amarchinthevines

Learning about wine, vines and vignerons whilst living in the Languedoc


Leave a comment

A Tour Down Under, Queensland

After the busy city, time to relax with a trip to the Whitsunday Islands off the Queensland coast at the southern edge of the Great Barrier Reef. Hamilton Island is a holiday resort essentially, famed for its exclusive residences used by the rich and famous as well as its family hotels. Island visitors are well catered for with restaurants, shops, beaches and pools. To get around the small island golf buggies can be hired as no cars are allowed. The system runs like a well oiled machine.

P1030922

Buggy driver outside the church

As well as relaxing in the warm sunshine we made two day trips. The second was to Whitehaven Beach on the largest of the 74 islands, Whitsunday itself. The beach is a shining white colour, the sand is almost pure silica and has a fine flour like texture. The waters are clear and a beautiful colour.

However, star of the visit was the day snorkelling on the Reef itself, notable Bait Reef. I had never snorkelled before but I took to it, well, like a duck to water. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Reef, whatever expectations I had were surpassed a thousand times over. The magnificent colours of the coral and the fish lit up the ocean. The Reef here was badly damaged by Cyclone Debbie in April 2017 and yet, though some parts died off others were showing signs of recovery with beautiful blue, pink, yellow coral sprouting along with many other colours too.

                          Waves breaking on the coral reef and fish around the boat

Apparently 10% of the Earth’s fish species live on the Reef and it was impossible to keep track of the dozens of species I saw. However, two stood out. A blue spotted ray darted along the seabed and then, as we were returning to the boat I saw a black outline against the white sand. It could only be a shark from its shape but it took a while for me to get my head round that. It sat for a couple of minutes and then turned and swam straight towards me which made my heart skip a beat. It swam right under me and it was a few minutes I shall never forget. I was told by our guide that it was a white tipped reef shark, it was magnificent.

                    Butterfly fish, blue spotted ray and the white tipped reef shark

Then to Brisbane for the final few days of the trip. The city is dominated by the river of the same name, free ferries and buses help the traveller to get around easily. The beautiful botanic gardens sheltered a variety of birds, water dragons and beautiful plants, trees and flowers.

 

Strangely some of the better wines from shops and bars of the whole 2 months were experienced here in Queensland. The bottle shop on Hamilton Island carried good wines such as O’Leary Walker‘s Polish Hill Riesling, D’Arenberg‘s Custodian Grenache and the interesting Toru blend of Gewurztraminer, Riesling and Pinot Gris from Te Whare Ra in Marlborough. All very good. From another bottle shop in Brisbane I secured an old favourite in Coldstream Hills Pinot Noir 2016. I hadn’t tried this since James Halliday gave up the domaine but it proved to be as good, refreshing and fruity as it always was.

At the Silver Fox Wine Bar in Brisbane though came a real treat. We ordered an orange wine from the Barossa Valley and the sommelier advised me to try the Old Vines Grenache from the same producer Kalleske. It was excellent advice. The orange wine, Viognier, had aromas of, well, oranges. Lavender too. It was delicious with tangy zesty fruit and lovely texture. One of the most interesting orange wines I have come across. The old vines Grenache was concentrated black and red fruit delight too. Unlike many reds I have tried here it was full but also light, not jammy, not over oaked. When I looked up the producer online I found that it is a biodynamic domaine in the Barossa, I was not surprised. There was a real energy and finesse to these two wines and I will be seeking out more of them if I can find them in the UK.

So, some good wines to finish and some of the most memorable of experiences too. Australia and New Zealand, thank you.


2 Comments

A Tour Down Under, Melbourne

P1030417

Melbourne from St. Kilda beachfront

From the Adelaide Hills we drove through the Grampian region and along the Great Ocean Road. The wildlife and the scenery were spectacular, from a mob of kangaroos coming into town in Halls Gap to the huge surf on the coast via the geological attractions of The Apostles and others. Little towns such as Anglesea and Lorne were attractive and afforded great food and drink, fresh, locally sourced, often organic and full of flavour. It was a few days of rich reward.

And then on to Melbourne. First experience was hairy returning the hire car with traffic problems, roadworks by the dozen and turning right by heading left I was ready for something to restore my soul. And it duly arrived. We went to The Lincoln pub first night as our friend Howard Stamp is chef there.

Howard is a long time pal of James Madden and came to Jeff’s for a couple of weeks in 2016. He fed us royally and we were delighted to meet up again for lunch with him at the excellent Tipo 00 Italian restaurant a few days later. Go to both if you’re in town. I’d recommend Rice, Paper Scissors if you want to sample Asian food, a fabulous experience.

