Sunday, 28 March 2010

Vinisud report - part 8 - the final chapter

It is a month now since I returned from my Vinisud trip, so time for me to wrap the topic up with a few more highlights. But I’ll begin with a definite lowlight…..

I mentioned in an earlier post how disappointed I was with the latest offerings from Domaine Alain Chabanon. Nevertheless, those wines were a pleasurable experience in comparison to what came next. Because pretty much the next stand we visited (and I’m still not sure why, though Bernard might care to elaborate) was "Vin de Merde". This particular brand was created, we were told, because there is so much rubbish (i.e. shit or merde) wine coming out of southern France. Therefore, their supposedly brilliant trio of white, rosé and red wines have been proudly labelled as "Shit Wine". Now, I'm all for a touch of irony, but it went straight over my head with these wines - quite simply, they do exactly what they say on the label. They really were truly awful – in fact, classic DNPIM (do not put in mouth) wines. Sorry, but I neglected to take a photo, and I certainly couldn’t bring myself to write tasting notes. Frankly, these wines and this sort of marketing do nothing but harm to the reputation of the southern French wine industry. I sincerely hope we won't see them cropping up on UK supermarket shelves any time soon.

Later, we wandered over to the hall where the Corsican growers were situated, as I was interested in tasting the wines of Domaine de Toraccia and Domaine Yves Leccia. I have tasted only a handful of Corsican wines in my time, although I did once source a small parcel of Clos Poggiale 2000, a really rather good red wine produced in Corsica by the large Robert Skalli organisation. Although the Toraccia and Leccia wines were of a consistent standard, with one or two being particularly good - the whites more so than the reds - I wasn’t bowled over. They weren’t overly expensive (though not particularly cheap either) but the logistical problems of shipping relatively small quantities of wine from a Mediterranean island mean that they would need to be rather special for me to consider importing them.

We also paid a visit to the stand of Domaine Anne Gros and Jean-Paul Tollot, two names that will be familiar to Burgundy fans. I don’t have much experience of the wines of Anne Gros, although I am aware that her wines are of very high quality. And I can personally vouch for the quality of the wines of Tollot-Beaut, since I actually have a few in my cellar. So I was interested to see how they had adapted to making wines in the completely different environment of Minervois. La Ciaude Minervois 2008, which is a blend of Carignan, Syrah and Grenache, is full of spicy, elegant fruit with a good deal of minerality. Les Carrétals Minervois 2008, a 100% Carignan, is rich and tannic, but nicely balanced. Another wine with excellent Minervois typicity, although it probably needs 5 years more to really show its best. The wines are very good, without yet being spectacular, but these are early days and this could be an estate to watch in the future.

It was getting quite late in the afternoon by this time, so we only had time left for a few whistle-stop visits to a handful of my existing growers, notably Michel and Renza-Louise Rosier of Domaine Rosier, Laeticia Peitri of Domaine Pietri-Geraud, Jean-Pierre Cabanes and his daughter Marie-Pierre of Domaine d’Archimbaud (whose latest vintages of Saint-Saturnin have just arrived in stock) and finally Anne Sutra de Germa and her husband Christian Gil of Domaine Monplezy. It is always nice to meet Anne and Christian, who make some lovely organic wines at their idyllic estate situated just to the north of Pézenas. We tasted through the current vintages and, although I didn’t make any tasting notes, I was (surprise, surprise!) impressed with the quality of the range. I especially liked Delice 2006, which is a vendange tardive (late harvest) wine made from 100% old vine Grenache. I wasn’t a fan of the 2005, as I felt it lacked the necessary acidity, but the 2006 did what it says on the bottle – it was delicious – with perfumed fruit aromas and flavours, with notes of dark chocolate. It was soft and unctuous, with a hint of sweet and sour and ample acidity. Although it wouldn’t be cheap, I may have to get some with my next order.

Yours truly with Anne Sutra de Germa of Domaine Monplezy

And with that, it was time to beat the rush and return to Marseillan for a quick shower, before repairing to the Taverne du Port for a relaxing meal, accompanied by a nicely maturing bottle of Domaine de l’Aiguiliere Cote Rousse 2001 Montpeyroux. At around 45 Euros for the bottle, it wasn’t cheap, but it provided an excellent accompaniment to Bernard’s lamb and my cote de boeuf. We then went for a browse around the well-stocked cave and a chat and a drink with my friend Bruno Henri, the owner of the Taverne du Port. Bruno is a big friendly bear of a man, and always good company. If you are ever in Marseillan, you really can’t leave without at least once having a browse through the wonderful wine selection, which runs to 500-plus different wines. Obviously, the list is dominated by Languedoc and Roussillon, but there is also a great selection of wines from all of the other major regions of France. What’s more you can choose any bottle you like to accompany your meal in the restaurant.

Chatting with Bruno Henri (right) in his treasure trove of a shop in Marseillan

After spending an hour or more chatting with Bruno, it was time to get some much needed sleep, before our 6am departure from the hotel. Thankfully, the journey back to the UK was much less traumatic than our outward journey, although our flight was delayed by around an hour, which I think was a knock-on effect of (yet another) French air traffic controllers’ strike. Actually, it was a great flight – very smooth, and with some wonderful views of the snow-covered Peak District as we approached Manchester Airport.

