Friday, 29 June 2012

A visit to Domaine de Ravanès

Domaine de Ravanès is fairly unusual in Languedoc, insofar as the vineyards are planted predominantly (though by no means exclusively) with Bordeaux grape varieties. The estate was purchased by Felix Benin in 1955, but it wasn't until 1972 that Felix's son Guy planted Merlot, followed by other varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and - of all things - Ugni Blanc (a.k.a Trebbiano). Ugni Blanc is actually the most widely-planted grape variety in France, although the majority of it is used for the production of Cognac and Armagnac. It is otherwise considered to be a rather undistinguished grape, but in the right hands, it can be the source of some really rather good wine.

In 1989, Guy's son Marc obtained a PhD in Oenology-Ampelography,  following his studies at the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux, and took over the estate in 1990. In 1994, Marc grafted Petit Verdot (another Bordeaux variety) onto the rootstock of a Cinsault vineyard that had existed for 25 years or more. The Petit Verdot vines are therefore effectively around 45 years old. Other varieties planted include Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeu. There also exists a small plot of Aramon, but this is retained merely for historical purposes, rather than wine. The total area under vine is 32 hectares.

We visited the Domaine de Ravanès stand at Vinsud in February this year, my interest having been piqued by some excellent aged red wines (sourced via auction) tasted over the previous few months. Although I found some of the younger wines challenging to taste at the end of a long day's tasting at Vinisud, I was convinced of their quality and resolved to visit the estate on this holiday. We arrived at around 6.30 in the evening, with the sun still beating down and temperatures still in the high 20's.

Marc Benin is a gentle, shy and unassuming man and was an excellent host. To begin with, we climbed into his 4X4 and took a tour of the vineyards, which are planted in many different plots surrounding the house.

Cabernet Sauvignon vines
Some plots are large, some small, and the soil (which is mainly clay/limestone) contains varying amounts of stones and pebbles (from the "gravières" - gravel pits, of which there are many here, washed down from the hills by the adjacent River Orb), making for a terroir very similar to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, or even Graves in Bordeaux. The proximity of the river also means that the late-harvested sweet white wines (extraordinary wines, made entirely from Ugni Blanc) benefit from botrytis (noble rot). Merlot ripens very easily here, and is usually harvested at the end of August, whilst the Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot are often picked as late as October, depending on the characteristics of the vintage.

The River Orb runs by the estate

The house and winery are surrounded by 32 hectares of vineyards
Following our tour of the vineyards, we repaired to the cool of the wine cave, where Marc treated us to a tasting of his current range of wines.

The tasting room

Owner and winemaker at Domaine de Ravanes, Marc Benin

I did make some brief notes at the time, but Marc kindly allowed me to take the bottles away, to taste at my leisure. Here are my full notes - prices quoted are what I will be selling them for (edit, October 2012 - all are now in stock);

l'Ibis Blanc 2010 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
50% Ugni Blanc and 50% Grenache Gris and Blanc. Delightful aromas of peaches, apricots and orange blossom, with further hints of honeysuckle, mixed herbs, patisserie and citrus zest. Gloriously fresh and zingy, yet smooth and really quite complex. There's a nice touch of firmness/grip, but it is extremely fruity, with a refreshing streak of soft citrus acidity. A delightful wine and a real bargain. £8.99.

Le Guepier Rosé 2011 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
A blend of Merlot and Cinsault. A lovely pink rose/onion skin colour. Fragrant stuff - strawberry, peach and redcurrant fruit aromas, soft citrus too, with a touch of cream and vanilla. So many rosés (even some of the better ones) can have a bit of the sweet shop about them, but this one has none of that - it really is delightfully fresh, fruity, soft, yet properly "winey", with a touch of complexity and a soft orange and redcurrant finish. It really is lovely stuff, and definitely my rose of the year so far. £8.99.

Le Renard Blanc 2007 Vin de Pays de Coteaux de Murviel
80% Grenache Gris, 20% Macabeu, barrel fermented and aged for 1 year. A limpid straw/gold colour, with cool, fresh aromas of peach and apricot, honeysuckle and soft citrus. There's also a touch of woodsmoke and a really quite intense minerality, like rain-washed slate or stone. It is made with a low dose of sulphur and in a very slightly oxidative style, but really is as clean as a whistle. The palate is at the same time light and airy but rich and expansive, with honey and stone fruit flavours countered by a gentle pithiness. Again, it shows deep minerality and complexity, with a hint of wood tannin and ample acidity. The finish is long, cool and mouth-watering. A really cracking wine, which is good to drink now, but will also age nicely for a few nore years. £15.95.