Melbourne is distinctively mulitcultural and all the better for it. Asian, Aboriginal and European cultures sit side by side and, from this visitor’s viewpoint, they rubbed along very well indeed. There is so much to see and do, from the lovely sands of beach area St. Kilda to the museums, art deco shopping Lanes and cathedral.

I must mention the Melbourne Cricket Ground though, a must see for cricket fans like myself. The sports museum in the MCG was also excellent. We also took a tour to Phillips Island to watch the Little Penguins come to spend the night ashore, a memorable evening. I read whilst I was there that Melbourne has been described as the world’s best city for coffee drinkers and I would endorse that, I enjoyed some excellent cups.

Melbourne has a thriving wine scene too, wine bars abound, often serving food too. There is a real enthusiasm for natural wines and places such as Embla, Sun Moth, The French Saloon and Kirk’s Bar are just some that we experienced and enjoyed. The food looked good in all of these though we ate only in Sun Moth and enjoyed it too. There is a taste for European wines, Coutelou was available in Embla as well as The Lincoln, I saw Fanny Sabre’s Burgundy in Sun Moth and lots of familiar names from Italy, Austria and Spain. However, I was eager to try some Australian wines and especially from the local region. The Yarra Valley and Mornington Peninsula are close to Melbourne and, in hindsight, we should have spent a night in the Yarra before giving up the car.

Familiar natural producers in the region include Patrick Sullivan but there were many new names. Basket Range Wine is a traditional producer but sons Sholto and Louis Broderick are introducing natural methods to the range including the very good Backstroke, a juicy blend of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. I was lucky enough to meet Sholto in The Lincoln and look forward to following his career. Bobar was the other Yarra natural wine I tasted, again in The Lincoln. Their Gamma Ray was Gamay and Cabernet Franc and truly delicious, light but full flavoured, very easy to drink. I would definitely seek out their wines.

Other natural wines I drank:

  • from Tasmania came a light, fresh blend of 3 Pinots (Noir, Gris and Meunier) made by Brian winemakers, one of whom is a wine writer
  • from Margaret River, Western Australia, Sam Vinciullo‘s Red, a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon
  • more examples from Gentle Folk and Jauma in the Adelaide Hills including a lovely Chenin Blanc from the latter.

Less natural to my taste but still enjoyable:

  • from Barossa, Les Fruits Occitan red, made up of Languedoc varieties
  • from the Yarra Valley Luke Lambert‘s beautiful, pure Chardonnay which was a true treat, one of the best examples of Chardonnay I have enjoyed in a long time
  • from the Yarra I also enjoyed Jamsheed‘s well made Wandin Sauvignon Blanc,
  • from Polish Hill in the Clare Valley an interesting, bright blend of Barbera and Nebbiolo from Unico Zelo called Truffle Hound

Melbourne is a thriving city, growing by up to 100,000 people a year apparently. Busy but relaxed, there was a lot more to discover in the suburbs such as north Fitzroy but time to move across the water to New Zealand. However, I will not forget Melbourne and its friendly welcome.

 


7 Comments

Alsace

P1020407

View from Sigolsheim Nécropole over Grand Cru vineyards

When I first started to develop my passion for wine it was the books of English writer Oz Clarke which guided my tastes and my visits to the wine regions of France. I recall an evocative piece he wrote about sitting in the Nécropole, the military cemetery, of Sigolsheim in the Haut-Rhin department of Alsace. The view from this hill over the vineyards showed him how the Grand Cru sites corresponded to their position on the slopes. I visited the cemetery (of men who died in the Colmar pocket battle in World War 2) again last week and Clarke’s words came clearly to mind.

During my 5 days in Alsace I was to taste wines from all over the region, from its vineyards on the plains and the Grand Cru sites. For some years I was unconvinced by the true premium of those sites but my recent experience suggested to me that vignerons are now truly extracting the best from these vineyards and that there is a real jump in quality. I am sure that is not true of all of them but certainly the wines I tasted supported Clarke’s opinion back in the 1990s.

20170514_125820

Two favourite grapes from Alsace, Riesling and Pinot Noir, both by Trimbach

One other main development from previous experiences in Alsace was how much drier the wines are being made. There was always a sweetness to many wines but producers seem to have realised that consumers were confused by the different levels of dry, medium and sweetness in bottles which appeared to be of similar wine. It was noticeable that some wine lists even listed some wines such as Gewurztraminer as ‘sucré’ (sweeter). I found this a welcome consistency.

Finally the other main development for me was the improvement in wines from Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. The Blancs were often simply neutral, lacking real character and flavour. I tasted a number last week which showed real white fruit flavours and a floral, attractive aroma. Similarly the green, thin Pinot Noirs I remember from a few years back are generally now replaced by red fruit, more body and very pleasurable drinking.

