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Saturday, 22 December 2012

Wine tasting in Wirksworth 21 Dec 2012

Yesterday we met with many of our good friends from our former tasting circle to enjoy lovely wines we had brought specially from France. Here are the notes I made for the group.

Wine tasting at Babington House, Wirksworth, Friday 21 December 2012

Wine: Clairette de Die AOC ‘Florilège’ [2011] - sparkling
Vigneron: Didier Cornillon, Saint Roman. Didier was the first vigneron we met when we began the twinning adventure in 1992. He had just set up independently at that point – now he is one of the leading winemakers in the Diois. Florilège is his top cuvée of Clairette de Die tradition, made as usual from mostly muscat grapes with just a small amount of clairette.

Wine: Muscats, Vin de France, 2010 - white
Vigneron: one of our local favourites, Serge Martin-Pierrat at his Château des Hospitaliers domaine in Saint Christol, just north of our town, Lunel. Serge and his wife are passionate conservationists who run their business in a holistic way, encouraging wildlife, preferring to repel pests with pheromones rather than pesticides, and with a magnificent and massive chai built from the golden limestone from the quarries near the Pont du Gard, whose cellars are cooled by a ‘living wall’ covered with plants. Muscats is one of a new range of wines they are developing combining unusual combinations, in this case 5 different varieties of muscat grapes.

Wine: La Fermade, AOC Lirac, 2011 – white
Vigneron: Richard Maby at his family domaine in the village of Tavel near Avignon. He is one of several winemakers we have got to know via the Wine Society, to which his family has sold wines for over 120 years. Tavel has its own well-known appellation for rosé wines (Richard makes a good one), but the nearby Lirac is one of the villages on the west bank of the Rhône better-known for its reds and whites. This blend of grenache blanc, viognier, clairette and piquepoul grapes is a typical Rhône village white – like the Languedoc, AOCs in the southern Rhône are blends rather than single varietals – this white was selected in the Guide Hachette for 2013.

Wine: Saltimbanque (carignan), Vin de France, 2010 – red 
Vigneron: Benoit Viot at his Chemin des Rêves in the village of Saint Gély du Fesc on the southern edge of the Pic Saint Loup area (north of Montpellier). We met Benoit in 2007 when he had just started producing wines, renting land, equipment and buildings. He has succeeded spectacularly, regularly winning prizes for his Pic Saint Loup AOC and Grès de Montpellier AOC wines, and selected to represent the best of southern French winemakers. Carignan is one of our favourite grape varieties, once part of the high-producing grapes which contributed to the wine lake, but now valued because people have realised that older vines, while reduced in yield, give grapes with a great flavour. We helped with the harvest for the 2012 Saltimbanque last September. Single-variety wines in the Languedoc are never allowed AOC status, but are no less delicious for that.

Wine: Sourire d’Odile, AOC Côteaux du Languedoc Pic Saint Loup, 2007 – red Vigneron: Mézy family at the Clos des Augustins in Saint Mathieu de Tréviers north of Montpellier. The Pic Saint Loup AOC is one of the stars of the Languedoc, a reputation matched by the dramatic Pic itself, a triangular hunk of rock jutting above the village of Saint Mathieu and visible from far across the Languedoc plains. We don’t know this vineyard well, but tasted the wine in a restaurant tasting evening – a classic Languedoc blend of syrah and Grenache.

Wine: La Cantilène, AOC Minervois La Livinière, 2006 – red 
Vigneron(ne): Isabelle Coustal at her Château Saint Eulalie in the little village of La Livinière at the heart of the Minervois. Isabelle is another winemaker we have got to know via the Wine Society, which regularly lists this wine and others among favourites of their members and buyers – she is equally well-respected on the French circuit. La Livinière has its own special AOC apart from the rest of the Miinervois – it is on the northern slopes of a beautiful amphitheatre of countryside facing the Corbières mountain and bounded to the south by the Canal du Midi. La Cantilène is a blend of syrah (55%), grenache and carignan grapes.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Salon Epicuvin

