Friday, 21 November 2014

Heads-up for an excellent new Languedoc blog

Wot - 2 blog posts in a day?! Well, I thought that whilst I was on such a roll, I would give you a pointer towards an excellent new(ish) blog, authored by one of my customers and Facebook friends, Alan March.

Alan retired this year, from his job as a school teacher in the north-east of England. Much like TLD and I, Alan and his wife have been holidaying in Languedoc for many years and have developed a great love for the region, it's culture and of course it's wines. So much so that they decided to make use of their new-found leisure and spend a whole year living the dream in rural Languedoc. Although they haven't (yet) decided to make the move permanent, I suspect that may be a strong possibility(!)

Not that it has suddenly become all play and no work for Alan. Over the years, he has formed a strong friendship with one of the region's most enigmatic winemakers, Jeff Coutelou. So much so that, since his arrival in Languedoc a couple of months ago, he has been hard at work as Jeff's all-round helper in the vines and the cellar, learning the ropes and generally immersing himself in the everyday workings of a Languedoc wine estate. Not to mention tasting plenty of fabulous wines along the way. It's a hard life, but I guess someone has to do it!

Alan March, hard at work in the cellar
(photo nicked from his blog!)

Alan and I have yet to actually meet, although after many years of correspondence via this blog, Facebook, other wine websites and email, it seems like we know each-other well. And I won't let the fact that he is a Liverpool supporter (my loyalty is with Nottingham Forest) get in the way. Nor the fact that, whilst away from the UK, he isn't buying any of my wines! ;-)  I actually owe Alan a debt of gratitude for having introduced me to the wines of Mas Coutelou. He'd been banging on about them for so long that I felt I needed to taste them and see for myself. So whilst on holiday in June, TLD and I visited Jeff and were treated to a fascinating tour of his vineyards and a tasting of some of his wines (even though he had none to sell, at the time). Suffice to say that I was blown away by Jeff's wines and his whole viticultural and vinicultural ethos. And, with more than a little help from Alan as my "man on the spot", I have since managed to secure a shipment of Jeff's latest wines, which will arrive in stock next week. I can't wait!

I shall write in more detail about Mas Coutelou very soon. Meanwhile, I urge you to take a look at Alan's blog, A March In The Vines. As a journal of his adventures in and around Languedoc (and occasionally further afield), it is rich in content and really is well worth following - and you even get to read it in a choice of languages (English and French). Keep up the good work, Alan!

A wonderful new wine from Chateau La Dournie

I posted the following note on my Facebook page last evening and someone suggested that "it feels like a blog post". Which I must say did strike a chord with me - it isn't that I have disappeared from the social media scene (which I guess includes blogging), it is just that Facebook seems a much easier medium in which to post quick entries, directly from my phone. Then again, a lot of potential blog posts have gone this way in recent months, and it seems a shame not to spend a few minutes cross-posting them to my blog. Plus of course there are plenty more (sometimes much meatier) issues that deserve blog posts of their own. Therefore, you can take this as a commitment to start ramping-up the blogging again (yes, I know I've said it many times before, but now I'm serious!). Now if I can just shake off this horrible virus that has been bugging me for the last 3 weeks, I might just find the energy and enthusiasm to keep my promises....... ;-)

This has the unmistakable whiff of a (very) fine wine...... a veritable cornucopia of fresh and preserved red and black fruits burst forth from the glass, combined with (but not to be out-done by) all manner of herbal, floral, medicinal, earthy and savoury aromas. Freshly baked bread/brioche also gets a look in, not to mention a hint of the very finest eau de vie you can think of. Oh and just the *faintest* lick of (older) oak. It really is quite the most complex, integrated and intoxicating wine I have sniffed in a while. If I didn't know better, I would swear there was some Syrah in there, but this is a blend of Grenache and Carignan, so I guess the classic Saint-Chinian terroir (schiste) has worked it's magic once again. There's always a danger that such a wonderful nose might end up as the highlight, but in this case not a bit of it - this wine is absolutely the real deal, with oodles of spice-laden, garrigue-infused black cherry and bramble fruit, rich, ripe tannins and a backbone of truly mouth-watering acidity. 

A rather well-known and respected wine writer and Languedoc expert described this very wine as "reminiscent more of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but not too heavy or alcoholic". Well I am here to tell you that the latter may be accurate, but the former is complete tosh. For although it may not be like your everyday Saint-Chinian, it does possess all of the vibrancy and elegance that the best wines from this (relatively cool-climate) region of Languedoc has to offer - and is therefore far more reminiscent of the wines of the northern Rhone. The more I drink it, the more I am falling for it's rich, sweet-sour, tangy-spicy-herby loveliness. Apparently, there were just 600 bottles of this wine produced for the inaugural 2011 vintage. And having not tasted it previously, I have to admit that I bought a shamefully tiny quantity. So small in fact that I will limit my customers to 3 bottles each. And at £21.95 (yes I know, expensive for Languedoc) it is a fantastic bargain. Bravo Véronique Etienne - you have created your masterpiece..... and please save me a few more cases for my next order!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

What I did with my summer - Plus a brand new book about the wines of Languedoc and Roussillon

OK, so my stated intention earlier in the year to start posting a little more on here has – at least until now – gone badly awry. I am putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of the fabulous summer we have (or do I mean had?) been enjoying. Not that I have necessarily been lazing around doing nothing, but when push comes to shove, working outside beats working inside. Hence, since we returned from our June holiday in Provence and Languedoc (about which more in due course) I have been busying myself with jobs I have been postponing for far too long, such as erecting the large wooden gates on my driveway (which had been “seasoning” against the kitchen wall for a full 2 years!).