Merlot Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 IGP Coteaux de Murviel
This is crammed full of cassis and bramble fruit, tobacco, citrus and spice aromas, with a hint of meat and new leather. The palate is bright and intensely fruity, lightly spicy and herby, with heightened tannins and lip-smacking acidity. And despite the tannic structure, it has the structure of a decent Claret, but more than enough warm, southern charm to make it very drinkable now - even lightly chilled. £9.50.

Petit Verdot 2010 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
Classy nose - leather, meat, tobacco, citrus and a whole load of black cherry, blackcurrant, bramble, forest floor and kirsch. On the palate, it has real tannic grip, but is ever so fruity, with those dark garrigue herb-infused fruits and citrus combining beautifully in a wine of real freshness and verve. And despite the fact that it is aged exclusively in vats (i.e. no oak influence) it has real complexity, with hints of tobacco and dark chocolate and a peppery finish. Ripe but not overtly rich, generous but beautifully balanced. £11.95.

Cuvée Diogène Réserve 2008 Vin de Pays de Coteaux de Murviel
60% Petit Verdot, 30% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. Now we are really entering into Languedoc territiory of ripe, almost opulent fruit, aided by 18 months' ageing in 1, 2 and 3 year-old oak barrels. Aromas of cassis and bramble, black cherry and cedar, with an intriguing note of violet. Beautifully fresh in the mouth, with bright, intense fruit flavours, just the merest hint of savoury, ripe, almost velvety tannins and bags of fresh acidity. It is so wonderfully balanced that it is eminently drinkable now, but also has enough stuffing and structure to age for at least another 10 years. A fabulous combination of ripe fruit, florality and restrained power - a really elegant wine. A stunning bargain at £13.50.

Les Gravières de Taurou Grand Réserve 2007
The estate's top red, this is a blend of 58% Petit Verdot and 42% Merlot, aged for 28 months in a mix of 1, 2 and 3 ear-old oak barrels. An opaque black cherry colour with a tiny rim, it reeks of rich, ripe, concentrated bramble and cassis, with notes of dried figs and orange peel and a cloak of fine, gently charred oak, leather and cigar box. The palate is rich and concentrated, the black fruits augmented by flavours of licourice, lapsang tea, garrigue herbs and peppermint, with a definite streak of minerality, rich, ripe tannins and plenty of acidity. As with the Diogène (and perhaps even more so) this has real ageing potential - I'd say 15 years-plus - but it has such warmth, such generosity, and is so approachable in it's youth. A quality that most classed growth Claret can only dream of having. This is a very, very fine wine, with a great future ahead of it. £22.99, and worth every penny.

This was a cracking visit, and a real treat to be able to spend some quality time in the company of Marc Benin and tasting his lovely wines. And I can't wait to get them in stock - hopefully, before the end of the summer.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Some new vintages from Domaine Treloar

Before the Bruce Springsteen gig mentioned in my previous post, we met up with Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar at the hotel they had booked for the night. Jonathan had brought along with him a few bottles that he had opened for a tasting the previous day - 5 different wines, and all new vintages, which he kindly gave to me to take away and taste. I must say that even though all of them had been open for 2 days before I actually sat down to taste them and write my notes, they remained remarkably fresh - and all very good indeed..........

One Block Muscat 2011 IGP Pays Cotes Catalanes
Uber fragrant and grapey on the nose, with notes of tree blossom, oranges, apricots and a whiff of fine herbs (notably oregano). There's still a touch of residual SO2, but that wears-off in time. Fresh, grapey and lightly citrussy in the mouth, with a hint of zesty orange. Medium-rich, and with some real depth, but remaining very refreshing. Finishes long, zesty and tangy. A serious Muscat.

La Terre Promise 2011 IGP Pays Cotes Catalanes
Grenache Gris, Macabeu and Carignan Blanc. Aromas of spiced oranges, herbs, nettles and a faint hint of woodsmoke. Faintly appley too, and even a hint of apricot, but tends more towards the citrus end of the spectrum. Nice and firm on the palate - just the right amount of pithiness, without bitterness, and some nice orange and peach flavours, again herby and lightly spicy, with plenty of juicy acidity. Fruitier and more fragrant than some previous vintages, whilst remaining complex and structured, with a gently creamy texture and decent grip. Very enjoyable, even at this early stage.

