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Thursday, 19 September 2019

Return to the Vaucluse, 2019

One of our first ports of call when we began regular visits to France over 25 years ago was to the southern Rhône valley, the south of the Drôme département (south that is, of our old twin town, Die).  This September we were back in the Vaucluse for a short overnight stay on my birthday.  The photo above is from the road approaching the Domaine de Coyeux, high above Beaumes de Venise, with Mont Ventoux in the distance.  Try as I might I could not convey the height and scale of this well-known obstacle in many Tours de France, but it is often there in views of the area.

When we first visited in the mid-1990s the only way to approach Coyeux was via an unmade road, snaking across the top of the Dentelles de Montmirail, itself already a worrying distance from civilisation.  We've visited the Domaine de Durban, on the road towards Coyeux, quite often over the years, but now that track is closed and the road to Coyeux snakes up the hillside like a Tour de France special, until you arrive on the high plateau with the lace-like rocks that give the Dentelles their name, at closer quarters.

On the way to the Domaine de Coyeux
When we first came in the 90s, Beaumes de Venise was well-known for its sweet muscat wines, as it still is, but in the past 20 years sweet wines have become less popular and the reds from this village have become increasingly good and, compared with the neighbouring Gigondas or Vacqueyras, let along Châteauneuf du Pape, very good value.  Coyeux is noted this year in the Guide Hachette for an excellent red, Praestans, which fulfilled our expectations when we tasted it.  We also fell for dry white and rosé wines from Muscat grapes - a very worthwhile visit with views to match.


All the white and rosé wines we tried at Coyeux were made from muscat petit grains grapes, the same as are used to make the fortified Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.  When we firt came, dry wines were only made when the harvest was plentiful enough.  Now, dry white wines are increasingly normal, and I was surprised to discover rosé made from the same grape (this is not really surprising - the skins are reddish though the juice is 'white', so leaving ths skins in contact with the juice for a short time makes a nice pale rosé).  Mary is always pleased to find dry muscat, and the Coyeux rosé and white were both excellent.  We also have more and more dry muscat around us in Lunel, and one of our best winemakers tells us he decreases the sugar content of even his sweet wines year by year as people's tastes change.

As we often do when travelling in France, we chose to stay in a Logis de France hotel - almost always with good restaurants attached.  This one in Sablet, the Domaine de Cabasse, lived up to the usual good standards and is as its name suggests also attached to a wine domaine.  However, with so many good wines around we didn't buy here this time - just drank some of their good red with our meal.  The pool was also a welcome attraction in the afternoon heat.

The hotel is among the vines midway between the small sleepy villages of Sablet and Séguret.  
As you emerge onto the little road, across the fields you can see two huge buildings typical of the caves coopératives you come across right across the south of France, but if possible even bigger.  This I guessed, rightly, was the Gravillas Coop which we were aiming for after our night in the hotel.  It has a good reputation, and a Rosé in particular which got outstanding marks in the latest Guide Hachette.  The previous afternoon we'd stopped in another small sleepy village, Violès, on the plain between the Rhône and the Dentelles.  There we visited a charming family-run domaine, the Bastide Saint Vincent, another Hachette recommendation, whose red Florentin is a splendid example of the newish 'Plan de Dieu' (plain of God, I guess) Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation.

 The story of our link to Violès also goes right back to our twinning visits 25 years ago.  At that time our local organic shop in Derbyshire had branched out into wines, and had a nice red Côtes du Rhône and we decided to see if we could find the producer.  At that time Violès was even more of a backwater than it is now - small, dusty and not really used to tourists, but we found the winemaker, bought some wine and had a meal in the little restaurant at the village crossroads.  The raising of quality and acquisition of the plan de Dieu tag has brought new fortune to Violès, which now has more commerce, several well-set-up winemakers and a beautiful new public library among other things.  All very enouraging

To finish here are a few photos of the area, taken on the top of the Dentelles but a little further south and west around the Domaine de Durban, with some better views of Mont Ventoux too

Sunday, 21 October 2018

September wine fairs

The French 'rentrée' is also the start of an interesting period for wine enthusiasts - the season of wine fairs in supermarkets.  In all, these span nearly 6 weeks, and these days the wines are not only good value but also carefully selected.  As with medal competitions, you always have to bear in mind that makers who already have a good market for their wines need not participate, but with the aid of review articles you can usually buy good wines at good prices.  Since the best bargains are usually snapped up early, the secret is to arrive at the supermarket at opening time on day 1. 

