Sunday, 28 November 2010

Ahahr! The wines of the Ahr Valley

There were many such awful puns at last week's meeting of the Nottingham Wine Circle, as we gathered to taste a selection of young white, rosé and red wines from the tiny and relatively unknown Ahr Valley region of Germany. Most of us had very little previous experience of Ahr wines before this tasting, presented by Kevin Scott and his half-German wife Ena Marie. The Ahr Valley is even more northerly than the Mosel Valley, but its particularly ambient microclimate makes growing red wines (pricipally from Pinot Noir) viable. The wines are certainly not cheap (around 10 Euros seems to be the starting point for a drinkable wine) but the proximity of cities such as Bonn and Cologne means that the majority of its relatively small production is easily sold directly from the cellar door, to day trippers from the cities. Hence, very few of them seem to find their way across the water to the UK - and if they do, they are invariably expensive.

Here are my tasting notes, with cellar door prices (where available) in Euros;

1. Meyer-Näkel 2009 Weissburgunder - €9.80
Very pale colour. Lots of non-wine aromas - minerals, slate, flowers and spices, with just a hint of lemon and apple. The palate is very lemony, yet quite rich and peppery, not unlike a Gruner Veltliner. Well balanced and quite complex, finishing very fresh.

2. Kreuzberg 2009 Pinot Blanc - €10.00
Ultra-pale colour. The nose is very minerally, herbaceous too, with aromas of pea pod and nettle. Very young, fresh and fruity, with tangerine and grape flavours, but again very minerally. Not complex, but a nice drink.

3. Kreuzberg 2009 Blauer Spätburgunder (Blanc de Noir) - €10.00
Almost white, but with a very pale pink hue. Herbaceous and minerally, with lovely grape and wild strawberry flavours and nice acidity. Not serious, but very fruity and refreshing.

4. Meyer-Näkel 2009 Riesling
Nettles and lemons, with some minerality. Not very Riesling-like on the nose, though a touch more so on the palate. Very minerally and lemony, herby and herbaceous. A touch sugary, but with with excellent minerality. I think this has lots of promise. Edit - over a week later (I took the remnants home with me) that sugary layer has disappeared and it the wine is much more integrated, quite lemony, even steely, in an Alsace sort of way.

5. Deutzerhof 2009 Catharina C
This too is a Riesling, but has aromas and flavours of caramel. There is a touch of lemony fruit, but despite some richness on the palate, it is really quite austere on the whole, and quite bitter. Not a particularly pleasant drink.

6. Deutzerhof 2008 Saumon de L’Ahr (Rose)
An interesting nose - smoky, spicy, but Pinot-y. The palate, however, is harsh, like cheap Beaujolais Nouveau. Lemon-pithy and bitter.

7. Deutzerhof 2009 Cossmann-Hehle (unoaked) - €9.50
A nice New Zealand-like Pinot nose, which promises much, but delivers stalky tannins. There is some really nice Pinot fruit lurking in there, but it is virtually impossible to get past those tannins. Hard work.

8. Max Schell 2008 Frühburgunder - €9.00
Frühburgunder is apparently a different clone (or mutation) of Pinot Noir from the usual Spätburgunder version. This one has a lovely nose - very fruity, peppery and spicy. The palate has some noticeable oak to it, along with some nice fruit, but it is spoiled a little by a slight bitterness on the finish. Perhaps smothered by the oak?

9. Meyer-Näkel 2009 Frühburgunder - €17.00
This has a really deep colour and smells a bit like a serious, oaked Gamay, rather than a Pinot Noir - squished plums, cherry and bramble do not suggest Pinot. The palate is rich, soft, deeply fruity and velvety. A touch of stalkiness on the nose is softened on the palate by some classy oak. I think there is an interesting (though atypical) wine in there just waiting to emerge, but it needs a good few years yet.

10. Kreuzberg 2008 Spätburgunder unplugged - €14.00
A nice light colour, with a delicately fruity nose - strawberry, raspberry and undergrowth. The palate is light, but very fruity, even if a touch lean at the moment. A nice drink.

11. Meyer-Näkel 2008 G - €14.50
A deeper colour, with an attractive nose displaying typical Pinot fruit and a hint of orange. Nicely oaked, slightly medicinal and again a touch stalky, but quite peppery too. Needs time, I think.

12. Deutzerhof 2007 Balthasar C - €20.00(?)
Pinot ..... and Coca Cola, with some older oak notes, herbs, spices and leather. The palate is nicely fruity, sweet and orangey, with good acidity and a hint of tannin. A bit like a middling New Zealand Pinot, but without the sweet finish. I like it.

13. Deutzerhof 2007 Caspar C - €21.00
Somebody said "Givry meets Frühburgunder - and I see what they mean. There's quite a lot of extraction, but it is well done, with a nice whiff of old(er) oak. The palate is quite Burgundian to begin with, but then it becomes a bit astringent, with a somewhat stalky bitterness on the finish. I think this needs time, but for now, the jury is out. See * below, for a later assessment.

14. Kreuzberg 2007 Schieferlay GG Spätburgunder - €27.00
Very Pinot on the nose - fruity, very fragrant and elegant. Sweet wild strawberry and orange fruit, nicely balanced, if slightly low on acidity - again, there's a touch of New Zealand style winemaking here. The best Pinot of the night, and a lovely wine - but is it really worth that sort of money? See ** below, for a later assessment.

15. Meyer-Näkel 2008 S - not sure of the price
A deepish colour. I get the feeling that this is (or was) a good wine, but - though not overtly oaky - whatever time it has spent in barrel seems to have stripped away the vitality from the fruit. I'm really not sure about this one.

As a postcript to this tasting, it wasn't until a full 6 days later that I remembered I'd taken the remnants of a couple of the Pinots home with me - and, to my amazement, they has really blossomed!

