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Monday, 30 May 2011

Favourites - the Chemin des Rêves, St Gély du Fesc

Early in our life in France we stumbled upon the Chemin des Rêves and the then new winemaker Benoit Viot.  At that time he and his wife Servane and their children lived in Grabels north-west of Montpellier.  Now he has acquired vines in the little village of Saint Gély du Fesc, a bit further north with a view across the vines to the Pic Saint Loup and the magnificent cliff face of l'Hortus.  Here he has built the caveau and cave, and also their family home in the middle of the vines, all to the highest ecological standards.  When I saw him today he told me that he'd just completed their large sheltered terrace.  A perfect spot at the edge of a fast-expanding village.
Benoit used to work for Boots (pharmaceutical company and pharmacy chain) in England and Spain, and made his first wine (of which he is not proud!) from one of their kits while he was living in Nottingham.  His fairly short English experience has left him with a useful command of the language, so if you don't speak French, don't be put off visiting him.

His vineyards straddle the AOC areas of Pic Saint Loup and Grès de Montpellier.  The name 'Chemin des Rêves' comes from the ancient footpath alongside one of hhis fist vineyards in the neighbouring village of Combaillaux. He makes excellent AOC wines including an inexpensive Côteaux du Languedoc called Bois-moi ('drink me' from the bottle of potion Alice used to change size in her adventures in Wonderland). Its lighter style reflects his love of his native Loire valley, and is unusual for a Languedoc red.  Then there is a lovely trio of wines called Abracadbra - the red (one of my favourites today) and rosé are AOC Pic Saint Loup, as is the more sphisticated Gueule de Loup.  But like many top winemakers in the Languedoc his most interesting wines are vins de pays, either because they include grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon which are not in the Appellation Controlée regulations (Utopie 1, 2 and 3), or because they use a cobination of local varieities but in different proportions (The Saltimbanque is pure carignan).

We first tasted his wine at our favourite retaurant l'Authentic in Lunel, whose owners share our enthusiasm for these wines.  When I met him yesterday Benoit had just heard that he is invited to England in July among a small group of French winemakers selected by Jancis Robinson as examples of excellence.  He deserves it!

Rue du Grand Plantier - 34980 Saint Gély du Fesc
(Postal address not yet on GPS: 218, rue de la Syrah )
Phone 04 99 62 74 25 • 06 85 73 29 33

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Italy - Friuli (2)

We decided to invite local wine-loving friends here in France to a tasting of the Italian wines we'd brought back in 2008-9.  The wines were all made from single grape varieties from Friuli, almost all little-known outside the area.  We asked everyone to bring something to share for the meal, trying to match each of the 6 wines we had chosen with a dish.  All six wines were excellent, and each went well with its accompanying food. 
For the apéritif we had the sweet but refreshing and slightly tannic white Verduzzo friuliano (Iacuzzi), then a fresh and lemony Tocai friuliano (Iacuzzi) with a light tuna and vegetable bake from one of  our guests as the first entrée.  The first of the reds, the Tazzelenghe (Iacuzzi) went with charcuterie - the wine is quite astringent at first taste, but as in the tasting we found the aftertaste wonderful and well-matched with the meats.  The main course, a richly-flavoured rabbit casserole (from Elizabeth David's Italian food ) went with the second red, a Schioppetino (Iacuzzi) which had a delicious taste of sour cherries.  The cheese included two or three Italian ones, with which we drank a refined and powerful refosco (Anna Berra).
Then the sweet, one of the elegant fruit tarts you can buy at almost any bakers', went with the dessert wine, a Ramondolo (Anna Berra) made from the same grape as the apéritif but is richer and more concentrated because the grapes are dried before the juice is extracted.  In fact, we learned in Italy that the Tazzelenghe is also made with grapes left to dry for a month after picking - this is a common Italian practice for some of the great concentrated reds from other areas, but it was a surprise to find it used with a wine from such an obscure grape variety.  The results, however, justify the effort we think: when we tried the rest of a bottle the day after the tasting it tasted even better.
I have mentioned the producers them in the previous entry with links their websites from which the last two wines came from.  The first 4 were from the Iacuzzi brothers in Torreano, the final two from the Anna Berra vineyard a little further north in the hills of Nimis.  I hope we can return and revisit both these excellent wineries.