I did this several times in September, partly for our wine tasting circle here in Lunel and partly to find wines as presents.  The wines I bought are listed below, but first a few notes on the different places I visited and on some of my choices.  I was aided by the comprehensive article in the Revue in August, which highlighted a dozen or so top picks from each chain.

The earliest wine fairs are in the cut-price supermarkets - Lidl, Aldi, Netto and Leader Price.  One could add BioCoop but their wine fair sas so chaotic that they could not even agree on a start date, so lost out as I arrived early on the first day of each.  That’s what you have to do to snap up the best bargains.  Lidl is the most impressive, with three aisles dedicated to a huge range of French and a few foreign wines.  As you can see, I found plenty of choice even without the usual array of Bordeaux reds.  Rhône reds and a nice Touraine white were my picks here.

For the rest, the budget stores ranged from the chaotic Netto (lucky to find any of the wines listed beforehand) to the interesting but slightly disorganised Leader Price and the very nicely organised Aldi, whose range I’ll explore more next year.  Although the major supermarkets’ fairs start later in September, or into October, I managed to find one of my star buys in Intermarché and (as I have done often in previous years) some good buys in Leclerc.

Two personal stories link to my wine fair visits this year.  The first is a red from the flat lands between Orange and the Dentelles de Montmirail in the southern Rhône, from the village of Violès.  When we first discovered this it followed a purchase from the organic shop Beanos in Matlock Bath, which we used a lot during our time in Derbyshire.  At that time Violès was on the bottome rung of the Côtes du Rhône, a sleepy village en route to more celebrated places like Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Beaumes de Venise.  Since then the village has acquired Côtes du Rhône Villages status itself, and the Tour des Abbesses we found in Inter was one of the best reds we’ve come across recently for  everyday drinking.  I seek it out when I visit Intermarché stores in the Cevennes, but I doubt it will be sin stock for much longer.

Second, one of the highlights of my visit to Aldi was the Bonnezeaux from a well-known producer, Château de Fesles.  The sweet chenin blanc wines from this area (the Layon valley south of Angers) are exceptional and long-lasting, one of the few white appellations outside exalted Burgundies to keep more than a few years.  But is is for this very reason that makers divest themselves of wines 15 years old or more.  We first discovered this in the 1990s when we bought 1979 Bonnezeaux from the very same producer from 3D wines, who introduced us to some of our favourite makers elsewhere.  Because these wines last so long, makers hold onto stocks but in the end have to sell them to make room in their cellars, and we profit.  This Bonnezeaux was not a great wine, but a delicious wine to drink now all the same, and it will keep a few years yet.

By the way, a late purchase not on my list below is a Savennières, another Anjou wine but this time dry but equally longlasting.  Sadly the bottle we bought from Leclerc will not be tested for longevity because we finished it between us at lunchtime today, but there is another lurking and I’ll be getting back to Leclerc in the vain hope that there may still be some left - utterly delicious.

Here is my list of purchases, 7 whites first, the rest red.

Saint Véran Louis Dailly 2017 Leader Price 8.04 €
Macon Villages Cave d'Azé 2017 Netto 4.99 €
Touraine Sauvignon Caves Gilles Gobin 2017 Lidl 3.99 €
Menetou Salon Patient Cottat 2017 Intermarché 9.95 €
Sancerre Les Fossiles, dom Roblin 2017 Intermarché 13.75 €
Alsace Riesling Rittimann Celliers de Romarin 2016 Aldi 5.99 €
Bonnezeaux Château de Fesles (50 cl) 2001 Aldi 13.99 €
CdR Villages Dom de Tavans 2017 Leader Price 5.87 €
Cahors Malbec du Clos 2015 Leader Price 5.33 €
J L Baldès
Saint Joseph Dom de Blacieux 2017 Lidl 9.99 €
Vacqueyras Terroir des Dentelles 2016 Lidl 6.99 €
SCA Rhonéa, Beaumes de Venise
Juliénas Collin-Bourisset 2017 Lidl 5.99 €
Vinsobres Dom Croze-Brunet 2016 Lidl 5.49 €
Côtes du Rhône Vill. Dom la Tour des Abbesses, Plan de Dieu 2017 Intermarché 4.49 €
Gaillac Gd réserve de Labastide de Lévis 2016 Aldi 3.99 €

