Sud de France – excitement & variety

The lovely Château Haut-Gléon in Corbières.

The lovely Château Haut-Gléon in Corbières.

Recently I was invited to attend the Vinisud wine fair in Montpellier and had a great time sniffing out all sorts of wines from the south of France. The fair actually covers the whole of southern Europe, but I limited myself to France, otherwise I would still be there, sniffing away.

Foncalieu
I was the guest of the Foncalieu cooperative, which is an impressive outfit based in the Languedoc, but whose operations have spread to the Côtes de Gascogne and Côtes du Rhône.

Michel Bataille

Michel Bataille

Being an unreformed lefty – albeit of the Champagne variety – I have a soft spot for cooperatives and find many of them to be top notch wine producers and Foncalieu are one of the best. They have a smart and sophisticated wine range and I have long been an admirer of them because they are so good at what they do, both in producing good wines at good prices and in pushing the envelope. What’s more in keeping with the cooperative ethos, everyone seemed to be very nice and to be proud of what they do. The president of the company is the charming Michel Bataille – a great name for a former soldier I thought – and he was quite clear that the company’s mission was to serve the winegrowers, so to market their production efficiently, to defend their rural environment and to produce good wine. To these ends he said they really do need solidarity in all they do and seeing him shaking hands and chatting with the other growers in the co-op – Michel owns vineyards too – it really seemed that there was a genuine comaradarie here.

While in Montpellier I tasted my way through a good cross section of their wines and I was, as ever, impressed by the quality, the packaging, style and the breadth of vision – they offer an Albariño and a Sauvignon Gris for heavens sake – and yet still many UK consumers think the French don’t innovate!

Foncalieu produce a massive array of wines under many different labels, but the principal quality label is Le Versant. This is a stylishly packaged range of nicely made Vins de Pays / P.G.I.s in classic varietals that are classy enough to grace any table – we drank them with stunning food in a 3 star Michelin restaurant in Montpellier and a fine time was had by all.

The Le Versant range.

The Le Versant range.

I was similarly impressed by their deliciously drinkable Domaine Cambos wines from Côtes de Gascogne. This is only a vin de pays / I.G.P. region but it is a wonderfully reliable source of modern French white wines, try some the next time you are wondering what to drink. Their 2013 Domaine Cambos Colombard-Sauvignon blend would keep any Sauvignon drinker happy, mind you so would the more richly textured and fruity 2013 Domaine Cambos Gros Manseng.

I also enjoyed their attractive 2011 Château Saint Angel from the obscure Cabardès appellation, which is in the Montagne Noir near Carcasonne and is one of the very few places in France that traditionally blends Aquitaine (Merlot and Cabernet) and Mediterranean (Syrah) grape varieties.

Click here for UK stockists of Le Versant wines.
Click here for UK stockists of Le Versant wines.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, click for a larger view.

Château Haut-Gléon
A real highlight for me was discovering Château Haut-Gléon, which although owned by Foncalieu is run entirely separately. This is an estate in Corbières which is apparently pretty well known on the continent, but has very little exposure in the UK and so was completely new to me. I cannot imagine why it isn’t more widely sold over here as the wines are very fine indeed.

I met the director – or directrice as her card says – Karine Meyer at a group dinner one night and got to taste some of her wines and to hear something about the Château. I was pretty excited by them so went to their stand the next day to taste my way through the entire range and my first impressions were confirmed.

Situated some 20 km north of Perpignan, near the sea, in the enticingly named Vallée du Paradis, in Durban-Corbières – one of the 11 terroirs of the Corbières appellation – Haut-Gléon has a long history going back to Roman times. The estate has certainly been making wine since the seventeenth century, but its high reputation for quality only dates since the 1990s when the Duhamel family bought the property and restored it after decades of decline. Foncalieu bought the estate in 2012 and plan to develop it as a wine tourism destination, while maintaining the high quality of the wines produced there.

The distinctive Haut-Gléon bottle.

The distinctive Haut-Gléon bottle.

