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


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Real? RAW? Just very good

 

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At La Remise

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.

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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.

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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 Pibarot makes 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Over the first hurdle

IMG_2179Friday was a warm up, today (August 27th) was the real beginning. White grapes, mainly Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah from La Garrigue vineyard were picked and pressed.

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 My first bucket full of Sauvignon Blanc

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Back to the cellar, straight into the press.

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The Syrah looks especially good this year with a good balance of acidity and sugars. Some were ready and so in they came today. Great quality, 2015 is looking good, let’s hope the next month confirms it.

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Coincidentally it was the official celebrations for the start of harvest in the Faugères appellation this evening with a ceremonial cutting of the first grapes. Good fun, especially getting to taste the wines of Clos Fantine again.
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Clos Fantine – I Dreamed A Dream

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Version française

I have visited hundreds of vineyards over the years but very few have stirred the same excitement and admiration as those of Clos Fantine, run by the Andrieu family of Corine, Carole and Olivier. With a helping hand from their New York importer Camille Rivière, who also imports Mas Coutelou wines, Corine asked me to visit on May 21st and I returned on June 11th.

There are around 30ha of vines around their base in La Liquière high in the Faugères hills. The soil is schist, Corine told me of 3 types, grey, blue and pink. This slaty soil makes it difficult for vines to send their roots down into the bedrock as it ends to lie horizontally, so they must seek fissures and faults for their roots to penetrate as the topsoil is meagre. This undoubtedly adds to the qualities of freshness and energy which mark so many of the best Faugères wines and certainly those of Clos Fantine. Corine explained that they do not try to fight this natural acidity but rather they work with nature, a philosophy which is fundamental to every aspect of the domaine. Nature rules, the Andrieus guide it perhaps.

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Schist soils

The three siblings took over the running of Clos Fantine from their father in 1997 and continued to work conventionally until 2000 when they began to use the natural yeasts of their terroir and then, in 2004, more confident of their vineyards and of themselves and of their ideas and beliefs, they stopped adding sulphites. This was no trendy whim on their part, they were certainly not riding a natural wine bandwagon. Corine is a qualified oenologue who reads widely around viticulture and agronomy. She used, and still uses, her scientific background to guide her winemaking as well as the philosophy about nature which she shares with her family. As she said to me, “You have 3 core tenets; the use of science, faith in what you are doing and the art in creating the wine.”

As we drove around the vineyards with their stunning setting there was a true feeling of well being. We met Olivier who was hard at work in one parcel strimming grass between the vines. The Andrieus do not plough the soil as they feel that this upsets the balance of it, and that the hot Languedoc sunshine and strong winds would dry the soil out too much if ploughed, leading to erosion of the already thin topsoils. Sunshine is not a problem in the region, water is and by not ploughing the family also help to preserve the water in the soil. Grass, flowers and other plants grow naturally and when the grass is fully grown and starts to seed they strim it to add organic matter to the soils and seed for the following year.

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Olivier strimming the grass

The grass also provides shelter for insects and spiders which in turn will help the vines by attacking grape parasites such as ver de la grappe. These are real living vineyards, illustrated by the discovery of two separate partridge nests, both filled with eggs, at the base of vines in that one parcel.

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Partridge eggs in their nest below one of the vines

Corine talked about how they see the land as between 3 stages, farm/grassland, garrigue and forest. They are seeking to keep their vines on the edge between the first two stages so that the vines are having to work a little to compete with flora and fauna without being overstressed. Meanwhile, Olivier also spoke about keeping good quality air around the vines, eg allowing the air to circulate freely around the vines to keep disease at bay and also about using the flowers and grass.

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The fresh air of La Liquiere

 

Disease, of course, is an issue at the domaine despite their hard work to minimise it. This is true of all vineyards. Mildew had hit when I was there in May, nothing too serious but a reminder that nature can also be cruel. Natural treatments available to them include the use of sulphur and copper which had been used for the first time in a few years. However, the vines were not in any danger, the mildew had been contained.

