A Craving for Crémant – Exciting French Sparkling Wines

The beautiful landscape in Savoie.

I really like sparkling wine and so I jumped at the chance to attend the 26th National Crémant Competition in France. This was held in Savoie in the French Alps, a region that I had never visited before, and hosted by the (French) National Federation of Crémant Growers and Producers.

Crémant (pronounced cray-mon) is a term that defines certain sparkling wines made outside France’s Champagne region, but uses the same method, the traditional method, to make them fizzy. I think Crémant is a lovely word that describes sparkling wines perfectly as it sounds so deliciously creamy and frothy.

I loved the landscape of Savoie.

This organisation oversees the production of all the different Crémant sparkling wines that are produced in France; Crémant d’Alsace, Crémant de Bordeaux, Crémant de Bourgogne, Crémant de Die, Crémant de Jura, Crémant de Limoux, Crémant de Loire and the new appellation contrôlée of Crémant de Savoie, that was only created in 2015. Luxembourg also has the right to use the term Crémant for its sparkling wines and examples of Crémant de Luxembourg were included in the competition.

Crémant must be made using the traditional method, so the second fermentation – that makes it fizzy – takes place inside the bottle that you buy. The wine then has to be aged on the lees – the yeast cells left over from the second fermentation – for at least 9 months and this allows some of the biscuity, brioche aromas and flavours to develop, making the wine more complex. Also the grapes for Crémant must be picked by hand and they are normally picked about 2 weeks before the grapes for still wine as you need high acidity for sparkling wine.

Some of these areas have pretty big production and so are widely seen, while others are only produced in tiny amounts and so very rarely encountered. Overall around 80 million bottles of French Crémant are produced a year, with roughly 70% of that being drunk in France itself, which makes sense as we do not often see it over here in the UK.

The big production is in Alsace, 35 million 75cl bottles in 2016, Bourgogne with 18 million and the Loire with 15 million. Bordeaux produces around 8 million bottles of Crémant, Limoux around 5 million, Savoie 380,000 and Die (in the Rhône) just 216,000 bottles in 2016.

Grape Varieties

Champagne of course is made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes, but a wider palate of grape varieties is used for the Crémant wines.

The dramatic vineyards of Savoie.

Crémant de Bourgogne wines have to include at least 30% of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are usually made from those grapes, but Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Gamay, Aligoté, Melon Blanc and Sacy are also permitted. Rather confusingly the area of production for Crémant de Bourgogne includes Beaujolais, which nowadays is normally regarded as a separate region.

Crémant d’Alsace is usually made from Pinot Blanc and the rosé versions from Pinot Noir, but Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Chardonnay are also permitted. In fact Chardonnay is only grown in Alsace for use in Crémant.

Crémant de Loire, as you might expect, is chiefly made from Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc, but Chardonnay and Pinot Noir can be used as can Grolleau Noir, Grolleau Gris, Pineau d’Aunis and the very rare Orbois (also called Arbois).

Crémant de Bordeaux is made primarily from Sémillon with Sauvignon Blanc and the rosé examples include Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Crémant de Limoux, in the Languedoc, is made from Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, while the local Mauzac and Pinot Noir are also allowed.

Crémant de Jura is usually made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, while Poulsard makes an appearance in the rosés.

Crémant de Savoie mainly uses the traditional Savoie varieties of Jaquère and Altesse, but Chasselas, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay can also be used.

Crémant de Die is pretty much only made from the underrated Clairette grape, while Aligoté and Muscat can also be used.

Crémant de Luxembourg can be made from Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Auxerrois, Rivaner (Müller-Thurgau) and Elbling.

In total some 707 wines were entered into the National Crémant Competition, including 80 entries from Luxembourg, and 222 medals were awarded, 129 gold, 74 silver and 19 bronze.

Wine map of France – this shows all the regions mentioned, except Luxembourg – click for a larger view.

Prix de la Presse

It was the job of people like me to blind taste the top rated wines in the competition again and to choose the very best to award the Prix de la Presse for each Crémant region. The winners were:

Brut Cattin
Domaine Joseph Cattin
Crémant d’Alsace

A blend of Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois and aged for 15 months on the lees.

Cattin was established in 1720 and 11th generations of the Cattin family have run the estate.

They are based in the village of Vœgtlinshoffen, near Colmar and farm 60 hectares in the area.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another excellent Crémant d’Alsace is the one made by Bruno Sorg – click here.

