amarchinthevines

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


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Domaine De Cébène

When I first became interested in Languedoc wines it is fair to say that Leon Stolarski was the catalyst. I became aware of his online wine sales and bought bottles from his list from a number of producers such as Turner Pageot, Treloar and Domaine De Cébène. When we first came down here on holiday in 2010 and 2011 it was to those producers that I made visits.

Brigitte Chevalier runs Cébène having bought her first vineyards in Faugères around 2007 and making her first vintage in 2008. Visiting her in 2011 she took us round the vineyards and was clearly excited by the potential of the schist soils and old vines. At the time Brigitte worked from an older cellar though it was still able to work through gravity for the grapes to fall into tank when returned to the cellar. Brigitte’s talents were soon recognised around the world and critics such as Jancis Robinson have been very supportive.

I have been fortunate to meet Brigitte many times over the years and her wines are always of such high quality. It was a real treat for me though when Leon contacted me on Saturday from his holiday home down here to invite me to go along with him to taste recent wines at Cébène. It was actually a wet and grey day and mist hung around the new cellars and tasting room at the domaine. However, Brigitte’s welcome was warm despite suffering from an injured foot having slipped in the cellar a couple of weeks ago.

As we talked Brigitte repeatedly talked about her belief in biodynamics and how she feels that the preparations and practices of the philosophy have improved the soils and health of the vines. For example, having checked with the previous owner, Brigitte thinks that some of the Mourvèdre vines are around 100 years old but their yields remain generous and their health excellent. She is relentless in seeking to improve her wines and has invested in amphorae and concrete eggs for fermentations. These vessels from history have become a tool for modern winemakers. Many believe that the shape of amphorae and eggs helps the purity of the wine as there are no angles in the vessel meaning that the wine continuously moves, like a vortex. Brigitte mentioned that she wanted to remove secondary, clashing flavours in the wine, eg oak flavours from barrels, even old barrels. The aim is to produce a more precise, pure wine, the taste of the grapes alone. This desire to improve quality is what shapes her talent.

Brigitte kindly opened examples of all five of the Cébène range. I have to confess that my sheet of notes was lost in the rain so I will keep my assessments brief.

First came Ex Arena 2020, 85% Grenache made from vines outside of the Faugères appellation (actually not far from Jeff Coutelou) on villefranchien limestone soil. Generous, open and plummy fruits this wine is ready to drink now or keep for a few years.

Next, a new bottle to the range is À La Venvole, first produced in 2019 though we tasted the 2020. The name of the wine is from old French meaning by chance, a whim but Brigitte liked the fact that ‘vent’ is is the name, a reference to the winds which are a feature high in the hills. A blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre, the wine is meant to be drunk young and as a simpler style. I really enjoyed this, yes it is easy to drink young but it has real quality and depth, a lovely blend of grapes and style.

To Bancels, a wine which I have always enjoyed most of all Brigitte’s wines. It was interesting to hear her tell us that this reflects the domaine perhaps most of all the wines. Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre grapes from vines around the heart of the vineyard Brigitte keeps the bottles herself in storage until she feels that the wine is ready. It is tempting to open bottles as soon as you buy them and Brigitte wants her customers to enjoy Bancels at its best, not too young. A costly but thoughtful and principled stand by her. The 2017 was still energetic and will age well but is drinking well now with blackberry, spice and floral notes. The 2019 was still a baby and tighter as you’d expect but nice liquorice notes, perhaps a little weightier than the 17, will it stay that way as it develops?

Belle Lurette is the showcase for the Carignan grape, and my word, this was a treat. The 2018 is as good a wine as I have tasted in a long time. To keep the Faugères appellation Brigitte has to add some other grapes but Carignan dominates to the maximum 85% demanded by the appellation. This is the perfect example of how the vines and wines have improved in her care, Belle Lurette has blossomed into a real star. The 2018 was poised, elegant, direct yet rich and powerful with persistent fruit and freshness. Stunning. The 2020 is obviously a baby but drinking well now, though I’d keep it tucked away for a few years. I picked up more dark fruits than the 18 but that poise was evident again. And both bottles showed how good Carignan can be, the altitude (300m), sun and wind combining so well. As Brigitte said it is a terroir made for Carignan and also climate change proof (hopefully).

Finally Felgaria, the flagship wine and a demonstration of the quality of Mourvèdre which makes up at least half of the wine along with Syrah and Grenache. Brigitte credits three factors for producing top quality Mourvèdre, the altitude, the schist soils and the old south facing vines soaking up sunshine. Most of her vines face north, including the Syrah and Grenache topping up Felgaria but Mourvèdre, and especially these very old vines, seems to enjoy a dry, warm situation. It also produces a vibrant red coloured juice and Felgaria is rich in colour with equally enticing aromas and flavours ranging from blackcurrant to citrus, spicy with hints of meatiness, leather and herbs. The 2017 we tasted was plummy, rich and still an infant. Felgaria demands patience and time for it to reach its peak.

A wet and misty view over the vines

It was a terrific couple of hours spent with a winemaker of singular talents, passion and warmth. Wines of elegance, drinking pleasure but also wines which reflect the land upon which the grapes are grown. Brigitte’s wines would be very high on my list of recommendations for people asking for the best Languedoc and Faugères wines. That Belle Lurette 18 will stay in my memory for a long time to come, reflecting its name. Merci Brigitte.