Flying over the Pennines on our approach to Manchester Airport -
- Kinder Reservoir is bottom left

So, another Vinisud has come and gone, but I have some great memories to look back on – and some great new wines to look forward to. If you are in any way connected to the wine trade and you ever get the chance to go to Vinisud (the next one will be in February 2012) then I can recommend it without reservation.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The Budget - yet another hike in the tax on wine

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen, although (if you believed some predictions badied about beforehand) it might have been worse. Nevertheless, today's rise in excise duty announced by our dear Chancellor, Mr Darling, means that the duty on a bottle of table wine is now perilously close to £2 (including the VAT element). I guess I have a vested interest, so I feel somewhat duty-bound (if you'll excuse the pun) to have a whinge about it, but these constant hikes in duty really do rile me. And I know for a fact that they rile most responsible wine drinkers.

I'm not sure that the small, though increasing, number of neo-prohibitionists in the corridors of power are that influential - yet. But their cause certainly gives the Government a fancy excuse for indiscriminately targeting all drinkers in their "fight" against the binge drinking culture. Whether or not they really are that bothered about getting to the root of that little problem is highly debatable (we all know it goes much deeper than the mere cost of alcohol). Somehow, though, I doubt it. Like petrol and cigarettes, the taxes on alcohol provide untold billions of Pounds in revenue and - not just in the current economic climate, but always - provides the Treasury with an easy win. I doubt that this latest increase will have the slightest effect on alcohol consumption in the UK. The streets of our towns and cities will still be thronging with binge drinkers, falling out of the pubs and clubs at the weekends (actually, make that most nights) but the Government won't mind, because it means even more money in the Treasury's coffers. And the fact that - for the majority of people who drink moderately and responsibly - it will make buying a bottle of wine to enjoy quietly at home with their evening meal ever more expensive means nothing to them because, when it comes to raising taxes, we are all fair game.

Anyway, rant over. Tomorrow, I'll get back to talking about some wines I have (very responsibly) enjoyed recently!

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Two lovely wines drank this weekend - Lebanon and Burgundy

I've been busy writing the website entries for all of the new wines coming in next week (including Mas Foulaquier and Domaine de La Marfée), so there's not been much opportunity to write up the final instalment from the Vinisud trip. I'll add that within the next day or two. Meanwhile, it is the weekend, so time to open a nice bottle or two - and these have gone down particularly well....

Hochar Pere et Fils 2002 - Chateau Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. I've heard great things about the 2003 vintage of this wine, but I saw the 2002 in a local shop today (which seems to stock the whole range, including Ch Musar 2002 red, 2003 white, 200(?) rosé and 200(?) Hochar white) so I took a chance. Actually, it is really rather good. Traces of the hallmark Musar volatile acidity - though somewhat less overt than in the "grand vin" - with old oak/cedar, poached raspberry and plum, wild strawberry, tea, forest floor and subtle hints of herb and allspice. The palate is velvety and warming, with a decent, long-ish finish. The tannins are quite soft, but there is a lovely backbone of acidity (the normal kind!) which combines beautifully with the almost sweet red and black fruit flavours. The result is tangy, almost sweet and sour. This is the first Hochar Pere et Fils I have tasted in donkey's years, and I have to say I'm smitten. OK, so it is perhaps not as quirky as Musar itself, but (even at a relatively pricey £11.50 - for this cuvée, that is) it gives a lot of bang for your buck. Lovely stuff!

Since we were in danger of completely draining the Hochar Pere et Fils 2002 before we even sat down to eat, I thought I'd better revisit the wine we started (but did not finish) last night. As it is a Burgundy (which, in my experience, don't tend to keep too well once opened) I thought it might have gone past its best after 24 hours, but not a bit of it. In fact, it has actually improved - though it was nice to begin with.....

Domaine Gachot-Monot "Aux Crots" 2004 Nuits Saint Georges. Surprisingly light in colour - even for a red Burgundy - being a very pale carmine-red, verging on amber, with a watery rim. Compared to the Hochar, the nose is actually quite tarry and even quite masculine, but with some backgound notes of violets and roses, it also has its feminine side. The fruit aromas tend towards bramble, but there are also notes of morello cherry, raspberry and strawberry, along with very definite hints of rotting leaves and undergowth. The palate is also quite tarry, even a touch rustic, but there is also a degree of elegance and charm that (were I tasting blind) would lead me only to Burgundy. Like the Hochar, it is tangy, with an underlying core of sweet fruit, but the acidity is even more heightened - lovely to drink on its own, but even better with food. I have 2 or 3 more bottles of this tucked away and, although it is lovely to drink now (unusually, for 2004 Burgundy) I suspect it will age nicely for a few more years yet.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Vinisud report, part 7 - some highlights (plus a few lowlights) from our last day

Following another late night (dining with Jon and Rachel from Domaine Treloar at their rented apartment in Montpellier) Tuesday saw another relatively early start. Not too early, mind. Following a leisurely breakfast at our hotel in Marseillan, we were on the raod again by about 9.30, heading straight for another intensive day of tasting at Vinisud. By 10.15, the car parks were again filling-up fast, although we actually managed to find a parking space this time, saving us another long walk.