Cuvée Prestige Brut
Maison Remy Breque
Crémant de Bordeaux

100% Sémillon aged minimum of 9 months in the underground cellars of Maison Remy Breque.

The company is based a little north west of Libourne and the cellars were where the stone was quarried for building the city of Bordeaux.

The company was created by Remy Breque in 1927 and is now run by his grandson and great grandsons.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK. Another great value Crémant de Bordeaux is the one made by Calvet – click here.

Balard Rosé Brut
Cave Saint Pey de Castets
Crémant de Bordeaux

60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Franc.

This cooperative is a little south west of Castillon-la-Bataille.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Pinot Noir Brut 
Bailly Lapierre
Crémant de Bourgogne

This cooperative is based in Saint-Bris-le-Vineux near Auxerre in the north of Burgundy. It has 10 acres of amazing cellars cut in to the rock , where they age the Crémants.

This is 100% Pinot Noir, so is a Blanc de Noirs, or white wine made from black grapes. It is aged for 18 months on the lees.

Available in the UK from Tannico.co.uk. – click here.
Another very fine Crémant de Bourgogne is the one made by Albert Bichot – click here.

Carod Blanc Brut
Cave Carod
Crémant de Die

Principally Clairette with some Aligoté and Musact, this is aged on the lees for 12 months.

Cave Carod were a family company making sweetish sparkling Clairette de Die and are managed by the 4th generation of the Carod family tone involved, although it has been owned by Les Grands Chais de France since 2008.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine Achard-Vincent – click here.

Marcel Cabelier Vintage Brut
La Maison du Vigneron
Crémant de Jura

The Maison du Vigneron is the largest negotiant and producer in Jura and is now part of Les Grands Chais de France. I have tried their wines quite often and they can be very good. This is a blend of Pinot Noir and Poulsard grapes.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however I would recommend the lovely example made by Domaine de Montbourgeau – click here and the one by Domaine Jean-Louis Tissotclick here.
I would also recommend the great value Crémant de Jura sold by Aldi, it is good quality and astonishing value – click here.

Rosé Brut
Caveau des Byards
Crémant de Jura

A blend of Pinot Noir and Trousseau.

This is the smallest cooperative in Jura and is run more like an estate. They farm using sustainable agriculture and 50% of their production is their range of four highly respected Crémants.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK.

Jura wines are quite fascinating and well worth getting to know. The definitive book on the wines of the Jura is ‘Jaura Wine’ by Wink Lorch and yours truly drew the maps for the book – it can be purchased here and here.

Première Bulle Brut
Sieur d’Arques
Crémant de Limoux

A blend of Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Mauzac aged 18 months on the lees.

Sieur d’Arque’s Limoux vineyards, April 2016.

Sieur d’argues is a cooperative producer that makes a wide range of wines, some of them very fine indeed, but who really specialise in sparkling. This is because the first intentionally sparkling wine in the world is believed to have been made by the Benedictine monks of the St Hilaire Abbey, a village close to Limoux in 1531. What is more it was by the traditional method and so that method predates Champagne itself.  Blanquette de Limoux is the traditional local sparkling wine made from the local Mauzac / Blanquette grape, while the more modern Crémant de Limoux has to be blend of  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc with just a little Mauzac.

Available in the UK from Tesco Wine by the case – click here. Sieur d’Arques also make this excellent Crémant de Limoux – click here.
I would also highly recommend the superb Crémant de Limoux made by Domaine J. Laurensclick here.

Domaine de la Gachère Brut
Alain & Giles Lemoine
Crémant de Loire

100% Chardonnay with 12 months ageing on the lees.

Domaine de la Gachère is some 20 km south of Saumur and is run by twin brothers Alain and Gilles Lemoine. They are very impressive winemakers.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK, however it is fairly easy to buy Crémant de Loire in the UK. Try Prince Alexandre Cremant de Loire from Waitrose or Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference Crémant de Loire.
I would also highly recommend the Crémant de Loire made by Domaine de Saint-Just, it is not available in the UK, but it remains one of the finest non Champagne sparkling wine that I have ever drunk.

Domaine Cep d’Or Brut
Domaine Cep d’Or
Crémant de Luxembourg

70% Pinot Noir blended with 30% Auxerrois.

This estate in the beautiful Luxembourg Moselle vineyards is farmed by the Vesque family who have been vigneron in the Grand Duchy since 1762. They grow Auxerrois, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer and make their Crémants out of Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Riesling as well as Pinot Noir.