My beautiful new gates - our own little piece of southern France!

I've also spent many hours making various other renovations to the outside of the house, clearing and organising what TLD calls my “man cave” in the garage and – most time-consuming of all – tending the vegetables and fruits in my greenhouse and raised beds.

The Goode Life - Tom and Barbara would be proud!
The upshot is that we now have much more security and privacy (not to mention our own little piece of the south of France) courtesy of our beautiful new azure blue gates. Not to mention complete self-sufficiency in tomatoes, chillies, capsicums, cucumbers, beans, courgettes, shallots, onions, carrots, beetroots, lettuces and even some very successful frisée lettuces (yes I know, they are really endives). And in a few weeks, we should have corns on the cob galore!

The downside to all of this is, not surprisingly, is that most things wine-related (apart from drinking it, of course) have been put on the back burner. I have page after page of notes from numerous grower visits from my June holiday, which I haven't even begun to transcribe yet. I also have the bare bones of a new website, which I haven't touched for several months. And most importantly - and some would say most unforgivably - I have devoted very little time to the actual business of selling wine. That said, summer always tends to be the quietest period of all - and with the best will in the world, and effectively being a "one-man band", the 24/7 (365) wine business grind can sometimes be a bit wearing. At which point the multiple roles of head chef, housekeeper, gardener, handyman and all-round domestic super-hero make for a refreshing change. Furthermore, the great summer of sport - The World Cup, Le Tour, Wimbledon, golf (both watching and playing), motorcycling (ditto) and all manner of other things - has done little for my focus. But with summer seemingly morphing all too quickly into autumn, I guess it is time to regain that focus.......... 

But I digress. The main thrust of this post is to tell you all about a new (and very welcome) book about the wines and vineyards of our beloved Languedoc and Roussillon. Until very recently, I wasn't familiar with the name of Wendy Gedney, although I had heard she had recently published a book about the region. During the second week of our June holiday, I called winemaker Brigitte Chevalier, to arrange a brief visit to taste the latest vintages of her fabulous Domaine de Cébène wines. She told me that she would be at her cellar in the hills of Faugères the following afternoon - and although she would be conducting a tasting for a group of visitors, TLD and I would be welcome to join in. And as chance would have it, this group was led by none other than Wendy Gedney, on one of the many wine tours that she organises, via her company Vin en Vacances. Naturally, Wendy and I got chatting about our respective lives in the wine trade and she kindly gave me a copy of her book, The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon. And I have to say, it is a delightful and very informative read.

The aim of this book is not to lead you to individual wines or wine growers - indeed, it only mentions the odd grower, in passing here and there, throughout the entire book. Rather, it offers an all-encompassing guide for the wine lover, with chapters covering the history of the region, the many and varied landscapes and terroirs, the grapes, the wine laws, the wine styles and viticulture. We are taken on a vinous journey from the Gard, in the far east of Languedoc, all the way to Banyuls and Collioure at the southern end of Roussillon, detailing the grapes, wines and terroir of every appellation and sub-appellation in-between.

Along the way, we learn about towns and villages of note, the stunning scenery, some of the region's notable food and drink specialities and lots more. The book is beautifully illustrated - not to mention greatly enhanced - by myriad specially commissioned colour maps, pencil drawings and watercolours by illustrator Jenny Baker.

Most importantly of all, it is a book which will appeal equally to seasoned wine enthusiasts and Languedoc-Roussillon aficionados, as well as those who are new to the region. Furthermore, since it's main purpose is to provide the reader with an all-round guide to the region and it's wines and vineyards - rather than keep up with the relentless pace of change and evolution amongst the wine-making fraternity - it is sure to remain relevant and topical for many years to come. And for that, it deserves a place on the bookshelf or coffee table of any self-respecting lover of Languedoc-Roussillon.

Whilst on the subject of books about the region's wines, many years have passed - and so much exciting progress has been made - since any sort of in-depth publication about the growers and wines has been published. Thankfully, the wait may almost be over, as my good friend Peter Gorley informs me that he is progressing quickly towards publication (initially, at least, in e-book form) of the second edition of Gorley's Guide to the Wines of Languedoc-Roussillon. 2014 is certainly shaping-up to be an excellent vintage for wine books!

"The Wines of the Languedoc-Roussillon" by Wendy Gedney is now available via the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines online shop, priced at £19.95.

