Saturday, 22 April 2017

Frost in the Languedoc

The weather in the Languedoc over the past couple of weeks has been extraordinary.  We have woken up to brilliant cloudless skies and by midday warm sunshine, but first thing in the morning, despite the sunlight, the temperatures have been bracing, as low yesterday morning as 1°C, making a difference of about 20° between early morning and mid-afternoon temperatures.  I was out walking near Montagnac on Thursday morning and the route inevitably past vineyards and suddenly I spotted some very unhappy vines, with leaves that were green going on black and all soggy and limp.  They reminded me of those of a Busy Lizzie that I had inadvertently left outside on a chilly night.   I've never seen frosted vines before and they are certainly not something that you would expect to see in the south of France, but a conversation later in the day confirmed that was just what they were.

Yesterday morning I spoke to Catherine Roque of Domaine de Clovallon and she told me that two plots of her vines had been frosted overnight, on Thursday night, a Viognier on a low slope and some Pinot Noir by a stream.  She was not sure what the long term impact would be and the last time this had happened was 10 years ago.

And then I read the Midi Libre, the fountain of all local knowledge in the Languedoc and there was a headline: .Le gel frappe l'Aude.  Frost hits the Aude.  Overnight frost during the night of Thursday 20th April had seriously impacted the vineyards, affecting Minervois, Corbières and Malepère.  Nobody had been spared.    Thanks to the rain earlier in the year and the warm sunshine, the vines are about two weeks ahead of normal, with the young bunches already formed and preparing to flower.  No doubt quantity will be considerably affected.

In more northern vineyards like Chablis, they are equipped to combat frost with smudge pots or chaufferettes, and systems of aspersion, whereby the vines are sprayed so that the young shoots are encased in a coating of ice, but such measures are expensive to install, and really not practical or relevant to conditions in the Languedoc.  As Katie Jones, from Domaine Jones in Tuchan in the heart of the Corbières hills, put it, you just have to trust to good luck.

Friday, 14 April 2017

White wine in the Languedoc

I feel I have been neglecting my blog more than somewhat over the last few weeks - my excuse : research for The wines of the Languedoc, my latest book project with a deadline of the end of November, so I am feeling that the pressure is hotting up, and consequently I have been concentrating on the actual cellar visits and not doing too much about transferring them to my blog.  so many apologies for that.

One of the things that has struck me over the last few visits is just how good the white wines of the Languedoc are these days.   The focus of most appellations is very much on red rather than white, but the white wines of the Languedoc have improved beyond all recognition.  Here are a few examples:  

2013 Trélans, Domaine Alain Chabanon - 17.00€
Alain makes two white wines, Petit Trélans, a pure Vermentino, and Trélans, a blend of 50% Vermentino and 50% Chenin blanc, which spends two years in stainless steel vat and then a year in foudre.  However, he now has a new ageing cellar and is working with cement eggs, so from 2017 things will change so that Trélans will spend two years in a concrete egg, and then a year in foudre.  Alain has always had Chenin blanc, he bought the vineyard in 1990, which had been planned the previous year.  And the flavours are very intriguing, with lots of nuances, some dry nutty notes on the nose and on the palate, very good acidity,  some weight and dry honeyed fruit.  The ageing in foudre in the the third year adds extra weight to the palate.  As well as a new ageing cellar, Alain also has a smart new tasting caveau, so do go and visit.

2016 Orfran, Domaine Cazolle-Gazet  - 13.00€

Monday morning found me in a vineyard belong to Domaine Cazolle-Gazet up in the hills above the village of Lauroux near Lodève.  The altitude is about 400 metres and the vines are growing out of poor stony terrain.   Alain Cazolle-Gazet’s white wine is an unusual blend of Chardonnay and Grenache blanc.  The Chardonnay ripens first and begins its fermentation, so that the Grenache Blanc is added to the vat a couple of weeks later.   The élevage is in tank; Alain does not like his white wine in wood, and the taste is fresh and mineral, with a hint of butter and some elegant acidity, and a salty mineral finish.