Map of Luxembourg’s vineyards – click for a larger view

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Luxembourg wines over here, however Tanners stock a fine one called Lmeaax – click here.

Crémant de Savoie Extra Brut
André et Michel Quenard
Crémant de Savoie

100% Jacquère from a wonderful, steep and stony 22 hectare estate whose wines I loved. It is run by Michel’s sons Guillaume and Romain and is among the best known and respected producers in the region. Certainly I liked everything that I tasted, they have a wonderful Alpine purity to them that find appealing and exciting.

Vineyards and a lovely mountain stream right by Domaine André et Michel Quenard.

As far as I can tell this wine is not available in the UK and it is very hard to find Crémant de Savoie wines over here, however Yapp Brothers stock a fine one from Domaine de L’Idylle, also see here, whose wines I liked very much – click here. It is also available at the excellent Streatham Wine House.

All in all it was a terrific trip that enabled me to see a new place and to taste a huge raft of sparkling wines,many of which were completely new to me. So, the next time you want some good fizz, it doesn’t have to be Champagne, Cava or Prosecco, there are plenty of alternatives.

Wine of the Week 73 – a glass of winter sunshine

As I keep saying in these pages, I love finding new wines. Wines made in countries, regions or from grape varieties that are new to me continue to excite me. After 30 years in the wine business I can still find new things that I have never tried or even heard of before, which I think is wonderful.

With winter settling in I seem to be drinking a bit more red, although not exclusively, and I recently found a really terrific wine and so made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of France - Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Wine map of France – Provence is on the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne - map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Côtes de Provence showing the location of Clos Cibonne – map courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Tibouren2014 Clos Cibonne Tibouren Cuvée Speciale
Clos Cibonne, Domaine André Roux
Cru Classé Côtes de Provence, AC Côtes de Provence
France

If I am honest Provence somewhat passes me by most of the time. Obviously I know about the famous rosés, loved some Bandol reds and rosés, have tasted the odd Cassis (the white wine, not the liqueur) and remember being very impressed by some fine Priorat-like reds from the Les Baux-de-Provence appellation too, but my experience of this region is very limited indeed. In fact I have never been there and must put that right as soon as I can.

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The Clos Cibonne is an old estate that the Roux family bought from Royalist Navy Captain – the French Navy base of Toulon is nearby – Jean Baptiste de Cibon in 1797. In 1930 André Roux completely modernised the winery and had the label designed too. Such was the estate’s renown, that Clos Cibonne was created a Cru Classé with the classification of the vineyards of Provence in 1955. The classification of Provence was similar to that of Bordeaux in 1855 in that it ranked estates and was not concerned with the vineyard or soil like the Grand Crus of Alsace, Burgundy or Champagne.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand - courtesy of De Maison Selections.

The harvest at Clos Cibonne, everything is done by hand – courtesy of De Maison Selections.

Clos Cibonne had fallen on hard times again by the late 1990s when André Roux’s granddaughter Bridget and her husband Claude Deforge took over the running of the estate. They nurtured the vineyard back to life and renovated the cellars, but kept the traditional winemaking ways and the old wood foudres.

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne -

The 100 year old foudres at Clos Cibonne –

Today the Roux-Delorge family farm 15 hectares just 800 metres from the Mediterranean. The vineyards are surrounded by the Maure mountains that make the estate a sort of amphitheatre facing due south. This gives perfect sun exposure and allows them to achieve remarkable ripeness and to minimise vintage variation. The sea breezes also temper the effects of the sun and allow them to have excellent freshness and acidity in their wines that makes them very drinkable indeed. While not certified organic, they do practice sustainable viticulture or lutte raisonnée.

The family remain committed to the local Tibouren grape that is widely used in Provence for the rosés, but not so widely for the reds – in fact only 15% of production in the region is red, so Clos Cibonne are unusual in focussing on making red wine – although they do craft a rosé from their oldest vines. This Cuvée Speciale red  is 90% Tibouren together with 10% Grenache which lends some richness and fat. The wine is traditionally aged under fleurette (a thin veil of yeast, but that just gives complexity, it is not Sherry-like) in 100-year-old, 500 litre foudres.

