Wine of the Week – a Happy, Happy Syrah

Tain-l’Hermitage – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

Personally I think a lot of talk and writing about wine – and I am guilty of this myself – focuses on how fine, interesting or different a wine is rather than how much pleasure it delivers.

Which is really very strange as wine is all about pleasure isn’t it? If a wine does not give you pleasure, then what is the point? I certainly think about the pleasure a wine offers while I am tasting it but do my descriptions and writing about a wine always convey that? I am not sure.

All of this flashed through my mind recently when I tasted a wine that in more normal circumstances I might well have ignored.

For a start it is made from Syrah, or that is what it says on the label anyway. Be prepared to gap in astonishment, but I am not especially drawn to Syrah, or don’t generally think I am anyway, so rarely seek it out – although that seems to be changing.

Secondly the wine is not from an appellation contrôlée / AC / appellation d’origine protégéeor / AOP / PDO or not even a Vin de Pays / PGI, but is a humble Vin de France. This most basic quality level of French wine replaced Vin de Table a few years ago, with similar changes right across the EU.

Fundamentally what changed was that they were given the right to state the grape variety, or the blend on the label. They are also allowed to show the vintage, which means that we can be more selective, choosing the better vintages and perhaps also the fresher years – especially useful with white wines, but a good idea with most modern red wines too.

The vast majority of Vin de France are, as you might imagine, pretty basic, everyday wines – which is why I would normally pass on by. However, as with the Syrah that I tasted some producers use this level to make something altogether more interesting and worthwhile. Certainly this Syrah is a lovely wine – so good in fact that I have made it my Wine of the Week.

The stunning Northern Rhône Valley – photo courtesy of Maison Les Alexandrins.

2016 Syrah
Vin de France 
France

Maison Les Alexandrins is a very interesting project that produces some rather good wines. It is another example of a thoroughly modern phenomenon – a micro-négociant that focuses on high quality wines. It grew out of the Domaine Les Alexandrins and is a joint venture between Nicolas Jaboulet, formerly of the eponymous winery in Tain and now the head of Maison Nicolas Perrin, winemaker Guillaume Sorrel and viticulturalist Alexandre Caso. The aim is to give Nicolas Perrin a presence in the Northern Rhône and they aim to buy really good parcels of fruit from top growers across the area and to craft expressive wines from them. Eventually they will have a permanent base as they are building a new winery in Tain-l’Hermitage.

Wine Map of France, the Northern Rhône is just south of Lyon – click for a larger view.

This is the bottom rung of the wines they make, but don’t let that bother you. It comes from a great vintage and the quality shows, but so does the skill of the winemaker.

The fruit comes from younger vines across the Northern Rhône and although the label calls it a Syrah, there is actually 8% Viognier in there too, co-fermented with the Syrah. There was a cold soak to extract flavour before the fermentation which was in stainless steel. Half was then aged in tank for 6 months and the other half was aged in barrel, but from the taste of it I would say very little new wood at all.

Everything about this wine is bright and fresh. The colour is a vivid cerise – like a sorbet. The nose gives bright cherry and blackberry with lightly creamy notes, some spice and a little touch of freshly turned earth.

The palate just delivers pure pleasure. It is fresh, fleshy and juicy and cram packed with bright cherry, cranberry and plum fruit together with bright, refreshing acidity and just enough soft tannins for interest. It is beautifully balanced, perfectly judged, delicious and dangerously hedonistic. All in all it is a fine bottle of really well crafted happy juice.

This is a lithe, fresh and punchy red that will go with almost anything and is a very attractive wine to drink on its own too. Personally I think its charms are mainly upfront in the fruit, but it might be interesting to see what it’s like in five years or so as underneath all that pleasure I am sure there is a more serious wine trying to get. This is so delicious, so drinkable and made me so happy that I will award it 90/100 points – it earned extra points for severing extreme pleasure.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from South Downs Cellars. More stockist information is available from Liberty Wines the UK importers.

Frankly the only mystery about this wine is why it does not have more stockists. Sealed with a screw cap it would make a perfect restaurant wine too.

