fresh and juicy to the very end. A fine, complex and delicious wine, and yet another which demonstrates what old-vine Carignan is capable of, in the hands of a skilled vigneron. £17.95

100% Carignan from 100 year-old vines. A wonderfully expressive and fresh nose, crammed full of red and black summer fruit, spice, mint and blackcurrant leaf aromas. And with the benefit of several years of evolution, it has developed complex secondary notes of polished leather/wood, smoking incense, damp earth and all manner of other things. And if you are (like me) a bit of a Musar freak, then you will love this, for it has that unmistakeable whiff of volatile acidity, which gives tremendous lift and definition to the fruit. It really is very evocative and alluring! The palate is a charismatic and quirky mix of fresh bramble and currants (of both the black and red varieties) and deep, rich fruitcake and preserved fig flavours, wrapped around a core of intensely juicy acidity. And with a firm but ripe tannic structure, it is a wine that is good to drink now, but also has the stuffing to age and evolve for at least another 10 years..... if, that is, you can resist drinking such a delicious and mouth-watering wine! A Languedoc classic. £22.50 

100% old-vine Grenache. This wine is a complete enigma, and one that (were I to taste it blind) would have me all over the place. With notes of preserved/crystallised redcurrants and raspberries, polished old wood, garrigue herbs and leather, it does have some of the traits that you would expect from Grenache. Conversely, it has a lightness and freshness - both in terms of appearance and aromatically - that would put me somewhere much further north, perhaps even in Burgundy, with lifted notes of tea, violets and roses making for something really quite elegant and delicate. Which I suppose is not too fanciful, since I have occasionally heard Grenache (especially from very old vines) described as the "Pinot Noir of the Languedoc". And this wine illustrates the point almost to an extreme, for the palate is even more Pinot-like than any Grenache I have ever tasted, with redcurrant and red cherry flavours to the fore, a hint of strawberry sweetness lurking at the end. A core of fine but firm tannin and the most amazing rasp of cherry/citrus acidity carries the fruit all the way to a long, bitter-sweet and totally mouth-watering finish. As for the advertised 15% abv on the label..... well, I am flabbergasted, for it feels for all the world more like 13% or less. This wine might not be typically Languedoc - in fact, it is almost as far removed from the template as it is possible to get. Indeed, the style is not even typical for this estate. But if you have an open mind - and perhaps even a love of fine Burgundy - then you will love this! £29.50 

A 50/50 blend of Sérine and Syrah. Sérine is (depending on where you look or who you read) either a particular clone of Syrah or - more likely - the original Syrah, from which other clones were developed. Either way, it seems that many of the Northern Rhône's greatest red wines are based on the Sérine variety and, having become almost extinct in the second half of the 20th century, it's cuttings are now highly-prized by the best growers. And whilst it may still be a relatively rarity in the Rhône, it is even more so in Languedoc, especially old vines like those of Terre Inconnue. Yields for this wine are miniscule, at an average of just 10 hl/ha, and it shows. The colour is deep and concentrated - as is the nose, which at the same time exudes freshness, with notes of violets and cherries, bramble and leather, infused with garrigue herbs and exotic spices, a fleeting hint of coffee grounds and a refreshing streak of volatile acidity. The palate grabs you from the off, with fine, grippy tannins and bright, fresh, mouth-watering acidity, combining seamlessly with dense, ripe red and black fruit flavours. With time in the glass, it develops notes of fresh bread, mint and oregano on the nose, with more in the way of red fruit flavours such as cranberry and redcurrant. It is still relatively young, but supremely balanced and already deliciously drinkable, with a persistent finish. You can drink it now, or age it for another 10-plus years. Either way, it is a fine, complex and compelling wine. £33.95

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Another trio of wines from the Loire Valley

I will offer no apologies for the complete lack of posts on this blog over the last couple of months. Frankly, I have been far too busy with other things (both wine and non-wine related) to even think about spending what can amount to a good deal of my time, writing for "pleasure"(!) I guess I have also become more used to posting what some may call "micro-blogs" on Facebook. I have to say I like the immediacy and intimacy of Facebook and the way that friends and followers (I cross-post wine-related posts from my personal page to my business page) can interact to their hearts' content, to the point where genuine conversations or debates can develop in a very short space of time - which is much more difficult on platforms such as Blogger. And whilst I used to get frustrated when I posted links to my blog posts on Facebook, only for people to reply on Facebook (rather than on the blog itself), I now just accept that as a fact of 21st Century life. If people want to say something, they will say it using the easiest way possible. I still think blogging is a useful way of communicating, and certainly intend to carry on posting, whenever time or work allows (or dictates). And if anyone can suggest a useful way of linking Facebook to Blogger - rather than the other way around - I would be mightily interested in hearing it!

