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


Becoming naturalised


En français

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

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Real? RAW? Just very good



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.


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 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.


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.



The Joe Strummer of wine?


Interesting article in The Guardian this week about natural wine and its development. I think David Williams has it about right. There is a spirit of punk about the natural wine movement. As someone who lived through the punk music scene of 77 and saw all the top punk bands, other than the Sex Pistols sadly, I can see the parallels. The reaction against convention and the big business aspects, the desire for something more straightforward and honest, no more overblown music / wine. Maybe that is why natural wines appeal to me, that link to the music of my past and the similar philosophy. Though I can’t spike my hair anymore.

The unconventional signage of domaine names

The unconventional signage of domaine names

Have a look at this poster for La Remise, a natural wine salon in Arles in March which I described on the Tastings page.


 Remind you of anything? This?


David points out that many people have a real antipathy towards natural wines just as many people did towards punk. Never mind that you haven’t experienced it just criticise because it’s new and it doesn’t fit convention. Or because you missed its start so don’t want to be seen as a latecomer. Utter boll**** as the album says.

He is right too that not everything is good. I saw and heard and bought some absolute rubbish in punk music. For every New Rose there was a Generation X song. Or Plastic Bertrand! I have tasted some of the ‘bacterial murk’ in natural wines and many that I would never want to taste again. But there was New Rose and Anarchy and White Riot and Blank Generation. And there is Barral and Fahl and Pardet and Foillard and Métras and ….

However punk had a long lasting influence in the way that music was made from grunge to thrash metal to rap. And the way that music is made, the independent labels etc and the publish it yourself attitude we see online these days. It makes people think and question the way they do things. Many winemakers are rethinking their approaches to sulphur even if they don’t want to eliminate their use. So too natural producers often forego the big labels and go their own way, Vin de France rather than AOP for example. And look at some of these:

wpid-20150330143635.jpg wpid-20150330131330.jpg

Punk was a reaction to triple albums of mind numbing drum solos performed by posing, preposterous public schoolboys. Natural wines are a reaction to overextracted, 200% oaked, jammy Parkerised gloop. Instead of twiddling the knobs on the mixing desk or reverse osmosis machine let the music or the grape speak for itself.

Perhaps too press reaction is coloured by its loss of control? No longer the arbiters of taste and what is good. Instead fanzines for punk and now blogs for music and wine are the, apologies for this, grapevine.  Fewer free tours to Bordeaux, Beaune or Buenos Aires can make those journalists turn sour.

Many natural winemakers will fall away, as did punk bands. Some will shine then fade quickly. Others will live long or develop. A new wave. But natural wine is here to stay as Williams says. The movement is widespread in the heartlands of France, Italy and Spain. People do like the freshness and vibrancy. Yes there is an annoying trendiness but as that settles we are left with some great wines which will endure.

A magnum of Classe

A magnum of Classe

The article recommends Classe of Jeff Coutelou and it is a great wine. This is a wine that should definitely stay and not go. This is wine made by a free thinker and a creative artist. Joe Strummer’s songs led The Clash from punk fringe to recognition as top class. Oh and notice anything?

Joe Strummer


Joe, I mean Jeff

Now then who’s the Johnny Rotten?












Latour-De-France – Portes Ouvertes

When Jeff suggested that I should attend Latour De France I was rather surprised as I was unaware of his love of cycling. A quick correction of gender and I was patiently told that it was a village in the Pyrenées Orientales where 12 of 13 winemakers are organic producers and several make natural wines. An opportunity not to be missed. Combined with visits to one of my favourite French villages, Banyuls, and also to Collioure this made for a great weekend.

Saturday by the coast proved to be a lovely, sunny day – unbelievably warm for November.

Vineyards in Banyuls stretching down to the Mediterranean Sea

Vineyards in Banyuls stretching down to the Mediterranean Sea











Sunday was cooler and grey but a great day for wine tasting. We arrived before the start of the event and the car park was already pretty full. Despite this the crowds were never too large and there was every opportunity to get round the various caves without much hassle. Each of the village organic producers had their cellar open and each also contained invitees from Roussillon but also from Fitou and Burgundy. This spread out the crowds as we walked through the streets between caves. In addition to the wines there were street entertainers and various food outlets including, to my delight, a vegetarian outlet. So, all in all, a very well organised event catering for everyone (sorry about the pun).

