White Wines from the Rhône

Mountain vista of the southern Rhône – photo by Quentin Sadler.

France’s Rhône Valley is a fascinating wine region that is traditionally much more famous for its red wines than its whites. Indeed a mere 6% of production is white, but that does not mean that it doesn’t make really good white wines that will repay a little seeking out – it does.

Having been a cheerleader for the region’s red wines for many years, I visited the region last year and fell totally in love with the whites.

We talk about the Rhône as a single region, but in reality it is two quite different places.

Wine map of the Rhône valley – click for a larger view.

The Northern Rhône accounts for just 6% or so of the Rhône Valley’s wine production – despite boasting many of the region’s famous vineyard areas. The reason for this small size is simple. The climate here is continental with short summers and harsh winters, so the grapes only really ripen when grown on the steep, sun-drenched slopes that form the Valley wall. Most famously Viognier is used here to make Condrieu and the even more rare Château-Grillet, which is an appellation for a single estate covering just eight and a half acres.

Some of Jean-Luc’s vineyards near Saint-Péray – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

On my travels I was very excited to discover some lighter, fresher examples of Viognier that are much easier to drink as well as being a great match with food.

Perhaps even more exciting for me were the unexpected joys of the white wines from the other areas of the northern Rhône, especially Saint Péray – typically made from blends of Roussanne and Marsanne.

The Southern Rhône is part of the Mediterranean world with long, hot summers. This delivers greater ripeness and often higher alcohol, which is why traditionally the wines have been overwhelmingly red. Modern knowhow can make it much easier to make good white wines in hot areas and this has become a theme throughout the Mediterranean world – which is good as white wines suit Mediterranean cuisine and relaxed seaside drinking.

Classic stony soils of the Southern Rhône – photo by Quentin Sadler.

The white wines of the southern Rhône are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc although Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines here are blends of more than one grape variety. These grapes are also widely used in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of course.

Grenache Blanc – is actually Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation techniques keep it fresh and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours and it also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.

Roussanne is also favourite of mine and is another aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that has a nutty character too. The wonderful thing about Roussanne is though that it has loads of flavour and aroma but also reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.

Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen as a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb.
When blended with Roussanne it can often give a succulent texture and a rich mouthfeel.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years too. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has good refreshing acidity and zingy citrus flavours too and while almost never used on its own can really give some elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.

Clairette is a fascinating grape as well. It is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours. In the Rhône it’s a blending grape but is used as a single varietal in Clairette de Bellegarde. This is a small wine region within the Costières de Nimes area, south of Avignon, and the wines can be wonderfully mineral and flavourful.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally it is low in acid, intensely aromatic and very rich when used to make wine on its home turf of the northern Rhône.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape – photo by Quentin Sadler.

Most of us are familiar with the basic wines from the region. These are labelled simply as Côtes-du-Rhône, an origin – or appellation – which covers the widest area of production. These generally provide good everyday drinking, while examples from conscientious producers can often be much better than you expect. Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages is an appellation for the parts of that area that are considered capable of making wines with more depth and personality. These vineyards are scattered throughout the Côtes-du-Rhône zone.

Experts generally agree that the very best Rhône wines come from the Crus. A Cru is a part of the region that is traditionally thought to produce the most complex wines and have a more specific stated origin on the label. Therefore, as in Beaujolais, they are labelled by the name of the specific place where the grapes are grown, rather than the name of the region. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous example, but there are many others including Lirac, Gigondas, Hermitage and Saint-Péray.

My love for these wines was rekindled recently when I tasted a couple of wines from the great Jean-Luc Colombo.

Jean-Luc Colombo with his wife Anne and daughter Laure, they all work in the vineyards – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

Jean-Luc hails from Provence and only bought his first vineyard, Les Ruchets, in 1987, so is something of a newcomer to the Rhône and I think that shows a little in his wines. There is a brightness and a purity that sets him apart from the more traditional producers and made him something of a trailblazer for the younger type of Rhône winemaker. He and his daughter, Laure craft wines that manage to combine power, purity and vivid, pleasurable fruit in a way that is decidedly modern and yet completely natural. All their own vineyards are organic, which is only fitting as they live on their estate in Cornas in the northern Rhône.

The whole range is good with some amazing wines at all the price points. As far as the whites are concerned, I love his Condrieu Amour de Dieu, but the two wines that I have enjoyed most recently are:

2017 Côtes du Rhône Les Abeilles Blanc
AC/PDO Côtes du Rhône
Jean-Luc Colombo
France

80% Clairette makes this mineral and crisp, while 20% Roussanne gives it some fat and more aromatics. The wine is called The Bees in French because the Colombo family love their bees that pollinate their vineyards. Indeed they have their own beehives and make honey as well as funding bee research in France, the US and UK.

There is nothing fancy about this wine. It is cold fermented, clean as a whistle and sees no oak at all, but therein lies it’s genius. The wine is bright, direct and effortless to drink and yet it has that feel of quality. It has backbone, substance – class if you will. It’s refreshing and you will find yourself quaffing it, but banal it most surely is not – 87/100 points

Available in the UK at around £10.50 per bottle from Templar Wines

 

Some of Jean-Luc’s vineyards near Saint-Péray – photo courtesy of Jean-Luc Colombo.

 

2016 Saint-Péray La Belle de Mai
AC/PDO Saint-Péray
Jean-Luc Colombo
France

This blend of 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne is fermented and aged in oak barrels, but only a little is new making sure the oak remains subtle and supportive rather than dominant, adding a silky, refined texture. Historically Saint Péray specialised in sparkling wines and enjoyed a high reputation before almost withering away. Wines like this show the enormous potential the appellate has for high quality.

