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.

Côtes-du-Rhône with a twist

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Think Côtes-du-Rhône, think red wine, that was their advertising slogan for quite a few years and indeed the popular perception would be that the Côtes-du-Rhône is all about red wines. Which is understandable as this region of France produces a lot of wine – 372 million bottles or so a year in fact, but only 6% of that total is white.

A lot of places are like that  – Bordeaux and Rioja for instance – the red wines get all the glory and all the column inches and I can understand it, but it limits people’s appreciation of some wonderful wines from these places too – the whites.

Recently I was travelling around the southern Rhône Valley where I visited some fabulous estates and tasted some brilliant wines. It may have been because of the hot weather, or because we were given quite light food to eat, but very often the wines that caught my imagination the most were the whites.

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, well except for Viognier, 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.

The dramatic southern Rhône landscape.

Grenache Blanc – it is Spanish in origin so should be called Garnacha Blanca (Garnatxa Blanca in Catalan) – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. Which is odd for me because it is relatively low in acidity, but handled correctly can still offer enough freshness to balance the alcohol and the aromas. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern, cold fermentation, techniques keep that freshness 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 Rousaanne 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 a a grape variety on its own, although even they can be superb. Like Roussanne – which which it is often blended – Marsanne also originates in the northern Rhône.

Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have really come to love in recent years. 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 good 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. 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 this is a blending grape but it is used as a single varietal in Clairette du Languedoc with great success – see here.

Viognier of course is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. Generally low in acid and very intense and oily in its home turf of the northern Rhône, where it makes Condrieu. Personally I do not usually like the grape unless it is a lighter fresher example, but a little in blends can work.

Vines at the beautiful Domaine des Escaravailles.

These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes very well. Perfect with roast chicken, fish dishes, but also brilliant with roast lamb as long as you pile on the herbs and garlic – garlic works very well with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc especially, as does olive oil. 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.

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

Here are some of the white wines that impressed me the most on my recent trip to the Rhône:

Vines at the Château de Montfaucon.

2016 Lirac Blanc Comtesse Madeleine
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

One of the absolute highlights of my trip was the Château de Montfaucon who are based near Châteauneuf-du-Pape and mainly produce Côtes-du-Rhône and Lirac wines – Lirac is another Cru of the Rhône like Châteauneuf but less well known. They farm organically, although are not yet certified and the range was thrilling from top to bottom, but it was the whites that especially drew me.

This wine is a blend of Marsanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Picpoul Blanc and the proportions vary quite widely each year. The greater part was the Marsanne and Grenache Blanc and these components were barrel fermented and aged on the lees, but with no lees stirring as the wine is textured enough naturally. It is all spontaneous fermentation with no added yeast, which also adds to the texture of the wine.

For me this is a beautifully complex and pleasurable wine with, smoke, toast, grapefruit, apricot, just a touch of oiliness and that tangy acidity in the background.
The palate is beautifully textured, almost mealy, with fresh pear and nectarine fruit and beautiful balance. The finish is surprisingly savoury and saline and has great length – 91/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Wine Society.

Winemaker Julien Thorn in the magnificent cellar at Château de Montfaucon.

2015 Vin de Madame la Comtesse de Montfaucon
AC / PDO Lirac Blanc
Château de Montfaucon
Rhône Valley
France

Basically this is made from a single plot of ancient Clairette vines planted in 1870 in very stony and sandy soils on Mount Peguierol, overlooking the river Rhône near Montfaucon. They only make 7 or 8 barrels and it is fermented in oak barrels and aged in them for a few months afterwards with no lees stirring.

The label is a rather wonderful old one that was created for the estate back in 1829 and they claim it is the oldest Rhône label of all as very few wines from this region were bottled until well into the twentieth century.

Complex aromas of pastry, apricot, fennel, annis, apricot strudel, truffles and buttery grilled almonds. The aroma is heavenly and oozes style.
The palate is luscious and rich with just enough acidity and freshness to balance the full and succulent mouthfeel. There is a touch of bitterness and a touch of struck match too, while the finish is lightly oily and creamy with something mineral and saline and a long lingering flavour of orange, apricot and a little peach. Quite a wine – 93/100 points.

I cannot find any stockists for this, but it is well worth seeking out.

Christine Saurel at Domaine Montirius.

Vines at Montirius.

2016 Vacqueyras Minéral
AC / PDO Vacqueyras Blanc
Domaine Montirius
Rhône Valley
Franc

Only 3% of Vacqueyras, yet another Cru of the southern Rhône, is white. This great estate is run with passion and precision by Christine and Eric Saurel. Originally members of the local cooperative they went biodynamic in 1996 – their families thought they had joined a sect – left the cooperative once they had failed to persuade them to convert too, and never looked back.

Christine was our host as Eric was busy in the cellar but wow she feels passionately about how the estate is run, telling us that with biodynamics that if something has to be done it has to be done right then in the moment otherwise it can go wrong.

They have used no oak at all since 1999 and aim for wines that are authentic and minimalist, just as I like them. I was hugely impressed with the whole range here, especially the Vacqueyras Minéral Blanc, which is a blend of 50% Bourboulenc with 25% each of Grenache Blanc and Rousanne fermented in stainless steel with a spontaneous fermentation. Really the only thing they do is to introduce oxygen into the fermentation to stop reduction spoiling the pleasure of their wines.

Rather intriguingly the Grenache Blanc and Roussanne were co-fermented – picked together and fermented together and then blended with the Bourboulenc.

This has a great nose, floral, citrus, nutty and honeyed with deep citrus, orange and lemon peel notes.
The palate has tangy grapefruit acidity and a lively texture too. Very complex with vanilla, floral, citrus, wax, lemon curd, great fruit concentration and a taut mineral quality.
The finish lasts a good 2 or 3 minutes. This is a fine and beautiful wine – 93/100 points.