Thursday, 30 August 2018

Visiting the Val du Séran

We come to the Ain almost every year to play and sing music at Val du Séran, a huge converted farm building in the lovely countryside between the Bugey area and the upper Rhône.  It's quite isolated, surrounded by green hills with some of the cows that produce milk for Comté cheese, and with more distant views of the pre-Alpine mountains.  But apart from the stimulating guidance of our host Stéphane and the marvellous cooking of his wife Chantal, we always enjoy the wines they choose to accompany our evening meals, usually showing a sure touch  in matching food and wine.

This year, for example we've had a Bordeaux Clairet accompanying tarragon chicken.  We came across this on our trip to Bordeaux earlier this year - a light-coloured red wine (like a dark rosé) usually made from merlot grapes.  Then, a Californian cabernet sauvignon full of sweet vanilla fruit in a style which is definitely not French, a really good match with a scented but mild beef curry; a smooth Fitou (from the area south of Narbonne, not far from us) with a veal and ginger dish; a beautiful red Côte du Rhône  with barbecued rissoles made from a Croatian recipe; and a Fleurie (one of the Beaujolais crûs, usually regarded as relatively light and floral) with a pork mignon served with a haricot purée.  A couple more nights of this before we return to our own less diverse choices at home.

When we come to this area, we also enjoy the local wines, particularly the white Roussette de Savoie and Seyssel, made from local grape varieties Altesse and Molette.  These are lively flavourful wines which work well as apéritifs, as Mary proves most evenings after a full day of cello playing.  AT Stéphane's recommendation we visit the maker Bernard Aimé in the village of Corbonod near the town of Seyssel itelf and close to the river Rhône which is very picturesque in this area.

We have good lunches here of salads, cheese and fruit, but (unlike our home habit) no alcohol at lunchtime so that the music is not marred by sleepiness or lack of attention!  But the evenings are a time to relax and feast, as you can see!

Friday, 10 June 2016

Les Domaines 'Coup de Coeur' from the Guide Hachette (part 1)

 As you can see, a wonderful book has come my way.  People who know me often think of me as glued to the internet and the Kindle, but I do still love a nice book even when, like this one, it weighs over 2.6 kg.  It is beautifully written and illustrated, and a very useful practical guide.
I buy the annual Guide each year anyway, but this is a distillation of the best of the past 30 years.  However, the main reason I'm moved to write about it is that there are at least 20 places listed that we have visited and enjoyed, and many wines we still enjoy.  It lists 600 altogether, so there are many exciting discoveries in store.  Anyway, there follow a few words about each of 'our' 21 and what they mean to us.

This post includes the first 11:

  • Ch. Chasse-Spleen (Medoc)
  • Vins Georges Duboeuf (Beaujolais)
  • Naudin Ferrand (Hautes Côtes de Nuits et de Beaune)
  • Alfred Gratien, Epernay (Champagne)
  • Cave du Sieur d’Arques, Limoux (Blanquette et crémant de Limoux)
  • Domaine de Barroubio (Muscat de Saint-Jean-de-Minervois)
  • Château Mire l’Etang (Languedoc La Clape)
  • Grès Saint-Paul (Muscat de Lunel & Languedoc Grès de Montpellier)
  • Mas Amiel (Maury)
  • Clos d’Yvigne (Saussignac)
  • Ch. Bellevue la Forêt (Fronton)