Mas Jullien blanc, Pays d’Hérault
Tuesday morning I went to see Olivier Jullien of Mas Jullien in the village of Jonquières.  He was one of the first to appreciate the quality of Carignan blanc, a variety that has been much decried and almost disappeared, shrinking to as little as 20 hectares in the whole of France.  However, Oliver’s very first vineyard was Chenin blanc and he retains an affection for that variety, so that the blend of Mas Julien blanc is 70% Carignan blanc and 30% Chenin blanc, all vinified in barrel.  Olivier has simplified life; he used to make two white wines, including other varieties such as Petit Manseng and Grenache gris.   The Carignan grows just outside his cellar; the Chenin blanc high in the hills at St. Privat.   And the thing that intrigued and surprised me was to what extent Carignan and Chenin resemble each other.  There is a similarity of structure; both have considerable acidity and both develop lightly honeyed notes.The flavour of the 2015 was beautifully balanced.  And Olivier himself is surprised by the success of the white wines of the region - une immense surprise inattendue.  

Domaine le Conte de Floris, Lune blanche 2015  - 30.00€

Wednesday morning I spent tasting with Daniel le Conte de Floris.  He is also greatly attached to Carignan blanc, an enthusiasm that he owes to Oliver Jullien.  Daniel makes three white wines in all, Pleine Lune based on Marsanne, la Lune Rousse based on Roussanne and Lune Blanche that is pure Carignan blanc, fermented and aged in barrel.  The palace is firm and structured with very good acidity, and mineral notes on the palate.  I could almost call it the Chablis du Languedoc, and then Daniel proceeded to demonstrate just how well Carignan blanc ages.   The 2012 had some petrolly notes - ca pétrole un peu.  2010 was a very good vintages, with some firm stony fruit and mineral notes on nose and palate.  2008 had oxidised a little with a broader palate, and the 2005  was fading a little, but with good acidity and lightly petrol notes.  It was very intriguing. 

Happily other people are taking Carignan blanc seriously, observing how well it suits the conditions of the Languedoc for it retains its acidity, despite the warm summers.   I can also enthusiastically recommend Clos des Papillons from Mas Gabriel in Caux and les Clapisses blanc from Bruno Peyre in Octon.    

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Natural wine - an example

Domaine du Causse d'Arboras, L'Autochtone, St Guilhem le Desert IGP  15.00€

There's a bit of a fashion for Vin Nature or natural wines these days.  The problem is, there are no precise regulations about what constitutes vin nature and an element of laissez-faire prevails so that each wine grower has their own idea.  Jeanjean, known as one of the big vineyard owners of the Languedoc, with 260 hectares of vines, have decided to take the plunge and have just released their first vin nature, made from Cinsaut, grown on their newest estate, Domaine du Causse d'Arboras, up in the hills above the village of Arboras.  If you stand in their vineyards, you are looking straight at the face of the Mont St Baudile.

Matthieu Carliez, the winemaker, explained that they have followed vey strict criteria, so the grapes are handpicked and absolutely nothing is added to the juice, no yeast, no enzymes, no sulphur.  He explained that it is essential to start with absolutely healthy grapes and they put them into a vat full of co2, which will stop any nasty micro-organisms doing undesirable things.  The wine is racked, and bottled early, at the beginning of the year as they are rather nervous about keeping it in vat without the addition of any SO2.  It is much safer in bottle.  And I thought it tasted absolutely delicious.  Cinsaut makes for lovely fresh cherry flavours so that the palate is perfumed with a balancing streak of tannin providing some backbone, with a fruity finish.  And it is available from Jeanjean’s rather smart shop, Vignerons et Passions in St. Felix de Lodez. 

Vignerons et Passions
St. Felix de Lodez 34725 

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Picpoul de Pinet versus Muscadet

What do Picpoul de Pinet and Muscadet have in common?  They both go brilliantly with an oyster or a plate of moules marinières.   They are both made from a fairly neutral understated grape variety and they are both enjoying a revival in their fortunes.  Improvements in wine-making have had a huge impact in both appellations, but neither benefit from ageing in a barrel, as that would completely mask the essential characteristics of the wine.  