The Deutzerhof 2007 Caspar C is really rather lovely, especially the nose, which has a wonderful perfume of pure, Burgundian Pinot Noir fruit - wild strawberries and redcurrants, with gamey, herby notes and polished old wood. The palate also has true Pinot structure and flavour, not to mention a great deal of elegance, which suggests to me that this could end up being something quite special in another 5 to 10 years.

The Kreuzberg 2007 Schieferlay GG Spätburgunder is also really singing. It too has that wonderful wild strawberry fragrance that only great Pinot Noir seems to be capable of, along with a touch of orange zest, rotting leaves and polished wood - a nose that puts me in mind of a Joseph Swan Pinot Noir. In fact, if I were tasting it blind, I might be fooled into thinking it was a very fine cool-climate Californian Pinot, or even a semi-mature 1er Cru Burgundy, although the slightly restrained (though still ample) acidity would suggest the former, rather than the latter. Oak? Yes, it is there, but it works in complete harmony with the fruit, in a wine which really does add up to more than the sum of its parts - a glorious wine, in fact!

Would I buy these wines for myself? Well, to be honest, not many of them - the prices, even at the cellar door, are not really matched by the quality I would expect. In fact, the white wines appear to be no more than competent, at best - and when you can visit a really good grower in the Mosel and buy some really cracking wines for around 6 Euros upwards, the Ahr whites offer a very poor quality-price ratio. The "cheaper" Ahr reds also don't really deliver. But I'm really glad that I tasted the above two wines again, because they were a revelation, and demonstrated that the Ahr Valley is capable of producing world class Pinot Noir - all they need is time to reveal their true colours.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Bordeaux or Barolo? A bit of a no-brainer!

Those of you who visit the forum - and I know of quite a few of you do - may have noticed yet another discussion on the "merits" or otherwise of expensive Bordeaux. And there is nothing more certain in life (apart from death itself, of course) than the fact that such a discussion will, sooner rather than later, degenerate into a right royal case of handbags-at-ten-paces. The recipe is very simple;

Attend an event where a handful of top Bordeaux reds are offered for tasting (for maximum effect, they should be First Growths - and ideally with examples of both painfully young and relatively mature wines, by way of comparison). Confirm your long-held suspicion that they really aren't that brilliant and offer shockingly bad value, even for your average billionaire football club owner's money. Write about your experiences on a wine forum which you know to be frequented by wine lovers of all persuasions, from supermarket bargain hunters to serious collectors with fat wallets. Then light the blue touch paper, retire to a safe distance and wait for the fireworks (or handbags) to begin.

I must admit there was a time when I would find it very hard to resist joining in these "discussions", but I eventually grew tired of the posturing and the willy-waving. On the one side you have the vast majority, with their catholic tastes and desire to explore the great world of wine - and on the other, you have the minority, with their unshakable belief that the wines of their chosen region (not necessarily always Bordeaux - Burgundy has its insufferable bores, too) are best, and everyone else is drinking second-rate stuff. Of course, the fact that top Bordeaux is now way beyond the means of the vast majority of drinkers (apart from those who like to keep up with the Jones's, at whatever cost) leaves most drinkers with little option but to be more adventurous. But given that it is possible to pick up a whole case of very fine wine from regions such as the Rhône, Barolo, (traditional) Rioja, California, Australia, Languedoc and even Burgundy for the price of a single bottle of First Growth Bore-deaux, it becomes a bit of a no-brainer. So why bother arguing?

Which all leads me very neatly onto last weekend, when my friend Andy Leslie laid on a rather wonderful dinner party, based largely around funghi of various types, accompanied by a mightily impressive (and beautifully aged) bunch of Piedmont wines.

This being a dinner party, it would have been a little too geekish even for me to write notes on the wines. Instead, we concentrated on enjoying and appreciating them in the way they were designed to be - as an accompaniment to fine food. Before getting down to the really serious stuff, we enjoyed a trio of white palate cleansers; a delicious, frothy, semi-sweet Bera Moscato 2009 was followed by a rather hedonistic and perfectly aged Perrier Jouet Belle Epoque Champagne 1989 and Afros Vinho Verde 2009. Then it was onto the food - and truly outstanding food it was, too;

  • Starter - Fresh tagliatelle (home-made, of course) with white truffle shavings
  • Mains - Mushrooms stuffed with puffball duxelle and topped with fontina; potato and cep gratin; wild mushroom tart; biodynamic greens(!)
  • Cheese - Wigmore Waterloo (similar to a really good Brie) and a huge chunk of aged Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Dessert - Quince & cardamom tart with pine-nut honey ice cream
  • Chocolates
Here's a little food porn for you (with apologies for the somewhat blurry middle photo)................

Tagliatelle with white truffle shavings

Wigmore Waterloo and Parmigiano Reggiano

That little lot was perfectly accompanied by the following wines;
  • Pio Cesare Barolo 1978
  • Prunotto Barbaresco Riserva Montestefano 1982
  • Prunotto Barolo Cannubi Riserva 1982
  • Pio Cesare Barolo 1985
  • Brovia Barolo Rocche Riserva 1985
  • Mascarello Monprivato Barolo1985

As I said, this was not an occasion for note-taking, but all of the wines performed brilliantly, with my favourites being the rich, ripe, concentrated (and still only semi-mature) Pio Cesare 1978 and the beautifully rounded, soft, warming and slightly more modern Mascarello Monprivato 1985. In fact, all of the Barolos were pretty outstanding examples of their kind, and left the Barbaresco slightly trailing in their wake (though it would undoubtedly still shine amongst lesser company).

So where is the link between expensive Bordeaux and Barolo? Well, I would be willing to bet that none of the wines we enjoyed that evening cost more than £30-£40 (mostly from auction, I guess) and some may have been considerably less. But make no mistake, these were wines fit to grace any dinner table - and far more enjoyable than 95% of all the Bordeaux I have ever drunk (including a fair proportion of classed growths). In fact, the greatest expense involved in this particular dinner was surely Andy's trip to London last Friday - seemingly made with the sole intention of "scoring" that fabulous white truffle!