A warmer day at the Faugères festival in 2015


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Mini Grand Cru Riesling comparison

Back in 2017 I stayed in the beautiful village of Riquewihr in Alsace. I have been fortunate to stay many times in the region, one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of France. And, of course, home to some fantastic wines and stunning vineyards. I wrote about the stay back then and, also, the natural wine scene. We stayed in a gite run by Domaine Agapé run by Vincent Sipp (a famous wine name in the region) and his wife. Vincent runs his vineyards on a sustainable philosophy, exploring organics but not certified. He invited me to taste his wines and I bought three 2014 Grand Cru Rieslings from different sites in his vineyards. Whilst 2014 wasn’t a great vintage generally in the region Rieslings did well, especially dry versions.

Earlier this summer, on a hot, sunny day in North East England (yes, they do happen) I decided it would be a good time to open all three for comparison. Three Riesling bottles from the same producer, made in the same way, in the same year, they should offer an insight into terroir as that was the only significant difference. We were in my brother in law’s garden and drank them there after they were slightly chilled.

First was Osterberg, a Grand Cru near the village of Ribeauvillé, a little to the North East of Riquewihr. Marl and limestone soils dominate and the vineyard is traditionally a source of good acidity in the wines. I suspect there had been the slightest oxidation of this bottle as the flavours were a tiny bit subdued but there was still good exotic fruit profile with good weight.

Next up was Rosacker and a complete contrast. This vineyard is near Hunawihr, half way between Riquewihr and Ribeauvillé. The soil is different, deep limestone and the vineyard sees less sunshine and is, generally, a little cooler. The result was obvious in the glass, the wine was cleaner, more direct with fresh acidity. White fruit flavours lingered but this was a wine I would have with food, its freshness would enhance any meal. Where Osterberg was exotic and yellow fruit, Rosacker’s apple and pear fruit provided a clear contrast.

Finally, Riquewihr’s own Grand Cru, Schoenenbourg on the north side of the village. We walked around this vineyard (see above) which has very steep slopes down to Riquewihr, they must be hard work to tend and harvest. Marl, limestone and a touch of gypsum mark the site and Schoenenbourg’s wines are often described as having a smoky hint from the gypsum. There was none of that in this bottle, indeed the wine was a perfect middle point for the two previous bottles. Good acidity but with more obviously expressive fruits than Rosacker, fresher than the Osterberg.

Of the three bottles, my wife and Iain both chose the Schoenenbourg as their favourite wine, whereas I went for the Rosacker – maybe the fresh acidity is more in line with my natural wine palate. It was a very enjoyable mini tasting, providing exactly what I had hoped for, an insight into how terroir can produce different wines from the same grape, in this case the wonderful Riesling.

I recommend the Vins Alsace website for bountiful information on the region and its wines.


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July the juice middle

“If June was the beginning of a hopeful summer, and July the juice middle, August was suddenly feeling like the bitter end.” – Sarah Dessen

Let’s start with France, usually the mainstay of my wines but I only had three French wines in July. Firstly, Brocard Chablis La Boissoneuse 2019. I have had a few of Brocard Chablis wines recently and this was the best so far with good concentration and definite hints of what I would call ‘minerality’. By that I mean a very dry, fresh taste with slight texture, a little like running water over pebbles. I bought these Chablis bottles as, though many rate the wines at the top of the white wine world I still struggle with it a little. This one was good though. I still preferred Marc Tempé’s Pinot Gris Zellenberg 2016. I love Alsace wines and this is a very good example of Pinot Gris with its spicy notes and clean, dry finish. Moreish and refreshing. The only French red of the month was Jean David’s Tapatara 2019 and a wine of great interest as it’s the first 100% Counoise wine I have had. From the southern Rhone, specifically the village of Séguret, this is fresh, juicy and refreshing with black fruits on the nose and in flavour. Counoise is one of the Chateauneuf grapes, usualy blended with others but I very much enjoyed this bottle.

To Italy. A warm July day was a perfect one for Maule’s Garg’N’Go 2019. This PetNat is made in the Veneto hills from Garganega and Durella grapes. Some of the grapes are dried to concentrate the sugars and some of this is added to the traditionally fermented grapes so that the sugars restart the fermentation in bottle producing the sparkling wine. Refreshing, white fruit flavours and perfect for the summer. Daniele Piccinin’s Muni 2018 is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio and, once again, Durella. I read about Piccinin in Isabelle Legeron’s book ‘Natural Wine’ and was pleased to get my hands on some of his wines. The colour was very golden, looking almost oxidative but it was fresh with good fruit, a very good bottle. From the Emilia Romagna region, one of the natural wine classics, Denavolo’s Dinavolino 2019. Six months maceration produces an orange wine of citrus flavours but with a nice roundness to it. A very good introduction to orange wine, very good.

Another interesting winery I have only discovered recently is the German Staffelter Hof based in the Mosel. Jan Matthias Klein’s family have had vines there for centuries but Jan changed the winemaking of a small part of the wines around 2010 to sulphite free. They proved an instant success and have quickly established themselves on a high level of natural wines. Little Bastard 2019 is a white blend of Muller Thurgau, Muscat, Riesling (60%) and Sauvignon Blanc. I really liked it, fresh and clean, full of white fruit flavours of good length. The Muscat had some skin contact to add more depth. Another good summer wine, don’t be put off by a slight cloudiness. I praised Rennersistas wine in the previous post and I’m happy to add another big tick for Waiting For Tom 2017. A blend of Blaufrankisch, St. Laurent and Zweigelt this was a joyous bottle with full cherry fruit flavours, good depth and freshness.

