Friday, 30 July 2010

Two lovely mature(ish) wines enjoyed over the last couple of nights - and some thoughts on the plight of a struggling Languedoc winemaker

Here a some thoughts on a couple of wines I have enjoyed over the last couple of evenings - both quite mature and both rather lovely. And there is a real story behind the second one, so please bear with me and you'll hopefully get an impression of how difficult life is for so many vignerons in the south of France - even some of the best.

I opened this last night, and what a lovely surprise - I expected it to be good, but not this good! Lledoner Pelut is said to be a "hairy-leafed" close relative of the Grenache variety - some say it is probably one and the same grape, but I doubt it, for this wine is more elegant and refined than just about any Grenache I have tasted. The colour is medium-deep carmine red at the core, leading to a wide, light ruby red rim, with subtle shades of amber – in other words, it is beginning to show some signs of maturity. The nose was a touch bretty/funky on first pouring, but there is a lovely core of ripe red and black fruits lurking in the background. And it doesn’t take long before most of the funkiness dissipates to reveal heady scents of damsons and wild strawberries, complemented by subtle notes of forest floor and very carefully judged oak. There is also a suggestion of cherry and orange peel. Add to that a mix of garrigue herbs and exotic spices, and what you get is a very alluring wine with more than a degree of complexity. And the palate certainly lives up to the promise of the nose – the fruit is a delightful combination of sweet and sour, with elegant flavours of raspberry and redcurrant, countered by a touch of spiced bramble richness. Fine tannins and a mouth-watering backbone of juicy acidity complete the package. Lledoner Pelut may well be a variation of Grenache – and it has certain similarities when young - but at almost 6 years of age, this wine has begun to take on more than a hint of Burgundian Pinot Noir character. It has turned into a wine of great elegance and finesse, and I suspect that it has the potential to develop even further over the next 5 years. Indeed, the last glass, consumed tonight, after the bottle had been open for 24 hours, was still lovely and fresh. This is a wine that has, for some reason, been very slow in selling and I was about to put my last 16 bottles or so into an up-coming bin-end sale. But I’ve now decided to keep a half dozen back for myself, to enjoy over the next few years – and leave the remaining bottles for eagle-eyed customers to fight over, at the regular price of £13.95. Which, on this showing, is an absolute bargain!

Domaine La Combe Blanche La Galine 2001 Minervois La Liviniere
I opened this wine tonight - and got just as much of a pleasant surprise as with the Lledoner Pelut. I'll tell you why, after I've told you how good it was. It is quite a mature colour, blood red at the core, with a wide, semi-transluscent ruby/amber rim. The nose has bramble, wild strawberry and orange peel, married to classy cigar box/polished wood aromas, not to mention garrigue herbs, cinnamon, cloves and eau de vie - imagine, if you will, a box of mixed fruits, herbs and exotic spices, left to infuse inside an old wardrobe(!) The palate is equally complex - rich and brambly, but imbued with a softness and lightness of touch borne of 9 years of maturity. It has all manner of crystallised fruit flavours, tea, orange, lovely acidity, fine tannins and a long, warm finish. Not that all those aged aromas and flavours mean that this is over the hill. Far from it - 2001 was one of the greatest Languedoc vintages in recent memory, and a wine as good as this certainly has the structure to go on for a number of years yet. It is just lovely, and reminds me yet again why Guy Vanlancker and his wines were so instrumental in me starting a wine business in the first place.

So why was this wine such a pleasant surprise? Because it is a sample bottle! Guy rarely does things the simple way, and this is a classic example of his somewhat eccentric way of doing things. La Galine is one of the wines Guy makes only in the better vintages. When I first started my business (in late 2003) the vintages available to me were the 1999 and 2000. I took the slightly more forward 2000 first, then eventually moved onto the later-maturing 1999. Next up was the 2003 vintage, which Guy only released for sale about a year ago. When I met up with him on my recent holiday, he gave me samples of most of his current releases, which included the 2007 La Galine..... and the 2001.

Which begs the question, where has this wine been for the last 9 years? Great winemaker that he is, Guy is (much like me) pretty useless as a businessman/salesman. And the sad fact is that he makes more wine than he can comfortably sell, especially in the better vintages, when he has (historically, at least) made more of his top cuvées. And as we all know, top cuvées cost more to make, take longer to reach the bottling stage and are more expensive/difficult to sell. And unsold wine means less cashflow. As a result, Guy has not bought any new barrels since 2001 - he simply can't afford them. All of the wines he makes now are aged either in vats or in barrels of around 10 vintages or more. And, last time I was there, his cramped winery in the village of La Liviniere was still crammed full of barrels, in some places from floor to ceiling.