I am not a professional wine journalist and I am not great at writing tasting notes so I won’t! Instead I offer overall impressions and suggest some of my favourites from the 120 or so wines which I tasted (it was hard but someone has to do it on your behalf dear reader).

What struck me most was how much I enjoyed the white wines, I had expected the reds to be the outstanding wines, and some were, but the whites were much more consistent and interesting overall. One Carignan Blanc stood out (Clos Du Rouge Gorge, Cyril Fahl of whom more later) but what emerged was the splendour of Grenache Gris. Often combined with  Maccabeu it was Grenache Gris which provided a series of fresh, deep, long lasting and flavourful wines with hints of minerality, sweetness and fruits of all kinds depending on the producer. Excellent examples from Padié (very expensive though), Calimas, Tribouley, Rivaton and  Deux Chateau. There was also a very nice Maccabeu based white from Troullier. I would happily seek out and drink any of these and would advise anyone to do so.

There were also a few strange white wines ranging from cloudy and sulphury to the downright sharp and tooth decaying.

Talking with Nikolaus Bantlin of Les Enfants Sauvages

Talking with Nikolaus Bantlin of Les Enfants Sauvages

There were some excellent red wines on offer.

Cyril Fahl (Clos Du Rouge Gorge) produces a high class range of (quite expensive) wines based mainly on Carignan and Grenache. Tasting Cyril’s wines proved that his reputation and garnered praise were well merited, his Carignan based wines were delicious, nothing more to add to that. Top winemaker.

As with Grenache Gris in the white wines there was an outstanding red grape which stood out in many of the top wines and it was, as with Cyril, the Carignan. Time and again the wines with fruit, flavour and long finish were based around Carignan or had a large proportion of it in the assemblage. Not long ago Carignan was being grubbed up around the region and dismissed as a variety of little potential. La Bande de Latour showed how nonsensical that was. Carignan is a great and noble variety, again seek it out from good producers.

Other favourite reds which I tasted came from Domaine du Possible (C’est Pas La Mer A Boire), Opi D’Aqui (from Clermont L’Hérault) and Maramuta.

The problem with a number of red wines, in my view, was the use of oak. This may be a personal thing as I really do not like obvious oaky flavours. It can add complexity and structure to wines when used carefully but a lot of winemakers seem to rush to use barrels so that they can be seen as ‘serious’ winemakers. And add many euros to the price of their ‘special’ cuvées. Sadly I felt a number of wines were spoiled by injudicious use of oak. The wines appeared thin and dry with their fruit stripped out.

I would like to mention 3 other winemakers whose bottles I enjoyed.

Les Enfants Sauvages is the wine domaine of Nikolaus and Carolin Bantlin, a German couple based in Fitou. I enjoyed talking to Nikolaus and warmed to his passion for his wines and I could understand that passion when I tasted them. I liked all of the wines, white and red, but especially Roi Des Lézards, which is, you guessed it, 100% Carignan. I would definitely like to visit the Domaine in future.

The range of Les Enfants Sauvages

The range of Les Enfants Sauvages

Domaine De La Chappe is a Burgundy domaine run by Vincent Thomas a young winemaker who has built on the work of his father and used natural methods as well as biodynamic practices. He is based in Tonnerre and offered Bourgogne Pinot Noir and Petit Chablis amongst other wines. The prices were very reasonable for Burgundy, around the 10-12€ mark. The wines were far more rewarding than many Burgundies I have tasted at much higher prices. I would love to try these wines again when I have more time to devote to them. You can read more about Vincent from an article on the very good louisdressner website.

Listening to Vincent Thomas of Domaine De La Chappe

Listening to Vincent Thomas of Domaine De La Chappe

Saskia van der Horst runs Les Arabesques in Montner not far from Latour. She was a sommelier in London at Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant at Claridge’s and also ran a wine bar there. She returned to France to make wine rather than just sell it and drink it. These were amongst my favourite wines of the day, all 3 were rich, full and refreshing. What amazed me was that these were Saskia’s first wines, the 2013 vintage was her first. Saskia can certainly be proud as her wines were as high in quality as most of those I tasted at Latour.

It was a great day. I liked the way the event was run, I loved the focus of organic and natural wines and the enthusiasm of the winemakers for their work and their wines. I tasted some excellent wines and discovered plenty of new winemakers whose work I look forward to sampling in future.