This being our last day at the event, I wanted to visit a few more of my own growers, as well as a few other growers whose wines I hadn't previously experienced, but that might have some interest. The beauty of Vinisud is that you don't have to go tearing about the countryside in order to try and visit a few growers. At Vinisud, it is a bit like the mountain coming to Muhammed - a significant majority of the growers, from small independent estates to the large cooperatives and negociant companies, have stands. Indeed, only three growers from my whole southern France list weren't actually there.

Anyway, here are a few thoughts and an occasional tasting note from some growers we visited on day 2 - in no particular order, and by no means a comprehensive list......

Domaine Treloar was, of course, one of my main points of call. Having been the designated driver on the previous evening, when we dined with Jon and Rachel, I didn't really get the chance to properly enjoy the wines they had laid on. We tasted through them all again on their Vinisud stand, although I didn't take any notes. Which may be remiss of me, since the whole range forms an integral part of my list, and I will be adding all of the new vintages very soon. Suffice to say that the wines were of a consistently high standard (I wouldn't have expected anything less!) and I look forward to listing them for many years to come. Jon and Rachel are a hard-working and very friendly couple, who deserve all the success that is surely coming their way - and I'm glad to be able to play my own small part in helping to promote their wines.

Rachel holds the fort, whilst Jon talks a visitor through his wines

Someone whose wines I was keen to taste again was Alain Chabanon. I used to sell a selection of his wines until a year or two back, having first met him at Vinisud in 2006. Those wines were pretty damn good, if a little expensive and a bit of a hard sell. We started with Trelans 2006, which is a blend of Chenin Blanc and Vermentino (a.k.a Rolle). It tasted quite oxidative, almost like a fino sherry. There were some interesting lemon and herb notes, but it was light and somewhat austere, to my palate at least. Rosé Tremier (2008, I think) was light-bodied and delicate, with some residual SO2 spritz. Le Petit Merle 2008 (predominantly Merlot) was light-bodied and quite fruity, but quite tannic and austere - even a touch green. Campredon 2008 is a blend of Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache and Carignan. Lovely on the nose, but again oh-so-light, with little in the way of body or fruit. Les Boissieres 2005 (mostly Grenache) was richer, but tannic and tarry. I couldn't see where it was going to end up. Esprit de Font Caude 2005 (Mostly Syrah and Mourvedre, with a bit of Grenache) was more like it, with a lot more fruit. Still, it was so tannic, I'd say it needs 5 to 8 years to soften. Will the fruit last? Maybe, maybe not, but I won't be buying any to find out. Merle Aux Alouettes 2006 (which, as the name suggests, is predominantly Merlot) had a lot of fruit on the nose, but what there was on the palate was - yet again - totally masked by hefty tannins, which will take years to soften. Again, not for me.

I was left with the feeling that Alain Chabanon has totally changed his style of winemaking - and not for the better, in my opinion. His top wines have always been given long ageing in oak (in some cases, up to 36 months) but the results in years gone by were brilliant, complex and even "soft" wines that were approachable whilst young, even if they were built to age. Unfortunately, I can't see the current crop of wines doing the same thing. Shame.

Another important rendezvous for me was with Remy Reboul of Chateau d'Estoublon. Although I have been importing from Estoublon for a little while now, this was my first meeting with Remy. We didn't have time to talk at length, since the Estoublon stand (which they just happened to be sharing with their near neighbours Domaine de Trévallon) was extremely busy. Not surprising really, as the wines are top-notch and they had a fairly big stand, including an area laid out with some comfy chairs and tables - certainly no expense spared here! Whilst tasting through the wines, Remy asked if we would like a little food to accompany the wines. Why not, we said, thinking a few nibbles might tide us over until we went for lunch. Five minutes later, we were presented with what was pretty much a full three-course lunch of a standard which had to be tasted to be believed. I won't bore you with the details, although the coq au vin was utterly historic, with two pieces of succulent poulet laid on a bed of polenta with an amazingly rich and tasty sauce. Michelin star-standard cooking at a wine fair is not something one expects too often, but it certainly was appreciated!

Bernard compliments the chef on our delicious lunch

Although I have tasted most of the wines (and indeed sell them) it was nice to revisit the Chateau d'Estoublon Syrah 2008. A sample bottle I received a few months ago did not impress, and I gave it a rather unenthusiastic write-up in a blog entry at the time. But this one was spot on - rich but fresh, powerful but elegant, like a fine northern Rhone, but with an extra bit of southern Rhone stuffing. It may turn into something really special. It all served to confirm what I had previously suspected, which was that the sample bottle I had was faulty in some or other way. Chateau d'Estoublon is definitely an estate to watch.