Le Ciel Vide 2010 Cotes du Roussillon
Leather, polished wood and and a touch of meat and damp earth, with lashings of bramble and fresh raspberry. A hint of eau de vie, but this only serves to heighten the freshness and the fruit - beautifully harmonious. Full-bodied, without being particularly rich, with plenty of chunky, earthy Carignan fruit, married to grippy tannins and juicy acidity. A delightfully traditional style of wine, and really lovely!

Three Peaks 2009 Cotes du Roussillon
High-toned and zesty, almost orangey, with aromas of redcurrant and cranberry. Herbaceous and earthy, too. Grippy yet juicy, with ample red and black fruit and fruitcake flavours, leather, soft spices and lovely acidity. All-in-all, there is a richness to this wine that might put me in the hills of La Liviniere, were I to taste it blind. Lovely wine.

Motus 2010 Cotes du Roussillon
This is crammed full of aromas of bramble and cassis, leather, roast meat and polished wood. Subtle hints of garam masala and cardamom and a whiff of decaying leaves add yet more interest. Very complex stuff, which really does have thed feel of a classy wine, with flavours of ripe bramble and raspberry, allied to fine, grippy tannins and tangy acidity, making for a deliciously sweet and sour whole. There's also a touch of savoury meatiness, as you might expect from Mourvedre (no mention of any other grape variety on the back label this time, by the way) but it doesn't dominate. And despite the fact that it is very young, it is already good to drink, with a lightness of touch that belies its full body and relatively concentrated and rich texture. That said, I can see this being even better by the time it reaches its peak, in another 5 to 10 years. A brilliant wine, which manages to capture the essence of Mourvedre (a la Bandol) with a softness that makes it amazingly approachable at such a young age.

I should have these wines in stock within the next month - with prices similar to those of the vintages currently listed on my website.

This evening, I have a rendezvous with Marc Benin at Domaine de Ravanes in Aspiran, just 2 or 3 kilometres from the villa we are renting in Autignac. Marc's wines are not particularly cheap, but they impressed me sufficiently at Vinisud to make me seriously consider importing them. I'll tell you more about my visit in my next post.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Rising again in The Promised Land - The Boss in Montpellier

It was 31 years since we first saw Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band play live, on The River tour. He was so mind-blowingly brilliant that we paid a tout double the odds (against a face price of £5.50!) for tickets for another show on the same tour. We then saw him twice on the Born In The USA tour in 1985 and again on the Tunnel Of Love tour in 1988. By that time, he was still producing some decent if unspectacular material (and even the odd classic), but his powers seemed to be on the wane. In my opinion, the first 5 albums (all made by 1980) have never been bettered. The so-called "lost decade" of the 90's, which coincided with Springsteen's ditching of The E Street Band - probably the biggest mistake of his life - helped to diminish my interest in his music to a certain extent, whilst also being instrumental in my voyage of discovery of so many other artists and genres. But as the old sporting adage goes, form is temporary, class is permanent. And with the return of The E Street Band in the late 1990's and some very good albums in recent years (and admittedly a couple of distinctly average ones thrown in) Springsteen has restablished himself at the very top of the tree. And how many artists can say that after 40 years in the business. The only other ones I can really think of that are still going strong (at least in terms of playing live) are The Rolling Stones and The Who.

Fast-forward to 2012 and Springsteen's latest album, Wrecking Ball, is (in my opinion, at least) a real return to form. So imagine my delight when I saw he was to play Montpellier, at the time we would be on holiday in the south of France. As soon as I heard about the tour, I contacted my winemaker friend Jonathan Hesford, who I know to be almost as big a Springsteen nut as me - indeed, at least 2 of Jon's wines are named after Springsteen songs(!) I must admit that 100 Euros a ticket ain't cheap (and TLD thought I was mad) but who's to say how many more opportunities we'll get to see the greatest live performer of them all, before he finally hangs up his boots for good? So there we were on Tuesday evening (Jon, Rachel, TLD and I) in the Park Suite Arena, a purpose-built indoor concert and sports venue, to see just how much mustard The Boss could still cut.

