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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!!

Friday, 19 September 2014

Rhône visit, part 3 - Rasteau and Beaumes de Venise

     Rasteau                                                                              Beaumes de Venise

Wednesday 17 September.  Unlike our visits on Monday, today we were on very
familiar territory, ending up at our favourite vineyard in the southern Rhône.  We headed first for Cairanne and Rasteau, hoping to taste the latest wines from Corinne Couturier at the Domaine Rabasse Charavin, one of our earliest encounters in the area in the mid-1990s.  But the harvest was in full swing and they were closed until the afternoon so, sadly, we moved on down the road to the Domaine du Trapadis, run by winemaker Helen Durand (a man although the name resembles an English female one).   The name Trapadis is derived from the word "Trapalas" which means "cave" in Provençal.  Despite the harvest, we were lucky to find someone there to offer us a tasting, and it proved very well worthwhile.

One of the online guides says the basic wines they make in the 2 red AOCs Cairanne (syrah/grenache) and the basic Rasteau (grenache/mourvèdre) taste rather 'green' and that is how they seemed to us.  But the dry red 'les Adrès' cuvée, a year older and with a higher percentage of mourvèdre, we found excellent (as do several guides).  In addition Rasteau is known for its unusual AOC for a red vin doux naturel, not to everyone's taste but most certainly to ours, and in addition they make a more expensive sweet red made from late-picked grapes ('les Pochonnières') which is truly delicious.  

This was a very pleasurable way to approach lunchtime and a great meal at the Dolium restaurant attached to the Beaumes de Venise co-op Balma Venitia.  The restaurant is truly excellent, and we ate wonderful food accompanied by lovely wines made in the Cave  - a white Vacqueyras and a red Séguret côtes du Rhône - but I have to have a small moan because the Cave refuses to sell this to individual customers claiming it is only made for restaurants - a silly and needless restriction.
And so on to the Domaine de Durban.  We have been up to the heights above Beaumes de Venise many times with our friends and family.  On the first trip we bought a dry muscat, the 'fruité de Durban' which we discovered was not always available: the grapes were sometimes needed to produce the sweet Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, a celebrated AOC vin doux naturel, for many years.  Now the dry wine is always made and is even available in bag-in-box to Mary's great delight.  The domaine boasts some of the best views across the Rhône valley, and is at the edge of the high ground which links Gigondas and Beaumes de Venise, so the domaine makes a really good red Gigondas too, as well as an equally excellent range of red Beaumes de Venise.  We could not taste everything this time, but we departed with some Gigondas and a few bottles of the celebrated sweet Muscat - of course we'll be back!

Rhône visit - part 2, Vinsobres and Valréas

Valreas                                                                         Vinsobres

Monday 15 September.  When we arrived on holiday in Crest the proprietor of our gîte gave us a splendid guide to Rhône wines produced by Inter Rhône. Each appellation has a double page spread, and these pretty diagrams showing the geology of each area head each description.  They are not, as far as I can see, on the website so I photographed them for this blog.

Vinsobres has a rapidly growing reputation having upgraded its status from Côtes du Rhône villages to its own appellation controlée.  I found the Domaine de Deurre in a relatively old Fodor guide but it is still in good shape, and its proprietor Hubert Valayer welcomed us warmly.  This is a busy time of year with the harvest (vendanges) in full swing, but he had time for us and we really enjoyed tasting his red wines.  We particuarly enjoyed 2 reds: a Côtes du Rhône 'les Oliviers' and a Vinsobres 'les Rabasses' - the latter is named from the provençal word for truffles, another speciality of this domaine and others in the area.

On a previous visit to this area, perhaps 20 years ago, we had enjoyed the magic of the views as we climbed the winding road north of Vinsobres towards Valréas.  At each bend the perched village below apears against a more and more dominant backdrop of Mont Ventoux, and despite the misty conditions this time we were still delighted to find the route again.

