Sunday, 22 April 2012

What I did on my holidays (a.k.a too busy to blog) plus a series of wonderful Languedoc wines

Damn - it is once again 2 weeks since my last post! To those (handful) of you that are waiting for my next instalment of Vinisud posts, worry not - I have had the next one sitting unfinished in the "drafts" section for some time now and I promise to complete it within the next few days.

Meanwhile, I have been busying myself with tasting presentations (four in the last month), selling bits and bobs of wine (still need to sell more, though!) and sorting out my latest shipments - on which I will have more news soon. I have also been doing lots of cooking and bread baking, and all of that wonderful food needs wonderful wine to go with it. In this regard, I have been tasting my way though some other new - locally-sourced - wines over the last week or so, as well as tasting/enjoying some rather brilliant wines from one particular Languedoc grower whose wines had escaped my radar - until now, at least..........

The wines of Domaine de La Garance have been imported by Richards Walford for some time now, but despite the fact that I sell a handful of the wines on their list (though none from Languedoc - I prefer to import all of my own Languedoc wines) I never really noticed them. But I recently received an an offer from Richards Walford that piqued my interest. It read......

"For whatever reason, this amazing Domaine remains stubbornly undiscovered by the majority of our customers; sadly, we therefore find ourselves with a considerable amount of stock, ranged across several vintages. As we can no longer justify purchasing new vintages, we thought this was a good opportunity to offer out the stocks we currently hold in our UK bond........

For those of you who know Domaine de la Garance, this is a great last chance to snap up a range of vintages at keen prices. For those who don’t, these are some of the most wonderful wines to have ever graced our list – unique, complex, and deeply delicious. A combination of diverse soils, including Villafranchien (a stoney, gravelly soil mixed with red clay), basalt, marl, gneiss, limestone, and granite add real character to the wines.

The whites are based on Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) – that normally quite unexciting grape variety often distilled in Cognac or used to make flabby Italian whites – but here, becomes something else entirely. Older vintages were blended with Grenache Gris and Clairette, more recent vintages with Chardonnay, which achieves a greater minerality on granite soils. Old demi-muids are used for vinification, not completely full, as the winemaker Pierre Quinonero seeks an oxidative, noisette style. The wines stay on their lees right up until the mise, giving a powerful impression of autolytic character each vintage. They must be tasted to be believed; they are a constantly changing, living thing, and how many wines can we say that about these days?

The reds seem very distinctly Spanish – no doubt stemming from Pierre’s Catalan roots. Based on old vine Carignan and Syrah (generally 90% and 10%) and spending a full 30 months in barrel before bottling, they are bursting with energy and age particularly well. Though not certified biodynamic, the Domaine practices biodynamic principles and the wines are about as hand-crafted and natural as they get – Pierre describes them as “l’antithèse de la technologie” - hand harvested with habitually low yields of 17hl/ha, only indigenous yeasts are used, the wines are not fined or filtered, and very little sulphur is used."

Although I don't particularly agree with Roy Richards' assertion that the reds are distinctly Spanish (I think they speak loudly of Languedoc Carignan) I tend to otherwise agree, for these are truly wonderful, quirky wines. I bought a case of each of 4 white vintages and 4 red, of which TLD and I have so far drunk 7 - and here are my tasting notes. Firstly, the whites........

Domaine de La Garance Les Claviers 2006 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
This is a blend of - frankly rather unfashionable - Languedoc/SW France varieties. All of the grapes (from old vines of 50+ years) are fermented together and aged for 9 months in 400 litre Tronçais oak barrels with batonnage (stirring) once a week, prior to bottling, with no fining or filtration. The resulting wine is quite a deep gold in colour, yet very clear and bright. The nose is amazing - perhaps a touch of sulphur (or more likely reduction, given that not a lot of sulphur is used), but extremely mineral and flinty, with a touch of the struck match about it, but with potent citrus/zest aromas, redolent of lime oil, lemon zest and mandarin orange. Further notes of quince/crab apple, mixed herbs, spices and straw make for a wine of real complexity, both on the nose and the palate. Those herby, citrus, straw and mineral qualities come through in the mouth, along with baked apples and cloves, glorious acidity and even a touch of wood (or grape) tannin. Whatever it is, it is a wonderfully complex wine, and I am totally enamoured by it.