The nose offers gorgeous wild herb aromas – garage – together with ripe fruit, earthy, savoury notes and a light touch of the sea. The palate is quite fleshy with excellent concentration of fruit and medium body, some nice refreshing, cleansing acidity and an inky feel which sounds odd, but is actually delicious. Those wild Mediterranean herbs return on the palate too. The wine is deliciously smooth, with light supple tannins and lovely balance between savoury characters, ripe fruit and freshness. The finish is very, very long with fruit and savoury, earthy flavours lasting the whole time. I was thrilled by this wine, it is so obviously a genuine wine that speaks of a place and has a style all its own, although if you enjoy Rhône wines, Burgundy or good Beaujolais you will enjoy it – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Red Squirrel wine for around £20 per bottle. 
Available in the US through De Maison Selections, Crush Wines and Spirits – for other stockist information click here.

In the summer this would be a great barbecue wine, even lightly chilled, but in winter it is perfect with game, roasts, pies and casseroles. It would be even be a great choice with Christmas dinner.

Burgundy – it just seems complicated

Santenay

Santenay Clos des Cornières

Recently I was invited over to Burgundy as the guest of a campaign called Discover the Origin whose job is to promote traditional European products that have a clearly defined place of origin – Burgundy is a classic example. It was a wonderful trip and gave me a realinsight into this incredible wine region.

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Beaune, Burgundy’s main town, is a delightful place to explore.

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here

All those medieval building still need looking after, so the old skills still exist here.

Many of my students find the sheer variety of Burgundy wines intimidating and the array of labels bewildering, which is presumably why some of the easier to understand examples are the best sellers.

I agree that at first glance Burgundy can look complicated, but actually it isn’t hard once you strip it down to basics and learn to trust Burgundy rather than fight it.

Of course that does depend on how much you really want to get to grips with the place and its wines. Becoming a world authority on Burgundy will be fiendishly difficult, but the good thing is that no one really needs to understand everything about it. Most of us just need enough information to enable us to enjoy the stuff without worrying too much about the potential pitfalls.

Here is my best advice to those of you who would like to get to grips with Burgundy, but find the complications off-putting – oh and if you do know about Burgundy, look away now, this is for the many interested, but nervous wannabe-Burgundy drinkers I meet.

Please remember to click on all the links.

The basic thing to get to grips with, perhaps more than any other wine region, is the geography. The wines are not big, rich and fruity, but dry and savoury because they come from somewhere cold with short summers. The fundamental dimensions and weight of most of the wines are similar as you would expect given that almost all the white wines are made from Chardonnay and the reds from Pinot Noir – both these grapes originate here. The winemaking is pretty similar too and the grapes are grown over a relatively small area, so the climate does not change much and variations are subtle. Every time I taste a lot of Burgundy I find myself writing many of the same words. I know the wines are different, but those differences are so subtle that they are very hard to sum up in a simple way.

Tradition

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather.

Frédéric Drouhin, urbane and charming director of Maison Joseph Drouhin which was started by his grandfather. The visit here was delightful and the wines had all the elegance you would expect.

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En garde – the delightful Alain Hasard with his pigeage plunger. Note the small scale of the vats at his wonderful little domaine Les Champs de l’Abbaye. All his viticulture is organic and indeed biodynamic inspired – I liked him and his wines.

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay

Jean-François Chapelle of Domaine Chapelle in Santenay – his wines are superb too.

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could afford them too -

Marion Javiller of Domaine Patrick Javiller. They made 2 of my favourite wines from the trip and rather wonderfully I could (almost) afford them too – 2010 Bourgogne Blanc Cuveé Oligocène and their wonderfully silky 2010 Savigny-les-Beaune 1er Cru Les Serpentières.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

The tool rack at Domaine Joseph Voillot, note the Tastevin. I loved their Volnay wines, especially the sumptuous, yet mineral 2010 Volnay 1er Cru Les Caillerets.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Patrice Olliver of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair in Marsannay. Amongst many other lovely wines he makes an intriguing and rather good white Marsannay from 100% Pinot Beurot which is the local name for Pinot Blanc.

Remember that Burgundy is a deeply traditional wine region where most of the producers are really just small family owned farms. This is not a place of big brands and industrial sized wineries and this traditional outlook shows in the wines, probably more than any other place in the world today. These wines are made by people who passionately believe this is the best place on earth to make wines and that the wines of their region are the best in the world.