Anyway, enough about that - let's get back into it gently, courtesy of an interesting trio of Loire whites.  I was recently asked by French wine marketing organisation Sopexa if I would like to receive some more sample bottles to taste. And although they are already well aware of the fact that I have no commercial interest in Loire wines (as a merchant, that is), I guess the fact that I have - historically, at least - a decent following for my blog is all-important. So if they want to keep sending me wines to taste/review, who am I to argue? And if the wines are good, I'm happy to say so - and equally likely to say if they are not.

Paul Bouisse La Grille Sauvignon Blanc 2012 IGP Touraine
This is intensely grassy and uber-fresh, with pronounced elderflower, gooseberry and blackcurrant leaf/fruit aromas. There is just the merest hint of something tropical on the palate, but it is really all about apples, peaches and cut limes, with a combination of zesty acidity and stony minerality. Quite modern, but in a very good (and very French) way. It is a really clean, fresh, mouthwatering wine, with a long-ish, gently spicy and cool, peppermint-y finish. Apparently, the recommended retail price at Majestic is £7.99. I guess if you wait a while, you just might get the usual (or do I mean predictable) 2 at £5.99(ish) each - but don't quote me on that. Either way, a decent wine and good value for money.

Eric Chevalier La Noë 2012 Muscadet Côtes de Grand Lieu Sur Lie 
Muscadet trying to be Burgundy? Actually, it is doing a fairly decent impression, in a ripe, opulent sort of way. Lots of creamy, orangy, honeyed sur-lie aromas and flavours (and do I detect a hint of barrel fermentation?) with notes of spiced apple pie and overripe peach, and perhaps a slight perception of salty minerality. Opulent, rich and full-bodied, it almost hits the spot, but for the lack of some genuinely bracing acidity. Almost serious...... but on balance - or rather, the lack thereof - falling just a little bit short. It is a fairly decent wine for the money (£11.95 Lea & Sandeman) though ultimately too big for its own good.

Monmousseau Brut Etoile Methode Traditionelle NV
Made from somewhere between 50% and 70% Chenin Blanc (depending on where you look), plus Ugni Blanc and possibly other varieties, this really is very rich and limey, with what seems like a touch of residual sugar, yet with an intense cooking apple and spice note. It all makes for a rather bitter-sweet palate, which is interesting to begin with, but soon begins to tire - rather than refresh - the palate. It lacks the subtlety of (say) Champagne, Crémant de Bourgogne or Blanquette de Limoux. Would I buy it? No, because to be honest, at this price (£10.49 from Averys) too many other regions and countries produce better, more refined sparklers.

Looking ahead, tomorrow sees the annual "Best Bottle" tasting at the Nottingham Wine Circle. Given that this event usually throws up a few real gems, I will actually find it hard to resist posting my notes on some of them. Possibly...................... ;-)

Friday, 18 October 2013

A visit to Mas Foulaquier

Mas Foulaquier is a Pic Saint-Loup grower that had - until a few years ago - flown completely under my radar. Winemaker Pierre Jéquier, a native of Switzerland and formerly an architect, created Mas Foulaquier in 1998, following an exhaustive search for his dream wine estate. Situated in the most northerly corner of one of Languedoc's most northerly appellations, the eight hectares of existing vines were at the time just 8 years old, but happened to be planted on some great terroir. Now approaching 25 years of age, those maturing vines are the source of a quite brilliant set of wines. Pierre's wife and fellow winemaker Blandine Chauchet joined the team in 2003, bringing with her the ownership of a further 3 hectares of 50 year-old Grenache and Carignan vines in the "Tonillieres" vineyard in Claret. Other parcels have since been added (including a 2 hectare vineyard planted to Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Rolle) bringing the total area under vine to around 15 hectares - 10 ha or so surrounding the winery and the rest dotted around the village. Pierre and Blandine also employ the services of two of the finest consultants in their respective fields of expertise - biodynamics guru Jacques Mell on the viticultural side and Christian Prudhomme (formerly of Chateau Mouton Rothschild) on the winemaking side. Estate and sales manager and all-round good guy Adrien Laroche holds everything together from day-to-day.

