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.