New Wine of the Week – a delicious and very drinkable southern French white

When thinking of wines from France’s deep south – I am talking Languedoc-Roussillion here – most people automatically think of the reds. Picpoul de Pinet  is really the only white wine from the region that has managed to carve out a niche for itself.

Which is understandable as the reds are often very fine indeed and frequently underrated. However, many of the whites from these regions are really excellent and deserve to be more widely known. I tasted a wine recently which is a case in point. It is a white wine from Corbières, which is a PDO / AOC in the Aude department, which in turn forms part of the Languedoc-Roussillon wine region. It’s a big and important part too, producing just under half of all the PDO wine of the region.

I have always liked Corbières wines as they frequently offer great value and often very high quality too – see my article about Château Haut-Gléon here. I have yet to visit the region, which I intend to put right soon as it appears to be very beautiful. What’s more, excitingly it is Cathar country and is littered with the ruins of castles destroyed during the crusades against this obscure Christian sect. The local speciality dessert wine – actually more correctly called a mistelle  – is called Cathagène to honour the Cathars, so readers of the The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail and The Da Vinci Code should make sure they keep a bottle handy.

Anyway, this white Corbières impressed me 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.

The winery of Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure.

The winery of Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure.

Blanc Paysan
2014 Blanc Paysan
PDO / AOC Corbières
SCV Castelmaure / Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure
Embres & Castelmaure
Aude
Languedoc-Roussillon
France

Cave d’Embrès et Castelmaure is a co-operative that was founded in 1921 and serves two hamlets that have been joined together to form one village. Embrès et Castelmaure is a about 25 km north of Perpignan and sits roughly on the border between Languedoc and Roussillon. As a consequence their website offers both the Catalan (as spoken in Roussillon) and Occitan languages, as well as French itself. The website also plays some very Spanish sounding flamenco music to you which then morphs into some very French jazz. It’s an interesting combination, give it a listen by clicking here.

They farm some 400 hectares and although clearly forward thinking and ambitious, they cling to old ways. They still use the concrete vats installed in the winery in 1921, as they regulate the fermentation temperatures very well. They also have very cannily used all the old perceptions of their problems to their advantage. The region is hot, wild and rugged, so gives low yields, while the slopes are inaccessible by machine and tractors, these things held them back in the past when the only game in the Languedoc was the production of bulk wine. Today the wines have to be good, concentrated, terroir wines and so all that works to their advantage. They farm sustainably and harvest by hand.

This white wine is an unoaked blend of Grenache Blanc with some Grenache Gris, Vermentino (aka Rolle) and Macabeu (aka Macabeo and Viura).

I love the label as it shows a Renault 4 climbing a near perpendicular slope. It seems that the Renault 4, while never the icon that the 2CV was, was actually the main car of French farmers in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s and many more of them were made than the more famous and more loved Citroën. The label made me smile as I have memories of being driven up similar slopes in the back of a beige (who else remembers beige cars?) Renault 4 by a Spanish builder in the early 1970s.

The wine is crystal clear and lemony to look at, while the nose offers wild flowers, herbs, pithy grapefruit and a slight, attractively waxy note. The palate is a lovely mix of rich and fresh, with wild herb flavours mingling with citrus and more succulent stone fruits. There is plenty of acidity – from the Vermentino and Macabeu I assume, while the Grenache gives that richness and herbal quality that are so delicious and evocative. A lovely wine with lots of tension between the zestiness and the richness and loads of flavour too. Delicious, refreshing and very easy to drink, this could help wean addicts off Pinot Grigio I think. What’s more it is an utter bargain – 87/100 points.

Try as I might I cannot think of anything that this would not be good with. It is delicious on its own, with fish, chicken, charcuterie, spicy food, cheese – you name it. I loved it with baked camembert.

Available in the UK at £6.50 per bottle from The Wine Society.

 

Spanish Delights

As many of you are aware, I love Spain, Spanish culture and Spanish wine. I really do think that Spain is one of the most exciting wine producing countries right now. It isn’t all Rioja or Rioja look alikes either, the place makes wonderful wines from so many different regions, in so many different styles and from a broad palette of grape varieties that there is bound to be something for everyone.

Recently I have tasted a few very exciting Spanish wines that I thought I would share with you.