Italy - Friuli (1)

Over the past few years we have visited the north east of Italy and the excellent but little-known wine area of  Friuli several times.  On our first visit, with our friends who have a house near Udine, we decided to explore the area just north of their village, and in the hamlet of Ramandolo we found the Anna Berra winery perched on a steep winding road with magnificent views across the vineyards and away to the south.
It was nearly 7 in the evening and we had no appointment, but we were greeted with enthusiasm and courtesy by the wine maker, Ivan Monai, who spent an hour with us in one of the best tastings I have ever experienced - 8 wines, each carefully presented from new bottles in glasses rinsed with each new wine before we tasted it.  And they were great wines too - of the reds, the cabernet franc stood out for me, and there are also dry whites of which we liked both the friulani (grape variety also in the past confusingly known as tokai although it has little to do with the Hugarian grape) and pinot grigio.
But it was the 2 sweet wines made from late picked and for one wine partly-dried Verduzzo Friulano grapes that were really special.  Ramondolo gives its name to one of these while the second, Anno Domini, the one from dried grapes, is fermented in oak barrels.  We did not even taste the third sweet wine, Piccolit, also made from late picked and dried grapes, but we’ve since tried wines from this variety and from other producers and found them excellent.
Azienda Agricola Anna Berra, via Ramandolo 29 NIMIS - (UD) Italia tel. 0432 790 296
On a return visit we accompanied our friends to their nearest wine makers Sandro and Andrea Jacuzzi near Torreano.  Again, we were very interested in local grape varieties although the makers often use internationally-known varieties like merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc and pinot bianco too.  This time we tasted 5 wines - 3 local reds made from schioppetino (grapes dried for a month before vinification) tazzelenghe (which means tingling tongue, in reference to the tannic 'buzz' of the first taste in the mouth) and refosco, and two whites, a dry tocai, and verduzzo (here used to make a semi-sweet and complex wine).  All 5 were excellent in their way - the tastes lingered pleasantly in the mouth without unpleasant aftertastes, and demonstrated the potential of talented makers to rediscover old varieties and wines as well as using modern varieties well.
Azienda Agricola Iacuzzi, Viale Kennedy 35, 33040 Montina di Torreano (UD)
Tel. 0432 715147.

A brief mention here of a wine maker Livio Felluga whom we did not visit until a later visit, and whose wines are very good but pricey.  They are reviewed in  the British wine press more frequently than most other Friuli makers, and we confirmed their quality by sampling a bottle we were given.  The website is good too!