On Saturday we braved the wet weather to go to the Salon Epicuvin in Montpellier. The last time Mary and I visited the Château de Flaugèrgues was to rehearse Bach - it is also a domaine viticole but we've never tried their wines. This time we were there primarily to say hello to Benoit Viot whose Chemin des Rêves has figured before in this blog. We know their wines well - the white, like that of Richard Maby, bas figured in recent Guides Hachette - but this time it was to taste his new cuvée La Soie, of which he has only made 600 bottles. After tasting this blend of mostly syrah with a little grenache (because the grapes grow in the same vineyard, apparently), we instantly bought 1% of his production. At 25€ a bottle this is on a par with the Syrhus of Ch. Grès Saint Paul which we know well, but La Soie has a wonderful elegance - no wonder Benoit calls some of his other wines 'Abracadabra'.  Magic!

While we were at the Salon we did some serious shopping for Christmas food - excellent cheese, charcuterie and foie gras alongside the 30 or so winemakers there - and revisited a couple of old favourites among winemakers and discovered at least two new interesting ones.  The first is a really quirky small producer from the little village of Saint Sériès just north of Lunel.  No website for Terre Inconnue, but several blogs - I think Vimpressionistes gives the best flavour.  We tasted several wines, but Léonie was the better for us of the 2 carignans we tried, and we were served by the eponymous Léonie, daughter of part-time winemaker Robert Creus.  The second - Swiss vigneronne Verena Wyss from Gabian near Pézénas.  Her unoaked viognier was the best of the whites we tasted but we didn't try the reds.  Too much to see in one short visit, but an interesting weekend with special events - we must look out for it next year.

Visit to the western Rhône

This has been a very intersting time for us wine-wise, since our return from the USA.  There seems always to be too little time to write about our experiences, but here at least is a flavour of the past week.  Instalment 1

On Friday we went with friends to the Rhône Valley.  The nearest vineyards, still in the Gard département but beyond the areas of the Costières de Nîmes, Languedoc and so on, are on the right bank of the Rhône and include some famous appellations - the best known are Tavel and Lirac, and our longstanding contact Richard Maby is one of the best makers of these wines at his Domaine Maby in the pretty village of Tavel.  He warmly welcomed us despite the busy preparations for an evening function celebrating the bottling of the primeur wines of the Côtes du Rhône.  The habit of bottling and selling red wine a couple of months after the harvest has spread from the Beaujolais Nouveau circus to many other parts of the south of France - obvious economic sense if you can sell part of your production straight away rather than storing it for a year or more.  But it is a quite different product, as we found this weekend, drinking the delicious, light cherry-red wine Richard kindly gave us as we left.  14% alcohol all the same, so although it slipped down easily it is not for over-indulgence!

The traditional wines he makes are altogether more serious, and they have a long pedigree.  Richard's family have been selling wines to the Wine Society in the UK for over 100 years, and a poster (on the wall of the tasting caveau) of the specialist merchant Yapp in Wiltshire showed they too have been buying Maby wines for a long time.  With reason - the La Fermade red Lirac is a brilliant, solid village red, and they are beginning to add cuvées with operatic titles - Nessun Dorma for example for the high-end red Lirac.  The whites (with the usual Rhône mixture of grapes, including some Piquepoul) are equally classy - we bought a little of the unoaked La Fermade and there is an operatic Casta Diva with some barrel fermentation.  And the Tavel Rosé is a dry delight, perfect with food.  All details on their website.

