I was fortunate to taste many excellent sparkling wines this year. Excellent PetNats such as Éxilé from Domaine Jousset in the Loire, Jeff’s Bibonade rosé and the excellent Restons Nature from Kumpf et Meyer in Alsace. However, I have to admit that champagne always comes out as my favourite sparkling wine. From Boulard, Pascal, Jacquesson and others I was able to appreciate some lovely wines.
Top of my class this year though was Jacques Lassaigne, who I was very happy to meet at Chai Christine Cannac in Bédarieux. His vintage 2008 was sheer delight, a top class champagne with freshness, complexity and sheer pleasure.
So many good white wines this year. The unexpectedly good Georgian amphora wine from Marks and Spencer was a late favourite. Alexandre Bain’s excellent Pouilly Fumés are always a joy, especially Pierre Précieuse 2015, proving that Sauvignon Blanc can be a wine of true quality. Okanagan Crush Pad from Canada was another source of excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Free Form 2015 which had nine months of skin contact. Austria provided many highlights, the wines of the Rennersistas, Koppitsch, Gut Oggau, Meinklang and the brilliant Andreas Tscheppe.
Alsace, however, was the star of the year. I visited the region in May and had the great pleasure to spend time with the inspirational Patrick Meyer and the rising star Julien Albertus. The quality of wines, typicity of grape, freshness and pleasure provided were remarkable. Patrick’s wines astonished me, even many days after opening they were precise, fresh and stunning.
Special mention to the orange wine from Languedoc producers Régis and Christine Pichon of Domaine Ribiera, Orange sur les Canilles a wine which more than any other persuaded me of the benefit of skin contact wines.
From the Languedoc Maxime Magnon’s Métisse 2016 readily springs to mind along with some older vintages of Barral’s Faugères. Olivier Cohen and Mas D’Alezon were other Languedoc producers whose wines I enjoyed.
Italy’s I Mandorli and Azienda Vitivinicola Selve made an impact at RAW in London. I enjoyed the Pinot Noirs from the aforementioned Patrick Meyer and Julien Albertus. This was a year when white wine provided most of the memorable moments however. Highlight of reds will be described in the next post.
Sweet and fortified
A lovely Banyuls Cuvée Méditeranée 2005 from Piétri-Géraud was a highlight but the most memorable was the 1959 Muscat De Frontignan which Jeff opened for me on my birthday. Not often you get to drink a wine from your birth year, especially as the years slip by! It was sticky, sweet and very rich, a real taste of history.
I have spent most of the last 25 months living in the Languedoc and as that period draws to an end I have begun to feel naturalised: my French has started to adopt a local accent such as ‘veng’ for ‘vin’; I tut at anybody and everybody; I rush for a jumper if the temperature dips below 20°C; I even went to a rugby match!
We are searching for a house to move more definitively to the area, it is where I feel happy, healthy and home. Sadly, when I look back across the Channel I see little to make me feel at home there. Brexit has seen a fall in the £ of more than 20% in less than four months. There has been a startling increase in racist and homophobic attacks. The government (with an unelected Prime Minister) is hell bent on going it alone, prepared to do without the EU single market even if it means damaging the economy. Companies such as Nissan have warned they will leave the UK if that is the case yet the government ploughs on determinedly. The 48% who voted to Remain in the EU are ignored, reviled and, today, told that they should be silenced.
Mrs. May told her Party, “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
Worrying times. Is it any wonder that I, proud to be a citizen of the world, feel more naturalised here in the Hérault? Though Robert Ménard, the far right mayor of Béziers, is doing his best to out do May’s government by opposing the housing of immigrants relocated from Calais to the town. He sanctioned this poster for example:
As for wine?
After a few tranquil months natural wine has again become the focus of attacks and disparaging remarks by those who seem threatened by it.
In France, Michel Bettane, elder statesman of wine critics, accused natural wine drinkers of being ‘peu democratique’ in their words and ways. No great surprise from a man whose connections make him part of the wine establishment.
In the UK one of the most respected and established of wine merchants, The Wine Society, published this statement from one of their senior buyers.
“Prone to spoilage, high proportion not particularly pleasant to drink, rarely demonstrate varietal character or sense of place.” A damning list. And I am a member of this co-operative group!
Again I feel alienated from mainstream opinion. Sykes is talking complete rubbish and dismisses great wines and talented winemakers with generalisations and prejudice.
