Wine of the Week – fine fizz at a great price from France’s Languedoc region

Carcassonne, my home for a week recently.

Carcassonne, which was recently my home for a week.

The garden of my hotel in Carcassonne - I have to pinch myself now I am back in blighty.

The garden of my hotel in Carcassonne – I have to pinch myself now I am back in blighty.

I have recently spent a week in Carcassonne experiencing as many of the different wines of France’s Languedoc region as I could. It was part of Languedoc Week (‪#‎languedocweek‬) and I had a wonderful time and learnt a lot, tasting loads of wines, attending seminars and visiting vineyards with fellow wine writers from all over the world.

Languedoc is a fascinating place, full of wonderful scenery and many exciting wines. Most wine consumers will have experienced the basic wines from the region, the Vin de Pays d’Oc – the new term is Indication Géographique Protégée / IGP d’Oc and that sometimes appears on the label instead. These are often sold as a varietal bottling, with the grape variety from which the wine is made appearing on the label.

Languedoc is home to a whole clutch of finer, more ambitious and increasingly famous wines as well though.  These often have their own Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC / AC), with the place name being the most important piece of information on the label. The new term for AOC is Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP) and that sometimes appears on the label instead.

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

Map of the Languedoc-Roussillon region, Limoux is on the left in yellow – click for a larger view.

It is a hot region with a Mediterranean climate, so it perhaps logical that red wines from the likes of AC / AOP Languedoc, Fitou, Corbières, Minervois, and Saint-Chinian are the region’s most famous products, but the Languedoc makes plenty of good whites – Picpoul de Pinet is especially popular right now – and rosés too. There are also some magnificent and under appreciated sweet wines and some excellent sparklings too.

After a hard day’s wine tasting, some nice fizz is always a refreshing idea and I was fortunate enough to taste quite a few of the sparklers from the region. I enjoyed one of them so much so that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

173219 MLe Moulin Brut
Domaine J. Laurens
AC / AOP Blanquette de Limoux
Limoux
Aude
Languedoc
France

Blanquette de Limoux is a lovely wine style that I first used to sell a long time ago, but sadly it remains a sort of secret wine beloved by a few, but not really widely available, at least not in the UK.

It is thought to be the oldest quality sparkling wine in the world, with records showing that it was produced in 1531 by the Benedictine monks of Saint Hilaire Abbey, some 10 km south of Carcassonne. This predates Champagne and I am sure that, like Champagne, the process was hit and miss in the early days and was not really perfected until the middle of the nineteenth century. What is definitely true is that the wines have got better and better in recent years and now deserve to be much more sought after.

The climate here is a bit odd as winds from the Atlantic manage to reach over and temper the Mediterranean heat. This allows for the production of whites and sparkling, especially if they harvest them early and there is even some good Pinot Noir grown around here.

Blanquette de Limoux wines must be made sparkling by the traditional method, the same process as used in Champagne. The wine must be made of at least 90% Mauzac grapes, known locally as Blanquette (small white in Occitan, the local traditional language – the langue d’Oc), with Chardonnay and / or Chenin Blanc making up the rest.

A light, sweet sparkling wine called Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale is also made, as is another traditional method wine called Crémant de Limoux, which can contain much more Chardonnay in its blend, and I will write about those another day.

Harvest at Domaine J. Laurens - photo courtesy of the estate.

Harvest at Domaine J. Laurens – photo courtesy of the estate.

Domaine J. Laurens was bought and totally renovated in 2002 by local businessman Jacques Calvel and although still wines can be made here, this estate only produces sparkling. In my opinion they achieve very high quality by close attention to detail and by longer ageing on the lees than is required. The minimum time for yeast autolysis, ageing on the lees in the bottle, in Limoux is 9 months, but Laurens age their wines for between 12 and 24 months, which gives more complexity and finesse. The blend is 90% Mauzac with 10% Chardonnay.

Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

The wine is a pale colour with a fine and persistent mousse, while the nose is fresh, lively and floral, together with ripe apple and pear notes. On the palate the freshness dominates, making it taut and focussed, while there is plenty of green apple and a hint of nuts from the lees ageing together with a little richness of honey and cream. A lovely and lively wine that makes a great aperitif and I am sure it would go with lots of delicate dishes as well. It’s dry, but not searingly so, as there is an underlying softness to the fruit. A distinguished wine and great value too, I cannot think of a better sparkling wine at this price – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at around £13 per bottle from Stone, Vine & Sun, click here for other stockists or check with Boutinot, their UK distributor.
For US stockists, click here.

If this wine is not easily available for you, then you will almost certainly find a Blanquette de Limoux made by the excellent Sieur D’Arques cooperative near you somewhere – look at the small print on the label. In the UK, Tesco’s Finest 1531 Blanquette de Limoux is made by them and is very good and a bargain at £8.50 per bottle, click here for case sales.

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.