Most of the wines are aged in vat..........
.......with just a small amount of barrel ageing for some cuvées
The vines surrounding Mas Foulaquier
Having first met Pierre Jéquier and tasted his wines at a small (but very busy) tasting event in Monpellier in 2010, I was totally blown away by their quality and jumped at the opportunity to import a selection of them. And so, more than 3 years down the line, our first actual visit to the Mas Foulaquier estate in June this year was certainly long overdue. As you can see from the photo above, it wasn't the sunniest of days and there were certainly plenty of angry clouds lurking, but it stayed dry and warm enough to allow for a rather delightful al fresco tasting, under the shade of one of several magnificent chestnut trees surrounding the winery. And all accompanied by a delicious array of fresh bread, cold cuts, local goats cheese and olive oil.

TLD had no trouble taming the Foulaquier "guard" dogs!
The start of a very fine tasting and lunch - Pierre Jequier pouring l'Orphée 2011
Adrien was a mine of information, whilst Pierre spoke about his wines with the sort of passion you expect from a dedicated vigneron. And although the wines based mainly on Syrah and Carignan are wonderful (indeed, my personal favourite is Tonillieres 2012), Pierre was at pains to stress that he thinks that Grenache is the variety most suited to the terroir - basically clay-limestone with a pebbly top layer - of this little corner of Pic Saint-Loup. And who am I to disagree, for Le Petit Duc 2011, which is 90% Grenache, is one of the most delicious wines of its type I have tasted from this part of the world. My notes on that and other wines below are an amalgam of brief notes taken on the day, more detailed notes written from the opened bottles that we were kindly given to take away with us and - for the 4 cuvées we eventually settled on - further bottles opened when we took delivery of our new stocks (purely in the interests of "research", you understand!).

To be fair, we have until now found the wines of Mas Foulaquier quite difficult to sell. I know not why - perhaps they aren't the cheapest wines, especially in the wider scheme of things in Languedoc, but then again quality doesn't usually come cheap. And in my experience, these are without doubt some of the finest wines the Pic Saint-Loup appellation (and indeed the Languedoc as a whole) has to offer. Which actually makes them rather good value. And I'm not about to let the fact that they are difficult to sell deter me from trying all over again with these latest vintages!

So....... is the quality of these wines down to biodynamic farming (something Pierre set out to do from the start - the wines are all certified biodynamic), or is is simply a testament to brilliant winemaking? To be honest, in my experience, the two are often inextricably linked. Whether you believe in biodynamics or not (extreme organics, or just wacky mumbo-jumbo?) those very principles go pretty much hand-in-hand with a love for the land and a fastidious approach to winemaking. The wines are also as natural as can be - no sulphites or added yeasts are used in the winemaking process, there is no fining or filtering, and only the tiniest amount of SO2 (between 10 and 30 mg) is added at the bottling stage.

I could go on and tell you more about Mas Foulaquier, but why do that, when they have their own rather excellent website? I'm here to wax lyrical about the wines. And do you know what? From an already extremely high level of quality, their current vintages have raised the bar even higher, for this was one of the finest selections of wines from a single grower we have ever had the privilege of tasting. And if you have any sort of claim to be a lover of Languedoc's finest wines, then you simply must try them. Who knows - the following tasting notes might even persuade you to do so...............

l'Orphée 2011 Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache. Semi-translucsent, bright, deep cherry red colour. Fresh, ripe redcurrant, raspberry, cherry and bramble aromas mingle with notes of meat, new leather, garrigue herbs, curry spices and damp earth - all-in-all, a considerably complex and heady nose. The palate too is brimming with wonderfully ripe red and black fruit flavours, with a delicious bite of tart cherry skin and tangy orange, the effect of a seamless combination of ripe, tea-like tannins and juicy acidity. With air (and especially on day 2) it develops some rich fruitcake aromas and flavours, whilst still retaining freshness. There's also a savoury tang - not meaty, but more like a sun-dried tomato, vegetable and garrigue quality, which adds complexity without detracting from all of that wonderful sweet/sour/tangy fruit. There are wines that I occasionally flag-up as quintessential examples of fine Languedoc wine - and this is one of them. A simply glorious, fine, elegant wine - and I challenge you not to empty the bottle in one sitting! £15.50

Les Tonillieres 2012  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
Another 50/50 blend - this time, Carignan and Syrah. Semi-transluscent, medium-deep carmine red, fading to a narrow rim. Only the press wine goes into barrel - the rest is aged in vat - but the grapes are first given a full 3 months' maceration at a cool temperature, which ensures good extract whilst retaining a good deal of elegance. The Carignan element is so expressive, you almost don't notice the Syrah - and when Carignan is this good, it is hard to beat. Fabulous aromas of pickled brambles and raspberries, with an amazing array of secondary nuances - notably, leather, cigar box, coffee grounds, beetroot and damp earth. Not to mention a delightful rasp of soft citrus-like volatile acidity, which makes your eyes water in the most glorious way (especially on day 2)! The flavours are so fresh and full of vitality, with an almost Musar-like structure, chock full of sweet and sour raspberry and black fruit flavours, with subtle hints of coffee and toffee. With air, it becomes even deeper, more expressive, more elegant, whilst retaining all of that wonderful freshness, complexity - and impressive length. A truly glorious wine, which every one of our customers (indeed any lover of fine Languedoc wine) should buy. It will age nicely, but why wait, when it is so wonderful now? £15.95

