Wine of the Week 23 – an inspiring tale & a treat from the Rhône

My new Wine of the Week is something I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. It is made by the guys at Chêne Bleu who craft some superb wines at their Domaine de la Verrière. This beautiful estate is in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux.

la_verriere182

Domaine de la Verrière complete with the blue oak. Photo courtesy of the winery.

I have managed to taste most of the Chêne Bleu wines and they are hugely impressive and like all the best wineries it has a great story to tell. Once an early medieval priory that was known for its wines, it also later became famous for making glass, hence the la Verrière name, but by the 1960s the place was rundown and derelict. It stayed that way too, until Nicole and Xavier Rolet bought the property in the mid 1990s. At first they brought the house up to standard, but soon turned their attention to the vineyards. As the estate is hardly in a famous location for great wine they assumed a modest future of growing grapes for the local cooperative was all that was possible. However, as they were totally new to wine they called in soil experts who explained to them that this site actually had potential for great wine.

Fundamentally it was the altitude – between 550 and 630 metres above sea level – the complex soils, the powerful sun and the strong winds that made the place so promising. The estate can ripen the fruit, the altitude ensures finesse and acidity, while the other factors force the vines to spend so much effort surviving that they produce tiny crops of concentrated grapes.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleue. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleu. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Apparently it took twelve years of back breaking effort to coax life back into the land. Right from the start they aimed high to produce wines that spoke of this place, which is why some of their wines are blended across their land. Because the estate straddles 4 appellations – Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Séguret and Ventoux – some of their wines are made from grapes that belong to more than one appellation and so are simply labelled as Vin de Pays / IGP rather than appellation contrôlée. To restore balance to the vineyard, everything is done manually and naturally with no fertilisers or pesticides. In fact they are on their way to biodynamic and organic certification.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

It may seem a little shallow of me, but part of the pleasure that I take in their wines is looking at their beautiful labels which look like intricate medieval wood-cuts. I have always loved David Gentleman‘s mural at Charring Cross tube station and I can take the same sort of delight in Chêne Bleu’s labels as I can in examining that. You can spend hours taking in all the details and finding the animals hidden in the patterns – apparently people try to count the rabbits – and at the heart is a drawing of the Chêne Bleu itself. As you can see in the photographs, there really is a blue oak at the estate. It is so old that they have had to treat it in order to preserve it and it was this that made it blue.

Chêne Bleu is an inspiring project and the positive way their wines have been received must give them immense gratification after so much hard work. The wines are very, very good though and they deserve their plaudits, but most of them are also far from cheap, although well worth trying if you want a treat.

However, luckily for us they have just launched a more affordable wine and that is my Wine of the Week:

CB- Mktg- A5 Brochures- UK- Astralabe 2009-  24.7.132009 Chêne Bleu Astralabe
A.C. Ventoux
Rhône Valley, France
This is a blend of 70% old vine Grenache and Syrah, the vines are between 30 and 40 years old and are grown at around 540 metres above sea level on a mixture of north and south-west facing slopes. The wine spends 7-8 months in barrel. It is named Astralabe in honour of the little known son of Abélard and Héloïse, which are the names of Chêne Bleu’s two top wines.
The nose is lifted, attractive and smoky with mineral, earthy and herbal notes. The fruit is dominated by plums, cooked strawberries and black cherry together with and a touch of prune in the background.
The palate is quite full-bodied and delivers delicious bright red fruit, as wells some deeper notes. There is a delicately peppery spice, gently firm tannins and some fresh acidity giving it a distinctive purity.
This is an elegant, balanced and joyous wine with concentrated fruit and a lovely mineral quality too – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £15.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar – £11.99 if you grab it before 28/10/2014

This is utterly perfect with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb cooked on a bed of garlic, thyme, rosemary and lemon peel. If you like Grenache and Syrah blends, wines from the Rhône, spicy or elegant wines, then you really should try this.

 

Wine of the Week 22 – Croatian specialities

Dubrovnil from the south.

Dubrovnil from the south.

Earlier in the year I was judging in a wine competition in Dubrovnik. I have been meaning to write about it ever since as the whole experience was quite wonderful. The place itself completely lives up to expectations and fully deserves its reputation as one of the great destinations. I can see why it is a World Heritage site, it really is right up there with Venice in terms of wonder. It isn’t only the city that is worth seeing though, the whole coastline takes your breath away.