Remy Reboul - winemaker at Chateau d'Estoublon

Once we had finished our lunch, Eloi Durrbach, who is something of a legend as far as I am concerned, came over to shake hands and exchange a few pleasantries. We tasted his Domaine de Trévallon red 2007, which showed all the hallmarks of yet another great wine. It was spicy and full, with oodles of garrigue herbs and poached red and black fruits, along with plenty of that juicy acidity which is a hallmark of Trévallon. At the time, I thought that it had some quite firm tannins, which would need a good few years of ageing to soften. It was only when I tasted more wines on other growers' stands that I realised that the delicious, but extremely rich and sweet dessert we had enjoyed on the Estoublon stand had made a big difference to my palate. A good few wines which I assume were actually very good actually tasted very tannic and austere after my taste buds had taken such a battering. Which leads me to suspect that the 2007 Trévallon is actually open for business and those tannins are very fine and pretty well integrated. Nevertheless, I think it will be a 15 year wine, if not 20 - and maybe even one of the great vintages.

That's it for now - in my next post, I'll mention a few more wines and growers of note from our last day, including a classic example of how to market some truly shit wines. No, I'm not cursing - they really were called "Vins de Merde"!

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Vinisud report, part 6 - Domaine La Combe Blanche and Domaine de La Marfée

Blimey - before I know it, Friday night has arrived and I've not posted since Tuesday. I must find more time, though I'm not sure where from. So if anybody knows how to fit more than 24 hours into a day, would you please let me know?

Anyway, continuing into the afternoon of our first day at Vinisud, we moved from Brigitte Chevalier's stand straight on to the Domaine La Combe Blanche stand, to spend some time tasting the wines and chatting with my good friend Guy Vanlancker. Those who know the story of how I got into the wine business in the first place will know about the key role played by this man and his wines. For those who don't, you can read all about it here on my website. You can also read more about my current selection of Guy's wines in the Domaine La Combe Blanche section of the website. Although I am extremely familiar with Guys wines, it would have been remiss of me not to taste a few whilst there.

Apart from his premium cuvées (La Galine and La Chandeliere being the top reds) there were some impressive "basic" Minervois reds. The 2009 - not yet bottled - was fabulously soft and primary, supple and intensely fruity. 2008 was somewhat richer, with ultra-ripe fruit. 2007 combined the richness of the '08 with the freshness of the '09 and was absolutely delicious. 2006 was spicy and firm, with a lovely core of fruit. I currently offer the 2005, which is lovely to drink right now, but my experience of previous vintages tell me it has even more to offer. The Vins de Pays from both Tempranillo and Cinsault are lovely wines, both of which display a mix of varietal character and the local terroir. The only grape that I feel Guy has not really nailed yet - at least on a regular basis - is Pinot Noir. The hills above La Liviniere tend to be subject to all the extremes that the different seasons can offer, and whilst the winters can be harsh - especially up on the relatively high slopes and plateaus - the summers are often conversely hot and dry, meaning that growing Pinot is a hit and miss affair. Then again, we all have our follies. And the occasional miss is more than made up for by an array of successes, year after year. I've been working with Guy from the very first day I started my business - and I'll be working to sell these lovely wines just as long as he keeps making them.
After we left Guy, we strolled around the various halls, stopping here and there to taste wines from various growers. Some of the visits were planned, others just took our fancy, for one reason or another. I'll post notes and thoughts on some of the highs and lows in due course. For now, I'll tell you about our last major visit of the day - and one which I had been really looking forward to - which was Domaine de La Marfée. I've had the opportunity to taste one or two older wines from this grower before, so I know how good they can be, and how ageworthy they are. Indeed, I posted a tasting note on a particularly enjoyable Les Vignes Qu'on Abat 1999 a couple of weeks ago. But having never tasted them on release before, I didn't really have any idea what to expect of them, given that they were relatively young. But these wines are, almost without exception, brilliant. There's no other word to describe them, in my humble opinion.

With a backgound in accountancy, Thierry Hasard came relatively late to winemaking, making his first wines in 1997. He farms around 6 hectares of vines (on a dozen or so different plots) near the village of Murviel Les Montpellier, a few kilometres west of Montpellier itself. He currently makes five wines - a white and four different reds.

Frissons d'Embolles 2007 is a blend of 70% Roussanne and 30% Chardonnay. It is full of minerally character, with aromas and flavours of herbs, stone fruit and citrus. There's a hint of reduction, though it certainly doesn't detract from the wine, and a touch of classy oak, which adds richness and depth. But the overall impression is of purity and finesse. A really lovely wine.

Les Gamines 2007 is 50% Syrah, 40% Mourvedre and 10% Grenache. I was obviously too busy enjoying this wine, because my rather brief note reads "berries galore - soft but so complex!"

Della Francesca 2007 is 85% Mourvedre and 15% Syrah. Savoury and herby, but again so fruity. Grippy and quite tight at present, but full of rich, almost pastilley-sweet fruit, with excellent balancing acidity.

Les Vignes Qu'on Abat 2007 is 100% Carignan. Once again, we have gorgeous, almost lush fruit, with hints of garrigue and an almost schiste-like minerality and remarkably ripe, velvety tannins. This is another really fabulous wine, which is already surprisingly approachable. A real testament to the potential of old Carignan vines (in the hands of the right winemaker, of course).