Testalonga wines are a regular here and the latest Keep On Punching 2020 was another successful Chenin Blanc, very good. Cambridge Road winery in New Zealand is one of the pioneering natural wineries there. Cloudwalker 2018, a blend of Pinot Gris and Riesling, is cloudy (appropriately) but very juicy and clean, direct yet long. They use concrete eggs and old barrels to ferment half of the grapes on skins so there is some skin contact texture in the wine too. I would add this to my summer wine list with pleasure. Barranca Oscura Syrnacha 2018 is a dark rosé from Syrah and Garnacha grapes made for easy drinking yet with good deep red fruit flavours. It had a good amount of CO2 fizziness at first but this settled quickly and it probably added to the wine’s attraction.

Wine of the month though was from Slovakia, one of my first bottles from that country. Slobodne Vronski 2018 is an excellent example of orange wine. Sauvignon Blanc grapes macerated for a week and then given a whole year in concrete egg. The resulting wine is a light gold in colour with herby, almost aniseedy, aromas. There is a very good texture and mouthfeel to the wine with herby, stone fruit flavours and excellent length Very good indeed.


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May wines

A sad month with the death of Bruno Rey, a lovely gentle man who made me smile whenever we met.

That sadness was compounded by the loss of winemakers Olivier Lemasson, Pascal Clairet and Laurnet Vailhe, all in tragic circumstances. May all four rest in peace.

At home my second vaccine gave me some hope that I may yet get over to Puimisson this year. I do miss the vines and the cellar as well as my friend Jeff.

So, to the wines of the month starting with the white wines. Firstly a new grape to me Nosiola, native of the Trentino region near Lake Garda. Its name suggests hazelnuts apparently and there was a hint of nuts as well as smokiness from this 2017 wine from producer Vilar made with a couple of days of skin contact and low SO2. The grapes must have been picked with good ripeness as the wine was quite full and juicy. I enjoyed this, slightly unusual wine and would certainly buy it again. Thierry Puzelat of Clos duTue Boeuf in the Loire was one of the natural pioneers in France, Le Petit Buisson 2019 is a regular cuvée from him, pure Sauvignon Blanc aged in old barrels. Fresh, good acidity but not harsh at all, a classy Loire SB, very enjoyable as ever. Clemens Busch were similarly one of the pioneers of organic production in Germany and I bought a selection of their wines a couple of months ago. This Riesling Trocken 2018 was very dry as the name suggests with clean, direct acidity. Ideally a wine for food but perfectly enjoyable on its own with its green fruit flavours.

To my two favourite white wines of the month. Firstly Portuguese Branco 2018 from Filipa Pato, made from Bical and Arinto grapes, I do love the Portuguese varieties being used so well. Slightly golden, perhaps due to a small portion of the grapes being aged in barrel, this gave generous aromas of herbs and yellow fruits. Fresh, round and slightly nutty notes with long lasting flavours. Very good. Then came Deboutbertin’s Achillée 2017, a natural Chenin Blanc from the Anjou. Loire Chenin was one of the grapes which first attracted me to wine, it seems to be finding its way back to the fore of my wine racks again, supported by Chenins from South Africa. This golden coloured wine was spritzy to start with though this disappeared by the second glass. Fresh citrus with surprising herby and spicy flavours, Achillée took me by surprise a little but I loved it – those flavours somehow worked. It’s not the cheapest wine but it was well worth the money.

There were a few red wines, let me start with ones I wouldn’t buy again though others would enjoy them I am sure. Hoffstatter Lagrein 2016, from the Trentino Alto Adige region of Italy. I have had Lagrein before and liked it, I found this perfectly enjoyable, another food wine, but lacking real depth. I liked the first glass of Wassmer Spatburgunder 2017, there was plenty of Pinot fruit but then it went mute and dull on me. Disappointing. Daniel Ramos’ El Berrakin 2019, a natural Garnacha from the Gredos region in central Spain was raspberry fresh, quite light. I liked it but no more than that. These three are perfectly drinkable wines, any that I really don’t like I don’t even mention.

Wines I preferred. Testalonga Follow Your Dream 2020 is a Carignan from one of my favourite producers anywhere. Bright purple in colour, fresh acidity – things you would expect with such a young wine. But there’s a lovely red fruit profile which Carignan can give with good intensity and I like the acidity as it balances the fruit sweetness. Lovely wine, I recommend any wines from this South African star. Scintilla wines’ Shiraz 2019 is made by my good friend James Madden in the Adelaide Hills. Completely natural wine this is another raspberry fruit wine but there was more depth to this than the Garnacha, I hope there will be more of James’ wines here in future. Herdade do Rocim has featured here before and I very much enjoyed the 1 litre bottle Fresh From Amphora 2019, made in the Alentejo region of Portugal from more local grapes, this time Moreto, Tinto Grossa and Trincadeira. Two months of skin contact in amphorae, this offers a juicy, light red with plenty of enjoyment to be had from the fresh fruity profile. The litre size is a real bonus.

Arianna Occhipinti’s SP68 wines are another regular favourite of mine. Sicilian natural wine, the Rosso 2019 made from Nero D’Avola and Frappato another producer making the most of the excellent local grape varieties, this time in Sicily. Frappato, as I discovered on my visit to the island, adds a cherry freshness to wine softening the Nero D’Avola and making a wine to enjoy with and without food. Berry fruits, a hint of liquorice perhaps and freshness (you may have spotted a theme here!). I will certainly buy this again. Jeff Coutelou’s Flower Power 2015 is, of course, a wine I know well. Made in the small Font D’Oulette vineyard from a field blend of twenty plus grape varieties, red and white. This is now at its peak full of red fruit flavours but with a lightness of touch and clean acidity, delicious.