You can find out more about Wendy's wine tours, plus lots of tips on where to stay, via the Vin en Vacances website.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A new star in the Languedoc - Domaine Saint Sylvestre

I'm not quite sure how it was that I came to hear about Domaine Saint Sylvestre, although I have a feeling it may have been via their Facebook page. In any event, my interest was suitably piqued by the information I found and the images of their vineyards, scattered amongst the wild, oak-covered hills of the Terrasses du Larzac, near the village of Puéchabon, just a few kilometres north-east of Aniane - historically one of the real hotbeds of Languedoc fine winemaking, with such esteemed growers as Mas de Daumas Gassac, Domaine de La Grange des Pères and Domaine de Montcalmès all situated close by.

Vincent Guizard became involved in viticulture from an early age, working in the vines with his grandfather and, in the late 1990's, he worked with Olivier Jullien at Mas Jullien. From 2003 to 2010, he was part owner, in association with Frédéric Pourtalié, of Domaine de Montcalmès.

At the end of 2010, Vincent decided to break away from Montcalmès, taking his 7 hectares of vines and creating Domaine Saint Sylvestre, together with his wife Sophie, who also has several years' experience in winemaking, as well as having previously spent some time in London, working for a wine marketing company.

Having corresponded with Sophie via Facebook, she invited me to visit the estate whilst on holiday in the region last June. And so it was that we arrived in Puéchabon, for our 10 o'clock rendezvous with Sophie, on a somewhat atypical gloomy, overcast early summer morning. Before tasting the wines, Sophie drove us up into the hills, along a series of tracks almost as rugged as the landscape itself, for a tour of the vineyards.

The estate currently comprises around 8 hectares, set in clearings among the holm oak forests above Puéchabon, and surrounding the isolated 12th century church of Saint Sylvestre des Brousses de Montcalmès. The vines are planted in four separate plots, all of which are between 300 and 350 metres above sea level; 
  • "Fon de La Coste" is mainly Syrah, planted in 1989 on clay/limestone soil, with a north-west-facing aspect. 
  • "Saint Sylvestre" was planted in 1993, with Syrah and Grenache, on south-east-facing slopes, with a "topsoil" of galets roulés (similar to Châteauneuf-du-Pape). 
  • "Défriche de Rouges" (défriche meaning cleared forest) is the largest plot, with a similar aspect and terroir, and was planted by Vincent between 2000 and 2003, comprising Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre. It is worth noting that the wines resulting from each of these three plots are markedly different, providing a compelling argument for the concept(s) of microclimate and terroir - not to mention complexity in the final blend. More on this later. 
  • And finally, "Défriche de Blancs", comprising Chardonnay, Roussanne and Marsanne, was planted in 2007, with an east-facing aspect, on limestone soil. 

Even on such a gloomy day (weather-wise) the setting is beautiful and tranquil, leaving you with a feeling of being miles from anywhere - which is pretty much the case, actually (take a look at the satellite view on Google Maps and you will see what I mean). In many ways, it reminds me of Domaine de Trévallon - and not many vineyard sites can match such a landscape.

After our tour of the vines, we headed back to Puéchabon, where Vincent and Sophie have built a small but functional new winery, on the very edge of the village. Although not officially organic or biodynamic, Vincent and Sophie prefer a sympathetic approach to viticulture, along the lines of "Lutte Raisonnée" (the reasoned struggle) and no synthetic fertilisers or herbicides are used in the vineyards - apparently, the biggest danger to the vines are the voracious wild boar that roam the vineyards, feasting on the ripening grapes! All of the work in the vineyards is done by hand, and they keep the yields very low (around 20 hl/ha) by way of de-budding and green harvesting. Fermentation is completely reliant on naturally occurring wild yeasts. For the red wines, each grape variety, from each plot, is vinified separately, with long cuvaisons of between 30 and 40 days, then aged separately for 2 years in used barrels (i.e. which have seen one or more previous vintages) before being blended 3 months prior to bottling. For the whites, each grape variety is pressed separately, with the resulting juice being blended and then fermented and aged in used barrels for one year. Bottling is carried out according to the phases of the moon.

We were joined by Vincent for a tasting of 2011 wines in bottle, plus various components of the 2012's from barrel, beginning with the whites;

Le Coup de Calcaire 2012 (from barrel)
90% Chardonnay, 5% Roussanne, 5% Marsanne. Very cool-climate and Burgundian in style. Floral, full of fruit, yet delicate and minerally, with a fresh, almost prickly palate. A really fabulous expression of Chardonnay. If only I could get my hands on some!

Le Blanc 2012 (from barrel)
45% Roussanne, 45% Marsanne and 10% Viognier. A cool, minty, herbal nose, rich but not dense, lemon and orange. Not oaky. Gently prickly, without being zesty. Elegant.

Le Blanc 2011 (from bottle)
Same blend. The yield for this wine was a miniscule 13 hl/ha (18 hl/ha for the 2012 above). A little less expressive than the 2012, but still very complex, with hints of flowers and orange peel. Quite rich, unctuous and lovely, and I imagine quite age-worthy.