 

Bruce Jack -  - photo courtesy of La Báscula

Bruce Jack – – photo courtesy of La Báscula

La Báscula – which means weighing scales – is a range of wines sourced across many Spanish regions and was created by Ed Adams M.W. and winemaker Bruce Jack. I have bumped into Ed a few times in my time and he is a likeable guy who knows Spain like the back of his hand, while Bruce is one of the most interesting and engaging winemakers I have ever come across. I first met him in his native South Africa, where he is the founder and winemaker of  the excellent Flagstone Wines. He always makes good wines, so I was thrilled when he teamed up with Ed and spread his wings to make wine in Spain too.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

The range seems to tour the country taking in many famous and some not so well known wine regions. They produce wines in Rioja, Rueda, Jumilla, Yecla and Alicante as well as Terra Alta, the amazing region in Catalunya’s deep south, inland from Tarragona and the more famous Priorat and Monstant. From the examples I have tried recently, this region really deserves to be much better known and positively sought out as a source of great wines at good value price points and great quality too.

The rugged Catalan landscape.

The rugged Catalan landscape.

Terra Alta means High Land and is a place of extremes, searingly hot in the summer and often freezing cold in winter. It is dry, mountainous and rugged, with the extreme heat of the growing season tempered by the altitude and the influence of the Ebro River, although the vineyards are only moderately high at 400 metres above sea level.

Excitingly the region has made the Garnacha Blanca, white Grenache, its speciality grape and I think this – along with Grenache Gris – can make delicious white wines. Terra Alta claims to produce 90% of the world’s Garnacha Blanca / Grenache Blanc – Grenache is originally a Spanish grape, so really ought to always be called Garnacha in my opinion.

Pepe Fuster (centre)

Pepe Fuster (centre) – photo courtesy of La Báscula

Both of these wines come from Terra Alta, although you will look in vain for the D.O. on the red, indeed they both come from the Celler Comes d’en Bonet winery in Gandesa some 90 km inland from Tarragona. This 30 hectare estate has been owned by the Fuster family for over 60 years and viticulturist Pepe Fuster is a passionate champion of this land and its traditional grape varieties, but is equally keen to experiment and do something new. Around half the estate is currently farmed organically with the rest in transition.

catalan-eagle-white_bg-2012-22013 La Báscula Catalan Eagle Organic Garnacha Blanca & Viognier
DO Terra Alta
60% Garnacha Blanca, 25% Viognier & 15% Rousanne with no oak.
I have tasted a previous vintage of this and although I liked it I was not overly excited, but with the 2013 this white has really come of age.
The nose is clean and mineral with enticing apricot and nectarine, blossom and honey notes.
The palate is soft and textured with a fine balance of acidity making it fresh and lively, but not crisp, while the fruit really dominates the mid palate and the finish has a minerality and purity to it that kept me coming back for more. Delicious, versatile and so very drinkable – 89/100 points.

£9.99 a bottle in the UK from D.Byrne & Co, Highbury Vintners, John Hattersley WinesNoel Young WinesWoodwinters Wines & Whiskies, more stockist information available from Boutinot.
Distributed in the US by Fairest Cape.

no-stone-unturned_bg2012 No Stone Unturned Old Vine Garnacha Tinta & Cariñena
DO Terra Alta (but not mentioned on the label)

62% 50 year old Garnacha Tinta, 23%Cariñena & 15% a mix of Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah all aged 10 months in French oak.
The deep, opaque ruby red colour is very enticing.
Rich lifted brambles, damsons, blackberry, dark cherry vies with sweet spice and fresh red earth notes on the nose.
The palate is intense, but smooth with supple tannins and a soft texture, almost creamy.
The sweetly ripe fruit is a blast from start to finish giving rich plums, morello cherries and blackberries with a rich inky intensity, delicately smoky oak and a firm, but gentle tannin smear on the finish. there is sweet spice and liquorice and a lovely freshness. The wine is rich and interesting, but pristine too.
This is one of those wines that you could keep for a while, but the fruit and supple texture are so delicious now, why would you want to? Very food friendly wine that would go with almost any meal, grab a bottle and take it to your local BYO …91/100 points

£15.99 a bottle in the UK from D.Byrne & Co, Noel Young Wines, Viader Vintners, more stockist information available from Boutinot.
Distributed in the US by Fairest Cape.

If you like Rhône Valley wines then you will enjoy these, but they are not copies of anything else, but exciting and beautifully made wines in their own right. What’s more they are deliciously modern, vibrant and full of fruit.

