Friday, 18 October 2013

A visit to Mas Foulaquier

Mas Foulaquier is a Pic Saint-Loup grower that had - until a few years ago - flown completely under my radar. Winemaker Pierre Jéquier, a native of Switzerland and formerly an architect, created Mas Foulaquier in 1998, following an exhaustive search for his dream wine estate. Situated in the most northerly corner of one of Languedoc's most northerly appellations, the eight hectares of existing vines were at the time just 8 years old, but happened to be planted on some great terroir. Now approaching 25 years of age, those maturing vines are the source of a quite brilliant set of wines. Pierre's wife and fellow winemaker Blandine Chauchet joined the team in 2003, bringing with her the ownership of a further 3 hectares of 50 year-old Grenache and Carignan vines in the "Tonillieres" vineyard in Claret. Other parcels have since been added (including a 2 hectare vineyard planted to Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Rolle) bringing the total area under vine to around 15 hectares - 10 ha or so surrounding the winery and the rest dotted around the village. Pierre and Blandine also employ the services of two of the finest consultants in their respective fields of expertise - biodynamics guru Jacques Mell on the viticultural side and Christian Prudhomme (formerly of Chateau Mouton Rothschild) on the winemaking side. Estate and sales manager and all-round good guy Adrien Laroche holds everything together from day-to-day.

Most of the wines are aged in vat..........
.......with just a small amount of barrel ageing for some cuvées
The vines surrounding Mas Foulaquier
Having first met Pierre Jéquier and tasted his wines at a small (but very busy) tasting event in Monpellier in 2010, I was totally blown away by their quality and jumped at the opportunity to import a selection of them. And so, more than 3 years down the line, our first actual visit to the Mas Foulaquier estate in June this year was certainly long overdue. As you can see from the photo above, it wasn't the sunniest of days and there were certainly plenty of angry clouds lurking, but it stayed dry and warm enough to allow for a rather delightful al fresco tasting, under the shade of one of several magnificent chestnut trees surrounding the winery. And all accompanied by a delicious array of fresh bread, cold cuts, local goats cheese and olive oil.

TLD had no trouble taming the Foulaquier "guard" dogs!
The start of a very fine tasting and lunch - Pierre Jequier pouring l'Orphée 2011
Adrien was a mine of information, whilst Pierre spoke about his wines with the sort of passion you expect from a dedicated vigneron. And although the wines based mainly on Syrah and Carignan are wonderful (indeed, my personal favourite is Tonillieres 2012), Pierre was at pains to stress that he thinks that Grenache is the variety most suited to the terroir - basically clay-limestone with a pebbly top layer - of this little corner of Pic Saint-Loup. And who am I to disagree, for Le Petit Duc 2011, which is 90% Grenache, is one of the most delicious wines of its type I have tasted from this part of the world. My notes on that and other wines below are an amalgam of brief notes taken on the day, more detailed notes written from the opened bottles that we were kindly given to take away with us and - for the 4 cuvées we eventually settled on - further bottles opened when we took delivery of our new stocks (purely in the interests of "research", you understand!).

To be fair, we have until now found the wines of Mas Foulaquier quite difficult to sell. I know not why - perhaps they aren't the cheapest wines, especially in the wider scheme of things in Languedoc, but then again quality doesn't usually come cheap. And in my experience, these are without doubt some of the finest wines the Pic Saint-Loup appellation (and indeed the Languedoc as a whole) has to offer. Which actually makes them rather good value. And I'm not about to let the fact that they are difficult to sell deter me from trying all over again with these latest vintages!

So....... is the quality of these wines down to biodynamic farming (something Pierre set out to do from the start - the wines are all certified biodynamic), or is is simply a testament to brilliant winemaking? To be honest, in my experience, the two are often inextricably linked. Whether you believe in biodynamics or not (extreme organics, or just wacky mumbo-jumbo?) those very principles go pretty much hand-in-hand with a love for the land and a fastidious approach to winemaking. The wines are also as natural as can be - no sulphites or added yeasts are used in the winemaking process, there is no fining or filtering, and only the tiniest amount of SO2 (between 10 and 30 mg) is added at the bottling stage.

I could go on and tell you more about Mas Foulaquier, but why do that, when they have their own rather excellent website? I'm here to wax lyrical about the wines. And do you know what? From an already extremely high level of quality, their current vintages have raised the bar even higher, for this was one of the finest selections of wines from a single grower we have ever had the privilege of tasting. And if you have any sort of claim to be a lover of Languedoc's finest wines, then you simply must try them. Who knows - the following tasting notes might even persuade you to do so...............