Available En Primeur for £195.00 per dozen bottles plus duty, shipping and VAT from Laithwaite’s.

The beautiful Château Beauchêne.

2017 Château Beauchêne Grande Réserve
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

This pristine estate is the focal point for the Bernard family who have been making wine in these parts since 1794. They only bought this perfect picture postcard Château in the 1990s but it is the family home and main winery for the company that makes Côtes-du-Rhône and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.

Their range is solid and well made, but the high point was this relatively humble white Côtes-du-Rhône made from 25% Clairette, 25% Grenache Blanc 25% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne and 5% Bourboulenc. It is fermented in stainless steel and completely unoaked and has no malolactic fermentation either.

This is a lovely, joyous wine, full of freshness that makes it feel lively and pure. The palate is concentrated and rich but that purity keeps it refreshing too. The herbal characters and orchard fruit of the grapes together with some lemon curd notes make it delicious and moreish – 89/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £13.50 per bottle from the Huntsworth Wine Company, London Wine Shippers and D’Arcy Wine Merchants.

2017 Château Beauchêne Viognier
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Château Beauchêne
Rhône Valley
Franc

Pure Viognier from 20 year old plus vines, farmed organically but not certified as such. The grapes were pressed and juice put straight into oak barrels, second and third use. The wine was fermented and then aged in the barrels for another 6 months on the lees.

Now I am not really a fan of Viognier, but this is an attractive wine, delicately creamy and smoky with some nice peach, floral, herb and peach stone characters. It has a lightness of touch enough to keep it fresh and lively and drinkable – very well made wine – 87/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2016 is available in the UK for £14.75 per bottle from  Private Cellar.

The beautiful and peaceful Domaine des Escaravailles.

Gilles Férran of Domaine des Escaravailles, he is as charming and funny as he looks!

2017 Domaine des Escaravailles La Galopine
AC / PDO Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc
Domaine des Escaravailles
Rhône Valley
Franc

Domaine des Escaravailles is an amazing place. It is a beautiful spot up steep and bumpy country lane. It seems very cut off and the peace somehow prepares you for the wines to come. The story began in 1953 when Jean-Louis Férran bought several parcels of vines in the Rasteau, Cairanne and Roaix areas of Côtes-du-Rhône. In 1999 his grandson Gilles took over and made the estate what it is today. They farm using sustainable techniques and most of their vineyard sites – at around 250 metres above sea level – are relatively high and cool. As a consequence they seem to make lovely silky and refined wines that are elegant and balanced and never too powerful despite their generous fruit.

Escaravailles by the way is the local Occitan name for the scarab beetle as well as a nickname for the local black robed monks who inhabited a swathe of local monasteries before the revolution.

This is a blend of 40% Roussane, 40% Marsanne and 20% Viognier, barrel fermented and aged in the same barrels for some 6 more months, with lees stirring to help develop complexity and texture. 26 barrels were made and 4 of those were new oak, so once the wine was blended only a little new oak was used in the whole wine as they do not want the oak to dominate, merely to add some spice and structure. The vineyard this wine comes from is actually within the Cru of Rasteau, but for some odd reason only red wines and rosés can be made in Rasteau, so it has to be labelled as Côtes-du-Rhône instead.

Great aromas of herbs together with peach, blossom and sea salt.
In the mouth it has a beautiful palate with great, lush, texture, dense fruit, cooked and fresh peach, apricot, pear and apple together with some lovely herbs and spices and a feel of some wild honey . The finish is long and rich but also fresh and lively, giving it tension as well as making it delicious and sinfully drinkable – 92/100 points.

The equally fabulous 2015 is available in the UK for £22 per bottle from the Wines With AttitudeButlers Wine Cellar and Bowland Forest Vintners.

So you see, the Côtes-du-Rhône is not only red. There is a wealth of fine white wines from the southern Rhône and they are well worth exploring as they are often very good indeed.

Wine of the Week 69 – a sumptuous red for winter

Winter seems to be in the air, so my thoughts are turning to red wine again.  I am still hoping for a late Indian Summer though, which would give me a chance to get out some of the mouthwatering white wines that are sitting in the rack looking up at me expectantly.

Regular readers will know of my love and fascination with all things Iberian and Spanish – especially the wines. Recently I presented a tasting of the less usual wines of Spain and everything I showed went down very well. Indeed a couple of the wines have already been Wines of the Week and they are really good – click here and here.

Many of you will know about Priorat, one of Spain’s – and the world’s – greatest wine region and certainly one of the most expensive. This amazing, rugged landscape specialises in producing richly mineral red wines that are usually made from blends based on Grenache, or Garnacha as the Spanish call it and Garnatxa as the Catalans call it. A few of the red wines are Carignan  / Cariñena / Samsó dominated blends, while a small number of producers craft superb white wines from grapes like Garnacha Blanca and Macabeo, as well as Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east – click for a larger view

Priorat is one of only two regions to hold Spain’s highest classification, Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa) – it is Denominació d’Origen Qualificada or DOQ in Catalan. The only other region to have this so far is Rioja.

Priorat is tiny and the wines expensive, but luckily for us it is almost completely surrounded by another wonderful wine region – Montsant. This region is only a relatively humble DO or Denominación de Origen – but then so is Ribera del Duero – but it can produce wines of real quality. Recently I tasted a superb Montsant, that was so good I showed it at my tasting and everyone loved it so much that I decided to make it my Wine of the Week.

Montsant's rugged, but beautiful landscape.