White truffle

So thanks to Andy and his lovely lady Jo, for a truly wonderful evening of (very) fine food, and some really outstanding wines - I really do feel blessed to have such generous and welcoming friends, whose company I value greatly. And I think they (and all the others present) will join me in saying you can keep your expensive Bore-deaux, whilst the rest of us enjoy wines with far more interest and character that don't cost the earth. ;-)

Thursday, 18 November 2010

The Outsiders (Part 4) - Domaine de Calet and Domaine de Cébène

This is the final instalment of my write-up from last week's Outsiders tasting in London, featuring two more growers whose wines impressed me greatly. 

Anna-Lena and Yvon Gentes - Domaine de Calet, Beauvoisin

Anna-Lena and Yvon Gentes spent 30 years in Anna's native Sweden - Anna-Lena was a nursery teacher, whilst Yvon was a major player in the Swedish seafood industry. In 1999, they bought a run-down 30 hectare wine estate on the fringes of the Camargue, in the Costières de Nîmes. I almost didn't get around to sampling their wines, as time was fast running out, but I am mighty glad that I did so, as they are producing some really excellent wines, made with the minimum intervention and careful (i.e. minimal) use of sulphites. They received organic certification 2 years ago and are currently in conversion to full biodynamic status.

Domaine de Calet Long Terme 2008 Costières de Nîmes
75% Syrah and 25% Grenache. 20% of the blend spends time in 2 year-old oak barrels. The nose is lovely - very perfumed and clearly dominated by Syrah. In fact, there's even a hint of the Northern Rhône about it, with flowers, spice and savoury making for a wine of surprising complextity (given the relatively low price). And the palate certainly lives up to its promise, with a hint of oak influence, but dominated by rich, expressive, spicy fruit, whilst remaining very elegant. If only most Côtes du Rhône was half as good. A really lovely wine!

Domaine de Calet Grand Mas 2007 Costières de Nîmes
85% Syrah and 15% Grenache. Quite a similar wine to the Long Terme, again with an amazing Northern Rhône-like Syrah nose. The palate is again rich, but soft, velvety, ripe, and chock full of wild strawberry, bramble and plum flavours, whilst managing to remain beautifully elegant. Another lovely wine.

Domaine de Calet La Tournerie 2007 Costières de Nîmes
85% Grenache, 15% Syrah, aged for between 12 and 15 months in oak barrels. This has only just been bottled and is currently a little dominated by the oak, but it is very skilfully done, and there is so much fruit lurking in there, with abundent bramble and cassis flavours, complemented by garrigue herbs and soft spices. Quite a big wine, but very long in the mouth and showing huge potential for medium to long-term ageing.

Domaine de Calet Travers du Rey 2005 Costières de Nîmes
100% Syrah, from yields of just 20 hl/ha, aged for 18 months in new oak barrels. I must admit I found this quite hard to taste, since the oak is still very dominant. There is undoubtedly an enormous amount of fruit underneath the oak, but I feel it needs a good few years to really start to express itself. Given my experience of the other wines, I wouldn't be surprised if this turned out to be a really fabulous wine in 5 to 10 years, but it is currently a bit "international" in style, for my palate.

Brigitte Chevalier - Domaine de Cébène, Caussiniojouls

The delightful Brigitte Chevalier needs no introduction to regular readers of my blog, nor to those of my customers who have been lucky (or canny) enough to have tasted her wines. I have written about Brigitte a couple of times already this year, once as part of my Vinisud report and again in June, when I visted her cave in Caussiniojouls, deep in the heart of the Faugères region. I tasted the following 3 wines in June, whilst they were still resting in cuves, prior to being bottled, but I lost my notes. I didn't actually taste them on the day of the Outsiders tasting (knowing that I would soon be taking delivery of a range of wines from Brigitte very soon anyway) but took the bottles of Ex Arena, Bancels and Felgaria back home with me to taste. Even then, I didn’t actually taste them and write my notes until a few days ago – and they still tasted wonderful, even after being open for up to 5 days!

Domaine de Cébène Ex Arena 2009 Vin de Pays d'Oc
Grenache and Mourvedre, from sand-based terroir in Corneilhan, just north of Béziers. Tasting this after being open for 2 days, it really is only just beginning to get into its stride. Lovely aromas of poached raspberry, cherry and redcurrant, with background notes of leather, sandalwood and eau de vie. There are also enticing notes of fresh bread, spices and garrigue - so complex! The palate has layer upon layer of red and black fruit flavours, with hints of soft citrus and peel, with a touch of nicely integrated oak. It has power, but without too much weight or extraction, grippy but fine tannins and a decent backbone of acidity. It is a really lovely wine, which probably needs 3 to 5 years to show its best - or just a couple of days' air, to help it open-out(!) Very complex, and worthy of contemplation.

Domaine de Cébène Les Bancels 2009 Faugères
50% Syrah, 35% Grenache and 15% Mourvedre, grown on schiste. This had been open for 5 days(!) and was still very fresh. Indeed, the aromas fairly leap out of the glass, which is sitting a foot away from me as I write, and I can still smell the glorious aromas of bramble, raspbery and redcurrant steeped in eau de vie, with notes of oregano and cinnamon, leather and polished wood. It is indeed a rare wine that can do that.The palate is truly expressivewith warming spice and savoury/herby flavours mingling with red and black fruits, fine tannins and excellent acidity. The result is a wine of enormous complexity, combining fruit, savoury, sweet and sour in a rich, even powerful, yet deceptively elegant, feminine wine. A fabulous wine, with great potential for development. No wonder Tim Atkin scored it 94/100!