The wines in southern Croatia are a great experience too though. We tasted lots of excellent wines of character and interest that were quite unlike most  wines from elsewhere, so all in all it was a pretty exciting trip.

The whole Dalmatian coast produces a wide array of red wines in all sorts of styles, some of them quite sweet, from the Plavac Mali grape – the name means ‘small blue’ by the way, which pretty well describes the look of the grapes. The berries are small and they are deeply coloured.  The most famous examples of Plavac Mali  are Dingač and Postup, which are both grown on the astonishingly wild and beautiful Pelješac Peninsula to the north of Dubrovnik. I visited vineyards there and was very taken with the place. I didn’t get to visit it, but the nearby island of Korčula, also grows Plavac Mali as well as making excellent white wines from the indigenous Pošip grape.

The vineyards of Dingač sweeping down to the sea on the Pelješac Peninsula.

The amazing vineyards of Dingač sweeping down to the sea on the Pelješac Peninsula.

I have not yet drawn a map of Croatia, so you can see one by clicking here.

Plavac Mali is the same grape as Italy’s Primitivo and is very closely related to Zinfandel – in fact Zin is one of its parents, the other being the obscure Dobričić from the island of Šolta. True Zinfandel originates here in Croatia where it grows in tiny amounts on the Dalmatian coast where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. The even rarer and older Tribidrag has exactly the same DNA and is thought to be the same grape.

I had been to Croatia before, not on a wine trip as it happens, but wine gets consumed even on a holiday – you know how it it! On that occasion I visited Istria in the north west of the country where the local specialities are the earthy and herbal tasting Teran reds and the refreshing, although sometimes fleshy, Malvasia white wines. While I was there I visited a winery in Slovenia.

Anyway all this came flooding back to me while I was working at The Three Wine Men the other week. I was pouring and talking about Croatian wines to a very receptive and interested crowd. The wines were very good indeed and I decided that one of them would be my Wine of the Week:

Plavac_0752009 Plavac Blato
Korčula
Blato 1902
Croatia
Blato 1902 is a cooperative on the island of Korčula and yes, you guessed it, they were founded in 1902. Blato is a town towards the western end of the island, some 20 km away from Korčula town. They don’t only make wine either, but all manner of drinks and agricultural products including olive oils and vinegars. 
This is a delightfully elegant Plavac with the alcohol, fruit, tannins and acidity in very good balance. There is nothing rustic or overworked about this, the merest hint of raisins shows we are tasting a wine from somewhere with lots of sunshine and there is plenty of seductive spice as well as dark cherry fruit and touches of chocolate. At just 12.5% alcohol the wine is very easy to drink, but has good depth of flavour and a very Mediterranean feel. It would be brilliant with cheese and charcuterie as well as casseroles, lamb cooked with garlic and all manner of pasta dishes as there is something Italianate about it – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK at £10 a bottle from Croatian Fine Wines.

Croatian Fine Wines carry an excellent, and exciting range of Croatian wines, including some excellent and really lovely whites from the north east of the country.

Lebanon Part 2 – the producers

Earlier in the year I was invited to visit Lebanon and so was able to tour some of the wineries in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon is a beautiful and vibrant country full of smiling, friendly people, incredible landscapes, wonderful food and excellent quality wines.

Of course in world terms it is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality does seem very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though. So it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. This means that most Lebanese wine isn’t cheap – even in Lebanon – but is usually well worth trying.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Most Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, which is a beautiful fertile valley between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, which form the border with Syria. It’s very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less fertile soils.  The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers that can ripen grapes perfectly. The heat is tempered by cool breezes because the valley is at very high altitude, between 900 and 1250 metres above sea level. The big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also helps to retain freshness and elegance in the wines. Some of the newer regions just starting to produce wines, like Jezzine in the south and Batroun in the north, are cooler and look promising for more delicate grape varieties like Rielsing and Sauvignon Blanc.

When I first got back I wrote a little about Lebanon and have since put on a couple of well received Lebanese tastings as well, but I thought it might be useful to go into a little detail about some of the producers whose wines you might be able to buy where you live.

Château Ksara

Château Ksara.

Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. It all started when the monks of nearby Tabauk Monastery were left 25 hectares of farming land near Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. It seems that one of their number – Father Kirn – was rather keen on wine and persuaded his colleagues that this place had great potential for growing grapes and making wine. It seems they aimed high right from the start and eventually employed a trained team of viticulturist monks, which seems an odd concept to a modern ear, but remember that the monasteries had been the guardians of winemaking knowledge – and indeed the wine innovators too – for hundreds of years. The secularisation of wine was a long journey that has lasted from the 1500s in Bordeaux onwards and even today monasteries still cultivate grapes and make wine around the world – see my article about Mount Athos.

Ksara had a an amazing stroke of luck in the final years of the nineteenth century, when some children, who worked on the farm were trying to stop a fox from terrorising the chickens. In the excitement they stumbled on a Roman cave system on the site. The monks instantly realised that these ancient caves were a perfect place to store their wine as the temperature stays constant at 11˚C throughout the year. These cellars are quite amazing to see and have been central to the Ksara story ever since their discovery and help to explain why Ksara is such a popular tourist destination – although numbers of visitors have declined recently with the civil war raging in nearby Syria.

Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a United Nations mandate. French soldiers and administrators came to the country and brought their thirst with them. The country’s two wine producers just weren’t enough to cope with demand and so other wineries – together with breweries and distilleries – were created throughout the 1920s and thirties.

Ksara carried on as before, but with bigger markets and more demands, until the Vatican noticed that wine making had become a major focus for the monastery – by this time they were producing 1.5 million bottles. The Vatican didn’t really approve and so in 1973 encouraged the monastery, as well as many others, to sell off any money making enterprises. So Ksara became a private company belonging to a group of local businessmen. Their timing wasn’t great as the Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and lasted for the best part of twenty years, devastating the country and making commerce next to impossible. The absolute low point for Ksara was when the Battle of Zahle raged just down the road and the winery was actually occupied by Syrian troops for a time.

Vines at Château Ksara.

Vines at Château Ksara.

The 1990s saw Ksara bounce back with determination. New planting, replanting and investments in modern equipment have paid real dividends. My hosts here were the charming Elie Maamari – who is officially the export manager, but seems to know everything about and everybody to do with wine in Lebanon and was instrumental in my being there – and James Palgé the talented and engaging wine maker.

James Plagé.

James Plagé.

Like all the Bekaa Valley wineries I saw, the place is very peaceful, which is astonishing considering that it’s almost in the centre of a bustling little town. However photographs from as recently as the 1960s show that it was originally in the countryside with nothing around it except vineyards.

The winery is like a little haven of peace with a museum in the reception area. It’s full of wonderfully antiquated wine making equipment and reinforces how old this winery is, over 150 years now. Upstairs there is a lovely tasting area and excellent restaurant, but the real wonder is the cellars which lie beyond an arched door with 1857 carved into the keystone. These extraordinary tunnels appear to go on for miles – actually just over 2 kilometres – and it is fascinating to meander through them seeing the little alcoves lined with bottles and barrels. They still store some old wines that the monks made there in the nineteenth century.

The cellars at Ksara.

The cellars at Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

It isn’t all about the restaurant and the cellars though, there is real dedication here and it shows in the finished wines. James is a passionate and thoughtful winemaker who embraces new techniques while retaining the best of the old. He led me and my friend, fellow wine scribe Stephen Quinn – whose writings and videos can be found here – , through a wide range of Ksara’s wines in their beautiful upstairs tasting room.

The Wines
We started with a pair of rosés and I was very impressed, especially by the 2012 Château Ksara Gris de Gris with it’s delicate, Provence-like colour, subtle spice and delicate fruit, but the more intensely fruity 2013 Ksara Sunset Rosé was very drinkable too. It was a sunny day and the idea of sipping the Gris de Gris with a lovely Lebanese meal was very attractive.

The Bekaa has a huge variety of soils and conditions, so all colours can confidently be made here – indeed one of the revelations of the trip, for me, was the high quality of the white wines – which is good as they also suit the cuisine very well indeed. Certainly Ksara’s 2012 Chardonnay is an accomplished and appealing wine, with a lovely texture, succulent fruit and refreshing acidity it is the sort of wine that could win more drinkers back to Chardonnay.