Our one visit to Bordeaux took us to Ch. Chasse-Spleen for a great tasting and an opportunity to admire surprising sculpture (yes, they are giant wellies) in the grounds of this rather out-of-the-way château in Moulis-en-Medoc, which eveyone tells you is one of the good value corners of this prestigious area.   This Château has very good wines, and we tried the middle-of-the-range ones which were and are good enough, but they cost what Bordeaux inevitably costs!  The wealth of the area shows in the perfect decor of the newly constructed underground chais.  The name is a reflection of the effect of wine in chasing away gloom and melancholy

In passing, I can't leave our memorable trip to the Medoc with our cousins Barbara and Alan without referring to my all-time favourite, Château Batailley, whose bottles I buy one by one every year or 2, for old times' sake.  With my friend Malcolm Thomas, now sadly passed on, I bought my first ever case of fine wine, 12 Ch. Batailley 1986 (or thereabouts) for £2 a bottle.  O for such luxuries now - the latest I paid was over 40€ and then you need to wait 5-10 years for it to be ready to drink.  It has never disappointed though!!

Back on our side of the country, the book highlights Vins Georges Duboeuf in Romanèche-Thorins.  Duboeuf was originally a producer of white Maconnais wines who helped develop the reputation and quality of the Baujolais cru wines in the north of Beaujolais, south of Macon, and so demonstrated the amazing versatility of the gamay grape.  Today names like Morgon, Fleury and Moulin-à-Vent are well-known, and as a négociant Duboeuf and his enterprise label and market good examples of all 10 cru wines as well as Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages.  The Duboeuf visitor centre is well worth a visit, with imaginative displays and tastings.

Our recent trip to Burgundy, described in recent posts on this blog, included the Domaine Henri Naudin Ferrand in Magny-lès-Villers, so there is no need to elaborate on that here.  The Côte d'Or was a regular stop on our trips south from the UK to the Drôme in the 1990s and early 2000s, when of course we also passed through the Champagne region.  But although we visited various makers on our travels, one producer we got to know in England was Alfred Gratien of Epernay whose champagnes have long been a staple of the Wine Society's list, which has been the source of many of our wine discoveries and visits now we live in France.  Mary particularly likes their demi-sec!  

Staying on the sparking theme, and at the far edge of our own Languedoc Roussillon region, the Cave du Sieur d’Arques in Limoux is the huge co-op which flies the flag for Blanquette de Limoux, a range of sparkling wines whose common feature is the inclusion of the mauzac grape (sometimes called blanquette) as well as crémant de Limoux which contains a high proportion of chardonnay.  I first visited the Cave with a large party of chorists from the UK, who took a brief break from their singing tour of French cathedrals and churches to taste some wine!

We have got to know the Domaine de Barroubio very well in the past year or two.  It is near the tiny village of Saint-Jean-de-Minervois and just over the hills south of Saint Chinian, and particularly well-known for its sweet muscat vins doux naturels (VDNs).  Our own commune of Lunel also produces one of the 7 appellations of this wine, but for all our local loyalty we have to admit that the Barroubio wines are delicious, and they make good reds too in the Minervois appellation.  On top of that, the vigneron Raymond Miquel and his mum always offer a warm welcome and tasting.  Raymond's latest white is sweet, but not as sweet as the traditional VDNs.  His youngest son told him his sweet wines seemed too sweet, and the dry muscat (which we also like very much) too dry, so why not try for something in between - the result is delicious and named, for the son, Le Petit dernier.  As you approach up the hill from the Narbonne in the south you emerge from trees and rocks to an astonishing landscape, white with chalk, which is particuarly suited to the muscat grape.

Staying near Narbonne, the Château Mire l’Etang in the commune of Fleury d’Aude produces wines from the Languedoc La Clape appellation, named for the hilly area between Narbonne and the coast.  We've been there often over nearly 20 years since we first holidayed nearby.  We went again this spring, at the same time as another visit to Barroubio, and were welcomed by one of the brothers Chamayrac with a very good tasting - we have always liked their red wines and the 2 rosés are both delicious.  We were fortunate to be with our friend Daniel who wrote his thesis on the ecology of the La Clape countryside to help with conservation during the establishment of the new coastal tourist areas around Gruissan - he showed us the amazing natural lake the Gouffre de l'Oeil Doux, set beneath deep cliffs not far from Mire l'Etang and only just inland from the coast.