I don’t always agree with Alice Feiring, one of natural wine’s more celebrated advocates. However, in a recent article she stated that she cannot support faulty winemaking and those who seem to favour it as an expression of their anti-establishment credentials. I agree. Wine must be drinkable, must be pleasurable, must, above all, be interesting. I could name dozens of natural wine producers who make great wine, it just happens to be natural wine. Are Barral, Foillard, Métras, Coutelou, Occhipinti, Radikon, Ganévat etc making wines as Bettane or Sykes describe?
Tasting Casa Pardet in 2015, a moment when wine stops you in your tracks and makes you say, wow
I have tasted many natural wines which sing of their cépage and origins, wines from France, Italy, Spain, South Africa, Australia. They tell a tale of their producer and their terroir. They are interesting, some stop you in your tracks and make you reflect on their beauty. Rather those than the very many dull, monotonous wines which taste the same as everybody else’s from Otago to Oregon.
I do enjoy conventional wines, I really like some of them. However, I often find more excitement and interest in the many, well-made natural wines.
Long live freedom of movement, long live the Languedoc and long live great wine.
I am becoming naturalised.
Mas Coutelou Roberta 2003, fresh as a daisy in 2016. Take note Mr. Sykes
In the last article I wrote about the young up and coming winemakers whose wines I enjoyed at Bédarieux, La Remise and The Real Wine Fair. Whilst this new wave are producing good things there are still many good tunes from the some of the ‘older’ fiddles. As ever there were many vignerons present who have been making natural wines for longer. Many of these began as winemakers on a family domaine and learned about winemaking in conventional form before deciding to go natural. Others have moved into the world of wine with the intention of making natural wine.
Natural wines developed a reputation for faults amongst traditional wine drinkers (especially some journalists). Some of these appraisals were genuine, others a matter of perception. There is no doubt that some wines are faulty, I have tasted them myself. Problems such as mousiness and brett are genuine faults. Other issues can be a matter of taste, eg skin contact.
In contrast, however, I visited a wine fair in Vouvray on Sunday May 15th. It was full of conventional producers, bar one converting to biodynamics. There were many dull wines, often with high sulphur. There were many faulty wines. So, j’accuse les vins conventionels.
Natural wines are, in fact, the way that wines were made for generations, over hundreds of years. The conventional wines of 2016 are the product of more recent methods, of modern science and technology. Going back to the traditional methods involves a leap of faith and requires very healthy grapes if you are to abjure sulphur dioxide. As the natural wine movement has gained momentum in the last 20 years many of its producers have become more experienced in making wines without the safety net of modern science and technology. Standards are getting higher, the wines ever better. So, here are some that I enjoyed recently.
With Fred Rivaton
At Bédarieux I was very happy to meet up again with Fred Rivaton from Latour De France (66) who makes many of my favourite wines. Blanc Du Bec and Gribouille, both 2014s, were delicious. In the last few weeks I have selected both as Wine Of The Week, and would do so most weeks when I was fortunate enough to open a bottle. One of the best.
Another of my WOTW selections was the Pinot Blanc 2010 of Gérard Schueller. He was present at Bédarieux too and his 2014 Pinot Blanc and Riesling were both excellent. Next time I visit Alsace he’ll be top of my list of domaines to visit. I bought both of those wines.
Philippe Valette‘s Macon wines were another source of quality, I especially liked his Chaintré 2012, a beautifully clear, zesty and round expression of Chardonnay. As a third generation winemaker, Valette is a fine example of my comments above.
Didier Barral (Domaine Leon Barral) is one of natural wine’s great stars. His wines at Bédarieux were proof of how justified his reputation is. They require time to be at their peak but are pleasurable, profound and priced accordingly but worth it. Barral is a model of biodiversity and philosophical winemaking, a must try. My favourites were the Blanc 14 made mostly from Terret with lovely melon, grapefruit flavours and great length, together with the Faugères 13 of stunning depth.
Nicolas Carmarans is living proof that talent and good winemaking can make very drinkable, quality wines in regions not usually associated with wine. He works in the Aveyron. There is a direct, mineral side to his wines married to fruit and length. Wines such as Selves 14 and Maximus 14 reflect local grape varieties such as Fer Servadou at their best.
Clos Fantine is a domaine which features regularly in this blog and the 2015 wines which Corinne was showing at La Remise were the best of recent vintages in my opinion. La Lanterne Rouge and Faugères Tradition have pure fruit with structure, complexity and a beautiful expression of the schistous soils of the area.