The region is arguably the most attractive in France and I do love it. Towns and villages full of colourful, beamed houses, storks nests and often overlooked by castles. The vineyards can be precipitous, alarming slopes falling down to the villages. Machines would find it impossible to operate on some of them, these slopes need careful manual attention.

And yet..

Despite the many positives of Alsace wines it was disappointing to see so much use of herbicides, chemical sprays etc. I saw 3 spraying machines in use and every one operated by a vigneron dressed in plastic suits and masks to (rightly) protect them, these were clearly powerful chemicals being used.

Fortunately I was able to visit some of those who work in more environmentally friendly ways and I shall describe those visits next time.


7 Comments

Decanter’s first natural wine tasting

decanter logo

A sign of acceptance in the mainstream wine world? Decanter magazine held its first tasting of natural wines recently. Simon Woolf, Andrew Jefford and Sarah Jane Evans were charged with the tasting and I think that is a very fair minded trio of experienced tasters.

The first issue they faced was how to classify a selection of natural wines and Simon explained on his very good blog themorningclaret.com how they adopted the rules of RAW, the natural wine fairs organised by Isabelle Legeron. That means organic/biodynamic production (preferably certified), hand harvesting, no modern techniques such as reverse osmosis, no fining or filtration and no cultured yeasts. Of course the issue of sulphites was central to discussion, as it so often is, and RAW’s rules allow up to 70mg/l so this tasting allowed the same. When I attended and reported on RAW this spring I made it clear that I view this as too high but that was the rule laid down here.

Decanter tasting

122 wines were tasted mainly based on bottles provided by UK retailers. Interestingly, and inevitably, the three tasters produced very different results. Being a Decanter tasting they were required to give marks (which I increasingly dislike) but the comments and selections are well worth reading. The results and top ten wines for each of the tasters is available on Simon’s blog here along with a link for a pdf of the Decanter article. The full list of wines tasted is here.

I have obviously been drinking too much wine as I know the vast majority of these 122 bottles. Their top wine turned out to be La Stoppa’s Ageno 2011 and I have praised this domaine before as well as that wine, so no argument from me. My own views would differ from all three but that is the nature of tasting (and why marks make little sense to me). Kreydenweiss, COS, Occhipinti, Haywire, Meinklang, Muster, Sainte-Croix and Testalonga are all firm favourites of mine so, in fact, I would agree with many of the selections.

download

I highlight this event because I think it is a landmark in that a very conservative magazine (I didn’t renew my subscription many years ago because of its very traditional bias) has brought natural wine on board. I believe natural wine should be willing to accept constructive criticism from such fair minded critics and so this is an important step in the right direction.

Also worth noting is the sheer spread of producers from all corners of the globe, natural wine is not going away it is growing in popularity with consumers and producers. Note too that some big producers are making  versions of natural wine, a trend mentioned on these pages before. Whilst I personally may not regard them too sympathetically at least it is a sign that the philosophy behind natural wine is winning support.

So, well done Decanter, and Simon Woolf in particular, for promoting this tasting.

IMG_3368

Wonderful wines which definitely pass muster with me

 


2 Comments

What’s in a bottle?

spanish bottles

Version francaise

Two bottles of wine from Spain. Both enjoyable to drink without setting the world alight. So what makes them worth a blog post?

The answer lies in the empty bottles. The Albet i Noya was a typical bottle, nothing unusual. Until I opened the other, a wine recommended from Lidl’s Easter range. The bottle was so heavy, so unusually heavy, that I decided to weigh it. 747g was the result, compared to 427g for the other bottle which is about average for others I weighed. (This involved huge sacrifice in drinking wines, I do hope you appreciate that. As well as slightly obsessive behaviour!).

In other words, 2 bottles of the Albarino weigh roughly the same as 3 more regular bottles. In terms of shipping and the environment that must come at a cost. The more serious point I am making is that whilst we campaign for environmental awareness in terms of vineyard practice we should also be aware of the environmental cost of the finished product. In this case there was no good reason for a heavy bottle, it was not sparkling wine under pressure which would require thicker glass. No doubt thousands of these bottles were transported around, using up extra fuel and creating more emissions.

I liked the wine but I would not buy another bottle because I think I am paying for unnecessary packaging. Unnecessary damage too for my pocket and the earth. There is simply too much cost involved, time to take a stand.

 

 


2 Comments

Sorry Pasteur, you were wrong

Version française 

Two years ago I wrote an article whose title was a quote by my historical hero Louis Pasteur, “Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages.” Well my recent visit to the Languedoc gave me cause to doubt that Pasteur was wrong, in at least half of his statement.