The Joan d’Anguera estate in Montsant’s rugged, but beautiful landscape.

Joan and Josep Anguera.

Joan and Josep Anguera.

Planella2012 Planella Montsant
Joan d’Anguera
D.O. Montsant
Catalunya, Spain

The story here is an old and familiar one, the d’Anguera family have farmed these wild hillsides for centuries, scratching a living by providing grapes for the cooperative. However in the 1970s Josep d’Anguera decided to get more ambitious, perhaps he was influenced by the Priorate pioneers, or perhaps he just realised the potential of his land, but he planted Syrah and that had a really positive effect on his wines. It certainly made them easier to sell, but also tamed and softened the more rustic grapes in the blends, although now they are reducing the amount of Syrah in their blends in favour of the traditional local grapes. Today the estate is run by Josep’s sons, Josep and Joan and they too are forward thinking and ambitious and from 2008 to 2012 they were in conversion to biodynamic viticulture – 2012 was their first biodynamic vintage.

50% Cariñena / Samsó / Carignan, 45% Syrah and 5% Garnacha / Garnatxa / Grenache. Fermentation in concrete vats using indigenous yeasts. Aged for 12 months in old French oak barrels.

The colour is rich and opaque, while the nose gives lifted aromas of sweet dark fruit, warming spice, wild herbs and smoke. The palate is mouth filling, mouth coating and wondrously smooth. The texture is very seductive, as is the intense ripe fruit, blackberry, mulberry and nuggets of raspberry and cherry.  Savoury, spicy, smoky characters balance the fruit, together with a light touch of spicy oak and a seam of slatey minerality. The tannins are very smooth and ripe, adding to that seductive, sumptuous feel. This is a terrific wine that will wow anyone who tastes it – 91/100 points.

This is a lovely food friendly style, try it with anything meaty or hearty, especially cassoulet, pot roasts or slow roast garlicky lamb.

Available in the UK for around £13-£16 per bottle, from James Nicholson (NI), Forest Wines, Harvey Nichols, L’Art du Vin, No 2 Pound Street, Prohibition Wines, Salusbury Wine Store, St Andrews Wine Company.
For US stockists, click here.

Wine of the Week 28 – Saint-Chinian, excitement from the Languedoc

The rugged, but beautiful landscape of Saint-Chinian.

The rugged, but beautiful landscape of Saint-Chinian.

Recently I was on a trip to the Saint-Chinian area of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region. I had always been aware of the place and the wines that bore its name, but was unaware of what sets them apart from all the other wines of the Languedoc.

In many ways I still am. All the appellation / A.O.C. / P.D.O. wines from this part of the world have much in common. There is huge overlap in the palette of grapes they use, so the flavours of the grapes are often similar as are the terroir characteristics. Wild herbs aromas and flavours are often quite dominant in this part of the world – the French call these flavours garrigue, which is the name of the dense scrubland found all around the Mediterranean area. Garrigue includes lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary amongst other things and it is true that these characteristics are often found in the wines of the Languedoc, as well as the Southern Rhône. The grapes used for the red wines are Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. So even now I would be hard put to single out what makes a wine taste like a Saint-Chinian – as opposed to a Faugères say, but I did find many of the wines to be very good indeed.

It was wonderful to immerse myself in a pretty small wine region and to taste a large number of the wines from this beautiful landscape. As you might imagine, some were finer than others, some were more exciting, but all of them were acceptable or better. At the top end they were very fine indeed and there was some wonderful innovation going on too.

Chateau Les Carrasses nestling among the vines.

Chateau Les Carrasses nestling among the vines.

My trip was really to see how wine tourism was coming along in the region, which is something that Europe is really only just beginning to take seriously, so it was marvellous to experience what was happening. It was quite marked how many of the trail blazers in this field were from outside the region, and many from outside France. I stayed in the Irish owned Chateau Les Carrasses, which is a perfect Second Empire mansion set amongst the vineyards. It is a very beautiful place and incredibly restful with an excellent restaurant, lovely bar, an amazing pool and sumptuous rooms, as well as gîtes – whole houses in fact – available for rent. They even have their own wine and can organise wine visits for their guests.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region showing saint-Chinian just inland from Béziers. Click for a larger view - non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region showing saint-Chinian just inland from Béziers. Click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Many of the  wines impressed me. There were excellent everyday examples – and far finer too – from the local cooperatives and the flashes of brilliance were not exclusively reserved for the boutique producers, some of the larger wineries were excellent too. Laurent Miquel‘s Cazal Viel makes superb and widely available wines both as part of the Saint-Chinian appellation and outside. Another large producer in the region is Lorgeril, whose wines I have admired for many years – I used to love selling their wonderful Château de Pennautier from nearby Cabardès and Domaine de La Borie Blanche Minervois La Livinière – who now also make some superb Saint-Chinian at 2 estates. I was also hugely impressed and excited by  Domaine du Mas ChampartDomaine du Sacré Coeur – especially their Cuvée Charlotte made almost entirely from 100 year old Carignan vines – and Château Soulié des Joncs which was one of the very first organic producers in the Languedoc. Equally exciting, in a completely different way, is the Belgian owned Château Castigno, which is suitably surreal and Magritte-like, but whose wines are magnificent.

Incidentally although the place is best known as a red wine region, I found the white wines to be really exciting too, especially Domaine du Mas Champart and Château Castigno, Clos Bagatelle and Château Coujan. The whites are blends of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino.

Whilst there I heard about an outfit called Calmel & Joseph, who operate as a micro-negociant, buying fruit from privately owned vineyards across the Languedoc and crafting them into an impressive line up of wines. Laurent Calmel and Jérome Joseph have been in partnership since 1995 and not only have all the wines that I have tasted from them been delicious, but they also seem to have a charmingly irreverent and quirky style – which is quite unusual for French wine.