Domaine de Cébène Felgaria 2009 Faugères
50% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 20% Grenache. This is Brigitte's top cuvée - deep, dark (almost opaque), brooding and even more serious than Les Bancels. Bramble and blackcurrant aromas mingled withblack cherry and seville orange. Once again, laden with herbs and exotic spices, meat and and an enticing hint of volatile acidity. There's a strong schiste/mineral streak, together with classy cedar/cigar box and an amazing freshness and vitality (again, even after several days) - another astonishingly complex wine. The palate is rich, deeply flavoured and beautifully extracted, without sacrificing its inherent freshness. The flavours are complex and full of fruit, with supple tannins and fresh, almost lemony acidity. The finish is spicy, zesty and very long. A glorious bottle of wine. It won't be cheap, at over £20, but Faugères does not get any better than this.

That's it for this year's Outsiders tasting. Well done to Louise Hurren for such a brilliantly organised event and thanks to all the growers for coming over. I do hope it will become an annual fixture, and that the Outsiders group go from strength to strength!

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Outsiders (Part 3) - Château d'Anglès and O'Vineyards

Here's the third part of my review of the Outsiders tasting in London last week, featuring the wines of a couple more excellent growers. Part 4 will follow tomorrow.

Eric, Vianney and Arnaud Fabre - Chateau d'Anglès, Saint-Pierre la Mer, La Clape

Following 8 years as technical director at Château Lafite Rothschild in Paulliac, Eric Fabre purchased the historic La Clape estate of Château d'Anglès in 2002. He now runs the estate with his two sons Vianney and Arnaud. Only 36 of the 80 hectares are planted to vines, the remainder being a mixture of wild garrigue and pine forest. La Clape was once a small island off the coast of Narbonne, but is now joined to the Mediterranean coastline and is effectively a small mountain (well, a hill really) reaching an altitude of around 200m (650 feet). Average temperatures are amongst the highest in France, thus providing an ideal climate for grape growing, whilst the closeness of the Mediterranean ensures the wines are imbued with a certain maritime savoury/saline quality.

Château d'Anglès Classique Blanc 2008 Languedoc La Clape
A blend of Bourboulenc, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne. Apricots and flowers on the nose. A rich palate, quite warming and winey, rather than obviously fruity. But the nose won me over - and I think it has more to give, with a year or two more in bottle.

Château d'Anglès Grand Vin Blanc 2007 Languedoc La Clape
Same blend, which I assume spends at least some time in oak barrels. A bready, mealy, quite oaky nose, with notes of honey, apricot and orange. The palate is rich and oaky and quite warm.

Château d'Anglès Classique Rouge 2007 Languedoc La Clape
Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache, aged in vat. Garrigue herbs and soft, crystallised fruits on the nose, with a touch of savoury/saline. The palate is very elegant and soft, with savoury, spice and bags of fruit, complemented by fine tannins. Quite complex and long. I like it.

Château d'Anglès Grand Vin Rouge 2007 Languedoc La Clape
40% Syrah, 40% Mourvedre, plus Grenache and Carignan, aged for 10 months in a mix of new, one and two year-old barrels. Very fragrant on the nose, with soft fruits, savoury and garrigue in equal measures, with nicely softened cedary oak. Rich, but soft in the mouth, with crystallised fruits and a gentle spiciness. Quite modern, but very elegant. Lovely wine.

Ryan O'Connell - O'Vineyards, Villemoustaussou, Carcassonne

Ryan O'Connell, his American father Joe and French/Vietnamese mother Liz arrived France in 2005, having traded the family business building luxury homes in Florida for a more rural existence making wine in the Cabardès region. Ryan is full of infectious enthusiasm and, as well as making some very good wines, works tirelessly in promoting the wines of southern France as a whole.  His favourite toy is his flip video camera, which he uses to good effect, creating an ever-increasing number of informative and enthusiastic (and occasionally very funny) short videos, featuring visits to different growers the length and breadth of Languedoc and Roussillon, which he posts regularly on his Love That Languedoc blog. In fact, Ryan leaves no stone un-turned in using the power of the Internet to get the message across about the joys of wine as a whole, and about Languedoc and Roussillon in particular. Long may he keep blogging, Facebooking, Tweeting and generally bigging-up his adopted region!

The shy and retiring Ryan O'Connell(!)

O'Vineyards O'Syrah 2005 Vin de Pays de La Cité de Carcassone
100% Syrah. Cassis, plums and bramble, beef and spice aromas - lots of fruit, but savoury too, with notes of garrigue herbs. The palate is rich and very spicy, but the Syrah character still comes through, and it is surprisingly elegant, for such a big wine. At 5 years old, it is good to drink, but there is absolutely no hurry.

O'Vineyards Trah Lah Lah 2005 Vin de Pays de La Cité de Carcassone
65% Merlot, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep, dark colour ,with a tiny rim. Again, a savoury, meaty nose, like a fruity gravy, with hints of new leather. The palate is rich with sweet fruit, still quite tannic, but with good underlying acidity. The finish is bitter-sweet. Another keeper. For me, not quite as enjoyable as the Syrah, but a good wine nonetheless.

O'Vineyards Proprietor's Reserve 2005 Cabardès
Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. There's oak, but it is nicely integrated, with plenty of rich cassis and plum fruit, leather, polished wood and spice. The palate is loaded with rich, sweet fruit flavours, but with excellent balancing acidity, something akin to a new world Claret blend. In fact, if I somebody told me it was from California, I might believe them - and that would be no mean compliment. Very nice wine!

I like the way Ryan and his father are pushing the boundaries in the somewhat unfashionable (by which I mean relatively unknown) region of Cabardès, immersing themselves totally in the French culture, whilst bringing fresh ideas and new world innovation to the winemaking process. They deserve to succeed.

Next up - Domaine de Calet and Domaine de Cébène.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Outsiders (Part 2) - Domaine Jones and Hegarty Chamans

Continuing my write-up from the recent Outsiders tasting at the Maison du Languedoc-Roussillon in London, here are my notes on the wines of two more excellent growers. Once again, if you want extra information about the growers, I have added links to their websites.

