Sunday, 22 April 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 April 2012

An evening with Gretchen Peters

Those who follow this blog on a regular basis will know that I occasionally indulge myself with "reviews" of some of my favourite gigs. I use inverted commas because music reviews aren't exactly my forté - as one of my great heroes Jeff Tweedy once sang, I'm just a fan.

Opportunities to see great live music in Nottingham and its environs used to be few and far between, but over the last few years, venues have begun to spring up all over the place. The Capital FM Arena and Royal Concert Hall provide for the bigger, more established acts, whilst Rock City and The Rescue Rooms play host to an amazing variety of less well-known (though often much better and more deserving) artists. Even smaller venues such as The Maze provide a stage for many obscure folk, rock and indie bands, both international and local (my son's band have played there on numerous occasions, although I have yet to see them). But a new one on me is The Glee Club, which occupies part of the old British Waterways building down by the Canal. The Glee Club is (judging by its website) centred more on comedy than music, but that may change, once more artists of the calibre of Gretchen Peters discover what a great venue it is.

Gretchen Peters is one of those artists whose music is (mercifully) difficult to pigeonhole - which is both a boon and a burden, because those who can't be pigeonholed are often the most talented and diverse, but find real commercial success difficult (if not downright impossible) to come by. She first appeared on my radar a good few years ago, with relatively minor "hits" such as "On A Bus To St Cloud" and "When You Are Old", but for some reason I never sought to discover more about her music. But with the advent of Spotify, I quickly realised what I had been missing and went out and bought 3 of her CD's - "Circus Girl - The Best Of Gretchen Peters" to cover the earlier stuff, "One To The Heart, One To The Head" (an album of duets with Tom Russell) and her latest release "Hello Cruel World".

Last night's gig began with Gretchen and her band - comprising her husband Barry Walsh, a master of the piano, glockenspiel and accordian and the very talented Christine Bougie on guitar, lap steel and percussion - performing "Hello Cruel World" in its entirety. It is a very personal album, filled with brilliantly-crafted songs, some quite dark and introspective, but curiously uplifting and forward-looking. And all sung with a voice like liquid velvet. The title track is just one of many outstanding compositions, and here's a taster.......

The second part of the show consisted of songs from Peters' earlier albums, the highlights for me being "Guadaloupe" from the aforementiond collaboration with Tom Russell, "On A Bus To St Cloud" and an audience-assisted rendition of the Rolling Stones' classic "Wild Horses" to finish. I got the impression that at least 80% of the audience were older than TLD and I, which only serves to prove the fact that real wisdom only comes with age. I probably sound like an old fart, but if only the youth of today - many of whom are brought up on a musical diet of throwaway pop - could see what they were missing, artists like Gretchen Peters would perhaps receive the recognition they deserve. Meanwhile, it must remain our little secret. 

What I like about these small venues is that the artist often comes to the merchandise stand to meet and greet those who are keen enough to stay behind for a few minutes, and I was lucky enough to get a couple of my CD covers signed and to have a photo taken with Gretchen. Geeky, I know, especially for a 51-year-old, but it only served to enhance both my opinion of an exceptional singer-songwriter and my memory of an already memorable evening. If I learned two things last night, they were these - firstly, flash photography in a dimly-lit room does nothing to enhance my already weathered features - and secondly, Gretchen Peters is wonderful!

       TLD took this photo - one of 2, but although the other had all of my face in 
the frame, I deemed it simply too horrific for public viewing!

Sad, I know - but like I said, I'm just a fan!

Other music artists on this blog;

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Some rather nice reds from the last week

Despite the fact that winter is nearly over (OK, so we may have a little more snow on the way, but the nice weather will soon be back!) I'm still in the mood for hearty red wines. And this quartet have served very nicely, thank you.........