The first wine I tasted from the Calmel & Joseph stable was the Saint-Chinian, which strikes me as being a superb introduction to this exciting wine region, so I have made it my Wine of the Week:

stchinian2012 Calmel & Joseph Saint-Chinian
A.O.P. Saint-Chinian
Languedoc, France
I haven’t tasted all their wines yet by any means, but Calmel & Joseph claim to select cooler vineyards to ensure their wines have freshness and elegance and I must say the wines that I have tasted from them have been very drinkable as a consequence. This 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache Noir and 20% Carignan wine is unoaked, but aged for 18 months in concrete vats.
The colour is a bright, deep vivid purple like a cassis coulis.
The aromas delivers lots of ripe, fresh fruit, like a rich compete and also offers herbs, spices and brambles and fresh earth.
The palate is a revelation! Sumptuously fruity with a lovey touch of freshness lightening the load. Delicious, fresh and lively but with rich, ripe, deep blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, black cherry and dark plum fruit. There is a little dark chocolate too. It really delicious stuff and sinfully drinkable – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from Daniel Lambert Wines (Bridgend), Red & White Wines (Devon), Press Wine Services (Canterbury), Underwood Wines (Warwick), Vino Wine Shop (Edinburgh), Perfect Friday Wine (Maidenhead), Art is Vin (Eastbourne), The Smiling Grape Company (St Neots) and Richard Granger Wines (Newcastle).

You can also order Saint-Chinian wines direct from France here.

If you cannot get to any of the stockists listed for the Calmel & Joseph Saint-Chinian, then never fear, you can still try one of their other lovely wines, which will be a Wine of the Week quite soon. Waitrose stock their superb Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac wine – the place is marked on my map, just to the West of Montpellier.

Wine of the Week 24 – tasting País without Prejudice

The world is full of delicious wines and fascinating wines. They aren’t always the same ones mind you, but when they are that is when the real fun starts. Chile is quite rightly seen as a source of lovely everyday drinking wines as well as increasingly a finer wine producing country too. Chile’s producers are also starting to fashion good wines from a wider and wider range of interesting grapes. The days of Chilean wine only being made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are well and truly over.

It is now possible to get world class Chilean Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Roussanne amongst many other interesting grape varieties.

However, wine had already been made in Chile for hundreds of years before the use of international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, made Chilean wines more visible on the world market. Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, Chilean farmers were growing grapes and making wines for local consumption. Mostly this was from a grape that has long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands.

Eventually this mutated into the País grape and for two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile. Eventually it was supplanted, for quality wines, by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence. In the main País has soldiered on in the more remote areas where the vineyards are smaller in scale and owned by peasant farmers who do not have the resources to follow modern trends.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torres originally arrived in Chile like a whirlwind, breathing new life into the wine industry there in the late 1970s. He brought modern winemaking techniques with him and for 35 years Chilean wine has been mainly modern and cutting edge. In recent years though I have been fascinated to see some producers beginning to hark back to older techniques and times past.

The wonderful De Martino for instance are fermenting some of their wines in huge earthenware vats called tinajas, much as rural Spanish producers did in the past.

Chile Map watermarked

Torres Chile is based in Curicó, rather closer to this rural idyll than some of the other big names of Chilean wine, so they seem to have paid attention to the growers there as well as those further south in Maule. For these farmers it is very hard to make a decent living as they cannot afford to replant their vineyards with the new grapes the market demands. Instead they are left with old vine, dry farmed País like their ancestors used to make the local wine. Miguel Torres Chile saw it as a challenge to turn this into an opportunity rather than a problem. They helped to make sure the grapes were well grown and the vines healthy, they ensured the viticulture was all organic – relatively straightforward in Chile’s dry climate – then they needed to turn those grapes into a great product that would ensure the growers made a decent living. Although the project is run by a large and successful company, it is a fair trade project, so there is something cooperative-like about it and what’s more they use sustainable viticulture – so what’s not to like.

It really is a wonderful and virtuous concept and much in keeping with the ethos I heard whilst spending a week with Miguel Torres a couple of years ago. The first wine they made from these País grapes was a pink sparkler called Santa Digna Estelado Rosé and it really is a great product – try it if you get a chance.

Now they have also made a red wine from these amazing vines and the second vintage of it is my Wine of the Week:

Pais2013 Reserva Del Pueblo País
Miguel Torres Chile
Curicó, Chile
Named for the old village wines, or everyday wines of the pueblos of Chile’s past this is a rare – but not unique – pure País wine and as such gives us a glimpse into Chile’s vinous past. Only a glimpse though as this is beautifully made. 40% of the wine is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames País’s rustic drying tannins without tipping it over into bubblegum characters.
The colour is verging on deep purple, while the nose is an enticing mix of cooked blackberry, plums, cassis and fragrant herbs.
The palate is immediate and juicy with fresh acidity, deep, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit that feels fresh and lively, together with a little firmness from the tannins. I had no idea what to expect from this wine at all, but it really is delicious and slips down rather easily. This has something of Beaujolais and rustic Pinot Noir about it, but is more richly fruity and I found it best slightly chilled. It goes with pretty much anything and nothing – 89/100 points. Marked high for the sheer pleasure it gives.

Available in the UK at £7.50 from The Wine Society.
Miguel Torres Chile wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

País is not often a grape that springs to mind when you are trying to decide what to drink, but trust me, this is a deliciously drinkable wine and a real bargain too.

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

Vineyards near Béziers.

Vineyards near Béziers.

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

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

The rugged landscape of the Languedoc.