Katie Jones - Domaine Jones, Tuchan

Katie Jones hails from Ashby de la Zouch in Leicestershire, but worked for a good number of years as export sales and marketing director at the Mont Tauch Co-operative in Tuchan, before finally succumbing to the urge to make her own wine. Katie owns just under 3 hectares of vines near Maury, although she makes her wines (with the help of Australian winemaker David Morrison) at her cellar 25 km away in Tuchan. For this reason (not to mention the fact that it also avoids much bureaucracy and paperwork) the wines are labelled as Vins de France.

Katie Jones 

Jones Blanc 2009 Vin de France
Grenache Gris, with a splash of Muscat a Petit Grains. Grenache Gris isn't usually the most expressive or aromatic variety, but the addition of that small amount of Muscat has imbued this wine with a lovely perfume of honey, apricot and flowers. The palate is gloriously fruity, with a certain richness and gentle spiciness, but  beautifully balanced and elegant with it. Long, too. A lovely wine.
Jones Rouge 2009 Vin de France
100% old-vine Grenache. This has a nice light colour and another really expressive nose of fresh fruits, garrigue herbs and spice, with a hint of cigar box. The palate is a riot of bramble, raspberry and redcurrant, but with plenty of garrigue herb and spice flavours - there's a lot going on in this wine. The tannins are fine and the acidity is ample, making for a quite rich, but very elegant - even feminine - wine.
Jones Muscat 2009 Vin de France
I was so busy chatting away to Katie and enjoying this wine that I completely forgot to write any sort of note. But I do remember that it was deliciously aromatic, grapey and apricotty, in the way that only a Muscat can be. It is an unusual wine, in that it is neither bone dry nor fortified (the two styles most often encountered in Languedoc and Roussillon). Instead, it falls somewhere between off-dry and sweet, making for a deliciously drinkable wine, with residual sweetness balanced by plenty of orange-tinged acidity. Yum!

Sir John Hegarty and Philippa Crane - Hegarty Chamans, Trausse-Minervois

Sir John Hegarty made his name as co-founder and Creative Director of advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (remember "Vorsprung duch technik" and the Levi's jeans launderette ads?). In 2002, John and his partner, New Zealander Philippa Crane, bought the 20 hectare Chamans estate. With the help of their winemaker Samuel Berger, John and Philippa are making some excellent red and white Minervois wines.

Philippa Crane and Sir John Hegarty
Hegarty Chamans Les Chamans Blanc 2008 Minervois
50% each of Marsanne and Roussanne. Honey, almonds and spring flowers, with nicely integrated oak. the palate is rich with fruit and considerably complex, with flavours of honey, lemon zest, peach and apricot. It manages to be both full-bodied and warmly spicy, yet very elegant. Lovely wine.
Hegarty Chamans Les Chamans Rouge 2007 Minervois
35% Carignan, 35% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre. Fruit - and lots of it! The palate is rich, fruity and robust, even a touch rustic, but so clean and fresh. In fact, quintessential Minervois, with lots of sweet red and black fruit flavours, nicely rustic but ripe tannins and excellent acidity. A really nice wine.
Hegarty Chamans Cuvée No. 1 2005 Minervois
60% Syrah, 40% Carignan. Sweet fruits on the nose, with a touch of meatiness, even funkiness. Very together and complex, with nicely integrated oak. The palate is rich and spicy, with pastilley fruit flavours and nicely resolved tannins and a soft oakiness. I like the nose more than the palate at the moment, but I think this wine will develop nicely with a few more years of bottle age.
Hegarty Chamans Cuvée No. 2 2008 Minervois
70% Grenache, 20% Mourvedre, 10% Cinsault. Crystallised fruits, cloves and garrigue herbs, and nicely woody, in a cigar box/cedar way. Soft, fruity and rich but again elegant. An impressive wine, which is really lovely to drink already, but will surely age well over the next 3 to 5 years.
Next up will be Chateau d'Angles and O'Vineyards.

Saturday, 13 November 2010

The Outsiders - a disparate bunch of "aliens" making wine in Languedoc and Roussillon - Part 1 - Chateau Rives-Blanques and Mas Gabriel

It has been a busy week for me, hence the distinct lack of blog posts in the last few days. But I have plenty to write about in the coming days, not least of which will be lots of notes and observations from my day at the Outsiders tasting last Wednesday, at the Maison de Languedoc-Roussillon in London. The Outsiders are a group of growers, based in various corners of Languedoc and Roussillon, with one thing in common – they are all non-native to the region. A dozen growers, with origins as diverse as the UK, Ireland, Holland, Switzerland, New Zealand, Sweden, the USA and Bordeaux gathered at La Maison, to showcase their wines to the trade and media.

The Maison de Languedoc-Roussillon in Cavendish Square

Two of them I know very well, as their wines already feature very heavily on the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines list – Jonathan Hesford of Domaine Treloar and Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine de Cébène. But the rest were all pretty new to me. In fact, I hadn’t knowingly tasted any of their wines before, so this was a chance for me to discover some really good wines, from some of the region’s best up-and-coming growers in one go. There is far too much for me to publish in one post, so I’ll try and cover the event in a series of posts over the next few days. For now, here are my notes on a couple of growers whose wines impressed me very much. I’ll stick to my impressions of the wines themselves – if you want more details on the growers, I’ve added links to their own websites.