The view from our seats - not the best seats in the house, but still pretty good.
We're too old to be standing for 4 or 5 hours in the stalls!
Needless to say, he still cuts it big time - and TLD finally agreed that it was money well spent! Here's a link to the full setlist from Montpellier - all 3 hours and 5 minutes of it. Not the longest set he's ever played, but still a lot longer than just about any other artist you could mention. It's a shame he didn't play too many of what I consider to be the real live classics, such as Rosalita, Backstreets, Thunder Road, Detroit Medley etc, but I guess it is all about giving the audience what he thinks they want to hear, and in the case of the French, it was probably the anthemic hits, such as Born In The USA, Dancing In The Dark, The Rising, Waiting On A Sunny  Day, Born To Run. There were a good number of songs from the new album in the set too, but it is a strong collection of songs, so I'm not complaining. And with a back catalogue of such depth and quality, it would be impossible to include them all. Amongst the highlights for me were Growin' Up (I found my self singing along with youthful abandon - "When they said sit down, I stood up", "I was the Cosmic Kid!"), Candy's Room (Mighty Max Weinberg still brilliant with his machine-gun drumming), Prove It All Night (a live staple for the last 34 or so years), The River (amazing falsetto from Bruce at the end), The Rising (such a powerful, emotive song about the firefighters in the Twin Towers), Fire (given away to The Pointer Sisters, but another long-standing crowd favourite), Seven Nights To Rock (a somewhat obscure but authentic rocker) and Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (including a big-screen tribute to The Big Man - R.I.P).
The Boss, Miami Steve van Zandt and Mighty Max Weinberg
Nils Lofgren on guitar and Jake Clemons on saxophone -
- it will never quite be the same without The Big Man, but his nephew still blows a pretty mean sax!

How many 62 year-olds can hold an audience in the palm of their hand like this?
All-in-all, it was another memorable evening in the company of Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, and makes an already brilliant holiday even more so. And it makes me realise that the soundtrack to my life would be immeasurably poorer without this man's music being such a big part of it.

And I can't sign-off without posting at least a couple of videos from the musical goldmine that is YouTube........

Here's one that he played in Montpellier (though this was recorded on a tour a few years ago).........

............and here's one that he didn't do (from 1984 and just an extract - the full version is often 12 minutes or more). Enjoy!

Incidentally, Jon brought along a handful of wines from his recent bottlings, which I have tasted and enjoyed over the last couple of days. I shall tell you all about them in my next post. Meanwhile, the pool beckons!

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Holiday time again - and a visit to Domaine du Garinet

This week, TLD and I are on holiday in the Ariège, a sparsely populated region of pleasantly green rolling countryside, situated halfway between Toulouse and the Pyrenées. Our accommodation is a rather lovely and well-equipped house on the edge of a small village, with a large garden, swimming pool and even a tennis court - just the ticket for a week of quiet relaxation.

The house and pool

View from the verandah

Our own private tennis court!
 The Ariège is situated an hour or two west of Languedoc, so on this occasion, our route from the north took us down the autoroute from Orléans to Toulouse - perfect for a visit to Cahors.

Cahors market
After spending an enjoyable couple of hours strolling around the bustling, vibrant Saturday market in the centre of Cahors itself, we paid a visit to Mike and Sue Spring at Domaine du Garinet. Although we first imported their wines last year, this was the first time we had visited the estate, which lies up in the hills, around 15 kilometres west of Cahors. Mike and Sue turned their backs on the rat race many years ago and followed their passion for wine by enrolling in a winemaking course at Plumpton College. Although, like many winemakers, they employ the occasional services of an oenologist, the day-to-day running of the estate and the winemaking itself is all done by Mike and Sue. I discussed at length with Mike the farming and winemaking techniques they employ. The Domaine du Garinet website covers all of this in great detail and is a very interesting and informative read. Mike has a healthy disdain for so-called organic farming, which he argues is in many ways more harmful to the land than the "lutte raisonnée" (which means literally "the reasoned fight") farming methods employed at du Garinet. Pesticides or fungicides are used occasionally, but only when absolutely necessary, and in a reactive (rather than a proactive) way.

Malbec vines - actually north-facing, but the wines are ripe and structured
The estate is small by any standards, at just 2.5 hectares, and is planted to Malbec (for the Cahors reds and the Rosé), plus Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for the Vin de Pays whites, in 3 separate plots surrounding the house and winery. The Malbec is machine harvested, but the white grapes are harvested by hand. The white wines are made for relatively early drinking, whilst the reds (especially the barrel-aged ones) are keepers. The winery itself is small, but perfectly formed and modern. The barrels are used for only 4 or 5 years before being replaced, and they buy up to 4 new barrels per year. Total production is around 16,000 bottles per year, and most is sold to personal visitors (indeed, Sue was busy conducting a tasting for a visiting group of holidaymakers at the time of our visit).