The rugged and beautiful landscape of the Languedoc.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Deliciously different & exciting white wines

There is so much wine available from so many different places that it must be hard for most casual wine drinkers to decide what to drink. Which is presumably why so many people I know stick to a very narrow range of favourites.

There is no need to get stuck in a rut though, even with tried and tested wine producing countries or companies. Here are details of four delicious and exciting, for different reasons, white wines that have come my way of late. At first glance on the shelf they might not seem all that different, the first two are from the famous and always excellent Villa Maria in New Zealand while the second pair are from Chile, one made by Álvaro Espinoza in the Casablanca Valley and the other by Errazuriz.

What sets these wines apart and makes them a little different and exciting is that they are made from slightly more unusual grape varieties, or in the Chilean case blends. I love championing less famous grapes as there is a great deal of pleasure to be found in many of them and so I think it is a great shame that so many drinkers limit themselves to such a tiny palate of grapes. There are hundreds of grape varieties out there and many of them can make very good wine indeed.

All it needs is to be slightly adventurous and try something new. I always tell my students that at least once a month they should buy a bottle of wine that they have never heard of or thought of drinking before, that way they experience lots of new things. In addition I tell them to buy at least some of their wine from a proper independent wine merchant, which can give advice and usually stock the more interesting things too.

It is so good that wine producers are still trying to offer consumers wines that are a little bit unusual and more interesting than the normal run of the mill wines that fill the shelves. Especially so as both New Zealand and Chile have long focussed on a narrow range of commercially successful grapes, so it is good to see such exciting experimentation. In recent months I have also seen Grüner Veltliner from New Zealand too, all we need is an Albariñoa Godello, a Fiano and a Falanghina and I will be a very happy bunny indeed!

Remember to click on all the links – and leave a comment too.

New Zealand

Sir George Fistonich founded Villa Maria Estate in Auckland in 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Set Michelle Wines.

Sir George Fistonich at harvest time. George founded Villa Maria 1961 and runs it to this day. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

image-12013 Villa Maria Private Bin Arneis
East Coast G.I., New Zealand
If you have never heard of the Arneis grape variety before, well you can be forgiven as it is only a speciality of Piemonte in north west Italy. It makes the wines of the Roero Arneis D.O.C.g, and D.O.C. wines in Langhe too. In its native country it seems to make wines that are quite floral and aromatic, but is usually too low in acidity for me, so I am generally more keen on Nascetta or Gavi’s Cortese grape. Somehow it seems that the New Zealanders are able to compensate for this lack of acidity and produce fresher, more lively versions than the the original – just as they do with Viognier. Historically Arneis was considered very hard to grow as it is so delicate, hence the name which means ‘little rascal’ in Piemontese and so the grape almost died out in the 1970s with only two producers left by 1980. Luckily – as with so many white grapes – modern know-how has swept to the rescue and limited plantings are now found in Liguria and Sardinia, as well as California, Oregon, cooler parts of Australia and New Zealand’s North Island.
This wine has the East Coast Geographical Indicator, because the vineyards are in more than one region. In fact the grapes are grown at 3 vineyards sites between Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne.
Villa Maria’s Private Bin wines are their fruit forward more easy drinking range.
This offers a gently aromatic and slightly floral nose with touches of pear and very delicate peach.
The palate is juicy, delicately succulent and textured with soft acidity and lots of fresh and lively orchard fruit – pear –  and is nicely flowery too. There is also a fresh seam of acidity keeping the whole thing together and lively, without dominating.
All in all a really good approachable take on this grape making it a sassy and enjoyable easy drinking wine that goes well with almost anything, what’s more it only has 12.5% alcohol making it an ideal quaffer too – 87/100 points.

Map of New Zealand's wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of New Zealand’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

image-1-22013 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Marlborough G.I., New Zealand
Sauvignon Gris is a grape close to my heart. I became very fond of it in Chile over ten years ago and am very pleased that it is now being grown in New Zealand too. Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose.
Villa Maria’s Cellar Selection wines are more concentrated, complex and so perfect with food. This particular wine is actually from a single vineyard in Marlborough’s Wairau Valley – Fletcher’s Vineyard.
The wine has a pale pear juice colour that hints at succulence, while the nose offers pear and delicately smoky peach.
The palate is by turns stony and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit too.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominat than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

UK stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information for Villa Maria wines is available from the distributer – Ste Michelle Wine Estates.

Chile

Emiliana's beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Ste Michelle Wines.

Emiliana’s beautiful organic vineyards. Photo courtesy of Banfi Wines.

CCC06-02012 Signos de Origen Chardonnay-Roussanne-Marsanne-Viognier
Emiliano Organic Vineyards
D.O. Valle de Casablanca, Chile
Casablanca is a beautiful place, one of the best bits of Chile to visit the wineries. this is because it is near both the main cities of santiago and Valparaiso and so is home to some excellent winery restaurants as well as some very good wine producers too. For a long time Casablanca was the undisputed premium white wine region of Chile, this is because the lack of mountains between it and the ocean ensure it is cooler than the wine regions to the south – like the Maipo and Colchagua Valleys. Nowadays Casablanca has competition from the equally cool San Antonio and Leyda Valleys as well as Acocagua Costa and Limari to the north, but is still a great region.
I love interesting blends and this is a wonderful combination of classic Rhône Valley white grapes – Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier – with the more lush style of Chardonnay and it works perfectly. The grapes are organically grown and the grapes were partly fermented in stainless steel tanks at low temperatures before being moved to French oak barrels to complete the fermentation – this technique gives subtle richness and texture to the wine. 90% of the wine then aged in those barrels for 6 months, while 10% was aged in egg shaped concrete tanks, which are very trendy right now and do good things – you can read about them here.
This is a serious white wine with complexity, structure, texture and finesse.
The fruit drives it with rich apricot and peach characters giving succulence and texture as well as the fresh herb characters of the Rhône grapes. Ripeness and oak give honey and nut tones too and an overarching richness, even a touch of oatmeal at times. There is freshness and stony minerality too though giving some tension and balance.
A glorious wine, dense, concentrated and fine, perfect with cheese, rich poultry or pork – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Boutinot.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Banfi Wines.

