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 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.

Wine of the Week 16 – a great Faugères

The Languedoc region, the more easterly bit of Languedoc-Roussillon, makes a lot of wine and much of it is good, some of it is very good indeed.

It is the region of France with the most generous climate, so it is where the French can produce attractive, fruit-forward everyday drinking wine wine that can take on the New World at the lower price points. Much of it is Vin de Pays or IGP level wine labelled by grape variety.

Languedoc doesn’t only produce lower price wines and varietally labelled wine though. The whole region is a patchwork of appellation contrôllée wine regions too. Most of these are red – with the most obvious exception being the popular Picpoul de Pinet – and make their wines from blends that typically include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. As such the wines often have a similar feel to those of the southern Rhône, the landscape and climate are not dissimilar either.

The rugged, but beautiful terrain of Faugères.

The rugged, but beautiful terrain of Faugères.

It is a shame that UK consumers have to be coaxed in to accepting these wines on their merits, rather than only wanting them to be cheap, as some of France’s most exciting red wines hail from this part of the world at the moment. Yes down-right cheap versions of these appellations are available, but they will only give you a limited idea of what the regions can do. Instead treat yourself to the very best that the Languedoc can offer and it will still be cheaper than wines of equivalent quality from other regions of France.

My Wine of the Week is a glorious red wine from the Languedoc-Roussillon region and more specifically the Faugères appellation. This was part of the Coteaux du Languedoc – now just AC Languedoc – appellation until 1982 when the separate Faugères AC was created for reds and rosés – whites followed in 2005. The soil here is mainly schist, or decayed slate – although there are also some pockets of clay and limestone -, which is a very well drained soil and heats up quickly too, which helps ripeness. Schist also seems to introduce minerality into wines, or at least it appears that wines grown in schist have mineral characters. The climate is Mediterranean as you might expect with long, hot summers and short cold winters. The coastal influence is important and tempers the otherwise harsh conditions in this dramatic and rugged landscape.

timthumb.php2011 Domaine de Cébène Les Bancèls Faugères
AC Faugères
Languedoc-Roussillon
Brigitte Chevalier, Domaine de Cébène

I have never tasted any of Brigitte Chevalier’s wines before, which has been a mistake as on this showing they are superb. Brigitte is also a negociant producing a fascinating range of wines that I want to get to know. However her passion appears to be her own estate of Domaine de Cébène. Her aim is to make elegant wines, fine wines even, or as she puts it ‘vins du nord’ in this hot southern region. In order to make these elegant wines she has planted her Grenache and Syrah vines so that they are north facing, this reduces the impact of the sun, so retains freshness in the grapes. The vineyards are on terraced hillsides at around 320 metres above sea level and all the farming is organic with everything done by hand. Hand harvesting allows for selective picking and there is a second selection in the winery too. The 2011 is only Brigitte’s third vintage, but this unoaked blend of 60% Syrah, 20% Grenache and 20% Mourvèdre (north facing vines) tastes much more assured than that.

Brigitte Chevalier

Brigitte Chevalier

The colour is a lovely deep purle with dashes of ruby and crimson.
The nose gives wafts of richly vibrant fruit, blackberries, plums, even some raspberry and strawberry, together with earth notes, spice, truffles, mushrooms, liquorice and wild herbs.
The palate is very smooth with concentrated fruit including deep raspberry as well as the blackberries and cherries. The tannins are soft and there is a creamily ripe texture to the fruit. There are savoury, smoky garrigue characters, even slightly iodine and medicinal – in a good way like malt whiskey. There is plenty of juiciness here from the fruit, but a core of elegance keeps this wine focused and fine.
Multi faceted and a serious wine, but it isn’t po faced at all, this is delicious and enjoyable to drink, as well as clearly being a complex and lovely wine. I am sure it would age very well indeed – should you keep a few bottles aside.
If you like things like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, then you will enjoy this very much – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from £15 per bottle from Leon Stolarski Fine Wines, Vine TrailSelfridges and other stockists.