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 23 – an inspiring tale & a treat from the Rhône

My new Wine of the Week is something I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. It is made by the guys at Chêne Bleu who craft some superb wines at their Domaine de la Verrière. This beautiful estate is in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux.

la_verriere182

Domaine de la Verrière complete with the blue oak. Photo courtesy of the winery.

I have managed to taste most of the Chêne Bleu wines and they are hugely impressive and like all the best wineries it has a great story to tell. Once an early medieval priory that was known for its wines, it also later became famous for making glass, hence the la Verrière name, but by the 1960s the place was rundown and derelict. It stayed that way too, until Nicole and Xavier Rolet bought the property in the mid 1990s. At first they brought the house up to standard, but soon turned their attention to the vineyards. As the estate is hardly in a famous location for great wine they assumed a modest future of growing grapes for the local cooperative was all that was possible. However, as they were totally new to wine they called in soil experts who explained to them that this site actually had potential for great wine.

Fundamentally it was the altitude – between 550 and 630 metres above sea level – the complex soils, the powerful sun and the strong winds that made the place so promising. The estate can ripen the fruit, the altitude ensures finesse and acidity, while the other factors force the vines to spend so much effort surviving that they produce tiny crops of concentrated grapes.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleue. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleu. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Apparently it took twelve years of back breaking effort to coax life back into the land. Right from the start they aimed high to produce wines that spoke of this place, which is why some of their wines are blended across their land. Because the estate straddles 4 appellations – Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Séguret and Ventoux – some of their wines are made from grapes that belong to more than one appellation and so are simply labelled as Vin de Pays / IGP rather than appellation contrôlée. To restore balance to the vineyard, everything is done manually and naturally with no fertilisers or pesticides. In fact they are on their way to biodynamic and organic certification.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

It may seem a little shallow of me, but part of the pleasure that I take in their wines is looking at their beautiful labels which look like intricate medieval wood-cuts. I have always loved David Gentleman‘s mural at Charring Cross tube station and I can take the same sort of delight in Chêne Bleu’s labels as I can in examining that. You can spend hours taking in all the details and finding the animals hidden in the patterns – apparently people try to count the rabbits – and at the heart is a drawing of the Chêne Bleu itself. As you can see in the photographs, there really is a blue oak at the estate. It is so old that they have had to treat it in order to preserve it and it was this that made it blue.

Chêne Bleu is an inspiring project and the positive way their wines have been received must give them immense gratification after so much hard work. The wines are very, very good though and they deserve their plaudits, but most of them are also far from cheap, although well worth trying if you want a treat.

However, luckily for us they have just launched a more affordable wine and that is my Wine of the Week:

CB- Mktg- A5 Brochures- UK- Astralabe 2009-  24.7.132009 Chêne Bleu Astralabe
A.C. Ventoux
Rhône Valley, France
This is a blend of 70% old vine Grenache and Syrah, the vines are between 30 and 40 years old and are grown at around 540 metres above sea level on a mixture of north and south-west facing slopes. The wine spends 7-8 months in barrel. It is named Astralabe in honour of the little known son of Abélard and Héloïse, which are the names of Chêne Bleu’s two top wines.
The nose is lifted, attractive and smoky with mineral, earthy and herbal notes. The fruit is dominated by plums, cooked strawberries and black cherry together with and a touch of prune in the background.
The palate is quite full-bodied and delivers delicious bright red fruit, as wells some deeper notes. There is a delicately peppery spice, gently firm tannins and some fresh acidity giving it a distinctive purity.
This is an elegant, balanced and joyous wine with concentrated fruit and a lovely mineral quality too – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £15.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar – £11.99 if you grab it before 28/10/2014

This is utterly perfect with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb cooked on a bed of garlic, thyme, rosemary and lemon peel. If you like Grenache and Syrah blends, wines from the Rhône, spicy or elegant wines, then you really should try this.

 

Wine of the Week 15 – a fine Picpoul as last of my summer wine

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Lean-Luc Colombo in the vineyard.