Richard recommended the nearby restaurant La Genestière, not far from the centre of Tavel, which offered a simple and inexpensive set lunch menu, and obviously has much more to offer in an old building which also houses a wine domaine - a real pleasure.  After lunch we had a lovely drive back in the sunshine, but the tasting visits were less exciting.  We tried the Château Saint Maurice which is, as you can  see from the website, a major undertaking.  Mary and I had found their wines in English supermarkets in the 1990s and had enjoyed a previous visit, but this time we felt rather like the sheep grazing among the vines - excluded from even a brief tasting because they were 'too busy' preparing for their own primeur event that afternoon.  No mention of this on the website, and what a contrast from the kind welcome given us by Richard Maby.  So we went on to the huge Cave Coopérative which now combines the village productions of Laudun and Chusclan.  I'd enjoyed discovering the Chusclan rosé in the early 90s, supposedly the preferred tosé of the Kings of France, but although some of the wines are nice we were not excited, and so contented ourselves with a leisurely drive back through Laudun.
Viticultural relics - as interesting as many of the wines at this co-op


Friday, 5 October 2012

Wine in New Mexico

First an apology to any (few probably) who hoped to follow this blog regularly.  I've simply been too busy, or perhaps too lazy, to write it often lately.  But being here in Texas and New Mexico with Alan Byars who encouraged me to start up the blog, my conscience is pricked so here goes again.  I hope I can manage to keep it going from now on.

This entry is about wines in New Mexico.  In 1880 this State was the 5th largest wine producer in the USA.  Thanks to climatic and other setbacks the production shrank to virtually nothing - in the late 20th century it began to revive so that from 10 wineries in 1985 it now has 40, and the volumes have grown from around 8,000 hl in 1997 to over 26,000 today, from 500 ha of vineyards.  In world terms this is still tiny - our home region of Languedoc-Rousillon produces 1000 times as much - 2.75 million hl from 160,000 ha, and California (which produces over 90% of US wine) around 1200 times as much as New Mexico. 

Nevertheless New Mexico is proud of its reviving and strengthening wine industry.  The first thing we had to learn is that most wine is produced away from the vineyards, most of which are in the south of the State.  We found ourselves in the mountains of central New Mexico, over 2000 metres in altitude, with winemakers on our dorrstep and others in the valley near White Sands with a few vineyards nearby - but most makers here and in the north of the State buy their grapes from southern growers.  I have not found an obvious answer to the question "why here?" for makers who choose to vinify grapes grown often hundreds of km away, but it has been our fortune because in one brief visit we have found some excellent wines.

In the valley at Tularosa and Almogordo we tasted some really interesting white wines - Gewürztraminers sweet and dry and Symphony (a cross between Muscat of Alexandria and Grenache Gris, and among reds Alan bought a really nice barrel-aged Cabernet Sauvignon though I did not taste this, and I tasted some Sangiovese and Syrah which did not really stand comparison with originals of quite ordinary quality in their French and Italian original guises.  Some of these valley vineyards at least were near the wineries although I think they bought in at least some grapes - the level of knowledge of staff there was at best sketchy. 

But the true revelation was in the town of Ruidoso, near where we are staying, where we found the Noisy Water Winery (Ruidoso in native American language means 'noisy water' so there are a lot of businesses here using that name).  They have two wine ranges there, and we chose to taste the 'select' or 'reserve' range which cost as much as the top wines back in France, but which match them in quality and interest.  We tasted Chardonnay and Sangiovese of really high quality, and a very passable Petite Sirah (a grape we'd tried often in its Mexican guise from off-licences in England in the 1990s). 

Three things about these wineries.  First, most charge for tastings.  I always avoid this in France since most reputable makers offer free tastings - it is simply not the habit here.  But the tasting formulas are inflexible - 6 wines for $10 for example when one might choose to taste only 3 or 4; and one guy told us we were not allowed to share a tasting (I often rely on Mary's 'second palate' to help me judge wines).  Second, the same guy told me it was not permitted to spit - all professional tasters in Europe spit all the time and rarely if ever swallow - they would be on the floor before a quarter of their daily work was done if they did not.  Maybe Americans think it unhygeinic, but it is impracticable if you are driving and going to several producers a day.  Third, all the wineries including the best we've found offer flavoured wines and/or fruit wines.  We did not try chilli (green or red) or chocolate flavours, but Alan did persuade us to try the cherry wine in Tularosa and I still prefer almost any wine made with grapes!