Les Champs Murmurés 2007 is Syrah and Mourvedre, made from very old vines. It is a little bit closed on the nose at present, although the palate is much more expressive. Again, a rich core of fruit, but with a cloak of tannins that needs another 2 or 3 years to soften. Nevertheless, another beautifully structured and classy wine.

Looking at the above notes, I almost sound as if I'm damning these wines with faint praise, but I can assure you that I was completely bowled over by them. The white is up there with the very best I have tasted from Languedoc. And the reds all have one particular thing in common, whatever the blends or varieties - and that is a depth of fruit which I find hard to describe. The nearest descriptor I can think of is fruit pastilles (especially the red and black ones) with a rich, deep flavour, like ultra-ripe raspberries and blackcurrants, but alwayys with a lick of mouth-watering acidity. Monsieur Hasard has been quoted as saying that he believes terroir is more important than grape variety. Whatever it may be down to (I think it is probably a blend of great terroir, top-notch viticulture and damn fine winemaking) there appears to be a clear style to these wines, and one that I find very easy to fall in love with. They are just wonderful.

Thierry Hasard of Domaine de La Marfée,
applying a biodynamic preparation in his vineyard

As with Mas Foulaquier (whose wines I talked about in part 2 of this report), it wasn't until later that I discovered that Domaine de La Marfée is biodynamic. Which I guess should not have come as a surprise. As I have said before, whatever you think of biodynamicism (extreme organics or just plain whacky) it is a philosophy which does tend to go hand-in-hand with a healthy respect for the land and a fastidious approach to winemaking. And when the wines are this good, you can't help but begin to believe in it.

I have therefore wasted no time in placing an order for a selection of all five of the above wines from Domaine de La Marfée (along with the range of wines from Mas Foulaquier) which should arrive in stock within the next 2 to 3 weeks. To say I am excited at the prospect of having them on my list is an understatement - I can't wait!

Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Vinisud report, part 5 - some super wines from a couple of my current growers

The wines of Mas de Lavail have been an integral part of my list for some years now. Indeed, I visited the estate again last summer, to taste the wines and bring back some sample bottles for tasting at home. On the basis of those bottles, I only intended to import two of the wines (the basic "Tradition" plus the vintage Maury, both of which are excellent, year-in, year-out) since I feared that some of the other cuvées were becoming a bit too big and rich - and hot - for their own good. But I'm glad that I stopped by their stand at Vinisud to taste the current vintages, because they all showed beautifully, and were generally a lot more restrained and balanced than the previous vintages. 

First up was Le Sud 2008 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes, which is a 50/50 blend of Grenache Gris and Grenache Blanc. Aromas of honey, citrus, fennel and creamy oak vanillin. At 14.5% abv, this is still a rich, powerful wine, but so much fresher than the 2007. I liked it a lot, so it is back on my shopping list!

Next was the red Tradition 2008 Cotes du Roussillon Villages, comprising 40% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 40% Carignan, aged in vat. This is a consistently reliable wine, and offers a brilliant quality/price ratio. This one has a nose of fresh fruits and tobacco and a palate that is juicy and ripe, with velvety tannins and good acidity. It's a shame I missed out on the outstanding 2007, which was undoubtedly the best vintage of this cuvée I have tasted, but the 2008 runs it very close. Another one for the shopping list. La Desirade 2006 Cotes du Roussillon is 50% Syrah, plus Grenache and Carignan, aged in barrel for 12 months. My note is a bit sparse, save to say that it is again better than the preious vintage, soft and lush, with a lot of fruit and nicely balanced. Ego 2006 Vin de Pays des Cotes Catalanes is (as always) a super-ripe 100% Grenache wine. At 11 o'clock in the morning (for it has just occurred to me that this was the very first stand we visited, even before the Sud de France room) I would have expected this wine to taste big and tannic, but not a bit of it - it is soft and voluptuous. Rich, but not soupy, and with surprising balance, given that it comes in at 15% abv. Another winner.

Maury Expression 2008 is also 100% old vine Grenache, made by the "mutage sur grains" method, with the fermentation stopped by the addition of a relatively small amount of grape spirit - classic Maury. Deep red, with a fragrant nose of stewed bramble, caramel and eau de vie. Extremely complex and mouth-filling, with flavours of bramble fruits, cassis and Seville orange. It has 80g of residual sugar and, at just 15.5% abv, is elegant and delicious. As I expected, this is a must buy. Muscat de Rivesaltes 2007 was a bit of a revelation, since I'm not the biggest fan of this style. But this was absolutely gorgeous - a riot of grapes, marmalade and clementines. The palate is clean and super-fresh, but with a marmaladey richness. Very long, too. I've yet to taste a better Muscat de Rivesaltes. Finally, Maury Blanc 2007 - quite oaky on the nose, but so complex. The aromas and flavours put me in mind of orange marmalade and fennel, with a fresh, almost zesty streak of acidity. Again, I've never been a fan of white Maury, but this was wonderful.

This was a very impressive line-up of wines and I clearly have some thinking to do. Seven different wines, and each one had merit, which is going to make narrowing it down to four or five a bit difficult. Not that I would expect much take-up for Muscat de Rivesaltes or Maury Blanc, but how could I not buy at least a little to try out on my customers? I may just take some of all seven!