Jan & Caryl Panman – Chateau Rives-Blanques – Cepié, near Limoux

Chateau Rives-Blanques Chardonnay du Domaine 2009(?) Vin de Pays d’Oc
This is actually Chardonnay, with 15% Chenin Blanc, aged in vats (no oak). Lemony, herby, floral nose, with a hint of pear drops. Fairly full and rich on the palate, with a zesty, limey quality. A touch of pithiness on the finish. Not my favourite style of wine, but well made, and quite long, too.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Cuvée de l’Odyssée Chardonnay 2009(?) Limoux
100% Chardonnay, fermented and aged for 6 months in oak barrels (one-third new). The nose has aromas of oak vanillin and lime oil, with herby notes. The palate is oaky, too, but with a lot of other stuff going on – lemon and lime fruit flavours with hints of spices and orange zest. Fairly rich and extracted, warm and spicy. Very promising, but needs a year or two to integrate.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Sauvageon 2009 Vin de Pays d’Oc
Sauvignon Blanc, from vines planted as recently as 2006. Sauvignon is not a variety permitted by the Limoux AOC, so this has to be labelled as a vin de pays, but it benefits from the same oak treatment as the Cuvée de l’Odyssée. And it makes for a really interesting, quirky wine. The nose is oaky and buttery, but with lots of other aromas, such as lime and mandarin, fennel, cloves and herbs. The palate is again quite oaky, but adds structure, rather than dominating, with some quite intense flavours of orange, honey, apple pie and spice. It is very long and very interesting. I want some!

Chateau Rives-Blanques Occitania Mauzac 2009 Limoux
This is 100% Mauzac, once again fermented and aged for 6 months in oak barrels. The aromas suggest very ripe/cooked apples, spices, vanilla and cream. The palate is bone dry and quite neutral (i.e. not overtly fruity) but nevertheless very “winey”, with a refreshing zestiness and minerality. Long, too.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Vintage Rosé 2007 Crémant de Limoux
Made from Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir, this is a really expressive sparkling wine, with aromas and flavours of strawberry and raspberry and a hint of sweet apple. The palate is wonderfully rich and dense, deeply fruity and spicy, soft and very approachable. A lovely wine.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Blanquette de Limoux NV
90% Mauzac, plus Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. For a relatively low dosage (4 or 5 g/l) and recently-disgorged Blanquette, this fooled me into thinking it had some decent bottle age. Then again, it is kept for a minimum of 15 months on its lees, making for a toasty, rich, slightly yeasty wine, but full of rich, apple fruit and real mineral depth. Another really cracking sparkler.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Blanc de Blancs Crémant de Limoux NV
This was an “extra” (i.e. not on the tasting list) but I think it is a blend of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. My scribbled note was very brief….. “Bready, with minerals and citrus. This is really good stuff.” I guess I must have liked it!

Peter & Deborah Core – Mas Gabriel – Caux, near Pézenas

Mas Gabriel Clos des Papillons 2009 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault
100% Carignan Blanc, from just 20 ares (less than half an acre) of old vines. Smells of apples, pears and star anise. The palate has a touch of pear to it as well, with delicate flavours and a touch of minerality. An unusual and classy wine.

Mas Gabriel Les Trois Terrasses 2009 Vin de Pays de l’Hérault
100% old vine Carignan. A very deep colour, and very Carignan on the nose – pungent aromas of bramble and polished leather, garrigue herbs and spices. The palate is enormously fruity, with concentrated (but carefully extracted) flavours of bramble and cassis, with a refreshing note of citrus. Young Carignan can sometimes be a bit tannic and rustic, but not this one. The tannins are beautifully ripe and soft, and the fruit is sweet, but focused, and countered by a delicious backbone of acidity. Long and absolutely delicious. The 2008, which I tasted afterwards, seemed richer and much more evolved – and perhaps even a touch porty, to my palate. Although it opened out a bit in the glass, it was no match for the sheer vivacity and deliciousness of the 2009.

Mas Gabriel Clos des Lièvres 2008 Coteux du Languedoc
Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. The Syrah is aged in oak demi-muids, whilst the Grenache and Carignan are aged in vat. The nose is savoury and meaty, with hints of cedar and polished mahogany. The palate is loaded with crystallised fruit and orange peel flavours, with plenty of herby, spicy notes adding further interest. The tannins are soft, and there is ample acidity. Long and very lovely. I also tasted the 2007, although my note runs to just one word…. “Gorgeous!”

Next up will be my notes on Domaine Jones and Hegarty Chamans.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

Musarathon - 30 years of Chateau Musar. Is this the best £10 I 've ever spent?

I've been a fan of Chateau Musar for almost as long as I've been indulging my passion for wine. So it was an honour to be present at this week's tasting at the Nottingham Wine Circle, presented by the ever-generous Doug Miles (with significant contributions from David Selby and CY Choong). Tradition dictates that the cost of such a tasting is shared between the members present, and is based not on what the wines are worth now, but what they cost at the time they were purchased. And so it came to pass that the 15 or so members present at this tasting were required to cough-up the princely sum of £10 each, for the privilege of tasting no less than 16 different Musar wines, going back to the 1978 vintage. I shudder to think what those wines would cost on the open market now, but they don't come cheap, I can tell you. So thanks, boys, for the chance to taste such a brilliant vertical, at the price of a couple of supermarket BOGOF's!

For the uninitiated, Chateau Musar is (for those with impeccable taste) the greatest wine of Lebanon. The winery was established in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, at the Castle of Mzar, north of Beirut. The grapes are grown high up in the Bekaa Valley, 50km to the east. Gaston's son Serge took over the winemaking in 1959 and proceeded to establish its reputation as one of the world's most inimitable (and inherantly quirky) wines. The grapes are predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, with Cinsault and Carignan making up the blend. Each variety is fermented in concrete vats, then transferred to large vats for a year, before being aged for a year in French oak barrels. Then they go back into vats for up to 3 years, before the final blending takes place. The finished wine is finally bottled (with no fining and the minimum of filtering) after around 5 or 6 years, and generally released for sale at around 7 years of age. By which time it has only really just begun its evolution.