This has been an interesting introduction to a small but growing and improving wine area in the States, and if our travels here lead to further discoveries I'll report further.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

How to serve red wine - a local carignan, and also a new local rosé

For my birthday Mary gave me a subscription to La Revue du Vin de France which has turned out to be  a Very Good Thing.  This month, there was a comparative tasting of some top reds (Bordeaux, Bourgogne, northern and southern Rhône and Languedoc vdp carignan) comparing 3 bottles in each case - one opened immediately before drinking, the second decanted 2 hours in advance, and the third opened 2 days beforehand but left in the bottle, not decanted until it arrived in the glass.  In all 5 cases the one opened but left in bottle for 2 days came out top!

Yesterday we welcomed our friends Jacqui and Luc (author of wine guides) and decided to try the 3-bottle comparison.  A few days earlier I had visited the Domaine de Bellevue for the first time - a real pleasure situated just next to the Lunel junction on the A9 and with splendid views over Lunel - you can see right to the coast and the ziggurats of La Grande Motte in fact.  I was with my friend Nigel, and we tried several wines, rosé, muscat (de Lunel)and red, including a 7 year old carignan which Nigel - generally a fan of carignan - found difficult.  So I decided to use this for our lunch with Luc and Jacqui.
Luc was already clear before we began that, since oxygen is the enemy of wine, the bottle opened in advance but not disturbed by decanting ought to be the best.  In fact, all three turned out to be good but the decanted one was the least successful and, at the outset, the bottle opened 2 days beforehand was by far the richest and best balanced.  So I'll certainly tell Nigel that  it's worth persisting with that particular Carignan, but I'll also remember to open good bottle of red a day or two before we drink them.  I devised a protector with a rubber band and a small piece of kitchen paper to avoid adding stray flies to the wine!

We also sampled the new rosé released the previous evening by the Domaine Guinand at St Christol. A couple of eyars ago there was a flurry of controversy when the European Union seemed ready to permit mixing red and white grape varieties to make rosé wine.  This already happens in Champagne but this is the first time I've found it in the south of France (although some white viognieer is famously added to syrah in the northern Rhône to make the red Côte Rôtie).  But this Plaisir du Sud rosé is a fragrant pleasure, scented on the nose with strawberry and exotic fruits following, and we all 4 found it  a really pleasant apéritif.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Montpeyroux - toutes caves ouvertes 15/4/2012

On Sunday we went with friends David and Bigi to the village of Montpeyroux north-west of Montpellier.  This is one of the best-known wine villages in the Languedoc, and has acquired a reputation for exceptional wines.  It was our first visit and there were 20 producers offering tastings - needless to say we did not visit all of them.  The village is quite high up in the hilly area known as the Terrasses de Larzac, and Mary had said as we drove over that she thought the wines might be quite austere - she was more or less right, but our small sample of tastings found some elegant wines - at a price.  The reputation of the village has led to quite high prices compared with, for example, our local Saint Christol, and the quality did not always seem to match the premium; but part of the enjoyment of tasting is to meet interesting makers, and so where we received a warm welcome we were more inclined to enjoy the wines!

Our first visit, and last, was to the Domaine La Jasse Castel.  Early in the day we met the friendly vigneronne Pascale Rivière and tasted the white "l'Egrisée" (100% grenache blanc - 12€).  The name means 'diamond dust' and the wine is fresh, quite acidic but beautifully balanced - this was its first vintage.  When we returned at the end of our circuit on the way to the car I tried some reds, Les Combariolles and La Jasse, both syrah grenache blends, the first mostly grenache (26€) and the second mainly syrah (17.40€) - deep dark wines which will keep.  Though none of these wines were cheap, we enjoyed the meeting and brought some bottles away.