Everything that I like about these white Rhône wines is to be found here. It is generous, floral, fruity and aromatic with notes of wild herbs and flowers together with honey and pine trees. The palate is sumptuous and rich without over playing its hand. There is an underlying subtlety that makes that richness all the more intriguing. The fat, succulent fruit dominates the mouthfeel, with flavours of apricots, pineapple, oranges, lemon and melon, while vanilla, clove, pepper and cardamon play around the edges. All the while refreshing acidity balances that richness of the fruit and there is a lovely touch of minerality, a little saline in fact. A wonderful white wine with presence and aplomb but also kept in check by natural elegance and sophistication – 92/100 points

Available in the UK at around £20.00 per bottle from Wine Direct, Hennings Wine Merchants and Millesima – UK.

More information is available from Jean-Luc Colombo’s UK distributor, Hatch Mansfield.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes really well. Perfect with roast chicken, grilled fish and all sorts of Mediterranean fare. The Saint-Péray is amazing with my roast lamb – smothered in Mediterranean herbs, lemon and garlic and slow cooked for 6 hours or more. Garlic, olive oil and lemon all work brilliantly with these grape varieties. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types. I believe that a white wine like these is a much better match with a selection of cheeses than a red wine.

So now you know – white wines from the Rhône are well worth searching out.

Beaujolais – a misunderstood region

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Beautiful vineyards on the south western border between Fleurie and Beaujolais-Villages.

 

Recently I had a quick trip to Beaujolais as the guest of Henry Fessy and it was a really uplifting experience. I have only been to Beaujolais once before and had come to the view that, with exceptions, the place was generally nicer than the wines. Now I am not so sure as I tasted some fabulous wines from this Cinderella-like region.

Too many Beaujolais wines in my younger days had almost no aromas or flavours at all except that bubblegum and candy floss character that shows the grapes were not crushed and instead the fermentation was carried out by the maceration carbonique process. I can enjoy wines made this way, but usually do not, especially if they are made from Gamay – the black grape of Beaujolais.

Too much of Beaujolais in my past was Beaujolais Nouveau too. This new wine is released in the year it is harvested – on the third Thursday of November. I am sure there are good examples, but on the whole it is very light, very thin, very acidic and, again, tasting of bubblegum, candy floss and cherryade. It is not everyone’s idea of fun and has tainted appreciation of the whole region for many of us, including me. Which is a pity because Beaujolais is about so much more.

Beaujolais can be a surprisingly complicated place for a region that has traditionally achieved most of its fame from producing very approachable wines.

Firstly, although the focus is on the reds, there is a tiny amount of white Beaujolais produced. Made from Chardonnay these white wines are very good quality and well worth seeking out.

French map QS 2018 Chablis & watermark

Wine Map of France showing the position of Beaujolais just to the south of Burgundy, but only semi-detached in some ways – click for a larger view.

Secondly, Beaujolais has traditionally been regarded as part of Burgundy, in the UK anyway. So much so that in a former life when I sold Georges Duboeff’s Fleurie, in tiny letters it stated “Grand Vin de Bourgogne” on the label. Nowadays Beaujolais is mainly regarded as a region on its own and not a sub-zone of Burgundy.

However this isn’t entirely consistent as there is no such thing as Crémant de Beaujolais for instance. Instead they produce Crémant de Bourgogne. The northern border is somewhat imprecise too with the Mâcon appellation / PDO encroaching all the way down to Romanèche-Thorins in the north-east of the region and even overlapping the Beaujolais Cru of St Amour.

Just to confuse matters a little bit more of course there are some odd labelling laws that permit some producers to label wines made from their Beaujolais vineyards as Appellation Controlée / Appellation d’Origine Protégée Bourgogne whilst denying that to others – this is why you can have Gamay de Bourgogne for instance, and very good it can be too as the grapes have to come from the Cru vineyards of Beaujolais – see below.

Putting all that to one side and looking just at the reds that from Beaujolais, there are three quality levels:

Wine map of Beaujolais showing all 3 quality levels and all 10 Crus.

Basic AC Beaujolais – this is generally grown on chalky limestone and produces very light reds with high acidity.

AC Beaujolais-Villages – from the northern part of the region where the soils can produce richer, rounder wines.

The 10 Crus. The Cru wines are named after the village – with 2 exceptions – within whose boundaries the grapes are grown. The appellation / PDO makes no mention of Beaujolais, just the village name. The most famous of these is of course Fleurie, but there are ten in all – see the map above.

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The mill in Romanèche-Thorins after which the wines of Moulin-à-Vent are named.

The two exceptions that are not named after their village are Côte de Brouilly which is named for the slopes of Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, and Moulin-á-Vent which is named after the distinctive old windmill that stands amongst the vines of Romanèche-Thorins.

With classic French regions it is quite a good idea to visit a producer who makes from the entire area, because you get an overview made by the same hand and mindset. That is what I got at Henry Fessy and it really made me revaluate my thoughts on Beaujolais.

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Laurent Chevalier, the charming director at Henry Fessy.

Henry Fessy was a family run estate from 1888 until it was purchased by the great Maison Louis Latour of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or, who are still family owned after more than 200 years. The 70 hectare Fessy domaine has been run by the genial Laurent Chevalier ever since, with some help from members of the Fessy family, and it provides a wonderful snapshot of what Beaujolais can do.

They own land across the region and produce every single appellation contained within Beaujolais, as well as wines from the Mâconnais in southern Burgundy and even a very attractive Rosé de Provence. Currently they farm in 9 of the 10 Crus with Chiroubles being the exception. They do however produce an excellent Chiroubles from an estate with which they have long term contracts for supply and control of the vineyard.