While I was in Lebanon I totally fell for the traditional and local style of white, which is a blend of different white grape varieties and usually called a Blanc de Blancs. I tasted quite a few I rated and the 2012 Château Ksara Blanc de Blancs was one of them. It is a lovely, nutty, creamy and spicy blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Chardonnay and 20% Semillon and is delicious with a nice piece of fish.

The heart of their range though is their red wines and I liked them all, although the stand outs for me were the 2010 Château Ksara itself, which is nicely complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will please claret lovers.

The 2011 Ksara Reserve du Couvent is a more approachable wine in terms of structure and price. It is a lovely bright blend of 40% Syrah 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit – it is a former Wine of the Week because it is so delicious and a great bargain.

The top wine of their range is called Le Souvrain and I was hugely impressed by the 2008 offering. Created to celebrate the wineries 150th anniversary, 2008 Le Souvrain is an opulent blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Arinarnoa, which is cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot, aged in new French oak for 24 months. The wine is full-bodied, creamy, concentrated, supple and sumptuous with the weight of fruit easily carrying all that oak in perfect, seductive  balance.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

 

It was a brilliant tasting, but James had one more treat in store for us. He collected a mould encrusted bottle from the cellars and carefully removed the cork before pouring samples of this venerable looking bottle. It looked like brandy in fact and had complex aromas of amontillado sherry, barley sugar and orange peel. The palate was glorious with high alcohol, coffee, apricot, walnuts, caramel, honey and brandy characters. We were drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or (no records exist about what grapes were used) which was made by the monks and had lain in the caves beneath Ksara ever since. It was an exquisite wine and a great experience that I will remember forever.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines.

Thank you Elie and James for a memorable and wonderful visit.

Château Kefraya

Château Kefraya's soils.

Château Kefraya’s soils.

An hour or so further south in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, Château Kefraya seems to be very remote – it is midway between Chitaura and Machghara. It was my first winery visit in Lebanon and I found the place quite magical with a lovely peaceful feel. The landscape seemed biblical to me and had a rugged beauty to it with wild flowers and scrub contrasting with the neatly maintained grounds and foliage around the winery. Lizards darting around and cicadas chirruping added to the exotic ambience.

Kefraya, the area or lieux-dit in French, has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations. However farming here has always been problematic as the soil is so rocky and difficult to work that anything other than subsistence agriculture has proved impossible. It was these conditions that inspired Michel de Bustros to return to the family land in 1946, repair the buildings and set about creating a vineyard. First of all they had to remove a mass of rocks, something which is ongoing as the vineyard area grows, so the first vines were not planted until 1951. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers, including the excellent Château Nakad.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

Eventually Michel decided the they had enough experience and knowhow to build a winery on the estate too and to create a new Lebanese wine brand. Château Kefraya’s – there is an actual castle that is now quite modernised and serves as the family house – first estate bottled vintage was 1979, although some of the grapes were still sold to other producers at that time.

Of course, again the timing was bad, the civil war was in full flow and Lebanon’s unruly neighbours had to get involved. In 1981 the Israeli Army occupied the area and took over Kefraya for a while – they even arrested the winemaker. Determined to look after his beloved Château, Michel stayed there all through this troubled time. His determination was rewarded as more peaceful times returned, slowly at first, but enough to ensure the winery could start to prosper. They started exporting from 1987 and have gone from strength to strength ever since.

The current wine maker is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Fabrice Guiberteau is a gentle giant of a man, brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here. His excitement was palpable and it was a wonderful experience to see the estate through his eyes.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

I first glimpsed him driving a tractor around a rocky vineyard. He explained that the site produced his best Chardonnay grapes, so he tended it himself. As the estate is now 430 hectares he cannot do it all, but insists on personally looking after this section. From the moment he greeted us, it was great fun to be there, Fabrice bounded from one topic to the next, explaining it all and being totally honest, as well as modest – both important attributes in a wine maker I think.

The landscape at Kefraya.

The landscape at Kefraya.

Kefraya's vineyards.

Kefraya’s vineyards.