One of the best-known producers is the Domaine d'Aupilhac at the top of the village.  The prices here are equally high, and the quality did not always seem to justify the cost, but the premises alone were worth the visit, and as often they had invited a local artist to display work throughout the cellars and tasting rooms.  The premises occupy several interconnected houses along the street front.  Most of the wines scarcely seemed to justify their high prices, but I looked especially for the Carignan de Mont Baudile and was not disappointed by a dense wine which is typical of the vins de pays of this area, anything but ordinary.  A tasting of a 2004 vintage at the end of the tour confirmed its development potential with age.  We also loved Le Boda, an AOP wine made mainly of mourvèdre and syrah and barrel aged for 24 months before bottling.
Working through a number of other producers nearby we tried some interesting single-variety wines from Villa Dondona whose new Dame Mourvèdre has only just been bottled for the first time and whose Chemin de Cayrades (Carignan) seemed very interesting.  We were disappointed that the Domaine Alain Chabanon (several nice wines - they say they have a website but it keeps crashing) had not brought its late-picked chenin blanc 'Le Villard' to the tastings; and we found most of the wines at the Cave Co-opérative disappointing though the prices were very good!  We bought a few bottles of the pleasant red Cuvée Or - very affordable at 3.40€, but were very disappointed by the carignan which seemed watery and lacking in body.  We could have stayed longer but the weather deteriorated which was sad for the organisers who had put a lot of work into an entertaining day, so we went home after lunch.

Thanks to Bigi for some of the photos!

Monday, 20 February 2012


We've enjoyed the first day of Vinisud with friends Per and Lilli - already bustling with buyers (including a couple of their Danish friends) at 1030 on Monday morning!  We began outside France (see below) but then had pleasure in saying hello to some of our favourite vignerons:
  • The Lemarié family at the Corbières domaine Ch Aiguilloux -, whose range of 4 wines continues to impress - above all the reds - Les Trois Seigneurs and Cuvée Anne-Georges (named after their two now adult children).
  • Ch Sainte Eulalie - Isabelle Coustal's range of wines has extended slightly to satisfy different markets, but her range of 4 'originals' are as always excellent - the white single-variety sauvignon blanc, the rosé Printemps d'Eulalie, the easy-drinking red Plaisir d'Eulalie and the serious and longlasting La Cantilène.
  • The Chemin de Rèves in St Gély du Fesc.  Benoit Viot and his wife Servane were surrounded by appreciative clients when we called by, and it's not surprising since he is recognised widely as one of the up-and-coming young winemakers of France.
  • The Mas du Jon.  We discovered this Pic St Loup domaine when it was just setting up in 2007, at a market stall in Aigues Mortes.  Obviously, sharing my name, it appealed to us and so, it proved, did the wines.  They still do.  The Gravegeals, brother and sister, have developed a successful operation with their white from the single variety Marsanne, as good as Mary remembered it, and 2 good red Pic St Loup AOCs.
In addition, Lilli and Per introduced us to a new maker (to us) in the Pic St Loup area - Fabienne Bruguière at the Mas Thélème -   Not only are her wines excellent, but she's part of a collective of women winemakers in the Langeudoc, so fits in with our long-term interest in women winemakers.

We also visited two Italian makers (from Piedmont) - Sebastiano Ramello where we tasted some nice Barolos, and the Azienda Agricola Morando Silvio whose Barbera d'Asti wines were very good.

But when we first arrived we were fortunate to pick out two interesting Spanish producers - the Bodegas Covila in Rioja, whose range of Riojas from the young entry-level wine through Crianza, Reserva and Gran Reserva showed perfectly the range possible in a traditional style - beautiful wines.

Our first discovery was a couple, the Bolets, who are just off the motorway between Barcelona and Tarragona.  They had only gained entry to Vinisud, and a display stand, at the last moment, but whose wines seemed really good - we enjoyed a dry and fresh muscat/gewurztraminer, and also two reds, a 100% Merlot Criança, and a DO Penedès, 40/60 merlot/cab sauv.

A good day out.  Vinisud runs until Wed - more on -