As a consequence the idea of a wine being bright, bold and very fruity is almost an impossible concept for a traditional Burgundian to understand. Therefore expect elegance not weight, delicacy not power and the wines to be fundamentally savoury rather than sweetly fruity. As a consequence Burgundy wines really are best suited to being drunk with food. Most Burgundians would never think to drink a glass of wine on its own, that is what a Kir or Kir Royale is for. Wine, Burgundy wine anyway, accompanies food.

Vineyards

Santenay again

Santenay again

Marsannay

Marsannay

Something else that is a little different here. Very few vineyards in Burgundy have just one owner. Usually a single vineyard site is owned by several different growers and producers all making their own version of the wine. That is why a wine that appears to come from a specific vineyard often has many different labels. That is why wines that perhaps ought to be the same can sometimes taste more varied. If there is a single owner of a specific vineyard it will usually say ‘monopole‘ on the label to show it is that grower’s monopoly.

Geography
To enjoy and appreciate Burgundy you need to either be vaguely aware of the geography or at least choose to accept it or find it interesting rather than intimidating. All the important information on the labels is geographical, it’s all just place names, the region, district names, village names or vineyard names. Personally I find it useful to embrace the unknown on a wine label – if you have never heard of the place or grape on a label, try it. What is the worst that can happen?

Understanding the Labels

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A good quality Bourgogne from a famous producer – this one informs us that it made from Chardonnay, most Burgundy labels do not mention grape variety.

The more basic wines from Burgundy are labelled as Bourgogne, which is French for Burgundy and is the catch all appellation for the whole region. Bourgogne is an appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC or AC), which is a system of guaranteeing provenance to the consumer. Similar controls are found throughout the EU – and beyond – to regulate traditional products like ham, cheese and spirits, but wine is the most famous.

Some seemingly humble Bourgogne wines are very good and will give you an idea of the fundamental style of the region. These wines tend to be the more affordable ones – but that is not always the case and knowing the exceptions is where your hard won experience will eventually count.

Districts

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The district names of Burgundy appear on many labels as a more specific place of origin than Bourgogne. These show that the wines comes from a distinct part of the region, rather than  the region as a whole. Chablis and Mâcon are districts, as are Bourgogne followed by the name of an area, such as Bourgogne Côte ChalonnaiseBourgogne Côtes-du-CouchoisBourgogne Côtes d’Auxerre or Bourgogne Hautes-Côtes-de-Beaune. No one knows them all, well I don’t anyway, but once you understand the principle this sort of labelling is quite straightforward.

After a while you will start to notice the subtle differences in how these various wines taste. For instance the wines of Mâcon are clearly softer, fruitier and taste as though they come from somewhere warmer than the cold northerly slopes of Chablis. While Chablis wines are more mineral, taut and crisp than a Mâcon – the cool climate shows in the wine.

Villages

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This white wine comes from the village of Puligny-Montrachet

Quality in Burgundy is supposed to be all about the vineyard site – remember those subtle variations – so in the quest for quality it is always good to know where your grapes were grown. Therefore the benchmark for Burgundy is the wines that have the name of a village on their label. The grapes that the wine is made from were grown in vineyards that surround that particular village, so we know where the wine originates. Meursault, Beaune, Nuits-St-Georges, Puligny-Montrachet, Mercurey and Givry are examples of these village wines.

Premier Cru & Grand Cru
You have to remember that grapes have been grown and wine has been made in Burgundy for hundreds and hundreds of years. Over that time certain places have come to be regarded as having the inherent ability to produce better wine than others. This accounts for why some villages are so famous.

Some specific vineyard sites within the villages can also be thought of as producing better wines than others, or at least to be capable of producing better wines. To celebrate and affirm the potential quality of these vineyard sites many have been awarded Premier Cru /1er Cru status and if the fruit all comes from a single 1er Cru vineyard the name of that site will appear on the label together with the village name.

1er

This white also comes from Puligny-Montrachet, but more specifically the 1er Cru site called Les Folatières.

The very pinnacle of Burgundy production though is the Grand Cru vineyard sites. These are places that are thought to be capable of producing the very finest and most concentrated Burgundy wines of all – there are not many of them and they do not produce much wine at all, so are often eye-wateringly expensive.

Grand

The Montrachet vineyard is shared between the villages of Puligny and Chassagne and has been added to the name of both villages.