 

50 Shades of Gris

Domaine Jones

Domaine Jones

Wine isn’t all noir and blanc

I know what you’re thinking. I bet you think this piece is about Pinot Gris, dont’y ya, don’t ya?

Well you are wrong, I might mention Pinot Gris in passing – see I just did – but actually this piece is going to be about a couple of others grapes with Gris in their name.

Pinot Gris is not a grape that I gravitate towards, I think it is usually just too low in acidity for me, but there are some honourable exceptions – what’s more, I am so broadminded I have even been known to enjoy the odd Pinot Grigio.

Until 10 years or so ago I was under the impression that Pinot Gris was the only grape called Gris. I knew there were others that are ‘gris’ or pink skinned, just as grapes called ‘noir’ are red or purple skinned and those called ‘blanc’ have green skins – I think they named them from engravings before colour photography was invented. Gewürztraminer of course has pink skins when fully ripe, so does Koshu and Moschofilero which makes Mantinia in the Peloponnese region of Greece, but none of those have ‘gris’ in their name.

Sauvignon Gris
Well, one day in 2003 I was with a group of fellow wine educators in Chile and we were served a bottle of white wine with our fish that I – and most of our party – assumed was Sauvignon Blanc. Only it didn’t taste quite like Sauvignon Blanc, we even wondered if it was a dodgy bottle for a while until one bright eyed individual noticed that the label didn’t claim it to be a Sauvignon Blanc at all, but a Sauvignon Gris. It was made by a famous old producer from the Maipo Valley called Cousiño-Macul and it was pretty good, but most of all it was interesting. I have tried more recent vintages of this wine and it seems to me that like almost everything else they have improved greatly over that time.

I later learnt that the vine was imported into Chile in the nineteenth century in mistake for Sauvignon Blanc – mind you they did the same thing with Sauvignon Vert too, which is also known as Sauvignonasse and (Tocai) Friulano.

A few days later I was able to try another example of Sauvignon Gris, this time it was made from very old vines in Colchagua Valley by a winery called Casa Silva and I loved it.

Sauvignon Gris is thought 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 is fatter and less aromatic than its sibling. 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, indeed so excited was I by the Casa Silva wine that I actually became the first person ever to ship a few cases to the UK.

A few others followed my lead and now you can find some Sauvignon Gris wines if you shop around. Mark and Spencer lead the pack as they offers two, one from Argentina that I have not tasted and another from Chile that I like very much indeed. I have mentioned Viña Leyda before, they are a great producer in Chile’s Leyda Valley and they also make the excellent Secano Estate wines whose Sauvignon Gris is a delight.

It can be found in France too, where there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire, where 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.

Recently I was able to taste this terrific example from the flamboyantly named Xavier Frissant of Touraine-Amboise at the Absolutely Cracking Wines From France event:

2010 touraine blanc les roses du clos2010 Les Roses du Clos
Cépage Fié Gris
Xavier Frissant, A.C. Touraine
Touraine is usually associated with Sauvignon Blanc, so this is an interesting variation on the theme. The grapes are harvested by hand and the wine is fermented and aged on the lees in 400 litre oak barrels, but the oak does not show at all – unless it adds to the texture.
The nose was bright, vibrant and fresh with an underlying stoney / mineral quality and a deeper, denser apricot-like note too.
The palate offers high, but rich, not citric, apricot acidity and textured apricot fruit, while some grapefruit characters freshen it up and keep it balanced by giving it some real tang, in fact it is more tangy than zingy. It is clean and fresh, but has a lovely juicy weight to to as well which balances the high acidity and makes the wine very attractive and pleasurable to drink. It is dry with a long finish and I can imagine it goes with a wide array of foods – 89/100 points.

£14.75 a bottle in the UK from H2Vin.

Grenache Gris
The other gris that has been exciting me recently is Grenache Gris. Grenache is originally a Spanish grape, so perfectly suits the Mediterranean climate and should really be called Garnacha. It spread throughout the Mediterranean world during the time of Aragon and Catalan strength in the middle ages and because Roussillon was a part of Catalonia until 1659 – and who knows it might be again soon – Grenache remains a dominant grape in the region.