Then a series of 2012 reds from barrel, being the various constituents which would eventually go into Le Rouge 2012;

Grenache 2012 from the Saint Sylvestre plot - Gently woody and spicy, smooth and elegant, with red fruits, rather than black.

Grenache 2012 from Défriche de Rouges - Stronger and more robust, slightly tarry and more overtly spicy and with richer/darker fruit.

Syrah 2012 from Saint Sylvestre - Dark and dense, with an elegant nose of preserved red fruits and subtle hints of leather and meat. The palate is at the same time taut, yet elegant and lovely, with soft tannins, tangy acidity and gently spicy and herby.

Syrah 2012 from Défriche de Rouges - Robust and dense, with hints of curry spices, but with a delightful streak of freshness.

Syrah 2012 from La Fon de La Coste - There's a lot going on here. New leather, spice, bramble and garrigue herbs. Big and expressive, but with underlying elegance.

Mourvedre 2012 from Défriche de Rouges - This is so ripe! Brambles and prunes on the nose, with a hint of orange peel. The palate is contrary - fresh, almost zesty, with velvety tannins, spice and cracking acidity. Very long and lovely.

Les Vignes de La Garrigue 2012 (100% Carignan) (from barrel) 
I must admit that I failed to enquire about the origins of this wine, but seeing as Carignan is not listed as being in any of the other four plots, it must be from an entirely separate plot. I have no idea of the age of the vines, though I suspect that they may be old and very low-yielding, for I believe only 300 bottles are produced annually. The colour is dense and, whilst the nose is a touch muted, the palate is gloriously expressive and elegant, with ripe red and black fruits, a hint of citrus and fantastic acidity. I love it!

Le Rouge 2011 (from bottle)
70% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre. A complex nose of ripe red/black fruits, leather and soft curry spices, with distinct notes of flowers and violets. Rich and expansive, with spicy undertones and herbs of the garrigue. A wine of real structure - lovely already, but with great potential for the future.

Les Vignes de La Garrigue 2011 (from bottle)
100% Carignan, neither fined nor filtered. Lots of leather, mixed fruit and citrus aromas and flavours, with a typical rasp of  Carignan rusticity - which is just how I like it(!)

And that was it - a fabulous and very enlightening tour and tasting, in the company of delightful people. The only disappointment (and a big one at that) was that Sophie and Vincent had not a single bottle of wine that they could sell me. With (by my calculation) only around 20,000 bottles produced each year, their wines are in such demand that they are available only on allocation, to their loyal band of customers and cavistes. Considering that the first vintage Vincent and Sophie made together was 2011, it is remarkable that they have gained such a cult following in such a short space of time. But, as the saying goes, good things come to those who wait - and we eventually managed to secure a small (very small) allocation of the 2012 red, and an even smaller allocation of the white. Unfortunately, we still can't get our hands on Les Coups de Calcaire or Les Vignes de La Garrigue. But now that we finally have our proverbial foot in the door, hopefully we can manage to secure more wines (perhaps even the whole range) in the forthcoming years. Meanwhile, these two beauties will have to do.......

70% Syrah, 20% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, aged 2 years in barrel. A deep, semi-opaque colour, with a powerful nose - a complex and heady array of black fruits, fresh bread and exotic spice aromas, with notes of leather and woodsmoke lurking in the background. Even after a full 2 years in barrel, there is just the merest hint of (older) oak, which only serves to heighten the fruit aromas, whilst further nuances of preserved fruits and fine eau de vie emerging with air. The palate is deeply concentrated and crammed full of flavour, in a spiced, baked fruit kind of way - rich, warming and almost a meal in itself. It is certainly good now, but is really only just starting out on a long journey of evolution - I'd say 10-plus years to maturity - with just the right levels of juicy acidity and rich tannins. Young, but with a great future ahead of it. (£18.50) 

45% Marsanne, 45% Roussanne, 10% Viognier, fermented and aged in barrel for 1 year. A gorgeous, limpid, translucent pale gold colour. The nose is wonderfully complex, heavy with the scents of herbs, spices and stony minerality, at the same time exhibiting myriad aromas of apple and peach, mint, honeysuckle and fennel, with subtle notes of spring blossom and lime oil peeping through. The palate has a rich, creamy, almost oily texture, which is perfectly offset by juicy peach and apple flavours, a rasp of cut lime, garrigue herb and spice, whilst the heightened, limey acidity and intense core of minerality makes for an explosively refreshing, yet considerably complex wine. The flavours last an age on the finish, revealing extra layers of complexity and sensation as they do so. It is a shame we could only secure a handful of cases - and even then, we had to beg and plead - for this is without doubt one of the finest Languedoc whites we have ever tasted. A quite faultless and very special wine. Rated 18/20 in Le Guide Bettane et Desseauve des Vins de France. (£18.50)

Friday, 25 April 2014

A visit to Domaine Guillot-Broux - and finally, the wines are here!

