Wine of the Week – a Proustian moment in the Languedoc

Vines on a hill side in Minervois-La Livinière.

Vines on a hillside in Minervois-La Livinière.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Little pockets of vines colonise parts of the hillsides.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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.