These are very good wines, full of character and style. The estate enjoys a cool micro-climate which enables them to make elegant examples of red Corbières and to craft excellent whites and rosés too. They round it all off by presenting the wines in a unique and stylish heavy bottle, which gives the wines good recognition.

They make 2 ranges, Domaine de Haut-Gléon, which are  labelled as Vin de Pays de la Vallé du Paradis, not Corbières, but are very good indeed. The main label though is Château Haut-Gléon itself and these A.C. Corbières wines are a little more serious and fine.

As you might expect though, it is the red wines that are the most famous, I tasted the 2009 and 2008 and both were very fine blends of old vine Syrah, Grenache and Carignan indeed with a lovely supple palate, a juicy mix of red and black fruit and judicious use of balancing oak enhancing the delicate spicy quality.

The Château Haut-Gléon rosé is excellent too, this Syrah and Grenache blend is brimming over with fresh cherry and strawberry fruit, with a touch of creamy ripeness on the palate. For me though the big surprise was the superb Château Haut-Gléon white, which was quite delicious. It is an exciting blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne aged for 6 months in new oak barrels.

These are really good wines, far superior than most people would expect from the Corbières region whose general reputation is one of offering good value for money rather than finesse. Do try them if you can, you won’t regret it.

Cathagène
Rather excitingly I was also able to try my first ever examples of Cathagène, which is a speciality mistelle or liqueur wine specific to the Corbières region and is a bit like Pineau de Charente, Ratafia de Champagne, Macvin or Floc de Armagnac. Basically it is grape juice from the estate fortified with brandy made from the grapes grown on the estate. Cathagène can be white or red and I greatly enjoyed the examples made by Château Haut-Gléon. The white is a blend of Marsanne and Muscat, while the red is pure Syrah. Both would be splendid after dinner drinks or served with lightish desserts. The white would be perfect with homemade biscuits (a bit of sophisticated dunking beckons perhaps?) while I think the red would be lovely with a black forest roulade.

I was going to write about some more of the exciting things I found in Montpellier, but will leave those for another day, so make sure you come back soon.

My Summer Wine Part 2 – Welsh Riesling?

The weather has changed and Summer feels a long time ago now, but I thought you might well be interested in these wines that I was able to try when the weather was a little better.

I love trying new things, so I was thrilled to be able to taste some Welsh wines during the Summer. I suppose I knew there was some Welsh wine, Sweden can make it for heaven’s sake, and so Wales certainly can. However, tasting Welsh wines was a first for me and although they were not actually made from Riesling, but I can never resist a pun. I wish they did grow Riesling in Wales, how could a grower pass up the chance to label a wine as Welsh Riesling?

Monnow Valley Vineyards by kind permission

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My Summer Wine Part 1 – Biarritz

So, September has started and the summer is pretty much over. I haven’t written very much on Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page this summer because there has been so much going on. Quite apart from my work teaching people about wine I have visited some amazing wine regions, learnt a huge amount and been planning articles in my head.

However, I thought that I ought to mention a few things I tasted over the summer before you all completely forget about me. Back at the beginning of August I spent a few days in Biarritz for the first time since 1968 – when I was a very small boy. In those days I was more interested in the beach, pretty nice even now, than wine, but I was hugely excited by the local wines this time around.

The lovely old harbour in Biarritz

Biarritz
Biarritz is a splendid coastal town in south-west France that surrounds an old fishing and whaling harbour. I was really won over, it is lovely with a real feeling of grandeur, faded and real about it. Biarritz was put on the map in the 1850s by that fascinating character Emperor Napoleon 111 who bizarrely managed to be both France’s first president and last monarch. He and Empress Eugénie had planned to retire there – although is transpired that the Prussians had other plans – and the house they built still dominates the town as the glamorous Hôtel du Palais – and no, I didn’t stay there. Continue reading

Vinho Verde – lovely wines and not always what you’d expect

Vines at Quinta de Aveleda – old and new training systems

Some of the most famous wines and wine styles seem to stay in fashion for ever, others fall in and out of favour with consumers. Sometimes it seems really unfair that certain things have broad approval when others do not – I for one will never understand the Pinot Grigio craze, much as Westlife’s popularity puzzles me.