Laurent explained that they handpick the best sites and destem 80% of the grapes, leaving 20% whole bunches. Old fashioned Beaujolais is not destemmed as the grapes have to be whole for maceration carbonique, so is fermented on the stems. 30 or 40 years ago those stems would not be as ripe as they nowadays, for many reasons, and so the results could be stalky and green. Nowadays greater control means that using stalks is a real choice because it can help with the manipulation of the must and also in the development of fuller wines and silkier tannins – providing those stalks are ripe.

So, by definition here they are not using maceration carbonique. Instead they do very light macerations with not very much wood, just a little for the top crus. What they are looking for is the taste of Gamay, rather than the more recognisable taste of bubble gum from the maceration carbonique.

The big differences between the different parts of Beaujolais are soil and aspect – isn’t that always the case! In the south the gentle rolling hills of most of the AC Beaujolais are lighter, chalkier limestone which produces lighter more acidic wines. The north however has a more complex arrangement of mainly granite with some schist, volcanic basalt and manganese. These all produce richer, rounder, more complex wines. Add aspect into the equation and you can quickly see why the Crus are so different from the rest of the region.

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Fleurie’s Chapelle de la Madone was built around 1870 to ward off vine diseases. It seems to have worked!

We talk about the slopes of Burgundy’s Côte d’Or and some other places too of course, but generally the Crus of Beaujolais are not spoken about in the same hushed ones. Well they should be. They are easily the equal of the Côte d’Or to look at, more beautiful if anything, with lovely dramatic slopes often angled towards the sun. In fact where the Cru of Beaujolais score over their neighbours to the north is that here the slopes do not only face one way as they often form a ridge with a reverse slope too. So you can have south, east and west facing Fleurie, and other Crus, vineyard slopes for instance.

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That rounded hill is Morgon’s Côte du Py lieux-dit. Fessy blend the fruit from their part of the Côte du Py into their Morgon rather than bottle it separately. The soils here are a mixture of granite and schist, decayed slate.

The different soils of the various Crus are important too as the best wines can be very mineral and make you certain that you can taste the various soils in the wines. Some people believe that happens, but most science points to something else explaining minerality in wine. A function of acidity perhaps? My own feeling is that it is a mixture of acidity and a lack of dominating, rich fruit. We are used to so many red wines being big and bold with rich primary fruit characters nowadays. Well, however ripe a Beaujolais is it will be a relatively light style of wine, so the fruit will not totally overpower the palate. Instead it will leave space for acidity and those other flavours that are not fruit, but come across as more savoury – and indeed earthy or mineral.

So the Crus have more poise, more depth and more elegance than the more basic wines because they have components competing for attention on your senses. It isn’t just red fruit, you also get some black fruit from time to time, the earthy and herbal mineral characters and yes sometimes that sense of granite or slate introducing savoury aspects and tension into the wines.

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Mont Brouilly, an extinct volcano, the soils are blue volcanic basalt. Right at the peak you can just see La Chapelle Notre-Dame-aux-Raisins.

They are balanced and complete and yet again the truth is much more interesting than what we are normally told about Beaujolais. These wines can last. They don’t need to be drunk young, in fact just as with most good quality red wines a few years in bottle will settle them down and draw out the more complex and satisfying attributes. The things that actually make them good wines as to opposed more simple fruit bombs.

I generally go around telling people to ignore vintage with most modern wines – for wines to drink anyway. Normally the freshest vintage is the one to go for, but obviously with classic red wines that is not the case and good Beaujolais, especially the Crus, must join that band of elite regions where vintage is a really important consideration.

2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2015 and 2016 are all brilliant vintages down in Beaujolais, with 2017 being great as well. There might still be some 2015 around in the shops and I would advise you to grab those bottles while you can.

I really enjoyed everything I tasted at Henry Fessy, but some of the real standout wines were:

Henry Fessy_Beaujolais blanc bottle2016 Beaujolais Blanc
AC / PDO Beaujolais Blanc
Henry Fessy

Less than 3% of the plantings in Beaujolais are Chardonnay and Fessy only have 1 hectare, but on this showing I cannot imagine why as this is a terrific wine.

100% Chardonnay with no oak but 6 months ageing on the lees.

It has a lovely texture, satisfying mouthfeel, ripe apples and peach fruit and even a touch of something more exotic like pineapple and grapefruit. Lovely freshness keeps it poised and pure and the length is fantastic too.

This is a really good alternative to anything at the more affordable end of white Burgundy – do try it if you can – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Mr Wheeler & Hay Wines.

Henry Fessy_Morgon bottle2016 Morgon
AC / PDO Morgon
Henry Fessy

Fessy only have 2 hectares of Morgon and so blend the Côte du Py with the Corcelles fruit. They believe the Côte gives the body and the other part gives the sumptuous fruit quality.

I found this lifted, aromatic and very attractive. There was a seductive raspberry and smoke tinged perfume to it while the palate was silky and refined yet rounded and weighty with cherry strudel sorts of flavours and a crack pepper together with some lovely delicate structure from the refreshing nature of the acidity and the light touch of tannin playing around the finish.

Fresh, lively and fruity for sure, but supple and concentrated too. – in fact the concentration and balance was a revelation to me – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £12.99 per bottle from Fareham Wine Cellar.

2015 Brouilly
AC / PDO Brouilly
Henry Fessy

The abnormal character of the vintage really showed here with rich fruit that still shows that playful, fresh character.

This was 80% destemmed with 6 months ageing in stainless steel tanks.