Le Rollier 2010  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
40% Syrah, 60% Grenache. No oak. Rich, balanced and rather yummy. Quite soft, but nevertheless balanced and nicely structured. Tasted over the next couple of days, there are plenty of rich, ripe fresh fruit and jam aromas, with hints of toffee and curry spices. Lovely and soft on the palate, but far from blowsy, with plenty of juicy fruit and acidity, with nice tannic grip. Long and spicy.

Les Calades 2010  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
70% Syrah, 30% Grenache. With its aromas of dark red fruits, exotic spices, garrigue herbs, fine eau de vie, damp earth, leather and polished mahogany - a bit like an old church pew - this is one of the most complex wines (aromatically speaking) I have encountered in a long time. It really does caress the senses in a way that keeps you coming back for another sniff. And the palate certainly delivers, offering a hugely complex array of fruit, spice, herb and tertiary flavours. Richly-textured and almost velvety at first, you suddenly get this wonderful hit of dark cherry, bramble and orange-tinged fruit, a rasp of fine, tea-like tannin and simply mouth-watering acidity on the mid-palate, followed by a long, tangy, gently spicy finish that goes on forever. Fabulous wine! £19.50

Le Petit Duc 2011  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
90% Grenache, 10% Syrah. A lovely bright translucent cherry/blood red colour. The nose shows an intriguing leathery, meaty quality, though not at the expense of some really delightful raspberry, cherry and floral aromas, a hint of creaminess, toasted brioche and herbs - alluring, complex and elegant, rather than big and burly. Sort of what Chateauneuf would be like if its climate were a little gentler..... like that of Pic Saint-Loup! The palate too is elegance personified - a lovely warm, spicy, herb-laden mix of fresh and crystallised fruits with a gentle orangey tang, with subtle notes of redcurrant and cranberry, all of which combine in a delightfully fresh sweet and sour whole. Pierre believes that his little corner of the Pic Saint-Loup terroir is the perfect spot for Grenache, and on this showing, who am I to disagree? This really is a lovely wine, which all fans of the more aspirational southern Rhône reds would do well to try. £19.95

Gran' T 2010 Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
Polished wood, tobacco, curry spice and garrigue herbs mingle with dark cherry and redcurrant aromas and a whiff of oak. The palate is full of ripe but tangy fruit flavours, with plenty of grape skin and wood tannins. And whilst it has excellent acidity and a fine, even complex structure, it is (for me) the least appealing wine of the line-up, since it needs a lot of time to shed the puppy fat and for all of that tannin and oak to integrate, before it becomes a joy to drink. A quite rich and oaky style of wine, which is not necessarily my bag, but nevertheless imbued with a fine structure and plenty of ageing potential. One for the classicists, I guess. Indeed, it may even turn out to be a very fine wine after a decade in the cellar - but I don't want to wait that long, when all of the others are so damn delicious now(!)

So there you have it - Pic Saint-Loup at its very best. And if we still can't sell 'em, we'll just go ahead and drink 'em! Drool.............

Saturday, 28 September 2013

A trio of lovely Provençal reds for Autumn - plus a delicious wedding anniversary wine

Although the weather over the past few days has been wonderfully bright and sunny, there is no doubting the onset of Autumn. An early morning nip in the air and an abundance of dew is testament to that. And so, it is time for us to start opening a few more red wines (having consumed more whites in our house this year than ever before). And here are just 3 of the best we have tasted in the last week or so..........

Terre des Chardons Bien Luné 2012 Costieres de Nimes
Not *strictly* Provence, although Costieres de Nimes is as close as it gets without being so, wedged as it is between the southern Rhone, Languedoc and Provence. A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache. When we last tasted this in June, the Syrah was very much the dominant variety, almost to the exclusion of the Grenache - so much so, that it would be hard not to imagine it was a rather good Crozes-Hermitage or even a lesser Cote-Rotie. It is still fragrant - actually, perfumed is a better word - with wonderfu plum, blackcurrant and floral aromas, but the Grenache now gets a look in. Spicy, earthy, raspberry and redcurrant notes abound, with hints of darker, crystallised fruits, black cherry and iodine. The palate is beautifully rounded, elegant and complex, with a softly tannic backbone, around which is wrapped the most voluptuouscloak of ripe red fruits, soft spice, minerality and subtle garrigue herbs. And all shot through with the freshest, most piquant sour cherry and soft citrus acidity. It really is a delightfully elegant and uplifting wine, the result of the finest grapes (biodynamic), a mix of traditional and whole-bunch fermentation, the complete absence of oak and brilliant winemaking. One of the best bargains I have ever found in 10 years of importing from Languedoc. £11.99.