Friday, 13 May 2011

Sweet wines

We are very fond of sweet wines.  Often the word 'sweet' tells only part of the story - the best have aroma and freshness as well as more than usual sugar.
Mostly the sugar is the natural content of the grape juice.  In most wine, all of it is turned into alcohol during fermentation.  But in sweet wines, either fermentation is slowed down and stopped by cooling leaving some sugar, or alcohol is added to kill the yeast before all the sugar is used up, or sugar can be added to a dry wine - generally frowned on  or prohibited, but it is allowed in Champagne.
In many cases, sweet wines are made by using riper than usual grapes - if they are late-picked they develop more sugar on the vine, and sometimes a special fungus - 'noble rot' - intensifies the sugar content still further.
There are costs and risks in using late-picked grapes - the weather has more chance to wreck a crop; riper grapes shrivel so you need more to get a given volume of juice; not all grapes on a bunch ripen at the same rate so you may need to hand-pick individual grapes (in French, vendanges passerillés); and if you wait for noble rot you sometimes get the wrong sort of fungus and the whole crop is ruined.  So many sweet wines are relatively expensive.
Great sweet wines made from late-picked grapes include Sauternes and Barsac from Bordeaux, and many German wines from Riesling and other grape varieties.  Some of our favourites from other parts of France are Coteaux du Layon and Bonnezeaux made of chenin blanc grapes, from the area south of Anjou in the lower Loire (these have astonishing keeping qualities for white wines and we have drunk 20- and 25-year-old examples which were delicious).
Closer to our new home and in the Rhône valley there are a number of well-known muscat vins doux naturels - the term is misleading since they are all made by stopping fermentation with alcohol, so are fortified like sherry or port.  The best known of these is from Beaumes de Venise in the southern Rhône but Languedoc-Roussillon examples include Rivesaltes, St Jean de Minervois, Frontignan and our own local appellation, Muscat de Lunel.
Recently (July 2007) we have found wonderful sweet wines in Friuli in north-east Italy - Piccolit and Ramondolo are examples - and have realised that there are many wines in Italy like these which use late-picked grapes for sweetness but also enhance and concentrate them by partly drying the grapes before fermenting them.  Obviously this produces still less wine from a given quantity of grapes!

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Favourites - Cave de St Désirat

We first visited the Cave de Saint Désirat in the summer of 2005 - I know when because it was early in our wine explorations in France, but they told us they only moved to the current site in 2004, so it must have been just after that.  It's on the west bank of the Rhône south of the village of Condrieu, and it's the delicious if expensive white wine of the same name which is one of the main attractions.  Condrieu is a small appellation controlée and the first to make famous the difficult but very perfumed white grape viognier which has since become ubiquitous across the south of France and across the world.  But as Chablis is to chardonnay, so Condrieu is to viognier.  There are lots of fruity, flowery examples from elsewhere (Mary described one of the first we bought, from St Estève d'Uchaud in the southern Rhône, as tasting like dolly mixture - it made her laugh), but the original AOC is an altogether more elegant and refined wine.  Not, at the price, one for everyday, but a beautiful apéritif for a special occasion or (as the French always have it) accompaniment to foie gras.

But the main business of this cave co-opérative is the production of another AOC, Saint Joseph, one of several in the northern Rhône (others include Hermitage, Cornas and Crozes Hermitage) made from 100% syrah.  The impressive array of 2005 and 2006 wines on offer at the moment come from 2 quite exceptional years in the Rhône as in most of France.  All were deep-coloured and deep-flavoured - the less expensive ready to drink soon, but the better-made, with old and new oak adding to their complexity without 'woodiness', capable of being kept for some years.

Incidentally, the historical proximity of the viognier and syrah cépages on this bit of the west bank of the Rhône has led to a curious mixture in one of the great wines of the area, Côte Rôtie.  This appellation, as small as Condrieu, is at face value another deep red syrah, but unlike its northern Rhône neighbours the wines have a small amount of viognier added to give a wonderful exotic lift to the smell and taste of the wines.  In recent years lookalikes from Australia and South Africa have made this rare combination of grape varieties better known.

Coordonnées GPS : N 45°15'53.27" et E4°47'50.15"

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Favourites - Didier Cornillon

Clairette de Die (and other wines from the Diois - and Tunisia!)
Cave Didier Cornillon, 26410 St Roman-en-Diois.  Phone 04 75 21 81 79.
Didier was one of our earliest vigneron acquaintances in France - we met him in 1993 soon after he had broken away from the Cave Co-operative in Die to set up as an independent wine maker, and we have followed the success of his enterprise with interest ever since.  His Clairette de Die Tradition (and the special cuvée Florilège in particular) is an excellent example of the unique sweet sparkling wine of the Diois, made largely or wholly from muscat grapes.  This is a bit confusing - the name of the appellation comes from a grape variety, clairette, which is sometimes mixed with muscat in this wine but is mainly used to make the dry sparkling wine now known as Crémant de Die.  Didier's crémant and some of his other French wines have entries in Hachette almost every year, incidentally.