On our doorstep here in Lunel is the domaine and château Grès Saint-Paul, where Jean-Philippe  Servière has esablished an excellent reputation for a wide variety of IGP and AOP wines.  Their VDN muscats are exceptional, Rosanna (with some oak aging) in particular being one of the few wines to achieve a perfect 50/50 in our wine tasting circle, but they have a great range of IGP varietals, including marsanne and vermentino (rolle) among the whites and and cabernet franc among the reds.  Their AOP Grès de Montpellier reds include Antonin which is frequently selected in Hachette.

Back to the other end of our area, in the Roussillon near the Cathar castle Quéribus, is Mas Amiel which we visited on one of our first holidays in the area.  It has long been a standard-bearer for sweet Maury wine.  The appellation has the peculiarity that, like the apéritif Noilly Prat, the wines are aged for up to a year in full sunshine.  Look at the website to see the impressive rows of huge glass bonbonnes ranged outside by the vineyard and in front of the mountains.

The Clos d’Yvigne in Gageac-Rouillac near Bergerac was made famous by Patricia Atkinson whose book, The ripening sun, did as much as anything I've read to paint a picture of the rewards and trials of winemaking.  The sweet Saussignac white wine (from late-picked grapes) she made secured her reputation as a good winemaker, starting from scratch in difficult circumstances.  We have visited the vineyard, which was interesting, but despite our love of good sweet wine it is the book which stays in our minds.

I'd read often of the appellation Fronton, north of Toulouse, with its reputed taste of violets from the negrette grape (often now mixed with cabernet sauvignon).  We finally had a chance to visit the Château Bellevue la Forêt a few years ago on our way to Bordeaux, and the trip was well worthwhile for the scenery as well as for the wines.  However confusing it may be, France is a wonderful source of unusual, very local grape varieties which manage to overcome the demands for standardisation.

The next post will cover 10 more we have visited:

  • Cave de Crouseilles 5Madiran & Pacherence du Vic Bilh)
  • Dom. de la Chevalerie (Saint Nicholas de Bourgueil)
  • Cave des Vignerons foréziens (Côtes du Forez)
  • Cave de Tain l’Hermitage (Crozes Hermitage)
  • Dom. Saint-Anne (Côtes du Rhône Villages Saint Gervais)
  • Domaine Maby (Lirac & Tavel)
  • Dom. de l’Oratoire Saint-Martin (Cairanne)
  • Dom. La Réméjeanne (Côtes du Rhône & CdR Villages)
  • Ch. Mourgues du Grès (Costières de Nîmes)
  • Vignerons d’Estézargues (Côtes du Rhône & CdR Villages)

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Back to Burgundy part 2

In the last post I talked of trips to Meursault, Pernand Vergelesses, Monthélie and the splendid Domaine Naudin Ferrand remain to be made.  We never made it to Pernand, and bought our Monthélie in Beaune, but the story of the rest of our wine visits last week follows.

Back from our trips to the far west near Auxerre, we began with a visit to Merusault.  This is of course white wine country, part of the wonderful collection of villages south of Beaune where chardonnay trumps pinot noir.  Here our friends' friend Gaël Fouré has set up a négociant business with two partners, making and marketing wines both from Meursault and nearby white wine appellations like Saint Romain, and from the red wine areas like Chambolle Musigny to the north of Beaune.  This is, in a sense, a hobby or passion on top of their day jobs - Gaël for example works in a nearby vineyard as cellar-master.  Anyway, their wines were delicious and our welcome likewise!

The next morning we drove the short distance to Magny lès Villiers to revisit one of our first discoveries in the Côte d'Or, the domaine Naudin Ferrand whose white wines we love - they are situated across the border of the Hautes Côtes de Beaune and the Hautes Côtes de Nuits (next door to the north, above Nuits Saint Georges) and we can never decide which we prefeer - the HCB includes 30% pinot blanc but the HCN is 100% chardonnay.

We finished the morning back in Echevronne where Jean-Michel Jacob offered us tastings from the barrels of his newest wines.  We were able to taste the difference between one- and two-year old oak barrels as well as between the oak and acacia barrels he is using in the (100% chardonnay) Hautes Côtes de Beaune white.  The acacia remains one of our favourites.