Well, the summer is drawing to a close and the weather, in the UK anyway, is not very good, but I have the antidote. I enjoyed a wine last night that was a pleasure to drink and made me happy.

I was especially pleased as the wine seemed to be very good with scrambled eggs. I say scrambled eggs, but more accurately the dish I cooked should be called huevos revueltos. It is a dish of roughly scrambled eggs into which I put prawns, asparagus and lots of garlic and served it on a bed of crispy roast potatoes. It is a typical Spanish dish and worth trying when in Spain, other classic versions incorporate black pudding and often they include little eels as well, not my thing but very popular in Spain. The best version, other than my own, that I have tried was in Restaurante El Botin which is in Madrid and is officially the oldest restaurant in the world.

Eggs are notoriously difficult to partner with wine, as is asparagus actually, but I decided to match the weight of the dish and the fresh Mediterranean flavours of the prawns and the garlic rather than the eggs, and it worked brilliantly. It might have helped that I served it with a lovely Insalata Caprese and that went superbly with the wine too.

The pairing came to me as a flash of inspiration, so I was delighted that the food and the wine all went so well together. The wine was a particularly good example of a something that has managed to break through the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc stranglehold to become quite trendy and popular – Picpoul de Pinet. This is a white wine within the Languedoc appellation, which overwhelmingly produces red wines, and has its own sub region appellation.

I really like and enjoy Picpoul, at least Picpoul Blanc which is the version we normally encounter and the only one I have knowingly tasted – both black skinned Picpoul Noir and pink skinned Picpoul Gris also exist, but in tiny amounts. The wines made from Picpoul Blanc might never be the most complex and profound, but when they are good they can give a great deal of pleasure. Like Gavi they have a reputation for being more crisp and acidic than most of them actually are.

Laure Colombo

Laure Colombo

image-12013 Picpoul de Pinet Les Girelles
AC Picpoul de Pinet / AC Languedoc Picpoul de Pinet
Jean-Luc Colombo
Jean-Luc Colombo is really a Rhône Valley winemaker who is based in the Northern Rhône area of Cornas, but he makes wines across the Rhône Valley. It is a new business, only having been founded in 1982, but has enjoyed remarkable success in this short time. I really admire their style as they seem to be able to make very elegant wines with fabulous fruit concentration. In recent years Jean-Luc has been joined in the business by his daughter Laure, who has proved herself to be a superb winemaker in her own right. They have also expanded their production to Coteaux d’Aix en Provence and IGP wines from the beautiful landscape near Marseilles as well as Picpoul de Pinet and Rivesaltes in the Languedoc. 

The colour is a lovely burnished copper like peach skin, in the glass it looks viscous and enticing.
The nose gives attractive floral notes, wild herbs, nuts and fresh peaches, whilst remaining delicate and offering a faint whiff of the sea.
The palate is fresh, yet succulent at the same time. Juicy and clean, so poised between being racy and being rich, which suits it too. There is an apricot fleshy succulence to the palate, a crack of white pepper – not unlike Grüner Veltliner – clean, refreshing acidity and a touch of minerality. I like this very much indeed, there is good concentration, it’s delicious and a lot of fun to drink. There is purity and richness, lightness and weight, freshness and richness. It feels like a glass of sunshine to push away the Autumn blues – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Oddbins and a range of other outlets at around £9.99 per bottle. Jean-Luc Colombo wines are distributed in the UK by Hatch Mansfield.
Jean-Luc Colombo wines are distributed in the US by Palm Bay International.

If you have never tried a Picpoul de Pinet, or perhaps been disappointed by one in the past, then do try this. It is an especially good example, brilliant on its own or with prawns and all manner of seafood, as well as Mediterranean cuisine from Provencal, Spanish, Italian to Greek and Turkish. It would be perfect with Mezze or Tapas as well as being with, scrambled eggs and asparagus, either together or separately. Oh, and it is an utter delight to drink, a little burst of sunshine in your glass.

In the interests of total disclosure I must mention that I do some work for both Hatch Mansfield and Jean-Luc Colombo, but the views expressed here are my own genuine ones and totally unsolicited.