The nose offered plums and violets, orange peel and that mineral earthy je ne sais quoi. The palate was full and ripe, succulent, juicy with a lovely, lively combination of red and black fruit, spice too and a touch of firm tannins. This was not so immediately about fun as the Morgon, there was a very serious, brooding wine lurking in there with an earthy, slate minerality, there was even a touch of Côte du Rhône about it. Great wine – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

2016 Régnié Château des Reyssiers
AC / PDO Régnié
Henry Fessy

I have always had a soft spot for Régnié as it was the last of the 10 Cru to be created and I remember where I was the day it was announced back in 1988.

This was made from 40 year old vines grown on a single site at the base of Mont Brouilly. The Châteai itself dates back to 1706 and wine has been produced here for over 300 years prior to Henry Fessy taking over the management of the estate. As usual with Fessy 80% of the vines was destemmed and the wine was aged for 6 months ageing in concrete tanks.

Lovely bright, but deep cherry aromas with a touch of something smoky and savoury. The palate had lovely weight, fruit density and concentration that made me really like this wine.

There was lots of classic fresh red fruit, but plum and blackberry too. There was something wild about the wine at times that was most attractive and all the while a sense of tension, something taut, offset the softness of the fruit and was enhanced by the gently firm earthy finis – 90/100 points.

2017 Saint Amour
AC / PDO Saint Amour
Henry Fessy

Sadly I have experienced precious little Saint Amour in my life – on this showing it was my loss too.

Fessy only farm 1 hectare in Saint Amour but they put it to good use as this was stunning and I was not alone in raving about it at the tasting.

The wine showed its youth with milky, lactic notes and then a vibrant melange of red fruit, cassis and delicate spice notes.

The palate was beautifully concentrated, but bright and pristine all at the same time. The fruit was just joyous and bright and well, downright pretty. It was supple and and ripe even though the winemaking esters were very apparent at this stage. There was a lovely supple, rounded, almost creamy texture and more tannin than you would expect, although it was not aggressive in any way, it just helped give the wine definition. One to watch I think- 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £15 per bottle from Crump Richmond Shaw,F L Dickins, Wine Utopia, Cellar Door Wines.

By the way just in case you like to age wines, you can relax as these wines can age really well, from the great vintages anyway. At Lunch Laurent served us his 2009 Moulin-à-Vent and it was sensational. It had aged beautifully into a supple yet profound wine with silky tannins and concentrated earthy, savoury, light leather and dried fruit characters. In many ways it resembled a Gevrey-Chambertinn but with more sensual fruit and a slightly brighter nature.

So there you have it, a little cross action of what one very fine Beaujolais producer does. These are wonderful wines that deserve to be taken seriously and enjoyed often. They would go with so many different dishes and be suitable for just about any occasion. Who knows perhaps the balance between concentration but not heavy, ripe fruit and freshness might be just right for now? Perhaps Beaujolais’s time has come? Laurent certainly felt that he was “taking Beaujolais back” and showing just what Beaujolais can be.

The realisation may have struck me late in life, but there is no doubt that Beaujolais does make some lovely wines and I really must start enjoying them instead of avoiding them – and so must you.

 

Clairette – a surprising white grape from the Languedoc

Whilst in the Languedoc recently I was able to go on lots of study trips of the wine areas and also to attend quite a few masterclasses – in fact I have been thrilled this year to learn that the French, Croat and Slovene words for masterclass are, well, masterclass!

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The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

One of the best of these masterclasses was about a little known white wine called Clairette du Languedoc. The appellation / PDO was created in 1948, making it the oldest white wine PDO in the Languedoc. Only one grape is permitted, the Clairette or Clairette Blanche, which is really only found in the Rhône, Provence and Languedoc regions. It is a low acid, but high alcohol grape, so can make pretty flabby wines if you are not careful with it. It is widely grown in the Southern Rhône, where it is used as a blending grape, including in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The grape lends its name to the sweet sparkling Clairette de Die, despite only 25% of Clairette being allowed in the finished wine, the rest must be Muscat – originally it was 100% Clairette.

In the Languedoc two areas specialise in the grape Clairette de Bellegarde, in the far east of the region near the Rhône, and Clairette du Languedoc, just west of Montpellier. So troublesome was the grape that in the past it was often used as the basis of vermouth rather than being drunk on its own, and further back in history it was a sweet wine – the dry versions were apparently called Picardon and the sweet ones Clairette. Luckily though, as is so often the case, modern know-how has come to its rescue and in the Clairette du Languedoc zone a modest renaissance is underway. The sea is only 20 km away and sighting the vineyards to catch the sea breezes and the refreshing Tramontane wind is very important to retain freshness.

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

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

The appellation is the smallest in the Languedoc with just 100 hectares of vineyard and 18 producers, 7 of which are cooperatives, but it produces four styles of wine all from the single grape. Fresh, dry whites are made, as well as sweet versions, long wood aged rancio wines and fortified Vins Doux Naturels. I tasted examples of all of these and truthfully found the sweet versions to be a bit light and lacking, which is a shame as there is more sweet wine made here than dry. The drier styles quite excited me though and I brought one back to show in a tasting and it excited everyone there too.

The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

The beautiful Domaine La Croix Chaptal – photo courtesy of the winery.

Untitled2014 Domaine La Croix Chaptal Clairette Blanche 
Domaine La Croix Chaptal
AC / AOP Clairette du Languedoc
Languedoc
France

This delightful estate is owned by Charles-Walter Pacaud who hails from the Cognac region, but fell in love with Languedoc’s Terrasses du Larzac while studying winemaking in Montpellier. He managed to buy this estate which has a recorded history going back to the 10th century, but Gallo-Roman archeological finds in the vineyards suggest the land has been in use for a lot longer than that. Most of what he produces is either Coteaux du Languedoc, Languedoc or Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac, with just one hectare being Clairette, but they are old vines that give better concentration and they grow on well drained stony and gravelly soil.

