Thursday 9 March 2023

Domaine Ravanès - a tasting of new releases and older vintages

Hello?! Remember me? I used to write a wine blog..... but, to my great surprise, it has been over 5 and-a-half years since I last posted (and much longer since I was posting at all regularly).  So what do I do now, when all of a sudden I have a particularly interesting set of wines and tasting notes that I want the world to know about? Well, why not put them here on my Blog?! Whether anyone will see them is open to question, of course - my erstwhile pretty healthy audience may well have dwindled to nothing, over the years - but to whoever reads this, thanks for looking, and I hope you enjoy the read.......

What follows is my commentary and tasting notes from a selection of wines from the brilliant Languedoc estate Domaine Ravanès, that I presented to my friends at the Nottingham Wine Circle (NWC) in January 2023. This was a result of my latest visit to the Ravanès estate in June 2022, to taste the latest vintages and spend some quality time talking to winemaker Marc Benin (pictured right, from an earlier visit in 2012). I subsequently ordered a selection of current vintages for my business (some of which are linked to my online shop, in the notes below), and at the same time ordered a selection of older single bottles, from the estate's "library" stock, specifically to include in the NWC tasting.

Since I have been importing from Domaine Ravanès for a decade or more, I am pretty well-versed on the estate's story - not to mention, of course, the high quality of the wines. But with my usual quest for more knowledge, I asked a few questions of Marc, in order to add some technical detail to my notes on some of the older wines. Marc's answers are shown in italics.

Firstly, a little bit of history of the estate........

Domaine Ravanès is fairly unusual in Languedoc, in that the red wines are made predominantly - though not exclusively - from 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. In 1989, Guy's son Marc obtained his Oenology-Ampelography PhD, following his studies at the Institute of Oenology in Bordeaux, and took over the estate in 1990. In 1994, Marc grafted Petit Verdot onto the rootstock of a Cinsault vineyard that had existed for 25 years or more. The Petit Verdot vines are therefore effectively now around 50 years old. 

White varieties include Grenache Gris, Grenache Blanc and Macabeu, along with more recent plantings of Petit Manseng and Colombard. There also exists a small plot of old Aramon, which was until recently retained merely for historical purposes, but is now blended into l'Ibis Rouge, along with Syrah and Cinsault. 

The total area under vine at Domaine Ravanès is 35 hectares, and the estate now has full Organic certification. Some plots are large, some small, and the soil (which is mainly clay/limestone) contains varying amounts of stones and pebbles (as pictured above), from the "gravières" - gravel pits - of which there are many here, washed down from the hills by the adjacent River Orb. Merlot ripens very easily, 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.

So, onto my tasting notes....... 

Wines 1, 2, 6, 7 and 10 are currently available, at the prices shown, from my online shop. The older wines are available only from the Domaine Ravanès cellar door - (in very limited quantities)...........

1. l'Ibis Blanc 2021 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel - £14.75
A blend of Colombard, Petit Manseng, Grenache Blanc. Aged in vat. So fresh and inviting, with aromas of citrus, white tree fruits, freshly cut grass and wet stone leaping from the glass. The palate offers more of the same crisp, zesty, refreshing fruit flavours - bone dry, yet intensely fruity, with subtle herby notes and mouth-watering wet stone minerality. 13.5% abv

This was followed by 4 vintages of the estate's premium white wine, Le Renard Blanc (The White Fox). The blend of grapes differs from one vintage to another. Sometimes described as "Grenache Gris et Blanc" and Maccabeu, but more recently as simply "Grenache Gris" and Maccabeu. I asked Marc about the history and evolution of this blend, and here's what he had to say;

"From 2006 to 2017, only Grenache Gris and Maccabeu were stated on the back label, in proportions varying from 70%-30% to 85%-15% depending on the year and the yield of each plot. From the 2018 vintage, I specified Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris with Maccabeu. The parcel of old Grenache planted in 1937 had been declared by its former owner Monsieur Renard (the name of the cuvée is a tribute to this gentleman) as Grenache Blanc. However, it actually  contains about 2/3 of Grenache Gris and 1/3 of Grenache Blanc. The plants did not come from a nursery - Monsieur Renard had grafted them himself onto existing root stock and had to mix the 2 varieties. 

At the beginning, I harvested the 2 grape varieties separately with vinification and aging in barrels of Gris and Blanc, to be able to know the influence of the 2 colors on the wine. After 2 or more tries, I decided to vinify all the grapes together, because there was no notable difference. It was the choice of wood and the capacity of the barrels that had a major influence. Thus, the first vintages were aged in Bordeaux barrels of 225L - which for me marked the wine too much - and then gradually, we went to 300L, then 400L and today 500L and 600L. The parcel of Maccabeu was planted in 1933, which was Maccabeu with small grains. 

We were forced to uproot the Maccabeu plot in 2021 because it was contaminated by Flavescence Dorée and produced almost no grapes at almost 90 years old. It's a shame but we had no choice. From the 2021 vintage, Le Renard Blanc is made from 80% Grenache Gris/Blanc and 20% Petit Manseng. The aromatic profile of the wine has changed a little of course, but for the better in my opinion with more tension, freshness and balance, and the spirit of the cuvée is respected because the Grenache largely dominates."