The wines of Domaine Guillot-Broux are not entirely new to the Leon Stolarski Fine Wines list, since we featured a couple of cuvées a few years back, at the time they were (rather inexplicably) dropped by their UK agent, who bin-ended the remainder of their supplies. In fact, our introduction to these lovely wines came even earlier, courtesy of our friend David Bennett, who has a second home in southern Burgundy and has been a regular visitor to the Guillot-Broux estate, situated less than half an hour's drive away in the village of Cruzille-en-Mâconnais.

We first visited more than 2 years ago (although TLD had a migraine, so she slept in the car!). Our latest visit was in June 2013, when we were treated to an extensive tasting of wines from both bottle and barrel. As if I needed confirmation, after all of my previous positive experiences of the wines, the quality across the board was of a level which compared very favourably with so many other more esteemed (and considerably more expensive) growers in the Côte d'Or. I have written several times before about various Guillot-Broux wines, notably a few of the 2011's and 2010's, not to mention several bottles of a wonderful 1996 Gamay (see - it really is age-worthy stuff)! Below I have reproduced the tasting notes from my website on the new wines that have finally found their way onto our list. But first of all, here's a little history on the estate and some technical details................

The Guillot family have been making wines in Cruzille since 1954, when the current owners' grandparents, Pierre and Jeannine Guillot, started the first organic vineyard in Burgundy. Their son, Jean-Gérard, spent some years working on the family vineyard, before working for several years with Domaine de la Chanal in Brouilly and Bernard Michelot in Meursault. In 1978, Jean-Gérard returned to Cruzille, where he established Domaine Guillot-Broux with his wife Jacqueline, starting out with little more than a hectare of vines. By 1991 the estate had expanded to include further vineyards, and had also been granted official organic certification. During this time, Jean-Gérard's sons Ludovic and Patrice began working for the estate. Another son, Emmanuel (whose previous experience included 2 years as head sommelier at the St. James's Club in London) returned to the estate in 2000 and, following the death of Jean-Gérard in 2008, Emmanuel took over the reins as head winemaker. The estate now comprises around 15 hectares, with a number of small vineyards in the Mâconnais villages of Cruzille, Grevilly, Pierreclos and Chardonnay (which some say is the origin of the Chardonnay grape variety).

Tasting from barrel with Emmauel Guillot
The terrain of the Mâconnais region (and hence - to an extent - the terroir) differs somewhat from that of the Côte d'Or, with gently rolling countryside interspersed with numerous small hills and forests, rocky outcrops and valleys. Much of the region is given over to arable and livestock farming, yet is also widely interspersed with numerous vineyards. Mâcon and Mâcon-Villages are the basic appellations, whilst various villages which tend to make wines higher up the quality scale are permitted to append their name - hence Mâcon-Cruzille, Mâcon-Chardonnay, Mâcon-Pierreclos, etc. Despite this (all too typically) complicated hierarchy, the aforementioned appellations strangely apply only to Chardonnay and Gamay. Therefore, despite the fact that there are now some pretty impressive Pinot Noirs being made in the region, they can still only be labelled as humble Bougogne Rouge - even though, from the right terroir and in the hands of quality vignerons, they can be a match for their more esteemed Côte d'Or cousins.

Most of the vineyards of the Guillot-Broux estate are situated on east-facing slopes on clay-limestone soil, except for the 60-90 year-old Gamay vines in Pierreclos, which are planted on granite soil with a south-facing aspect. The nature of the soil in Cruzille particularly brings out mineral flavours, and produces wines which need a relatively long time to mature. Grevilly (in 2005, Mâcon Grévilly become Mâcon Cruzille) and Chardonnay produce fruitier wines that can be appreciated when young or can be kept for several years to develop greater complexity. The different characteristics of these varied terroirs and the wines they produce are reinforced by the Guillot's methods of cultivation - they only use natural methods of fighting parasites and disease, using a combination of ploughing, organic fertilisers (to feed the soil and not the vines), and organically-acceptable mineral sprays (copper and sulphites). They believe that respecting the soil in this way allows the vines to absorb all the elements they need to be healthy and balanced, thus producing healthy, balanced wines. In other words, to maintain the right balance rather than treat the consequences. Indeed, as well as being the oldest organic grower in Burgundy, the estate is essentially farmed (though not certified) according to biodynamic principles. 

Although the vines are, generally speaking, planted at a density of 8,000 to 9,000 per hectare, yields are still low, at between 30 and 55 hectolitres a hectare, with the emphasis on quality rather than quantity. This dense planting regime increases competition between the vines, making for naturally low yields and increased concentration of flavours and balance in the wines. All of the grapes are hand-picked, and then sorted in the vines before going to the winery. 

The grapes from the various plots and grape varieties are vinified differently, depending on the type of terroir, the vintage and the age of the vines. Fermentation is completed without the addition of cultured yeasts, whilst the use of SO2 and chaptalisation are kept to a strict minimum. The Chardonnay grapes are pressed immediately and the juice is put straight into 225 litre oak barrels, where both the first (alcoholic) and second (malolactic) fermentations take place. After malolactic fermentation, the wines are racked and either put back into barrels (single vineyard wines) or into vats (Mâcon Villages). The top cuvées then spend a second winter in barrels before being bottled, without fining or filtration. The Gamay grapes are put into small vats (50hl) without being de-stemmed. They are macerated and fermented on the skins, before being pressed 6 to 30 days later, depending on the vintage. During this time, the grapes are trod by foot or by using a long plunger once or twice a day. The Pinot Noir grapes are de-stemmed before undergoing maceration and alcoholic fermentation for a minimum of 15 days. After being pressed, the wines are matured for between 11 and 18 months in barrel, and then bottled without fining. The wines are only gently filtered, if necessary, or in many cases not at all. 