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Marcottage vine training, in fact this mother vine was attached to two offshoot vines

All the vines are gobelet, low to the ground. Corine described how they had recently bought a parcel of vines and their first action was to remove the palissage, the stakes and wires used to train the vines. The vines flopped and spread out as if relaxing, in Corine’s words, like a woman released from her corsets in Victorian times. Gobelet is the traditional method of growing vines in the Languedoc. The bushy vines have plenty of foliage to shelter the grapes from the sun but also have space to fan out allowing the air inside to stop humidity and defend against disease. The gobelets did give the impression of a vineyard which could have been from any period of the last few centuries, ageless.

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Gobelet vines

Corine used the word ‘energy’ a lot whilst I was there. She was referring to the soils and the vineyards. The nurturing of the soil and the vines is about channelling the energy of nature into those vines and ultimately the grapes and the wines through their management of soil and air. However, energy also describes the work of Corine, Olivier and Carole. They are relentless in their quest to improve the vineyards and the wines.

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Energy!

They read widely, for example Corine is an admirer of Jean Marie Pelt and his writings on plants and nature. She quotes science, history and nature readily and compares her wines to others in the region but also to wines and vineyard practices from the rest of France and internationally. Corine seeks to learn from these and we talked about viticulture in Australia and Chile, as there are little things done there which might help to improve wines, “we may never be perfect but we can try to be the best we can be.” This awareness of learning and the outside world is more widespread than it used to be in France but I have not come across that many vignerons who are so keen to learn from various sources.

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Corine, happy in her vines

At the start of this blog article I mentioned how happy and at ease I felt in the vineyards of Clos Fantine. The location, its touch of wildness and nature together with the philosophy of the Andrieus all rubbed off on me too.

At that point a wagon arrived to collect some palletts of wine to take to Belgium. As the domaine is up a narrow road Corine was going to have to transport the wines using the forklift down to the wagon in the village. I was actually quite pleased as it gave me the opportunity to return a few weeks later to visit the cellars and to taste the wines.

As a storm broke over La Liquière on June 11th it was a dramatic backdrop in which to return. The cellar has been designed to allow the grapes to be moved by gravity rather than pumping after being harvested by hand and gathered in small cagettes. The cement vats we tasted from were full of single variety wines busy fermenting. Corine uses no pigeage or remontage in the vats, something which was new to me, and as the weather cools down in autumn and winter the cellar doors are opened to allow the temperatures to drop and halt the fermentations naturally. These resume in spring as temperatures rise again. The result is a gentle, long and cool maceration with as little intervention as possible.

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Doors lead over the vats meaning the grapes can be moved by gravity

And the results… Well we tasted Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre from the vats and each was clear, direct, mineral and oh so fresh with fruit singing out. They were also classic in their cépage typicity, it was relatively straightforward even for me to identify each one. They were excellent as was a Terret from a barrel which contained wines from a number of vintages, in other words in a solera type system. Complex, long, mineral and the slight oxidative notes were refreshing and interesting.

We then retired to the kitchen and tasted from bottle. The Terret, Valcabrières, was a delight. Great depth of flavour with zesty refreshment and white fruits such as notes of pear. Long in the mouth it was delicious. Recently bottled it was already very good but will improve as it settles in bottle. Lanterne Rouge is Aramon and Cinsault, very much Languedoc varieties and a wine I have described on here a few times as it is a favourite with lively fruit aromas and a deceptively light first taste which grows more complex in the mouth. The Clos Fantine Tradition is mainly Carignan and Grenache and has real depth of dark fruit flavours and great complexity and a refreshing, clean finish. It is classic Languedoc red wine but with added zest and liveliness. Finally Cuvée Courtiol is made from the best grapes of the millésime. Ripe, full and delicious with length and soft tannins that will marry into the wine with age. I really love these wines and when Corine said there was no obligation for me to buy any wines when I asked if I could, I hastened to reassure her that I felt no obligation, I wanted to buy some and will certainly want to do so again!

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I learned so much in my time at Clos Fantine with the Andrieu family and I admire and respect their work, their philosophy, their passion for learning and nature and, of course, their wines. I implore you to seek out their wines and drink them.


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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.

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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.

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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.