He drove us around the estate in a 4X4, showed us the very different soils – limestone, chalk – particularly good for their Chardonnay – and sand, the different aspects and the different altitudes he grows grapes at.  He showed us the amazing piles of rocks that have been removed from the land before the vines can be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that, it was recently discovered, contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. It looked for all the world like the tombs mentioned in the bible and was amazing to think that this rural landscape has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner's seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner’s seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

Fabrice gave us three wonderful tastings in different parts of the winery, tasting vat and cask samples as well as finished wines.

The Wines
2012 Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs  is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc (Fabrice is from Cognac country!), Chardonnay and Verdejo.

The 2012 Château Kefraya Chardonnay is beautifully balanced with rich figgy fruit and well integrated oak. While a tank sample of the Provencal-like 2013 Château Kefraya Rosé was quite delightful with a little creamy ripeness to the red fruit notes, good acidity and a touch of spice – it would go perfectly with a classic Lebanese meal.

The 2010 Château Kafraya Rouge is a blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Mourvèdre aged for 18 months in oak, 50% new. It is a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.

The ‘flagship’ wine here is called Comte de M and the 2010 Comte du M Rouge is an intense, concentrated and fine blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Syrah that spent 18 months in new French oak barrels, Fabrice has experimented with American oak, but he hates it! I found the wine to be opulent, but elegant too, full of rich fruit, with lovely fresh, cleansing acidity and supple tannins.

Fabrice also gave us some fascinating cask samples, most memorably his 2012 Carmenère (with 20% Syrah) that had 18 months in new French oak. It was sublime with beautiful blackberry fruit, fruity intensity, those savoury notes, supple tannins and a touch of spice and mocha. He only made one barrel, so try it if you can!

Thank you too Fabrice for a wonderful visit and for your infectious enthusiasm.

Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.
Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the US by Volubilis.

Both these visits were great experiences and introduced me to a wider array of styles from Lebanon than I was expecting and whetted my appetite for more Lebanese wine, so I will report on a couple of more wineries soon.

Wine of the Week 21 – blast from my past

Saint-Émilion with vineyards in the background.

Saint-Émilion with vineyards in the background.

Long ago when I was just a boy I was a trainee wine shop manager. Not knowing as much about wine as my miss-spent youth had led me to expect – I well remember asking what claret was! – I set out trying all the wines in the shop that I could afford.

It was 1984 and Bordeaux was big. The 1982 vintage was being talked about with reverence and it had a huge positive effect on the Bordeaux trade. My shop was awash with impressive looking clarets in wooden boxes. Not all of them were silly money either, we had the 1982 Sarget de Gruaud-Larose and 1982 Connétable Talbot for sale at £4.99.

Eager to try this famous vintage I splashed out on a swanky looking bottle of Saint-Émilion Grand Cru called Château du Cauze. It was £3.99 and I was very proud of it. It seemed such a lot of money for a bottle of wine,  my father and brother thought I was mad, although I seem to remember they both helped me drink it! Sadly I did not write tasting notes in those days, merely kept labels, so I do not know what it tasted like, but I do remember that I loved it. It was a life changing moment as I felt that I had tasted good claret. The cases it came in were even those posh wooden ones and I still have a wooden 1982 Château du Cauze box that I use for tools all these years later.

Saint=Émilion really is a beautiful town and well worth visiting.

Saint=Émilion really is a beautiful town and well worth visiting.

As the song says, I have often stopped and thought about Château du Cauze, but have never actually seen it for sale since. Until the other day, when I thought I should really get down to Lidl and check out their much vaunted new range of wines French wines. The range focuses on Bordeaux in some detail, but also includes wines from the Loire, Champagne, Alsace, Burgundy, the Rhône, Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and the South-West. The idea, it seems, is to wean the wine buying middle classes away from Waitrose and get them coming to Lidl and certainly the range looks interesting and we are promised more to come this month too.

Well, blow me if one of the wines wasn’t Château du Cauze, 2011 this time though, not 1982. ’82 was, of course a great vintage of legendary high quality, whereas 2011 is much more mixed, but I just couldn’t resist buying a bottle just for old times’ sake. What’s more, I liked it so much I made it my Wine of the Week.

Saint-Émilion vineyards.

Saint-Émilion vineyards.