Along time ago amongst my first ever wine memories German wines, Beaujolais and Vinho Verde from Portugal were all considered excellent choices to serve your guests. Since then, in the late 1960s-early 1970s, they have lost a lot of popularity – indeed mere mention of German wine often produces the same sort of hilarity associated with photographs showing relatives in bell-bottomed trousers and safari suits. And while it is true that a choice few German wines and Beaujolais Crus have rekindled a sort of following, Vinho Verde has remained unloved by the majority of UK wine consumers.

Unfairly in my opinion as I have long thought there are some terrific wines being produced in Portugal’s Minho region where Vinho Verde wines come from, but until recently I had never seen the place for myself. Well I recently returned from the region and my liking for the wines has been reinforced by meeting a wider range of producers and seeing the myriad of styles that are available.

You see that is part of the problem for Vinho Verde, many people think they know what these wines are like and assume they do not like them – anymore. Traditionally and typically a basic Vinho Verde will be very light in alcohol – 10-11 % – very light bodied and fresh with a slight fizz or petillance to accentuate the freshness and very high acidity, which is often balanced by a little sweetness. All of which sounds very 1970s, but actually modern grape growing and winemaking can make this sort of wine much better than many people remember, very pleasurable and refreshing to drink.

There are many very affordable versions available, every supermarket has an own label version which will be perfectly enjoyable as long you buy the youngest vintage. However there are some more ambitious producers who lead the way and show what can be done with this apparently unassuming style.

Map of Vinho Verde – click for a larger view

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Wine and Spicy Food

I spent last week-end leading tutored tastings at the West Dean Chilli Fiesta. This is a terrific event that happens every August in the middle of the South Downs just north of Chichester and it celebrates all things spicy – mainly the chilli itself, but also everything connected with it. There are stalls with chilli sauces, chilli dips, chilli plants, paintings of chillis, models of chillis, shirts emblazoned with chillis, pots, pans and chilli ice-cream. There is a plethora of spicy foods to enjoy; Mexican, Jamaican, Indian, Singaporean, Indonesian, Thai and American all washed down by the products in the delightfully English beer tent and made even more fun by the variety of live Latin American music, including salsa and Mariachi.

chill-i out room at West Dean Chilli Fiesta

As far as wine is concerned though it was just me and my colleagues. My job was to lead 6 tutored tastings a day about the wines of Viña Errazuriz who are one of Chile’s top producers – you see what we did there with Chilli/Chile? I covered quite a few topics, different regions of Chile, winemaking styles, I even compared different Syrahs from around the world with one from Viña Errazuriz.

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Give País a Chance

Grande Descabezado volcano in Maule Valley

Recently I have been lucky enough to try two very different examples of País, it is not exactly the most important grape in the world, but it is crucial to the history of wine in Chile, as well as being interesting in its own right.

It seems that País (pronounced Pie-ees) – along with Argentina’s Criolla and California‘s Mission – is directly descended from the grape that the Spanish Conquistadors took with them when they stumbled across the new world. The original grape has for long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but it seems that research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands. For two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile, but was eventually supplanted by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence.

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A week with Torres

I recently spent a week on the Miguel Torres Wine Course in Vilafranca del Penedès and Barcelona, so thought I should pull my thoughts together and tell you about the experience.

One of the highlights was meeting Miguel A Torres, he really is a giant figure in the wine business. Perhaps as my early experiences of wine were all in Spain he looms larger to me than my British counterparts, but I well remember my first taste of Viña Esmerelda and being astonished by how very different it was from anything else in Spain – still broadly true.

It is impossible to exaggerate Torres’s influence on Spanish wine. He helped introduce all sorts of modern techniques that we all now take for granted – stainless steel tanks, cold fermentation and the use of international grapes were all either introduced by him or helped on their way by him. It is impossible to be sure as he is genuinely very modest and  seemed to always deny being the first at anything, saying that someone else did it before him. However, I have noticed that the genuinely successful are often not the first to do something, but are usually the first to perfect it – which would be very Torres. Continue reading