Red wine of the month though, indeed my favourite of all this month, was Rennersistas Grauburgunder 2019. The two sisters are young winemakers but they are fast developing into top class producers. This Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) was fermented on skins for four days, so it is probably an orange wine. Yet, as you can see in the photo, the wine is a light red in colour. This is the result of the pink tint of the grapes which adds that hue to the wine. I love Pinot Gris grapes, they are so distinctive. Jeff has some and I enjoy seeing them develop their colour. This wine was the Renner sisters’ first production from their Grauburgunder vineyard, what a way to start. Lovely aromas of roses and raspberries, fresh red fruit flavours with nicely balanced acidity – this makes for a good wine for food but also to drink alone. Really classy wine, big recommendation. Was it a red wine? I’m saying yes.

Pinot Gris at Jeff’s


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The cruellest month

T.S. Eliot described April as the cruellest month in his epic poem The Waste Land, a phrase which seems very apt for 2021. The frosts of April 7th have created wastelands throughout French and other European vineyards, winemakers will be reliant upon stocks of wine from previous years, many of which were challenging in themselves. Simon Woolf’s The Morning Claret contains an insightful, moving and challenging article by Hannah Fuellenkemper based in the Ardeche region. I hope you will read it.

On a more personal level the phrase struck me again as I reviewed the bottles opened during this month. A corked bottle, an oxidised one and a lovely wine that turned mousy by midway were three blows. I should add before the natural wine haters start to nod in ‘what do you expect?’ mode that only the latter was a natural wine. I opened six bottles of conventional (though organic) wine and two were faulty. Maybe I should stick to the more reliable natural side.

In truth the month was short on wine excitement. I bought a few different Chablis wines a few months ago and though they have been ok they have left me a little cold, rather like the April weather here in the UK. Similarly an organic Rioja, New Zealand Syrah and a number of Italian wines (another attempt to expand my wine horizon). There was nothing wrong with these wines and it was good to try Teroldego, Tempranillo and Pecorino for example, grapes not usually part of my drinking. Nothing wrong, but nothing exciting.

Back to Ariana Occhipinti, mentioned in the March review, for better things. The SP68 Bianco 2019 was refreshing, dry, flavourful and another hit from this excellent Sicilian producer, a blend of Muscat and Albanella grapes. Muscat was again the feature of another enjoyable wine, this time an orange wine from Alicante, Bodegas Vinessans Tragolargo 2020. Bright orange in colour, characteristic orange wine light tannins and more typical of Muscat with its floral notes than the SP68. It is an easy drinking, light and enjoyable wine, a good introduction to skin contact wines for anyone unfamiliar with the ever increasing range. Another successful wine was the vinho verde from Folias de Baco Uivo Loureiro 2018. Loureiro is the grape, biodynamically grown with no SO2 added. Sappy, fresh but with a round aftertaste from being aged on its lees this was very enjoyable, one of my favourite Portuguese wines of this year, another project I embarked upon. However, I had a better vinho verde this month, Niepoort’s Nat’Cool Drink Me Branco 2019. More Loureiro, blended this time with Alvarino, Arinto and Trajadura and producing a sappy, aromatic wine which was delicious on its own as well as with food. Slightly cloudy, tasting of citrus and apples and in a one litre bottle!

To a limited number of reds. Jeff Coutelou’s Couleurs Réunies 2018 has become a firm favourite in his wide range. A blend of over 20 different grape varieties, red and white it produces a vibrant purple wine with full on fruit which calms as the bottle empties to add a depth of plummy complexity, slightly sweet and sour. I love it, but then you knew I would. A real treat now. I have recommended Little Wine on here many times in the last year, a terrific, ground breaking website and bottle shop. After a year on business they gave away a bottle with purchases and I gladly accepted the enticement. The bottle was lovely, Claus Preisinger’s Puszta Libre 2020. Blending Zweigelt, St Laurent and Pinot Noir with 20% undergoing carbonic maceration and the rest destemmed for a short maceration the result is alight red, almost rosé, but packed with fruit and pleasure. The Little Wine website describes it in Claus’ words as a ‘homage to good Beaujolais’ and it is certainly that. And more.

Wine of the month though went to Marcel Deiss’ Rotenberg La Colline Rouge 2013. A blend of Riesling and Pinot Gris grown biodynamically from a beautiful hillside in Wintzenheim, Alsace this was classic Alsace wine. Dry, clean flavours with a slight sweetness on the end, apples and pears, lemon and a little honey. Someone told me this was heavily filtered which surprised (and disappointed) me, but there was no denying how well this tasted. For purity of the natural wine drinker I should have chosen the Preisinger as wine of the month. By Alsace standards Deiss was a biodynamic pioneer and adventurous and this wine was just lovely.


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March on March: Part Two

As a Francophile and French part time resident I make no apologies that the majority of my wine drinking is based on French wines. My time with Jeff Coutelou clearly bolsters this with his wines making up a good portion of the bottles I have in all shapes and sizes. However, I do try to expand my experience and visits to Sicily and Spain, as well as tastings with winemakers from around the world, encourage me to discover wines and grapes from outside the Hexagon.

March, as you can see from the photo saw a focus on Portugal and Italy. The latter was purely coincidental, I hadn’t realised how many Italian wines I had opened. Portugal was much more by design. A few years ago I was delighted to be able to support the excellent wine writer Simon Woolf with his Kickstarter project for his Amber Wine book. He is a really good writer and enthusiast, the book a delight. His new project with Ryan Opaz is about Portugal and I mentioned to Simon that on my visit there a couple of years ago it was difficult to find many organic or natural wines. Simon gave me a list of producers and I was able to order some wines from Bar Douro in London. Their new Kickstarter project has been a huge success so I am eager to read the book.