This parcel of land had been one of the best in the Mâconnais at the beginning of the 19th century, but was left out of the reclassification for vine-growing land in 1935. Uncultivated since the phylloxera epidemic, it was re-planted in 1983. 

A bright mid-gold/straw colour, leading to a pale rim. Wonderfully lime-scented, with an array of freshly-cut hay, basil and oregano notes, not to mention a strong perception of wet stone minerality. And that stony theme continues through onto the palate – a veritable double-whammy of bracing, citrus-tinged acidity and a dry, almost chalky mineral edge, which really does make your tabs laugh and your eyes water, in a most enjoyable way. There are plenty of tart Bramley apple and soft citrus fruit flavours, with perhaps the merest hint of something richer, like slightly under-ripe peach or apricot. All of which amounts to a pretty good knife-edge balancing act – with less fruit, the tartness might make the teeth jangle, but any more and it wouldn’t excite the taste buds so much. My goodness, this is lovely wine - and long, too! (£17.95) 

Despite the fact that the vineyards of Les Combettes and Les Genièvrières are contiguous, the two wines produced are dramatically different. Les Combettes is close in spirit to a wine from the Côte d'Or - woody, rich and full-bodied. 

A bright gold/straw colour, leading to a pale rim. Delightfully expressive, high-toned and almost prickly on the nose, with gloriously intense lime oil and fresh apple aromas, buttered toast and hints of peach and apricot. So wonderfully intense and flavoursome on the palate too, with bucket-loads of fruit and minerality, utterly mouth-watering acidity and a gentle herbiness. This really is the business - Côte d'Or quality at a much more sensible Mâcon price. A real stunner of a wine, to drink now, or to age for a few years. (£18.50) 

The terroir of the Perrières vineyard consists of Oolitic limestone, in layers of limestone slabs and a thin soil cover (20 - 40 cm). It is porous, making for good drainage, but at the same time very fragile and difficult to work, and was abandoned after the phylloxera epidemic for these very reasons. Comprising just 1.1 hectares, it was re-planted in 1978, with a density of 9,000 vines per hectare. Yields are between 35 and 35 hl/ha. 

The wine is aged for 18 months in second or third generation oak barrels without either fining or filtering. The nose is simply gorgeous - all prickly and zingy, scented with the oil of freshly-cut limes, hay, nettles and massive minerality. Not that it lacks in the way of fruit, though - spiced apple, dried orange and soused sultana aromas abound, in a wine of tremendous complexity and verve. All of which carries through onto the palate - and then some! You can spend an eternity picking out myriad flavours and nuances, whilst simply enjoying such a delicious, structured and compelling wine. It grips and caresses at the same time, with tremendous depth and concentration of complex, herb-tinged fruit and stony minerality, wrapped around a backbone of positively eye-watering acidity. Long, complex and utterly lovely, this is undoubtedly a wine to match many a Côtes de Nuits 1er Cru. (£19.99) 

From Gamay vines of between 60 and 90 years of age, grown on granitic soil in the village of Pierreclos. The translucent ruby colour and tremendously fragrant nose scores very highly on the come-hither scale. Cherry and redcurrant aromas abound, with subtle hints of spiced rhubarb, violets, new leather and damp earth, and perhaps a suggestion of fresh root ginger. The palate is delightfully fresh and invigorating, with a mouth-watering core of citrussy acidity and just the right amount of tannic grip to accompany the vibrant, tangy, spicy red fruit. Whilst superficially light and airy, it doesn't take too much scratching beneath the surface to reveal extra layers of complexity and flavour, which raise it to another level. It may be Gamay, but it is quite different to Beaujolais. Rather, it has a grace and elegance one might normally encounter in a light, vibrant young Pinot. A wonderful expression of the Gamay grape. (£15.95) 

The estate's top red, from an old, low-yielding vineyard on a mix of marl and limestone, comprising just 0.65 of a hectare, which was re-planted in 1956, with cuttings from Pinot Noir vines from the Cote de Beaune. With a planting density of 8,000 vines per hectare, the average yield is just 30 hl/ha - or just over half a bottle per vine! 