The small but perfectly-formed winery

The barrel room

Mike and Sue, serving some of their many visitors
The 2010 Sauvignon had all been sold and 2011 was only bottled the day before our visit, so we did not get to taste it. The 2009 Chardonnay Le Clos Vin de Pays du Lot though was delicious, with plenty of varietal character and an intriguing herbacious streak that lifted it above the ordinary. The Rosé Malbec Sec 2010 was fresh, vibrant and full of tangy strawberry and red cherry fruit. Of the Cahors reds, we import the 2001 Futs de Chène and the 2004 Classique, so we tasted instead the 2004 Réserve Malbec and the 2002 and 2003 Futs de Chène, all of which were excellent examples of their kind (though I preferred the lighter, more elegant 2002 Futs de Chène, as opposed to the richer, more tannic 2003). A bottle of 2004 Réserve Malbec paired beautifully with last night's meal of duck breast.

If you are ever on holiday in the area, I can highly recommend a visit to Domaine du Garinet, where you are sure to receive a warm welcome - and of course taste some excellent wines.

Incidentally, we arrived to glorious sunshine and temperatures in the mid-to-high 20's, but yesterday was cloudy and overcast, as is today. But this afternoon, we should get a glimpse of the Languedoc sunshine, as we will drive to Montpellier for the Bruce Springsteen gig. It is 31 years since I first saw him perform, and 24 years since the last time, but by all accounts his gigs are as epic as ever. I'll tell you more in my next post........

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Saving the best until last - a couple of outstanding 2009 reds from my latest shipment

Are Saint-Chinian and La Liviniere amongst the finest appellations in the whole of southern France? I think so. Indeed, the wines from these two hilly and rugged areas of the world's largest and most diverse wine region have built a deserved reputation for quality and individuality that is hard to beat - as are the prices. The following pair of wines are the top cuvées made by their respective growers, and both come in at less than 15 quid. They are the final couple of wines on which I have had to write notes from my most recent shipment - and I have definitely saved the best until last..............
80% Syrah, 20% Grenache (50 year old vines). Part is aged in barrel and part in vat. A deep, blackberry-coloured core with a tiny carmine rim. As with previous vintages of this wine, the nose is wonderfully fragrant and considerably complex, offering aromas of fresh plums, bramble and black cherry, along with that unmistakable hallmark of Syrah grown on the schiste-based Saint-Chinian terroir - garrigue herbs, lilies, violets, black olives and a strong mineral influence. The palate is subtle and balanced, rather than overtly rich, with spice and herb-infused (though not too sweet) bramble, redcurrant and cherry fruit wrapped in a blanket of fine, silky tannins. And you can really taste the earthy, stony minerality, which - in combination with really juicy acidity - provides a firm backbone for the fruit. Add to that the ultra-fine tannins and you have a wine that, although very approachable now, has the capacity to age and evolve gracefully for another 5 to 10 years. Another gloriously elegant wine from this, one of (if not the) greatest estates in the appellation. 14.0% abv. £14.75.

75% Syrah, 15% Grenache and 10% Carignan, aged for 18 months in old oak barrels. A deep, blood red colour, with a narrow ruby rim. Bramble, red cherries and figs in abundance, with further notes of truffle, spices, herbs and polished leather - a very complex nose indeed. Whilst the flavours are at first rich and intense, with extremely ripe fruit flavours, this wine never loses its focus. Concentrated it may be (and at 15% abv, at the top end of the alcohol scale) but it is also beautifully balanced, with ripe tannins and ample acidity. On day 1, it is intensely spicy, warm and grippy, but never disjointed. By day 2 (or even day 3) it is an absolute joy and everything really does come together - fresh as a daisy, with a captivating nose and full of tangy, dark, fruit pie flavours, slightly earthy (though not particularly savoury), herby, with a touch of licorice on the long, sweet and sour finish. It is a completely brilliant expression of Languedoc Syrah and Grenache, with little or no oak influence to get in the way of such glorious fruit. If ever there was a red wine which you should decant a couple of days before drinking, then this is it. And if you do that - or if you age it for another 5 to 10 years - you will be richly rewarded. 15% abv. For a wine of such quality and breeding, this is an absolute steal at £13.99 - but stocks are limited!

As an aside, it occurs to me that your average (or even more elevated) wine writer or journalist may never fully appreciate a wine like this, for they would have a quick sniff and a slurp, write a cursory note and then move onto the next wine. Have you ever seen a note from a writer about how a wine performs after a day or two in the decanter? No - neither have I. Which is a shame, because I think that one of the curious (and rather wonderful) things about wines from Languedoc and Roussillon is that so many of them really do blossom on day 2. In fact, I have been banging on about it for many a year, as my customers and regular website visitors will be aware - and it is to my eternal surprise that no other merchant that I know of offers such commentary on their wines. Then again, I doubt that many of them get to know each wine they sell as intimately as I know mine - if they have even tasted them at all...........