Italian reds first. I’m a big fan of Sicilian wines since my visit in 2013 and Arianna Occhipinti‘s wines are amongst the best. Her SP68 red and white are widely available and well worth buying. Nero D’Avola and Frappato grapes in the red version, fragrant aromas and lovely soft cherry and red fruits, Frappato so often adds roundness and sweet fruit. The Nebbiolo was disappointing. I remember having a Langhe Nebbiolo in Valvona and Crolla in Edinburgh many years ago and really liking. I have tried a few since and never found one so good. It is Burgundy pinot like in so many ways and finding the good ones seems to be just as difficult. The Valpolicella Ripasso was better without exciting me. The grapes are dried before being made into wine and this was sour cherry and classic Italian red flavours. Good but I wasn’t convinced. Much better was the Bera Le Varrane 2017. Barbera grapes from 50 year old vines in Piedmont made naturally and aged for two years on lees produce a rich, fruit packed wine with soft tannins. Lovely wine, I will certainly seek out more.

On to Portugal. Filipa Pato was one of the names Simon provided and this Dinamico 2018 red was good. 100% Baga grapes from the Bairrada region the name may reflect the biodynamic winemaking. It was certainly full of life, fresh and fruity with a nice solid structure I should maybe have kept it a while longer but it was enjoyable now. The Folias de Baco Uivo Renegado 2019 was even better. Natural wine made from a field blend of up to 25 different grape varieties. I love field blends especially when they have a mix of red and white grapes. Often looking like a dark rosé they often produce soft, very drinkable wines with good acidity. Well, this one certainly does. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I love the grapes being names I know not at all such as Viosinho and Gouveio. To me this is a true USP for Portugal as the wine world regularly seeks out the different . Lovely.

Best of the reds though was from Battliu de Sort in the Costers del Segre region. I had heard good things about the producer based in the same region as one of my favourite producers, Casa Pardet. Pinot Noir from vines high in the mountains. The result is fresh, light but fruity Pinot, as good as many much more expensive Burgundy wines. Confirmation that Alsace, Germany and now Spain are going to be the bulk of my Pinot purchases. This Nero de Sort 2018 was delicious.

Herdade do Rocim ‘Fresh from Amphora’ 2019 is made from organic grapes fermented in clay pots for two months. Fresh and very drinkable, I didn’t find the texture I was expecting from skin contact wine. it was certainly clean and zingy. One of the things I love about Portuguese and Italian wines is the treasure trove of grape varieties, often unique. This was from Perrum, Rabo de Ovelha and Mantuedo. No, me neither. The next Portuguese white was Aphros Loureiro 2018. Loureiro is the grape produced here through biodynamics with low sulphites. Pleasant enough, clean and fresh without exciting me too much. Back to Filipa Pato this time FP Branco 2018. Bical and Arinto grapes, this is also produced biodynamically but was more yellow coloured and fuller, rounder than the Aphros with more mouthfeel. Very nice.

Sicily again and a winery I like a lot in Ciello, Baglio Catarrato Antico 2019. An orange wine, subtly done. I saw this described as an introduction to orange wines and I understand that description, the skin contact evident but not powerful. Very fruity, very enjoyable.

I tasted two Chenin Blancs together, a classic Anjou version, Chateau Pierre Bise 2018 and South African Testalonga’s Stay Brave 2019. The Anjou was conventional, clean and had the classic Loire Chenin flavours of dry, appley fruit with a hint of sweetness on the finish. Pleasant enough. Testalonga’s was drier, with more spice and fruit. I have praised Testalonga many times, another success here and the one I would buy again for sure.

On the subject of classic French dry white wines with a hint of sweetness, another of my favourite regions in Jurancon. I loved this, Lapeyre Evidencia 2018, a blend of Gros and Petit Manseng and Courbu all aged in large oak vats. Fresh, full of peach and apple and a slight sweet tang but clean and refreshing. A definite one to buy again, very well made and delicious. Indeed, this would have been my wine of the month but for….

OK, I am biased. But Jeff Coutelou’s Macabeu 2017 is amazing. The Macabeu ( also known as Macabeo and Viura in Spain where it is widely grown) is from Peilhan vineyard. Jeff was so pleased with the 2017 grapes that he put them into a second hand barrel and left it there for two years. We tasted it in 2019 (the photo top left shows Jeff taking a sample from the barrel) and it was really singing, round and full, the barrel adding creaminess and the merest hint of wood which filled out the wine. I am not a great fan of oak but when it is subtle there is no doubt that it does boost a wine, concentrating its flavours. Spice, fruit. freshness. The flavours lingering long. One of the best wines I have tasted from Jeff’s and I have been very fortunate to drink many great wines there.


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March on March: (mainly) France

March seemed like a long month in lockdown though, after three months, the end of the month saw a family reunion in my sister’s garden. Together with beautiful Spring flowers in the garden that brought some optimism at last. Sadly, the news from France was not so good as they enter another lockdown to fight a third wave of COVID. Jeff keeps me up to date with what’s going on and his niece Flora has sent some lovely photos, I shall share both in the next week or so.

Let’s start with Jeff Coutelou and, after that opening paragraph, Flower Power 2015. This was, of I recall correctly, the first Flower Power made from the field plantation of Font D’Oulette with added grapes such as Castets from Peilhan. The wine received high praise in La Revue Des Vins De France magazine back in 2016. It was lovely, the 5-6 years of age bringing it to its apogee with fruit and complexity and lingering flavours of plums and blackberries. The tannins and acidity have softened nicely, a lovely bottle. Flambadou 2015 was also at its peak, classic Carignan notes with red fruit and then darker notes coming through. This is consistently one of the best wines from Puimisson and the 2015 is a fine example.