The next 2 wines speak very much of Provence. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre are the 3 varieties that make up the blend in the main Chateau d'Estoublon red wine. Winemaker and owner Remy Reboul told me at Vinisud last year that people had suggested, after tasting barrel samples, that he should bottle some varietal wines, such was the quality of each of them. He was, to be honest, rather scathing about the idea, since he believes that the true expression of his terroir is in the final blend, rather than in the individual components. Which is fair enough, but these wines are so good that they do - in my opinion - stand on their own as brilliant examples of what is possible on the southern slopes of the Alpilles.

Estoublon Mono-Cépage Grenache 2009 Vin de Table
The colour is a reassuringly pale/medium raspberry, with a slight tawny hue, whilst the nose is delightfully elegant, with aromas of redcurrant, raspberry and old leather fairly leaping from the glass, and subtle hints of sous-bois, graphite, truffle and soft citrus peeping through. There's also a gentle waft of very fine eau de vie, although despite the 15.25% (yes fifteen) abv, there is little suggestion of heat, either on the nose or the palate. Indeed, it is really rather fresh and elegant, with a veritable bucket-load of fresh and crystallised red fruit and soft citrus flavours, barely perceptible tannins and plenty of mouth-watering acidity. In the space of around a year since I last tasted it, this really has blossomed into something really quite lovely and more-ish - in short, a wonderfully balanced wine, which is a real delight to drink. Burgundy snobs might well throw their arms up in horror at my suggestion that a wine like this can be so fresh and elegant, but I would venture to say that it is almost "Burgundian" in structure. On the other hand, lovers of nearby Chateauneuf du Pape might be surprised that a 100% Grenache from outside of "their" region could be so utterly compelling. None of your 101 point Parkerised soup here, I'm afraid. Actually, I've heard more than one vigneron call Grenache the "Pinot Noir of the south" - and on this evidence, they are not far wrong. Wonderful wine. £19.99

Estoublon Mono-Cépage Syrah 2009 Vin de Table
Deep, translucent blood red. Identifiably Syrah - bramble, blackcurrant, violets and herbs, again steeped in the finest eau de vie, with enticing hints of tobacco and damp earth. As with the Grenache, the alcohol (15.5% in this case) neither burns nor overpowers the fruit. Yes, it is rich and spicy, but gloriously tangy and balanced, with cherry skin and citrus flavours, ripe tannins and ample acidity ,all of which combine seamlessly with the abundant red and black fruit flavours. In fact, this is anything but soupy - quite the opposite. And it certainly passes the "more than one glass" test with aplomb. Elegant? No. More-ish? Yes indeedy! £19.99

Oh, and by the way, 28 September 1985 was hot and sunny. How do I remember? Because that was the day I married the lovely Diane. How lucky am I?! And to celebrate, we have been enjoying a bottle of Francis Boulard Les Murgiers Extra Brut Champagne. No tasting note - but it is very yummy - just like my wife! As is this wonderful bottle of Paul Jaboulet Ainé Domaine de Thalabert 1988 Crozes-Hermitage.

Well, a special occasion demands a special wine, don't you think?


Wednesday, 11 September 2013

The importance of family (plus wine and life in general)

I haven't posted on this blog anywhere near as much as I would like in recent times, which is down to a combination of circumstances - namely family, wine business and (frankly) sheer laziness. Anyway, by way of an update...........

July and August have come and gone in the blink of an eye, with no less than 5 pallets of new wines (from around a dozen different growers) and all that such activity entails. Not to mention a whole lot of other activity on the wine front - which, thankfully, entailed a decent amount of selling of the stuff(!) And of course we have enjoyed the best summer we've had in many a year, which meant plenty of lazy evenings spent barbecuing on the patio, eating lots of great food and enjoying plenty of good wine. No excuses at all - when it comes down to a choice between blogging and lazing about on a balmy evening, there is only going to be one winner. Food, wine and the company of family wins every time.

