Wine of the Week 68 – the wild one

The wild, sauvage, landscape of Cairanne.

The wild, sauvage, landscape of Cairanne.

It is a strange truth that one of the most famous, popular and sought after French wines is usually pretty disappointing – unless you spend a great deal of money. Many of you will instantly know that I am talking about Châteauneuf-du-Pape the French classic that everyone seems to know about, even of they have never heard of any other French wines.

Which is the nub of the problem really. That very popularity makes them sought after, but of course most people drink the cheaper versions, which are a mere shadow of what Châteauneuf can be. I say cheaper, but I tasted a pretty ropey one the other day and that retailed for nearly £25!

I have said it before on these pages, but it seems to me that if you like the style of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines, but do not want to pay a fortune, then you often get better wines and much better value by buying a good Côtes du Rhône.

This is especially true of two types of wine: The Crus and the Côte du Rhône-Villages that can also put the particular village name on the label. A Cru in French wine parlance is a specific wine, sometimes a particular vineyard, but more commonly it refers to a village. So Châteuneuf-du-Pape is a Cru of the Southern Rhône, but there are others that offer much better value, Lirac, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and Vinsobres are all well worth trying.

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

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

In theory the Crus should be better wines than my next category, but that is not always the case. This is the top tier of Côte du Rhône-Villages, the ones that can addd the name of their village to the label.

The hierarchy goes: Côtes du Rhône as the basic level.

Then Côte du Rhône-Villages, which is thought to be better and certainly the regulations are stricter and yields are lower.

Even better still are the Côte du Rhône-Villages wines that have their village name on the label as well. Again the regulations are stricter and the yields smaller. There are 18 such villages at present, although that does change as some get promoted to Cru status from time to time. Some of them are much better known than others, here is the list; Rousset-les-Vignes, Saint-Pantaléon-les-Vignes, Valréas, Visan, Saint-Maurice, Rochegude, Roaix, Séguret, Sablét, Saint-Gervais, Chusclan, Laudun, Gadagne, Massif d’Uchaux, Plan de Dieu, Puyméras, Signargues and most famously Cairanne – which is set to become a Cru itself very soon.

The classic stony soils of the southern Rhône Valley.

The classic stony soils of the southern Rhône Valley.

Well the other day I tasted a Cairanne that was quite superb, much better than that ropey, but much more expensive Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In fact it was so good I have made it my Wine of the Week.

Boutinot-La-Côte-Sauvage-7072012 La Côte Sauvage Cairanne
AC Côte du Rhône-Villages-Cairanne
Boutinot
Rhône Valley, France

This is a you might expect this is mainly Grenache with some Syrah and a little Mourvèdre and Carignan – a classic Southern Rhône blend just as you find in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The vines are pretty old and sit on a slope overlooking Cairanne Church, the soil is the classic stony soils of the region that absorb heat and reflect light into the vines. It was fermented using just the wild yeasts, which makes for more complex flavours and textures in the wine. The wine aged for 24 months in used ( second and third fill) French oak barrels and 600 litre vats.

This is a rich looking, opaque wine that reeks of rich cherry, deep plum, spices and wild herbs. The palate is opulent, rich and mouth filling with sweet ripe red fruit layered with spices, herbs, savoury meaty, mushroom flavours and seductive fine grain, supple tannins and mocha infused oak. This never falls into the trap of being gloopy, over alcoholic or clumsy. Actually it is focussed and elegant with great balance between the fruit and the power and the tannins and oak that give it structure and tension. The finish is long and deeply satisfying, what a wine – 91/100 points.

This really is a stunner and so easy to match with food, shepherd’s pie, sausage and mash would go perfectly, but so would roast lamb and cassoulet and it is fine enough to grace any table anywhere.

I have just discovered that they make magnums of this – available here – how good would that be for Christmas?

Available in the UK for around £13-£15 per bottle, from Wine Poole (2011), The Oxford Wine Company, All About Wine, The Ram’s Head at Denshaw, D&D, The Secret Cellar, Rannoch Scott Wines, Great Grog, Chester Beer & WineBlacker Hall Farm Shop WakefieldDavis Bell McCraith Wines.
For US stockists of the equally excellent 2011 vintage, click here.

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.

Mountains, Saints and Satellites – stunning quality in Montagne-St Émilion

It is so easy to fall into a rut with wine. There is so much wine available from so many different places nowadays that you have to make a cut off somewhere and for many years for me that cut off was the classic wines of France. Only the cheaper versions though, I have always retained my love of France’s great wines.

My focus is always to find really lovely wine that over performs for its price and for many years the famous bits of France usually failed to do that at the cheaper end. Many of the classic regions of France have enormous fame, but the quality of the affordable examples seldom showed what the top end ones were like – and most of us have to drink the cheaper versions. The result of this was that consumers were often buying the lesser examples of Sancerre, Chablis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, St Émilion and the like and yet they were never truly cheap, so still seen as bit of a treat. Sadly many of these wines were a pale shadow of the wines that have made the name on their label so prestigious and sought after and so for long gave the impression that France offered bad value for money. For quite a long time the affordable versions of classic French wines were dilute, unattractive and uninspiring as well as being more expensive than many good wines from elsewhere.

By the way it isn’t snobbery that made me avoid them, those who know me will know that price tags do not impress me at all. No, it was the lack of character and concentration that made me avoid these wines. Who wants a Chablis that could pass for a Muscadet in a blind tasting, or a Châteauneuf that offers less character than a Fitou or Minervois?

This lack of quality at the lower end was, in my opinion at least partly responsible for the sizeable minority of UK consumers who nowadays claim to avoid and dislike all French wine. Continue reading