A friend (Chris) drew my attention to a website showing the quality of water in every commune throughout France. The results for the area of the Hérault centred around Puimisson, Puissalicon, Espondeilhan and Thézan-lès-Béziers showed that they along with other communes in the area have poor quality drinking water.

herault

So why is that? Simply put it is agricultural pollutants and in this area what that means is pollutants from vineyards. In particular it means pesticides getting into the drinking water.

puimisson

The area is full of vineyards, mostly managed under a régime of chemical intervention. Weedkillers, herbicides, fertilisers are all used to ensure maximum yields as vignerons are paid by the quantity of grapes they produce, though they do have to respect the maximum yields permitted by, for example, AOP regulations. Unfortunately when it rains, and it often rains very hard in the Hérault, the chemicals are often washed from the vineyards onto the surrounding roads and into the drains and sewers.

I was talking to an Italian vigneron in January and he was telling me that, as an organic producer, he was shocked at the last vendanges. His lovely grapes were growing on vines which had already begun to shed their leaves or were changing colour as the energy of the plant had been channelled into the fruit rather than the leaves. He felt somewhat embarrassed as his neighbours’ vines were pristine, bright green and laden with grapes. That was the result of the chemicals and nitrates sprayed on to those vines, whereas his were treated only with organic tisanes.

p1010061

That is the same experience which I have observed in the area around Mas Coutelou. Jeff’s vineyards are surrounded in the main by conventionally tended vines. I remember him telling me as we stood in Rec D’Oulette (the Carignan vineyard) to look around at the bright green sea of vines with his own vines looking rather tired in comparison.

Well, the chemicals which make the greenery and heavy crops are polluting the water. The drinking water of the very place where the vignerons and their families live. When Pasteur spoke about wine being healthy and hygienic he was speaking at a time when most drinking water was polluted, even untreated. He was right, wine was healthier and cleaner than the water. And now, ironically, it is wine production which is making the water of ‘very bad quality’. Nevermind the 100+ additives which are legally allowed into wine, the wine is also a pollutant. That is why I challenge Pasteur’s claim.

img_0785

I am amazed that this report created so little reaction, surely the very water which nourishes the vines and slakes the thirst of wine producers should be be safe to drink? At what cost are we producing wine unless producers take more seriously the effects of their farming methods. And you wonder why I prefer to drink mainly organic and natural wines?


Leave a comment

Coutelou crew

20170209_180815

l-r Me, Vincent, (Icare in front), Julien, Carole (with Maya) and Fabrice

Version francaise

One of the greatest pleasures of being involved at Mas Coutelou is the friendships which are formed with people from all around France and the rest of the world. There is a core group of local people who work most of the time with Jeff at Puimisson, notably Michel and Julien. However, many others come along from week to week to spend time with Jeff because they love his wines and, of course, Jeff himself.

My recent visit was typical. Carole who has worked for many years on the domaine was there to prune the vines alongside Julien. Vincent, a former teaching colleague of Jeff’s was also there, learning the job of vigneron and winemaker as he has planted his own vines in his native Béarn. Fabrice arrived, who harvested Cabernet Sauvignon in Segrairals one day with me in 2015 was back to help plan an event later in the year. Céline (who helped to pick the Grenaches I am making) and her husband Brice were around for a few days too. And Jérom arrived.

p1020332

Jérom(e) is a fascinating guy, a skilled metalworker who has made racks for the large format bottles in Jeff’s own cellar (what he calls ‘the library’) and was here to add finishing  touches to the new rooms in the cellar, the office and tasting room. He explained to me how he loves working with iron as it comes from the earth and, like a vigneron, he is working with natural things. I look forward to seeing his finished work when I go back, it will certainly add a touch of class.

Julien and Vincent also shared their own wines, Puimisson is a training ground for future star producers. Julien showed a white and red, I was really taken with his Chateau Des Gueux white last year (Julien’s first vintage) from Terret and Clairette grapes. The 2016s promise to be even better. Vincent had taken the juice from the grapillons of his new vines and though high in acid there was plenty of Manseng character already present.

p1010694

James

Whilst there I also heard from James who worked the vendanges last year. He is back in Australia and a proud new father but also about to produce his first wines. As I said Puimisson is a crucible of winemaking talent.

I am very fortunate as yet another incomer from outside the area to have made such great friends who share a passion for wine and, especially, the wines of Mas Coutelou. There is a truth in the belief that wines reflect their producer and the open, warm friendships surrounding Jeff are a parallel of his wines.

20170128_211231

Jeff surrounded by friends