Charles dans la vigne Gourp de Luquet.2

Charles-Walter Pacaud tending his vines – photo courtesy of the winery.

The grapes are harvested by hand, as required in the appellation, destined and spend a little time macerating on the skins for flavour and texture development. 30% is aged in new oak on the lees, with the rest aged in stainless steel tank on the lees for 18 months.

The aromas are quite beguiling, very mineral, herbal – especially fennel and vanilla – together with honey, almonds, peach skin and light toast. The palate is more fleshy with some burnt orange and a mouth-filling texture. there is even a very attractive touch of Fino sherry about it, just a point of oxidation that makes it quite delicious. The finish is very long and mineral and the more you come back to this wine the better it gets. A wonderful discovery, try it if you can – 91/100 points.

This would be wonderful with rich fish dishes, shellfish with garlic butter, fish pie, Coquilles Saint Jacques, chicken and all manner of cheeses too.

Sadly this excellent wine is not available in the UK, so contact the winery direct. I cannot find any other examples of the region available here either, so make sure you try it when you are over there.
For US stockists, click here.

Wine of the Week – a Proustian moment in the Languedoc

Vines on a hill side in Minervois-La Livinière.

Vines on a hillside in Minervois-La Livinière.

Recently I enjoyed a spectacular visit to the Languedoc region in France’s deep south and it was a great, immersive trip with many new and exciting experiences. I was able to try all sorts of fascinating wine styles that I will be sharing with over the coming weeks and months, but one wine in particular made me very happy.

For me it was a Proustian moment, or Prussian as my predictive text would like it to be, because I used to sell the wine that I was tasting. It was my best selling wine and I used to really love it and the memories came flooding back. In fact I enjoyed it so much that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

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

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

domaine_la_borie_blanche_minervois_la_liviniere2011 Domaine la Borie Blanche Terroirs d’Altitude
Domaine la Borie Blanche
Maison et Vignobles Lorgeril
AC / AOP Minervois-la Livivinière
Languedoc
France

Nicolas and Miren de Lorgeril own the amazing Château de Pennautier in Cabardès, in the Montagne Noire just to the north of Carcassonne. The spectacular Château dominates the village of Pennautier and has belonged to the Lorgeril family since 1620. I will write more about that estate another day, but in 1999 the Lorgerils bought another property in the neighbouring appellation of Minervois. This was perfect timing as the new ‘Cru’ appellation of Minervois-la Livivinière had just been created. This is a district within Minervois and is a counted as a Cru and considered to be a finer sub-district of Minervois. Indeed it was the first Cru in the Languedoc, or as they cheekily say ‘Le Premier Cru du Languedoc’.

This Cru appellation, or finer appellation, is only for red wines – Minervois itself can also be white – and covers the village of La Livinière, as well as five others nearby, Cesseras, Siran, Felines-Minervois, Azille and Azillanet. The rules are stricter than for ordinary Minervois, with lower yields, 45 hectoliters per hectare as compared to the 50 allowed for standard Minervois. The wines have to be aged for eight months longer than more basic Minervois and then every November, one year after harvest, there are tasting panels to select the wines that are allowed the coveted Minervois-la Livivinière appellation. There is a very high failure rate, with around 40% failing to make the grade. The upshot is that most producers here actually carry on making the more traditional Minervois with only a handful making the more ambitious and finer Minervois-la Livivinière wines. 

I tasted a good number of Minervois-la Livivinière wines and it seems to me that as a bunch they have more intensity than the straight Minervois, more focus and precision and have less jammy fruit, in fact they are less about the fruit. In short they have more finesse, more minerality and more complexity.

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Looking south over the rugged terrain of Minervois-la Livivinière.

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Little pockets of vines colonise parts of the hillsides.

The landscape here is remarkable, with the vineyards planted on the Petit Causse foothills of the south-facing Montagne Noire on the northern fringes of Minervois. It is a wild and ruggedly beautiful place with altitudes of around 120 to 400 metres above sea level. As you look around the place you find little pockets of vines growing wherever they can be accessed and worked, rather than a landscape covered in viticulture. The soils are limestone and schist in the main with those wild garrigues herbs growing where nothing else will. A borie, as in Domaine la Borie Blanche, is a stone shelter and you can find these all over the region and in Provence. 

The fermentation vats at Domaine la Borie Blanche - photo courtesy of the winery.

The fermentation vats at Domaine la Borie Blanche – photo courtesy of the winery.

The wine is a blend of 50% Syrah grown on schist – which gives the mineral backbone, 10% Grenache, 20% Mourvèdre and another 20% Syrah which is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames the bitterness and harshness that wines grown on schist can sometimes have. The fermentation is in big oak vats with regular pump overs and half the wine is then aged in barrel with half being aged in wooden vats.

The wine is a deep garnet colour with a nose of rich dried fruit, wild herbs, liquorice, truffle, pepper and ripe cherries. On the palate it is mouth filling, delicately smoky from the oak, with a dash of espresso and cocoa, with velvety tannins, fragrant herbs, rich black fruit and dried fruit too,  all making it wonderfully savoury and long. This is a seriously good and great value bottle of wine – 91/100 points.

This would be superb with almost any rich meaty fare, especially roast lamb I would think.

Available in the UK at around £11 per bottle from Majestic and Le Bon Vin.
For US stockists, click here.