Before I sign off this time I must mention the series of catastrophes that have hit Burgundy vineyards again this year - the latest on hail in Chablis as well as more on the frost is on Decanter's website.  The lack of wines is only part of the story, a few years down the road, the financial worries start almost straight away with loss of seasonal employment in the vineyards, expensive machinery lying idle and rents set to increase by arcane regulations which makes them higher in times of scarcity.  Buying burgundy is the thing to do in solidarity with winemakers there.

Unintentional skyline on a barrel in the Jacobs' cellar

This lizad outside did not know what it was missing!

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Back to Burgundy

If the posts in this blog are a bit repetitive it is because we know good wines and winemakers and enjoy returning to them when we can.  Burgundy and Beaujolais were on the route south for us since the early 1990s, and in 1996 Mary and the family clubbed together to buy me a 'vineyard share' in the Domaine Lucien Jacob for my 50th birthday.  20 years on we are back for a week in the Côte d'Or.  I can't go on without referring to the sobering news that tragedy in the form of a sharp late frost struck huge areas of Burgundy and the north-easterly vineyards of France recently - in Christine Jacob's own words: "Please pull a cork on a good bottle of Burgundy and toast the strength and courage of winemakers who are out caring for their vines despite knowing that there won't be many grapes this year. A thought also for our colleagues in the Loire, the Charentes and Champagne who are in the same position."

Often our trips up and down the A6 involve a stop by Mont Brouilly, and this year once again we were delighted to visit the Domaine des Roches Bleues and to sample lovely reds with Christiane Lacondemine who spared us time in her busy family day.  Then, blessed with sunshine that has since disappeared, we drove on with our friends Gaynor and Edward to Echevronne (do not know what Mary was saying animatedly here!)

The tasting chez Jacob that evening was an extended apéro lubricated with a number of open bottles that 'needed finishing' as well as new things to try.  How lucky we were, with good crémant, a new cuvée of white matured in acacia rather than traditional oak barrels (the label has a nice acacia sprig in the corner and the lemony zing of the wine was very attractive - we shall certainly add that to our payload on the way home) and then more reds than I can recall, though the Savigny Vergelesses premier crû sticks in all our minds, and several bottles accompanied us back to our gîte for the evening meal.

Although we always try to revisit makers we have got to know over the past 20 years, we also seek out new ones and this year after a visit to Vézelay we spent a very good hour tasting wines near Auxerre, in the village of Saint Bris le Vineux, whose fame rests partly on the Appellation Sauvignon de Saint Bris, which gestures to Sancerre and the Loire not too much further west.  However, the Auxerrois is not far from Chablis either, and the reputable producer Domaine Verret produces wines from there, from the nearby appellation of Irancy (red wines combining a small amount of the local grape César with pinot noir) as well as others.  Their best Chablis was simply too good to resist, but the Irancy wines were a revelation, a different dimension added to the pinot noirs we know and love.

In Vézelay my lazy legs would not take me back up to the Basilique, which was lucky because in the little supermarket at the bottom of the hill I found the local white I'd hoped to find (I could not get an answer from the maker in her nearby vineyard at Précy le Moult) since we got to know it shortly after Elise Villiers started making wines in 2006.  We shall include it in our next tasting back home in the Languedoc.  For the rest, trips to Meursault, Pernand Vergelesses, Monthélie and the splendid Domaine Naudin Ferrand remain to be made, and the descriptions for the next blog in a week or so!

One of Jean-Michel Jacob's many lovely wooden sculptures
- as if making lovely wine was not enough, he is a gifted artist

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Finding good wines

As always, I start by admitting that I found it hard to pick a subject, or even find time to write a post.  But today I begin with thanks to my god-daughter Imogen who is, I'm glad to hear, planning to tie the knot with her sweetheart Mark. They like their wine (and food I daresay) and have just visited one of the many eccentric and iconic British offies - oh, I should say wine merchants - D Byrne & Co in Clitheroe.  This is a couple who clearly have a good eye for the important things in life, and they will spend a good Christmas with the wines they have selected I'm sure.