I have also to a certain extent been preoccupied with my Mum. Regular readers may know that she's not been too healthy recently. Following a bout of pneumonia in December last year, plus another couple of stays in hospital in Spring, she has been battling ill-health for most of this year. With an ever-increasing cocktail of drugs (Warfarin, Digoxin and a veritable box-full of other stuff), weekly visits to the health centre for blood tests and a constantly uphill battle against the resulting heart failure symptoms, she's had a right old time of it. Although she is 84 and has been afflicted with COPD for a number of years, she has always been extremely active and enjoyed an excellent social life. But this year has been different and - despite the wonderful summer - her illness has certainly taken its toll. Indeed, last week, I was beginning to wonder whether she would see the month out, never mind the year. It was all very depressing - not least for her, but also for me and the rest of the family. But over the past few days, lo and behold, she seems like a different woman. Something is working, and she seems much more chipper than she has in quite a while. Of course, it is still one day at a time, but every sign of improvement is a blessing.

Add to that the fact that my youngest son Daniel has had a promotion at work, oldest son Alex has found a new job, and they are both therefore happier (and better off financially) and it all adds up - for now at least - to all being well with the world. Of course, it cannot last (does it ever?) but whilst it does, I'm going to enjoy it. These are the days.

Chicken marinating in a spicy sauce, with onions, garlic, mushrooms, chillies and capsicums -
- and a rather more-ish red Burgundy to aid the preparation!
When I first started writing this entry a couple of days ago (see what I mean about being distracted?!) I was about to cook a wonderful chicken stir fry, prepared whilst enjoying a wine picked up at a bargain price from a local bin-end supplier, namely, the Blason de Bourgogne 2008 Beaune you see in the picture. Made by a mere "negociant" - or at least a large producer that buys-in most of its grapes, in the form of a co-operative - it is a decent, fruity, uncomplicated wine with plenty of Pinot/Burgundy character. It isn't complicated or even particularly concentrated - in fact, it is almost alarmingly light in colour, and would certainly not go down too well with those looking for bags of fruit or body. But it does what it says on the tin,  with sour cherry, cedar and damp earth aromas and flavours and cracking acidity. And at around the same price as your average supermarket BOGOF, it provided brilliant value for money. Oh, and it went beautifully with the stir fry!

Anyway, now I have eased myself very gently back into the blog, I intend to publish my notes on a rather good tasting of Californian red wines, last week at Nottingham Wine Circle. That will be within the next day or two........ Meanwhile, I am off for this week's edition - a Chardonnay and Pinot Noir special!

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Rare as hen's teeth - affordable white Burgundy

Every once in a while, a wine presents itself on my lap (or at least arrives as a special parcel at a local trade supplier) with a quality level and price that makes it impossible for me to resist. Even less often, it turns out to be something that is becoming a bit of a rarity these days - high-quality affordable Burgundy. So when I tasted this wine last week, I picked up a few cases - one for myself (if not more!) and the rest for my customers. Some of it is already spoken for, so if you like the sound of it enough to want to buy a few bottles, then be quick, as it won't stick around for too long................

Domaine Yves Girardin Chateau de La Charrière Santenay Sous La Roche 2007
Sous La Roche is a "lieu-dit" (a named single vineyard) in one of the less-celebrated (and therefore more under-the-radar) appellations of the Côte de Beaune. But don't let that fool you, for this is top-notch village Burgundy, at less than the price of a decent basic Bourgogne. The nose is a riot of citrus fruits, grated zest, soft tree fruits and apple, with a strong impression of flinty/stony minerality and a just hint of struck match. Indeed, it smells and tastes for all the world like something very decent from nearby Puligny-Montrachet or Meursault. It is so packed with fruit and mineral nuances, it almost makes the nose prickle. The palate is racy and, like the nose, crammed full of lemon, lime and juicy apple flavours, with subtle herb and spice nuances - ripe and full, but with a wonderfully bracing mineral streak and a core of mouth-watering acidity. The finish is long, although you might not notice for a while, as it keeps you coming back for another sip. At 6 years of age, it is pure, clean, elegant and really just getting into its stride. And whilst it is a real joy to drink now, you could age it for another year or two yet - probably a lot more, if you dare risk the dreaded white Burgundy "pox"! Personally, I will drink my case with pleasure now, and over the next year or so...... if it lasts that long! Decent village/single vineyard Burgundy (either white or red) at this price is as rare as hen's teeth these days - and this is an absolute steal! 13.0% abv. £11.95.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Terre des Chardons - a very exciting discovery

I first read about the wines of Terre des Chardons in an article by Richard James, one of the more unheralded Languedoc-Roussillon specialist writers and bloggers. It was only a week or so before I was due to go on holiday, but Richard's impressions of the wines (especially as he doesn't dish out praise lightly) had me all excited and determined to try and organise a visit. A quick Google, followed by a couple of emails to owner and winemaker Jerome Chardon did the trick and so, on the way to our holiday base in deepest Languedoc, we made the detour to Bellegarde, in the most south-easterly corner of the Costières de Nimes region. As is often the case, it took a bit of finding, being a couple of kilometres down a series of narrow, winding roads, with a mix of dirt and tarmac. As the crow flies, it is only a few hundred metres from the autoroute. In practice, it is one of those sort of places that feels like miles from anywhere, so isolated and tranquil is it. And I am so glad we made the visit, for it turned out to be a very rewarding journey of discovery.