Philppe Pibarotmakes wines in the Gard. As well as encouraging his young assistant John Almansa, Philippe makes first rate wines. I loved both his white wines, Blanc and Clos Domitia 14 with Clairette, Roussanne and Piquepoul and the delicious red fruit freshness of Cante Renard 15 made from Cabernet Sauvignon with Languedoc varieties such as Carignan and Syrah mixed in.
Guy and Thomas Jullien are still young but I have enjoyed their Ferme Saint Martin Rhone wines many times and met them in Arles and London. I especially enjoyed the Ventoux wine Estaillades 14 (Grenache and Counoise) with round, spicy flavours and the Beaumes De Venise Costancia 14 a 50/50 blend of Grenache and Syrah, more structured but balanced with lots of delicious fruit.
Italian producer Colombaia presented some lovely wines at La Remise, classic Tuscan wines with Sangiovese, Malvese and Colorino grapes. Lovely freshness and fruit were trademarks of the wines and I particularly appreciated their Rosso Toscano 12 from young vines.
From Galicia in Spain I enjoyed the wines of La Perdida. Perfumed, spicy aromas in their wines, nicely balanced too – signs of good winemaking. The Godello 14 with 20 days maceration on skins was one of the best examples of longer skin contact white wines that I have tasted and the Garnacha (with 30% Mencia) was even better, full of deep spice and dark fruits and very aromatic.
I could add other names like Yannick Pelletier, Julien Peyras and Alexandre Bain. Good producers all.
And, yes I am biased, there are the excellent wines of Jeff Coutelou. It is interesting to taste Mas Coutelou wines in the context of producers from around France and Europe. They more than hold their own, the 2015 freshness and restraint certainly lifting them to bear comparison with the best of the Rhone, Loire or anywhere.
Jeff is a 5th generation producer, he learned winemaking skills from his family before branching out into ‘real wine’ production. He has a natural talent of course but he has learned from experience and his wines are improving in quality as a result of that talent and learning about his vines, his soils and his cellar work. And passing it on to the new wave of producers who come to spend time with him.
Terms such as ‘real’, ‘natural’, ‘living’ are often applied to these wines, but don’t get hung up about them. The cuvées and producers I have listed here are just very very good wines and winemakers.
Yesterday (February 23rd) was the first big bottling day of Mas Coutelou 2015 wines. First in line was Vin Des Amis and 11,400 bottles were prepared. As Jeff put it, “Le vrai jour pour la belle cuvée”. (The bringing into the world of the beautiful wine). It proved to be the most aptly named of wines as Jeff welcomed friends from far and wide.
Vincent, a friend of many years who has featured before, was here from Paris. Another Paris based teacher, Sébastien, is spending a week in Puimisson in order to learn about being a vigneron (see his report on the domaine here). The most important visitor yesterday was Céline who was celebrating her birthday.
Bordeaux based Céline has been a regular visitor to Puimisson for many years and helped me with picking grapes for my 100th blog wine last September. Her husband, restaurateur Brice, and friends Thibaut and Anne from Monein in the Béarn, were here to help her to celebrate and threw themselves into the bottling work with gusto. Michel, Julien and I were present too.
The bottling line was in operation from 7.30am to around 5.30pm. Cuve 7, which contains up to 100hl, was emptied and the bottles taken to be stored for a few months until they are ready to label and to market in springtime. With 10 of us available we were able to share the load and take the occasional break as Jeff provided food and wine to ease us through the day. The Vin Des Amis was opened of course and it is already a bright, clear, delicious vintage of this popular cuvée, fresh red fruits with a lingering spiciness. Another sign of how good the 2015 will be. Jeff also opened a 1997 Mas Coutelou, a wine from his first solo vintage which had a lovely earthy perfume combined with red fruits which carried into the taste. The age was showing, the flavours cut short a little but still very drinkable. We also tasted some of the white wines from tank, they are developing beautifully, an amazing Maccabeu in particular. Could this be the year white wines steal the show at Mas Coutelou?
I thought I was the star!
The theme of friendship continued as Pat and I were invited along to dinner at Jeff’s to celebrate Céline’s birthday. Brice prepared some delicious fish dishes; marinated mackerel, squid in garlic and parsley, fresh cockles in a seafood broth, monkfish with garlicky potato purée and delicious sauce. He is clearly a very talented chef as well as restaurateur, ably assisted by Thibaut who made some very tasty flour-free crêpes.
And then there were the wines. A veritable who’s who of natural wine’s top producers. Plageoles’ sparkling Mauzac was a good start with which to toast Céline. Her phone rang throughout the day, she clearly personifies vin des amis.