2. Le Renard Blanc 2020 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel - £24.95
75% Grenache Gris & Blanc, 25% Maccabeu. Fermented and aged 1 year in oak barrels. Zesty, herbaceous, spice and mineral notes, with bags of lime oil, quince, crushed nettle, thyme, mint, coriander and wet stone. Tight and focused, with ample acidity and plenty of grip, courtesy of extended maceration on the grape skins, followed by a year's ageing in oak barrels. Grenache (either Gris or Blanc) and Maccabeu rarely make for overtly fruity wines, but the word "winey" always tends to spring to mind with the best - especially when aged in oak barrels. And this is a classic example, with herbaceous and mineral elements dominating over background notes of citrus, peach and apple, with a subtle oak influence. Restrained power and elegance is the order of the day, essentially dry and tangy, but with a gently oily texture and a cool, long, minty/spicy finish. Delicious now, but has many years of ageing potential. 14.5% abv

3. Le Renard Blanc 2012 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
85% Grenache Gris & Blanc, 25% Maccabeu. Fermented and aged 1 year in oak barrels. This really is in a great place right now. A little more colour than the 2020 (obviously) but still uber-fresh and focused, with a nose majoring on citrus and stony minerality. The palate too is fresh, gently zesty, minerally and herby, with a touch of honey richness and fabulous length. Many of those present compared this wine very favourably with Lopez de Heredia's Vina Tondonia Rioja Blanco - high praise indeed. A stunning wine. 14.0% abv

4. Le Renard Blanc 2009 IGP Coteaux de Murviel
80% Grenache Gris and Blanc, 20% Maccabeu. Fermented and aged 1 year in oak barrels. This is a much deeper colour (possibly an iffy cork, that may have allowed too much air ingress). Clearly more evolved, but actually still in a really good place. Indeed, it actually developed beautifully in the glass, over the next half hour, revealing all manner of aromas and flavours - notably toast, butter, honey, wood smoke, petrol, lime oil and spiced apple pie. Very long and very lovely - and ultimately turned out to be arguably the white wine of the night. 14.5% abv

5. Le Renard Blanc 2005 Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Murviel
70% Grenache Gris and Blanc, 30% Maccabeu. Fermented and aged 1 year in oak barrels. Slightly paler than the 2009, and a touch fresher, though conversely richer and more honeyed, gently nutty, with soft citrus/orange flavours, as opposed to the more lemony quality of the previous wines. A touch of smoke and spiced apple pie flavours, with a long finish. At over 17 years of age, this is still remarkably fresh and has years left in the tank. Brilliant wine-making! 14.5% abv

6. l'Ibis Rouge 2020 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel - £14.75
Syrah, Aramon and Cinsault. Aged in vat. Aromas of cherry blossom, red berries and currants, mandarin orange, garam masala, forest floor and wood smoke. The palate is equally compelling, with cherry, redcurrant, and raspberry flavours, hints of soft spice and clotted cream, all wrapped around a core of fine tannins and mouth-watering cherry skin acidity. At the same time generous, yet light, almost ethereal, sweet-sour wine, with a body and texture similar to that of a Cru Beaujolais. 13.0% abv

7. Petit Verdot 2018 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel - £19.50
100% Petit Verdot. Aged 30 months in vat (no oak). A mélange of black fruits, leather, spice, herb and undergrowth greet the nose, all of which comes through in spades on the palate. One might expect such a young Petit Verdot to be quite tough and angular for the moment - and there is indeed a healthy dose of tannic grip - but it is balanced by wonderful cherry skin and soft citrus acidity and such an abundance of lush, intense bramble and blackcurrant fruit that it is really rather lovely to drink already. A hint of desiccated orange, a lick of peppery spice and a touch of earthy minerality add lots of interest, whilst the finish is long and beautifully sweet-sour. 14.0% abv

8. Petit Verdot 2012 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
100% Petit Verdot. Aged 16 months in vat (no oak). With 6 more years of evolution over the 2018, this is really just beginning to hit its stride. Still dark, with a tiny rim, the aromas and flavours are gaining real complexity - sous-bois, tobacco and leafy notes, combined with soft citrus, bramble, cassis and plum, with myriad spice and herb notes. Long and very lovely, yet still with at least another 5 years of development left to go. 14.0% abv

9. Le Prime Verd 2006 Vin de Pays des Coteaux de Murviel
100% Petit Verdot. Aged 30 months in oak barrels. From the best Petit Verdot grapes, and made only in the very best years. And wow - such a compelling and complex nose! Ageing red and black fruits, sous-bois, curry spices, cigar box, subtle oak and even something quite floral - violets and jasmine, perhaps(?) And a touch of cream, too. There's still plenty of tannic grip, but the abundant fruit is still hanging on nicely, though this is a wine that demands food. A cracking wine, possibly at its peak. 14.0% abv

Then on to 4 vintages of the estate's top red, Les Gravières du Taurou (Taurou is a small tributary of the River Orb, which runs through the vineyards)......