Jerome Chardon
The Chardon family moved from Touraine (in the Loire Valley) to Bellegarde in the early 1980's, where they bought some land and began farming fruits such as apricots and cherries and vegetables, converting to organic farming a few years later. When their son Jerome graduated from his studies in agronomy in 1993, he moved to the estate to assist his parents. At the same time, he planted vineyards with Syrah and Grenache, and also bought an established vineyard planted with Clairette (the local white variety). Because much of Jerome's time was still devoted to the fruit and vegetable side of things, he employed the services of a certain lady by the name of Julie Balagny to manage the winery, which she did for the next 4 years. I have it on good authority - from more than one source - that Julie is now making big waves (and great wines) in Fleurie. I mention this because, by complete coincidence, I had had it in mind to arrange a visit with Julie earlier in the day, on our way down through southern Burgundy, but my (probably misplaced) perception of her fearsome reputation, and the fact that she probably wouldn't have any wine left to sell, dissuaded me. I must remedy that some time, because her wines sound wonderful! Suffice to say that Julie's passion for biodynamic viticulture rubbed off on Jerome Chardon, for the estate has for many years now been certified as both organic and biodynamic. 

Jerome Chardon is a gentle, unassuming man, with a clear passion not just for organic and biodynamic viticulture, but for the whole ethos of sustainable farming and respect for tradition. This even extends to the winery, which Jerome built himself next to the farmhouse, from natural materials. The walls are made from the same stone that was used by the Romans to build the nearby Pont du Gard. Each one is 2.1m wide, 0.9m high and 0.6m thick and weighs a whopping 2.5 tons! The roof structure consists of untreated oak beams and rafters, traditional baked earth tiles and 8cm thick cork insulation. The result is an extremely functional and cool yet really rather beautiful chai. The tasting table is actually a huge (and very ancient) grape press, which was rescued from a Burgundy grower who was about to send it to the tip.

The cellar - note the "bricks", weighing 2.5 tons each!
The idyllic setting of the Chardon farmhouse, with the winery on the right

The 9 hectares of vineyards (2 ha of Clairette, 4.3 ha of Syrah and 2.1 ha of Grenache) surround the property, along with fruit and olive trees. The soil consists of the same sort of siliceous rocks that are the hallmark of the Costières de Nimes region, and of course Chateauneuf du Pape, a few kilometres up-river, whilst the vines are trained on wire trellises, in order to facilitate good air circulation. No chemicals (apart from the occasional treatment with a very weak "Bordeaux mix") are used in the vineyards, the only regular treatments being completely natural herbal and biodynamic sprays and soil treatments, plus shallow tilling to keep weeds to a manageable level (with a flock of sheep doing their bit for the cause through the winter!). Similarly, no chemicals are used in the winery, save of course for a little SO2 at the fermentation and bottling stages. The grapes are de-stemmed and some parcels fermented traditionally, whilst others go through a sort of semi-carbonic maceration, depending on the style required from each parcel. Fermentation is entirely reliant on the naturally-occurring indigenous yeasts. Picking, racking and bottling are all carried out in accordance with the phases of the moon. Rather importantly (in fact crucially, in my opinion) the wines are all aged in vat - the only oak barrels in sight are old and purely ornamental. Which - biodynamic practices aside - is one of the main reasons why the wines all taste so alive and "un-mucked-about-with" - as you will gather from my rather enthusiastic tasting notes!

These vines are in extremely rude health!
Olive groves are also a feature of the estate, not to mention some majestic cedars and cypresses

Jerome makes 3 different dry red cuvées, a rosé, two dry whites (a "regular" Clairette and a "reserve") and also a late-harvested sweet Clairette. We didn't taste the reserve Clairette or the sweet wine (we have more than enough of those to be going on with). Apart from the Clairette, all are from the 2012 vintage (the Clairette may be slow to shift, but the reds obviously fly out of the door). All of these wines came in last week, so are available for you to buy. So what do they taste like.........? 