Les Vins de Vienne Sotanum MMIII Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes
Although the vineyards fall outside of the designated area for the appellation, this is to all intents and purposes a Cote Rotie - and, given the vintage, a rather good one. The nose is really quite intense, though not in a soupy way, and despite the fact that it has been given the "full treatment" (long extraction, some classy oak, heavy bottle, deep punt) it doesn't overwhelm. Darker aromas of black cherry, bramble and olive tapenade are offset by notes of raspberry, citrus and a hint of violet. A core of rich, almost sweet fruit on the palate might seem a touch too much, were it not for that raspberry and a delicious streak of citrus acidity, which may or may not have been adjusted in the winemaking process - though if it has, it has been very skilfully done. And although the tannins are quite prominent, they are remarkably supple, and I get the feeling that everything will integrate nicely with a few more years in bottle. Which is a feeling that gets stronger after 2 or 3 of days, for although the wine is beginning to oxidise a little, it is actually more impressive and enjoyable than when first opened (for our monthly get-together at Le Mistral in Nottingham). I wouldn't quite say it is elegant - yet - but it may become so eventually, which would be no mean feat for a 2003, and if Parker likes it (I don't actually know) then it would be purely coincidental. Whatever, I like it a lot and will look forward to trying my last bottle in another 5 years or so. I also have a couple of 2001's left, too! I can't remember exactly what I paid for this at auction, but probably around the £15-£17 mark, which is pretty good value.

J M Alquier Reserve Les Bastides 2004 Faugères
I've enjoyed a few older vintages of this wine before (notably 1995 and 1997) but don't recall drinking one this "young". I wasn't sure what to think at first - very savoury, meaty and tobacco-scented, with the fruit lurking in the background - but it opened out rather spectacularly with air, with waves of spiced bramble and raspberry, subtle notes of redcurrant and kirsch, spiced fruitcake and garrigue herbs. And all of those components come together beautifully in the mouth, making for a wine of considerable complexity - full of restrained power, yet possessed of real balance and elegance. And I keep going back to that nose, which continues to develop and change over the space of a couple of hours, with notes of tobacco and forest floor, incense and herbs, not to mention layer upon layer of complex fruit aromas and flavours. It really is a breathtakingly beautiful and complete wine, which can only get better and better...... and better. J M Alquier isn't exactly an "under the radar" grower as far as Languedoc aficionados are concerned, but even the best Languedoc wines are generally under-appreciated and relatively unknown to the wider wine-buying public. Which is why you can still buy world-class wines like this for under £20. And since I bought mine for about £10 per bottle (again, at auction), I think I got myself a pretty decent bargain - and I'm glad I still have another 3 bottles tucked away for the future. Benchmark Faugères - in fact, one of the Languedoc greats.

Quinta do Poco do Lobo 1991 Bairrada (£12.95)
I do love old wines - especially when they are cheap! Of course, there's no point in ageing wine for too long, if it doesn't have the stuffing, but this one is right on the money at 21 years of age. I've blogged about this wine before, so I won't bore you with too much detail..... Suffice to say that it is a tobacco, spice, herb and fruit-scented bundle of loveliness, with a fabulous core tangy red fruits, ground pepper, spicy/grippy tannins and mouth-watering acidity. The first half went beautifully with spaghetti in a sauce comprising lashings of olive oil, sweet white wine, creme fraiche, sweet garlic, chilli, red capsicum and oregano that I threw together last night (along with copious amounts of home-made wholemeal sourdough bread). The remainder should pair equally well with pork chop and chips tonight..........

Les Vignes de l'Arque IGP Duché d'Uzs Rouge 2009 (£9.95)
This one isn't exactly expensive either, but hardly anybody buys it, so I thought I'd open a bottle to see how it is coming along. Well two bottles, actually, as the first one was corked to buggery - these things happen, unfortunately. Thankfully, the second bottle was in perfect condition (one does get paranoid about these things, especially when one is selling the damn stuff!). A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache, with the benefit of a few months' ageing in oak barrels, it simply reeks of super-ripe grapes, black cherries, black olives, garrigue herbs, toasted brioche and a touch of eau de vie, whilst the palate is an absolute riot of deep, dark, sweet and sour red and black fruits, with great concentration and just enough acidity to keep it all nicely together. A mini-Chateauneuf, which is beginning to open out nicely, though I suspect it is a few years short of its peak.

Next up, Vinisud Part 2, with details of a couple of fine Provence growers..........