Although I have been importing wines from Brigitte Chevalier for over a year now, we hadn't previously met (it was though my friend Guy Vanlancker, with whom Brigitte works to produce a fine La Liviniere red, that we actually came into contact). Therefore,  it was a joy to finally meet this delightfully unassuming, softly-spoken and intelligent lady, who speaks with great passion and enthusiasm about her subject. Brigitte previously worked as an export manager for négociant company in Bordeaux until she decided to return to her native Languedoc to make wine. She began by making wines from grapes bought-in from other growers. Whilst continuing with this policy, she now also makes top-notch wines from her own estate, Domaine de Cebene, situated in the far north of the Faugeres region. If that were not enough, she also manages her own négoce company, Chevalier Vins, working closely with top quality growers to produce wines from other appellations, such as Corbieres, Minervois.
Brigitte's own Faugeres and Vin de Pays d'Oc wines are not cheap, but they are amongst the best of their kind. Although I did of course taste those very wines whilst at Vinisud, I didn't make any notes - they are comprehensively covered on the Brigitte Chevalier page on my website. I did however taste some other wines in which Brigitte has a hand in both making and marketing, in conjunction with other growers. Chateau Fabas Minervois Rosé 2009 is, as I noted, simply lovely - proper rosé! Concertino 2007 Corbieres is really lovely stuff - wild and herby, with lovely fruit and spice flavours. I liked it a lot - and it is great value at well under 3 Euros ex-cellars. Domaine du Grand Cres "La Cadella" 2007 Corbieres is finer and more serious, but again with some lovely fruity, spicy flavours. A structured but supple wine, with some potential for ageing. At around 3 Euros ex-cellars, another serious bargain. Domaine Saint-Martin d'Agel 2008 Faugeres is even better, with lovely aromas of tobacco, garrigue and bramble. The palate is is rich, yet beutifully balanced, with subtle hints of tar and even citrus fruit - a lovely, refreshing red wine, and another really serious bargain at just over 3 Euros.

I look forward very much to working with Brigitte Chevalier in the years ahead, for she is a talented winemaker, who also has the ability to sniff-out some great bargains from other producers around the region. One of whom is, of course, my friend and inspiration, Guy Vanlancker, who just happened to walk by and say hello as we were finishing our tasting with Brigitte. I'll talk about Guy and his wines tomorrow, as well as telling you about my second major new discovery of the trip.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Vinisud report, part 4 - some thoughts from our first morning at Vinisud

After our rather hectic and very long day on Sunday, Bernard and I finally returned to our hotel in Marseillan at around half past midnight. I'm not saying I was tired, but after around 40 hours without any quality sleep, I was out like a light virtually as soon as my head hit the pillow. Eight hours of solid sleep later, it was time to get up again and face another day's wine tasting. Such a chore, I'm sure you'll agree, but it certainly beats what I usually have to look forward to on an average Monday morning!

Unfortunately, the hotel doesn't serve breakfast on a winter's Monday morning, so we took a stroll up the harbour to a café. 14 Euros for two coffees, two glasses of orange juice and four croissants wasn't particularly cheap, but it provided a welcome start to the day. By 9.30, we were on the road, and on this particular occasion, we took the coast road from Marseillan to Sete. Those of you with experience of this part of Mediterranean France will know that this particular stretch of beach is an enticing sight during the summer months. In winter, though, it is a different proposition - a stiff offshore breeze and a temperature of no more than 7 or 8 celsius, with the waves whipping-up to the very edge of the rocks, ensures that you don't hang around for long. Certainly makes you feel alive, though!

The beach near Marseillan Plage, with Sete in the distance.
Bernard looks impatient to get some wine tasting done!

Then it was off to the Parc des Expositions for the main event. Now believe me, Vinisud is big - very big. With around 1200 exhibitors, spread over 12 halls of sizes varying between large and very large, you could easily spend a whole week there and only really scratch the surface. But it lasts for just 3 days, and we were there for just 2. Therefore, it pays to go with a plan, otherwise it is very easy to waste a day just getting your bearings and meandering aimlessly - I know, because I've done that before. That is if you can actually get in to begin with. This is the third edition of Vinisud I have attended, and I've never seen it so busy. And I think that the organisers were taken by surprise as well, because, by the time we arrived at around 10.30, the car parks were all full. After driving around for ages, we finally gave up and drove off the site and looked for parking nearby. We eventually ended up on the side of the main road that runs along the back of the complex - not too bad, since it only entailed a 15-minute walk. Once in, we wasted no time in getting stuck in to some serious wine tasting. What follows (both in this post and a fe subsequent ones) is really just a resumé of the 2 days we spent at Vinisud - which was a mixture of planned stops at some of my own growers' stands, some new growers that Bernard and I were both interested in trying, plus a few unscheduled stops at stands that (for one reason or another) looked as if they might be interesting.

We started with an unscheduled visit to the Sud de France stand (actually, more like a giant room) which offered 421 different wines from some of the best - and perhaps not-so-best - growers in Languedoc and Roussillon who, I believe, had been asked to submit one or two wines for this line-up. The full-colour, ring-bound, A5-sized booklet produced especially for this line-up (and available free of charge) was impressive in itself. Each wine has its own page, containing just about as much information about wine and grower as you could want. At almost 3 centimetres thick, it was more of a book than a booklet! Rather than plough through the whole lot, from start to finish, we headed straight for the "Icon" wines. Here are a few brief thoughts.....