Grenache comes in all colours and I understand that Grenache Gris is a natural mutation of Grenche Noir, the one that makes the red wines. Like all the other gris grapes, you can make a pale rosé from them – like Pinot Grigio Ramato (coppered) – but it seems more normal to use them to make rich-ish white wines that often have a deep colour.

I have tasted a couple of examples recently that stand out and show that Grenache Gris really should be a more widely appreciated grape:

photo blanc2011 Domaine Jones Blanc
Grenache Gris
Katie Jones, I.G.P. (Vin de Pays) Côtes Catalanes
Katie is from Ashby-de-la Zouch in Leicestershire and perhaps the French name got to her because she finally ended up in Paziols near Tautavel in Roussillon. Joining the local cooperative and eventually becoming their Export Sales and Marketing Director Katie worked with the local wine and loved it so much that eventually she bought her own parcel of vines near Maury and settled down to craft some stunning wines in this beautiful, rugged landscape.
This wine betrays a slightly coppery hue, just the merest tinge mind, while the nose is gloriously scented and lifted with grapefruit, softer mandarin notes and exotic wild herbs and even a touch of honey. The palate has richness with a slightly creamy and oily texture making it fat and mouth filling. The citrus fruit and richer stone fruit – nectarine – balance this beautifully and there is an enticing gently smoky character that together with touches of herb makes the wine nice and savoury. It finishes long and is balanced, fresh, flavoursome, mouth-filling and juicy – 91/100 points.

£14.95 a bottle in the UK from The Wine Society and direct from Domaine Jones.

Katie Jones (second from left)

Katie Jones (second from left)

Reading about Katie Jones I kept getting this feeling that I had met her or heard of her before. Then I realised, her story has much in common with Charlotte Allen‘s. They are equally determined, dedicated and passionate about their wines, they ended up in different parts of Europe – but similarly rugged and beautiful ones and they use many similar grapes. It is so wonderful that there are people like Katie out there as the wine world needs them and their wines.

This example was one of the first Grenache Gris wines that captured my imagination and it is made quite close to Domaine Jones:

coume_blanc2009 Domaine Préceptorie de Centernach Coume Marie
Domaine La Préceptorie
A.C. Cotes du Roussillon Blanc
Mainly Grenache Gris, this also has some Grenache Blanc, Macabeu (Viura) and Carignan Banc and is fermented in 400 litre oak vats and aged in them for some 8 months.

This exciting wine is elegant, richly textured and quite delicious, but sadly the Wine Society no longer stock it, so I do not know how to get hold of any right now.

Grenache Gris is so versatile and gets so ripe that it can, like Grenache Noir, be used to make some stunning fortified wines and one of the great bargains of the moment is this amazing Vin Doux Naturel from Rivesaltes in Roussillon, which makes it just the thing for Christmas:

catalogue_age-85_4f2fe5355383a_V1985 Rivesaltes Ambré Hors d’Age Arnaud de Villeneuve
A.C. Rivesaltes Ambré

Grenache Gris with some Macabeu and Grenache Blanc – whatever Waitrose say on their website!
An Ambré must be aged for 30 months before release, which changes the colour to that oxidised caramel hue and  Hors d’Age Rivesaltes wines have to be aged for a minimum of 6 years in barrel.
The nose was slightly caramelised with coffee notes and hints of orange.
The palate offered figs and prunes and honeysuckle and more coffee and the sort of caramel on the top of a creme brulée – but it was not overtly sweet at all. The richness was balanced by a seam of clean acidity too.
A stunning wine full of complexity, richness and finesse, the grapes are different, but it is not so very far removed from a great Oloroso sherry – 93/100 points.

£13.99 per 50cl bottle in the UK from Waitrose – and it is not made from Muscat, whatever they say!

Thoughts on varietal labels
Thinking about how lovely these wines are convinces me all the more that selling wines by grape variety, choosing wines by grape variety and labelling wines by grape variety is all very well, but it actually restricts consumer choice and makes everyone drink the same small number of wine types. We have been told to think grape variety for 20-30 years and country’s like France are criticised by many drinkers nowadays for not putting the grape variety on the label, but surely that only helps if the wine is made from the six or so grapes people seem to know about and are prepared to buy. It seems to me that if anything other than one of those is on a label, people resist buying it because they haven’t heard of it. I increasingly believe that although varietal labelling has simplified wine enough to get people to drink it, having the grape variety on the label has then stopped them becoming truly adventurous and curious about the subject. I wrote a piece about it here.