l'Orphée 2011 Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
A 50/50 blend of Syrah and Grenache. Semi-translucsent, bright, deep cherry red colour. Fresh, ripe redcurrant, raspberry, cherry and bramble aromas mingle with notes of meat, new leather, garrigue herbs, curry spices and damp earth - all-in-all, a considerably complex and heady nose. The palate too is brimming with wonderfully ripe red and black fruit flavours, with a delicious bite of tart cherry skin and tangy orange, the effect of a seamless combination of ripe, tea-like tannins and juicy acidity. With air (and especially on day 2) it develops some rich fruitcake aromas and flavours, whilst still retaining freshness. There's also a savoury tang - not meaty, but more like a sun-dried tomato, vegetable and garrigue quality, which adds complexity without detracting from all of that wonderful sweet/sour/tangy fruit. There are wines that I occasionally flag-up as quintessential examples of fine Languedoc wine - and this is one of them. A simply glorious, fine, elegant wine - and I challenge you not to empty the bottle in one sitting! £15.50

Les Tonillieres 2012  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
Another 50/50 blend - this time, Carignan and Syrah. Semi-transluscent, medium-deep carmine red, fading to a narrow rim. Only the press wine goes into barrel - the rest is aged in vat - but the grapes are first given a full 3 months' maceration at a cool temperature, which ensures good extract whilst retaining a good deal of elegance. The Carignan element is so expressive, you almost don't notice the Syrah - and when Carignan is this good, it is hard to beat. Fabulous aromas of pickled brambles and raspberries, with an amazing array of secondary nuances - notably, leather, cigar box, coffee grounds, beetroot and damp earth. Not to mention a delightful rasp of soft citrus-like volatile acidity, which makes your eyes water in the most glorious way (especially on day 2)! The flavours are so fresh and full of vitality, with an almost Musar-like structure, chock full of sweet and sour raspberry and black fruit flavours, with subtle hints of coffee and toffee. With air, it becomes even deeper, more expressive, more elegant, whilst retaining all of that wonderful freshness, complexity - and impressive length. A truly glorious wine, which every one of our customers (indeed any lover of fine Languedoc wine) should buy. It will age nicely, but why wait, when it is so wonderful now? £15.95

Le Rollier 2010  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
40% Syrah, 60% Grenache. No oak. Rich, balanced and rather yummy. Quite soft, but nevertheless balanced and nicely structured. Tasted over the next couple of days, there are plenty of rich, ripe fresh fruit and jam aromas, with hints of toffee and curry spices. Lovely and soft on the palate, but far from blowsy, with plenty of juicy fruit and acidity, with nice tannic grip. Long and spicy.

Les Calades 2010  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
70% Syrah, 30% Grenache. With its aromas of dark red fruits, exotic spices, garrigue herbs, fine eau de vie, damp earth, leather and polished mahogany - a bit like an old church pew - this is one of the most complex wines (aromatically speaking) I have encountered in a long time. It really does caress the senses in a way that keeps you coming back for another sniff. And the palate certainly delivers, offering a hugely complex array of fruit, spice, herb and tertiary flavours. Richly-textured and almost velvety at first, you suddenly get this wonderful hit of dark cherry, bramble and orange-tinged fruit, a rasp of fine, tea-like tannin and simply mouth-watering acidity on the mid-palate, followed by a long, tangy, gently spicy finish that goes on forever. Fabulous wine! £19.50

Le Petit Duc 2011  Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
90% Grenache, 10% Syrah. A lovely bright translucent cherry/blood red colour. The nose shows an intriguing leathery, meaty quality, though not at the expense of some really delightful raspberry, cherry and floral aromas, a hint of creaminess, toasted brioche and herbs - alluring, complex and elegant, rather than big and burly. Sort of what Chateauneuf would be like if its climate were a little gentler..... like that of Pic Saint-Loup! The palate too is elegance personified - a lovely warm, spicy, herb-laden mix of fresh and crystallised fruits with a gentle orangey tang, with subtle notes of redcurrant and cranberry, all of which combine in a delightfully fresh sweet and sour whole. Pierre believes that his little corner of the Pic Saint-Loup terroir is the perfect spot for Grenache, and on this showing, who am I to disagree? This really is a lovely wine, which all fans of the more aspirational southern Rhône reds would do well to try. £19.95

Gran' T 2010 Languedoc Pic Saint-Loup
Polished wood, tobacco, curry spice and garrigue herbs mingle with dark cherry and redcurrant aromas and a whiff of oak. The palate is full of ripe but tangy fruit flavours, with plenty of grape skin and wood tannins. And whilst it has excellent acidity and a fine, even complex structure, it is (for me) the least appealing wine of the line-up, since it needs a lot of time to shed the puppy fat and for all of that tannin and oak to integrate, before it becomes a joy to drink. A quite rich and oaky style of wine, which is not necessarily my bag, but nevertheless imbued with a fine structure and plenty of ageing potential. One for the classicists, I guess. Indeed, it may even turn out to be a very fine wine after a decade in the cellar - but I don't want to wait that long, when all of the others are so damn delicious now(!)

So there you have it - Pic Saint-Loup at its very best. And if we still can't sell 'em, we'll just go ahead and drink 'em! Drool.............