Following the recent Pinot Noir scandal, I couldn't resist trying Toques & Clochers Chardonnay "Autan" 2007 Limoux from the now infamous and discredited Sieur d'Arques co-operative. Undoubtedly a classy wine, with lots of oak treatment and really very well made. Not that I'll be jumping to buy any, in the forseeable future, whatever the price. Chateau Puech-Haut "Tete de Bélier" 2008 Coteaux du Languedoc is a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne, and has a lovely, fresh, fruity and herby nose - very elegant, with restrained use of oak. Domaine de Ravanes "Le Renard Blanc" 2005 VdP des Coteaux de Murviel is 100% Grenache Gris and is weird - quite oaky and reductive, with a combination of gunpowder and crystallised citrus fruits on the nose. A touch of residual sugar on the palate, with flavours of lemon, orange and toffee. Very whacky, but intense and really lovely. Then again, with an ex-cellars price of 22.50 Euros, it should be - that's getting on for £35 retail.

Although I didn't write any notes, the two wines from Clos Centeilles - namely, Capitelle de Centeilles 2002 Minervois and Clos Centeilles 2003 Minervois La Liviniere (yes, you read the vintages correctly) - were both hanging on beautifully. The former is from 55 year-old Cinsault vines, whilst the latter is Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache. Considering that these wines were produced in two of the most difficult vintages in recent decades (for very different reasons, of course) they were remarkably fine, and still very much alive. Having been extremely impressed with the whole range, when I visited Clos Centeilles around 10 years ago, it looks like I should pay them another visit sometime soon. Chateau de Cazeneuve "Le Roc des Mates" 2006 Pic Saint-Loup was herby, spicy and rich, with black fruit flavours. Ultimately, though, it seemed a bit simple - although there might be something more appealing lurking under all those tannins.

Domaine de Montcalmes 2007 Coteaux du Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac, on the other hand, which is another 'GSM' blend, was everything I expected it to be - schisty, herby, black olive and red/black fruits (particularly redcurrant). Great cool-climate Languedoc wine, fresh, balanced and almost sexy(!) I have some 2004 and 2005 tucked away in my own cellar, which pleases me no end. Superb wine. Possibly even better (though with an ex-cellars price of 28 Euros, as opposed to 10.5 for the Montcalmes, it damn-well ought to be) was Le Clos des Fées 2007 Cotes du Roussillon Villages. Made from equal parts of Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre, this was another supremely fresh, elegant, expressive wine, which is everything I would expect from one of the most hyped growers in Roussillon. Perhaps the fact that the yields are a miniscule 16 hl/ha and the wine is both vinified and aged in brand new oak barrels means that the production costs are high, though that ex-cellars price does suggest a retail price of around 40 quid, which is far from cheap. It is bloody lovely, though!

Domaine Gayda Chemin de Moscou 2007 VdP d'Oc is made by a "producteur/négociant" with vine holdings and suppliers in many different appellations in Languedoc and Roussillon. If this wine is anything to go by, I'd like to try some of their other wines. This wine (72% Syrah, plus Grenache and Cinsault) was fresh, perfumed and full of fruit. Very complex and really very good - especially at under 10 Euros a bottle, ex-cellars. Domaine l'Aiguiliere offered both of their flagship Coteaux du Languedoc Montpeyroux wines, namely Cote Dorée 2006 and Cote Rousse 2006, both of which are 100% Syrah, though from two totally different terroirs. The former seemed a bit green and tannic at this stage, whilst the latter was somewhat fresher, though still tannic and quite tarry. Let's be honest, they were certainly not easy wines to taste on a Monday morning, though I am loathe to damn them at such a young age. Indeed, Bernard and I enjoyed a beautiful (and only semi-mature) 2001 Cote Rousse in a restaurant the next evening, which shows that these are extremely well-structured and ageworthy wines. And at 11.50 Euros ex-cellars (so under 20 quid retail) they are pretty good value.

Finally, Bertrand-Bergé Cuvée Jean Sirven 2006 Fitou was both fruity and meaty/savoury, with a strong nose. Quite tannic, but again very fruity, if a little rich and slightly over-ripe. A lovely expression of the big (as opposed to elegant) style, and very ageworthy, I would say. We did taste some other wines from the Sud de France selection, but I only really made notes on the ones I felt to be notable in some or other way.

Just a small selection of the 400-plus wines available for tasting in the Sud de France room

And then it was time for a well-earned Toulouse sausage and onion baguette for lunch, before embarking on several more hours of intensive tasting. I'll add some more notes tomorrow.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Vinisud report, part 3 - Marseillan and Vinifilles

Having spent an extremely pleasant 75 minutes or so at Dégustation Melting Potes 2, it was time to say goodbye to my friend Peter Gorley and for Bernard and I to make a dash for our hotel in Marseillan. After a quick shower, there was no time to lose before heading off to Montpellier, for the launch party of Vinifilles. This is an organisation which exists (as the name suggests) in order to promote and further the cause of the many female winemakers in the Languedoc and Roussillon regions. You can read a fuller description of Vinifilles and their aims on Juliet Bruce Jones' Tales From Languedoc Wine Country blog.