Domaine de La Garance Les Claviers 2007 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
Another deep gold coloured wine, but this one is strikingly different (at least at this stage) to the 2006 - richer, oilier, denser and perhaps a touch more alcoholic. It has peach, apricot, orange and baked apple aromas and a strong whiff of honey. Quite nutty, too, with a suggestion of sweetness that does indeed come through in the mouth. And it does taste richer, more mouth-filling and perhaps a bit less elegant and zingy than the 2006, though there appears to be ample underlying acidity - it is just masked by the sheer richness and weight of what is an enormously textured wine. Nevertheless, it is again very complex and long in the mouth, with a long, spicy, warming finish, not unlike the wjite from Chateau d'Estoublon. And for that reason, it is very impressive.

Domaine de La Garance Les Claviers 2008 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
If anything, this is an even deeper gold colour than other vintages, but still smells fresh, albeit in a hnied, nutty, deliberately oxidative style. The aromas are more in the non-fruit category, with lots of minerally, herb and atraw nuances and even a hint of wet wool, with subtle hints of peach, orange and apple lurking in the background. It is sort of a halfway house between the 2006 and 2007, with a touch more weight than the former, but higher acidity than the latter, although perhaps the fact that it falls between the two makes it perhaps a touch less exciting. Although undoubtedly a really good wine, it doesn't quite hit the dizzy heights of the 2006 or possess the sheer punch of the 2007. That said, as I am writing this note, I see that the bottle is three-quarters empty (not just me drinking it, I hasten to add) so there must be plenty to like about it!

And now the reds............

Domaine de La Garance Les Armieres 2002 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
What strikes me is how wonderfully "Languedoc" this smells and tastes. Of course, the fact that it is mostly (very old) Carignan helps. This oft-derided grape varety is now all the rage in a region where so many old vines have long since been ripped out in favour of more fashionable grape varieties (or in some cases, other crops altogether). The colour is a deep-ish blood red, leading to a slightly bricking rim. The nose offers a complex array of red and black berry fruits, dried orange peel and polished leather. Background notes of cedar, curry spices and tea suggest that the 2 years' oak-ageing was done with a sympathetic hand, for a more harmonious bouquet is hard to imagine. And whilst the cool (and often difficult) year means that the fruit will never be voluptuous, it has real charm, with plenty of spiced red cherry, redcurrant and raspberry flavours and juicy acidity. The tannins are grippy, perhaps even a touch stalky, but there is more than enough fruit to cope. Lovely wine.

Domaine de La Garance Les Armieres 2005 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
The colour is a deep blood red, with a narrow ruby rim. The nose is again complex, with aromas of bramble and black cherry, leather, allspice and cedar. There's a strong savoury element too, hinting at char-grilled beef and garrigue herbs. Once again, the effect of 2 years' oak-ageing is harmonious and really quite subtle. The palate offers an array of sweet, spiced red and black cherry, redcurrant and bramble flavours, combined with rich, ripe, yet beautifully grippy tannins and ample acidity, making for a balanced and very classy wine, with a long, sweet and sour finish. It isn't ready yet - I would suggest it will take at least another 5 years to approach its peak drinking window - but I'm not going to let that deter me, because it is certainly giving plenty of pleasure already!

Domaine de La Garance Les Armieres 2006 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
This one has quite a lot of sediment, even though the bottle has been stood up for a few days. But I don't let a little sediment worry me, for it is what the wine tastes and smells like that is important - and bloody hell this one is good! The nose offers-up myriad aromas of red and black fruits, woodsmoke, pepper, exotic spices, leather and garrigue herbs. There is also a strong hint of grilled meat and - at the other end of the spectrum - even some delicate floral notes. Boy, this is complex stuff, and so totally captivating I could sniff it all night. Of course, there is always a worry that the palate might not live up to the promise of the nose, but there are no such worries here. A huge hit of bramble and redcurrant fruit washes over the palate, accompanied by the most wonderful citrus-tinged acidity and all kinds of other flavours and textures, which coat the mouth and linger for an age. This really is a wine which fills the senses and keeps you coming back for more. Of course it is still relatively young, and there is plenty of grip, but the sheer pleasure offered by the intense, concentrated, yet gloriously succulent sweet-and-sour fruit is such that you almost don't notice the tannin. Every mouthful leaves you salivating and simply craving for more. I'll tell you what.... my mood before I opened this wasn't exactly at its most jovial (push-starting my eldest son's car at 4.55 in the morning was the last thing I need after a hectic previous night - but that is another story - and the weather was/is everything that is bad about early Spring in the UK) but this wine lifted me no end. It is utterly delicious, and yet another example of why I think that Carignan - in the right winemaker's hands - is the finest jewel in the Languedoc's crown. A stunning wine.