I know it isn’t the easiest wine to find, but it is well worth seeking out – go on, give it a try, the quality that this unassuming region can produce might delight you as much as it does me.

Wine of the Week 15 – a fine Picpoul as last of my summer wine

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

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

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

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

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

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

Laure Colombo

Laure Colombo

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Languedoc – innovation & surprises

It is a strange fact of life in the modern wine world that many times each week I am told that France has been overtaken as a producer of good wines by the new world giants of Australasia and South America. It is wine consumers who tell me this, people who want straightforward wines that deliver a lot of character, punch and fruit – people who more often than not drink wine without food.

I find it remarkable that people can seem to just write off the delights of all French wines. All those great wines and much great value too, but then I know people who claim not to like cheese or fish, which also seems a bit of a sweeping statement to me.

Of course there is some truth in the view that France somehow gives out a very traditional image as a wine producing nation and to many consumers appears to be very complicated. Whereas Australian and New Zealand wine is very simply presented, often easy to understand and sports an image of exciting, cutting edge winemaking.

The truth is much more mixed and balanced. In reality there is excitement in every wine producing country just as much as there is stodgy conservatism. So to dismiss France should be impossible for any real lover of wine. France has exciting and innovative wine makers in all her regions and they come in many guises, from new kids on the block in traditional regions to out and out mavericks creating something new.

Languedoc map QS 2011 watermark

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

I was very excited recently to try two wines from the Languedoc-Roussillon region – in France’s deep south on the Mediterranean coast – that were truly astonishing as it had never occurred to me that anyone would or could make them. Both wines were made from aromatic grape varieties. One is Iberian in origin and although one of them is famously used in Alsace, I have never come across it from other parts of France before.

The first wine I stumbled across at the Vinisud wine fair while a guest of Les Vignobles Foncalieu, which is a union of cooperatives who produce many different ranges of wines from entry level to premium, varietal to classic A.C. and blends to single estate wines,  but who always show flair and imagination in all they do. I will be writing more about them soon.

ALBARINO2013 Foncalieu Albariño
IGP d’Oc from vineyards around Carcassonne.
This is the first vintage of Albariño as the grape has only been permitted in the region since 2009. I have never tried this grape from France before, only from Spain, Portugal (where it is called Alvarinho) as well as Virginia and California, but nowhere else in Europe.
The aromas are quite rich and peachy with floral honeysuckle notes making it seem quite rich, yet aromatic.
This carries on to the palate with a slightly oily texture and rich peach fruit making it feel very succulent, while a moderate amount of apricot and pear drop acidity freshens it up to provide balance. This is a pretty good effort for the first vintage and it was lovely to drink, I have certainly had less enjoyable examples from Spain. Great on its own as a wine bar wine, or with a wide array of lighter dishes – 86/100 points.

This is a new wine, so as yet there are no stockists of which I am aware. More information is available from Clementine Coummunications Ltd.

The second wine to tell you about is similarly unexpected from France’s deep south. Again it is made by a large dynamic company, but this is a negociant and winemaker rather than a cooperative:

maison-vialade-gewurztraminer2012 Maison Vialade Gewurztraminer
IGP d’Oc made by Domaines Auriol from fruit grown between Narbonne and Béziers.
Again this is the first vintage as the grape has only been permitted since 2011. To retain some freshness and acidity 7% sauvignon Blanc is blended in to the fatter, richer Gewurztraminer.
Heady aromas of peach juice and peach skin, cooked apricot and touch of more exotic lychee too.
The palate is soft with very low acid and some residual sugar making it textured in the mouth.
The finish is like succulent orchard fruit, this is very nice stuff, medium dry, well made and great fun. A good alternative to lower end Alsace Gewurztraminer – 86/100 points.

Available from The Smiling Grape Company @ £8.99 per bottle. More stockist information is available from Myliko International Wines Ltd.

So you see, the next time someone tells me that France isn’t innovating in wine or is being left behind, I really will have to set them right.

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.