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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!!