Marc Benin says; "The first 2 vintages of Les Gravières du Taurou - 1998 and 1999 - were composed of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet-Sauvignon. But from the 2000 vintage, I decided to start with a 50% Merlot and 50% Petit Verdot base (after raising the 2 varieties separately), which at the time I considered more interesting and original, and more reliable from one year to the next. The Petit Verdot is much more regular in maturity and in quality than the often capricious Cabernet-Sauvignon, which is disappointing one year out of three. This explains why there may occasionally be some Cabernet in the blend, when we deem it worthy of the cuvée on certain vintages, but only in addition to the two other varieties, without ever exceeding 20%."

10. Les Gravières du Taurou 2015 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel - £31.99
53% Merlot and 47% Petit Verdot, Aged 60 months in oak barrels and vat, this is the estate's flagship red, from 45+ year-old vines. Bramble, cassis, black cherry, polished leather, cedar and damp earth on the nose, with subtle hints of violets, iodine and a little bit of Languedoc spice and garrigue herb thrown in for good measure. In the mouth, the fruit is beautifully ripe and rounded, almost sweet and luscious, but with plenty of tannic grip and fabulous acidity. And even after 4 years in barrel (followed by a year in vat), you hardly notice the oak. A very fine wine, which will age and evolve to 2030 and beyond. 15.0% abv

11. Les Gravières du Taurou 2010 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
38% Merlot, 32% Petit Verdot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, Aged 48 months in oak barrels. This was fresh and very much alive, when I opened it a few hours beforehand, but when we came to taste it, it had developed a slight cheesiness one associates with much older wines. The cork looked fine, so perhaps a slightly "dirty" bottle? Still a nice wine, which is still worth drinking, once you get past the somewhat oxidative/cheesy notes, but certainly not a representative bottle. 15.0% abv

12. Les Gravières du Taurou 2003 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
56% Merlot, 41% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 24 months in oak barrels. I thought it would be interesting to taste - side by side - wines from 2 of the most "extreme" vintages of the 2000's and see how they have evolved. 2003 was extremely hot (all over Europe) and getting the right balance between fruit, tannin and acidity was a challenge. And this one does it pretty well - yes, it is still a touch tannic, but the balance is still there, with plenty of herb, wood smoke and curry spice aromas and decent acidity. 14.5% abv

Marc Benin says; "2003 was a very hot "solar" vintage in summer and autumn with the heat wave (which killed 15,000 elderly people in France!). This "hot" vintage was supposed to be unbalanced on alcohol and theoretically have a medium to short guard and in the end, we were surprised by the balance and the longevity of the wine."

13. Les Gravières du Taurou 2002 IGP Pays d'Hérault Coteaux de Murviel
Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 24 months in oak barrels. The 2002 vintage was the total opposite to 2003, with a summer blighted by unusually cold temperatures and plenty of rain. That said, this is somewhat the better (more typical and complete) wine of the two. Very Claret-like, with an abundance of black fruits aromas and flavours, complemented by notes of tobacco, wild herbs and old wood. Ready to drink now, but should go for at least another 3 to 5 years. 14.5% abv

Marc Benin says; "In 2002, there was a lot of rain and humidity during the harvest in the Rhone Valley, but less so in Languedoc, with difficult and dragging maturities. We took the risk of waiting as long as possible to harvest, to wait for phenolic maturity in the Merlot (25 September) and the Petit Verdot (end of October) and finally succeeded in (what was) a difficult vintage elsewhere, well "broken" by the Anglo- Saxon, who had classified as in the worst years(!) The wine remained closed with a heavy tannic charge and a certain greenness making it unpleasant for a good ten years, but it is now proving to be of a very good level I believe, even after 20 years. In Ravanès, it's not like elsewhere!"

14. Cuvée Diogène 1996 Vin de Pays de Coteaux de Murviel (in Magnum)
Petit Verdot, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon. Aged 18 months in oak barrels. For a wine not exactly designed to age for 26+ years, this is still a decent drink, if perhaps a few years past its peak. Definitely in the "old wine" category now, but an interesting curio from Marc Benin's early wine-making years. 13.5% abv


The purpose of this tasting was not only to showcase the current releases from Domaine Ravanès, but to illustrate the age-worthiness and positive evolution of the estate's top red and white wines. Indeed, whilst the reds performed pretty much as I expected them to do, the whites were a true revelation, with even the oldest (at more than 17 years) being in fine fettle. And I think it's safe to say that my fellow NWC members were impressed with the high quality of the wines, too.

I'm proud to have kept the fire burning for the wines of Domaine Ravanès in the UK market, for the past decade or so. And when I eventually finish in the wine business (more than likely within the next year or two) I hope that some or other UK importer will have the nous to take my place, for these are some of the finest wines that Southern France have to offer. Bravo Marc Benin!

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