Oz Clarke describes the wine thus, in his book New Classic Wines;
"Many experts have struggled to catch the essence of Musar by describing it as a cross between Bordeaux and Burgundy. It is nothing of the sort. It is far too wild, far too exotic for Bordeaux....... and it has none of the fragrant delicacy which marks out Burgundy. It is proudly Lebanese.......... The smell of a mature Musar seems deep and old and sweet, sometimes as intense as burnt raspberry sauce scraped from the pan, sometimes thick with dark syrup of black cherries steeped in brandy, sometimes with the sweet sourness of sublime vinegars, sometimes a yeastiness as heady as fresh brioche, and often wafted through with the scent of cedar. The flavour generally seems oxidised at first, and paradoxically, if you taste Musar too young, you're certain it can't last. But that's part of the magic. The young wines show too much age, the old wines show too much fruit."

So to the wines..............

1. Hochar Rosé 2004
A blend of Obaideh and Cinsault. Pale ruby pink. Nose of red cherry and raspberry, with a strong (but not unattractive) vegetal note of beetroot and cabbage, along with strawberries steeped in balsamic vinegar. The palate is less attractive - a bit harsh and lacking structure. A bit too vegetal, with the fruit fading fast, so I guess it is just too old.

2. Musar Jeune 2008
Cinsault, Syrah(?) and Cabernet. Black fruits, funky notes of volatile acidity (VA) and brett. Crystallised fruits, strawberries and cream. Spicy, full, fruity, quite tannic, but with nice acidity. A very decent quaffer.

3. Hochar Pere et Fils 2003
Mostly Cinsault and Cabernet, with some Carignan and Grenache. Smells warm and very ripe, with notes of VA and polished wood. Red fruits, lemon/orange peel and herbs. Light and elegant in the mouth, but with plenty of baked fruit and no harsh tannins. Decent acidity and nice length. Finishes warm and spicy, like a proper Musar from a "light" vintage.

4. Chateau Musar 2002
Orange peel, herbs and spice, old wardrobes and red fruits. Fruity, spicy, light and elegant. An attractive hint of greenness, without feeling underripe. Nice wine, with plenty of room for development.

5. Chateau Musar 2001
Smells sweet, but not funky - and actually with little in the way of VA. Elegant aromas and flavours of redcurrant and strawberry and crystallised fruits. The palate is amazingly clean and elegant, almost like a fine, aged Bordeaux, or even Burgundy. In fact, it is quite atypical for Musar, but very lovely and very balanced.

6. Chateau Musar 1999
Another very elegant nose, with sweet fruit aromas, cigar box/cedar and hints of savoury/meat stock. The palate is rich and fruity, and nicely spicy, with great poise. Classic Musar baked fruit - cassis, cherry and raspberry by the bucketload. Some nice notes of citrus and toffee add further complexity. It is rich, yet elegant, and so lovely - shades of a fine Chateauneuf (Clos des Papes, for instance) or even Burgundy.

7. Chateau Musar 1998
Somebody mentioned barbeque sauce - and there is a bit of that here, along with notes of beetroot, citrus and a touch of VA. The palate is lovely - citrus and spice, wild strawberries and fermenting bramble fruits. Warm and spicy, polished wood and leather. Long and spicy and very attractive.

8. Chateau Musar 1997
Another really lovely nose of VA and red fruits. The palate is quite warm - even a touch alcoholic - and the fruit seems (for the moment, at least) to be a bit lacking. Perhaps this is in a closed phase, with the nose showing more elegance than the palate. Nevertheless, it is identifiably Musar, and therefore a nice drink!

9. Chateau Musar 1994
What a lovely nose! This has sweet red and black fruits galore, with hints of meat and leather and a healthy dose of VA - the quintessential Musar! The palate is equally lovely ,with bags of fruit, soft tannins, and really nice acidity (and VA). This is the second time I've used the Burgundy comparison, but - for me - this wine definitely has that feel, in the way it combines sweet fruit and subtle elegance. A lovely wine, though some preferred..........

10. Chateau Musar 1993
This one, on the other hand, smells like a perfectly aged Bordeaux, with the Cabernet dominating. Aromas of cassis and cigar box/cedar, leather and gravy. The palate is rich with fruit - even dense - but still exudes elegance and charm. And, whilst the 1994 is lovely, this one is indeed a better and more complete wine. It simply caresses the palate with its velvety softness, yet there is huge complexity and immense depth (and length) of flavour. A fabulous wine.

11. Chateau Musar 1991
This is a case of "After the Lord Mayor's Show" - or, for non-British readers who haven't a clue what I'm talking about - a big disappointment after the preceding two wines. I have enjoyed several bottles of the (very highly-rated) 1991, ranging from good to sublime, but this wasn't one of them. And a bottle consumed at a dinner a few weeks ago was good, if unspectacular. Which begs the question, have I/we been unlucky with those two in a row, or is the 1991 fading fast? I hope it is the former, because I still have a couple of bottles left. This wasn't a bd wine (or even any more "faulty" than your average Musar), but it just didn't have any kind of "Wow factor".

12. Chateau Musar 1990
On the other hand, this is far superior to a particularly stinky/oxidised bottle of 1990 we drank at the same dinner recently. It still smells quite old, but isn't falling apart or dirty. It has plenty of crystallised fruit flavours, but is ultimately a bit short and simple.

13. Chateau Musar 1983
A jammy, rich fruitcake nose. Earthy, almost flinty and smoky, with some meaty nuances. It is sweet on the palate. Some think it is oxidised and past it, whilst I think it is rather attractive - but then again, I love these old wines which, for all their faults, still exhibit some real fruit qualities. In fact, I don't think it has reached the end of the line yet.