Clairette de Bellegarde 2010 
100% Clairette, harvested at just 35 hl/ha (between 6 and 8 bunches per vine). Pale straw colour. The nose is smoky, herby and spicy at the same time, with notes of over-ripe apples, apricot and lime marmalade. The palate is quite rich, even gently oily in texture, nicely fruity in a lemon and lime sort of way, with a rich seam of herbs and spices and even a touch of grape tannin, which leads to a long, tangy finish. It is considerably complex and concentrated, and whilst the acidity isn't high, it is a match for many an expensive southern Rhône white and really does come into its own with food. 13.5% abv. £12.50

Rosée d'Été 2012
70% Grenache, 30% Syrah. A delightful pale copper/pink colour, offering aromas of ripe red fruits, peach, apple and orange blossom and an intriguing touch of florality and smokiness. The palate is soft, almost creamy, medium-rich, with loads of summer fruit flavours, shot through with garrigue herbs and a gentle spiciness, cracking acidity and a long finish. This is serious rosé, not cheap, but definitely on a par with many of the more expensive Provence rosés (Bandol included). Lovely stuff! 12.5% abv. £11.99

Bien Luné 2012 Costières de Nimes 
50% Syrah, 50% Grenache. This is so fresh, so intensely aromatic - it simply reeks of violets and lilies, damsons and cassis. Indeed, if you didn't know better, you'd be forgiven for thinking you were in the northern Rhône! The palate is one of real contradictions - wonderfully fresh, elegant and airy, but at the same time intense, concentrated and considerably complex. A core of ripe, tangy red berry fruits, black cherry, a lick of blackcurrant and a gentle herbaceous streak, married to ripe tannins and mouth-watering acidity, make for something really rather special. When I first tasted this wine, I was amazed to find that it contained any Grenache at all, for it smells and tastes for all the world like a pure Syrah from Crozes-Hermitage or even Hermitage - it really is that good. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that it spends no time in oak whatsoever - indeed, none of the wines from this estate do - which allows the fruit to express itself to the full. And the best thing about it is that it is so good to drink now, despite its obvious age-worthiness. Wonderful wine. 12.5% abv. £11.99

Marginal 2012 Costières de Nimes
80% Syrah, 20% Grenache. Initially a touch closed, with dark, smoky, mineral, citrus peel and tobacco notes. It opens-out nicely after a few minutes, revealing complex aromas of cassis, raspberry, cherry, black olive and lilies. As with its "Bien Luné" sibling above, it manages to be both delicate and light on its feet, yet possessed of a core of rich, concentrated black fruits and soft citrus, with subtle flavours of tapenade, garrigue herbs and warm curry spices (perhaps courtesy of the Grenache element, which shows a little more in this cuvée). Once again, the velvety tannins and ample acidity combine with all of that wonderful fruit (and no oak, remember) to give real definition and focus, all the way through to a very long finish. Another superb wine, from one of the star estates of the future. Voted the best Languedoc red at the 2013 "Signature Bio" competition. 12.5% abv. £13.50

Chardon Marie 2012 Costières de Nimes
100% Syrah. This is the estate's top red wine, named in honour of winemaker Jerome Chardon's grandmother, Marie (Chardon-Marie is also the French name for milk thistle, hence the label design and the play on words). It comes from the best parcel of Syrah vines - and it shows. The nose simply reeks of all manner of red and dark fruits, especially raspberry, blackcurrant and red cherry, with complex floral and savoury undertones such as violets, black olive tapenade and just a hint of meat/leather. There's no oak, remember, but a wine as good as this doesn't need oak. It is so clean, so fresh, so full of life and youthful vigour, with a palate crammed full of concentrated fruit and herb flavours. There's an intriguing touch of saline minerality, countered by a cool, almost minty quality, whilst velvet tannins and a rasp of gloriously prickly acidity make for a supremely balanced and deceptively elegant wine. The finish is delightfully sweet and sour - and very long. This is very much in the Northern Rhone style of winemaking (with a nod to the elegance of the Côtes de Nuits) and, whilst unbelievably good to drink already, has the capacity to age and evolve into something even more beautiful, over the next 5 to 10 years. A very special wine, which (for me) sets a new benchmark for the appellation. 13.5% abv. £18.95

So there you have it - a brilliant grower, and brilliant wines. Indeed, the reds are a real eye-opener, and redefine for me what is possible in this little corner of south-east Languedoc. In fact, not only do they set a new benchmark for the Costières de Nimes appellation, they are simply some of the best Languedoc Syrah-based wines I have ever tasted. Trust me - they are that good!