Ch du Cauze2011 Château du Cauze
Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Bordeaux, France
A proper Château graces the label and it actually looks like that in real life too. It is built on the sight of a medieval bastide that was destroyed during the Hundred Years War – Saint Émilion was right on the border between English Aquitaine and France. Just down the road is Castillon, which makes its Côtes de Castillon wines in a similar style to St-Émilion. The capital is fittingly called Castillon-la-Bataille as it was the site of the last battle of the Hundred Years War. That was in 1453, the English were defeated and their commander, John Talbot Earl of Shrewsbury was killed.
Château du Cauze belongs to the Laporte family who also own another château in Montagne-Saint Émilion. The wine is a blend of 90% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and around half of it gets aged in barrel for 12 months.
The colour is pretty deep, opaque, ruby with touches of purple and garnet.
There’s lots of fruit on the nose, plums, blackberry and blackcurrant together with a whiff of pencil lead and cedar. There is rich elderflower too, caramel and a touch of dried fruit.
The palate is soft, with supple tannins just adding touch of structure, while a little acidity cleans it up and makes it fresher than the colour suggests. Nice weight of fruit and concentration, fresh acidity and layers of flavour make it seem quite complex for the price.

While I wasn’t as bowled over by it as I seem to remember I was by the 1982, I still think it is a good wine – I am a great deal more experienced and knowledgeable than I was then, so am probably assessing it more accurately. Perfectly nice to drink now, I think this could age nicely for 4 years or so too. I am sure it is plusher and more fruity than the 1982 and at 14.5% it’s certainly more alcoholic, but it carries this very well thanks to the freshness and balance – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from Lidl @ £11.99 per bottle.

I was very pleased to discover that this is still a good wine, what’s more it is sensibly and honestly priced. It seems to me that this wine has a lot more to it than all those £12 bottles which are artificially discounted down to £8 or £6. If you fancy a bottle of claret at a good price then this fits the bill perfectly and is lovely with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb.

Wine of the Week 20 – a lovely, honest, great value red wine & a bit of a rant

Chinon with Chinon Castle above. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France. "Château Chinon" by Touriste - Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_Chinon.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_Chinon.JPG

Chinon nestling below the walls of Chinon Castle. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France. “Château Chinon” by Touriste – Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

A bit of a rant
Sometimes I despair about how wine is sold in the UK – by many of the supermarkets anyway. At the cheaper end of the price spectrum it is getting harder and harder to find a wine that is not some sort of own label product. Therefore it is getting harder to buy wines that are made by the producer without input from the UK stockist. Most cheaper wines are tweaked to some degree to make the style more palatable to the UK drinker. I suppose there is nothing terrible about making wine more palatable to certain tastes, but it does sort of fly in the face of what wine has traditionally been about.

Call me an old romantic, but somewhere in the back of my mind I still cling to the thought that wine should at its heart be all about where and how the vines are grown. Where the style of a wine comes about from the balance between the climate and traditions of an area together with the skills of the winemaker, rather than customer research saying what people want.

After all there are so many possibilities in wines and so many options that no one can possibly know every style, grape, blend or flavour that is possible. So if supermarkets only offer people what they think they want, which will by definition be based on their, possibly, limited experience, then the range of wines people are offered the chance to experience will become narrower and narrower. And that is most definitely happening already.

What then happens to all the grapes people have never heard of? Or the styles of wine people have never tried? They will slowly wither and stop being produced, which will be an absolute tragedy as there are still so many wonderful wines out there just waiting to be tasted by the adventurous.

I think that supermarkets and wine merchants should try to lead the market. To some degree they should offer their customers some idea of the diversity of wines that is possible and not just stick to a narrow range of wines that they know sells and that focus groups tell them their customers want. Remember what Henry Ford is supposed to have said about his early days, ‘If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’

It’s just as relavent when applied to wine, if consumers are led to believe that there are only about 6 different grapes, they will say they want more Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Shiraz.

I am also tired of those fake discounts which make out a wine is half price when it is merely discounted to the price it should have been in the first place. So I am delighted to tell you that lurking on Sainsbury’s shelves there is still a wine that fits my criteria for a traditional and honest wine, what’s more it sits there year after year, never being promoted, so it is at a sensible price to start with – it’s something of a bargain actually.