If you cannot find this wine, then other superb Minervois-la Livivinière can be found if you shop around, for instance Waitrose stock an excellent one from Château Maris.

 

 

Wine of the Week – a fresh, lively and easy drinking rosé

I like rosé and never really understand why some people claim that they do not. Rosé can – and probably should – be easy to drink, bright and direct and deliver lots of pleasure to your senses.

Vines at the Errazuriz Estate in Chile - photo courtesy of the estate.

Vines at the Errazuriz Estate in Chile – photo courtesy of the estate.

Although there are some more serious exceptions – for instance here and here, one of the good things about Rosé wines is that they go with almost any kind of food, or none, and any occasion, so they are very user friendly and informal. The other day I tasted such a lovely rosé that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Errz Rosé2014 Errazuriz Estate Series Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé
Viña Errazuriz
DO Valle Central
Chile

I have been involved with Errazuriz on and off for nearly 30 years now and they have never failed to make wines that I could enjoy and many that are very impressive indeed. Errazuriz was founded by Don Maximiano Errazuriz in 1870 is still family owned and run.  Their range is very large with several quality levels from the more everyday Estate Series to their finer Max Reservas, Single Vineyard, Wild Ferment Range and their Founder’s Reserve red, which must be one of the very best wines of Chile.

Most rosés nowadays fall into one of two styles. Firstly big, bold, darkly coloured, very fruity and a little sweet – a lot of new world rosés are like this. The other main style is paler, lighter, fresher and drier and historically French rosés, most famously those from Provence, are made in this style. Once upon a time the Errazuriz Rosé was quite richly fruity and a little sweet, but in recent vintages the colour has become lighter and the wines fresher and more lively to drink, like the classic rosés of France.

The Errazuriz Estate in Chile - photo courtesy of the estate.

The Errazuriz Estate in Chile – photo courtesy of the estate.

The colour is pale and attractive with a touch of coral and strawberry. The nose is light, fresh and floral with some redcurrant, raspberry and strawberry notes. The palate is lively and fresh again with some lovely, appetising, cleansing acidity and there is a core of lovely ripe, bright red fruit that gives an attractive weight in the mouth, but it is also nicely balanced by that freshness and acidity.

This is a lovely wine, happy and easy to drink. It is perfect on its own – perhaps with a picnic as the weather improves – or with salads, light meat dishes, poultry, fish and is also very good with spicy Asian food too – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £9 per bottle from The Pip Stop – more stockist information is available from Hatch Mansfield Agencies who import Errazuriz wines into the country.

In the interests of full exposure, I must mention that I do some presenting and teaching work for Hatch Mansfield and Errazuriz, but this is my honest unsolicited opinion.

Happy Christmas and a great 2016 to all plus a review of my year

Wow another Christmas is upon us and I have barely achieved a fraction of the things that I wanted to this year.

However, it was a great year for me for learning about amazing wines and visiting beautiful wine regions, so I can’t really complain. Here a few of my highlights of the year, I hope you enjoy them.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Naples fishing harbour with Capri in the background.

Back in March I visited Campania for the first time, seeing Naples and Pompeii as well as the wine regions of Taurasi, Greco di Tufo, Sannio and many more. It was a great experience full of wonderful wines and interesting stories. You can read all about it by clicking here.

Dobrovo perched on top of a terraced vineyard slope in Brda, Slovenia.

One of my favourite photographs of Slovenian vineyards.

Italy was very much the theme of the year for me as I visited four times in all. The first one was actually an amazing trip to study the wines produced in the north east edge of Italy and over the frontier in neighbouring Slovenia – the tour was called Wine Without Borders. That whole part of the world is very beautiful and produces some stunning wines too and you can read all about it by clicking here.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the Romanian countryside.

One of my most exciting trips of 2015 was to Romania. I had never been to the country at all before and had no idea what to expect from the wines. It turned out to be a beautiful country full of lovely people and some astonishing wines. I did not taste a single terrible wines and was very excited about the quality of most of them. You can read all about it by clicking here.

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

I toured the vineyards of Chablis by 2CV!

In June I was thrilled to go on my first dedicated trip to Chablis and I learned ever such a lot about what makes these wines quite so important. Ever since I have enjoyed talking about Chablis to all my students, but have yet to write about the visit – watch this space.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux on Lake Geneva’s north shore.

In the same month I was honoured to be invited to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition in Switzerland. Chasselas is a real speciality grape in Switzerland, but comes close to being unloved almost anywhere else. Well I think the breadth of wines that I tasted and the sheer quality of most them proves the Swiss are right to love the grape and I loved the trip, as well as the big trip I made to Switzerland’s wine regions in late 2014. You can read all about my Swiss adventures by clicking here.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

The beautiful Neckar Valley is like a mini-Mosel.

New discoveries and experiences continued with a terrific trip to Germany in September. Excitingly I visited Württemberg and the Neckar Valley as well as the amazing Stuttgart Wine Festival. This part of Germany is slightly off the beaten track wine-wise, certainly when compared to the Mosel or Rheingau, but it is well worth seeing as the landscape is very beautiful and some of the wines are stunning. Weingut Wöhrwag‘s 2013 Pinot Noir Untertürkheimer Herzogenberg Großes Gewächs was certainly the best Pinot I tasted in 2015 and one of the very best red wines that I drank all year. I aim to write all about it soon.

Piazza Duomo, Trento

Piazza Duomo in Trento, the beautiful capital of Trentino.

My Italian adventures continued in October with an enjoyable trip to Trentino in the north of the country. It is a fascinating and beautiful region that has only been part of Italy since 199, so is steeped in history. The wines were pretty good too, but then so was the beer – you can real all about it by clicking here.