Jeff and Louis

L’Ostal “Plein Chant” has a connection with Coutelou too even though it is a Cahors through and through. There is no vintage clearly marked but it is a 2016. I have recounted how I first met Louis Pérot at La Remise in Arles where he was one of the new producers. I fell in love with his wines, praised them to the high heavens enough that he was able to get some listed in good restaurants. Jeff was also taken by the wines and the strict natural approach of Louis and Charlotte. They became friends and Louis has visited us many times. This pure Malbec (known as Cot locally) has deep berry flavours, the power of Cahors and benefits from decanting in softening out the tannins a little. I loved the wines back in 2016 and I still do.

Brigitte Chevalier of Domaine Cébène in Faugeres has become a renowned producer, praised widely in wine circles for the purity of her fruit and excellent work in the vineyard. I bought her wines from Leon Stolarski long before moving to the region and whilst there met Brigitte on a number of occasions including visits to her vineyards and cellar many times. These are precise, structured wines expressing the schist soils beautifully. Les Bancels 2016 is Syrah and Grenache and a classic example of why the Languedoc. and Faugeres in particular, is my favourite wine region. Fruit, depth, tannins, pleasure.

If you ever needed an example of how wine has changed during my lifetime then the Rieffel Pinot Noir Nature 2018 is it. I first started visiting Alsace 35 years ago or so and Pinot Noirs were largely thin, acidic and fairly undrinkable. Maybe I just didn’t find good examples but at several tastings I left shaking my head even from some famous producers. Nowadays I love Alsace Pinots in general, they have fresh fruit, usually red fruit flavours, they are softer and just enjoyable. I’d rather drink an Alsace Pinot such as this very good example of the grape, region and producer than most Burgundies of similar price. Very enjoyable. Climate change? Better vineyard and cellar management? Winemaking improvements? Probably a combination of all, but heartily recommended.

Morgon 2018 from celebrated producer Jean Foillard was the wine we shared when my family met up again on the 30th. Morgon in Beaujolais is traditionally the most serious of the ten crus producing more structured wines than the typical regional light, juicy wines. This is usually attributed to the schist soils marked by red iron oxide and manganese, most famously on the Mont du Py. This wine is certainly in that tradition, probably opened a year or two early. The Gamay fruit is masked at first by the power though comes through, more ageing should release it sooner in the glass. Foillard is one of the natural pioneers of the region and a source of benchmark wines.

Finally, to balance out this post with a second I have added Franz Weninger’s Ponzichter 2018. Weninger is Austrian but his father bought some vines in Hungary when communism ended and this bottle is made from those vines. A blend of Pinot Noir and Zweigelt this was a lighter style with very enjoyable red fruit showing through and soft tannins to balance it and add a little depth. Very enjoyable and well made.

Garden Spring flowers, optimism for better times ahead.


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February red wines

Let’s start with the Jeff Coutelou wines first. 5SO Simple 2018 has really found its feet now, which is probably too late for the vast majority of bottles opened as it is usually a wine opened for early drinking as a ‘glou glou’. Cinsault is light, the grapes tend to be large and juicy and not have too much acidity. Jeff likes acidity in his wines to help maintain their condition and health, without SO2 as a preservative the acidity can be a useful substitute as well as adding freshness to the wine. The acidity of this 18 bottle was calmed and the fruit was showing more roundness than the last bottle I had. It’s in a very good place, very enjoyable.

I opened two bottles of La Vigne Haute, my favourite wine. A 2013 was in excellent shape, the Syrah black fruit and spice still prominent, the tannins soft and the age was adding another layer of complexity and depth. No rush to drink up but definitely ready. However, the 2017 was on another level. I opened it on my birthday and it was a highlight of the month. It is ready to drink now and very enjoyable too but I’ll hang on to my other bottles a little while. The acidity is fresh but well balanced, the fruit is open and mouth filing. It has a youthful energy but it’s also round and enjoyable from the outset. On this evidence La Vigne Haute 2017 has the potential to be one of the best vintages of this great wine.

Amicis is the wine I made at Jeff’s in 2015 with grapes from Rome vineyard, the three types of Grenache. Aged in three different containers (old barrel, newer barrel and glass). You can read more here. I opened a bottle of the older barrel aged wine meaning the staves were tighter and so there was less exchange with air, the wine is more youthful than the wine in the newer barrel. Cherry red, fresh acidity and the residual sugar giving a sweetness. It is more an aperitif wine than a food wine and it will age for years.

Let’s stay in the Languedoc and near neighbours and friends the Andrieu family of Clos Fantine. Their vineyards are high in the Faugères hills and the vines are gobelet to give them a freedom and energy, described by Corine here. The Fantine reds need time, they have concentrated fruit and tannin which take time to marry and mature. Give them that time and the rewards are plentiful. This bottle of the traditional Faugères is non vintage. They had some Carignan from 2016 and 2017 which took their time to finish fermentation, they were a bit stuck. When they finally completed Corine added some Grenache and Syrah from 2017 and also some Cinsault and Mourvedre from 2019. The blending is therefore similar to what Jeff does with his L’Oublié bottle. The result was excellent, a full bodied, complex wine with a freshness from the 2019 wines. Power and elegance. I must order some more.