My Wine of the Week
It is a red wine from France’s Loire Valley made from Cabernet Franc grapes in Chinon. Back in my youth Loire Valley reds were pretty problematic and usually underripe with green tannins. Not anymore, I have become more and more keen on the reds from this part of the world in recent years and think they can offer delicious drinking.

Domaine du Colombier - by kind permission Domaine du Colombier.

Domaine du Colombier – by kind permission Domaine du Colombier.

The cellar at Domaine du Colombier

The cellar at Domaine du Colombier – by kind permission Domaine du Colombier.

Colombier QS2011 Chinon Domaine du Colombier
Christine & Olivier Jouvault
A.C. Chinon, Loire, France
Domaine du Colombier has belonged to the Jouvault family for five generations. It comprises 24 hectares of vines in Beaumont-en-Véron, some 6 km northwest of Chinon itself. Cabernet Franc, for reds and rosés and Chenin Blanc, for whites are the only two grapes permitted in the Chinon appellation. Like so many of the producers around here they have wonderful cellars dug into the tufa rock below their winery and this is where they age their wines. Growing the Cabernet Franc on trellis systems, to maximise exposure to the sun, de-stemming, long fermentations on the skins and daily pump overs, to get the skins and juice in contact with each other, has improved wines like this beyond recognition. There is nothing green or harsh about this wine at all.
The colour is an attractive medium-deep cherry tinged ruby.
The nose is richly fruity, but it’s dry fruit, red fruit, plums and cherry with notes of fresh earth and brambles and some ripe green pepper too.
The palate is medium bodied with enough juiciness of cherry, plum and black cherry fruit to make it supple and the freshness – acidity – gives it a feeling of elegance. The tannins are very light, just a little chalky on the finish and there is a leafiness quite characteristic of French Cabernet Franc, in fact it is a textbook example of what a red Chinon should be.
The fresh acidity means it is very nice lightly chilled too, but be warned, it is very drinkable. A lovely honest wine, the sort of thing I would enjoy served by the pichet in a bistro with steak frîtes or confit du canard with dauphinoise potatoes.

Rather stupidly, I almost never drink Chinon except when I am in a French restaurant, preferably of the laid back brasserie / bistrot type, but then I am always drawn to it  because it just goes with the food so well. Having taken to this wine so much I have discovered that Chinon Rouge goes with pretty much anything else too, it is a very versatile food wine indeed.

This is one of those rarities from a major supermarket, a wine made by a proper vigneron exactly as they want and sold at the proper price without any fake promotions or anyone over branding it and it has become my house red of the moment – 88/100 points

Available in the UK from Sainsbury’s at £7.00 per bottle, which is pretty amazing considering it’s €6 from the winery – so you see, contrary to popular belief, wine is not stupidly expensive in the UK!

If you are unfamiliar with Loire Valley reds, then this wine would be a good place to start. If you already know them and love them, then this is a bargain that you should snap up.

Chinon is also a wonderful place to visit by the way. It’s steeped in history, has one of the most amazing castles in France, the local food is superb and the wine is a joy. It is very much the France of one’s imagination, so well worth a visit.

Wine of the Week 19 – a superior Bordeaux Supérieur

Vineyards in Entre-Deux-Mers.

Vineyards in Entre-Deux-Mers.

I’m not a great one for the cheaper end of Bordeaux, the sort of wine that was described as ‘luncheon claret’ when I joined the wine trade. Red Bordeaux more than any other type of wine really ought to make you stop, think and smile. Claretany red Bordeaux – can be the most thought provoking, elegant and refined wines in the world, but of course wine like that costs money. Sad to say that cheaper Bordeaux only hints at what is possible, while downright cheap Bordeaux almost never has anything about it to suggest how good the wines from this region can be.

I say almost never, because I think I have tasted an exception. I was tasting an array of value for money claret and this was by some distance the best of the wines at under £10 a bottle – no mean feat when you consider that if you strip the retailer’s merging, excise duty, VAT, packaging costs and transport out, this wine cost something like £1.70!

Behind the scenes at an Entre-Deux-Mers Château.

Behind the scenes at an Entre-Deux-Mers Château.