We are always pleased to rediscover his wines on our visits to the Diois, including those from Tunisia (with tastes of spices and hotter soils) as well as from the Diois including of course the sparkling Crémant and Clairette de Die.  We've enjoyed the Tunisian red and rosé with various meals during recent stays, and brought back some of the excellent Gamay d'Antan which is one of his appellation controlée (Châtillon en Diois) wines.  Most recently he has started to make red St Joseph from a small parcel of vines he has acquired on the other side of the Rhône, and we were fascinated to compare this wine with the St Joseph we acquired at the Cave Co-opérative at Saint Désirat on the one hand, and with his own 100% syrah called Saint Romanée which he grows right here near Châtillon on the other.  The St Josephs compared well and were both excellent.  Since the early years of the 21st century Didier has branched out into Tunisia, and produces outstanding red, white and rosé wines there, sold through his Cave in the Diois. 

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

What's in a name? - grape varieties and confusions

Lunel, where we live, is one of several places in France which produces a Muscat vin doux naturel.  We love these sweet, fortified wines and so do many of our friends.  A couple of whom, hoping to take some back home with them, decided to rush into the supermarket on their last day to buy a  bottle.  They emerged with Muscadet (de Sèvres et Maine) - not the same thing at all.  So here are a few notes on some of the confusions in the world of wine and grapes - very personal and not scientific or exhaustive:
  • Grapes come in many varieties or cépages each with its characteristic flavour - in some parts of the world it is the grape variety which is highlighted on the label; in France it is usually the appellation - often the place or area of origin - which identifies a wine because French winemakers believe the terroir (a subtle combination of soil, geology and climate) has as much or more influence on the character of a wine.
  • Muscat - a fragrant, floral grape used for many sweet and a few dry white wines, in France, Spain and Italy as well as in some countries of the new world.  Muscadet is a variety used in dry white wines from the lower Loire.
  • Clairette de Die (from the Drôme département in south-east France) is a delicious sweet sparkling wine made mostly or entirely from the muscat grape, and so with the characteristic floral scent and flavour.  Although the Clairette grape is sometimes used in small quantities with muscat in Clairette de Die, its main use is in the dry sparkling white wine called Crémant de Die.
  • The Clairette grape is used in many white wines in the Languedoc in particular, blended with other grape varieties.  But it is also used on its own in two appellations in the region to which it gives its name - Clairette de Bellegarde (Bellegarde is a village south of Nîmes) and Clairette du Languedoc (made in the country area between Montpellier and Pézénas).
  • The word clairette comes from the same root as claret, now used by the English-speaking world (but seldom by French people) for red Bordeaux wines.
  • Vins doux naturels are certainly sweet but in a sense less 'natural' than other wines - they are slightly fortified (similar alcoholic strength to sherry, for instance) because alcohol is added to stop fermentation before all the sugar in the grapes is converted to alcohol.
  • Many famous French appellations are blends of two or more grape varieties, but some are made from single cépages.  Examples: most red and white wines from Bourgogne (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay respectively), northern Rhône wines (reds such as Cornas and Crozes Hermitage and the white wine Condrieu which first made Viognier famous), and red Beaujolais (gamay) as well as most Alsace wines which bear the name of the grape on their labels.
  • Red wines get their colour from grape skins, left in contact with the juice for some time.  Many rosés acquire their colour in the same way but with shorter skin contact, although a few are made from grapes with coloured juice.  And since the juice of red grapes is sometimes 'white' it can be used to make white wines - a major example is Champagne, much of which uses Pinot Noir (often belnded with Chardonnay).  Thus Champagne made from Chardonnay alone is called blanc de blancs meaning white wine made from white grapes.