Chile Map watermarked

Map of Chile’s wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

If you want to try Rousanne, Marsanne and Viognier without Chardonnay, try another great Chilean blend:

image-1-32011 Errazuriz The Blend Marsanne-Roussanne-Viognier
Viña Errazuriz
D.O. Valle de Aconcagua, Chile
Another thrilling blend from grapes that originate in France’s southern Rhône. This comes from a little further north than Casablanca in the Aconcagua proper – Casablanca is politically a sub-division of the Aconcagua Valley – about halfway between the cool Aconcaua Costa and the warmer eastern end of the valley where Errazuriz traditional produce their red wines.
25% was fermented in third use French oak to give delicate richness while the rest was fermented in stainless shell to give freshness. 25% was also aged for 6 months in French oak.
This wonderful wine has a rich, earthy nose with wild herbs, honey, rosemary, spicy toasty oak and nuts too, it is savoury but with rich underlying fruit.
The palate is succulent with rich juicy fruit and a touch of minerality and acidity keeping it fresh not cloying. Herbs, apricots, peach, stones, a touch of oily texture and even cream together with a bite of tannins and nuts on the finish. Another glorious and exciting wine that is perfect with roast pork or rich poultry dishes – 91/100 points.

UK stockist information is available from the distributer – Hatch Mansfield.
US stockist information is available from the distributer – Vintus.

So you see, there is plenty of excitement and lots of different, but still delicious, wine out there if you are prepared to be a little adventurous. There really is no need to get stuck in a rut or keep drinking the usual suspects.

In the interests of full disclosure I should tell you that I do some work for both Villa Maria and Viña Errazuriz from time to time. However, the views that I have expressed about their wines are completely honest and unsolicited.

Birth of the Crus

I take a great deal of pleasure from experiencing wines that are new to me or made from grapes and places that are new to me. So I was delighted to attend a tasting that celebrated new things recently – by the way do remember to click on all the links.

Languedoc map QS 2011 watermark

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Languedoc-Roussillon is a terrific wine region and I am a great admirer of many wines from both Roussillon, the Catalan bit by the Spanish border and the Languedoc, which is further north and east – towards Narbonne and beyond. I have written about Roussillon before, but not enough about the Languedoc.

There are some fabulous wines produced in this rugged landscape, but they often do not receive the notice they deserve and the whole place suffers from the poor reputation that it’s wines were saddled with in the past. Historically the region made lots and lots of vins ordinaire to nourish and quench the thirst of working people, but those days have long gone. However the memory of this has hung around and incorrectly informs many consumer’s choices to this day. The majority of UK wine drinkers still seem to regard the Languedoc as mainly a source of cheap wines and as a consequence favour France’s more famous regions when they are seeking something special. Which is really a great shame, as the Languedoc produces many wonderful wines. They are overwhelmingly red, but increasingly the few whites are proving their worth too, as the popularity of Picpoul de Pinet shows.

Château Camplazens, photo by kind permission

Château Camplazens, photo by kind permission

Sure there are still some cheap wines made there, but really nowadays the place is more a source of great value good wines and even some that are truly ambitious. Wonderful experiences will pass drinkers by if they expect Languedoc wines to only be cheap. It pains me therefore when I come across people who only drink a wine from the likes of Minervois, Fitou, Corbières, Cabardès, Saint-Chinian or Faugères when nothing else is available, but these and the other appellations of the region produce wines that really are worth drinking.

There have been many attempts in the past to prove to consumers that this part of the world makes quality wine. In 1948 Fitou was the first place in Languedoc to be awarded A.C. status and all those others followed over the next few decades, but I remain unconvinced that drinkers – in the UK anyway – have either noticed or been much impressed by these wines gaining their appellation d’origine contrôlée. They still seem to want them to be cheaper than regions whose reputation is higher, even if the wines they drink from those are not necessarily better.

Well now so many areas of the Languedoc have their own AC, the next stage of this process is well underway. The local appellation are quite bitty and seem to offer little rationale to many drinkers, so the local powers that be, in conjunction with the growers have set about identifying little pockets of potential excellence within these areas. This is the creation of “Crus” or specific sites within a larger area – Pouilly-Fuissé within Mâcon or Bourgogne Côtes du Couchois would be similarly more specific appellations. Some of these will remain an additionally identifying piece of information on the label, while others will eventually become appellations in their own right.

The beautiful & magnificent Château de Pennautier in Carbadès

The beautiful & magnificent Château de Pennautier in Carbadès

I have a history with some of these wines, I was what technology people call an “early adopter”. Long ago I sold wine by mail order and 15 years or so ago I had been selling a lovely wine from Cabardès – a fascinating area that is the only place in France where A.C. wines are made using blends of Atlantic grapes, Cabernet and Merlot, and Mediterranean grapes, Syrah etc. The producer was the beautiful and historic Château de Pennautier and everything I have ever tasted from them has been well worth trying and Brits can buy one of their lovely Cabardès wines here and another here. Well my customers enjoyed the wines and when the producer, Nicolas de Lorgeril, branched out with an estate in nearby Minervois his Domaine de La Borie Blanche I listed that too and it became a firm favourite. I knew Minervois and the value it represented, so I was hesitant when offered a premium version. This was Les Hauts de la Borie Blanche and the label proclaimed it to be a Minervois-la-Livinière. This it transpired was a Cru or small, specific vineyard area contained within Minervois surrounding the village of la Livinière and I had never heard of it. The wine was twice the price of the normal version, but when I tasted it I was blown away and it quickly became my best selling wine, by some margin, despite being relatively expensive by the standards of the time. It’s still available by the way, but is now called Domaine La Borie Blanche Terroirs d’Altitude. This experience led me to seek out other wines and I quickly discovered Pic-St-Loup, a similarly special area or Cru within the Coteaux de Languedoc appellation.