Darzac2011 Château Darzac Cuvée Réserve
A.C. Bordeaux Supérieur
Vignobles Claude Barthe
76% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Franc and 11% Cabernet Sauvignon partially aged in oak barrels for 8 months. The Château has been owned and run by the same family for generations and although they are white wine specialists – Darzac is in the Entre-Deux-Mers appellation for whites and about 8 km south east of Libourne – this is a very good effort indeed. By the way incase you are wondering a Bordeaux Supérier can be produced anywhere within Bordeaux, but is made according to slightly stricter rules that standard Bordeaux. These rules include higher minimal alcohol levels and longer ageing times.
Bright, slightly purple, but basically ruby red.
The nose is slightly spicy and cedary with plums and red fruit.
The palate is clean and smooth with lovely raspberry and blackcurrant fruit, there is real freshness here from the acidity which gives it a feel of elegance, this is helped by the merest touch of coffee and cedary spice. Smoky tannins dominate the finish at the moment, giving more structure, but they are not aggressive at all. It is a fruity wine, but not in a blockbuster style, indeed it is a classic medium-bodied, dry red Bordeaux.

I drank this over 2 days and it was much better by the second day. I approached this with some trepidation, but it is a nice wine and gives some idea of what claret should be like, albeit in an easier drinking more everyday style. Try it with steak-frîtes, cheese or meat dishes – 86/100 points.

Available in the UK for £8.00 a bottle from Asda.

This is exactly the sort of claret that will win Bordeaux friends even at what passes for a cheap price nowadays, do try it sometime.

 

Wine of the Week 18 – a white wine with a difference

Vineyards near Béziers.

Vineyards near Béziers.

I have recently been touring the beautiful Saint-Chianian area of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region. I learnt a lot about the place and tasted a wide range of the wines produced there. It seemed to me that the general quality was very high, but much to my surprise it was the white wines that particularly excited me. I will write about Saint-Chinian soon, as the area produces lots of really exciting wines that you should try. I flew in to Montpellier airport and on the way to Saint-Chinian, while on the outskirts of Béziers, I passed the turning for an estate that I have kept meaning to mention in theses pages.

Domaine Sainte Rose is one of those estates that I keep finding nowadays, an exemplary producer of exciting French wines, but the people who run it are not only not from the region, they are not even French – Domaine Jones is another stunning example. Charles and Ruth Simpson bought this beautiful estate in 2002 and set out to produce the sort of wines that they liked to drink, world class wines that reflected modern international wine making rather than focussing on the traditions of their region. To achieve this they decided to not make any Appellation Contrôlée wines at all, but to stick to Vin de Pays / Indication Géographique Protégé / IGP.

The rugged landscape of the Languedoc.

The rugged and beautiful landscape of the Languedoc.

In fact they label their wines as  IGP / Vin de Pays Côtes de Thongue rather than the wider, more famous Vin de Pays d’Oc which is interesting and gives them a nice slightly romantic local focus as the River Thongue passes right by the estate.

So far I have only tried one of their wines, but it is a fabulous wine that is made from Roussanne, one of the wonderful white grapes used in the South of France. It is often blended with Marsanne and Viognier or Grenache Blanc and Grenache Gris.

502562013 Domaine Sainte Rose ‘La Nuit Blanche’ Roussanne
IGP Côtes de Thongue
100% Roussanne which is harvested at night, hence the name ‘the sleepless night’. Night harvesting retains the grape’s acidity and freshness and protects the grapes from enduring the heat of the day. The wine was fernmented and aged in barrel to make it rich and complex.
I really enjoy this wine and so does everyone else when I show it at tastings, even those who think they don’t like oak. It has a seductive charm and lovely herbal, creamy, oily aromatics – it smells like garlic, rosemary and olive oil cooking on your roast potatoes. There are fresher notes too, lemon, lemon pith and grapefruit too. The palate is full-bodied, full-flavoured and utterly delicious with a soft, nutty, creamy texture – from the lees stirring – there is rich apricot and lemon fruit too together with herbs and some gentle spice. Try this wonderful wine with richer poultry dishes, cream sauces or a rich fish pie, it would even work with roast pork or slow cooked shoulder of lamb as long as there was plenty of garlic, herbs, lemon and olive oil rubbed into the meat – 90/100 points.

 Available in the UK at  £12.99 from Majestic Wine Warehouses.

This is a lovely wine, very drinkable and very food friendly too, so do try it, even if Roussanne is a new grape variety for you – you never know, it might become your new favourite.