Verona's amazing Roman Arena.

Verona’s amazing Roman Arena.

One added bonus of this trip was that I managed to stay an extra night in Verona and so saw that wonderful little city and was able to experience the delights of Lugana, a white wine from the southern shore of Lake Garda – it might well be my favourite Italian white right now and this delicious example is my Christmas white wine.

As well as overseas visits I have tasted some amazing wines over here too. I was particularly thrilled to meet the charming David Mazza who farms a tiny estate in Western Australia, but makes an amazing range of wines from Spanish and Portuguese grape varieties – you can read about him by clicking here.

The new discoveries kept coming too, new grapes like Tibouren from Provence and Cserszegi Fűszeres from Hungary, exciting old vine blends from Chile, a light red or a deep rosé from Tuscany, made from Tempranillo at that! Try as I might I simply could not leave Spain alone, I kept finding amazing Spanish wines that moved and excited me and that offered great value for money too – have a look here, here, here and here.

Along the way too I tasted a superb Albariño from California and another from New Zealand – Albariño is on the march it seems and you can read about them by clicking here.

Just the other day I presented my favourite sparkling wine of the year and I would urge you to try it if you can. It’s rather modestly called Apogee Deluxe Brut and is handmade by the great Andrew Pirie from fruit grown on a  2 hectare vineyard in northern Tasmania. I have long admired what Andrew does and if there is a better Australian fizz than this – indeed any non-Champagne fizz, although it had stiff opposition from Gramona’s amazing 2006 111 Lustros Gran Reserva Brut Nature Cava – then I have yet to try it. It is certainly a rich style of sparkling wine, but it never gets too serious, the fruit, freshness and frivolity dominate the palate and made me just want to drink more.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch.

I nearly forgot, all right I did forget and had to come back and add this, the most exciting wine that I drank all year. There was lots of competition from the delicious 2011 Chêne Bleu Aliot, the sublime 1978 Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon from California and the downright amazing 2001 Château La Tour Blanche Sauternes, but my stand out wine was from my own collection and it was a beautifully mature Merlot-Cabernet blend from Stellenbosch.

Stellenbosch 19891989 Rozendal
Rozendal Farm
Stellenbosch
South Africa
I was very nervous about opening this. For South Africa it is very old, Nelson Mandela was still in prison when this was made and I know nothing about it. The estate seems to have disappeared. Frankly the wine seemed older and looked older than it was – even the label seems ancient. the nose was classic mature wine, smoky, cedar, earthy and overwhelmingly savoury with some balsamic notes and a touch of dried fruit too. The palate was extraordinary, still all there with that hallmark savoury fragility of very mature wine. Good acidity kept it fresh and provided the secret of its longevity. the tannins were almost totally faded, but for me the big revelation was a solid core of ripe sweet fruit that made it a joy to drink despite its venerable age.

Tasting this was a great moment and one worth recording as mature wine from anywhere other than the classic regions – I include California here – is pretty rare, especially of this quality. If anyone knows anything about Rozendal please let me know, I tried to contact them, but to no avail.

All in all 2015 went too fast, but it was good fun – despite me turning 50 in January – so let’s hope for even more excitement in 2016.

Have a great Christmas and a wonderful New Year and thank you so much for reading my wine page.

 

Wine of the Week 73 – a glass of winter sunshine

As I keep saying in these pages, I love finding new wines. Wines made in countries, regions or from grape varieties that are new to me continue to excite me. After 30 years in the wine business I can still find new things that I have never tried or even heard of before, which I think is wonderful.

With winter settling in I seem to be drinking a bit more red, although not exclusively, and I recently found a really terrific wine and so made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of France - Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Wine map of France – Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne - map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne – map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Tibouren2014 Clos Cibonne Tibouren Cuvée Speciale
Clos Cibonne, Domaine André Roux
Cru Classé Côtes de Provence, AC Côtes de Provence
France

If I am honest Provence somewhat passes me by most of the time. Obviously I know about the famous rosés, loved some Bandol reds and rosés, have tasted the odd Cassis (the white wine, not the liqueur) and remember being very impressed by some fine Priorat-like reds from the Les Baux-de-Provence appellation too, but my experience of this region is very limited indeed. In fact I have never been there and must put that right as soon as I can.

le_pradet_winery

The Clos Cibonne is an old estate that the Roux family bought from Royalist Navy Captain – the French Navy base of Toulon is nearby – Jean Baptiste de Cibon in 1797. In 1930 André Roux completely modernised the winery and had the label designed too. Such was the estate’s renown, that Clos Cibonne was created a Cru Classé with the classification of the vineyards of Provence in 1955. The classification of Provence was similar to that of Bordeaux in 1855 in that it ranked estates and was not concerned with the vineyard or soil like the Grand Crus of Alsace, Burgundy or Champagne.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand - courtesy of De Maison Selections.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand – courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Clos Cibonne had fallen on hard times again by the late 1990s when André Roux’s granddaughter Bridget and her husband Claude Deforge took over the running of the estate. They nurtured the vineyard back to life and renovated the cellars, but kept the traditional winemaking ways and the old wood foudres.

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne -

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne –

Today the Roux-Delorge family farm 15 hectares just 800 metres from the Mediterranean. The vineyards are surrounded by the Maure mountains that make the estate a sort of amphitheatre facing due south. This gives perfect sun exposure and allows them to achieve remarkable ripeness and to minimise vintage variation. The sea breezes also temper the effects of the sun and allow them to have excellent freshness and acidity in their wines that makes them very drinkable indeed. While not certified organic, they do practice sustainable viticulture or lutte raisonnée.

