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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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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Exploring the 7Cs – Day 4

Excellent map of Languedoc Roussillon wine areas by Quentin Sadler whose blog can be found at https://quentinsadler.wordpress.com/

Cabrerolles, Caussiniojouls

Version francaise

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 m'explique son oeuvre

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.

Picture

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.