Still in the Faugères area and a young winemaking couple whom I first visited in the snow! Simon and Sara Bertschinger have a few hectares around Fos with unusual grape varieties for the region, the Armélot 2015 I opened contains Merlot and Petit Verdot, they also have some Sangiovese. Like the Fantine wine this is unmistakably Faugères, depth, power, freshness to the fore. The 5-6 years of age have brought a lovely maturity, another bottle at its peak. The Merlot adds a roundness to the wine, it is lovely.

Heading down towards Spain, Banyuls. I tasted La Cave des Nomades wines for the first time at La Remise in Arles in 2016 when Jose (Zé) Carvalho was the talk of the town. The wines were exciting and fresh with incredible depth. I haven’t had the chance to drink many since then and was pleased to find Camino Rojo 19 available. Grenache and Syrah (taken direct from pressing) produces a light coloured wine but it is packed with flavour, red fruits and cleansing acidity. More please.

Two examples of Gamay next, both French. I recall visiting and holidaying in the Forez region in central France many years ago and the local wines were a rarity and simply a quaffing wine in local restaurants. Some producers have worked hard to add quality to the region and the leading domaine is Verdier-Logel. They work organically and this Poycelan Cuvée des Gourmets 2019 is made from grapes grown on granite soils, they also have Gamay on volcanic soils. I enjoyed it, there is plenty of fruit though it was fuller and a little heavier than most Gamays. Interesting and good to try wines from less well known areas. More classic Gamay in the form of Beaujolais, indeed a Beaujolais Nouveau 2020. Guy Breton is one of the great producers of the region, I remember a P’tit Max I had in Paris a few years ago as one of the bottles which converted me to a love of natural wine. Cuvée Fanchon was lovely, round, soft red fruits – absolutely classic Beaujolais and Gamay – delicious.

My biggest surprise of the month though was a Malbec from Argentina, Familia Cecchin 2019 no added sulfites. Argentinian Malbec has become very popular in supermarkets with a range of big, powerful wines – I usually find them too big and heavy for my taste. This, though, was a really pleasant surprise. There is a lightness and freshness to the wine as well as plenty of big flavours. Very good winemaking, a real deftness. I decided to try wines from further afield this year and this bottle really supported that decision, a genuine treat.

Wines were purchased: direct from producer, Leon Solarski wines, Buon Vino wines, Petites Caves, Little Wine


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February white wines

February in the North East of England was certainly white. We had snow for most of the time, often quite deep. A time for hunkering down, comfort and red wines? Well not altogether.

Let’s start with the sherry, it doesn’t look white I know but it is a Fino en rama 2017 from the excellent Equipo Navazos. En rama means raw, the sherry is bottled straight from cask without filtering, causing a little cloudiness but more of the natural flavours to be captured in the bottle. This was lovely, salty fino characters, freshness and a slight texture from the non filtering which helped preserve the flavours in the mouth. More and more sherries are being produced like this, a welcome trend. However, few can match the excellence of this producer.

Still in Spain one of the month’s highlights was Casa Pardet’s Chardonnay 2017 which I opened on my birthday. This estate in the Costers del Segre region of North East Spain has been a favourite of mine since I met Pep Torres and his wife at La Remise in Arles back in 2015. Their Cabernet Sauvignon wines at that wine fair were amongst the best wines I have ever tasted. Sadly they are next to impossible to find, the Cabaret Sauvignon bottle is good but not the same. The Chardonnay was macerated, orange wine in colour and style. Lovely herbal, fruit flavours with a liquorice note too. I have bought their wines from a company in Spain, sadly after Brexit they aren’t shipping here for now.

Let’s stick with the Mediterranean and head to Italy whilst remaining on non filtered wines. Fattoria di Vaira’s Vincenzo Bianco 2019 is an orange or skin contact wine produced from biodynamically farmed Falanghina and Fiano grapes in the Abruzzo region. I really enjoyed this, it’s not the most complex wine in the world but had lots of fruit, good texture and the dry aftertaste of many orange wines. It is a very well made wine, a great introduction to skin contact wines if you don’t know them well. It hasn’t got the depth of the Casa Pardet but was very good value at around £13.

Costadila is a producer whose wines have become favourites in a very short time after being recommended by my good friend Vincent, a friend and former colleague of Jeff. Costadila make PetNats in the Prosecco region of the Veneto. No filtering (again) no additions, no SO2. Glera (the main Prosecco grape), Verdiso and Bianchetta grapes fermented in bottle and capturing a sheer joy for life with sparkle, fruit, freshness and lingering flavour. As with most PetNats there is a fair amount of sediment so be careful on that last glass as you try to eek out every drop. (The 280 refers to the altitude of the vineyard, you will have seen me mention other numbers before.) I really like these wines, again I was sourcing them from abroad, again Brexit is making it hard to restock.

The Pebble Dew New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and Australian Semillon were wines bought as everyday drinking from Les Caves De Pyrène, both offer good value.

Davenport has been one of my favourite English wineries for some years, I was converted by their excellent PetNat but have enjoyed everything they make. Hux was new to me. In 2018 the Huxelrebe grapes were top quality and retained a little unfermented sugar making for a wine with a slight hint of honeyed sweetness on top of the stone fruit flavours. Fresh and clean but just off dry like a well made Mosel wine. Lovely.

German wines were what first made me realise that wine was interesting. I still love them, a well made Riesling from the Mosel would be my choice of desert island white wine. Clemens Busch is a biodynamic producer about which I have been reading god things for some time and I spotted a half case of a range of their wines online and bought it. The first I opened was this 2018 Trocken, a Riesling fermented dry, ironic after the Davenport wine. It is a treat. Flinty, clean with a grapefruit like note. I have another bottle and will store it away for a while as I have no doubt it will develop. However, this one was very enjoyable now.