For us in France, British wine prices (certainly for French wines) are inflated, so we tend to focus on our local producers who serve us very well for the most part.  We spend a good amount of time visiting the village of Saint Christol just north of Lunel where the best local wines are now made.  In the past the local muscat (AOP Muscat de Lunel to give it its current offical title, a fortified sweet vin doux naturel, one of 7 muscats VDN afforded appellation status in France) was grown in vast vineyards on the plains around our town - our house and garden were part of the vineyard.  Now the interesting wines were grown on the gentle hillsides to the north, and so St Christol has become the wine centre of the area with its new and interesting wine tourist centre Viavino showcasing a clutch of good producers.

The Domaine La Coste Moynier in Saint Christol is certainly one of these.  9 years ago we first visited this eccentric domaine which we found chaotic and underwhelming.  We found it hard to believe it deserved its many accolades int he guides.  Since we've lived in the area we have often enjoyed its basic wines with our meals in local restaurants and the other week we revisited it to check our impressions.  The air of chaos remains - doubtless partly the result of a continuing tension between the generations.  The oenologue son is keen to improve and narrow the range, the traditionalist father and his wife equally determined to preserve the wider traditional range of wines.  Evolution is, on balance, leading to improvements.

Today, we drank two wines at lunchtime - a white apéritif  vin de pays mentioned in my September blog around Crest - the domaine Peylong, and another wine, a red, that I ought to have mentioned before now.  Bruno Gracia is ano old friend of our neighbout, Bruno Barthez.  They could neither on attend theo other's wedding because they were on the same day - but for that reason neither ever forgets the other's anniversary.  Our neighbour Bruno is a specialist in flood prevention - his friend Bruno probably never causes floods, but the liquids he produces in the prestigious Saint Chinian area provide much pleasure without flooding anyone or anything.  We visited his winery for the second time earlier this year.

His domaine Tabatau is an unashamed eccentric installed in the village of Assignan on the high ground above Saint Chinian to the south (no website, even the mobile phone signal struggles to reach the village), and the garage-like conditions in his chai leave a suspicion that clinical hygiene is not always possible here, but the wines have an appeal that the occasional corked bottle does not dispel.  We drank a 2007 Lo tabataire with our meal today which was really delicious and lingers in both mouth and memory.

Having said that, the scope for eccentricity in winemakers to lead to disappointment is always there - the Valréas red wines I wrote of in September have fallen short of expectations back home in Lunel, though the white has measured up well - and the greater certainty of buying from wine merchants whose reputation depends on reliable quality, albeit at a higher price, is tempting.

Here in Lunel we have recently welcomed a third caviste, one of three branches of a new small chain called Wine Spot.  It's early days for this new and enthusiastic specialist in wines of the Languedoc, but the signs are promising.  Last weekend I tasted two excellent whites (supposedly with oysters - unfortunately for me oysters make me ill so I had to make do with the wines alone).  The name of one lemony fresh wine escapes me, but the other was a 2013 carignan blanc from the Clos des Clapisses at Octon (just west of the lac du Salagou near Clermont l'Hérault), a wonderful food wine.  We'll doubtless be back at the Wine Spot for its Thursday evening tastings.

But to return to my starting point, some of the few things I miss about England are its splendid independent wine merchants.  A recent British press article - highlighting the independent group of wine merchants The Bunch - proposed 3 reds for under £10 from Adnams of Southwold, Corney & Barrow and Tanners of Bridgnorth (this last one of a fine crop of old vines carignan now available in France and abroad).  But the thing that really caught my eye in this Observer column was a white fizz made from syrah which is as we all know a red grape.  Red grapes have white juice as champagne lovers have long known, but this is the first white syrah fizz I've heard of and it is by all accounts delicious.  In the UK it comes from the London merchant Lea & Sandeman but it intrigues me to find that the maker is Jean-Louis Denois, maveric innovator near Limoux whose Domaine de l'Aigle enraged French traditionalists with its excellent pinot noir in the 1990s.  Now he is firmly established in the Vignobles Denois and, to my mind, he is long overdue a visit!!