Both Picpoul and Muscadet, or Melon de Bourgogne,  can be made very simply.  Press the grapes, clean the juice and ferment it and you will get a very drinkable fresh white wine, but possibly slightly lacking in character.   But efforts are being made to develop more depth of flavour.   For Picpoul de Pinet  leading producers like Domaine St. Martin de la Garrigue, La Croix Gratiot, Félines-Jourdan and the two cooperatives of Pinet and Pomerols are looking a later harvesting dates for riper grapes, skin contact and ageing on the lees, with bâttonage, all of which adds weight and complexity to the wines.  

So by way of a contrast I was sent some wine by Vincent Lieubeau of Domaine Lieubeau whose family make Muscadet and have done for six generations.  Their vineyards are in the heart of the area of Muscadet Sèvre et Maine and include two new village appellations,  Clisson and Château Thébaud.   With two vintages of each to taste, these wines proved a revelation. 

For Clisson I tried both the 2014 and 2012 vintage.  Both had some ripeness and richness, with some complexity and depth of flavour.   In contrast Château Thébaud with the 2012 and 2009 vintages was much firmer with much more tension.   You may say, but Muscadet does not age.  I can assure you that it does.  This 2009 was a complete surprise and if I were to consider a comparison, it brought to mind the salinity and flintiness of Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini.  When I suggested that to Vincent, he had just tried Assyrtiko for the first time at the German wine fair, Prowein, and he did not disagree.  

The extraordinary thing about these Muscadets was that they were both made in exactly the same  way, whole bunch pressing, a slow fermentation with natural yeast, no sulphur addition before fermentation,  no chaptalisation and in the case of Clisson 24 months ageing on the lees, in vat, and for Château Thébaud 36 months on the lees.   

So the difference in the two crus really comes from the soil, from the terroir.  Clisson is produced from sandy loam soil on a bed rock of granite. The soils are much richer and deeper, with no water stress and the grapes ripen early,  whereas Château-Thébaud, also grown on sandy loam but wth a bed rock of gneiss, has really poor soil and much more water stress.   The wines  simply demonstrated why terroir is so important.  And  Vincent gives the ageing potential of both crus as 20 years;  I could not possible disagree.  The 2009, which is one of the best of recent vintages, still tasted firm and youthful.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Cuvée Solidarité Languedoc

Pic St. Loup suffered a devastating hail storm in the middle of August last year.  I didn’t see the actual damage, but photographs looked as the vineyards were covered in snow.  It fact it was large hail stones.  We are talking golf balls, rather than petit pois and the impact on the ripening grapes and vines was devastating.   Some wine growers have lost their entire crop; others escaped unscathed.  It just depended where you were; and Méjanelle and parts of Picpoul de Pinet suffered too.   So as a gesture of solidarity to the affected vignerons, a Cuvée Solidarité has been made at the village cooperative of Cabrières to raise some money to help the unlucky vignerons.    Although you can insure against hail, not everyone does, and it is expensive, and although it may cover your loss in terms of grape value, it does nothing about your loss of actual sales.    So Cuvée Solidarité is a AC Languedoc and a blend of 70% Syrah, with 30% Grenache, from the 2016 vintage.   It has lovely ripe spicy red fruit, and some subtle tannins, making for very easy undemanding drinking, without any great depth.  It is Languedoc sunshine in a glass.  And is available from the Maison des Vins du Languedoc at the Mas de Saporta  for 10.00€.  My one criticism is that it is quite expensive for what it is, but it is for a very good cause; for each bottle sold the vignerons will receive 7.00€.  And if you do not know the shop at Mas de Saporta, it is well worth a detour the next time you are going into Montpellier as it has one of the finest selections of appellation wines from the Languedoc.  

La Maison des Vins du Languedoc,
chemin de Saporta,
Lattes 34971
Tel: 04 67 06 04 42