Finally two more Riesling wines from across the border in Alsace including a 24 year old white wine. Christian Binner is a source of very good natural Alsace wines from one of my favourite villages there, Ammerschwihr. His Riesling Salon des Bains 17 had appley, zesty fruit, long lasting flavours. It’s not the most profound Riesling but good quality and one I’d happily buy again.

I visited Patrick Meyer in Nothalten 4 years ago and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours with him. An early pioneer of natural winemaking in the region I loved talking with him and tasting his wines. What was remarkable about the visit was the number of old wines which we tasted from bottles often opened for a few days already and which tasted fresh and full. No need for SO2 when you make clean wines. Patrick offered me some older bottles and this Julien Meyer 1997 Riesling Grand Cru Muenchberg was one of them. It was aged for four years in barrel and the slight oxidation of the barrel no doubt plays a part in keeping the wine fresh and youthful. There was no sign of fatigue, just pure Riesling flavours with a roundness of oak. Saline, appley, joyful. A memorable wine for a forgettable lockdown month.

With Patrick in 2017, fortunately I have lost a fair amount of weight since then!


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10 things I think I think

As a fan of the writing of NFL journalist Peter King I have ‘borrowed’ the idea for this post from his FMIA articles.

1. An update from Jeff. Mildew hit badly in late May early June and Jeff sent countless hours treating the vines with his organic prophylactics and treatments. As was the case in 2018 it was the Carignan of Rec D’Oulette (Flambadou) and the Grenache of Ste. Suzanne which was most affected. This suggests the spores are well embedded in the soils there perhaps and Jeff must take extra care when working in these vineyards. Fortunately he reported to me last week that he seems to have mastered the outbreak and rescued the crop. Good news.

Photo from Jeff showing mildew on a leaf

2. I have read a few books about wine recently, here’s a couple of recommendations. ‘Vignette’ by Jane Lopes is one of the more interesting books. It made me feel uncomfortable at times as it is very honest and open about her own personal life but this was combined with recommendations, pictures and information about wines which were presented in a fascinating way. Max Allen’s ‘The Future Makers’ is not new at all but I found it a very useful guide to how Australian wines are shifting in light of climate change and the organic/biodynamic culture.

3. I am conflicted about the role of sommeliers, their influence seems to be ever growing in the wine world. I know some and they are passionate about their work. I recall one or two who improved restaurant experiences for me, a New Zealander at The Ledbury for example, but I have met some poor ones too. Sommeliers such as Pascaline Lepeltier are extremely knowledgeable and their writings teach me a lot. However, I have read some amazingly entitled social media posts from certain sommeliers (and writers to be fair) recently, for example demanding samples be sent in half bottles at extra cost to the producer.

4. Lots of wines tasted during this period, I have assembled a montage of photos of some but it is certainly not exhaustive. Producers such as Testalonga, Valle Unite in Barbaresco and Jeff have been regular sources of good wines. The Muster wines are always a pleasure.

I am very happy to report that English wine goes from strength to strength with Westwell and Davenport both reliable and exciting.

5. As we emerge from lockdown I hope that customers continue to support the local independent merchants who have gone out of their way to provide a service during these extraordinary months. Caves De Pyrene, Buonvino, Vintage Roots are three whose services I shall continue to use. Please give them your custom. One more I need to mention is Leon Stolarski. Leon is a friend (full disclosure) and it is no coincidence that he has Jeff’s wines in the UK. Leon has a very good range of wines and his service is second to none. New in are the Coutelou 2018s Couleurs Réunies, La Vigne Haute and L’Oublié. All recommended of course.

The two on the right came from Leon

6. Sherry continues to provide me with great drinking pleasure and value for money. The Gonzalez Byass Una Palma was a lovely rich fino with more depth than many other of that type. I tasted the full range of Palmas wines (special barrels) a few years ago and loved them but they are expensive and hard to get hold of. I especially enjoyed the Cesar Florido Fino En Rama. En rama sherries are very lightly filtered, if at all, and in my view, this leaves more flavour in the wine. It was delicious.

7. Hybrid grapes are being discussed more and more. The effects of climate change are bringing more examples of disease and heat stress and winemakers are exploring grape varieties which are bred and engineered to resist these problems. Many have proved to be pretty undrinkable with odd flavours, I have tasted a few myself. However, there are signs of promise with other hybrids. One to watch. These articles might offer you more insight than I can provide at present, by Simon Woolf and Shelby Vittek.

8. Good to see Jancis Robinson leading the way in addressing the Black Lives Matter issue. At Jeff’s we are used to seeing people from all backgrounds, races and religions but that appears to be unusual. Robinson wrote an article for The Financial Times highlighting the under representation of black people working in the wine industry. I was shocked and saddened to read some of the comments from readers. There is a long way to go.

9. A website to recommend. Little Wine is the work of Christina Rasmussen and Daniela Pillhofer. Packed with articles, interviews and sales of natural wines in particular it is beautifully presented and well worth the £24 annual fee. I am finding a lot of fascinating information there including one article to which I shall return soon. There is free content too, so have a look.

10. On a personal note. Thank you for the various emails asking whether I am ok due to the length of time since the last article. It is appreciated that you show concern. And what joy with the 19th league win for Liverpool. I was fortunate to witness a number of league wins in person but after 30 years of poor teams and near misses it finally happened. I ought to have opened a German Riesling to honour Jurgen Klopp who has transformed the club but what else would I choose? La Vigne Haute 2018.