The venue for the party was the Jam club. Due in no small part to the chaotic (i.e. largely unfinished) new road system in this suberb of Montpellier, we had the Devil's own job just finding the place. Despite the best efforts of our TomTom satellite navigation device, we spent a good 20 minutes circling the venue, without managing to get closer than about half a mile away! And when we did actually find it, the parking situation was, to put it mildly, a nightmare. After what must have been another 20 minutes-worth of circling, we eventually did what every normal Frenchman would do in a flash, which was to park on the only spare piece of car-sized ground we could find and trust to luck that our hire car would still be in one piece (or at least still there) when we returned.

By the time we walked into the venue, it was around 9 pm and the party had been in full swing for ages and a band was busy playing in the main room, which consisted of a bar, hot buffet and a stage with literally hundreds of people milling about. It was certainly hectic (as was the wine tasting area in an adjacent room) but there was a great atmosphere, and it was good to see so many people there to support the event. Although Bernard and I hadn't eaten since arriving at Peter's house in the afternoon, we didn't go hungry, as there seemed to be an inexhastable supply of hot buffet food to dip into. Several small portions of delicious spiced chicken and pork and noodles went down very nicely, in the absence of a proper evening meal.

The 18 members of Vinifilles, relaxing with a drink, before the party kicked-off
(image courtesy of Louise Hurren)

The tasting room was thronging, with a huge table in the middle of the room laid out with what must have been in excess of 100 different wines available for tasting. It was a bit chaotic, at least by the time we got there, and it was basically a case of helping yourself to whatever wines took your fancy. Naturally, I took the opportunity to taste the ranges from the two members of Vinifilles whose wines I sell, namely Laeticia Pietri-Clara of Domaine Pietri-Geraud and Véronique Etienne at Chateau La Dournie. Laeticia's Banyuls wines are especially noteworthy, whilst Véronique makes wonderfully expressive, terroir-laden Saint-Chinians - and, it must be said, very feminine wines. Not that all of the wines on show were made in such a feminine style - in fact there were a good few wines which (to my palate, at least) came across as rich, ripe and pretty full-on. Maybe it was just that we were at the end of a very tiring day (which began around 20 hours earlier, remember) but I came away with the feeling that, whilst some of these ladies are making some really elegant(and even feminine) wines, others are making the sort of wines that will be appreciated by lovers of the big, bold, super-concentrated style. All-in-all, an excellent event, and a nice way to finish a very busy day! For the full list of members of Vinifilles, see the Vinifilles website.

Incidentally, it was also nice to meet up and have a quick chat with Ryan O'Connell, of O'Vineyards, who is doing such excellent work with his Love That Languedoc video blog. Keep up the good work, Ryan!

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A delicious 2007 Côtes du Rhône

Right, I’ve been a bit lazy over the last couple of evenings. Well, not just lazy – but busy with this and that. So I shall resume the Vinisud write-up tomorrow (I promise). For now, though, here's a quick detour into another of “my” wines that I am enjoying this evening, whilst preparing some of my wonderful (though I say so myself) home-made pizza.….

I read a comment by someone on a wine forum the other day that they don’t make Cotes du Rhone like they used to. Well here’s one that ticks all the boxes – La Ferme du Mont Premier Côte 2007 Côtes du Rhône. When I came back from Vinisud, I found that I’d had a bit of a run on orders of this wine, due to a recent recommendation on Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages forum. I was running low on stocks at my Nottingham store anyway, so I’d arranged to pick up a whole load of wines (including a couple of cases of this one) from the bonded warehouse I use in Rotherham, whilst on the way back from Manchester Airport last week. Unfortunately, those unexpected orders meant that I still don’t have enough local stock, so I need to go and get some more tomorrow. Best laid plans, and all that! Anyway, since I was racking my brains about what to open tonight, to accompany the pizza, I thought I’d open a bottle for us to enjoy with it. And it is really lovely.

The nose is a riot of wild strawberries, briary, redcurrants and cherries, with additional notes of smoky incense, undergrowth and polished wood. It also possesses what that person on the wine forum says he is missing, these days – garrigue herbs by the bucket-load. The combination of all those fruit, herb and woody/leathery aromas really does add up a to a most enticing nose. The palate is beautifully fresh and bright, with flavours of cherry, redcurrant and cranberry, along with savoury and spicy notes and a hint of bitter chocolate adding richness. Firm tannins are offset by a healthy level of alcohol (14.5%), which creates enough of a feeling of sweetness to balance them out, with ample acidity completing the package. The result is a deliciously fruity, tangy, soft, juicy wine, which is a delight to drink now. It isn’t a style that I want to drink all of the time (I crave elegance more and more, these days) but it is really hitting the spot on this cold, frosty, late winter’s evening.

If you like the sound of it, try some - I promise you will not be disappointed! Oh, and at just £8.50 a bottle, it is a steal(!)