A delicious rosé from Clos Des Grillons in the Gard followed, full flavoured, very appetising. Much more fruity than many rosés, this originates in Tavel.
Perhaps my favourite wine was the Pinot Blanc 2010 of Gérard Schueller, very full, a honey edge but dry – not sure that I have ever tasted a Pinot Blanc of such quality. I must track down some other wines from the domaine.
Céline had brought along a 2012 Leon Barral Blanc, Terret Blanc and Gris with some Viognier and Roussanne. Textured, a golden colour but very fresh and a good match with the fish.
La Bégou 14 made by Maxime Magnon in the Corbières was lovely, fresh white peach flavoured and very round, Grenaches Gris and Blanc. I liked this wine a lot, more evidence of how good Grenache Gris can be.
JF Ganévat’s J’en veux encore is a light red wine from an amazing blend of umpteen local Jura grapes by a producer who makes up to 40 cuvées (he must have amazing powers of memory to keep on top of so many wines). I tasted some of the range earlier this year and must admit to preferring the white wines but this was nice, very drinkable red fruits and a good match with the monkfish in its seafood sauce.
Back to Barral for Jadis 2001. Shy at first but this opened up in carafe through the night. Plummy, spicy, very long and terrific Faugères, the Carignan shone through with roundness from the Grenache. I have not always ‘got’ Barral’s wines but this showed me that they need time and patience. Very good.
Sébastien brought along a biodynamic Sauternes from Rousset-Peyraguey, a 2000 yet youthful with lovely sweetness but also freshness.
And then, just when you think you have got to grips with Jeff’s wines, there appeared two remarkable bottles. The first was Robert A, despite the label. This was Grenache Gris and Blanc from 2003, his first year of going sulphur free in the cellar. It passed through some interesting stages in its development and early bottles spat out their cork so it was put into sparkling wine bottles. It was amazing. Unbelievably fresh for a 12-13 year old white wine, white fruits with a tight edginess but clean and bright. It continued to develop in glass and in bottle through the evening, wine of the night.
R for Robert
Then came another new cuvée to me BL002, also from 2003. A Sauvignon Blanc but I’d never have identified it as such, with a sweetness (from the Muscat in the blend) and delicious freshness. Many around the table chose this as their preferred wine and it was another amazing wine. How does he do it? Vincent chose this because it reminded him of those early days of Jeff’s winemaking adventures and of their long friendship, a perfect fit for the theme of the day.
A birthday. A long day. A rewarding day. A memorable day. A day for friends, for vin des amis.
OK this is a bit of a cheat but I wanted to fit Faugeres into this post and these are two of the central villages to the AOP. As it happens the domaines I have really enjoyed recently are based in the communes of the two Cs. There is little doubt that Faugeres is on the march, a caviste I spoke to a few weeks ago was telling me he can charge at least an extra euro or two for Faugeres compared to wines of similar quality from other AOPs.
I should start with the wines of Didier Barral (based in Lentheric a hamlet in the commune of Cabrerolles) whose domaines is called Leon Barral, I believe named in honour of Didier’s grandfather. It was Jeff Coutelou who told me that Didier is “a star” and I finally tasted a couple of the wines and the judgement is accurate. These are great wines by any standards, produced in a natural way on a domaine where Didier grows other crops too and has cows pastured on the vineyards over the winter period. They are relatively expensive but not compared to wines of lesser quality from regions such as Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Domaine de Cébène has been a favourite for many years, again after buying some from Leon Stolarski. Brigitte Chevalier was based in Caussiniojouls when I first visited her domaine though now has a new cellar in Faugeres. These are complex wines which age beautifully but are lovely to drink young too if you can’t wait. Brigitte has quickly earned herself a lot of top awards together with wide recognition. I remember a lovely afternoon touring her vineyards 4 years ago and she was planning how to improve the quality of the vineyards, a plan which is certainly bearing fruit. A book about the working of the domaine is being written by Janice Macdonald, I am sure it will be well worth reading, as you drink a Cébène wine, eg my personal favourite Les Bancels.
Brigitte talking to me in January
The other domaine which has captured my attention is Clos Fantine also based in Lentheric. This family run domaine works organically and produces delicious natural wines, fruity, long and complex. These are wines I shall be buying increasingly and I hope to be visiting the domaine next month.
Faugeres is an exciting area with its soils of schist and granite as well as basalt and limestone. So many good wines from the AOP are available but these three are my selections from the ‘C’ villages. Look out elsewhere for the likes of Alquier, Mas Sibert (read more), Trinités and Ollier Taillefer.