So many UK wine drinkers brought up on wines labelled by grape variety seem to want to rant, rail and kick against the traditional French way of doing things. It makes life much easier to just accept it, pay attention to the information on the label that is useful to you and ignore the rest. I always warn my students to never go looking for consistency or logic in French wine regulations as they often mean subtly different things from region to region even when they use the same words.

On my trip I visited a wide range of producers, from big names with grand cellars and lots of employees to tiny, hands on vigneron who scratch a living from a tiny patch of vines. All were passionate about Burgundy though. They all loved their land and thought the site mattered. None of them in their hearts believed they were producing Pinot Noir or Chardonnay wines. They were merely using those grapes to express the character of the land they farmed – they were bottling Meursault, Volnay, Savigny-les-Beaune, Mercurey or Montagny. Their wines were capturing and celebrating the subtle differences and variations that make each of these wines unique.

It is precisely these differences that make Burgundy so interesting and worthwhile to the wine enthusiast and over time the very real, but subtle variations between wines from the Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune and the Côte Chalonnaise become apparent.

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn in Gevrey-Chambertin

The beautiful cellars of Domaine Heresztyn who make lovely wines in Gevrey-Chambertin.

What makes the differences is best shown by using the Côte d’Or as my illustration. This part of Burgundy is the most celebrated and contains most of the really famous wine villages of the region. Of the truly renowned Burgundy areas and villages, only Pouilly-Fuissé and Chablis are not found in the Côte d’Or.

Map of Burgundy – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Map of Burgundy – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

At first glance the Côte d’Or, made up of the Côte de Beaune and the Côte de Nuits, would appear to be so small that the wines it makes must surely all be pretty similar – after all it is sometimes less than half a kilometre wide. However, this is the place that really demonstrates the French concept of ‘terroir‘. The soils and conditions really matter here and make for the differences between the wines, although nuances might be a better word than differences as they are slight. The limestone ridge or escarpment that is the Côte d’Or consists of layers of different limestones, some more porous than others, as well as marls made up of clay, sand and gravel.

That makes sit sound as though it is all uniform, but it really isn’t. The limestones have weathered and decomposed at different speeds and are pierced by small rivers and dry valleys making for great variation as to which limestones dominate different parts. The topsoil also varies, as some are flinty and some a more chalky scree and the collapsing of the limestone ridge leaves different types and depths of topsoil.

Another variable is aspect, there are fissures, gaps, ravines and valleys in the limestone which change the direction a little, so some vineyards face more directly south than others – these will generally produce bigger wines as the grapes get more sun and so have more sugar which produces more alcohol and extract in the finished wine.

Luckily for us we don’t have to learn what the soil composition is of each and every village, let alone vineyard site, which is good because there is a great deal of overlap and variation making it very difficult to generalise to any useful degree. No, we only have to try the wines and see which ones we particularly enjoy.

So the next time you fancy some good charcuterie, try a red Burgundy with it, or it would be perfect with Boeuf Bourguignon or Coq au Vin too, those wonderful classic dishes of the region. White Burgundy really comes into its own with soft, squidgy cheeses or a simply cooked piece of fish.

If you really want to open your eyes to Burgundy though I would really recommend visiting the place for yourself, there is so much to see and enjoy.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

Reluctantly leaving Beaune behind.

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.

Lorraine – wine worthy of the chase

 

The Moselle River in Lorraine

As many of you will know, I enjoy trying unusual wines, so take every chance I get to taste the odd, different and rare.

To that end I have a sort of mental list of things to keep my eye open for and for a long time I have wanted to try something from Lorraine, other than quiche. As a keen amateur historian I wanted to compare them to Alsace wines – after all the two regions get lumped together rather a lot.

I also wanted to compare them to the wines that I have tasted from Luxembourg recently – added to which I do tend to like wines made from this part of the world – in theory anyway. Continue reading

Chardonnay & Pinot Noir – contrasting terroirs

The Côte de Beaune at Pernand-Vergelesses

The other day I was invited to present the Burgundy half of a masterclass tasting to contrast Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines from two very different regions.

In order to have a control and a focus we were using wines from a single producer in each country; Chile’s Viña Ventisquero and Louis Jadot from Burgundy.

My job was to give an introduction to Louis Jadot and to explain the terroir and conditions of Burgundy before leading the tasting. Ventisquero’s winemaker, Alejandro Galaz provided the same function for their wines.

The event took place at Vinopolis and Tom Forrest, their chief wine educator, prepared some food that we tried with the wines. Continue reading