14. Chateau Musar 1981
This, on the other hand, is bang on the money and still full of vibrant life. What a truly elegant nose! And, for the first time in this tasting, we were comparing it to a fine northern Rhone wine. There is a bit of VA, but but lots of fine fruit, savoury and spice, with complex notes of balsamic vinegar, preserved fruits, bacon and lilies. And the palate certainly lives up to the promise, combining density with elegance. At 29 years of age, the flavours are edging towards the tertiary, but there is still more than enough fruit to keep you interested, with fully resolved tannins and fabulous balancing acidity. It is very together, very sexy and very lovely. This vintage of Musar (along with the 1979 and 1980) was amongst my first real "Road to Damascus" experiences, when I first started to buy serious wines. It demonstrated to me, in the most glorious way, that wine can - indeed should - be so much more than a mere beverage. It was a great wine then, and I am thrilled to find that, a good 20+ years after I first enjoyed it, it is still a great wine. Utterly fabulous, and worth the £10 admission fee on its own!

15. Chateau Musar 1980
This one hasn't fared so well, unfortunately. It is a touch cabbagey and mushroomy - just a bit old and oxidised. There is still some soft, almost sweet fruit and some trademark VA, but it also seems a touch madeirised and tired. That said, it is still quite attractive, but has far less interest than the 1981, and suffers in comparison.

16. Chateau Musar 1978
Smells a bit like a really fine old Chateauneuf du Pape. It is floral and fruity, with notes of beef stock and polished wood. And the palate shows a glorious array of fruit, spice, savoury and earthy flavours. It is soft, superbly balanced and beautifully elegant, in a quintessentially Musar sort of way. In fact, if Oz Clarke never saw "fragrant delicacy" in Musar, he wasn't drinking anything old enough! This is a lovely old dame of a wine, and a fine way to finish a fabulous tasting.

Overall (and with only a couple of exceptions) these wines ranged from very good to sublime, and all points inbetween, and we experienced all of the glories and all of the quirks of Chateau Musar in equal measure. For me, the wine of the night was the 1981, followed closely by the 1978 and 1993. Amongst the "older" wines, the 1994 also deserves a mention, whilst amongst the "younger" wines, 1998, 1999 and 2001 show great promise.

Thanks Doug, David and CY for your unceasing generosity - and please let's do it all again sometime!

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Another wonderful evening of music - Mary Chapin Carpenter at the Derby Assembly Rooms

For one reason or another, I don't get to anywhere near as many live gigs as I would like to, these days. But in the last few weeks, I have been lucky enough to see no less than 3 of my favourite artists play live. In September, it was Wilco, in my opinion the best rock and roll band in the world. In October, it was Beth Nielsen Chapman, one of the great singer-songwriters of her generation. And last night, it was Mary Chapin Carpenter - in every respect, the equal of Beth, and an artist whose albums I have been buying for almost 20 years. No less than 5 Grammy Awards (from a total of 15 nominations) is testament to just what a great artist Mary Chapin Carpenter is, and a string of wonderful albums form an important - and oft played - part of my CD collection. Mary doesn't tour that often, and this was actually my first time seeing her perform live - but it was certainly worth the wait. She walked on and began the first song alone on her guitar, with each member of her band joining her, one-by-one, as the song built to a finish. And then we were treated to an hour and three quarters of pure joy, as she played a mix of songs from her latest album, The Age Of Miracles, and some of the gems from her back catalogue (I Feel Lucky, Shut Up And Kiss Me, He Thinks He'll Keep Her, Stones In The Road, Passionate Kisses, to name but a few).

There are artists who play their music, but do little else to communicate with their audience (Bob Dylan springs to mind!). And then there are artists who play, but also talk to their audience, form a bond with them. Ones that spring immediately to mind are Bruce Springsteen and Nanci Griffith, whose performances are liberally sprinkled with anecdotes and stories behind the songs. But even they never connected with an audience in quite the same way that Mary Chapin Carpenter seemed to do last night. She spoke eloquently and elegantly, in a semi-hushed voice (no doubt hindered on this occasion by a cold) and held the audience in the palm of her hand - I really did feel she was speaking to me. She talked about her experiences of travelling around the UK - she swore she'd seen both Heathcliffe and Colonel Brandon up on the moors on her journey between Buxton and Derby(!) She talked about her home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, writing during the day and enjoying restful contemplation in the evenings, her 6 dogs and 4 cats and how she misses them when on tour, her worries about the current elections in the USA. Serotonin was mentioned (I don't recall why, but if you don't know what it is, look it up on Wikipedia) and Mary said the word always reminded her of Sarah Palin. Clearly, the very mention of that name does anything but give Mary a good feeling in her body - in fact, what she said cannot really be repeated here. But it was very funny!

One of the highlights of the show was a song called Mrs. Hemingway, which Mary explained was written about Ernest Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, and the happy times the couple spent in Paris, before he fell in love with her best friend. The version on the latest album is beautiful, but the story and the way she sang the song last night added new meaning - it was beautifully moving. If you want to hear the song, it is available to listen to on (or Spotify, if you have it). You can read more about the story behind the song (and The Age Of Miracles album) on the CMT website. You can also learn more from the Mary Chapin Carpenter website.

I should also mention her band, two of whom - guitarist John Jennings and piano/keyboard player Jon Carroll - have been with her for nigh-on 30 years. I have seen some great backing bands in my time (for example, the aforementioned Buce Springsteen's E-Street Band, or Brian Wilson's current band) but I've never seen a better, tighter or more self-assured one than this. It was musicianship of the very highest order, with fantastic arrangements and not a bum note in sight.

What a band! Vinnie Santoro on drums, John Jennings and  Jim Henry on guitars,
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Don Dixon on bass and Jon Carroll on piano and keyboards

The opening act is also certainly worthy of mention - Tift Merritt is a talented singer, songwriter, guitarist and piano player in her own right. In fact, she has already had a good deal of success, with several albums and even a hit record or two.

Tift Merritt

All-in-all, this was a wonderful night and one I will remember for a very long time. I hope Mary Chapin Carpenter doesn't leave it too long before returning to these shores to tour again. If you don't know Mary's music, then I urge you to check it out. Meanwhile, here's a taster from YouTube, with Mary performing one her of best-known songs (although this one was written by another great American singer-songwriter, Lucinda Williams);