A great many things set these places apart from the more ordinary, but still good, wines that surround them, but the two things that seem consistent are height – these areas tend to be highish and so the air is a little cooler and produces more elegance, the other is the dedication and ambition of the growers and wine makers.

I have retained interest in these types of wines over the years, but have been well aware that they haven’t really caught on to the degree that they should and have by and large remained the speciality of fine wine shops rather than being stocked by the supermarkets and multiple merchants where most people actually buy their wine. I was thrilled therefore to attend a tasting and dinner of three of the Languedoc Crus that are leading the way for quality in this exciting part of the world and I thought that I would bring some of the stars to your attention.

The appellations and Crus:

Languedoc La Clape
Once an island, La Clape is now a limestone mountain some 214 metres above sea level. The sea tempers the heat of the sun allowing the production of ripe, yet elegant wines. The A.C. was created in 2009.

Minervois-la-Livinière
This enclave within Minervois forms a south facing limestone plateau, the “Petit Causse” , which produces wonderfully concentrated wines. The A.C. was created in 1999 making it the oldest of the Crus.

Corbières-Boutenac
The relatively high, heartland of Corbières this puts me in mind of the relationship between Chianti and Chianti-Classico, Boutenac specialises in Carignan, particularly old vine Carignan, which must make up between 30 and 50% of the blend, it a rocky, wild land of limestone and garrigue. The A.C. was created in 2005.

The wines are overwhelmingly red, but the few whites from this part of the world are really interesting and will surely win many friends if they become more readily available:

White Wines

Angles Classique Blanc2010 Château d’Anglès Classique Blanc
Château d’Anglès
A.C. Languedoc La Clape
The old Coteaux de Languedoc was replaced with the bolder and more wide reaching Languedoc as the basic appellation for this region in 2007. La Clape has long been respected by those in the know, but is now beginning to emerge as something better than anyone would have imagined. Situated between Narbonne and the sea it is small – 17 km by 7 km – and high – rising to 214 metres above sea level. As for white wines it is home to a beguiling grape – this area is thought to be the French home of Bourbelonc and although it is used throughout the South, it is only here that it gets given a starring rôle.
Château d’Anglès dates back to 1796 but had fallen into disrepair and was reestablished in 2002 by Bordelais Eric Fabre and his winemaker son Vianney who bought it to realise their dream of creating fine Mediterranean wines. They came to make red wines, but have become increasingly excited by the potential for their white wines.
50% Bourboulenc and 40% Grenache with Roussanne and Marsanne – aged on the lees for 5 months.

Nice attractive nose with herbs, citrus, white peach, a little heather and honey lurking in the background as well as a whiff of the sea.
The palate has a gentle texture, soft almost creamy with a little fat and a touch of peach-skin like tannins and a pithy feel giving rich herbal mouthfeel. The acidity is pretty low, but it does balance the wine nicely with some freshness, but it is the richness, rather than any crispness that dominates, although there is a tanginess and a touch of bitter olives as well as a juicy quality to the long finish. I liked this very much indeed, it is an exciting white wine and very food friendly as being a lovely aperitif – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle in the UK from Wine Rack.

Angles Grand Blanc2008 Château d’Anglès Grand Vin Blanc
Château d’Anglès
A.C. Languedoc La Clape
50% Bourboulenc and 40% Grenache with Roussanne and Marsanne – aged barriques and on the lees in for 7 months.
This top white from the estate was markedly richer and fatter. The aromas were lovely, oily and creamy, honey and herbal with rosemary and thyme together with some pine and aromatic savoury, garrigues aromas and again it was slightly saline. The palate was full with lots of fat, but still some lively balancing mineral notes, not high or obvious acidity though. A terrific, complex, beautifully made dry white with lots of interest, flavour and texture – 92/100 points.

£19.99 a bottle in the UK from Ocado.

By the way the red wines from Château d’Anglès are very good as well.

La Clape to the sea

La Clape to the sea

La Clape mountain

La Clape mountain – showing the wild, rugged landscape

Red Wines

girrague_bottle2008 Château Camplazens Cuvée La Garrigue
Château Camplazens
A.C. Languedoc La Clape
I have been an admirer of Château Camplazens‘s wines ever since I worked next to the owners Susan and Peter Close at a wine fair. As you might imagine from their name, they too are outsiders who have come to La Clape in order to make the wine of their dreams. In 2000 they found this amazing site on the top of the limestone mountain of La Clape itself. The whole area was once a Roman pleasure camp, hence the name and that of “a pleasance” in later history.

60% Syrah with 40% Grenache only 40% is oak aged to emphasise the juicy freshness.

This is a wine to really enjoy, everything from the bright attractive colour is pleasing. The nose is rich and aromatic with powerful red and black fruit together with a stony character, a touch of spice and a wild herbal note. The palate is nicely concentrated and bursting with juicy fruit that has lovely balancing freshness within it. The tannins are gentle and soft and all the while those savoury garrigue flavours peep through together with spice and a touch of smokiness. Not all that complex, but it is a delicious and very user friendly wine that delivers excellent value for money – 89/100 points.