While Vinsobres is a charming and picturesque village, Valréas is a bustling town of 10,000 people, historically capital of the Enclave des Papes which is a separate corner of Vaucluse in the south of the Drôme département.  But the hillside above the town to the south is still unspoiled truffle and wine country, pocketed with valleys and hidden corners where we found the Domaine du Val des Rois (the same name presumably as Valréas) run by Romain Bouchard and now his oenologue son.  Romain, who returned from his native Brugundy 40 years since to resume control of this domaine, in his family for 9 generations since the 18th century, greeted us charmingly and we tasted a range of reds and a good white in a picturesque caveau.  The red 'Enclave' (named for the area but without the word 'Papes' which is apparently jealously guarded by the prestigious Châteauneuf des Papes to the south - another example of oversensitivity in  French wine circles) was very good and we also took away a couple of bottles of méthode champenoise fizz made from bourboulenc to try later.  This was a really enjoyable visit and rounded out a good day in the Enclave des Papes.  We look forward to returning perhaps for one of their truffle days before too long.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Rhône visit - part 1, near Crest

Sunday 14 September.   In 2014 I've often had great ideas for blog posts - bottles tried, caves visited, thoughts about wine - but until now never got round to writing.  So I'm pleased to have a little time on this holiday in the Drôme to describe some of our discoveries and old favourites revisited.  It's fitting to restart now because our companions are Mary's cousins Alan & Barbara, and it was Alan who kicked me into starting this blog when we visited them in Texas.

Last year they joined us on our frist trip to Bordeaux, and this year they planned a cruise up the Rhône so we suggested they join us near our old twin town of Die in the Drôme so that we could show them old haunts and explore Rhône wines, especially in the southern Rhône and the left bank.  So far we have visited 3 vineyards completely new to us, one on the western edge of the Clairette de Die appellation a stone's throw from our gîte near Crest, and then a little south to the Enclave des Papes and the Drôme Provençal where the southern Côtes du Rhône wines begin.  I searched as usual for recommendations in my books and particularly the Guide Hachette des vins.

But our first visit came from a personal recommendation from the proprietor of our gîte, a charming and cultivated man who knows his wines well but prefers to drink water!  He suggested a visit to the Domaine Peylong only a few km from here in the little commune of Suze.  The domaine was revived around 40 years ago, growing mainly muscat to sell to the cave co-opérative (Jaillance) in Die, but Christelle (who met us) and Fabien Lombard took over more recently and have gradually added still wines they make and sell directly as vignerons.  

Pride of place goes to the 100% clairette - called Oublié - with its special appellation Coteaux de Die, rarely made because many growers prefer to use their grapes for the more profitable fizz cremant de Die.   In past visits to the Drôme we've discovered 2 other examples of wholly clairette still wines, but both makers have since discontinued them. It's a pity, the wines are usually very individual and delicious.  The Lombards also make another, aromatic white IGP wine blended from the classic northern Rhône grapes marsanne, roussanne and a small amount of viognier

Incidentally, the oddity is that the wine Clairette de Die is made wholly or very largely from the muscat grape, while the clairette grape variety is used in the Diois mainly to make cremant de Die.  There are 2 other special appellations for clairette, both in the Languedoc - Clairette de Languedoc in a small area west of Montpellier, and Clairette de Bellegarde in the commune of the same name in the Gard south of Nîmes.  Clairette is also commonly used to blend white wines in both the Rhône and the Languedoc.

The red wine they make, also an IGP, contains some cabernet sauvignon as well as the predominant syrah.  They ferment it gently at a relatively low temperature and keep it on the lees - the result is a fresh but rounded, deep-coloured wine which we found delicious.  The couple are passionate and dedicated, making very small quantities of wine but with great care.  Christelle is the first person to have taken time to describe the tasting of grapes for ripeness - not just juice but skin and pips - to ensure harvesting at the ideal moment.  The word 'gentle' says in my mind, not to describe pallid flavour - the wines are full of character and delicious - but to indicate integration and lack of aggresivity.  a really pleasing discovery.