Domaine de La Garance Les Armieres 2007 Vin de Pays de l'Hérault
This is almost on a par with the amazing 2006 - if not its absolute equal. Once again, mostly Carignan, with a little Syrah, deep blood red in colour, almost opaque, with a tiny rim. As with the 2006, the nose is a riot of red and black fruits, smoke, white pepper, exotic spices, leather and herbs, with hints of sandalwood and forest floor. The palate has all of those things going for it, and more - concentrated but not overly rich, a complex array of red and black fruits, with healthy tannins and a core of juicy, citrus and cranberry-tinged acidity. The finish is satisfyingly dry and tangy, with lingering flavours of forest fruits, cedar and peppery spice. It isn't ready yet - I would hazard that it is 5+ years away from its peak - but it is nevertheless rather delicious already. Another absolutely world-class Carignan.

That's 7 down and 1 to go - and so far, not an average wine in sight. In fact, I feel like I have "discovered" a real gem of a grower - despite the fact that they have been virtually under my nose all the time! In a way, it is a shame I never came across Domaine de La Garance before, but better late than never. Furthermore, the timing could be perfect, and Richards Walfords' loss may well be my gain, for I intend to pay this grower a visit when I am next in Languedoc in June. Watch this space.........


AlanM said...

I hope it comes off for you Leon because the wines sound great, backed up by Bernard's notes too.
You're right about Carignan, for me it adds complexity and depth as well as gravitas. I like Carignan Blanc too, eg Mas Gabriel.
(As a teacher I'm dying to correct those spelling mistakes Mr. Stolarski!!)

Leon Stolarski said...

Spelling mistakes?! What spelling mistakes?! Typos are always possible, I suppose, but I'll be shocked (not to mention mortified) to find spelling errors. I guess I should use a spell checker, but I'm too lazy........

AlanM said...

Didn't mean to cause offence Leon. Typos probably but flity, stikingly are examples. Plus 'have drunk' not 'have drank'.
As I said I'm in full teacher mode and can't help myself, sorry.

Leon Stolarski said...

None taken, Alan. I'm as much a stickler for spelling and punctuation as anyone. But typo's are my biggest curse. As I say, I really should use a spell-checker - but somehow it feels a bit like cheating! Must admit though that the drank/drunk bit is an error that has been inbuilt until now.... and then I checked it in Google, and you are quite correct. I am truly shamed! ;-)

Louise Hurren said...

Interesting post: I visited Domaine de la Garance with Rosemary George some time ago, this is her post: you might like to compare tasting notes!

Leon Stolarski said...

Yes, I did see that, Louise - but only after the Richards Walford offer came out. I see that the wines Rosemary (and you) tasted were all different vintages (and in some cases completely different wines) to the ones I now have. I can *almost* get an idea of what Rosemary thinks of them (although, to be honest, I very rarely get much of a real impression from her tasting notes)...... but what did you think of them?

Anyway, I hope to find out more in June.

Alistair Scott said...

Very interesting to compare RG's notes with yours, sir. Agree it is hard to work out whether she is being politic, polite or uncertain. Unless you know and follow her palate conscientiously it would be hard to know whether they are actually that appealing...the joy of these things is opinions and differences (albeit politely expressed?).
Look forward to hearing you have snaffled some of this.

Leon Stolarski said...

Alistair - Having followed Rosemary George's writing for a good few years (and having given her due credit on both my website and my blog for being at least partly responsible for opening my eyes to the joys of southern French wine), I find her writing style increasingly frustrating. Not that her tasting notes were ever very insightful or informative (I want to know what the wines actually smell and taste like!) but the narratives and the grower profiles I found very useful, especially in her book(s).

I get the feeling she is gearing-up for another book on the region and that her blog is really just a vehicle for storing the text, but most of it comes across as bland and short on real opinion. By coincidence, I had some email correspondence today from a friend who is currently on holiday in Montpeyroux. He suggested I check out a grower called Villa Dondona, so I Googled them. As well as their own website, I found an article on Rosemary's blog which offers little except a short introduction to the growers and a few lines on each wine. I have no idea whether she actually *liked* the wines, or even if she thought they had merit. I guess I will have to hope that my friend brings a sample or two for me to taste, so I can make my own mind up!