With the spectacular 2001 vintage, Guy probably made more of his premium cuvées than ever. The brilliant La Chandeliere 2001 has long since sold out, and I also recently sold the last of my stocks of the (almost as good) Clos du Causse 2001. And I suspect that this La Galine 2001 has been sitting in vat or barrel(s) in some inaccessible corner of his cellar for all that time, waiting for the other 2001's to sell out. I am almost certain that it hasn't been in bottle for that long, because it is sealed under a different cork - Guy's corks used to be embossed with "La Combe Blanche", whereas they now just say "Mis en bouteille a la propriete" (after all, when every cent counts, extra frills mean unneccessary expenditure). And the label is of the more "modern" design that Guy introduced a few years back. Furthermore, winemakers must pay taxes on wines they hold in bottle, so it makes financial sense only to bottle a wine when it is actually released for sale. So what we have here is a brilliant, semi-mature wine, which is only now available not because of a deliberate marketing strategy, but because of stark financial reality. It is great for merchant and punter alike, to be able to obtain such mature wines at very reasonable prices, but it is bad for the winemaker - and only serves to highlight the perennial struggle that so many vignerons in Languedoc face, merely to keep their heads above the water.

To be honest, I don't know whether to feel happy or sad. I got into the wine business because I wanted to work alongside and with wonderful people like Guy Vanlancker. And it would give me almost as much pleasure to see Guy get that fancy house and winery up in the hills that he dreams of, as it would for me to see my own labours in the wine business finally bear fruit. The fact is, that is not likely to happen without some much-needed investment.

Tasting barrel samples in Guy Vanlancker's cellar in August 2003 - many of those barrels were fairly new at the time, but no new ones have been added since then.

Incidentally, I also opened my bottle of La Galine 2007 the other night, although I did so quite late in the evening, so wasn't really in the right frame of mind to give it the attention it deserved. Revisiting it now (a good 3 or 4 days after opening) I have to say it really is good. Whilst it lacks the sheer complexity of the brilliant 2001 (and, of course, has very little oak influence) it has a delicious core of both fresh and crystallised fruits, garrigue and spice, with some very faint cedary/sous bois notes. The palate is fresh and full of vitality and, despite the lack of any oak component, it has the structure in its own right to age nicely over the next 5 or more years. After all, great winemakers will make great wine, whatever the constraints placed upon them.
Look out for the 2001 when it arrives in stock at the end of the summer. At a guess, I would say the price will be no more than about £12.


Graham said...

Been a while since you've covered a Languedoc tipple - you must have overdone it on your hols :)

Coincidently bought a 2004 Colombette Lledoner Pelut in Pezenas recently. Have decided to appreciate it in cooler autumn weather. Incidentally your price looks keen (recall it was around 15 euros).

Also tried their Sauvignon blanc which went down very well with visitors who drink new world equivalent in the UK. Not Loire style, but then that's as it should be.

Presume La Galine is a Syrah dominated blend?

Louise Hurren said...

Maybe you've put your finger right on it: "Great winemaker that he is, Guy is (much like me) pretty useless as a businessman/salesman. And the sad fact is that he makes more wine than he can comfortably sell..."

Anyone running any kind of business needs a business plan - which includes how you are going to sell your product or service, and to who, and at what price. As another winemaker- who shall remain nameless - said to me not that long ago :"Anyone can make decent wine these days. The problem is selling it." I do have empathy for producers in Guy's situation, but at the same time, you wonder what they were thinking when they went into the winemaking business.

Leon Stolarski said...

Graham - I think I have a duty as a wine enthusiast to taste as much as I can from lots of different regions and countries. But then again, it always comes back to Languedoc eventually. ;-)

Louise - Business plan? What's a business plan? ;-)) To be fair, Guy has been making wine since the mid-1980's, so he must have been doing something right all these years. And being owed a substantial amount of money by a - how can I put this? - "business associate" doesn't help to ease the financial burden. It's not me, by the way!

I'm no businessman either, otherwise I wouldn't still be working in a day job I loathe after nearly 6 years in the wine business. But we all have a dream, and I'm following mine. And Guy still follows his - if you've met the man, then you will surely realise it is in his blood. :-)

Jon Hesford said...

Not sure I agree that anyone can make a decent wine these days. I guess it depends on what decent means. Guy's wines are significantly above the decent level and the prices are very reasonable too.

He has two little problems. One is to get the older stocks sold at a fair price to give him cashflow and the second is to secure a wider demand for his wines for the future. Sud de France are organising a Copenhagen tasting soon which may be of interest.