The family remain committed to the local Tibouren grape that is widely used in Provence for the rosés, but not so widely for the reds – in fact only 15% of production in the region is red, so Clos Cibonne are unusual in focussing on making red wine – although they do craft a rosé from their oldest vines. This Cuvée Speciale red  is 90% Tibouren together with 10% Grenache which lends some richness and fat. The wine is traditionally aged under fleurette (a thin veil of yeast, but that just gives complexity, it is not Sherry-like) in 100-year-old, 500 litre foudres.

The nose offers gorgeous wild herb aromas – garage – together with ripe fruit, earthy, savoury notes and a light touch of the sea. The palate is quite fleshy with excellent concentration of fruit and medium body, some nice refreshing, cleansing acidity and an inky feel which sounds odd, but is actually delicious. Those wild Mediterranean herbs return on the palate too. The wine is deliciously smooth, with light supple tannins and lovely balance between savoury characters, ripe fruit and freshness. The finish is very, very long with fruit and savoury, earthy flavours lasting the whole time. I was thrilled by this wine, it is so obviously a genuine wine that speaks of a place and has a style all its own, although if you enjoy Rhône wines, Burgundy or good Beaujolais you will enjoy it – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Red Squirrel wine for around £20 per bottle. 
Available in the US through De Maison Selections, Crush Wines and Spirits – for other stockist information click here.

In the summer this would be a great barbecue wine, even lightly chilled, but in winter it is perfect with game, roasts, pies and casseroles. It would be even be a great choice with Christmas dinner.

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 15 – a fine Picpoul as last of my summer wine

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Well, the summer is drawing to a close and the weather, in the UK anyway, is not very good, but I have the antidote. I enjoyed a wine last night that was a pleasure to drink and made me happy.

I was especially pleased as the wine seemed to be very good with scrambled eggs. I say scrambled eggs, but more accurately the dish I cooked should be called huevos revueltos. It is a dish of roughly scrambled eggs into which I put prawns, asparagus and lots of garlic and served it on a bed of crispy roast potatoes. It is a typical Spanish dish and worth trying when in Spain, other classic versions incorporate black pudding and often they include little eels as well, not my thing but very popular in Spain. The best version, other than my own, that I have tried was in Restaurante El Botin which is in Madrid and is officially the oldest restaurant in the world.

Eggs are notoriously difficult to partner with wine, as is asparagus actually, but I decided to match the weight of the dish and the fresh Mediterranean flavours of the prawns and the garlic rather than the eggs, and it worked brilliantly. It might have helped that I served it with a lovely Insalata Caprese and that went superbly with the wine too.

The pairing came to me as a flash of inspiration, so I was delighted that the food and the wine all went so well together. The wine was a particularly good example of a something that has managed to break through the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc stranglehold to become quite trendy and popular – Picpoul de Pinet. This is a white wine within the Languedoc appellation, which overwhelmingly produces red wines, and has its own sub region appellation.

I really like and enjoy Picpoul, at least Picpoul Blanc which is the version we normally encounter and the only one I have knowingly tasted – both black skinned Picpoul Noir and pink skinned Picpoul Gris also exist, but in tiny amounts. The wines made from Picpoul Blanc might never be the most complex and profound, but when they are good they can give a great deal of pleasure. Like Gavi they have a reputation for being more crisp and acidic than most of them actually are.

Laure Colombo

Laure Colombo

image-12013 Picpoul de Pinet Les Girelles
AC Picpoul de Pinet / AC Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet
Jean-Luc Colombo
Jean-Luc Colombo is really a Rhône Valley winemaker who is based in the Northern Rhône area of Cornas, but he makes wines across the Rhône Valley. It is a new business, only having been founded in 1982, but has enjoyed remarkable success in this short time. I really admire their style as they seem to be able to make very elegant wines with fabulous fruit concentration. In recent years Jean-Luc has been joined in the business by his daughter Laure, who has proved herself to be a superb winemaker in her own right. They have also expanded their production to Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and IGP wines from the beautiful landscape near Marseilles as well as Picpoul de Pinet and Rivesaltes in the Languedoc. 

The colour is a lovely burnished copper like peach skin, in the glass it looks viscous and enticing.
The nose gives attractive floral notes, wild herbs, nuts and fresh peaches, whilst remaining delicate and offering a faint whiff of the sea.
The palate is fresh, yet succulent at the same time. Juicy and clean, so poised between being racy and being rich, which suits it too. There is an apricot fleshy succulence to the palate, a crack of white pepper – not unlike Grüner Veltliner – clean, refreshing acidity and a touch of minerality. I like this very much indeed, there is good concentration, it’s delicious and a lot of fun to drink. There is purity and richness, lightness and weight, freshness and richness. It feels like a glass of sunshine to push away the Autumn blues – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Oddbins and a range of other outlets at around £9.99 per bottle. Jean-Luc Colombo wines are distributed in the UK by Hatch Mansfield.
Jean-Luc Colombo wines are distributed in the US by Palm Bay International.

If you have never tried a Picpoul de Pinet, or perhaps been disappointed by one in the past, then do try this. It is an especially good example, brilliant on its own or with prawns and all manner of seafood, as well as Mediterranean cuisine from Provencal, Spanish, Italian to Greek and Turkish. It would be perfect with Mezze or Tapas as well as being with, scrambled eggs and asparagus, either together or separately. Oh, and it is an utter delight to drink, a little burst of sunshine in your glass.

In the interests of total disclosure I must mention that I do some work for both Hatch Mansfield and Jean-Luc Colombo, but the views expressed here are my own genuine ones and totally unsolicited.