£8.99 a bottle in the UK from the City Beverage Company.

Château Camplazens produce some other excellent red wines that are worth seeking out too.

18747-250x600-bouteille-chateau-sainte-eulalie-la-cantilene-rouge-2008--minervois-la-liviniere2011 Château Sainte Eulalie Cuvée La Cantilène
Château Sainte Eulalie
A.C. Minervois-la-Livinière
Isabelle and Laurent Coustal set about resurrecting this old estate in 1996 and it is now one of the leading lights of the area.
55% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 25% Carignan aged 12 months in oak barrels, 25% new.

This is deeply coloured, smoky and aromatic with savoury herbs and a dash of cocoa and liquorice. The palate is juicy, brambly, soft and open with black and red fruit and a touch of firm, smoky tannins and an inky quality to the long finish. An attractive and very pleasurable wine that has a soft and drinkable quality to it – 87/100 points.

£11.50 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society (2010 vintage). Also £25.00 per magnum.

EFB53-02009 Château Maris Les Planels (formerly Old Vine Syrah)
Château Maris
A.C. Minervois-la-Livinière
Yet another fine estate that is run by an outsider and what’s more another Englishman. Robert Eden has lived in the Languedoc for over twenty years and is one of the prime movers behind the emergence of La Livinière on to the world’s fine wine map. Robert is convinced that good wine is made in the vineyard and focuses enormous care and attention how his vines grow. Château Maris is certified as organic and biodynamic, the only one in Minervois-la-Livinière and I strongly believe that whether biodynamics work or not, the process imposes such a level of care and attention on the vigneron that good results often seem to follow and from the 2010 vintage the estate will be a Cru Classé du Languedoc.
This single vineyard – Les Planels – Syrah is a case in point, fermented in oak tanks and aged for 12 months in barrels it is a really lovely wine.
The colour is an intense, opaque blueberry blue black colour, while the nose is lifted, scented and aromatic with savoury herbs, garrigue, tarry earth and a core of brighter blackcurrant and dried fruit. The palate is concentrated, full and juicy with very soft tannins – just a chalky smear giving definition. The fruit is cassis and prune by turns with a smoky earthy, mineral liquorice note. This is a really delicious crowd pleaser of real quality and while the fruit dominates right now I am sure the complexity will out in a few years – 91/100 points.
£17.95 a bottle in the UK from Vintage Roots.
Once again I would say that everything Château Maris make is pretty good and well worth drinking, like their standard Château Maris Minervois La Livinière from Waitrose in the UK.
Domaine de Villmajou

Domaine de Villmajou

22100_detail2010 Château de Villmajou
Domaines Gérard Bertrand
A.C. Corbières-Boutenac
Gérard Bertrand’s father owned this property from 1970 and this is where he grew up. After his rugby career they ran it together and it is where his wine story began, it is also the oldest wine estates in Corbières.
40% Carignan, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 10% Mourvèdre aged 12 months in oak barrels.
This looked most attractive in the glass, deeply coloured, purpley-red to black.
The enticing aromas were herbal and savoury, along with a seaweed / umami and mineral nose and hints of sweeter lavender, that seemed promising, but quite closed for now.
The palate was direct, vibrant and juicy with loads of cassis, blackberry and plum with spices and herbs in background. It was a very modern palate with loads of fruit and very soft tannins, but they are there in the background, as is a touch of coffe too. The finish is nicely balanced and it delivers a great deal of pleasure – 89/100 points.
£11.99-14.99 a bottle in the UK from Majestic.
oror2010 Château les Ollieux Romains Cuveé d’Or
Château les Ollieux
A.C. Corbières-Boutenac
44% Carignan, 23% Grenache, 23% Mourvèdre and 10% Syrah of between 60 and 100 years old. Aged for 12 months in new French oak.
The colour was a deep opaque plummy and blackcurrant purple with some rhubarb red.
The nose was earthy, vibrant and powerful with blackcurrant, cocoa and coffee notes.
The palate had a nice texture, rich creamy ripe fruit and a cleansing touch saline quality. It was attractively savoury with a slightly charred and toasty, smoky back palate and a little caramel. A beautifully balanced wine with some real tension between the fruit and structure making it very elegant and it was very long – 91/100 points.

It was a wonderful tasting and a great chance to catch up on wines from this exciting part of France. If the creation of appellation contrôlée was supposed to codify tradition and encapsulate best practice – although frankly that is all debatable – then these new appellations and Crus, where there is only a short history of making anything other than everyday wines, are all about embracing the potential of these exciting places and creating ambitions for the future.

I do urge you to try some of these exciting new wines from the Languedoc.

Chile – experimenting and perfecting

As readers of these pages will know, I have long been a fan of Chilean wine and although it has been too long since I visited Chile I love the country too. It is a very beautiful place with wonderful sights to see and the people are a delight.

At Luis Felipe Edwards in the Colchagua Valley 2003

If I have had any problems at all with Chilean wine it was that they have for too long relied upon a narrow a range of grape varieties. I am sure that is not a commercial problem for them as consumers usually drink from a very, very narrow range of grape varieties. However for someone like me it can get dull if everyone only makes their own versions of the same old thing. There is only so much Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay I want to drink – however good they are.

Which is why I am really delighted to find that of late Chile seems to be pushing the boundaries further than ever before, finding new grapes, new styles, new blends and new grape growing areas. As a consequence I have recently been able to taste some wonderful new wine styles from Chile, so if you are getting bored with the same old, same old and want to drink something exciting you should give Chile a go. Continue reading