A beautiful, bright, translucent cherry/carmine red colour, with a complex, perfumed nose, combining red summer fruits, white pepper and spice, with subtle woody and earthy notes. A good swirl and a few minutes' air reveals yet more complexity, with hints of redcurrant, old leather and woodsmoke. If it sounds elegant, that's because it is - and the palate certainly lives up to the promise of the nose, caressing the tongue with waves of tangy cherry and redcurrant fruit nuances, not to mention something almost floral, like violets and fruit blossom, with a hint of fine white pepper for good measure. It simply exudes elegance, in an almost feminine way, embracing rather than squeezing, as do the tannins, which are fine and gently grippy, whilst the most gloriously juicy acidity carries the flavours all the way through to a long, lingering finish. At the risk of labouring the point, this really is *proper* red Burgundy. Is it worth 24 quid? Definitely. (£23.95)

Having harboured a desire to import from Guillot-Broux for several years (with so many growers in Languedoc and Roussillon to juggle, there never quite seemed to be an ideal opportunity) I could resist no longer. For these wines are simply too good not to be available in the UK, providing as they do (in comparison with more exalted estates to the north, in the Côte d'Or) a genuine source of 1er Cru-standard wines at Village wine prices. Oh, and the Gamays are pretty darned good, too!

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Terre Inconnue - finally, they are here!

Robert Creus (pronounced "Cruise"), works for the French Chamber of Commerce. He is actually an experienced scientist, having been heavily involved in the Ariane space rocket programme. Whilst continuing in his main career, he also began making some wine in 1997, having bought some old Carignan vines. He has since added Grenache, Syrah, Serine (a northern Rhone variant of Syrah) and a little Tempranillo, all in excess of 30 years old, in several small plots near the villages of Saint-Christol, Saint-Geniès-des-Mourgues and Restinclières. One plot of Carignan is in excess of 70 years old (see the picture below). The total area under vine is just 4 hectares - and with yields of between 10 and 25 hl/ha (depending on the vineyard), it doesn't take a mathematician to work out that there isn't much wine to go around. 

The work in the vineyards throughout the growing season is minimal, aside from a certain amount of green harvesting (resulting in just 4 or 5 bunches per vine) and no treatment (organic or otherwise) are used. Robert employs a dozen or so amateurs for the grape picking, at a rate of around 1.6 tonnes per day. He says that the harvest is "sober until noon, but after that I can guarantee nothing"(!) Around 80% of the grapes are de-stemmed, and maceration/fermentation lasts for between 3 and 5 weeks. The use of sulfites is minimal, with just 5 mg per litre added before fermentation, and none thereafter. The free-run wine is then mixed with the pressed wine and placed into old oak barrels and aged for 2 years. The finished wines are then transferred to tanks for at least 2 weeks to settle, protected by nitogen, after which they are bottled without fining or filtration. Although Robert's farming and winemaking principles are essentially biodynamic, his day job dictates that he bottles when he has the time, irrespective of the prevailing atmospheric pressure or phase of the moon. 

TLD and I actually first visited Terre Inconnue in the summer of 2010. Having heard so much about the wines (and having recently tasted a 1999 Carignan, which was pretty amazing) I was very keen to taste the whole range. Unfortunately, Robert was working on the day we visited, so his father Lucien received us at his house in Saint Seriès. Although Robert makes the wines, Lucien himself has more than a little involvement in Terre Inconnue. Indeed, he no longer has room in his garage for his car, since it clearly comprises part of the Terre Inconnue wine store! Lucien is a charming old man, with a real passion for the wine, not to mention a real zest for life and a wicked sense of humour. 

Lucien Creus shows me around the vineyards in the summer of 2010
Ever since that visit in 2010, we had been trying (but for a variety of reasons failing) to secure some of these wines for our list.Fast-forward to the summer of 2013 and we were invited to a tasting of a variety of wines, including several Terre Inconnue wines, at the house of Mark Ratcliffe, a friend and associate of Robert Creus who has a house in a nearby village. 

A rather pleasant way to spend a June afternoon in the Languedoc. Incidentally, the gentleman on the right is Olivier Crouzet, who makes brilliant wines at Domaine de Foltodon. The man on the left also makes some rather delicious wines, too. I don't recall his name - only that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Paul Newman!. 

Once again, Robert's work schedule meant that he could not be at the tasting - but a flurry of correspondence with him at the beginning of 2014 eventually led to him offering us a few cases of several different cuvées! And now we have our proverbial foot in the door, we hope to be able to secure more Terre Inconnue wines in the future. 

Since Terre Inconnue is essentially a "garagiste" operation, all of the wines are labelled as Vin de Table - mainly because Robert and Lucien cannot be bothered with the bureaucracy involved in applying for appellation controllée (or even vin de pays) status for their wines. Vin de Table is (at least, in theory) the “lowest” denomination possible for wine produced in France. Indeed, until recently, it was not permitted to even show a vintage on the label, although Robert got around that problem by including a code (for example, L:2005) in small print in the bottom right-hand corner of the labels. This no longer poses a problem, as the vintage can now legally be added to the label. Not that such a humble denomination is any indication of the quality of the wines, for although they are not cheap, these are some of the most expressive, concentrated and finely-crafted wines you will find anywhere in Languedoc. Can we sell them? Who knows - but we'll have a damn good try. And if all else fails.... TLD and I will be more than happy to drink them ourselves!

Here are my notes for the wines we have just imported, all of which are now available to buy on our website...

The wine without a name(!) 100% old-vine Grenache, described by Robert as a "cuvée oxidative". And on first opening, there is perhaps a slightly oxidative quality to it, but it opens-up in double quick time to reveal an impressive array of aromas and nuances - a mix of crystallised and baked red and black fruits, freshly-baked bread, polished leather, meat, sun-dried tomato, incense, curry spices and damp earth. Indeed, over the course of a couple of hours, it grows yet more complex, as does the palate, which is crammed full of fruit, spices and herbs, rich and warming, with fine, soft tannins and plenty of acidity, making for a powerful but supremely balanced wine. A perfectly mature wine, and a brilliant introduction to the Terre Inconnue style - and because we were able to get some for not much money, so can you! £11.99 

Guilhem 2011 Vin de Table de France
Carignan, Grenache, Tempranillo and Merlot. Despite the seemingly eclectic blend, the nose is classic Carignan - intense aromas of soused bramble and raspberry, fresh bread and aromatic herbs, with evocative sous-bois notes, like a funghi-filled autumn forest. The advertised 15% abv is in this case just a number, for it feels more like 13% - the palate is tremendously fresh and vibrant, with a combination of ripe red and black fruits, fine tannins and mouth-watering acidity making for a wine of real balance and not a little elegance. It's lightness of touch really is a very pleasant surprise, and whilst the finish is underpinned by a gentle warmth and spiciness, it remains fresh and juicy to the very end. A fine, complex and delicious wine, and yet another which demonstrates what old-vine Carignan is capable of, in the hands of a skilled vigneron. £17.95

100% Carignan from 100 year-old vines. A wonderfully expressive and fresh nose, crammed full of red and black summer fruit, spice, mint and blackcurrant leaf aromas. And with the benefit of several years of evolution, it has developed complex secondary notes of polished leather/wood, smoking incense, damp earth and all manner of other things. And if you are (like me) a bit of a Musar freak, then you will love this, for it has that unmistakeable whiff of volatile acidity, which gives tremendous lift and definition to the fruit. It really is very evocative and alluring! The palate is a charismatic and quirky mix of fresh bramble and currants (of both the black and red varieties) and deep, rich fruitcake and preserved fig flavours, wrapped around a core of intensely juicy acidity. And with a firm but ripe tannic structure, it is a wine that is good to drink now, but also has the stuffing to age and evolve for at least another 10 years..... if, that is, you can resist drinking such a delicious and mouth-watering wine! A Languedoc classic. £22.50 

100% old-vine Grenache. This wine is a complete enigma, and one that (were I to taste it blind) would have me all over the place. With notes of preserved/crystallised redcurrants and raspberries, polished old wood, garrigue herbs and leather, it does have some of the traits that you would expect from Grenache. Conversely, it has a lightness and freshness - both in terms of appearance and aromatically - that would put me somewhere much further north, perhaps even in Burgundy, with lifted notes of tea, violets and roses making for something really quite elegant and delicate. Which I suppose is not too fanciful, since I have occasionally heard Grenache (especially from very old vines) described as the "Pinot Noir of the Languedoc". And this wine illustrates the point almost to an extreme, for the palate is even more Pinot-like than any Grenache I have ever tasted, with redcurrant and red cherry flavours to the fore, a hint of strawberry sweetness lurking at the end. A core of fine but firm tannin and the most amazing rasp of cherry/citrus acidity carries the fruit all the way to a long, bitter-sweet and totally mouth-watering finish. As for the advertised 15% abv on the label..... well, I am flabbergasted, for it feels for all the world more like 13% or less. This wine might not be typically Languedoc - in fact, it is almost as far removed from the template as it is possible to get. Indeed, the style is not even typical for this estate. But if you have an open mind - and perhaps even a love of fine Burgundy - then you will love this! £29.50 

A 50/50 blend of Sérine and Syrah. Sérine is (depending on where you look or who you read) either a particular clone of Syrah or - more likely - the original Syrah, from which other clones were developed. Either way, it seems that many of the Northern Rhône's greatest red wines are based on the Sérine variety and, having become almost extinct in the second half of the 20th century, it's cuttings are now highly-prized by the best growers. And whilst it may still be a relatively rarity in the Rhône, it is even more so in Languedoc, especially old vines like those of Terre Inconnue. Yields for this wine are miniscule, at an average of just 10 hl/ha, and it shows. The colour is deep and concentrated - as is the nose, which at the same time exudes freshness, with notes of violets and cherries, bramble and leather, infused with garrigue herbs and exotic spices, a fleeting hint of coffee grounds and a refreshing streak of volatile acidity. The palate grabs you from the off, with fine, grippy tannins and bright, fresh, mouth-watering acidity, combining seamlessly with dense, ripe red and black fruit flavours. With time in the glass, it develops notes of fresh bread, mint and oregano on the nose, with more in the way of red fruit flavours such as cranberry and redcurrant. It is still relatively young, but supremely balanced and already deliciously drinkable, with a persistent finish. You can drink it now, or age it for another 10-plus years. Either way, it is a fine, complex and compelling wine. £33.95